A story by Nathaniel Hawthorne captures the dilemma facing activists today. Entitled “Earth’s Holocaust” (1846), Hawthorne’s parable unfolds in a world so overburden with things that a movement emerges based on tossing the junk into the abyss. A large bonfire is lit and pilgrims from around the world gather to burn the past. At first nothing of importance is torched – old clothes, broken items, secondhand garbage – but soon the movement grows and previously sacred objects are incinerated with fervor: Religion, alcohol and money all go up in smoke. But the moral of this story has to do with what happens next, when there is nothing left to burn. For Hawthorne the answer is cautionary: Even if we destroy everything that exists, he argues, all the things we despise will just come back again if our hearts are not changed in the process.
I reflect on Hawthorne’s story not to celebrate the timid: those who justify inaction by invoking the power of the mind alone to change political reality do need to hit the streets. And yet, I bring up this story as a critique of those ultra-militants – exemplified by Turgenev’s Bazorov and Zola’s Souvarine – who maintain that pure and violent destruction is the only path to political transformation. It is in the tension of these two extremes – transcendentalist mentalism and materialist insurrectionism – that the triumph of future activism resides.
At a time when activists are sorely needed, activism is at a crossroads. Each of us knows that a tremendous crisis is looming, but it is so large that we are paralyzed. Knowing that our future constitutes a world without ice caps and fish, a world that is dominated by constant starvation and hordes of refugees, we can only continue our day-to-day lives if we suppress the fear of collapse. The dimensions of the catastrophe exceed the capacity of our imaginations, and we are consequently incapacitated. We sense that a terrible future awaits and that unless we act, urgently and passionately in the present, the bountiful Earth will die in our lifetimes.
Bringing an end to this descent toward hell is the burden of the activist. But we cannot halt the decline without taking heed of Hawthorne’s story. The dilemma we face is thus: If we burn the world without a change of heart, it will resurrect; if we change our hearts without leveling the world, it will persist. Untangling this difficulty begins with acknowledging the complicated relationship between our interior reality (the mental environment) and our external reality (the physical environment). Mental pollution is not just an annoyance; it is a tool in our oppression. The interjection of advertising and other info-toxins into our mindscape neutralizes our attempts to construct an alternate future because from a poisoned mind spring only poisoned deeds. Only a new form of activism that works on both the mental and physical registers – an activism of the mental environment that defeats the enemies of our mindscape by confronting them in our landscape – will succeed in turning us away from catastrophe.
The future of activism is as an insurrection of the mental environment – a movement that appropriates tactics reserved for physical battles and applies them to the battle to protect our mental environment. It may seem strange to talk of storming the barricades of our minds and leveraging imagination against the real walls that surround us, but by shifting our focus in this way we will solve the enigma of Hawthorne’s story: how to raze the consumer world once and for all and build anew.
Micah White is a contributing editor at Adbusters and an independent activist. He lives in Berkeley, CA and is currently writing a book about the future of activism. www.micahmwhite.com or micah (at) adbusters.org