Sunday, 27 November 2011

Oppression within oppression: a response to "A Question of Privilege"


This is a response to an article called “A Question of Privilege” that was posted on the newly formed national libcomaotearoa list, which you can find here. I am disturbed by many of the ideas conveyed in this article, because they clearly represent a trend in anarchist class struggle that disregards an analysis of power as it pertains to relationships within the working class. I have been reluctant to respond to the arguments in “A Question of Privilege”, because it feels like going back-to-basics. Surely most anarchists understand that an analysis of power must have a prominent place in the way we organise toward revolution. Yet hostility to analyses of power that are not purely class-based (i.e. feminist and decolonial theories) appears to be brewing in libertarian class struggle circles, which is really worrying to me. While I do not see class struggle as the only site of resistance, it is certainly an essential if we are to create social movements that will really change things. And while I do not want to squeeze all other theories against oppression into a (still narrow) class struggle framework, I do want class struggle movements to be a place where those of us marginalised within the working class (by gender, race and/or whatever else) can shape theory, strategy and practice. For this to happen, conversations about feminism, decolonisation and other struggles against oppression must be in dialogue with class struggle discourse. In this response I focus on how many of the ideas conveyed in “A Question of Privilege” devalue the role of feminist theory in shaping anarchist class struggle. (Note: I use the word ‘power’ interchangeably with ‘privilege’: I like ‘power’ better because it feels less fixed).

“A Question of Privilege” represents the view that an analysis of power has no relevance to class struggle. At its most basic level, an analysis of power requires the understanding that some people have access to more power than others in this society, and that those with more can benefit from the oppression of those with less. Therefore, it is up to those oppressed or exploited and their allies to get organised and overthrow the hierarchy, be it that created by capitalism, patriarchy, colonisation or anything else. To struggle together even when we are affected by divergent oppressions, we need to be able to give up power-over: a ruling class person would have to give up their access to the means of production in order to struggle alongside workers. Not all power-over is as simple as that, but being an ally is about giving up power-over to the extent that it is possible. I cannot give up my white skin, and the fact that this makes me less likely to be arrested for the same crime as other Māori who are brown. Yet being prepared to investigate how this place of relative power and how it informs my viewpoint is fundamental to me being able to stand in solidarity with other Māori in the struggle against colonialism and racism. To me, this analysis of power is fundamental to anarchist praxis. However, in “A Question of Privilege” Anonymous argues that the ruling class is the only group that can be said to be privileged, claiming that we cannot give up power (such as masculine privilege) when it is tied up with capitalism. I agree that most oppression (i.e. patriarchal oppression) is inextricable with capital, and that approaches to power that do not recognise this are unable to help build a movement against capitalism. However, does that mean that we should not try to understand the historical and present-day struggles of people oppressed by patriarchy? By never indicating that feminism or any other analysis of oppression has a place in informing the way we organise against capital, Anonymous disregards the relevance of these discourses to the struggles of working class people. I disagree vehemently with the notion that an analysis of power has no place in understanding relationships within the working class, indeed, oppression and privilege clearly impact on our capacity to organise together. For me, the willingness to interrogate my position of powerin relation to others, or their power in relation to is an essential part of forming solidarity with folks who are also exploited by class. For that reason and many others, feminism and other discourses that further the interests of those marginalised by any oppressive structure should have an important place in informing class struggle praxis.

For me, the most noticeable thing about “A Question of Privilege” is that it uses language that minimises the impact of patriarchy, white supremacy and other systems of oppression that are not purely about class. For instance, Anonymous asserts that: “‘privileges’ granted by the ruling order to people in certain social categories among the exploited actually amount to nothing more than a lessening of the intensity of exploitation and oppression experienced by these people relative to others”. It is a pity the writers felt the need to belittle the experience of oppression within oppression, for the point that there is commonality across the working class in terms of how we are exploited would have stood perfectly well on its own. Unless of course, Anonymous intends to minimise the experiences of those of us marginalised within the working class, and thereby infer that we should practice class struggle without reference to any other form of oppression. Anonymous also dismisses the critical response to marginalisation, characterising the understanding that some people within the working class have more privilege than others as “useless from an anarchist and revolutionary perspective”. Here, the word ‘useless’ implies a non-negotiable disregard for an analysis of power other than that between ruling and working class. But if there is no place for other analyses of power, then where is the place of feminism, of decolonisation, or any other discourse that furthers the interests of people oppressed in multiple ways?

