Intro to Joyful Militancy

by carla bergman and Nick Montgomery


There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.

—Audre Lorde[i]

People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints—such people have a corpse in their mouth.

—Raoul Vaneigem[ii]

Do not think that one has to be sad in order to be a militant, even though the thing one is fighting is abominable.

—Michel Foucault[iii]


This book is an attempt to amplify some quiet conversations that have been happening for a long time, about the connections between resisting and thriving, about how we relate to each other in radical movements today, and about some of the barriers to collective transformation.

There is something that circulates in many radical movements and spaces, draining away their transformative potential. Anyone who has frequented these spaces has felt it. Many (including us) have actively participated in it, spread it, and been hurt by it. It nurtures rigidity, mistrust, and anxiety precisely where we are supposed to feel most alive. It compels us to search ourselves and others ruthlessly for flaws and inconsistencies. It crushes experimentation and curiosity. It is hostile to difference, complexity, and nuance. Or it is the most complex, the most nuanced, and everyone else is simplistic and stupid. Radicalism becomes an ideal and everyone becomes deficient in comparison.

The anxious posturing, the vigilant search for mistakes and limitations, the hostility that crushes a hesitant new idea, the way that critique becomes a reflex, the sense that things are urgent yet pointless, the circulation of the latest article tearing apart bad habits and behaviors, the way shaming others becomes comfortable, the ceaseless generation of necessities and duties, the sense of feeling guilty about one’s own fear and loneliness, the clash of political views that requires a winner and a loser, the performance of anti-oppressive language, the way that some stare at the floor or look at the door. We know these tendencies, intimately. We have seen them circulating, and felt them pass through us.

When we began talking with friends about this, there were immediate head nods, and sometimes excited eruptions—“YES! Finally someone is going to talk about this publicly!” No one knew exactly what it was or where it came from, but many knew exactly what we were talking about. Like us, they had felt it and participated in it. They had discussed it quietly and carefully with people they trusted. But it was hard to unpack, for a whole bunch of reasons. To complain or criticize it came with the risk of being attacked, shamed, or cast out. This phenomenon is difficult to talk about because it presents itself as the most radical, the most anti-oppressive, the most militant. It shape-shifts and multiplies itself: sometimes it appears as one rigid line, at other times as a proliferation of positions, arrayed against each other. How is it that explicitly radical, anti-oppressive, or anti-authoritarian spaces—the places where people should feel most alive and powerful—can sometimes feel cold, stifling, and rigid? What contributes to a climate in which one is never radical enough, where we have to continually prove our radicalness to others? What makes insecurity, distrust, anxiety, guilt, and shame so pervasive? Where does all this come from? What is this thing? Is it one thing, or many? What activates it, stokes it, and how can it be warded off?

We are not the first to try to get ahold of this phenomenon. It has gone by many names—sad militancy, grumpywarriorcool, manarchism, puritanism—each of which emphasizes different elements and sources. In this book, we call it rigid radicalism. Our research and experience lead us to think that its origins are as diverse as the phenomenon itself. Some say rigid radicalism comes from the way heteropatriarchy poisons intimacy with trauma and violence, while separating politics from everyday life. Others point to origins in the narcissistic and guilt-ridden individualism nurtured by whiteness. Or it is the way schooling replaces creativity and curiosity with conformity and evaluation. Or the humiliation of a life organized by capitalism, in which we are all pitted in petty competitions with each other. Or the way cynicism evolves from attempts to avoid pain and failure. Or it is identity politics fused with neoliberalism. And the terror and anxiety of a world in crisis. And the weakening of movements and a decline in militancy. Or it is the existence of radical milieus as such. And the deep insecurity nurtured by social media and its injunction to public performance. Or it is morality, or ideology, or the Left, or the Maoists, or the nihilists, or the moralists, or the ghost of Lenin. Probably there is some truth to all of these: it is definitely a tangled web.

It is important to say, from the outset, that we do not think the problem is simply anger, conflict, or difference. Whenever people name and challenge oppression and violence, there are almost always reactionaries telling them they are doing it wrong, that they need to be polite, nice, reasonable, peaceful, or patient. We want nothing to do with attempts to regulate resistance.

