what’s needed

This is scary, and it’s absolutely right to be upset and afraid. But if you aren’t involved in political organizing, now (okay, if not today, tomorrow) is the time to start. The only way out is through and if I feel any reassurance, it’s only because I know so many people who work tirelessly to fight like hell for all of us. They have my back and I have theirs.

But those of us with legal cases from or visibility in anti-police brutality organizing are few in number and so fucking vulnerable – there are still people locked up for arrests that happened at anti-racist marches or events, and so many more paying fines and serving probation. Beyond that are the millions more behind bars for being black, being brown, being poor. They need us and we need them.

Check out all the orgs in the Movement for Black Lives coalition, also DSA/ISO/SA. In Boston, talk to Mass Action Against Police Brutality, the Boston Coalition for Police Brutality, Boston Feminists for Liberation, or Youth Against Mass Incarceration. Join up with Black and Pink if they have a chapter where you are. Join, support, and build unions.

We need all the help we can get.

And for the record, the Democrats continue proving how useless they are. Clinton and Obama can wish Trump all the luck in the world but you know we aren’t waiting a minute to start organizing against him and everything for which he stands.

USA, USA

I’ve avoided writing about the conventions because both the Republican and Democratic parties disgust me – no point in driving myself mad elaborating on that in writing when it’s the topic of so many of my daily conversations.

But I was taken aback to turn on the broadcast tonight to see General John Allen, the former Commander of US forces in Afghanistan, proclaiming a vision of shared values that includes “all ethnicities, races, and faiths,” set to a backdrop of veterans and a roaring “USA” chant from the crowd. This man and his armed forces have the blood of so many brown people on his hands. Other brown people or gay people killing those people is still people killing people.

This man proclaimed proudly that “the American military will continue to be the shining example of America at our very best,” and will not “become an instrument of torture.” Surely he knows our military does engage in war crimes, indefinite detention, and systematically rapes women, including their fellow female soldiers. And yet, the crowd carried on chanting: “USA, USA.” Reportedly this chant gained strength as a way to cover up scattered chants of “No More War” from some of the Sanders delegates. If anything, that anti-war sentiment is beyond decorum at the convention only makes it worse.

“To our enemies: We will pursue you as only America can. You will fear us.” he concluded, and the crowd went wild. As only America can? I can only presume this is a reference to the US military’s ability to flout international war conventions, with drone strikes occasionally killing even our own citizens alongside dozens and dozens of innocents from other countries. People celebrating weddings, people whose only crime is existence outside our borders: that is what John Allen means by pursuing our enemies “as only America can.”

Militaristic embrace of the same old US exceptionalism recast in a multicultural sheen. A set of “principles” broad enough to allow Democratic leadership to invite NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton to speak on the same stage as the mothers of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and Sandra Bland. This the truth of the Democratic Party. This is it’s core – more pernicious than the GOP because it is superficially diverse. No, these parties are not the same. Yes, in many ways, Trump is worse than Clinton. But maybe, just maybe, this will be the election cycle so unapologetically repugnant to convince enough of us that neither the Republicans or the Democrats are for us. These are their parties, the rich donors who power both. All we have is each other.

But by definition, the numbers are on our side. We just have to get as organized as the people we’re up against.

Broken Record

In an interview published today in Jacobin, David Harvey, a theorist of neoliberalism and one of my favorite vulgar Marxists, asks a controversial question:

“Here’s a proposition to think over. What if every dominant mode of production, with its particular political configuration, creates a mode of opposition as a mirror image to itself?

During the era of Fordist organization of the production process, the mirror image was a large centralized trade union movement and democratically centralist political parties.

The reorganization of the production process and turn to flexible accumulation during neoliberal times has produced a Left that is also, in many ways, its mirror: networking, decentralized, non-hierarchical.”

Harvey poses this as a provocation, one based on his analysis of the neoliberal organization of production but not explored at length in the interview. But what would such an exploration look like?

Rather than critique the horizontalist mode of organizing Harvey’s referring to, I think there’s another, related, sense in which the substance of politics on the broadly defined Left today mirrors neoliberalism. While Harvey’s focus is on the material organization of the political project of neoliberalism, the ideological current that follows from the organization of what Harvey calls the “new capitalist class” – the tech capitalists of Silicon Valley – also shapes this “mirror image.” After all, if the ruling ideas of every age are those of the ruling class, we should expect these ideas to influence the Left in a powerful way.

