White Poppies will be sold at the front steps of the Wellington Railway Station from 7am to 8.30am, and from 4.30pm to 6pm, on Tuesday 22 April. They can also be ordered from White Poppies for Peace email whitepoppies@ymail.com

The white poppy is an international symbol of remembrance for all the casualties of war – civilians and armed forces personnel – and of peace. Information about the white poppy is available at http://www.whitepoppies.org.nz

Sales help fund the White Poppy Peace Scholarships, These are awarded each year to assist with the costs of research into: the impacts of militarism, militarisation and warfare; alternatives to militarism, militarisation and warfare; or media coverage of militarism, militarisation, military deployment and / or armed conflict.

 

Leadership and the myth of apathy

From libcom.org. Why aren’t we rising up? Whether the ‘we’ in question is young people, the British people, or the poor, this is a question asked an awful lot by both mainstream and leftist commentators. Austerity, job cuts, pay freezes, workfare, poverty, food banks, police brutality, political corruption – it’s all the rage, so why aren’t we all enraged?

There are two standard answers on the left: apathy and the lack of leadership. Either people are too engrossed in their own little world of X Factor, I’m a Celebrity and ‘I’m alright Jack,’ or they just don’t have the right hero to lead them into battle. The left wing rabble rousers of the past are dead and gone and we need people to replace them and rally the workers.

The trouble is, both of these answers are wrong. Moreover, they play into a convenient myth that helps the pale, stale males of the authoritarian left sustain themselves while doing nothing at all to stop the world around us decaying into shit.

People are not apathetic

Well, sure, some are. Everyone knows at least one person who’s aggressively and proudly apolitical. They “don’t want none of that” if anything halfway substantial comes up in conversation, yet it always turns out that they’ve internalised the narratives of the right wing press on how immigrants and scroungers are to blame for everything.

These people do exist, but to tout them as an archetype for the public-at-large and that’s just wrong.

There’s a level of truth, as with any stereotype. But when the world’s full of problems and there’s no effective counter to the dominant narrative (we’ll get to that) then of course you take the answers available. Even if they’re racist, classist and built on a foundation of lies.

But speak to the vast majority of people, and they’re not apathetic. They have opinions on political issues. A great many have a fairly solid unconscious understanding of class and their lot in life. Where they have internalised ruling class ideology, they’re smart enough to realise and change their mind if you engage with them and talk to them.

This goes against the labels thrown around, particularly by crackerjack hacktivists such as Anonymous and batshit conspiracy theorists but also by some on the left, such as ‘sheeple’ and suggestions that everyone not already out on the streets protesting is brainwashed. In fact, they’re alienated, exploited and oppressed under capitalism and this kind of activist mentality is toxic and does nothing to advance the class struggle.

So what about the supposed ‘need’ for leaders?

Resistance doesn’t happen spontaneously. It happens when people organise, make conscious decisions and act upon them. This requires people to take the initiative, the sharing out of roles and responsibilities, and not a bit of education and agitation.

But while this could be considered a type of leadership – a ‘leadership of ideas,’ for want of a better term – it’s not leadership in the sense that most on the left mean it.

When the left’s kind of leadership emerges it’s easy to recognise – it involves representation by prominent spokespeople instead of empowering people to act for themselves. It involves executive power concentrated in the hands of a few. It involves a division of labour between ‘activists’ and ‘intellectuals.’ It involves a clear hierarchy with activity directed from above and disagreement of any kind condemned as ‘divisive’ or ‘sectarian.’

By and large, people don’t want this. When this kind of leadership emerges, if it fills a vacuum then it will attract people – at first. The vast majority of people will tire of being directed like pawns, treated as an expendable resource and having little to no say in decision making. This is not only why the leftist confessional sects such as the Socialist Party, SWP and so on have such a high turnover of membership, their cadres a minorrity next to their paper membership, but also why the fronts they set up lose momentum once the formulaic authoritarianism loses its novelty.

It’s also why movements which have arisen in the wake of the crisis have lacked this kind of hierarchical structure. UK Uncut and Occupy being the most commonly cited examples. In the fight against the Bedroom Tax, local groups acted for themselves and built up horizontal federations while the Trot fronts seeking to capitalise on the struggle floundered on the sidelines.

