This is the allegory of the cave, redux.
Part 1 I wrote over a year ago, a piece rooted both in theory and reality. I have since come to hold Plato and his philosophies central to my worldview and the way I live—not only what he posited in the Allegory of the Cave, but also in The Republic.
I want to revisit the allegory of the cave now, and apply it as a metaphor to where society is at this very moment—especially in the wake of dissipating energy and vigor around the movement for Black lives, which gave me the impetus to finally finish this piece. But this is a nugget of an idea that I have been wrestling with since before the start of the pandemic, when I first wrote about those vague, idyllic calls to return to normalcy as it was rooted within the 2020 presidential elections. It predates the murder of George Floyd and the firestorm that raged around the world since. As a theory or means of understanding the world, it predates everything that is today. And yet, it is a surprisingly modern way to bring all of these separate fights together, because while we’re running on seemingly parallel tracks with COVID-19, BLM, and the economic contraction, I lament that these are not talked about in the same discussion, when it has to be.
Neoliberal forces want you to fight these things on its own because collective action and collective impact are not phrases within the lexicon of our deeply rooted sense of individualism; e.g., buy this metal straw and save the turtles because this is how we solve the climate crisis! It is flashy, catchy, incremental, necessary, and wholly insufficient. In this way, political power is maintained by corporate elites, while internecine squabbles and small advances make it seem like we’re progressing, when really, it’s all a smokescreen (or rather, the darkness within a cave).
We have a tendency to want to compartmentalize and break things down into discrete pieces so that it’s easier to develop small solutions to each of these issues. In the consulting world, this way of thinking ensures that what you’re talking about is MECE—mutually exclusive, completely exhaustive (all my professional services friends out there don’t @ me). Every problem can be neatly broken down, addressed with a solution, and put away. And this works fine in a business setting, but life is messy. Humans are complicated. When you name individual solutions for social issues without finding out how it connects, when you have one-off mass mobilization events without a clear sense of the way forward, you miss the opportunity to set an overarching strategy.
When I look at where we are now, I no longer want 2020 to be cancelled. I don’t want the simulation to erase this year. Because there is a path forward, and it is so within our grasp, but we have to first see it for what it is, and second, recognize what it will take to get there. In wake of the triple crises that we are now facing: an uncontrollable pandemic, centuries of systemic racism, and an unprecedented economic downturn, it is our duty to not only re-conceptualize all of humanity’s path forward, but also actualize it.
So. The allegory of the cave.
The idea that Plato posited is actually fairly nuanced so I’m not going to go into it here. It being an allegory gives me permission to take some liberties with it (sorry Plato). For our intents and purposes, the story goes like this: humans all live within a cave. There is no light, but there is a fire. And our reality is the one that we see when the light from the fire throws our shadows into sharp relief upon the walls of said cave. We accept these things that we see and are told to be true, and move through life unconscious of what we don’t know.
For many people, this is enough.
But maybe one day, someone decides to explore the cave. And not only do they find the outside, but they see the world for what it actually is, and it completely transforms their understanding of reality.
There are two paths here.
1 | They go back into the cave, where it is familiar and comfortable and convenient. Because while it takes a certain level of self-awareness to even think about exploring beyond what you know, i.e. the walls of the cave, it takes even more to accept that what you previously knew was wrong.
2 | You accept this new reality, move out of the cave and into the light, try to unlearn everything you thought you knew, and learn how the world works for the first time.
There is one final step. Because it’s not enough to peel back your understanding of reality to find that there is something beyond. It must be a constant struggle of discovery and learning and unlearning, because if you can accept that what you previously believed to be true is now false, then you must also recognize that what you know now is also mutable.
So this is the difference between someone who is in the dark and in the light. Between the unconscious and conscious.
Let’s bring it back to today.
In the last several months, this proverbial cave has shattered, irreparably, into a million little pieces. In the wake of people seeing the light for the first time, we barrelled forward. We listened, learned, reflected, donated, marched, spoke up. We did things.
And now many people are asking: what now? Because we see the world for what it is now, and we rallied around the movement for Black lives.
As an organizer, this is where it is critically important for me to distinguish between organization and activism, so you can understand not only where along the spectrum you fall, but also where along the spectrum movements fall. Kwame Ture calls activists mobilizers, but that term has largely fallen out of the social justice lexicon so we’ll move forward with activism. Organization v. activism.
Activism is very easy. Humans are social creatures. We want to help one another, we recognize—for the most part—what privilege we have, we want to show other people we are engaged and intelligent and good. It’s easy to rally people around issues, because we instinctively respond to acts of injustice. Under the right conditions, and it’s possible even to manufacture these conditions, we can blow up an issue, find some people, and hold some mass demonstrations around it. This is what activism does. It mobilizes people around issues.
But when these people who showed up are gone, what becomes of the issue? Does it move forward on its own, or is it remembered as an event?
Kwame Ture articulates that those of us who are concerned with revolution are not concerned with issues. We’re concerned with the system. (I cry every time I listen to him speak because he pierces my heart so directly with his truth.)
Organizers want power. We don’t money, fame, fortune, popularity. We want power. This stands in stark contrast to self-selecting activists. And power comes only from the organized masses. No matter your views on Marx or socialism, it is imperative to understand that in many ways, class is the thing that brings together 2020’s triple crises, on top of feminist and environmental and LGBTQ+ wars, because class is synonymous with economic opportunity and advancement and thus power. Most everything else is an issue. Class is the system. Denying marginalized groups true economic opportunity is how these ‘-isms’ like sexism develop in society. They become proxy issues to debate, and we can develop specific strategies to combat those isms but then we miss the chance to think on a larger scale about how pernicious and invisible the greater enemy of neoliberalism is.
