|The first of three essays on identity, oppression, and social war Over the next few days, three articles will be released regarding identity politics, anti-oppression activism, and social war. The first, "You Have to Do It My Way," will confront the dismissal of identity-focused struggle or activism by many anarchists; the second, "So Fucked Up," analyzes the dynamics of guilt, disempowerment, and marginalization built into common practices of anti-oppression activism; and the final, "Some suggestions for real solidarity," will propose ways to improve mutual support between conflictive and supportive anti-authoritarian practices. |
There is a line that divides many people whose struggles I respect. I won't name this line or define either camp, to avoid entrenching them, and I don't know of any fair definitions that have been put forward by any of those involved in this antagonism. Most of us are familiar with the strawmen that litter this battlefield, though. Those on one side are guilty of “identity politics,” those on the other are “privileged” or “dogmatic.”
Between those who speak of privilege and oppression, and those who speak of social war, I come largely from the former, and now find myself closer to the latter. While I want to direct these criticisms in multiple directions, I don't want to create a false balance between two fictive positions. I hope these criticisms aid not in the development of a better anarchist practice, a peace or synthesis between those who have not seen eye to eye, but in the development of better anarchist practices that need not ever come to terms.
However, recognizing that we'll never all agree on anything, and this is good, I want to argue nonetheless that a needed common ground is an understanding and embrace of social war. I'm afraid that those who speak of oppression without acknowledging the war we are a part of, not as metaphor but as a real and current practice, will only succeed in turning a battlefield into a garden, decorating this cemetery of a society with flowers, ensuring equality of access to a graveyard. I don't care to argue that one side or another is more correct, only that revolution becomes impossible when we start believing in civil society and stop noticing that the guns are pointed at us too.
It is vital to have connections with people we don't share affinity with, people who are different from us, but it can be difficult to work with people whose desires are reformist without also adopting reformist modes of struggle. Lacking a specific and foregrounded critique of recuperation, as do many who focus on privilege and oppression, coalition politics are almost certain to end up in Popular Fronts that stifle anarchist critiques, prop up Authority, and hoodwink anti-authoritarians into being the shock troops or grunt workers for the leftwing of the system, whether in the guise of NGOs, progressive politicians, or Stalinist parties.
Under democratic government, recuperation is far more common than repression as a tool for counterinsurgency. They prefer the carrot over the stick. Those who talk about exclusion more than exploitation, and who focus on getting more carrots for everyone, are sure to defeat themselves.
“You Have to Do It My Way” was written in the summer of 2009, and “So Fucked Up” and “Some Suggestions” were written in the summer of 2010.
You Have to Do It My Wayideological identity, experienced identity, and arrogance among anarchists
One of the most loaded terms I see in the critiques of certain anarchists is “identity politics.” What exactly are identity politics? I can't deduce a coherent definition from its usage; given how the term is thrown around it seems only to imply that the speaker is annoyed by someone else focusing on racism or sexism. I thought identity politics meant the process of creating a homogenous identity within a certain population to serve as a political constituency and power base for a group of politicians, whose role as exploiters sitting atop that population is hidden by the shared use of that singular identity. In other words it calls up the likes of Gloria Steinem, Adolf Hitler, David Ben-Gurion, or Ron Karenga.
Yet when anarchists use this term, frequently they're using it against people involved in the construction of fluid, heterogenous, and complex identities, who extend solidarity to people with different identities and develop holistic critiques of power, and adoption of this identity does not also mean the adoption of a preformulated and unquestionable dogma. For example, the group Anarchist People of Color includes people who identify as black, latina, indigenous, Asian, Palestinian, biracial; immigrants and citizens; queer and trans people. From what I know from the outside, they engage in discussions regarding these multiple identities rather than suppressing internal difference. Their published writings reflect a diversity of thought rather than a single political line. I've read things by APOC members I disagree with, and other things that have really challenged or developed my thinking regarding imperialism, race, gender, anarchist struggle, and other themes. I know of people of color who are critical of the way the group operates and don't feel included, and I know white people who strongly dislike generalizations regarding themselves that often appear in writings by APOC. I don't let these bother me because I know that without exception, someone's definition of an Other can be useful, but never valid. Beyond this I've read one or two things from members of this group that were purposeful manipulations of white guilt. [This essay was written before Smack a White Boy 2].
