Why Are We Still Working? (If Not Now, When?)

One morning recently I woke up thinking about how everyone I know (myself included) is still going to work. What is so damn important that we continue to work while 7 million people have died in just over a year, with as many as 900,000 in the US, and many more than that experiencing long term disabilities as a result of this illness?

Throughout the last year, I have had many conversations with loved ones about how concerned and reactive we should be to the political failures and crises around us. Should we have a go bag on hand? Should we be ready to flee? Where would we go, and when would we do it? One question seems to lie at the heart of these: What crisis is THE crisis? When is the moment when everything changes?

I have learned from history as well as from the experiences of my friends and comrades, and even from my own experiences, that such a moment does not necessarily exist. In this past year in the US, many of us seem to feel that if we were really in a social collapse (akin to the ones we’ve read about or seen in movies over and over), we would know it. It’s too easy to miss the point that most people inside of historical events didn’t know or did not change their behavior to recognize and engage the social crises they were living through.

The reality is that during a dictatorship, during a genocide, during a rebellion and a revolution, daily life continues. People go to work, people cook meals, people go to school, there are in fact some people whose lives can feel almost unaffected by what is going on around them. The testimonies of people who were tortured during the last military dictatorship in Argentina are rife with anger about the silence of their neighbors as they were being kidnapped from their homes, as well as a whole slew of films examining how upper class and otherwise privileged people convinced themselves to ignore what was going on in dictatorships throughout the Southern Cone and beyond as they reaped the benefits of “social order.”

But you can see the same social life playing out in the background of countless other situations, too. People continue shopping, working, participating in the economy and other institutions to which they belong, while others may be actively refusing all of that and uprooting their lives completely (or having it foist upon them). A few years ago in Honduras, Karla Lara explained another version of this dichotomy by saying there are two kinds of “bubbles”: activists, political people, and those being victimized by the state are aware of the situation there—the narco-dictatorship of Juan Orlando Hernández— while the other “bubble” is full of people who shop, go to work, watch the TV news, and think things are generally fine.

Put in such a way, the “everything is fine” bubble sounds incredible. But put another way, it’s not incredible at all. The same concept has already been happening in small and large ways in the US since its foundation; after all, the majority of us go about our daily lives never thinking about the 2.3 million people imprisoned in the US, or the torture, sexual assault, and other forms of harm that befalls them every day, in part because we believe in the necessity of such a system.

I do not mean to flatten the important differences between all of these examples. But I believe there are also important similarities as well here too, and they are worth thinking through. The pandemic is perhaps only the latest version of the question: should we be going to work with this number of people dying each day? It seems critical to explore this question because it’s uncomfortable to think about the forces that compel most of us to keep going on with our normal-ish daily lives as if nothing was the matter when so much is the matter.

One reason we continue to work is that we need to. We work in order to have money to feed ourselves and our families. We need to work to have a place to live. And work is not the same for all of us, it is not socially valued in the same way for all of us, some work is both critical and unpaid, and, crucially, we are not all in equivalent need of money for food and shelter. I cannot of course deal with all these differences here, nor do I mean to try. My goal here is to point out that even within, between, and across these differences, there are overarching moments for collective and individual reflection.

What I want to point out is that if we feel we must work even in the midst of social collapse because otherwise we will lose food and shelter, this is not an accident. This is a purposeful entanglement of capitalism. It bears repeating and highlighting. It’s also certainly worth noting that capitalists themselves had a banner year last year despite all the hand-wringing about “the economy.” In a year of catastrophe, some individuals made unimaginable sums of money even as the people responsible for their profits lost their lives on the job and millions more lost their jobs. The 719 billionaires in the United States made $1.62 trillion dollars between March 18, 2020, and April 12, 2021, including Jeff Bezos, whose income has grown by 74 percent, and Warren Buffett, whose income has grown by 50 percent in this period.

If we are forced to continue to work even when thousands of people per day are dying in our own society (to say nothing of worldwide death tolls), or when the National Guard is occupying your city to quell a rebellion against the continual execution of people on the streets by police, when would be the moment that we would or could refuse work? These are both individual and collective questions.

