Assigned Faggot: Gender Roles, Sex, and the Division of Labor

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A boy in eighth-grade math class walks over and says, “You sit like a woman. What are you, a woman?” We both know there’s no right answer.


 

When I was born, the obstetrician said I was male. So, growing up, that was the role expected of me. People told me I’d become a heterosexually-married adult man. I shouldn’t have long hair, wear dresses, or cry “like a sissy.”

At some point, though, that comprehensive set of expectations (that gender role) changed. By the time I hit adolescence, no one thought I’d marry a woman. Boys were supposed to like football and act tough, but nobody looked at me and thought I could ever do that. My classmates started calling me gay before I even knew what the word meant. More and more, people expected that I would behave different from my male peers.

Of course, their expectations carried a weight of moral condemnation. When they called me a “faggot,” they made it clear that it was a very bad thing to be. But, none of them seriously believed that someone who looked, moved, and sounded like me could be anything else. I was chastised and punished for filling it, but nevertheless “faggot” was the role I was pressured to fill.

Are gender and sexuality fundamentally personal identities, or are they imposed by a larger social system? How sharp is the line between them?


 

Walking down the hall in high school, it feels like every other word is “faggot.” An especially churchy classmate tells me that if I was a real Christian, I wouldn’t “want to be that way any more.”

In gym class, the coach sends the boys to one side of the room and the girls to the other to do different activities. No one looks surprised when I go with the girls.


 

On paper, US conservatism believes in a strict gender binary. You are male or female, birth to death. Men are naturally one way and women another. No one really falls in between. Men, of course, are naturally strong and unemotive. They sleep with women but socialize with each other.

And yet, people who embraced that ideology wholesale would meet me and assume that my friends were girls, that I was emotional and “sensitive,” that I’d defer to my male peers, and – perhaps most of all – that I was sexually available to men. But since they didn’t read me as cis female, why weren’t they bringing the usual male expectations?

When I had straight male friends, why did they expect me to be emotionally supportive and assume I had some special insight into “what women want?” They didn’t seek that from each other, and they’d have either laughed or gotten angry at anyone who asked it of them.

If their idea of gender was as binary as they believed it to be, why didn’t they place me into a male role?


 

Unfortunately, many women-particularly single women-are afraid of the perspective of wages for housework because they are afraid of identifying even for a second with the housewife. They know that this is the most powerless position in society and so they do not want to realise that they are housewives too…

We are all housewives because no matter where we are they can always count on more work from us, more fear on our side to put forward our demands, and less pressure on them for money, since hopefully our minds are directed elsewhere, to that man in our present or our future who will “take care of us”.

Silvia Federici

 

Did those people believe in genders besides female and male?

With their ideas, they didn’t. With their actions, though, they did. After all, they created at least one gender role besides “man” and “woman” – I know because they assigned me to it! My social position was not authentically male. I was failed-male. In practice, my gender was “faggot.”

When they said “faggots aren’t real men,” that was an is, not an ought. “Faggot” is a socially-real gender category distinct from “male.” It is imposed (like all genders) by a social system beyond the control of any given individual. Gender, after all, is more than either individual identity or cultural beliefs. Each gender role corresponds to a particular place in the overall social division of labor.

To be given a feminized gender (like “woman” or “faggot”) means to be given feminized work: emotional, interpersonal, domestic, caregiving, and sexual. When you meet someone, they read a gender onto you. Practically speaking, that means they either expect you to take on those tasks or they expect others to take them on instead of you. There are, of course, plenty of signifiers that help people make that gender assignment (speech inflections, clothes, names, communication styles, inferred secondary sex characteristics, etc). But all that only makes up half of what a gender is – the rest is being expected to do specific kinds of work, and you can’t cleanly untangle the two halves. Being conventionally feminine means being expected to wear makeup, long hair, etc – but also to have a less aggressive conversation style, to step aside for men on the sidewalk, to be “nurturing,” and to sleep with men. On the ground, the division of labor and cultural norms are united. Each upholds the other.


 

I sit in a therapist’s office and talk about how since transitioning, I’ve felt less and less connection with any sort of sexuality and I don’t understand why. He tells me I just need to accept that I’m attracted to men – once I do that, he says, things will fall into place.


 

Radical feminism talks about “compulsory heterosexuality” – the idea that heterosexuality is more than a sexual preference some people happen to have. It’s a political institution built into the gender system itself, through which all women (including lesbians) are pressured to treat sex with men as inherent to womanhood. This approach to sexuality cares about the pleasure of men, but leaves non-male desires as (at best) an afterthought. Without it, feminized gender roles (woman and faggot alike) would bear little resemblance to their current forms.

I faced that imperative, just like my cis female peers. To be sure, people delivered it to me on different terms. Attraction to men was expected of me, but never treated as though it were positive. However, it was still part of the role I was assigned. Accepting my lesbianism still entailed a process of soul-searching to break through some deeply internalized messages; it tracked closely with the experiences of the cis lesbians I know.

Sexuality doesn’t neatly come apart from gender. Gender is an overarching system, a way of organizing certain types of work within class society’s overall division of labor. My socialization into a feminized role brought with it certain sexual expectations, just as it carried emotional and interpersonal ones.

Neither sexuality nor gender floats free, separate from each other or from the overall organization of society. They aren’t (just) individual identities, and they aren’t (just) cultural ideas. These roles exist physically: the interactions humans have with each other and with the world re-create them every day. If you ignore that context, you’ll misunderstand the relationship between them.

Cultural norms about gender receive institutional support from the government, businesses, religious congregations, etc. After all, gender is an efficient and elegant way to get some people to do certain kinds of work for free. Sure, some aspects of contemporary gender predate capitalism. However, this gender system is still capitalist to its essence. Why? Capitalism digested those older components and turned them into something qualitatively different (as the historical research of Silvia Federici and other Marxist feminists shows).

Beliefs and practices aren’t merely ephemera. They aren’t fluff on top of an underlying economic reality. They’re part of economic reality because they’re part of how people carry out the daily work of existence. Their function within it is vital. Without them, it wouldn’t be easy to get anyone to do feminized work for free, but with them? People “spontaneously” enforce those roles on each other via social pressure, “common sense,” and violence. Why else do so many women punish each other for deviating from fundamentally-sexist norms?

Again, though, the ideas in people’s heads are only half the picture. The conservative Christians I grew up around believed wholeheartedly that only two genders existed. But when they couldn’t find a place in the male role for people like me, what did they do? They created another one for us (faggot). Did they call it a gender? Of course not, but ideology isn’t what you believe. It’s what you’ve internalized through what you do. And isn’t it telling that if you asked them about trans and nonbinary people, they’d say none of it was valid because “those people are just confused faggots?”


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Nearly all liberals (and more than a few leftists) arrive at their politics by first noticing an instance of oppression, then deciding to oppose it. They hear conservatives condemn gays, for instance, and think, “We’ve got to stop that prejudice. Gay people deserve respect!” That’s an understandable approach – disrespect, bigotry, and microaggressions are right there for all to see. Shouldn’t they be gotten rid of?

But when you remember that ideas and beliefs are only half of what’s going on, doesn’t something almost sinister emerge? We can remove the outward signs of oppression. But does that mean it’s gone, or just that it’s harder to see?

When you look at someone’s face, it doesn’t take its shape from the skin on the surface. It takes it from the bone underneath. If outright bigotry is the visible skin, the division of labor and the need to enforce it are the bone. Had I grown up in a liberal area rather than a conservative one, the people around me would have believed that women should be considered equal to men and that LGBT people deserved acceptance and respect. Those categories would have been enforced more gently – but they still would have been enforced. Since capitalism’s division of labor would have remained, feminized work would still have gotten assigned to feminized roles.

They wouldn’t have called me “faggot,” but they would have called me “fabulous” – and at the end of the day, the role expectations are the same either way. Respect and inclusion would have been nicer makeup, but the face beneath would have been no different.


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Radical politics should begin with the physical reality of class society and its division of labor.

The cultural half of the mechanism matters. It isn’t a question of “divisive social issues.” Norms and ideas are part of how the system works, and separating them from “economic class” just shows you’ve misunderstood both.

But because these roles are unified with the class system, the goal can’t simply be greater respect. Imposing them politely is still imposing them. The surface manifestations are an important part of the phenomenon, but they aren’t all of it. And ultimately, radical politics must seek to abolish the entire thing.

And if radicals forget that, then sure, they might find ways to make society look less oppressive.

But will anyone have actually gotten free?


 

Sophia Burns is a communist and polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/marxism_lesbianism

No Individual Solutions

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Source: University of San Francisco

When my partner and I walk down the sidewalk, we know people will sometimes shout that we’re “fuckin’ dykes.” When a straight couple goes out in public, they know they won’t get called “fuckin’ breeders” – they have that privilege.

