Published in  
November 19, 2014

Towards a World Citizens’ Movement – Learning from the Grassroots

Yesterday, holed up in a stubborn chair somewhere in the reception of this hotel, I was casting about for an appropriate title for my speech. I knew what I thought I’d like to say, what I’d like to conduce to today’s rather unwieldy discourse on global transformation, but I wasn’t comfortable with the ways my mind sought to frame it.

Something nameless and deep within resisted my frantic attempts to simply chug along with rather unremarkable options like ‘The Urgency of Slowness’, ‘A Different Politics’, ‘The Utility of Shared Inquiry’ and so on. That same ‘something’ invited me to wait. So I left the matter unresolved, and entered into a ‘Whatsapp’ text-based conversation with my wife, who is in Richmond, Virginia at the moment. Just as I made to leave the conversation, Ijeoma – my wife – sent me an undecipherable series of alliterated alphabets, smiling icons, and nonsense syllables, patched together with the enigmatic abandon only a nonadult could master. It was Alethea, our 1 year old daughter. My wife told me she had grabbed the phone from her, typed the ‘message’, and returned it to her – saying ‘Dada! Dada!’ as she did so.

I got the message.

Perhaps the universe sought to sanction my conditioned fondness for tame and manicured titles – and, in doing so, hoped to broaden my vision of what is possible; perhaps there is more to be learned from that which resists representation, coherence or meaning – what Foucault called the ‘unthought’, what I call ‘the wilds beyond our fences’; and, perhaps, it is true after all – that the crises of our times suggest we acknowledge our imprisonment to the politics of adulthood by listening intensely to our children, to the weak, to those who have failed, to the so-called stupid, and thus learn from their expansiveness.

So this is my title. I fought the urge to stick in a subtitle beneath, or to reduce its rawness by bracketing it with quotation marks. I do not think it is an appropriate title, but I think it is powerful because it means nothing, because it has no immediate utility – except maybe to introduce a little turbulence to our treasured cognitive rituals, to humiliate our established ways of knowing (and thus to humble us), and to trick our exhausted minds into relaxing a bit. Into slowing down.

Last year, at the first edition of this fine gathering, I ended my talk by sharing the insights of some West African elders: “The times are urgent”, they say. “Let us slow down”. I have since echoed the same words wherever I have been invited to speak – and the responses from my audiences have been somewhat similar: there is a collective sigh of recognition and appreciation, the kind that is attended by a closing of the eyes, as if to acknowledge that a deep elderly truth has walked across the room. Then later, much later, there is confusion and there are furrowed eyebrows – and this happens when people seemingly try to activate this sentiment in their lives, as is the case with my brother Tobias, the convener of this event, who wrote to me shortly after the first Summit expressing his frustrations with slowing down. ‘How do you slow down when there are so many memos to write, so many reports to put together?’ I didn’t have the clearness of mind at the time to respond convincingly to his queries. Today, however, I am going to try to honour those unvoiced and wordless feelings, the greying elephants in our rooms we are trying our hardest to avoid. In doing this, I hope not only worry the convenient binaries and orthodoxies of activism, but to deepen the conversation and weave a poetic scheme that might nurture our imaginations about a world citizens’ movement – and what that could look like.

I am not an activist – at least not in the conventional sense of the word – but in the past four years, I have increasingly found myself in the midst of conscientious people, wise people whose work and writings have inspired our shared intention (Ijeoma and I) to live an enchanted life in a wider spectrum of values.

Once safely ensconced in the academic bubble of the intelligentsia, I am awakening to a wild world that does not easily fit into the neat boxes of a questionnaire. From the stern mountain faces of the Himalayas to the tired suburban mazes of downtown Chicago, the concerns – the questions – are thematically the same: ‘what needs to happen for a more humane world to arrive?’ ‘What do we need to focus on in order to usher in a social arrangement that is conducive to our deepest aspirations as a species – a world that is home for our children?’ How can we realize the world Alethea dreamed of? Around the globe, the responses to these questions are as varied as the stars in the sky – though there are important convergent points, constellations if you will. For most active organizations today (or those in nations caught up in the globalizing currents of economic growth), the traditional response has been to ask what ‘we’ can do, or to point out a mutual enemy to inspire collective action. The logic of this advocacy framework – in broad strokes – is to articulate a superior argument, to mobilize popular support, and try to force the hand of those with the power to make decisions on behalf of the populace. The recent large-scale climate justice march of September 21, a colossal gathering of more than 300,000 people, is a case in point.

