I’m obsessed with analogies. I feel like I can’t claim to understand a given issue unless I can describe it effectively using an analogy that’s both intuitive and provocative (and hopefully positively delightful to boot). I’m also obsessed with science fiction, and I don’t mind telling you that I cried the first time I saw the full trailer for Rogue One.
And so, inspired by Terry Marshall’s excellent piece on what progressives can learn from mixed martial arts and game theory, I thought I’d share a science fiction analogy that I’ve found to be quite useful when discussing the dynamics of “movement moments,” i.e. moments of exponentially increased political activity or re-alignment. My hope is that others might find this analogy useful — or at least amusing — both in terms of describing how we got into our current political situation, as well as what it will take to get ourselves out.
But first, my usual caveat: I want to make sure that, as a funder, I acknowledge some of the amazing folks who’ve influenced my thinking over the years, most especially the Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project, the Climate Justice Alliance, the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, the Center for Story-based Strategy, and all of our place-based grantees doing just transition work across the country. My own social movement experience — and hence my own outlook — would not be what it is were it not for the profound influence that these folks have had on me.
And so, without further ado…
WHEN THE ARTIFICIAL GRAVITY GOES OUT
The concept of artificial gravity is pretty standard fare in most “outer space” science fiction stories. Even when the technology hasn’t been named explicitly, if people are walking around like we do on Earth, then we know that it simply has to be there. We also know that, if the artificial gravity were to go out like a dead light bulb, then a crisis will be created. In fact, if enough attention is paid to the concept of artificial gravity in the first act of our story, then we can safely assume that, much like Chekhov’s gun, “it absolutely must go off” somewhere in the second or third act.
Let’s take a closer look at what happens during such a crisis. Most obviously, both objects and individuals (including our protagonists) become untethered from the floor. Everything and everyone is free to float about the cabin. It’s awkward, it’s distracting, and it can make even the most mundane actions much more difficult to perform — if not downright impossible.
But there’s also a flip side.
While the absence of gravity certainly makes some things incredibly difficult, it can simultaneously make other things incredibly easy. If our protagonists are able to adapt to their new situation, then they’ll not only find themselves able to move almost effortlessly, they might even be able to visit parts of their spacecraft that were previously inaccessible. And, most importantly to this analogy, they can now move objects that were previously totally immovable due to their incredible weight. There is opportunity in a zero-g environment.
No grace or accuracy was required of Trump; when you’re the only person who recognizes that the rules have changed, the competition isn’t going to be particularly stiff.
But this opportunity won’t last forever. The last thing that we know about artificial gravity is that it’s generally supposed to come back on at some point. (If it doesn’t, then we should probably be concerned that our spacecraft is at risk of being either abandoned or destroyed.) And the return to “normalcy” can be somewhat complicated. It can be quite awkward, such as when one of our protagonists gets crushed by an extremely heavy storage container that had floated above their head. But! It can also be quite fruitful, such as when our protagonists manage to arrange a number of such storage containers in a useful configuration that would have been impossible to construct while gravity was still in effect. It all depends on how our protagonists make use of their limited time in a zero-g environment.
When the artificial gravity returns, it will close a chapter in our protagonists’ larger adventure. In the simplest of outer space stories, to have merely survived such a crisis will have been enough. But, in a more sophisticated story, our protagonists will have recognized their potential to come out ahead. They will have gone where they couldn’t go before, and they will have rearranged even the heaviest of objects into configurations that will remain to their strategic advantage in the long term.
WE ARE LIVING IN POPULIST TIMES
As Jonathan Matthew Smucker writes, we are living in populist times:
To be living in populist times is to be living in an era when political authority is no longer seen as legitimate by most people; it’s what’s often referred to as a crisis of legitimacy. During such a crisis, populist movements and leaders emerge, from both the right and the left, in order to forge a new popular alignment of social forces. Populists explain the causes of the crisis, they name “the establishment” as the problem, and they articulate a new vision forward — an aspirational horizon — for “the people.”