Because oppression is inextricable from capitalism, Anonymous draws the conclusion that we should not try to ameliorate it, but rather seek to overthrow capital. I agree that freedom from patriarchy cannot be realised so long as there is capitalism, and I have certainly experienced anarchist settings where people act as if it were, even if they theoretically admit that it is not. Here, the struggle against sexism is often figured as the effort to purge it from our lives and ourselves, rather than a constant challenge to power-over and the will to power. However, just because we cannot get rid of sexism without overthrowing capitalism, does that mean that we should not challenge the exercise of power-over? For instance, I think it is appropriate to exclude known violent abusers from anarchist organisations. I also think that it is important to acknowledge that this is only a line in the sand. Many of us go home to families, have friends, or work with people for whom violence is the norm and yet we are not prepared to cut ties. This contradiction is simply a reality of living under patriarchy and trying to struggle against it at the same time. For me, the political imperative to purge sexism has been crazy-making and isolating. Yet an acceptance of sexist behavior would be to comply with the subordination of women or anyone else on the receiving end of it. To me, this conundrum represents a tension that we need to negotiate constantly, rather than an either/or situation.

Anonymous draws attention to the way the ruling class uses oppression within the working class to divide us, but fails to acknowledge the room we do have to limit our use of power. Anonymous contends that privilege is conferred by the ruling class as a means to focus our antagonism on each other rather than them: “[privileges] are intended to convince these people that they have more in common with their exploiters than with those not granted the same “privileges” and to convince the others that their real enemy is not the ruling class, but rather those granted a less intense level of exploitation”. I agree that the Ruling Class does indeed benefit from our dividedness, and that bourgeois ideology encourages the oppressed to identify with the ruling class rather than each other. However, Anonymous neglects the fact that those with relative power can extract material gains at the expense of those with less. Indeed, I strongly disagree with Anonymous’s argument that relative privilege is a “phantom”, i.e. has no material basis, and their inference that letting go of power-over has no place in class struggle. Anonymous contends that the fact women are more likely to experience sexual harassment amounts to an easing of the conditions of exploitation for men. Writing as though sexual harassment were created by the ruling class to divide us, Anonymous fails to acknowledge the agency of the working class men who sexually harass women, and the complicity of those who support them. If sexism is challenged and those challenged refuse to engage, it is they, not the challengers who are ‘dividing the working class’.

If the writers of “A Question of Privilege” are trying to say that certain discourses around privilege do not further class struggle, I can agree with that. Indeed, I feel it is crucial to maintain a critical culture that constantly re-evaluates how we approach oppression. From what I have seen, anarchist praxis that insists on perfect ideological understanding as a prerequisite to collective organisation does not often extend beyond friendship groups. While I lived in Wellington (2004-2007) much of our focus as anarchist-feminists went into dealing with sexism within that anarchist scene. This is no mean feat, and I think an significant growth in consciousness around sexism occurred within that scene through the efforts and persistence of feminists and pro-feminists. However, there was also an collective unwillingness to work with anyone (of whatever gender) who did not already have a certain type of consciousness about oppression, or was not quick to learn. From that unwillingness flowed a praxis that was somewhat severed from the material conditions of our lives. We attended and organised protests, formed the radical wing of reformist campaigns and occasionally ‘fucked shit up’. Yet none of these political strategies required us to go out of our comfort zones and work with others with similar material interests, but did not necessarily share our ideology. This approach to politics culminated in a insular and unfocused anarchist scene that could not help build a diverse movement against capital or patriarchy. However, I do not blame a militant stance on sexist oppression for this, but rather ideological puritanism coupled with the notion that the world can be changed by a small group of committed individuals fucking shit up.

If we are to create theory that addresses the reality of working class women, we need an analysis of power and a dedication to critical exchange. Sexism in all its forms (internalised, implicit, or openly acted out), attacks women’s power and therefore has a direct impact on our ability to organise politically or have a voice in how theory is developed. On an email list where the emphasis is on intellectual exchange, an analysis of power can help ensure that marginalised voices are heard and theory that addresses our concerns can be created. A willingness to dialogue about feminism and class struggle requires first of all an acknowledgement that what feminists have to offer is important. This does not necessitate that anyone secede to whatever feminists think, but rather a dedication to constructive conversation. This works best when we can interrogate our positions of power or bias whilst still valuing our own critical perspective (paradoxical, I know!). Passivity and guilt are common responses to being asked to evaluate ones use of power, yet they are not helpful. Rather than deciding from an informed perspective what sexist practices they will relinquish, guilt ridden men often revert to ‘good little boy’ mode, and sullenly do whatever feminists tell them to do. Yet men giving up responsibility for themselves does not constitute feminist practice. Personally, I would prefer to talk with mature people who can limit their use of power without having to negate themselves.

