“We take politics that exclusively valorize the local in the guise of subverting global abstraction, to be insufficient…. Refusing to think beyond the micro-community, to foster connections between fractured insurgencies, to consider how emancipatory tactics can be scaled up for universal implementation, is to remain satisfied with temporary and defensive gestures.” -Laboria Cuboniks, Xenofeminism
“[T]he knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.” -Hayek, Use of Knowledge in Society
Just about every activist or generally decent person I know has struggled with feeling guilty about not doing enough, or felt conflict about where to prioritize their energy. Should we focus locally or at larger scales? There is a tension between our ability to make concrete positive actions in a local context and maximize need-allocation overall. Local actors are best suited to act knowledgeably in the context in which we are living and are therefore more effective at identifying the best way to be of benefit locally. However, the local maxima of needs may not be the most worthy of our time, money, activism, research, and general dedication when compared with the intensity of needs in non-local situations or at larger than local scales. The two quotes I began the article with exemplify the polarities driving these tensions that radicals commonly grapple with.
Duty of Service
Whether or not you believe in some form of a “duty of service” generally depends where you fall on the “filthy moralist” to “untouchable nihilist” spectrum. Although the language used varies, a duty of service is basically just the notion that it is worthwhile to care about and try to promote the welfare and freedom of others. Various forms of nationalism, local to continental, create borders around who is deserving of this service. The ethno-nationalist feels a duty of service to his imagined racial group. The neighborhood nationalist feels a duty of service to their local grocers and immediate community. The anarchist, being anti-nationalist, knows that freedom is bigger than all of our nationalisms. We therefore seek to undermine them from the position that our freedom is interdependent and not reliant on fickle, petty things like proximity or blood. The anarchist feels a duty of service to everyone and everything.
So how then do we prioritize this duty? Whether we focus on where we are most suited, where we are most needed, or what we most desire to do depends on the individual and is most often some balance therein.
If the duty of service of an anarchist is to everything, then it makes sense that our duty of service would be infinite, because freedom is an asymptotic exploration. Do we owe activism or the world a Judeo-Christian infinite guilt at whom’s feet we must pay constant penance? Most, and especially the egoists, would scoff at such a notion when said aloud. An infinite debt is absurd and results only in failure for everyone. But how do we know when we have discharged our duty? Surely we need a manageable and realistic duty of service if we are then to decide where best to apply it. Even if the fight is everywhere, our priorities matter. If one does too much activism, for reasons good or bad, and gets burnt out, they become useless to their outward duty of service and must instead turn that deservingness inward. This hints at the way that pursuing one’s own joy, expression, and even friendship are a critical part of finding that balance of how much of to give. But upon determining the amount one wants to give and feels capable of giving, one must then decide where and how to prioritize their actions.
As Ivan Illich so deftly noted in “To Hell with Good Intentions,” the arrogance of outsiders assuming they can solve or give aid to local problems with which they are not familiar, can cause real harm. The missionary or humanitarian who builds a few houses may leave behind a trail of destruction while they themselves leave feeling elated, having expended their duty of service. This outsider’s hubris is of course exacerbated by the subtle re-creations of colonialism when people from the metropole ignorantly attempt to save those on the periphery. However, taken to the extreme, there can be an implication that no one should ever care about anyone beyond their nose.
This is convenient enough for those already seeking to ignore the needs of those bearing the brunt of global exploitation. This is one of the ways the failure mode of left nationalism can be born with rhetoric that sounds like “focusing outward is imperialism” but looks indistinguishable in practice from a fascist “America first!” style appeal. There are a wide range of situations where physically travelling to help somewhere outside of one’s local knowledge is genuinely welcomed and beneficial.
Should I give money? Where?
Giving money and giving time are more related than people often think in that even money is generally time spent working and so to give time or money are related if distinct. This can be seen as a choice between working overtime to help X or helping X directly. Giving time is often seen as more honorable in that you are actually providing the labor and being physically present, but for a situation where one does not have the skills or the proximity, should money serve as at least some surrogate?
Activists shy away from the topic of charitable giving. It’s associated either with the phony propaganda of wealthy self-interested capitalists or the colonial mindset of the misguided and harmful white-savior. We have a justified strong preference for resilient networks of mutual-aid and solidarity amongst equals rather than begging for crumbs from the ultra-wealthy. Nonetheless we are forced to grapple with the decision of how to prioritize distributing money where and to whom. Should I donate this $10 to a local activist’s crowdsourced bond, to Doctors Without Borders, or to the Against Malaria Foundation? No doubt giving locally, especially if attached to a name, gives one the opportunity to gain social capital while expelling some of the guilt surrounding a duty of service. Additionally, we know well enough all the contexts of local actors to best determine justified needs.
