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Culture As An Act of Resistance
Stopping the system from fossilising
Last week I interviewed Colomian changemaker Isabel Cavalier on how to change a system. Isabel negates the binary of systems vs individuals, explaining that while cultural change starts from within, its impact and progress can be non-linear—much like climate change. Isabel effortlessly weaves political strategy with spiritual knowledge to explain how culture is the solution to the polycrisis, emphasising that we must re-embed individuals within communities to embody a politics of a better world.
The individual vs the system is a false binary often explored by those trying to figure out how to stop humanity driving itself off the cliff of destruction. Indeed, I raised it in the episode. Politically, it’s an important question, as BP coined the term “carbon footprint” to offset responsibility to individuals as a strategy to protect its business ventures and obscure its role in the system of environmental degradation. Yet, Isabel deftly points out that individual change can and must be a part of systemic change; it is a mode of cultural change.
What interests me is that the inner world is, perhaps, the last vestige of privacy available to us in a technological era in which corporations and governments live with us in our homes. There is no such thing as the private sphere in a world where the majority of people are online, living a mode of life as avatars with our data stored in the cloud which can be deleted only at the whim of a faceless corporation. Perhaps, then, the inner world is the last realm in which we have some autonomy to make decisions (despite that inner world being attacked, manipulated, cajoled, bullied and seduced by an outer world hungry for capital).
Now, I caveat this with the awareness of the incredibly privileged position of many of the citizens in the global north who have much more autonomy than those being exploited around the world. However, we all lack autonomy to some degree. How can one exit the system and live "off grid” today? Wrenching oneself away from the tendrils of the economic system we live in demands a totality, perhaps an impossibility. And so we have no choice but to engage. The choice, then, lies in how we engage.
As evidenced by BP’s devious campaign, narratives of individual choice, autonomy and responsibility are easily co-opted by industry. Individualising the problem of systemic violence is inherently problematic, and the power of consumers is often overestimated. In journalism, the gatekeeping theory proposes that journalists do not print what they think their readers want to read, but what they determine to be news according to a set of news values. What their readership want is only part of that value set.
Supply, then, is the major problem, supported by Jevon’s paradox: the more efficient we make the world, the more energy we use. Positioning supply and demand side by side creates a false equivalence. Throughout Europe, for example, there is a huge demand for housing, for employment, a living wage. These demands are not being supplied. Let us, then, put aside our “purchasing power” as consumers (an increasingly ridiculous notion as wages stagnate, the cost of living rises, and wealth floods to the richest) and separate the individual from their consumption habits. Let us reorient as citizens.
If the one area we have some vague notion is the individual self, and that individual is in relationship with the world, then changes made to the inner world can ripple out in relation. This leads me to be false binary I subscribed to during the interview of individual vs system. This is a deliberately disempowered understanding of the individual because the individual exists in relationship to others; the network of individuals, and their interactions, make up the system. Systems do not exist outwith individuals (or components) and their relationships. We are not hijacked by systems, although they do indeed move through us. We can, however, move through them.
If a system is made up of its parts and the relationships between those parts then, by definition, we must change ourselves in order to change it.
Of course, this all brings us back to question of urgency question: In a world where we have very little time to lose, do we have time for cultural change?
Then again, do we have time for anything else?
It is quite clear that power is not going to concede and disempower itself.
It is quite clear that economic system is not going to change in and of itself.
Therefore, the only place where humankind can still contribute to the discussion is within self and, therefore, within a culture that is created by the interrelating of those beings.
It may be that culture is the only thing that can go up against power, especially in a technological world where power has access to huge amounts of technological force that vastly outstrips manpower. And certainly we will need a culture in which to catch people once machines replace jobs to the extent that we see a severe downward pressure on the real economy; by real economy, I mean people's capacity to feed and house themselves.
On this, Isabel makes a fascinating point: systems change is not linear. We know that. Cultural change can therefore be nonlinear, too; cultural change can happen at an exponential rate. To evidence this, she references the uptake of ChatGPT and AI, tools almost impossible to imagine 10 years ago. Now, that may be cultural change going in a dangerous direction, but nonetheless it proves our capacity for exponential shifts in attitude. So what are the mechanisms and the tools and the relationships that we can put in place now that facilitate exponential cultural change?
This is a critical question not because it seeks to fulfil utopian fantasies, but because culture may be all we have to fill the void left by power when our economic and political systems implode.
Culture is how we are with one another, with ourselves, our environment. It’s our creativity and our care, how we are with ourselves, how we are with our local environment. Our arts, our writing.
A dear and wise friend speaks of the role of story to create a crash-pad, and a toolkit for rebuilding with the parts. A story for cleaning up the mess.
Culture is where ideas are born. Literature is where they’re tried out. Art is where inspiration seeds. Music is where belonging is made. And the only thing you need to engage with culture, as an individual, is someone else.
Even in the darkest of days, songs will still be sung. Beats will still be tapped out by dirty feet. Scrawls will be scratched on walls. Visions etched onto scraps of paper.
These cultural acts of resistance stop a system from fossilising. These are the acts of resistance that impede power from fully grasping onto us.
Even if our mind is colonised, even if our body is colonised, we can begin to clean those cultural impediments forced upon us and allow for the call of something other from deep within to be heard.
At the end of the day, it is our hearts which are easiest to decolonise. It is our hearts that beat the supply of vitality that keep us going.
If culture lives in the heart, our first act should be to be with one another, and create. It is within these acts of cultural resistance that the beats of new world order is born.
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