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Creating Inter-generational Revolutionary Optimism

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How can we lean into innovations to connect and dialogue with movement elders, and build on their work and the lessons they learned?

How one becomes a revolutionary is both deeply personal, and at the same time necessarily collective. External factors and the current political and economic context help shape the process—but one’s personal experience, informed by one’s internal value system and understanding of the world and of justice, plays just as large a role.

The Unity 2022 project offers examples of revolutionary love stories to serve as individual inspiration and spark collective connection. We cannot understate the value of inter-generational relationships, especially in movement space, because they foster life-long learning and the evolution of ideas. They serve to remind us that we are not alone in what we are going through, and that we stand on the shoulders of giants.

We also understand that context shapes consciousness and want to offer a brief overview of how we see the world today in contrast to the world of the 1970s and ‘80s. In our experience, two developments set our context apart from that of the New Left era. Our world is digitally interconnected yet we are socially isolated and plagued with information overload, and we live in deep uncertainty due to climate change, the fragility of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism.

We believe that this article can help build a bridge between generations of leftists and movement co-conspirators; at the end we’ll pose questions we hope we can answer together as we work towards a better future.

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Rabbit holes and clickbait

We live in a world with instantaneous access to all of the latest on every world crisis, constantly streaming past our eyeballs 24 hours a day.

We are confronted with ever more information, but are armed with fewer tools to siphon, prioritize, and distinguish good information from bad. The sheer volume of information that can be consumed and the technology that algorithmically determines how we consume that information create two huge pitfalls.

The first is the lure of going down topic rabbit holes where the platform one is using continually suggests and auto-plays the next video on a topic or suggests content similar to what one is already engaging with. We have seen this so often in the rise of QAnon: someone watches one video and then another and another, which point to external sources that confirm what they’ve already watched. While rabbit holes may be singularly focused, they do not actually indicate a true depth of knowledge because of how much mis/disinformation exists. Reading a lot of garbage on one topic doesn’t lead to any profound insight on that topic, just one really well-reinforced garbage opinion.

The second pitfall comes from clickbait that leads to consuming a headline’s worth of information on a broad range of topics. Absorbing 140 characters or 1-minute 90-second explainers on a million topics one after another in a constant doomscroll leads to vague and shallow awareness. Many who may in the past have been spurred to action around a particular topic may instead be drawn to learn a little bit about every different issue, and may often get overwhelmed into inaction.

The shortening of attention spans and the decline in our collective ability to concentrate in the ways necessary for deep study and critical thinking (as a result of the frequency with which our brains are switching focus, between social media, texting, receiving notifications across multiple platforms etc.) has been extensively documented. We are losing the tools to effectively process and understand what is happening in the world through a Marxist/values-based/ideological lens. Everything seems to be happening spontaneously, individually and all at once, rather than being the inevitable and predictable product of a system of capitalism that can be changed.

Consequences of digital capitalism

In a world where companies are incentivized to keep people scrolling, addicted to receiving content but rendered incapable of deeply engaging with the underlying issues, we see the latest iteration of alienation. People are infinitely more accessible; it is easier to communicate across differences, and yet feel so much more isolated and alone. Digital capitalism has undermined the relationships that are central to organizing and distorted the metrics used to evaluate actions. The impact of influencer culture has led to a very narcissistic and yet disempowered perspective on one’s impact on the world that relies on false metrics of change.

The immediacy of access to information changes the timeline that people feel they have to operate on. For example, many of us who do electoral work feel like we’re trapped in the urgency of election cycles, trained to react rather than set the agenda and respond. This work is made even more urgent in a 24-hour news cycle where people have to constantly be monitoring social media for the latest. Success gets defined as the number of engagements, number of followers. It’s easy to get caught in a hamster wheel of always trying to create the content that will be put in front of the most eyeballs by the algorithm. When you post less, fewer people see what you do post, and thus you’re incentivized to post a constant stream of non-controversial, easy-to-produce and easy-to-digest content. This does not a revolution make.

But it does increase anxiety as people are made to be hyper-aware of how they are being perceived online, and lead to people being less equipped to build authentic relationships in the real world. This awareness of how they’re being perceived also leads to the performance of activism. ”Doing it for the ‘gram” infects even the non-profit industrial complex, with funders asking for “social media reach” and “number of followers” as if these numbers have a clear correlation to real-life action. They might, but we don’t know what it is, and without knowing that, they’re just numbers.

Digital engagement does not directly tie to taking real-world action, and face-to-face contact and relationship-building are still the most effective tools in an organizers’ toolkit. When organizers are asked for the number of leaders they have, the number of 1-on-1 conversations they’ve had (face-to-face) in a week, these metrics mean something because they represent the start of relationships, a commitment to accompanying people on their journeys to leadership or political consciousness. In a digital age however, it’s too easy for these metrics that represent real relationships to be conflated with digital vanity statistics: the number of likes just indicates the number of people who liked that post…it doesn’t mean those people are going to like the next post or come to your event in person.

