Anti-Oppression Politics in Anti-Capitalist Movements

with Junie Désil, Kirat Kaur, and Gary Kinsman

The modes of resistance and struggle that came out of liberation movements in the latter part of the 20th century gave rise to anti-oppression organizing and politics. Anti-oppression arose out of the left’s failure to develop a nuanced approach to questions of oppression and to consider various forms of oppression as “class issues.”

In recent years the rise of the anti-globalization movement has influenced, and been influenced by, anti-oppression analyses, as the movement sought to address the effects of global capitalism on different communities and peoples, and to understand the varied effects of power, privilege and marginalization in individual communities, as well as in national and international contexts.

Among social justice activists organizing around anti-oppression politics, many questions have come up as to how to envision and create a transformative politic around issues of racism, sexism, heterosexism and able-ism within an anti-capitalist analysis. The current separation of identity politics from class struggle does not speak to the experiences of marginalized and exploited people in our communities, and we need ways to discuss and organize around the connections between various oppressions and capitalism. As anti-oppression activists, we need to develop a critical discourse that connects the socio-historical contexts of capitalism and class to race, gender, sexuality and ability.

To the annoyance of some leftists who argue that capitalism and class form the fundamental basis of all oppression, anti-oppression organizing seeks to understand the connections between racism, sexism, heterosexism, colonialism and class. Anti-oppression politics have the potential to provide a useful antidote to reductionist perspectives which leave out the fundamental roles of patriarchy and racism in determining both capitalism and class relations.

But is this happening? Or are anti-oppression activists repeating the same mistakes made by proponents of identity politics in the 1960s and 1970s, and being co-opted by the claimed multiculturalism of the Canadian state? Do anti-oppression politics expand the analysis of radical organizing, or are they merely “reinventing the wheel” by addressing individual behaviors? Can anti-oppression politics provide a model for a multi-faceted analysis that addresses oppression and class exploitation as distinct but nevertheless intimately interrelated social relationships?

The dynamics of anti-oppression politics often reinforce notions of oppression that we should be trying to debunk. People of colour, for example, are often deemed anti-oppression “experts,” and are expected to do anti-oppression work for primarily white organizations. What are systemic issues then become problems stemming from individual behaviour, which can lead to the de-politicization or political paralysis of activist groups. As the radical roots of anti-oppression in feminist, anti-racist and queer movements become co-opted, the education model developed by anti-oppression activists is being taken up by mainstream, “multiculturalist” and liberal discourses.

The following is a roundtable discussion based upon interviews with three activists who have engaged with anti-oppression politics in the context of radical political organizing. These interviews address the relevance, influence and problems of anti-oppression politics for these activists. We encourage feedback and further discussion on the ideas expressed here. If you would like to write us with your own observations on these questions, or contribute an article for the next issue of our journal, please get in touch with us.

UTA: Please introduce yourselves.

Kirat Kaur: I am a young, able migrant woman of South Asian descent. I am currently an organizer with the Bus Riders Union and a board member of the South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy (SANSAD).

Junie Désil: I am a Haitian-Canadian feminist community organizer and writer. I was born in Montréal, but I now live and work in Vancouver, where I provide training in the area of facilitation (using an anti-oppressive framework), community development, as well as working at the Vancouver Status of Women, a women’s centre in East Vancouver.

Gary Kinsman: I got involved in the revolutionary left in the early 1970s and, shortly after, came out as a gay man and got involved in queer organizing.1 I come from a white middle class background and I am now a university professor. I have been involved in the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty and Autonomy and Solidarity.

UTA: What has been your experience with anti-oppression politics?