In left communities there is a common thought that, “This person is white so they should have an increased role to play in covering the fees of this incarcerated radical PoC.” While this may sound strange to someone outside of leftist communities, it actually makes perfect sense when broken down. Even though privileges are probabilistic rather than rigid determinants, it’s a good heuristic to recognize how intersections of power privilege some over others and try to adapt so as to minimize those collective aggressions.
Being familiar with the local context helps you weigh the various tensions of need and duty. Local knowledge not only gives one the ability to achieve something more effective since you know where to give, but it also potentially attaches status to the cause you give to and makes one feel better. You’re not more responsible for helping local people because you owe them, you’re more responsible because you’re in a better position to do it and it otherwise may not get done. Whether or not you owe them depends on your vision of debt, be it fiduciary or social.
So then, why would anyone choose to give differently, say to Doctors Without Borders or to the Against Malaria Foundation? The Effective Altruism movement claims credibly to have created a system to help people do the most good with their time and money. They have a set of criterion that they use to analyze various causes and determine how effectively they improve quality of life for people. But they don’t stop there, they also look at other various factors such as how likely something is to be already funded elsewhere or how transformative it is. Obviously Doctors Without Borders tends to work in situations with extreme need and the Against Malaria Foundation has proven to be very effective according to effective altruist standards. So why then would anyone ever donate money to anything other than these causes?
For one, effective altruism tends in practice to be more of a treatment of symptoms. Anarchism and social transformation are too risky of propositions to the person who wants a guaranteed outcome. Rarely then, would you see an effective altruist arguing in favor of supporting say Black Lives Matter because it is harder to measure its output. We can therefore assume they would have been reticent in supporting the March on Washington as well. Therefore, while ideal in terms of quantifiable good, this approach can fail to truly search for the roots of a problem. Even the notion of ‘altruism’ fails to recognize the interdependence of our freedom. But at the same time it’s easy to romanticize actions where the effectiveness is unclear or impossible to measure instead of soberly asking whether it really does anything. This is the allure of spectacle activism.
Another problem is that first-world local causes will often never gain the traction to get funded at a global level for the very reason that there are more pressing needs elsewhere. So local actors have some greater stake in local issues because they will be deprioritized globally. If not a local, who would pay for the community radio-station? Only the people who have prioritized it as a way for them to make change and generate what they see as self- or other-beneficial changes. Almost no one would donate to a radio station far from where they live outside of extreme circumstances, so then no radio stations would get funded anywhere. But then maybe this just means that, with other more pressing causes able to communicate themselves to the mainstream, we would eliminate such comforts in recognition of our non-geographic interdependence. A similar logic applies to something even more activist-y such as a community support or bail fund. This shows how there is a tension between local knowledge and larger needs in efficient allocation of resources.
Fight where you stand, but always look to the horizon
There are some examples where the answer is clear. If someone is being harmed and you happen to be nearby and positioned to improve the situation, you should absorb their need as a part of yourself. You cannot stand in forward solidarity with everyone dealing with that same time-sensitive local issue in other places because you are not there or otherwise able to help. But when you are close you have an increased duty that is coupled with your increased ability to act with the increased contextual knowledge needed to make effective estimates of potentially helpful decisions.
In simpler terms, if you see someone getting groped or having prejudiced threats hurled at them on the subway and you are nearby and able, DO SOMETHING! There is virtually no opportunity cost to acting. Don’t just think, “It’s such a big problem and… someone should really try to address it. I’ll think about this moment very hard when I vote.” I mean of course these situations are volatile and complex and you have to weigh a ton of variables. But a bias towards action can save lives and create a culture that doesn’t stand for aggression. It can empower others to contribute. This form of local action has immediate ripples even if it’s broader impact is more murky.
Conversely, if you were comfortably watching TV in the U.S. during WWII and concerned about the plight of the Jews but too focused on your own life to be bothered, you’d be garbage. The need is so great that despite your position, you must find a way to contribute, however small. This doesn’t mean that any one person can or should be able to hold all the harms in the world nor that I should fly to Chechnya to personally liberate my fellow queers from the concentration camps– then we’d all just die — but that something being outside of my immediate personal scope doesn’t justify it being beyond my priorities.
