Want to see political change? Look at the margins | Rebecca Solnit
JThese days, I think of myself as a turtle at the ephemera party. By that I mean I try to see the long trajectory of change behind current events, because it takes time to see change, and understanding change is key to understanding politics and culture, let alone trying to participate in it. The short-term vision generates incomprehension and inefficiency.
Events, like living beings, have genealogies and evolutions, and knowing them means knowing who they are, how they got there, to whom and to what they are connected. If you follow them in real time or in the historical archives, you can often see power emerging from below and ideas moving from the margins to the center. You can see how it all works. And yet these trajectories and genealogies are often overlooked in news, conversation, and seemingly the conception of how something happened.
Change itself becomes invisible when your timeline is shorter than that change, and short-sightedness breeds defeatism and despair. Not so long ago, people would tell me that feminism had failed, seemingly unable to recognize the extraordinary changes in the legal and cultural status of women over the past half-century, or assuming that the dismantling of millennia of patriarchy was a simple task that should be fully completed in a few decades. We have just started.
Oblivion is everywhere. Take the Biden administration’s announcement in August of a sweeping student loan relief package. If you didn’t follow the story, you might believe it was a gift from above rather than a long-fought achievement from below. If you followed it, you’ll remember how student debt emerged as a priority during the Occupy Wall Street uprising in 2011. Raising the voices of those crushed by debt and decrying the system who crushed them, he changed the national conversation.
Nonetheless, from the start of Occupy, pundits said it was a failure, and when the Zuccotti Park presence in Lower Manhattan was violently dispersed by police in November 2011, they declared it over. But even when the rock is at the bottom of the pool, the ripples continue to propagate.
Occupy’s impact had just begun. It inspired other occupations far beyond New York, including some outside the United States. Across the country, police accountability groups, foreclosure victim and homeless solidarity organizations, and many other progressive projects have sprung up. Some of them lasted.
One of them was the Debt Collective, founded in 2012. It successfully took on all forms of debt – housing, health and education – and began organizing to directly abolish debt, campaign for the debt abolition and legal changes, and drawing public attention to the devastating cruelty of the system.
In 2015, the Debt Collective announced that a student debt strike it had organized had launched “an ongoing campaign that has helped secure federal law changes and more than $2 billion in abolition of student debt to date”. Activists made student debt a public issue and then part of the Biden campaign platform, which ultimately led to debt relief measures last month.
The year Collectif Dette launched its campaign, the Supreme Court recognized marriage equality as a constitutional right. The short-lived version would have seen this right as also being pronounced from above by the United States Supreme Court, rather than being constructed from below. But the court only gave legal force to long-term campaigns that encouraged and built on broader changes in the acceptance and support of gay rights and inclusion. To see these changes, you also need to remember what things looked like before.
Early in the history of this country, John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson that the war of independence from the British throne was not revolution; “revolution was in the minds of the people and it was done from 1760 to 1775…before a drop of blood was shed in Lexington.” It is an affirmation that crucial change has come through culture, through beliefs and values, that the most important territory to take is in the imagination.
Once you create a new idea of what is possible and acceptable, the seeds are planted; once it becomes what the majority believes, you have created the conditions in which victory occurs. This is perhaps the least tangible, but most important, part of a campaign. Ideas are powerful and dangerous, as their enemies know, and everyone often forgets.
One of the joys of being a turtle is watching the slow journey of ideas from the margins to the center, seeing what was invisible, then deemed impossible, become widely accepted. The other day, editors of the Salt Lake City Tribune called for draining Lake Powell, the now-failing reservoir created 60 years ago by Glen Canyon Dam, to turn its beautiful canyons into a new park. national. It was considered an outrageous idea 20 years ago. The City of Oakland has just announced its intention to return five acres of open space to its original Ohlone owners, a small but enormous act in recognition of Native American land rights. Barack Obama himself tweeted in favor of student debt relief which he did not support as president.
If people are myopic about the past, they are also myopic about the future – many complaints about the incompleteness of reforming and canceling student loans have been met with the wish of the Debt Collective that they were far from over.
One of the things that disappears in the short term is the fact that almost all changes are gradual and that even an overall victory usually has intermediate stages preceding it. As imperfect and frustrating as these steps are, they can still lead us to our destination. We cannot reach the top without climbing the mountain.
Perhaps some of this is embedded in the information system, which tends to report events as sudden breakdowns rather than the consequence of long-term forces. It may stem more from the attachment to the idea of revolution, to anything that changes overnight, although it is no longer reasonable, if ever it was, to believe that regime change can change everything – and the long revolutions around gender, nature, race and the rest in our time have been progressive and largely cultural means, even if they produce concrete ends by changing laws, policies and finance.
Perhaps the problem is rooted in the very word news, as in new. In the sense that everything has a story, nothing is entirely new. (Even mayflies can live for a year or two as underwater larvae before emerging into the air for their few days of winged life.) I have witnessed and sometimes participated in the change and seen so much versions of people failing to see change, believing change is impossible, walking away prematurely, dismissing those who try because of this lack of perspective.
As far as I know, the ephemeral vision is of a perpetual present in which the order of things is largely unchanging. Martin Luther King Jr memorably said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
You can discuss how it folds – we’ve definitely seen it fold other ways lately – and how to fold it. But you have to stick around for that long sight to see it bend. Kept them worse. Fortunately, they are not the only ones with tenacity.
Examples are everywhere. In 2020, after 31 years of organizing, the coalition of ranchers, Nevada natives, and other rural people who came together as the Great Basin Water Network finally defeated Las Vegas’ attempt to extract the water from one of the driest places on the continent. The plan would have taken 58 billion gallons of water a year from eastern Nevada, devastating wildlife and rural communities. As Eric Siegel’s report in High Country News summarized, “The Vegas Pipeline, if successful, threatened to create a dust bowl of 305 springs, 112 miles of streams, 8,000 acres of wetlands and 191,000 acres of scrub habitat, almost all on public land.
Siegel quoted Ely Shoshone Tribal elder Delaine Spilsbury as saying, “Never abandon ship. Never. That’s the kind of feeling I think most of us had. Let’s do our best and make something happen, even if it takes forever.
It didn’t take forever but it took decades. For much of that time, it would have been easy to watch the fight and conclude that it was doomed or a loser because it didn’t win. The same could be said of many other campaigns, including the student movement to get Harvard University to divest from fossil fuels, which took 10 years to achieve victory in 2021. Like my friend Astra Taylor from the Debt Collective pointed it out to me when I complimented her, “We’re all losers until we win.”
Another friend of mine, Joe Lamb, is a poet and arborist who sports a T-shirt that says, “70 is young for a tree.” In a recent essay on the epic tree-planting program that was part of the New Deal effort to stop the erosion that produced the Dust Bowl, he wrote, “We must remember that we can learn and repeat the successes of our past. “It was a wonderful revision of the old ‘those who forget history are doomed to repeat it’.
There are past victories that you want to repeat, or build on, or learn from. This is why understanding how they unfold is so essential, recognizing that an oak tree was once an acorn then a spindly sapling, remembering this law was once a radical idea then a campaign. It means seeing the world as a turtle, not as a fleeting one.