Catharsis Is Counter-Revolutionary

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“Catharsis politics isn’t just unhelpful. It’s actively destructive.”

Political critique from Sophia Burns

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Black Bloc demonstrators. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

This summer, my lover and I sat under a tree at Gay Pride. Behind us, we heard a speaker from the Dyke March stage.

She talked about privilege – how the experience of having cisgender privilege, white privilege, and abled privilege gives people “faulty brain wiring,” making its bearers biologically dangerous to people of color, disabled people, and trans people. She declared that dykes ought to stand for justice – and the way to do that is to “sit with our discomfort,” because “fixing our brain wiring” is each individual’s responsibility. She rounded it out by declaring her own marginalized identity as a dyke, affirming her pride and calling for unspecified “revolutionary social justice reforms.”

Meanwhile, my lover told me about an acquaintance of hers who makes it to every big protest downtown. This person always joins the Black Bloc, always picks a fight with the cops, always needlessly endangers not only themselves, but also their friends. Being in the middle of a fight makes them feel in the middle of the anti-fascist movement.

The US has no mass revolutionary Left. Those of us who want to build one have to push against not only external opposition from the government and capitalism, but also the obstacles that we have imposed on ourselves. While the social justice speaker and the reckless antifa went about it in different ways, ultimately both made the same mistake: they treated leftism as a method of individual catharsis, not collective power. Catharsis politics is one of the central self-limiting features of the current Left.

Each of these examples illustrates a different flavor of catharsis politics. Let’s call one of them affirmation catharsis and the other combat catharsis.


When liberals insist that the point of protest is to “have your voice be heard,” they are actually describing the fascist mode of political participation. To be satisfied with “feeling heard” in and of itself, as the goal of political activity, without pointing that expression toward building real material power, is to be a contented fascist subject.

Willie Osterweil

Ostensibly, though, these two approaches don’t share much. One of them says that self-care by individual oppressed people is revolutionary. The other says that revolution means violence: resisting cops and alt-rightists with fists and sticks, not words. They certainly aren’t fans of each other. So where’s the common thread? What unites the sit-with-discomfort crowd with the masked-up street fighters?

The details of the self-images they project aren’t very similar. However, that’s almost beside the point, since both do reduce politics to the projection of a self-image. It’s a way they express the kind of person they want to be. They do so in public, with an audience, because that’s how they get their peers’ validation. As a rule, neither has a coherent strategy for social change. Affirmation catharsis celebrates fabulousness while combat catharsis tries for militant cool, but at the root they’re variations on the same individualistic theme.

There’s a material reason for that. After all, what are the class interests of most catharsis politics practitioners? Aspiring non-profit managers, academics, and media figures lean towards affirmation catharsis because they must out-compete each other for a limited quantity of specialized jobs and public attention. Student radicals, who believe in revolution but lack connections with working-class communities, want to “do something real” and find their outlet in combat catharsis.

For the first time in decades, a mass US Left is trying to be born. The two strands of catharsis politics are strangling it.


The culture of anti-oppression politics lends itself to the creation and maintenance of insular activist circles. A so-called “radical community” — consisting of collective houses, activist spaces, book-fairs, etc. — premised on anti-oppression politics fashions itself as a refuge from the oppressive relations and interactions of the outside world. This notion of “community”, along with anti-oppression politics’ intense focus on individual and micro personal interactions, disciplined by “call-outs” and privilege checking, allows for the politicization of a range of trivial lifestyle choices. This leads to a bizarre process in which everything from bicycles to gardens to knitting are accepted as radical activity.

Common Cause

But what’s actually wrong with catharsis? Shouldn’t radicals express who we are and who we want to be? Why not celebrate our survival in a hostile society and affirm our values? Isn’t it a way to center the most marginalized, fight oppression, and practice revolutionary self-love?

Stafford Beer, who helped developed cybernetics (the study of complex systems), had a saying: “The purpose of a system is what it does.” Whether it’s a computer program, a government agency, or whatever else, what something was originally intended to do doesn’t matter. To understand something, you can’t write off “side effects” and “unintended consequences.” You have to take its effects as a whole. Treat a thing as it actually is, not as what it was originally meant to be. When examining catharsis politics (and political ideas in general), remember this.