Some of the implicit (and not so hidden) assumptions of this theory of change are that we can change the system – because the system is merely a passive epiphenomenon, a dead mesh of regulations and laws that no longer works in our favour. This assumption coincides with another – the idea that the world is out there, the problems are out there, that we are quite removed from it, and that all we need to do (as my brother, Charles Eisenstein, often says) is apply this Newtonian force of will in order to rearrange the blind billiard balls on the table. And yet another kindred postulation is the myth of human rationality: the notion that people will change if they understand the facts. The bare facts. Let’s get practical, we often insist. Hence our growing obsession with statistical reduction computational analyses and convenient expertise. With tables and spreadsheets and reports and memos. With our eternal infatuation with the correct answer.

But the final popular assumption about social transformation I emphasize here is perhaps the most invisible – and therefore, potentially, the most insidious. It is the idea that only conscious effort, more doings, can get us out of the mess we find ourselves in. It is the tyranny of human agency, the human will to power – or what Jane Bennett calls the ‘fantasy that we really are in charge of all those ‘its’’, a denial of vibrant materialities with agency and action that flow within and around us.

Maybe this partly explains the exhaustion and disenchantment I am seeing in activist circles around the planet, the themes of cynicism I am listening to in the stories of the once chivalrous army for good. I have also felt this numbing despair, this irredeemable feeling that we are doomed beyond our best efforts to save the day. More recently, in New York, I listened to a seasoned environmental activist from Brazil as she shared her insights about the shadows of the World Social Forum, about the establishment of carbon exchanges where emission credits – or the right to continue to pollute the environment – are traded. She chuckled when she noted, with a hint of despondency, that these regulations are a direct result of climate justice movements pressing for low carbon emission rates. She also noted how young, well-intentioned persons dressed like hippies infiltrate villages in Brazil to teach them how to value their forests, their trees, under a carbon metric system – thus imposing an ideological standard that is in cahoots with today’s economic monoculture of mind, and devaluing the indigenous wisdoms that taught those people the mystery of the ancestry and their affinities with the nonhuman world. As I listened to her, it became clearer to me how our best efforts often end up being coopted by the dominant logic, how continuing with the same linearity, with the same rituals, with the same presumptions – while commendable and necessary – can often be counterproductive.

I think it is also becoming commonplace knowledge that the ongoing professionalization and bureaucratization of counterculture means that our voices are losing their subversive tones. We are learning slowly that the system endorses its own critique. That the more assiduously we resist the empire, the more like the empire we become.

Where does this leave us? Where does this leave our assumptions about the world, about our dreams for fonder landscapes, about the value of the work we do to realize those dreams and urge them towards realness? I think today’s widespread despair, today’s disillusionment with change, is the amniotic chamber, the alchemical depths where our vision of what is possible is being transformed, where we are being remade…slowly. Where we are realizing that our theories of change need to change. Where we are seeing that our reality paradigms – the ones that burden us with the sole onus of transformation, with heavy halos that impel us to ‘otherize’ the enemy, the faulty logic, the wrong answer – are no longer enough to bear the weight of our multidimensionality and incredible diversity. The genius of today is that we no longer know what to ask, speak less of knowing the right answers.

And this is how the invitation to slow down makes sense. Because our notions of agency, action and vitality are being stretched – so that we cannot continue to claim that the world is a corpse graciously animated by our presence. Because we are active conspirators with, and participants in, the system we resist – and, though we might like to deny it, this!, this pageantry of exclusion, this auto-erotic quest for supremacy, is our story, our saga. And to deny it is to deny a part of ourselves that needs to be heard. Because there are many ways of knowing and being in the world, and the myth of rationality is not enough to comprise them all.

