At a meeting for people of color to discuss racism in Berlin recently, the theme of this particular one being “Anger”, members talked about their experiences of racism in this city, and how much they hate white people. When it came my turn to speak, I said “It’s only natural to hate those who directly oppress us. But if we consider that the same process as that of colonialism, of taking indigenous land, destroying indigenous cultures, exploiting, enslaving, and mass murdering indigenous people, which unfolded in Europe itself a long time ago… If we take that into consideration, our ultimate enemy, perhaps, cannot be so easily identified as White People in general, but power, hierarchy, and capitalism…”
This led to a rebuke by one of the moderators, who said: “We cannot have this line of thinking here, because you are ‘tone-policing’, and telling us how to express our anger.” Thus, no discussion on what I had said was allowed, and we moved immediately onto the next speaker, who told yet another story of a racist incident, and how much it angered them, to rounds of applause, just like every other participant at the meeting.
This event (and many others, on and offline) have sparked some thoughts regarding the current state of the social justice movements and identity politics:
Identity Politics is in its Infant Stages
It would be good for us to keep in mind that today many marginalized groups for the very first time in history have a language, and/or new vocabulary , to articulate their oppression. So of course in this relative beginning phase of the movement there will be a lot of pent up rage and injury coming to the surface,. Some young ones can be over zealous, dogmatic, and judgmental. Their voices can be shrill, and sometimes become tragically exclusionary (which paradoxically hurts the movement itself); but understandably so: for the first time some victims of oppression have any voice at all.
The therapeutic level of discourse is necessary, and emotions are valid, because people are literally trying to SURVIVE just another day, coping with the extreme brutality of classism, sexism, racism, homophobia, and albinism, among others.
But therapy is part of the process, not the goal. CHANGE is the goal. Dismantling oppressive structures is the goal.
Therapy cannot be confused with political consciousness. Unfocused anger can make some blind to both the experience of others, as well as the root causes of oppression. Being stuck on the level of raging from an individualist, emotionalist point of view prevents people from seeing the bigger picture, from seeing the underlying truth, which is that while these injustices are administered by specific dominant groups of people, they are not ultimately CAUSED by them, that they ultimately stem from a diseased system of economic relations.
Today’s Social Justice Movement Is Shaped by Liberalism
According to David Harvey , the 1960s protest movements largely demanded 2 things: individual freedoms and social justice. And what the deal made by neo-liberalism since the late 70s offered was a focus on individual freedoms at the expense of institutional readjustments toward social justice.
Thus, similar to people blaming themselves for poverty instead of structural economic inequities, the narrative of social justice became increasingly about personal injury and offense, rather than deeper analysis of the frameworks of power and its operations.
Neo-liberalism ushered in an era in which privatisation further fortified the structures of economic domination. Neo-colonial shackles on former colonies in the form of debt appear unbreakable. Corporate theft and exploitation is well protected by a legal system designed by the owners of industry. Class divisions seem more unshakable than ever.
Under these circumstances, when people sense the total hopelessness for change on a systemic level, it is understandable that they focus instead, and only, on personal injury, individual infractions, and the therapeutic level of social justice, rather than systemic analysis which makes possible solidarity and authentic revolutionary consciousness.
Therapy is part of the process, not the goal. CHANGE is the goal.
Also related to this cultural shift was the move of American marketing from 50s uniform mass marketing to 60s and 70s demographic-specific marketing along ethnic and geographical lines, which increasingly isolated urban communities and constructed psychological walls around them (Nathan Sacket), as well as the self-realization, self-help, and New Age movement.
Furthermore, external pressures and threats to personal safety, such as represented by a violently patriarchal racist state, causes minority groups to seize up, membership and borders to become more aggressively policed, identity to become more rigid, and creates isolation and atomization. All of this compromises possibilities for solidarity between various oppressed groups, taking us further and further away from the universal emancipation which we once believed in and championed.
A distinction Must be Made Between Authentic Left Identity Politics, and Fundamentalist Strains
A lot of (non-rightist) white people are having an extremely difficult time with identity politics because they feel that while every injustice is endlessly protested against, class is routinely ignored; and that poor working class white people are often labeled as not only “privileged”, but “sexist” and “racist”.
