Dynamics of Identities in Solidarity: How the Oppressed and the Oppressors are not the same

I learned much about community identity during my visit to Ireland this year. The Murals in Belfast and Derry can teach us a lot about how community identities can be produced, founded, displayed, and maintained in the face of resistance. However, what I learned which most interested me was the structural difference between Protestant and Catholic community identities – specifically how one understands the relation of one’s own struggle to other struggles in other parts of the world. In short, Protestants in Northern Ireland are more likely to be supporters of Israel, and Catholics more commonly support Palestine and speak out against the Gaza Massacre, the illegal security wall, and the occupation of land illegally gained in war.

I’m not the first to point this out. And on its own, it isn’t very interesting – isn’t this just a simple correspondence where oppressed groups support other oppressed groups, and oppressors support other oppressors? I think the answer is yes and no – that this is the correct distinction, but that the analogy runs deeper, and that there are structural differences between the kind of solidarity expressed by oppressed groups for each other in comparison to the solidarity of oppressing groups.

There is a long tradition of structurally distinguishing between dominance and submission in philosophy, perhaps most famously beginning with Hegel’s master/slave dialectic. The idea is roughly this: the slave prefers to live and submit rather than being willing to risk his life to avoid recognizing the personhood of another. The master in Hegel is pathetic – he does not acknowledge the will or identity of another thing like him, and treats the slave only as an object of consumption, something towards which a desire or appetite corresponds. The slave on the other hand, through the recognition of the master as a sovreign will, gains “self consciousness”, and is able to through his work come to understand the structure in which he finds himself. Slave consciousness is progressive – it seeks to understand more than it already grasps. Whereas, master consciousness is conservative – it seeks to maintain the power it has at the price of a growth which might endanger it.

This structural difference corresponds with my experience of Protestant and Catholic identities in Ireland. For instance, when the tour bus driver (on a tour to the Giants Causeway and Derry) told us that Catholics were more likely to support Palestine, and Protestants generally supported Israel, he didn’t explain why, nor attempt to explain why. His personal view was that people should busy themselves with their own concerns and leave the struggles of others to others. You won’t be surprised, then, that he was quite Protestant. On the other hand, his friend who took us on the walking tour of Derry was Catholic – and to him it was second nature that one had to support and understand the struggle taking place in the middle east. He didn’t actually talk about the issue much, but the way he mentioned the struggle in Palestine made it apparent that in his view, anyone should concern them with injustice wherever it happens to be. His apparent concern starkly contrasted the bus driver’s lack of concern. In a similar contrast, whereas when the bus driver explained the violence of the troubles as incomprehensible, and plainly “for no reason”, the tour guide expressed the violence of Catholic paramilitary groups in the context of a struggle over real grievances. This same lack of concern over context characterized the way they both spoke about the “real IRA“- the bus driver saw the continuance of violence as incomprehensible and insane, whereas the tour guide understood the attempt to continue violence as inappropriate and motivated by grievances which cannot at this point be opposed with violence.

However, all the Hegelian master/slave dynamic explains is the relation between the domination or submission of a consciousness and its epistemic motivations; i.e. whether it is concerned with understanding struggle or only with winning or ending it. According to the Hegelian dynamic, the slave should be interested in knowing about the struggles of other slaves, but not necessarily with expressing solidarity with them. This isn’t surprising, however, the master/slave dialectic is not a social story.