All this goes to show that this group is not a singular entity and they express a range of perspectives in a number of different manners. However in disregard for this diversity there has been a certain singularity of response from white anarchists: whenever writings from the group are posted on other anarchist websites the charge of “identity politics” inevitably appears in the comments section, regardless of whether the writing being critiqued posits essential differences or homogenous, unchanging categories.
Perhaps for many anarchists, identity politics have come to mean the construction of identities within political projects? But this doesn't pan out either. You have the more old-fashioned white anarchists claiming that there is only the working class, and that emphasis on race or gender divides the working class, thus aiding the capitalists. Others don't go in much for the workers and identify strictly as anarchists. One typical internet harangue of Anarchist People of Color bristled at their support for Mumia abu-Jamal, who is “not an anarchist.” Does this mean we should be concerned about what happens to other anarchists, but what happens to other people in the same social category as us doesn't affect us? In the end it's not a coherent criticism, it's just white people telling people of color how they should identify. This is true identity politics, in the Mobutu Sese Seko sense of the term, that only regards one identity as natural or at least unquestionable in the common project (nationhood, the struggle against capitalism, what have you), and any other identity as superfluous or harmful.
A common argument made by these critics of a poorly identified identity politics seems to be that the speaker pays lipservice to the evils of racism or sexism but claims that the basis of racism and sexism is the division of people into categories along lines of race or sex, thus people who include these divisions in their political work are guilty of reinforcing rather than attacking the oppression itself. How valid is this hypothesis? First I want to analyze the logic a little more. An assumption underlying this argument is that the first apparent feature, chronologically, of a phenomenon will become the basis of that phenomenon, and thus its generative feature. In other words, a distinction of gender is a prerequisite for sexism, thus gender distinctions generate sexism and by destroying gender distinctions we destroy sexism. What was that video game where the boss of a certain level is this evil bug that flies around and suddenly multiplies into a dozen copies of itself, but if you can kill the original, then they all die? Anyways I think I make my point: if identity itself is the basis for oppression then we can destroy oppression by destroying identity. A further assumption of this line of reasoning is that history is mechanical, progressive, and unilineal, because if the first feature of a phenomenon automatically leads to the development of the entire phenomenon, then there is no possibility for multiple outcomes or even for stasis or reversal. A always leads to B always leads to C.
There. The idea has lost its clothes. It reveals itself to be Historical Materialist at best, and Social Darwinist at worst.
In this sense it bears similarity to the worst excesses of primitivism (which, don't get me wrong, I believe has had a number of good influences on anarchist theory and practice), namely that the development of agriculture led inevitably to the development of authority, which is historically untrue, unless we redefine authority to mean, well, agriculture.
I can't argue hard enough that history is neither mechanical, progressive, nor unilineal. These characterizations are a fundament of Western dogma, and God help us if they are true because that would mean that unless anarchy has been preordained by the machines of history then there is nothing we can do to bring it about.
Revealing the cultural assumptions hiding behind this particular understanding of identity is far from enough to disprove it. So let's take it at face value: do identity categories in themselves recreate the oppressions that operate on those identities? I don't think there's any evidence of this. For every example that occurs to me of some authoritarian group that used identity to suppress difference or create prejudice, even as they were fighting against oppression, I can think of another group of oppressed people who used identity as a means of survival and who maintained relationships with people and groups with other identities to jointly attack the power structure itself.
One might argue that when it comes to indigenous people, it is not at all the category that oppresses them, it's the people who came and stole their land and continue to colonize them, and in this case the identity of being indigenous may be a vital tool in surviving cultural genocide. Losing that category may be tantamount to disappearing as a people and allowing the genocide to run its full course. One might also say that anthropologists and philosophers who look at identities as tools are only reflecting their own manipulative and mechanical way of looking at the world, and that an indigenous identity is a history, a culture, a community, and an inseperable part of who one is. I don't know. In any case, many active indigenous people have already expressed that white people's denial of their identity and nationhood is one reason they don't work with white people, and as a generalization white people didn't listen.
