photo by SG

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Class War is No Joke

So I've just been turned on to the various "Tea Party" protests that are going on around the United States. Clearly these are examples of so-called Astroturfing, using various front groups to appear to be a popular movement. But I don't doubt that there are genuine middle and upper class people who have joined these marches, likely because of the enormous amount of press that they're receiving on Fox News and other television news channels.

It's easy for anarchists to dismiss these protests as irrelevant and yet another example of right-wing advocacy groups. After all, we all know that the Center for Union Facts is way more well-funded than we are and that a few days in real struggle will wake even the most reactionary worker up to the contradictions in the workplace. Well, probably.

But there's a huge difference between advocacy by conservative sectors of the bourgeoisie in the political arena and street protests by that same group. Advocacy, while probably more important in terms of actually enforcing policy decisions, occurs secretly and behind closed doors. The whole purpose of advocacy is blown when a group becomes publicly well-known for what it does. Hence the continued promotion of the nature of the Center for Union Facts by the AFL-CIO and other labor groups. Protest operates by the opposite mechanism, a public theatrical spectacle which invites controversy. Which is of course why leftists are so used to using it.

But as any student of history should know, when the Right does turn to protest and street-level actions, it is always incredibly dangerous for leftists, particularly though counter-intuitively radicals. On one hand, on a purely political level, right-wing protest and direct action is dangerous to what we believe in and to ourselves. Obviously various fascist groups and parties come to mind to illustrate this point. Right-wing opposition to abortion took its most powerful and dangerous form in the Operation Rescue movement of the 80s, which used civil rights era tactics to disrupt women's clinics.

The danger exists for radicals specifically beyond these concrete results and on the level discourse. When the right-wing places itself as the "protagonist" of a social struggle against a marginally left or centrist government, it squeezes our voices off the table entirely. Consider Chavez's Venezuela. In similar media-powered protest spectacles, the organized right-wing parties have thrown giant protests, funded powerful opposition, and even thrown a coup. This opposition has made it to criticize Chavez in Venezuela is immediately equated with being a reactionary. There is little room for nuance and internal disagreement when faced with deadly right-wing force, and it is those things that radicals need to expand. The fact that North American anarchists swear by El Libertario as the "authentic voice of freedom" in Venezuela continues to make me laugh, after being assured by numerous revolutionaries familiar with the country that literally no one reads the group's publications in-country because of their virulently anti-Chavez stance. That's not to say that Chavez isn't a power-hungry would-be dictator. He is. But "speaking truth to power" when "power" is the only thing giving you bread and protecting you from fascist groups is understandably a difficult position.

In the United States, these protests seem small right now and will hopefully stay that way, simply a passing political fad. But radicals should not let them grow and do anything in our power to combat them. Simply letting them off the hook because we agree that taxes are bad is a view that completely ignores the political complexities of the situation. Barack Obama may not be our leader, but if we allow him to become the "bad guy" in the media, we lose more than he does. This doesn't mean we should support Obama, but that we should attack the right-wing with our tools and ideas before they grow too large. Anti-fascist activism in Britian and the continent is a reasonable comparison.

There are chilling examples of what happens when right-wingers organize large public presences against left-leaning or moderate governments and radicals sit back. Though they couldn't be considered as "sitting back," the uncritical support of the Chilean Left of Allende and, outside of the Movimiento Izquierda Revolucionario's occasional scuffle with participants, lack of willingness to engage publicly and clearly with the right-wing middle class "March of the Empty Pots" movement when it began directly paved the way for Pinochet's coup to happen. Certainly it was a different time and revolutionaries then had different perspectives on change, so we can't fault them entirely. But the fact remains that allowing right-wingers a free hand at organizing is a game we play with no possibility of winning.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Danger of Bourgeois Politics

The personal is political? Maybe so, but in bourgeois politics, the political is personalized. And that means that sometimes leftist get hit with shit like this. Err, sorry dudes. The "left-wing revolution" sweeping Latin America is, with the probable exception of Bolivia, extremely concentrated power-wise at the top of the political system. When your main man turns out to have had a kid while a bishop, well there goes all your "popular power."


Friday, April 10, 2009

Towards a Critique of Actually-Existing Identity Politics, Parts 1&2

In the last few months, I've been in Mexico, working with the left and anarchist movements here and there when I get the chance. While doing this, I've come to realize that the Mexican and U.S. radical movements are extremely different, not just the work that they do and how they see themselves, but the internal culture and theory that promotes day-to-day functioning of organs of struggle. One giant difference in the internal cultures is the role of identity politics. I have become attentive to the way in which identity politics functions, or rather doesn't, in the Mexican movement. Yet somehow, despite the apparent lack in many situations of identity politics, the movement continues to have very high levels of participation and leadership by marginalized groups, some (women and queer folks) more than others (indigenous folks), in a culture considered both internally and externally to be quite "machista" and sexist. So how did this happen?

