A question for the “post-materialist” left

The question I want to ask is directed towards a certain style of activism, a certain kind of organizing, a certain way of privileging demands and deciding who, given the vastness of our mixed up world, should we direct our solidarity efforts towards?

We live in a world with no shortage of just causes or oppressed groups, or oppressed individuals (symbolic or otherwise), and on top of this increased access to information by means enabled by technological development has decreased the epistemic and communicative distance between us and other people on the planet. We live in a world where we can watch a protest in Gaza or Cairo, or New York, or Chicago, where we can see in near-real time protestors abused in Spain, or shot dead or blown up by land mines on the Syrian-Israeli border. We also live in a world where the activities of those who have sought to expose and bring to attention the oppressions which are less spectacular have been incredibly successful. We can read zines or blogs or articles published in newspapers or prestigious academic journals about an indefinite number of “forgotten” oppressions, we have theorized different forms of precariousness, sub-alternality, and we have become obsessed with all manners of “difference”, “between”, “crossings”.

This falls under, perhaps, the attack on the “logic of sameness”, the idea that political struggles can be understood as unitary, for instance as the struggle of a universal class for emancipation and rule. Who today believes in the redemptive power of the working class? No one, I think, who does not also believe in the reactionary forces of labour aristocracy, of racism, of class struggle between workers with different access to privilege. And while the left remains “anti imperial”, who today believes in the redemptive power of anti-colonial struggle? Who is willing to say “yes, this is a colonizer, and this is the colonized”? It is becoming all the more common to hear that the logic of “dualism”, of “opposition”, is part of the logic of “the same”, which is then identified with the colonial-imperial project as such and anti-colonial fighters become equivocated with their imperial enemies. Difference is privileged, the forgotten are remembered, but what if something in this remembering were also forgotten?

What is forgotten, I want to charge, is the redemptive power of an oppressed class which can’t merely be “retrieved”, “remembered”, while we protest against its forgottenness. In our all-out attempt to be inclusive, we end up abandoning the demand for the self-determination of revolutionary struggles. Instead of focussing on standing in solidarity with an oppressed group engaged in a process of self-assertion, we focus on the margins of such a group while we criticize its leaders – even its leaders who oppose the very things we are criticizing.

What this amounts to is a call for a return to solidarity action which is based not only in protesting exclusion, but celebrating inclusion – celebrating the emergence of strength, the emergence of positive possibilities, and the self-determination and even the leadership of groups who have their own liberation in common with the liberation of mankind. Inclusion is not a single kind of thing – there are forms of inclusion which are racist and based solely on ethnic purity. On the other hand, there are forms of inclusion based on common struggle, based on shared experiences and the formation of communal identities in the context of struggle. Shlomo Sand once said that “it is the duty of those who do not have a state to fight to establish one, and the duty of those who do have a state to struggle to abolish it”. I agree, but not specifically with respect to “states” – I think we should interpret the comment much wider, in terms of communal identities, tribalisms, nationalisms, etc… – these identities which are exclusive are only liberatory insofar as they are engaged in the concrete struggle of liberation. If they succeed, or if they give up, they become just as racist and exclusive as any other group identity that can become the basis of discrimination, or even another colonialism.

What I want to advocate can be expressed in two propositions. First, a return to a materialist analysis of struggles. This means standing in solidarity with the real demands made by oppressed groups, the demands that motivate them, the demands they wish to see achieved. And the demands that they are willing to organize around and sacrifice their own material well being to see brought to fruition. Second, a move away from focussing on the margins to focussing on the concerns of the majority of the class that you wish to organize. Another way of saying this is to call it a move away from organizing on moral grounds towards organizing on political grounds, not on the basis of what is right, but on the basis of what our common interests are, what we are willing to fight for and sacrifice for. These two things are really two sides of a single coin – to organize on the basis of truly motivating demands, and to organize towards those groups which can actually form as groups and engage in a collective self-determination.

This requires us to rethink the now dominant opposition to the “logic of sameness”. Politics, I think, is always a politics of sameness – always a practice of people acting generically, in a common interest, on the basis of what is shared rather than what is different between us. Of course much is different between us, and this difference is one of the things we share – there is nothing about respect for difference that can’t be adopted into a logic of sameness, difference is after all something we all have in common.

This also requires that we take on a kind of new “honesty”. We have to act on the basis of struggles which we honestly believe can become a force which alters the political landscape that we live inside of. If people are not going to be willing to co-operate, to form agreements of unity, and to sacrifice on the basis of those invocations of common interests, there is no politics to take place. There may be a lot of activism, there may be a lot of arguments to be had, but not a politics.

No One Is Illegal is a group with which I agree completely in terms of their morality. And I do think they have some positive concrete effects on the lives of the people they advocate for. But they do not claim that they will organize the precarious workers of this country, and neither should they claim that they will organize the majority of non-precarious labourers or the middle class for their cause.

The political organizing that stands the best chance of having a positive impact today is organizing that directs large masses of the differently oppressed to act in concert, in a way that can benefit all of them, and in a way that stresses their solidarity with each other. Emphasizing what we have in common, rather than what differentiates us, builds feelings of solidarity and will likely have progressive effects on immigration policy – which if we’re honest has been in a landslide towards the regressive side during most of the existence of No One Is Illegal. Even a much softer politics would be radical over against the conservatives near-fascist nativist policies. And a softer approach would be more conducive to the political consciousness of most working people in Canada – many of which are uncomfortable with the conservatives, but are not and won’t soon be hardline anarchists. What might they be, or what might they become? What nascent common sentiments are progressive, and could become political powerful? Can a boycott of elections turn viral and support the establishment of new forms of workers or local control over community, resulting in new more human forms of collective self determination? Or can support for particular directions in particular parties shift politics in a more progressive direction? Or can obstinate protest on issues of collective rage against the state force our governments to back off its most extreme anti-labour, anti-immigrant, and anti-youth policies?

We live inside imperfect democratic systems, systems increasingly controlled by money, systems in which we are increasingly controlled by debt. Debt is what we, as citizens of western imperialist powers, have in common. Perhaps debt, rather than class or gender or any other form of particular identity, could be a unifying and critical cry – by which we can together stand up against our degenerated states which care much more about whether businesses make a profit in the next quarter rather than whether the planet is still habitable a hundred years in the future.

And yes, the stakes are that high.


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