French philosopher, sociologist, and literary theorist Jean-François Lyotard pronounced in 1979 that the “postmodern condition” could be characterised with an “incredulity toward metanarratives,” which has been simply taken to mean this. That in the last few decades, we, loosely defined, have broken “free” from grand narratives and ensnaring ideology. The reason behind this is of course, hotly contested, but there is perhaps no need to settle on one reason why we’ve come to this point.
The fact is that “metanarratives”, defined as theories that try to give totalising, comprehensive accounts of various historical events, experiences, and social, cultural phenomena (based upon “the appeal to universal truth or universal values”, no less) have ceased to resonate as much as they once did. But as creatures of habit (and creatures of narrative, perhaps), stories, big or small, are still what we grasp onto for “meaning” in our lives.
Amidst the chaos of the postmodern condition, some have argued that these times have birthed and given way to “identity politics” (in its corrupted form) and personal branding (celebrity culture being quite the epitome of this).
How have our contemporary social movements suffered from this shift away from metanarratives? Today we see uncontrollable polarisation and devastating factionalism, which combined with the ever-encroaching nature of social media, increasing social isolation and an ongoing pressure to “innovate”, produces inevitable chaos (and at its worst, intensifies the activist industrial complex, which is the activist version of celebrity culture).
Chaos is not necessarily “bad” (in fact, emergence leans into “good” chaos). But when the state of contemporary social movements involves activists diagnosing our shared, intersecting crises in their own individual ways, and then, much akin to entrepreneurial culture, starting, every single time, from scratch, a new movement, organisation, or whatever other proposed solution, the chaos fails to be a productive, nor efficient use of our collective time.
Interestingly, Lusbert García, a libertarian communist based in Spain, wrote in “Strategy and Tactics for a Revolutionary Anarchism”, for Regeneración magazine, that much of the contemporary anarchist movement has suffered from “atomization”, brought on by “tendencies that reject anything that smells of socio-political intervention and libertarian socialism as a final goal”. García hopes to provide a corrective by recentring within anarchism “conjunctural analysis, strategic vision, programs, roadmaps, proposals,” amidst other things.
Ultimately, some coherence is necessary: but how do we walk the middle road? How do we embrace non-dualistic thought? How do we sit with complexity and nuance? Essentially: how do we forge and sustain visions to provide our movements with direction, orientation and strategy, while ensuring that we don’t fall back into the alluring traps of metanarratives?
It is worth noting that strategic visions can be instructive without being limiting. Equally, visions can also make space for each other. They can be expansive, while existing alongside each other. As Mario Blaser and Marisol de la Cadena write in their Introduction to their book, A World of Many Worlds: “We are inspired by the Zapatista invitation to reworlding possibilities.”
“In the world of the powerful there is room only for the big and their helpers. In the world that we want, everybody fits. The world we want is a world in which many worlds fit.”#
Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, “Fourth Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle” (translation by Mario Blaser and Marisol de la Cadena)
As they allude to here, the kinds of visions that have ruled the world in the last few centuries have been visions that have been both instructive and limiting. They are also visions that have necessitated the erasure of other visions. As Blaser and de la Cadena write, these are characterised by what John Law has called “the one world world: a world that has granted itself the right to assimilate all other worlds and, by presenting itself as exclusive, cancels possibilities for what lies beyond its limits.” It is a world rooted in extractivism, in terra nullius: “it actively creates space for the tangible expansion of the one world by rendering empty the places it occupies and making absent the worlds that make those places.”
Luckily, however, visions that have been instructive without being limiting are in abundance. Looking back at our histories reveals that it was not as straightforward as the collapse of grand narratives being replaced by the proliferation of individual stories. Along the way, contemporary social movements have brought to life visions that we can today still learn from, and that are still very much alive and enlightening.
We begin our brief foray into these visions with the boundless, powerful vision of the Zapatistas, who have of course made many statements and speeches over the decades, but one of the more famous ones, from which the quote above originates, is the “Fourth Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle”, issued on 1st January, 1996. It came about because the Mexican government had launched an unsuccessful but large-scale military operation to capture the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in 1995, after which the EZLN regrouped and announced the formation of a new political front, The Zapatista Front of National Liberation.
In this Declaration, they clarified what they were fighting for, which they boiled down to: “Housing, land, employment, food, education, independence, democracy, liberty, justice and peace.” Conversely, they also defined what they were against: “the bad government” which was not listening, instead causing hunger, destruction, death, imposition of law of the few on the many, the erasure of history.
In this Declaration, too, they laid down what their political force would be: truly national, forming part of a broad opposition movement, one that was at once disciplined (it would organise the demands and proposals of the citizens, incorporating organisational efforts) and iterative (it would have many levels of participation and forms of struggle), one that was ultimately radically inclusive. “The Nation which we construct,” they wrote, “is one where all communities and languages fit, where all steps may walk, where all may have laughter, where all may live the dawn.”
True to their inclusive spirit, in July 2005, the Zapatistas issued the “Sixth Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle”, which represented “a clear policy for the Zapatistas to expand their base from indigenous towards the working class and people organizing on the left.” In the Declaration, they wrote simply: “A new step forward in the indigenous struggle is only possible if the indigenous join together with workers, campesinos, students, teachers, employees…the workers of the city and the countryside.”