Kirat: My experiences with anti-oppression politics have been varied, and, initially, led me to find it a problematic discourse. I was first introduced to this kind of politics in my training for a local rape crisis line’s volunteer peer support work. The training was done in an anti-oppression framework, with the second half of it broken up into workshops that dealt with each individual oppression. In particular, I remember the workshop on ‘class oppression’ to be not much more than making sure people were not engaged in ‘poor bashing’ and discussions about how we should not ‘discriminate against poor people’. At this time in my political development, my class analysis was weak, and so I accepted that definition of ‘class oppression’ as a starting point from which my understanding of class developed (although my class analysis did not grow from within that particular organization). Moreover, even then, I found that particular brand of anti-oppression politics to be very much focused on inter-personal, individual change, with no attention paid to systemic issues and to fighting collectively for systemic change.

Since then, through my involvement with revolutionary grassroots organizations, I have come to realize that most anti-capitalist organizing does not integrate a strong analysis of other forms of oppression such as race and gender oppression. Through my organizing with the Bus Riders Union, I have come to see that a strong anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-oppression framework is integral to the success of social justice movements.

Junie: I have been involved in anti-oppression politics for some time, though in the past 4 or 5 years, I would say I have really come into my own. Having said that, my work and anti-oppression politics continually evolve, and will always be a “work in progress.” I first started as a young Black woman dedicated to anti-racism at the University of British Columbia. In my involvement with various student groups, I started to become self-aware and politically involved. Such spaces were critical for me as they validated my existence and my experiences as a racialized woman, but sometimes these spaces only validated one or two experiences at a time. I started to find “single issue” politics and organizing problematic; they only addressed one issue or discrimination at a time and did not necessarily take into account the multiplicity of locations myself and others around me experienced.

Somehow, quite by accident really, I started to facilitate “diversity and inclusion” workshops, which let’s be honest, tend to focus on “celebrating” difference, having (white) people feel good, and providing no actual space for participants to reflect on or acknowledge their privilege, or “see” the systemic discrimination and oppression marginalized groups experience. I started going through the pain of giving such workshops, and I had to start reconfiguring what such workshops should look like.

Two experiences stand out that really solidified my resolve to change my approach. The first involved my being contracted to do a three workshop series for youth at a youth resource centre. The youth, by outsider and social service standards, would be deemed “at risk.” I was asked to do anti-oppression workshops, and to particularly talk about homophobia, white privilege, etc. The youth were primarily First Nations between the ages of 13-24, and there were a few white youth as well. The sessions were hard and intense given the nature of the workshops, the wide range of ages, the life experiences and status these youth occupied. Halfway through the second session, one fairly young attendee interrupted the workshop and said, “why do we have to learn about racism when they’re the ones who have problems with us?” I remember being floored, because, to a large extent, he was right; we had forgotten that this was an anti-oppression workshop that was supposed to examine all forms of inequality. But I was also floored because we were talking about different kinds of oppression (not just racism), and how they interconnect. For many of the youth, the workshop was about anti-racism and nothing else. I had to ask myself; “what was I (not) doing for this understanding to sink in (or not)”?

The second experience, which was an ongoing struggle, was my paid work, where I was working with a new regional organization that focused on how youth were affected by violence, using photojournalism as a medium. Part of my work was to do leadership training workshops for youth. At the end of the training, youth were supposed to be able to go out to schools and into the community in order to talk about their experiences with violence. There were a number of problems with the model, one being that speaking from experience is fine, but without context it risks being misunderstood. For example, many of the youth experienced violence as a result of their sexual orientation (whether perceived as queer by their peers or consciously out). Others experienced violence as a result of their ethnicity and race. Thus talking about violence devoid of such contexts was problematic. I prepared a 12-week curriculum, and asked guest speakers from Women Against Violence Against Women, women’s centres and other community groups to come in while I covered the “presentation” basics. My efforts to contextualize the violence that some of the youth experienced as a systemic problem, as an institutional problem rather than an individual experience, were repeatedly thwarted. Those experiences made me realize that I needed to shift my politics or at the very least my framework. That realization and the fact that mentors and other like minded activists in my entourage could show me an alternative really helped focus my anti-oppression work.

