If you were on Twitter or Facebook in the past couple of weeks, you’ve seen it; the #MeToo hashtag. For anyone, especially women, who have experienced sexual assault or sexual harassment.
I had two stories to tell. There is at least as much story in the response as there is in the story.
The first one I posted was this:
Every boy in my class snapped my bra strap until I hit some w/my lunch kit. I went home w/welts. I got in trouble, not them. #MeToo
And the first response I got, which was deleted before I responded to it, was:
Every single boy?
Some of you are reading this and the iron tang of rage just rose into your throat, as it did in mine when I saw this. I’m not going to out the person who said it because he (of course, he) did delete it right away, and I must assume that this was because he rethought the wisdom of his post. But I am going to respond. And this is my response.
The truth is, I don’t remember specifically which boys did and did not take part in this “amusing little prank.” I was nine. I don’t remember some of their names, after all this time.
What I remember is the experience. Being afraid to walk by myself in the hallway. Being afraid to turn my back on anyone with a penis. The snickering. The catcalls. Wolf-whistles. I was nine. Why was I getting wolf-whistles?
I was a tomboy. I liked to climb trees and play fighter pilots. From the age of three to the age of twelve my knees were perpetually scabbed from all the rough play I did. I had more boy friends than girl friends because of that.
Then I developed early. I was a C cup by the age of ten. And all of a sudden, the way that absolutely everyone treated me changed.
My dad wouldn’t play rough with me anymore. “It’s not appropriate,” he said. But he would play rough with my brother.
I was a fierce little girl. I jumped from trees, slogged through mud, and fought with sticks. I had no fear. But now I had boobies, so my mom emphasized how important it was that I act “ladylike.” To this day that word fills me with a seething rage that makes me want to punch the person who said it in the teeth.
But more than that, all of a sudden when I stood up to debate an issue in class, like we did on Fridays, I was mocked. It was magic; just like that. Prior to boobies, I was recognized as one of the “smart kids.” When I stood up to debate, people listened. After boobies, I was insulted and humiliated, if not in class, than certainly after.
To this day, I hate my breasts. I don’t like them played with during sex. I don’t want people looking at them.
Often, I could never be entirely certain which of the three boys standing behind me had reached over to snap my bra strap. I complained about what the boys were doing to me. “Which boys?” I was asked. I couldn’t name a specific name.
What I do know is that whichever one it was, his friends never stopped him.
When the more sexually astute girls realized what was going on, things got worse. Because, I guess, the gods hate me, I was in a split class where the other half was older than I was. They were a year ahead in development, and I now know, they were jealous of the male attention I was receiving.
But I didn’t know that then. I was nine. I understood nothing about sex; I’d never kissed a boy or a girl, my mother never told me a thing, and I had yet to discover Judy Blume.
So when they started mocking me in the change room, I was mortified. “You’re getting fat,” one would say, poking my rounding hip. “You don’t need a bra; you’re too young for a bra,” another would say. That might be, but my boobies, which I was already learning to hate, bounced when I ran, and it made it difficult to run because they hurt.
I started locking myself in the showers to change.
The damage was a wound that I never truly recovered from. As far as I knew, I was fat; certainly I had these bulbs of flesh that were constantly in my way, and now my hips were rounding and I was constantly bumping into things. I developed serious enough dysphoria and body-hatred that by the time I was fifteen I was a full-blown anorexic-bulimic. I weighed 86 pounds and my hair was starting to fall out.
I think that after a while, it became a bit of a game for the boys in my class. I have always been a fiery-tempered sort. Perhaps it was a bit like trying to leap from the highest tree; they wanted to find out which one of them I was going to murder first.
When I entered a new grade and it didn’t stop, I started striking back. When I felt a tug on my bra strap, I would turn around and hit whoever was in my path with my plastic lunch kit.
It was I who was called into the office. “Why are you hitting other students with your lunch kit?”
I told them.
“Is that an appropriate response for such a little thing?” I was asked by my male teacher.
“I go home with blisters,” I sniffled.
“Boys will be boys,” said my male school principal. “They do it because they like you.”
“So?” I said. What I meant was, Why does that make it okay?
The implication was that they had a right to my body because they were interested.
So they made me stop taking a lunch kit to school. After that, I started hitting them with rulers. I got detention after detention, but I insisted on defending myself. After the third time I struck someone, it finally stopped.
Learning to Fight
When I was recovering from my eating disorder, my father got me a membership at a gym. Because I was driven, I channeled my addiction into working out. Ultimately it was a bit like weaning myself off of heroin by taking methadone. It worked, once I’d fought the working-out addiction.
But during that time I put on weight again, even as my body toned and became muscled. And when a bully confronted me outside of the school grounds, she got one punch only before I turned around and pommeled her. It was a real-life Charles Atlas story.
But that didn’t change the fact that I had been bullied.
Fast forward to my staggette party. By this time, I’d been studying a smattering of martial arts; some basic judo, some ninpo taijutsu, a little bit of medieval armoured fighting through the Society for Creative Anachronism. And while I was waiting outside the bar for a cab, someone grabbed my ass.
Before I realized it, I had him in an arm bar. He was looking up at me with fear in his eyes.
“I guess that was a bad idea,” he said.
“I guess so,” I agreed.
“I’m sorry. I guess I’ll go now.”
“You do that,” said I with death in my eyes.
My friends cheered. To them I was Wonder Woman. I’d defeated the oppressor through contest of arms.
But that didn’t change the fact that he’d grabbed my ass. For all my strength, and for all my ability to fight, I was still a victim.
Boys Will Be Boys
Why had he done it? For the same reason the boys had snapped my bra strap; because they thought they could. Because being interested in me entitled them to my body. Because “boys will be boys” let them get away with it.
“Rape culture” is a term, like “feminism,” guaranteed to enrage the right wing. They think it means that the people who say it think that all men go around raping women like savage baboons. And of course, that’s not true.
But many of them do go around grabbing asses and snapping bra straps. And no one stops them.
And, I would point out to the person who asked, “Every single boy?”, neither did you. You reacted defensively and not, as you would have yourself believe in your self-image, protectively.
I believe that more evil is perpetrated by cowardice than any of the so-called Seven Deadly Sins. Sure, you didn’t pull the trigger. But you didn’t do a thing to stop the one who did. You sat around and let it happen. You were more interested in saying, “Not me!” than you were in saying, “I’m sorry this horrible thing happened to you.”
And every time someone says, “Every single boy?”, they’re doing it again. And again.
I don’t remember specifically which boys did and did not take part in this “amusing little prank.” I was nine. But I do remember that nobody stopped them. And that, more than the experience itself, is the problem.
I’m a Pagan and speculative fiction author, a professional blogger, and a musician. I’m proudly Canadian and proudly LGBTQ. My politics are decidedly left and if you ask for my opinion, expect an honest answer. I own a dog and am owned by a cat. I used to work part time at a bookstore and I love to read, especially about faith, philosophy, science, and sci-fi and fantasy.
I’m sitting in a punk bar in April with an out-of-town socialist. He gets passionate, telling me how disappointing he finds May Day rallies back home – how the local AFL-CIO plays it safe by stumping for Democrats, while other activists demonstrate about immigration, feminism, and “anything besides class.”
“Why can’t this one day be for workers?” he sighs.
Overall, they both claim that US progressivism must pick one of their two competing orientations: liberal centrism or social democracy. Identity politics or universalism – which way forward?
Should workers have a holiday to themselves?
But there’s a flaw underlying the clashing-visions narrative. Both worldviews fundamentally misunderstand the nature of race, gender, class, and capitalism – and they do so in precisely the same way.