But there’s still a gap that needs filling. The Occupys of this world have their own flaws, the ‘tyranny of structureless‘ meaning that invisible hierarchies tend to emerge and those who seek to ‘represent’ others by imposing their own views on the collective don’t have to deal with formal representative democracy.

We need organisation and democracy, but it should be non-hierarchical organisation and direct democracy. Organisers should seek to give people the confidence to act for themselves, not merely to follow the organiser and keep them in their position for a long time to come. Officers should be mandated delegates with limited tenure, no executive power and the ability to be recalled by the mass. Democracy should mean making the decisions for ourselves, as in a strike ballot, rather than electing someone else to make decisions for us, as in a general election.

People as a broader whole are not apathetic, nor are they waiting for a leader. If we are led, then the destination is never freedom but a different kind of domination. If we want an uprising, then it requires hard work, patience, agitation and most importantly a desire to organise so that we can all fight for ourselves rather than being chewed up and spat out by any one of the myriad, toxic would-be leaderships that the authoritarian left has to offer.

 

This show presents an audiobook-ish experience, based on a talk by Silvia Federici about her book ‘Caliban and the Witch’. This book talks about how the development of capitalism is deeply entwined with processes of accumulation which needs to mold and domesticate the bodies of women in specific ways. The politics of reproduction at stake in this historical study is still very much at work today, and this book provides an invaluable background to developing struggles around reproduction and care today.

A must for anyone interested in the connections between capitalism, gender and colonialism.

Full book here: http://libcom.org/library/caliban-witch-silvia-federici

Reposted from He Hōaka: A couple of years ago, I wrote an essay about reaction to a pānui from Te Papa about visiting the taonga Māori collection that they host (The tapu of taonga and wāhine in a colonised land). I finished by saying:

“. . . but of course none of this can really be understood without already understanding a Māori worldview. And this is the real issue, while Māori must understand a European worldview and law to survive in this land, colonisation has meant that very few people have any understanding of mātauranga Māori, or, in fact, of colonisation. Whenever an issue requires some understanding, whether it be the significance of te reo Māori, or kaitiakitanga, or whatever, the ignorance of most New Zealanders makes dialogue impossible. And thanks again to colonisation, this creates a problem not for those who are ignorant, but for Māori. Māori must repeatedly start from the beginning and attempt to explain their whole culture—this occurs in conversations, the media, court hearings, tribunal hearings. At some point, tauiwi need to take some responsibility for understanding the indigenous culture, and for understanding how their ignorance contributes to cultural imperialism, to Māori perspectives being marginalised and foreign in their own land.”

I want to come back to this to talk about the way Māori realities are often sidelined by people who have made little effort to understand anything beyond Western philosophical frameworks. I encounter this often, (and disappointingly for me) especially in socialist/ libertarian/ anarchist circles, where an analysis of power and imperialism seems especially crucial. I’ve written a lot about this in other posts (eg, Defining Māori), so this is only a summary.

When Europeans arrived here, they unselfconsciously slotted tangata whenua into the same orientalist framework they put all indigenous peoples—primitive, barbaric, native (meaning aligned with nature rather than culture), and superstitious. I say unselfconsciously, because Europeans took no time to consider how many of their practices would look to an outsider— unawareness of their place in nature, unthinking cruelty to children and women, inflexible codes of law, an obsession with covering (but not cleaning) the body, uncritical Eurocentric cultural imperialism (the expectation that the European way of thinking and doing is always right, even taken completely away from a European context where other people might know better). Any differences between tangata whenua understandings and actions, and Western understandings and actions, were seen as simply the result of the primitive, superstitious nature of the natives. Europeans certainly did not consider themselves superstitious—although they often did things for religious or cultural reasons that made little sense to anyone not raised within that religious or cultural framework, they were always rational.

As many have observed and written, the West tends to frame things in dichotomies, where Othering is used to strengthen one’s own righteous identity. One of the biggest contrasts at the time of European arrival here, was between European religion (inherently righteous) and Others’ superstitions or spirituality (irrational and childish at best). (It’s interesting to think about the work of Elsdon Best and Percy Smith in this context. They were fascinated by and sympathetic to Māori philosophies and beliefs, and when they wanted to show that tangata whenua were not as primitive as many of their peers thought, they tirelessly sought evidence for Māori belief in a single, supreme god. When they eventually found an informant who spoke of such a god, they then argued that this meant Māori were well on their way to developing a proper religion.)

