A reply to 'Privilige politics is reformism', an article that appeared on Black Orchid Collective's website.
Comrade Will’s piece “Privilege Politics is Reformism,” for the Black Orchid Collective blog, is a timely and valuable contribution to understanding how the revolutionary movement of the early 21st century will develop. In essence, what he tries to do is to identify the dynamics of racial oppression within the Occupy movement and identify some tentative ways forward. I fully agree with his premises, but wish to carry them to their logical conclusion.
Will’s understanding of how race politics shapes everything in political, social, and organizational relief is a breath of fresh air that’s been a long time coming in this movement; but the problems he identifies are not new. Rather, the importance of “Privilege Politics is Reformism” is that it brings the debate back to where it belongs: undoing the reverse political-correctness that has marked non-White contributions to racial debate. I will be frank about my meaning. Far too often, we cut our White allies slack because they are our allies, while at the same time making token, ineffective, and useless complaints about their unconsciously (or consciously) racist attitudes. We tolerate their mistakes because they are “good people” and because we don’t want to be perceived as too extreme.
What this really means is that we’ve been content to work within the racist dynamic of a movement that is White and middle-class to its core. Its outlook is alien to our lived experience. Not only are we not culturally or physically White and thus have had different life experiences; but we are also less likely to hold middle-class occupations because our opportunities in the workforce are circumscribed by racism. It should come as no surprise that the movement we’ve worked so hard to build has no place for us.
For all its professed ideological diversity, “the movement’s” dominant outlook and perspectives belong to a very specific social group which paradoxically sees itself as a mere aggregation of “free individuals.” We, the racialized, are perpetual outsiders, exotic curiosities, constant irritants who never quite fit into this movement’s prescriptions. (White workers, for all the problems we have with them, can’t relate to this social group either. They think these people are weirdos who need to get real jobs. North American “revolutionary” organizations, of whatever stripe, can usually be identified by their lack of appeal to actual workers, of whatever racial status. That should tell us something.)
We plead from the margins for White militants to play fair, be nice, and stop acting like idiots, while neither they nor we acknowledge that this movement’s psychology and tactics flow from its racial and class foundation, behaving according to clearly identifiable trends and social laws. Fundamentally, we tolerate this movement’s mistakes toward us – its subtle oppression of us – because we have no independent movement of our own.
As Marx put it in the 18th Brumaire, “Him whom we must convince we recognize as the master of the situation.” White domination of the anti-capitalist movement’s racial discourse and organizational behaviour is a direct and unavoidable product of White domination of the capitalist social, economic, and political framework. It can only be combated by developing independent sites of economic, political, and cultural power – by rebuilding our own movements, and revolutionizing our existing cultural institutions and racialized workplace associations – where we may articulate our viewpoints without interference. Naturally it is true that race is a social construct invented by the capitalist class to create a social base for itself and forestall working-class revolution. But as comrade Will already understands, long decades of experience should have taught us by now that we do not convince our professed allies in struggle by talking, nor do we gain equality by letting things slide in the name of “unity”: we maintain our dignity by holding power.
In a comradely spirit, therefore, I’ll be critiquing Will from this perspective. He’s on the right track, but what he says contains a lot more than meets the eye.
First and foremost is this fact: as Will points out, “conversation cannot solve…racialized experiences; only the most militant and violent struggle can cleanse racialized human relations. The United States has not experienced high levels of struggles in over 50 years. Major problems develop because of the lack of militant struggle in the country.” (Canada has not yet had its major racial confrontation, but with the development of the First Nations struggle and the building tension in its urban ghettos, that day of reckoning is coming very soon. I’m not speaking alone in this, I’m practically quoting from recent articles in the Toronto Star.)
Fanon was perhaps a famous foundation-stone of “anti-oppression” or “privilege” theorizing, but his work did not emerge from a vacuum and is not without historical parallel. The psychological traits of the racially oppressed that Fanon describes are present in the fiction of Richard Wright and the polemics of CLR James, predating Fanon’s earliest work by over a decade. These, in turn, are based in earlier writings by revolutionaries of all kinds.
