Today people think of political engagement in all sorts of way. Many think of their political engagement as a way to fulfill the truth or a grand political vision separate from themselves. This can lead to soft and hard dogmatism, an almost religious fanaticism with certain political ends. I have had this orientation at certain times in political activity.
However, I think we should avoid dogmatism and fanaticism and as I have described before, we should steer clear from symbolic activism that is rooted in media spectacles (which seems to be a very alienating and vanguardist form of “resistance”).
We should think of political engagement in a more self-centered way. So much activism is rooted in supposed altruism, and moral righteousness, this is epitomized by white liberal/radical guilt and their reliance on interpersonal privilege politics (which I think anyone that wants to build working class power should stay far from). People should figure out what their own personal problems and personal desires are, then seek to understand how these problems/desires relate to other people, especially those they are surrounded by. Further, figure out how these problems/desires relate to the economic, cultural and political status quo. Is there a way to fight these problems and achieve these desires in a collective way? Most times the answer is resounding yes. For instance, I desire more free time to do things I want to do outside of school and work. I would like more financial stability for my future. I would like the freedom to engage in diverse activites, instead of specializing.
The many working people that are labeled apathetic and many who are labeled “conservative” (I added quotations because most people don’t have stable or cohesive ideology, unlike a lot of dogmatic activists) really are just people turned off by the moral “altruism” (self-righteousness) of anything associated with “the left” and don’t see how anything “left” is related to their life. However, most these people usually want a better life for themselves and their family, something I want for myself. Our society (and the political right) has perpetuated the idea that individualistic social mobility is the solution to all our problems and way to achieve desires: “just work hard, be better than others and you will make it”. At the same time, the contemporary left has done little to align itself with this very common desire and has further done little to point out the ways the economy, the state, and other forces harm the achievement of this desire for most people.
I know I would easily be drawn into the pragmatic individualist conservative political vision if I didn’t have certain assumptions about how this political and economic system operate (e.g. its tendency for economic crisis, the existing class system/command system, profit as the dominant consideration in political-economy). So with these assumptions, I don’t think individual social mobility is a desirable or long-term possibility for achieving my self-interest. An alternative to the individualist mobility strategy is a strategy of working-class unity and direct action. This type of political action is what I believe will achieve many of my immediate needs and those of others. Further, this political action will help create a future world that can meet my needs and desires more easily. My vision of solidarity doesn’t emerge in selfless ally politics, but (to put it bluntly) a selfish understanding of mutual aid. An understanding that my life will be better if others lives are made better. My wage will be higher if more people don’t accept lower wages and the working class uses their leverage to fight the ruling political and economic class. Further, racism and sexism, beyond being merely wrong, inhibit the achievement of working class unity and should be fought on this basis, as well on a principled basis that these practices are wrong. I could go on. This fact is what anarchist theorist and revolutionary Peter Kropotkin was pointing to in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution: survival and prosperity of an individual is often contingent on the cooperation and mutual aid with other members, this is a reciprocal relationship, not a one-way relation of charity.
This should futher shape the way we view organization and goals. Organizations are not ends in the self, they are tools for achieving goals. Even in a revolutionary society, they should be thought of this way. Radical democratic institutions, anarchistic institutions, or any institution, are not an end in themselves, but a tool for achieving various ends for individuals and groups. Unions, political parties, and social groups are all tools for various social/political ends. They all have different uses and achieve different things. We should engage with them as such and be guided by these questions: What do I and what will I get out of engaging with this organization? What does this type of organization achieve?
To wrap it up, much of the contemporary left intentionally or unintentionally perpetuates guilt and tries to frame their political project as the correct moral position. The contemporary left seems adamant about obfuscating the realization of any group or individual person doing slightly better than another that they may also have interests contradictory to the mandates of the system (this is something we should foster, not inhibit). Let’s build solidarity and mutual aid based on common self-interests. Let’s engage a broader part of the working class, because that is how we can make the world an easier place to survive and in the future thrive in.
As a little PS:
I think all of this puts debates about individualism and collectivism in a much more complicated space.
I would like to give a shout out to my friend Evan Burger, who wrote a great a piece about selfishness and the left.