How Do You Actually Change Things?

We are so small and it can feel so hopeless…

Back when I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, I spent a summer working at the New Orleans public defender’s office. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate of any U.S. state, and is home to the infamous Angola prison (as well as the Angola prison rodeo, and the Angola prison gift shop). I wanted to see the “front lines” of the criminal punishment system and understand what “law” actually meant for people’s lives.

I certainly got my wish. It was a disturbing experience. In municipal court, where only low-level misdemeanor cases are decided, I would watch 30 shackled defendants meeting their lawyer only minutes before many of them entered guilty pleas. Many prisoners were housed in tents, which were boiling hot in the summertime. (That was the summer I learned that you never ask an imprisoned person “How are you doing?” The first time I made that mistake during a jail visit, the client replied “I live in a tent with 60 violent men and can’t leave. So that’s how I am.” The correct phrasing is: “How are you holding up?”) Conditions in the jails were appalling, and I watched teenagers being sent off to the penitentiary for decades without having received anything close to a fair trial. 

Observing this system’s regular operations for a few months certainly put the “fire in my belly,” and I came away angrier than ever that the United States shows such contempt for human lives. But I also really didn’t want to be a public defender. Not just because the hours were long and the pay was pitiful, but because you could spend 40 years in the job and the criminal punishment system would be exactly the same the day you left as the day you arrived. Many public-spirited people turn away from practicing law for this reason: They come to find out that the victories to be won are so small that they feel negligible next to the magnitude of the problem. 

The U.S. carceral system is almost unfathomably vast—if “prison” were a state, it would be about the 37th largest, bigger than New Mexico. And on the inside, prisons are almost indistinguishable from the worst totalitarian states. They are colorless, bleak, and brutal. People are tortured if they step out of line. So you secured your client a decent plea deal—they were facing 20 years, you got them 10—so what? Well, it’s not nothing. 10 years of a person’s life is a very long time. But it doesn’t begin to change the fact that the U.S. has a “country-within-a-country” locked up. My colleague Brianna Rennix works at an immigration detention center, where she has successfully litigated numerous asylum claims. These are people fleeing violence who get to stay because of the work she does. That is anything but trivial. But she also feels helpless, because it’s not changing the cruel policies that are literally causing refugees to be kidnapped and killed

Public defense, like immigration law, has the frustrating quality of being both indispensable and useless. Indispensable because if people don’t do the work, real human beings suffer. Useless because the work will continue to flow in at the same pace no matter what you do. I hesitate to use an analogy this flippant, but if you are Lucy trying to wrap the chocolates, you might be able to get a few chocolates wrapped, but you’re never going to figure out how to slow down the conveyor belt. In Lucy’s position, is it best to try to wrap as many as you can, or should you say “Fuck it” and go looking for the control switch? 

One problem is: It’s not always clear, with giant social problems, what the “control switch” actually looks like. How do you “change systems”? America’s prison system, for example, is not easily dismantled. People think that a large portion of mass incarceration is due to drug offenses, and we could solve the problem by decriminalization or legalization, but that’s not really true. Most people are in prison for “violent” crimes, and the public isn’t especially sympathetic to softening up on violent crime. Or take the black-white wealth gap: It’s clearly a colossal injustice built on a mountain of historical discrimination. It is less obvious what you should do in order to fix it. 

Actually, though, there often are good measures we could start with, if we had the political will. The Movement for Black Lives, for instance, has laid out a detailed platform with some pretty concrete objectives. Brianna has explained what a more humane immigration policy might look like, with plenty of clear changes possible that fall short of outright “open borders.” (Which should still be our end goal.) Other countries have figured out how to run health care systems that give better outcomes for less money, and make the experience of going to the doctor much simpler and less stressful. Even climate change, against which we can feel so small and helpless, has real solutions, and the fact that we can’t have them is less because “the world’s problems are beyond our capacity to solve” and more because Congress and the White House are filled with people who either deny the problems entirely or refuse to expend the necessary effort on them. 

