Confronting Injustice: From Individual Activists to Collective Organizers

Karl Gardner

Reviewed in this article

Confronting Injustice: Social Activism in an Age of Individualism
Umair Muhammad

Precisely at a time when we need it most, bold and imaginative activism has made itself difficult to find. It is not the case that activism in general is short in supply. One finds, in fact, that activist ideals and vocabulary have securely made their way into everyday life. But this has happened in a way that has left society fundamentally unchanged.[1]

Precisely at a time when the Left needs a swift kick of optimism to keep us going, Muhammad remains uninterested in delivering such vital blow. This is not to say he doesn’t offer effective tactics and strategies for activists pursuing meaningful social change. Nor does he refrain from positing what an achievable socialist society might look like. He does both. Muhammad writes, however, from a position of disappointment and fear concerning his experiences participating in contemporary activism. His experiences animate his uncompromising rejection of an increasingly popular strand of activism that is steeped in a navel-gazing, self-congratulatory individualism. Yet his analysis is activating – it inspires us to potentially rethink how we engage in social justice struggles.  Written in a way that speaks to activists and academics alike, Confronting Injustice serves as a great introduction for the newly politicized, a humbling grounder for the lofty theorist, and a succinct refresher for the more experienced organizer. It does this by forcing theories of social change to grapple with the messy, complex, and often contradictory realities of building a sustainable revolutionary movement today. Muhammad performs a triage of strategies, selecting for the reader a few promising directions towards ‘social activism’ – the necessary corrective to individualistic, lifestyle-oriented activism – while discarding those practices doomed to reproduce the very structures they set out to combat.

Muhammad begins his book with a grave diagnosis: “Humanity faces a crisis of a scale unlike any it has encountered in the past.”[2] While the crisis he refers to concerns a globalizing yet individualizing capitalist system that wreaks havoc on each other and the environment, his book confronts another crisis as well: the related shift he sees in contemporary activism toward a politics focused on individual behaviour and lifestyle changes. In response to this, Muhammad stresses that the crises of capitalism and climate change are distinctly social problems and therefore require social solutions.[3]

Muhammad argues that the capitalist system, which forms the root of both our current climate catastrophe as well as the “age of individualism,” has successfully saturated how we understand ourselves in the world and therefore how we might act to change it. Appalled by the hyper-exploitation of labour across the globe? Buy fair trade coffee and allegedly “sweatshop-free” gear from American Apparel. Disgusted with Monsanto? Buy local Ontario produce at your neighbourhood farmers’ market. Concerned about our current environmental crisis? By an electric car and go vegetarian, or better yet, vegan. While I don’t mean to discard such actions as counter-productive, as Muhammad might, I certainly agree that such individual-centred actions primarily help individuals feel better about their lives and ultimately function as a form of moralizing social capital that they can deploy in conversations, job interviews, and activist spaces. If individualized forms of social justice are not part of a larger web of political action and analysis – for example growing your own food alongside participating in food justice movements – then their effect will be very little.

Muhammad’s concept of the age of individualism draws clear parallels to Marx’s analysis of alienation. Capitalism is not only a system that keeps us detached from what we produce and consume, but also divorces us from each other and our environments. More and more we are forced to relate to our surroundings through the market, which has nestled itself between us and our worlds (social, natural, spiritual, etc.). While this point might be obvious to many folks on the Left, Muhammad importantly reminds us that it is permeating activism in real ways.

The generalized separation from that which surrounds and constitutes us is the fundamental symptom of the “age of individualism” and forces us to only look to ourselves, rather than those around us, for the solutions we seek.  This, of course, is a broad generalization rooted in a more specific context of Muhammad’s organizing experience. Many poor and racialized communities in fact practice communality in a variety of different ways to collectively combat the effects of neoliberal austerity. Resource sharing, collectivizing reproductive labour, and community organizing around common issues are being practiced across the world as social solutions to social problems. This reality, however, does not show up in any meaningful way in Muhammad’s analysis; which is more focused on seemingly middle-class activism.

Muhammad’s concerns about the “age of individualism” are then directed at environmental activism. Climate chaos, as a symptom of global capitalism, is similarly argued to be a social problem that cannot be solved at the level of the individual. Altering humanity’s trajectory toward environmental destruction is not as simple as bringing the ‘human’ back into corporate and state practices at home and abroad, nor is ‘voting with your wallet.’ I have a feeling that the earth is, quite frankly, sick of putting the interests of humans or our capital at the centre of the proposed solutions to its destruction. Muhammad notes that “human behaviour has influenced the planet to such a degree that the term Anthropocene has been coined to refer to the current geological epoch.”[4] The absurdity of individual-focused activism becomes painfully apparent in this juxtaposition: we’ve proclaimed ourselves a geological force, and yet we continue to believe that the answer is simply to make our domination of nature marginally more sustainable: hybrid cars and not public transit, sustainable tar sands extraction and not renewable resources or a reduction or shift in consumption … the list goes on.