For this reason, we do not believe rigid radicalism can be countered by inventing a new set of norms for how to behave, or setting out a new ideal of what radicalism should be. There can be no instructions. This would just create a new ideal to measure ourselves against. It would just add to a long list of shoulds, dos, and don’ts that reactivates the problem. We hope to help undo tendencies towards regulation and policing, rather than playing into them.

Maybe we are stoking rigid radicalism right now, in writing about it. Searching out its roots and inner workings can recreate a stifling atmosphere where we feel like we are stuck, always lacking, always messing up, with no escape. Pointing to shame, rigidity, guilt, competition, or anxiety does not make them go away, and might make things worse. It is not a question of revealing the fact that we don’t treat each other well sometimes, or that movements can turn in on themselves; we know this already. These tendencies are a public secret: widely known, but difficult to talk about.[iv] Tracing origins might not tell us much about what to do here and now. It is not about a few bad apples, or a few bad behaviors. For us at least, it cannot be reduced to those people over there, because we feel it arise in ourselves as well. There is no way to purify our movements of these tendencies, because the desire for purity is part of the problem.

So our project is not about being against rigid radicalism. We have become convinced that rigid radicalism cannot be countered by critique alone. Our critique and interrogation are a way of asking: how can we be otherwise? What makes it possible to activate something different? How to protect the something different once it gains traction? How to share experiences of places and spaces where something different is already taking place—where people feel more alive and capable?

The first step, for us, has been to affirm that we are already otherwise: we all have parts of ourselves that are drawn towards other ways of being. Everyone has glimmers, at least, of the ways that fierceness can be intertwined with kindness, and curiosity with transformation. Every space is a complex ecology of different tendencies. Rigid radicalism is always only one tendency among others. There are—and always have been—many places and spaces where alternatives are in full bloom. Beyond merely diagnosing or combating rigid radicalism, we seek to affirm the multiplicity of ways that spaces can be otherwise.


This is part of what we have been talking about with people: 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? What supports people’s capacities to challenge each other and undo deeply ingrained habits, rather than just saying the “right” thing or avoiding the “wrong” thing? How are people carving out relationships based in trust, love, and responsibility amid the violence that permeates daily life? What sustains these worlds—what makes them thrive?

With so much destruction in motion, this might all sound naïve to some readers: why speak of thriving and love when there are so many massive, urgent problems that need to be confronted? To write about the potential of trust and care, at this time in history, could seem like grasping optimistically at straws as the world burns. But durable bonds and new complicities are not a reprieve or an escape; they are the very means of undoing Empire.

We use “Empire” to name the organized destruction under which we live. Through its attempt to render everything profitable and controllable, Empire administers a war with other forms of life. The rhythms it imposes are at once absorptive and isolating. Even when this war takes the apparently subtle forms of assimilation and control, it is backed by brutal violence. Prisons and cops lurk alongside discourses of inclusion and tolerance. Empire works to monopolize the whole field of life, crushing autonomy and inducing dependence.

At the same time, there are cracks everywhere. A basic premise of this book is that resistance and transformation are always in the making at the margins, while Empire is always adapting and reacting. All of its mechanisms of control have been invented as responses to the constant upwelling of resistance, autonomy, and insurrection. This upwelling is a struggle not only against external domination, but against Empire’s control over identities, desires, and relationships. Undoing Empire also means undoing oneself. This is never a purely negative undoing, because it also means becoming capable of something new.

We are convinced that what is needed is an activation and affirmation of other ways of being. Not a new norm, but the exploration of new (and old) capacities. This book explores some of these capacities alongside the ways that people are transforming their own situations without governments or hierarchical institutions. The capacity to treat each other well is connected, we think, to movements that nurture autonomy, trust, responsibility, and the collective power that is palpable when people are able to participate more fully in life. Amidst and beyond barricades and Molotovs there are new forms of care and belonging, quiet and humble forms of support. There are emergent sensibilities based in listening, curiosity, and experimentation. There are reconnections with subjugated traditions and practices. There is hatred of the forces that threaten all this, and a willingness to fight. Some have been nurturing these capacities for a long time; others are just beginning to explore them. For this reason, rather than just dwelling in the pervasiveness of rigid radicalism or Empire, here we are exploring, celebrating, and connecting with other ways of being—other thriving forms of resistance and struggle.