While I mean for these questions to be provocative in the literal sense, I don’t mean for these questions to be rhetorical. I don’t think I have all the answers or that the answers for our times—or for each of us—will necessarily be obvious. I think these questions merit and require examination, and perhaps merit continuous reflection, beyond the expression of exhaustion and mild pushback to being asked to meet the same productivity standards.

I ask these questions both as someone who did refuse to continue working in an unsafe service job during the pandemic, but only once I found another job option. Not so long ago, I was also convinced to go into work and teach a class at the university when a toxic cloud of uncontrolled flames could be seen from both my house and the window of my classroom.

If we haven’t yet refused work (again the “we” is both individual and collective) how could we each go about loosening our relationships to work, or conversely, strengthening our ability to refuse work when it becomes dangerous for us individually and collectively?

Like other forms of refusal of the status quo, it is important to think about these questions and actively practice the pieces that answering them will require in our lives before the moment arises. So much of our daily life, in movements but also at work, at home, wherever, is also a rehearsal. One of the functions of certain social movements or collective spaces has sometimes been to create protected spaces to “rehearse” ways of being with each other. In Two Cheers for Anarchism, James Scott gives a good example of practicing disobedience by occasionally breaking small laws or rules like refusing to wait for a traffic light when no one is around. The idea is being prepared to disobey and practicing it as a counter to the deep socialization in which we are steeped.

One important piece of the puzzle of rehearsal (but not the only one), are the simple abilities to say no and to experience conflict. The ability to refuse work is first premised on the ability to say no. Are we still working because we haven’t practiced this? It seems that we must be able to say no to protect our boundaries, and to say no for whatever reason. Can we say no to our bosses, for both little and big things? And if not, how can we practice that? And what else must we first practice? Because it will only get harder when the stakes get higher.

Given that the climate crisis is already intensifying and that many of us work for revolutions of various kinds in our social conditions, I think it is necessary to ask ourselves these questions and reflect on them. Who are we, and what role do we expect to play in various kind of social crises and events that are either already happening or that we can foresee or hope to see happen in the future? Under what conditions would we stop working, if not now? Why is it so damn important to go to work, and who are we enriching with our labor? And if we don’t feel we can quit work, how can we strengthen our ability to do that in the future?

What Does It Mean to Feel Hopeful Right Now?

Mariame Kaba says “hope is a discipline,” and of course, as in most things, she is completely right. What makes me so devastated is that right now I see so many people (ahem white liberals! but others too) digging for and grasping at false hope. Yes, we absolutely must have some hope for better times ahead in order to get through tough situations, like the coronavirus pandemic we’re living through right now. But to me it is critically important to distinguish “hope” in the generic sense from the kind of hope that Mariame Kaba is talking about, or the kind that I embrace as I face the world anew every day. Irrational hope that things will just get better on their own; the mistaken but common belief that massive, systemic problems will resolve themselves through the simple passage of time (“history moves forward”); and false hope in bad solutions or ones that simply sidestep issues and create new and different systems of inequality – I can only see this hope leading to more cynicism, depression, anxiety, and hopelessness. Hope in *anything* just for the sake of *having some hope* doesn’t really seem like hope to me at all.

I do not feel any hope in a vaccination roll out that continues right down the genocidal and imperialist path we are already walking down. Seeing and hearing people more focused on how quickly we can fulfill our own desires than on how they can work with others to leave fewer people behind fills me with despair, not hope.

Hope, for me, comes from the visionary organizing of disabled people who have fought for priority access to the vaccine. Hope, for me, comes from learning how to design solutions to this pandemic that would actually work for most or all of the population by working collectively in struggle with the groups that are most affected by it, not by listening to some blowhard politicians that actually do not give a shit if people die. Actually what I mean is some politicians that are interested in killing people so they can profit off of it or, best case scenario, would not bother to help us even if they had the chance to cast a winning vote.

