In school we are taught about history very much with the perspective of hindsight. Our collective memory is conveniently broken down into broad but neat bundles of time. Dynasties, monarchies, philosophies, discoveries… all labelled with their own “-ism” to aid sleepy school-age memories and tidy academic references.
Handy for revision this may be, but perhaps less than useful in helping us to understand the concept of change. From our imperious history textbooks, we are left with a sense that our past is a collection of invincible regimes, whose power-centric structures remain immutable for centuries and shattered only by bloody wars and bitter revolutions. Change, this world view tells us, is necessarily sacrificial and often violent.
Applying this perspective to the present day solidifies a sense of despair. Our ‘today’ is problematic, riddled with inequalities, injustices and a sense of meaninglessness. Yet we feel trapped in it, locked in by our inescapably human fear of conflict and a sense that we are too small to be part of the various sombre-sounding “-isms” that we are told constitute change.
The result is a pervasive mindset of defeat and cynicism. In between headlines of Donald Trump, North Korean and impending planetary self-destruction, water-cooler conversations commonly range from various iterations of “we are all screwed” to the equally bleak “what is the point?!”
Retelling the stories…
If this is you (it was sometimes me), the medicine in need is a book called Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by American author, historian and activist Rebecca Solnit. Written simply and beautifully, Solnit rejects despair and draws our attention to the numerous untold stories of victory and progress, achieved by ordinary people, but lost in the shadows of the traditional historical perspective. Our concept of change, she explains, is the cause of our despair.
“When you don’t know how much things have changed, you don’t see that they are changing or that they can change.”
Hence the importance of history, or more precisely, how we chose to tell our stories. Unlike the linear, cause-and-effect focus of many historical accounts, Solnit argues that change as it occurs in real-time is far more subtle and slow-burning than the spontaneous revolutions of history textbooks. The accumulation of countless acts of ordinary individuals: organising, campaigning, questioning, creating, uniting – change is complex, communal and chaotic in its origin and dispersal. So much more than a mere “-ism”.
Yet this astounding power of collective society has, time and time again, been largely under celebrated. History marks progress with legislative developments. Yet lawmakers merely ratify change, they don’t create it. Rather, they are the last stage in a long journey, where the central power structures can no longer ignore the cultural shifts achieved by once-ignored fringes of society.
“Ideas at first considered outrageous or ridiculous or extreme gradually become what people think they’ve always believed. How the transformation happened is rarely remembered, in part because it’s compromising… it recalls that power comes from the shadows and the margins, that our hope is in the dark around the edges, and not the limelight of centre stage.”
Hope becomes Solnit’s central case and call to action. Not something you read about often anymore, depressingly (or maybe I’m too exposed to the cynical British press). But here, hope is radically retold.
“Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.”
In an age where certainty is increasingly given more credence than accuracy, Solnit’s embrace of not knowing feels strangely revolutionary, a guilty admission for a society weaned on the pursuit of knowledge. But more than that, this is an empowering statement. It reminds us of our own power, that what we do does matter, that we are not separate to history – but part of it.
“We are civil society, the superpower whose nonviolent means are sometimes, for a shining moment, more powerful than violence, more powerful than regimes and armies. We write history with our feet and with our presence and our collective voice and vision. And yet, and of course, everything in the mainstream media suggests that popular resistance is ridiculous, pointless or criminal, unless it is far away, was long ago, or, ideally, both.”
This last statement is chillingly pertinent given the current controversies of police brutality and discrimination, and it is a warning that our sense of despair is not just an accidental consequence of our interpretation of history. All stories are told for a reason, after all, but we shouldn’t have to be passive recipients of these narratives. We can also be the story tellers.
If you haven’t already, I urge you to read this book. I’ve touched only on some of her themes here and cannot do any justice to the incredible way she weaves together this inspirational text. From the Mexican Zapatistas to the British Reclaim the Streets movement, she includes some fascinating examples of grassroots victories crucial to the development of our thinking today, but that remain mostly absence in our memory of it.
In this masterful re-telling of the incremental milestones, insurrections and visions that make up our rich collective memory, Hope in the Dark reminds us that victory (for whichever cause we may be championing) is not a destination but a journey – and one that we can be part of every day.
“Suppose you had the revolution you are talking and dreaming about. Suppose your side had won, and you had the kind of society that you wanted. How would you live, you personally, in that society? Start living that way now!”
Quote by author Paul Goodman (1911-1972)