In the article that follows I pose the question of how it came to be that self-identified ‘active’ Lithuanians have come to a tacit collective consensus on the ‘passivity’ of the unruly masses that surround them? In what ways has the economic and political context in Lithuania shaped the ‘actives’ collective diagnosis of the rest—the majority—as the unthinking ‘passives’?
There is a widespread myth that the masses are passive in Lithuania. The adjective is used so often (in a recent meeting on class politics almost every other sentence by some) that it has begun to ring in my head like some kind of skipping record – in other words, I loathe the word. The description of the Lithuanian mass as passive goes beyond the discourse of Leftists, progressive-liberals, and anarchists, however. I remember a discussion last summer with a young successful IT entrepreneur, where the image of passivity was deployed to account for social poverty in Lithuania; ‘people are poor here’, the entrepreneur stated, ‘because they are lazy, they have no work ethic’…. ‘those of us who work hard and keep up with new developments in technology and research are doing just fine’.
Lithuanian Gay League as ‘experiential’ starting point
A couple months ago I had a meeting with the volunteer coordinator of Lithuania’s largest LGBT NGO, the Lithuanian Gay League. I was interested in meeting with Aliona because I wanted to better understand if there was a difference between how I, and the people I know in Lithuania, perceive of the LGL and how they perceive of themselves. Going into the meeting this was my understanding of what they were doing: Not unlike Gay.ru in Moscow, LGL is an office initiative 1 that receives funding from corporate backed Western European and North American humanitarian foundations2 for consciousness raising campaigns e.g. pushing corporations to put LGBT friendly stickers in their coffee chains; and legal agitation e.g. marriage status for same-sex partners, hate crimes prevention, work place discrimination . The LGL, like all other NGO’s in Lithuania, have a non-existent volunteer base; there is not actually a tangible community represented by the group and in its place we have universal LGBT subjects that have been sculpted through an ad hoc mixture of regional statistical data and the global language of Western humanitarian political institutions.
Coming from the US where I’ve experienced how utterly ineffective a “law and order” and “gender mainstreaming” model has been for improving the lives of the vast majority of LGBT/immigrant/ethnic/women/working class, peoples lives, a fair amount of skepticism felt warranted for an institution that seemed to be doing exactly what had failed us so miserably in the states on our glorious path toward a formally neutral legal / consumption framework. 3
So I entered the meeting with the volunteer coordinator expecting a conflict. Upon arriving at their large, well staffed office, I took a seat in the back conference room and our chat began. The coordinator asked why I approached her. I told her that I’ve been involved, as an organizer and participant, in anti-capitalist queer and feminist meetings, readings groups, and artistic gatherings over the past half year in Lithuania and was curious to learn more about what LGL was up to. Then I started to formulate a question I imagined would bring us into some kind of debate: ‘Haven’t you seen how ineffective the law and order model is for preventing domestic violence, workplace discrimination and hate crimes in the various countries where its put threw into law? But before I got halfway threw the formulation of my question the coordinator interrupted, already knowing exactly where I was going, and said; “yes, yes, yes, I know very well that the legal reform is vastly ineffective, must I remind you I work for an institution that deals with this stuff?” What we need, she states, “is a grassroots movement!” I was taken back by her response. I expected to be communicating with a hardened ideologue of the neo-liberal NGO sector and what I found was someone who seemed to have vastly similar frustrations as my own. I then asked, “so if you are certain yourself about the ineffectiveness of what the LGL is doing here why don’t you get involved in something that would be more relevant for the community?” and her response…. “look, you have to understand that this is not America, people are passive here, they don’t organize on their own, it has something to do with the soviet past and all.”
I then asked, ‘do you have any experience doing activist and community organizing in Lithuania?’ And she said she didn’t have any experience, coming into the LGL after finishing a degree in criminal law. She then asked if I have any ideas for how the organizing efforts I came into the office to agitate for could be applied in Lithuania. Something like, “so what is this radical group you speak of being involved with actually doing here”. I respond with a blank face, ‘were really just in the early process of developing thoughts for actions and will have our first organized meeting in a couple days – or in other words we are the passives.
The passives and the actives in the broader web.