Affirmative theory

In many currents of radicalism—especially certain strains of Marxism—radical theory tasks itself with directing the course of struggle, pointing the way forward, or handing down instructions and fixed ways of being. This kind of theory generates necessities or suggestions to be implemented. Theory directs practice. Either this, or theory is tasked with critique of the world, of practice, and of other theories: it is supposed to reveal the limits of current struggles, discover the mistakes and flawed ways of doing or thinking, or reveal the root of oppression. Often, both these modes of theory generate positions defined in opposition to others. They give us things to be for or against.

But there are other modes of theory. Theory can also explore connections and ask open-ended questions. It can affirm and elaborate on something people already intuit or sense. It can celebrate and inspire, it can move. We want a kind of theory that participates in struggle and the growth of shared power, rather than directing it or evaluating it from outside. We are after a kind of theory that is critical but also affirmative. Rather than pointing to the limits or shortcomings of movements and declaring what they should do, affirmative theory hones in on the most transformative edges and margins.

In writing this book, we’ve been influenced by many divergent voices and movements, and we want to value them all. We combine weighty philosophical concepts with conversations, and draw on zines, academic articles and books, speeches, and interviews. Furthermore, we think there’s a lot to be said for bringing things together in unforeseen ways that might intensify their aliveness and dynamism. This entails asking and provoking questions, many of which we leave open and unresolved throughout the book. For us, the most compelling questions are those that can be answered in a multiplicity of ways, in different situations.

One of our basic premises is that transformative potentials are always already present and emergent. Not only can things be otherwise; they already are, and it is a matter of tuning, tending, activating, connecting, and defending these processes of change that are already in the making. People are always enacting alternatives to the dominant order of things, however small, and there are always new connections and potentials to explore. We see this kind of sensibility happening in currents of feminism, queer theory, Black liberation, Indigenous resurgence, youth liberation, anarchism, autonomism, and radical ecology, among others, and we seek to affirm these movements and practices throughout the book.

But this is tricky: how are we to affirm and explore spaces where something transformative is taking place without holding them up as ideals to imitate, or telling others to be a certain way? What we are after is not a new critique or new position, but a process. Not a new direction for movements, but the process of movement itself, and the growth of creativity, struggle, experimentation, and collective power.

Joy and the Spinozan current

To reduce these problems to a complete and final analysis would be to miss the point. The best thing would be an informal discussion capable of bringing about the subtle magic of wordplay.

It is a real contradiction to talk of joy seriously.

—Alfredo Bonanno[v]

Pursuing these questions took us on a long detour through a minor current of Western philosophy associated with Baruch Spinoza. Against the grain of European thought that sought to subdue life through rigid dualisms and classifications, Spinoza conceptualized a world in which everything is interconnected and in process.

This worldview meant that Spinoza was despised by most of his contemporaries, but his ideas have influenced numerous currents of radical theory and practice, including anarchism, autonomous Marxism, affect theory, deep ecology, psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, queer theory, and even neuroscience. We are drawing on a current that runs from Spinoza through Friedrich Nietzsche, Gustav Landauer, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze to contemporary radicals like the Invisible Committee, Colectivo Situaciones, Lauren Berlant, Michael Hardt, and Antonio Negri. What we have found exciting about this current is the focus on processes through which people become more alive, more capable, and more powerful together. For Spinoza, the whole point of life is to become capable of new things, with others. His name for this process is joy.

Joy? What? Doesn’t joy just mean happiness, with some vaguely Christian undertones? Later we’ll be more precise about joy, but for now we want to be clear that it is not the same thing as happiness. A joyful process of transformation might involve happiness, but it tends to entail a whole range of feelings at once: it might feel overwhelming, painful, dramatic and world-shaking, or subtle and uncanny. Joy rarely feels comfortable or easy, because it transforms and reorients people and relationships. Rather than the desire to exploit, control, and direct others, it is resonant with emergent and collective capacities to do things, make things, undo painful habits, and nurture enabling ways of being together.[vi]

Moreover, Spinoza’s concept of joy is not an emotion at all, but an increase in one’s power to affect and be affected. It is the capacity to do and feel more. As such, it is connected to creativity and the embrace of uncertainty. Within the Spinozan current, there is no way to determine what is right and good for everyone. It is not a moral philosophy, with a fixed idea of good and evil. There is no recipe for life or struggle. There is no framework that works in all places, at all times. What is transformative in one context might be useless or stifling in another. What worked once might become stale, or, on the other hand, the recovery of old memories and traditions might be enlivening. So does this mean anything goes? People just do what they want? Rejecting universal arbiters like morality and the state doesn’t mean falling into “chaos” or “total relativity.” The space beyond fixed and established orders, structures, and morals is not one of disorder: it is the space of emergent orders, values, and forms of life.