The present theoretical and organizational impasse in the movement, which is increasingly recognized by all but only addressed by a few (based on what I’ve seen, I’d put West Coast Occupy organizers in the latter category), is not as simple as a crisis of ideas. The ideas are already there in books for everyone to read; they interpreted a social situation very similar to our own. However, one understands these ideas differently based on one’s position in society. Viewing the problem this way exposes the psychological and practical weaknesses and incapacities of the middle class, and in particular the middle class of the ruling White nation.
Privilege politics are reformist, precisely to the degree that they have been taken up and watered down by the White middle-class movement. This movement has worn the various mantles of Abolitionism in the 1860s, Stalinism and Trotskyism in the 1930s-50’s, the Hippie/New Communist Movement of the 1960s-70s, the Anti-Globalization Movement of the early 2000s, and Occupy today. Fundamentally, however, it is the same social layer in action throughout, with the same relationship to the means of production, and the same historical and social conditioning shaping both its outlook and its treatment of allies in struggle.
Moving past the present blockage in the movement, reaching actual workers (and particularly racially oppressed workers) means leaving these folks behind: establishing revolutionary working-class and community organizations that explicitly exclude them. Just as “the liberation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves,” our liberation as racially-oppressed people is our job, and ours alone.
The bourgeoisie of the French and American revolutions sold out their plebeian social bases, establishing new forms of class domination out of struggles that they did not initiate and even feared. In the era of socialist revolutions, the same pattern of hijacking other people’s movements led to Lenin’s gross error in What is to be Done?, which even he later recanted. Lenin stated that the working class by itself could only produce a trade union consciousness and needed the contribution of intellectuals to fully realize itself as a class. But the Russian working class independently developed Soviets and factory committees as organs of working-class power – without the help of Lenin’s agile brain. Similarly, Trotsky famously reduced the crisis of capitalism to the “crisis of leadership:” once again, the workers needed proper leaders, inevitably recruited from the middle class, to properly articulate what they actually wanted and meant to say. These middle-class elements were renamed “the proletarian party,” and thus by changing its name, the essence of the thing was magically transubstantiated.
In my debates with comrades around the Recomposition blog, I’ve learned the word “substitutionism” to describe this phenomenon. It’s not exactly that simple – I do believe there is a dialectical relationship between theory and practice with implications that I’m not going to get into here – but my judgement of this phenomenon should be clear. It doesn’t stop with class, though. Race politics works the same way.
As Will points out, but does not elaborate fully, members of the White middle class see themselves as the legitimate leadership of a liberation struggle precisely to the degree that the independent struggles of other oppressed groups wane. Rather than establishing themselves within their own constituencies, White middle-class activists appropriate the prefabricated struggles of other classes and racial groups, and often succeed in emerging within these struggles as leaders. This is partly accomplished by the deference they come to expect as their birthright, but where this does not succeed, such opportunists subtly combat and defeat legitimate, established working-class and community leaders – by hijacking community organizations and union bureaucracies. Of course, few actually see it this way. The means and methods of this racial power struggle are never overt: they rely on personal manipulations, gossips and slanders, and playing on individual psychological weaknesses and “hot buttons.” I’ve seen these tactics, not once or twice, but dozens of times, in the decade I’ve spent as an activist and organizer. I’m not the only one who’s seen them put into practice. Some of the best militants I know have burned out and given up because of this brand of activism; I’ve seen unions destroyed by the same means. I refuse to use these underhanded tactics, but I’ll never bend to them either.
Acquiescence to and accommodation of the political and personal power dynamics within movement politics is no more than the internalization of a racial power structure. Thus it is that getting a drink of water (or a bottle of beer) for a White comrade IS in fact a racializing experience. I’ve been asked to do this more than once by Whites in the movement, but to my recollection, have never asked it of anyone at all. I don’t need and don’t want anyone to do for me what I can do for myself. It makes me feel weird.