The Kaunas Free Economic Zone has an interactive advertisement for foreign investors which goes about depicting the Lithuanian working class as an obedient, submissive, skilled, and cheap, labor force – the concluding slogan for the Lithuanian work force being, “Lithuanians are always better at working then speaking, visit us!” The generic image of the normal Lithuanian on the FEZ site seems to have many parallels with the projections I’ve noticed the actives conjuring in their images of the passives. The mythological representation of passivity and obedience of the Lithuanian mass illustrated in the advertisement cleverly turns the political and economic subordination of the people – their so called incompetency for speaking, for executing their own commands – into a virtue.
In the case of the Kaunas FEZ passivity is hence strategically packaged and sold off to the foreign gaze as an ideal context for the activity, the agency, of capital investment. A productive contradiction is alive here, a contradiction unique to the capital relation. The agency attributed to the foreign industrialist (a subject who is not actually represented in the advertisement) forms their identity through a mirror image, that being, the mythological passivity of the obedient working class. Now how, my I ask, does an industrialist accomplish this position, this identity, of the active? Through the accumulation of capital! And how does the industrialist accumulate their capital? Through the appropriation of the surplus labor, the activity, of their labor force.
The productive contradiction of the capital relation is thus established through the process of inversing the active and passive roles in social relations. Capital is only active from the standpoint of capital. From the standpoint of the mass it is a passive parasite that appropriates our living activity while granting itself all the agencies realized through this activity – it is a relation of domination and constant struggle. 4
Passivity as the effect of pacification
How then does the example of the relation formed between the foreign industrialist and the Lithuanian mass correspond with the relation between public intellectuals and activists who for the most part are not actually accumulating capital?
In the case of the NGO sector, of an institution like the LGL, there is a direct relation between capital accumulation and political organization. The agency of the political is more or less a direct reflection of the illusory agency attributed to capital. How so? It is quite simple, the LGL receives its funding from foundations that are backed by corporate capital! Is it really just a coincidence, after all, that the industrial capitalist and the professional political activist5 both assume that the mass is passive? Like the capitalist the NGO activist reproduces themselves and their political institution through the stolen wealth, the stolen activity, of the masses, who they then go about considering to be offering a service. If we weren’t around, the two parties tell themselves, those passive masses would have nothing. Our so called dependency in this relationship is nothing other then an ideological justification for our domination. The philanthropic institution provides us with a service we would otherwise ‘not be able to provide for ourselves’, but this provision, this so called humanitarian gift, is nothing other then our own power of activity repackaged as a force alien to this activity and to which we are then commanded to resign in gratitude upon its offering.
The Lithuanian post-colonial theorist Rasa Balockaite Lucidly illustrates the dark underbelly of the philanthropic gesture through an analysis of the representation of the underclasses in Lithuanian television. One of the more pointed examples she draws upon to depict the contradictory dialectic of service provision and domination is taken from the TV show The Trouble Market, where the poor are asked to sell their victimhood in return for the generous services and products provided for by the shows corporate sponsors. Rasa comments:
This example illuminates how hegemony works—the dominant classes grant a superficial compromise (the charitable action) that appears to be favorable to the dominated, but actually supports the hegemony of the dominant class. Meanwhile, the poor, newly endowed with necessities, manifest their indebtedness and appreciation, and “insist on the very ideology which enslaves them. (p. 17, 2009)
It should now be clear that passivity is the result of pacification! The capital relation is fundamentally a relation of domination. And just as the professional NGO activist was aware of the contradictions of the institution she works for the capitalist is well aware of the contradictions of the market-economy – facing crisis after crisis must leave one with the impression that something is not going quite right, no? But both come to the same self-justifying conclusion in the end: ‘without us (without the ‘actives’) holding everything together society would collapse into a state of utter disrepair.
When public intellectuals and activists internalize the myth of the slumbering masses we play a direct role in the ideological justification of the relations of domination reproduced through the capital relation discussed.
Social struggles, solidarity, and neo-liberal humanitarianism
If passivity is the contradictory effect of relations of domination, which are secured through numerous hegemonic apparatuses, what strategies could we then imagine for the inversion of this contradictory inversion of roles reproduced through the capital relation?
The classic answer of the Leftist would be class solidarity and struggle. In order to affirm our agency – the Leftist insists – we must become conscious of ourselves as a collective proletarian subject. For it will be argued, that it is only in assuming the standpoint of the proletarian mass that we may come to the self-understanding that we, not capital, reproduce the very system that deprives us of our individual power for self-activity. While I agree with elements of this argument I think it opens up many complicated questions. As a conclusion for my introductory thoughts on a critique of the myth of the passive mass I will delve into these questions and sketch out a couple provisional proposals.
