Are We "Privileging" Movements or Clubhouses ?

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.jpg 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.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

Grassroots Fundraising: Paying for the Revolution (9pm Eastern)

June 23, 2017
· 46 rsvps

Are you new to socialist organizing? Or after many years do you still struggle, raising money from members when you need it but without a steady flow of income or budget to plan ahead? Are you afraid to tackle fundraising because it seems so daunting or you are uncomfortable asking people for money?

In this webinar, you will learn why fundraising is organizing, and how to do it – face to face, through fundraising events, and other ideas.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.

Instructor:

  • Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

Training Details:

  1. Workshops are free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have preferably headphones or else speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt talt@igc.org.
  5. If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt schmittaj@gmail.com 608-355-6568.
  6. Participation requires that you register at least 21 hours in advance -- by midnight Thursday for Friday's webinar.

NOTE: This training is scheduled for 9:00pm Eastern Time (8pm Central, 7pm Mountain, 6pm Pacific, 5 pm Alaska, 3 pm Hawaii).

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

June 27, 2017
· 68 rsvps

Join DSA activist Judith Gardiner to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 9 pm ET, 8 pm CT, 7 pm MT, 6 pm PT.

Data Security for DSA Members

June 27, 2017

Ack! I googled myself and didn't like what I found!

WHAT: A DSA Webinar about "Doxing"
WHEN: 9PM EST, 6PM PST

We're proud of our organizing, and chapter work is transparent for both political and practical reasons. However, there are basic precautions you can take in this time of rapid DSA growth to protect your privacy.

Key Wiki is a website that meticulously documents DSA activity and posts it for the world to see. If you're an active DSA member, likely your name is on their website. This is an example of "doxing".

As DSA becomes larger, more visible, and more powerful, we might expect that more websites like this will pop up, and more of our members' information might be posted publicly on the web.

Join a live webinar on Tuesday, June 27 with data security expert Alison Macrina, to learn:

  1. what is doxing? with examples and ways to prevent it
  2. how to keep your passwords strong and your data secure
  3. where to find your personal info on the internet and how to get it removed
  4. social media best practices for DSA organizers
  5. what to do if you've already been doxed

Zoom Link: https://zoom.us/j/9173276528

Call-in Info: +1 408 638 0968
Meeting ID: 917 327 6528

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 11 rsvps

Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
· 8 rsvps

 

Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.