As the values of the Enlightenment (which elevated intellect and reason above religious adherence) became more widespread, secularism became the righteous stronghold. This meant that our understandings and actions were only valid if they were based on rational (scientific) reasoning—although what is considered rational and relevant would continue to be defined by Western values. This is pretty much where the dominant culture in New Zealand is at now. For whatever reason (I blame cultural imperialism), it is not widely understood that any reasoning is based on values and a cultural framework (as Skyler, from Reading the maps discusses).

Because Western values and cultural frameworks are so pervasive, it is easy to dismiss anything outside those frameworks as not reasonable in some way. It is now common to hear Māori frameworks being dismissed as ‘religious’ and ‘spiritual’—when they are actually legitimate philosophies. They have a basis in a belief system and morality, just as Western philosophical frameworks do (much as many now try to deny it). They also have a basis in a very long association with this land, which Western frameworks do not.

The sort of understanding that comes from a long association with a place is so often dismissed as spiritual, and therefore unreasonable. For example, understanding that a river is a living entity, that it has a life-force that must be sustained, and that the wellbeing of my community is intertwined with the wellbeing of that life-force. This can be, and for a long time has been, written off as spiritual, animistic nonsense. But of course, it is true, and Western science (in this case ecology) has been playing catch-up for decades, when we could have just paid attention to tangata whenua (I say ‘we’ because I trained and briefly practised as an ecologist, and never learnt anything of indigenous understandings of relationships with the environment). The knowledge that comes from generations of interdependence with an environment is more legitimate than imported ideas about the way the world works.

The point of this post is that those of us who have been raised within exclusively Western philosophical frameworks need to be open to the limitations of those frameworks. Others understand the world differently, they may understand the world better. They may express that understanding in ways that sound irrational or strange to us. If we dismiss it as nonsense, or incorporate it into our superior frameworks and explain it back to them, then we are behaving as cultural supremacists. We will continue to creep infinitesimally towards understandings that others have known for generations and have freely offered us. Which might be fine, if we weren’t destroying ourselves and our planet as we do so.

To learn more about cultural imperialism and the importance of mātauranga, I highly recommend getting hold of Te Wānanga o Raukawa: Restoring mātauranga to restore ecosystems (produced by Te Whare Whakatupu Mātauranga, published by Te Tākupu and written by Āneta Hinemihi Rāwiri).

From Cautiously Pessimistic. Whenever controversies around issues like race, gender or sexuality erupt in the left, they always seem to produce a fairly predictable set of responses. As if by clockwork, a certain set of male leftist writers spring into life to churn out another attack on “identity politics” and “intersectionality”, eager to defend what they claim is the purity of class politics against the dangers of contamination. What’s curious about this phenomenon is that the arguments of the diehard anti-intersectionalist warriors, when examined, don’t actually seem to offer that much in terms of practical suggestions for how to take the class struggle forward. Instead, in their eagerness to attack “identity politics”, they tend to abandon the basic perspective which antagonistic, materialist class politics is based on, and instead ground their arguments on a set of straightforwardly liberal principles.

For the benefit of readers who might not have encountered these arguments, a quick introduction to a few of the more noisy and visible anti-intersectionalists: there’s Ross Wolfe, a valiant opponent of identity politics who writes articles about subjects like “Marx called Bakunin fat, so that means that there can’t possibly be anything problematic about publicly shaming women for their weight” along with other weighty issues facing workers in the age of austerity, such as early Soviet architecture; James Heartfield, a member of Brendan “look at me look at me LOOK AT ME LOOKATME!” O’Neill’s bizarre Trot-turned-tory clique; and the CPGB, a small and almost entirely male group of Kautsky enthusiasts and leftist trainspotters with a knack for the fine art of unintentional self-parody, who regularly publish articles defending Marxism against the feminist menace, alongside other topics of pressing concern to workers everywhere, like how the Socialist Platform of Left Unity’s refusal to exclude the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty demonstrates their lack of principles, or attacking the Socialist Party and the Communist Party of Britain for their failure to write more articles about the Socialist Workers’ Party.

As representative examples of the genre, I’ll take James Heartfield’s rants against intersectionality and Charlie Winstanley’s article on a recent row about race and sexuality within the International Socialist Network, itself a recent, libertarian-leaning, split from the SWP. These pieces aren’t identical, but they share enough common ground that, taken together, they can be treated as fairly representative of the anti-identity camp.

