Friday, May 20, 2016

Help me read more of what I want to write!

I read a lot.

I write, I think, because I have always read a lot. At some point, even prior to any explicit consideration of "What will you be when you grow up?", I decided that what I got out of reading was pretty great, and what could be cooler than doing that for someone else. There was a falling away and a return to that as an actual commitment, but the feeling itself has always been there.

My reading practices have changed over time, because of course. How, when, what, how much, for what purpose -- all of these things continue to evolve. Right now, it's quite a bit less bookish and more screenish than I'd like, and because of the state of my various writing and making commitments, it is less directed and more joyfully eclectic than at some other times.

In my making-things time these days, I do radio and I write. Without getting bogged down in backstory, the writing part of that currently involves a return to a trajectory of work set aside at the beginning of the year for a tangent now (probably) abandoned, and therefore a process of experimentation, play, and work on smaller pieces to build capacity for that larger project begun but paused because of uncertainty about how to do it. That means I'm paying lots of attention to "What do I want to say?" and "How do I want to say it?"

One piece of writing advice that I mostly agree with is that if you want to write, you should read broadly. Read lots of different writers doing lots of different writing, and learn about your craft and your tastes and yourself. Within that, be sure to read lots of the sort of thing that you want to be writing. If you want to write mystery novels, read lots of mystery novels. If you want to write personal essays, then seek out as many examples as you can. If you want to write get the idea.

It came as a shock yesterday morning when I realized what a tremendously bad job I'm doing of following that advice at the moment -- not the "read lots" part, but the "read what you want to write" part. I realized that almost none of the many words I read each day is the kind of writing that moves me the most or the kind of writing that I most want to be doing myself. And of course there are good reasons for reading lots of different kinds of things, so it's not in any simple sense a waste of my time to be reading these other sorts of pieces. After all, I need to be reading news articles and current events-focused think pieces and different kinds of analysis centred on movements, because all of that is important and interesting and relevant to aspects of my work. I even write some of that, from time to time. But those are not the kinds of writing I most want to do. So what does it mean that I'm reading so little of that at the moment? How does that affect my ability to actually write what I want to write?

It's also telling that when I sat down to think of examples of writing that made me say, "Yes! That is what I want to be doing!" it took some effort to get there. What I came up with was mostly writing I had encountered in book form, and much less that I'd found online. I wonder if perhaps part of that disparity is that the books in question sit on shelves a few feet away from me and I can remind myself about them by turning my head, whereas a random essay in a random online venue by someone I'd never heard of before that I read three years ago is less likely to have stuck with me. So I'm not sure whether my sense of so little of my daily online reading consisting of this kind of writing is because I don't retain as much of it, because it is actually rare online, or because it's there but I just don't look in the right places and/or my online reading practices are aimed at doing other things.

I also want to emphasize again that these are very far from the only things that I find to be worth reading. There are lots of writers and lots of books and lots of shorter pieces that I find politically important or interesting or entertaining or worthwhile that don't make this list not because there's anything wrong with them, they just don't quite capture everything that I want to be aiming for myself.

So with all of that palaver and preamble duly noted, what I determined is that I am most moved by and most interested in doing writing that is:

  • radically engaged, in a to-the-root sense, with the social world;
  • thoughtful, which I mean in the sense of interested in exploring ideas and in embracing complexity rather than sticking with description or rushing to polemic or falling into simplification because it's politically easier to do so;
  • attentive to writing craft, which might mean experimenting with how the writing is done or it might just mean taking evident care in what is produced as a writer and not just as a scholar or a thinker or a radical; and,
  • embodied in some sense, which might mean writing that incorporates or flows from lived experience in a fairly obvious way, but which also includes a range of approaches that are more abstracted than that but that are still grounded somehow in real bodies, real lives.
I came up with lots of examples. The first thing that sprang to mind was a collection of essays I first read many years ago that was published in the '90s by Dionne Brand, who is most prominently known as an amazing writer of fiction. Bread Out of Stone: Recollections, Sex, Recognitions, Race, Dreaming, Politics is the title, and it is a great mix of all of those things I just listed. Anything I've read by Gloria Anzaldua fits the bill. Though I've heard some people grouse about his writing, for me anything I've read by John Holloway needs to be on this list too. bell hooks, of course. Eli Clare's Exile & Pride. Some of the writings of scholars like Himani Bannerji and Dorothy Smith belong there, though not all of them. Inga Muscio's Autobiograhpy of a Blue-eyed Devil. In a different way, the work of politically insightful storytellers and personal essayists like Ivan Coyote and Bear Bergman do the trick. For all that her work has sometimes fed into political strands that are not the same as the strands of feminism that I am most likely to look to for guidance, I think some of Andrea Dworkin's work fits. In a different way, sometimes Rebecca Solnit's politics don't completely speak to me, and sometimes the jumps of connection she makes in her essays leave me behind, but she's a great writer and she belongs in this category. Some of how Peter Linebaugh and Markus Rediker write history-from-below meets these criteria. Though some of it veers towards the less accessible, Ladelle McWhorter's Bodies and Pleasures is on the list, and some of Jose Munoz's work. Some of it is clearly more academic than I want to be doing myself, and sometimes it feels like she is indulging in cleverness for its own sake, but Sara Ahmed's writing has definitely moved me. It has been awhile so I could be mis-remembering, but I think Eduardo Galeano, too.

This is a somewhat hasty and arbitrary list, and I'm sure I'm leaving lots of people out. Still, it encompasses a lot of different kinds of writers who do a lot of different kinds of writing. I am a little disturbed by the relatively high proportion of academics, though most of those manage to make the list precisely because there is something a bit different from standard academic writing in what they do.

What might it mean to spend more time reading this kind of writing? Do I want to make a point of shifting back to more bookish and less screenish reading? Perhaps. More importantly, I'd be interested in hearing other people's recommendations:

Are there any online venues where you consistently find writing that meets the four criteria above and feels like it fits with my list of examples?

Are there any writers or books or periodicals or essays that fit and that you would particularly recommend? Are there, in particular, any written by non-scholars, or by scholars but in a clearly non-scholarly mode?

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Struggles for social change in which there is no clear, singular enemy

When I look around me, when I tally up my own experiences with what friends tell me about their lives and what books and films and articles tell me about the wider world, it leaves me with no doubt that there are complex but consistent patterns of how different people benefit and are harmed based on who they are. Trying to figure out how it's all put together and how to act to change things, though, is quite a bit trickier, especially in situations where there is no obvious culprit to name and challenge.

Sometimes, of course, you can identify a single institutional culprit for a particular pattern of harm or oppression, often the state. It may or may not be a root cause or the only cause, but in these cases it organizes enough of what's going on to make it a reasonable focal point for efforts to make change. You're a married woman in Ontario before 1872 and you have no legal right to your own employment earnings? You're an African American in the US South in the era of Jim Crow? You're a dude who likes getting it on with dudes in early 1960s Canada? In all of these historical examples, state practices organized through the law were, while not the only source of oppression, certainly a central and visible one. If you look around today you can see plenty of instances where it's clear that the state plays a central role as well -- from the ways in which policing targets Black and Indigenous people, to the national security state's treatment of Muslims, to the ways in which migrant workers in Canada are organized into what organizer Evelyn Encalada recently described to me as a "parallel universe with limited rights" that makes them "virtually stateless" while in this country.

The role of the state has changed in a whole lot of ways over the last few decades. Often this is part of what gets called "neoliberalism," though that word tends to get used most often to point towards the economic or class-focused ways that things have changed -- the gutting and privatization of public services, de-regulation, and so on. The social world isn't easily broken into bits, though, so there have been corresponding changes in how other aspects of our lives and communities are organized as well, in terms of things like racialization, gender, and sexuality. As well, neoliberalism is sometimes treated as being a withering of the state, but in fact it is more accurate to think of it as a shift in role and emphasis. So, for instance, the neoliberal state in the US may have dispensed with explicit Jim Crow laws, but the immense and vicious prison-industrial complex that targets communities of colour -- very obviously, to anyone paying attention, but now without naming it as such -- has grown up along side. Writers who talk about things like homonormativity and homonationalism show how queers that meet a certain profile have their lives hemmed in by state violence to a much smaller degree these days than they used to, while queers who do not meet that profile because of nation or racialization or class still often face intense state-organized harm in their lives. So the state remains a source of great violence for a great many people.