While social media is a powerful tool, and has shown the potential to democratize access and information and has increase global connectedness, under capitalism it has been just as much a tool to shrink one’s perspective inward, to compare oneself against others instead of viewing others through a lens of class solidarity and internationalism. When the world is too big, and beyond reach, it is easier to look inward and decide that, well, I can’t change anything out there, I should just focus on myself. The line between self-care and selfish care is thin. Without a deeper analysis, people really think they can therapize themselves to solve poverty through Tiktok…and then maybe monetize it…

We see this shift amplifying the transition away from the language of power and solidarity to privilege and introspection, away from truly meeting people where they’re at towards meme culture that judges others for their individual actions without any commitment to be with them on their journey to political consciousness. (But to be fair, a lot of those memes are fire.)

Uncertainty challenges optimism

As “young” people (in our mid to late 30s…) we have been so inspired by being in relationship with OG lefties sharing their stories of how they became revolutionaries and how they have stayed committed to movement work over decades. Many also spoke of the certainty they had felt that revolution was imminent. It was a different time: revolutions to win self-determination and throw off the yoke of colonialism had been successful. The victories of the Civil Rights Movement heightened the contradictions around unequal distribution of resources, but the wins themselves gave hope that such change was possible.

But then, Ronald Reagan was president by the time we were born. With the overabundance of information at our disposal, it takes less to convince young people that the system is fucked up and completely unsustainable. The real challenge is being able to convince young people that we’re affirmatively trying to create a new world, and that that change is possible. When you’ve been socialized to see the current world order as inevitable, it is hard to feel like you can take the risk to make change. It’s less, “all we have to lose is our chains,” and much more, “the devil you know over the devil you don’t.”

We have seen unprecedented flooding, wildfires, storms, droughts, as a result of climate change. Report after report shows that even had we accomplished the modest goals of the Paris Climate Accords, we couldn’t stop a catastrophic rise in sea levels and the other types of crises caused by climate change: the rise in climate refugees, armed conflict over resource depletion as a result of climate change etc.

In our lifetimes we have gone through two recessions, an endless war on terror that resulted in the Taliban retaking Afghanistan and making it their project to reverse decades of progress on women’s rights, a violent insurrection attempting to undermine democracy in the United States, and a global pandemic. A Marcos was elected president in the Philippines, hand-picked to follow Duterte’s reign of wanton violence and impunity.

The fragility and uncertainty of the sustainability of democracy is on full display: the white supremacist Right seeking to subvert our elections here in the US post-January 6th, increasingly emboldened authoritarian rule in Europe, and outright imperial expansionism with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Israel resumed a bombing campaign in Gaza, and Israeli police raided the al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan.

With a split Congress, the House is incapable of legislating. With federal courts dominated by Trump appointees, we see some of Biden’s more progressive agenda items, such as student loan forgiveness, at risk of being invalidated by unelected right-wing judges. You know. Among other things.

And yet, the 2022 midterms again showed us the opportunities and the limitations of electoral organizing: we saw success in Michigan in protecting reproductive rights and expanding voting rights, and are reminded that democracy is a year-round exercise. There is opportunity here. And we believe that we can win.

What is next? Toward inter-generational collaboration

Our generation—unlike the leftists of the 1960s and ‘70s—has so many more tools we can use to connect and dialogue with our elders, and incorporate their values and lessons learned in ways that are appropriate for our context. Most importantly, we need to lean into innovations to further enhance the work from previous OGs.

Digital activism is real and just as in any stage of capitalism, conditions bring out the best and the worst in people. While there are some high-profile cases of young folks using digital tools to infiltrate right-wing planning groups or K-pop stans crashing right-wing rallies by snatching up all the tickets, too often digital engagement ends at digital engagement. We need to lean into practices from organizations like Kairos, where experimenting and creating pipelines for online to offline participation is happening.

“We are in a moment of great possibility”: This dialogue between Thenjiwe McHarriss and Barbara Ransby, an intergenerational conversation, demonstrates how we can sharpen strategy and also ground in each other’s growth. This public relationship is anchored in self-interest (understood as “a tangible manifestation of our values”) and shared vision. We, as comrades, must build deep, and intentional, inter-generational relationships with each other to execute a collective vision.

Individual relationships alone are insufficient: we need the institutional containers within which we can build these relationships and deepen our analysis with discipline. Thenijwe calls for us to engage in principled struggle to lift us out of political confusion. “When we are not clear … we are essentially serving the neoliberal racial capital agenda.” When we create organizations with a core ethos of moving at the speed of trust, outside the non-profit industrial complex, the inter-generational relationships we build will bring clarity, and be a guiding force to move our collective vision forward. Join us.

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