Friday, November 24, 2017

Review: From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation

[Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. Chicago IL: Haymarket Books, 2016.]

If you are on the left, you have probably encountered some version of what has become a pretty standard account of the history between the end of the Second World War and the present. It follows the social democratic compromise between capital and labour after the war, the rise of the welfare state in conjunction with unprecedented (if nowhere close to evenly distributed) prosperity in Western countries over the subsequent two decades, the capitalist crisis of the early 1970s, and then the rise of the neoliberal assault on all of those gains that continues today.

It's a useful history. It captures a lot about what matters, a lot about what has changed, and a lot about the growing precarity and violence organized into people's lives over the last few decades. But this fairly standard marxist approach leaves a lot out as well, along a lot of different axes. For instance, it often fails to capture how the uprisings of the 1960s and 1970s were a reaction to multiple forms of exclusion from access to the growing wellbeing of the post-war years. Or you can read Vijay Prashad's The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations as a re-engagement with that history centering the nations of the Global South during the heady promise of the end of formal colonization and subsequent reimposition of obedience via the neoliberal model. Or there was an observation I saw just the other day on Twitter from Vancouver-based migrant justice organizer Harsha Walia noting how conventional accounts of neoliberlism so often ignore how the weakening of the state's ability to redistribute and regulate is integrally tied to strengthening carceral and punitive state power.

Which brings me to this book: It's not the book's explicit goal, but some of it can be read as a re-telling of bits of that history in a way that centres African Americans. The whole book is an exploration in the US context of the intertiwining of white supremacy (particularly anti-Blackness) and capitalism, with lots of attention to how both racial oppression and Black resistance shifted over that time. So during the uprisings of the 1960s, Black struggle, in all of its militant diversity, "pushed mainstream politics to the left" (45) and opened space for thinking about poverty, racism, and anti-Black oppression in terms of systemic injustice rather than in the racist terms of personal and cultural inferiority. In the 1970s, the fading of street-level militance and the elite counter-offensive closed this space in the white-dominated mainstream, amplified law-and-order politics, and reconfigured white supremacy around the colourblind logic that dominates in North America today. In particular, Taylor explores the profound shifts that Black politics underwent between the civil rights era and today, with attention to the shift in emphasis from mass street-based politics to focusing on electoral victories by Black politicians. As understable as that change was given the context, Taylor shows how the dramatic increase in Black people holding elected positions over those decades has accomplished certain kinds of things but has had a limited impact on the central issues in the lives of poor and working-class Black communities, due to how the electoral system and the state more broadly work, and how that has also been part of fundamentally reconfiguring the landscape upon which the Black freedom struggle operates today. The book then zooms in on the justice system and questions of mass incarceration of Black and brown people. It talks in a more focused way about the Obama years and the profound limits on what the now-mainstream Black political establishment can accomplish, again principally in terms of core concerns for poor and working-class Black communities. Then there is a chapter about the Black Lives Matter movement to that point, and finally a chapter outlining Taylor's vision for moving forward with a politics that fully integrates anti-capitalism and opposition to white supremacy and to anti-Blackness.

The most valuable part of this book for me is its engagement with history. There were bits and pieces that weren't new to me, but many more that were, and I learned a lot from its reformulation of some elements of 20th century history. I also really value its account of African American struggles in the decades after the 1960s, which is something that those of us who are connected to movements but are not part of those communities don't necessarily know much about. For all that I'm reading this in the Canadian context, and the shape and historical trajectory of anti-Blackness isn't the same here – the next book I plan on reviewing will likely talk about that a bit – I still think this was a worthwhile read for me. After all, the Black freedom struggle has in some sense been the core of overall movement momentum in the US for a long time, and struggle in the US often circulates in significant ways to the Canadian context. So this feels quite relevant to me, here.

As I said at the start, one of the core goals of the book is to show how we need an analysis and a political practice that integrates anti-capitalism and anti-racism. This isn't a new idea, but it is an important one, and I think that it is very timely to be forcefully arguing for it. In the last couple of years, electoral dynamics in the United States have created a toxic and to my mind entirely unnecessary polarization between those two – I think because of a mix of deliberate efforts to do so by neoliberal forces in and around the Democratic Party as part of fending off challenges from the left, but also because of a lot of really boneheaded moves by said left, including bad choices around race politics by prominent figures and initiatives like the Sanders campaign, as well as the growing embrace by a subset of both socialist and anarchist grassroots anti-capitalists of politics that, when unpacked, boil down to a form of class reductionism. Taylor is very emphatic that this is not inevitable – anti-capitalism is not at all inherently class reductionist – but in a lot of instances when it is white-dominated anti-capitalist groups, that is what happens.