These articles always tend to be a bit short on suggestions as to how to deal with the actual problems that intersectional approaches aim to address – most notably, the issue of people with certain privileges, and especially men, acting in ways which completely devastate the organising efforts they’re involved in. From Gerry Healy to Tommy Sheridan* to Julian Assange to Martin Smith, the behaviour of powerful men becomes an issue time and time again, and if the approaches suggested by intersectional feminists aren’t sufficient to deal with it, then we urgently need to find a more constructive alternative. Sadly, the anti-intersectionalist warriors don’t seem to have a huge amount of time or energy for this particular task, preferring to concentrate on other issues, like explaining why they think feminists are silly.

When dealing with critiques of “intersectionality” and “identity politics”, it’s important to address the truths that they’re based on. It is certainly the case that many people influenced by these perspectives tend to have a habit of getting into quite heated and vicious arguments on the internet, particularly on twitter (of course, this is to be contrasted with the behaviour of everyone else on the internet, where people just have calm, rational and respectful exchanges). Watching, let alone taking part in, these arguments is often quite tiring and depressing, and it’d be ridiculous trying to pretend that everything said in them is in any way justified. But if we’re to judge ideas by the behaviour of the people who hold them, then anarchism’s tainted by Proudhon’s anti-Semitism, Kropotkin’s support for WWI, and the CNT’s collaboration with the government, Marxism’s fatal flaws can be identified by looking at the jaw-droppingly stupid positions held by at least 99.9% of all Marxist groups that have ever existed, from defending the USSR as a workers’ paradise to insisting that it’s possible to reclaim the Labour Party in 2014, and intersectional feminism is discredited by the fact that some of its supporters are unnecessarily abrasive on the internet, so we might as well just junk all the ideas gained from past efforts to abolish exploitation and oppression and start over from scratch. For myself, I think that a society without government is still desirable no matter how many anarchists say stupid or embarrassing things, I think that historical materialism is still a useful way of trying to understand the world despite all the repressive dictators who’ve claimed to be inspired by Marx’s ideas, and I think it’s worth trying to understand how different forms of oppression intersect with each other even if some other people who share my ideas are unhelpfully rude when they get in arguments on the internet.

But the Heartfield/Winstanley camp aren’t just offended by the tone of the intersectionalists: they also seek to attack the intersectional project on a more basic level. For Heartfield, the problem “is a philosophy, the philosophy of anti-humanism… The main claim of the anti-humanist philosophy is a rejection of the assertion of a common human essence. All such claims to the anti-humanists are false and ideological supports to oppression. Claiming, for example, that men and women, or white and black are fundamentally the same, in this argument, is to hide the oppression of the one by the other under the appearance of equality.”

In his post-script to Heartfield’s article, Wolfe complains about people who  “hold the view that thought is not universal, but embedded, not true for all, but specifically attached to races and groups.” Similarly, Winstanley objects to “the intersectionalist assertion… that all intellectual disagreements sit within a broader system of oppressions, directly manifested by the ethnicity, sexuality, race or gender of the individual involved. In essence, within the context of any discussion in any environment, it is impossible for an individual to remove themselves from these characteristics.” In short, these gentlemen seek to object to the idea that people are shaped by their experiences, and that having different life experiences can lead people to form different ideas.

For the likes of Heartfield, Wolfe and Winstanley, individuals are not the products of their environments, and there’s no need to look for material factors to explain the course of human affairs: we’re all just pure, abstract citizens engaged in a reasonable discussion of ahistorical, universal truths. This is, of course, the classic position of liberalism, but it isn’t the only way of seeing of the world. Against the liberal position, there are those who believe that a genuine human community is possible and desirable, but it cannot exist within this society, so it needs to be created by the active, conscious destruction of all the structures that separate us from each other. This is the perspective on which intersectional feminism is based, but there’s an older name for it: this idea has gone by a number of names, but it has sometimes been referred to as  “communism”.