But in pre-capitalist society the work of each member of the community of serfs was seen to be directed to a purpose: either to the prosperity of the feudal lord or to our survival. To this extent the whole community of serfs was compelled to be co-operative in a unity of unfreedom that involved to the same degree women, children and men, which capitalism had to break. In this sense the unfree individual, the democracy of unfreedom entered into a crisis. The passage from serfdom to free labor power separated the male from the female proletarian and both of them from their children. The unfree patriarch was transformed into the “free” wage earner, and upon the contradictory experience of the sexes and the generations was built a more profound estrangement and therefore a more subversive relation.
Liberals say that opposing identity oppression means letting class politics go. Social democrats respond that they can walk and chew gum – class-based organizing can and should coexist with a strong anti-discrimination program.
But does either stance square with what race, gender, and privilege materially are?
Under capitalism, most people take part in the work that keeps society running and produces all goods and services. Sometimes that work is paid; sometimes it isn’t. In either case, though, it isn’t controlled by the people who do it. Rather, economic activity is governed by a ruling class of investors and business owners, called capitalists. They accumulate wealth by exploiting the paid and unpaid work carried out by everyone else: the working class, broadly defined. The capitalist class holds power by owning capital (productive property, the objects that workers use to produce goods and services).
The capitalist economy is enormously complex. It requires an elaborate, worldwide division of labor. The ruling class dictates the terms on which that happens. Further, the capitalists know that they don’t actually contribute to the work. Their role boils down to accumulating capital and keeping themselves in charge.
So, when dividing up labor, they hit two targets at once.
But the ruling class has figured out that it can associate different social categories with the expectation and/or requirement that their members will engage in certain types of work. When they do that, the working class itself begins to organically adapt to the capitalist division of labor. The gender role of womanhood, for instance, has unpaid gendered labor built into it. The capitalist class doesn’t send a memo to every individual woman each morning that reads, “Today we need you to clean the kitchen and comfort you boyfriend when he’s upset.” But on the ground, women, not men, are almost always the ones who do that type of work. How does that happen? Well, men have learned a social role that includes having that done for them, and women have learned one that includes doing it. Every time they re-enact those roles, they re-create them; the repeated experience of behaving the way others expect based on gender causes people to internalize those expectations, which then leads them to project them back onto others. The division of labor happens through identity categories, and it plays out in a way that keeps reinforcing them.
Of course, capitalists don’t rely on the working class to keep doing that entirely on its own. They actively intervene in daily life to keep the categories strong. While that does involve the mass media, religious doctrine, and the education system promoting stereotypes and unequal expectations, propaganda is only part of the story. Rather, the ruling class sustains and reinforces identity groups by treating some of them much worse than others. By punishing (legally or socially) those who cross category lines, it keeps the distinctions clear. Racial profiling by police helps keep certain neighborhoods white. When a church excommunicates gays, it ensures that its parishioners’ households are headed by men and produce lots of children.
Additionally, by granting cultural, legal, and material benefits to some identity groups but not others, the ruling class shores up its power. After all, when part of the working class does comparatively better as a result of the division of labor, it’s less likely to unite with the rest of the class to challenge the system overall. That’s how privilege works: it simultaneously emerges from and contributes to the capitalist division of labor, and does so in a way that pits privileged workers against the rest of their class.
Activists must understand the ways that the particular historical experiences of the United States wove race and class together that makes fighting white supremacy central to any revolutionary project. In other words, those who wish to fight against all forms of authoritarianism must understand one crucial fact of American politics—in America authority is colored white.
Race and gender don’t hover out there in the aether, independent of economic reality. If something exists, it exists in the material world. Nothing within the class system is outside the class system. Economics is more than dollars and class is more than tax brackets. Patriarchy, white supremacy, and empire aren’t extraneous features of capitalism. They’re as fundamental to it as selling products on the market. They exist because every day, people make goods and services, keeping society alive according to the division of labor embodied by identity divisions. Combined with unequal treatment, that makes sure the division of labor will still be up and running the next day. Without such a division of labor and disparity of benefits, the working class would not be as productive as the ruling class needs it to be. Without privilege to undermine the basis for class unity, the capitalists would have a revolution on their hands.
My acquaintance in the punk bar, however, didn’t view gender and race as indispensable ingredients of the class system. He wasn’t a bigot, and he supported anti-racism and feminism on moral grounds. Even so, his understanding didn’t root them in the everyday, material life of capitalism. He knew that women workers and immigrant workers are workers, no less than their white male counterparts. But, he still operated with the implicit assumption that capitalism, in general, tries to make workers as interchangeable as possible.
Apart from the skilled trades, the only jobs in which individual qualifications make a substantial difference are professional and white-collar work. Now, it’s true in principle that a less-diverse and less-qualified administrative workforce operates less effectively than one that rewards talent, rather than whiteness and maleness. But a big-box retailer doesn’t need a stocker to have an unusual talent for stacking boxes. The nature of the work is such that most any worker can do it as well as another. For most jobs, unique individual qualifications don’t really make much difference.
As more and more jobs get de-skilled, employers lose the incentive to hire based on applicants’ distinctive qualifications. Over time, specialist knowledge declines as a factor in assigning work. Patriarchy, white supremacy, and imperialism don’t. Maintaining those divisions of labor allows companies to exploit non-white, non-Western, and non-male workers at extra-high rates. That then creates downward pressure on privileged workers’ pay. De-skilling doesn’t make the working class less differentiated. It makes it more so.
And every corporation knows that whatever it loses by discriminating against qualified administrators, it makes up a thousandfold by keeping the overall division of labor intact.
Capitalism is a totalizing social system. It’s not just fiscal. Race, nation, and gender are among its components. Without them, it could not function. Had it not imposed them, it would not have been able to come into being. But social democrats and liberals don’t quite grasp that. Instead, they view gender, class, and race as more-or-less independent “vectors of oppression” that might inflect each other when they intersect, but still don’t reduce to any shared underlying cause.
And so, liberals and social democrats end up holding in common the view that class, in principle, is ultimately raceless and genderless. They agree that capitalism and privilege exist, but that opposing one doesn’t require opposing the other. They differ on only one point: social democrats say “both/and” to identity and class, while liberals say “either/or.”
Neither view is adequate. Their shared assumption isn’t true.
White supremacy is a system that grants those defined as “white” special privileges in American society, such as preferred access to the best schools, neighborhoods, jobs, and health care; greater advantages in accumulating wealth; a lesser likelihood of imprisonment; and better treatment by the police and the criminal justice system. In exchange for these privileges, whites agree to police the rest of the population through such means as slavery and segregation in the past and through formally “colorblind” policies and practices today that still serve to maintain white advantage. White supremacy, then, unites one section of the working class with the ruling class against the rest of the working class. This cross-class alliance represents the principle obstacle, strategically speaking, to revolution in the United States. Given the United States’ imperial power, this alliance has global implications.
The central task of a new organization should be to break up this unholy alliance between the ruling class and the white working class by attacking the system of white privilege and the subordination of people of color.
But what difference does this make on the ground? Doesn’t good socialist practice still mean pro-worker economics plus anti-racist, feminist social politics? Whether or not it’s all a unitary system, what is concretely at stake?
If race, gender, and empire are inherent to capitalism, the meaning of “good socialist practice” starts to shift.
If a socialist revolution is to happen, the working class must unite. If the class is to unite, revolutionaries must challenge the material and cultural basis of its disunity. So, every political project the Left undertakes needs to specifically challenge privilege within the working class, not sweep it under the rug to avoid “divisiveness.” If your organizing doesn’t meet that standard, you’re not building class unity. You’re tearing it down. There is no raceless and genderless class politics because there is no raceless and genderless class. So, trying to compartmentalize anti-privilege and anti-capitalist work is implicitly chauvinistic (except when it’s explicitly so!). The Left must reject all politics that doesn’t break down intra-class privilege, even when it comes from “our side.”