Mainline social justice acknowledges that. It doesn’t pretend that straight and lesbian couples get treated equally, and it condemns the position of privilege enjoyed by heterosexuals relative to LGBT people. However, recognizing the need to end something is only half of a political position – you also need a way to make that change happen.

Social justice promises just that. Its strategy against not just straight privilege, but privilege in general has two prongs: anti-discrimination legislation on the one hand, and individuals changing their conduct on the other. People need to own up to their privilege; then, they must relinquish it.

But how, specifically, do you do that? Although social justice proponents are often light on the concrete details, one widely-shared article has an answer: if privilege is letting you do something, don’t do it.


 

If you have access to something and you recognize that you have it partly because of privilege, opt out of it.

Mia McKenzie

Now, that implies more than it says. This analysis begins with the experiences of individuals: this couple faces street harassment, that one doesn’t. Then, it generalizes those experiences to larger social groups (Black people, men, bisexuals, and so on). However, it never lets go of its initial individualistic assumptions – the experiences of a group are the experiences believed to be shared by its members.

From there, “opting out” follows logically. Is oppression about individuals being treated unequally because of their demographic position? If so, anti-oppression means working towards equal treatment. Is privilege is the sum of many individual acts of oppression (stacked, like the hierarchy of needs, from microaggressions all the way up to genocide)? Then ending those acts ends privilege. Some can be outlawed (hate violence, for instance). For others, though, you have to convince people to change their behavior. You couldn’t feasibly have a law against not taking women’s opinions seriously, for instance.

So, those with privilege must give it up. Not making use of it seems a reasonable starting point. The article quoted above, for instance, gives as an example not attending a conference that refuses to accommodate wheelchair users. You “opt out” of the benefits, and privilege weakens. To stop privilege, stop participating in it.

In practice, though, that doesn’t work.


 

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Source: GVSU Feminist Voices

But doesn’t fewer people taking advantage of privilege mean fewer people reinforcing it? Even if “opting out” isn’t sufficient by itself, isn’t it a necessary tool?

 

On the ground, “opting out” fails for two reasons:

  • “Opting out” is undesirable. When anti-oppression types say “privilege,” what concrete things are they talking about? Sometimes, they mean getting away with things no one should do – committing sexual assault with impunity, for instance. At least as often, though, they mean less-privileged people not getting to do neutral or positive things that the privileged take for granted – not acts of violence, but things that everyone should be able to do. My partner and I risk homophobic harassment when we go outside. Straight couples don’t. Should they “opt out” of leaving the house? After all, they can do so without being bothered by homophobes – that’s privilege. “Opting out” would mean never stepping out of their front door.
  • “Opting out” is impossible. My partner and I don’t choose to be harassed. Straight people don’t choose not to be. When some people get treated better than others, is it because they somehow control how strangers behave towards them? Should a straight couple say to everyone who walks by, “I know we’re heterosexual, but please treat us no differently than you’d treat lesbians”? If they did, would a homophobe answer, “Oh, happy to oblige! You damn dykes”? If individuals could just will these structures out of their lives (as “opting out” implies), this whole system would have died a long time ago. But that’s not how it works. The social order precedes and transcends the individuals within it.

 

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Source: Feminist Hulk via Comics Alliance

But if “opting out” is impossible, why does the idea persist?

Well, social justice’s individualism allows for no other conclusion. If privilege boils down to individual actions and individual experiences, then individual choices must be both the problem and the answer. Sure, social justice pays lip service to “structural issues” and “systemic oppression.” But the nitty-gritty of what it means by that always falls back on individual complicity. How “systemic” can a critique be when it doesn’t acknowledge that social organization is more than the sum of the individuals inside it? If “structural” oppression just means that every member of a better-off group is individually complicit in their privilege, doesn’t that reduce oppression to “bad apples?” The bad apples may number in the tens or hundreds of millions, but the essence is still there – the problem is rotten people making rotten choices. It’s still about each person’s individual moral failure. However, there is no mechanism by which you can stop being complicit. So, for social justice, there is no solution. There’s only condemnation without end.

 

Luckily, though, this framework doesn’t line up with reality. Oppression isn’t the sum of millions of immoral decisions. Liberation is possible. But, it takes something that social justice hates even more than privilege.


 

Only when men see our work as work-our love as work-and most important our determination to refuse both, will they change their attitude towards us. When hundreds and thousands of women are in the streets saying that endless cleaning, being always emotionally available, fucking at command for fear of losing our jobs is hard, hated work which wastes our lives, then they will be scared and feel undermined as men.

But this is the best thing that can happen from their own point of view, because by exposing the way capital has kept us divided (capital has disciplined them through us and us through them-each other, against each other), we – their crutches, their slaves, their chains – open the process of their liberation.

Silvia Federici

Privilege leads to unequal treatment, but that’s not where it comes from.

Capitalism involves more than fast-food chains and stock exchanges. It’s an all-encompassing division of labor. Every single task through which humanity continues to exist gets parceled out to one group or another. That’s the material basis of social categories that, at first glance, look either natural or merely cultural.

The “common sense” belief that race and gender are bio-cultural phenomena just masks what they really are: ways of assigning different work to different people, carried out under different conditions. Those divisions are then enforced by institutional discrimination, “common sense” ideas (promoted through media, education, and religion), and – should those fail – physical violence. “Woman” as a cultural category both emerges from and reinforces the way that certain people are expected to do care work and housework (mostly unpaid). The category “white,” similarly, both comes from and continually recreates the fact that some workers tend to have better conditions, jobs, and pay, a cultural sense of superiority, and de facto segregation from other workers. Through gender, capitalism gets a lot of necessary work done for free. Through race, it prevents certain workers from uniting with the rest of their class against the system by giving them relative advantages within it. So, privileged workers benefit in the short term. But in the long term, their privilege just prolongs their own exploitation.

Social justice will never realize that. Why should it? The activist subculture is mostly middle-class, not working-class. So, it reflects middle-class ideas and middle-class interests.

Do middle-class and ruling-class men and whites have a long-term stake in abolishing their own privilege? No – it gives them an unambiguous competitive advantage in the professions, management, and business. Why else do middle-class people from less-privileged demographics frame their politics in terms of unjust disparities and ethical imperatives? Without a shared material stake in ending privilege, moral self-sacrifice is all that’s left.

Middle-class and ruling-class reformers, though, find themselves in a contradictory position. On the one hand, lacking privilege makes their lives tangibly worse. But on the other, their class position depends on the continued existence of privilege, because the capitalist division of labor depends on it and they depend on capitalism.

So, they end up with equally-contradictory politics. Social justice has no way out.


 

On more than one occasion, Black workers have forced the employer to open a new job area to them, only to run up against the rigid opposition of white workers.

White revolutionaries must understand, and help the masses of white workers to understand, that the interests of the entire working class can only be served by standing firmly with the Black workers in such cases.

Noel Ignatiev

Does that mean that privilege will never go away? If social justice can’t overcome oppression, what can?

Class struggle.

Internal divisions notwithstanding, the working class as a whole carries out all of the tasks of human existence. Without workers, there is nothing. But, the working class doesn’t decide the way in which it does that labor. The ruling class of capitalists does – the investors, executives, and business owners who control the physical and social infrastructure through which all work happens (the “means of production“).

Capitalists dictate the social order and exploit the working class, accumulating wealth at workers’ expense. The working class has the ability to overthrow capitalism (since capitalists need workers, but workers don’t need capitalists). It also has an interest in doing so – replacing it with a system in which workers (paid and unpaid) control everything. Obviously, capitalists have good reason to oppose that. So, whenever workers try to collectively pursue their interests, the ruling class opposes them however it can. That ranges from shaping “common sense” to relying on state violence.

The division of labor within the working class both creates and relies on privilege. In doing so, it makes it harder for the working class to effectively struggle against its oppressors. Privileged workers are less likely to side with the rest of their class because, due to privilege, they’re comparatively better off. But, that’s only a short-term interest. In the long term, their interests are the same as other workers’.

So, there’s a material basis for workers to come together and organize against the ruling class – and when they do so, specifically fighting against privilege is ultimately good for them all, even if some are benefitting from privilege at the moment. But, to make that happen, working-class politics has to focus on the long-term goal of ending capitalism and exploitation. It needs the analysis that your privilege here and now is the enemy of your liberation in the future. In other words, if it sticks to “achievable” short-term reforms, it can’t effectively do that because it’s dropped the long-term aim. After all, you can’t focus on long-term interests if you don’t acknowledge them. Moderate socialism isn’t any more useful against privilege than social justice.

What can end privilege?

Communism.


 

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Communism can end privilege. Liberal social justice can’t. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Individuals can’t “opt out” of privilege because privilege isn’t individual. It’s built into the class system itself. To get rid of it, get rid of class.

But social justice is scared of that conclusion. Its social base is upper-class and middle-class – they’re either at the top of the pyramid or close enough to imagine themselves getting there. They need the class system, but the class system needs privilege.