Catharsis politics is what it is in practice, not what it theoretically could be. And in practice, decades of “anti-oppression” affirmation catharsis and affinity-group combat catharsis have completely failed. They haven’t grown a meaningful revolutionary movement in the US. They’ve just created an insular and hostile subculture that doesn’t win anything much deeper than corporate re-branding or the cancellation of individual Nazi rallies.

From Jon Stewart on down, catharsis politics means substituting the feeling of mass politics for the reality. Affirmation catharsis allows progressive-minded individuals to scratch the political itch merely by clicking “share.” Further, it replaces work towards the liberation of the oppressed with support for the media presence and careers of aspiring professional activists who can claim a marginalized background. It isn’t just unhelpful. It actively disrupts revolutionary work by channeling people away from the kind of organizing that builds collective power. Instead, it offers a basically passive, consumerist approach to politics. Why do you think there’s always talk of “leadership” from people who don’t do any mass work, or any politics at all that doesn’t involve self-promotion? To uplift someone’s voice, all you have to do is sit there and listen. No need to build revolutionary institutions that can actually get people free. At the end of the day, you end up with de-politicized politics, where “doing the work” means visibly consuming “progressive” media, and (in the words of the popular site Everyday Feminismradical activism means you “publish, reblog, or share” articles to “signal-boost the voices of others.”

Conversely, combat catharsis puts real-world action front and center. But, it does so in a way that falls into the same individualism as affirmation catharsis. It takes the adrenaline-filled moment of street confrontation and substitutes that for revolutionary politics itself. Mass work, as with affirmation catharsis, gets derided or ignored. Small affinity groups replace participatory-democratic institutions. The fetish for violence (rather than the willingness to use force only when it strategically makes sense – and it often doesn’t) flows from a particular leftist flavor of patriarchy. “Radical” and “publicly confrontational” get collapsed into one, and the necessary, everyday work of maintaining and reproducing basic social existence usually falls to activist women. The larger division of labor that underpins capitalism’s gender system finds itself re-created by a nominally anti-capitalist scene.

And, above all, combat catharsis does not engage positively with anyone who doesn’t already share its values. The defining image is an individual activist trying to be heroic. It rarely leads to the growth of roots in working-class communities or further collective action. After all, the work of building alternative institutions of people’s power is slow, unsexy, and patient. It rarely has the fireworks of a fistfight with Proud Boys. It’s about cultivating relationships, listening, organizing resources, and serving the people – in short, much of it is work that’s considered feminine. While this approach to revolutionary politics does involve confrontation when confrontation makes sense, it’s never for its own sake. Strategically speaking, confrontation and construction complement each other. Without its counterpart, each will degenerate. Combat catharsis is what happens when confrontation is severed from mutual aid, service, and community-oriented mass work. Combat catharsis will never change the world. It will always, however, offer instant gratification and radical chic.


Activist networking is what might be called lifestyle activism…These individuals are not particularly concerned with effectiveness, because for then it is more of a hobby, an identity, or a “safe space” for like-minded people to discuss common interests without having to engage with working class people with their warts and all.

Tim Horras

In both cases, individual activists do not look beyond themselves. They do the minimum to feel like good people in the short term, but it never leads to more. There’s no coherent analysis of how society works, no goal for how it should be different, and no strategy for how to get there. The purpose of a system is what it does. Catharsis politics does not move us towards liberation.

Now, from the perspective of neoliberal politicians and corporate investors, that’s just fine. The Left focuses on itself and the powerful are comfortably unthreatened. But from the point of view of the working class – and that probably includes you – it’s poison. Politics isn’t made of individuals. It’s made of classes. Political change doesn’t come from feeling individually validated. It comes from collective action and organization within the working class. That means creating new institutions that meet our needs and defend against oppression.

Right now, there are plenty of opportunities for catharsis politics. But they aren’t compatible with genuine revolutionary organizing. If you ignore any strategy that reaches beyond yourself, you won’t end up with collective power. And inasmuch as it allows people to satisfy their desire to be political without actually doing much, catharsis politics isn’t just unhelpful. It’s actively destructive.