Joyful militancy and emergent powers

When people come into contact with their own power—with their capacity to participate in something life-giving—they often become more militant. Militancy is a loaded word for some, evoking images of machismo and militarism. For us, militancy means combativeness and a willingness to fight, but fighting might look like a lot of different things. It might mean the struggle against internalized shame and oppression; fierce support for a friend or loved one; the courage to sit with trauma; a quiet act of sabotage; the persistence to recover subjugated traditions; drawing lines in the sand; or simply the willingness to risk. We are intentionally bringing joy and militancy together, with the aim of thinking through the connections between fierceness and love, resistance and care, combativeness and nurturance.

When people find themselves genuinely supported and cared for, they are able to extend this to others in ways that seemed impossible or terrifying before. When people find their bellies filled and their minds sharpened among communal kitchens and libraries, hatred for capitalist ways of life grows amid belonging and connection. When someone receives comfort and support from friends, they find themselves willing to confront the abuse they have been facing. When people develop or recover a connection to the places where they live, they may find themselves standing in front of bulldozers to protect that place. When people begin to meet their everyday needs through neighborhood assemblies and mutual aid, all of a sudden they are willing to fight the police, and the fight deepens bonds of trust and solidarity. Joy can be contagious and dangerous.

All over the world, there are stories of people who find themselves transformed through the creation of other forms of life: more capable, more alive, and more connected to each other, and willing to defend what they are building. In our conversations with others from a variety of currents and locations, we have become increasingly convinced that the most widespread, long-lasting, and fierce struggles are animated by strong   relationships of love, care, and trust. These values are not fixed duties that can be imitated, nor do they come out of thin air. They arise from struggles through which people become powerful together. As people force Empire out of their lives, there is more space for kindness and solidarity. As people reduce their dependence on Empire’s stifling institutions, collective responsibility and autonomy can grow. As people come to trust their capacity to figure things out together rather than relying on the state and capitalism, they are less willing to submit to the fears and divisions that Empire fosters.

These emergent powers are at the core of the Spinozan lineage, of this book, and (we think) of many vibrant movements today. Drawing on Spinoza, we call them common notions. To have a common notion is to be able to participate more fully in the web of relations and affections in which we are enmeshed. They are not about controlling things, but about response-ability, capacities to remain responsive to changing situations. This is why they are a bit paradoxical: they are material ideas, accessed by tuning into the forces that compose us, inseparable from the feelings and practices that animate them. Abstract morality and ideology are barriers to this tuning-in, offering up rule-bound frameworks that close us off from the capacity to modulate the forces of the present moment.

Similarly, we have come to think that while trust is fundamental in transformative struggle, it cannot be an obligation; trust is always a gift and a risk. Common notions are inherently experimental and collective. They subsist by hanging onto uncertainty, similar to the Zapatistas’ notion preguntando caminamos: “asking, we walk.” For the same reason, common notions are always in danger of being stifled by rigid radicalism, which tends towards mistrust and fixed ways of relating that destroy the capacity to be responsive and inventive. Joyful militancy, then, is a fierce commitment to emergent forms of life in the cracks of Empire, and the values, responsibilities, and questions that sustain them.


Beyond optimism and pessimism

While we want to insist that there are potentials bubbling up everywhere, it doesn’t always feel that way. This is not an optimistic book. We are not interested in sacrificing the present for a revolution in the distance, nor are we confident that things will get better. They may get worse, for many of us, in many ways. However, we are equally wary of pessimism and cynicism. Among others, feminist essayist Rebecca Solnit has taught us to see optimism and pessimism as two sides of the same coin: both try to remove uncertainty from the world. Both foster certitude about how things will turn out, whether good or bad. Optimism and pessimism can provide a sense of comfort at the expense of openness and the capacity to hang onto complexity. They can drain away our capacity to care, to try, and to fight for things to be otherwise without knowing how it will turn out. A fundamental premise of this book is that no matter what, things can be otherwise—there is always wiggle room, Empire is already full of cracks, and the future is always uncertain. Uncertainty is where we need to begin, because experimentation and curiosity is part of what has been stolen from us. Empire works in part by making us feel impotent, corroding our abilities to shape worlds together.

