When I first started investigating the history of the Catholic Worker movement, it was pretty exciting. Here was a movement that had been going for most of a century that, despite a few theological differences (I can appreciate it, but have never quite managed to reconcile myself to the whole catholic thing), mostly believed all the weird things I believed and tried to live the bizarre way that I wanted to live.
I especially liked reading the brief manifestos of Peter Maurin, the eccentric French born labourer who inspired the founding of the Catholic Worker but would regularly be mistaken for one of the homeless guests in the house.
One of Peter’s sayings I found a bit harder to agree with. Even in the 1930’s depression, when working conditions were atrocious, he would respond to the Catholic Worker newspaper covering industrial actions by saying “strikes don’t strike me.” Not that he wasn’t extremely critical of exploitative bosses; but the revolution Peter believed in, of decentralised communal farms, houses of hospitality and “agronomic universities”, was one where people worked harder for less pay.
I remember being unsure what to think about this. It was contrary to leftist orthodoxy, which says that social change, and indeed revolution, comes from harnessing the collective power of workers. The standard belief also says that workplaces are a point of friction in capitalism, where the exploitation of the system becomes most apparent because those who own the means of production, though they do no work, make profit from the labour of those who do the work.
I took all this as true, yet a tiny part of me thought that actually I did kind of agree with Peter Maurin.
If I had stopped to consider the way that I actually lived (and I still believe there is no better way to test what we really believe), I would have noticed that if I really thought trade unions and workplace organising would change the world, then surely I would be putting my effort into doing that. Instead, I had gone on permanent strike and was living without any income. In the years since then, I have never worked more than half a day a week, and for all the causes that I have busied myself with trying to make a difference in, workplace organising has still never been one of them.
There are various reasons for this. I have written elsewhere about why I don’t like to do paid work, and for similar reasons, I don’t get excited about workplace organising. Work is the alienating and infuriating place where most of us drive ourselves into either stress or stupor, all for the sake of tasks that are often unnecessary or actively destructive. To me, it seems like work is the place where we are least likely to be imagining a better society.
I thought about Peter Maurin’s pun about strikes recently when I was having a conversation with a couple of friends. One of them said he felt a mass movement for social change could only come if it was linked to an improvement in people’s material conditions – better pay, better childcare, etc.
I agree with him in a way. I don’t think either a sense of moral obligation nor the charitable urge to help others are a way to fundamentally change either society or our own lives – to create real and lasting change, we need to see a potential new world as better for ourselves as well as others.
But still, I don’t have even the tiniest desire to expend my energy convincing others to fight for a wage increase. Not to say that there isn’t poverty or inequality in wealth, but still the average Australian lives a life more comfortable than almost anyone in history. Our consumption is driving the planet towards ecological crisis, and taking invaluable resources away from the world’s poorest and from future generations. Surely at some point we have to say that we have enough and don’t need more wealth.
This same conversation got me thinking more about how we envision social change. The dominant way to think about it is progress – this march forwards towards a better society. Whatever your view of the ideal future, the idea of building up towards it is pretty common. The technocrat sees improving technology as leading us there, Karl Marx believed in workers taking control of the means of production towards what he called “the end of history” – a utopian socialist society. When the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of the 80’s, that exact phrase was co-opted by American intellectual Francis Fukuyama to claim that capitalist liberal democracy had secured a victory towards its own ideal state.
But moving forwards is not the only way to change. And I’m not talking about trying to return to some idealised time in history. But a religious worldview like that which informs the thinking of both Peter Maurin and myself offers a different idea of how society and individuals change – that of repentance and rebirth.
As opposed to progress (the prefix “pro” meaning forward), the Hebrew and Greek biblical words (that’s “nacham” or “strepho”, in case you were wondering) we translate as “repentance” literally mean to “turn around” or go back. Most commonly it refers to the recognition that a person has done something to harm another and wants to make up for it and change their ways. But it is also illustrated in that classic religious symbol of the baptism – death to one way of life, rebirth into another.
How that happens in an individual’s life is simple enough to imagine (though it’s certainly not that easy in practice to give up some of the practices you have decided are not beneficial), but on a social scale it’s a bit trickier to picture.
Historically there have been religious “revivals”, where mass movements of people have converted to a religion in a certain time and place (a famous example is the Welsh revival in 1904-05, where legend has it that all the coal miners gave up swearing and the pit ponies who hauled out the coal could no longer understand their orders!). These movements have often had limited impact on social conditions, and in fact have at times been a conservative social force (historians have often speculated that the French revolution never spread to England because it was at the time in the middle of a Methodist revival led by John Wesley), but this reflects in some ways the theology of those times. The same thing could foreseeably take place with more of a critique of social and financial power structures, although any kind of social movement which threatens the current distribution of wealth and power can expect to be met with firm resistance.
Here though, I think we actually see an advantage of the repentance idea. A movement based on improving people’s material conditions would potentially struggle if the costs begin to outweigh the gains, but history has shown time and time again that people who have undergone a religious conversion of some kind will continue to practice their faith even in the face of the most awful persecution imaginable.
I have always considered theoretical discussions about what a future revolution would look like to be irrelevant and even boring. But what I do find relevant is analysing how these two worldviews (progress or repentance) influence the kind of actions we take now. Again, looking at the things I have been involved in sheds some light on how I really believe change can come.
Unlike some revolutionary groups, I have never put much effort into recruiting people to form a mass movement. Instead, I have been involved in tying to create alternative communities that live out different values. I have worked on alternative media, and often taken to the streets in small groups, handing out flyers that demand nothing from the reader other than to consider a different view and what its implications might be for their own life. At times I have done subversive, completely anonymous actions to break the monotony of the status quo.
Now I’m aware that these little actions alone won’t change the world. So I also try to support other groups and movements, including those who are doing work concerned with improving people’s day to day conditions. But I do this always with the emphasis that these small steps should be part of envisaging a radically different society.
Reflecting on these differing views of change has made me think that it’s important to value a diversity of beliefs. Some will write me off as a religious loony or “lifestyle anarchist”, point to the privileged position I hold, or call me a class traitor for abandoning the struggles of others.
But restricting talk about social change just to incremental changes in material conditions seems to me uninspiring or even tunnel vision. Especially in a society that already has so much, there must be a place for the dreamers and prophets, who can inspire us to reject the well-traveled road to wealth and power and instead forge a different path. Not to say that I think I always achieve that, but I hope at least writing this can encourage people that changing the world will take lots of different people with lots of different beliefs and skills. It would be a loss to say that we need to wait till the revolution, and it would be a waste to funnel everyone into the mass organisation. May many more seek to transform rather than conform.