But this vague critique of identity politics rejects such an argument. It's a posture that bears much in common with the postmodern rejection of Grand Narratives. This rejection is highly useful in denying the racial myths of European nationhood and refusing the stories that give us a shared history with our rulers. This is great. On the other hand such a posture prevents one from acknowledging legacies and histories of resistance and oppression, which is useful for the rulers. For example, if one can only connect oneself to 500 years of brutal colonial oppression and also 500 years of impressive resistance, by identifying oneself within a certain category of people, and we hold such categorization to be oppressive and undesirable, then how is one to make sense of her position in society if she grows up in highly marginalized circumstances and is treated a certain way by ruling institutions and a great many people on the street? This is just coincidence? And when she finds out that the other people in her family, and certain other people all across the country, have experiences that are remarkably similar, while the dominant culture talks nothing of these experiences, this is just meaningless? Or is it a legitimate basis for a shared identity, and a point of departure for struggle?
I have to say that the example I'm giving is miles away from my personal experience. All the identities that society tried to stitch me into don't fit, and the fabric is coarse: man, American, white person, member of the middle class, or more recently, outcast, failure, criminal, terrorist. To varying degrees I have peeled these identities off my body. The common experience I find with other people is our shared alienation, our desire to destroy what created us. It would be unfair to call this a white experience, or a middle class experience, because of all the other people I have met who also share this experience. On the other hand it would be tokenistic to assert that this identity-free identity is one-size-fits-all just because I've seen it fit so many different types of people. I might tie this experience to growing up in the suburbs, and in most cases I might be right, but to declare this a suburban identity would be unfair to all the people who grew up in the same categories as me but had different experiences, or all the people who had similar experiences despite growing up in different categories.
Even though a negative identity is still an identity, it doesn't feel like one, so building a politics around that particular experience of the world, as CrimethInc. has done quite effectively, I would argue, doesn't seem to have any commonality with identity politics, though in fact it does. In fact it is typical to the category that I grew up in that I have generally never wanted to belong to an identity group, and I always felt awkward and pretentious when I tried one on.
Until I met anarchy. I don't mean anarchism, or the anarchist movement, I mean the shared experience of struggle with people who have my back, who comprise my material and emotional community, who share my history, and who learn and grow within a very real continuity of struggle that goes all the way back to the Spanish Civil War, the Russian Revolution, the Paris Commune (a continuity that doesn't exist in the United States, in my experience). People who will invite you into their home and feed you because they share the same dream, people who will risk themselves for you in the street when they don't even know you, because they can look at you and know you're on the same side. It was when I met the grandparents of the struggle, who fought in mythical 1936, met them as friends, and doing so realized that one day I or my friends, if we survived, would be the grandpas and grandmas telling stories of a struggle equally distant in time; it was when my friend took me on a tour of Moscow (or Barcelona, or Berlin, or that little village in Friesland) and showed me—this is where they killed our friends Stas and Nastya a few months ago, and here is where the Bolsheviks executed some anarchists in 1921—and I realized that these places had the same meaning; that's when history became demystified and I discovered that the anarchists are my people.
This is not an identity I want to ideologize or spread beyond my own personal experience. But it's something I feel very real in my bones. And it's something that shows me that my discomfort with identity was in part an alienation from the history of struggle.
But the identity of anarchist does not say much to my starting position in society or the forms of privilege and exploitation the various ruling institutions have designated for me. What about an identity imposed on me by racism and sexism, by the nation? At this level my identity tells me of my descent from a long line of poor farmers who over the years consciously decided to cooperate with a capitalistic, religious, and racial project that ultimately left me with an inheritance stripped of anything I value. My living relatives no longer even farm or work with their hands; in the end their farming was the first rung on a professional ladder. They did not fight for their land and resist the enclosures or the industrialization of farming, and they cooperated fully in the various forms of active racism white people engaged in to create the United States. And in their eagerness to control each other and stay within their complementary reproductive roles, they created patterns of abuse that almost destroyed me before I was old enough to understand what the hell was going on. The bad choices of my ancestors help explain the well fed misery I was born into, and give my struggle more meaning. And this part of my identity bears overwhelming similarities with the identities of many other people, and overwhelming differences with the identities of even more people.
To get theoretical again, the discomfort with identity also seems to me to be a symptom of postmodern society. Oh God, not that dreaded label (even worse than “identity politics”). But no, patient reader, I mean something very concrete by that. I mean the postmodern recognition that identity is constructed and performative, and its association of identity with the ironic and insincere, consequential to the unprecedented bombardment of the individual with the basest forms of marketing and chicanery to manipulate the formation of an identity that has become nothing more than an interface with commodities and political categories. How the hell can we take identity seriously when it is so evidently produced for us by clothing commercials, sports teams, and talk radio?