In this book we hope to affirm a diverse array of struggles and alternatives in the making, including prison abolition and transformative justice, feminism and anti-violence, youth liberation, and Indigenous resurgence and land defense, among others. This kind of connection is less about adding up movements as if they could be unified, and more about illustrating the productiveness of their difference; like combining different tones and rhythms to see how they resonate.

To think and feel through this process, rather than creating new norms or positions, may be frustrating for some readers. It might sound a bit fluffy to insist that experimentation and struggle go hand in hand, or that celebration and love are linked to militant resistance. They aren’t always connected. Yet creativity and experimentation are vital in the face of forces that not only crush disobedience but also steer desires. We want to affirm the ways that creative destruction and combative resistance can be linked to walking with questions, and all of this can make us more alive and capable together. Joyful militancy is a dangerous, transformative, and experimental process, generated collectively and held gently.

On anarchism

“Q: if an anarcho-syndicalist, an insurrectionary anarchist, and an anarcho-primitivist are sitting together in the back of a car, who’s driving?

A: A cop!”

This book is also an intervention into anti-authoritarian movements, especially anarchism. Many threads of anarchism infuse our lives and the lives of those we care about, and we have been inspired and influenced by a range of different anti-authoritarian currents. At its most vibrant, anarchism is not an ideology, but a creative rejection of the ideologies of the state, capitalism, and the Left. Crucial to anarchism is the attempt to escape the certainties of Empire and the certainties that can arise in struggle. Anarchism can support a trust in people’s capacities to figure out for themselves how to live and fight together, rather than constructing a model or blueprint for resistance. Whereas dominant currents of Marxism and liberalism assume the necessity of the state and activate desires for unity and sameness, anarchism often nurtures autonomy, decentralization, and difference.

The anarchism we are interested in does not tell us what we should do. For us this is crucial. Anarchism can help us inhabit spaces by trusting our own capacities, and relating in ways that are emergent and responsive to change. But as with any other tradition, anarchism can also crystallize into a fixed ideology. It can produce closed and stifling milieus. It can lead to duty-bound collectivism, or simplistic individualism. It can feel like a club whose boundaries are policed, or a badge to display one’s radical cred. Anarchist spaces can feel cold, unwelcoming, and scary. Anyone familiar with anarchist milieus knows that there can be vicious sectarian conflicts, which often entrench rigid loyalties and positions.

We do not focus much on these debates here, nor do we situate ourselves as particular types of anarchists. This is partly because we have learned from many different currents, and it seems counterproductive to elevate one above the others. We also want to avoid some of the debates that, to us, have become sedimented and stale. At its best, we think anarchism nurtures trust in people’s capacity to figure things out, while also supporting autonomy and leaving room for conflict. We are inspired by all the ways that anarchists are able to inhabit situations with strong values and fierce care, while also respecting and even welcoming difference.

We are particularly interested in currents of anarchism and anti-authoritarianism that have emphasized the importance of affinities over ideologies. Affinity is a helpful concept for us because it speaks to emergent relationships and forms of organizing that are decentralized and flexible, but not flimsy. Organizing by affinity basically means seeking out and nurturing relationships based in shared values, commitments, and passions, without trying to impose those on everyone else. Affinity is also important because many of the currents that inspire us either reject anarchism—along with all other “isms”—or just don’t have much interest in it. Some of the people we interviewed are self-proclaimed anarchists who are known in anarchist milieus. Others have been deeply influenced by anarchism, and it inflects their projects and their lives, but they don’t identify much with the political label. Others have traditions of autonomy and resistance that come from other sources, including Indigeneity and other non-Western traditions. For many, resistance to hierarchy, violence, and exploitation has been something intuitive, or a question of survival. They are forcing Empire out of their lives and linking up with others doing the same.

There is a conversation going on, within and beyond anarchism, about the potential of strong relationships that are rooted in trust, love, care, and the capacity to support and defend each other. The most exciting currents of anarchism, for us, are those that encourage and enable people to live differently here and now, and to break down divides between organizing and everyday life.