That said, I was a bit disappointed in the book's final chapter, which serves as a sort of manifesto and vision for working towards the promise of the book's title. Like I said, I think the book's vision for a politics integrating anti-capitalism and anti-racism is important and timely, but its articulation in the final chapter felt kind of closed, perhaps even a bit doctrinaire. I know there are other approaches to understanding and resisting white supremacy and anti-Blackness that are radical or revolutionary in character, and other ways of thinking about how fighting capital and white supremacy have to go together, that are not the same as what is articulated in this book. And the final chapter feels a bit dismissive of all of that. Admittedly, some of my discomfort may just be about differences in political sensibility – it has always made the most sense to me to engage generously with a range of political traditions, and take up what's useful to you while doing your best to be able to learn from and work with the rest. So I think things like the critical and radical scholarly work on white supremacy and anti-Blackness, and on efforts to resist them, that are being articulated in academic spaces and are not necessarily quite as grounded in struggle on the ground as this book are still really important and still things that I want to learn from, and that I want the movements I'm in to learn from. And I know that there are some quite different approaches to thinking about and working against anti-Blackness that come from quite a different place, that are (among other things) often quite a bit more skeptical about working in coalition, and I don't think our movements can afford to not engage seriously with those approaches.

To put it all a bit more sharply, I think white anti-capitalists need to be careful how we read and mobilize this book. Definitely I think we should be using it to counter the toxic polarization that is trying to tell people that anti-capitalism and anti-racism are incompatible. But we should resolutely refuse to use this book to evade anti-racist critiques of how instances of white-dominated anti-capitalist organizing are happening, right now, on the ground – these critiques are not always going to use left language, and that doesn't mean we should just dismiss them. And we should not be using it to dismiss or to justify not seriously engaging with other forms of radical and revolutionary anti-racism that don't happen to fit as easily with our already-existing anti-capitalist politics.

So, yeah...this is a very useful book that I think should be widely read. I hope we can let its engagement with history transform our understanding of the last half century and inform our political choices in movements today, but I hope that white anti-capitalists in particular deploy it with political care and respect and don't use it as an excuse to close ourselves off in various ways.

For a video version of this review that is a bit less detailed than the written version, check this out:

[Check out the somewhat out-of-date but still extensive list of book reviews on this site.]

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Thinking about how cis men can and should be speaking publically about sexual violence

I've been thinking a lot in the last month about how cisgender men can and should be speaking publically about sexual violence and gender oppression.

I've been thinking about this for some obvious reasons and some less obvious reasons. The obvious ones should be – well, obvious. In the last month, these issues have received unprecedented mainstream attention. And not only that, there has been a critical mass of pressure that has resulted in powerful institutions that would normally ignore or dismiss or attack survivors being forced to take some meanintful action in response. There are all sorts of limits to this, and there is a great need for ongoing pressure to sustain and deepen this moment, but it has nonetheless been quite significant.

I have also been thinking about this because the whole situation has made me feel a lot of difficult feelings. Not because I'm a survivor of sexual violence – I'm not, and I know what I've been feeling is a mere fraction of what survivors have been feeling. Neither have I sexually assaulted anyone. But I am, as a cis dude, complicit in various ways in sexual violence and gender oppression. And related issues have wound for years through my own ongoing efforts to work through some of the central challenges in my own life. Hence the many feelings.

One of the things that I've been feeling is a certain sense of political obligation to speak publically on the issue. But I've also been feeling a complicated hesistance, and on reflection I think that some of that hesitance is warranted and some of it is not. So I've been thinking through how I can and should be speaking.

Acting in the World

Acting politically in the world inevitably begins from where we already are – the spaces we're already in, the groups we already belong to, the workplaces where we are employed, the informal networks we're already part of, the activities we already do. Taking action can change our trajectory, bring us into new places, create new opportunities for acting – ideally collectively, becuase I think collective action is what is most needed – but inevitably, in any given moment, our choices about acting must begin from where we already are.

I think perhaps the single most important thing for us cis guys to consider as we reflect on speaking publically – whether that's a Facebook status update, a piece in the New Yorker, a speech in Parliament, or a comment in an activist group meeting – about sexual violence and gender oppression is that if we really take seriously that acting politically starts from where we already are, then speaking publically must be only one small part of how we act. A much bigger, and arguably a more important, part is the political choices we make in the rest of life – all of those things that so many pieces published in the last month, and so many more published in the last 50 years, have named. How do we enact complicity in sexual violence and gender oppression every day? Because assuredly we do. So how do we challenge and change that? How do we relate to the partners, friends, co-workers, family, and other people in our everyday lives? How do we listen, how do we speak, how do we communicate about sexual violence and gender oppression with all of those people? How do we act in small, non-visible ways to support public initiatives led by women, trans people, nonbinary people, and survivors of all genders? And when it comes to the public circulation of knowledge, rather than leaping to spewing our own (perahps dubious) contribution, what can we do to read, watch, and listen to more material on these issues produced by women, trans people, nonbinary people, and survivors of all genders? And in this social media age, where all of us can play a role in amplifying knowledge, what can we do to make sure all of that circulates more too?