Why does the Leftist come to the conclusion that the proletarian standpoint endows us with this exceptional capacity for the self-understanding of our power? Why can’t we come to this self-understanding from the standpoint of the civil-individual? What about other collective subjects such as the gay man or the African American women? Are their standpoints merely the product of the capitalist ideology that prevents us from achieving broad-based revolutionary struggles organized around class solidarities?
For the case of the civil-individual we can go to Marx’s chapter in Capital vol. 1, On the Sale of Labor Power. In the market, the sphere of circulation for goods and bodies, individuals seemingly participate in voluntary acts of exchange. For example, in the act of selling our labor-power for a wage we enter into a formally equal relation with the buyer, which involves both individuals freely consenting to the terms of the contract agreement for the work to be performed and the compensation to be delivered. From the standpoint of this exchange we hence find two subjects that are endowed, by the state, with the right to hold themselves as property and make use of this property how they see fit. This is the standpoint of the civil-individual. But Marx asks how it comes to be that one individual always finds themselves in the position of the seller, of themselves as labor, while the other the buyer? It would seem, we cannot understand how the unequal relation between these two subjects is reproduced, again and again, from the standpoint of the civil-subject, no? Marx thus insists that we look further into this relation, exploring the ‘secrete abode of production’ where the formally equal individuals reproduce themselves as concretely unequal collective subjects. And who are the collective subjects Marx finds in his exploration? The subject that has nothing to sell other then their own skin and the subject who owns the means (which is the laborers own activity objectified) for the other subject to reproduce themselves as flesh and blood. It hence follows for Marx that it is only from the standpoint of the proletarian that the civil-individual can understand how the formally equal exchange (in the act of selling their labor-power) brings them into concretely unequal relations! From the standpoint of the collective subject, we can now see, that voluntary exchange in the market isn’t voluntary at all, but rather, fundamentally reproduced through domination (our power of activity appropriated) and coercion (being forced to sell ourselves in formally voluntary contracts that are against our own interests). So from the standpoint of the proletariat we see how it is our own activity, our power, that is taken from us and used against us; while on the other hand, from the standpoint of the civil-individual it appears that we are willfully consenting to our domination as the passive and lazy subjects who are left at the mercy of the generous capitalist.
In feminist struggles and theory there has been (loosely put) two major sides taken up around these questions. Both of the sides come with their own problems as well as possibilities. On one hand, we have a standpoint which argues that inter-class solidarities between women are far more important then inter-gender proletarian solidarities, as all women, regardless of class, face legal and cultural discrimination and economic exploitation. While all men, regardless of class, are the agents of patriarchy, of women’s domination, and hence can’t make for comrades in emancipatory struggles. On the other side of the debate, the side of our classic Leftist, the inter-class gender solidarity is seen to obscure and divide us from our fundamental unities, and subsequent powers, that will be realized through solidarity with the proletarian standpoint and proletarian struggles. The class subject is hence viewed as a homogenous collective subject while the multitude of ‘identities’ that seem to endlessly proliferate in capitalist society are viewed as the symptoms of capitalisms imperative to divide us and set us against one another.
While it is certainly true that women have found solidarities on an inter-class basis historically, successfully organizing around a common feeling of subjection as the ‘lesser sex’; many of these organizational efforts against patriarchy have been fraught with set backs and portrayals that can only be reasoned on the basis of class subordination. The feminist-Marxist activist and philosopher Cinzia Aruzza does a nice job brining out the tension in this standpoint through depicting the following scenario:
Such an approach pre-supposes that the housewife of a
petrochemical worker, forced to juggle final demand bills,
having rent to pay and lung cancer that is probably destroying the
health of her husband, has more material interests in common
with Bill Gates’ wife than with her own husband insofar as
she shares the same relations of servitude toward her husband. (p.96, 2013) 6
Going back to the experiential level, I had a conversation a couple months ago with a Lesbian LGBT/feminist activist and lawyer, Laima Vaige, where the very same tension seemed to play itself out. Upon asking why LGBT NGO’s in Lithuania don’t take up any material perspectives in their initiatives, she answered that it is because the Lithuanian working class is in conflict with the LGBT community. But isn’t the reality of the situation that the majority of the LGBT in Lithuania are themselves working class? Could we argue that cultural values of many working class people in Lithuania may be in conflict with the culture of the represented LGBT community because the mainstream LGBT agenda is in conflict with the immediate interests of the working class, rather then the working class simply being in conflict with the interests of the LGBT? Could we argue that the white-collar lawyer may be projecting her experience of gender discrimination onto the entire LGBT community? What would happen if the LGBT community started participating in May Day, showing the proletarian majority that there is a common struggle that connects them?
