It’s barely secret that numerous local Occupy groups have encountered allegations of internal racism and sexism. When people who are marginalized or sidelined in the outside world feel that happening inside movement groups, they tend to get upset. I don’t really have trouble seeing why that makes sense, but a lot of people do, so I’d like to explain as briefly as possible one main reason for it.
Activists hopefully understand that racism, sexism/heterosexism, and ageism in movement circles are rooted in their institutionalized counterparts in the rest of society. But what keeps them from effectively preventing or even addressing these problems’ reemergence in and between activist groups? I believe the problem is that many leftist intellectuals insist oppressions such as sexism and racism are secondary to classism: the exploitation, alienation, and subjugation of labor. The Occupy movement is fertile ground for this ignorance, and I’m glad that it’s being challenged in many quarters.
Slavoj Žižek’s recent column really brought this home for me. In his commentary, pop-left darling Žižek falsely identifies the Occupy phenomenon as a monist movement about economics alone. But he’s not that far off, actually; he may be more right than wrong.
Žižek is positively giddy that, in his perception, the Left seems to be abandoning its attachment to struggles against racism and sexism, finally getting back to the real work of fighting capitalism.
In a kind of Hegelian triad*, the western left has come full circle: after abandoning the so-called “class struggle essentialism” for the plurality of anti-racist, feminist, and other struggles, capitalism is now clearly re-emerging as the name of the problem.
Yes, the was italicized in the original. I think he really believes all other problems are not just subordinate to and exacerbated by exploitative economic relations, but that “racism, sexism, and other struggles” are strictly rooted in capitalism.
He’s not alone. Many hardcore Marxists, and even reformed Marxists as most style themselves these days, have long lamented the Left’s foray into “identity politics”, that murky expanse in which the “special interests” of people of color, women, queers, and sometimes even young folks are taken into account, or even raised to the same level of concern as workers’ grievances against capital. Those who believe economics is the central (or only) battlefield of struggle usually admit some or all of these groups are oppressed, but they add caveats. They say (1) people of color, women, queers, etc. are primarily oppressed as workers; and (2) capitalism is the root cause of all oppression, so surmounting it will naturally lead to universal liberation.
What’s really going on here? How is it that someone with a supposedly sophisticated mind like Žižek’s can believe that capitalism is really the only problem (“the problem”)?
Here’s the deal: capitalism is “reemerging as the name of the problem” because the OWS phenomenon started with a massive influx of people who are new to radicalism and radical ideas. These folks first came together mainly around economic concerns, i.e., Wall Street vs Main Street, 1% vs. 99%, etc. Then shifty Marxian ideologues swooped in to coopt Occupy Wall Street, along with its various manifestations and energy. The truth is, they did a pretty poor job of this, I gather largely because OWS and its offshoots were steadfastly anti-authoritarian. Still, as a social phenomenon that lacks the sophistication developed through generations of struggle and learned analysis, Occupy is highly susceptible to oversimplified ideologies and sectarianism. Craven Marxist hacks apparently cannot help but try to take advantage of this, even through the pages of mainstream newspapers.
Make no mistake: materialist fixation (also known as “economism” or “class struggle reductionism”, as Žižek noted) in North American movements means in practice writing off or at least subordinating major concerns of pretty much everyone outside the white, male so-called “middle class” (not to mention groups like young people, among whom consciousness raising of oppression is barely active). This doesn’t seem to matter to folks like Žižek, because they can draw the privileged into their camp with promises that the resulting vanguard will take care of women and people of color (who are technically welcome, after all) “after the revolution” (guided by the remaining white men who stay in board).
There’s nothing like an immature movement to make people with immature analysis feel righteous. And there’s nothing like a lack of real organizing experience to let someone believe exclusive ideologies won’t have exclusive effects on participation. At last, there’s nothing like being a straight white male to enable one to decide that racism and sexism are secondary to classism.
Even if you buy into a theory that poses a primacy of economics over cultural, interpersonal, and other social dynamics, consider the implications of organizing around class issues to the general exclusion of anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-ageism, and so forth. This is what some incarnations of the Occupy phenomenon have tended toward; women and people of color (too many links to list) especially are taking notice. And they’re not just charging that the Wall Street-oriented focus doesn’t include their particular interests; they’re noting that traditional race, sex, and age-based hierarchies are appearing within Occupy groups.
To truly transform society, a social movement will need to be radical (seek out and strike at the roots of problems), and its approach to the array of oppressions will need to be holistic. To attract the kind of diverse participation that makes a movement worth really standing behind, it will need to be at least pluralistic in this crucial regard. Sidelining or subordinating the major, legitimate concerns of people from marginalized communities and identities all but guarantees a movement dominated by people with backgrounds and privileges in tune with the top 20% that really owns and runs society, if not the 1%. And even though Occupy might be under the impression that the 99% are one big happy monolith, reality begs to differ. Failing to acknowledge this reality is essentially terminal for any radical social movement in the US, Canada, or Western Europe.
The good news is, there are elements inside most Occupy manifestations that I’ve heard of — including straight white males — who are willing to challenge failures of inclusiveness. There are folks effectively making the case for holistic or at least pluralistic approaches. Occupy may well be headed in the right direction, not least because its failure to empower an official leadership has not allowed the narrowly, materially focused among them to heed typical calls of “let’s just move on” from matters of race, gender, and so forth. That said, the failure to have accountable leadership has enabled unofficial hierarchies to develop, and this militates in the wrong direction, almost no matter their character.
If you’re participating in an Occupy general assembly or working group and feel like calls for inclusiveness and diverse objectives are bogging down the process, I urge you to rethink. There is power in movement and organizational diversity, and there is something to the idea that addressing oppressions other than hierarchy and classism is critical to the endeavor of radical social transformation.
* (I wouldn’t worry too much if the meaning of “Hegelian triad” doesn’t jump out at you; it’s pretty clear with references of this nature that you aren’t Žižek’s intended audience. There’s no use for that phrase except as a wink to those steeped in the teachings of the pre-Marxian philosopher Hegel. He’s just talking to the academics and bookworms; he doesn’t mind if the rest miss his message. If you haven’t read Hegel, maybe you don’t really matter to Žižek.)
Photo credit: Will Stevens/AP