By Matt Dineen
"Honest hope derives from a belief that positive change is possible in the world. And we will only believe this if we experience ourselves changing. The key is risk, doing that which we thought we could not do."
-Frances Moore Lappe
Hope and risk. For those of us committed to transformative change it is this combination that fuels our actions—-the belief that change truly is possible and that we are willing to take risks to create a better society. But sometimes the risk is too great. All too often those actions which would accurately reflect our values are compromised or avoided simply to maintain survival. This is particularly common in situations that directly affect our lives. Campaigns to improve working and living conditions may not be as celebrated or significant as protesting war and corporate globalization but they tend to always involve more personal risk. This is because and despite of the fact that there is more potential for change in our immediate circumstances. I want to address the complexities of these risks and also connect the politics of everyday life with dominant global structures to illustrate how they are part of a common struggle.
I have already explored this dilemma in comparing my personal involvement in the movement against the war on Iraq with a failed campaign at my workplace three years later. Because of the economic power that our boss wielded over us the risk of fighting for change at my job was higher than the relatively low risk of protesting in the streets against the Bush administration. What about affecting change in our living conditions? Is the risk too great to improve our housing arrangements?
Along with work, housing is one of the primary institutions of capitalist society. The two are deeply connected. Much of the money that we earn selling our labor to bosses goes directly to the landlords that own the buildings we live in. Housing and work are both integral to the economic imperatives of survival. Everybody needs a roof over their head but must work to afford this basic human necessity. Although conditions differ immensely depending on geographical location and the nature of the workplace and apartment complex or house, both are inherently undemocratic spheres.
In both cases the property-owners possess a virtual monopoly over decision-making—decisions that affect the lives of those that work and live on the property. Decisions such as how much one is paid and how much one must pay and ultimately the destiny of one’s job and place to live. Workers and tenants are controlled and pacified by the lingering threat of termination or eviction. After all, in “today’s economy” there is always someone else to replace you. We get paid a week or two after we work, but we must pay before we live in our homes each month.
Yet most of us accept this state of affairs. It is only when our living conditions become even more egregiously unjust that we begin to think to do anything about it. Earlier this year such a situation occurred where I live which inspired me to revisit this dilemma of the risk of change. This story runs deeper than a landlord raising the rent in my building. It speaks to how change occurs in our society, how people react to injustice, and the potential risks involved in struggling to improve our everyday lives. That is why I think it is worth sharing...
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