To understand solidarity, what we need is an account of oppression and domination which does not locate the mechanism which acts in accordance with oppression or domination in a subject or a consciousness, but an affect – a “way of being”, a sensation. Something abs-tractable which circulates through people and communities, but does not define them essentially – rather something which they are in a sense possessed by, and which explains relations of integration and disintegration. Such a thought we find in Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the “minoritarian“. The minoritarian is not a name for an oppressed group, but a name for a process which one undergoes to avoid the fascist subsumption of subjects under a general, like “people”. The minoritarian affect names a people as well, but not one which is denumerable or aximotaizable under a determinate set. Citing from Thousand Plateus (1987):

The axiomatic manipulates only denumerable sets, even infinite ones, whereas the minorities constitute “fuzzy,” nondenumerable, nonaxiomizable sets, in short, “masses,” multiciplities of escape and flux. (470)

Plainly, this does not describe every minority group’s struggle – many minorities are just as fascist as the majorities they find themselves in opposition to. Certainly the romantic aspect of Irish Catholic Nationalism might be a kind of axiomatic. However, the Official (Marxist) IRA’s category of the irish working class did not function as an axiomatic denumerable category, but a fuzzy pre-possession of a post-capitalist dream which, in their eyes, could not be adequated by anything other than a united irish socialist (post-capitalist) society. This corresponds with Deleuze’s own analysis:

It matters little that the minorities are incapable of constituting viable States from the point of view of the axiomatic and the market, since in the long run they promote compositions that do not pass by the way of the capitalist economy any more than they do the State-form. The response of the States, or of the axiomatic, may obviously be to accord the minorities regional or federal or statutory autonomy, in short, to add axioms. But this is not the problem: this operation consists only in translating the minorities into denumerable sets or subsets, which would enter as elements into the majority, which could be counted amoung the majority…

But what we are talking about is osmething else, someting that would not resolve: women, nonmen, as a minority, as a nondenumrerable flow or set, would recieve no adequate expression by becoming elements of the majority…

What is proper to the minority is to assert a power of the nondenumerable, even if that minority is composed of a single member. That is the forumla for multiplicities. Minority as a universal figure, or becoming-everybody/everything (devenir tout le monde). (470)

For Deleuze, therefore, we can call the Irish Catholic struggle minoritarian insofar as it is not resolvable by the inclusion of catholic identity and representation into state capitalist power structures. This does not mean Deleuze supports ongoing violence for the sake of violence – rather he claims that whether minorities receive better solutions through their adoption into denumerable structures remains an “undecidable question”(471). I think rather he might agree that the Belfast agreement (or, if he follows me, the failed Sunningdale agreement) was (/ought to have been) the end of any productive disintegration of capitalism in Northern Ireland. At that point, perhaps the most revolutionary thing Irish Catholics could do was capitulate without capitulating. This would be radical if capitulating to the state in exchange for addressing the real grievances  (the implementation of power sharing, police reform, and de-militarization), provided Catholic Identity more space to continue to leave the plane of capital by supporting more dire struggles elsewhere. Deleuze claims the point to succeed in leaving the plane of Capital, but rather:

…it is by leaving the plane(e) of capital, and never ceasing to leave it, that a mass becomes increasingly revolutionary and destroys the dominant equilibrium of the denumberable sets….If minorities do not constitute viable States culturally, politically, economically, it is because the State-form is not appropriate to them, nor the axiomatic of capital, nor the corresponding culture. (472)

I think this analysis gives us a good way of understanding not only way Ulster Unionists support Israel and Irish Catholics support Palestine, but also why Irish Catholics are more likely to make their support for Palestine a more central aspect of their identity. In comparison, since the end of the armed struggle in Northern Ireland, Ulster identity has experienced a crisis of lacking an enemy, a crisis which has resulted in increased xenophobia against Eastern Europeans:

Historically, it was economic migrants from the largely Catholic Republic of Ireland who stirred up sectarian trouble in Protestant communities. The south, a “Celtic Tiger” until the credit crunch kicked in, is now the euro zone’s weakest link.

Nonetheless, the “foreign bodies” Skey [a former Protestant paramilitary fighter] refers to are workers mainly from Poland, Lithuania and Romania. His views are more radical than most, but nearly 50 percent of those polled in one survey believed migrant workers take jobs away from people born in Northern Ireland.