The social-democratic revival waxes nostalgic for the postwar welfare state, calling for “universal social goods” with anti-discrimination laws tacked on. Its proponents posit a revival of Scandinavian-style social programs as a bulwark against the populist Right and a viable “long game” anti-capitalist strategy. But welfare nostalgia doesn’t naturally lead towards revolutionary socialism. Due to its backwards-looking frame of reference, it fits more intuitively with welfare chauvinism: the tactic used by far-right leaders, from Marine Le Pen to Richard Spencer, of promising to restore not only the social-democratic redistribution, but also the much harsher identity hierarchies of the pre-70s years. And in practice, even avowedly left-wing social democrats are not immune to welfare-chauvinist temptations. Jeremy Corbyn and Sahra Wagenknecht‘s stated anti-racism hasn’t kept them from demanding immigration restrictions. Angela Nagle‘s claimed feminism doesn’t stop her from scapegoating trans people for the sins of online call-out culture.
The social-democratic “both/and” doesn’t work. Why should it? It attempts to sidestep the question of privilege within the class, not attack it. Opposing privilege as a matter of class-neutral morality rather than working-class strategy leans, over time, towards chauvinism.
For the consequences of the ending of white supremacy, which can only be ended by mobilizing and raising the consciousness of the entire working class, would extend far beyond the point of spreading out the misery more equitably. The result of such a struggle would be a working class that was class conscious, highly organized, experienced and militant – in short, united – and ready to confront the ruling class as a solid block. The ending of white supremacy does not pose the slightest peril to the real interests of the white workers; it definitely poses a peril to their fancied interests, their counterfeit interest, their white-skin privileges.
Does this mean radicals should take a two-stage approach: anti-discrimination now, socialism later?
Both privileged and specially-oppressed parts of the working class have two sets of interests: long-term and short-term. For non-privileged workers, there’s a long-term interest in abolishing capitalism and a short-term interest in eliminating privilege. Privilege is part of capitalism and specially-oppressed workers stand to benefit straightforwardly from getting rid of the system and all of its parts. Privileged workers, though, are in a bind. They share other workers’ long-term interest in ending capitalism. But in the short term, privilege makes their lives better. So, their long-term and short-term interests contradict each other; they share the former with their entire class, but the latter keeps them from recognizing it. Strategically, the trick is to organize privileged workers around their long-term interests – even though that means opposing their own short-term interests.
Liberal anti-discrimination, however, doesn’t do that. It doesn’t want to. There’s a reason it focuses on academia, middle-class professions, and the coverage of media stars with oppressed backgrounds. That flows naturally from its class basis. It aims to remove the barriers that keep middle-class and upper-class members of oppressed identity groups from enjoying full middle/upper-class success. However, that success consists of exploiting working-class people, including those who share their identities.
Privilege and class aren’t separate. The Left’s work against them can’t afford to be, either.
If May Day is about immigrants and feminism, doesn’t that mean it’s about workers?
So how should the Left proceed?
If the unitary view of class and privilege rejects liberal anti-discrimination, it also leads away from standard welfare-statist anti-austerity. Should leftists oppose austerity? They shouldn’t support it, since its implementation (like the welfare state’s before it) is done in a way that strengthens capitalist rule (including by shoring up privilege). But the Left’s goal can’t be a return to the postwar “golden years.” Revolutionaries can’t afford nostalgia.
Rather, directly tackling the basis of class rule (including privilege) can best happen outside the framework of state services and legislation. You can conceptualize it through an anarchist, Marxist, municipalist, or whatever other lens, but in the end, only the dual power strategy‘s institution-building approach allows radicals to confront the capitalist class while challenging the division of labor it imposes.
What does that look like in practice?
Q-Patrol in Seattle, WA claims that gentrification in the gay district is behind the past several years’ sharply-rising hate violence. The influx of wealthy software engineers drives up rent and displaces LGBTQ people (replacing them with sometimes-homophobic tech yuppies). Consequently, the neighborhood’s ability to function as a safe haven declines. Losing that “critical mass” of LGBTQ people makes the area more attractive to straight college students looking for nightlife. So, with more drunk, conservative straight people in the district, increased hate violence isn’t exactly a surprise.
Gay business owners, though, have called for more police in the area to quell attacks. But a greater police presence actually accelerates the process. The people most targeted by homophobic and transphobic assaults are often people of color, unhoused people, and/or sex workers. The police themselves harass and sometimes attack members of those groups. Meanwhile, their ambient presence emboldens the same well-off bigots who are behind the violence in the first place.
Q-Patrol’s solution is a community safety patrol, preventing and intervening in attacks while monitoring the police, Copwatch-style. Q-Patrol therefore resists gentrification (which threatens all working-class people in the area, LGBTQ or straight) by displacing an ostensible function of the police (protecting the community). The institution-building strategy hinges on this kind of function displacement. Capitalist institutions organize different aspects of life in ways that reinforce privilege and the division of labor. If leftists build counter-institutions, people can use them organize those same parts of life in ways that don’t do that.
Because its basic work is preventing hate violence and its roots are directly in the LGBTQ community, Q-Patrol directly challenges straight privilege. However, it does so in a way that simultaneously furthers the interests of the neighborhood’s entire working class, straights included. There’s no “both/and”-ism – it doesn’t artificially pin anti-discrimination onto supposedly raceless and gender-free “class issues.” Instead, its work intrinsically and organically does both at once.
That’s the approach the Left needs. The conflict between social democracy and “identity politics” is a red herring. They share a worldview in which privilege and class exist independently of each other. Because of that, both end up supporting capitalism and privilege, since materially, they are the same system. Neither liberals nor social democrats, though, are interested in attacking that system as the coherent, integrated whole that it actually is. Revolutionaries can’t afford that limited perspective. If May Day isn’t about women and immigrants, then it’s not about class.
The Left must confront the class system itself, challenging the ruling class and its division of labor. Radicals shouldn’t fight one limb of the system in a way that strengthens another. Autonomous working-class politics, based on the dual power strategy of institution-building, has a chance of breaking out of that trap.
Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children.
Now, some of that can’t yet be helped. After barely existing for decades, the Left has re-emerged into an environment dominated by neoliberalism. But ultimately, external conditions don’t excuse its failure. Yes, the rules of the game are stacked against it. You can curse that fact all day and all night, but in the end, leftists have not adapted to a situation that they know will remain hostile. Sure, they’re hampered by unfriendly conditions – but the Left’s internal problems are what prevent it from meeting that challenge. Unless revolutionaries change their political practice, they will remain what they are now: visible and ineffective.
But what can radicals do differently?
Your ideas do not entitle you to be taken seriously.
Socialists know their theory and they know their Russian history. So what? That by itself does no one any good. Nobody owes you a hearing – the people you want to organize don’t owe you a single thing.
This isn’t about branding. Should radicals say “communism,” “socialism,” or a euphemism like “economic democracy?” Should they drop 20th-century leftist iconography? Who cares? The issue isn’t which symbols the Left uses. Rather, it’s the way radical organizing so rarely commits to specific communities, stays for the long haul, builds up useful institutions, and lays the groundwork to expand them.
Sure, it’s better to have compelling rhetoric than not; neither talking down to people nor academic obscurantism does leftists any favors. The dichotomy between impenetrable theory-speak and over-simplified sloganeering both proceeds from and reinforces the distance between most socialists and the constituencies they seek. Those are bad habits not only of speech, but also of thought. If you don’t talk like a human being to people, it doesn’t matter if what you’re saying is true. It ends up irrelevant to real life, and it makes you sound like a jackass.
