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“Catharsis politics isn’t just unhelpful. It’s actively destructive.”
Political critique from Sophia Burns
This summer, my lover and I sat under a tree at Gay Pride. Behind us, we heard a speaker from the Dyke March stage.
She talked about privilege – how the experience of having cisgender privilege, white privilege, and abled privilege gives people “faulty brain wiring,” making its bearers biologically dangerous to people of color, disabled people, and trans people. She declared that dykes ought to stand for justice – and the way to do that is to “sit with our discomfort,” because “fixing our brain wiring” is each individual’s responsibility. She rounded it out by declaring her own marginalized identity as a dyke, affirming her pride and calling for unspecified “revolutionary social justice reforms.”
Meanwhile, my lover told me about an acquaintance of hers who makes it to every big protest downtown. This person always joins the Black Bloc, always picks a fight with the cops, always needlessly endangers not only themselves, but also their friends. Being in the middle of a fight makes them feel in the middle of the anti-fascist movement.
The US has no mass revolutionary Left. Those of us who want to build one have to push against not only external opposition from the government and capitalism, but also the obstacles that we have imposed on ourselves. While the social justice speaker and the reckless antifa went about it in different ways, ultimately both made the same mistake: they treated leftism as a method of individual catharsis, not collective power. Catharsis politics is one of the central self-limiting features of the current Left.
Each of these examples illustrates a different flavor of catharsis politics. Let’s call one of them affirmation catharsis and the other combat catharsis.
When liberals insist that the point of protest is to “have your voice be heard,” they are actually describing the fascist mode of political participation. To be satisfied with “feeling heard” in and of itself, as the goal of political activity, without pointing that expression toward building real material power, is to be a contented fascist subject.
Ostensibly, though, these two approaches don’t share much. One of them says that self-care by individual oppressed people is revolutionary. The other says that revolution means violence: resisting cops and alt-rightists with fists and sticks, not words. They certainly aren’t fans of each other. So where’s the common thread? What unites the sit-with-discomfort crowd with the masked-up street fighters?
The details of the self-images they project aren’t very similar. However, that’s almost beside the point, since both do reduce politics to the projection of a self-image. It’s a way they express the kind of person they want to be. They do so in public, with an audience, because that’s how they get their peers’ validation. As a rule, neither has a coherent strategy for social change. Affirmation catharsis celebrates fabulousness while combat catharsis tries for militant cool, but at the root they’re variations on the same individualistic theme.
There’s a material reason for that. After all, what are the class interests of most catharsis politics practitioners? Aspiring non-profit managers, academics, and media figures lean towards affirmation catharsis because they must out-compete each other for a limited quantity of specialized jobs and public attention. Student radicals, who believe in revolution but lack connections with working-class communities, want to “do something real” and find their outlet in combat catharsis.
For the first time in decades, a mass US Left is trying to be born. The two strands of catharsis politics are strangling it.
The culture of anti-oppression politics lends itself to the creation and maintenance of insular activist circles. A so-called “radical community” — consisting of collective houses, activist spaces, book-fairs, etc. — premised on anti-oppression politics fashions itself as a refuge from the oppressive relations and interactions of the outside world. This notion of “community”, along with anti-oppression politics’ intense focus on individual and micro personal interactions, disciplined by “call-outs” and privilege checking, allows for the politicization of a range of trivial lifestyle choices. This leads to a bizarre process in which everything from bicycles to gardens to knitting are accepted as radical activity.
But what’s actually wrong with catharsis? Shouldn’t radicals express who we are and who we want to be? Why not celebrate our survival in a hostile society and affirm our values? Isn’t it a way to center the most marginalized, fight oppression, and practice revolutionary self-love?
Stafford Beer, who helped developed cybernetics (the study of complex systems), had a saying: “The purpose of a system is what it does.” Whether it’s a computer program, a government agency, or whatever else, what something was originally intended to do doesn’t matter. To understand something, you can’t write off “side effects” and “unintended consequences.” You have to take its effects as a whole. Treat a thing as it actually is, not as what it was originally meant to be. When examining catharsis politics (and political ideas in general), remember this.
Catharsis politics is what it is in practice, not what it theoretically could be. And in practice, decades of “anti-oppression” affirmation catharsis and affinity-group combat catharsis have completely failed. They haven’t grown a meaningful revolutionary movement in the US. They’ve just created an insular and hostile subculture that doesn’t win anything much deeper than corporate re-branding or the cancellation of individual Nazi rallies.
From Jon Stewart on down, catharsis politics means substituting the feeling of mass politics for the reality. Affirmation catharsis allows progressive-minded individuals to scratch the political itch merely by clicking “share.” Further, it replaces work towards the liberation of the oppressed with support for the media presence and careers of aspiring professional activists who can claim a marginalized background. It isn’t just unhelpful. It actively disrupts revolutionary work by channeling people away from the kind of organizing that builds collective power. Instead, it offers a basically passive, consumerist approach to politics. Why do you think there’s always talk of “leadership” from people who don’t do any mass work, or any politics at all that doesn’t involve self-promotion? To uplift someone’s voice, all you have to do is sit there and listen. No need to build revolutionary institutions that can actually get people free. At the end of the day, you end up with de-politicized politics, where “doing the work” means visibly consuming “progressive” media, and (in the words of the popular site Everyday Feminism) radical activism means you “publish, reblog, or share” articles to “signal-boost the voices of others.”