So then it is clear that there is a spectrum between situations in which we have a great duty of service, either because we are so local as to be very suited to help, or because, despite the geographic or general non-locality, the need is so great as to supercede the local demand for time, effort, money, or other forms of possible situational influence.
Take for another example, focusing one’s energy on raising a child versus devoting it more fully to some bigger cause impacting a greater number of people. It may to some seem cruel to analyze things in this quantified way but the failure to do so honestly has left many children or larger interests abandoned without explicit consideration.
For example, the ideologically motivated soldier who takes it upon himself to risk his life for something he sees as bigger, the imagined nation, and then dies in service to this fiction might leave behind many now-neglected dependents. Has he not attempted to act upon the idea of something bigger than the localist cultists or those enamored by immediacy? But has he put his faith into an effective or ethical vessel to enact positive change? Soldiers are of course the great animators of externalized costs and unexpected externalities. More often than not they are fighting the shadow of their own failed ploys of self-interest. Should he have simply picked a different vector of change or is all large scale work doomed to this form of arrogance?
It doesn’t have to be a soldier though either. Many a parent has abandoned their children to some bigger cause for activism or humanitarian work as well and may also have acted in destructive ignorance even if to a possibly lesser degree than the soldier. Further, does the impact of a well nurtured child ripple through their life and interactions, thus the local becomes bigger through time? Or is that a trap of localism that itself relies on unknowable variables in an opaque future?
The immediatist sees these kinds of risks everywhere and fetishizes the local economy in all things. They sing its praises and see its bounties everywhere. This is the person who, in their love of supporting local businesses, ends up masking a distaste for people outside of their self-prescribed size of nationalism. Even if her nationalism is her neighborhood, she would rather not see “those” outsiders served at the expense of her neighborhood. She fails to see the equally deservingness of people regardless of their proximity to the egoistic self. This is the Bernie Sanders style disdain for immigration.
The most immediatist of all, the fully self-actualized egoist, is the addict experiencing a high (spoken from experience/exposure). What can we more certainly control than our own chemistry if it is to be assumed that control deals more so in the immediate? Further if none can rightly control another, then control is best enacted upon the self and in service to the strongest desires of the immediately constrained self. And beyond even the immediatist who chooses only to think of raising children and not their context in the wider world, is the addict who turns ever inward, abandoning breadth of concern with each further excursion. None can rightly speak ill of this human because, aside from the many contextual and epigenetic pressures of such behavior, in addition to the personal morphological freedoms of autonomy, they are in some sense enlightened to the fullest expression of localism. The Stirnerite is right that joy is radical and the juxtaposition of chemical comfort in an oft miserable world holds obvious appeal. But immediacy, if more easily controlled in some ways, ignores rather than transforms context. Even while high, people struggling with addiction have not exited the context that surrounds them.
There remains the question of whether one’s concentric circles of sympathy have narrowed to the point where one is the only person in them, or if there was never a duty of service at all. Maybe the pure capitalist, despite being very out in the world in a way the heroin addict may not be, turns out to have a much lower regard for the wellbeing of others. The junkie may still retain much in the way of care for others while the power-hungry monopolist may have never even known it in the first place. But then within a Randian interpretation of this monopolist, their actions may be contributing best by the very nature of their self-interest.
The anti-civilizationist seeking to return to their feral roots and re-wild often falls similarly prey to the luxurious trap of immediacy. Why dream big when it could be upended by the slightest whim of chance? We should pursue our own pleasure in immediate survival only. But this person has abandoned the universal anarchist concern. Without being able to scale our considerations, we are all in warfare with each other, stuck in a cycle of zero-sum combat.
So should we try to save the world or galaxy? Each and every, one of us? Or should we focus close to our noses where we can cultivate contextual evidence to act and see the effect more quickly and directly? In either case, we should have a creeping doubt. This doubt is uncertainty and it throttles hubris. Knowing more precisely the degree to which we are uncertain allows us to pass a critical threshold of sufficient certainty to justify action more quickly. Ideological entrenchment or religious zeal can equally disturb the accurate location of this point justifying when we should act. Further, determining how much risk to absorb, both on ourselves and the outer world as a result of our miscalculations, is a personal balance deserving diligence and honest self-inquiry. However, the recurrent paralysis of uncertainty can also prevent any radical transformations from being born into the world. Therefore finding the window connecting the duty to service with the opportunity and ability to act positively, is therefore the critical job of anyone interested in activism or giving. It is in this curious search that we escape the hellish prison of nihilism.