The problem here is not with the social justice movement or identity politics itself, but with liberal manifestations of it, which is based on literal interpretations of political correctness, and their execution with the rigid severity of totalitarianism. Similar to liberals blaming the poor for poverty, this kind of fundamentalist social justice punishes individuals for inadvertently reproducing oppression, berate and ostracize them for using offensive words and having wrong opinions, rather than focus on understanding, and dismantling oppressive structures which shapes beliefs and behavior.
“(Social justice) fundamentalists take a moral stance rather than a political or social one. People who transgress their codes of language and behavior are thought of and treated as “bad” people, almost as sinners, rather than uneducated, having antagonistic class interests, or simply making a mistake. It is a black and white approach that allows the accuser to make public demonstrations of moral superiority.” – Shaun Woods
In contrast, authentic revolutionary consciousness sees the bigger and underlying picture of these conflicts, and first and foremost seeks class solidarity. The legitimate leftist social justice movement does not disproportionately focus on language, and does not castigate and exclude individuals for trespasses against political correctness or merely for being wrong. Authentic revolutionary consciousness is built on inclusion, conversation, education, and solidarity across identity lines.
Class is indeed the fundamental injustice on which all others, such as sexism and racism, are based. Class is the central antagonism from which every single social ill stems.
(In a nutshell: sexism is rooted in the ownership of women since the advent of private property, and their systematic objectification within the institution of marriage (created for the sole purpose of patrilineal descent and inheritance). Racism as we know it today was a direct result of colonialism, invented to justify economic exploitation: “Slavery was not born of racism—rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” – Eric Williams)
This of course does not mean that we can afford to disregard the branches of oppression to only focus on its root, for the toll in human life taken by the extreme injustices distributed along these ancillary lines is very, very real.
Class is the central antagonism from which every single social ill stems.
But the problem is that liberalism habitually refuses to recognize the basic fact that material conditions give rise to social reality, and disavows the unequal distribution of wealth as the root of all injustice. The central systemic crime of private property and capitalism is what liberals will do anything, go to any length, to deny, while paying lip service to “justice”, “progress”, and “change”. Thus identity politics conducted within the myopia of liberalism, based on its false assumptions, major analytical deficiencies, and privileged biases, can only be dangerously divisive at a time when unity and mutual support between various groups is of crucial importance.
“Liberal identity politics is a toxic, pathological theater of horizontal hostility, power-mongering and sub-cultural rites of inclusion and exclusion performed between alienated subjects who have so completely internalized neoliberal forms of thinking and being that they cannot think outside of the framework of moral absolutes, individual affronts and interpersonal transgressions. It is about as politically nuanced and effective as a set of emoticons and in many ways tends towards the emoticon as its functional minimum. I find it deeply unsettling that so many millennials seem to have adopted this as their primary form of political praxis and I think it’s vital to explore the underlying reasons if we want to be effective in smashing all the shitty things (patriarchy, white supremacy, etc., but also capitalism and the state, two things that appear less and less – within liberal Id Pol analysis).” – Aragorn Eloff
And, to paraphrase Deleuze and Guattari, “struggle on the level of axioms is not unimportant, but these are the index of another coexistent combat. Let’s encounter each other in our excess and overflowing.”
Let Us Not Repeat History
Being a student of history, I cannot help but notice many parallels and similarities between those leftist zealots who ruined past revolutions, turning authentic emancipatory movements into oppressive authoritarian cults, and today’s liberal political fundamentalists and petty leftist bureaucrats.
The fanatical piousness of todays’ sanctimonious leftist bureaucrats, who behave like those behind government desks, exactly reminds me of the horrific stories I heard as a child in China about the 1960s Cultural Revolution. People were routinely humiliated and tortured for things such as wearing a European style scarf, or having a vinyl recording of Mozart, because reproducing “imperialist culture” made them “enemies of the revolution”. Both of my parents spent years in Re-Education Camps for exactly such offenses.
And let us not forget that the phrase “Political Correctness” was used during the Stalinist purges.
In today’s world of mounting tensions and rising stakes, it is even more important that we do not fight oppression only on an inter-personal “call-out” level, but encompass broad historical and social perspectives. It is crucial that we do not allow liberal fundamentalism to destroy solidarity between various groups, and be united by a larger picture in our collective struggle toward liberation.