If political authority is no longer seen as legitimate, and if the establishment is seen as part of the problem, then experienced politicians with established track records will be at a tremendous disadvantage — unless, of course, they can adapt and realign themselves (and their policies) to the current reality.
And the work of developing this vision, if it is to happen, must happen now. We must do more than survive this crisis; we must come out ahead.
This is precisely what it looks like when the political gravity goes out. Donald Trump was able to take advantage of this state of affairs, while most of the other candidates — arguably all but Bernie Sanders — didn’t even seem to notice that anything had changed. They forged ahead as if gravity were still there, arms swinging purposefully, legs flailing in the open air, bodies drifting up into the ceiling. Meanwhile, Trump hurtled himself forward with crude, frog-like jumps, frighteningly able to navigate the increasing chaos despite the repulsive awkwardness of his gait. No grace or accuracy was required of Trump; when you’re the only person who recognizes that the rules have changed, the competition isn’t going to be particularly stiff.
Trump’s performance didn’t go entirely unnoticed. In fact, it was the worst elements of his base who were paying the closest attention. They, too, have left the old assumptions of gravity behind, and now white supremacy, patriarchy, xenophobia, and Islamophobia are all free to fly about in the open. With actual neo-Nazis making actual Nazi salutes in the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center — a federal building! — we simply cannot overstate how serious our situation has become. We are living in populist times, and theirs is a right-wing populism that scapegoats immigrants, Muslims, women, and people of color, blaming them for the failures of the establishment, and seeking to secure a new political authority to codify such bigotry in policy.
But all is not lost.
The gravity is still out. It didn’t come back on after Trump was elected, and it hasn’t come back on since he’s been inaugurated. Not even this past week’s executive orders have been able to seal the deal. Given the depths of popular distrust, the shell game in which Trump has swapped one form of establishment for another, and all of the amazing anti-Trump organizing that’s already taken place, the gravity will remain out for at least a little while longer — not only for Trump and the so-called “alt-right,” but for the rest of us as well.
We know that the gravity won’t stay out forever. And so, just as Trump has untethered the worst in his base, so must we untether the best in all of us — not only to take immediate advantage of the lack of gravity, but to arrange those previously immovable objects into the configurations that we so desperately need in the long term.
Among the many casualties of neoliberalism lays our collective ability to imagine and articulate a radically different way of doing things. We’ve been told that there are no alternatives. We’ve even been told that history itself has ended. These concepts have formed an ideological prison built of flawed assumptions — that competitive markets are the most effective way to solve social problems, that privatization is a form of liberation rather than enclosure, that technological change is always good, that white supremacy and patriarchy are things of the past, and that rampant inequality is the innocent byproduct of a healthy reward system. In the past, we’ve often found these assumptions to be too heavy to move. But, now that the political gravity is out, it’s time to challenge them directly.
Despite the disastrous outcome of the presidential election, we still have both the opportunity and the responsibility to articulate our own, radical vision of what the future could look like: a vision that asserts not just what we feel is possible, but what we know is necessary; a vision that is diverse, equitable, inclusive, and radically democratic; a vision that is bold and explicit in stating what we really want; a vision that will outshine the cynical pragmatism that has kept us tethered to the ground in the past. And the work of developing this vision, if it is to happen, must happen now. We must do more than survive this crisis; we must come out ahead.
Let me be clear: measured pragmatism is not vision. Nor is fact checking. Neither does enough to tell people what we really stand for.
Resistance is critically important. We must resist anything that threatens the most vulnerable among us. We absolutely cannot allow the normalization of white supremacy, patriarchy, xenophobia, or Islamophobia; we must tear these structures down before the gravity returns and fixes them into place. Resistance is both moral and strategic. But our resistance is always strongest when we’re reaching for something else at the same time; saying ‘No’ is always most powerful when it’s reinforced by a corresponding ‘Yes’ to what we really want.
