On helplessness

I am so angry with myself because I cannot do what I should like to do, and at such a moment one feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless.

Vincent van Gogh

Back in 1902, a pamphlet appeared with the arresting title What is to be Done? It was a pretty good question then, and it’s an even more pressing one today.

I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling helpless sometimes in the face of all the stuff that’s going on in the world – droughts, floods, topsoil loss, wars, food shortages, fuel shortages, debt, rampant inflation, and of course the embarrassing uselessness of governmental responses to all of this across the industrialised world. After all, there’s not much I as an individual can do to fix any of these things.

It’s possible to try and stop being so much part of the problem: use less, waste less, produce what I can, and when I can’t be particular about choosing what I buy in. There are limits to all this, of course. I only have so much money, especially if I avoid going into debt. And none of it achieves anything spectacular. There’s not much in the way of dopamine hits from being frugal, unless you’re particularly into that sort of thing.

Meanwhile most of us are just hoping that someone will come along and fix it all. It’s no coincidence that popular culture has become obsessed with superheroes. Everything appears lost and then bam! Captain Climate Change arrives, in a cape and Lycra® shorts, and Gaia in Her aspect of Lois Lane is rescued at the eleventh hour.

At the same time, of course, everybody secretly knows it doesn’t work like that. The world isn’t even going to fall apart in a conveniently quick and tidy fashion. Instead Monday comes round again, only slightly less endurable than last Monday, and we have to make the best of it. The industrial machine keeps lumbering on, even though more and more parts of it are held together with string and duct-tape, still gamely making everything worse for the vast majority of us.

The author of What is to be Done?, a young firebrand by the name of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, thought the answer lay in violent revolution. Certainly the reaction of many people has been and will be violent. Rioters have been killed in Sri Lanka, where collapse is now in full swing, with the country unable to import fuel. Protesters in Libya set fire to their Parliament building. A recent poll, admittedly with a very small sample size, suggested that up to a quarter of Americans would be prepared to take up arms against their own government. You would need to be a very committed optimist to suppose that things are not going to get even nastier.

Let me make it quite clear that I am not an advocate of violence, except as a last resort. For increasing numbers of people around the world, though, it may be all they have left. I don’t welcome the rising tide of rioting, terrorism, and insurrection, and I don’t think it will accomplish much that is at all useful, even in a negative sense. But there may be plenty of dopamine about, if only briefly in many cases.

But those of us who abstain from violence are likely to feel just as helpless. And helpless people are easy to lead. Many people were feeling helpless in Germany in the 1920s and 30s, and look where they ended up going. And you can say the same for Russia in 1917 (and 1989), and France in 1789, and the USA in the years of the Great Depression. Something clearly had to be done. If you were lucky, the Man with a Plan would turn out to be Franklin D. Roosevelt, but for every FDR history can show us plenty of Robespierres, Mussolinis or indeed Lenins.

So as usual the best course appears to be somewhere in the middle, if that is possible. I have no wish to die on a barricade, and neither do I wish to live under a totalitarian regime, whatever flavour it purports to be. But is such a middle course available to us? What, indeed, is to be done?

The answer is and must be action at a local level. Since most of the things people need, especially food, are going to need to be produced at a local level anyway there is an obvious sphere of action and an obvious motivation for people to work together for their mutual benefit. I am only too aware of the face that for many people in many places this is going to be a difficult and alien concept; consumer culture fetishizes the individual so much that we have forgotten that local collective action is even a possibility.

It has always seemed to me that the real value of things like the Transition Towns movement lies as much in the training people get in working together as in anything concrete they achieve at this stage. As such, it’s never too late to start. Even getting yourself on first-name terms with everyone on your street would be a real step forward.

None of the efforts we make are guaranteed to be successful. I am not going to save the world single-handed, and neither, dear reader, are you, unless you happen to have a cape and a pair of Lycra® shorts in your wardrobe. In the long run, as John Maynard Keynes pointed out, we are all dead. That does not, however, mean that our lives are not worth living, or that the small things we do achieve are without value. After all, we are only here today as the result of a vast number of small things our ancestors accomplished, day in and day out.

Hang in there. Someone, somewhere in the future, will be glad you did.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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