Here I’ll quote directly from Will’s piece.
…some agreement has to be found that as a general rule people who join the movement are not white supremacists. This should be a fundamental assumption, otherwise, we are left with the ridiculous and suicidal political reality that we are building a movement with white supremacists. So that leaves us dealing with racial alienation or white chauvinism by people who we assume are against white supremacy. That seems to be a crucial point that needs to be recognized.
Usually people of color want acknowledgement that something fucked up happened. It is true that generally, most white militants flip out. On one hand the white militants grasp the seriousness of the accusation, but on the other hand, in their defense, they fail to give recognition of how another person of color perceived an event. The white militant usually acts as if the theory of white supremacy infecting everything stops with their mind and body when they are accused of anything. This is understandable, as no serious militant should take such accusations lightly.
This is particularly important as people of color, based on all the shit that happens to them, tend to see the world differently, and are obviously sensitive to racial slights. The lack of recognition usually escalates the situation as the person of color tends to feel, what is “objectively true” falls back on how the white militant defines reality. At such a point, productive conversation usually breaks down.
Lastly things are more complicated today because white supremacy is much more coded today in language and behavior.…Exactly how white supremacy works in coded language and behavior in the movement is still something that needs to be investigated.
There are several important considerations in this passage which the author does not take to their logical conclusions.
Why “must” we assume that those we are building a movement with are not White supremacists? Actually, both Whites and non-Whites alike in the movement are products of a racist society. We have all internalized the value system and racist judgements of a culture that systematically de-values non-White lives and intellects, while morally elevating those of Whites beyond all reasonable proportion. This is precisely why conversation does not convince them.
This is perfectly recognizable by observing political groups and social circles where Whites and non-Whites interact. Except when there is a conscious strategy of tokenism, Whites inevitably monopolize leadership roles in official capacity. Where they do not take these roles, they function as “alphas” in unofficial capacity. This plays out in dating patterns and friendship dynamics. Power relations that would otherwise be objectively considered oppressive and racist are rationalized away as “personal choice” and “individual” personality dysfunctions. This is simply dishonest, and it functions to perpetuate oppression on the micro-scale.
Here’s what Malcolm X had to say about working with White allies in his Autobiography.
I have these very deep feelings that white people who want to join black organizations are really just taking the escapist way to salve their consciences. By visibly hovering near us, they are “proving” that they are “with us.” But the hard truth is this isn’t helping to solve America’s racist problem. The Negroes aren’t the racists. Where the really sincere white people have got to do their “proving” of themselves is not among the black victims, but out on the battle lines of where America’s racism really is – and that’s in their own home communities; America’s racism is among their own fellow whites.
…I’ll go so far as to say that I never really trust the kind of white people who are always anxious to hang around Negroes, or who hang around in Negro communities. I don’t know – this may be a throwback to the years when I was hustling in Harlem and all of those red-faced, drunk whites in the afterhours clubs were always grabbing hold of some Negroes and talking about “I just want you to know you’re just as good as I am – ” And then they got back in their taxicabs and black limousines and went back downtown to the places where they lived and worked, where no blacks except servants had better be caught.”
It is exactly the case, as Will points out, that White militants are incapable of perceiving themselves and their actions as individually racist. This is because of a basic psychological defence mechanism. As Black American militants Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton pointed out (quoting French philosopher Camus) in the 1967 manifesto Black Power, people do not and cannot condemn themselves. They inevitably rationalize and justify their personal actions even when such acts fit into a larger sociological pattern of oppression and injustice. There are any number of demonstrations of this fact (I would recommend the film Glory as one of them), but the point is that there is no way to convince someone of the incorrectness of their actions by conversation.
