Feeling Trapped in a Dead-End System?
Cartoonist Stephanie McMillan’s Affirmations Encourage Resistance
by MARK HAND
Activists and organizers for social change undoubtedly experience periods of burnout. Working long hours — typically without pay and little appreciation — on campaigns, issues and causes where victories are few and far between can be demoralizing. Some activists get so frustrated with the perceived lack of results from their hard work, the divisions within the Left, and the rampant apathy among the general public that they give up entirely and retreat from activism.
Cartoonist, writer and organizer Stephanie McMillan saw the depression, feelings of hopelessness and other difficulties faced by her fellow activists. And she wanted to do something to help people overcome these. So she started writing uplifting messages to empower individuals to continue working for a better world. She calls her inspirational messages “Daily Affirmations for the Revolutionary Proletarian Militant.” Similar to the memorable characters in her popular comic strips Minimum Security and Code Green, McMillan’s affirmations are accompanied by cute and colorful animals, plants and insects.
McMillan is almost finished writing 365 affirmations, and when she puts the final touches on the last one, she hopes to gather them all up and offer the entire collection as a 365-day perpetual desk calendar. The Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native is holding a campaign that ends June 12 to raise enough money to get the calendars printed.
In mid-May, a few days after McMillan launched her fundraising campaign, I asked her why she decided to write these affirmations. The conversation then moved on to broader questions about living in a world filled with barriers to positive change.
Mark Hand: When did you start writing and drawing the Daily Affirmations for Revolutionary Proletarian Militants?
Stephanie McMillan: I started on January 1, 2014, to provide an alternative for revolutionaries to the same old New Year’s resolutions. I intended to post them every day for a year, but some of them straggled into 2015. I’m finishing up the final 34 this month, daily through June 12, to wind up with 365 on the final day of the Kickstarter campaign.
MH: What inspired you to write them?
SM: Capitalists constantly push us to want things that keep us trapped in the system and obsessed with trivialities that distract us from resistance. All kinds of support is available if we strive to make money, worship a god, lose weight, find romance.
But there is a huge lack of inspirational literature to encourage and uplift people whose lives are dedicated to social transformation. Most writing on the Left is theoretical and political — these are obviously crucial, but there isn’t much that addresses us on the ideological level, on helping us change our ways of thinking so we stay strong, on track, and motivated, that helps us establish standards of behavior that serve our goals. All we hear is the constant barrage of capitalist ideology telling us that we’re wrong, our aspirations are impossible, we’re crazy to try, and “we can’t beat ‘em, might as well join ‘em. No wonder many people feel so hopeless, depressed and overwhelmed.
I started writing the Affirmations to bolster my own resolve and strategic optimism, and when I started sharing them, I saw that they filled a strong need for many others as well. So I decided to draw them regularly.
MH: When you started writing them, why did you decide to use “Revolutionary Proletarian Militants” in the title? Wouldn’t a more general, less strident title have appealed to a wider audience?
SM: Certainly a more general title would have been more broadly appealing, but I’m not trying to be broadly appealing. These are specifically for people who already realize that the global capitalist system has no future for us, who consider it to be our enemy, and want to do something about it. I’m an organizer, and I’m looking for people who want to do common work that serves the same goal, who are seeking ways to get involved in the struggle. The Affirmations are also for those already involved in their own organizing efforts, to uphold high standards of outlook and behavior as a counterweight to the rampant sectarianism, dogmatism, bureaucratism, opportunism and other problems that currently weaken the Left.
The word proletarian is important because it indicates the only class that is fundamentally opposed to capital and that can offer an alternative to capitalism: the working class. If we want revolution, then we need to be aware of this fundamental antagonism and take the side of the working class, always.
MH: When you first started writing the Affirmations, was the feedback from your readers immediately positive? Have you heard from anyone about the affirmations having the opposite of the intended effect? For example, revolution and overthrowing global capitalism may seem so implausible that these affirmations may make some people feel even more demoralized.
SM: The overwhelming response has been from people who say that the Affirmations make them feel stronger, less alone, and encouraged to keep struggling. I haven’t had many negative responses except sometimes people have pointed out when the meaning wasn’t clear enough, or could be misinterpreted. If they made a compelling case, I changed them accordingly. Occasionally someone expresses disagreement, but that’s fine — they don’t speak to everyone.