Fortunately, abolishing privilege doesn’t depend on them. The working class can do it. No one else can. So, if you really want to see the end of privilege, don’t listen to social justice. Build institutions of working-class power.

Back in the 70s, radical feminists had a saying:

There are no individual solutions to social problems.

Privilege is a social problem. You can’t “opt out” of it. So, stop looking for individual solutions.

Fight for a collective one instead.


 

Sophia Burns is a communist and polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/marxism_lesbianism

The Democratic Party Is Not What You Think

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Hillary Clinton speaks at the 2016 DNC. Image: Wikimedia Commons

At first, my friend didn’t realize he was a professional Democrat. When he got a job canvassing for “progressive causes,” he took them at their word: they raised money for nonprofits so they could do community work.

During his last week there, we got coffee during his lunch break. He told me how once a year, they received a list of candidates to fundraise for – not from the NGOs they contracted with, but from the Democratic National Committee. The “DNC push” meant higher quotas and heavier pressure from field managers. Now, most new hires couldn’t take the extra heat. Those who could, though, would have a chance to rise through the ranks, eventually becoming Democratic Party “bundlers” (functionaries responsible for persuading wealthy Democrats to write checks for thousands of dollars). Officially, the canvassing firm was independent. In reality, it was integrated into the Democratic Party, following the Party’s directives and funneling its most promising employees into Party careers.

If you listened to political common sense, you’d get the feeling that the Democrats are hapless, incompetent, and disorganized in the face of Republican discipline. Supposedly, they’re a loose coalition, with little in common besides opposing the GOP.

That’s false. On the ground, the Democrats are a tightly organized party with strong central discipline – much stronger than either their critics or most of their supporters realize. And unless US leftists learn how the Democratic Party actually works, their organizing will continue to fail.


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27th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Two concepts undergird this analysis. The first, drawn from Marxist-Leninist theory, is the cadre party. High school civics is wrong. Neither major US party is actually a heterogenous coalition. The tight-knit Leninist vanguard model describes them much more usefully.

The second concept here is the social and political base. Now, journalists often say “Democratic base” when they mean “Democratic voters.” However, a base is both more specific and more expansive than that. It isn’t simply the individuals who happen to support something. A base is a durable, organized community, capable of directing itself in a coordinated way. It’s brought into being by the set of social institutions whose day-to-day activities structure their constituents’ collective life.

What Is a Cadre Party?

According to Leninism, working-class revolution doesn’t happen spontaneously. It requires years of careful preparation, carried out by revolutionary leadership – dedicated Marxists who organize political struggles, spread revolutionary ideas, and (above all) establish a disciplined and militant organization capable of fighting and defeating the capitalist government.

That organization is the cadre, or vanguard, party. This party pursues the long-term interests of the entire working class, agitating for revolution while leading day-to-day struggles. It doesn’t let just anyone join – party members must not only commit substantial time and effort to the party, but also adhere to line discipline, enacting and defending all of the party’s positions (even those they privately disagree with). They become professional revolutionaries (also called cadres), completely dedicated to making revolution. Sometimes, that means literally working for the party full-time.

Now, there’s a contradiction emerging here. On one hand, the party has to inspire the support of as much of the working class as possible. To effectively engage in class struggle, it needs to bring as much of the class into its orbit as it can. But, it restricts membership to those who meet very high standards. So, most of the people it wants to win over aren’t actually eligible to join.

Leninism solves that by creating a second level of organization. The party proper forms a hard core of committed revolutionaries. At the same time, it directs a network of mass organizations (or, less charitably, front groups). While they follow the party’s lead, they have a much lower barrier to entry. So, the party can incorporate a large number of people without watering down its membership requirements.

When Leninist parties have historically been most successful, those mass organizations would lead to something greater than just a pool of supporters. They’d create a base.


 

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Protestant flag outside the Christian Right organization Focus on the Family. Image: Wikimedia Commons

What Is a Base?

Evangelical white Protestants – the Christian Right’s core demographic – only make up a quarter of the US. But somehow, the Christian Right exercises an outsize influence not just on government policy, but also on the overall social fabric of the areas in which it’s concentrated. Where conservative evangelicals are strong, they shape culture and dictate norms – but even in a place like Texas, where their influence is hegemonic, they’re less than one-third of the population. So where does their power come from?

In the 1970s, very few people were out as gay. Gay Liberation was a fringe movement, even in places with comparatively large gay communities. However, where gays were concentrated, they began to exercise influence – they sent Harvey Milk to the San Francisco city council, and over the years gay and countercultural values came to define the city’s image. But, San Francisco has always had an overwhelmingly straight majority – how did gay people get their influence?

In the 1800s, Irish immigrants were economically and politically marginal, even in cities with large Irish communities. But, they came to exercise not just electoral power via urban political machines, but also social and cultural clout – Boston has never been majority-Irish, but St. Patrick’s Day and Irish Catholicism have become integral to its identity. How did that happen?

Even in their core areas, each of these groups has always been outnumbered. In the latter two cases, they started out categorically excluded from social and political power. Yet, they all became highly-organized forces, dedicated to pursuing their interests with vigor and discipline. That let them grow powerful.

Each of them became a base. Conservative Christians aren’t simply individuals with private beliefs. They’re constituted into a base by a network of institutions: churches, charities, para-church groups, media outlets, and even businesses (anyone who’s been to the small-town South has seen the Jesus fish on everything from auto parts stores to restaurants). Those institutions then coordinate the community’s overall activities and goals, allowing it to act in a unified way. Because they’re integrated into the day-to-day lives of their participants, to opt out of them is to opt out of the collective life they facilitate. The same analysis holds for San Francisco’s gay bars, bathhouses, publications, and activist organizations, and for Boston’s Irish churches, mutual aid societies, labor unions, and social clubs.

With a coherent infrastructure of institutions, a disjointed population can become an organized and powerful base.


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Image: Polk County Democrats

On paper, the Democratic Party is a broad coalition. In practice, it is a cadre party.

It is controlled by professional Democrats – activist NGO managers, politicians’ staffers, “political operatives,” etc. These cadres set the Party’s priorities, oversee its day-to-day work, and keep any potential leftist competition under control. Some of them work for the Democratic Party proper, but most don’t. Officially, their “progressive nonprofit” employers aren’t Democrat-affiliated. Materially, they are the Democratic Party’s front groups. The small, self-selecting core uses them to bring in supporters. It’s not coincidence that the same person grant-writing for Greenpeace one year is working for Emily’s List the next. It’s the same people. They are their Party’s cadre structure, and they keep their front groups in line.

Sure, they align with different internal factions. Their competition is important enough to keep plenty of political reporters employed. But the drama of Bernie vs. Hillary obscures a deeper, more important reality. The faction fights and power struggles never step outside the overarching ideological boundaries of the Democratic “party line.” Sure, Berniecrats want comparatively more social programs, and Hillary supporters comparatively fewer. However, none of them deviates from the Party’s core program:

  • A capitalist economy with some regulation, but very little state ownership;
  • Collaboration between the government and businesses for “job creation” and social services provision;
  • Social liberalism, expressed through moderate affirmative action, anti-discrimination laws, official statements of support for oppressed demographics, and a few changes to police codes of conduct;
  • An expansive military through which the US enforces its global hegemony;
  • Nominal support for immigrants’ rights, but without full amnesty or open borders;
  • Opposition to expanding ballot access for minor parties;
  • A day-to-day political practice of lobbying, running campaigns for office, and symbolic “expressive protest.”

No member of the Democratic cadre structure would dare deviate from that framework. If they did, they’d risk losing their job; certainly, their career prospects would vanish. Do they always interpret the core program the same way? Of course not. But they do always uphold it.

Why does that matter, though? What, concretely, does their discipline mean? Well, nearly every activist organization in the US is a Democratic front group. After all, even if they didn’t want to be, their commitment to “conventional activism” demands it. When you spend your time waving signs and, perhaps, lobbying officials or supporting candidates, what’s your mechanism for enacting change? The only way you can bridge the gap between protest and power is through the support of Democratic politicians – and you can’t get that support if you won’t align with their Party. And, of course, activist groups don’t typically want to be independent in the first place. After all, their leaders and staffers are Democratic cadres. Their careers will take them across the whole extended Party structure.


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Image: Greater Seattle Neighborhood Action Coalition

The Democratic Party and its fronts don’t just have passive supporters. They’ve grown an entire community and social scene around their institutions. Because of that, they shape the social and cultural fabric of the places where they’re strong, wielding influence disproportionate to their numbers. In other words, the Democratic Party has a base, constituted through its fronts.

That base doesn’t overlap with the activist subculture – it is the activist subculture. There is no distinction. The activist scene exists because the day-to-day activities of the Democratic Party’s fronts bring it into being, providing an anchor for the informal activities and social networks that surround it. To participate in the activist subculture is to join the Democratic Party’s base.