There have always been, however, instances of patterns of undeserved harm and unearned benefit that don't work like that. There's a pattern, so it's clear that some kind of socially organized something is at play, but it's a lot harder to see some obvious, unitary institution at the heart of it. You can even make a pretty convincing case that, as part of the neoliberal transformation, there are more instances like this today than there have been in the past. So, for instance, many of the struggles by feminist organizers within the dominant society, both in the late-19th/early-20th century phase and in the post-1960s phase, focused on making changes in the law. They certainly didn't win everything they set out to win, but much of the explicitly discriminatory law -- law that restricted the rights of women in a way that was openly named as such -- was changed. Yet, somehow, in all the ways that feminists today continue to identify, women continue to experience various forms of harm, constraint, and marginalization. Similarly with white supremacy, you see fewer laws in North America now that are explicitly about subordinating some racial group. The changes in the social organization of white supremacy in the neoliberal era have been written about by people like Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (who writes about "racism without racists") and David Theo Goldberg (who writes about the privatization of racism and even "racism without racism") and I'm sure many others. The trajectory of lesbian and gay experience in Canada over the last 50 years also illustrates this very starkly, from the deciminalization of sex between (two) men (in private) in the late '60s, to inclusion in human rights protection, to access to state regulated relationship privileges. Yet even beyond the ways in which some queers continue to be targeted for state-centric violence, dispersed manifestations of harm like bashings, suicides, firings, disproporotionate youth homlessness, and so on continue. (This is true despite a growing mainstream tendency among liberal straight folks to presume that queer, though not yet trans, experience is mostly fine now.)

Or to give three examples I'll address in more detail below: There is no law banning African Nova Scotians from particular stores, but consumer racial profiling pervades the experiences of Black people and other racialized people in Nova Scotia and across the continent. No legislature in Canada has passed laws outlining the ways in which mothers (and other primary caregivers) are to be constrained in their living and their choices (and confined to significant social isolation), yet it happens. And sexual assault -- well, you can argue with this as with the rest of these examples that the state doesn't do enough to stop it from happening, and certainly some kinds of gendered violence (particularly against Black and Indigenous people) is deeply embedded in state practices, but there is also a significant element of sexual assault and the rape culture that supports it that is reproduced in a very distributed, de-centralized way that cannot easily be linked to any single institution.

Naming these differences in how different kinds of harm and oppression are organized is important, partly because I don't think you can change anything without understanding how it works. It's also important, however, because at least some of our movement spaces aren't always very good at thinking outside of the the situation where there's a clearly defined, singular institution that can be reformed, overthrown, or transformed. In some circles, any organizing that is not oriented in this way is seen as less important or even (to use that most dreadful of leftist insults) as liberal. I certainly wouldn't want to argue that we don't need to-the-root transformation of the core institutions of our society, because we do; rather, this is just another way of approaching the insight that many other people engaged in many different struggles -- particularly those experiencing and fighting against gender, sexual, and racial oppressions -- have had that we can't just wait until after some imagined future revolution to challenge the more dispersed ways that harm gets organized into people's lives, and we can't presume that some sort of institutionally-focused social transformation or revolution along one axis will then magically end all the bad stuff along other axes or things organized in more dispersed ways. We need to take seriously, right now, questions of challenging harms and oppressions organized in more dispersed ways.

Part of what's tricky about this is that it's not always clear how best to do it. I certainly don't claim to have any final answer, either. But as I noted towards the end of a recent post about something else, I think the most important place to start with all kinds of questions related to social change is with what people are already doing.

Three Examples

With that goal in mind, here are three different ways in which three differently situated collective efforts are challenging harms that happen in de-centralized ways.

I'm getting the first example from my experience of talking with Ann Divine and Pastor Lennett Anderson about efforts to challenge racial profiling that happens in consumer contexts. Divine used to work for the Human Rights Commission in Nova Scotia, and she was one of the authors of a study a few years ago which demonstrated what Black people and other racialized people in Nova Scotia and around North America already knew: consumer racial profiling is common and painful. Anderson talked about the case of Andrella David, a woman in his congregation, who experienced a blatant instance of racial profiling at a grocery store in 2009. From their accounts, there have been two parts to the response to that incident. One was David's efforts to navigate the long and challenging process of taking a complaint to the Human Rights Commission. One way to think about the Human Rights Commission is as an artifact of earlier generations of social movement struggles against racism and other forms of oppression that can, albeit not always easily or quickly and within certain limits, be mobilized to respond to some kinds of individual experiences of dispersed oppression. David won her case, but the store is appealing, which will prolong the burden for her, and in response Anderson's congregation mobilized in the form of a demonstration at the store to ask that they drop David from the appeal and address the Human Rights Commission only. This mobilization, it seems to me, is an effort to apply public pressure to a private institution, and also is a sort of public educational intervention that, according to what was said in the interview, may be the beginnings of a larger effort along those lines to change public conscioussnes.

The second example comes from my interview with Candida Hadley, Susanne Marshall, and Andrea Smith about the work of the Halifax Motherhood Collective. They are a small collective of mothers who have been working to start from their own experiences to develop radical politics around mothering. As I write in the linked post, these experiences include "an incredible weight of social isolation, personal constraint and intensely regulatory expectation." This work -- which has drawn on feminist writers like Maria Mies and Sylvia Federici to connect everyday experiences of motherhood to interlinked histories of capitalism, patriarchy, and colonialism -- amounts in part to figuring out ways to name and talk about these experiences and to understand them politically. They have also organized public events which have brought mothers (and other caregivers) with different sorts of experiences together to talk and to learn from each other. They talk about wanting, in the future, to challenge some of the social isolation that comes along with particularly the earlier years of mothering by engaging in a sort of direct action and having mothers (and other caregivers) and young kids occupy public spaces that they are usually excluded from. So in this case, because it is an area where we don't already necessarily have well developed politics in our movements and communities, the response has involved collective consciousness raising, and in the future may involve direct action to take up and at least temporarily challenge restrictive expectations built into public spaces.

The third example I want to talk about is responding to sexual assault. I recently interviewed Erin Crickett, who works at a sexual assxault centre. That organization provides direct support to survivors of sexual violence (of any gender) and engages in both individual and collective advocacy work. We talked in detail about the campaign that Crickett and a number of allies at other sexual assault centres in other places developed for the day that the verdict of the Jian Ghomeshi trial was to be announced, which included vocal support at the courthouse itself that foregrounded pro-survivor messages; dispersed small self-care events allowing folks having a hard time to hang out and support each other on a difficult day; a hashtag campaign organized around #WeBelieveSurvivors and #IBelieveSurvivors; a rally later that day in Toronto; and encouragement (plus resources) for people to offer support to survivors in their own lives. In terms of a longer-term vision for change, Crickett talked about going beyond changes in the legal system, which are of course necessary, to include fostering broader understandings of what healing and justice can mean; pushing for a transformation from a rape culture to a consent culture, through popular education and other approaches; and challenging organizations and institutions of all kinds to deal with sexual violence in ways that are more supportive of survivors. So in this case it was a combination of directly supporting people who have been harmed, publically visible interventions supporting survivors and calling for others to do likewise, a broad range of kinds of challenges to state and non-state institutions to change their practices, and an overall goal of changing the culture through educational means.

In these three cases, then, the collective responses to harm and oppression that is organized in dispersed ways include:

  • mobilizing state resources against the harm in question, perhaps through channels shaped by earlier struggles;
  • consciousness raising among affected people;
  • demonstration or direct action in public space to both challenge particular instances of harm and to educate;
  • direct personal support of affected people;
  • more conventional pedagogical work (e.g. workshops, trainings) to try to push cultural change;
  • multi-pronged challenges to institutions to change their policies and practices.
This says nothing about the relative strengths and weaknesses, advantages and limitations of each approach. It also says nothing about how all of that might shift depending on the specific context. But it is a start at sketching out some of the ways that people are already collectively responding to these kinds of harms and oppressions.

What do you think about these approaches? What kinds of organizing along these lines have you been involved in?

Friday, April 29, 2016

Let's Pause and Reflect on the Outrage at Canada's Arms Sale to Saudi Arabia

There is something heartening about just how much mainstream public outrage there is at the decision of the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau to finalize approval for the massive sale of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. Notwithstanding liberal (and Liberal) mythologies that downplay and deny it, Canada has a lot to answer for (1, 2) when it comes to war, militarism, and empire -- from our founding on the basis of conquest and genocide; to our significant past and present of profit-making (and wage-earning) based on manufacturing machinery of war and death; to our support of or active involvement in overthrowing elected governments; to participating actively not in all, but in many, US-led imperial military interventions that have brought death and chaos to civilians. So, believe me, any active outrage at Canadian complicity in war and militarism is very welcome.

At the same time, there is something suspiciously selective about this outrage. I know that those who are most involved in this issue in grassroots ways are quite clear about their outrage at all manifestations of Canadian complicity in war, militarism, and empire, not just this one. I also know that there are features of the Saudi regime's behaviour that are distinct and that deserve to be specifically named and deplored. But why is Canadian complicity in the Saudi regime's oppressive violence met with an outrage that is expressed and resonates far more broadly than, say, outrage at Canadian complicity -- both direct and through all sorts of support (including arms sales) to the US -- in the horrific violence inflicted on the world by the Western bloc? (And why does even the act of making that comparison no doubt come across as ridiculous to so many Canadians?)

