Believing otherwise: Individual action and social change

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Individual actions won’t change the world — but that doesn’t mean every advocate of personal change is headed in the wrong direction.

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Individual actions won’t change the world — but that doesn’t mean every advocate of personal change is headed in the wrong direction.

[A recent email exchange reminded me of this article, which was first published in Climate & Capitalism in May 2010. I wouldn’t change a word today.]

by Ian Angus

I recently received a letter from a young activist who attended the climate summit in Cochabamba. He described it as a life-changing experience that has inspired him to try to change the way he lives, to adopt the indigenous principle of Bien Vivir – living well – as his personal philosophy. We can’t change the world unless we change ourselves, he wrote.

His letter was enthusiastic and inspiring, but I know that many on the left would respond that he had learned exactly the wrong lessons in Bolivia. I can’t count the number of times that I have heard, or participated in, conversations like this.

“You say you want to change the world, but what are you doing to make it a better place?”

“I ride my bicycle to work … use low-power light bulbs … grow my own vegetables … avoid bottled water … turn down my thermostats …”

“Those are distractions from the real problem. Individual actions won’t change anything. We need to fight for political power.”

“If you don’t change your own life, then you aren’t serious about real change.”

“Until we change the system, real personal change is impossible.”

And so on.

The debate isn’t artificial. Individual actions won’t change the world; only collective struggle can do that. But that doesn’t mean that every advocate of personal change is headed in the wrong direction.

In Rebels, Reds, Radicals: Rethinking Canada’s Left History, historian Ian McKay argues that being a “leftist” in capitalist society  means,  ”believing, at a gut level, ‘It doesn’t have to be this way.’”

Radicals, he says, have to believe otherwise, they have to be deeply certain that another world is possible. “Knowing what this living otherwise entails means struggling to make the possibility a reality.”[1]

And, he says, in many cases such understanding flows from and involves attempts to actually bring the new world into existence through personal action. He writes:

“Take, for example, the sense of weary alienation experienced by many North Americans in travelling along congested stretches of fast-food restaurants, muffler shops, malls, and monster big box stores that lock in our cities. We might simply gripe or make snide jokes about them. We might vow to frequent only family-owned eateries or shop at small independent stores in the downtown core — if we can find any. We might resolve only to buy from our local organic farmer and boycott all branded merchandise.

“These kinds of personal decisions capture an authentic, resistant vision of an ‘otherwise.’ They create small spaces of personal critique and freedom, outside that manipulative and ugly commercialism that we might want to avoid.

“No discerning leftist should ridicule such small scale acts of resistance, but neither should he or she be content with them. Isolated and dispersed across the social landscape, such little acts of freedom are vulnerable and short-lived. The ‘freedom’ is confined to one person, one family, one moment, and it is often purchased through the ‘unfreedom’ of others.

“The ‘realm of freedom’ that the left, and the left alone, can act upon is one open to the vast majority of humankind. It might begin with small collective acts – such as ‘no shopping’ days or local campaigns to stop the spread of Wal-Marts – but to be truly ‘of the left,’ it must connect these acts with a larger strategy, a more inclusive storyline.

“It must see every such struggle as a partial answer to a much bigger question, to which it contributes part of the answer: ‘How can we live differently?’ What possibilities can we use to turn the little ‘measures’ of freedom available to a few into much bigger realms of freedom open to the many? How can our small acts of resistance snowball into a system changing social movement.”[2]

Whether or not one agrees with McKay’s overall rethinking of left history, in this passage he offers an important and profound insight that ecosocialists should take to heart.

Being an ecosocialist doesn’t just mean having a scientific critique of capitalist society and a concrete program for change. It also means being what some would call unrealistic or utopian – believing, to the depths of our souls, that human beings can live in harmony with the rest of nature, that the metabolic rift can be healed, that capitalist environmental vandalism can be stopped before it is too late.

Acts of personal resistance and change aren’t enough, and some of them really are distractions — living ‘off the grid’ in the wilderness is unlikely to contribute to worthwhile change — but they can be steps in the right direction.

The activist who wrote me now knows that another world is possible and necessary — in McKay’s terms, he believes otherwise. The left should welcome such personal insights, because without them it will never be possible to build the mass democratic movement that will enable everyone to live otherwise.

[1] Ian McKay. Rebels, Reds, Radicals: Rethinking Canada’s Left History. Between the Lines: Toronto, 2005. pp 3, 4, 19

[2] Ibid. pp 19-20. For easier online reading, I have broken a long paragraph into several shorter ones.


More from my notebook …


  • Dear Ian,

    Thank you for another great read. I am someone who believes otherwise, but what I am struggling to find or even imagine myself is what the alternative would physically look like. I wondered if you could recommend a reading or two that does something of the kind? Helps us imagine the material future – the policies, the communities, the outcomes – whether in works of fiction or non-fiction?