Driven by a decentralized entrepreneurialism that fetishizes the individual and the bootstrapping do-it-yourselfism of lean-in feminism, these ideas emphasize an assumed chain of individuals, identity, and language, with the latter two elements part of the self-expressive empowerment so central to project-based start-up culture.

How does this trickle-down to progressive politics? While some call the political current that constitutes the mirror image of these ideas “identity politics,” I prefer Carl Beijer’s phrase “liberal identitarianism.” A clunky mouthful to be sure, “liberal identitarianism” is helpful in its ability to differentiate this current from a left identitarianism.

As Beijer distinguishes the two, left identitarians have  “maintained their commitment understanding power and oppression thoroughly by including class identity in their analysis, as all of the great identitarian scholars have always done – whereas liberals, by definition, neglect it.” In other words, while liberal identitarians may acknowledge class in the sense of individual wealth, they refuse the left analysis of oppressions as present to reinforce class exploitation. By taking class as one static element among many axes of oppression, rather than a relational process reinforced and perpetuated by oppression, liberal identitarians come to a fundamentally different definition of liberation. For liberal identitarians, gaining equal representation and voice within a class society is the – often unspoken – goal.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this in theory: it does make for a less hostile environment for oppressed groups, offering breathing room at the symbolic level of society. While it’s true that these aims can’t achieve liberation as understood by the Left – the end of oppression and with it, exploitation – and instead, fit snugly into neoliberal ideologies of self-expression, that’s no reason for us to pay more than passing attention to these politics. But what follows from these ideas is a focus on who you are and what you say rather than what you do combined with a claiming of the mantle of progressivism, and this is where the problem lies for Left critics.

By placing language and identity as primary determinants of political standing, liberal identitarians open the door to cynical cooptation of our movements by elites. If identity and language are the central markers of one’s legitimacy, rather than organizational ties or policy positions, a person with the ‘right’ identity – say, a person of color and/or woman – can learn the magic words needed to gain entrance into the charmed circle of progressive politics and use her elevated position to further oppression.

And that’s exactly what we see. It’s why the RNC featured black men leading the crowd in “all lives matter” chants, emphasizing their Blackness throughout their speeches despite supporting policies that further the oppression of their fellow African-Americans. Their identities serve as a shield, enabling them to go further in their racism than their white counterparts.

It’s why Donald Trump, in his acceptance speech as the Republican Presidential nominee, claimed he’d look out for “the people of Ferguson,” even if his policy positions assure the opposite. As Beijer points out, Trump added a “Q” to his invocation of the LGBTQ community, one that wasn’t even in the draft remarks, going a step further than even Clinton in his incorporation of progressive political terminology to support reactionary policy, as in this case, where he insisted his Islamophobic policies are enacted “to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful ideology.”

If language is a key element of political practice, Trump at the moment of his enunciation of that “LGBTQ” is good. Which is patently absurd – one only needs to read the rest of the sentence to see this terminology is being mobilized to legitimize Islamophobia.

This is the basis of the left critique of a liberal identitarianism that implicitly imbues a homogeneity to identity groups. It’s a criticism of the “shut up and listen” approach to multi-racial or all-gender organizing. Left unspecified in this approach is which oppressed leadership ‘allies’ are to listen to, as the internal class division within oppressed groups is ignored in favor of a liberal essentialism that assumes everyone of X identity shares political views. In the case of black leadership in the anti-police brutality movement, should white people listen to David Clarke, the black sheriff who insists that the movement is “the enemy?” Or in my city, to the black clergy who organize pro-police rallies? If not, on what basis can we deny their standing?

The obvious answer is that what Clarke does – and what these clergy are doing – furthers the oppression of working class black people, whether or not they themselves happen to be black. This is the basis for rejecting their political legitimacy. Truthfully, only the most hardcore liberal identitarians would disagree with this, but it requires breaking with the logic of their analysis to condemn Clarke or these clergy. Similarly, a concern with what she does is our basis for rejecting Hillary Clinton as a feminist: she may be a woman, but what she does is oppress other, poorer, women, both at home and abroad. We can only reject Clarke, the clergy, or Clinton’s right to speak as members of the oppressed if we admit a primacy to what they do, not who they are or what they say.

