Two reviews: ‘Confronting Injustice: Social Activism in the Age of Individualism’
Review by John Riddell
April 21, 2014 -- Johnriddell.wordpress.com, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- A new and outstanding book by Umair Muhammad, Confronting Injustice: Social Activism in the Age of Individualism, presents a strong case for the necessity of socialism to counter the impending calamity of global warming.
Muhammad, an MA student at York University in Toronto, ends his 174-page text by quoting anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin: “The bold thought first, and the bold deed will not fail to follow.” Confronting Injustice is indeed bold in exposing all the market-based evasions and half-measures urged upon those seeking to end environmental destruction.
Muhammad is keenly aware of how hard it is for the newly radicalised to find a personal path in the face of immense social contradictions. The first half of his book responds to the issue posed by its subtitle, “Social Activism in the Age of Individualism”, presenting an extended discussion of moral philosophy for social activists.
Age of individualism/age of conformity
The “age of individualism”, Muhammad says, is in fact an “age of conformity”, enforced by corporate-determined mass consumption. The populace is compelled to take part in conspicuous consumption, caught up in what Muhammad, quoting revolutionary black writer Richard Wright, terms the “lust for trash”.
But the dominant reality of free-market “individualism”, he argues, is growing inequality and destitution. What we face is not a “free market” but a slave market; not “free trade” but slave trade; not “freedom of contract” but “slavery of contract.”
Muhammad urges us to avoid servitude to short cuts to knowledge like YouTube and to break from external electronic stimuli “which keep us out of touch with the thoughts inside our heads”. He calls on us to embrace spaces to “read and write, to learn, to discuss, to think”. Practicing what he preaches, Muhammad presents vivid quotations from a wide range writers and folklore of many cultures. When he dissects the sources of poverty, for example, a quotation from imperialist apologist Rudyard Kipling rubs shoulders with those from socialist philosopher Karl Polanyi and Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe.
At a recent discussion of Confronting Injustice, I noted that most comments from the many students present addressed the moral issues raised in its first two chapters. Decades ago, I and my friends agonised over these same issues as we took our first steps in radical politics. But it was much easier then to find answers than it is now in the context of the relentlessly individualistic culture of neoliberalism. Muhammad has done well in his original and effective argument for commitment to collective and transformative social action.
Making the planet unliveable
Confronting Injustice presents us with a stark picture of what escalating ecological destruction and global warming mean for our collective future. “We are making the planet unliveable”, Muhammad says. He dismisses the feeble achievements of global climate negotiations as “negotiating the earth away” – and even such sham measures as the Kyoto treaty have now been discarded. The deep cuts in carbon emissions required to protect the planet cannot be achieved through market mechanisms or technological fixes, he says.
Although Muhammad favours a carbon tax, he insists that “the climate crisis requires deliberate measures”. These must include, in the rich countries, “drastic cuts in consumption and waste production” accompanied by global “cooperative engagement on an unprecedented scale”, he writes. “Climate change is a social problem that requires a social solution.” To find this solution, “a collective of individuals must be democratically constituted” and it will set in motion the building of what Muhammad, citing Marxist economist Michael Lebowitz, calls a “solidarian society”.
Muhammad envisages a participatory democracy, with decentralisation of decision making through new democratic institutions such as community and workers’ councils. He warns, however, that corporate power will not sit idly by; it will strike back.
Any political system, no matter how it was arranged, would be forced to bend to the will of the existing economic elite if their power was left untouched. Therefore, to truly establish a democratic social arrangement we would want to establish socialism.
The discussion of socialism that follows is brief and suggestive. The book then closes with a rousing vindication, on the example of Martin Luther King’s defence of the Vietnamese victims of US aggression, of specific struggles for limited objectives, which can grow and join together in order to grapple with the overall task of social transformation.
An unfinished analysis
The analysis of this transformation is the most unfinished portion of Confronting Injustice. This is perhaps inevitable, given the limitations of liberation movements today. Muhammad’s text, strong in its main thrust, is restricted by inadequacies in dominant theories of environmentalism and socialism.
