"if you don't have a strategy, you're part of someone else's strategy."
– a. toffler
"What can we do today, so that tomorrow we can do what we are unable to do today?"
– Paulo Freire
When you have power over someone, it’s important to acknowledge it. If you don’t acknowledge that you have power, it’s hard to examine your use of it. If you’re not paying attention to how you’re using your power, you will come to abuse it, and you won’t notice.
Sometimes, when people are uncomfortable having power over others, they deal with this by telling jokes about it. These jokes are about either denying that they have power, or denying that they’d ever be capable of abusing it. For instance:
- Jokes about how people who they have power over are really in charge (e.g.: “Sometimes I say my secretary is *my* boss”, “I’m the teacher, but the kids are really running the show”.
- Jokes about how they could abuse power. (“Next thing you know, I’ll be having you interns fetch my dry cleaning and babysitting my kids.”)
- Jokes about how people could overthrow them. (“I see you three gossiping. Plotting a revolt?”)
- Jokes about being an oppressive boss (“I’m such a big mean ogre.”)
- Pretend unreasonable orders (“We all have to work until midnight… haha just kidding, go enjoy your family”)
These jokes are especially bad when they’re told by a powerful person to someone they outrank. They’re basically the humor equivalent of saying, “You’d better tell me that I don’t actually have power over you and that I never misuse it.”
Getting people to tell you that you’re a good person doesn’t help you to treat others well. Acknowledging your power, thinking about how you use it, and soliciting and listening to actual feedback does.
If your boss does this, recognise it for what it is - manipulative behaviour, the aim of which is to make you ignore their power.
This article discusses the piece Left For Dead which has been doing the rounds on Twitter this morning. Judging by the shares the article resonated with quite a few people. The one element that we will not consider here are those regarding the SWP and the People’s Assembly. We will concentrate rather on some more historical and philosophical issues.
Much of the piece appears to be a disaggreement with the use of the term The Left as a means with which to categorise and sift political movements under such a broad category - a heuristic. Such a claim is a mistake and an ethical one at that: “intelligent and pleasant human beings are neatly categorised alongside Stalin, Mao and Harriet Harman”. “The USSR was left wing, as are both China and Cuba. If that sentence incensed you, good. Direct your fury at the terminology, not its critic.”. The Left is a “hopelessly nebulous definition”. It is an insult to lump “Diggers, Luddites, Chartists, Communards, Suffragettes, Black Panthers, Stonewallers, Zapatistas, Pussy Rioters, Occupiers” in with mass murderers and so on.
The problem remains however that there is a definative family resemblance between all these items. This uses the term used by Wittgenstein against pre-ordained and fixed categorisations of resemblance between things:
"Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games". I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’ "—but look and see whether there is anything common to all. For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that….And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail. . I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances"; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family."1
For example, the Black Panthers were influenced by Marxism as much as Stalin, the Communards took ideas from the Left as much as the USSR, some of the Suffragettes formed part of the socialist internationals that were criticised by Lenin and so on. There are shared patterns between Blair and Bakunin, shared normative/ethical commitments, shared methodologies of thought, shared histories on which both parties reflect - ideas such as shared ownership (the idea of the state as a shared ownership is still within this category), freedom, solidarity and so on. There is not a definite set of parameters with which we can define The Left, but a family resembalance between all these that is more than plausible and makes the whole notion less nebulous. While it is of course true that “Before the 1780s, “the left” did not exist, yet the world was not one of unquestioning obedience to authority”, it is difficult not to think of The Left as a crystalisation and reinforcement of those struggles which certainly accelerated them by providing certain clear poles of attraction and a tradition of thought.
The denial of the fact that movements implicated in awful violence against innocent people - more often than not the very people they fought for - were of the Left appears to be a dodge of questions crucial to ask in order to not make the same mistakes these movements made.
The interesting question is surely, for example, how did the animating pursuits of the Russian revolution - doubtless right - end with the reopening of the same prisons as the Tsar? How did it come to happen that workers working to preserve the movement of the revolution rode against workers attempting to preserve the movement of the revolution (as with Kronstadt)? These are the hard questions and not limited to the obvious legacy of Russia, which still apparently dominates the imaginary of the Left - even when the concept of the Left is being attacked. To not recognise the danger in the ideas we hold to also create horrors or simply lose appears a more significant failure of thought and ethics than to group people within the same category.
There is nothing new here. And yet it still resonates. Yet this still makes it difficult to say that the piece is “provocative” as a result. Since the split between anarchists and the mainstream of Marxism the question of authority and structure has been posed and re-posed. Myriad left-communists, anarchists, autonomists, left-Marxists and so on have made the point that the current structures of the Left are utterly inadequate strategically and tactically. Anarchists polemicise against Leftism continuously. A piece like Solidarity Federation’s Fighting For Ourselves makes these points clearly. Even a figure like Lenin spends much of his famous What Is To Be Done? criticising the revolutionary inadequacies of other patterns of Left wing organisation. The invention of the vanguard party was a solution to what he saw of the percieved inadequacies of the economism of “trade union consiousness”.
