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Tools to Change the World: A Study Guide

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A review and appreciation by Bill Ayers

For revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival. ~~~Frederick Douglass, July 4, 1852

A few years ago I happily discovered Dada Maheshvarananda’s work, and later, when I read his book, After Capitalism, it was a further revelation. A broad and ambitious book, it sets out a comprehensive critique of the economic system that’s literally killing planet Earth as it distorts and destroys all life as we know it—call it the Death Ship. After Capitalism offers, as well, an alternative vision, a humane horizon we can begin to see through the soot and the smut, something to move toward as we engage the struggle against the Dark Angel. The book felt urgent when I first encountered it, and I gave it to friends and comrades everywhere. Its message is even more urgent today—the crisis deepens and the approaching catastrophe accelerates.

Dada Maheshvarananda is a monk and a social activist, an engaged intellectual and a gentle warrior whose wise words are born of his wide experience with social justice movements, his ceaseless travels, his restless curiosity, his vivid sense of wonder, and his deep awe for and love of life. His every gesture is somehow simultaneously a challenge and an embrace. He encourages us to go deeper, to become moral actors in the real world we’ve been thrust into, to engage everyone we meet, to agitate and organize, and to consistently choose love—love for the earth itself, love for all living things, and love for all kinds of people in all kinds of situations.

Now comes Tools to Change the World, written by Dada Maheshvarananda and his colleague Mirra Price, a wonderful companion to After Capitalism and a practical guide for activists and educators who are working to build an unstoppable movement for peace and justice. The Study Guide and accompanying Facilitation Guide offer resources, practical activities, and concrete steps that all movement-makers can take toward  building a radical movement to transform the world from a place of fear and hatred and destruction into a cite of joy and justice, peace and balance—powered by love. These tools can be deployed in every imaginable venue: school or classroom, work-place or union hall, community center or church basement, farmer’s market or city park. It’s an essential books for dreamers and doers.

If we can imagine a world without  predation and exploitation, oppression, abuse, and subjugation, we must also think through what’s needed to actually accomplish that visionary future against a vicious, nihilistic, and hyper-violent enemy. It will take more than the exhilaration of street demonstrations, more than the exuberance of mass action, more than militancy—even though all of that is necessary. It will take a strong force of comrades, thinking, planning, and rising together.  Tools to Change the World is a handbook, a guide, and the broad outline of a map we will have to draw on the go—we are all citizens of a country that does not yet exist.

The book can help us learn to think and stand together—shoulder-to-shoulder—toward a common goal. Through words and deeds, study and action, we can discover a generic egalitarianism—we are all one, instrumentally identical in voluntary associations characterized by discipline and courage as well as enthusiasm and joy at being part of something larger than ourselves: we share a utopian vision. Our relationship—our political belonging—binds us to one another in anticipation of action. The object is to win, and we have to have each other’s backs.

We’re not exactly allies then—allies is the wrong word because allies tend to function in service to while we choose to act in solidarity with. Allies don’t want to be racist (or sexist or homophobic), and from their perch of relative social privilege, sincerely hope to do good work. Allies offer support to an oppressed group, but that work can carry the whiff of charity—reaching down to lift up the downtrodden. Allies confront prejudice and individual bigotry or backwardness, but rarely state power or the structures of racial, patriarchal capitalism—the field of action is individual and interpersonal, disconnected from social action; the operation is on-line or in the cafe, only infrequently in the streets. The distinctions matter, even if, to be fair, the self-designation, “ally,” covers a wider swath.

By contrast, we want to act collectively and strategically. We despise and oppose bigotry, but we refuse, for example, to embrace optics over justice, “multiculturalism” or “diversity” or “non-gendered restrooms” over an honest reckoning with reality. We need to think politically, and embrace the discipline of common work. We aim to overthrow capitalism and to dismantle the capitalist state, and that will require sustained mass mobilizations, planning, and disciplined organization.

The biggest obstacle to authentic comradeship in US history—the third rail of American radical politics—is and always has been white supremacy, and tepid (or non-existent) work toward Black Liberation. Comradeship in America can only emerge from a deep understanding of the super-exploitation and particular suffering of Black workers and communities, an unconditional embrace of Black Liberation, and a willingness to sacrifice for Black Freedom.