Socialist organizations, then, hoping to build power, must do more organizing and less activism. The people have the power to hit stop on the economic system, or what those in power are trying to preserve (and incidentally how they hold on to power). In Marxist ideology, the working class is the catalyzing class because it holds the means of production. They sell their labor to survive, whereas those who own property or capital have the ability to buy and sell labor, and thus exploit the working class. But when we organize and build a mass base, we can withhold labor, rent, and grind the gears of production to a halt.
As recent as a couple weeks ago, I ascribed to the belief that we all must do what we can with what we have. Meaning you fight based on your capacity to fight. You engage or disengage when you are able to. In short, when it is convenient for you to be fully present.
But if you believe that you are conscious, without taking action, then are you really conscious? Or did you just rebuild the cave in your mind?
We all want freedom. Even those in the cave will understand and respond to the call of freedom. But when it comes—and it will come—you have to be ready. And it’s not going to be a flashy march with pussy hats because the path to freedom is not convenient. The path to justice is not convenient. The only route to consciousness is through struggle (Kwame Ture again). He says: our task is not to teach the unconscious to be conscious, but to make them conscious of their unconscious behavior. Because unconsciously, instinctively, they seek freedom. What we must do is to say: well look you want freedom, let’s be serious. Let’s sit down, let’s plan it, let’s wage protracted war, let’s tear down the system and walk on to liberation.
And when we ask that, will you respond? Will you join us?
Understand that organizing takes planning. It takes work. It is hard work. Knowing that, I will never again quote Dr. MLK Jr. on ‘the moral arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.’ No. Democracy is not a teleological process; it does not simply get better. The forces that be—those who are in power—will not (and have not) chart a roadmap to achieving a more just society. They will use the language of social justice to say that they’re making strides when really it’s clever and successful ways to obfuscate how the system works, and the system will continue to oppress those who do not have power. As short as the history of the United States is, as much progress as we have made since our founding (although what isn’t better than being a slaveholding nation), I think that it would be naïve to assume that our path will naturally bend toward justice. Because we don’t have it yet. Fewer than 300 years after our founding we are still a deeply misguided, immoral nation.
Who will bend the arc of history toward justice? Who will do that? It has to be us.
As we’re besieged now with this triple crises (economic contraction, global pandemic, and sharp reckoning with systemic racism), we’re forced again to think about what this means for us as a society moving forward. If we go back to normal, we will effectively be rebuilding the cave, for free, for those in power. And yet the things that we have tried, the theories that we have posited, the moral exercises that we have failed to implement, have largely been in part due to the fact that we have only been able to see and thus confine ourselves to what is within this cave. We often hear the phrase history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes, and I think that’s the case because we keep looking backwards for examples of how things could be done.
But if we’ve always been in the cave, then maybe that’s limiting ourselves to what can be done. Maybe what we need right now is to look beyond the horizon of our new reality. We already recognize that the relief we saw on the walls of this cave were not reality, and true reality is harsh and uncomfortable and blinding. Now, maybe we take that final step in recognizing that a better reality lies somewhere outside of where our vision ends.
And in doing so we’re not just stretching our moral imagination; we’re very literally breaking it. We have to. We’ve spent all this time talking about how it’s not enough to reform the police; we have to rebuild the entire system. And that line of thinking must be applied to how we think about our society and our community, and the way we come together as people. For the first time ever, we’re facing a global reckoning, one that cannot be healed with a band-aid fix.
And truly, how often do we get a second chance at building something?
I’m talking now very specifically about the States, because the US is very much in a stage of infancy. We’re a very young country. We’re a country that was very much founded on ideals that other countries were not able to pursue (monarchy, absolute power, etc). We were established as a country on the basis of freedom.
To be sure, that freedom has been twisted and bastardized so that it no longer looks like the freedom that our founding father envisioned, not to mention the fact that our founding fathers were incredibly problematic—they were racist, sexist, classist, elitist, white. Today, this country guarantees free doom for all and freedom for some.
The idea of freedom, however, lingers on. Langston Hughes talks about this in his poem, Let America Be America Again, in which he describes how the dream that people once had for the States—the dream that people still hold onto—is pure. And possible. But in order to get there, he says in the last line of his poem, we must make America again.
And I think this phrase ‘make America again’ is so interesting because the verbiage of the word make implies that this is a creation. We have to create, almost, the myth of America again. We have to write now, our creation story anew.
(Democracy is not a teleological process; it does not simply get better.)
To make America again, we can’t work within the confines of what we already know. We have to go beyond. We have to look toward the edge of our new reality and say: there’s something else out there.
In this moment, to concede to the shadows on the wall of the cave whispering about the deficit or higher taxes, would be a colossal failure on behalf of human civilization. Because if you don’t recognize that we have the opportunity to remake not only the United States but the entire world order, which I don’t think is a stretch of the imagination, then what do we even have? To miss all that, pragmatism be damned, is to deny what makes us human in the first place. It’s to deny dreaming about possibilities, thinking of a better tomorrow, when we have the power and logical reasoning capabilities to do it.
I think it would be a shame if we were to let this year go by, and come 2021 or 2022, whenever the vaccine is widely available, we slowly regress back into a state of normalcy.
But as we settle back in, we wonder: how did we get here? Is this normal, and for whom? And again, what now?
When instead, we could think to ourselves: thank god. In all the time that it took us to get here, thank god we took this opportunity to change society for the better. What a different reality that would be.
There are two paths here.
1 | You stay in the cave.
2 | You emerge from it. Thankful that you’re seeing the world for the first time.
(Artwork by Quentin Monge)