In the end, though, language and presentation aren’t the root issues. Your ideology isn’t necessarily what you believe. It’s what you’ve internalized through practice. If that mostly consists of debating on Facebook and reading articles, then your language and thought patterns will reflect that. Intentionally or not, you learn to think and speak in the way that works best for what you’re actually doing. Similarly, if most of your activism involves going to protests with liberals, then you’ll learn to be concerned with how to make radical ideas sound good to moderate ears. Why wouldn’t you bend over backwards to avoid scary words like “communism?” (Of course, that does mean other activists will think you’ve got something to hide. They aren’t fools – if you aren’t quite saying what you mean, then people will treat you accordingly. Trying to dodge the stigma attached to radicalism rather than confronting it just comes off as dishonest.)
That said, though, revolutionary leftism does still carry a lot of stigma. Most people’s default attitude towards it is skepticism. But if innovative rhetoric isn’t enough to push past that, what is?
What does get taken seriously?
You have to deliver results. You have to prove that when you act on your ideas, your community’s life gets better. You have credibility only to the extent that when you organize a project, it gives people more power and a better conditions in a concrete, tangible, material way. If you put that off until after the revolution (or after your socialist candidate wins), your revolution will never arrive. No one will support you besides a few political hobbyists – and why should they?
Are your ideas insightful and true? Prove it. If you can’t deliver, your ideas are wrong. No one will or should listen to your arguments unless you show, in practice, that they mean something (no matter how hostile the external conditions).
In Washington State, Tacoma Clinic Defense believes that anti-abortion fundamentalists should not be allowed to picket in front of clinics. Its participants began claiming that when anti-choicers are marginalized and isolated, life improves for the whole community. So, they went out to prove it: they physically placed themselves in front of the protesters at reproductive health clinics. By providing a calm, positive, and visible pro-choice presence, they functioned as a “lightning rod,” drawing the anti-choicers’ attention away from their intended targets. They did so every time the fundamentalists showed up – and, over time, the picketers got demoralized. Fewer and fewer of them turned out, and those who did became less bold. Now, after several years of attrition, the fundamentalists no longer come to the clinics at all. They’ve been reduced to holding small, silent prayer circles several blocks away, out of sight of the patients. People respect Tacoma Clinic Defense and its ideas – it got results. It went into the field and proved its ideas true.
How many socialist groups can say the same?
And a lot of people will tell you, by the way, Well, the people don’t have any theory, they need some theory. They need some theory even if they don’t have any practice. And the Black Panther Party tells you that if a man tells you that he’s the type of man who has you buying candy bars and eating the wrapping and throwing the candy away, he’d have you walking East when you’re supposed to be walking West. Its true. If you listen to what the pig says, you be walkin’ outside when the sun is shining with your umbrella over your head. And when it’s raining you’ll be goin’ outside leaving your umbrella inside. That’s right. You gotta get it together. I’m saying that’s what they have you doing.
Now, what do WE do? We say that the Breakfast For Children program is a socialistic program. It teaches the people basically that by practice, we thought up and let them practice that theory and inspect that theory. What’s more important? You learn something just like everybody else.
Why do so many working-class people align with Protestant fundamentalism?
Christian Right churches give them reasons to join. Their safety net often out-competes the government’s; they offer food and clothing and shelter, community, existential purpose, social support, help with childcare and elder care, and even mental health services (through pastoral counseling and 12-step groups). That’s how the Christian Right has gotten such a massive and well-organized base. Its network of parallel institutions allows it to wield disproportionate power. In Texas, for instance, the Christian Right dominates state politics – but only 31% of Texans are evangelical Protestants! There is power in a base of autonomous institutions.
The revolutionary Left doesn’t offer much competition. Why not learn from the enemy? Radicals can prove through practice that they can build programs that not only improve people’s material conditions, but also operate according to participatory democracy (which Christian Right churches do not). If that alternative was there, how many more poor and working people might become radical? Most people don’t choose to become socialists because socialism isn’t offering them anything they need. It’s perfectly reasonable to reject an ideology that talks big but isn’t actually improving your life.
If you want support, build something that works.
Nothing better defines Trump’s appeal, nor Obama’s before it, than a feeling of finally being heard. Though Trump made some memorable campaign promises (the wall, the travel ban, etc.), he offered participation in an affect — despair where Obama once offered “hope” — more than he appealed with plausible political proposals. And the liberal reaction to the Trump presidency continues in this political mode. 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.
Ideas come from social practice. Whether or not you’re conscious of it, your worldview is made of the lessons your practice has taught you. For instance, most working-class people reject electoral politics not due to revolutionary theory, but because it’s shown itself to be useless – no matter which politicians win, things keep getting worse. Until revolutionaries start delivering actual results, the class they want to organize will not embrace their ideas, either. All the rhetoric in the world means nothing if it can’t help feed your kids.
The approach most US leftists take isn’t working. However, a few groups have found success by taking a different approach:
The nondenominational radicals of Philly Socialists have brought hundreds into their organization and its larger projects. Their free food service, ESL classes, and tenants union materially improve people’s lives and offer the experience of participatory democracy, albeit on a restricted scale.
In the 60s and 70s, the communists of the Black Panther Party and its counterparts (the Young Lords, the Young Patriots, Rising Up Angry, and others) attracted thousands of participants. Their Breakfast for Schoolchildren programs, Freedom Schools, health clinics, and armed patrols against police racism fed people, treated people, educated their children, and reduced the danger of police brutality.
Don’t believe it when people say that there could never be a mass revolutionary movement in the US. It won’t be easy to create one. The Left will be struggling every step of the way, since larger political conditions do make a difference. But so do conditions within the Left. The US Left may not succeed. But, if it adopts a strategy of institution-building through confrontation, construction, and deep organizing, then it will, at least, stand a chance.
“Democracy is our saviour, the West’s gift to the world.” That is until the vote doesn’t go the right way…”
From Emma Kathryn
Brexit. You’ve probably heard the term and know what it means. The UK’s plan to leave the European Union.
It’s become something of a dirty word (and not the good kind!), with those who voted to leave being called everything from thick to racist to ignorant by the mainstream media. Now, I’m sure there are many that fall into this category, who voted because they thought that leaving the EU would end immigration, that no more would foreigners be able to come and use what we have made for ourselves.
However, I do believe that most people who voted to leave did so for many other reasons. I voted to leave and I am not racist; indeed immigration had nothing to do with the reasons I chose to vote to leave, and I do think that it’s the same for most people who voted to leave.
Humans have always migrated – how else have we colonised the globe? From the very earliest of times, humans have moved across the face of the Earth, searching for food, water, fertile lands. We continue to do so today, seeking out better economic chances, safety from war and so on. My own grandparents were immigrants, coming to England in the early 1950’s from Jamaica.
I would never be against anyone seeking to improve their life, or the lives of their families, would do it myself if I had to.
When Britain does finally, if ever, leave the EU, will immigration stop? Er, no, and so it shouldn’t. So why else would someone choose to leave the EU then, if not to curb immigration?
Now, I’ll admit, when the European Union was first created, the intentions were good. Why shouldn’t you have good trade agreements with your closest continental neighbours? So what’s the problem then? Well, governments are my problem!
Governments become so big and cumbersome, unwieldy and unanswerable to the very people for whom they were first created to help. The EU is no different. Look at the Common Fisheries Policy, the EU imposed limits on the weights of fish trawlers can catch. Sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it, in a world where there is increasingly more plastic than fish in the oceans? In theory, it sounds fantastic. But what happens when a trawler, having hauled in its nets and weighed its catch, has too much? Well, those dead fish have to be tipped back into the ocean. How does that help conservation? It doesn’t.
There are countless other little bureaucracies that I could cite.
Ultimately though, my issues with the EU are not much different from the issues I have with my own government, or any government, come to that, regardless of the party in charge at any given time.