There is still the question of how to act as an individual, though. You have finite time and energy. What do you do to push forward “change”? Do you just go and vote for the right person? Do you go wave a sign? When the Trump administration’s family separation policy was at its most extreme, I attended a large protest in the French Quarter of New Orleans. It was a thrilling experience: hundreds of people were there, all united in outrage. But to whom were we speaking? To the tourists passing by? To the local news media, which barely exists any more? I remember the same feeling at Iraq war protests in 2003, and Occupy Wall Street in 2011—it felt incredible to be among comrades who all refused to accept What Was Going On. It also felt impotent. Eventually everyone went home and the world stayed mostly the same. In the case of Trump, he sort of ended the family separation policy after public outcry, but continued to separate hundreds of families. (Plus, remember that calling this one policy the “family separation” policy is a bit of a misnomer, since any deportation can be “family separation.” The children whose parents were just snagged in an ICE raid weren’t formally “separated,” but they were separated.) 

Adolph Reed has written a lot about “cargo cult politics”—politics where it feels like you’re doing something useful but you’re actually not. The term is harsh, but I actually think the comparison is useful. The cargo cults of the South Pacific were islanders who saw that airplanes landed on runways, bringing cargo. So they “built replicas of airports and airplanes out of twigs and branches and made the sounds associated with airplanes to try to activate the shipment of cargo.” This actually made quite a bit of sense, seen from their perspective—if cargo comes when there is an airport, one might think the airport caused the cargo. But there was more going on: An airport doesn’t just need a runway, but also a network of people and institutions communicating with each other and deciding whether and how to fly planes there. The stick-replica might have looked like an airport, but it wasn’t one, and it was never going to function as one.

For Reed, the point of invoking this is to show that there may be actions that look a lot like political progress, but are missing the element that actually causes the change. Say, for example, we notice that in the 1960s, civil rights protesters wore signs in the streets. So when we want to change something, we go out and hold signs in the streets, because that’s what you do. But perhaps there was something else going on when they did it; perhaps it was a small part of a much larger political strategy, and we’re missing the component that actually mattered. Ben Studebaker points out a few examples of seemingly “political” actions that are missing an underlying theory of how you change the world, like superficial changes in consumption habits and interventions in “the discourse.” For decades, Reed has been warning that there is a terrible danger in mistaking the word “HOPE” on a poster, or a rhetorical promise of change, for an actual vision of what change means and how to get it. 

It’s hard, though, because the world is such a lonely and atomized place, and there’s no obvious thing you can do in order to help. People are always asking Current Affairs what they should actually do, because the answer isn’t obvious and so many actions that seem like the obvious choice end up not actually being very helpful. (I could go and plant a garden but Bolsonaro is still going to be tearing down the Amazon at the rate of a football field a minute.) Often, some actions are more useful than others—in this magazine we’ve previously offered some suggestions on immigration—but the fact remains that giant systemic problems don’t have individual fixes, yet we’re all individuals who have to make choices on our own. 

You can see that I haven’t really found a satisfactory answer based on what I’ve chosen to do with my life. At first I told myself “Okay, so being a public defender won’t change things, because you’ll just be working on individual cases.” Thus the next summer I tried a different kind of law: giant class actions. I went to the ACLU’s National Prison Project, which sues prisons over conditions. They do excellent work, and many incarcerated people are getting better medical care and living in less squalor and neglect because they had the NPP on their side. But even those cases seemed only to be improving things at the margins, and the effort required was immense, even for those small results. A case against an unsafe jail in the U.S. Virgin Islands had been dragging on for 25 years. The administrators of the jail had spent decades flouting court orders. I didn’t think I could spend decades of my life trying to get the Virgin Island jail to offer basic humane conditions to the few hundred people housed there. And yet: I was also so glad there were people doing that, and I felt somewhat guilty about wanting “more” or having a sense that people who were working harder and accomplishing more than me were somehow doing something fruitless. They were saving lives. But the question still nagged: If everyone is frustrated that we can’t do the “systemic change,” how do you do that? What does it look like?

