Listen to this story
The year I turned 10, Ireland had two general elections. Every day after school, a bunch of us walked the town, leafleting and running errands for canvassers. We were fearless. We owned the place. Think Lyra Belacqua racing round an Oxford no adult even suspects exists. No one who’s been awarded the official freedom of a city has ever felt daily liberty as we did.
A few years later, canvassing with my mum in an outlying village, a door was opened by someone I’d last seen leading a cackle of girls who stood jeering as I lay on the schoolyard. I’d only fallen over—they were toughs, not bullies. But when those girls hadn’t returned to school the summer they turned 15, nobody wept. On the doorstep, we clocked each other instantly. I hesitated. She grinned. We peeled off for a chat, like we’d always been friends. Turns out her family were in the same political party as mine. So now I wasn’t a clumsy, four-eyed doctor’s daughter; I was a comrade in arms.
Today, I live in a country that wants people to have just one identity. You can’t be British and international, they say; that makes you a “citizen of nowhere.” You can’t feel security or pride as a hyphenated hybrid; you’re just an immigrant, barely tolerated, and if you don’t like it, you should “go home.” If you’re brown, you should go home. And if you wear a hijab, you should also go home. The idea that people can have more than one home is a mystery; that we can have more than one identity is a threat.
It’s an old, old fear. Until recently, the British monarch was forbidden to marry a Catholic, because “papists” were thought loyal to Rome first, England second. But today, growing up in one place and living in another is like joining a new family when you get married. You don’t divide your loyalties — you multiply them. And the more identities we have, the more allies we have and the more people whose lives and causes are joined to our own.
The bullies are in charge right now, creating a “hostile environment” for immigrants, blaming newcomers for old problems. Trump and May are not the only ones trying to narrow our identities and reduce the categories of people who “belong.” Life in late capitalism means having little identity outside consumption and work. You are your job and the things you’d like to buy. Locked in by student debt, casual work, and the high cost of housing, young people live in a precarious, anxious way that hinders them from putting down roots or coming together to resist.
Having narrow identities makes us fearful and suspicious, easier to pick off, one by one. Seeing our problems as suffered purely by individuals, not societies, depoliticizes them. From clinical depression driven by precarity and isolation (you just need to think positive), to the housing crisis (too much avocado on toast, kids!), to police racial violence (he should have just complied), the official solutions to widespread problems imply that individuals are to blame. Amid the noise, it’s easy to miss the obvious: Structural problems are best solved collectively.
Some people have always refused to make the political personal. They have identities much bigger than their rational self-interest. They insist on making common cause with people who apparently have nothing to do with them.
In 1847, the Native American Choctaw Nation heard about the hundreds of thousands perishing in Ireland’s Great Famine. Sixteen years before, the Choctaw had lost many of their own along the Trail of Tears from Mississippi to Oklahoma. Today’s Choctaw Nation chief, Garry Batton, says, “When our ancestors heard of the famine and the hardship of the Irish people, they knew it was time to help.” The Choctaw people scraped together $170 they could barely afford, sending it thousands of miles to people they would never see. Motivated by not just pity but also solidarity, the Choctaw knew exactly what it was to be starved and banished by a government that saw them as less than human.
The Choctaw people didn’t just save a few Irish lives — they also saved themselves. Grasping that salvation would never come from a state that ignored or despised them, they quietly insisted on their own humanity by finding other people to help instead. They reached across a land mass and an ocean and grasped our hands in theirs and told us we did not suffer alone. The bond we Irish share is now almost two centuries old.
I imagine the perplexed and bemused reaction of powerful people to the original connection of the Choctaw and Irish back then as something like our own surprise today at learning trees talk to each other. Until recently, we saw trees as very like individuals in capitalist societies: lone strivers in a contested space, ruthlessly competing, winnowing out the weakest and feeding on them. But it turns out trees have subterranean networks that go far beyond their roots, and even their species. Now, just knowing that trees can recognize and talk to each other, and may even have strategies for warning and support, has colored everything else we know about them. It makes them a force to be reckoned with.
And it’s not just the trees making counterintuitive connections.
Many who have known depression know that alongside the multiple shades of dreary gray and its acute and dully repetitive pain, depression can open you up to a whole-bodied awareness of other people’s suffering. Sometimes it’s the only way out, to walk through the world, skinless, surrendering to the almost unbearably vivid sense of the sorrows and joys of others. The aperture opens wide, and both light and darkness flood in. There’s a line in the New Testament, “Whatever you do to the least of your brothers, you do to me,” and the more I think about it, the less I believe it’s about eliciting justice, but expressing fellow-feeling. About quite literally feeling the pain and joy of others.