Gary: My first grappling with anti-oppression politics in the context of anti-capitalism and the left took place around queer struggles and queer liberation as we struggled to have lesbian/gay liberation integrated into the politics of the Revolutionary Marxist Group, and later, the Revolutionary Workers League in the 1970s. There were years of battle against the notion in much of the left that gay/lesbian liberation was a ‘marginal’ or ‘peripheral’ issue compared to the ‘centrality’ of a narrow political economy notion of class and class struggle.

In the context of this struggle, I also became profoundly affected by feminism and later by anti-racist movements. When it became clear to me that the Leninist left was not going to be able to learn in any profound way from feminism and the queer movements I left it in 1980. For a period of time (and still), I was very influenced by Sheila Rowbotham’s socialist feminist critique of Leninism developed in the book Beyond the Fragments. One of the main points developed in this book was the inability of the Leninist left to be transformed by feminism and other movements coming out of experiences of oppression, and how feminism could provide at least part of the basis for a new left that could move beyond the fragments.

For the next sixteen years I was a left activist in the gay liberation and AIDS activist movements with a little bit of anti-war organizing at the time of the first Gulf War. I was involved for a number of years in Rites magazine, which attempted to develop a more radical queer politic by making links between different forms of oppression, as well as between oppression and class. I also worked with Gay Liberation Against the Right Everywhere (GLARE). I was involved in the resistance to the police raids on gay men’s bath houses in the early 1980s in Toronto, and later in AIDS ACTION NOW! I learned a lot from my involvement in these struggles and movements.

In the mid-1990s, in the context of the Mike Harris neo-liberal ‘common-sense revolution,’ I once again joined a radical left organization. This time it was the New Socialist Group, which I thought held out some promise for developing a broader class struggle politics that could include feminism, queer liberation, and anti-racism. In the context of this group I again tried to help facilitate learning from feminist and queer struggles with some success. At the same time, this project was limited by the fact that a lot of feminist and queer struggles that were at one point extremely radical had been transformed into more moderate movements. In relation to queer organizing, this had to do with a shift in the class composition of queer movements with a new professional-managerial queer strata gaining hegemony. A critical class analysis was now necessary to grasp what was going on in queer movements and community formation. The more recent focus on same-sex marriage as the end game of our struggle has made the moderate direction of the mainstream queer groups very clear. For me it is almost impossible to be a queer activist anymore given the connections that need to be made with class and other social struggles if these struggles are to be made radical again – radical as in getting to the root of the problem.

UTA: What, in your opinion, has been the greatest influence of anti-oppression work in anti-capitalist movements? How has it contributed to the consciousness of anti-capitalist activists?

Kirat: I think that to some extent, anti-oppression work is really the articulation of long standing criticisms of anti-capitalist movements in the First World (i.e. that their class analysis ignores other forms of oppression, that their leadership is white male dominated, and that this is precisely what has shaped the inability of anti-capitalist movements to organize the different sectors of the working class). Like it or not, class is lived through race, gender and other forms of oppression, and no, these will not magically disappear ‘after the revolution.’ In fact, we have seen historical examples of how a revolution has not, in fact, automatically eliminated gender and race oppression in places like Nicaragua and Cuba. Also, while it is true that race is often used to divide the working class, simply ignoring these racial divisions that already exist will not make them go away. Anti-racism is not the same as colour-blindness. I think it is about time that anti-capitalist movements start to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the intersections of the different oppressions, and how we must fight against all the forces of oppression together in the fight for a more socially just world.

Junie: One of the greatest influences that anti-oppression politics has had on the anti-capitalist movement is the understanding that power and privilege cannot go unexamined in the fight against capitalism. Additionally, we must recognize that capitalism affects different groups differently, that different groups have been exploited in different ways in order to advance capitalism, and that most importantly, it is no mere accident that these groups bear the brunt of capitalism. Despite that influence, I still find that individuals and groups who have difficulty understanding their power and privilege are unable to share power, and feel the need to speak for marginalized groups and often dominate anti-capitalist groups and movements. There seems to be a basic inability to understand that anti-oppression politics is a framework that informs how one organizes, how one shares material and information, how one participates, how one invites other groups to participate.

