Domestic Violence and the Anti-Police Brutality Movement

Listen to a police scanner for a few hours and you’ll notice a pattern: there are a lot of calls about domestic violence. In fact, there are more calls about domestic violence than anything else.

No surprise; many of us already know domestic violence is common. Yet the subject has been largely absent from discussion in the movement against police brutality.

A significant wing of the movement wants to ultimately abolish the police, or at least render them redundant: defunded, demilitarized. But the number one reason we invite cops into our communities despite knowing the dangers we expose ourselves and our neighbors to by doing so remains outside the purview of the movement.

Domestic violence is exceedingly common, but that doesn’t make it any less terrifying when it happens. When a loved one, more often than not a man, inflicts violence on his partner or family member, more often than not a woman, victims or bystanders have very little time to take action to minimize the harm. Who can blame them for calling the police, the rapid-response force our society has in place for just such emergencies?

At this point, it’s important to acknowledge how futile calling the police can be, even if one doesn’t object to the police at an institution. In an astounding number of cases, cops respond to domestic violence calls by arresting the victim, or both the victim and perpetrator. They can insist on arresting someone even if, as Matthew Desmond points out in Evicted, it results in the eviction of the victim from her residence.

And lest we forget, many cops are perpetrators of domestic violence themselves. Studies have found police officers abuse their loved ones anywhere from two-to-four times the national rate. This heightened proclivity for violence – whether preexisting their time on the force or a product of cop culture – means cops are hardly the group we should look to for help in situations of domestic violence. Further, research finds cops commit sexual assault and violence against predominately women, predominantly vulnerable women – i.e. women of color, working class women, and sex workers – at alarming rates. These are the same women disproportionately affected by domestic violence.

All this adds up to a sense that when shit hits the fan at home, calling the police can be a recipe for disaster.

The anti-police brutality movement enters at this point in the story, rightfully pointing out that calling the police, particularly in communities of color, places you and your community at risk of police brutality. Prison abolitionists proclaim a need to stop allowing police into neighborhoods. One thinks back to the Black Panthers chant: “no more pigs in our community!”

If we want to make these demands more than slogans, we have to think about what an alternative system for addressing domestic violence, a problem afflicting all of our neighborhoods, would look like.

I’m not even close to the first to think about this. In 1979 in Boston, where I live, residents of Roxbury and Dorchester, predominately black neighborhoods, instituted a system of safe houses to offer an alternative to calling the police for victims of domestic violence. The safe houses – indicated by a green porch light – were open to people escaping violence at home, promising a safe haven in the home of a community member trained in handling domestic abuse victims.

This system prefigured today’s complex of non-profits, some of which offer similar, if more formalized, spaces for victims of domestic violence. Unfortunately, safe havens cannot address those few moments when violence erupts at home, nor do they enjoy the robust backing of the state, reliant instead on grants and philanthropy for sustenance.

I don’t know the answer to what changes we can or should demand of the state that might render the police unnecessary in situations of domestic violence. For the moment, many people don’t call the police in situations of domestic violence for all the reasons I’ve mentioned –cops are ineffective, cops threaten further violence, cops can be cause for eviction, etcetera – preferring to come up with whatever liveable compromise they can in a difficult situation. But to pretend this isn’t of relevance to a movement against police violence and for police abolition is to sweep the concerns of victims of domestic violence under the rug, something we, in these intersectional times, cannot possibly countenance.

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.

Storytelling

In a review for The Baffler, Amber A’Lee Frost takes a recent anthology on college sexual assault as a jumping off point to touch upon some concerning weaknesses in “the conversation” about sexual assault. Frost’s piece addresses a few issues I want to emphasize.

First, focusing on campus sexual assault without mentioning, as Frost puts it, the existence of “an outside world that’s even less safe” than campus is a problem. It’s one that stems from the class bias that comes with a focus on college campuses, particularly elite university campuses. Life at these institutions is far from representative of the average college student’s experience, much less the average sexual assault survivor’s. And there’s nothing wrong with that! But if we want to improve women’s conditions in society at large – and I believe we do – feminist movements on campus need to perpetually push back against this distorted focus, as the media, courts, police, etc will always privilege certain voices over others – this much we know.