That doesn’t just go for consciously Democratic liberals. Anarchist affinity groups form out of protest-based social scenes; concretely, they need protests in which to operate, and large protests only happen when the Democratic Party uses its fronts to mobilize people.  The anarchist scene emerges from the Democratic base and relies on the Democrats’ institutional infrastructure.

Leninist organizations run fronts of their own, attempting to imitate the more successful Democratic ones. However, they also depend on the Democratic base. They draw on the same pool of activists, advocate for the same causes, and usually show up at the same demonstrations. So, they only attract support when they hide their Leninist affiliation and follow the Democrats’ lead – as Refuse Fascism (a Revolutionary Communist Party front) discovered in November, when it called for protests without Democratic support and nobody came.

Of course, occasionally radicals do start an organization with the potential to break away from Democratic control. When that happens, Democratic cadres work very hard (and sometimes very ruthlessly) to co-opt it. Because of its institutional position, the Democratic machine can recuperate nearly anything that emerges from the activist subculture. Just look at the Greater Seattle Neighborhood Action Coalition. Founded after Trump’s election by an ad hoc left-liberal coalition, GSNAC explicitly took inspiration from the Rojava revolution. Officially, it committed to practicing direct action and mutual aid while abstaining from electoral politics. With that program on offer, GSNAC initially attracted several thousand participants. However, within a few months, a clique of professional Democrats seized control of the organization by undemocratic means. Without consulting other members, they not only began committing to liberal lobbying campaigns in GSNAC’s name, but also unilaterally filed incorporation papers, naming themselves as GSNAC’s officers. Within a couple of months, the overwhelming majority of participants left. They’d been promised something different than conventional activism, but the Democrats made sure GSNAC didn’t deliver that.

The US Left may not realize it, but nearly all of it is part of the Democratic Party’s extended machinery. However, leftists are excluded from the Democratic cadre structure; they can’t actually direct its course. That leaves them with two options: embrace the Democratic line, or marginalize themselves.

Do you support leftist politics? Leave the activist subculture.


The task of radicals, at present must be digging in deep to the class, going “to the masses,” building long-term relationships with layers of oppressed and working class people, and organizing in our neighborhoods and workplaces. This is the punishing, demoralizing grind work that activists prefer to avoid, but it constitutes the only way forward.

Tim Horras

The Left shouldn’t take part in conventional activism. But what should it do?

Well, what does the Left want? Strategy follows goals; tactics follow strategy. For revolutionaries, the goal is to literally overthrow the government. Revolution means replacing the existing political and economic system with a better one, based on the mass cooperative control of economic, cultural, and political life. The working class carries out all the activities that sustain human life and society. However, it’s excluded from power and subjected to oppression by the capitalist class of business owners and investors. So, it has the ability to carry out a revolution – the capitalists need it, but it doesn’t need them. Further, because of its position of exploitation, it stands to benefit from the abolition of class distinctions.

But how, exactly, can it go about that? If revolution isn’t on the menu yet, what’s the path from here to there? Well, the working-class must become a well-organized social force – so well organized that it can exercise power and assert its interests, even when the the ruling class uses violence to try to stop it. So, carrying out a revolution means first developing an institutional infrastructure capable of directly combatting the capitalist state. In communist lingo, a structure like that competing with the government is called “dual power.”

Now, obviously, a dual power situation can’t be willed into being overnight. Its constituent institutions must be built, piece by piece, however long that takes. Since the process of doing so means organizing the entire working class to act for itself in a coherent way, the working class must become a base. So, the “dual power strategy” for revolution is fairly straightforward: you develop autonomous institutions of class confrontation and mutual aid, through a process of base-building. Eventually, you reach a “critical mass” and can challenge the government directly.

When leftists engage in conventional activism, they pre-empt their ability to do that. Do you go to protests and wave signs? You’re competing with the Democratic Party on its home territory. You’re going to the Democratic base and telling it to stop being pro-Democrat. But it can’t stop. It only exists in the first place through the Democratic Party’s fronts. You have to go somewhere else and build a revolutionary base, instead.

Now, base-building is slow. It’s a grind. It’s not sexy and it’s rarely cathartic. You don’t get the high of being one of thousands of people in a big demonstration, chanting and raising energy. You don’t get the quick gratification of networking with established activists and feeling like you’re part of an “authentic social movement.” Instead, you spend your time serving the people: creating constituencies by creating institutions and knitting them together, struggle by struggle, project by project.

The dual power strategy is not for the impatient. This work is too important to rush. There are no shortcuts. The activist subculture may look like one. And sure, taking over a ready-made base looks appealing, next to the difficulty of creating your own. However, it’s a pipe dream. The Democratic base can’t be separated from its Party. It only exists through that Party’s institutions.

Now, the human cost of capitalism grows every day. And thanks to climate change, there’s an ecological clock ticking. Slow and patient, on the face of it, hardly feels appropriate. The need for change is urgent; can we afford such a protracted approach? The dual power strategy is an uphill fight, sure, but at this point it’s the only possible shot. There’s no more time to waste on dead ends.

So stop protesting. Build a base instead.


 

Sophia Burns is a communist and polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/marxism_lesbianism

Don’t Protest

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Most US leftists make sign-waving demonstrations a core tactic. They shouldn’t. Protests create the feeling of power, but not the reality.

From Sophia Burns

1920px-women27s_march_2017_washington2c_d-c-2c_united_states_marchers_on_penn_ave
National Women’s March in DC, 2017. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In high school, I went to my first protest. Someone passed me a sign – “ABOLISH THE DEATH PENALTY” – as we marched to the governor’s mansion. The organizers read our demand: that the governor commute the sentence of a Death Row prisoner nearing his execution date. After twenty minutes of chanting slogans, we withdrew to the courtyard in front of City Hall, where a folk-punk singer performed and activist groups tabled.

The governor didn’t listen. He didn’t even hear us, strictly speaking – after a fire a few weeks earlier, the governor’s mansion was closed for repairs. He wasn’t physically there.

A few days later, the man on Death Row was executed.


Source: Refuse Fascism (via YouTube)

Conspiracy theories notwithstanding, on November 4th, “it” did not begin.

Refuse Fascism, a front group for a strange political sect called the Revolutionary Communist Party, spent months calling for “thousands becoming hundreds of thousands, and then millions” of protesters to “drive out the Trump/Pence regime” (an echo of its old “drive out the Bush regime” slogan). Although Refuse Fascism couldn’t deliver, anti-Trump protests have happened on that scale: April’s March for Science turned out more than a million, and nearly five times that many joined the Women’s March in January.

However, millions in the street didn’t bring the Trump Administration down. And while he’s had a hard time enacting his program, that’s not because of liberal or leftist opposition – his biggest obstacle has been the ongoing faction fight in his own party.

So even if “it” had begun, why would Refuse Fascism’s protests have worked any better than their precursors? The US government does not cease to function simply because people oppose it. Sure, the plan’s political incoherence didn’t help (were Trump and Pence supposed to resign in succession? Was the goal to install President Paul Ryan?). But goals aside, Refuse Fascism never explained how, exactly, demonstrations were going to bring Trump down. Signs with slogans do not possess that kind of power, even if there are millions of them.

Most anti-Trump protesters, though, likely don’t share Refuse Fascism’s belief that their activities will literally end Trump’s presidency before he finishes his term. If they did, November 4th would probably have been much less anticlimactic. Rather, they’re less ambitious: they want to express disapproval of the Trump Administration, to make their voices heard.

That’s what we were after in front of the governor’s mansion. We knew he wasn’t going to commute anyone’s sentence. We protested because the death penalty was wrong, not because we expected to win.

But is the Left served by self-expression for its own sake? It exists to help the working class, rather than the ruling class, exercise political power. Most US leftists make sign-waving demonstrations a core tactic. They shouldn’t. Protests create the feeling of power, but not the reality. Shouldn’t revolutionaries instead dedicate their limited resources to institution-building, which does tangibly increase working-class power? Orienting towards the protest scene keeps radicals safely within liberalism’s orbit. After all, the activist subculture is dominated by the Democratic Party and its extensive network of front groups. Why did November 4th fail? It hinged on the subculture’s support. But Democrats have that base, so Democrats set its agenda.

The Futility of “Expressive Protests”

To be clear, “protest” is an imprecise term. It elides activities that shouldn’t necessarily be equated. So, this critique doesn’t extend to concrete confrontation: that is, physically preventing something from happening. Striking workers holding a picket line and people at Standing Rock blocking the pipeline differ from most protests – they involve literally stopping the things they oppose. Rather, this criticism targets expressive protests: demonstrations that demand something, but don’t do it. That includes not just permitted marches with police escorts, but also many ostensibly militant activities. Blocking streets for gay marriage, marching through city centers against trade agreements, and getting arrested in “direct actions” against policies being carried out thousands of miles away all fall within the spectrum of expressive protest. It resembles concrete confrontation in form, but they’re like red wine and grape soda. The superficial similarity hides a qualitative difference.