There's a lot going on there, I think. The violence and harm done by the West (including Canada) is organized quite differently than the brutalities of the Saudi regime. (Though, frankly, the brutalities of the Saudi regime definitely count towards the Western tally, as there is no way the House of Saud would've lasted as long as it has if it was not propped up by the West.) The violence and harm done by the West is also treated quite differently in the mainstream media, and much of it is ignored, so it shouldn't be a surprise to us that people regard it differently. But both bound up in those things and functioning independently are white supremacist and colonial reasons as well. The image of "barbaric" brown men has been a staple of the Western imperial imagination for at least a couple of centuries, so it's no wonder that violent, oppressive behaviour by them can be named more easily and evokes a more powerful response among many white Canadians than the substantially more impactful violent, oppressive behaviour by us. And it is also central to the imperial imagination that violence and harm done by us and by our allies is by definition at least given the benefit of many doubts if not automatically assumed to be justified, whereas violence and harm done by them -- and despite still formally being an ally, the Saudi regime has definitely fallen into enough disfavour with enough elite opinionmakers in North America to at least provisionally count as them, even without the racial, cultural, and religious othering in the mix -- is much more easily recognized as a problem.

Now, pieces like this that respond to some progressive or left initiative by saying "But what about...!" can sometimes feel like a form of posturing, and their impact can tend towards the demobilizing. I really don't want to be doing those things. So I want to be clear that I'm not saying we shouldn't be outraged by the Canadian sale of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, or that we shouldn't do whatever we can to stop it -- we should, and we should. I also want to be clear that the question I'm raising is more than one of individual political rhetoric or choices, though it is that as well -- this flows from how the issues and the imagery and the ways we have readily available to us for responding to them are socially produced and organized. It's not just about us fish; it's about the sea we swim in too.

What I am suggesting, though, is that we pause for a moment and reflect. What does it mean that our quite reasonable and valid political goal -- stopping this arms deal, as we should stop all arms deals -- is getting a boost in this case from these larger oppressive narratives (and the social relations they exist in conjunction with), and therefore is also reproducing and reinforcing them? What do we need to be doing and saying differently, to take this into account and respond to it in politically responsible ways? How do we need to be framing Saudi crimes differently? How do we need to be framing Canadian, US, and broader Western crimes differently?

I have no easy answers to these questions, but I don't think we're doing anyone any favours by failing to ask them.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Frustrating Search for Ways to Act Collectively in the World

Like so many of us, I feel a need to act, to do something.

I can pass this feeling through all sorts of screens and frames and analyses to give it specificity and detail, and I have years of practice of translating it into fancy words, but at heart it's a feeling – a matter of experiencing life, of seeing the world around me, of hearing stories, and knowing that things cannot stay as they are, that they can change, that they must change.

I know that I can act as I, and that acting as I matters. We all do it – without naming it, without separating it from "normal life" by calling it "political," we (some, by necessity, much more than others) resist little indignities and harms in little ways, and big indignities and harms in little ways, as individual people living our lives. Whatever else happens to make change, that everyday resistance, those little cracks in the social systems that organize injustice and harm, are the most basic building blocks.

I feel drawn, though, towards acting not only as I but as we. This is not to disrespect the individual and everyday, but a recognition that even a small we does so much more than the sum of the I's that compose it – even just half a dozen people moving in the same direction can accomplish far more than six individuals on their own, and for larger collectivities to be truly effective in pushing for change (rather than amounting to passive agglomerations of individuals), they must in some sense be built from active collectivity that happens at a scale we can directly experience. Our need, the world's need, is urgent, so we need we's. And it is a recognition of humanity as social: Contrary to liberal and libertarian fantasy, there is no I in the absence of or prior to we.

So I search for we's that I'm already part of. I look around me, examine the spaces and the moments that I move through, the encounters that I have and the relationships that they make. I see relations of reciprocity and care, relations through which the mostly-unwaged labour of life-making gets its expression. These are a form of we, and especially for those marked as disposable in our world, their role in survival and thriving makes them radical. And for all of us, as a clever person recently remarked to me, they are "the stuff of life," the very core of what it means to be human, and we all must participate in them.

I can feel the utter centrality of these webs of we; it's not just a cerebral nod, but a genuinely embodied sense of how meaning and joy and power in life flows from this sort of we, and how much of my energy and time is invested in them. Yet as necessary as they are, they are not enough. I feel the need for more.

So I keep looking. Soon enough, I see other kinds of we, more distant kinds, more dispersed kinds, some might say imagined kinds. Some of these I feel, but some are abstractly known rather than felt – membership in polities, shared identities, demographic groupings, populations of broadly similar interest. These, too, are we. They matter, both those eagerly embraced and those reluctantly acknowledged. They can even be a starting point for building the kind of we that I'm talking about here, the kind that can act together in a practical way. But they are not that intrinsically, and not without further work.

I look some more. Though I currently am not part of such a formation, most people I see around me are part of hierarchical collectivities whose actual activities they may or may not care about, organized via the wage relation and made compulsory by the logic of the market. This is not the kind of we I mean, or at least it is only occasionally and incidentally so. As well, many people belong to other sorts of collective formations that they have not necessarily chosen, exactly, but because of who they are – forms of we that at least in theory can be a practical basis for acting politically in the world against domination and exploitation. I mean, of course, collectivities like churches (or synagogues or temples or mosques) and unions. Yet even they are in decline, and because of the work that I do and the path I have led through life, I am not currently and not likely to become a member of either of those.

I continue to search, to reflect on things I have done and things I have heard about since moving to my new-again city. I look, I listen, I think, I feel...and I find little. There is not a complete absence of we's, but there are few, and none whose call evokes enthusiasm.

Is this landscape of we really it? It sounds suspiciously like what Margaret Thatcher once said: "There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families." Of course she posed it as descrpition when in fact it was her aspiration, her goal for the struggle in which she was immersed. But three decades later, has Thatcher's aspiration won out? Is this sense of lack of opportunities for collective political engagement a quirk of mine, a legacy of personal baggage or flawed perception? Or does it reflect something more?

Certainly it reflects left commonsense about the realities of life under neoliberalism. This doesn't necessarily make it accurate, but the breadth of this impression among a range of thinkers, writers, and do-ers that I respect carries considerably weight for me. As I've mentioned this impression to people that I know personally in the last few weeks, most have agreed with it. As well, the chance to occasionally interview people involved in various kinds of collective political projects in Quebec drives home for me how much more common they are there than in at least the white-dominated, English-speaking spaces of North America. There is some social scientific evidence too: My hazy memory of reading it 15 years ago is that there was a lot about how he tried to explain it that felt dubious, and he didn't particularly focus on grassroots political collectivities anyway, but Robert Putnam's careful documentation in Bowling Alone of the decline of voluntary collective life in North America seems relevant.

Still, I hesitate to turn my impression into a firm conclusion, and I certainly have no interest in just giving up on the possibility of a landscape richer in paths towards collective action. For one thing, while the majority of activisty types I've mentioned this sense to have concurred, not all have, and that dissent is worth paying attention to. More significantly, it is beyond common for people, particularly privileged people who think of themselves as rad in some sense or other, to look around and say "Wah! Nothing political is happening!" when really the problem is their narrow and self-centred definition of "political." Is this what I'm doing? My gut-level sense: Perhaps in part, but not entirely. But my gut is no more immune to such distortion than the rest of me, so who knows.

All of which has got me wondering about other people's experiences. I'm a firm believer in starting – whether you're talking about writing or analaysis or action – from what people are already doing.

Do you, too, feel that there are few opportunities to act collectively these days?

What do you already do in your life – however large or small, however shared or individual, however practical and material or imagination-focused and idealistic – that you think of as being in whole or in part to create change of some kind?

What would you like to do to make change? Most especially, what would you like to do to make change with others, if you had the opportunity and if circumstances made it possible? What would those differences in circumstance be?

Thursday, April 07, 2016

My writer's block is neoliberalism's fault

I should start out by saying that there is no part of the title of this post that is actually accurate. I just like the sentence.

The first inaccuracy is the phrase "writer's block." While I have, over the last couple of weeks, been having greater difficulty than I expected in returning after a time away to a particular kind of writing, I'm not having trouble with writing in general, and I have no doubts at all that a little patience and a little persistence will get me back to where I want to be. Some people might use "writer's block" to describe this kind of experience, but at least as of yet, for me it doesn't go beyond the inevitable and entirely normal ebb and flow of writing, in which sometimes it is slow and painful to get words down while other times it's quick and easy. That's just how it works.

The other inaccuracy is the focus on "neoliberalism." As I'll explain below, the flash of insight that I had the other day about my writer's not-block – writer's ebb? – is based in features of how capitalism has constructed (privileged) subjects from the very beginning, and it is not unique to the current phase of capitalism. However, it does particularly relate to aspects of capitalism that have become even more pronounced in recent decades, hence my choice of wording.