Where non-Whites challenge such dynamics, they are first ignored, and after escalation, considered “aggressive” and “reverse racists” by both Whites and fellow non-Whites. White supremacy (and all other forms of domination) is, in fact, as subtle as comrade Will says it is. That is why our entire society – both the half-hearted bourgeois-liberal campaigns and the revolutionary struggles against capitalism, racism, sexism, homophobia etc. – is infected by all the problems it claims to fight against.
Contrary to what Will says, these factors do, in fact, breach the boundaries of friendship, love, and comradeship. Consider this analogy. Can anyone really say that the Republican/Conservative offensive against women has no reflection in the personal, loving relationships of heterosexual American and Canadian couples? Of course not. Male attitudes (including mine) are affected by the patriarchal social situation that produces them. Such attitudes cannot be changed by mere conversation, but by women actually challenging those power dynamics within the family and within the broader society, rather than internalizing them against themselves. The same is true of any power relation. There is nothing special about race, except its peculiar history in obstructing working-class unity against the common class oppressor.
As Marx pointed out, “material conditions determine consciousness.” If criticisms coming from an individual or group of racialized people fail to convince White militants that they are “fucked up,” this failure is not an isolated exception; it is rooted in a very solid social and material underpinning. All of North American society is built on the self-image of Whiteness and the assumptions of its superiority. Thus, as Will states, what is perceived as “objectively true” is actually what upholds White supremacy. The non-White movement activist subjects herself or himself to feelings of self-doubt, rather than challenge the weight of an activist social grouping that denies its constant connection to the broader society that produced it.
It is quite easy for the White militant to retreat into the comfort of his or her society and dismiss comradely criticism as irrelevant: for to do otherwise is to challenge the influence of centuries on his or her psyche. And, in any case, non-Whites who have internalized the same power dynamics can always be called upon to soothe the White ego. But for both these Whites and these non-Whites, this is “doublethink,” a psychological contradiction within a single mind, reflecting the material contradictions of a society that both professes opposition to, and materially upholds, racism. White militants only differ from overt White supremacists in that they are psychologically conflicted, but they are both products of the same reality. Non-White militants, like all non-Whites, live in a constant state of psychological tension which can only be resolved by struggle against the oppressor.
Here we get into the territory of guilt. This is the most hypocritical and annoying aspect of race politics today: the overcompensating and insincere attitudes of White militants who attempt to mask their internalized racism by public denials of racist opinions and token associations with non-Whites. Often, these White militants will refrain from openly criticizing non-White perspectives on racial issues, but will use their in-group social status to undermine such perspectives with subtle and appropriately anti-oppressive jargon. (Much of the time, it’s not even that refined.) What is the point of engaging in such games? When someone pretends to back down, but is not actually convinced, no productive conversation has occurred. This is the behaviour of patronage, not comradeship.
It is precisely for this reason that Malcolm X’s, Fanon’s, and Carmichael’s perspective of separate organization towards racial power is necessary. Consider these assorted quotes from Black Power:
The concept of Black Power rests on a fundamental premise: Before a group can enter the open society, it must first close ranks….The point is obvious: Black people must lead and run their own organizations. Only black people can convey the revolutionary idea – and it is a revolutionary idea – that black people are able to do things themselves….
...In the past, white allies have often furthered white supremacy without the whites involved realizing it, or even wanting to do so…
…Black people cannot afford to assume that what is good for white America is automatically good for black people…Take the case of Tom Watson. This populist from Georgia was at one time a staunch advocate of a united front between Negro and white farmers.…But this is the same Tom Watson who, only a few years later, and because the political tide was flowing against such an alliance [the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow], did a complete turnabout… “‘The white people dare not revolt so long as they can be intimidated by the Negro vote,’ he explained. Once the ‘bugaboo’ of Negro domination was removed, however, ‘every white man would act according to his own conscience and judgement in how he should vote.’”