To defeat Trump and the neo-Confederates we have to develop a strategic “Build and Fight; Fight and Build” program. This program must address the imperative need to build economic and political power from the ground up – amongst workers, the underemployed, unemployed and structurally unemployable on the community, county, state and national levels.

Both dimensions of our Build and Fight program we believe must have offensive and defensive dimensions to them.

Ungovernable2017 Call to Action

Very little of the US Left practices the strategy of institution-building. Most of the groups that do only formed within the last few years. However, one of the few that began that work decades ago – Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi (which spun off from the revolutionary Black nationalist Malcolm X Grassroots Movement) – has developed an impressive network of community farms, co-ops, cultural institutions, and direct-democratic People’s Assemblies. Three decades of institution-building have made them a near-hegemonic force in Jackson, MS’s working-class, Black majority. This year, for the second time, a member of Cooperation Jackson (Chokwe Antar Lumumba, son of the deceased mayor and Cooperation Jackson member Chokwe Lumumba) was elected mayor. More recently, Philly Socialists – a city-level group founded by 2 people only 6 years ago – currently has a triple-digit membership with hundreds more active in its tenants’ union, food garden, ESL classes, and other programs.

The strategy is called Dual Power (because it aims to create a second political power structure, in opposition to the capitalist one) or base-building (because it emphasizes working towards a broad base of community support and involvement). It gets consistent, concrete results. And right now, that can’t be said of most of the US Left.

Revolutionaries need patience and humility. Feeling validated is fine, but it’s not political. If anyone says otherwise, they’re selling you something. Catharsis politics has been tried for many years. It isn’t working. So let’s acknowledge that, move on, and leave the social justice subculture behind. If we ever want liberation, the Left must start the protracted work of building institutions instead.


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


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Neither Broken Nor Crushed

The “mask of the warrior” I wrote about in Strong Toward the Powerful is no longer hypothetical. All over the United States, people determined to resist the Trump regime and its fascist allies are masking up and taking to the streets.

The black mask of antifascism scares some people, but that doesn’t make it wrong. When you’re faced with a threat as serious as this one, there is no ethical option except to fight back. “Fighting” can mean many different things, and in any conflict throughout history most participants are not in frontline roles. This struggle needs everyone, not only those who are prepared to personally put a mask on and punch a Nazi leader in the face.

There are some highly effective and disruptive nonviolent tactics available for those who are simply unwilling to throw a punch no matter what. The heroic water protectors at Standing Rock have repeatedly put their own bodies on the line without harming their opponents. However, there is also a type of “pacifism” that is far less admirable, because it mostly consists of lecturing other protesters about nonviolence while refusing to take any risks or carry out any effective action at all.

In its most extreme form, pure pacifism is a false value system, a self-serving attempt to maintain one’s own moral purity even if it means allowing torture, murder and every other atrocity to go unchallenged. It is also extremely rare, because hardly anyone who claims to be a pacifist is truly a pacifist. Most of the liberals who condemn anti-fascist and Black Bloc activity and claim to support only non-violent methods are simply being hypocrites.

If you have supported any military intervention anywhere for any reason, you cannot call yourself a pacifist. (Not even if the president who sent the troops into battle was a Democrat!) Bombs, missiles and bullets do the same thing to human bodies no matter who pulls the trigger, pushes the button or gives the order.

If there are any circumstances under which you would call the police, you cannot call yourself a pacifist. The police carry batons, stun guns, pepper spray and firearms and they will use any or all of those on anyone who resists them. When you make the decision to call the police on a person, you are using violence or the threat of violence to achieve your objectives in the situation — even if those objectives are perfectly noble. Violence does not magically become less violent when you contract it out.