But let me back up by quite a few years.

Fairly early in my journey of figuring out how I wanted to write about the world and how I wanted to act in the world, I came to place considerable importance on recognizing that all of us understand the world, write, and act to make change from some place, and that the specifics of that someplace matter to how we can and must know, write, and act. Some people describe this as "standpoint," other people call it by other names, and still others don't really name it at all but still value it in how they act. Recognizing this means understanding what that someplace is, how it matters in a given instance, and how it can and does and should shape what you do. In terms of writing, that means understanding where you're writing from, and it means figuring out how that can and does and should shape your words, and perhaps sometimes how it can and should become part of the content of what you say.

This is not at all a novel insight on my part, certainly, and I'm sure some of you have been aware of it as a matter of course for as long as you can remember, but I had to learn it.

As politically and epistemologically important as I think this understanding is when it comes to producing knowledge and writing about the world, it isn't necessarily an approach to writing that came easily to me. Some of this is connected to personal quirks, but a lot of it isn't. For instance, a lot of what we learn in school about writing, many mainstream definitions of 'good journalism,' and the work of many a lefty whitedude superstar, all can make it seem like the only serious way to approach producing knowledge and text is the "view from nowhere" that pretends that we can stand above the world and pontificate, unimplicated. The view from nowhere is really no such thing, of course, and is a very specific somewhere disguised as nowhere, and the farther your specific somewhere falls from that dominant specific somewhere, the more friction you experience in trying to write from that faux-universal place. I didn't feel a lot of that intrinsic friction pushing me to figure things out.

So it didn't come easily, but I've worked away at it over the years and done my best to get better at writing from (and when relevant, about) my own experience of the world. It's important to add, I think, that what this actually looks like varies a great deal. There are lots of approaches to knowing the world that fit under this umbrella, and lots of different kinds of writing. Self may be visible and obvious, or it may inform the writing in a much more subtle way. The piece may explicitly draw on one's own experience, as in memoir or memoir-informed theory, or it may allow experience to more delicately shape how other things are talked about. The writing may end up feeling polemical, thoughtful, descriptive, analytical, or a whole host of other possibilities.

Over the years, I've engaged in some kinds of writing and some ways of relating to my own experience that fall under this broad umbrella. So, for instance, I've done a lot of book reviews on here, and I long ago rejected the more traditional approach to reviewing where your main reference point for situating and reacting to the book is an externally defined field of study or discipline, and instead grounded what I write in my own uses for, reactions to, and reasons for engaging with the book. And you can also look at my own books, which in their final form include explicit discussion of standpoint and visible inclusion of some relevant aspects of me and my experience...after a long journey of trying different models that did not initially include either of those things. And if I were to page back through the decade-plus of this blog, I'm sure I'd be able to point to other ways that I have consistently written from, and sometimes about, the experiences that have shaped me. Even so, it feels like there is far more of this broad territory that I've avoided, especially the parts that involve more attention to embodied experience and to visibly including self in what I write, and far more I could do with a little practice.

Back before Xmas, I was putting effort into writing more, and more kinds, of short pieces – for the moment, mostly for the blog, though with a hopeful eye to expanded possibilities in the future, and for the most part with my larger project of writing for and about movements firmly in view. It wasn't very systematic and it involved a lot of following my nose and writing whatever came up rather than being strategic, and it's likely that someone going back and looking at what I was doing wouldn't see anything much different than what I've done many times before. In fact, an important part of how I was doing it was that it was kind of like play, not in the sense of being leisure rather than work but in the sense of being semi-random and exploratory. Anyway, in the course of that, one of the things I was playing with (again, not necessarily in ways that a reader would be readily able to perceive, because at least some of it was about process rather than outputs) was how experience and self connect with writing.

Since the new year, or at least since the second week of January, I've been busy with other things. Along with the radio show that has imposed its own weekly discipline for more than three years now, it has been a mix of projects and activities that range from the tedious to the exciting, but none of which are for immediate public consumption. As I said at the top of this piece, however, in the last week and a half I've been working to get myself back into writing more, and more kinds, of short pieces, and I've found it trickier than I expected.

So picture this: I'm sitting in my desk chair, but swivelled away from my desk. My feet are up on the little folding table I use for that purpose, pen poised above the notebook on my lap. I know from how much great writing I've read that does this that it is entirely possible to start from any moment of experience, any encounter with an object or a person, and move on from there through the socially organized interconnections that bind us all together to say something interesting and useful about the world. I've even been able to do a fair-to-middling job of it a time or two myself, but it is still one of the things that I want to get better at. I admit that I did think that it was low-hanging fruit in this instance – after all, what's the point of having things that you worry about, that you notice, that you think about, that occupy your attention in an everyday sort of way, if you can't turn them into a half-decent blog post, right? :)

Except I couldn't. My pen stayed poised, hovering half an inch above the page. Then it wrote down a few words. Then it scribbled them out again. And so on.

I mean, I could identify various things that had occupied a little or a lot of my attention over the preceding week. I could even see in an intellectual sort of way how those individual preoccupations were in one way or another connected to things bigger than me – again, everything is, so it's not actually that hard to see, with a little practice. But – and this is going to sound flaky – I couldn't feel that connection to the broader social world, and it was writing from/with/through that felt connection that really interested (and interests) me.

So I could look at my concern about how tired I'd been that week, I could reflect on my fretting about various aspects of non-normative relationship practices, I could bring to mind my irritation at L's line of ongoing patter as he played a video game the night before, I could really feel the deep mixing of anticipation and introvert's anxiety about the unusually dense sociality the following days held in store for me, and I could intellectually recognize how each of those things could be connected to broader social questions and social relations – to (respectively) questions of class and work and control of time; to any of a number of questions about navigating normalizing pressures when you know yourself to be especially susceptible to them; to questions of gender and gaming and pro-feminist parenting; to deeper musings on self-formation, sociality, and how best to be present in activism and organizing as someone who finds sociality to be deeply draining and very difficult, just for example. But what I wanted to be doing was not just using those focuses of attention as triggers and then writing about related things in the world, but writing from those experiences, in a way that felt embodied and affectively connected, to broader questions as I might be implicated in them. And that just felt impossible. It felt like there was this huge chasm: My experiences were trapped on one side, and I could see across to various indistinct shapes that my experiences pointed to on the other side, but they were just too far away to bridge the distance...I would've had to disconnect from the my-experience side, hop in a heilcopter or whatever to fly across, and start in a disconnected way from that other side.

Weird, right?


And some of that is, as I already said, about personal quirk, and some of it is about my experience in this particular stretch of time – I have, after all, done similar things in the past. I'm less interested in what is different about this moment that is temporarily making it trickier, than I am in the features of the landscape that are always there that this moment makes it easier for me to perceive. That is, the chasm.

So the inspiration for this post (along with performing the neat trick of doing the thing even as I talk about being unable to do the thing) is the conviction that even though I was in an exaggeratedly sensitive moment that made it all feel much more absolute and daunting than it might have felt at other times, it is also a reflection in the body – in my body – of aspects of how the social world is organized all the time. In fact, of aspects of the social world that I have already spent a lot of time thinking about, but had not felt directly before in quite this way.

Again, let me back up a bit, though not quite as far as before.

So. A couple of years ago, I was toying with two different ideas for major writing projects. One, I decided to move forward with. Even the main strand of that work points towards something way different today than it did two years ago, and one of the things that occupied my writing energies in January and February was not even that main strand but an offshoot that, if I'm lucky, you'll hear more about later in the year. Still, it's all moving forward, if slowly and in unpredictable ways.

The other, I set aside, because I couldn't figure out how to do it. This path not yet taken (but not rejected either) was based on an insight into my own journey of...well, of politicization and of self-awareness and of thinking about the social world. I realized that the concept wasn't ripe enough after trying to explain it to two friends who are about as optimal an audience for this particular idea as I could hope for, and utterly failing to convey it, so bear with me. The gist is that one of the ways that I was taught to understand myself growing up (not explicitly, but in assumptions embedded in everything from school work to TV shows to newspapers) was as a self that is separate, self-contained, and complete – an individual that exists apart from and prior to anything social, which can then choose if and how and when to engage with the social world beyond itself. This notion of the atomized, individualized self is really the essence of the liberal-democratic understanding of the subject and its relationship to the social world, though it has come to loom even larger in the neoliberal era. The "I" of "I think therefore I am" exists (or so it is supposed) because it thinks, and it can then make rational and deliberate decisions about engaging with a social world that is entirely external and separate. Just look at the most readily available language we have for talking about ourselves, our choices, and our engagement with the world – it's mostly premised on this autonomous liberal subject, while deep interrelatedness is often awkward and cumbersome to put into words. Or look at popular culture – Hugh Grant's man-child character in About A Boy ("I'm bloody Ibiza!") or the romanticization of the Jedi of the Star Wars universe, say, may be more exaggerated than usual versions of this self-sufficient liberal subject, but they are hardly unique.