But moving beyond the historical moment in which, for many people, identity has become an absurdity, what is identity if it is not inherently a product of manipulative outside factors? I would argue that even though identity is a project and it is historical, it is nonetheless natural, in the sense that it arises from the nature of human consciousness. Identity is a function of the way humans understand ourselves and recognize others; and I would make the Chomskian argument that the epistemological movement to and beyond categories is universal to the human brain itself. In other words, I think that we always have and always will label ourselves and others, challenge these labels, reinforce them, abandon them and integrate the fragments into new labels, and there is nothing wrong with this project except where it intersects with an authoritarian society that uses a discourse and a regulation of identities, among many other means, to not let people be who they want to be. Thus, using or not using identities is not as important as addressing the very real social structures and power dynamics that lie behind these identities.
It seems to me that addressing our personal relationship to these power structures entails the creation of identity if it includes any talk of a collective response, i.e. struggle. This is true even if we adopt as broad an identity as “the exploited.” Our identity becomes more specific the more specifically we examine those power structures and how they affect us. If we try to understand patriarchy and colonialism and migrant labor and liquor stores, something as vague as “the exploited” is no longer a useful identity to help us understand our place in all of this. Such a broad identity can be useful in preventing an atomized understanding of the system—it is a wholesale rejection of the system on the part of everyone who can consider themselves exploited by it (which is basically everybody). But this need not entail a rejection of a specific approach that looks at one or several parts of the system in detail, in tandem with a more specific identity, as long as that approach does not lose a holistic analysis of the system and thus give birth to a partial struggle.
After all, identities need not be singular or mutually exclusive. In examining patriarchy it becomes apparent that different people have different categorical relationships with that power structure, but just because someone understands herself to be a woman does not at all prevent her from understanding herself as an enemy of the entire system, together with all the other enemies of the system.
Here I want to quote from a thought-provoking article by Craig Calhoun about identity politics. He provides a succinct definition of essentialism in identity which is similar to the one Lawrence Jarach uses in his article “Essentialism and Identity Politics,” although I find the Calhoun article to be better developed, much more precise, and less loaded. He defines essentialism as the “[notion] that individual persons can have singular, integral, altogether harmonious and unproblematic identities.” Further along:
Bosnian Muslim feminists and other advocates of Bosnian women faced in 1993 a horrific version of the way nationalism and gender can collide. Serbian men raped thousands of Bosnian women [...]. This was a specifically gendered violation equally specifically deployed against a nationally defined group. Yet Bosnian men added to the calamity by treating the women who were raped as defiled and impure. They were defiled not only in the general sexist discourse of female purity, but in a specifically nationalist discourse in which they had been inscribed in proper roles as daughters, wives and mothers. To think of themselves as either women rather than Bosnian Muslims or Bosnian Muslims rather than women made no sense. They were raped because they were both, and to condemn the Bosnian Muslim culture equally with the Serbian project of ethnic cleansing (as some American feminists have done) is to condemn those very women. Yet the obvious claim to be both women and Bosnian Muslims was available only as a political project (however implicit) to refigure the discourses of gender, religion and nation within which their identities were inscribed and on the bases of which their bodies and their honor alike were violated.
But the puzzles lie not just in invocations of strong collective identity claims. They lie also in the extent to which people [...] are not moved by any strong claims of identity – or communality – with others and respond instead to individualistic appeals to self-realization. Moreover, these two are not altogether mutually exclusive in practice. The same unwillingness to work in complex struggles for social transformation may lie behind both a preference for individualistic, psychologistic solutions to problems and a tendency to accept the illusory solutions offered by strong, simplistic identity claims on behalf of nations, races and other putatively undifferentiated categories. 1
How can emphasizing collective identities actually be helpful in an anarchist struggle? I can think of plenty of examples. Here's a good one. One of my best friends in the place where I live now was, when I met her, a lesbian separatist feminist. She is an anarchist and we had plenty of affinity, but in the majority of her political projects and personal relationships she chose to only have contact with other women. She lived in a women-only house, worked with a women-only self-defense group as well as a couple women-only political collectives, and she only had romantic relationships with women. She chose this strategy because of her personal experience with sexual and sexist violence, because it seemed to her that only women really understood and could support her in these experiences, because she notices a different dynamic in these women-only groups that feels safer and also more enabling of effective communication and action, and because she's sick of always having to justify her experiences or argue with men and with anti-feminist women that the sexist violence experienced by her and her friends actually exists.