When people condemn “violent protests” but support the police and the military, they are not taking a pacifist position at all but an authoritarian one. Right now, as you read this, there are Antifa volunteers fighting with the YPG against Daesh in Syria. The YPG has American support, so they are widely seen as heroes of the “War on Terror.” When Antifa shuts down a Nazi rally here in the United States, our enemies on the Right denounce us as terrorists and some liberals go along with them. Antifa fights against fascists all over the world, the only difference between one situation and the other is that they have our government’s blessing in one case and not in the other. That is not a coherent moral stance. Simply put, the people complaining about Antifa have bought into the State’s claim to hold a monopoly on the use of violence. That’s all the State really is, after all — an armed organization that has successfully claimed a monopoly on violence within a certain territory.

The State has a vested interest in obscuring this fact, so it defines “terrorism” not as an attempt to terrorize but as any political violence carried out without government permission. When Al Qaeda blows up a wedding party with a suicide bomb, it’s committing terrorism. When the CIA does the exact same thing with a drone strike, it’s fighting terrorism.

Not surprisingly, anarchists do not consider this distinction to be legitimate. If violence is always unjustifiable it remains unjustifiable when committed by the agents of the State. If violence is sometimes necessary, it remains so regardless of whether the fighters are wearing the right uniform or not.

If pacifism is often an incoherent and hypocritical position, what about its opposite? Some people romanticize armed struggle without asking themselves how well it really works in practice or under what specific circumstances it would be justifiable or necessary. Anyone who has studied the history of armed struggle knows that it rarely achieves the intended results. Just because a tactic is more destructive does not mean it is more effective. It would be far better to never get involved in radical politics at all than to simply ruin lives and destroy things while leaving society as unjust and oppressive as you found it. My personal opinion is that people should only take up arms when they have no other choice. How do you know when you have no other choice? I can’t answer that riddle for anyone; it depends entirely on your real circumstances. Study the history of armed uprisings and you will not find yourself eager to try it if you don’t have to.

Among the anarchist philosophers, Godwin rejected revolutionary violence because coercion of any kind was against the principles he stood for. Bakunin embraced it, because he thought the oppressive power of the State could be broken only through a cataclysm. I don’t exactly take either position. When it comes to anarchism, I am content to spread my ideas by writing and talking about them, like Godwin. When it comes to resisting tyranny and fascism, I believe in fighting back. However, I don’t think that “fighting back” means nihilistic destruction. There’s a scene in the Tain where the hills and plains of Ulster literally turn gray from all the pulverized brains. I think we can all agree that this is not the outcome we’re going for! It’s not as simple as saying that you are either for violence or against it. When it comes to punching Nazis, I am for. When it comes to coating the landscape with random brains, I am definitely against.

Some fanatics on the Right — including Steve Bannon — have been fantasizing for years about an apocalyptic civil war to cleanse the nation of people like you and me. No individual person can have much effect on whether a civil war happens or not, but the fact that it’s even being talked about should terrify you. You could make a case that we should be getting ready for a worst-case scenario, but anyone who would try to make it happen is not your friend.

If you agree with my analysis, neither pure pacifism nor its opposite are justifiable positions. So where does that leave us? It leaves us with a nuanced position, in which we acknowledge that conflict is a reality while also respecting the sanctity of life.

That’s not an easy answer, because it doesn’t present a clear and unambiguous script for every situation. It leaves the moral complexity of conflict in place and forces you to make decisions contextually, based on what’s really happening in that moment. It requires you to do everything in your power to minimize harm—sometimes by not fighting, sometimes by fighting, and sometimes by choosing one tactic instead of another in the middle of a fight.

As it says in The Instructions of King Cormac:

If you are too hard, you will be broken
If you are too feeble, you will be crushed.

The bombers and bank robbers of the ‘70s were broken; Occupy was crushed. If we don’t want to be broken or crushed, we need to embrace the ambiguity of the situation and wage our struggle in a way that is neither too hard nor too feeble.


Christopher Scott Thompson

cst-authorChristopher Scott Thompson became a pagan at age 12, inspired by books of mythology and the experience of homesteading in rural Maine. A devotee of the Celtic goddesses Brighid and Macha, Thompson has been active in the pagan and polytheist communities as an author, activist and founding member of Clann Bhride (The Children of Brighid). Thompson was active in Occupy Minnesota and is currently a member of the Workers’ Solidarity Alliance, an anarcho-syndicalist organization. He is also the founder of the Cateran Society, an organization that studies the historical martial art of the Highland broadsword.


