After Despair: Awakening to the Revolution in 2023

After Despair: Awakening to the Revolution in 2023
Image: Angel of the Revelation (Book of Revelation, chapter 10). Watercolour, pen and black ink, brush and wash, over traces of graphite. William Blake (1803-5)

I've been to prison a good few times (and I'm still here), and when I get out people go "was it really bad in there?". I always feel like saying, "yes, it was, for the same reason it's really bad being out of prison". Meaning just about every day, I find myself having feelings of utter despair, about the horror and terror that is coming down the road for humanity. Sometimes I can't help myself, prodding this monster. Sometimes, the monster jumps out of me and consumes me. I am helpless to resist. There is no reasoning out of the abyss. It seems to come and go of its own accord. When it is particularly bad, all I can do is stare into space. My partner gives me a massage and I sleep. And often I'm blessed with it disappearing by the morning. Sometimes though, it can go on for weeks.

It is as if I travel into the future. A vision happens. There is a cascade and compounding of desolations, extreme weather beyond any experience, the devastation of crops and cities, slaughter and rape, mental breakdowns, suicide, and infanticide. Coming and going and coming back year after year, decade after decade, until there is only a deathly silence, a final endless void. a final endless void.

I feel embarrassed writing this like I should at this point put down a few facts and figures "to support my viewpoint". But I and others have been doing this meticulously for years now, to no avail. This is not a viewpoint but a world of emotional reality. It is the greatest tragedy of the human condition, that denial, the avoidance of all of this, is so functional. We cannot socially operate without it. And at the same time, it is so appallingly dysfunctional in that it is denial that prevents us from stopping the horrors from happening. And it is the greatest paradox of human existence, that it is the very experience of going through the hell of despair that gives individuals the miraculous strength to stand up to injustice and achieve the impossible. To provide a pathway, if there is going to be one, out of a catastrophe we are entering.

This is the perennial story, the dark night of the soul, the hero's journey. In our society, all this is avoided and ignored or kept behind the screen. Sanitised and mystified. But actually, nothing is more real than this, or as messy. Some seem to avoid it, others fall into the pit and never get out, and others come out and then fall back in. There is no certainty. But the general path is clear enough. It has been told countless times in our histories and in the great stories of our cultures.

In modern language, we might call this the death of the ego. In the present context, I would call it the death of "the reformist ego". The moment of revelation here is that we are not actually despairing of the world, but rather despairing of our “selves”.

A certain idea of the "self", we have been given. Waves of agony, literally burn this "self" to death. This is the "self" which desires to do our bit, that wants to be nice, to go with the crowd. The "self" that hopes it will be all okay. That it will not need to sacrifice its status, its assets, its relationship; family, career, or property. It's all bollocks. The raging fire of self-contempt shatters the lies we live by.

This process is the exact opposite of the perversion of "regenerative culture" into self-love - the idealisation of the self. It's the opposite of "deep adaptation", in so much as this phrase refers to the escape into a privileged individualism and politicisation.

It is the burning flame of social revolution that will bring down and take over the carbon regimes. This is utterly un-abstract. Is the concreteness of a collapse of the global neoliberal edifice. Its power holders will beg us to take over from the chaos they have created through decades of lies and deceit.

I remember a senior diplomat from COP privately pleading with XR co-founders to come and close down the chile conference. They are all zombies and they know it. 30 years of false promises.

This then is the awakening to the revolution. The explosion of a collective desire for redemption and salvation. Only those that have been through the agony of the dark valley can provide the leadership to bring the people to the mountaintop. So goes the universal myth. It becomes real, all too real, in the enactment of new sociability, and collectivity, combined with the miracle of innovation and organisation to rapidly decarbonise and engage in earth repair. Only a revolution can do this. And only a revolution will be able to save us.

There is everything to play for. In fact, the story has only just begun. Insulate Britain, Just Stop Oil, and the other A22 Network campaigns around the Western world, are just the prelude. Our task now is to revive the vision of the world we'll be calling out for, as an alternative to the universal death proposed by performative nihilism and pathological fascism.

It is difficult to write this post and I am sure I have not done justice to the great depths and variety of experiences involved in these processes. I hope, along with others, to develop the practical details of this revolution in the coming year. And I will write about this in Facebook posts and speak about it in my new series of podcasts/videos "Designing the Revolution".

But it is vital that we collectively acknowledge that there is no reason without passion - as our radical traditions make clear, perspectives rediscovered by modern psychology. Self-love must be sacrificed in order for us to move into service to the other, to the universal. The reformist ego must be burned to death in order for us to awaken to the revolution. We need to get our existential ducks in a row. And then... Onward!

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