My present answer is a bit of a cop-out. I decided that the way to maximize my own usefulness was by trying to build a media institution that could hopefully, eventually, slightly nudge public opinion. Through Current Affairs, I’m trying to persuade more people that left-wing ideas are good and that left-wing values are worth holding. I think it’s a success on those terms: I have gotten lots of feedback from people who think differently as a result of reading this magazine, and I feel as if I have found my niche. But notice that I’m still outsourcing the real work: An article about the thing is not the thing, the map is not the territory. The best media can hope for is to change minds and put good ideas into circulation, but then someone else has get us from here to there. 

The good news, though, is that it seems more possible than at any previous point in my lifetime to turn the word “change” into actual changes. You’ve got people saying: The health care system runs X way, it should be run a different way, if people who supported running it a different way got into power, they could alter it by passing this bill, so we need to get as many people who support that into office as possible. When I talked to Shahid Buttar, who is running against Nancy Pelosi, he didn’t speak in abstractions: He said we need this set of policies, and as long as we have a Democratic Party leadership that doesn’t support them, we won’t get them, so we need to replace them. Fair enough. That’s a concrete action for you: Go and work on Shahid’s campaign. Help him get Pelosi out of office. Then we’ll be more likely to get Medicare For All and a Green New Deal.

This is also why I consistently write so positively about the DSA. They’re organized. They’re going to train labor organizers to unionize workplaces. Unions create power that counters employers. Power can be exercised to shift resources from one set of social actors to another. The gains will be real. The socialist elected officials I talked to at the DSA convention were full of ideas: Let’s set up a community land trust, let’s end cash bail. Mik Pappas, a socialist judge in Pennsylvania, was negotiating compromises rather than allow evictions to proceed. Candi CdeBaca, a leftist on the Denver city council, got the city to terminate its contracts with private prison companies. Do that all over the country, and we’ll shrivel these despicable companies.

We have an article coming up in our next issue about Huey Long. Long was a deeply flawed person with dictatorial tendencies, but the article suggests we can learn some things from the simplicity and concreteness of his political approach. Tax the rich and use the money to make the schools better, Long said, and that’s what he did. He funneled money to the public university system and infrastructure projects. Build a movement, get into power, and take bold action that delivers the goods. Put that way, it doesn’t sound so hard.

Run socialists for office at every level, then. Work on their campaigns. Unionize every workplace. If you’re policy smart, work on developing strong plans that will actually work. If you’re good at making persuasive arguments in magazine articles, do that. If you’re strategically minded, plot how we can win. If you’ve got boundless energy, go persuade and recruit whoever you can. I think change is difficult, and it’s not always clear what to do next, but the one clear path I see is building a powerful socialist movement with a well-defined agenda, with as many of its members as possible in positions of power. The question of “What do you do” feels less anguishing to me than it once did, back when Occupiers sat in the park and wondered what was supposed to come next.

The warning about cargo cults is still critical. We might think we’re moving forward because now we have meetings and feel more organized. The real question is whether we’re making demonstrable progress toward a set of objectives, not whether we’ve constructed a thing that looks vaguely like a social movement out of twigs and branches. From the amount of time centrist Democrats now have to spend explaining why we can’t have single-payer healthcare, I think we’re doing well.

But each of us is still a very small creature in a very big universe, and it’s always going to be hard to overcome the sense that the obstacles to “real change” are insurmountably large. We can take some comfort from past large-scale human endeavors that have worked: It was not easy to get a National Health Service introduced in Britain, or the eight-hour day in the U.S., but it got done—if you want ideas for how change happens, look at how it has happened. There is a sort of faith required, though: a belief that the way things look today is not the way they have to look tomorrow. That can feel utopian—it’s “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” But we need to have faith that this shows the limits of our imaginations, not the limits of human possibility, and as we start mapping out what kinds of “change” and “progress” we want and how they would work, these words start to feel less like vacuous cliches and more like an authentic political program.

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