Comrades, I just finished reading your first issue of “Upping the Anti” I think you are right to take anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism and anti-oppression as the basis for a lot of radical thought in Canada (and the US) right now. As someone who has been involved with all three in recent years, I was interested to see where you would take them. While I liked your starting point, I would take them in a completely different direction, and come to completely different conclusions. I think anti-oppression politics need to be more or less completely rejected, and I am very skeptical of anti-imperialism. The only way I see to move forward is by deepening our anti-capitalist perspectives. Let me explain what I mean.
Your panel on anti-oppression politics demonstrates the problems with the way this perspective plays out. People see oppressions as just stacking up in a more or less equivalent oppression count. These identities are then recuperated fairly easily and made functional to capitalism. They are used to create new elites who then speak for their particular “communities” Nevertheless, the panelists doggedly cling to the relevance of this perspective, against the supposed threat of class reductionism. While I wouldn’t call myself a “class reductionist,” I do think that most of what matters about oppression and exploitation in modern day North America boils down to class.
I am a white guy who works in a restaurant in a big city in the US. In the restaurant there are all sorts of small privileges that different workers get for different reasons: differentials in pay, in how often we get yelled at or disciplined by the boss, in how many times people can fuck up before they’re fired, in who gets to skip out early. Some of these kinds of privileges and differentials fall down on “oppression lines” and some of them don’t. The Mexican guys working illegally mostly get paid less than me, although the main floor manager is also non-status. The women tend to get more shit from the boss, but they also tend to be allowed to skip out early. The one queer guy (who is Colombian) gets the best treatment of any of the workers – mostly because he sucks up to the boss. All of the workers have a similar day to day experience of dispossession, powerlessness, boredom, stress and alienation.
My point is that the privileges that different working people have amount to almost nothing in terms of social power – none of us have any real control over what we do everyday, and we all have the same experience of trading our lives for our survival. A perspective that speaks in terms of “giving up privilege” can’t be useful to people wasting their lives away at pointless jobs (i.e. most people). Class is not about privilege, it’s about exploitation. The last thing I want to do after getting home from one of my 13 hour split shifts is to be told how privileged I am. Anti-oppression politics has nothing to do with my day to day experience. Worse, it is moralistic. The “politics of responsibility” drift very easily into the politics of guilt. Workers with some privilege don’t start struggling side by side with less privileged workers out of some feeling of moral responsibility (aside from a few activists). We do so because we come to see that our interests are the same, and that by fighting together we can get further. When we fight for ourselves we begin to see who our real allies are. This process of working class people identifying with each other, breaking down separations and differences and creating a community in struggle is what we have to be striving for. Perhaps a longer look at early “Autonomist Marxism” would be a good place to start.
While anti-imperialism is more interesting than anti-oppression, I think that it is also ultimately not a useful way of moving forward. I have heard Canadian radicals use the term in a bunch of different ways. You quite rightly critique the kind of anti-imperialism that sees Canadian nationalism as something progressive against American imperialism. But what about Quebecois nationalism? The anarchists I know in Quebec have completely rejected the idea that Quebec nationalism is something progressive fighting Canadian imperialism. They have seen the arc of a strong national liberation movement with a militant Leninist wing. It ends up with Francophone bosses instead of English ones. A lot of anti-imperialism comes down to supporting the nationalism of some group without a full nation state. This is not just a problem of what happens when these groups get their own government and then have to repress their own population. Even those national liberation movements that don’t yet have their own government act to break up working class militancy. Look at the hostility of the Kurdish nationalists to the working class organizations in Northern Iraq during the first Gulf War, for example. Also, in a recent strike among Paris restaurant workers (many of whom were Tamil), management secured the help of the Tamil Tigers (who have bases in immigrant Tamil communities in France) to help break the strike.
Nationalism is not on our side. The Gaza kid who grows up throwing rocks at tanks and ends up becoming a suicide bomber does not have the same interests and daily experience as the Muslim Clerics, Fatah politicians or Saudi oil tycoons also supporting Palestinian nationalism. Equally, the trailer park kid from Kentucky with an eagle tattoo who goes over to die in Iraq is different from the Christian televangelists, Republican politicians and Texas oil tycoons also behind American nationalism. The kind of anti-imperialism that supports one nationalism against another offers us nothing but more capitalism. Some people try and redefine nationalism. They claim that when certain oppressed people say “nationalism” they mean something different than the whole history of European and American nationalism. I suppose this remains to be seen, but I doubt it.
Some anti-imperialism would better be called “Third Worldism.” The general point of view is that the “Third World” or “Global South” is where the real struggles are, and the best thing for working class people here can do is to “be in solidarity.” This kind of attitude is rampant among Canadian and American radicals. This leads to things like the ridiculous insinuation, made by Grace Lee Boggs, that the US working class was just reactionary during the Vietnam War. The mass resistance of working class soldiers in Vietnam, including outright mutiny and “fraggings” was probably the single most important thing that ended the war.
Most of anti-imperialist politics in North America, like anti-oppression, comes from the class position of those advocating it. It is significant that the Weather Underground started among white university students. It would be a lot more difficult for people stuck in dead end jobs to see the US working class as “bought off,” and to think it’s a good strategy to try to create “chaos in the metropoles” in solidarity with the Stalinists claiming to represent the Vietnamese peasants. Which leads me on to the last point: anti-capitalism. I mostly agree with your critiques of the fetishization of certain tactics and the limits of summit hopping. I would add that the anti-capitalist wing of the anti-globalization movement largely didn’t have a thorough definition and understanding of capitalism. Capitalism was largely seen as about unfairness in exchange, about commodification, and about repression. Rarely were production and wage labor talked about and when they were it was usually understood in terms of “democracy in the workplace.” Even the much talked about critique of Leninism and of Social Democracy were mainly from the point of view of how “undemocratic” or “authoritarian” they are as opposed to how capitalist they are. Following some of these lines of thought deeper could be very useful. I think it is great that lots of people who were formerly organizing busses to protests are now trying to organize in workplaces and against evictions, gentrification and deportations. Unfortunately the radicalism has not always carried over. Often we see former black bloc kids now working as paid organizers for unions and community groups, and people who previously advocated violence against the cops now advocating tactical electoralism. Arguing against these perspectives would mean deepening our class analysis.
In closing, I would just like to explain a bit what I mean by the working class. The majority of the working class is female and the vast majority of the working class world wide is not white. In the US and Canada, most working people don’t work in “industry.” Many of the most exciting working class movements today are taking place in countries that are part of the “Global South.” But the working class exists in every country in the world, because every country is the world is capitalist – even Da Silva’s Brazil, Chavez’s Venezuela and Castro’s Cuba. As alienated proletarians ourselves we have to realize that fighting capitalism is not mostly a matter of “showing solidarity” or “being allies” with working people worse off than ourselves. It is about fighting for ourselves. When we begin to do this, we can take a step towards a communist (or anarchist) perspective.
Anonymous Working Guy