And I should add that this conception of the subject is not only something enthusiastically endorsed in classical liberal, neoliberal, and right-libertarian writings, but its presumption is also embedded very materially in many of the institutions of liberal-democratic capitalism. It is, as the guests on my show this week reminded me in the context of how children (and the mostly-women who are their primary caregivers) are so often excluded, embedded in our assumptions about who can and should occupy public space, and the appropriate ways for that space to be used. This is the kind of individual that our legal system, many other aspects of state practices, and institutions of capitalism presume, and anyone who for whatever reason cannot or will not pretend to be such a subject is treated by these institutions as less than a full human being. And because of this material basis, and because of how deeply down in language and in dominant conceptual repertoires this understanding of the subject is rooted, it shapes in a functional way the presumptions of people far beyond adherents of those strands of thought that explicitly embrace it. I think it is pushed on all of us, really, but not all of us take it up in equal measure: The more privilege you have, the closer your lived experience can be to this liberal ideal, while the less power you have over your circumstances, the more you have no choice but to recognize that you cannot be what the social world tells you is the proper way for a human being to be. Of course, none of us are really this kind of subject. We are all formed socially and we are all interdependent, it's just a matter of who gets to pretend otherwise and who can't.

So when I try to write and I feel that chasm between my everyday experience and broader social phenomena – and I want to emphasize again that this really was a visceral experience, not just some cerebral difficulty in choosing the right words or something of that sort – that deeply socially organized and ideologically inculcated gap is what I'm feeling. And as I said, what's interesting isn't really the fact that for a brief week or two more contingent aspects of my experience made it so starkly palpable, it's that even when it all feels a bit more manageable – when there are occasional rope bridges across, so to speak, or winding paths down one side and back up the other that a careful climber can follow – that chasm is central to the basic landscape of at least part of what I'm trying to do these days. It's not a personal block that can be wished away, or even worked away, though of course developing craft and capacities and insight can make a huge difference in navigating it. Rather, it's a feature of the social world that writes deeply on who we are, on what we feel, and on how we think of ourselves and the world.

That's what I mean by the title: It's not really neoliberalism, and it's not really writer's block in any normal sense, but it's this huge challenge that needs to be navigated to do writing that weaves self seamlessly into the social. Its source is not individual frailty but rather how selves and the social world are produced (and, consequently, experienced and understood) under white supremacist imperialist patriarchal capitalism.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Support John Moore -- still fighting an unjust and racist conviction

John Moore
During my decade of living in Sudbury, Ontario, I got to know John Moore and became involved in supporting his struggle for justice in the face of a wrongful and racist conviction. Right now, Moore is asking people to write to federal politicians in the new Parliament -- your own MP; the Sudbury MP, Paul Lefebvre; Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould; Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett; and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau -- in support of his request that the Minister of Justice order a judicial review of his conviction, or provide some other kind of remedy for this injustice. Remember, you can mail MPs for free at the address below. To learn more about John's case, check out this article that I wrote in 2009. (Sadly, little has changed since then.) And check out my letter below as an example of things you can say in yours. Please consider taking a few minutes to support John's struggle for justice!

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
House of Commons
Parliament Buildings
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0A6

Re: Justice for John Moore

Dear Prime Minister Trudeau,

I am writing in support of John Moore, an Anishnaabe man from Serpent River First Nation who lives in Sudbury, Ontario, and who has been struggling for decades to clear his name of a wrongful and racist conviction. Though I moved to Hamilton, Ontario, in August 2015, I lived for more than a decade in Sudbury and was lucky enough to get to know Moore and the details of his case. I am writing to encourage you to ask the Minister of Justice to use her power to order a judicial review of Moore's conviction, or to find some other remedy for this decades-long injustice.

Moore was convicted of second degree murder in 1978. This happened despite the fact that he was not present when the crime was committed and had no role whatsoever in perpetrating it, and was based solely on him having spent time earlier that day with the individuals who committed the crime. Several other individuals, all of whom were white, had contact similar to John's to those who actually committed the crime – most of them were not charged, and none were convicted. Moore's trials were tainted with systemic racism. The law under which he was convicted was ruled unconstitutional in the late 1980s in another case, and no one would be convicted under similar circumstances today – that is, Moore did nothing wrong and his conviction was unjust. He spent ten long years in maximum security prisons before being released on parole, and lost more in those years than most of us can imagine. Still today he bears the burden of the stigma created by his conviction and the indignities of having his life supervised on an ongoing basis by the justice system.

At an earlier stage of Moore's struggle, a wide range of organizations and prominent individuals endorsed the call for a review of his conviction. The organizations include the Aboriginal People's Alliance of Northern Ontario, Sudbury First Nations Church, the Laurentian Association of Mature and Part-time Students, the Sudbury and District Labour Council, and the national level of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. Along with a number of local activists, academics, and citizens, prominent figures from outside of Sudbury have endorsed the call for a review of John's unjust conviction, including the late Charles C. Roach, a long-time lawyer in Toronto's African-Canadian communities; Doreen Spence, a Cree elder from Alberta; and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, a prominent academic, author, and activist from San Francisco. Doug Millroy, former editor of the Sault Star, the daily paper in the city where the murder of which John was wrongfully convicted took place, has written repeatedly in support of John's quest for justice.

Moore himself has recently or will soon be sending you and other federal politicians more detailed information about his case and about what would be required for a just resolution. I urge you to pay careful attention to what he submits, and to do whatever is in your power to ensure that his unjust and racist conviction is subjected to appropriate judicial review and that Moore at long last finds justice.


Scott Neigh

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Activism, Accompaniment, and Being in a New City

A perennial question: How should I act next in the world to create the change that I need, that you need, that the world needs?

The shape of the question and the shape of the answer differ with the shape of the life in which it is being asked, of course. If you are born into a life in which just surviving requires a fight, and a big one, your answer has to do certain things. If you are born into a life where that is not the case, your answer (to the extent that you even have to give one) will look much different. That is, if the struggles you face personally are small enough, or the resources you have plentiful enough, you can pretend that your own fights are private and you can solve them mostly on your own – they aren't actually private, necessarily, and sometimes throwing (social or financial) resources at them is more like a buffer or just painful avoidance than a solution, but it is often the easier path. So in lives where fighting for survival is not base necessity, if – not when, but if – you take the step to asking this question in bigger ways, the potential shapes of your answers are likely to look quite different than in the former situation.

I'm in the latter camp, mostly. I wasn't born into a community-in-struggle. My nation isn't colonized, but rather colonizes. My people benefit more than we're harmed by how money and power flow around the world (though we're harmed too). I have clean water, food, shelter, and leisure. I'm not in prison. My experience of gender is one that makes my life easier far more than it harms me (though dominant forms of cis-masulinity harm those who enact them too). At this stage of my life, I'm able to do work that doesn't mean facing a horrible boss every day, and that I can largely define the terms of. For better or worse, the socially punishable ways I violate dominant norms are ones I've been able to organize into privacy, though not without stresses and strains and considerable political unease at that choice.

So how should I act next in the world to create the change that I need, that you need, that the world needs? And I ask this in the context of being a third of a year into living in a new town, where any answer is going to be new-to-me in at least some sense.

I've been thinking a lot, lately, about Staughton Lynd's idea of "accompaniment" as a way to frame my answer to that question.

Lynd is a veteran of the New Left era in the United States, from being one of the co-chairs of 1964's Freedom Summer in Mississippi, to doing years of work as a grassroots labour lawyer in a now-deindustrialized steel town, to more recent legal and movement support work with prisoners, as well as writing a number of books. His politics are an idiosyncratic blend of liberation theology, Wobbly-ish rank-and-file syndicalism, Rosa Luxembourg-inflected revolutionary socialism-from-below, an avid interest in anti-sectarian marxist/anarchist dialogue, and a resolute commitment to engaging with people wherever they might be at. I had the pleasure of doing an hour-long radio interview with him about 15 years ago, and I have read some but by no means all of the things he has written.

He has discussed accompaniment in a number of places, but in a very focused and accessible way in his book Accompanying: Pathways to Social Change, that I reviewed in 2013. Despite being an entire book on the subject, it does not offer a quick, quotable definition, but rather a series of meditations and illustrations from the decades that he and his wife Alice have been active and also from the life of martyred Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero.

