Having spent six years of my life working with Irish revolutionaries based out of Belfast, I was enthusiastic when Netflix came out with a two season mini series about the Easter Rising. I am on season two now, and so far am not disappointed – yet it leaves me rather emotional.
Mainstream entertainment often depicts revolutions and uprisings as occurrences unique to the past. Fukuyama famously asserted in the 1990s that perhaps we had reached “the end of history”. That comment did not age well; nevertheless, it speaks to the hubris of the comfortable, that those who live in oppression might continue to do so forever. Humans don’t work like that. Even in progressively utopian futures, there will be struggles, there will be emergent identities, there will be unforeseen challenges. This is to be expected. The goal has to be to build a society in which all voices can be heard, where there is space for the most marginalized to still have their needs met. Such a goal cannot come easy. There is no final reckoning.
Yet we struggle today, as James Connolly and all did then, against capitalism, and its immoral founding assumption that profit must be prioritized over human lives. This is understood, as is the cooptation of the Irish struggle by those who asserted that “Labour must wait” (looking at you, De Valera, the opportunist). Incidentally, though I am not actually writing a TV review here, the mini series does a good job of depicting the ebbs and flows of the movement; one can see where co-optations happened.
What lies ahead
So watching this, and witnessing the artistic depiction of the human costs of the Easter Rising, I find myself in an emotional quandary. Am I terrified that we are facing a reckoning – or many reckonings – like it? Yes; however I find myself even more terrified by the prospect that we might not be. We might instead find ourselves burning and drowning our way into climate oblivion, while the ruling class watch – until they, too, find that their money no longer offers them protection. As the proverb says, “When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money” (Obomsawin). Small comfort it is that should the worst happen, those who destroyed everything for their personal enrichment will then die with us.
The famous image of frogs sitting in water while it boils has been proven false of frogs. Eventually, they do jump out. But humans in a political climate? Of us, it is sadly true.
The Easter Rising happened in Dublin in the middle of World War I. People were willing to risk everything to stand for what they believed in, largely because they were faced with the alternative of risking everything to stand for, well, nothing.
Now, in most of the world, the ruling class have gotten wise to some of our more primal instincts. They’ve replaced the draft with the economic draft, whereby the poor are no longer called up to serve, they are ‘merely’ deprived of every opportunity until they are backed into a corner. Far more insidious – there are layers of shame and confusion weaved into the nagging sense of maybe things aren’t as they should be. Or as they could be. Maybe we are being oppressed? Or maybe, we wonder, the capitalist American dream is true, and we are just failures. Maybe there’s a trick which we haven’t figured out. Maybe the fact that we haven’t figured it out means we are pathetic losers. Or… maybe the emperor has no clothes on.
Where do we direct our rage? Inwards, around – just get a better job – these immigrants shouldn’t be coming here illegally – unemployment is too high. Many of us are wising up to this dynamic, but how we overcome it is complicated. (This is one of the questions that will be a theme of this blog over the oncoming months.) Clarity is an important tool; the powers that be know this far better than we do, and seek to rob us of it at every opportunity.
The right to win
The other question I am left with is around the idea of winning. What does winning even look like? I remember having my entire world shaken on reading an article with the sub heading that the law has enshrined the right to protest – but not the right to win. As soon as a protest starts to force a change, it is criminalized. Social movements are either symbolic and adorable or else they’re dangerous. The difference is in their effectiveness.
Remember that days before he was forced to resign, Hosni Mubarak got on Egyptian TV to patronize the people of Egypt and tell them how brave they all were. First they ignore you, then they laugh at you (or patronize you), then they fight you, then you win. Hard for them to keep laughing at you while you’re armed and storming into Dublin Castle. Hmm.
I wonder whether the real lesser of two evils is insurrection. And I know that’s not a light hearted thing to say.
But whether we seek to end capitalism through election or insurrection, we’d better be damn sure we can win.
Getting out of our own way
It’s no secret that the left, those who dare to dream that a better world for everyone is possible, have our challenges.
They morph in intense, short-lived struggle. We lose interest in whether the person next to us is a ‘tankie’ or an ‘anarchist’ or a ‘social democrat’ as long as they are next to us.
But they also can snap back in longer, protracted struggle, and they come to a head in power struggles.
We would be foolish to assume that the issues we already know about will disappear overnight once we get power. They get louder, they get worse. The only way out is through.
And that means looking at our own shadows. Which is ultimately what this blog is about.
In a society rife with widespread trauma and entitlement, how do we learn to thread the needle between the gentleness of compassion and the fierceness of holding power?