Dracula prince of darkness poster. Flickr/ Tom. Some rights reserved.Who doesn't want a community in which they can be loved and supported? Like many, I was drawn to social justice-oriented spaces because they are serious about providing a space for people excluded by society to feel welcome – and I felt intuitively that was worth supporting.
We seek these kinds of communities because we are constantly, through life, threatened with disposability. If we can’t work, we don’t get food on the table. If we can’t juggle the demands of family, job, and mental health, we collapse. If we do something wrong in the eyes of the law, we are jailed. If we take out too many loans, we are forever in debt. If we don’t go to school and get good grades, we end up on the street.
These threats are dangled over us from birth – we are only valuable if we live up to society’s demands. For many of us, those demands are impossible, even violent. It’s precisely for this reason that we look for spaces that will not discard us when we do something wrong.
Safe spaces rife with exclusion
Recently, there’s been a series of articles – mostly appearing as blog posts – expressing frustration with social justice communities. While these authors originally sought out spaces to feel safe and supported, they became frustrated with the vicious culture within them.
One succinct piece, “A note on call-out culture” by Asam Ahmad, pointed to leftist movements, enabled by social media, shutting down and vilifying people using the strategy of public “call-outs.” Rather than denouncing public call-outs themselves – Ahmad argues in another piece that they might be an important and useful strategy to hold those with power accountable for their actions – the article pointed to the need for accountability processes to be compassionate and not treat people as disposable.
Another recent article by Freddie deBoer noted how often he gets contacted personally by people who might share his leftist principles, but who are terrified to join the conversation for fear of being targeted publicly. DeBoer speaks to the need for a progressive culture that allows people to disagree when things go sour, “You must be willing to say, publicly, I am with the cause, but I am not with this.”
More recently, Frances Lee's popular blog post, “Excommunicate me from the Church of Social Justice”, did the rounds. Lee's experience in social justice circles had many things in common with certain experiences of evangelical Christianity – communities which disappointed recruits have to try to escape. Like a dogmatic religion, Lee's activist community advocated the pursuit of moral purity, a culture of preaching to and punishing perceived wrongdoers, and even the unquestioned support of sacred texts and celebrities. Lee also found that these communities tended to make little effort to connect with those outside of them. What initially seemed a safer and more accepting space was in fact rife with exclusions.
Finally, Kai Cheng has recently written a piece, “Righteous Callings: Being Good, Leftist Orthodoxy, and the Social Justice Crisis of Faith”. Despite having all the “cred” from that same community – Cheng is a prolific author, poet, performer, social worker, and so much more – she has become increasingly uncomfortable with the directions this is going in. To list some aspects of her disillusionment: fragmented identity politics, the performance of virtue, essentialism, over-reliance on binaries (e.g. victim/abuser, problematic/pure), the use of terms like safety only to make spaces more exclusive, and bullying.
Despite the fact that these authors are all based in different cities, they have had similar experiences – and these have struck a chord with a very wide readership. Many of the responses carry a "Me too! I thought I was the only one!" sentiment. Other responses, however, express worry that these articles take away from the wider goals of the social justice community: they are often seen as attacks on the ideas that bring people to these communities in the first place.
And yet, common to each piece is the fact that the authors are trying their best to name issues within activist communities without discounting many of the gains of the social justice community at large – the formation of an analysis of power and privilege, the need to provide a space for diverse identities, and practices of accountability that can deal with harassment, racism, and abuse. Instead, what seems to be the case is that, again and again, people have very similar negative experiences, but nothing changes.
Mirroring the system
Another commonality is the realization that radical communities, initially seeming so supportive, are actually very much like the society that the authors attempted to flee in the first place. Our criminal system, our justice system, our political system already treat people as disposable. Our communities replicate those very same patterns.
This wouldn't be such a big issue if it weren't for the fact that these communities were formed in the first place precisely to try to be as inclusive as possible to those excluded by the systems of oppression.
It’s interesting today to re-read an early example of this kind of article, Mark Fisher’s “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, published in 2013. Unique in Fisher’s argument was an acknowledgement that these issues are part of the ever-present cycle of liberal politics – that is, the tendency of every political question to be reduced to personal responsibility instead of solidarity.
The “Vampire Castle”, then, is a space where, lacking any kind of political solidarity or organized movement, everyone goes around sucking each other’s blood. In Fisher’s words, the Vampire Castle is "where solidarity is impossible, but guilt and fear are omnipresent – and not because we are terrorised by the right, but because we have allowed bourgeois modes of subjectivity to contaminate our movement.” Regardless of their original moral intent, progressive communities replicate the social dynamics of moral superiority and inferiority, simple binaries, and too-easy categories.