Accompaniment is about being present, about being in relation with people – with draft resisters, with workers, and with prisoners, in the last few decades of Staughton and Alice's work. It is not a specialized, part-time activity, but a way of orienting a whole self. It is about being in relation over the long term, about practicing equality and listening, about neither imposing an external agenda on others nor renouncing your own vision and politics, principles and self. That is, it is not top-down organizing as has been historically practiced in North America, which has generally resulted in "a complex and restrictive institutional environment that stands in the way of creative and spontaneous action from below (as in the labor movement), or (in the heartbreaking case of the civil rights movement) a situation such that when the organizer leaves, some of the worst aspects of the way things were reassert themselves" (1). But neither is it simply being present in a community over the long term and engaging in a sort of activist self-effacement that denies one's own agency, responsibility, and politics. It is, rather, a horizontal, active, walking-together. In particular, Lynd argues that when you are someone coming from a place of privilege, it helps a great deal to enter into accompaniment with some sort of practical skill you can offer, beyond just an ability to organize and certainly beyond vague declarations of an abstract "solidarity." And despite the emphasis on actions that emerge organically from relationships and on horizontalism, as opposed to more utilitarian and hierarchical ways of thinking about organizing, it is not an approach that is against activities which might result in enduring organizations – not at all. It is just suspicious of pre-defined organizations and organizational models that enter communities with claims to have answers and that end up either subordinating autonomous activity or abandoning people, and it leans towards organizational forms that emerge within communities in the course of struggle.

I should say that I feel a bit of trepidation at publically taking up this notion of accompaniment. To me, the way that it brings together long-term commitment, listening, honesty about privilege, an explicit willingness to be part of struggle without having to be at its centre, accountability to those at the forefront of struggle, and deployment of movement-useful skills is very appealing. It is my sense that there are actually considerably more long-time activists/organizers/lefties out there – people I know, people I've interviewed – who do something like this than would actually recognize the term. But I also can hear anticipatory echoes of the scorn that, for instance, some socialists who have very different ideas about organizational form, or anarchists who are wholehearted partisans of the 'cult of the militant', might say about this way of framing involvement in struggle. And I also know that in among the unhelpful (and often patriarchal) radical posturing that underlies that scorn, there are also probably some criticisms worth listening to.

I also appreciate that there will inevitably and entirely legitimately be skepticism by marginalized folks of anyone who doesn't share the experience of marginalization in question, who is newly arrived, and who seems to want to be involved somehow. Lynd doesn't directly address questions of colonization and resistance to it, but it makes me think of the piece that has circulated in the last two years that instructs us to be accomplices with rather than allies to Indigenous people. As far as I can tell – and I'm open to being corrected – accompaniment taken up in the spirit in which Lynd intends it looks a lot like being an accomplice rather than an ally, in the sense of that piece. At the same time, it would also be incredibly easy to check off boxes and think you were engaging in accompaniment while doing all sorts of the politically destructive things that piece associates with "ally" identity. So skepticism is warranted, just as it is for any other framework for becoming involved in struggles to abolish oppressive relations from which you benefit, and starting from the framework of accompaniment doesn't inoculate against the possibility of engaging in harmful behaviours.

Nonetheless, I still think there is value and wisdom to be found in Lynd's approach. It feels relevant and useful to my situation.

My political involvement during the final few years of my time living in Sudbury, Ontario, looked something like accompaniment. Now, I'm not sure what Lynd would make of that claim. I'm not sure the kinds of writing/media/research/knowledge skills that I had to offer are really as practical as what he has in mind. And though the Sudbury working-group of The Media Co-op provided me with opportunities to build organic, lasting relationships, and to offer of those skills -- both through their direct use and via opportunities to build the skills of others -- to people in struggle in different ways in the city, I know full well that it never fully realized whatever potential it had in theory as a means of enacting accompaniment. Nonetheless, it was for me a site of potential, a site from which I could ask and answer "How should I act next in the world to create the change that I need, that you need, that the world needs?" within a framework that seemed to me to bear some family resemblance to accompaniment, even if I was never fully satisfied with my answers.

And now, of course, I'm back in Hamilton, a city I lived in for most of the decade before I lived in Sudbury. I miss specific people in Sudbury rather a lot, but I had largely been taking the long view in terms of the change in communities -- there are lots of things I like about Sudbury as a political and social community, but there are also lots of things I like (and missed!) about Hamilton, so there was loss in this transition but also gain. But as I've been reflecting on these questions, and as I have reflected on accompaniment as a framework for thinking about engagement in struggles for social change in a more explicit way than I had for a couple of years, I realize that there is something concrete that I have lost in leaving Sudbury that I cannot directly replace: that context for accompaniment. I won't get into the details, but because of differences between the two cities, it does not make sense to try and duplicate here what we were trying to do in Sudbury.

Don't get me wrong: As I said, Hamilton is wonderful, and I'm happy to be living here. There are some interesting grassroots things that are happening, and I've done my best, in the last few months, to go to things as an attendee and participant. But I have thus far hesitated about committing to be a member in an ongoing way of any local group or initiative. Partly that's because I'm enjoying having a bit more time for the non-locally-focused movement-related writing and media work that has stayed much the same for me before and after the move, and for the time being that might continue to win out. But partly -- and this may be completely backwards -- it's because I'm hesitant about plunging too much of myself into something local, urgent, and immediate before I have developed a better sense of how I can be usefully present in Hamilton over the long term.

Given what I bring – the skills, the quirks, the strengths and weaknesses – how can I most usefully position myself for long-term contribution to struggles for justice and liberation in Hamilton and elsewhere?

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Lessons of '93: Social movements, party politics, and the last time the Conservatives got booted

Earlier this year, I was involved in a special issue of a print magazine called The Dominion, which is the flagship publication of The Media Co-op network. The theme of the issue was "4 More Years of Austerity?". It was originally pitched as an intervention into conversations in the lead-up to the federal election. I'm not sure why -- I was involved in the editorial collective for the issue for a few months, but had to put a firm endpoint on that for various personal reasons, so I don't know what went down after that point -- but my copy only arrived in the mail yesterday, and I have seen no signs of any of the content online. However, a lot of it is entirely relevant to the present context.

In particular, see below for the article that I wrote, "Lessons of '93: Social movements, party politics, and the last time the Conservatives got booted," which contains cautions that seem to me to be very relevant to the current Trudeau honeymoon period. In it, I interview three long-time activists -- Judy Rebick, Jean Swanson, and Gary Kinsman, who together have a combined 120+ years of involvement in social movements in Canada -- about their reflections on the last time Liberals displaced a hated Conservative regime at the federal level.

Check it on the image and then view it at full size to read the article:

Friday, December 11, 2015

Review: Methodology of the Oppressed

[Chela Sandoval. Methodology of the Oppressed. Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.]

I'm not sure quite what to make of this book. There's no doubt that it is bold and visionary, and I get why the book from which I learned about it spoke of it so highly. There is something remarkable about the way that it combines a deep-down commitment to movements -- not just the notional nod of many scholars who perform radicalness, but a commitment that feels genuine and not at all weakened by time in the academy -- with a headlong plunge into canonical big name white dudes whose work exemplifies what grad students mean when they say "theory." Some of the ways it rethinks the larger sweep of history and context have the potential to be very valuable. But I think a core goal that the book sets for itself -- or at least what looks like one of the core goals to me -- is extracting useful tools for folks engaged in struggle on the ground, and I'm just not sure how successful it actually is in doing that. And there are some choices that it makes in both the stronger and weaker portions of its work that I'm not sure I understand.

It begins by talking about "the postmodern." Even just that single word points to a way of articulating shifts in the social world that makes me wary, and there are a number of other ways that this book talks about the world that evoke a similar reaction in me, but I think in this instance it is worth holding that wariness in check. I think its language and my reaction to it are a combination of the age of the text -- it was published 15 years ago, and parts of it were written upwards of 10 years before that -- as well as the author's interest in drawing on different sources than I might usually think of looking to. Unlike some other folks whom I've seen use the language of "the postmodern," she is clearly tying it to some very material changes in the world, including aspects that the left of today most often generalizes under the term "neoliberalism."

Starting in the mid-20th century, Western scholars -- including those who were or soon became superstars and icons -- began articulating new ways of understanding the social world and therefore the self as fragmented, partial, and complex, and very different from the more unitary, coherent selves at the heart of liberalism and the versions of marxism that had dominated to that point. The way I've seen this change described (and often criticized, on the left) has understood it as a change in the ways that analysts approached the social world and selves, rather than a change in the social and the selves being analyzed. (The change is variously attributed (in a favourable tone) to scholars doing smarter things or (with derision) to a scholarly retreat from the totalizing narratives people supposedly need to struggle for liberation.) Sandoval argues, however, that this change is not just about changes in the academy and changes in analysis, but that it reflects actual material changes in subjects and the ways that subjects are shaped by the social world. Or, rather, some subjects changed in the second half of the twentieth century. She argues that privileged citizen-subjects in the global north, in the second half of the twentieth century, came to be formed under different circumstances than had been the case earlier. Decolonizing struggles and other struggles for justice and liberation in the middle of the century caused a crisis in colonial capitalism, which reconfigured in a way that no longer permitted privileged citizen-subjects in the global north the same stability and unity and privilege that they had earlier been afforded. Which, except for the way that most conventional marxists tend to leave out the importance of decolonizing and other struggles in creating the crisis that capitalism answered with neoliberalism, doesn't sound all that unfamiliar to an ear trained in the early 21st century left. What is interesting, beyond the centring of anti-colonialism, is how the changes that I more often see talked about in terms of privatization, deregulation, attacks on labour, and so on are show as connected to shifts in how selves are formed through experiences of the social world. And in becoming more fragmented and partial and complex, citizen-subjects in the global north are not actually doing something completely novel: they are becoming more like colonized and other marginalized people have always had to be. (It makes me think of this long quote I posted a decade ago from Mohawk scholar Taiaiake Alfred, which includes him thinking, in response to white industrial workers up in arms about neoliberal capitalist globalization, "Looks like we're all Indians now, heh?".) And given this understanding of what critical Western scholarship in the second half of the twentieth century was doing, the book argues that such scholarship is worth seriously engaging with, including some instances that movements have not to date regarded as being very useful or very 'political' in an on-the-ground sense.