We live in a world where, as R.L. Stephens puts it in a recent essay, “a Latino and an Asian-American crafted the Bush torture memos, which were then carried forward by the nation’s first Black president.” Diversity at the top doesn’t mean progress for us at the bottom – far from it. Trump mentioning Ferguson doesn’t make him any less of a white supremacist. Clinton claiming the mantle of feminism doesn’t make it true. When anyone claims political legitimacy, we should always respond with the question Stephens raises in his essay: What exactly is it that you do?

Socialism or Barbarism, Basically

100 years ago, Rosa Luxemburg wrote that society stood at a crossroads: socialism or barbarism. Today, it feels like we face a similar choice and not only in this country, with the Brexit vote surprising many on both sides of the Atlantic. Pundits pen polemics about how we may face a future of either “cosmopolitan finance capitalism” or “ethno-nationalist backlash.” This is a time of urgency, inflected with the recent murder of Jo Cox, attacks on Muslims and immigrants, and the murder of 49 people on Latin night at a gay club in Orlando.

In light of so much violence, it’s right for us to be unforgiving toward our political opponents. But as the Los Angeles Times’s Vincent Brevins put it, “Both Brexit and Trumpism are the very, very, wrong answers to legitimate questions that urban elites have refused to ask for thirty years.” Such a nuanced view doesn’t do well in the media, which favors the inflammatory formulations that drive clicks, not to mention its bias toward the status quo. But when the stakes are so high, we can’t leave political analysis to “the experts” – after all, democracy is premised on the ability of us amateurs to understand the world too. That means acknowledging the relatedness of economic anxiety and the racist, xenophobic explanations people are turning to if we’re to offer a socialist alternative to either the continued administration of austerity by liberals or the reactionary nationalism of Trump or Farage.

Our crisis stems from a decrease in the standards of living for working class people that started with the onset of neoliberalism in the late-1970s. While we often associate redistribution with the left, neoliberalism is a redistributive project too. A pro-market ideology that minimizes the welfare state while expanding the state’s repressive forces, it redistributes wealth upward and from the public commons to private ownership. It reinforces globalization, which is less the borderless world implied by its name and more an order that eases restrictions on the movement of capital while reinforcing restrictions on the movement of people, as evidenced by the growth in border patrols and deportations in the US and EU.

These twin projects contribute to the immiseration of the many to the benefit of the few, creating a feeling of suffocation, the basis for today’s racist right-wing resurgence. “Economic suffering and xenophobia/racism are not mutually exclusive,” explains The Intercept‘s Glenn Greenwald. Rather, he adds, “the opposite is true: The former fuels the latter, as sustained economic misery makes people more receptive to tribalistic scapegoating.” Responsibility for this suffering rests squarely with the neoliberal elite, be it Barack Obama, David Cameron, or Hillary Clinton, who have chosen to administer these policies even as they insist on their status as lesser evils to the monsters they’ve created.

But this only goes so far in explaining the gains won by Trump or his British counterparts. The other side of the picture is the sustained attack on the left that began not-coincidentally with neoliberalism’s early champions: Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Both figures began their tenure at the helm of the state with  attacks on unions – air traffic controllers in the US and miners in Britain. Paired with the anti-Communism that permeates the United States, this created a contemporary situation where many working class white people see the cynical racist populism of Trump as the only alternative to the status quo. Which is not to say there aren’t Trump supporters primarily and irrevocably driven by racism – there are and I think their numbers are large. To them, we should never address our arguments, not when we have millions of Sanders supporters and liberals to win over. But unfortunately for the rest of their base, Trump, Brexit, or any other white supremacist fever dreams are false saviors. The left’s is the only vision that can address inequality in the long term.

Labour MP Diane Abbott touched on this in a response to Brexit published in The Guardian, and it’s worth quoting at length:

“If only the false promise that Britain’s malaise of disenfranchisement, voicelessness and an economic system that rewards the rich at the expense of the poor could be fixed by leaving the EU. The idea that migrants or politicians in Brussels are the problem with modern, unequal Britain was the canard at the core of the referendum debate.

Britain’s problems come from a place much closer to home. They come from successive government policies that have promoted the financialisation of our economies and public services, thereby valuing profit over people. They come from a Tory government slashing public services and widening inequality under the dubious banner of austerity. And they come from a prime minister who was passionate about nothing but his own political survival.

These problems are so systemic today that fixing them will take a radical change to the structure of both our economy and political class. Returning to the past will not resolve the very real and interconnected global issues of our time: vast and rising wealth inequality, climate change and a foreign policy trapped in a cycle of destruction.”

