This essay will annoy, piss-off, and bring denunciations from some of my friends and colleagues. That’s fine. One of the things that politically engaged people who are striving for substantial structural social change fail to do is to identify those things which make success difficult. And that starts by looking at ourselves.
I am a white, male, heterosexual, meat-eating, butter-slathering, well-off, whiskey-drinking, cigarette-smoking, elderly professional. Many people looking at that description would assume that I am either a racist insurance salesman thrill-riding with police as an auxiliary cop in Oklahoma, or a corporate shill tea-bagging at a Koch brother’s fundraiser and wreaking environmental carnage. More gentle and refined folks might give me the benefit of the doubt. They might picture me as someone wearing a tweed sport jacket, with the obligatory leather elbow patches, smoking a pipe, adjusting my suspenders and musing over some arcane text while ignoring the ravages of racism, sexism, imperialism and capitalism that grant me the privilege of a comfortable but relatively useless life. In fact, many people who know me marvel that I am not precisely that. After all it is my assigned role in life and only a psychopath would not protect the advantages and privileges bestowed on him.
The point is that my identity and my individual choices are irrelevant to advancing the cause of substantial structural social change, which incidentally I happen to support by any means necessary. Excessive attention to differences, individualism and lifestyle choices dilute any comprehensive approach to changing economic, political and social reality in the United States and the world. As Jock Young pointed out, in late modernity we all struggle with ontological insecurity. That’s not an accident. That very social structure many of us wish to change makes ontological insecurity inevitable. In fact, ontological insecurity is a valuable weapon in their fight to maintain power and control. If they can divide society by race, gender, food choice, sexual preference or any other “difference” they can slow down and impede organizational efforts to get rid of them.
Intersections and race
Racism isn’t a disease. It isn’t a psychological disorder. It isn’t a cultural identity. Racism, simply put is a form of oppression. Racism is one of many forms of oppression which interact to create pervasive systems of discrimination and, more importantly, powerful systems of social control. Racism, sexism, patriarchy, homophobia, immigration status and other categories of social exclusion are not simply personal problems, although they have deeply personal ramifications. Racism is one of many very powerful weapons used in society to achieve three goals:
- First, it is used to justify economic and political policies which protect and reinforce power. Demonizing, dehumanizing, objectifying and socially excluding people is an ideological weapon used by those in power to divide us, dominate us, and make structural conditions that would otherwise be recognized by any thinking person as cruel, barbaric and insane, seem normal and reasonable. Simply put, it is a weapon that rationalizes the horrific and the unacceptable.
- Second, racism is used to create economic conditions where some people, particularly women and socially constructed racial groups, are easier to exploit. Social exclusion creates a situation where wages and salaries can be depressed and entire social groups can be forced to accept menial, servile and dehumanizing work.
- Third, racism, sexism, homophobia and the rest are effective tools of division. Those most disadvantaged and oppressed in society can be manipulated into patterns of distrust, hatred and discrimination. They also can, and often do, give a sense of power to whites, men, heterosexuals, and “citizens” which prevents those most disadvantaged and exploited in society from working together to confront the real sources of their problems.
In the United States our socially constructed definitions of race and ethnicity are constantly changing and adapting to the needs of power. Racism in all its forms has been a remarkably adaptable device used throughout our history to justify the mistreatment and dehumanization of millions of people. Of course the obvious examples are slavery and genocide. The enslavement of African-Americans was absolutely vital to the growth of the American economy. It buttressed agricultural production in the South and industrial production in the North where the products of slavery were manufactured into commercial goods. It provided enormous revenues from foreign trade and tariffs and excised taxes to fund the state. “Manifest destiny” and the occupation of the North American continent was achieved by genocide and war directed at Native American peoples. The geographical expansion and subsequent resource extraction which fueled the American economy was dependent on barbarism and slaughter. We also sometimes forget the other omnipresent forms of racism and discrimination.