At the same time, those in power continue to politely suggest ‘voluntary austerity’ as the answer, placing their guilt squarely on our shoulders. We are told to simply consume a little less so we can keep on consuming, produce a little more sustainably in order to keep on producing.[5] Things can stay essentially the same as long as we can paint them green. Muhammad correctly notes that in the face of such inadequate alternatives, our (hopefully) genuine concerns about our futures and the futures of the generations to follow will “lead us to challenge this system outright, [and] not merely try to make slight adjustments to it.”[6]

However, a deeper reading of Muhammad’s analysis leads me to think that it is not simply the state of the environment that represents the crisis we face today, but our estranged relationship to our environment and to each other. And so, while the current climate crisis certainly concerns all of us, it often fails to touch us in a meaningful way; at least not until we are subjected to one of its predictable consequences – and that’s the real crisis.

“Be the change you want to see in the world.” This is the anthem of the activism Muhammad is critiquing. We must recognize the impossibility of this statement: if the change we want to see in the world is anything more than a greener capitalism, then no one can ‘be’ this change. The change we want to see is larger than the sum of its parts, and it is certainly larger than each one of us. While one can certainly be an anti-capitalist, or a communist, or a whatever; one cannot be anti-capitalism. And so, while dumpster-diving is certainly a great way to reduce your individual engagement with capitalist food systems, the world isn’t necessarily diving with you. We must also recognize that, once again, Muhammad is critiquing a specific strain of activist culture. Now more than ever it is important to link the alienating effects of global capitalism and the rise of individual-centred activism. Muhammad does just that, and advocates for an activism that gestures beyond the individual and toward the systems that attempt to make us just that – insular neoliberal individuals.

All is not lost, however. Well, at least not yet. “Capitalism is nearing the end of its life,” Muhammad predicts, “the only question is whether it will take humanity with it when it passes from the scene.”[7] Provided we’re still around, Muhammad believes that,

the vast amounts of scientific knowledge possessed by our civilization can … be put to use to end the crippling poverty that needlessly afflicts countless millions across the world. The cautious use of resources and discharge of pollution can ensure that the wellbeing of coming generations of life is safeguarded. And a focus on cultivating creative desires can unlock human potential.[8]

These will briefly be taken up in order. First, while “there can be no such thing as a democratic, socially just, and environmentally sustainable capitalism,”[9] Muhammad argues that can be a “rationally managed industrial civilization”[10] that would operate in ways that don’t necessarily destroy the planet or work the life out of us. In terms of humanity’s gains in scientific knowledge and technological advancement, Muhammad argues that while they won’t save us within capitalism, they might allow us to live otherwise. And so, global networks of trade, communication, and production can remain, provided they are democratized.[11] I wonder, however, how deep or meaningful the democratization of global production systems could really be. While Muhammad makes clear that the conception of “participatory democracy” is redundant (it’s either participatory or it’s not democracy),[12] when democracy moves from local community engagement in decision-making to more abstract national or global scales, the substantive meaning of ‘participation’ comes into question. Ideas of ‘democratizing globalization’ arguably hollow our democracy of its radical potential to place power in hands of local communities. Second, the transformation of our destructive patterns of consumption and pollution follows the line of argumentation popularized by Karl Polanyi. In essence, Muhammad argues for a re-embedding of social concerns into the economy and the establishing of a democratic socialist state. Third, he recalls Bertrand Russell’s argument for a shift from ‘possessive’ to ‘creative’ desires as a necessary transformation in our consciousness – a transformation that would require, together with the other two points above, overcoming capitalism.[13]

How we achieve these visions is less clear. In general, however, how Muhammad suggests we “confront injustice” changes substantially in the new afterword in this edition of the book. He moves away from warning against cooptation by arms of the state or political parties and becomes lukewarm in his call for a multiplicity of localized, grassroots, interdependent struggles. He addresses this change in thinking in the afterword, where he argues that the way forward necessitates active engagement with and participation in the state, without which our movements will surely fail. He characterizes the principled stance against excessive engagement with the state as a “tepidness” toward power, arguing that we must put the current circuits of power to our use.  This presents a less-than inspiring conclusion to many like myself who are committed to building power from the ground up, rooting it in local communities, and transforming social relations through what Chris Dixon deems “another politics:” a desire to create organizations and relationships that are in and against current power structures, but not of them.[14] We must not lose sight of the fact that the state and its hierarchies of power are necessarily stratifying and authoritarian – radical democracy will not fit in the House of Commons.