There are many who really appreciate and want this kind of message. Some have told me that they print them out and post them in their homes or workplace. One folded up a bunch of them and put them in a bowl, and draws one out randomly each day to reflect upon. One person wrote to me just yesterday to say, “Every time I read one of your affirmations, I want to shout it from the rooftops and tattoo it where I can see it every day.”
So, all indications tell me that they don’t discourage or demoralize, but do quite the opposite.
McMillan daily affirmation
MH: What did you draw upon when writing these affirmations? Old writings? Previous books you had written?
SM: The ideas come from my practice, in building organizations. Most of them directly address weaknesses and problems that I observe and deal with in real life. I think their origin in actual current practice makes them more immediately relatable, useful and thus popular — these problems are widespread and many are grappling with the same issues.
MH: When you need your spirits lifted, what do you turn to? What inspires you?
SM: When I start to fall into a fuck-it-this-is-hopeless mood — those thoughts are rare for me but they do occasionally arise — then I think about all the people all over the world who are fighting for emancipation, for an end to class divisions, and all those who have suffered and sacrificed for it, and the fact that we are all connected. We are comrades across time and space, even though we will never know each other personally. I think about the irrepressible spirit of human beings to not submit to domination. Today, right now, there are millions of people struggling in all their different ways against exploitation and oppression, and I will never abandon our common cause. I realize that if I give up, then my life will have been a waste. I think about the beautiful and miraculous world we live in, and the fact that if we let it be destroyed, there’s no coming back from that — it’s forever. Our personal sorrows and troubles are nothing compared to the problem of the larger social framework, and we need to stay focused on that.
MH: Why did you launch this Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the calendar? If you reach your goal, when will the calendar be available?
SM: All the Affirmations are available online, but I think there’s something special about having then in the form of a physical object that can be handled and contemplated without the mediation of a screen. Many people have asked for some kind of book or calendar of the Affirmations, so they can have them nearby to constantly remind them of the things they want to keep in mind. They also want something material with weight and gravity — to share with others and give as a gift. Digital files evaporate, but this will stick around. I formatted it to be a perpetual calendar so it can be re-used year after year.
I’ve budgeted plenty of time for them to be done by early November — this is why I’m doing the Kickstarter campaign now — so that people can have them to give during the winter holidays.
MH: How do you respond to liberals or leftists who support existing political and economic institutions and who say, “If you think there’s going to be a revolution to overthrow capitalism, you’re nuts. You should work within the system we already have”?
SM: Well, I’m not seeking the support of liberals; insofar as I address them it’s to attempt to convince them not to be liberals, to break their loyalty to the capitalist class. These are explicitly for people who believe that revolution is, even if not likely, at least necessary and worth fighting for. Any leftist who doesn’t believe that, and/or argues that we should work within capitalist institutions, which cannot possibly lead to or contribute to revolution, isn’t really a leftist.
MH: We live in communities where most people cannot comprehend our political beliefs, and when we explain our beliefs to them, they either disagree with them or call the ideas impractical and label us crazy idealists. Do you write these affirmations to address these situations?
SM: Yes, certainly that’s part of it. It’s to break the isolation of those who express these views. It’s to say, openly and unapologetically, the words that are usually forbidden, erased from normal discourse. Revolution is the highest, greatest, and most necessary goal we can be working for. It is the only hope for the future of humanity, and yet we’ve been trained to be defensive and self-effacing about it, to be afraid to even speak of it for fear of being socially ostracized and subject to repression. Well, we need to speak of it, loudly, and we should be proud to do so. We should put those who uphold this wretched system on the defensive. They should feel bad; not us.
MH: How do you maintain your sanity and stay so emotionally calm in such an insane world?
SM: Because I have to. We have to. If we are to overcome the insanity, we need to be strong. We can fully feel our emotions, of course (they will come out somehow no matter what), but we can’t give them control over us. We need to live up to the necessities of the historical moment we are facing, and take up the tasks required of us. If we fail, future generations will not forgive us. They may not even survive. We, who are alive today, are the bridge into the future. We can either collapse and consign our children all living beings in fact — to miseries, tortures and sufferings that will continue to worsen as capitalism drags us ever further into its hellish dystopia, or we can hold it together, rise to the occasion, serve our cause well, and win it. Each of us has that choice to make.
Mark Hand covers political action. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org