Criticism of the Left, criticism of the organisations of the Left, self-criticism in the service of advancing the goals of that pursue “the total emancipation of humanity” through tactical consideration and so on are a constitutive part of much of the Left. It is difficult to see what this piece adds, unless, of course, these structures were originally believed in? And yet, this piece has been widely shared and resonates enough for this piece to be written.
In this respect the references to Toni Negri and Felix Guattari’s Communists Like Us, published in a wider collection New Lines of Alliance, New Spaces of Liberty is quite telling. This text was written at the start of the 1980s. It criticises the traditional organisations of the Left, including the centrality of the factory bound worker and the classic social democractic organisations of this subject. It calls for a unhierachical struggle that recognises singularity and plurality. It makes some poor calls - saying that, for example, the German Green party was a possible vector for liberation. It is very much a text of its time, as is this text before us.
While the piece opposes unity as a “false idol”, it seems to oppose its own structures insomuch as it recognises a more fundamental unity, the unity of class and believes this to be actionable. “There are not seven classes, only two”. This rather undercuts the thurst of rest of the piece that is opposed to the idea of unity. All that is required is the recognition that we are a class against our enemy “One is our enemy, and one is us. What more unity do we need?”. But is this not complicit in the same flattening that the piece thinks so problematic - the flattening of the whole of the world into to homogenous undifferentiated blocs? Indeed, while we are inclined to agree that this is the dynamic of class society examining the dynamics within individual classes seems a neccessary requirement. What differs between these and calls for Left Unity in general? They seem structurally identical. Presumably one needs a unity of shared ideas to agree to “smash the left”? Why does the piece claim we don’t need unity but then claims we need to educate people on the historical continuity of struggle? Why call for fresh movements than call for picket lines and barricades - hardly new actions - indeed those of the historical Left.
Thus, the piece appears to have some trouble shaking off the habits of thought it criticises. This is in part because it is difficult to think of ideas of unity and difference without considering some philosophical issues regarding them. This is not an attempt to vaguely academise or abstract these sort of debates, but it appears to us that they often reach an impasse that will not be passed without examination and discussion of their terms, which is the work of living philosophy. The discussion of how to balance unity and diversity is not restricted to the debates of the Left. Which is to say though the tools of using some ideas from philosophy to clarify our political conceptions (as Guattari and Negri did in the late 1970s with talk of rhizomes and singularities) we should recognise that these questions will likely never be adequately closed and remain live for the rest of human history. Plato’s Parmenides, one of the founding documents of the Western philosophical tradition begins with a discussion of the One and the Many. Not to mention the vexed structure/agency problem and the battles between humanism and anti-humanism and notions of individuation and the nature of individuals. Yet, as with Wittgenstein, the purpose is not to entangle ourselves in new metaphysical problems but rather “help us work ourselves out of confusions we become entangled in when philosophizing”2. The end of philosophy of course being “the point is to change it”. This piece is certainly a contribution to this methodology.
What this piece represents is a certain mood in the process of UK basd “anti-austerity” struggles. It is clear that the structures avaliable right now of organisation are radically inadequate. So much was clear for Negri and Guattari writing in the late 1970s. Better now to suggest experiments beyond what currently exists, experiments which may well be flawed and finite. Rather build something new than exhaust ourselves by attempting to attack structures which are of no use to us which appears to be implicit in calls to “smash the left”. This appears as hand-waving as calls to “smash the left”. Yet at least this piece establishes in polemic style where we are at. And perhaps what we can decide is the starting point for the next steps.
A critique of the article I posted before. Bolded a bit at the end that is I think a fair summary of its way forward?
“White middle-class parents often presume an entitlement, both to a good education for their children and to educational success.” Black middle-class parents do not, due to “their own negative experiences of school, the labour market and wider society on account of their race”.
As black people know, the cause of race equality is distinct from the class struggle. Yes, there are some areas of overlap, but the sooner many so-called anti-racists accept this basic premise, the better.
If the building-blocks of anarchist theory and practice are the subjective perspectives of those who experience oppression directly (as opposed to ready-made theoretical systems) then an awareness of the ways in which privilege manifests in interpersonal relations is of particular importance.
The ability to contribute to shaping the direction of the movement is predicated on the ability to speak and be listened to by others within the movement. The ability to speak from an authoritative position, with the expectation of being listened to, understood and treated seriously, the ability to rely on certain culturally-specific assumptions (‘common sense’) in making a point, and so on, are more readily available to those who are already privileged by power structures than it is to those who are not.
Awareness of privilege, then, is an important counterbalance to social forces which produce marginalisation, which allows us to organise more effectively against those forces. This is the precise opposite of the liberal-moralist theory of privilege, which elevates privilege awareness to the status of an abstract good.
The Politics of Voices: Notes on Gender, Race & Class by Aidan Rowe