The beginning of a conversation

How can these processes of transformation be nurtured and defended, not just in their most dramatic and exceptional moments, but all the time? Are there common values or sensibilities that nurture transformative relationships, alive and responsive to changing situations, while warding off both Empire and rigid radicalism? What if joy (as the process of becoming more capable) was seen as fundamental to undoing Empire? What would it mean to be militant about joy? What is militancy when it is infused with creativity and love?

It was with these questions—much vaguer and more muddled at the time—that the two of us began having intentional conversations with several others. And who are we, the two of us? Both of us live in so-called British Columbia, Canada—Nick in Victoria and carla in Vancouver. We come from different generations, and we have pretty different life experiences across gender, class, ability, and education. carla has been involved in deschooling, youth liberation organizing, and other radical currents for a couple of decades now, and she became a mentor to Nick several years ago as Nick was realizing that he was a radical in his mid twenties without many mentors from older generations (a common phenomenon in anarchist and other radical worlds). What began as a relationship of mentorship and political collaboration evolved into a deep friendship. In terms of our organizing, we are both oriented towards prefigurative experiments: trying to contribute to projects and forms of life where we are able to live and relate differently with others, here and now, and supporting others doing the same. Both of us are white cis-gendered settlers, and for us this has meant trying to write in conversation with people with very different life experiences and insights, including Indigenous people, kids and youth, Black people and other folks of color, and genderqueer and trans folks, all of whom struggle against forms of violence and oppression that we can never know. We have also sought to talk to people from a wide variety of movements in many different places throughout Turtle Island (North America) and Latin America.

Over the course of a year and a half we spoke with friends, and friends of friends. This was a unique research process, in part, because we were inviting people into an ongoing conversation, asking them to reflect on and respond to our continually evolving ideas about joyful militancy and rigid radicalism. We formally interviewed fifteen people in all: Silvia Federici, adrienne maree brown, Marina Sitrin, Gustavo Esteva, Kelsey Cham C., Zainab Amadahy, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Melanie Matining, Tasnim Nathoo, Sebastian Touza, Walidah Imarisha, Mik Turje, Margaret Killjoy, Glen Coulthard, and Richard Day. We also had many more informal conversations with folks from a lot of different backgrounds, of all ages, who impacted our thinking immensely.

These people are not representatives of any particular group or movement. Nor are we holding them up as the ultimate embodiment of joy, militancy, or radicalism. They are people with whom we share values and who inspire and challenge us. All of them are committed, in various ways, to forcing Empire out of their lives and reviving and nurturing other worlds. They are involved in a diversity of movements, struggles, and forms of life: the uprisings in Oaxaca and Argentina; small-scale farming and urban food justice; Black liberation and prison abolition; Indigenous resurgence and land defense; transformative and healing justice movements; radical ecology and permaculture; scavenging and squatting; youth liberation and deschooling; feminist and anti-violence work; the creation of autonomous, queer, BIPOC[1] spaces; direct action and anticapitalist organizing, and much more, including the beautiful and fierce ways of being that are difficult to capture in words. Experiences among the people we interviewed ranged widely, from long-term commitments to places and communities to more itinerant and scattered spaces of belonging; from being steeped in radical theory to forms of knowledge arising through lived experience; from being well known in radical circles to being known primarily among friends, loved ones, and close collaborators.

Some we interviewed in person, some over conference calls, and others through written correspondence. We have tried to show this conversation—and to keep it going—by including extended excerpts from some of the interviews, putting them in dialogue with our own ideas and with each other. Some people we interviewed were unequivocally enthusiastic about this notion of joyful militancy, offering encouragement and affirmation. Others were more critical, alerting us to dangers, shortcomings, and confusions, and challenging some of our ideas. We have tried to show some of the ways our interlocutors challenged and disagreed with us—and diverged from each other—without pitting anyone against each other in a simplistic way.

We learned a lot from the apprehensiveness of some of the Indigenous people and people of color we interviewed, whose emotions are constantly policed and regulated, and whose struggles are constantly appropriated or erased. We heard from them that centering things like kindness, love, trust, and flourishing—especially when it comes from white people like us—can erase power relations. It can end up pathologizing so-called “negative” emotions like fear, mistrust, resentment, and anger. It can legitimize tone policing and a reactionary defense of comfort. It can fall into simplistic commandments to “be nice” or “get over” oppression and violence. Similarly, pointing to the importance of trust and openness can be dangerous and irresponsible in a world of so much betrayal and violence. These misgivings have taught us to be clear that trust and vulnerability are powerful and irreducibly risky; they require boundaries. They can never be obligations or duties.