Good anti-oppressive feminist politics need to form the foundation. For example, a number of anti-capitalist/anti-imperialist groups exist in Vancouver. Organizing, educating, protesting and rallying are some of the activities these groups engage in. Yet many groups are left out as a result of the lack of a nuanced anti-oppression understanding and framework. Thus protests and/or rallies are planned quickly with little consultation, a lack of representation of people, issues and interests, a lack of acknowledgement of the fact that we are organizing on unceded indigenous territory, a lack of planning for accessibility, for interpretation, for making the spaces safe/accessible for children, etc. If none of these considerations take place at the basic level of coming together, of planning and educating, how then can we consider our politics to be anti-oppressive? While many of these groups are making changes, the changes are slow. However long these changes take, anti-oppression frameworks and politics can strengthen the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movement.

Gary: While I have learned a lot from feminist and anti-racist movements, I have also become committed to a politics of responsibility in relation to fighting oppression. This is far more than a politics of solidarity based on learning to support other social struggles and learning from these struggles. We need to recognize our own social locations and our implications in social relations of oppression and to begin to challenge white and male privilege. As someone who identifies as male and white, this has been especially important in trying to develop a politics of responsibility in challenging patriarchal and white hegemonic relations from within my own social location. In addressing my own implication within, and responsibility for, white hegemony, the following quote from Himani Bannerji’s Thinking Through (in which she refers to white academics she has worked with), has served as a useful starting point;

“And sitting there, hearing claims about sharing “experience,” having empathy, a nausea rose in me. Why do they, I thought, only talk about racism, as understanding us, doing good to “us”? Why don’t they move from the experience of sharing our pain, to narrating the experience of afflicting it on us? Why do they not question their own cultures, childhoods, upbringings, and ask how they could live so “naturally” in this “white” environment, never noticing that fact until we brought it home to them?”

For me a politics of responsibility is crucial to developing anti-oppression politics. Those of us who participate in producing relations of oppression need to challenge them from our locations to open up more space for those who directly experience oppression. We don’t have to wait to be asked to act against oppression, we can take our own initiatives and begin to undo oppression from our places within it.

UTA: How do you feel about anti-oppression politics and education now being used by hierarchical and capitalist institutions such as union bureaucracies and the state? What are some of the contradictions and problems you have found with anti-oppression politics?

Kirat: It has been easy to depoliticize and de-radicalize anti-oppression in capitalist institutions, which is of course their aim, whether conscious or unconscious. It would not really be in the interests of the state or capital if people were to really start understanding and acting upon their analysis of oppression, would it?

So a lot of the language and ideas have been co-opted, stuck in the realm of ‘identity politics’ and rendered useless. However, I think there is still room to see that as a starting point in people’s political development, although there is so much out there to keep people stuck in that worldview and not develop their understanding further.

As I mentioned earlier, one problem is that it is easy to get stuck in the interpersonal, and lose sight of the systemic. While both aspects of oppression are important, we need to find ways to be constantly evaluating our personal and interpersonal relationships to each oppression, in the context of systemic forces, in order to unite in collective struggle.

Another problem that I find with anti-oppression politics is that there is a tendency to diffuse each kind of oppression as happening on an equal footing. I do not believe this to be true; I believe that class is the central contradiction in the world today. This is not to say that other forms of oppression do not act on people’s lives independently. For example, Maher Arar’s status as a middle class person did not stop his deportation from Canada to detention and torture in Syria. My point though, is that an anti-oppression framework can fall into being too simplistic, kind of like a checklist, where the more kinds of oppressions you fall into, the more oppressed you are, when really, all other kinds of oppression are experienced through class. For instance, an upper class disabled person will have far more access to resources and far less experiences of marginalization and of struggle than a non-status migrant from the Third World who can’t even receive disability benefits. Also, being classified as a member of more than one oppressed group does not just have an additive effect, but implies entirely different conceptions of people’s lived realities.

