A Critical Defence of Intersectionality in Anarchism
This is my response to a short piece written from the perspective of some Anarchists in the UK.
The purpose of this response is to discuss more closely the same subject as the original piece, which is identity politics, and offer an alternative Anarchist reading. Although this response is largely critical of the original piece, I hope to offer a fresh perspective and food for thought into the tired and tiring arguments that revolve around the place of identity politics and class relations within Anarchist movements.
The original piece, entitled “Against Anarcho-Liberalism and the curse of identity politics,” begins with the statement that “Anarchism in the UK is a joke.” Credit must be given to the authors' capacity to clearly and quickly drive home their point. The point made after this declarations are ones we're all familiar with in Leftist circles: Identity politics is displacing “working class consciousness,” and Anarchists are in turn directing their anger towards each other rather than the Capitalist class. An emphasis on identity politics will eventually overlook or even actively play down the suffering of the White working class in the UK, creating unnecessary divisions among the working class which in turn frustrate the goals of anyone looking to do away with the Capitalist order. The one true and original source of oppression on this whole planet, we asked to believe, is Capitalism. The introduction of identity politics into Anarchist tendencies can only ever lead to the adaptation and maintenance of the econominic order–”Identity politics is not liberatory, but reformist.”
As, of course, is the most glaringly obvious point: that the problems we face go well beyond queerphobia or transphobia, but the whole fucking system of planetary enslavement, destruction, exploitation and imprisonment. We don’t want to see anyone in the prison system, whether they are black trans women, or cis white men (which, by the way, make up the vast majority of people imprisoned in the UK). It is unsurprising that politics based on such exclusivity results in constant internal clashes and seeing each other as the enemy, particularly given its vulnerability to exploitation by middle class identity-politician managers.
To clarify, I absolutely believe that the greatest source of misery and oppression on our Earth is caused by Capitalism, with all of the social forces it unleashes on populations. I also believe that the mechanics of Capitalism–growth without limit, the failure for markets to account for waste, the rewarding of profit-seeking regardless of consequences and so on–come together to form the greatest threat to all life on this planet. There is no goal that is more urgent or more important for Anarchists than to end the Capitalist way of doing things.
The Scope of Anarchism
But the world is varied and complicated, and Capitalism as we know it is only a few hundreds of years old. Anarchism does not limit its critical scope to Capitalism–in fact, that is its greatest asset, and exactly what separates it from other political schools of thought. Authoritarian Marxism is fixated and limited by theories that focus on closely inter-related social and economic dynamics within Capitalism. Marx and Engels' entire view of world history became a narrative going along a fixed path of inter-playing social relations that lead up to the Capitalism of their time. Their findings were drawn primarily from observations in the factories and mills of Victorian Britain and Germany, and they extrapolated their theories developed therein onto every facet of society. The failure of Marx to take into account other ways that the exploitation of one group by another can occur was perhaps his greatest failing. This theoretical oversight into the nature of authority lead to Marx's sincere belief that a Socialist state, once purged of its Capitalist class, would simply “fade away” upon becoming obsolete. This belief lead to the formal split between Marxists and Anarchists during Marx's lifetime.
I bring this up as an example of the way of thinking that Anarchists must avoid, and it is a way of thinking that is unfortunately displayed in “Against Anarcho-Liberalism.” Anarchists can no longer be satisfied with putting “less important” issues like racism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia on the backburner. The world is varied and messy. Oppression and exploitation occur outside of Capitalism. People did bad things to each other well before the first factory came into being. Overlooking these factors also ignores how Capitalism and the state both came about: the formalisation of pre-existing inequitable relations.