I say ‘we’ because I’m part of these movements – on my campus as both a mentor to undergraduates and someone dealing with a university that’s inadequately addressing sexual harassment and assault  (boy could I tell you some horror stories). While we have the most power to force change in our own institutions, we need a more effective strategy of leveraging the spotlight on campuses to agitate for more resources in society at large for addressing sexual assault. That means increasing the options available to those who have been raped or assaulted other than going to the police (who are a source of violence against women in a number of ways), arguing for universal health care, rolling back the attack on women’s reproductive rights, and fighting for affordable housing so people can more easily leave those abusing them.

Second, the packaging and delivery of survivors’ stories deserves criticism. I don’t mean criticism of survivors but of the publications profiting off their pain. Frost writes expertly on this and its connection to the economics of the online publishing industry, and her piece made me think of this one from last year. It’s about how some women can only get published by writing about their trauma. As a young woman toying around with writing myself, it’s clear I could get published writing about being sexually assaulted. But that would entail committing myself to a future where anyone can learn intimate details of my life with a quick Google search rather than when I’m ready to tell them. I admire anyone who writes such stories but I can’t help wanting to burn down the outlets that greedily churn that shit out for clicks without concern for the women offering up their trauma.

Which brings up a related point: that the debate around sexual assault is overwhelmingly about stories from survivors can be both a) an improvement from when we ignored this problem completely as a society and b) a serious issue when it comes to my dude’s eternal question: what is to be done? As Frost writes “while these acts of public testimony are crucial, and therapeutic, for survivors, readers of We Believe You are curiously left asking much the same question that one of the victims here raises: ‘What am I supposed to do?'” She describes the anthology as leaving its reader directionless, and my years as a feminist in Boston – a college campus-centric city if there ever was one – feel similar. A lot of smart people write about why it is that a focus on the individual rises to the fore in the age of neoliberalism, which can accommodate – and sell! – individuals’ stories but not structural change, so I won’t try my hand at it. Instead, I’ll point out that this focus on the individual is pervasive when it comes to just about any feminist issue: abortion? Shout it! Sex work? Tell us whether you feel empowered!

I don’t want to disparage the people who support these strategies – fighting stigmas is good and I support them as people – but I am concerned with the strategic power of a focus on stories. I think it’s a shaky foundation for a movement. If all is predicated on what survivors want, what do we do when survivors disagree? It’s a bizarre parallel to the essentialized view of oppressed groups I wrote about the other day, where differential claims within “the black community” or “the trans community” become impossible to parse. I agree that it’s unproductive to judge the way any particular individual handles their assault; where I disagree is with the idea that this means we can’t discuss the efficacy of movements against sexual assault and the solutions they propose. It’s exactly this sort of critical analysis that Frost is doing in her review. People interpret their experiences differently, be these experiences as a woman, a person of color, a rape survivor, any combination of these identities, or anything else. What we as a movement must do is analyze the problems we’re facing and work out the best way forward.

A good friend of mine, one of the hardest working feminist organizers I know, has lately taken to saying that it’s wrong to say there is a feminist movement today, because there isn’t. I think she’s referring to the absence of collective feminist struggle – we have feminists, but not a feminist movement. I don’t think she’s entirely wrong. I don’t know what we do about that – I’m thinking out loud here – but we need to take her provocation, and Frost’s, seriously.

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.

Neoliberal Feminism

My “articles to read on feminism this morning” happened to include an interesting pair of explanations as to why so much feminist energy has turned away from collective struggles:

From Sarah Jaffe in the New Republic:
“Zeisler cites Marjorie Ferguson’s 1990 argument about the “feminist fallacy”—the idea that images of powerful women in the media translate into power for women out in the world. In this moment we too often fall under the spell of this and of another kind of “feminist fallacy”: that the success of powerful women will trickle down to the rest of us. In fact, as Zeisler notes, famous and powerful women often mistake what is best for them for what is good for all women; when we put too much weight on the feelings of celebrities, we end up cringing when their uninformed opinions, divorced from solidarity with anyone who might be affected, end up making headlines and even policy, as when Meryl Streep and Lena Dunham put their own feelings ahead of actual research and organizing on the subject of the decriminalization of sex work.