Hope comes to me in letters from prison and in messages from Honduras and in emails from long-lost friends. It says “they tried to separate us but they could not.” It says “they tried to kill our visions but they could not.” It whispers “they tried to tell us the sun would not rise unless we gave up everything that meant anything to us but they were wrong.” It reassures me “They tried to make us afraid to live with dignity but I’m not afraid if we do it together.” Turning to the discipline of hope, I can tell myself that there are many things that I might want to make my life more comfortable/relaxing/fun right now, but I can sit down, take a deep breath, and reach within my network and my imagination to find how can I meet that need in another way without leaving someone else behind. I have hope that my sacrifices are actually saving and improving lives, and that my work matters to someone.

I am deeply, deeply angry – I am in a rage a lot of the time. But I have a lot of hope too. I am inspired by the brave and visionary people all around me, and I learn constantly how to do a better job working to create a different and better world together with those people. This hope is not always easy. It requires work. But it is built on my real experiences and relationships, not lies. It is hard to let go of the easy, shiny promises and false hopes being hawked but I know I am not alone and I know these hopes are solid. I know that the only way to a future I want a part of is one that I take an active part in creating and understanding and in that, there is also hope.

Pink and gray images of a wrench with a heart in the middle. Text says "The virus is capitalism. A new world is upon us. Let's build it together."
art by Christeen Francis @ Justseeds Collective

every day I get up and I do one thing to move in the direction of freedom

Every day I get up and I work on my long list of small tasks dedicated to moving us toward liberation, toward the revolution, toward supporting a comrade, toward righting an injustice. In times like these, every night I lie down to sleep and I wonder if I’ve done enough, if my small contribution can possibly be weighed against the thousands of lives lost that day to the combined weight of coronavirus, racism, capitalism, imperialism, settler colonialism, and heteropatriarchy. This is an ugly kind of math, and one that I can never win. How can the phone call I’ve made, the letter I’ve written, even the hours I may have spent or the miles I might have marched measure up to these lives? And yet, it seems to be the only kind of math I know how to do at the moment.

The more relevant kind of math, the one I know from decades of activism, is that change and movements are made for the most part by small, regular, granular level actions. While the scale of what we are organizing against is massive and horrific, what it takes to bring it down, I think, is steady work. Maybe it is wrong to use the term work here – maybe I mean effort. Or steady dedication. Chipping away at. After all, the systems of injustice and oppression are also made up of a series of smaller things: rules, people, policies, particular institutions, attitudes, habits, actions, and so on. They are not singular, enormous horrors but composites of smaller things too.

 I know I am not the first to say this; I am not saying this because I think it is news. I am saying this to remind myself and recall myself to this truth. I am writing for myself because I am writing myself back to this truth.

Because in the mode of crisis, it is hard to remember. And these days I feel I live in a crisis. This is no accident but part of both Trumpism’s strategy as well as endemic to capitalism. This week alone there was the tense national election in the US; the hurricane that hit my comrades in a Honduras already devastated and made fragile by narco-dictatorship and neoliberal plundering; and the surge of coronavirus cases in the ongoing pandemic. People close to me need support for other private troubles; the source of these troubles are almost all located in larger systems of structural oppression intensified by certain news cycles. In the crisis mode, it is hard to remember that I’m working together with others for big, long-term changes, and also small gains. It’s hard to remember that I exist in larger communities of talented, visionary, resilient people, and that we want it all – small immediate changes now, and big stuff, and everything in between even as I recognize no change will last forever. I am lucky to exist in communities with these people, I am honored to learn constantly from them, and overjoyed to have the skills and resources to be able to find ways to support their work.

Crisis is the vision of the right wing that does not value Black life, Indigenous life, or life itself; it is their mode. I was reminded by Hoda Katebi that we already have our own, better plans; I was reminded that, as Mariame Kaba says, “hope is a discipline”; I was reminded to listen to all the wisdom right around me insisting that even cracks of light in a dark time are necessary and vital forces.

I will continue to wake up every day and commit to organizing in movement with other people or somehow acting in solidarity with others or supporting my folks. I will continue doing one thing every day to build a better world, and I will know that in doing so, I am building some version of that world. This struggle is long and it will never be done but struggling together is how we get free.