Antagonistic class politics always relies on the insight that the truth is not a simple, objective thing, but reality always looks different depending on the perspective you approach it from. The pyramids meant different things to the pharaohs and to their slaves, just as Britain today looks different depending on whether you’re viewing it from Downing Street or Benefits Street. Class politics is all about seeking out the perspectives of those who’ve traditionally been denied a voice. It’s about viewing World War I through the eyes of the soldiers who fought in it rather than the generals who ordered the slaughter, the USSR through the eyes of the Kronstadt sailors or the Hungarian rebels rather than the various ideologists and central committees, and the reality of free-market liberalism from the perspective of those who’ve always paid the price for it, from the slaves and industrial workers whose blood and sweat laid its foundations to those being exploited by neoliberalism today, not the abstract, free-floating individuals dreamt of by liberal theorists. And it’s this insight – both the project of seeking out and amplifying perspectives that have traditionally been repressed and ignored, and the realisation that these perspectives exist at all – that also defines the approaches that get labelled as “intersectionality”.

But my problem with the hard-line anti-intersectionalist approach isn’t just that I find its theoretical foundations to be questionable. I also find it difficult to work out how exactly this vision of a pure class struggle untainted by questions of race or gender plays out in practice. A note of humility here: I’m not claiming to be an unsung hero of anarcho-syndicalist organising. I’m not Big Bill Haywood or Lucy Parsons or Durruti: I’m a young(ish, even if not quite as young as I used to be) worker who, like most people of my generation, hasn’t taken part in any mass workplace struggles comparable to things like the Miners’ Strike, and I’ve spent most of my working life alternating between more-or-less insecure temporary work and periods of unemployment. But by now I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time within workplaces trying to think about how to strengthen my fellow workers’ sense of solidarity and self-organisation, and I’ve played a minor part in a few attempts at community organising: again, I’m not talking about campaign that beat the Poll Tax here, but I’ve tried my best to do what I can.

In my experience, it’s fair to say that, in most cases, workplace organising consists of trying to identify the informal groups and networks that always already exist, and then trying to strengthen their internal sense of solidarity and confidence to challenge management, as well as trying to break down barriers between the different informal groups that exist and bring them together. In other words, it’s about paying attention to other people, and thinking seriously about who they talk to, how they talk to each other, who they look out for, who’ll stick their necks out to protect other people and who they’re prepared to do it for, and who has whose back.

To me, it seems unimaginable that anyone could spend any time paying this kind of attention to their fellow workers and still think solely in terms of class, without at the very least taking gender into account. Depending on where you work, you might have an all-white workforce or a workforce with no workers who are openly, visibly not straight, but there is at least some gender mix in the vast majority of workplaces, and, in my experience, the composition and behaviour of these kind of informal social groups is always heavily gendered. To go into a workplace determined to only see workers and bosses, without seeing the way that gender intersects with these relationships and plays out in all kinds of ways, is to blind yourself to a crucial part of the ways that power operates within a workplace, and to ignore a whole set of challenges and opportunities that are deeply relevant to the task of building workers’ power at a grassroots level. If you don’t want to use the language of intersectionality to talk about these things, then that’s up to you, but these issues are worth thinking about for anyone seriously concerned with class struggle.

Likewise, let’s say that your organising project, whether in the workplace or the community, is going well, and starting to make some ground. You can more or less guarantee that, very early on, your opponent will seek to divide you by buying some people off. This may or may not take place along the lines of “identity” – divisions like permanent versus temporary workers are just as useful for the bosses – but if you’re interested in trying to build a movement that won’t just collapse at the first hurdle, you need to think about the potential faultlines that exist within the group you’re trying to organise, and the ways that your opponents can exploit these to turn people against each other by giving some of you access to limited benefits. In other words, to think about the kinds of questions that people who talk about privilege are talking about. Again, I don’t care that much about whether you find the language of privilege useful for discussing these questions, but if you display the kind of frothing-at-the-mouth hostility that some leftists do to even thinking about the idea of privilege, then you’re not going to be able to deal with these issues when they inevitably arise.

On closer inspection, the whole question of “serious class politics versus post-modern liberal identity politics” is a false one. The crusade against intersectionality means abandoning class politics for liberalism in theoretical terms, and it has nothing useful to say about practical questions of organising for class struggle. It’s not about class politics versus identity politics: it’s just a choice between an approach to the class struggle that starts from people’s lived experiences, which in turn means taking into account all the different identities which affect those experiences, or a toothless, abstract liberal universalism.

*to be clear, by including Sheridan in this list, I’m not trying to say that his behaviour is the same as that of Julian Assange or Martin Smith, but if we’re considering “powerful leftist men with big egos who act in damaging ways” as a category, then I think a strong case can be made for including him.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 95 other followers