Christopher Scott Thompson is the author of Pagan Anarchism, available from Gods&Radicals.

EDITORIAL: You’ll Scare the Middle-Class!

THE RESISTANCE HAS begun, and it looks pretty damn scary. Large crowds dressed in black shouting at cops, torching cars, shutting down fascist rallies, blocking streets, breaking windows. As in the massive Black Lives Matters protests, the actions of protesters can seem jarring, aggressive, ‘violent,’ even terrifying.

Some people are arguing they’ve gotten out of control, the tactics of Antifa, Black Bloc, and many other groups who are a topic of discussion for Liberal commentators and social justice advocates. They’re concerned, worried that civil, non-violent protest has given way to anger and destruction. They worry that the resistance will look scary, aggressive, that it will inspire fear, terror, and the potential of violent reprisal from those in power.

They especially worry that the we might alienate the middle-class.

Do You Even Resist, Bro?

We in Western Capitalist “Democracies” have an idea that there’s a certain balance of power between the people and the government. It goes like this:

The government exists because we need it. Laws keep us safe, police prevent crimes, courts sort out the innocent from the guilty, and the entire system functions well because we have the power to vote for those who control it. If the police ever get out of control, laws can be used to stop them, and if at any point the system stops working, we can select new people to run the government.

This has never been the case, but you might not have noticed until recently. Black and First Nations people in the United States know this better than anyone. Even the election of the first Black president couldn’t stop police murders of unarmed people, and the government repression of the water protectors at Standing Rock occurred under Obama.

When the poor attempt to resist the government, they are brutally punished. But so-called ‘middle class’ people don’t usually experience this direct violence when they resist. Why? The easiest answer to this is that the majority of the middle-class is white. This is true, and police are indisputably racist. This isn’t the full story though, since many poor people are also white.

People who make enough money to consider themselves ‘middle-class’ have more investment in the system of government than those who are poor, regardless of their race. A white suburban office manager and a Black suburban office manager both drive to work, pay mortgages on their homes, send their children to nice schools, and worry over things like retirement plans and their general security. While the Black woman in this example might also have to worry her male child might get shot by the police on his way home from a friend’s (a concern the white women need not fear for her own child), their economic lives are generally similar.

Even if both are liberal and hate Trump, neither will be willing to disrupt the entire system in order to show their displeasure. Instead, waving signs, calling senators, donating to election campaigns, and other ‘non-violent’ means of protest are the most they might be willing to risk. A night in jail because of a protest would be difficult to explain to their co-workers, a black eye from a police baton would raise eyebrows at the local Starbucks.

For the poor of any color, but especially for those who are not white, such considerations are generally irrelevant. There’s no mortgage to keep up, no 401k to worry about if the stock market collapses. The poor have no investment in the system, and thus have very little to lose.

The poor also know that the police aren’t there to protect them. Ask a homeless person what they think of the cops, and you’ll get a radically different answer from a home owner in a ‘nice’ neighborhood. Ask jobless Blacks on a street corner in a city if they think the cops are there to protect them, and they’ll give you a very different answer from the woman who doesn’t like them hanging out in front of her metaphysical store.

Non-Violence Is For The Middle-Classes

BECAUSE white and ‘middle-class’ people have more investment in the current system and different experiences with the police, many resistance movements adopted the tactic of non-violence in order to gain their alliance.

Non-violence as adopted by Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. did not mean non-confrontational protest. Rather, it involved confronting the police with the bodies of protesters and forcing them to make a choice: beat or kill unarmed, passively-resisting people, or allow them to break the law. It forced police to look like the aggressors they already were, stealing from them the defense that they were only responding to violence with violence.

This tactic works well if you are attempting to gain the alliance of middle-class people whose investment in the system prevents them from seeing the violence which sustains it. In India, this meant changing the opinions of UK citizens regarding the occupation; in the civil rights movement, this meant getting white liberals to side with the Black victims of police violence.