It varies with context – if you have a co-worker who, right now, is being attacked for speaking out about abuse she has suffered, then speak up publically and support her! – but I think for most of us in most situations, more of our effort on these issues needs to go in directions other than speaking publically.

That said, however, speaking publically (in an expansive sense) is one element of what I already do. Not that huge numbers of people listen to any individual instance, of course, but writing and making media of various sorts that I send out into the world for people to engage with has been central to my work for a long time. And given that it is what I already do, it makes sense, I think, to reflect on doing it better around questions of sexual violence and gender oppression.

Political Responsibility

So here's what I came up with: In order for speaking or writing publically about sexual violence and gender oppression by cis men to be useful, it must be organized and informed by a logic of political responsibility. That is, in making decisions about when and how to speak, we have to prioritize a recognition that what matters here is the broader issue, and the struggles by women, trans people, nonbinary people, and survivors of all genders to challenge practices of sexual violence and transform the social relations of gender oppression that enable those practices. We have to work at understanding those struggles, and choose our moments and methods of speaking publically such that they feed into those struggles. That's what matters, full stop.

Of course, that's still not a guarantee that speaking publically will be a good choice or will in any way be useful, but it at least avoids guaranteeing the opposite. When that logic of political responsibility gets displaced by other logics in shaping how we decide what we say and when we say it, we need to step back and look critically and closely at what we're doing. We need to be on the lookout for that ourselves, and we need to be able to hear it when other people tell us that's what's going on.

So at the most immediate level, and at the broadest applicability, that means that if there's even a whiff that speaking in a given moment is really about me in some sense, then maybe I just shouldn't. For instance, for cis guys speaking on these issues, it easily turns into performance. And if you're about to say something and you have even a faint suspicion that it's really more about performing a certain kind of politics in order to play activist status games or in hopes of getting into somebody's pants or whatever else, then it's probably best to stay quiet. Another example that has cropped up in the last month has been a handful of progressive men who engage in a certain kind of generalized public confession of complicity. Not that strategic and careful examination in public of elements of one's own complicity is necessarily bad – I haven't seen much of it, but I suspect that it can be quite useful in unpacking the how of complicity in grounded ways, which doesn't happen enough. But while generalized public confession may seem like it follows a logic of political responsibility, I think often it is more about meeting some kind of need in the person confessing and doesn't necessarily contribute much to broader struggles.

Or take a much narrower instance: I think that, in general, if a given instance of speaking publically about sexual violence or gender oppression is attached to opportunities to make a living and/or build a career, cis men should be very hesitant about taking those opportunities. By definition, doing so introduces a logic other than political responsibility to the choice to speak. I'm not going to say they should never take them – though others would, and I wouldn't argue with them – but especially if there is even a hint that those opportunities and the attached resources could go to a woman, trans person, or nonbinary person who is doing this work, in most scenraios I can imagine the politically responsible thing for a cis man to do is to step back.

As narrow as that instance is, though, it connects to something much more broadly relevant. One of the weird dynamics of how this plays out is that cis men get affirmation, recognition, and social reward for even minimal acts of public speech against sexual violence and gender oppression that is vastly greater than any affirmation, recognition, or rewards that women, trans people, and nonbinary people get. In fact, often we get applause for saying things that bring them nothing but scorn and abuse. Moreover, this easily crystallizes from a moment of excessive affirmation into a sort of personal branding as "a dude who gets it" or "one of the good ones." Now, this isn't entirely under the control of the cis dude in question, but nonetheless there is an obligation to refuse and disrupt this branding.

Partly this is because there is a long and awful history of men who behave abominably towards women and trans people in their private lives in part protecting themselves by building a public reputation as a progressive guy who "gets it." Think of the Canadian media personality with the initials JG, a certain prominent male women's studies prof (HS) who went down in flames a few years ago, and a certain comedian in the news right now. Part of defusing that predatory tactic is to constantly trouble, to the extent that the individual in question can, how this affirmation is allocated and the ways it gets turned into a brand.