This could be the most promising opportunity we’ve seen in my lifetime to correct the destructive political trends that got us into this mess to begin with. The lack of a compelling vision on the part of the Democratic Party (and the center-left in general) created a political vacuum that Trump’s right-wing populism was able to fill. Let me be clear: measured pragmatism is not vision. Nor is fact checking. Neither does enough to tell people what we really stand for. Not Trump, certainly, but what comes after that? For the center-left, it can be quite difficult to determine. We must fill this vacuum with a compelling vision of our own. It’s more than just an opportunity; it’s the only viable path forward.
The gravity is still out, but only for the time being. We must make the most of it while we can.
WHAT THIS LOOKS LIKE IN PRACTICE: PHILANTHROPY AS A CASE STUDY
After reading the above, it may seem like I myself have become untethered and drifted off into outer space. Anticipating that, I thought it might be helpful to share how we integrate these seemingly abstract concepts into our work at the Chorus Foundation:
- Support those on the front lines of injustice. Frontline communities have been operating in a zero-g environment for years; the crises in question hit them first and worst, and the establishment has done next to nothing to help them. As the communities most familiar with the problem, they’re also the most familiar with what the solutions need to look like. As funders, it behooves us to both acknowledge and support the experience and the leadership of such communities.
- Support visionary organizing. This is not to be confused with developing our own, top-down vision and imposing it on our grantees. You can only do so much in a zero-g environment when your funders have your feet chained to the floor. Rather than requiring our grantees to follow the latest trends in philanthropy, we should provide them with long-term, general operating support that allows them to develop their own vision, strategies, and solutions.
- Support transformative storytelling. Trump won largely because he told a (fact-resistant) story that stuck. If we’re going to work effectively to arrange heavy objects in a zero-g environment, then we’re going to need to be able to really see each other’s work, and that requires that we be able to tell more effective stories about said work. As funders, it’s not enough to simply fund good organizing; we also need to support efforts to share the stories of this organizing more broadly.
- Support the development of alternatives. While a compelling vision will be necessary to expand our sense of what’s possible, demonstration projects that make a real difference in people’s lives will be necessary to sustain that vision. It’s a critical part of reinforcing what we’ve built so that it doesn’t come toppling down once the gravity returns. As funders, we should be using both our grants and our investments to support the development of economic alternatives that build real political, economic, and cultural power at the community level.
- Get serious about ideology. We need to get over the idea that being “ideological” is somehow a bad thing. Everything is ideological. The only difference is that not all of us are willing to (or are politically self-aware enough to) admit it. If we’re going to arrange these heavy objects into something politically coherent, then we’ll need to have a clear plan in mind. Instead of shying away from the very concept of ideology, we should aim to identify and support those who can ground our vision in ideological clarity.
These are just a few of the conclusions that can be drawn from this line of inquiry. If the analogy of artificial gravity resonates, then I encourage folks to share their own case studies or conclusions in the responses below!
A NEW HOPE REQUIRES NEW RESOURCES
The potential of vision-led social movements is massive, but fulfillment of that potential requires that they’re adequately resourced. For those of us in the philanthropic sector, it’s absolutely essential that we increase our direct support of the strategies described above. But, to truly show up for social movements, we’ll need to get serious about organizing our peers, and that involves being willing to openly challenge even the most deeply held assumptions of mainstream philanthropy.
After all, the gravity is still out for us as well!
I’ll conclude with another nod to the most successful science fiction franchise of all time: Star Wars. One of the clearest themes of Rogue One — and arguably of the entire Star Wars catalog — is that “rebellions are built on hope.” This is absolutely true, and we must take it a step further. To truly hope, we must be able to articulate clearly and compellingly what it is that we’re hoping for. One of the most rebellious things that we can do is to articulate our own, radical vision, to organize around that vision, and to build real alternatives that embody it in our daily lives.