Expressive protest means actions like those of February 2003. Millions of people around the world turned out against George Bush’s immanent invasion of Iraq, forming “the largest protest event in human history.” The New York Times was impressed enough to write that “there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.” Bush, however, simply ignored the demonstrations and proceeded to launch the war. The “second superpower,” it turned out, couldn’t compete with state power.

Expressive protest is ubiquitous and meaningless. A protest might be numerically “successful,” but by its nature, it doesn’t change any aspect of collective life. That’s why liberals love it. Because the 2000s anti-war movement structured itself around a powerless tactic, what option did it have besides falling into place behind John Kerry’s pro-war presidential run? Since it couldn’t escape the Democratic Party’s hegemony, is it any surprise that it dissipated under Obama, even though he escalated Bush’s wars? Expressive protests don’t lead to actual power. What option did the anti-war movement have besides narrow electoral opposition to Bush, the individual politician, on the Democratic Party’s terms?


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Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park, NYC. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Limitations of “Mass Upsurges”

Isn’t this argument one-sided, though? Sure, a peace vigil in front of a state capitol isn’t going to influence foreign policy. But aren’t some protests more effective than that? Periodically, millions of people more-or-less spontaneously join a protest movement, forming a mass upsurge. When that many people are developing political consciousness and acting on it, often for the first time, it can’t be dismissed. Aren’t institution-building and participating in mass upsurges complementary, not opposed?

Radicals absolutely should take mass upsurges seriously, in part because their participant base does differ from standard-fare “activist networking.” However, upsurges typically share two traits that shape their relationship with expressive protest:

  1. They aren’t premeditated. The feminist writer Jo Freeman describes two ingredients for protest movements: a pre-existing communications network through which the movement’s ideas can spread, and a crisis to act as the “spark.” She gives the example of 1960s radical feminism: women participants in the New Left formed a communications network, and a series of public displays of misogyny from male leaders served as the galvanizing crisis. While Freeman emphasizes the role of organizers in developing networks, “sparks” are inherently unpredictable. Attempting to simply will one into being virtually always fails, as Refuse Fascism discovered on November 4th.
  2. Their participants consistently conclude that protest doesn’t get the goods. Occupy’s encampments lasted for weeks, occasionally months. However, even the longest-lived encampments found themselves unable to win any of their goals. The financial system wasn’t slowed; it simply ignored the people in Zuccotti Park, just like George Bush had ignored the anti-war movement. Unfortunately, the Occupiers saw no practical alternative to the protest cycle. So, some joined the activist-networking scene, but most dropped out of politics entirely. Their expressive protests were massive, disruptive, and sustained. They still failed.

So, for radicals, the question of protest attendance during an upsurge is less important than it looks. The most helpful kind of engagement isn’t protesting louder, more often, and with more radical slogans. It’s offering the kind of alternative that the activist subculture won’t.

Disillusioned Occupiers wanted something more meaningful than the protest circuit. What kind of power could they have wielded through a network of mutual aid projects, worker-owned co-ops, community self-defense initiatives, and workplace-organizing resources? What might the institution-building strategy have offered them?

Most radicals, though, couldn’t provide anything better than sign-waving. That approach enjoys hegemony within the activist subculture for a reason: the Democratic Party and its front groups dominate the scene, and as the anti-war movement showed, it’s uniquely suited to their aims. They want to be benevolent technocrats with a passive base of support. Of course Democrats promote powerless tactics. They oppose mass participation in the exercise of power.

Now, the Left has the opposite goal. But, its expressive-protest orientation keeps it subordinate to the Democratic Party in practice.

When Protests Are Actually Effective

ice_axe
Source: Wikipedia

But don’t protests sometimes actually work? For instance, counter-demonstrations against alt-right events materially interfere with their movement by hindering their ability to recruit. Besides, no tactic is useful for everything. Doesn’t protest still have a place in the activist’s toolkit?

Well, in that example, there’s a specific goal that the protest tactic addresses: to demoralize fascists in order to slow their recruitment, facing them with large numbers of people is effective. But how often is the target of an expressive protest not only physically present, but also doing something that gets disrupted by the mere proximity of protesters? For movements on the fringe of public acceptability, losing a community’s goodwill means losing the ability to replenish its membership. Protesting works against fascist events because they’re uniquely susceptible to social stigma – but what about governments and corporations? Bad PR may irritate them, but it doesn’t stop them from doing what they want.

Protesting is like a mountain climber’s axe. Under very specific circumstances, it’s the right tool. Otherwise, it might look impressive, but you can’t build anything with it. All else being equal, it’s probably better to have it in your toolkit than not. But for most jobs, it simply won’t work.

Wielding Real Power

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.

Vicky Osterweil

What is politics?

It’s not the expression of ideas. That’s the fascist bait-and-switch: promising the reality of power, but only delivering the feeling of it, the catharsis of “making your voice heard” and “finally being listened to” by a leader. But liberalism operates no differently, pushing expressive protest as a stand-in for the actual power it restricts to business leaders and state officials.

That’s politics, properly defined – collectively exercising real social power. Revolutionary institution-building is politics; each institution is an instrument through which a working-class community can shape some part of its shared life. Expressive protest is not. Emotionally, it resembles the feeling of politics, but the substance isn’t there. It’s closer to a letter to the editor, asserting a belief without enacting it. Even if it’s impressive enough to make the front page, it doesn’t build mass power.

That’s what the Democratic Party prefers. If the Left wants something better, how much longer can it afford to squander itself on expressive protests?


Sophia Burns

is a communist and devotional polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her here on Patreon.


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The Red Champion

What has been won by our liberation from these outdated delusions? What has been gained? Are we free? Are we at peace? Even by the standards of modernity, twisted and obscene, we are undoubtably the poorer. Without the gods, now there is only ourselves to fear.

From Ramon Elani


Let us accept the vitality of blood, or rather the identity of blood and life, as a fact which antiquity never doubted and which has been acknowledged again today; another opinion as old as the world itself was that heaven grew angry with the flesh, and blood could be appeased only by blood…How then can we fail to recognize that paganism could not be mistaken about an idea so universal and fundamental as that of sacrifice, that is to say, of redemption by blood? Humanity could not guess at the amount of blood it needed.—Joseph De Maistre

I call to the goddess Cerridwen to guide my hand! Cerridwen, the Old White Sow, The Crooked Woman, Mother of the Bright One, the Black Screaming Hag, the Lady of the Wolf, the Cat, and the Pig, Cauldron Stirrer, who devoured her Golden Child.

I call to the Morrigan to grant me victory! The Nightmare Queen, Consort of the Dagda, Raven Goddess, Pursuer, Destroyer, Subduer, the Sovereign, Battle Crow, the Devastation of Ulster, the One who Washes Bloody Armor in the crystal stream.

The Druid, the Oak-Seer speaks and says:

I am the wind over the deep sea (for depth),

I am a tempest of the sea (for weight),

I am a roaring of the sea (for horror)

 

Blood is pouring down my face. “Your nose is broken,” says my coach. “It’s fine, it’s fine,” I reply. Across the ring, my opponent is panting and holding his ribs. A look of agony on his bruised face. I don’t feel any pain. This is why I fight: to feel alive, to give my blood for something ineffable. A lifetime of dry books has given me the thirst for the vitality and magic of blood. And I have understood that in this wild desire there is something of terrible and earth-shaking importance.

Techno-industrial society has severed humanity from the gods of the earth. In our modern isolation, we have not only lost the power that bonded us to the earth but we have become a grotesque mockery of what we once were. The human soul has rotted. The gods have turned away from us. And everywhere we walk we spread desolation over the earth. We no longer see the faces of the gods, our ancestors upon the barren hilltops and in the green woods. We no longer hear their whispers in the streams and rivers. We no longer draw strength from them through the stones and the soil. Where once we knew to avoid cursed places, the homes of faeries, and ancient burial mounds, now we have absorbed demons into our own hearts.

No one, perhaps, has understood this as well as Carl Jung: “after it became impossible for the demons to inhabit the rocks, woods, mountains, and rivers, they used human beings as much more dangerous dwelling places.” For whatever modernity teaches us, we have not dispelled the mystical forces of the earth, we have merely swallowed them and forgotten. Or to put it another way, Jung again: “You can take away a man’s gods, but only to give him others in return.” Meanwhile the soul and body of human-kind withers and sickens and the body of the earth is ravaged and degraded. And be assured that nature, the wild world, is full of demons. The spirits and gods of the earth are not the benign protectors as some envisage them. Yes, they may protect us and bless us with their favor. But they will just as well cast us into an eternity of horror and madness.