Whether the context is Britain or the United States, “returning to the past” cannot address the cause of distress. While one Trump supporter recently told me immigrants are “an existential threat” to society, the true culprit is domestic: capitalism.

As Kim Moody argues in a recent piece for Jacobin, trade is only responsible for 20% of the losses in manufacturing jobs in this country. And despite a real trend toward offshoring, 85-90% of US manufacturing occurs domestically, far above the global average of 72%. Instead, it is productivity gains achieved through the intensification of labor and application of new technologies that are to blame for a decrease in manufacturing jobs, none of which would be possible were there a strong labor movement fighting to ensure livable working conditions and wages.

Rebuilding the labor movement then becomes a priority. Combating the intensification of work and application of new technologies can be done with an eye toward reversing the amount of income captured by capital, which increased its portion of the pie from 18.8 percent in 1979 to 26.2 percent in 2010. In a society coming undone by inequality, it’s workers, not capitalists, that should get more of the societal income.

Alongside demands for more of the value we produce going back into our wallets, today’s labor movement should argue unequivocally for a strong welfare state, whether in the form of a universal basic income or universal health care and social security, as well as bring back the old demands of “40 hours pay for 30 hours work” and full employment. These latter demands offer a means to incorporate those locked out of employment opportunities, both the urban and rural poor, offering an alternative to under-the-table employment and desperation. These demands are particularly urgent as most jobs created since the Great Recession are low-wage service work, sectors not under immediate threat by globalization but made unlivable by the perilous working conditions and pitiful remuneration they offer. This agenda grapples with technological advances that currently serve to discipline the labor force by posing a threat to jobs across industries. In a truly democratic society, where the working class majority has a say in how we distribute wealth and income, technological advances can be beneficial to all, decreasing the hours we work in a week and increasing the time available for leisure, creativity, and family.

I’ve been in Pittsburgh all month. The city’s experiencing a tech boom led by Google and Uber. The latter’s a particular source of anxiety: the company’s testing self-driving cars here and it’s created a panicked murmur about how technology may render workers redundant, a sore spot for a city devastated by the collapse of the steel industry. It’s these concerns – of getting left out, of declining futures and an undemocratic elite benefiting from our misery – that made Bernie Sanders’s social democratic message resonate, a development that aids the left in having reacquainted millions of people with the existence of a left beyond liberalism. Having seen the numbers of people open to this alternative, we need to get moving. This is not an academic debate – these are the questions animating the day. Our success in advancing left-wing answers and implementing them in practice will determine which road we take: socialism, or barbarism.

Always On

 

By the time Carol Hanisch’s essay “The Personal is Political” appeared in the 1970 anthology Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation, that slogan had become a feminist rallying cry. A response to the era’s view of politics as concerned with a narrowly defined set of issues differentiated from the private domestic world, it challenged this divide.

That was the context and in it, ‘the personal is political’ was revolutionary. It resituated women’s experiences – of domestic and sexual violence, of relegation to the home, etcetera – as political problems rather than personal failings. Consciousness-raising groups provided space for women to measure their experiences against those of others, with analytical rigor transforming these stories into a collective understanding of the issues facing women. This overlapped with street work – marches, demonstrations, politicking, and strikes. In short, praxis: the feminist movement, a power bloc forcing change in the country’s institutions and social relations. That era was far from perfect – its racial, class, and sexual biases are familiar territory – but it had a movement, one that came up with theories of change through collective political practice.

Conditions are different today. “The personal is political” is mainstream. Entire publications run on a hot take profit model where think pieces proliferate over the latest ‘problematic’ celebrity, the ethical qualms of cultural appropriation, and the morality of interracial dating (I wish I was kidding about that last one).

Which isn’t to say we erred – after all, who could have seen this coming? But the congruity of these politics and neoliberalism should alert us to the stakes. If we understand neoliberalism as a class project of upward redistribution, a withdrawal of the welfare state alongside an expansion of the state’s repressive functions, our turn to the personal starts to look like a means of coping with rather than reversing the damage.