…the building of an independent force is necessary…Black Power is necessary. If we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it, and that is precisely the lesson of the Reconstruction era. Black people were allowed to vote, to register, and to participate in politics, because it was to the advantage of powerful white “allies” to permit this. But at all times such advances flowed from white decisions. That era of black participation in politics was ended by another set of white decisions. There was no powerful independent political base in the southern black community to challenge the curtailment of civil rights.
Power is complex. It involves sociological, economic, political, military and cultural dimensions. They are all interrelated. But ideology is not propagated by the word: it is premised on the deed. Before the racist ideology caught on with White American workers and farmers, Black American workers and farmers had first to be enslaved and, during the backlash against Reconstruction, killed en masse, for the proper social context to be established. Similarly, anti-racist ideology will not be propagated by well-intentioned efforts (not even the piece of writing that you are reading right now); it will be established by organized force that utilizes all of the sociological, economic, political, military, and cultural weapons that its White antithesis has used. This is what the arguments of Fanon, Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael really mean, and it is this tradition that we must rediscover as anti-racist non-White militants.
While Will explicitly states his approval of the proposition that militant action, and not conversation, will do the job of convincing, he prescribes organizational solutions to the difficulties he faced as a member of the POC working group during Occupy Wall Street. He recognizes that resolutions are not worth the paper they are printed on unless they can be enforced. But how can organizational procedures solve socially-rooted problems? The same problems he faced in New York came up repeatedly at Occupy Toronto. Drafting better constitutions and voting for better-worded resolutions does not alter the social balance of forces. These constant racial humiliations are not just part of the job or part of living in the neighbourhood, they are also part of remaining within a White middle-class movement.
During the American Civil War, Black Americans allied with Northern Whites against the Southern slave-owners to gain their freedom. This made perfect sense. But, as Stokely Carmichael pointed out, this merely resulted in exchanging the domination of one group of Whites for another. The same dynamic applies in our own struggle, today, for racial liberation. Even if we do succeed in overthrowing capitalist racism by united struggle, what is to prevent a socialist or anarchist racism from superseding it? Only independent power of our own, built on our own, keeping our allies at a proper distance from our struggles.
The scope of the problem is larger than even this society as a whole. Race politics cannot be abstracted from the international political context. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon predicted the enormous effect of the establishment of the State of Israel on the political power of the international Jewish Diaspora. It even allowed Jews to join the White race. It’s the most recent instance of colonialism and genocide to establish national power.
But while taking care to avoid these pitfalls, racialized communities today need such bases of national territory to assert themselves and consolidate their position within other societies. As we can find in the compilation “Toward the African Revolution,” this is why Fanon joined the Algerian liberation struggle: as a Caribbean Black man, he recognized that liberating the African continent from colonialism would have a direct influence on the status of Black people abroad. In a military and strategic sense, he saw that Arab Algeria was actually the best place to direct his efforts toward that goal.
White power in our societies was historically premised on the European domination of the world order; that geographical domination is fading today. The self-assertion and equality of racialized groups within North America rests on the independent political and economic development of what Fanon called the “Third World.” It means the internationalist unity of African, Latin American, and Asian countries, against national-capitalist divisions and toward their cohesion as supra-national revolutionary societies.
Just as the anti-colonial movement of the 1950s and 1960s (revolutions in Algeria, Cuba, and Vietnam in particular) had a dialectical relationship with the Black Power movement in the United States, so today the decline of the West (both in Europe and North America) and the rise of India and China have already had a dramatic effect on race relations within Western societies. Powerful immigrant voting blocs, and the international economic and political ties they bring, give their communities a certain breathing space in an asphyxiating racial environment. It should be clear enough to all readers, but I want to make clear where I stand on this. The international balance of power is a temporary and uneasy détente; it will likely lead to imperialist war in our lifetime. It is not a substitute for organized working-class power; but today we witness massive strikes in India and a staggering wave of demonstrations in China. These, too, will have their effect on the immigrant communities in Canada and the USA.