I am a fierce ox of seven battles,

I am a proud stag of seven horns (for strength),

I am a griffon on a cliff,

I am a hawk on a cliff (for deftness)

The psychic and spiritual life of humanity was once writ large upon the world. The “autochthonous demon” or the “sparks of the World Soul” was once felt in all things. We saw it while we sat upon the river bank, lost in thought or reverie. We heard it in songs, in smoke filled halls, surrounded by our kin-folk. We felt it in the thrill of battle. Then came the juggernaut of modernity and techno-industrial society as its apotheosis. The so-called illusions of the past were denounced and those who kept to the old ways were butchered. The technician and the scientist declare the horrors of the dark past to be mere superstition, nonsense. Jung:

What happens to those figures and phantoms, those gods, demons, magicians, those messengers from heaven and monsters of the abyss, when we see that there is no mercurial serpent in the caverns of the earth, that there are no dryads in the forest and no undines in the water, and that the mysteries of faith have shrunk to articles in a creed?

What has been won by our liberation from these outdated delusions? What has been gained? Are we free? Are we at peace? Even by the standards of modernity, twisted and obscene, we are undoubtably the poorer. Without the gods, now there is only ourselves to fear. And who would have imagined that the vileness and cruelty of humanity could so greatly surpass the gods themselves? As Jung observes: “In the olden days men were brutal, now they are dehumanized and possessed to a degree that even the blackest Middle Ages did not know.” Even an ardent humanist would be forced to acknowledge that the most vicious crimes of the past pale in comparison to what has been wrought upon humanity and the earth in the techno-industrial age.

I am the shining tears of the sun,

I am fair among flowers (for clearness),

I am the ruthless conquering boar (for valor),

I am the salmon in the pool of knowledge (for wisdom)

The covenant between humanity and the gods, which held for thousands of years until the birth of the modern world, was written in blood. Blood shed by heroes and warriors during the joyful madness of battle. Blood shed by those who stand within the square of twigs and face the shadow of themselves in their opponent. Blood shed by dark eyed priests through grim sacrifice. But this is not all. The blood given to the gods in exchange for their favor can be understood symbolically as well. The blood or vitality given by men and women to the land they work. The energy and labor given to the gods in harvest offerings. All these gifts of blood and more served to bond humanity to the gods and through them to the earth. These acts represented a relationship between humanity and the cosmos. An acknowledgement that we are small and weak and frail and that we are surrounded by powers and forces beyond our understanding. Blood, literal and symbolic, represents what we have to give.

When we stopped paying for our fortune with blood, when we stopped acknowledging how little we are and how contingent our lives, we stopped hearing the voices of the gods and we fell from their favor. Modernity makes war upon the mother, upon the Great Goddess. Indeed, it may be that modernity and the techno-industrial world it produced is not constituted, in the final analysis, by anything other than the fundamental rejection of the Great Goddess, and the image of the mother which represents her.

When Carl Jung wrote his Red Book, when he stepped into the realm of dreams and ripped open the door between the worlds what did he find but the image of the mother: “Communion gives us warmth. Singleness gives us light. At immeasurable distance stands one single star at the zenith. This star is the God and goal of humanity. In this world one is Abraxas, creator and destroyer of one’s world.” The essence of the mother. The twin powers of creation and destruction. The meaning of the Great Goddess. Hermann Hesse saw her too wandering the shadowy corridors of the seminary. When she appeared to him, his mind shattered into a thousand fragments: “The mother of life could be called love or desire; she could also be called death, grave, or decay. Eve was the mother. She was the source of bliss as well as of death; eternally she gave birth and eternally she killed; her love was fused with cruelty.” If we do not believe, as all once did, that the gods of the world demand blood, it can only be because we have lost the wrathful aspect of the Goddess or mother. The most vile myth of modernity is that of a benign cosmos.

I am the flooded lake upon the plain (for dominion),

I am the hill of poetry,

I am both the oak and the lightning that blasts it,

I am the spear of woe to such as wish for woe (to slay therewith).

And what is at stake for modernity in the vision of a divinely ordered cosmos, kindly disposed, and gentle? Fear not! Cries modern man. The world can be made an earthly heaven by my hand and my technics. There are no gods to fear. There is no demon in the woods painting her bare breasts with blood. Thus, there is no beast that longs for blood in your heart. As the stars beyond are placid and obedient, so you to are in essence a docile thing. The stones and rivers and plains and forests are without soul, they exist for our pleasure. The image of an ordered and compliant humanity mirrored by a domesticated nature and a world without blood or gods. A world that demands nothing from us can be used as we will. The very terms we use to describe the world around us reflect this emptiness. As Jung famously wrote

today, for instance, we talk of “matter.” We describe its physical properties. We conduct laboratory experiments to demonstrate some of its aspects. But the word “matter” remains a dry, inhuman, and purely intellectual concept, without any psychic significance for us. How different was the former image of matter—the Great Mother—that could encompass and express the profound emotional meaning of Great Mother.

A cosmos denied of its divinity becomes mere material for the engines of progress. But as we have seen above, the gods and the Goddess cannot be so easily vanquished. For Jung, as we have said, they will lay siege to the human soul itself and poison it until it turns on itself and gives birth to unheard of horrors. For the earth, the forces of the gods and the Goddess will rise up against this fragile edifice we have constructed and obliterate every idol we have constructed. Our cities, our factories, the air we breathe, the soil we stand upon will turn to ash and desert. The Goddess will have the blood she deserves, one way or another.

Robert Graves, more poet than scholar, gave himself to the Goddess of War, when Europe was engulfed in flames. He fought in the muddy trenches and saw the horrors of war and the brutality of life and death. His soul was given to her power when shell fragments pierced his lungs. What might he have seen in the bloody death that stood before him? Did he see a vision of the Mother rising up above the warring plains, holding the sun and the moon in her outstretched hands. Upon her lips a smile of unendurable eroticism and terror. Her eyes shining like dying stars in an oblivion of darkness. Her hair woven into a crown of bones and crows. How must he have longed to possess her and be possessed by her. What courageous effort must have been required to resist her embrace. When he came back to life, he pledged himself to Ceridwen, goddess of death and rebirth. And through her, he found his voice:

Cerridwen abides. Poetry began in the matriarchal age, and derive its magic from the moon, not from the sun. No poet can hope to understand the nature of poetry unless he has had a vision of the Naked King crucified to the lopped oak, and watched the dancers, red-eyed from the acrid smoke of the sacrificial fires, stamping out the measure of the dance, their bodies bent uncouthly forward, with a monotonous chant of: ‘Kill! Kill! Kill!’ and ‘Blood! Blood! Blood!’

The only path for humanity is the path of the Goddess and her sacrifice, for in that moment of spurting blood is achieved the union of the stars.

I am a god who forms smoke from sacred fire for a head (for inspiration),

Who makes clear the path to the mountains?

Who but myself knows the assemblies of the dolmen-house on the mountain?

Who but myself knows where the sun shall set?

Who foretells the ages of the moon?

In the cosmic union, the Great Goddess presides over the ritual sacrificial death of the Sacred King. Modernity and its logic condemns the world of mythology, the world of superstition, the world of blood, and the rule of the Goddess. In this regard, Graves argues, the modern tendency begins with Socrates, who “in turning his back on poetic myths, was really turning his back on the Moon-goddess who inspired them and who demanded that man should pay woman spiritual and sexual homage.” Thus modernity is in essence, the force of the patriarchy. The tendency in human culture which denigrates the earth, which denies the pursuit of glory and blood, is the same tendency that seeks to dominate the feminine. As Graves writes

Ancient Europe had no gods. The Great Goddess was regarded as immortal, changeless, and omnipotent; and the concept of fatherhood had not been introduced into religious thought. She took lovers, but for pleasure, not to provide her children with a father. Men feared, adored, and obeyed the matriarch; the hearth which she tended in a cave or hut being their earliest social centre, and motherhood their prime mystery.

This is, of course, broadly true outside of Europe as well. For the Selk’nam of Patagonia, the matriarchal Moon Goddess is forever at war with her husband, the sun, who dared to strike her. The continued existence of the Selk’nam people was only made possible by homage given to the Moon-Woman: an entire society built upon the premise of honoring the goddess.

To anticipate arguments made by those who wish to imagine a kinder great mother goddess, we must say that this is merely a failure to properly understand the cycles of life and death. Her gentleness and love is not corrupted or diminished by her hunger for blood. The desire to project a peaceful goddess is born from the desire to dominate her. Graves: “the Goddess is no townswoman: she is the Lady of the Wild Things, haunting the wooded hill-tops.” She will not be controlled. She is untamable and beyond the petty morality of the domesticated world. The conflation of the Goddess with the Virgin is of course another attempt to control her. The virgin is chaste and untouched. She is a mere object, rather than an agent of her own destiny.

We cast down this absurd patriarchal fantasy, following Graves: “The White Goddess has never been monogamic and has never shown pity for the bad, the ineffective, the sterile, the perverted, the violent, or the diseased: though loving and just, she is ruthless.” We insist upon a conception of the Goddess which, precisely because of its brutality and cruelty, utterly resists the yoke. She does not transcend nature, she is nature. And like nature, she is by turns sweet and gentle and barbaric and vicious. If this vision terrifies us, this is right. The powers above us are terrifying. If this vision disgusts and outrageous us, we must recognize that the techno-industrial morality that we have been persuaded by teaches us to reject violence in order to better disguise its own war against the cosmos. We are taught to fear and hate the violence of crushing fists and cutting knives but to blindly accept the violence of industrialism, which threatens the life of the earth itself.