If you remember there was a time in this country when whites hated white people. The white puritans of the Plymouth Colony threw out other white puritans! A system of exploited labor requires that someone, even if they look just like us and think just like us, must be dehumanized and vilified to justify their lack of privilege. The Irish were brought to the new world in indentured servitude to work the fields and build the cities. They were vilified as Papist drunks and housed in the most horrifying ghettos. Italian immigrants necessary to the shrimp and fishing industries were denounced as criminals. East European Jewish immigrants were blamed for prostitution even though the sex trade was well established as long ago as the Plymouth colony. The Chinese were brought here to build the railroads and then denounced as drug fiends. Mexicans, both in the 1930s and today are imported by labor leasing companies and consigned to the most demeaning labor, particularly in agriculture, and then blamed for the horrors of marijuana.
From the first Puritan settlers who eviscerated the Pequot tribe and the import of African slaves to today’s disingenuous and phony “war on terrorism,” racism and social exclusion has been a powerful weapon to justify violent and repressive policies at home and abroad, to create a compliant and divided populace, and to offer privilege and advantage to some at the expense of others. The point of all of this has been to reinforce and protect the economic, political and social power of the ruling elite.
The question is, of course, what do we do about all of this? Liberal reformists tell us that the answer is to extend some privileges to others while making certain their own privileges are not in any way inconvenienced. “Equality” sounds good. But if society is to pursue equality someone has to give something up to get there. It is populism at its worst. “Equality” is, in fact, a highly desirable goal. Fighting for equality can bring people together. It can expose the structural inequities of the system. It is positive; it is progressive and offers the opportunity to bring people together. But, it’s not enough.
Absolutely we should confront individual and institutional racism. Changing language and changing behavior is essential. We like to imagine that we can move toward egalitarianism by changing our behavior, or more likely changing the behavior of others. The problem with this strategy though, is that while we may feel better about ourselves and our virtue it really doesn’t change anything. It is a Band Aid on a recurring wound. We might, although not likely, achieve greater social justice for racial minorities. But the structure of society and power in that society is such that another group will always be available for exclusion and derision.
Oppression is a very powerful tool wielded by those with power. Attention to racial and ethnic injustice can be turned and manipulated in thousands of ways. African-Americans can be fooled, and sometimes are, into hostility towards Latinos through the false argument that immigrants are taking their jobs. Women, gay and transgendered people can be manipulated into anti-Muslim hatred by the rhetoric of the war on terror. Any social group can be deceived into thinking that their privilege, even if it pales in the face of real privilege is worth protecting through hate.
The American system has demonstrated great deftness in adapting and “reforming” while still reinforcing patterns of domination. Horribly exploited Irish immigrants can be made fearful of freed slaves. Black Americans, subjected to economic and state violence on a daily basis, can be convinced to fight in foreign wars for corporate profit and to defend those acts of violence as necessary to their own protection. Women can be convinced, in fairly large numbers, to support anti-gay policies and laws giving the state control over women’s bodies. Reform has its limits. It sometimes diverts us from the real problem.
Racism is abhorrent and must be confronted and fought at all levels. But that is not enough. There are fundamental structural formations which depend on exploitation and use the division of people into racial, ethnic and gender groups as a means of assuring their own power and domination. The simple fact is that it is in the interests of the privileged to argue for equality while preserving inequality. Until we move beyond the socially constructed divisions created by those who profit from them and begin to look at the structural conditions which make those divisions necessary we will be chasing our own tails. Stitching up a wound is important. But until we begin to look at the bigger picture that is all we will ever do. New wounds will appear and as social contradictions grow they will appear ever faster. We can’t end oppression without uprooting the entire foundation upon which it is based.
Intersections and gender
Women, from the moment of their birth, are expected to assume social roles in American society that are, to put it mildly, oppressive. Women are told they must be accommodating, weak, nurturing, passive, quiet and submissive. Women are sexually objectified in selling cars, trucks and Hardees’s hamburgers. They are told to be sexual automatons for men’s pleasure. Obviously the battle to allow women to assert themselves and defy these social norms is vitally important.
All women in American society face the constant threat of attacks on their bodies and their minds. This is a society which relies on patriarchal terrorism as one of its primary means of social control. Patriarchal terrorism inflicts emotional harm; it diverts women from other tasks of social transformation; it places women in constant physical danger.