Take the discourse around “self-care” as an example. It takes an existing reality – we can hardly make it through each day – and offers it back to us wrapped in a language that insists we celebrate the actions we need to undertake to survive. Responsibility for social reproduction falls on our shoulders once again. Whereas we once sought collective solutions to our personal problems, we now live the outcome of the neoliberal counter-revolution which, in Margaret Thatcher’s words, may have taken economics as the method, but its object was our souls. That self-care is more therapy than politics should then come as no surprise. Which is not to minimize the need for therapy! But so long as we conflate politics with what we do to get by, we’ll forever be keeping ourselves healthy enough to hold a shit underpaid job and calling that politics.

The stick has shifted too far in the opposite direction of where it was when feminists came up with “the personal is political.” Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that the thinking behind the slogan has been forgotten in this undoubtedly improved world. Today we need an off switch, a limit beyond which we understand ourselves to be living as individuals. What if we recognise that, to paraphrase a refrain of Freddie DeBoer’s, the culture you prefer is not your politics, that while the personal is surely political, it is not politics? A politics that emphasizes winning collective gains over manipulating symbols and language as if material progress flows from better ideas rather than the reverse. If we can’t agree on this, we doom ourselves to a navel-gazing that walls us off from those not yet part of our movements.

In a recent post, I wrote about the people immersed in the political culture I’m describing. As I put it,

“These are people who want progress but are being sucked into the morass of conflations of identity and politics. This is concerning not only because of its lack of strategic efficacy but also because it burns people out. To be always on, to have your identity, your cultural preferences, your social circle and your dating life all bound up with and signifying your politics is a recipe for exhaustion.”

I received a lot of feedback on this. People told me they knew exactly what I meant about the exhaustion. And I’m not surprised: I lived these politics too, where cultural preferences, relationships, language choice, and social circles were scrutinized for political imperfections, which then reflected back my worth or failings as a political actor. It was gutting.

But as I pulled away from this understanding of politics, I breathed easier. While identitarians, social justice activists, radicals, Woke Olympians, or whatever else you want to call them may not incorporate class analysis as often as socialists do – a relic of the what Carl Beijer calls “liberal identitarianism” – most of them are radicals. They can be won over and if some of us don’t engage them, we cede further ground to the Democrats, the neoliberals, the non-profits, to anyone but the left.

Left-Wing Language for Your Right-Wing Needs!

Because I hate myself, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately watching language created by the left get taken up by the right. Conservatives are wielding the language masterfully, leaving many well meaning progressives disoriented and asserting the righteousness of any cause that comes packaged in the correct words, forgetting that language is meant to advance our goals, to serve us, not the other way around.

I’m not the first to note that a lot of activists today are fixated on language and that with this comes a fear of saying the wrong thing and getting iced out of a movement. The flip side of this is that when someone speaks the right words, we assume it means they’re one of us. But there’s a problem: language can be learned by anyone, it can be taught in business seminars and in online forums. If we don’t subordinate language to the material changes we’re fighting for, we lose the ability to draw clear lines between us and them.

Who’s Doing This?

Zionists are the cutting edge when it comes to hitching progressive language to reactionary ends. For the past few years, the attention of the American Zionist movement has been focused on college campuses. Campuses are bellwethers of broader political trends, making what happens on campus important for those concerned with future societal developments. For Zionists, it’s the growth of pro-Palestine groups and the BDS (Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions) movement that’s the most worrying. Their response is a case study in the use of left-wing language by right-wing assholes.

Take the first #StopBDS Conference hosted by the Israeli mission to the UN and World Jewish Congress at the UN headquarters in New York this week (that’s right: a UN conference with a hashtag in the name – welcome to 2016). As Rania Khalek reported from this gathering of the trolls, the speakers struck a repetitive message: “Speak left,” said Frank Luntz. “Speak the language of the left,” reiterated Yosef Tarshish, chairperson of the World Union of Jewish Students.

What does a Zionist “speaking left” look like? On campus, it means yoking one’s Jewish identity to support for Israel and then claiming to feel “unsafe” in response to pro-Palestine organizing. The impulse to make this claim comes from the rise of progressive students demanding ‘safe spaces’ for members of oppressed identities. While I’m not opposed to this, as it comes from the long and ugly history of violence against the oppressed by those with privilege, as I’ve said before, this demand is becoming one of the prefered tactics of campus Zionists.

A letter sent out by the university chancellor to UC Santa Cruz students offers a great example. Here’s an excerpt:

“On our campus, which has a long and proud history of student engagement in critical issues of equity and social justice, I want to be sure we acknowledge differences of opinion and work to maintain civility in the midst of turmoil.