Anarchism is first and foremost obsessed with giving the individual freedom. It is not only the freedom to do or see as she pleases (so long as she does not impinge on the same freedom of others), but also the freedom to truly flourish: Where the creative potential of each individual is no longer shackled by scarcity, fear and hatred. Where every need is met, and wants and conditions are more or less in proportion to each other. Where fear of imprisonment, brutality and silencing is just as absent as the fear of hunger and cold. Where everyone is free to engage fully in the cultural, human and natural spheres of life around them. Where work becomes play and the act of living becomes the joyful expression of each person's soul. It is the pursuit of a good life, the only life worth living–eudaemonia.
Capitalism, naturally, is incompatible with this, as it enforces scarcity in order to survive. But it is not the only impediment to providing a life worth living for all. Acts of hatred and ways of thinking which subtly divide and confuse us, and which place restrictions on the expression and very existence of ourselves and others are also antithetical to Anarchism.
Anarchism, then, is not in conflict with different fields of thought such as queer theory (to use the example given in the original article). It is, in fact, informed and enriched by other critical theories. Previous cultural artifacts that were left relatively unexamined have come under fresh scrutiny by Anarchists who have taken on board new, broader perspectives in recent years: Monogamy, the gender binary, sex and body negativity, colonialism and ableism are only some of these. The expansion of the Anarchist worldview beyond the workplace of rich Western nations can only strengthen its appeal.
If Anarchists are to advance the full freedom of the individual, then we must with full force fight against the subtle and not-so-subtle biases that place some above others, that place undue expectations and that divide us. This requires a serious consideration of how these factors play into our own thinking, which can be an uncomfortable task for all of us. It is not wrong or damaging to bring these up and have them challenged. Likewise, if we are to be serious about undoing Capitalism, we must acknowledge how Capitalism uses these prejudices among people.
However, it is simply not enough to come together as workers and try to ignore or play down our divisions. Biases and institutional (dis)advantages easily manifest without us realising, and it is always beneficial to listen to our fellow humans on the other end who can offer us different perspectives and challenge these ways of thinking.
We don’t want hear about the next DIY event, queer night or squatter fest that excludes all but those who have the right language, dress code, or social circles.. Come back when you have something genuinely meaningful, subversive and dangerous to the status quo.
What's more, a mutual recognition between groups of people who have shared common experiences in the suppression of their humanity, the formation of identities around these experiences, and the desire to create shared spaces where these common experiences and frustrations around them can be shared without fear of being questioned or challenged does not in itself perpetuate Capitalism. The idea that a 'queer night' (or any other 'night' for women, people of colour, etc.) would be in itself contradictory to Anarchism and perpetuates Capitalism I find to be completely ridiculous.
The Working-Class Identity
There is one more point that I would like to criticise here and that is the fetishisation of the working class throughout the article. Let me be clear here: I am a trans woman who had the great misfortune of born into the Irish Republican/Catholic community in Northern Ireland. Hearing stories and witnessing first-hand the sometimes murderous, sometimes more subtle violence by the Orange state of Northern Ireland against Catholic civilians has shaped my politics. I have suffered from depression my whole life, and this has coloured all of my experiences, and my worldview accordingly. So severe has my depression been that I consider it a disability.
But before these things I am working class. I was born into a desperately poor family in a desperately poor area, and I know perhaps better than most that what matters most in life under Capitalism is the bottom dollar. What matters most in life is our economic class. Being born wealthy or poor by far is the most significant factor in how well we do in life, and this is growing more true each day. The flow of Capital can reinforce old cultural institutions and their oppressive relations if they can create conditions wherein the value of labour and resources can be more easily extracted for the rich, but just as easily it can do away with them if and when those same institutions impede the flow of labour, goods and profit.
The working class is not the store of all virtue, and uniting the whole world under the banner of working class solidarity is not enough. It is not acceptable to only address unjust class relations and ask that other causes be put on the back burner until the day of the mythic revolution that never comes. The good china plates will never come out. The goal of Anarchism should not be to develop the world into a single “working class.”
