The term "burnout" is all too familiar among students and workers: a mental and emotional exhaustion where you feel like you've used up the last of your inner resources. Burning out is also a common lament in activist circles, particularly among those who are already marginalized by society. As in the workplace or classroom, activist burnout comes with negative repercussions: anxiety, guilt, sadness, and even the possibility of giving up on radical communities altogether.
Joyful Militancy: Building Thriving Resistance in Toxic Times, a new book by Nick Montgomery, a Ph.D. candidate in cultural studies at Queen's University, and carla bergman, a filmmaker and organizer in Vancouver, addresses the different ways that far-left activist milieus sometimes encourage dogmatic beliefs and behaviors (the authors call this "rigid radicalism"), which can lead to emotional suffering and undermine activism. Joyful Militancy will not be an easy text for readers unfamiliar with far-left movements, particularly anarchism, but at a time of intense political struggles, resulting in fear and frustration for lots of us, the difficult questions posed in Joyful Militancy will help leftists think through problems such as burnout and the various sorts of toxic inter-group relations that can stymie activist efforts. Instead of "rigid radicalism," the authors argue in favor of a radical politics that takes love, friendship, and intimacy seriously.
The book is arranged around a series of complex questions, such as: "What makes radical spaces and movements feel transformative and creative, rather than dogmatic, rule-bound, or stifling? What sustains struggles, spaces, and forms of life where we become capable of living and fighting in new ways?" The authors use the term "rigid radicalism" to denote the type of group outlook that can breed negative feelings like shame and anxiety, and suggest three possible origins for rigid radicalism: a hardening of Marxist, or Marxist-Leninist ideology; Christian morality; and a system of schooling that promotes constant evaluation. To "un-do" rigid radicalism, which the authors argue hinders leftist struggles, they suggest adopting instead a "joyful militancy," which encourages interactions that are more tolerant of doubt—and of personal and political growth.
As such, the authors emphasize that their aim is not to replace one worldview or set of rules with another—they don't want to slip into the same dogmatism that they critique so persuasively. Rather, the aim of Joyful Militancy is to encourage readers to learn how to hold certain questions unresolved without being overwhelmed by them. Drawing on the "relational worldview" of 18th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, the authors make a case for an approach to radical leftist practice that centers on friendship, intimacy, and love.
For the "joyful militant," a friend is not merely someone to pass the time with, but someone who is integral to personal growth and radical political activity. The authors write: "Relationships of mutual love and support can enable us to see and feel the toxicity of some of our attachments. ... Friendships can be the source of our capacity to take risks and get in the way of violence and exploitation."
As Montgomery and bergman's interviews with various anarchists, including writers, artists, and organizers make clear, such concepts are and have always been present in radical left spaces. Quoting Seattle University School of Law professor Dean Spade, Montgomery and bergman emphasize that close friendship bonds have always been integral to radical queer communities because many in the LGBTQ community "don't have family support, and build deep supportive structures with other queers." Similarly, the authors note that such "non-nuclear kinship networks" have long been the structure of life in indigenous communities and activist movements.
But in the absence of a culture of openness and closeness, the authors argue, members of radical communities will keep burning out. "In this context, burnout in radical spaces is not just about being worn out by hard work," they write. "It is often code for being wounded, depleted, and frayed." Montgomery and bergman also point specifically to the tendency of some activists to partake in "anxious posturing on social media" to demonstrate they "have good politics." For some, this unfortunate need to keep up appearances can lead to an internal sense that they are never "radical enough," and—as with many other social media interactions—results in leftists always comparing themselves to one another, and feeling inadequate. The desire to be recognized and the pain of feeling unseen or apart from a community can be painful and draining.
Indeed, the authors take issue with the very idea of "having good politics"—a common way leftists describe people whose views and/or activism are admirable. In Montgomery and bergman's account, framing politics as something one "has" versus something one "does" erases meaningful political activity, such as "the incredible things that people do when nobody is looking, the ways that people support and care for each other without recognition ... all the acts of resistance and sabotage that remain secret." Shifting away from the idea that "good politics" means character attributes, as opposed something one practices in daily life, will help radicals avoid toxic relations and the attendant burnout.
Happily, the message of the book is also embodied in the collaborative and open-ended approach of its two authors. At the core of their argument is the idea that dogmatic beliefs are not conducive to radical leftism, and that a culture of openness, friendship, and constant critical questioning, without necessarily seeking a specific answer, will bring about thriving radical communities, and perhaps a more just world. Thus, there is no explicit advice to be found in Joyful Militancy. The authors write that joyful militancy is accomplished "not by adhering to fixed commandments, but by learning to inhabit our own situations in ways that make us more capable."
Such an approach could run the risk of being too non-committal to be useful, but the authors are clear that there’s no need to get soft on the fight against various forms of oppression: "Developing analysis, naming mistakes, and engaging in conflict are all indispensable," Montgomery and bergman write. Rather, their thesis is that there are ways of working together against oppression that are gentler to oneself and to one's comrades; ones that do not inadvertently mimic the harmful forces that radicals oppose.
The idea that intimacy and meaningful friendships promote well-being, and that dogmatic thinking can be destructive, is hardly new. Many mainstream psychologists, for example, have highlighted the importance of emotional intimacy, especially in romantic partnerships, and of the essential role of close friendships. Atheists and other anti-religionists have long argued against dogmatic thinking on the grounds that it discourages questioning authority. Still, applying these concepts in leftist settings is important during a politically fraught time, when leftists are confronting an emboldened white nationalist movement, rape culture, deepening economic inequality, and concerns over climate change.
The authors' rejection of hard sets of rules or instructions may be frustrating for some readers—after all, when you're experiencing angst or burnout, you're inclined to want advice. This frustration makes for sometimes challenging reading, but it also prompts readers to engage in the sort of mental work that, the authors contend, strengthens radical communities and bolsters their practices. While the volume is heavy on theory, lay-readers can still profit from Joyful Militancy as a practical exercise in facing the anxiety-inducing elements of leftist spaces, and in working to dismantle them.