As I’ve stated, there is an important pitfall here. “Divide and conquer” is simply a tactic of minority rule, whether that minority is the capitalist class of a country or the aggregate of Western countries. Race is incidental to the deliberately-created social fractures that capitalism rests on. As Fanon pointed out in Wretched of the Earth, Africanization of the top posts after decolonization eliminated visible White political control; but new social divisions based on tribe, region, and language became the tools of the new African capitalist classes. This led to internecine struggle and ultimately genocide in many ex-colonial countries. While we must begin to build the structures of racial power within the shell of the capitalist society, if they remain on a capitalist foundation they form the basis of a new oppression. (The class politics of oppressed communities is a site of struggle that we as militants will have to contend with. But that is an internal struggle, and not the business of outsiders.)
I’ll return now from the general to the particular. Anti-racist struggle means independent social development of oppressed ethnic and national groups within Western societies, who self-organize to find their niche within the economy, maintain ties with their homelands, and strategically use these strengths to leverage social and political power. In their early stages, such movements will adapt themselves to capitalist economics and bourgeois politics: but the basic demand for racial equality undermines the economic and social basis of Western society as a whole. “Equality” is not a demand that can be satisfied on capitalist grounds, for all wealth-generation under capitalism is premised on hierarchy. It can only be satisfied by working-class self-organization within the community.
Building independent racial power will destroy the construct of Whiteness and thus make class unity possible. As CLR James pointed out in a 1967 speech, referencing Stokely Carmichael and the thesis of Black Power as the fruition of his own theoretical observations in 1939,
the independent struggle of the Negro people for their democratic rights and equality with the rest of the American nation not only had to be defended and advocated by the Marxist movement. The Marxist movement had to understand that such independent struggles were a contributory factor to the socialist revolution. Let me restate that as crudely as possible: the American Negroes in fighting for their democratic rights were making an indispensable addition to the struggle for socialism in the US.
Perhaps May 1968 in France best illustrates what James was talking about. Seven years after Fanon’s death, the Algerian revolution provided a spark to Algerian workers in France. These workers, oppressed by both race and class, became the catalyst for a revolution that drew in – not only the workers of their own nationality, not only the racially-oppressed workers – but the whole working class of France, in one of the most dramatic European revolutions since the end of World War II. It was not only these Algerian workers who felt the revolutionary urge: the war to occupy Algeria cost many French workers their lives, holding down a country for the bosses’ profits. French workers could be and were won over to social revolution by the independent anti-colonial struggle and the self-organization of Algerian workers.
So it is that the “Arab Spring” – a response to pro-American regimes in the Middle East – is the progenitor of the North American Occupy movement. However, North American activists did nothing to start the Arab Spring, and can do little to help it reach its goals. Here in our own countries, it is the shared experience of all people of colour within the movement of the White middle class that we have not been treated as equals, have been denied the respect due our intellects and organizational abilities, and seen as objects to condescend to or tokens to use and manipulate for White political objectives. The struggle for recognition will not be achieved by begging and pleading to convince our White allies within the movement. Our job is to organize independently of them so that, when it does become possible to build a united movement, they have no choice but to recognize and respect us as a force to be reckoned with.
I salute my comrade Will’s statement that “human life is meant to be lived in freedom or not at all.” It is precisely this knowledge - that in the end, we all die, and so life is too precious in every moment to waste in humiliation - that motivates the revolutionary impulse. This requires, on the individual level, the courage and dignity to maintain full self-respect against all odds. Such psychological development is an intensely personal odyssey of self-discovery and self-creation, but it is forged through daily acts of self-assertion within this society. It goes hand in hand with the material struggle to destroy oppressive structures and build structures of community power.
The solutions are not cut-and-dried, and will often not involve 100% racial separation. Genuinely implementing these ideas requires flexibility and adaptation to particular circumstances. But for us within the movement, rediscovering how to implement these traditions is just the starting point. Achieving our goals will be much harder.
Originally posted: March 15, 2012 at Invisible Man