A Politics of humanity: towards a critique of conflict, identity, and transformation

This is a draft of some ideas I’m working through critiquing the role of identification with existing social divisions within capitalism as a transition to the abolition of such divisions. It’s in a rough state, and I’d appreciate constructive contributions.

The transformative potential of conflicts forms the basis for the beginning of any politics today. This point, fundamental and too often missed, gives us ground to stand on and take steps towards collective emancipation beyond the individual liberties and transgressions of mere enlightened thinking. While conflict carries with it liberatory potential, this fact can often obscured the more fundamental issue which is taking a society built on scaffolding of toxic relationships and transforming it into one of solidarity and liberty.

When people enter into conflict, they organize themselves around relationships and lines, existing or constructed, and use the tools they identify to advance their cause. These may follow the existing norms for how conflicts should unfold (like unions filing charges within the labor courts, class action lawsuits, fielding candidates for offices, official protests, etc.), or they may go outside those norms (occupations, riots, extraparlimentary direct action, viral propaganda, etc). In some cases, even direct action protests can become ritual, institutionalized and contained within the normal state of affairs of society like property destruction at anti-globalization and anti-war protests which are predictable and contained within that period. Any of these examples given can become normalized. In France today there are thousands of riots and violent acts of social malcontent yearly. Despite their illegal and violent nature, they are thoroughly normalized and routine, posing little threat within the balance of power today (though of course these things can get out of hand as well in certain contexts).

The dividing lines and the means for the conflicts both have the potential to radicalize participants depending on the situation. When collectivities use tactics that inspire and spread, they have disruptive potential that goes beyond their immediate value. The Occupy protests are one such example in which the context allowed for disruption disproportionate to the actual act; camping out in a space as protest, something which in previous situations had been largely uneventful. Likewise who does the protesting can effect the events that follow.

When the League of Revolutionary Black Workers organized themselves around demands of black workers in auto manufacturing in Detroit in the 1960s, their actions contributed to the break down of traditional alliances between union militants, the bureaucracy, left parties, and institutional liberals. The political intervention of black militants disorganized both the political establishment and institutionalized dissidents during a time of recomposition and crisis of how to reorganize the political landscape in the US as mass migrations, end of Jim Crow, and global economic change were unfolding.

During the 1930s waves of struggle likewise forced changes in the political landscape. Rioting unemployed workers at government offices, auto workers occupying their factories, and countless other groupings of workers utilized new tactics along lines that were distinct from the struggles of prior eras. Immigrant and native born workers joined and organized in unskilled industries including powerhouses like auto, and the unorganized and disenfranchised rapidly created new spaces to contest power like welfare and unemployment offices, foreclosed homes, and the occupation of the workplace itself. The rifts created and organized bodies around these struggles forced changes within the US and also worldwide.

The experience of participating in collective conflicts can cause people to break away from dominant ideas of society and social change towards alternatives they encounter or create in their struggles. The space created by struggle can (but doesn’t necessarily) arise through people being brought into conflict with the mechanisms of maintaining dominant power, the inability of the system to provide for their hopes, desires, and legitimate grievances, and dissonance between their collectivity and the imposed dominant form of classes, castes, and identities. The friction created by the tension of immediate struggles around people’s lives allows some to question and reject the normal course of affairs, and even alternatives within the range of options available to them including leftist ones.

The transformative potential of struggle is thus a present and crucial insight for building a movement of people who have broken from the system in pursuit of emancipation and liberation. That potential is no guarantee however, and there is nothing in our demands, constituency, or tactics that deliver freedom with any certainty. There are no short cuts that detour around situations, moments, and contexts, despite messianic thinking on the left around the cult of the worker or the oppressed.

Within capitalism, existing social divisions frequently produced productive conflicts and liberatory movements: the working class, peasants, women, queers, blackness, nation, etc. There are differences between the categories we inherit through capitalism and the state, the identities and identifications with those categories members of those divisions, and collectivities in struggle.

The blackness of 1960s Detroit was distinct from the blackness of the workers organizing revolutionary unions in the factories. The white and black workers organizing under those banners identified with the categories they were put into (working class, black or white, male, etc) differently from how they constituted themselves in groupings in the struggle. The League had not intended to organize white workers, but the social disruption ended up creating new formations that didn’t match the ideas of the participants or the system. All these elements pull apart, though historically and today most socialist, Marxist, and anarchist thought merged them together.

