Upping the Anti
Upping the Anti
Our name Upping the Anti refers to our interest in engaging with three interwoven tendencies which have come to define much of the politics of today’s radical left in Canada: anti-capitalism, anti-oppression, and anti-imperialism. These three political tendencies, while overlapping and incorporating various contradictory elements, together represent the growth of a radical politics in a space outside of the “party building” of the sectarian left and the dead end of social democracy. Despite their limitations, movements based on these “anti” politics have grown out of a real process and practice of social contestation and mobilization, and they point towards ideas and activist practices which will have a significant role in shaping the form and content of new revolutionary movements born out of future cycles of struggle against exploitation and oppression. This journal is intended to provide a space to address and discuss unresolved questions and dynamics within these struggles in order to better learn from our collective successes and failures.
ANTI-CAPITALISM, ANTI-OPPRESSION, ANTI-IMPERIALISM
Our involvement in and conception of these movements in Canada is based on the politically formative moments of our generation, beginning with the fall of Soviet Union, the first Gulf War, and the Oka crisis of 1991. In the decade following these events, anti-corporate and anti neo-liberal movements began to emerge in response to a renewed capitalist offensive implemented by all political parties at every level of government. As the 1990s wore on, different kinds of mobilizations against the cutbacks emerged from within the student movement, the labour movement, and poor and oppressed communities, and a definite anti-capitalist current began to take shape. The first signs of the new anti-globalization movement and the anti-capitalist tendencies within it were publicly manifested during the 1997 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) demos in Vancouver, and they were dramatically confirmed by the battles on the streets of Seattle during the November 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Over this same period of time, and in response to patriarchal, racist, and heterosexist dynamics in the radical movements of the 1960s and 70s, feminist, anti-racist and queer liberation movements continued developing both an analysis of power relations and domination within and outside of our movements. Moving from individual and small group “consciousness raising” into a wider politics of “anti-oppression,” these perspectives sought to collectively address different forms of oppression. As liberal aspects of “anti-oppression” became increasingly co-opted in the guise of multiculturalism and identity politics, radical trends within these movements continued to articulate a politic that combated capitalist, (hetero)sexist, racist and neo-colonial domination. This political tendency has been most pronounced in women’s centers, campus activist groupings, and in political formations of queers and people of colour. Anti-oppression politics became intertwined with the emerging anti-capitalist movement, and insisted that issues of process and internal dynamics within our own movements be considered as seriously as the outside structures and institutions we were trying to change. Anti-oppression politics provided a critique of the white and male dominated leadership of movements, advocated a politics of representation within these movements, and argued that the political formations of the privileged needed to learn from and work in solidarity with those most affected by the processes of capitalist globalization and imperialist domination.
The development of a pronounced anti-imperialist current within radical organizing in the Canadian state has been a more recent and less prominent phenomenon than that of the anti-oppression and anti-capitalist movements, though it was always present in small pockets of activists working around specific issues, especially around indigenous struggles and solidarity projects with third world liberation movements. The more recent manifestations of the dynamics of imperialism and neo-colonial domination on the world stage have given rise to new anti-imperialist movements, as the second Palestinian Intifada erupted, attacks on immigrants and refugees intensified in the wake of 9/11, and the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq became the focus for global protests. Within the Canadian context, the struggle against imperialism is evident in attempts to expose Canadian involvement in the occupation of Haiti, in support for anti-colonial indigenous struggles at Sun Peaks, Grassy Narrows, and Kanehsatake and in recent attempts by formations like “Block the Empire,” the June 30th Coalition, and the Mobilization Against War and Occupation to point to the complicity of Canadian capital and the state in wars and occupations at home and abroad.
BEYOND CHEERLEADING: TOWARDS A CRITIQUE OF THE “ANTI’S”
The movements defined under the rubric of anti-capitalism, anti-oppression and anti-imperialism represent the organic striving of many hundreds and indeed thousands of activists within the Canadian state who are seeking to challenge the entirety of the system which dominates our lives. Despite the advances made by these movements, one of the most glaring problems we face is the fact that our definitions and understandings of the systems we oppose have often been limited to reactions against various forms of injustice. We have rarely developed, much less popularized, a systematic critique of these problems, and by and large most theoretical development of these issues has remained at the rhetorical level.
Often, “anti-capitalism” is used as an empty phrase, a catch word for being opposed to the entirety of the system. Very rarely are those of us who use the term able to explain exactly what capitalism is, how it works, and what can possibly overturn it. Our “anti-capitalism” is an article of faith, located outside any real tradition of anti-capitalist critique. Without an analysis that goes beyond understanding capitalism as a static “thing” that we oppose, we can’t get beyond a moralistic rejection of a vague and general “system.”