My best experiences with anti-oppression have been organizing with the Bus Riders Union. The BRU’s strategy involves building an anti-racist and anti-sexist organization of the multi-racial, mixed- gender working class. We fight to win concrete gains for transit dependent people, the majority of whom are women, people of colour, and Aboriginal people, while building a long term movement for social justice. We recognize that it is precisely those who are the most marginalized who have the most to gain from fighting for a more just world. Thus, the BRU prioritizes the education, training and leadership of working class women of colour and Aboriginal women, and looks to Third World movements for inspiration and guidance. My worst experiences of anti-oppression have been when the framework has fallen into all the traps I have talked about earlier and become de-politicized, tokenistic and destructive.

Junie: Anti-oppression politics, however empowering and liberatory, does have its drawbacks. It’s now the new buzzword in the social activist/education scene, and is quickly being co opted and absorbed into mainstream spaces. In my paid work, I receive phone calls from organizations, unions, school boards, and university student groups asking for anti-oppression workshops. Others call wanting to find out what an anti-oppression framework would look like and how it can be implemented, as if doing so will only take a phone call, or the workshop time requested. On the one hand, the recognition that such work and education is important, that anti-oppression politics are integral, makes one feel excited at the idea that change is happening. On the other hand, a number of problems arise both in terms of understanding anti-oppression politics and how we do our work.

First, anti-oppression education is a lifelong commitment. No amount of workshops will make one an expert. Second, the nature of anti-oppression begs one to re examine one’s power relations, one’s privilege(s) in relation to other groups, to consider how our multiple locations may shift and change depending on the spaces we occupy. Sherene Razack in Looking White People in the Eye, argues that a politic of inclusivity, of adding up oppressions, so to speak, is simply not enough. Rather, a politics of accountability needs to occur, where we not only look at how we are differently affected, but also how we are complicit in the subordination of others. Because anti-oppression education is not comfortable and is challenging (as it should be), it does not follow the script of “let’s all feel good, and celebrate our differences, our foods and dances.” Thirdly, the very same people affected by these dominant systems of oppression are the same ones facilitating or doing anti-oppression education work. The emotional toll, the price we pay is extremely high. We put ourselves, our bodies, on display as we stand in spaces where participants may not reflect our experiences, where often we prove, yet again, that oppression does and continues to exist.

This brings us to the fourth problem with anti-oppression work; that we need to regroup and figure out what exactly anti-oppression work is about. Too often the anti-oppression education that is taking place becomes a space where participants from dominant groups become the centre of attention and focus, and the centre of education. This inevitably leads to the question of who should be doing the educating. I would invite readers to ask instead, “when and where are appropriate spaces to do anti-oppression work?” Ask yourselves and others, “how can I/we take on the work? How can I be an ally?” Fifth, as anti-oppression educators, we need to be connecting with our allies, and allies need to be stepping up to the plate to educate those privileged communities. While there is the understanding by some that it is not up to those that come from marginalized spaces to teach privileged “dominant cultured” individuals or groups, at the end of the day, many of us are in fact educating these privileged groups. There is also the concern that many of those individuals doing ally work using an anti-oppressive framework are not in fact doing so. Instead, individuals facilitating these workshops leave their privilege unexamined. Sixth, anti-oppression politics need to get out of academia. Many of us, (myself included) come in with a set of language and vocabulary that not only reifies the activist/academia divide, but also ignores the work that many have been doing in academic spaces.

