28 May 2012

Capitalism sexism racism

The pamphlet Who Is Oakland: Anti-Oppression Activism, the Politics of Safety, and State Co-optation has been circulating in Occupy Oakland circles. It is long, smart, provocative, radical, and well worth the time it takes to read it.

Speaking of capitalism as though it were somehow separable from racist exploitation, gendered violence, and the gamut of complex oppressions facing us in this world, confines antiracist and antipatriarchal struggle to the sphere of culture, consciousness, and individual privilege.
Understanding racism as primarily a matter of individual racial privilege, and the symbolic affirmation of marginalized cultural identities as the solution to this basic lack of privilege, is the dominant and largely unquestioned form of anti-oppression politics in the US today. According to this politics, whiteness simply becomes one more “culture,” and white supremacy a psychological attitude, instead of a structural position of dominance reinforced through institutions, civilian and police violence, access to resources, and the economy.
For too long individual racial privilege has been taken to be the problem, and state, corporate, or nonprofit managed racial and ethnic “cultural diversity” within existing hierarchies of power imagined to be the solution. It is a well-worn activist formula to point out that “representatives” of different identity categories must be placed “front and center” in struggles against racism, sexism, and homophobia. But this is meaningless without also specifying the content of their politics. The US Army is simultaneously one of the most racially integrated and oppressive institutions in American society. “Diversity” alone is a meaningless political ideal which reifies culture, defines agency as inclusion within oppressive systems, and equates identity categories with political beliefs.
Communities of color are not a single, homogenous bloc with identical political opinions. There is no single unified antiracist, feminist, and queer political program which white liberals can somehow become “allies” of, despite the fact that some individuals or groups of color may claim that they are in possession of such a program. This particular brand of white allyship both flattens political differences between whites and homogenizes the populations they claim to speak on behalf of. We believe that this politics remains fundamentally conservative, silencing, and coercive, especially for people of color who reject the analysis and field of action offered by privilege theory.
The absurdity of privilege politics recenters antiracist practice on whites and white behavior, and assumes that racism (and often by implicit or explicit association, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia) manifest primarily as individual privileges which can be “checked,” given up, or absolved through individual resolutions. Privilege politics is ultimately completely dependent upon precisely that which it condemns: white benevolence.
The one month Occupy Oakland encampment was blamed by the Oakland Chamber of Commerce and its city government partners for everything from deepening city poverty to the failure of business led development, from the rats which have always infested the city plaza to the mounting cost of police brutality. An encampment which fed about a thousand people every day of its month-long existence, and which witnessed a 19% decrease in area crime in the last week of October, was scapegoated for the very poverty, corruption, and police violence it came into existence to engage.
In a complete reversal of 60s-era militant antiracist political movements, we are told by these politicians and pundits that militant, disruptive, and confrontational political actions which target this city bureaucracy and its police forces can only be the work of white, middle class, and otherwise privileged youths.
We are told that the victims of oppression must lead political struggles against material structures of domination by those who oppose every means by which the “victims” could actually overthrow these structures. We are told that resistance lies in “speaking truth to power” rather than attacking power materially. We are told by an array of highly trained “white allies” that the very things we need to do in order to free ourselves from domination cannot be done by us because we’re simply too vulnerable to state repression. At mass rallies, we’re replayed endless empty calls for revolution and militancy from a bygone era while in practice being forced to fetishize our spiritual powerlessness.

I give you those quotes to whet the appetite. The pamphlet merits reading in its entirety.

For readers unfamiliar with the context, the allusions to “safety” reference an ongoing activist discussion of how actions which risk confrontation with police are affected by racism, since these confrontations have gentler stakes for activists in a position of privilege (White, male, cisgender, bourgeois, able-bodied, et cetera) than for people of color, women, trans people, the poor, the disabled, et cetera. Thus many activists argue that proposals of confrontational action reflect “privilege”, and the movement should avoid these tactics out of respect for the “safety” of movement participants who are people of color et cetera. (I haven't been able to find a link to a good articulation of this argument; if any of my readers can, I'd appreciate a link.) This pamphlet disagrees, saying that systemic injustice means that one cannot secure “safety” for oppressed people without vigorous political action, so that this argument for safety takes effective tools away from the movement and therefore supports systemic oppression.

I don't know. I need to think about this for a bit. Three things give me pause.

I respect its anticapitalist critique, and have made many of the same noises myself. At the level of consciousness-raising, we have too little radical criticism of capitalism out there. But at the level of political action, anti-capitalism isn't a program; you need to be pro-something-else. And I don't have a good image of what post-capitalist order I would advocate. The authors of “Who Is Oakland” don't offer one either. Advocating more vigorous and effective action without a positive program is profoundly unsatisfying. Not that I have any answers of my own to offer ... which leads me to value consciousness-raising more than the authors of the pamphlet evidently do, so that we can work on the problem of finding a positive program to advocate.

I also distrust the deliberate vagueness about what more-vigorous actions it proposes. I have a deep skepticism about political violence; it isn't just more vigorous and effective than non-violence, it takes us to a different place altogether, a place where I hesitate to go. I believed from early on that Occupy should explicitly reject violence and vandalism in order to remain a popular movement because these tactics alienate too many Americans. But advocates for vandalistic actions compelled Occupy Oakland to accept a “diversity of tactics” principle, and as a result has not been able to counter people pointing to the actions of vanguardists (and almost certainly provocateurs) to discredit the movement. So the pamphlet's hints that it supports confrontational activism arouses my skepticism.

And I find myself very conscious that my hand-wringing over these questions reflects a characteristically White guy move.

So: Food for thought.


Chevaliermalfait said...

that just makes my eyes glaze over.
and pass the author some kaopectate.

J'Carlin said...

On alternatives to Capitalism, I think the alternatives are clear, in the sweat equity of startups. Certainly the VCs are in it for the capital gains, but they are dependent on the success of the people doing the innovation. As long as success is defined in terms of innovation, and the "Capitalists" swapping cooked books for $Megamillions are regulated out of existence the capitalist system can begin to work again as it is supposed to.