In student government, as is their right, the Student Union Assembly this week voted to reinstate a resolution urging the University of California to divest from Israel. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement has generated passionate opinions on both sides.

I’m concerned this resolution will have a chilling effect on individuals within our campus community. However unintentional, its passage may create an environment in which some of our Jewish students feel alienated and less welcome on our campus.”

The chancellor invokes the campus history of social justice, positioning himself as a progressive. From there, he brings up the student union’s resolution in favor of BDS and insists this may make Jewish students feel “alienated” and “less welcome.”

More accurate would be to say the resolution could make Zionists feel unwelcome. But the chancellor’s conflation of Jewish identity with support for Israel allows him to invoke a discourse of safety for oppressed identities as the bludgeon that it often becomes; a human shield, as it were, against criticism. That this conflation inflames anti-Semitism is curiously not a concern of these douchebags, who are happy to pretend all Jews support Israel. Much better to take what power you can from the discourse of oppressed groups and use it to cover for support for an apartheid state. And that’s what makes black Zionists like Chloe Valdary doubly valuable for Israel, as they can make additional claims to the need for safety, cynically counterposing black and Palestinian struggles – a particularly coveted trait when these movements are forging stronger ties.

To take another egregious example, let’s look at Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

A while back, Clinton’s team produced a chart of “intersections.” Indecipherable, it invoked the necessary know-how of the language of intersectionality as a signal to voters: “Clinton’s with it,” it shouted. No matter that the chart was absurd and that Clinton’s policies have and will continue to reinforce, not undo, oppression. No matter that Clinton doesn’t even pay her interns, who more likely than not are overwhelmingly women.

As she asked at a campaign rally in February, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow…would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community? Would that make immigrants feel more welcome?”

“No!” her audience responded, but this cheeky remark was to a strawman – no one, not Bernie Sanders, not even weirdos on the internet, claims it will. But it’s enough to know the language for Clinton, to “speak left” as Luntz put it.

Fortunately, most working people aren’t fooled by this insincerity. We want redistribution. We want real feminist and antiracist gains: abortion on demand, universal health care, union protections and a $15 minimum wage for home care and fast food workers, defunding the police and an end to mass incarceration. Clinton won’t offer these but her cynical deployment of the language of the left is a feignt to pretend otherwise, and a quick look at the unbearable Clinton supporters penning articles about her radicalism is evidence that this is convincing a fair number of voters.

Why Does This Matter?

As usual, Adolph Reed Jr said it best: “[identity] politics is a class politics, the politics of the left-wing of neoliberalism.” What he means by it is that rather than countering a strawmanned ‘class-first’ politics – the ‘break up the banks and stop there’ fantasy evoked by Clinton -the language of identity politics is elastic enough to incorporate the bourgeoisie along with the working class, particularly when it uncritically links identities to political ideologies.

It’s how we get the “black misleadership class” in Reed’s terms, bourgeois African Americans purportedly speaking on behalf of “the black community.” By pretending this community isn’t internally riven by class divides, this essentialized view of a definitionally progressive blackness lets the black bourgeoisie fill the symbolic role of a black voice, immune from criticism by their allies, who are told to shut up and listen, not question the political credentials of the speaker. This doesn’t just cause chaos at the level of institutional politics, though it does that too. It also opens up space for incoherence and misleadership in movements.

As Douglas Williams put it, “we have gotten to a point where any critique of tactics used by oppressed communities can result in being deemed “sexist/racist/insert oppression here-ist” and cast out of the Social Justice Magic Circle.” While Williams is writing of the need to build a broader, more effective movement, the phenomena he’s referring to – the belief that the oppressed shouldn’t be criticised – is not only linked to a condescending belief that oppressed groups can’t argue their views, it hands a cover to conservative projects as long as they’re led by members of an oppressed group.

Teach for America is one of the most prominent organizations to take advantage of this opening. As Drew Franklin detailed at Orchestrated Pulse, Teach for America faced a “race problem” in the wake of the devastation of the New Orleans public school system. In Franklin’s words, this led it to “re-brand itself as a Civil Rights organization. Selling such an image necessitated a new class of political operatives, one that was “majority-led by the oppressed group.”” Yet again switching out the substantive and often socialist demands of the civil rights movement for symbols, TFA could claim membership under the umbrella of social justice just as long as it had enough people of color on its payroll and knew the right words to use.