I don’t like politicians, or most of them anyway, like 99.9% of them. I’m sure there are those that enter politics because they want to make a change, but you know the saying, how power corrupts and all of that. Show me an honest politician and I’ll show you a liar. You see it time and time again, when they’re interviewed and can’t give a straight answer. It’s always spin, how can they use this or that event to gain votes, to gain more power, to make themselves look good. All the time!
I don’t know about in other parts of the world, but in Britain there are few trustworthy MP’s. Look at scandals like the MP’s expenses where they use tax money to pay for the upkeep of their duck ponds, or to buy houses, because you know, we all know how poor MP’s are. Politicians have no idea what it’s like to live and work in the real world. How can they, when being a politician is all that they have done, straight from their elite colleges?
So what does this have to do with the EU? Well, one government trying to fuck us over is enough, thank you. Don’t think those MEP’s don’t claim ridiculous expenses, or are quick to lower the power of vacuums all in the name of the environment, yet Juncker, the President of the European Commission thinks nothing of spending twenty five grand on a private jet to Rome.
The truth is that I have no idea who represents me in the European parliament, no idea how they got there or who voted for them, what they believe in or what their visions are. I can guarantee you that most British people, the ordinary, everyday people who just want to go to work and then come home and enjoy their lives, who just want to get on, will feel the same.
I get that leaving the EU might be scary to some. Better the devil you know and all of that. But how can we ever hope for change when we are too scared to do anything but hang on to a system that just doesn’t work?
Sometimes I think that we have a tendency to put on those rose tinted glasses whenever we are at the precipice of change. The EU isn’t as great as some of the remainer’s would have us believe. Have we forgotten the PIGS countries (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain), all countries who have fared particularly bad in economic terms under the EU’s single currency, even against the backdrop of the wider global financial crisis. And if we take a look at Greece, and all of the cuts faced by the people who live there, cuts forced by the EU, on the ordinary, everyday people, then we can see all isn’t as rosy as some would have us think.
The EU acts like a bully boy when it doesn’t get its own way, as do many of the world’s governments. I understand that negotiating the terms of departure is going to take some extremely important and detailed, and no doubt tense discussions on how we depart from the political structure that is the European Union, but all you have to do is look at the rhetoric it uses when discussing Britain’s departure. Listen to or read any news outlet and you’ll see that they demand this and threaten that.
“Democracy is our saviour, the West’s gift to the world.” That is until the vote doesn’t go the ‘right way’, when the result isn’t the one intended. Everyone thought that Britain would vote to remain in the EU. It really was a shocker. Even today you’ll still hear people saying ”Yes well, you only won by a slim margin.” I bet they wouldn’t have been saying that if the results had been reversed, if Britain had voted to remain. Even now, there are calls for a second referendum, because, you know, we didn’t know what we were voting for the first time round, or so the media are always telling us.
I ultimately think that most people, when they went out to vote, didn’t feel strongly either way. I didn’t know for sure which way I would vote until the very day. And that’s part of the problem as well. Politics has become so far removed from the everyday lives of the people. We don’t trust politicians. Their slick words no longer fool us, and yet, we feel powerless to do anything else than to go out and vote for whoever we believe will be the lesser of two evils.
We go out and vote with the knowledge that whoever we vote for will likely screw us over in one way or another.
Ultimately, whatever happens, I don’t think much will change, not for folks like me or you. There will be good things and there will be bad things, and like most of the problems this world faces, the man-made problems at least, we will be the ones who face the brunt of it. Not our politicians, not the rich, nor the elite. It will be the everyday folks, like me and you, as it has ever been, who will bear the brunt of whatever our governments decide.
My name is Emma Kathryn, an eclectic witch, my path is a mixture of traditional European witchcraft, voodoo and obeah, a mixture representing my heritage. I live in the middle of England in a little town in Nottinghamshire, with my partner, two teenage sons and two crazy dogs, Boo and Dexter. When not working in a bookshop full time, I like to spend time with my family outdoors, with the dogs. And weaving magick, of course!
Now, Hedges’ article is absurd and offensive, coming only days after neo-Nazis murdered an anti-fascist in Charlottesville. His position does not perceptibly differ from Donald Trump’s (despite hedging that “[t]here is no moral equivalency between antifa and the alt-right” in a piece otherwise dedicated to saying that there is). However, the spuriousness of Hedges’ particular argument doesn’t mean there isn’t a stronger case for his position. The Left must engage with it. Do Black Blocs try to cut off fascism at the stem in a way that makes it harder to pull up the root? Does diverting activist-hours towards fighting openly-proclaimed racism distract us from white supremacy’s more normalized, but more pervasive faces?
Is antifa just toxic, hypermasculine catharsis? Does it hamper actual institution-building?
On Inauguration Day, the University of Washington’s College Republicans booked Milo Yiannopoulos to speak. The thousands-strong counter-inaugural march began in downtown Seattle. Before it reached campus, the anti-Yiannopoulos protesters were severely outnumbered by the combined forces of unsympathetic cops and fedora-wearing rightists. Liberal friends on the scene texted me – people who’d only ever had contempt for “brick-throwers” said how thankful they were for the Black Bloc of a couple dozen. The “masked extremists” had placed themselves between the right-wingers and everyone else, physically shielding them from fascist violence.
That night, a Trump supporter shot an anti-fascist in the stomach. Of those present with whom I’ve spoken, not one has doubted that without the Bloc’s buffer, the alt-right’s violence would have been far worse.
I am a pastor in Charlottesville, and antifa saved my life twice on Saturday. Indeed, they saved many lives from psychological and physical violence—I believe the body count could have been much worse, as hard as that is to believe. Thankfully, we had robust community defense standing up to white supremacist violence this past weekend.
I live in a city with a large and lively protest scene. The police department’s repressiveness is regionally infamous. At virtually every major protest – Black Lives Matter, May Day, anti-fascist, whatever else – riot police show up spoiling for a fight. Typically, they deploy pepper spray, flashbang grenades, and rubber bullets. Most demonstrations are explicitly advertised as “peaceful.” When violence breaks out, it’s usually one-sided: police hurting protesters. Never once have I seen the violence initiated by anyone besides a fascist or a cop.
Most big protests attract at least a small Black Bloc. They rarely pick fights. Instead, they act as a de facto collective bodyguard: by placing their bodies in front of the police and/or fascists, they take flashbang burns and Proud Boy punches so others don’t have to. Black Bloc, in practice, is usually a defensive tactic. The debate around whether “violently confronting fascism” is effective and/or justified usually elides this. Do anti-fascist protests often get violent? Sure. But the antifa aren’t striking first. Without them, it would be everyone else getting the stuffing kicked out of them – not just those who choose to mask up and accept the risk.
Should antifa use violence to proactively deny fascists’ free speech? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? On the ground, fascists (and their police enablers) are not restricting themselves to rhetorical violence. Even a counter-protest that scrupulously avoids preventing fascist speech (rather than simply expressing opposition) will find itself on the receiving end of the alt-right’s very literal violence. Blanket denunciations of antifa smell suspiciously like victim-blaming. How can our protests avoid violence when it’s the other side that attacks?
But there’s still a larger critique. Tactical specifics aside, is directly confronting fascists effective? Does it alienate potential supporters? How does it get us closer to socialism?
Hoping and praying for things to work themselves out for the better won’t work. Efforts at trying to isolate yourself, your family, and your community and shield it from the repression that is coming won’t work. Trump and the reactionary forces that he embodies and represents must be defeated, politically, socially, and economically. Solidarity and joint struggle are our greatest forms of both offensive and defensive resistance. But, the solidarity must be practical, programmatic, and visionary.
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. What follows are some preliminary thoughts on what we believe must be built and/or strengthened going forward, to not only survive the Trumpocalype, but to build the world we and our children and great grandchildren need.