Despite the liberatory possibilities implicit in an anti-oppression analysis and practice, understanding of oppression occurs all too often outside a consideration of the totality of social relations, and once again patriarchy, racism and (hetero)sexism, for example, are treated as static and unchanging “things.” The question remains: how do we understand the relationships of class oppression and economic exploitation to race, gender, and sexuality? While many activists doing anti-oppression work are striving to make these connections in both theory and practice, different priorities and answers are emerging within various communities of resistance.
A similar dynamic occurs in the context of anti-imperialism, where what the Left considers the relationship of imperialism to capitalism can determine a great deal about our movement’s strategic orientation. While discussions of “imperialism” in the anti-globalization and anti-war movements is a welcome development (and reflects a certain radicalization) too often “anti-imperialism” amounts to grafting revolutionary sounding phrases onto the assumptions of anti-corporate populism and left-nationalism, and so can ultimately undermine strategies of resistance. For instance, there is a definite left-nationalist camp within Canada that sees “imperialism” solely as a phenomenon of US domination, a separate enemy from capitalist elites here in Canada or in Europe, which are considered somehow more progressive, multilateral, or “humanitarian.” More is at stake when this perspective, as within the specific context of the Canadian state, serves to mask the continuing reality of colonial oppression faced by indigenous peoples, and the historic and still politically relevant oppression of francophones inside and outside of Québec.
A similar problem exists in our comprehension of forces directly combating imperialism, which has important implications for how we consider our anti-war work, and the positions we take in relationship to anti-imperialist movements. For example, in opposing the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, how can we concretely and effectively build solidarity while at the same time organizing against the “war at home”? Do we support all forces resisting US occupation, even those that are led by reactionary religious fundamentalists and that carry out tactics we reject? How do we respond in an effective manner that is in keeping with our political principles?
Because activists usually only deal with theoretical questions like these as they relate to tactical issues of immediate concern, activists often end up of floating from issue to issue. Coherent critiques have been made of “anti-globalization summit hopping” and the current state of anti-war organizing has exposed our inability to sustain long term movements capable of drawing on widespread popular support. On the other hand, the search for meaningful forms of local organizing has tended to transform militants into “radical social workers.”
There is a long tradition of radical community activism that involves mobilizing social services, advocacy and support aimed at addressing and meeting the immediate needs of different communities. For example, radical feminists in the 1960s and 1970s mobilized to create women’s centres and shelters in response to violence against women, and to provide spaces for feminist organizing and empowerment. However, despite an origin in radical politics, this connection has been lost over the years as many organizations providing these vital community services have become bureaucratized and “professionalized.”
Those organizations that have maintained their connection to movements, on the other hand, are likely to be defunded or to come under attack. The focus on meeting the needs of the community and resisting attacks from the state has drained the ability of these organizations to focus on longer term strategic goals as they fight, day by day, to remain open. Additionally, they are often forced to distance themselves from radical coalitions and movements in order to survive.
In the midst of today’s global restructuring of governmental responsibilities, activists continue to respond to crises felt in their communities. In trying to replace or maintain underfunded state structures (that may only offer palliative solutions to deeper structural problems) advocacy and front line support work has been influenced by, and in turn influenced, broader social movements. The fact remains that without a connection to movements that “fight to win” and an orientation to radical social change, this work can become depoliticized and depoliticizing, preventing us from developing strategies for going on the political offensive.
DEBATE, DISCUSSION, CONSOLIDATION: THE NEED FOR POLITICAL SPACES
With the relative absence of spaces within the movements of the “three anti’s” to make theoretical contributions about how we can best combat capitalism, imperialism, and various forms of oppression there has been no real space for integrated analyses to take shape. Outside of the left-liberal media, the main places in which analytical and theoretical contributions to understanding these issues are being made is in academic institutions, left wing party formations and within the personal and informal networks of activists.
In academia, the theoretical work that is being done is almost always disconnected from the actual on the ground struggles taking place. Written in a language of specialists, this work is rarely aimed at making useful interventions in the movements on whose behalf it supposedly militates. Generally speaking, right wing and corporate attacks have been successful in greatly reducing the capacities of universities to serve as spaces where the production of radical political thought and action can take place. This could well change in the face of future mass radicalizations, since universities have often been flash points of social conflagration, but the fact remains that most academic work being produced today is lacking in terms of its ability to actually connect to radical movements.
Another source for producing and disseminating revolutionary knowledge has been far left socialist organizations. The problem here is that most of these groups remain stuck in trying endlessly to repeat the “lessons” of revolutionary practice drawn from the Bolshevik revolution or the works of this or that influential Marxist. While there are great insights that can be drawn from Marxist thinkers and from all previous revolutionary upheavals, these insights can only be realized by considering them in their real historical context, and understanding how our own situation may or may not make these perspectives relevant. Real revolutionary praxis must be willing to criticize past practices ruthlessly and assimilate the lessons of past revolutionary movements and theorists without becoming enslaved to their memory. Unfortunately, much of today’s “Marxist” left is stuck in the defence of static party lines, deploying pre-packaged “revolutionary” theory with just enough politics to be able to reproduce their own organizations. Each party remains the bastion of its own brand of absolute truth, each has failed to adequately grasp the new conditions with which we are faced, and each has by and large refused to grapple with and make the necessary political innovations to learn from the enriching critiques of (and contributions to) revolutionary politics made by feminist, anarchist, anti-racist, and queer movements.