An illustration of various masked people in shades of blue hovering across the image, connected to each other by white constellations. One person is holding a sign that says “the future is collective care,” one person is sitting in a wheelchair, and other people are holding megaphones.
“We keep each other safe in the streets by building connecting beyond the physical” by Molly Costello in collaboration with Lifted Voices.

stop apologizing for other people

Recently I’ve noticed a disturbing trend so I’m going to suggest a simple rule: stop apologizing for other people.

Stop making excuses for power, for whiteness, for masculinity, for heterosexism, for ableism, for colonialism. When you apologize for someone else you become part of the problem. You are working to maintain those systems instead of actively working to dismantle them as you should always be trying to figure out ways to do.

If people were sorry for their behavior, they would apologize for themselves. If you want to change a system, support those who are challenging power. Always. When you jump in to make excuses for someone else, a few things happen:

  1. The person perpetrating the micro aggression or oppressive behavior does not have to account for their own behavior.
  2. The person who has actually been harmed is silenced and shamed by seeing that you and others stand against them, regardless of what you actually say as you are making excuses. You may think that you are seeking a compromise, harmony or some kind of middle ground, but the effect of what you are doing is actually further alienating a person who has actually been harmed by sending the message that you (and others in the group) will stand with power and make excuses for it.
  3. You cut off the ability for anyone to learn and grow from their mistakes. Learning is a painful struggle. We could all work on not letting our own fears get in the way of others’ learning process.

Race, gender, sexuality, social class, ability, and nationality are all attributes that exist within systems of power. They are not individual characteristics that we possess in a vacuum and it’s impossible for any of us to be unaffected by the larger unjust systematic power imbalances around us. Working to decolonize ourselves, dismantle patriarchy, unlearn racism, and just not enact bullshit on each other in activist and other daily spaces is an ongoing process, and we are all going to make mistakes. But it is essential in that process to not only allow people to make mistakes but to point them out and even more so to support the person who is brave enough to point out the mistake since likely they are the one who has been harmed by it. It is not piling on to simply agree with or support a marginalized person pointing out a problem. All you have to remember is this: do not make excuses for power.

a brick wall with a graffito that says just "sorry about your wall"

a spell to breathe through it collectively

I feel a familiar pit of anxiety rise up in my stomach. Nausea threatens to overwhelm me. I try to remember to breathe deeply. I remind myself that I can do this. I can do this, because I have already survived worse. I can do this, because so many have already survived so much worse than I can even imagine, and some of those people are my friends. If my friends can face threats of their own deaths and continue on every day, without losing their senses of humor, without giving up, then I can do this.

I let the feelings come, I let the fear in, but I try not to let it control me. I try instead to control it with my breath. And with my memories and thoughts of everyone I know who is braver than me. I’m afraid of the unknown, of the future, of what will hurt, but usually, it’s just about going through and then it will be over. I can do this. Breathe. I want to be able to do this, I can’t control it, but I can decide to do it. I can do this.

And with each repetition, it gets easier. And with each story we tell ourselves and each other, we get stronger. We get more resilient. We can do this. We don’t have to pretend not to be anxious, not to be scared. We just have to remember to breathe. And to do it anyway.

Dandelion growing out of concrete with words that say "Cultivate Resistance"

Graphic by Luke Thomas available at https://justseeds.org/graphic/cultivate-resistance/

a meditation on tools

In the United States, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

In Japan, the nail that sticks out gets hammered in.

Audre Lorde famously admonished white feminists at a conference in 1979 that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Black and white line image of a hammer, screwdriver, and wrench.

If you are neither the wheel or the nail, you might start to wonder about your commitments to justice.

It might not be an honor to be the last one standing.

Does that make you a tool?


Losing the University

The university was never meant to be a place for liberation and social justice, but from its start was built for straight, white, able-bodied, cis-male elites. Rod Ferguson reminds us in his work We Demand that the fact that many of us associate universities with something else – with diversity, with the possibility for envisionining anticapitalist politics, with social justice movements – is in many ways the product of student struggles. Universities themselves have resisted these associations. Ferguson recalls for us that in 1970, four students were killed at Kent State University by the National Guard. Ten days later, police shot approximately 400 bullets into a women’s dorm at Jackson State University, killing two students. The reaction to these murders by dozens of college presidents was to “petition their state legislators not to curtail but to augment police powers on their campuses”(15-16).