In both cases, the assumption was that the middle-classes did not realise the system they were a part of was racist and brutal. Watching elderly Black women beaten by cops or impoverished Indian grandmothers gunned down by British soldiers would shock them into coming to this truth. Seeing this, they would stop supporting the police and government policies, perhaps even joining in the protests. Once they did so, the powerful would be forced to comply, because the middle classes are the primary consumers of Democracy and Capitalism.

Non-violence is a strategy that coddles the concerns of the middle-classes, especially their fears. They fear disruption of their security, loss of their wealth, and the potential of personal harm. Non-violent marches now are designed specifically with their concerns in mind, assuring them that they have nothing to fear from resisting oppression.

Insisting that any resistance must bring the middle-class along with it makes little sense, anyway — they are not a revolutionary class. If anything, Trump is precisely what one gets when we coddle middle-class fears: fear of immigrants, Blacks, Muslims, economic insecurity, terrorism… anything that might disrupt their security and peace.

Reclaiming An Aesthetic of Fear

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Dressed to Impress

THE TACTIC OF NON-VIOLENCE also has the unfortunate effect of strengthening the core justification for state violence: that only the state is capable of legitimate use of violence. So, even in a fully-permitted, completely ‘peaceful’ protest, police brutality against a lone protester can still seem justified. The protester must have done something wrong to merit pepper spray or a violent arrest.

Police function under an aura of legitimacy because they are the enforcers of the laws by which we measure whether something is legal or illegal. This aura only exists insofar as we believe laws are unquestionably good — that is, as long as we think laws should be obeyed.

That aura of legitimacy has been fading rapidly in the last decade. Unless you live under a rock, you can’t have escaped all the reports of brutal killings of unarmed Blacks, Natives, and others at the hands of cops. If there were only a few stories, we could dismiss these as isolated incidents, ‘bad cops’ acting outside their legitimate mandate. But the stories keep increasing, the courts continue to absolve the cops of their crimes (or even refuse to prosecute them in the first place), and it’s now impossible to ignore what minority, poor, and radical victims of police violence have always known:

The police exist to maintain the current order, and their brutality is actually part of their mandate. The more the order starts to collapse, the more violent the police will need to act in order to keep ‘the peace.’

To do so, they’ve needed to cultivate an aesthetic of fear. If you’ve been to a protest in any Western Capitalist nation lately, you’ve seen the results of this: armored and heavily-armed police resembling Roman Centurions or Robocops, standing in military formation, ready to stop any potential violence to bank windows or luxury cars.

Traipsing around like stormtroopers, murdering people in the name of the law, driving around in military-grade vehicles, wielding microwaves that can fry your skin and sound-cannons that can deafen you for life definitely makes the police something to be afraid of. But there aren’t actually enough police to control us all if we ever engage in active resistance against them.

Fortunately, they have our middle-class commitment to non-violence to protect them. We have worried so long over the questions of ‘legitimate violence’ that we’ve failed to notice that the police no longer rely on it. Instead, they rely on our non-violence and our fear of their violence to keep us in line.

Alan Moore wrote in V for Vendetta, “People should not be afraid of their government; government should be afraid of their people.” The truth is, they already are, otherwise they wouldn’t be militarizing the police. Perhaps, then, it’s time to reclaim our own aesthetic of fear.

This is what Antifa and Black Bloc groups have already been doing. By engaging in active, aggressive resistance against police, they are breaking the spell of police invulnerability. Likewise, in each action they win, they are proving to the rest of us that more resistance is possible.

Such actions might never convince the liberal middle classes to join any resistance against the government. Thing is, though, there are many more of us than there are of them.

The government we are fighting knows it cannot win by violence alone. It also knows that they lost the aura of legitimacy long ago. They will not be able to govern us by fear as long as we show we can fight back. They cannot convince us we are powerless when we seize our power back from them.  So all that is left to them will be the support of the insecure middle-classes.

It makes no sense for us to try to win them over. What good are allies too worried about what their neighbors might think if they risked arrest to change the world?


Rhyd Wildermuth

img_0967Rhyd’s the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He also writes at Paganarch, Fur/Sweat/Flesh, and posts a near-daily “Friendly Anarchist Thought of the Day” on Facebook.

His entire life is 100% crowdfunded by readers like you. Find out how to help him here.