In 2015, alt-rightists connected to Richard Spencer and Andrew Anglin (of the Daily Stormer blog) organized a doxxing campaign against Jewish residents of Whitefish, Montana. It escalated to a planned “day of action,” for which neo-Nazis would bus into Whitefish. When antifa-oriented leftists and less-militant civic groups collaborated to prepare an on-the-ground response, the entire fascist effort was aborted due to the opposition they knew they’d face. That coalition emerged from years of base-building by anti-fascists within Whitefish. As Shane Burley reported:
The adaptation the community made to the racist threat presents lessons for the ongoing confrontation with the white nationalism. The base building had been done not for months, but years, and the slow process helped to further radicalize a town that could barely pass an anti-hate resolution a couple of years before. Likewise, with two different approaches to the issue, with the softer community organizing from Love Lives Here on the one side and the direct confrontation presented by Antifa on the other, can have a synthesis. Without the long-term community engagement presented by the Montana Human Rights Network, there wouldn’t be a broadly unified community to resist the invasion, and without organizations willing to confront the protest directly, it could have still taken place.
But how does that fit into the larger socialist strategy of institution-building? After all, the Left wants more than to merely frustrate the far right. We have even bigger enemies and a much bigger goal. Even if antifa constitutes legitimate political confrontation, isn’t positive construction more important?
Construction and confrontation need each other. The tension between them is creative, and in order for the Dual Power strategy to work, each of them has to be shaping and supporting the other. In Marxist lingo, they form a dialectic.
If you have both, though, then construction meets people’s needs and helps them survive. That boosts their capacity to engage in confrontation by freeing up time and energy. Plus, it brings credibility to advocates of confrontation – radical rhetoric is nothing next to learning through practice that revolutionary politics feeds your kids. Confrontation then helps prevent those programs from being destroyed or co-opted. It also removes exclusionary barriers that prevent more extensive construction. Through confrontation, a network of people developed through construction learns to trust and rely on each other. Finally, those united through confrontation can be solidified into a lasting group through construction – pushing past a singular event into a durable institution of collective power. Confrontation and construction each create the conditions for the other to expand.
To make steel, you combine pig iron and oxygen. You can’t build much with either ingredient alone, but when brought together correctly? Something very strong comes out. Construction and confrontation depend on each other the same way. It’s true that if your radicalism begins and ends with confrontation, you’ve missed the point. But when a liberal like Chris Hedges dismisses confrontation out of hand, he isn’t providing a necessary corrective. He’s just claiming you can make steel out of nothing but air.
*Equivalent language includes “build and fight,” “alternative institutions and counter-institutions,” “base-building and mass mobilization,” “constructive program and obstructive program,” and the slogan “fight the power, serve the people.”
A boy’s father has spent his life fighting for a cause he believes in. Despite the fact that he lives far away in another country, he sends aid in the form of money to the cause overseas. Eventually the father packs up the whole family and moves back to his homeland to fight for that cause.
The boy, eight years old, has never once seen that homeland, though he’s been told about it his whole life. Once he gets there he is forced to live a life in hiding, moving from place to place. At one point he is required to disguise himself as a girl in a culture that is repressive to women. He sees his father intermittently, if at all, but is desperate to make a connection with him.
In the meantime his father, who is in prison for suspected activities with fringe radical groups, is hospitalized for a hunger strike. Later he is released due to lack of evidence of wrongdoing.
Eventually the boy is old enough to join the cause. Desperate to be noticed by his father, he is taken along by a militant group as a translator. During that time he starts training in the use of firearms and other weaponry. He is fourteen years old.
While he is in a house with several full-grown men, and at least one woman and a child, soldiers from a foreign country set up a perimeter. It is part of a series of huts with a granary and a stone wall in the desert. There are weapons on the property. Is it a militant’s complex? Perhaps it is. The foreign soldiers seem to think so.
The soldiers bang on the door of the gate. The men inside tell the soldiers that they are villagers, but the soldiers demand to search the house regardless of their affiliation. They tell them to go away.
45 minutes later the support arrives. Now the house is surrounded by fifty foreign soldiers and a hundred locals. One goes to demand their surrender and is stopped by gunfire. One of the men in the group that the boy is with opens fire.
The woman and the small child flee while the firestorm is going on. The foreign soldiers are shooting at the people in the complex. The people in the complex are shooting at the soldiers. Now the boy, age fifteen, is caught in this conflict, and he knows that regardless of what the men he was with were doing or why they were there, now they are shooting at him.
The bloodbath is catastrophic. The militants in the compound manage to wound some of the foreign soldiers with grenades, but the soldiers call for medevac. Apaches show up and strafe the area, then take their wounded away. Then a pair of Warthogs arrive and blast everything into glass with several 500 lb bombs.
More troops arrive. Now there are a hundred foreign soldiers on the ground. Everything is burning. All the people the boy knows are screaming. Some are on fire. Some are watching their blood pour out onto the ground. Some are missing limbs. Some have no face left. He is one of two survivors of the air strike.
The foreign soldiers come in. A grenade is thrown. Most duck, but it lands near the rear of the group and goes off. A Special Operations soldier serving that day as an (armed) combat medic is fatally wounded in the explosion.
The troops move across the field and see a man with two chest wounds and a holstered pistol reaching for an AK-47. A special forces soldier with a classified identity shoots him in the head and kills him. When the dust clears, the special forces soldier sees the boy crouched, facing away from the action, and shoots him twice in the back.
The boy is allowed to recover. They learn his identity, and that despite being attached to this militant group, he is a citizen of one of the foreign country’s most important allies.
In the meantime a garbled version of events begins to erupt. Another soldier on the scene has a different story about shooting the boy three times in the chest, while he was reaching for a grenade.
This is almost certainly not an intentional falsehood. Those who have been in a life-threatening situation know that under those conditions it is easy to make a mistake. It is almost impossible to remember all the specific details when people are screaming and dying around you, especially if you have caused any of those wounds! Humans are not designed to kill each other. It messes us up.
But people are angry because a soldier died. And so they believe one soldier’s version of events over the other’s, though medical evidence suggests otherwise.
The boy is denied important surgery for damage to his eyes in order to force him to confess information. The allied government begins to get involved in his case. They are put off, denied, and not informed of the information they request, because the foreign government has reason to believe that the boy knows quite a lot about the force they are fighting, and they mean to get that information by whatever means necessary.
Then members of his own government collude in the interrogation! Theoretically there to defend him, his own government betrays him. They work to coerce a confession. that he has murdered a soldier unlawfully, by promising to bring him home.
And when he has recovered in part from his wounds, they send him to a prison for terrorists that is notorious for torture and abuse of its prisoners, despite his government’s requests, first, that they not do so, and then, that they are told when it happens. He is fifteen.
What happens to him there? I have no urge to repeat it because it is horrific by anyone’s standards. We can say three things for a fact:
One is that evidence is indeed found that show that the boy was actively involved in terrorist acts. He wired a detonator cord. He says at one point during his captivity that he intended to fight because he was told that the soldier were making a war to kill all the people of his faith.
The second is that the boy is tortured, repeatedly, and by a lot of different people. The worst of them, the one that everyone claims he is lying about, is convicted of abusing detainees to extract confessions when another of his charges dies from the abuse. I have no desire to repeat it, but because this, sadly, is a true story, you can read about it here.
The third thing we know is that he is told that if he confesses to throwing the grenade that killed the (armed) combat medic, he will get to go home. Back to his original home, the allied nation of the foreign soldiers who have him, the place where he was born. A place that by now must seem like a myth, or a distant dream.
He is lied to. He does not get to go home. When one member of the allied nation’s diplomatic efforts fail to return the boy, that member resigns in disgust.
