Who gets to be apolitical, and who neutrality serves

A great article about serious politics and Captain America from Dr Naja Later at Women Write About Comics:

The trouble is that this narrative is hinged on the idea that until now, Cap was not political. Apart from being historically untrue, it speaks to a greater failure in recognising that everyone is political. The privilege to believe you can be apolitical is particular to a demographic like [current Captain America writer] Nick Spencer’s. These people are exnominated, a term coined by Roland Barthes to describe how privileged identities are unnamed because they are the norm. The exnominated can believe that their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, bodies, and ideologies are “neutral.” For those of us outside the exnominated—anyone who is “other” in some way—our every action and inaction is, whether we like it or not, read as political. This is how the term “identity politics” arises, because only the non-privileged have a visible “identity,” and its existence is treated as political. Because we have been forced to recognise how our everyday is political, we recognise that the same is true of the exnominated.

This is one reason I kind of hold on to the label “identity politics”, even as it’s been weaponized by dudes who really wish the womenfolk would stop having opinions loudly and in public. It’s a beautiful circular trap: my politics are grounded in my identity because my identity has been created for political ends, i.e. to preserve and protect capitalism.

Being defined as neutral or not having an “identity” is the basis of privilege. Your rights aren’t special when you’re the norm, your needs aren’t extraordinary or frivolous, your welfare is inherently important. Your existence and opinions are simply not seen as political the way a woman’s or a black man’s or a queer person’s are. But when we buy into the idea that to be political is icky, and that the best way to be is neutral … well, we end up defending Nazis. Literally.

[Spencer’s] entire tenure as the writer of Cap books has been working to recreate the popular fanboy illusion that superheroes can and should be apolitical. He’s set a scene where activism and criticism are not only wrong: they’re out of character, unheroic, and embarrassing. This long game leads to a point where the man who writes one of culture’s most famous Nazi-punchers advocates for a genocidal neo-Nazi. Now that Richard Spencer has retweeted him, we can see exactly whom the myth of neutrality serves.

I’m almost finished reading Katrine Marçal’s Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? which absolutely nails this topic. Hopefully have a review up shortly!

Building a mass movement

[Content note: mentions of transphobia, sexual violence and violence against people of colour]

This was a line of thought which fell out of yesterday’s post, but that was getting quite long enough.

The article I quoted from, with its laundry list of stupid, trivial, oversensitive, left-destroying complaints, went on to lament that we’re not building a “mass movement” on the left. It’s a common question: post the glory days of compulsory unionism, how do we get thousands of people to march on Parliament and demand social change?

I have a question in response, though. How on earth do you folks expect to build a mass movement when you insist on ignoring – or not just ignoring, deliberately rejecting – issues faced by the majority of people in society?

“But we’re not!” they protest. “We just want to focus on things that really matter, material issues!”

As I’ve blogged about a lot previously, there are two problems with this “analysis”.

In no particular order, the first is that many of these “symbolic or linguistic” issues do really matter. It does really matter to trans people that they can be outed by airport security scanners, and that their bodies are publicly described as “anomalies” when it happens. The choice is: Travel, and be outed. Travel at the expense of being physically assaulted by strangers. Or refuse to travel, and lose your job or never see your family or go to Disneyland or do a hundred other things which cis people would consider “living a normal life”.

It does really matter to people of colour that ingrained, unconscious attitudes affect whether or not they get shot walking through their own neighbourhoods or arrested entering their own house.

It does really matter to women that society reduces us to sexual objects and promotes attitudes which allow our rapists or abusers to walk free – and to have those attitudes reinforced in a hundred different ways every day.

The second problem is that identity is a material issue. The labour of women and people of colour is undervalued – deliberately. Queer and trans people are marginalized in order to reinforce capitalist norms about heterosexuality and child-rearing.

Karl Marx and Friedrich bloody Engels had this stuff figured out.

And to get personal for an instant? When high-profile leftwing men call me crazy or irrational, or stroke their chins musing whether I’m a liability to the organisation I work for, damn straight sexism is a material issue for me.