When, as groups, we become acutely sensitive to the pain of others who suffer, too, we can become determined to fix the whole society. Not only can we reach out, as the Choctaw did, to salve and console, but we can also change things that, without the subterranean network of fellow-feeling, we would have tolerated or ignored. Or, as Solomon Burke sang, “None of us are free, if one of us are chained. None of us are free.”
When we think about power, we visualize it in its concentrated, coercive forms. The ones on top usually have crowns or tanks. Some societies try to exert power all the way down.
Russia has its “power vertical”: Putin’s concentration of power in the federal presidency and the abolition of independent governors, media, or meaningful opposition. China’s President Xi recently abolished term limits and tightened control over the Communist Party, making himself leader for life. Even in the UK, recent Conservative governments passed laws constraining trade unions and banning charities from speaking out about poverty for 12 months before each election.
Leaders who want to hold on to power usually do their best to concentrate it beneath them. All that does is make it a juicier target for the next contender. The power vertical seems all-encompassing, but it is brittle. It sways wildly like a tower block in an earthquake every time someone else tries to seize control. And it knows who the enemy is: us.
Narrow identities make for weak ties, and weak ties make us all vulnerable. Autocracies, and the people who long for them, already know this.
From my convent boarding school, where the nuns unpredictably changed what time we woke up, what our uniform comprised, and at whose table we ate so we wouldn’t feel secure or form close friendships, to the authoritarian playbook that calls spontaneous social movements the playthings of foreign enemies, those in brittle, concentrated power instinctively disrupt horizontal ties.
But people just keep making connections, however unlikely and unprofitable our links must seem to those with all the money and power.
In 1984, as apartheid raged, supported abroad by Reagan and Thatcher, a young Irish supermarket worker took matters into her own hands. Mary Manning, working in Dunnes Stores on Dublin’s solidly working-class Henry Street, refused to put two South African grapefruits through the till.
Honoring a union boycott of South African goods, Manning and her colleagues started what became a two-year protest that engulfed the government, church, and Irish media. She had never even met a black person before the strike began and only came to understand apartheid as the boycott went on.
“You have to imagine South Africa as a pint of Guinness — the vast majority of it is black and a tiny minority is white — and just like a freshly poured pint, the white sits firmly on top of the black.” — Nimrod Sejake
The women’s campaign ultimately led to a government-backed boycott of imports from the apartheid regime, which spurred an international boycott of apartheid goods and sports and ultimately helped to bring apartheid down. You know the extended proverb that goes “For want of a nail … the kingdom was lost”? It works backwards, too. Kingdoms can be won from small but organized acts.
Mary Manning’s story probably reminds you of Rosa Parks. The two women share courage and persistence, clearly, but they made a profound and lasting difference because they belonged to organizations that could turn a moment’s protest into a decade’s worth of change.
How are we going to push through all the ways we need to tame capitalism? By campaigning, coordinating, and by supporting others. There’s a reason the long-lived Polish resistance to communism was called Solidarity.
How will we, individually, achieve it? By recognizing “we,” whoever that means to you, are not always in the starring role. By shutting up and listening to others whose turn it is. By saying sorry for the long, long time we weren’t paying attention, or when we thought marching and protesting and organizing just weren’t for us. By asking what we can do to help. By making signs or making tea or minding the kids so others can get their moment.
Get comfortable with the fact that many will think it’s eccentric or just virtue-signaling or way too radical to make political organizing a part of our lives outside work and family (and maybe inside them, too), just as fitness or reading or other kinds of volunteering might currently be.
We need to tithe 10% of our energies to defending human rights and our democratic institutions.
And not just for the foreseeable future, but for all the time each of us has left. We owe it. Most of us took a long generational nap where we coasted on the efforts of those who went before, enjoying the fruits of their labors.
We were children of the summer, with no idea as we lazed and played in the sun that we lived off food put by in the long winter that came before us, and that winter was coming again.
But that’s okay. There will be joy. Lynne Segal says happiness is always “hovering somewhere between the strictly personal and the potentially public.” Pleasure is important but unreliable. Our most sustained happiness comes from working together on something bigger than any of us, from truly living the victories of our allies and friends.
Last year, one of my sisters and I closed my front door and walked out with our signs and our cutely sloganed dog to the London Women’s March. As we crossed the road, a young black guy passed by, heading toward the tower block at the end of the street. He turned to us and smiled and raised his fist, saying “Power, ladies,” or something like that. We all laughed. I want to go to his march. I want to help make our world work for all of us.