A long saga begins. More torture and deprivation in prison. Legal challenges, lawsuits, demands for the right of habeas corpus. There are even sham tribunals to rival the darkest horror story you’ve ever heard of a fascist dictatorship. Nothing moves the foreign nation who has him, and nothing moves his home nation to intervene for him; not even Amnesty International and the UN Council on Human Rights.
At last he is sent back to a prison in his home country when he finally pleads guilty, after another year in this horrible prison. There he is locked up in a maximum security prison. It is a distinct improvement.
Pleas to treat him as a child soldier, or as a juvenile offender, fall on deaf ears, and he is forced to serve the totality of an adult’s sentence, though he was fifteen years old at the time of the battle, when he may (or may not have) thrown a grenade at a man trying to kill him who had just firebombed everyone and everything around him.
His case comes up for bail. It is denied. When it is granted two years later, the government of his own country appeals it. Only an election, and a change of governmental party, prevents the second appeal from going through, because they drop it. At last, though under tight supervision, a very damaged young man is finally free.
It has been thirteen years since the battle. He is 31 years old.
You’re probably heard his name again in the news recently. Canada’s Supreme Court found that the Canadian government, on helping to obtain his confession and being a party to the horrific events that befell this poor man, had violated his rights according to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which we hold as sacred as America holds its Constitution. They found that Canada had acted against the Geneva Convention and international law. They granted a sum of money to Mr. Khadr for his suffering.
But even after all that, there are those who would deny him even this. People are now trying to demand that they be allowed to sue him for that money that he was awarded as a (lame) apology for taking away the rights that EVERY HUMAN BEING is guaranteed in international law.
To those people I say: Shame on you! Whether he was an “enemy combatant” or not, Omar Khadr has paid more than enough for the crime of throwing a grenade at someone who was trying to kill him. And you conveniently forget, HE WAS FIFTEEN YEARS OLD. He was a CHILD SOLDIER.
Regardless of what he’s done, he’s one of ours. What he was involved in was horrible; what happened to him proved that the other side wasn’t the “good guys” either.
He says he’s sorry. I believe him.
The Canadian government has said that it is sorry in the only way it can.
Now the rest of you: if you can’t say you’re sorry, as you would if you had even a shred of human decency, then leave him alone and let him get on with what’s left of his life, as best he can.
I’m a Pagan and speculative fiction author, a professional blogger, and a musician. I’m proudly Canadian and proudly LGBTQ. My politics are decidedly left and if you ask for my opinion, expect an honest answer. I own a dog and am owned by a cat. I used to work part time at a bookstore and I love to read, especially about faith, philosophy, science, and sci-fi and fantasy.
“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.
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.
If you’ve been paying attention, election results aren’t turning out the way that the pollsters and the pundits expected them to in four of the most high-profile recent elections in Western democratic countries.
In the highly contentious 2015 Canadian federal election, at the beginning of the campaign it looked as though people were angry enough that they were ready to oust the Conservative government under Stephen Harper that had reigned for a decade, but the NDP was clearly the front runner. By the beginning of August, Maclean’s Magazine, a middle-right leaning magazine that is highly respected in Canada for its analysis of business and politics, said it was anybody’s game. And of course, at the last minute, what actually happened was that the Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau swept in to claim the victory.
And in Britain just this past month, Elizabeth May and the Conservative Party of the UK called a snap election, smugly confident that this would result in the vast majority needed to give them a free hand in Brexit negotiations. But it didn’t turn out that way. The Labour Party under democratic socialist Jeremy Corbyn showed so well that they stole the Conservative majority, endangering their control of government to the point that they had to make a devil’s bargain to keep power, and most pundits treated it like a victory for Corbyn, rather than May’s defeat. This, despite the fact that the Conservatives won their highest vote share since 1983, rivaling their results under the Iron Lady, and despite sabotage within Corbyn’s own party from people who thought he was running too far to the left.
So what gives? How could these expert opinions have been so wildly inaccurate?
I believe it comes from an Establishment tradition of underestimating the youth vote. This has been exacerbated in recent years by the difficulty of polling young people, who do not participate in traditional models like phone polls, and whose voices on social media are being drowned by fake accounts and internet bots. But in part, it’s deliberate.
It is not in the Establishment’s interests for the youth to vote. They engage in a policy of denigrating the importance of the youth in election results. They project the impression, furthered by the media, that the youth do not care about politics, and their vote won’t matter anyway because they’re so outnumbered by other demographics. Conservative and right-wing parties, knowing that they don’t do as well when more people show up to vote, institute policies when they’re in power that make it more difficult to register, such as requiring ID under the pretense of “voter fraud,” something that is more difficult for young and poor people to acquire.
This policy is threatening them at the polls. Galvanized by consistent policies that our youth rightfully see as contrary to their values and destructive of their future, there is a huge movement in today’s youth to be more politically involved. If the system is the only way to change the future, they will engage, and when they do, sh*t gets real.
The voter turnout at the Canadian 2015 election was the highest in 2 decades. New voters and the youth demographic were considerably more involved than in previous years. And they were overwhelmingly behind Justin Trudeau. Some cynically claim it was because of the Liberal position on legalizing cannabis (and there may be some truth in that); others think maybe it was just that Trudeau was the youngest of the candidates; still others believe it was genuinely because the Liberal Party made an effort to engage young voters. Whatever the reason, it worked.
On the other hand, in some places, youth engagement and this policy of ignoring the youth vote seemed to benefit the New Right more than the left. Early polls suggested that almost half of France’s youth vote supported LePen and the Front National (though later this was amended to 34% of the youth vote, just a little more than her typical support level across the voting spectrum.) And of course the American election remains a tangled, ugly mess, vote tampering from outside forces aside. But it’s clear that one of the factors that influenced that election was that the youth supportedBernie Sanders, felt he was cheated of the Democratic nomination, and decided to cast their votes on third parties or on no one instead.
Speculation runs rampant among political pundits as to why the youth supported one candidate or party or another. Some say that the parties who engaged the most with social media did better among the youth than those who did not. If you discount the fact that Trump may have won because the millennials opted out of Clinton, this would seem consistent. And this could also be confusing cause with effect. Young people drive social media, so more young people are going to be engaged by definition.
Others disparagingly observe that “populists” are doing better among younger voters. I think this is an oversimplification. The truth is that young people are angry. They know that not only is the existing system not working, it is rigged against them and is selling away their futures. They have no loyalty to their companies because they know their companies have no loyalty to them; and I think the same holds true in politics.
But does that mean they will jump on any populist parade that comes along? I don’t think so. The election results in the US tell us that. When given the best of bad options, they’ll choose not to choose, and without the youth to help contest them, that allowed the core right wing supporters to take the victory.
The political wisdom suggests that middle-centrists are the best the left can do in a popular vote. But remember, the political pundits are paid mostly by multi-million dollar media corporations, who are clearly invested in the Establishment, corporate interest. Left-wing policies cut into their profit margin.
When given the option, young voters choose the candidate they perceive as being the most Progressive, as evidenced in the Canadian and UK federal elections. They want change, and they overwhelmingly vote in a way that suggests that they value progressive change.
So, what can the Establishment do to win over young voters, which is becoming a more and more significant demographic with every passing year, as slowly the Baby Boomers fade into the sunset? They can run on more Progressive, left-wing platforms, and then do the things they’ve promised when they get elected.
And if you’re a young voter reading this, and you’ve been feeling despair, I hope if nothing else this shows you that the path to victory is to get involved in the process at a grassroots level. Primary your Senators, register to vote, join movements like #Resist. Because you are a far more powerful force than you know, and our hopes for the future rest upon you.
Last month, a town near me saw its first May Day rally in decades. Because “working class” means more than “blue-collar white men,” the organizers invited me to talk about disability and other speakers to address white supremacy, climate justice, and patriarchy.
