Brexit. Trump. Climate change. The financial system. The arms trade. Hardliners. You name it, it’s causing anxiety. The state of the world upsets you, but what can you, a poor little meaningless individual lost in a powerful and complex system, do to change anything? How can you make any difference?
There are actually numerous ways you can engage politically – as often as every day. Here are four to think about.
1. Be a reflective producer
What we do as a job ends up being our biggest contribution to society in terms of productive capacity. We spend decades labouring in a particular sector of the economy and for particular employers, producing a particular “output”. Some of these jobs are neutral, some harmful, some more helpful.
Jobs in finance, agriculture, manufacturing, NGOs, marketing, energy or education fulfil different functions in society. Even within these sectors there are differences in the moral stature different employers and employees can genuinely claim for themselves.
Of course, for many of us, choices are quite limited. But some can choose which industry and company profits from their productive capacity – and the more comfortable classes tend to have more choice. Why not reflect further on what your job is dedicated to morally, economically and politically? Is your creative potential absorbed in advertising? Your engineering skills in weapons technology? Your oratory sold to the highest bidder? Is the production process you contribute to dedicated to justice? Knowledge? Crude profit? Who benefits from the work of your employer?
Where your job sits in the economy frames its contribution to society. It might be the slowest and most structural area of political decision-making at an individual level, but it nonetheless remains at your disposal.
2. Be an ethical consumer
We give lots of money to people over a lifetime through the purchases we make. Some products reach us through better labour conditions or have a lower environmental footprint.
We owe it to those affected not to forget that smartphones may contain rare conflict minerals some of which come from eastern Congo where mines are controlled by militias with child soldiers and rape is a weapon of war. Let’s also remember that parts of the clothing industry use child labour. And let’s not forget that so much of the plastic we consume is produced from petrol, an industry which partly fuels war in the Middle East.
Everything we buy has a history and a social, environmental and political cost: the raw materials, the labour, the ecological footprint. There is much more to it than the price.
There’s also the stock market dimension. Many pension funds, banks and insurance policies invest our money in whatever offers the highest returns, often without much thought about ethics. Why not pressure those massive money pots to be more ethical in their investment preferences?
Of course you cannot put your money where your ethic is all the time. Nor does ethical consumption (which advertisers have become effective at spinning) resolve deeper structural issues. But a more inquisitive approach to our daily shopping can have an impact on the world. So ask yourself: who and what benefits if I buy this product?
3. Be an active citizen
Obviously, we can use the political channels officially open to us to be an active citizen, from elections to petitions, to campaigning, participating in trade unions and writing to politicians. Some will even consider tactical civil disobedience: for all the critics of the suffragettes or Gandhi at the time, even established politicians have since come to praise them as heroes.
But we can also become more conscious recipients of political messages. We can bone up on basic lessons of political communication to avoid falling for tricks. There’s agenda-setting theory, spiral of silence theory, cultivation theory and many more. Political marketing tactics have proved effective at winning votes (Trump is a brand). The tools they have been using to swing us are not that difficult to see through once we know how.
4. Be a principled person
Think of that conversation you overheard in the street, or what your uncle said at the family dinner, or the racist or misogynist insult you overheard on the bus. You can let it pass or you can intervene. Of course, a fruitful intervention needs to be sensitive and tactful. But if someone says something that worries you, who wins if you don’t react? If someone is driven by fears, why not listen and discuss, even while sticking to your principles?
We live in our local communities. Most people are quite normal. Some have opposite views to you on key political questions. Why not talk them through politely and respectfully, try to empathise and even consider solutions together? It might even develop our own thinking.
These four areas of decision-making are not exhaustive, and they do overlap. When you’re on social media, you are consuming but also producing content. When your insurance company invests in your sector but asks for higher returns through weaker labour conditions, you indirectly become both slave and slave owner. Human structures and institutions are complicated.
So we need to ask questions and be open to learn. Decisions still need to be informed by reflection and analysis, including through discussion with those who do not already agree with us.
Nor is it fair to expect perfection: compromises are inevitable, though there is always room for more effort in a conscious and critical direction. Without continuous questioning and engagement, the current structures of power and oppression continue unabated.
Tolstoy wanted us to “bethink ourselves”: to wise up to false preachers and systemic injustice, and to withdraw our complicity from structures of oppression (especially if you’re among the comfortable classes). A century on from his death, there are many more ways we can all engage in politics. You’re only one of many, but there are many like you, and if the direction of the world worries you, there are actually quite a few things you can do about it.