The third space of theoretical production is the local and informal level within anti-capitalist, anti-oppression and anti-imperialist movements. Many of us are involved in the anti-globalization movement, in organizing around indigenous struggles, in Palestine solidarity work, in putting on anti-racism workshops, in operating women’s centres and creating queer spaces, in creating socialist or anarchist collectives, infoshops and bookstores. We are all engaged in a process of theorizing and trying to learn the lessons of past and present experience when we gather informally to talk about what in our organizing has worked, and what has failed. Our biggest challenge is to create common spaces for those of us dealing with similar problems and questions in different cities and social circles. In the absence of a formal, structured, and open political space of debate, most of these discussions remain isolated within informal networks. Political pronouncements tend to come from the mouths of prominent activists, often chosen for their visibility by the mass media, and because many of our organizing spaces are so committed to immediate and specific campaigns, theoretical reflection is discouraged and limited by the immediate necessity to “do something.” The challenge that currently faces us is how to get this much needed process of debate, discussion and resolution to occur beyond small groups, personal networks and prominent individuals, and to have it take place openly and transparently where it can be critiqued and developed by all who have a stake in our struggles.
The growth of these three sets of “anti” politics represent the striving of a new political generation for some kind of revolutionary change. While opposed to “capitalism,” “oppression,” and “imperialism,” these movements offer no conceptual and practical alternatives to the system, and have no coherent strategies for getting there. While these movements are not yet coming up with revolutionary answers to the age old question of “what is to be done,” we think they will increasingly be forced to do so. For contrary to the wisdom of the neo-liberal and neo-conservative elites, we have not reached the “end of history.” All of the evils of class society remain and are being intensified in the form of new ruling class offensives carried out under the banners of “free trade,” “globalization,” and the “war on terrorism.”
As gloomy as the situation may seem today with the continuing global weakness of the left, a gathering ecological crisis, the retaining of state power by Bush and his cronies, and the brutal terror being wrought daily against the people of Palestine, Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Colombia (to name just a few examples), we believe that the balance of forces will eventually shift and that new revolutionary movements will emerge on a world scale. Already new sources of counter power to capitalism and imperialism are developing in the circulation of struggles between the anti-globalization and anti-war movements. We are inspired by the example of the Zapatistas and other socio-political movements in Latin America, as well as the steadfastness of the resistance against US and Israeli occupations. We believe that it is not at all unrealistic to expect that in the coming years, both resistance to global capitalism and its own contradictions will produce new openings for revolutionary movements not seen since the last major upsurge of struggles in the late 1960s. In such a radicalization, the question of what kind of a system we are fighting, what to replace it with, and how we can do this without creating a new and more repressive system in its place will become questions of world historic importance.
We do not presume that we or others writing in this journal can provide definitive answers to questions that can only be resolved by millions of people mobilizing to express their own needs, desires, and struggles. What we do believe is that building spaces in which to discuss and formulate some preliminary answers to these questions is absolutely vital to the continued development and transformation of the radical left in the Canadian state. For if we do not take on the responsibility of building these spaces for discussion these questions will continue to be defined and answered by left-liberals, disconnected academics, social democratic reformists and trade union bureaucrats, and the vanguardist socialist left.
In this spirit, Upping the Anti will try to address questions such as: What do we mean by terms such as oppression, capitalism, imperialism and revolution? How can we build and connect labour, anti-racist, feminist, queer, and anti-capitalist movements and perspectives? What can we learn from the successes and failures of anti-capitalist activists in the anti-war and anti-globalization movements? How do we understand capitalist social relations, and what social forces might give rise to real alternatives to capitalism? How should anti-capitalist activists connect with working class struggles both within and outside the labour movement? How can revolutionaries organize in ways that maximize our effectiveness but that don’t replicate old patterns of elitism, domination and sectarianism? What can we learn from different strands of Marxist and anarchist theory as we grapple with these questions?
Given the constant (re)production of ruling class hegemony by the mass media and apologists for the capitalist system, and given the tireless efforts of reformist forces to recuperate radical movements, our success in upping the ante in struggle against oppression and exploitation will depend on our ability to articulate our own visions and strategies of transformative change on a local, international and global scale. Upping the Anti intends to be a space where we can attempt, in small but important ways, to begin doing just that. We invite you to join us in this endeavour.