Grief, Critique and Post-Movement Despair

Taking care of one another begins with taking responsibility for our own feelings

Grief, Critique and Post-Movement Despair

I recently had the pleasure of attending an activist convergence, of the kind I haven’t been to in a long time. I really enjoyed meeting new people and making new friends, getting crushes and gossip and funny stories to bring back home, making connections to advance projects and to see how widely our practices run, and getting a flavor for the current state of a certain sector of movement.

But because it had been so long, it also allowed me to recognize some things as repetitions, as a kind of neurotically unchanging ritual of this kind of gathering. And there was one ritual in particular that struck me as worth thinking through: what I think of as “last-day critiques.”

On the last day, there was a final strategizing meeting to talk about the future and reflect and report back on the conference. In this meeting, a number of complaints, critiques and frustrations—about safety, interpersonal conflict, and hierarchical forms of power reemerging—were named.

I want to be really clear that almost all of those critiques struck me as fully legitimate, real problems with the kinds of spaces that are (re)created in activist circles. But I still found myself incredibly impatient with them at that moment. And on reflection, that’s because they are critiques and frustrations that have been spoken almost identically at every single one of these gatherings I’ve ever been to.

They are problems endemic to organizational forms that we try to build in this broken world, and problems that we have not found a satisfactory response to. This does not mean that we shouldn’t critique and struggle against them. Quite the opposite—their persistence indicates just how deeply rooted the problems are, and how radical a reshaping we need to drive them out.

But I think accusing one another of failing to address them as a parting shot as we head back to our normal lives—even though it will almost inevitably be true in some way or another—is part of their perpetuation, rather than their overcoming.

These conflicts, critique sessions, and frustrations often emerge on a day where everyone left is exhausted after days or even weeks of organizing, partying, moving together, traveling, socializing, probably sleeping too little and often imbibing too much. People are CRANKY.

But beyond that, people are sad. The brief utopian openings of these gatherings, many of which have been planned for, anticipated, dreamed of for months, maybe even years, they can’t come close to solving all the problems we hope the movements they represent will address. We are all, in our own personal ways, disappointed that what we glimpsed in these heightened moments of possibility was, in the end, just a glimpse.

In this way, the ends of these convergences are much like the ends of street movements, of moments of intensity, possibility and freedom that seem to promise the better world is just around the next corner.

In the collapse of such experiences of utopian possibility, joy, hope and belonging, we are thrown into despair. I often think of this as post-movement despair, but it applies to any project that brings together a large group of people to do something beautiful, creative and freeing. When that window closes, when we don’t reach everything we thought we might, it can be devastating. It initiates a form of grief.

All too often we deprioritize grief in our movements, in our lives. We don’t talk or think about grief nearly carefully enough, although many people have been attempting to fill these gaps with various grief doula, grief group and mutual aid therapy projects. The thing about post-movement despair is that it is just as totalizing and overwhelming as the utopian hope and joy that marks our movements’ upswings, but it tends to last a lot longer.

And when we feel that grief, that defeat, we look at the people around us, these people who were moving beside us, who represented that hope, but now, our rose-colored glasses ripped from us, we think they were never really the perfect comrades we imagined. We see all their flaws, all their inadequacies, all the ways they annoyed us or fucked up or hurt us or failed us.

And in our despair we lash out, lash out at them for not working hard enough, not believing hard enough, not being the people we needed to make the better world. It’s their fault that this didn’t work.

And this goes both ways. Those of us who are named, either directly or implicitly in the critique, recognize—again, often accurately!—that these critiques are unfair, out of proportion, but we then reject them wholesale as bullshit, scene drama, and treat the people who voice them as ineffective complainers, who wait until there isn’t time for anything to change before naming their discontent.

What is so hard is that everyone here is right, and everyone here is wrong. We are not perfect revolutionary saints, immune to petty bullshit, reasserting privilege and power, acting in exclusionary and violent ways. But the criticisms are just as often unjust, disproportionate, demanding that individuals solve or be held responsible for problems our collectives have long struggled unsuccessfully to fix.

The problem is that critiquing organizing failures initiates a fight about tactics, ethics, politics and strategy, when so often what needs to be addressed are feelings. We use our complaint in an attempt to protect ourselves from our grief, anger to try to drown out pain.

Perhaps we are trying to avoid the shameful realization that we really believed in something, with an earnest intensity that is frankly embarrassing in the face of the power of the system we confronted or the obvious limits to the tools we were using. “We were being utopian” (and now we say it with disdain.) “We were idiots, we were fools” our shame tells us. We move to shore up our image of millitancy, revolutionary seriousness, by denying we were ever so hopeful and naive.