As part of this, another important assertion that this book makes is that this work of critical scholars in the privileged, seemingly sheltered environment of the academy in the global north is actually taken from and/or responding to the struggles of colonized and otherwise marginalized peoples. The implication is that such scholarly work already belongs at least partially to colonized people, or at least is connected to their struggles, even if nothing said directly by the elite Western scholars listed as "author" concedes this connection. Which means these are perfectly valid resource for marginalized folks in all sorts of other places to take up. The book doesn't really dwell on the ways in which this amounts to appropriation by Western scholars, but rather demonstrates how the anti-, de-, and post-colonial "we" can make use of those ideas, given that they they were really theirs in the first place. And of course there are often crucial things that the white dude critical superstars of the Western academy miss, so as colonized and otherwise marginalized subjects reappopriate their ideas, they can also fix them.

I don't know if I entirely buy all of this, but they are powerful and seductive claims.

But here's an example of one of the choices that the book makes that I don't understand: In characterizing the shift towards what it describes as the "postmodern" social world, it relies pretty heavily on a single essay published by marxist literary critic Frederic Jameson in 1984. Now maybe part of that is to illustrate what I was just talking about, because the book points out the ways in which this essay captures something real, but also the things that the essay misses because of where and how it was produced. But I don't get why so much weight was put on this one essay. Why not consult other sources that are situated in other ways? I mean, I'm convinced by the assertion that shifts in social relations produced shifts in selves, and just from my own other reading I think at least some of the general shape of this shift is captured both by Jameson and by the use that Sandoval puts him to, but surely that one essay isn't worth spending that much space on, and we could learn more by turning some of that space to other sources. Couldn't we? Or maybe I'm missing something.

Another pillar of the book is the success of US Third World feminists in the 1970s and 1980s in building on practices that colonized and otherwise marginalized folks had engaged in for survival and struggle for many years in many places, and advancing a distinctive and powerful kind of consciousness, politics, and movement. Sandoval herself was active in this movement, also described as women-of-colour feminism or anti-racist feminism. Using US feminism as an example, she argues that most social movements in the 20th century adopted stances that could be categorized as "equal rights," "revolutionary," "supremacist," or "separatist," each with associated practices and politics, and various flavours of feminism adopted each at different moments (56). What the US Third World feminists did was introduce a fifth type, which she called "differential," which allows a sort of strategic, contextual switching among the different stances. She argues that this ability to shift politics and practices in response to the different demands caused by the much more fragmented and complex social organization of domination and subordination in the postmodern world, while still having it guided both by a sound analysis of the social world and a firm ethical/political sense, is something that all movements need to learn how to do to function effectively in today's terrain of power.

Moreover, she argues that for movements to be able to enact this sort of differential politics, they have to be comprised of people who have at their disposal a particular set of tools for politically navigating the world. She argues that the demands of surviving in a highly marginalizing environment has forced many women of colour in the US, and many colonized subjects in contexts around the world, to develop skills of this sort without necessarily having language to name them. However, she argues that many Western critical scholars from the middle of the 20th century onwards advanced analyses that boiled down to essentially the same set of critical skills. Again, this was an instance of scholars picking up on the changed circumstances for privileged citizen-subjects, and observing and reasoning their way to approaches to understanding the world that oppression had long ago forced on those who had long since been colonized or otherwise seriously marginalized. The book goes into great detail to demonstrate how, a few years after Franz Fanon wrote with such brilliant insight into the experience of self by colonized people, Roalnd Barthes wrote a book doing something similar for white citizen-subjects in the global north, and describing in his own way these "oppositional technologies of power" (82). As in the earlier conversation about Jameson's essay, Sandoval points out some key things that Barthes missed that prevented him from linking his analysis to lived, hopeful experience of resistance. But nonetheless, she argues that his insights were crucial, even though that significance has mostly been neglected by contemporary scholars and activists.

Though again, I'm puzzled: Even granting that Barthes did this thing early and well, and that it doesn't usually get recognized, why is it worth spending so much time talking about what he did when we already have more politically useful articulations of similar ideas coming from the very movement that Sandoval helped build? I'm unsure.

Sandoval argues that these insights have been discovered again and again and again. I won't try to capture all of their nuance, but they involve capacities for critically reading the world -- for reading signs and systems of signs, and taking them apart -- and then for intervening in the deceptive sign systems that rule our lives in ways that build from there towards justice. They involve being able to tactically switch among modes of reading and acting in the world guided by an underlying commitment to justice and thriving. They've been lived by colonized and oppressed people for centuries, but in the changed environment after the middle of the 20th century, countless critical scholars in the West -- she doesn't engage with others in quite as much depth as she does with Barthes, but she does touch on quite a few -- have advanced analyses of the world that include these oppositional technologies, albeit under many different names and in many different configurations. Part of her goal with this book is to break down what she describes as "an apartheid of theoretical domains," where all of the various traditions and activists and scholars who cover very similar territory stay more or less separate and not aware of their similarities. Moreover, she wants to draw all of this scholarly work into the context of the insights of US Third World feminism and its operationalization of these technologies of power and self in the service of actual on-the-ground struggle.

There's lots here that resonates with me. My own political formation fits within the broad stream that writer and activist Chris Dixon has described as "anti-authoritarian," a loosely-knit rad left political tendency that in part traces its lineage to the women of colour feminist movement that Sandoval was a part of (along with anarchism, prison abolitionism, and others). Certainly part of the sensibility that anti-authoritarian politics have inherited by that route makes the political spirit of this book as it engages with various big scholarly names feel familiar to me. She never quite uses the phrase later popularized by John Holloway, of us existing "within, against, and beyond" social relations of domination, but the idea is there and central to her approach to thinking about struggle. She has a commitment to a kind of mutually transformative, practice-based politics of coalition that...well, I'm not sure I've ever really had the chance to live them out, but they've always felt to me like what we need. And personally, I think that contextually shifting political practices grounded in an underlying radically transformative commitment to justice and liberation just make sense -- for all that boosters of reified versions of marxism decry such political mobility, I think it reflects a stauncher commitment to materialism than any doctrinaire adherence to a single organizational form or a singular supposed path to revolution.

And I think that, as descriptions of how people enact such politics, this book's outline of these various stances and technologies of opposition as a methodology of the oppressed, or a methodolgy of emancipation, works. They aren't necessarily intuitive ways of characterizing these things, but that very fact makes them useful for those who alredy have some level of identification with these traditions in reflecting on how we engage with the world. But I'm really unconvinced that anyone is going to be able to take up and learn these technologies and this methodology based on reading it like this. Maybe I'm wrong about that. Maybe that isn't the point of the book anyway. But it seems to me that people -- both people pushed into learning these things as survival strategies, and more privileged folks who take them up a bit more consciously as part of a different sort of politicization process -- are going to continue to learn them, or not, in the ways that already happen, and a highly theoretical book like this is not going to facilitate that process.

I would also be interested in the author's reflections on the ways in which some of the crucial insights from US Third World feminism have been taken up since this book was published. In particular, my sense is that there are ways that they have been taken up by a wide range of people in the academy, and in various academic and non-academic spaces by relatively privileged folks, that distort their radically relational and dynamic core and instead substitute a premise of a reified and vastly oversimplified way of thinking about both identity and the social world. (It is often this reified and simplified version that today's various versions of class-reductionist politics attack in their tiresome polemics against "identity politics", rather than engaging respectfully with the full complexity and power of these ideas.) How would this more recent history of how the legacy of US Third World feminism of the 1970s and 1980s has been taken up change the book's project, or at least change its approach to advancing said project?

And so I end where I began: this book contains some profound ideas and some powerful insights. But overall, I still don't know what to make of it, and I'm not really sue what to do with those ideas and insights.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Gentrification in Hamilton: Some Initial Thoughts

Without a doubt, one of the key issues facing my new-again home of Hamilton, Ontario, is gentrification. I still have a lot to learn about how that's playing out, and I'm sure it's a topic I'll return to, but I have some initial impressions that I want to share -- particularly about the different positions people take on the issue, and the stark limitations that our neoliberal political context has put on our ability to imagine ways to respond.