Whereas the refusal to acknowledge power differences is complicit in the privileging of some peoples interests over another, a willingness to challenge power-over is a call to empower all. The ideas purveyed in “A Question of Privilege” are disturbing because they disregard the importance of feminism and other struggles against power-over by dismissing an analysis of power. Yet an analysis of power is essential to non-hierarchical class struggle because it provides us with understanding and strategies that enable us to stand in solidarity, not in the sense of having entirely eliminated oppression, but rather in a dialectical sense of ongoing confrontation, engagement, and hopefully synthesis. For this to happen, there needs to be a dialogue between feminist and class struggle discourses, and attention paid to the areas where they consciously cross over, from theorists like Mariarosa Dalla Costa, to us everyday people who are passionate about both.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Complex Everyday Realities: Women and Class

I write this story to build connections between class struggle and feminism, so that the lives of working class women are illuminated, part of the political framework. To do this, I have needed to write from a personal/political perspective. To me, the famed feminist saying ‘the personal is political’ is not so much about changing our own lives to change the world, but a theoretical framework that affirms the value of our stories and uses the patterns between them as a basis for solidarity. It suits many women (not all), because many of us have been socialised to focus on the ‘private’ realm: the home, emotions, close relationships. At the same time, because our concerns are not seen as valid, they are considered private. So personal stories, when woven together, allow us to come out of shame and assert the collective nature of something otherwise considered individual: domestic and sexual violence are good examples. The beauty of the personal is that it also honors our unique reality: no two stories are exactly the same. From what I can see, most class struggle theorising does not seek to overcome the division between the personal and the political. Most often, class focused literature and discussion describes and analyses the ‘public’ domain: current affairs, government, and the money economy. While I believe this kind of thing is important, I want room for writing that reflects the realities of women: the kind of things that affect us, as well as our way(s) of relating. So this is me looking at two of many power relationships, patriarchy and capitalism, from a personal/political perspective.
Earlier this year, something happened that interrupted my ability to carry on with the class struggle in a straightforward way. That is, my Dad and my 10-year-old sister came to visit and I saw, again, that she was being abused. Taken off her extremely abusive mother by CYFS, and put into the care of our father, she has already had a hard start. Of course, he is also abusive, but seeing she is not black and blue, CYFS wants the case closed. I’ve known what my Dad’s up to for ages. At a distance I know that it’s not in my control. But when I saw her in front of me, her hair full of nits, wearing fuck-me boots, and that tough, ravaged look in her eyes, I wanted more than anything to save her. I wanted to make her wear kids shoes so the bourgeois gaze, the male gaze, wouldn’t hurt her. I wanted to comb the nits out of her hair, so she wouldn’t be teased at school. I wanted to take the force of the blow, to put myself between her and him. This is a story of capitalist patriarchy, and why I want to build the solidarity we need to change it.
A lifelong beneficiary, my father is close to the bottom of capitalism’s heap. He is also a perpetrator of abuse (mostly physical and emotional). So the contradiction between feminism and class struggle is one I was raised with: sympathy with my father’s class predicament, fear and hatred for his misogyny. The idea that class is more important than feminism or vice-versa has never felt right for me, although sometimes I have gone along with other people’s priorities. Among anarchists, this prioritization occurs in practice rather than theory. I have been shut down on class in anarchist-feminist circles where the agreed understanding is that all oppression is interconnected. Likewise, I have been silenced in class struggle contexts where feminism is supposedly of utmost importance. Since we live in a patriarchal capitalist society, the contradictions between feminism and class struggle are present in the lives of all working class women, to varying extents. I tell a story from the rural underclass, where the collision of interests between working class men and women is dramatic.
My Dad is a first generation Pākehā born to immigrant parents, who, like most of their generation, were traumatised by the Second World War. Like most lower class women, Nana had to work both in and out of the home. Unlike most working class people at that time, this family did not leave the bush (Coromandel) to join the urban migration. Perhaps that’s why my Dad didn’t go to university for free and get a middle class job like many of his generation. Nor did he get any of the few working class jobs there are in Coromandel, where you can bust your back in the mussel factory or smile for tourists in a café all for minimum wage. Instead, he joined those who were left far behind, living off the dole, mutual aid, the bush and the sea. My Dad is astute enough to know the local workforce sucks for ‘unskilled’ workers, that he’s on the benefit not because he’s lazy but because he doesn’t want to be trod on. But he doesn’t put this knowing into a political context where he could resist with others in the same boat, for he does not have access to a movement that struggles against capitalism. Instead, he takes refuge in an underclass community where there is DIY culture, resistance to the police and a culture of story telling developed over years of smoking, fishing and drinking cups of tea together. Sounds pretty good eh?