More broadly, though, it's important because it is a crucial way that a logic other than political responsibility manages to sneak its way into our decision-making. Because it is seductive to get this kind of affirmation. I mean, I can't say it has come up often for me in the last few years, but even so I can think of three or four times in the last year and a bit where the particular context led to enough of that kind of excessive positive feedback that I felt its pull (as well as its icky-ness). And it very easily leads to saying and doing things publically that are much more about one's own needs than about what would flow from an honest assessment of political responsibility. So to preserve our ability to make good decisions, we need to push back against this tendency towards excessive social rewards and consequent personal branding, and to work to not become attached to receiving them.

And the final thing I think we can do to speak publically from a logic of political responsibility is to work really hard to do so from our whole selves. Which may sound strange and abstract, but I think it might well be the most important point that I'm making here. We can't just pick one issue that we recognize in an intellectual way is important and focus on getting good at talking about that in a public way. Our reference point can't be "Oh, well, I think gender is important so I'll learn about that and talk about that." Rather, we need to recognize, even if we can't fully articulate, the totality of what we're implicated in. We need to start from all of who we are, from a recognition that we are simultanously immersed in social relations organized in a huge number of ways, along many different axes, that organize violence into some people's lives and unearned benefit into other people's lives in a whole lot of different of ways, always and all the time. There's an all-at-onceness to who we are as people and to the social relations that we're in. Acting from a logic of political responsibility, including that slice of it that involves speaking publically, means always starting from how we exist in relation with all of that. Not necessarily talking about all of it, all the time – I mean, you couldn't, right? – but grounding our decision making about what and when and how, in that big picture. It's huge and it's messy and it's hard, and it's so big that it makes any kind of political purity or performance of being "good" pretty much impossible, but we need to stay in it.

There are lots of reasons why this is important. I think emphasizing starting from all of who we are, all of where we are, all of what we're already doing helps to maintain that logic of political responsibility because it involves always going back to that bigger picture of the social relations that surround us, that we create, that create us, and asking, what do we need to do to act with responsibility here, now? I think it helps us remember that speaking publically is only one narrow part of what we need to do when it comes to acting from where we already are, because even for those of us whose work involves (in a broad sense) speaking publically, it really amounts to a pretty minor part of life. I think it can be useful in disrupting the risk of personal branding, because it forces us to constantly confront how it is all so big and multifaceted and messy, so it makes it that much harder to fall into cultivating a reputation (or believing our own) for 'getting it' on any particular issue. I think it leads to better politics, because it's a better accounting of how our world actually works and a better grounding for making decisions – single issue understandings are always limited. And it also leads to better politics because it pushes us to learn from political traditions that already have this understanding of the world, whether that is the long Black feminist tradition and Kimberle Crenshaw's concept of "intersectionality," works that integrate marxist insights about the social world with analyses of patriarchal and white supremacist social relations like Sylvia Federici and Himani Bannerji, or any number of other radical theorists like Dean Spade or Eli Clare or Sara Ahmed. And, personally, I think grounding efforts to act from a logic of political responsibility in our whole selves creates space to be putting that responsibility into some kind of healthy relation with our work for our own liberation, and for a vision of a better world that includes space for pleasure, desire, and joy rather than the moralistic grimness that can (especially among cis guys who take the politics seriously) so easily result from devotion to some sort of abstracted future.

So. Those are a just few incomplete thoughts on how cisgender men can and should be speaking publically about sexual violence and gender oppression in the current moment. I haven't really said much about the content of what we might want to be saying in this moment, but I'm keen to hear what others think about that. What have you been saying, in this moment of difficult but vitally important heightened mainstream attention to sexual violence and gender oppression? More importantly, what have you been doing beyond that narrow slice of life that involves saying things in public?


In line with some of the work that I did on book reviews in late 2016, right now I'm experimenting with producing video versions of various kinds of writing that I'm doing. I think the written version above is a bit clearer than the video version, but I make essentially the same points in both, so if you are someone who would rather watch than read, check this out:

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Work-in-Progress #1: An overview of my current projects

So I recently realized that I'm a bit bored with the big projects that take up most of my work time. Not wavering in my commitment to them...just a little bored. Now, I already feel that I don't have enough time to do the things that I need to do, or at least to make progress on them as rapidly as I'd like. Nonetheless, the thought of revisiting my experimentation with video, which I indulged in about a year ago, gives me the sort of feeling of enthusiasm that I hope will be a good counter to my boredom. It's entirely possible that enthusiasm will fade by next Tuesday, current idea is to make bookish, bloggish, and work-in-progress kinds of videos (all of the "talking head" variety that is common on YouTube). So to that end, here is the first work-in-progress video. Most will be about one quick, narrow thing, but this is a bit of an overview of the different projects I'm involved in right now: