From the Trenches: Shocking Victories
“From the Trenches” is a battle cry. In a globalized world that criminalizes the rebellious in spirit, it’s easy to forget that change-minded activists and organizers are tallying up tiny victories against sociocultural and economic oppression on the regular. The column will serve as a weekly reminder that we not only can win, but we do, often. So hasta la victoria siempre and all that.
“From the Trenches” was conceived as an intervention in the chronic negativity of the left. Because for many of us on this side of the political spectrum, any tiny victory that is not The Victory–over neoliberal capitalism, the state, patriarchy, racism, or what have you–shows our collective inability to create social change on any meaningful level. Ugh. Frankly, ya’ll needed an attitude adjustment, and shining a light on our successes (even if they don’t amount to The Revolution) is an important step on the road to optimism.
Now, you may be asking yourself: But if we’re not storming the Winter Palace, what’s the point? The systems of oppression we’re all subject to will remain intact no matter how many little things change. And I feel you. These systems do still exist, and they’re not likely to piss off anytime soon.
So why all this talk of winning?
Because understanding revolution as a single event is a total lefty faux pas. Instead, we’ve got to acknowledge revolution for what it has historically proven itself to be: a long, long process. To do otherwise obscures the thousands of victories we’re always accumulating, the only force challenging the logic of profit-over-people and inching us closer toward the kind of world we’d all prefer to live in. The Civil Rights Movement, for example, forced the US government’s hand, and in the process, it fundamentally changed attitudes and relations around race (where so much work remains to be done) in ways those of us who are fortunate enough to have never lived under Jim Crow take for granted. The state did not allow the CRM a win; the movement took it.
Our collective power is immense. The state knows that, and will go to incredible lengths to keep us from exercising that power. Why should we be the only ones who do not acknowledge
I recently came across the “The Shock of Victory” in Revolutions in Reverse, a 2009 essay collection by anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber. In the piece, revolutionary action takes the place of capital-r Revolution, and the acknowledgement of victory in that process of action crucial in moving forward. The essay laments the left’s inability to understand when it has won (which Graeber argues can derail otherwise healthy movements) as well as how to handle victories that for now, fall short of a total systemic overhaul:
[T]here are no clean breaks in history. The flip-side of the old idea of the clean break, the one moment when the state falls and capitalism is defeated, is that anything short of that is not really a victory at all. Revolutionaries hear this line continually. If capitalism is left standing, if it begins to market revolutionaries’ once-subversive ideas, it shows that the capitalists really won. The revolutionaries have lost; they’ve been coopted. To me this entire line of reasoning is absurd. Feminism was surely a revolutionary force: what could be more radical than reversing thousands of years of gender oppressing lying at the very heart of what we think we are and can be and should be as human beings? Can we say that feminism lost, that it achieved nothing, just because corporate culture felt obliged to pay lip service to condemning sexism and capitalist firms began marketing feminist books, movies, and other products? Of course not. Unless you’ve managed to destroy capitalism and patriarchy in one fell blow, this is one of the clearest signs that you’ve gotten somewhere. Presumably any effective road to revolution will involve endless moments of cooptation, endless victorious campaigns, endless little insurrectionary moments or moments of flight and covert autonomy. I hesitate to even speculate what it might really be like. But to start in that direction, the first thing we need to do is to recognize that we do, in fact, win some. Actually, recently, we’ve been winning quite a lot. The question is how to break the cycle of exaltation and despair and come up with some strategic visions (the more the merrier) about [how] these victories build on each other, to create a cumulative movement towards a new society.
These “small” victories are the only victories, our building blocks for creating our new world in the here-and-how, and we ignore their power at our peril.