Eleanor Robertson on the need for a communist, as opposed to liberal or reformist, approach to fighting oppression. This post first appeared on Medium.
Oppression is, among other things, a form of blame-shifting; assigning the burden of social dysfunction to one particular group in order to displace fault from the people who actually have power. The target chosen for this purpose is whichever is most convenient or closest to hand at the time of power’s need, which means it’s usually a group that is already marginalised or despised. This process is fundamentally arbitrary: there is no necessary connection between the group selected for persecution and the problem that must be accounted for, nor is there anything inherent in the target that disposes it to receive this burden, except the state of having previously received injustice in the past and therefore being too weak to properly defend itself.
One of the biggest problems with liberal or reformist approaches to oppression is that they ignore the arbitrariness of this process, and instead fixate on an imagined inherent quality of particular instances of target selection. This causes a perception that particular oppressions are discrete phenomena which can be ameliorated by breaking down the irrational prejudices that justify and sustain the persecution; the solution to anti-black racism must be focused on dispelling myths and stereotypes about black people, sexism can be ameliorated only by cultural changes in the treatment and depiction of women, etc.
This puts the cart before the horse: these stereotypes, and the ways they find their material expression, are overdetermined by the necessity of persecution itself. Any hope we have of putting a stop to prejudice must address its underlying mechanisms as well as its specific expressions. Bigotry can only be halted by addressing oppression as a general social phenomenon produced by imbalances of power, without a pre-determined object.
Prejudice used to facilitate specific oppressions thus takes its proper place as one active component in a larger machine of power reproducing itself, rather than becoming fetishised as an ahistorical, self-caused phenomenon. Solidarity with and attention to the effects of particular oppressions are a self-evidently crucial component of fighting this reproduction, but only insofar as they have the end of all oppressions as their ultimate goal. Without this broader view of the human capacity for constructing and exploiting a truly arbitrary Other we can only ever defer or displace its operation, throw a small spanner in the works, never halt the endless earmarking of victim groups to absorb torture on behalf of power that cannot examine its own evil.
To acknowledge this is to stare into the darkest and most horrible crevices of humanity, our shared tendency toward vicious externalisation of our own individual and collective faults. It’s no wonder that stopgap solutions to oppression predominate, especially in our wealthy societies and among the wealthiest in them, for whom piecemeal gestures toward tolerance and inclusion help to elide the necessary psychic horrors of acknowledging our own complicity in the monstrous status quo.
Dissolving this patina of pragmatic incrementalism requires engaging with the gristly, disgusting reality that our current human society, capitalism, is incapable of even conceiving this problem, let alone solving it, and in fact efficiently aids its operation by instrumentalising human relations for private profit. For most of us, the knee-jerk response to this is denial: that’s not how things are. Don’t be so pessimistic, idealistic, unrealistic, ridiculous. Shut up and go away. Let us get on with our current lives.
But right now we seem to be inside a historical moment where many people are unusually receptive to new ideas and radical change. This instability in the current system, as we have seen, does not automatically resolve itself into a critique of arbitrary power; in fact the likelihood of us making everything worse, of power adapting its free-floating need for persecution to be applied to both existing and new groups, is overwhelming. Giving up on the ridiculous idea that we must oppose all forms of oppression and exploitation, and therefore power itself, is a deeply seductive comfort. It spares us the disappointment, guilt, humiliation and punishment that usually comes with wanting more from the world.
It’s not fair, none of this is fair, but that’s precisely the truth that must be constantly re-stated if we have any hope of changing anything. Now is the time to be alert to self-interested compromises presented by power, by capital, that offer to redistribute the portions of crumbs it throws off the table in order to regain stability. If there’s one lesson to be learned from human history it’s that power seeks to maintain and expand itself; arguments to the contrary are often demonstrations of this truth in action. The cost of accepting these compromises is the further displacement of suffering, which is frequently hidden and easily ignored.
Why should we agree to surrender the future of humanity to this struggle? Why would we volunteer the gift of self-awareness for an endless litigation of its own most terrible application, its capacity for evil against itself? This may be what occurs anyway, but why should we choose to lay down and accept it when we could do otherwise?
This is why I am a communist: because I’m tired of humanity rolling out the red carpet for its own destruction.