Class is an identity. Identity is inextricable from class. The working class in New Zealand isn’t just a row of white dudes in cloth caps any more. It’s Pasifika women cleaning office buildings on the graveyard shift and Maori men and women in the meatworks and young people on zero-hour contracts at fast-food restaurants.

We have to treat them – and everyone else – as people. People with lives and families and interests and needs. Not just “workers” whose existence begins and ends at the shop door.

It’s not easy. But what should be easy, for people who are committed to fairness and justice and who can see that the imbalances of power in our society have to be overturned, is to be aware of the fact that life isn’t simple. Capitalism isn’t a one-dimensional foe. And if we’re open-minded to change and willing to acknowledge we’re not perfect and have plenty to learn, maybe people will start to see the left as a relevant political project again.

If that isn’t step one in building a mass movement, I don’t know what is.

 

I’ll drop identity politics when you present a solution

Life isn’t simple. Capitalism isn’t simple. And the ways we talk about oppression aren’t simple. Yet several times this week (this month, this year, this lifetime) I’ve seen concepts about identity and sexism and racism boiled down to practically nothing, by people who should know better.

Like trying to shut down a conversation about people of colour Anglicizing their names to succeed in white society – by co-opting trans activists’ arguments about name and identity. Forget the very real threat of violence or trauma which is posed by deadnaming trans people – it all boiled down to “it’s impolite”.

We don’t call trans people by their names because Miss Manners advised that it wasn’t proper. We do it because people’s lives are literally at stake.

Then there was this list presented as an exemplar of claims made by those of us on the left who stand for social justice issues.

Claims that doing yoga is impermissible cultural appropriation, arguments that we should drop phrases like “I see what you mean” because they’re ableist, the assumption that linking to Tweets constitutes violence but harassing and degrading people to the point of suicide is noble activism, filing Title IX claims against people for writing essays in major magazines, allowing your position to become synonymous with attacks on the right to free expression, claiming that you can fight capitalism and the state with hashtags — this is the behavior of a movement that cannot win. We cannot win that way.

Do some people say “all yoga is racist” or “all Twitter replies are abuse”? Probably. There are extremists, opportunists and downright silly people in every movement. And there are always people who don’t want to or can’t discuss these issues in a nuanced way.

But you know who else doesn’t get nuance? You on the left, who keep misrepresenting complex discussions about imperialism, commodification and global capitalism – when it applies to women or people of colour, at least – into “you’re ruining the left with your stupid over-sensitive demands.”

It’s bizarre to see otherwise intelligent/thoughtful/analytical people suddenly forgetting how to think. It’s like the spectre of “no white man can EVER criticise a black woman!” which gets raised every single time a white man is asked not to be horribly racist. There’s an absolute refusal to read past the headline and consider another perspective.

But let’s play that game. Let’s drop those trifling ~identity~ concerns like “is my labour undervalued because of my gender” or “am I at higher risk of physical violence because of how I look”. There’s a bigger failure here. Every time this “the left has lost its way because someone asked me not to be casually sexist at them” argument is raised, the lament is the same: we can’t win that way! We need to win!

And what’s missing, every time, is how you think we can win.

We hear a lot about finding out what people are comfortable with – meeting them where they are – but not what that actually entails in terms of strategy or tactics.

We hear that this approach won’t involve sacrificing our core principles – but never which principles you actually think are core.

I’m happy to talk about possible solutions, new strategies, different ways of doing things. I blog about Big Serious Sexy Material Politics all the time. But I don’t see new ideas coming from the complainers. I see a bunch of people in privileged positions whining that less-privileged people would like us to stop trampling them underfoot while we pursue The Great Leftwing Project.

I’m not stupid. I’m well aware that a lot of (but not all) political progress can only be made through electoral success. (Everyone is. Stop being a patronizing douche about it.) But the only suggestion I ever see from the centrists, from the white dudes, from the hand-wringing old guard, is: “shut up, you don’t understand that we just need to win, okay?” And then we keep chasing the centre and losing elections.

The way we’ve always done things isn’t working, chaps. So besides complaining about the fact it’s 2016 and the world has moved on from your comfort zone, what exactly do you propose doing?