Who brings the cattle from the house of Tethra and segregates them?

For whom but me will the fish of the laughing ocean be making welcome?

Who shapes weapons from hill to hill?

Who but I knows the secrets of the unhewn dolmen?

Robert Graves’ theory of the White Goddess, the shadowy goddess that is known to all people in different names, has much to offer us in terms of understanding the relationship between the Goddess and the glorious sacrifices she requires. It has, of course, been demonstrated by scholars that Graves was mistaken in conflating goddesses from around the world. But Graves is not a historian, he is a poet. As such, he speaks directly to the uncanny world of mystery, the world of blood-drenched spirits and forgotten rituals. Who better to speak of the Goddess? This is precisely why he has been chosen. A poet, one who speaks the language of blood rather than the dry facts and observations of the dispassionate academician.

For our purposes, we shall begin our reading of Graves with the combat of the Oak King and Holly King and the stag cults. One of the earliest antecedents is the Greek myth of Artemis and Actaeon, who is taken a lover of the goddess only to be turned into a stag and hunted to death by Artemis and her hounds. This tale is echoed by other from all over Europe and Africa. The consort of the Goddess is chosen for her pleasure. And the consummation of their passion is his dismemberment, death, and occasional consumption by the priestesses of the Goddess. The various bull-cults and goat-cults are a variation of this theme. When the Morrigan appears to Cuchulain in The Cattle Raid of Cooley, she warns the hero that his life is tied to the bull. The king or hero, therefore, chosen as the champion of the Goddess is destined to die for her in blood. The patriarch, or Antlered King, is ritually slaughtered in homage to the Mother. Images from cave painting around the world depict the horned king, in postures of sexual arousal or ejaculation, being murdered. Graves describes the following image from Zimbabwe:

At Domboshawa a ‘bushman’ painting…shows the death of a king who wears and antelope mask and is tightly corseted; as he dies, with arms outflung and one knee upraised, he ejaculates and his seed seems to form a heap of corn. An old priestess lying naked beside a cauldron is either mimicking his agony, or perhaps inducing it.

The gifts of the moon are thus won, through agony and ecstasy. The magic of the moon, its prophecies and powers can be acquired. But only through sacrifice, blood, and death.

The war of the Oak King and the Holly King brings us to the nature of glory in the service of the Goddess. The battle of dark and light. Winter and Summer. Waxing and Waning. Each king reigns for brief time before his rival slaughters him and gains his kingdom. The Oak King is the lord of the Summer. The peak of his power is at Midsummer. The tide of battle turns at the Autumn Equinox. And the Holly King slays him at Midwinter. As such the Twin Kings represent the figure of the Sacred King, the consort of the Goddess.

For Graves, the Greek hero Hercules is used as an archetype of the Sacred King. In his earliest form Hercules appears as a primeval elemental twin god, who commands the rain and thunder. Carrying an oak-staff, a symbol of male sexual power, he is joined in matrimony with the Queen of the Forest. When summer is at its peak, after drinking and feasting, he is placed upon a wooden throne and carried to a ring of stones within an oak grove. He is led to an oak that has been cut into a T-shape and “he is bound to it with willow thongs in the ‘five fold bond’ which joins wrists, neck and ankles together, beaten by his comrades till he faints, then flayed, blinded, castrated, impaled with a mistletoe stake, and finally hacked into joints.” His blood is gathered in a basin and the people of the tribe paint themselves with it to gain his power. The Sacred King’s body is then burned along with the oak tree on which he was hung. Then

twelve merry-men rush in a wild figure-of-eight dance around the fires, singing ecstatically and tearing at the flesh with their teeth. The bloody remains are burnt in the fire, all except the genitals and the head. These are put into an alder-wood boat and floated down a river to an islet; though the head is sometimes cured with smoke and preserved for oracular use.

Hercules’ twin then reigns in his stead until the following year when he is slaughtered in the same manner by his successor. This is the quest and meaning of man: to fulfill his destiny as the Sacred King. To be chosen by the Goddess as her consort, to be her champion, to spill blood for her, and finally to give himself up to her in blood.

Javelins shall be wielded to revenge the loss of our ships.

I sing praises, I prophesy victory.

Now steaming with blood and reeking of murder, the Man Who is a Sorrow to his People comes forth. A butcher of men, a pouting, petulant child whose wounded pride condemned thousands to death. A raging beast, whose anger defied the gods. Achilles slaughters for love and is the son of his mother, a great hero of the Goddess. Like Hercules, Achilles birth and childhood identifies him with the myth of the Sacred King. His six older brothers are burned to death as annual surrogates for the Sacred King. He is spared from the fires at the last moment, though he remains marked. In exchange for his life, Achilles’ father Peleus takes his place on the pyre. When his grief drives him back to war, it is his mother who arms him.

I am the womb of every holt,

I am the blaze on every hill,

I am the queen of every hive,

I am the shield to every head,

I am the tomb to every hope.

Robert Graves understood exactly what was at stake in abandoning the worship of the Goddess and turning away from the bloody sacrifices she demands. Having embraced the figure of the Glorious Apollo, the archetype of the Masculine, we have lost ourselves on the path of technology and domination of the world. Apollo and the Christ-Worshipping tree fellers that followed him, has wrought a world of artifice, of technics, and of delusion. Apollo, sad in love and spiteful for never having been chosen by the Goddess, leads us to catastrophe. Humanity will not voluntarily turn back to the Goddess. The Goddess does not beg, she does not ask to be loved. Hers is to command. Graves writes “there seems no escape from our difficulties until the industrial system breaks down for some reason or other… and nature reasserts herself with grass and trees among the ruins.” Do we imagine that we stand upon the earth by the might of our own hands? No, we are here only by the sufferance of the greater powers. And only once all the horrors we have wrought following the tragic fool Apollo have been scrapped from the face of the world by the raking claws of the Goddess, may we be given another chance. And who now may stand as a champion to the Goddess, to offer himself as her consort and her sacrificial victim? None comes forth and so we doom ourselves. Graves again:

But the longer her hour is postponed, and therefore the more exhausted by man’s irreligious improvidence the natural resources of the soil and sea become, the less merciful will her five- fold mask be, and the narrower the scope of action that she grants to whichever demi-god she chooses to take as her temporary consort in godhead. Let us placate her in advance by assuming the cannibalistic worst.

Yes, we must assume the worst and blood must run for her once again. And it will, whether we offer it freely or not. The true face of techno-industrial society has shown us plainly that blood will come. No matter that it is the blood of those we choose not to see. We will unknowingly sacrifice the world itself before we find ourselves alone upon a hill of bleached bones. There will be nobody left to offer but ourselves.

The things we have done to escape from ourselves. Humanity will undergo any trauma imaginable to avoid its own shadow. How is it that denying blood, we are choked by it? How is it that the narrative of peace, modernity, and progress has ended in nothing but horror? It is simple, of course. We have never wanted any of these things. They have been thrust upon us for the banal pleasures of deluded old men. None of us were given an option to live in a world we chose. The Goddess, cast aside to rot and grow musty with forgotten years, is a story, they tell us. So instead we are left with a world that doesn’t make any sense. Jung understood this better than anyone:

the god of war is restless, we must propitiate him, let us sacrifice to the god of war. And then every country would be going to the temples of the war god to sacrifice, perhaps it would be a human sacrifice, I don’t know, something precious, they might burn up a lot of ammunition or destroy cannons for the god of war. That would help. To say that it is not we who want it would help because man could then believe in his goodness. For if you have to admit that you are doing just what you say you are not doing, you are not only a liar, you are a devil, and then where is the self esteem of man? How can he hope for a better future? We can never become anything else because we are caught in that contradiction, on the one side we want to do good and on the other we are doing the worst. How can man develop? He is forever caught in that dilemma. So you had better acknowledge the evil, what you call it doesn’t matter. If there were priests who said that the god of war must be propitiated that would be a way of protecting yourself. But of course there are no such things, so we must admit that we prepare the war, that we are just thirsty for blood, everybody.

After years of dreaming of land, a home in the forest, my family and I came to our smallholding in the mountains of Western New England. I work the land, I give her my blood. I build a cairn for Woden and Eorce. When it is time, the blood of my sheep will be poured over the stones and I will offer gifts to the gods and the earth. I will seek, in my own small way, to restore the lost covenant between humanity and the earth. I will invite all the madness and horror of the Goddess into the world, for it will mean the restoration to a world whole and unsundered. I will tear down the Solar Apollo, with his intellect, his machines and his patriarchal domination of the world and the spirit! I will give my glory to the Moon Goddess, to blood and intuition and wildness!