These questions bring me to a very interesting study of right wing working class populism in Eastern Europe, written by the Dutch labor anthropologist Dan Kalb. Interviewing a former solidarnosc activist who is now in his 70’s working at the same factory from the 1980’s, we are given an important lens on how the ‘backward’ Eastern European working class people have come to the judgment that the LGBT is against their interests and the interests of their communities. Reflecting on his frustration with the EU endorsed LGBT “Equality parade” with the backdrop of his company recently being bought out by a French multi-national corporation – with the subsequent firing of 1/4th of the workforce – he had the following to say, as narrated by Dan Kalb:
He was annoyed by the multicultural and human rights imagery sponsored by the European Union. “Why is the EU making so much fuss about that parade,” he asked? “Nobody in Brussels says a word if Polish workers starve on low wages, have to work like dogs, and get exploited.” In contrast, the “Equality Parade” was seen among his imputed politically correct liberals as a measure of Poland’s belonging in Europe.
For him, apparently, the Equality Parade was a travesty that served another important amnesia. He recalled that the equality in the title of this parade once meant a concern with broad social rights, which included multicultural and gay rights among a wider palette of social justice struggles. And he therefore hinted at Western Europe’s forgetfulness of its own history of social struggle. (p.403)
What does the experience of the Polish right wing populist tell us? It is a story that lucidly depicts how neo-liberal humanitarian institutions divide us. It is a story about how people are thrown against each other while fighting in the name of political powers that operate in conflict with their own interests. Just as a corporate directed humanitarian intervention in Poland will not improve the lives of the vast majority of LGBT people the nationalist policy the worker now stands behind will not improve his own life. Institutions are set against each other in a fight for power while we find ourselves as expendable resources in their games. Our lives are sacrificed in the name of powers that act above us and against us – the civil war unfolding in Ukraine as a case and point!
Now our classic Leftist jumps in the narrative, yelling in a bout of rage, “proletarians of the world unite! Don’t let the chains of capital divide us from our true historical mission!” But our optimistic Leftist would seem to be suffering from a case of amnesia as well. The Leftist directs us toward the so called golden age of class struggle and revolutionary organizing of the 20th century. In this period, they tell themselves, the superficial divisions erected by the liberal mouthpieces of post-modern identity politics were rendered obsolete. The masses, they argue, subordinated their particularistic interests to the unitary cause of the proletarian revolution, of universal human emancipation. What the Leftist forgets is that these struggles, in all their various forms, were marked by what was often violent confrontations between the various groups that compose the heterogeneous social relations we find within the composite category of class!!! The Leftists amnesia, like the liberals, serves the interest of capital. For in denying our diverse experiences of class belonging we deny the social hierarchies within the proletarian struggle and hence reproduce those hierarchies in our fight against capital – hence implicitly asserting the interests of capital.
Yet many Left feminists, LGBT, and ethnic groups are well aware of the subordination they do and have confronted in anti-capitalist organizations and struggles. They react to the Leftist’s amnesia with proposals for democratically organized class struggles; struggles, which will account for the diverse experiences of exploitation, subordination, and domination individuals experience along different gender, race and sectorial lines within the composite category of class. Through consciousness raising exercises, they argue, the various social privileges individuals enter class belonging with will be recognized and handled accordingly to meet the democratic aspirations of the movement. So in this case we have a unitary class standpoint that doesn’t presuppose class as a homogenous collective subject; but rather, as a diverse social form composed of groups with different experiences, which are united around a common belief in their collective power and the resentment toward the capitalist system that appropriates it from them and uses it against them. In this case, equality is declared as a presumption while the differences between those that struggle for such a condition are not elided.
