Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Living Politics Through Life

I've always been a true believer in the idea that the personal is political, (and that the political is personal). Generally I do my best to live my politics as do many other people around me. Most of these people, however, are similarly aged as myself and in similar places in their lives--they're college students, graduate students, getting their first jobs, mostly members of some minority group or another, mostly without seroius relationships, completely without children (and the accompanying parenting responsibilities), and mostly without the responsibilities of homes and mortgages and car loans and home improvement loans, etc. I wonder, however, if living one's politics, though, is a privilege of only the young, the childless, the well-educated, the middle class, etc. How much more difficult must it be for two forty-somethings who have a home and children and a dog and two jobs and all of that to live their politics. Who really has the energy when they've got all of that to deal with?

The above quote comes from a posting at another blog (another one that I read at Feminist Blogs, as a matter of fact). The post continues with some examples of people in her life not being able to live politics that they genuinely hold due to some of the constraints that she mentions above, and is well worth a read.

I have often angsted about similar issues in my own life. I was initially politicized as a university student and not much bothered me more than the suggestion that my politics were purely a result of my phase in life and that I would "grow out" of them and/or "grow up." I still deeply resent the suggestion by smug older people that I will "understand when I'm older" and it sets my teeth on edge when I hear someone quote that old racist and imperialist Winston Churchill as saying (approximately) that if you're not a socialist when you're young you have no heart, but if you're still a socialist when you're old you have no brain.

Except now I'm a few steps beyond where I was when those issues first came up for me. I am a stay-at-home parent of a 15 month-old toddler (16 months in three days!) and I am trying to write a book. My reality right now is that I am strapped for money and strapped for time, not to mention living in a new city (one difficulty) that is not particularly friendly to those of us who try to live without a car (another difficulty) and that is also in a new country (yet another possible barrier). All of this means that I am not nearly as able to devote time to being publically and politically involved as as I could three or four years ago.

Does this mean I was wrong? Does this mean that the "life phase" argument of politicization is true?

I think a more useful way of looking at the dangers that I worry about still, and that are identified in the post that sparked me to write this, is as dangers of incorporation into the structures and narratives of middle-class (and, to a certain extent, working-class) North American life. It's a combination of doing things you have to do to get by, doing things you think you have to do to get by, not wanting to give up class privilege, and doing things that inherited narratives have told you that you are supposed to do. And that's powerful stuff.

In the constellation of living examples of various phenomena that I have in my head is one person I know who has done a lot of activist stuff I respect but who is, for me, emblematic of complete surrender to this maintenance of class-privilege and uncritical buy-in to hetero/white/middle-class "normalcy" in way that presents it (in this person's personal manner and narrative) as being inevitable and not even a particularly bad thing. As I have entered into parenthood, I have been pretty determined that I would not follow that example, but scared that I would do so despite myself.

I think there are a number of ways to avoid that. The first thing is to be deliberate in trying to do so -- as an individual, as a member of a partnership, and as a member of a local social network, it is possible to subvert these normative narratives and to resist these structures. Individual choices can't make the compulsive elements disappear, but they can help you cut through the ones that only give the illusion of being compulsions. Personally, I have made some choices that are resistant and others that are complicit, and it is certainly not as easy as it was to be happy with all of my choices and their outcomes as when I was an unfettered university student. But I can still choose.

Part of that choosing is taking an oppositional stance towards the forces that constrain you even if you can't change them. When I first became politicized, it was very important to me to define politics (and ethics) as something you do, not as an abstract position you take over beer in the grad pub. This was important because it was a step in the direction of resisting the tendency in our culture to treat politics exclusively as a matter of opinion or preference -- to be a disembodied, discourse-only kind of thing. However, I am gradually coming to appreciate how that position rests in part on having a fair amount of privilege to control one's own circumstances. If you keep that position in an uncomplexified form, it can result in an individualistic puritanism when it comes to politics. It has done so for me, though generally applied in its most stringent form only to myself. Therefore it is important to recognize the value of oppositional consciousness even if there is not a lot of space to express that in action, and it is important to see politics as both what you do and how you relate to your constraints.

To be a little abstract about it, activists who come from a position of privilege tend to see a failure to live one's politics (whatever that might mean to them) as a sign of completeness and insufficiency, whereas I would argue that it makes more sense to see it as a sign of incompleteness but sufficiency. What does this mean? We tend to treat the conceptual entity "my politics" as something that is finished, separate, complete, and treat it as if it can exist purely in the context of atomized individualism. When we fail to live our politics to our own satisfaction, we blame it not on a misunderstanding of what politics is, but on a personal insufficiency, on being "not good enough." I do this all the time. I would argue that, instead, we need to see "my politics" as being an inherently incomplete concept, and as being in constant dialogue with things larger than "me." That helps us to see ourselves as sufficient, even when forces beyond our control mean we can't live our politics the way we would like.

In other words, we have to see our political beliefs and actions in terms of our own local context -- or, to use terminology stolen from Canadian feminist sociologist Doroty Smith (whom I think I'll blog more about soon), in the context of the "relations of ruling" that structure our everyday. All of this means that I cannot live an anti-oppressive life until society is transformed. Politics are not an exercise in purity, but a messy and ongoing effort to change the larger world.

So I would say that living your politics, as I first understood that phrase, is perhaps, "a privilege of only the young, the childless, the well-educated, the middle class, etc." But I think it is important to get beyond that and have a broader understanding of what it means to live our politics -- something I am still struggling with myself.

I have had the privilege of interviewing 50 long-time Canadian activists, some of whom come from privilege and others who definitely do not. I would say, based on that experience, that privilege gives a person some protection from the abuse that power structures tend to heap on those who seek social change, but it is not at all a necessity for living your politics. Some of the folks I interviewed have never known much privilege, and they live their politics in ways that I can only aspire to.

And I also have examples that are more personal. Though I have the example I presented above of the person I know who surrendered to hetero/white/middle-class North American normativity and to neutralization of their politics, and it still scares me, I also have another important example that gives me encouragement. I have friends who have kids and who have radical, radical politics and polticial practice, one of whom I have heard on several occasions say something I hope I'll be able to say truthfully in thirty years time: "The older I get, the more radical I get."

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