Tools to Change the World can be used as a textbook for organizers as we create subterranean schools, clandestine institutes, and secret academies. We operate beneath the surface as a result of engaging in insurrectionary activities intended to subvert, unsettle, and topple the established system. I had a large political cartoon fastened to my backpack during our fight to stop the invasion and occupation of Viet-Nam—the drawing depicts a high-tech, fully armored American soldier with a flame-thrower burning and destroying everything in his path as he strides purposefully across a barren landscape, while under him and out of his sight, an elaborate and complex root system flourishes and sends shoots out in every direction. Aboveground was all fire and fury, death and destruction; underground was life itself. Tools to Change the World is an underground workbook.

When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, I began posting a series of short reports documenting his early moves toward creating a fully-realized authoritarian government: “Making America Great Again, Step by Treacherous Step.” I noted that the base for a dangerous white nationalist movement is always present in the US—sometimes buried deep in the American soil, sometimes organized, activated, and out in the open. With Trump the white supremacist camp had found its perfect avatar: a charismatic con-man and buffoon who had mastered the art of manipulation through a new media, a character who could perform grievance for a mass of people disaffected from the establishment, a pathological liar playing up economic insecurity, racial and religious bigotry, and xenophobia. With Trump the white supremacist movement was consolidated, motivated, and living in the West Wing.

It was hard to keep up, and several friends noted early on that documenting the breath-taking pace of events would become draining—that was certainly true. And others were doing a better job of documenting Trump’s every move anyway, offering insightful and useful analysis toward naming this political moment—I relied (and still rely) on Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales at “Democracy Now!,” honest reporters and smart observers, Vijay Prashad, an outstanding thinker and writer, and Barbara Ransby, a wise and subtle scholar/activist. I kept current, but, sorry to say,  I stopped posting. And now, almost three years later, it’s clear that what so many of us had feared has indeed come to be: the architecture of a new American fascism is in place.

Like the most dangerous and murderous authoritarians (both today and in history), Trump was legally “elected.” In spite of gerrymandering, wide-spread voter suppression efforts, Citizen’s United and unprecedented amounts of cash intent on buying a “free election,” it’s well-known that Trump lost the popular vote by close to three million votes, and that the Electoral College, an anti-democratic, worm-like appendage on the American political system, sealed the deal. Most people don’t know that Trump garnered a meager 25.3 percent of all eligible voters.

Representing a tiny fraction of the population, Trump spares no effort in claiming to enjoy vast popular support as he demeans and demonizes his political opponents, many of whom wilt and disappear under his gaze. He repeats a fantastic chant against “Crooked” Hillary from his 2016 campaign rallies: “Lock her up!” “Lock her up!” and he says our country is being “infested” with dangerous aliens, including Mexican rapists, and Africans from “shit-hole countries.”

Debasing opponents (real or imagined) of every stripe is a calling card—“disloyal bureaucrats,” the Environmental Protection Agency, comedians, Hollywood actors, athletes, the Justice Department, leaders of the FBI—but scapegoating Black people and other people of color is Trump’s reliable trademark.

It’s long been said that if fascism ever came to America it would come with a familiar face wrapped in an American flag and carrying a Bible. And here it is: a right-wing government that opposes liberal democracy (and, of course, Marxism, socialism, and anarchism) and attempts to forge national unity under an autocratic leader with a totalitarian program advocating  stability, law and order, and more and more centralized power, claiming all of this is necessary in order to defend the homeland, and to respond effectively to economic instability. Fascist states attempt to mobilize a mass base through deliberately constructed fear and hatred as they prepare for armed conflict and permanent war by appealing to patriotic nationalism and militarizing all aspects of society. Fascists agitate “popular” movements in the streets, apparently spontaneous but in reality well funded and highly organized, based on bigotry, intolerance, and the threat of violence, all of it fueled by the demonization of distinct and targeted vulnerable populations—racial, religious, gendered—and the creation of convenient sacrificial scapegoats who are repeatedly  blamed for every social or economic problem people experience. Fascist regimes promote disdain for the arts, for intellectual life, for science, for reason and evidence and facts, as well as deep contempt for the necessary back and forth of serious argument or discussion. And fascist states favor protectionist and interventionist economic policies as they entangle corporations with the state. Sounds familiar, right?

Tools to Change the World  is a fascist-resistant resource. Dada Maheshvarananda and Mirra Price have created an asset for battling to upend the system of oppression and exploitation, opening spaces for more participatory democracy, more peace, and more fair-dealing in large and small matters. These are revolutionary times—Tools to Change the World can help each of us as we work to join the revolution

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