 This community is angry. They are angry because they have been raised by parents who were angry because of the war. They are angry because they did not rise, like the rest of the baby boomers, to a cushy lifestyle and an air of prestige. They are angry because although they work all day, fixing cars and cooking and looking after kids and fishing, they do not get paid. They are angry because they pay rent all year and have to move out over summer so the hippy landlords can have their place back for Christmas. They are angry because the only jobs open to them are those where they would be stood on by those higher up the hierarchy, the surplus value of their labour expropriated. They are angry because the only other options are the dole and/or drug dealing, which they are then hassled for. They are angry because they are positioned at the edge of so-called society, where they are either shunned, ignored or patronised.
This is a story of patriarchy. Patriarchy tells the men of this community that being on the dole is emasculation, and there’s nothing worse than that. Patriarchy says that a good way for men to feel their masculinity is by controlling women, that women are there to be controlled when you cannot control anything else. So communities like my father’s see women and children as receptacles for their pain and frustration. They push their anger out of themselves and into or onto our bodies. Then, when these men break down in tears of guilt afterward, patriarchy says that women are there to sympathise. Patriarchy says that we must hold their rage and our rage in our bodies until we crack: and if we crack patriarchal capitalism calls us mad (and there’s nothing worse than that). Patriarchy says that men should back each other up. So solidarity is practiced amongst men only. They tell each other that they did the right thing; the woman is a bitch, the child a spoilt brat. They tell each other that they do everything: catch the fish, bring in the extra dough, fix the car; that women and children should just be grateful.
While capitalism creates a society that causes rage and pain, capitalist ideology tells us that it is these men who cause all the problems, that these are the worst men. Their crimes should be publicised, laughed at, and condemned, while those of ruling and middle class men are kept hidden. And patriarchal capitalism tells us that the women are worse still. They are not real women because they do not protect their children. They are stupid for choosing to be with men like that when there are plenty more fish in the sea, but they could never get a good man because they look like trash. They are mad because every now and again they crack.
Yet while it’s easy for left-wing men to say that the ruling class causes all the trouble, most women know this is not true. The ruling class may pull the strings, but they do not touch us. I have not heard their words break my heart, felt their fists on my body, or seen them kick the shit out of a dog. The ruling class is part of the problem, but they are not the only ones who get something out of patriarchy.
While it’s easy for feminists and pro-feminists to say that these men should be left to rot, most of us who’ve been at their mercy don’t find that so easy. For us, there may not be plenty more fish in the sea, for we have scars that most ‘good guys’ (or girls) wouldn’t go near. Most of us love our home communities, and feel utterly displaced if we leave. We may have to leave to be safe, we may want to arm ourselves with an analysis of patriarchy, but that doesn’t mean we want these men to be called irredeemable, stupid or evil (unless it’s us doing the naming). Not only do we share class interests with my father; I also identify with those he abuses: women, children and dogs. If I turn my back on him, it is not just domestic violence I’m leaving behind.
When I looked into my sister’s eyes, I wanted desperately to save her. So I cut my father a deal. I said she could stay with me while he found a house close by. He was happy with that. I could do all the work while he still had ultimate control, so he didn’t really look for a house. Of course, it was also a great chance to make my life hell. I became like the Ex with the kids: a woman to hurt by hurting the child. He came over almost every evening trying to rev me up, knowing that I wouldn’t tell him to get lost cuz he’d cause a scene that’d culminate in my sister being dragged off like a prized possession. So I kept my mouth shut until I could no longer sleep or study or write the article on women and class I’d been planning for the AWSM magazine. When at last I did tell him to fuck off, I knew he’d take her down with him. He had to show he was in control. So he didn’t find a house close-by, he took her back into the country (Mataura this time) instead, where she is bullied at school and bullied at home and there is no big sister to talk to about it. Meanwhile, the pressure is coming down on beneficiaries and learning support in schools is being cut and there is less money for women’s refuge and state funded ads tell men to stay in mantrol.