In addition to the feminist fallacy, Zeisler introduces us to what she calls “feminism’s uncanny valley,” the space in which ideas, objects, and narratives offer a superficial similarity to feminism but upon a closer look, turn out to be “deeply unsettling.” Instead of liberation, they wind up being about “personal identity and consumption.”

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is of course the peak example of such an uncanny valley, but even more insidious than a self-help book for the upwardly mobile are corporate initiatives that purport to “empower” women. Take Walmart’s Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative, launched just months after the Supreme Court ruled against the women in what would have been the largest-ever class action sex discrimination lawsuit, Dukes v. Walmart. The company undertook a massive PR operation to appear woman-friendly, when the most important thing Walmart could do to empower women economically would be to raise its bare-minimum wages. It took further collective action from Walmart’s workers to push the company, finally, into a small wage hike after a series of strikes and protests rippled across the country, led by workers like Venanzi Luna, Tyfani Faulkner, and Janet Sparks.”

And from Abi Wikinson in Current Affairs (a great new publication worth reading):
“Feminist discourse on social media also focuses disproportionately on a relatively narrow range of issues. Sex work legislation notwithstanding, the conversation topics with most traction are concerned with either language, pop culture, or identity. Conspicuously underrepresented is consideration of issues concerning material reality. It’s not that the stuff that is discussed is always unimportant, but it’s a very limited version of feminism that doesn’t position women’s living conditions, their ability to care for themselves and their children, their financial independence and their ability to extract themselves from abusive situations as central concerns.

Partly, this is a reflection of wider trends rather than something specific to social media—U.S. culture has a strong influence on all aspects of the English language internet, including conversations about feminism. From a U.K. perspective, there has always been a weird class blindness to political discourse in the U.S., which lacks the labor tradition of European countries. (Admittedly, the sudden rise of Bernie Sanders may challenge these preconceptions.)

Regardless of wider influences, the very fact that discussions are happening online encourages a disconnect from material reality. Identity and language are the topics most relevant to gender as it’s experienced actually on the internet, so it’s logical—in some ways—that these might be the things that internet feminism focuses on. This would be less of a problem if “internet feminism” was a distinct subsection of the movement, but there are good reasons to believe that online discourse is influencing the priorities of feminism as a whole.”


Now, whether feminism is distinct from other identity-based political movements in being particularly prone to neoliberal cooptation has yet to be convincingly argued, at least from what I’ve seen. That said, whether due to the optics of media coverage or the unique amount of time and energy (and publications seeking the sort of confessional pieces Wilkinson refers to in her piece), feminism may be the richest site to study neoliberal identitarianism in the way these writers (and Andi Ziegler, the author of the book Jaffe is reviewing) do.

As for Wilkinson’s argument that the internet is itself an explanatory factor for neoliberal feminism’s idealist tendencies, it’s unclear how the fact that these discussions take place on the internet causes such a disconnect (in contrast to the wider political and economic influences Wilkinson brackets). However, there is an argument to made that our ability to engage online as feminists, influencing real life feminist organizing – a controversial assertion from Wilkinson but one that I think is undeniably true- will exacerbate feminism’s most individualistic and self-destructive tendencies in the same way it would any identity-based movement.

After all, it’s much easier to dismiss someone’s argument by attacking their character if you aren’t in the same room with them. I’ve seen arguments that tore organizations apart when they took place online play out as productive debates in person due to the basic fact that there is a threshold of commitment to material progress that must be reached for someone to show up to a meeting, and once you and your supposed adversary meet face-to-face in some godforsaken church or library, you realize how much you hold in common.

That said, I remain open to being convinced that there is something distinct in online communication that shapes our political strategies and thinking as well as our social behavior. But for the moment, I wonder if so much attention to the online elements of social movements isn’t one more product of the very media economies and attraction to discontinuities rather than constants that are being identified in these pieces. Both these authors acknowledge and seem open to that possibility, and I can only hope that the next few years see a return to the type of materialist feminist analysis they’re offering.