Volume 51, Issue 3: Summer 2017

A wake-up call for radical communities

  • Confronting Injustice: Social Activism in the Age of Individualism

    Umair Muhammed

    Haymarket, 2014

Drawing on his years of activism and academic research, Umair Muhammed delivers a compelling case for change within activist communities in his book, Confronting Injustice. The book is a quick read and constructed cleverly; it unites political anecdotes, historical facts, quotes from great thinkers and even ancient allegories to concisely lay down the most prominent challenges facing political activism today, and ways to move past them.

Confronting Injustice is a response to current political activism, plagued by the ideology of individualism, and directed towards debutante activists who are often initiated into this variety of activism. Muhammed carefully breaks down the fallacy of “lifestyle-centric activism,” denouncing it as an impediment to real change. No contemporary activist trope is spared — TEDTalks, moral relativism, charity and lifestyle minimalism are all placed under the guillotine. It is from this point that Muhammed goes on to reframe major current-day problems and suggest an alternative way forward which leaves behind individualism once and for all.

During a time when facets of political activism are being increasingly quarantined from one another, Muhammed is efficient at drawing links between seemingly isolated issues and shows how these challenges are interconnected and fundamentally global in nature. Muhammed frames this discussion by critiquing one of the most popular and widespread forms of activism: charitable giving. From corporations to philosophers to the mosque minbar, charity is preached as the ultimate form of fulfilment of one’s obligation to those less fortunate. Framing his critique around Peter Singer’s popular arguments in favour of charitable giving, Muhammed turns this view on its head, carefully showing how charity fails to deliver on its promises “from both practical and moral standpoints.”

What’s more, Muhammed provides a convincing argument that charity is in fact detrimental to the very goal it is trying to achieve. For example, Muhammed demonstrates that NGOs often undermine the ability of democratically-elected states to provide essential public services. He also demonstrates how the rich and powerful use charity for social control, silencing dissent and obscuring their own responsibility for poverty. Thus, charity is unveiled as being a political tool advancing marketbased ideologies, racism and maintaining the everincreasing superiority of the rich minority over the world’s population.

Muhammed moves on to connect this inequality to climate change, a connection that is seldom made in popular culture. He offers a data-driven critique of market-based and technocratic climate change “solutions,” including carbon offset schemes, “green” technologies such as electric vehicles, and international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol.

Muhammed reserves room in this section to embark on a discussion on viable solutions to address the climate crisis. By drawing parallel to the immense social and political reorganization of society for wartime production during the Second World War, Muhammed offers a refreshing alternative to claims that drastic reductions in consumption and a complete re-engineering of social life are impossible. “The Second World War provides us with insight enough to know that the prompt realignment of societal objectives and people’s livelihoods, as well as hurried technological advancement are possible (p. 115).” No utopian, Muhammed quickly underlines the limited translation of WWII to today’s situation.

In contrast with WWII, the type of societal actions required today would be anti-competition, anti-market and collaborative on a global scale. Most importantly, he outright dismisses the ability of the private sector to lead the technological advancement necessary to face the new climate regime, as it did for wartime technologies. “There is no way to reconcile the need to achieve sustainability with the overall interests of concentrated economic power.” He then cites examples of where “maverick businesspeople” have failed to tend to the needs of the environment. In this way, capital’s inevitable failure opens to its inevitable remedy: the institution of socialized humanity through a new democratic socialist order.

Muhammed’s book does not mince words or ideas; he states plainly that we must end capitalism or capitalism will end humanity. He dismisses Western democracy as the plutocracy the powerful that created it intended it to be, and calls for something radical to be instituted: real democracy and true equality. Although emphasis is placed on broad mass movements and civil disobedience to bring along this change, Muhammed does not negate the importance of capturing state power. Muhammed’s book is a valuable handbook for activists looking to transition into radical politics, arming them with the basic theories, facts and concepts to get them started on their journey from reformists to revolutionaries.

Assya Moustaqim-Barrette is a graduate student at York University’s Faculty of Environmental Studies.

Advertisement