I’ll conclude by addressing a second political re-assessment that Muhammad includes in his afterword, which concerns the popularization of anti-oppression and identity-based models of organizing. Barring his lack of depth in addressing such a widespread discussion,[15] he does put his finger on a subject that is being increasingly engaged with in the activist community. Anti-oppressive politics is seen by Muhammad yet another product of the “age of individualism” and therefore suffers the same shortcomings as other individualistic forms of activism. Anti-oppressive politics certainly can slip into individual admissions of privilege, guilt, and complicity and de-centre the systems and structures that produce such interpersonal power dynamics. Crude applications of “intersectionality” can become rigid and “additive,” fuelling competitive discussions about who is more oppressed, while celebrating those who are most versed in the language of privilege and “call-outs.” Identity-based analysis has also often been weak in prioritizing the connection between individual experiences of different oppressions and the structural conditions that cause and reproduce them.

That said, Muhammad’s total rejection of such a political orientation is wholly misguided. Anti-oppressive politics, while still imperfect in practice, is nonetheless necessary if we want to build a broad, sustained, and inclusive movement for a better world. At its heart, such an approach recognizes that the systemic oppressions “out there” often reproduce themselves in our organizations and movements. Anti-oppressive analysis seeks to be attuned to the interpersonal power dynamics that play out as a result of systemic hierarchies that operate through class, race, gender, and ability. While Muhammad rejects anti-oppression as individualistic and counter-productive, he fails to address that the structures of inequality he wants us to focus on manifest at the inter-personal level. Striving to build movements that try, albeit imperfectly, to work against such interpersonal inequalities therefore absolutely requires an intersectional, anti-oppressive framework. Too many times have toxic interpersonal manifestations of racism, sexism, ableism, or lack of a class analysis pushed people out of our movements, or kept them out in the first place. This weakens our movements and fragments us.

In light of this discussion, then, I think it’s important to distinguish identity-based, anti-oppressive organizing frameworks from single-issue organizing. While the former is certainly at risk of slipping into with the latter, it doesn’t have to. Audre Lorde, a Black feminist writer and one of few unofficial founders of an intersectional approach, famously stated: “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”[16] An integral part of anti-oppressive politics is, then, the relational and co-constitutive nature of different structures of oppression and therefore their inseparability from each other. In this conception, movements and counter-institutions built upon anti-oppressive politics can be both broad and sustained in the fight for a better world.

Confronting Injustice is an easy-reading critique of a form of activism that is certainly on the rise. I think of it every time I see an ad on the TTC telling me the single greatest act I can take to fight climate change is to become a vegan, or how this Christmas in lieu of a gift I should buy a mango tree in a nameless African country. It covers a wide array different issues that must be critically engaged with, not all of which I was able to touch upon here. It is also largely reluctant to wade into more academic debates concerning identity politics, the new(est) forms of social movements, or questions of strategy; which is both a strength and weakness of the book. Ultimately, what Muhammad has given us is a critical platform from which to engage in many more discussions about how we can best confront injustice. 

Notes

1. Muhammad, Umair. 2015. Confronting Injustice: Social Activism in the Age of Individualism. (Chicago: Haymarket Books). p. 19.
2. ibid. p. 15.
3. ibid. pp. 23, 132.
4. ibid. p. 109.
5. The Coming Insurrection. p. 78.
6. Confronting Injustice. p. 103.
7. ibid. p. 152.
8. ibid. p. 165
9. ibid.
10. ibid. p. 144.
11. ibid. p. 165.
12. ibid. p. 158.
13. ibid. p. 151.
14. Dixon, Chris. 2015. Another Politics: Talking Across Today’s Transformational Movements. University of California Press: Oakland.
15. Muhammad limits his engagement with anti-oppressive and identity-based politics to a single book written by the popular Black feminist bell hooks. While he is certainly correct in acknowledging her widespread canonization amongst activists and academics alike, and while I do agree some of her work requires serious critical engagement, I believe such a selective and narrow engagement presents methodological concerns and does not contribute to an ultimately useful dialogue on such a politics’ merits and shortcomings.
16. Lorde, Audra. 2007. Sister Outsider. Crossing Press: Berkeley