While this approach looks very nice on paper it has some severe issues when approached on the level of practice – as I’ve found from personal experience. In both of the Leftist proposals class unity, the unity of the mass, is understood as the necessary starting point for class action. The problem of unity, in class society, is reduced to the problem of consciousness. If people were only conscious, the leftist insists, they’d see that it is in their best interest to fight as a unified mass. The problem with this approach is that it more than often leads the optimistic militant into a state of sad consciousness. After spending years working away with their Leftist group on consciousness raising initiatives they find themselves confronted by a reality impervious to their aspirations for the broad-based unity of the proletarian masses. The mass, they tell themselves, just won’t wake up and shake of the ideology of capitalist opportunism! In other words, Individuals and groups take advantage of situations as they suit their own immediate interests. 7
As a conclusion for the unconcludable questions raised in this article I make the following proposition. In the Eastern context where post-socialist states face increasing ridicule for not supporting western media visibility and rights discourses, we see how LGBT and feminist values are deployed as universal cultural norms that are connected with and ideological deployed within neo-liberal policy structures. While the East is presented as backward for not accepting European cultural standards its simultaneously finding its economic and political reality dictated by policy that undermines the integrity of the people and their social advancement. In this sense, I’d argue that a critical queer and feminist politics begins in the act of delinking itself from a human rights agenda that serves as an ideological scapegoat for the neo-liberal policy that ensures the total degradation of the society on a material level.
While solidarity with the standpoint of the mass will by no means be a walk in the park I think its more then necessary for strengthening the struggles of the LGBT and Feminist movements along with the lives of the rest that reproduce themselves in such awful conditions. But solidarity with the mass, as I argued in the critique of the Leftist, will be most effective and practical when it begins as a solidarity with the individuals we share a life in common with in our everyday existence. Beginning with the struggles that most immediately impact our lives – as opposed to abstract human rights appeals, gender mainstreaming, and Leftist consciousness raising – as a basis for unity seems like the most practical and revolutionary option in the current state of things.
CAPITAL IS NOTHING!!! WE ARE EVERYTHING!!!!!
- 1The problematic relation between corporate foundations and NGO’s has been extensively analyzed over the years. See, Nongovernmental Ogres? How Feminist NGOs Undermine Women in Postsocialist Eastern Europe, by Kristen Ghodsee and The Revolution will not be Funded: Beyond the non-profit-industrial complex, ed. Incite women of color against violence! The bottom line interests of the foundation – an interest the NGO must concede to in order to compete in the grant market – is not the liberation of people but the smoothing out of conflicts in communities that are perceived to be antithetical to the underlying imperative for profit. Make notice of the fact that LGL, the organizer of the 2013 Baltic pride march, failed to present any economic or political demands in this spectacular media forum. Rather, they focused on paternalistic cultural propaganda, which seemed to culminate in the director of the organization stating “This is our chance to show that European values are welcome here to”
- 2See, What’s Wrong with Rights?, by Dean Spade for a detailed account of the utter failure of law and order / gender mainstreaming tactics for protecting the lives of LGBTQ/ethnic/working class people.
- 3I chose to emphasis the wage relation in this section for the sake of brevity while strongly believing that the contradictions expressed within this relation are in now way the fundamental contradictions, and hence sites of struggle, in capitalist society.
- 4For a widely circulated critique of activism as a role entangled in the division of labor, see Give Up Activism, 1999. “Activism, like all expert roles, has its basis in the division of labour - it is a specialised separate task. The division of labour is the foundation of class society, the fundamental division being that between mental and manual labour.”
- 5For a thorough historical account of the problems that have ensued through the universalization of female experience see “from servitude to service work”. White-middle-upper class feminists have historically subordinated the experience of proletarian and ethnic women through the projection of their particular experiences of discrimination onto the entire social category. In doing so they undermined the particular struggles that working class and ethnic women faced.
- 6See Maria Della Costa, Women and the Subversion of Community. This text was a very important intervention in the autonomia class struggles of the 70’s in Italy. She points toward a unitary theory of anti-capitalist struggle while approaching the differences in the experience of class along race and gender lines.
- 7For a concrete debate on the issues of the Leftist consciousness raising approach see a recent debate between two members of the anarcho-syndicalist union IWW, here: Industrial Unity: A Response to “Locality & Shop”, by E.A. Martinez