Fisher’s piece rings a bit like class reductionism – for many, words like “bourgeois” and “solidarity” bring to mind a bunch of white boys with Marx t-shirts, ponytails, and goatees complaining that class is more important than race or gender (ugh). His deeper point, however, is not that racism and sexism isn't a problem in progressive communities – it's that, if we're not watchful, every radical theory, such as intersectionality, queer theory, or privilege, will inevitably be absorbed back into individualism, where every problem is only a personal problem. And so the cycle of guilt, shame, and disposability repeats itself.
An individualist turn?
So what can we do? Do we give up on politics altogether? Do we move on from community to community, and find the one that is the safest? Or do we knuckle down, absorb the criticism, and try to transform the communities we're already a part of?
As people start asking these questions, I see many accusing the left of “going wrong”, trying to pick a “moment” when the so-called individualist turn started. Was it the fall of union organizing, leading to the demise of broad-based solidarity? Was it the politics of the Weather Underground in the 1970s, which used the term "privilege" to guilt-trip white people into a revolutionary lifestyle? Many are starting to connect the "individualist turn" with the rise of identity politics – and lately, there have been many pieces arguing that, yes, we may come to politics through our identities, but we now we need to transcend individualism, and to do so, we need to go beyond identity politics.
But what we're seeing isn't new. The history of social struggle is a fight against individualism and to convince people of the need to participate in collective struggle. In Karl Marx’s time, individualism was “bourgeois politics”, today some call it “liberalism” or “identitarianism”. Yes, Twitter went online in 2006, but the Vampire Castle seems an awful lot like any novel set in the nineteenth century.
Many people I know hear the words “Karl Marx” and they think “boring old white man”—someone whose theories no longer have any use for their communities today. But, overwhelmingly, much of Marx’s work was trying to deal, basically, with loneliness. The condition of working for a wage, he realized, turns people against each other, turns them into disposable objects, and alienates them from each other and their environment. Because we can’t possibly survive without relying on the money system, so many of the permanent relationships we try to hold on to “melt into air”. All the traditions that we build up, the ties of kinship and care, the attachments to place – these are destroyed generation after generation as our job contracts make us pick up and leave again and again. It’s not just that capitalism makes many people poor. It’s that it makes us treat each other like shit.
Scaling the cliff of individualism
What brings the radical left together is the idea that things don’t have to be this way – we don't have to treat each other like objects. The goal, then, is not to create the perfect anti-oppressive community – though a loving group of friends can certainly help us deal with the daily grind. The goal, instead, is to undermine the force that systematically isolates us all from each other.
From this perspective, the recent spate of blog pieces isn't so much a reaction to a new individualist turn – an “unfortunate chapter” in the history of the left – so much as they are a response to the cliff-face of individualism that our society throws us up against, generation after generation.
These critiques stem from the – very human – desire to find a place to feel safe, to not be rejected for who we are, and the realization that what we thought was a sturdy ledge on the cliff was actually extremely precarious. The authors are, in their own ways, grappling with how our society tends to tear apart every connection we can have with each other. The more we try to build up a safe community, the more we will become disillusioned: we’ll never find it. If we want to set our sights on the plateau of liberation, we will always have to scale that cliff of individualism first.
The outrage circus
Many of the articles that appear on my news feed are a variation of the same theme: Listen up! Oppression is everywhere. This is what it looks like. You are part of it. Repent!
These articles aren't really meant for non-believers. They're intended for those already in the know. They thrive on the incrementalist narrative: "if only everyone reads this, they will improve their community, and then the community will grow, and so we will challenge the system as it is." That narrative is then played out in social media bubbles, where because everyone is sharing it, it seems like everyone is having the same conversations, and it feels like progress.
But this progress is only a fantasy. Even if every reader changes their community for the better, that community will eventually disintegrate – people get jobs, start families, move away, and have to step back from organizing. Give it five, ten, or twenty years, and it will have dissolved into the ever-shifting fabric of modern society.
I'm not immune to this fantasy. One day I post an article, “Neoliberalism has conned us into fighting climate change as individuals”, the next day I confess my own complicity in patriarchy on Facebook and am met with collective absolution through likes and hearts. I move from outrage to outrage on a daily basis, proclaiming where I stand loudly on social media. Why do I do it? I constantly play out the same fantasy that, if people just listen, we could get out of this mess. We are always pressured to moralize each other and ourselves, to individualize every problem. That kind of individualism is hard to keep track of, and at the same time, it is stifling and isolating.