It would be arrogant to tell her that these experiences are invalid, and moreover, her effectiveness as an anarchist seems to validate her strategy. From what I have seen, she has made important contributions to the struggle against sexism that include direct action against rapists, counterinformation, and participation in theoretical debates that most anarchists here have deemed important, regardless of what side they take. And she has made important contributions to the anarchist movement, beyond its feminist aspects. Of course I can't say what these have been, but I would wager that nearly all anarchists, regardless of how they feel about so-called identity politics, would find her work to be worthwhile and even impressive. And the base for much of this work is the safe space she has created for herself in women-only groups.
The whole time I have known her, she never imposed an identity on me or made me feel devalued or excluded. All it took was for me to listen to her, accept her experiences as valid, and respect her choices regarding whom she wanted to work with and when, even if it meant that sometimes she didn't want to work with me, not so much because of my gender, but because of her gender experiences. As a Catalan anarchist pointed out, separatism is only separatism if we accept the authority that bound the two together in the first place. Otherwise, it's voluntary association.
This constitutes one of several stories I am familiar with that contradict the hypothesis that anarchist strategies emphasizing identity will divide the struggle or recreate oppression. But this example is especially interesting because this friend of mine is no longer a lesbian separatist. She now works in mixed groups and has relations with boys. She does not reject her old strategy, she has just moved beyond it. It was a necessary part of her process. Other anarcha-feminists here remain more permanently in that mode of action and although we have less common ground to struggle together, I respect that they are doing important work, which I can see, as just one example, by how much they helped my friend. For me to set some sort of timetable for them, to demand that they pass through separatism as a phase, would be the height of arrogance. As long as I respect their work and they respect mine, the struggle is not divided. The division occurs when we invalidate the struggle of people who have chosen to focus on a different part of the system.
What I wish all those snooty bastards who tout the term “identity politics” would understand is that anarchist theories and practices exist to serve our needs. This is not to say that anything goes, that I'm okay and you're okay, but that the basis for our criticisms should be how well our practices serve us in our struggle for liberation rather than how well our practices fit a clear blueprint derived from a pure anarchist ideology. Yet so often I hear the formula: anarchism is opposed to involuntary categories, so organizing as women or as people of color or reinforcing those categories in any way is contrary to anarchism. This reminds me of debating pacifists. “We want a peaceful world, so you can't use violence to get there.”
Not only are there many examples of struggles that are aided by the development or defense of identity, I would argue that the rejection of identity implicit in a rejection of political contestations of identity is a throwback to times when social struggles willingly adopted institutional forms—to when the anarchist movement hadn't yet learned what anarchism really was. A rejection of identity differentiation and the concomitant homogeneity of an implicit identity (whether that be “the exploited” or “the workers”) makes more sense within the “one big union” form of organizing that has largely been retired by the struggle, than it does within the networks that are more common today. A fundamental feature of networks as I understand them is the autonomy of their constituent parts, and this autonomy and the ability of distinct parts to recognize and relate to one another is developed precisely in the continuous project of identity formation.
Yes, identity can be misused. So can culture, or individuality. Rejecting identity is revealed to be as absurd as rejecting culture or individuality when we recognize that forming identities is a part of being human. What we should reject is borders, purity, and control within the formation of identities.
It is not enough to dismiss racism and sexism. Yes, race and gender are socially constructed, but that does not make them any less real (moreover gender arguably has not been oppressive in every society in which it has existed). Racism and sexism require specific attention and prolonged struggle in order to be destroyed, just the same as how capital is a social construct, yet capitalism will not be destroyed without specific attention and prolonged struggle. In a criticism of sexism within the movement there, a Greek insurrectionist, who was also an anarchist and a feminist, said that freedom is not theoretical, it is practical. Freedom exists not on being declared but when we figure out how to make it work on the ground, and when we fight for it. I agree wholeheartedly: this is the difference between the liberal notion of freedom and the anarchist one.
In working out these practical details we will start from our own experiences and we will develop our own strategies. But anarchy can only benefit from a diversity of experiences and strategies.