It’s not until now, almost six months down the track, that I’m wondering why this experience: a really good example of capitalist patriarchy, felt irrelevant to my political practice. The answer is that this kind of thing is too private for the class struggle movement that reflects mostly the realities of men, and too intense for feminist circles that reflect mostly the realities of middle class women. If the two movements were better linked it would be easier for people like me who need both class struggle and feminism to make sense of our lives, and to struggle. I wish passionately that there were communities of resistance that had both class struggle and feminism at heart. Such communities would understand my father, neither as the worst kind of man, nor a working class hero. Instead, they would see him as a survivor of capitalism’s worst, for whom it is easiest to take out his pain on women and children. In communities like these we could maintain an analysis of power whilst allowing complexity: there would be no need to choose.
 To move in this direction, I reckon that class struggle and feminism should get to know each other better than ever (they’ve already been bouncing off each other for the last few centuries). I don’t mean that all women should join their local class struggle group, although I do think we need feminist organizations where there is commitment and strategy. I think that we (especially anarchist feminists who are theoretically anti-capitalist) need to look at how class affects us all, and affects us all differently. We need to share our myriad experiences, not diminish, exclude or fear each other. There is a tendency for feminist women to content themselves with being in reaction to class struggle. Yet women are majorly affected by class, and if we care about ourselves and each other then we will have strategy that reflects this fact. Finally, we need to stop the individualist criteria for being a proper anarchist-feminist, like having to be vegan or queer or knowing how to speak a certain kind of ‘radical’ language. What if we measured authenticity by our desire for solidarity instead?
Class struggle groups need to look closer at the personal. The personal is a dynamic, accessible way to test class struggle theory in our everyday lives: in the workplace, the home and the community. We should not content ourselves with being in reaction to ‘identity politics’, or people who are ‘inward looking’. When we use these words, what are we saying? Are we critiquing the idea that it is possible to change a structural power relationship by achieving purity in ourselves? Or are we saying that straightforward class struggle is the only way to change anything? Do we critique to open conversation on close it? Part of the problem is that class struggle praxis is largely divorced from holistic ways of theorizing, and therefore does not embrace the multiple levels on which patriarchy, or class for that matter, must be resisted and fought. Class, like gender, is upheld through a variety of mechanisms, ranging from the economic structures we are immersed in, to socialization, to social exclusion. There are many stories that need to be told. So let’s not create a macho culture where we only look at what the status quo defines as public or material, and thereby sideline women’s experiences, which are still largely considered private or ‘cultural’. Lets give form and voice to feminism, not just in a ‘do no harm’ sense, but by actively connecting class and gender, and in that process reflecting the interests of working class women.
My father and sister turned up again just the other day. Sometimes he drops her off at my place when he is in town, not because it’s good for her to see her big sister, but because he wants her out of his hair. I try to meet her eyes even though I know I can’t save her. I listen to her stories of being bullied (and being a bully) at school, as well as her more cautious stories about being bullied at home. I let her know that I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of our father’s rage, and love him just the same. I let her know it’s not ok, that it’s not her fault. We talk about the dogs, how the car is going and which of Dad’s sleazy friends she hates the most. Repeating words told me by wise women when I was a girl-child, I remind her that she is strong, that she must listen to her intuition. I remind myself that my concern about the fuck-me boots on a 10 year old is mostly internalized classism: fuck the patriarchal gaze! Fuck the bourgeois gaze! I comb the nits out of her hair and I read her a bedtime story. I remind myself that this makes a difference.
When my father and my sister turn up on my doorstep they represent a personal/political challenge. How do I deal with the reality of patriarchy and capitalism without letting it destroy me? How do we deal with complex relationships of solidarity and conflict?  Often, the ‘intense’ and ‘private’ nature of my experiences mean I have to turn away from the political, because the collective nature of working class women’s struggles is yet to be publically asserted. We have a lot of stories to tell before this will be possible. So I turn inward: I seek friends who have similar stories, I re-read books by women who give a shit about class and feminism. I do this so I know we (me and her) are not alone, but part of a pattern of resistance. The combination of being working class and female necessarily means we will come in touch with struggles that are considered ‘too much information’, and this privatisation of what is actually a collective experience makes us think we are alone and helpless and therefore have no choice but to surrender. So we must remind ourselves that our stories are not a deviation from the political, but more material for the pattern of solidarity and resistance that we are creating.