2016 has shattered outdated assumptions, but if we change ourselves to fight inequality, it need not shatter our world.

A dominant worldview amongst many progressives in recent times has been that over time things will keep getting better, sometimes with exhilarating speed, sometimes too slowly, and sometimes disjointedly, but broadly, over time, better and better. 2016 has shattered that. Let us state it plainly: the simplest summary of where we are right now is that things have started getting much worse.

This is not a counsel of despair but one of action to fix the crisis. But to fix it, we have to confront the failure of many progressive organisations to assess and respond effectively to what has been happening.

The first failure has been failing to acknowledge the gravity of the crisis. The broken economics of ever increasing inequality has broken society and politics too. Elites have seemed at times to not see the crisis, or cynically worked to accrue as much as possible while good times lasted, or even more cynically readied themselves for deals with the hate-filled forces now ascending. Many progressives (NGOs included) meanwhile have been failing to take on this crisis with the strength and imagination needed, consoling themselves with marginal reforms and allowing themselves to grow ever distant from the lives of millions cast aside, imagining that their own closeness to the establishment would ensure they could always bring change. Or they have finally found the courage to name the crisis but even still have found themselves couraged-out when it came to approach, carrying on almost as before, following a radically new diagnosis with a similar treatment. The 2008 crash showed that the world’s prior way of doing business was broken – and by and large the world responded with some tweaking here or there. And from that dysfunction has emerged the obscene politics of the far right that threaten every social gain of the twentieth century, and risk a return to its horrors. We cannot rely on institutions to prevent evil at a time when increasingly there is not much justice, just us. We will need to depend on solidarity, on each other. This is not new…

For the second failure has been failing to learn from the elders. We hear that 2016 has been the worst year ever. It has been no such thing – it is only been the worst year that those who have discarded older traditions have seen. And so part of ensuring that our futures surpass the present is to rediscover lessons of our ancestors. We need to go deeper than tactics and ask how did older generations keep hope alive in times of hate? Let us re-read King, let us re-read about the resistance of the 1930s, let us re-read about those who fought slavery and colonialism, let us re-read the great stories about hope under Babylonian captivity. Older worldviews, from the Buddhist to the Celtic, have seen life as more cyclical.  Older worldviews have demonstrated a capacity to walk through the valley of death without fear. More recent approaches have implied that with an x at election time and a click for every crisis, things would only get better. This was wrong. There is a need to relearn the capacity for long-haul struggle. And yet there are those who have been living up to those histories, but they have not been given the backing they deserve…

For the third failure has been failing to learn from the youth. The progressive establishment have been lecturing them to compromise more, smooth their edges, be more “grown up” – patronizing them with the claim that they agree with their ends but that the youth are just not doing it right. It is what Martin Luther King powerfully lambasted as “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism”. But 2016 has shown that the future is being written by the determined. The comfortable world of consultations and reports built on projects won’t ever be enough to bring about the deep changes in power structures that are needed to build a society that works for everyone. It is from the courage of grassroots young activist groups that the opportunity of a better future will grow.

My own sense of despondency after the events of 2016 was lifted by joining in December a global gathering of activists at a community farm in South Africa. Organisers, writers, artists, activists, musicians, and community leaders from 15 countries – South Africa, Kenya, Brazil, Nigeria, Myanmar, Sierra Leone, Zambia, India, Australia, UK, USA, Denmark, Tunisia, Uganda, and Malawi – gathered in Rustlers Valley, Free State, South Africa for a two-day sharing of experiences, discovery, challenge, music, hiking, spirituality, and planning a campaign to fight inequality from local to global level. Veterans of the struggle against Apartheid, from the ongoing struggle of the Brazilian landless movement, and of the first nations of the Americas dialogued with love and respect with brave young activists for Fees Must Fall, Black Lives Matter, human rights, climate justice, economic justice and more. They climbed the nearby rocks together, reconnecting the personal and political. The gathering signaled a shift in the roles of different organisations too, with the INGOs there accepting the challenge put forward by social movements for INGOs to support those at the sharp ends of the struggles in their leadership.

The activists at the meeting recognized that we are at a moment of global crisis, in which the dominant economic and political systems are broken and must be transformed; that a radical democratising of institutions must be fought for; that the intersection of capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy has produced a dramatically dysfunctional and unequal world in which elites find it easy to accumulate more and exclude the vast majority from power; that only people united and organised from below and beyond borders are capable of bringing the changes we want in our world.

This approach, rooted in an intersectional feminist analysis and in a commitment to challenging the power structures which perpetuate injustice, is a very different way of looking at the crisis we face today than the approaches with which many progressives have been operating for the past decades. And to change is hard. But as King said, “cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But Conscience asks the question, is it right?”

As a student of history I am worried that 2008 was 1929. And we’re in it. And my kids are in it. The stakes are existential. And if we carry on as we are, we’re losing. Times like these remind us that campaigning isn’t a job, it’s a calling. And right now it’s so vital that we hold hands and build anew. Two roads: we organise, and win (or at least go down honourably trying), or we each try to duck and hide and compromise and survive in shame. 2016 was a reminder of the impossibility of being neutral, and the moral obligation to ensure love wins. We do not know whether we will prevail. But we do know that if we do not change, if we do not organize ourselves to fight back, if we do not build power from below and across borders, then we will certainly lose. And that if we do fight back then resistance in itself will help to restore our common dignity, and the restoration of that dignity provides a basis for building a world where everyone is precious.

“We have not overcome our condition, and yet we know it better. We know that we live in contradiction, but we also know that we must refuse this contradiction and do what is needed to reduce it. Our task as [humans] is to find the few principles that will calm the infinite anguish of free souls. We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more to peoples poisoned by the misery of the century. Naturally, it is a superhuman task. But superhuman is the term for tasks [we] take a long time to accomplish, that’s all.”  Wrote Albert Camus at only twenty-seven.

2016 has shattered out-dated assumptions, but if we change ourselves to fight inequality, it need not shatter our world. This isn’t about project wins in the next two or three years, it’s a generational struggle – but generations before us have fought them, and won.

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Ben Phillips

About Ben Phillips

Ben Phillips, currently based in Nairobi, is co-founder of the #FightInequality alliance, the growing movement for a more equal world. He has lived and worked in four continents and a dozen cities, and led programmes and campaigns teams in Oxfam, ActionAid, Save the Children, the Children's Society, the Global Call to Action Against Poverty and the Global Campaign for Education. He began his development work at the grassroots, as a teacher and ANC activist living in Mamelodi township, South Africa, in 1994, just after the end of apartheid. All his posts are personal reflections. He tweets at @benphillips76