Hamilton is an industrial city that is slowly de-industrializing at the same time that it is being bound ever more tightly into the world-city orbit of Toronto. The combination of historic and increasing poverty with the right levels of proximity and affordability to attract both (a) residents and (b) capital that wants to profit from said residents, from our neighbour up the Queen Elizabeth Way, means that the city I've moved back to looks and feels rather different from the one I left over a decade ago, particularly in parts of the downtown and to the north and east of the downtown. The only way I've been able to come up with to describe this difference is that Hamilton now feels shinier, and not in a good way. For me, the defining difference between Hamilton and Toronto used to be that the public feel of Hamilton included a certain open gritty recognition of the fact that a significant proportion of its residents have had to show some pretty major resilience in making ends meet, overcoming marginalization, and otherwise thriving. Toronto also has plenty of poverty and racism, and resilience in the face of them, but rather than the sense of gritty reality historically present in much public space in Hamilton, Toronto has had a sort of chrome veneer overtop. That veneer has never really hid the grinding poverty and exploitation underneath from anyone who was paying even a little bit of attention, but it provides an out for folks with money who don't want to see, who can believe in the shininess with all their hearts as if that makes it true, and who therefore can treat any manifestations of those who don't fit the shininess as intrusions (often, of course, when it is just people going about their lives in their own neighbourhods). Which is icky. In the last decade, Hamilton certainly hasn't lost its grit, but it has developed considerably more of this sort of shiny veneer.

There do seem to be some distinctive things about how gentrification is happening here, which I think have to do with both the size of the city and with the ways in which Canadian vs. US cities have formed historically. My most immediate point of comparison is Sudbury, the small city in Ontario's near north where I most recently lived. There are forces within Sudbury that are desperately trying to get gentrification to happen there, and have driven it far enough to make things more difficult for poor and working-class people in the downtown but not yet to create the kind of boom that I suspect they're hoping for. I wrote an article about it last year, and my sense is that in Sudbury it is a process that is being driven by downtown small business owners, the cops, and the obliviously wielded aesthetic and cultural preferences of downtown-proximal middle-class folk with urban sensibilities, as well as a broader layer of actual or aspiring middle-class people who are doing various things to make ends meet that also end up incrementally transforming neighbourhoods to the detriment of their poor and working-class neighbours. On the other end of the scale, you have places like Toronto and New York and San Francisco, where my sense is that gentrification is driven by big capital, which can generate massive profits by transforming urban space radically and in large chunks.

Hamilton, it looks to me, is somewhere between these two. There has not been the same sort of whole-scale transformation of large bits of space that Toronto or New York has seen, but there is also considerably more capitalist clout behind the changes than in Sudbury. You won't see things like, say, a dozen contiguous blocks utterly transformed in the space of a couple of years like big-city gentrification at its worst. But there are, for instance, plenty of scattered apartment buildings from which poor residents are being turfed in one way or another to make way for upgrades that will welcome higher income tenants -- I haven't seen numbers, but I know I live a couple of blocks from two, we actually looked at a unit in another that's a bit farther away, there are a couple at least in the Riverside neighbourhood in the east of the city, and there are ongoing public fights between landlords and tenants in at least two more that are north and west of us. Given that there's no reliable way to hear about these kinds of things, odds are its happening in way more buildings than have come to my attention. Which means that while it isn't full-scale Brooklyn block-busting, the loss of residential space for poor and working-class people is neither incidental nor trivial. And there are definitely neighbourhoods where the character of other aspects of public space has significantly changed -- the bulk of the folks living near James Street North ten years ago, for example, would probably not feel super welcome in most of the commercial establishments that line much of the street now. And Locke Street South was pretty middle-class before, but it has become even more resolutely chichi. And other areas have demonstrated similar, if lesser, changes.

The other specificity that's worth noting, compared to how this often plays out in US cities, is that it is not racialized in quite the same way. That is, it's racialized in the sense that poverty is racialized in Canada -- so, definitely and increasingly -- but historically that has not been expressed in terms of how urban space has formed in quite as dramatic a way as in many US cities, so the racial dynamics of gentrification are not as stark either. I could be mistaken, but my sense is that gentrification in Hamilton is probably displacing a disproportionate number of racialized people, but that the clear absolute majority of poor and working-class people being displaced are white. Which in some ways is neither here nor there, but it may change the political dynamics a bit.

In talking with people in Hamilton about this issue, and observing both social and mainstream media, there seem to be three basic positions that people take. There's lots of variation within those three, and reducing it like this means that there is an element of caricature in what I describe, but I think it at least sets out the overall shape of the discursive ground where these debates are taking place.

One group has no problem with gentrification at all. They might have no idea it exists, they might enthusiastically endorse it, or they might acknowledge that it's a phenomenon but use various devices to discount the fact that it amounts to harm inflicted on poor and working-class people and communities. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that folks in this camp constitute the majority of Hamiltonians outside of directly affected communities, though I don't know that for sure. Responding to this group involves demonstrating that gentrification exists, that it causes harm, and that we should all care about and work against that harm. However, I'm not interested in engaging with these folks in this post.

A second pole in this debate is what I would describe as the "some" group. This group is definitely conscious of the harms that urban redevelopment can have on poor and working-class people and communities, but also welcomes certain aspects, certain forms, certain degrees of urban redevelopment as positive and good. I've heard this articulated in various ways. It often includes a recognition that existing residents of these communities have a mix of opinions, and at least some residents see value in some kinds of resources and some kinds of changes being brought to their communities, even if there are down sides as well. Sometimes it's framed in terms of balance, and working to make sure that the harms caused don't outweigh the benefits, though there isn't necessarily much attention paid to the fact that who feels the benefits and who feels the harms are often different people. Others in this group think it's important to treat the harms and benefits are separable, which leads to advocating for policies that they say will minimize or even prevent the harms while maximizing the benefits, though the impact of such policies is often overstated. Though folks situated in a variety of ways take a position that falls into this camp, it is often found among urban middle-class or better-off working-class people who are likely to more directly experience the benefits, and not be as touched by the harms, though it's unfair to reduce the position to that.

And the final pole is the "none" group, which opposes any and all manifestations of change that might fit the description as a symptom of gentrification. Whatever they have to say about the desperate need for resources in many of the neighbourhoods which are targeted for gentrification, they are resolute in opposing any tradeoff involving an acceptance of some harms of gentrification in exchange for some of those resources. They point to how even the more ostensibly non-coercive changes to neighbourhoods can end up crowding out existing residents, and generally they see little possibility for meaningfully separating whatever positive changes that gentrification might bring -- which they would argue are mostly either superficial or oriented towards folks with cash anyway -- from the underlying damage done to working-class and poor communities. Again, though it is unfair to reduce this position to the negative stereotype propagated by those who oppose it, it can sometimes deteriorate into strident posing on social media or other performative lifestyle or micro-level politics that are pretty detached from the actual lives and struggles of folks in the impacted communities.

I wrote in a book review back in October about my dislike of unhelpful polarization within the left or within movements, so even though this is far from the most polarized issue I could name, it still gets my hackles up a bit. That said, I'm definitely closer to the "none" side, though with nuance, with skepticism about radical purity politics, and with a recognition that there is value in some articulations of the "some" position as well. I think an approach that combines radical vision with a practical emphasis on grassroots mobilization to build community power and reduce harms is probably the best way to focus struggles responding to gentrification, though it's obviously not up to me.

What I think is most interesting, though, is not so much the "some" versus "none" binary and the different combinations of politics around markets and states, compromise and purity, benefits and harms, that various positions within that polarization represent. Rather, I'm struck by a conviction that the very fact that this polarization between "some" and "none" exists in this way is because, in our neoliberal age, massive redistribution of resources into poor and working-class communities by mechanisms not oriented around profiting from them is so far from political agendas. Not that folks in and between those camps wouldn't support such redistribution -- in different ways and through different mechanisms, many in both would. It's more that such redistribution is so far from genuinely imaginable today that while it may or may not be present as a piece of rhetoric in responses to gentrification, the actual substance of the two poles boils down to two different sets of answers to the question of what to do in the absence of any way to allocate resources other than the market. Do we cajole and flatter and tease and even regulatorily prod the market to get some (ostensibly) good stuff along with the bad it inevitably brings, or do we just say no and no and no?

There's no easy solution to the problem of getting redistribution back onto the agenda in a more credible way, and therefore to shifting the context for discussion away from options for how to react when capital puts a poor neighbourhood in its sights, and towards something where poor and marginalized people can seize the initiative for driving change in their own communities. There's some tenant organizing happening in the city that is new and seems promising, and I'm keen to learn more about it. Which is great. But the scale of what would be needed remains far beyond what we can imagine at this moment, let alone what we can achieve.