There is no doubt that the struggle of women to assert themselves and fight for their interests is difficult, unpleasant and exhausting, even in progressive organizations. It’s a long-haul battle. It is a necessary battle that makes us stronger, better and smarter. Women must be given the time and the space to insist that their voices are heard, understood and their social power developed. Women must be allowed room to develop programs of mutual assistance. Failing to do this will sustain individualism, elitism, competition and disunity in social movements.
But, there is feminism and there is effective feminism. Liberal feminists demand equal rights. That’s important but it is not nearly enough. When demands for reforms fail to challenge the social framework which creates those inequalities we are doomed to failure. Radical feminists insist that patriarchy (the oppression of women by men) is the oldest and most enduring source of human oppression. They may have a point, but it may be a perilously biological argument that plays into reactionary notions of women as vessels of reproduction and sexual pleasure. It is, in fact, the very notion used by right-wing anthropologists to suggest that men are biologically impelled to rape as a means of sustaining the human race. Women are more than that. They are also victimized workers, further victimized by the social construction of gender. Who does that social construction serve? Who advances it and defines through advertising, low wages, and attempts to control female sexuality?
This is a fundamental form of oppression in American society and it is directly related to the political economy. No one disputes that the oppression of women and the oppression of workers are not intertwined. In hunter-gatherer societies a division of labor based on gender certainly presaged both patriarchy and class domination. But, with the advent of capitalism these forms of social exclusion became deeper, each shaping the other. All types of oppression and social violence have to be confronted. Feminists are absolutely correct in asserting than we cannot wait for a substantial change in the economic system to confront sexism and patriarchy. But no form of domination and oppression can be obliterated until eventually they all are. You can’t have partial social change. Race, gender and class must all be confronted. Until all of these forms of social violence are defeated none of them can be reformed.
As in the case of racism and other forms of social exclusion the oppression of women serves the interests of those with economic, social and political power. While women may be a primary target, everyone suffers. It divides us and makes us less effective in seeking change. There is no doubt that women need equal pay and more importantly equal assets and equal opportunities. Women need safe places in which to live, grow and work for change. We all need egalitarian language.
Everyone working for social change needs to engage in mutual support that strengthens us all. We need to support each other. We need greater diversity in the process of changing society, the economy and the political system. But we also need to remember that our primary antagonism should be directed at power and the elites who hold that power. There will always be disagreements and insensitivities. No social movement in history has ever been entirely comfortable for everyone in it. We need to confront those disagreements, change difficult behaviors and allow for maximum inclusion in the movement while never forgetting who the real enemy is. This is not a fight that will be won in a sweeping historical moment. It is a process that has to address all forms of oppression and harm. But none of that will progress until we confront the structural sources of our problems.
Individualism, Lifestyles and Reform
Too many on the left suffer from individualism. Individualism occurs when we place a greater value on our immediate personal situation, interests, and forgive me for saying it, privileges, over collective issues that benefit everyone. Closely associated with individualism is the focus on our personal behaviors. If only we all become vegans oppression would cease. If we all recycled the environment would be saved. If we all used gender-neutral language rape would end. If we all stopped shopping at Wal-Mart they would change. There’s nothing wrong with making appropriate lifestyle choices. I will never shop at Wal-Mart. But I do that because it makes me feel better. The Walton family will not become socially responsible because I only buy groceries at union chain stores. Personal choices and boycotts will not kill capitalism. It is true that sometimes those efforts change a few corporate behaviors here and there. But corporate America is clever, adaptable and infinitely disingenuous. A television ad with Matthew McConaughey extolling the environmental virtues of a new Lincoln doesn’t mean Ford has come to Jesus.
