I have been involved in many organizations that fight for social justice and equality. These groups were diverse in spirit and representation. Why would they not be? Coalition work has been a part of the left since its beginning, and I always believed that any successful effort to organize the working class would have to give priority to communities that have been crushed under the heel of oppression.
It was not until I served as adviser to a queer and trans person of color group at the University of Alabama that I started questioning this outlook. We began each meeting by having attendees give an accounting of all their privileges, which felt a bit like Confessional. The few events that we would have that were open to the public (it was normally a closed group, which is why my wife, who is white, bisexual, and served as co-adviser, was not allowed to attend meetings) would always begin by telling white people in the audience to “think thrice before speaking,” which kind of defeated the point of an open event. Eventually, it got to the point where even non-black queer people of color felt uncomfortable coming to meetings.
Given that the group leaders were immersed in online radical social justice circles where this type of discussion is common, this was not surprising. However, I came to some conclusions that caused me to reverse course in my thinking.
1. Identity politics is not working
I italicized what I did because identity is crucial to the human experience. It goes without saying that I, a black man who grew up in the South, experience this world differently than my wife, a white woman from the Northeast, even if we both grew up working class. Not to give these experiential differences some thought within leftist activism is to leave tools out of our toolbox when it comes to strategy, regardless of whether we are discussing policies or movement building. As Steve D’Arcy pointed out earlier this year at the Public Autonomy Project site, the way that New Left-era activists tended to flatten identity wholesale created both internal and external problems. But spend 15 minutes in most self-described “radical” activist spaces today, and you will find that leftism is now faced with the opposite problem: an increasingly Balkanized landscape where identity and representation become an end rather than a means to ensure that the spoils of an ultimate working-class victory are not distributed along the same (insert -ist and -ism here) lines as before. Perspective is important, but that becomes clouded when the focus is always on claiming space rather than building communities, on erecting the perfect clubhouse rather than building broad-based movements rooted in solidarity and respect. The former might be easy and satisfying, but the latter will actually ensure that my children grow up in a different world than I have.
2. Organizing has been replaced by posturing
The current dialogue on the social-justice left has become so thoroughly nihilistic that the prospect for ultimate victory over the systems that oppress us in ways big and small seems impossible. D’Arcy highlights this:
The older vocabulary looked at capitalism, racism, and sexism (for example) as social systems or institutions that could and probably would be defeated, once and for all, in the foreseeable future. Accordingly, activists of that era defined and described their movements as struggles for “socialism,” “black liberation,” or “women’s liberation.” By contrast, the new vocabulary tends to suspend judgment on (without denying) the prospects for ultimate victory, and to focus its attention on challenging everyday impacts of capitalism, racialization and gender, in the here and now. This prioritization of resistance to everyday impacts infuses, not only the way activists today talk, but also how they choose what to do.
In such an environment, everything is turned upside down. We treat the ardent defense of millionaire celebrities as a form of radicalism. We engage in endless repetition of grievances without engaging in a discussion of better practices. We treat every ancillary skirmish like the defining battle of a war that seemingly has no end game. Or, as Adolph Reed, Jr., put it in Harper’s,
The left careens from this oppressed group or crisis moment to that one, from one magical or morally pristine constituency or source of political agency….to another. It lacks focus and stability; its métier is bearing witness, demonstrating solidarity, and the event or the gesture. Its reflex is to “send messages” to those in power, to make statements, and to stand with or for the oppressed.
When will we decide that we have sent enough messages and start building power? Actual power, not the power that comes from perfecting a clubhouse or meeting structure, but rather from the articulation of a vision and a plan to execute said vision? When do we start looking at the moving parts, looking out 5-10-20 years, and start piecing together a strategy to fight the forces of reaction, revanchism, and repression? It is no longer enough to simply act as a town crier, monotonously calling out every problem and grievance facing our world; it is time to act.
|Douglas Williams is a Dean’s Diversity Fellow and Ph.D. student at Wayne State University in Detroit, where he researches labor policy and working-class radical movements. He is a native of Suffolk, Virginia, and he tweets from @TheDW85.|
This article originally appeared in the summer 2015 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.
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