We have also found that Spinoza’s concept of sadness can be very misleading. In contrast to joy, it means the reduction of one’s capacities to affect and be affected. Initially, we had been calling rigid radicalism “sad militancy,” drawing on others in the Spinozan current.[vii] But while the concept of sad militancy was immediately intuitive for some, for others it was frustrating because of its resonance with grief and sorrow, which are an irreducible part of life and struggle. Interpreted in this light, it could be seen as belittling grief and pain. For that reason, we have decentered the concept of sadness in this book, while trying to hang onto what Spinoza was getting at. In its place, we often use words like stagnation, rigidity, and depletion, connoting a loss of collective power and the way Empire and rigid radicalism keep us stuck there. With joyful militancy we are trying to get at a multiplicity of transformations and worlds in motion, but there is a danger of implying that we are all in the same situation, and erasing difference and antagonisms. BIPOC women, trans, queer, and Two-Spirit people, in particular, have worked hard to show the specificities of the oppression they face and the specificity of their resistance and the worlds they are making.

In the face of this, we have mostly questions and tentative ideas: can joyful militancy affirm and explore a multiplicity of struggles and forms of life without homogenizing them? By attuning us to open-endedness of situations, can joy help us undo some of the universalizing and colonizing tendencies of radical Western theory and practice? Can movements be explored in ways that enable mutual learning and transformation, rather than erasing difference?

Here, we want to return to the dynamic space beyond fixed norms on the one hand, and “anything goes” relativism on the other. Outside this false dichotomy is the domain of relationships that are alive, responsive, and make people capable of new things together, without imposing this on everyone else. It is in this space where values like openness, curiosity, trust, and responsibility can really flourish, not as fixed ways of being to be applied everywhere, but as ways of relating that can only be kept alive by cultivating careful, selective, and fierce boundaries. For joy to flourish, it needs sharp edges.

How do we know when to be open and vulnerable, and when to draw lines in the sand and fight? Who to trust, and how? When are relationships worth fighting for, and when do they need to be abandoned? These are not questions with pre-given answers; they can only be answered over and over again in a multiplicity of ways. A crucial outgrowth of joy and fidelity to it, we suggest, is that people will take different paths and have different priorities. Movements and forms of life will diverge and sometimes come into conflict. There is no trump card that can be used to dictate a path to others: not the state, not morality, and not strategic imperatives of unity or movement-building. Encountering difference might lead to new capacities, strong bonds, and new forms of struggle. Or it might be more ambivalent and difficult, mixing distance and closeness. Or it might mean being told to fuck off. For all these reasons, we try to share some of our own values, and some of the struggles and movements that deeply inspire us, without saying that they are right for everyone or that others should share our priorities.

[1] BIPOC is an acronym for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. We understand these not as ethnic categories or essentialist identities, but complex political categories forged in struggles against white supremacy and settler colonialism. For instance, the creation of BIPOC-specific spaces or “caucuses” within various struggles has created opportunities for understanding how racism or whiteness is playing out, and how it can be confronted effectively.

[i] Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 1984), 4.

[ii] Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Seattle: Rebel Press, 2001), 26.

[iii] Michel Foucault, “Preface,” in Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), xi–xiv.

[iv] The concept of the “public secret” originated with situationism, and we borrow it from the Institute of Precarious Consciousness, in their suggestion that anxiety is a public secret of contemporary capitalism. See Institute for Precarious Consciousness, “Anxiety, Affective Struggle, and Precarity Consciousness-Raising,” Interface 6/2 (2014), 271–300.

[v] Alfredo M. Bonanno, Armed Joy (London: Elephant Editions, 1998),

[vi] See, for instance: John Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today, 2nd Revised Edition (London: Pluto Press, 2005), 19-42; The Invisible Committee, To Our Friends 216-219.

[vii] The concept of sad militancy comes to us from Michel Foucault and Colectivo Situaciones. See Foucault, “Preface”; Colectivo Situaciones, “Something More on Research Militancy: Footnotes on Procedures and (In)Decisions,” in Constituent Imagination, ed. Erika Biddle and Stevphen Shukaitis (Oakland: AK Press, 2007), 73–93.