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We need a different kind of politics, one that resonates with the leitmotifs of our ongoing emergence. We need a meta-movement of some sort, not one that necessarily is caught up in the highfalutin, media-enhanced, neon-lit, caricaturization of the ‘top’; not the 100 million dollar movement with a set agenda; not one that is caught up with debates about gun laws and the sins of the ‘other side’; not one that necessarily has a logo, a stringent budget and clear outcomes, but one that is based in lived experiences, one that is underlined by a lot of ‘we don’t know’ moments, and one that is dependent on the gifts, the voices, and the place-based wisdoms of people. As Chris Hedges noted, quite recently, at the launch of the International Alliance for Localization in New York, ‘politics is no longer the concern of traditional political institutions. The chatter about guns, borders, and gay rights is not politics – it is the manipulation of emotion for corporate interests.’

I call this ‘grandmother politics’ – inspired by my brother and ally, Manish Jain, whose disenchantments with global education and schooling motivated him to seek out and learn from his grandmother how to live wisely with oneself, with others, and with the world. This notion of politics suggests we adopt a ‘more’ sacred kind of activism, a big picture activism which is so called because it allows us focus on the little things more keenly.

A world citizens’ movement, activated by a ‘compass’ of shared reflection and mutual inquiry seems more in tune with my feelings about what needs to happen. By a compass, I mean a techne that facilitates local practices of inquiry, an unfurling of questions, a reluctance to govern or impose standards, a willingness to observe and listen to circles of renewal and their explorations of how to live life more fascinatingly, a scaled down trans-local sharing of plural wisdoms.

Does this mean we no longer need spreadsheets? Does this mean we must do away with macro-level advocacy practices seeking to alter exploitative policies? Does this mean that those good people involved with articulating anti-fracking laws, correcting income inequalities, fighting the monolithic superintendence of corporate power in ecological devastation, countering the upsurge of whaling and desertification, insisting that genetically modified foods be properly labeled as such, and arguing for debt relief for less industrialized nations are wrong? I cannot bring myself to think that.

We need spreadsheets and, perhaps, civic advocacy will continue in its present form for a long time to come. But they are not enough. As noted earlier, it can be counterproductive and even dangerous to continue to act out the fiction of the practical as what ‘we do’ to the ‘world’, as the conquest of the right answer, as consensus, as monologue, as a silencing of what many might call the trivial, inchoate non-issues.

A compass reinforces the wisdom of localization, and restores the confidence that people themselves – not their representatives, not lobbyists, not agencies, not policies, and certainly not corporations – can be social actors, not merely social outcomes. If such a technology beats at the heart of a citizens’ movement, it might inspire a more subversive, creative, playful, and elegant hack of our current operating system. Instead of a declaratory documentation of consensus, a compass invites participation, supports diversity, valorizes uncertainty, and initiates community.

This is, as I see it, the ‘heart’ of the matter. Of course, how we make a ‘compass’ actionable is somewhat different, but not too severe a task if we can hold the spirit of the technology close to our considerations. A world citizens’ movement or ‘big picture activism’ can be something radically different, coexisting with orthodox advocacy, but operating from different assumptions. I am led to think that even if we could win all our counterculture wars, it would matter little if we have not evolved a politics that acknowledges the little things, that helps us heal together, and that engages us in ways that trusts us to find our own way through the messiness of human sentience.

We must slow down today because running faster in a dark maze will not help us find our way out. We must slow down today because if we have to travel far, we must find comfort in each other – in all the glorious ambiguity that being in community brings. We must slow down because the correct answer is not adequate. We must slow down because trust, the emerging currency of the ‘next’ story, is not an issue of efficiency, but a creature of intimacy. We must slow down because that is the only way we will see – in a series of alliterated alphabets, smiling icons, and nonsense syllables, patched together with the enigmatic abandon only a non-adult could master – the contours of new possibilities urgently seeking to open to us.

Keynote Address at the 2nd Edition of the DEEEP Global Summit: Towards a World Citizens’ Movement – Learning from the Grassroots Johannesburg