It’s a very clever protective mechanism: by externalizing our sadness into a group conflict, we allow everyone to experience frustration with one another, which is much more tangible, much more manageable than frustration with the world. It is an avoidant maneuver in the guise of honest engagement and critique. This move protects us from the shame of unrealizable desire.

But we were not fools for desiring. In those moments of possibility and beauty we were wise, not careful enough perhaps, but we had that deep and beautiful wisdom that has, for me at least, kept me fighting no matter how many times it has failed to materialize: that a better world is possible, that we can make it together, that all it takes is us.

So on the last day, when we critique the organizers, and everyone else, and when the people critiqued roll their eyes and snapback, or just talk shit later on the group chat, when we snipe at each other and start fights, we are doing the work of that shame. We are reassuring ourselves that, in fact, we were not foolish enough to believe in ourselves and one another. We always knew better than to want the impossible.

I refuse to know better. And I want us to start practicing this refusal together.

What would it mean to hold that pain, that grief, to not let it turn into shame, to not let it tell us we were stupid to believe in anything. What if we were to just say: “We really had something beautiful here, and I’m really sad it’s over.”

What if we asked ourselves and one another what we can do the next time to make it more beautiful, more common and accessible and consistent?  Because I think these questions are the ones we are trying to ask when we do the last-day critique, when we make our complaints and fights and list all the things we hated. We are trying to imagine how it might be better next time.

But when we level critiques that are, in fact, impossible for the organizers of this particular movement/moment/gathering/project to solve, we make such reflections more difficult, not less. And if we reflexively dismiss and deny the relevance of these critiques, we also refuse to see the pain and the people behind them.

What if we owned the grief,  and just tried to say goodbye properly, to hold one another in the painful truth of another window of possibility closed, what if we learned how to let go of a moment without giving up the liberation we glimpsed through its aperture? This insight, I think, is really core to what is being developed by Scott Branson in Practical Anarchism, in particular through their break-up theory of anarchism.

This would require a level of vulnerability and feminist self-reflection that is at odds with the macho posturing so endemic to activist spaces, regardless of gender makeup. It would require admitting loss, and weakness, and smallness. But it can be freeing to be small, it is unsurprising to be lost, we are always weaker alone than we are together.

We have just lived through almost a decade of intense denial of grief. The grief of fascism’s return to the streets, the mass death of the pandemic, the loss of solidarity and hope that these events engendered, to say nothing of the collapse of the George Floyd Rebellion: all of these events have been responded to by the powers that be, left, liberal and right, with denial, lies and repression. Everything is back to normal, the liberal says, triumphant. Everything is back to normal, the radical says, full of disdain. In the light of such claims, when the fascist says “everything is a conspiracy designed to take away your birthright”, his explanation is the only one that touches on the real feelings of his audience.

We all hold a great grief debt these days, and that is dangerous, because pent-up unprocessed trauma can be easily manipulated by grifters and fascist movements, who dont think twice about using lies to prey on their targets’ vulnerabilities. Undealt with shame and grief can be easily transformed into projection and fear, can curdle into an openness to authoritarian power. The stakes of processing, holding and being present in our grief are really high: much higher than just feeling bummed at the end of a beautiful experience.

We could use these gatherings and projects to practice doing this grief work. We could practice taking the time to really hold one another, to really see ourselves, and our own pain. That’s what these things are for, after all: to practice making a better world.

If we pretend away our bad feelings, our scared and angry and rageful and despairing ones, those feelings will just cry out through us louder and louder, in greater and greater and more pointless denunciations of our friends and comrades. We will become avatars of pain. We will continue to spread and intensify that pain all around us or even just within ourselves unless we begin to own it, admit to it, and address it together.

One way we can do that, maybe, is to end the ritual of last-day critiques, to just take a day, or a week, or even just a breath or a beat, and think “why do I feel so upset right now?” It might well be because of the exact things we would point to in our critiques, but we might recognize that that’s not the most important thing to name right now, that our need is for love and processing, not conflict with the people most poised to provide it. Similarly, what if when we heard those critiques we didn’t just dismiss them as the same-old-same-old they might be on the surface, but listened instead to the pain and yearning behind them, letting go of our defensive self-image, caring for one another instead of jockeying for cynical knowingness or militancy?

What if we used these spaces to hold onto one another even in our mutual inadequacies, mutual failures, mutual grief? If we share our grief consciously and carefully, maybe then it won’t be so heavy. And maybe then we might begin to truly build the relationships capable of stopping these forms of violence, hierarchy, exclusion and pain that we all so deeply need to end, in our spaces, our movements, and the world beyond.