This incompleteness seems evident in Muhammad’s presentation of the need for economic “degrowth”, a call heard today from many radical ecologists. The concept is not wrong, but it begs for precision. It applies not to all economic activity but to material production; not in the poorest countries, but on a world scale; it is directed not at individuals, most of whom are entrapped in consumption patterns imposed by capitalism, but at the social system as a whole; its implementation will go hand in hand with an improvement in the quality of life for the vast majority. Such provisos are indeed found elsewhere in Muhammad’s text.
A stress on “degrowth” may suggest a campaign to reduce personal consumption of material goods in rich countries, overlooking the degree to which personal lifestyle, as Muhammad rightly emphasises, is imposed by social structures shaped by the capitalist profit system – the cause of ecological crisis and the barrier to its resolution.
Those who are exploited, oppressed and alienated by the profit system, even if still trapped in its destructive mechanism, must be seen as not the problem but the solution – the force that can ultimately carry through the changes Muhammad is advocating.
If communities of working people join to achieve the needed goals for pollutant reduction, the resulting struggle will, as Michael Lebowitz has often emphasised, enable them to transform themselves and carry out the needed reshaping of the economy on their own initiative. Muhammad’s text strongly underlines the need to build such communities.
Priority of mass movement
And what of socialists forming a government? “Where state power can be captured, it may be able to help us to more effectively take on capital”, Muhammad writes, but “it is the work of the mass movement which will be the most important to building this order”. He is right in stressing the priority of mass action. We must also clarify, however, the indispensable role that must be played by an authority representing the population as a whole in asserting democratic rule against plutocratic resistance and coordinating the economic transformation needed to counter global warming, even as the shape and implementation of change is determined democratically from below.
(For more on this, see Michael Lebowitz on socialism and creative energy.)
But it would be wrong to fault Muhammad for what is, in fact, a weakness of contemporary schools of transformative ecological thought, one rooted in the rudimentary state of popular movements at this time. Answers will be found as we progress through future social struggles, and, here, Confronting Injustice has a distinctive strength.
The book is itself a product of the experiences and discussions of a community of student activists, who are acknowledged in its pages. Among them are Alexandra Fox, an able designer with a flair for typography; copy editor Jordyn Marcellus, and 16 other named collaborators.
Confronting Injustice is a energising and rewarding book that deserves close attention. We look forward to future writing from Umair Muhammad and his able associates.
1. “Minimally, a straightforward and steadily inceasing carbon tax is required to increase the cost of fossil fuels so that their use goes into decline” (p. 123).
2. Degrowth has been defined in different ways, but the Wikipedia description presents a frequently heard interpretation: “Degrowth thinkers and activists advocate for the downscaling of production and consumption—the contraction of economies—arguing that overconsumption lies at the root of long-term environmental issues and social inequalities.”
'Confronting Injustice': A must-read book for today’s activists
Review by Ian Angus
April 23, 2014 -- Climate and Capitalism, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- Too many supposedly radical books are written by academics for academics, apparently competing to see who can produce the most incomprehensible prose. My list of "books to be reviewed" contains literally dozens of overstuffed and overpriced volumes that only a handful of specialists will ever read, books with little or no relevance to the non-university world.
So it’s a true delight to receive a book written by an activist for activists, a practical contribution to building real struggles for a better world. Confronting Injustice is a powerful call for collective action against the social causes of poverty and climate change. It’s a compact and well-written book that deserves to be widely read.
Umair Muhammad is a student at York University, but he lives and is politically active among low-income and immigrant workers, as a member of Jane Finch Action Against Poverty. He is also active in the campaign to block Enbridge’s plan to pump tar sands crude through Toronto in the Line 9 pipeline.
His book addresses young people like himself, men and women in their teens and twenties. He argues that environmental destruction and poverty, the two biggest crises facing humanity today, have common roots in an economic system that allows corporations and the wealthy to vastly over-exploit the world’s resources, while billions live lives of hunger and desperation.
There can be no such thing as a democratic, socially just, and environmentally sustainable capitalism … it unavoidably produces a world full of injustice and inequality in order to secure a global division of labour suitable to profit-making; and it unavoidably produces the kind of ecological destruction which makes its own longevity, and that of human civilization, impossible.