I can’t help but think that was the purpose of a recent event hosted by TFA Massachusetts. Titled “#StayWoke: Social Justice through Hashtag Activism,” the event promised to help attendees struggle for racial justice, even as the organization hosting it eviscerates black communities across the country. Want to know someone who looks like he attended one of these trainings? Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, pictured here wearing a shirt that reads #StayWoke while speaking with TFA alum and black misleader-par-excellence Deray McKesson despite the fact that Twitter has a severe diversity problem.

And that gets to the heart of the issue. Neoliberalism, capital, or university administrations have no problem accommodating symbols. New language can be learned by hiring a social justice consultant, new faces can coexist with old in high places, granted the majority remain shut out. It’s calls for redistribution that don’t jive with the status quo but these are ignored in favor of those demanding the easily assimilable.

Aviva Chomsky skillfully addresses this in the context of the university in a recent piece. “While schools have downplayed or ignored student demands for changes in admissions, tuition, union rights, pay scales, and management prerogatives,” she writes, they’ve incorporated the more symbolic and individualized demands “into increasingly depoliticized cultural studies programs and business-friendly, market-oriented academic ways of thinking.” Those demanding changes of language – apologies, inclusive rhetoric, an end to microaggressions – are recognized while those advocating for prison divestment  or an increase in material support for students from oppressed groups are shut out.

The critical stance I and the writers I’m quoting adhere to isn’t a condemnation of anti-racism or feminism as such – I support both the symbolic and redistributive demands of college students. Rather, as Ben Norton wrote in a post on Reed and identity politics, it’s “a condemnation of a politics that is centered on social constructs, like race or gender, rather than on material conditions.” If we focus our politics around achieving material changes, this necessarily entails fighting oppression wherever it appears. But to hitch this struggle to redistribution prevents those opposed to this project from claiming the mantle of social justice.

Where Does This Leave Us?

First and foremost, we shouldn’t blame those confused by this rhetoric – indeed, I was one of them until very recently. These are people who want progress but are being sucked into the morass of conflations of identity and politics. This is concerning not only because of its lack of strategic efficacy but also because it burns people out. To be always on, to have your identity, your cultural preferences, your social circle and your dating life all bound up with and signifying your politics is a recipe for exhaustion. And I’ve seen it happen: either these activists enter into non-profits and lose sight of radical movement work altogether, or they give up completely, shifting into a consumption or lifestyle politics. If we want stronger movements, we need to argue against these politics.

But for those in positions of power – people like Luntz or Clinton, groups like TFA – cynically emptying out the force of these anti-capitalist words, we should be merciless in denying them access to this cover. Where those in power seek to insulate themselves from criticism by invoking the language of the left, we need to insist on placing these words back in the context from which they came: the struggle against capital and for the oppressed. By refusing to bestow any magic on words, we can render them useless to the powerful and in doing so, make the sides in this fight unmistakably clear.

i’m beginning to think of the MBTA as a criminal operation

Okay, maybe I’m being over-dramatic. But in my defense, I just stood at Ruggles station for 40 minutes with nearly 100 other people waiting for the 28 or 23, buses that go through Dudley Square to Mattapan and Ashmont, respectively. It was windy, maybe 35 degrees out with some cold rain. A lot of people had little kids with them.

Lately the 28, which is always a double-length bus, has been a single bus. That means would-be riders get stranded at stops once the bus is so full that no more people could possibly fit inside. If I’m being honest, that regularly happens with the double buses too, but with these single buses? Abandon all hope.

I won’t deny that my annoyance at having spent so much time in the freezing cold tonight is part of my motivation in writing this, but most of the urge comes from a far larger objection to the recent decision by those who run the MBTA to raise the fare by nearly 10%. Our train cars are some of the oldest and most unsafe in the country, and for those of us on the bus lines, particularly in the poorest parts of the city, the situation is even worse. The census tracts that the 28 and 23 drive through are some of the poorest in Boston, as well as overwhelmingly black and Latino (out of the crowd waiting for the bus, I spotted only two other people who looked white besides myself). Tonight, having spent a while listening to moms worry to strangers about their kids getting sick from being outdoors for so long in the wind and rain – in one of the richest cities in the United States – I can’t help but think of the people “running” (read: neglecting) this public transit system as, at best, criminally incompetent.

If they were driving the bus I’m writing this from, the one I waited so long for, we would have already crashed.