Ramon Elani

Ramon Elani holds a PhD in literature and philosophy. He is a teacher, a poet, a husband, and a father, as well as a muay thai fighter. He wanders in oak groves. He casts the runes and sings to trolls. He lives among mountains and rivers in Western New England

More of his writing can be found here. You can also support him on Patreon.


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Class and Identity: Against Both/And

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Image credit: Lotta Femminista, via Viewpoint Magazine

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.


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A Jill Stein supporter protests Hillary Clinton during the DNC. Via Wikimedia Commons.

After Hillary Clinton’s failure in November, erstwhile Bernie supporters blamed Clinton’s “identity liberalism” for “abandoning the white working class.” In return, centrist Democrats repeated the accusations they’d made against Sanders during the primaries: supposedly, denouncing Wall Street is only another flavor of the white male reaction that uplifted Trump, and class-based politics means throwing away feminism and anti-racism for the sake of unity with “hillbillies.”

However, the revival of social democracy that Bernie helped catalyze didn’t slow. Often (though not exclusively) through the organizational vehicle of the Democratic Socialists of America and anchored by the audiences of Chapo Trap House and Jacobin, social democracy seems to be edging out “anarcho-liberalism” as the US protest scene’s default ideology.

As it’s grown, its proponents have rebutted the claim that class doesn’t mix with anti-racism and feminism. While criticizing the excesses of the Clintonite politics of representation and “identitarianism” in general, they’ve maintained that they actually oppose racism and sexism more effectively than centrists. After all, their case goes, “universal public goods” and “redistributive social-democratic programs” disproportionately benefit oppressed identity groups because their oppression leaves them poor, unemployed, and uninsured far more often than white straight men. Therefore, the best way to support women and people of color is to avoid divisive, class-effacing privilege analysis. Prioritizing economics doesn’t mean dropping anti-discrimination and anti-bigotry commitments. It’s simply a more effective strategy to pursue them. They agree with the centrists that those are non-negotiable moral imperatives, while disagreeing about how they best can be accomplished.

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.

Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James

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.

There’s nothing in human biology that makes people do extra housework and emotional labor when they’re perceived as women. There’s no law of botany that assigns farm work mostly to immigrants.

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.

That’s not incidental to capitalism, either. When it first emerged, the capital-owning class didn’t want self-sufficient peasant villages. As long as peasants had their land and worked it, they were unwilling to hire themselves out to other people’s businesses. But capitalists need people who own nothing, because such people have no choice but to work for them. So, in the early modern era, the emerging capitalist class created the current working class by enslaving Africans, committing genocide against Indigenous nations to steal their land’s raw materials, and privatizing the land that had once been the European peasant Commons. The categories of gender, race, and nation imposed by that process are the ancestors of today’s identity divisions. Unequal treatment both sustains them and makes them useful to the system.

Privilege is built into 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.

Roy San Filippo

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.

After all, the logic goes, doesn’t capitalism tend to de-skill specialized trades over time in order to drive down those jobs’ wages? In a parallel manner, liberal centrists argue that the market punishes racism and sexism – isn’t it in a company’s self-interest to always hire and promote the most qualified candidate, whatever their identity?

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.

Ruckus Collective

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.

Ted Allen and Noel Ignatin (Noel Ignatiev)

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?


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Image Credit: Q-Patrol of Seattle

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.

Welfare nostalgia doesn’t.


Sophia Burns is a communist and polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her work on Patreon: patreon.com/marxism_lesbianism


The Pre-Sale for A Beautiful Resistance: The Crossing has begun!

 

You Have to Deliver

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Black Panther Party free sickle cell testing in Boston, 1973. [Credit: It’s About Time BPP]

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.

Amílcar Cabral

The US Left is having a renaissance. It’s more visible now than it has been for generations. Left ideas have wide exposure and most Millennials oppose capitalism.

So why is the Left so weak?

The Left’s growth hasn’t translated into concrete power for the working class. It hasn’t developed a mass base of participation (at least outside of the pre-existing protest subculture and the “weird Twitter/Facebook” corners of the internet).

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?


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Despite his ideas, this man is not being taken seriously. [“The Morning Ride,” James-Jacques-Joseph Tissot, 1898]
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.

How many times have you seen socialists show up for something they have no prior connection to, thinking that they’ll “explain the revolutionary perspective” and then, somehow, be welcomed as leaders on the sheer strength of their ideas? Activists keep hopping from cause to cause based on whatever’s currently getting media attention. Does that develop collective power for anyone? Political ambulance chasing is fine for NGOs (and the micro-sect fronts that impersonate them). Unless they’re on top of whatever’s in the news, they’re at a disadvantage in competing for donors. Besides, the lack of deep and sustained community work lets the activist scene’s big fish keep their pond nice and small. But revolutionaries aren’t after careers in the nonprofit-industrial complex. If you want a mass revolutionary movement, you can’t afford that provincialism.


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Are these symbols outdated? That isn’t the right question to be asking.

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?


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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.

Fred Hampton

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.

Willie Osterweil

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:

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.

The only alternative is to keep failing.


Sophia Burns is a communist and polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Click here to support her on Patreon.

 

In Defense of Defense

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“Zona Antifa” graffiti. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This week, Chris Hedges quoted an article of mine. He argued that anti-fascist and Black Bloc demonstrators “mirror [the alt-right] not only ideologically but also physically—armed and dressed in black, the color of fascism and the color of death.” Counterposing base-building and antifa, he reduced the latter to “extremists” getting “infected with the dark, adrenaline-driven urge for confrontation that arises among the disenfranchised when a democracy ceases to function.”

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.


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Antifa demonstrators. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Is antifa destructive? It can be. Activist subcultures are no less self-focused, exclusionary, and elitist than any other middle-class-controlled subculture. Accepting that insularity, not struggling against it, is incompatible with building an independent base of mass power. Leftism is pointless if it just means talking to each other about each other. And developing an autonomous network of working-class institutions, separate from and opposed to capitalism and its government, needs to be our strategy. “Making your voice heard” and “starting a tough but important conversation” are what you do when you’re breaking up with someone, not when you’re cultivating collective power. We should be creating the embryo of socialism within capitalism itself, not bearing passive moral witness.

I’ve seen Black Blocs done horribly: no goals, no focus, no planning, and no connection to any larger community. They let their participants feel cool and accomplished nothing else.

But Hedges and similar antifa critics miss the larger context: literally every tactic, from union drives to mutual aid programs, can be done counter-productively. Singling out antifa just betrays their discomfort with the idea that the oppressed don’t actually need the capitalist state to defend ourselves.


The anti-fascists, and then, crucial, the anarchists … saved our lives, actually. We would have been completely crushed, and I’ll never forget that.

Cornel West


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.

Rev. Seth Wispelwey


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?

Antifa done right saves lives.

It saved Cornel West and other religious pacifists in Charlottesville. White nationalists have shown us their willingness to kill. Do “progressive” commentators have any business pearl-clutching about the optics?

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.

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The Dual Power revolutionary strategy rests on two pillars: construction and confrontation.* Each contributes to the same larger goal: an infrastructure of participatory-democratic institutions capable of replacing capitalism. Construction can mean mutual aid programs, worker co-ops, collectively-owned democratic housing, or other projects to satisfy the material and social needs of a community. Confrontation, conversely, can involve workplace organizing or tenants unions – or community self-defense. It obstructs, resists, and subverts an oppressor. That self-defense might oppose hate violence (for instance, Seattle’s Q-Patrol). It could focus on police brutality (as with the Black Panthers). And sometimes, it’s against the extreme right.

We must directly confront fascist events. That confrontation should not be done by isolated, subculture-oriented affinity groups looking for catharsis. Instead, Black Bloc tactics and less pugnacious ones can reinforce each other if done within the context of broader coalition work. That’s the model developed by the IWW General Defense Committee. It works.

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.


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Bessemer converter used in steel production. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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.

Sure, confrontation without construction ends up with self-isolating, patriarchal, adventuristic catharsis politics. But construction without confrontation gets you apolitical charity that can’t challenge oppression (and doesn’t want to, anyway).

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.”


Sophia Burns is a communist and devotional polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her via Patreon.


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Child Soldier

From Sable Aradia


 

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.

He lives, and this is confirmed by the soldiers when they do their sweep.  He is given on site medical attention and flown out, though he begs the soldiers to finish the job.

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.

This, my friends, is the true story of Omar Khadr.  This is not a leftist spin on the story; these are the absolute facts, as far as I was able to check, filtered through human decency and empathy.

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.

He has lost his eye and his childhood and gained decades of nightmares.  It is not enough.  It is not enough.

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.

We rehabilitate child soldiers.  We don’t go on torturing them.  And because we have all so terribly failed this Canadian boy, who has become a man in a prison camp because of our callousness and neglect, I believe that anyone who wanted a piece of anything of his has absolutely forfeited the right.

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.


Sable Aradia

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.

 


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