I'm going to set out in the next couple of weeks to write an account, rambling and undoubtedly full of occasional errors, of how identity politics functions in the United States anticapitalist movement and the ways in which it, at times, derails our work. I do not predict this project will be popular nor do I predict that I will change anyone's mind one way or another. More than anything, I want to set down in writing my thoughts on how identity politics work can hurt our organizing. Corresponding with friends, I have recently heard about several different problems created or exacerbated by identity politics in the movements I'm involved in at home. I am not interested in banishing identity politics or stop talking about oppression within movements, but rather showing how they function and ways that they at times hurt us, in order to build a more inclusive and successful revolutionary movement. I am not arguing against the use or function of identity politics as a whole, but instead pointing out particular uses or incarnations of identity politics with which I see problems.

1. Where I'm At

At the outset, I feel I should state several "proclamations of the faith." One of the first problems that one challenges dogma, as I believe I am about to do, is that one gets discredited for one's faith and I do not want that to be what turns people off from this project. Obviously, if the reader sees beliefs that they do not share, this may make the rest of this project irrelevant to them.
  • I believe that we need to make a revolutionary change to form anarchist socialist societies, immediately and globally, and will do what I can to help that revolution in any way.
  • I believe that to make those societies a reality, we need to struggle not just against an economic system, but a wide range of oppressions.
  • I believe that fighting prejudice inside movements is almost or as important as struggling against oppressors.
  • I believe in the right of free speech and open, respectful critique within the movement.
  • I believe that the anarchist movement should strive to make strategic decisions based on empirical facts, not common sense or habit
  • I recognize that I come from a specific background that gives me, in the United States, a series of privileges based on my race, gender, and sexual identity. I do not believe that disqualifies me from having a voice in the conversation about identity.
  • I believe in the right and importance of my comrades who do come from oppressed communities to assert their control over their lives and to defeat intra-, inter-, and extra-movement oppression.
  • I reject claims that logic is completely culturally conditioned.
That last bit is a whole other story and debate already taken up by people far smarter than myself. But what it means here is that I reject the "hard postmodernist" position that logic, science, and rationality in general are equally as valid as any number of irrational schemes. I don't plan on arguing that position here, but briefly, my defense of this rejection is that to embrace this "hard" position is to embrace a worldview of extreme theoretical eclecticism and nihilism, to accept a world that is fundamentally unknowable, even in its smallest mechanisms. Which is something I refuse to do and which I believe is fundamentally irreconcilable with the project of human liberation.

A final warning before I proceed with my actual critiques: I am familiar with identity politics almost exclusively through its use in the circles I have been involved in, ranging from affinity groups to national and international anticapitalist organizations. I am only slightly familiar with the vast body of theory regarding identity and politics, through a few classes in Black Studies and Women's Studies that I have taken in college. Hence the name of this project. I will likely not be quoting a lot of theoretical texts, but may use pamphlets and zines that discuss questions of identity politics within the movement. I will mostly be referring to the general zeitgeist of the logic and practices of identity politics because that is what actually forms our practice, not something that a scholar wrote about identity politics. What matters to me is what we do, not what we think we do.

2. Defining Identity Politics

One problem with identity politics and their use in radical circles is that we have unclear and conflicting definitions of what the term and associated ones mean. The idea of identity politics comes from a variety of different radical and bourgeois traditions and from a variety of different times periods and social contexts. I will only be talking about identity politics in the U.S. setting, because those of the ones I am familiar with.

A few terms we define to start with:

  • Identity refers to the way that one sees oneself or the way that one is seen in society, and the various cultural and social beliefs, practices, and relationships that develop because of the interactions between and within identity.
  • Politics refers to the interactions between people with varying degrees of power in society.
  • Identity politics then refers to the interactions between people with varying degrees of power as seen the through the lens of identity. Taken to a practical level, it has come to mean the promotion of certain identities which are disadvantaged in relations of power, through the use of both internal and external activism.
  • Anti-oppression politics is a similar term which I would argue is a subset of identity politics. It is used almost exclusively by radicals and I think probably represents a particular incarnation of identity politics that is uniquely radical. Anti-oppression politics posits that identity politics, as popularly conceived, does not connect the dots and that rather than individual identity groups struggling against dominant ones, that identities and struggles intersect and that intersection produces unique social locations and hardships, as well as possibilities for struggle. I will use basically use the term interchangeably in this essay, as it is not bourgeois identity politics that I am discussing, but radical ones.
  • Feminism is 1. a theory and practice that takes up the fight against patriarchy with the ultimate goal of liberating people of all genders from oppression and 2. a theoretical critique which deconstructs and analyzes the way identity is used.
Already it becomes clear that identity politics can mean a wide range of practices at a wide range of levels. In my discussion of identity politics, I will be focusing on their function and use at the intra-movement level. Mostly, this is because I have not participated broadly in identity political movements that are focused externally, that is to say, those that struggle against oppressors outside of the movement (capitalists, governments, religions, etc). So my critique will be focused on these practices, which function within the movement and whose goal is to struggle against oppression and prejudice that is exhibited within the movement.