Lately, I’ve stopped nodding my head when I read these articles. It’s not that I no longer believe that capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism, racism, or the systematic unraveling of the world's ecosystems are a problem. That rage still boils inside me every moment of every day. But understanding how these systems work doesn’t give me that thing I’ve been longing for: a way to demand change instead of just being a spectator in the outrage circus.
While the struggle against individualism is not unique to our time, I do think there is something that defines our generation more than those of the recent past. I grew up not knowing what solidarity – working with people whom I don't really know – can accomplish. It’s only later, through research, that I came to understand what it means to be supported by an organized structure, one that has your back when things get rough, one that will listen to your needs and speak for you, one that ensures you have a place to eat, a place to learn, and a place to dance. (In the golden age of union organizing, unions built dancehalls, schools, cafeterias, and childcare centers). I did not have that experience growing up, and I think that has affected my ability to distinguish between individual change, community change, and collective power.
Now I know full well that unions had their problems (racist, sexist, too hierarchical). But what they did do was offer people a picture of what collective action can look like, that it’s possible to make demands and then have them be met. This is what the word “counter-power” means: to be able to make demands from the powers that be. But because many of us have grown up in a world bereft of examples of counter-power, it has become extremely difficult for us to identify our own individualism when it appears.
The power to give and the power to take
How can we go from being mere spectators in the outrage circus to actually building counter-power? I think that there are two ways to understand power. One is a kind of power that seeps into every institution and facet of our lives. Bringing this kind of power to light has become the main goal of the progressive media mill.
Another way to think of power is as if it were a contract or deal. Without any kind of bargaining power, we depend on performative politics. Every astute analysis of the way of the world will be useless to us, because despite knowing full well how oppression works, we will be unable to do anything but perform our discontent. A theatrical performance can be captivating, but it is not in the position to make demands of the audience.They can always just get up and leave, and it's the actors who depend on the ticket sales for survival.
Performative politics is posting your dissent on Facebook, or adding #theresistance to your twitter bio. It's showing up for a protest and then going home, signing a petition, putting up a "safer space" sign, or calling your senator. You may be totally correct in denouncing the powers that be, but there's little reason why they should pay attention and change their ways.
It’s extremely difficult to know what counter-power looks like without experiencing it. But without it, all our theories of oppression will be turned into individual problems, and the communities we rely on will keep mimicking the disposability and isolation endemic in society as a whole.
Plateau of what?
Is this an argument for class reductionism – that capitalism is more pressing a problem than race or gender? No, it’s not. It’s just to note that, because of capitalism, we are always scaling the cliff on our very lonesome. No doubt, a community can provide a ledge, small as that ledge may be, on the cliff of loneliness. Nurture and build those relationships, because we all need a break from climbing. Yet a ledge is still part of a cliff, and it doesn’t make the cliff any shorter – it just increases the chances of reaching the top. We want to get to the plateau of liberation, remember?
If we ever hope to avoid replicating the disposability of society within our own communities and organizations, three goals stand out. First, let's shift the focus away from individual rights and wrongs, and instead build structures that enable us to make choices together. In each instance, ask yourself, is your first reaction to blame, guilt, or shame someone or yourself? Are you bringing the problem back to your own virtues or faults, or putting someone on a pedestal? Then think if there is a way to address the problem collectively: could you talk to someone in person about it? Could you set up an accountability and reconciliation process? If you're tempted to apologize on Facebook about having been shitty toward women, you might consider using that energy to start or join a support group instead. The goal is to multiply collective decision-making structures, spaces where we can tackle the problems we face, together.
Second, we can offer material resources to break isolation – both within our communities and outside of them. Once people have the means to survive, then we can start building the relationships that stop people from being disposed of, like objects. As a plus, providing real, material benefits is the best way to get along with people who are very different from you – and convince them to join your side. It's a crucial organizing strategy, but one that we've let by the wayside for far too long.
Third, let's build counter-power. There are many strategies out there – unions are just one of them. Municipal assemblies, cooperatives, housing action groups, women's councils, autonomous zones, blocking flows of resources and energy... the list goes on. The point is that without the power to cut a good deal, we will always be left to fend by ourselves, and we will never find that safe haven.
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