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Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee: a political ecology of change

By       Message Ricardo Levins Morales     Permalink
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ecology of resistance by

Don't fight the riptide. It'll wear you down. A riptide occurs when water at high tide gets pooled behind reefs or sand bars so when the sea goes out again, the trapped water has to find a channel through which to escape the pool. It empties through that opening with such force that it can sweep a swimmer out to sea. Our instinct is to start swimming toward shore as hard as we can. The better strategy is to swim parallel to the coast until you are out of the riptide, then ride the regular waves to shore. Left activists know the feeling of being caught in a riptide without knowing the way out. When the political tide runs against us it takes all our effort just to stay in place. Our standards slide until a "victory" just means that we didn't get screwed as badly as we could have been. Our gains are swept away the moment we turn away.

When conservative activists faced this problem, back in the mid-1960s, they tried something different. Instead of swimming faster they looked into what it would take to turn the tide around. They pulled it off. With the tide behind you, you can achieve all kinds of success even with less that brilliant leadership. It's a lot easier to slash local school budgets when half the population already believes that government is incompetent, teachers are lazy, taxes are evil and the private sector can do it better. That's the tide.

One swimmer swims against the rip tide and is steadily pushed out to sea. Another heads out of the current and floats in on the surf. They both faced the same challenge. The difference is what was in their heads. This essay is about what's in our heads and how it can transform the terms of struggle and therefore the course of history. It is also about butterflies.

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When butterflies migrate they don't just start flapping their wings in the right direction. They don't want to work that hard and get blown in to bushes and buildings by every gust of wind. They go straight up, sometimes up to twelve thousand feet high, find a current headed their way and ride it for a thousand miles. Their light, fragile wings--a liability among the treacherous ground winds--are now their great asset.

The visible world is defined and determined by an invisible one. A glance at the landscape won't tell you the likelihood of earthquakes. You have to know that invisible pressures accumulate along subterranean fault lines formed in the distant past. The butterfly and the organizer must be attuned to currents that are not apparent unless you look for them. The activists who launched the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 knew that undercurrents of anger at racist indignities were reaching critical levels and were searching for a way to turn them into a force with which to challenge segregation. The conservative activists who gathered in the wreckage of the Goldwater presidential campaign nine years later sought to harness fears stirred up by the civil rights struggle, the spread of consumerist immorality and the erosion of religious certainty and give them ideological and organizational expression.

In the USA we don't like to overthink things. We prefer action. We run off to parties without grabbing the address. If we feel a current we swim against it. We fight oppressive conditions without asking what holds them in place. We swing between wishful thinking and hopelessness without seeing that they both reflect a disconnect between the strategies we repeat and the successes that elude us. But it is not just harsh conditions that confound us. All seeds start in the dark, after all. It's how we interpret and respond to them. Among Malcolm X's many abilities, his most remarkable gift was his oratory. He used the magic of language to help traumatized people uncover a new story about themselves. This change in perspective revealed new avenues for action and turned what had been dreams into possibilities. The rest is history.

Strategic vision is the precondition for effective strategies. It is the rain that spurs the strategies to growth just as strategies in turn give seed to tactics. A strategic vision encapsulates our perspective on the landscape we are challenged to cross and our understandings of who we are and what we dream of becoming. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how strategic vision is the pivot which can turn our defensive struggles into political initiative, unite isolated reform efforts into a movement for change and open up new possibilities for effective action in every field of struggle.

The lay of the land

The transformative promise of the Obama Presidency was not, in the end, derailed by Republicans or sabotaged by conservative Democrats or even betrayed by Obama himself. It never existed. The illusion that it did and the collapse of that illusion both result from a structural dilemma which defines both dominant political parties but particularly bedevils the Democrats.

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The Republicans are a coalition between the corporate elite and an array of conservative movements and institutions comprised of the Christian right, nativist, gun rights, white supremacist and anti-choice groups, small government Tea Partiers, corporate front groups and others. This conservative base delivers votes, campaign workers, foot soldiers for corporate front groups and an ideological message which galvanizes popular support. In return they get to advance their patriarchal and racist moral agenda and receive ample funding for their cultural warfare apparatus. The reactionary opinion molders (the "perceptioneers") on talk radio, cable TV, blogs and in legislative offices translate the agenda of the corporate elite (anti-labor, pro-deregulation, privatization, interventionist and anti-democratic) into a populist narrative of personal liberty that resonates with the conservative base. The result is that the demands of the conservative social base are closely aligned with (or at least do not impinge upon) the agenda of the corporate sector.

The Democrats are a coalition between the same corporate elite and a constellation of non-profits, unions, communities of color and environmental and social reform movements. Their demands revolve around basic needs such as access to food, education, livable wages, healthy workplaces and communities, affordable housing, quality education and an end to discrimination. In other words the satisfaction of the aspirations of the Democratic grassroots would require a massive transfer of resources to the base of the social pyramid and consequently would tilt the balance of power toward labor and organized communities. The Democratic leaders have to implement policies that their corporate sponsors require and which hurt their constituents in every respect. To the base they can offer little more than placebos, small measures that don't cost much or symbolic gestures such as White House dinners, Presidential declarations and seats on advisory panels. They can promise but they can't deliver.

The presence of a corporate elite that pursues its own collective interests is the invisible planet of our political system. One can discover the existence of an unknown planet by observing its gravitational tug on the orbits of its neighbors. The discovery of such a body decodes the motion of the rest of the system.

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I am a movement artist and activist. I was born into the Puerto Rican independence movement and have been active in US social movements from an early age. I worked for 30 years in the Northland poster Collective which provided art services and (more...)

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