You might want to talk about rebuilding the mass movement of the left. Let’s have a chat about that in tomorrow’s post.

Labour, identity, class and winning

Andrew Little’s speech to conference has had great feedback, topping off a pretty good weekend for the party. I was there when he delivered it, and the response in the hall was thunderous.

A few people who covered the conference have put their own framing onto it. Bryce Edwards declared “Andrew Little is killing Labour’s identity politics”. Martyn Bradbury pronounced “identity politics put on the naughty step for some time out”.

Perhaps we were at different conferences. Believe me, plenty of “identity politics” was discussed, openly, happily and constructively. The reason there’s no headlines about it is the people having those discussions did it away from the spotlight – for obvious reasons.

It’s the same old misunderstanding about identity politics and class politics: that identity isn’t a real thing, but class is an objective, clear determinant of someone’s place in society.

But it’s rubbish. One of the biggest challenges leftwing parties face these days is that pretty much everyone thinks they’re middle-class. People who are poor don’t want to be told they’re powerless victims, and people who are comparatively well-off just want to think of themselves as “ordinary people”.

To shamelessly steal an idea from Pablo Iglesias:

One can have the best analysis, understand the keys to political developments since the sixteenth century, know that historical materialism is the key to understanding social processes. And what are you going to do — scream that to people? “You are workers and you don’t even know it!”

Class can be a core part of who people are, or not important to their lives, just like any other facet of identity. More so, since the right have spent decades eroding class identities with their bootstraps analogies and framing – happily adopted by the left – of “middle” and “ordinary” New Zealanders.

We can’t reject a class analysis. We wouldn’t be the Labour Party without one. But in 2015 it isn’t the be-all and end-all of political thought.

I took two points from what Maryan Street said at conference. We can do more than one thing at a time, and:

Being a “both/and party” instead of an “either/or party” isn’t just about multitasking. It can mean recognising that our issues aren’t distinct.

I’ll go one step further. Not only are class, inequality, wealth and work un-distinct from gender, race, ability and all those pesky “identities” – they are the same thing.

How will Labour eradicate poverty in our country without addressing the fact that women are systemically paid less than men and are over-represented in many of the poorest paid industries? When women are still the primary caregivers of children, expected to put careers on hold for parenting?

How will Labour make sure Kiwis get the care they need when they need it and give our doctors and nurses and health workers the funding they need to do their jobs without looking at the infantilising red tape around abortion, or the utter lack of meaningful support for trans health care?

How do we modernise our education system so our kids are better prepared for jobs that haven’t even been invented yet without mentioning children with special needs or the entrenched disparities for Māori and Pasifika kids?

You won’t get very far changing the fundamental inequalities created by modern capitalism if you don’t understand that those inequalities, and the “identities” you want to kick out of the debate, are the same problem.

Why are women treated as a separate class? So we stay at home and have babies create new economic units, and if we wander accidentally into the workforce, we’re paid less to put downward pressure on all workers’ pay and conditions.

Why are gay or lesbian or trans or genderqueer people treated as separate classes and singled out for abuse? Because they mess up the whole heterosexual family structure which has babies creates new economic units.

Colonialism, and the impact it has on indigenous people of colour, is part and parcel of the capitalist need to constantly grow and consume land and resources.

I oversimplify greatly. But if you believe we can take serious action on poverty, on jobs, on the future of work, or on people’ aspirations for a better life without discussing “identity” politics, you don’t understand capitalism. And you certainly don’t get how to fight it.

Andrew said in his speech:

New Zealanders are sick and tired of a politics that’s defined by cynicism and devoid of ambition.

I’m sick and tired of the cynicism which says “women and minorities, go away, no one wants to hear you whining.” I’m sick and tired of the lack of ambition from so many leftwingers who say we can’t do more than one thing at a time, and we can’t care about anyone who isn’t like us.

Take what you like from Andrew’s speech. What I took from it is this.

The experiences I’ve had in my working life have taught me the type of leadership you need if you want to fight and win for progressive causes.

I learnt that it isn’t about making everyone happy or trying to avoid confrontation and disagreement.

Instead it’s about taking a stand because it’s the right thing to do.