Lastly, a conversation needs to occur between the anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist and anti-oppression movements. Pitting one against the other is not useful, but, given the focus of these three movements, the head butting is understandable. Each one needs the other, but I see the anti-oppression movement from a feminist perspective as integral to any organizing and education work. Perhaps it is necessary to have these three spaces to talk about the systemic injustices that are experienced by marginalized people and communities. If that is the case, each of these spaces needs to become much more nuanced in their approach to organizing and educating. The anti-oppression movement seems to be headed in that direction, but perhaps needs to be much more explicit when it comes to anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist education; I would argue that it is not entirely lacking that analysis. Each of these spaces needs to understand that the systems of power rely on each other to maintain themselves. Capitalism cannot work without imperialism; they go hand in hand. Capitalism and imperialism cannot work without the hegemonic, racist, sexist, ableist and heteronormative spaces that define our world.

Gary: While there have been major insights in anti-oppression politics as they have been developed there are also major contradictions and limitations. Each form of oppression has its own specific social character – its own autonomy so to speak – and there is a danger of flattening out the differences in the social organization of the various forms of oppression in developing a common anti-oppression politics. Sexism is not racism and is not heterosexism, even though they are made in and through each other and are connected to class relations in a broad sense. Each specific social form of oppression requires its own autonomous movement and struggle, while at the same time we have to see how forms of oppression and class exploitation mutually construct each other. It has been understandable that in response to the narrow “class first” politics of much of the left, activists rooted in movements against oppression have developed a distinct politics separate from class and anti-capitalist politics. At the same time, this also opens up space for the deployment of new strategies of regulation and management of movements and communities of the oppressed including formal legal equality (which is not the same as substantive social equality), multiculturalism, strategies for producing layers of a middle class elite that can speak for and be the ‘legitimate’ representatives for various communities, and various strategies of integration into the existing order of things (same-sex marriage as the end-game of our struggle being one of these strategies).

Often this revolves around a politics of inclusion and representation which poses the struggle as one of representation within and integration into existing forms of social organization rather than a radical transformation of existing social relations. These strategies of regulation construct a rigid separation between social identity and community and a radical critique of capitalism, thus denying the social and historical connections between community formation and class relations. This helps to create the space for the emergence of middle class elites in various communities and movements to rise to the top and shift politics in a more pro-capitalist direction. We have to reject this separation, and discover instead how to build a broader notion of anti-capitalist and working class politics that includes anti-oppression struggles at its core. Anti-capitalist politics cannot currently be developed without addressing its links to the various struggles against oppression.

In my view, this is the only way that anti-capitalist politics can be made actual as a revolutionary praxis. Anti-capitalist politics needs anti-oppression politics and radical anti-oppression politics needs a broader anti-capitalist perspective.

While anti-racism and feminism have been far more successful than queer politics as forms of radical anti-oppression, they (along with anti-disability and anti-ageist forms of organizing) are all crucial to the development a new anti-capitalist politics that addresses oppression as central to class politics. Most recently, I have found currents within autonomist Marxism (see my article “Learning from Autonomist Marxism” in this issue of Upping the Anti), that develop a broader notion of the working class and anti-capitalism that includes the struggles of housewives, students, and peasants. Broadening notions of working class struggle is very useful in bringing together anti-oppression and anti-capitalist politics. Autonomist Marxism has also grasped the need for the autonomous struggles of working class women against patriarchy, people of colour against white supremacy, and queers against heterosexism. While not resolving the problems we face, autonomist Marxism can provide us with tools that are key in the development of an anti-oppression politics that is at the same time anti-capitalist. Until we have broadened our understanding of anti-capitalist politics and working class struggle, it is vital to stubbornly hold onto anti-oppression politics (despite their imperfections), and to prevent them from being subordinated to a narrow notion of anti-capitalism. At the same time, on the level of forms of organizing and tactics, some of the acquisitions of the global justice movement (including direct action politics, affinity groups, spokescouncils, etc.), can also help us create the basis for a radical anti-capitalist anti-oppression politics.

Notes

1. See Gary’s interview with Deborah Brock for Left History called “Workers of the World Caress” on organizing around queer questions in the revolutionary left in the 1970s at www.yorku.ca/lefthist/online/brock_kinsman.html).