The majority (not “majoritarian” because it isn’t a becoming but an assertion of a static being – a numerable set) needs minorities to justify its imposition of numerable sets on a world always more complicated than those sets admit. In the xenophobic move, the violence implicit in the expression “British” or “Ulster” is concealed by another violence – a fuzzy foreign body – whose ambiguous character must be annihilated.

The concept of “majority” also clarifies Ulsterist support for Israel – it us the support of the denumerable (and racist) Israeli state against those forces of disintegration which would annihilate it. The notion of “the destruction if Israel” is very telling here: it refers to the end of a racialist Israeli identity and citizenship/immigration policy, but it is interpreted as the annihilation of a “people”. One should not avoid noticing the immediate emotive correspondence between “destruction of Israel” and “destruction of the Jewish People”, a correspondence perhaps purposefully produced by an Israeli propaganda machine which describes Israel as the Jewish Homeland.

However, Ulsterist support for Israel and other powerful states which pretend to be under siege by those they conquer and oppress can not play the central role in a majority identity as support for struggling movements can for the identity of Irish Catholics. This is because while the essence of a majority identity is an axiomatic proposition, and therefore solidarity with other axiomatic forces is always an adjunct, minoritarian identity is characterized centrally by disintegration and the power of the un-denumerable. Therefore, to the extent that it is in Deleuze’s sense “revolutionary”, Irish Catholic Identity is not actually the assertion of an Irish Catholicism as an axiom, but the assertion of the essentially un-axiomatizable. Therefore, because the force of revolutionary identity actually comes from the fuzziness of the category under which it is assembled, it can contain anything in that category-which-is-not-a-category. This is what is meant when Deleuze says to be minority is to become everybody/everything (“devenir tout le monde“).

This analysis is of course, provisional – more than usual because my grasp on the Irish situation comes from a short and recent engagement. However, Deleuze hates identity politics, so I don’t apologize for my inability to “speak” as someone from an oppressed position, rather I speak “as anyone”, which means saying the kinds of things anyone could say, and being open to criticism by anyone.

4 thoughts on “Dynamics of Identities in Solidarity: How the Oppressed and the Oppressors are not the same

  1. I thought this article might interest you:

    Northern Ireland
    The bombs of August
    The violence that was supposed to be a thing of the past is on the rise again

    Aug 19th 2010 | belfast

    DISSIDENT republicans have stepped up their campaign of violence this month. A spate of attacks more frequent and reckless than before has seen the deployment of booby-trap and car bombs, as well as other devices. Although the prime target is police officers, the bomb-planters have not hesitated to put the lives of children at risk. On August 13th the Northern Ireland Office’s home-protection unit offered to provide prominent political and legal figures with mirrors designed to check for bombs under vehicles.

    On August 14th three young girls narrowly escaped serious injury in Lurgan, County Armagh, when a bomb intended for the police exploded in a nearby rubbish bin. Four days earlier a booby-trap bomb went off under the car of a former policeman in Cookstown, County Tyrone. On August 8th another bomb was planted in Kilkeel, County Down, which almost cost the lives of a Catholic policewoman and her daughter. The officer had just strapped the child into her car when she spotted the booby trap and managed to scramble her daughter to safety. On August 4th a booby-trap bomb was found under a soldier’s car in Bangor. The day before, a vehicle containing 200 pounds of home-made explosives blew up outside a police station in Londonderry. And that was only August.

    Extreme republican views were starkly on display in the remarks of councillor Martin Connolly, a hardliner. Though he is uncle to the policewoman who escaped death, he refused to condemn the incident. “While there’s British occupation in Ireland there will always be opposition to that, whether you agree with it or not,” he said calmly. His attitude shocked many, who saw it as a new low even for Northern Ireland extremism. The family said his comments beggared belief.

  2. Cycles of violence don’t end quickly. I still think everyone can agree that the Belfast Agreement was a positive step – look how little public support these attacks have from prominent republicans, compared to IRA attacks in the 90s. The lack of public support for the “Real IRA” is nothing like the popular support for Hamas or Hezbollah.

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