And yet their vision remained forcefully instructive: in this Declaration they outlined clearly how they saw the world (in which they characterised capitalism as they saw it in the present moment—extracting, plundering, contemptuous and repressive as before, but on the globalised scale) and what they wanted to do (support and learn from all their siblings across the world in their resistance and fight).
The instructive yet expansive nature of the vision put forth in the “Sixth Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle” is certainly reminiscent, too, of the Combahee River Collective Statement. As American academic, writer and activist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor reflects: the Combahee River Collective managed to weave together the experiences of race, gender, sexual orientation, and managed to situate themselves—Black women—as socialists, and part of the broader left: meaning they even managed to include a class analysis, a socialist politics into feminism. They were in many ways pioneers of all this: of intersectionality, of combining socialism and feminism, of inclusive solidarity.
“The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.”#
Combahee River Collective, “The Combahee River Collective Statement”
But as Taylor shares too, the Statement, which came out of a small organisation involving some of the luminaries of Black feminism, was “[t]heoretically rich and strategically nimble”. The short but powerful Statement made clear what they believed: that the oppression of all peoples had, at its core, the “political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy”, and thus instructed exactly what they needed to do: “[work] on those struggles in which race, sex, and class are simultaneous factors in oppression.”
These may seem self-evident now, but at the time this was revolutionary, especially considering the historical context of the Combahee’s River Collective formation: they had a desire to identify (as they were) different from the feminist movement that was dominated by middle-class white women, a movement whose ceiling was women’s rights.
We don’t only have to look to explicitly political movements to find these visions: they are found elsewhere too, such as the “Kawsak Sacha Declaration” from the Indigenous Sarayaku. Living in territories along a stretch of the Bobonaza River in the southern part of the Ecuadorian Amazon, the Sarayaku People have been engaged in an ongoing struggle against colonists, invasions and external aggressions, fighting national policies promoting extractive activity, reduction in state investment in Indigenous peoples’ public institutions, legal harassments, and the continuing lack of state recognition of their rights.
In the spirit of this struggle, the Sarayaku People decided to exercise their autonomy and self-determination by declaring their territory to be Kawsak Sacha, the Living Forest, in 2018, and in their Declaration, proposed “a legal recognition of the revindication for territorial rights and Mother Earth”, based on their worldview that the Living Forest is the origin of their life, and should be respected, reciprocated, as such.
“Kawsak Sacha is a living being, with consciousness, constituted by all the beings of the Jungle, from the most infinitesimal to the greatest and supreme. It includes the beings of the animal, vegetable, mineral, spiritual and cosmic worlds, in intercommunication with human beings, giving them what is necessary to reanimate their psychological, physical and spiritual facets, thus restoring the energy, life and equilibrium of the original peoples.”#
Kichwa Native People of Sarayaku, “The Kawsak Sacha Declaration”
The Sarayaku People have thus far won legal battles to protect their territory from oil drilling, logging, and road construction, but have expressed that the Declaration is “universal”, applicable across contexts to protect the planet, to be applied to the preservation of life everywhere, while being effective and instructive within its own context.
Even more recently, the international farmers organisation La Vía Campesina, originally founded in 1993, released a manifesto, in some ways an updated version of their original vision in the early years of their founding. In this manifesto, La Vía Campesina revisit their definition of “food sovereignty” (a term they defined in 1995), highlighting that it was and is a “radical overhaul” of how poverty and hunger are understood: that is, recognising that it was not just about getting food to communities, but also about the “objective conditions for producing food”.
The manifesto lays bare that capitalism will, as they have done, sow the seeds of monoculture, grow economies of scale, exploit cheap labour, and refuse to respect the rights of local food producers. It then (re)asserts that instead we must be “uniting and building new alliances within and across every border”. It is a vision that, like the others mentioned above, astutely defines the problem, outlines the requisite solutions (autonomy, collective rights, an international trade order based on cooperation and compassion and a society that rejects all kinds of discrimination), and at its heart remains expansive.
“Food Sovereignty offers a manifesto for the future, a feminist vision that embraces diversity. It is an idea that unites humanity and puts us at the service of Mother Earth that feeds and nourishes us.”#
La Vía Campesina, “FOOD SOVEREIGNTY, A MANIFESTO FOR THE FUTURE OF OUR PLANET”
The simultaneously instructive and expansive nature of this manifesto and the vision that it builds upon is shown in the many global struggles that have taken place in defence of food sovereignty: as La Vía Campesina themselves outline, the peasant uprising in India, the struggle towards “Good Living” in Bolivia according to methods developed in Cuba, and more.
Strategic visions need not necessarily be crafted as, nor intended to be, universal. In fact, perhaps it should aim to be drafted with its local context in mind: if it doesn’t serve the community it is being written by and for, what is the point? But perhaps there is something here about how all truly radical, collective struggles, are universal to some extent, or at the very least expansive, and iterative enough to consistently build broader coalitions, and to amass power to fight the interlocking systems of oppression. Perhaps it is also the idea that visions can only grow stronger and more effective with the inclusion of more under its wing, without losing its essence of what it wants to do, and without losing sight of the problems it is fighting.
Clarity in articulation of what it is for and against, combined with an openness to radical inclusion, seem to be two elements that go into walking the middle road and forging instructive but not limiting visions. The inquiry towards strategic visioning to reclaim our future, and find our way out of these crises of our times is indeed difficult: but all paths are made by walking, and this one has been walked before.