These categories formed around social relationships are used to build politics. The working class is the most widespread and famous of these. Militants try to build out of the identity and social relationships of class within capitalism towards an antagonistic movement of workers against capitalism. This pervasive idea folded together different things under the goal of the transformative potential of conflict. Class identification, the division itself, and groups of workers are combined into a politics of the working class as liberator of humanity. The differences here between those elements should be explored. Those three groups of people represent different people. Those who identify with their class identity, those who fit within the social relation of that class, and those workers struggle are three separate overlapping groups. Identifying liberation with groupings within capitalism creates a challenge. In most cases such a politics requires attempting to strengthen social divisions in order to organize people into conflicts under the orientation of the social category (worker, black, women, etc). This is because people generally don’t identify with those categories as such, though relationships to the categories are complicated. Most struggles likewise cut differently both than capitalism’s social divisions and the norms of division many would like to impose on movements.

Such a political program rests on problematic foundations. First it conflates categories created, sustained, and constantly recomposing within capitalism with collective categories in struggle. Those can at some points come together, but in normal times they remain separated. Reinforcing those categories within capitalism has a strong conservative tendency since it directs conflict into existing channels that more easily are integrated into dominant power (as has happened with nationalism, labor parties, unions, and elite forms of identity politics) while creating new political organization around the lines that capitalism and the states uses to reproduce its power. For instance, the cult of the identity of the worker under capitalism often served capitalism. It was not random that such identity was used to exploit workers, increase productive power, and expand capitalism worldwide during the greatest battles that workers led. Worker identity was chained to the building of the welfare state, the modern factory in its Fordist and Taylorist variants, and the expansion of capitalism into the post-colonial worlds; the strategy which saved capitalism during its crisis in the 1930s. Today we witness similar exploitation of this politic amongst rising sections of the ruling class who have tethered their contesting of ruling coalitions to various organized identities. The identification of social categories within capital with struggles is a key mistake, and one that threatens the transformative potential of groups organizing against power.

In revolutionary situations, times in which dominant power is ruptured by mass activity from below, the lines of division and unity come apart as the actions of organized bodies reconstruct power and their production of the social order based on their own conceptions and emerging order created through new relationships in action. Most liberatory thought has attempted to go beyond the categories reproduced in society towards a future without classes or domination by gender, race, sexuality, or other forms of hierarchical power. In these moments, the struggles of workers for example are not a continuation or strengthening of the working class within capitalism, but struggles against those divisions by new minority constituencies organized through their work. Antagonistic struggles take on and disorganize power that is reproduced in social relationships, formed and reformed along lines that emerge from systemic interactions. The relationship then of conflict, to class in particular but also all social categories, to the destruction of class and caste within capitalism forms an important unanswered question.

If our goal is the destruction of class and oppression, then the conflicts which attack the reproduction of those divisions will carry with them potentials for liberation more than those that defend and utilize them. This is because coming into conflict with the material reality with such divisions brings the participants into potential opposition to the sufficiency of existing categories and social organization to provide for their demands, collectivity, and aspirations. It’s hard to imagine actually how it could be otherwise. How else could the social divisions that poison us be eliminated except by attempting to disarm, unravel, and overtake them? How could strengthening divisions which derive their power from their relationship to the dominant order, then dismantle it and build something new?

The centrality of class, and specifically wage workers, to capitalist society is simply a fact. Capitalist societies are built around class compositions to meet the challenges and demands of all the forces of labor and capital that allow for or inhibit capitalist expansion and struggles for power within. Yet those realities are different from the identification with, organization of, and struggles of the working class within capitalism. An organized working class organized for itself will not necessarily liberate humanity. Reactionary and dystopian futures are equally possible for the working class organized around class as any more positive hopes. Conflicts around class can have liberatory potential, but this is an important distinction.

Rejecting the politics of identity does not mean that the world is flat. We cannot avoid strategy and politically recognizing the uneven terrain of power because we dispense with the belief that any category will inherently free every other. To defeat this system, navigating the structure of its power, weaknesses, and strengths is inevitable. For example, race became a flash point in the 1960s because of facts about the world of that time (southern migration, mechanization, civil rights struggles, failure of an era of American imperialism, dismantling of Fordist factories, etc). Recognizing that context and working through it is key.

A fight for a new society then is against society’s classes and castes. Class struggle remains a key site of transformation, but that transformation is more than class struggle itself. This point has been missed too often. Class or caste fetishism displaced the aspect of struggle in the minds of revolutionary thinkers, thereby obscuring the centrality of liberatory transformation. What we are after is not merely to eliminate barriers like the State and Capital. Nothing will magically emerge from the absence of repression without the active construction of a new order by those who seek it. Instead our movement is defined by its goal, the emancipation of humanity and affirmation of a social order of solidarity and liberty, and through struggles that reflect it. Starting from the power of conflicts to radicalize people, we set out against the identities and categories of capitalism to create a movement of humanity against the existing system towards a new society.