I grew up in a thoroughly working class town, and in parts of that town that can only be described as “impoverished shitholes.” Places where suicide and drug overdoses among teenagers who are barely into puberty are a part of daily life because the thought of spending the rest of your life in post-industiral, war-torn housing estates does not inspire hope in the young. I know full well what the working class identity entails. It is an identity that was born in the factories, shipyards and mills in my city, a city which was one of the industrial powerhouses of the British empire.
The working class identity is one of stoicism, of enduring shit, of self-suppression for the benefit of others. It is also one that is contingent on the existence of Capitalist modes of production. The attachment to the working class identity, like any political identity, is only functional at best. It is a shared cause and a common experience that can facilitate action. But it is the result of an unfortunate history, and should be left to history along with Capitalism itself. The goal of Anarchism is not to transform the whole of human society into a giant working class–doing so would require that we perpetuate the industrial conditions of Capitalism, and who the fuck wants to work under those conditions? It is the goal of Anarchism to allow each and every one of us to realise our full potential as human beings first and foremost, whatever that may require.
The Learning Barrier
However, I will make one very important concession to the original piece. This is on the matter of class relations within Anarchist circles. If Anarchism casts a thoroughly critical eye at every facet of life, it outright rejects much of the established ways of thinking and doing. This places upon Anarchists as practitioners the responsibility to totally challenge our own ways of thinking, talking and acting.
However, it can not be denied that this creates a barrier for people entering into Anarchist spaces for the first time. There is no easy solution to this. We can not bend to old ways of thinking, with their prejudices and their restrictions, and excuses can not be made. But here we can see the first dynamics of class division arise. It is simply not easy for people to adapt to new subcultures that have these expectations, especially if such individuals struggle with literacy or don't have the resources or time available to quickly learn and adapt. A spirit of welcoming and patience should be extended to those of us who have lacked the resources to learn. I personally have benefited from this on more than one occasion.
Unfortunately this is often not the case. In Anarchist and other Leftist spaces, online and in person, these barriers are never challenged, and in fact are often used as beating sticks by people who already posses social capital. The dynamics of social capital make it so that those who possess it are already better able to gain more, and these spaces run the risk of becoming unbearably middle class, and often, because of the close relation between race and class, overwhelmingly White. The right language, behaviour and associations quickly become indicators of a person's accumulated social capital (and class).
This is even worse online. We must be aware that so much of our discourse is superimposed on websites (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr) whose whole reason for being is to sell us shit. They have created economies of attention, where the content is constructed carefully so that those who get likes and shares are rewarded with more likes and shares, which can then be exchanged for social capital (“clout”) or perhaps even financial reward for the mega-successful. Profiles (egos) and content become closely integrated and fit into a web page in the same formats as advertisements. The dynamics of social capital become exaggerated, often to a disastrous extent–Gramsci and Debord's nightmares come true. The most effective discussion are only communicated in soundbites, the validity of a person's opinion is dependent on their follower count (and who they associate with), and previous statements are kept forever.
This is the home of call-out culture, of passive-aggressive captions of other people's messages, of personal score-keeping over previous transgressions. The people who are best equipped to deal with this kind of culture are the people who already possess the resources to deal with them. It is not a safe place for the poor or the struggling.
It is the mark of the middle class that they are better able to engage in conspicuous consumption than the poor, and new ways of thinking which have roots in liberatory movements can quickly become appropriated by Capitalism demarcations between social strata. It is vitally important that the poor are not denied access to Leftist spaces, lest they become venues for the chattering classes and lose all class consciousness and with it any worthwhile critique of Capitalism.
In summary: Class consciousness and other liberatory schools of thought are not contradictory. They compliment each other in ways that many Anarchists do not appreciate, and are Anarchism's saving grace. Intersectionality is important.
I wanted to discuss more of the points raised by the original article but I am afraid of this essay becoming too long and confused. It's also way past my bedtime and I have work tomorrow, and I'm tired. Sorry for any typos. If you like what I've written (or hate it), I can be found here. I'm also pretty poor and you can help me continue writing by supporting me here. Thanks. –Cocoron