Conversely, combat catharsis puts real-world action front and center. But, it does so in a way that falls into the same individualism as affirmation catharsis. It takes the adrenaline-filled moment of street confrontation and substitutes that for revolutionary politics itself. Mass work, as with affirmation catharsis, gets derided or ignored. Small affinity groups replace participatory-democratic institutions. The fetish for violence (rather than the willingness to use force only when it strategically makes sense – and it often doesn’t) flows from a particular leftist flavor of patriarchy. “Radical” and “publicly confrontational” get collapsed into one, and the necessary, everyday work of maintaining and reproducing basic social existence usually falls to activist women. The larger division of labor that underpins capitalism’s gender system finds itself re-created by a nominally anti-capitalist scene.
And, above all, combat catharsis does not engage positively with anyone who doesn’t already share its values. The defining image is an individual activist trying to be heroic. It rarely leads to the growth of roots in working-class communities or further collective action. After all, the work of building alternative institutions of people’s power is slow, unsexy, and patient. It rarely has the fireworks of a fistfight with Proud Boys. It’s about cultivating relationships, listening, organizing resources, and serving the people – in short, much of it is work that’s considered feminine. While this approach to revolutionary politics does involve confrontation when confrontation makes sense, it’s never for its own sake. Strategically speaking, confrontation and construction complement each other. Without its counterpart, each will degenerate. Combat catharsis is what happens when confrontation is severed from mutual aid, service, and community-oriented mass work. Combat catharsis will never change the world. It will always, however, offer instant gratification and radical chic.
Activist networking is what might be called lifestyle activism…These individuals are not particularly concerned with effectiveness, because for then it is more of a hobby, an identity, or a “safe space” for like-minded people to discuss common interests without having to engage with working class people with their warts and all.
In both cases, individual activists do not look beyond themselves. They do the minimum to feel like good people in the short term, but it never leads to more. There’s no coherent analysis of how society works, no goal for how it should be different, and no strategy for how to get there. The purpose of a system is what it does. Catharsis politics does not move us towards liberation.
Now, from the perspective of neoliberal politicians and corporate investors, that’s just fine. The Left focuses on itself and the powerful are comfortably unthreatened. But from the point of view of the working class – and that probably includes you – it’s poison. Politics isn’t made of individuals. It’s made of classes. Political change doesn’t come from feeling individually validated. It comes from collective action and organization within the working class. That means creating new institutions that meet our needs and defend against oppression.
Right now, there are plenty of opportunities for catharsis politics. But they aren’t compatible with genuine revolutionary organizing. If you ignore any strategy that reaches beyond yourself, you won’t end up with collective power. And inasmuch as it allows people to satisfy their desire to be political without actually doing much, catharsis politics isn’t just unhelpful. It’s actively destructive.
To defeat Trump and the neo-Confederates we have to develop a strategic “Build and Fight; Fight and Build” program. This program must address the imperative need to build economic and political power from the ground up – amongst workers, the underemployed, unemployed and structurally unemployable on the community, county, state and national levels.
Both dimensions of our Build and Fight program we believe must have offensive and defensive dimensions to them.
Very little of the US Left practices the strategy of institution-building. Most of the groups that do only formed within the last few years. However, one of the few that began that work decades ago – Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi (which spun off from the revolutionary Black nationalist Malcolm X Grassroots Movement) – has developed an impressive network of community farms, co-ops, cultural institutions, and direct-democratic People’s Assemblies. Three decades of institution-building have made them a near-hegemonic force in Jackson, MS’s working-class, Black majority. This year, for the second time, a member of Cooperation Jackson (Chokwe Antar Lumumba, son of the deceased mayor and Cooperation Jackson member Chokwe Lumumba) was elected mayor. More recently, Philly Socialists – a city-level group founded by 2 people only 6 years ago – currently has a triple-digit membership with hundreds more active in its tenants’ union, food garden, ESL classes, and other programs.
The strategy is called Dual Power (because it aims to create a second political power structure, in opposition to the capitalist one) or base-building (because it emphasizes working towards a broad base of community support and involvement). It gets consistent, concrete results. And right now, that can’t be said of most of the US Left.
Revolutionaries need patience and humility. Feeling validated is fine, but it’s not political. If anyone says otherwise, they’re selling you something. Catharsis politics has been tried for many years. It isn’t working. So let’s acknowledge that, move on, and leave the social justice subculture behind. If we ever want liberation, the Left must start the protracted work of building institutions instead.
Sophia Burns is a communist and devotional polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her financially on Patreon.
All our books are 20% off for the rest of August. Enter code NOWAR at checkout