In contrast to some radical writers who promote “anti-capitalism” as an end in itself, Muhammad argues firmly for socialism, which, following Michael Lebowitz, he defines as a “solidarian society” motivated by human needs, not profit.
Socialism would entail an end to the existence of a distinct area of life regarded as the economic sphere. The democratic management of economic life would mean that the economy would become subordinate to the wider relationships that make up society. Non-economic motives would direct economic activity, as they have throughout most of human history. Building a solidarian society based on social ownership and democratic management of production and distribution will mean the achievement of ‘the real purpose of socialism,’ as Albert Einstein saw it: "to overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development."
Two of the book’s four chapters address “Inequality and Activism” and “Climate Change and Activism”. Each concisely outlines the problems, the role of capitalism in creating and perpetuating them, and the inadequacies of the most commonly promoted solutions – charity and NGOism for poverty, market solutions for climate change. These chapters deserve careful study, if only as examples of how to explain these subjects in a clear and popular style.
The book’s most important chapter (and the longest) is the first, “The Age of Individualism”. Here, and in the introduction, Muhammad argues that a major barrier to the development of effective movements against poverty and environmental destruction is capitalism’s successful implantation of pro-capitalist ideology in the minds of the people who should be its strongest opponents. Contrary to claims frequently made by journalists, young people today are not indifferent to social problems. Indeed, “activist ideals and vocabulary have securely made their way into everyday life”. But those ideals are distorted by “the cultural values that have arisen out of capitalism” and as a result “are used to reinforce the social realities they were originally devised to change.”
Living within a social system dominated by the market, it is no coincidence that so many of us have adopted an individualist outlook. The routine of market exchange between individuals who are driven by self-interest has conditioned us to see human society as a collection of disconnected and primarily self-interested individuals.
This could have been a dry and abstract discussion, but it reads like a friendly discussion among activists. For example, Muhammad stresses the dangers of a focus on individual lifestyle change, while recognising that such an approach often rests on honourable motives.
On its own, there are many good things to be said about cutting back on what we consume and living in a way that is not grounded in petty materialistic values. Living a clutter-free life is a wonderful thing, but it is not in itself the same thing as working to create social change…
There is a qualitative difference between, on the one hand, embracing the individualism that defines lifestyle-centric activism and, on the other, coming to recognize the social dimensions of the problems we face. The former is not a bridge to the latter, but a distraction away from it. It is a step in the wrong direction. If anything, the first step to take in engaging with social activism should be to openly reject individualist approaches.
Muhammad wisely refrains from offering detailed guidelines on how to build a movement for revolutionary change. He writes:
The exact sequence of events, and the events themselves, through which the needed change comes about will no doubt differ from place to place. The conditions which exist in any given country will require a strategy specific to them. The pace, too, will vary from location to location.
What he provides in his final chapter is a general approach to social change, based on sources as varied as Martin Luther King, George Orwell, Michael Lebowitz, Bertrand Russell, Mahatma Gandhi and David Graeber. This is obviously not your father’s radical orthodoxy: Muhammad’s views are influenced by various schools of radical thought, and it’s not clear to me that the result is consistent or coherent. Be that as it may, what he provides is an opening statement in an important discussion that activists must have. It’s especially important that it be read and debated by the new generation that, like its predecessors, is searching for its own path to radical conclusions.
Socialists my age –- we of the 1960s and 1970s –- often complain that we don’t seem able to reach younger people, that liberalism in its reformist and anarchist forms has captured and held their attention, while socialism is rejected out of hand. Part of the reason may be that we don’t know how to talk to people for whom the Cold War and the Vietnam War are ancient history. Those people are this book’s most important audience.
Umair Muhammad raised the seed money to publish Confronting Injustice through Indiegogo, and is selling it for just $15, with a sizeable portion of that going to Jane Finch Action Against Poverty. For those with limited finances, it can be downloaded free from the website ConfrontingInjustice.com.
But if the price isn’t a barrier, my advice is: buy several! Keep one and read it carefully, and use the others to initiate conversations. The bread you cast upon the waters will return many times over.