The point is that I know the university is not nor has it ever been this romantic perfect place. I remind myself of that fact constantly. I was never planning on making a life here in academia in the first place; I didn’t feel like it was my life’s mission to teach undergraduate students and I have always felt like there are much better and more direct ways to make social change than education. This makes it easier to remember that the university has always been flawed, it wasn’t meant for anyone other than straight white male elites, and if some of the rest of us have managed to increasingly arrive in the past 100 years, especially the last 50 years, it has been for the most part, an anomaly. And it has been the fruits of our struggle. They didn’t want us here in the past and they don’t want us here now. They have never wanted us here. Ferguson says

For university and political elites, then, the social categories ‘tolerance’ and ‘diversity’ were never meant to inspire appreciation for the student movements, movements that might shed light on social inequalities and recommendations for transcending them. “Tolerance” and “diversity” were instead ways of saying “Society must be defended”—that is, protected from the student, who was understood to be a criminal from the start. (2017: 23)

In other words, it is not necessarily a tragedy to lose this place because there are and have always been other ways of doing this. Marginalized communities have always found ways to educate themselves, and those ways, being designed by and for liberation, have more liberatory potential than any institution which has always fought to keep us out.

But knowing all of that doesn’t seem to be helping me feel less sad right now. It doesn’t seem to be helping me much at all. The fact is that I feel I’ve benefitted enormously from my time in and around universities and it seems like many of my most marginalized students have done so as well. While these other forms of learning and education, free schools and free universities and popular educational models which I’ve been a part of, can be much more liberatory in the end, I’m afraid they will still be much more limited in their reach than the good ol’ public university in its heyday was. (Because was is really starting to seem like the operative concept here.)

Ironically, I mean, I wouldn’t even know about free schools without my exposure to the university… that’s certainly not true for everybody. And it needn’t be true. But I think it points to why I feel hope lacking in this moment. I feel a light going out. And sure, that light was really dysfunctional in the first place but it was granting wide access and possibility and acting as a funnel, at least for many students, to something much better, to much more critical ideas and action. How many of us were radicalized in the university? Of course there are other sites, other methods, other ways, but undeniably, this sucks.

The loss of access to critical thinking, to liberal arts, to social justice oriented classes throughout Wisconsin (and probably eventually elsewhere), is without a doubt, a loss of something, for some folks, who were in fact benefitting. Even if we do succeed in creating liberatory alternatives, it’s hard for me to imagine they will have the same reach and impact as the public university in its heyday. But I could be wrong. Perhaps I just need to dream bigger. I hope so. Perhaps I just need to get started on the experiment.

Black and white screenprinted poster of a soldier holding a sign that says "I just wanted to go to college." Text at bottom of poster says "End the poverty draft. Stop the war economy."

Image created by Eli Wright at Justseeds Collective for the new Poor People’s Campaign.

memorializing the thankless work of revolution


Last weekend, just days before she died, I watched a documentary about Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. I wrote these words: “totally inspiring woman and many lessons to learn about how thankless the work of continuing the struggle and holding the line can really be, especially when done by women and women of color, or marginalized members of the group more generally. This woman was really sold out. One random key thing to remember: Nobel Peace Prize was also given to de Klerk when it was given to Nelson Mandela, in case you needed a reason to feel that prize was discredited.”

I am no expert on the South African freedom struggle, but the obituaries published in mainstream newspapers (to say nothing of the comment section! yikes!) only deepened my horror at how Winnie was treated. The NYT lead with a photo of this incredible woman with her ex-husband Nelson Mandela and the Washington Post was little better leading with the phrase, “Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the former wife of Nelson Mandela and for decades one of South Africa’s most prominent and polarizing figures, died April 2 at a hospital in Johannesburg.”  She struggled to be her own person even in death.

Her story resonated with so many other Black women’s stories I’ve read and learned about over the years in particular. RIP Winnie, may we listen and learn something important from what you were here to tell us.