Activist groups are often prone to the idea that while we are seeking massive changes we can make life better by sticking a few Band-Aids on social ills here and there. After all if we compromise a little maybe we can get a higher minimum wage or a change in hiring practices for transgendered people. There’s nothing wrong with those kinds of changes. But diverting ourselves from our original purpose to achieve small reforms simply serves the interests of those we would like to separate from the power they hold. Opportunism is a bad idea. Equally unsavory is pragmatism or “going with the flow.” Changing the purpose of an activist organization, toning it down, or adjusting demands to a current fashion is a trap. Adjusting language or social media graphics to make them more effective is one thing. Changing your core values is quite another. And finally populism is a substantial danger. Populism is the practice of appealing to the concerns of “the people” as an ill-defined mass while ignoring the real and fundamental sources of contradictions. Populism can lead organizations into a trap where they actually fight against their own interests. For example, creating open, green spaces in urban settings is a great idea, except when it is part of a policy of urban gentrification that ravages the poor.
The Pathologies of Activism
And, in the end, there is us. To quote Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Before you get all righteous about this critique let me say I have, at various times in my radical life, been guilty of every one of the left pathologies I will discuss below. But I have been alive a long time, so most of you are just beginning your adventures in pathology. So step back and exercise a little self-reflection and humility before you try to send me to a re-education camp. So, are you an infantile leftist? Are you a reformist cookie cutter drone? Or, are you chasing every bright and shiny cultural bauble that diverts you from the real work of social change? C’mon now be honest.
Some of us are activists. That’s great. But being active for the sake of being active is the rough equivalent of being an ambulance chasing attorney. We expend enormous energy running from demonstration to demonstration, rally to rally, and cause to cause. I’m exhausted just thinking about it. At some point we all have to stop chasing the next big outrage. At some point we all have to think strategically in the long-term about how to change this society and how to be effective doing it. Activists are the frat boys and sorority girls of the left, running from kegger to kegger.
Let’s take a sober moment of reflection.
Some of us are dogmatists. We argue endlessly over theories that long ago became stagnant. You know who you are. If your arguments consist of an endless series of quotations from the distant past you are engaging in dead theory. This is the 21st century. It is fun to drink a beer and argue over the failures of the Paris Commune of 1871. But here’s the thing. Stuff has changed since 1871. Try walking into a bar and asking a steelworker if you can buy him a beer while the two of you discuss the writings of Karl Kautsky. Some progressive meetings sound like a cattle auction. I’m a Marxist anarchist. No, I’m just a regular anarchist! Wait, I love Trotsky. No, no, let me read to you from Lenin. Folks, the Russian revolutions were a long time ago and they occurred in a feudal monarchist society. And for my Maoist friends, surrounding the cities from the countryside probably will not liberate Indiana. So let’s get real about today. And by the way I’m a Plekhanovite and a Dimitrovist (That’s Georgi Plekhanov and Georgi Dimitrov, so I am consistently Georgi in my ideology. I’m kidding, but look them up anyway).
Some on the left are sectarian evangelists. They won’t work with anyone who doesn’t think like them and will not unite with others in social movements. They are not interested in building a movement; they are interested in converts to their revolutionary theology. I know this to be true. When I was in SDS in the late 1960s I was a RYM I (Revolutionary Youth Movement) kid, not one of those RYM II sellouts or PLP crazies who actually thought college students should work in factories. Geezus. I’ve been there, so have some of you. Save your evangelism for church, a real movement for social change does not have a catechism class.
And then there are those who blame everyone but themselves for everything that happens. Instead of confronting contradictions within capitalism, racism and sexism, these folks worry about contradictions among the oppressed and contradictions in the movement. If we don’t win tomorrow these other folks are to blame. No, it’s capitalists who are to blame. It’s not the ignorance of the masses, consumerist frenzy, social superstition and the like that is the problem. Even the dumbest, most superstitious, person standing in a line for a new Apple watch didn’t make this system. They don’t control this system. They too are victims of this system. We can educate them but we dare not vilify them.
I could go on, but I’m hoping you get the point and I hope you get over being mad. If we don’t get together and fight the real enemy this is going to be a long, hard slog.
I’ll close with that thought. I hope we all get the point.
Note: I am deeply indebted to my friend Stephanie McMillan (http://stephaniemcmillan.org/) for allowing me to expropriate her labor and steal her ideas and cartoons for this piece. Of course, I am a white male and she is a woman…. Oh shit!
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University
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