My speech observed that the paid work of formally-employed workers and the unpaid work of unemployed workers (housework, childcare, social and emotional support, etc) depend on each other. Society can’t run with just one of them. They’re like a nail and a hammer: without both, you can’t build a thing. Disabled and abled workers are both part of that reciprocal process, including disabled people who will never have access to paid work. But under capitalism, the ruling business-ownership class controls the economy, government, and culture. So, no one but them has meaningful social power, even though society only exists because of our collective labor (paid and unpaid). Therefore, we share an interest in doing away with the current system. Sticking up for each of us is in the enlightened self-interest of all of us. We don’t need moralistic notions of allyship – we need to fight for each other, together, because otherwise only the ruling class wins.
Before May 1, the organizers needed a speaker bio. I didn’t hesitate to talk about my political work, but I agonized about whether to mention that I’m autistic. I didn’t believe that simply being disabled qualified me to speak. I thought that my knowledge of the issues and on-the-ground political practice did. However, I intended to say that disabled and abled workers ultimately have exactly the same interests and that neither has meaningful social power. So, I finally did disclose my disability. After all, I was criticizing the basic assumption of most social justice disability politics: that all abled people benefit from the oppression of disabled people and, therefore, are complicit in it. If I hadn’t announced my autism, I could have exposed the event to accusations of booking an abled Marxist to “ablesplain.”
As it happened, my speech was well-received. The crowd wasn’t the typical activist scene; nearly everyone there was from either the AFL-CIO, the Industrial Workers of the World, or a local, independent farmworkers union. However, based on past experience, a less unusual “anti-oppression” crowd (say, college student activists) would likely not have been so receptive. In situations like that, I’ve noticed three typical responses:
The audience ignores the content and responds as though it had been the standard social justice position.
The audience reflexively defers to the critique on the basis of the speaker’s identity – and instead of actually engaging with the substance, confesses their own privilege while changing neither their ideas nor their practice.
You may notice a pattern there. While those committed to allyship-model politics may talk about taking marginalized voices seriously, in practice there’s not much room for anyone, regardless of identity, to dispute their basic political assumptions.
The credibility they grant ostensibly on the basis of identity actually depends on political agreement. They might say “disabled people are telling us to check our privilege and understand our complicity in ableism,” but disabled people who don’t say that tend to get brushed over or called out.
Now, that in itself isn’t necessarily a problem. Defending opinions one agrees with and attacking other views is just part of what it means to take ideas seriously – it’s legitimate and necessary for any sort of politics. But why, then, frame it in terms of who is talking rather than what they’re saying? It’s empirically untrue that all members of a given identity group have basically the same politics. Why does social justice talk as though they do?
Disclosing my autism gave some cover to the rally’s organizers. But, I could have gone further.
Broadly speaking, social justice says that being disabled should be the main qualification to talk about disability. Even so, I could have boosted my credibility further by claiming additional marginalized identities. For instance, “autistic person” carries less intersectional weight than “autistic nonbinary trans woman.” For the subculture, more marginality means more right to speak – at least on the surface.
But for social justice, there’s more to identity than just the identities people have. “Autistic nonbinary trans woman” might give my words more intersectional force than “autistic,” but “autistic nonbinary trans woman who has survived rape and abuse” carries me substantially further. That ought to sound pretty strange – after all, having been raped isn’t an identity. Every identity group has some members who have been raped. It’s an experience, not an attribute.
Identity and privilege, though, tend to get framed almost exclusively in terms of “lived experience.” For instance, non-men are often assumed to understand patriarchy in ways men simply can’t because of their fundamentally different lived experiences. The line between what you are and what you’ve been through starts to melt away. But why should that be? What puts “being a woman,” or “being disabled,” in the same category as “having been abused by a partner?” What’s the common thread between a specific act of violence and an identity that’s there throughout your entire social existence?
Perhaps the social justice subculture doesn’t actually care about identity. It cares about suffering.
“Oh, baby, don’t you have a story? Of abjection, ruin, despair? Did you lose a child? A lover? Were you not raped? Beaten? Oppressed? How could you possibly go through all that and not confess, confess, confess? How can we possibly think of you as real if you don’t confess? No tragic dramas? Make them up! But, always: Confess and Reveal.”
In the US, like the rest of the world, most people are in the (paid and unpaid) working class. The social justice subculture, though, is different.
It’s rooted in cultural studies classrooms, student clubs, Facebook cliques, Democrat-in-practice “non-partisan” nonprofits, and the recent graduates that fill out the scene. While working-class people can be found as individual participants, it’s the professional-managerial class that holds (sub)cultural hegemony: its ideas, interests, and preferences dictate the entire community’s priorities and beliefs. And like the rest of the professional-managerial class, the “anti-oppression community” is richer, whiter, and more privileged in general than the working class.
When marginalized people suffer in public for a social justice audience, not everyone watching is very privileged. However, as a rule the allies far outnumber the self-advocates (hence the preoccupation with allyship and privilege over liberation and strategy in the first place). So, when the subculture proclaims the pain of the oppressed, the point isn’t to “amplify and normalize marginalized voices.” It’s a performance with a very particular purpose. The social justice subculture exploits oppressed people’s pain to prove to its members that their politics are moral.
On May Day, why did I resent having to foreground my disability? I wasn’t ashamed of being autistic. I just hated the thought of being a prop. I don’t want the subculture to use my suffering as Exhibit A to prove how right their beliefs are (especially since I think many of their beliefs aren’t right at all).
“We do not advocate exhorting white workers on an individual basis to give up their privileged status. What we do advocate is promoting vigorous struggle with the ruling class with equality at the forefront and to articulate the lessons of these struggles.”
There’s another agenda in play. The professional-managerial class doesn’t want to lose control of progressive politics. We will have to force it to, because otherwise the working class will keep losing. Working-class power is the soul of any Left worth the name. But the social justice subculture doesn’t want revolution – it wants self-congratulation. Paradoxically, that goal is served by its fixation on suffering, privilege, and personal complicity in larger social systems. When “anti-oppression” activists self-flagellate, they create a nearly Protestant sense of collective morality. You want grace? Admit your sin. You want validation? Admit your complicity, your privilege.
Thankfully, their underlying beliefs aren’t true. The ability to change society comes from the latent power of the people who create society (and everything in it): the working class, paid and unpaid. We can only free ourselves by getting rid of the ruling class. Now, for anyone who wants working-class unity, privilege isn’t a useless idea. In fact, it’s vital. Male, white, abled, and otherwise-privileged members of our class are materially less exploited than other workers. They receive tangible and intangible benefits that set them apart from the rest of the class. Working-class unity doesn’t just drop out of nowhere. It has to be knit together, thread by thread, struggle by struggle. Unless fighting privilege and class-based organizing happen through and alongside each other, we will defeat neither capitalism nor privilege. Privilege is part of the class system. It doesn’t float around somewhere in the ether; nothing under capitalism is outside capitalism. Revolutionaries who ignore it can only fail. In a white supremacist and deeply patriarchal society like the US, cultural and material privilege does more to destroy working-class unity than anything else, and avoiding the issue doesn’t make class-based organizing easier. It makes it impossible.
However, the social justice subculture has no useful role in that work. It doesn’t actually break down privilege within the working class. That would mean helping privileged workers understand that opposing their privilege is not self-sacrifice but enlightened self-interest, and proving it through the experience of class struggle. But the subculture prefers to dismiss (or even attack) the working class, while acting as though privilege is a law of nature instead of something we can abolish. The trope that “working class” is a euphemism for “white men who think they’re not privileged” is not honest analysis. It’s psychological projection – the social justice milieu is irredeemably by and for the professional-managerial class, which is disproportionately white and male. We should reject it as such.