Runagate Rampant

Sensible anarchist musings

Insurrections at the Intersections: Feminism, Intersectionality and Anarchism

Posted by J. Rogue on March 17, 2013

by J.Rogue and Abbey Volcano
We need to understand the body not as bound to the private or to the self—the western idea of the autonomous individual—but as being linked integrally to material expressions of community and public space. In this sense there is no neat divide between the corporeal and the social; there is instead what has been called a “social flesh.”

Wendy Harcourt and Arturo Escobar(1)

The Birth of Intersectionality

In response to various U.S. feminisms and feminist organizing efforts the Combahee River Collective(3), an organization of black lesbian socialist-feminists(2), wrote a statement that became the midwife of intersectionality. Intersectionality sprang from black feminist politics near the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s and is often understood as a response to mainstream feminism’s construction around the erroneous idea of a “universal woman” or “sisterhood.”(4) At the heart of intersectionality lies the desire to highlight the myriad ways that categories and social locations such as race, gender, and class intersect, interact, and overlap to produce systemic social inequalities; given this reality, talk of a universal women’s experience was obviously based on false premises (and typically mirrored the most privileged categories of women— i.e. white, non-disabled, “middle class,” heterosexual, and so on).

Initially conceived around the triad of “race/class/gender,” intersectionality was later expanded by Patricia Hill Collins to include social locations such as nation, ability, sexuality, age, and ethnicity(5). Rather than being conceptualized as an additive model, intersectionality offers us a lens through which to view race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. as mutually-constituting processes (that is, these categories do not exist independently from one another; rather, they mutually reinforce one another) and social relations that materially play out in people’s everyday lives in complex ways. Rather than distinct categories, intersectionality theorizes social positions as overlapping, complex, interacting, intersecting, and often contradictory configurations.

Toward an Anarchist Critique of Liberal Intersectionality

Intersectionality has been, and often still is, centered on identity. Although the theory suggests that hierarchies and systems of oppression are interlocking, mutually constituting, and sometimes even contradictory, intersectionality has often been used in a way that levels structural hierarchies and oppressions. For instance, “race, class, and gender” are often viewed as oppressions that are experienced in a variety of ways/degrees by everyone—that is, no one is free of the forced assignations of identity. This concept can be useful, especially when it comes to struggle, but the three “categories” are often treated solely as identities, and as though they are similar because they are “oppressions.” For instance, it is put forward that we all have a race, a gender, and a class. Since everyone experiences these identities differently, many theorists writing on intersectionality have referred to something called “classism” to complement racism and sexism. This can lead to the gravely confused notion that class oppression needs to be rectified by rich people treating poor people “nicer” while still maintaining class society. This analysis treats class differences as though they are simply cultural differences. In turn, this leads toward the limited strategy of “respecting diversity” rather than addressing the root of the problem. This argument precludes a class struggle analysis which views capitalism and class society as institutions and enemies of freedom. We don’t wish to “get along” under capitalism by abolishing snobbery and class elitism. Rather, we wish to overthrow capitalism and end class society all together. We do recognize that there are some relevant points raised by the folks who are talking about classism—we do not mean to gloss over the stratification of income within the working class. Organizing within the extremely diverse working class of the United States requires that we acknowledge and have consciousness of that diversity. However, we feel it is inaccurate to conflate this with holding systemic power over others – much of the so-called middle class may have relative financial advantage over their more poorly-waged peers, but that is not the same as exploiting or being in a position of power over them. This sociologically-based class analysis further confuses people by mistakenly leading them to believe their “identity” as a member of the “middle class” (a term which has so many definitions as to make it irrelevant) puts them in league with the ruling class/oppressors, contributing to the lack of class consciousness in the United States. Capitalism is a system of exploitation where the vast majority work for a living while very few own (i.e.: rob) for a living. The term classism does not explain exploitation, which makes it a flawed concept. We want an end to class society, not a society where classes “respect” each other. It is impossible to eradicate exploitation while class society still exists. To end exploitation we must also end class society (and all other institutionalized hierarchies). This critical issue is frequently overlooked by theorists who use intersectionality to call for an end to “classism.” Rather, as anarchists, we call for an end to all exploitation and oppression and this includes an end to class society. Liberal interpretations of intersectionality miss the uniqueness of class by viewing it as an identity and treating it as though it is the same as racism or sexism by tacking an “ism” onto the end. Eradicating capitalism means an end to class society; it means class war. Likewise, race, gender, sexuality, dis/ability, age—the gamut of hierarchically-arranged social relations— are in their own ways unique. As anarchists, we might point those unique qualities out rather than leveling all of these social relations into a single framework.

By viewing class as “just another identity” that should be considered in the attempt to understand others’ (and one’s own) “identities,” traditional conceptions of intersectionality do a dis- service to liberatory processes and struggle. While intersectionality illustrates the ways in which relations of domination interact with and prop up each other, this does not mean that these systems are identical or can be conflated. They are unique and function differently. These systems also reproduce one another. White supremacy is sexualized and gendered, heteronormativity is racialized and classed. Oppressive and exploitative institutions and structures are tightly woven together and hold one another up. Highlighting their intersections—their seams—gives us useful angles from which to tear them down and construct more liberatory, more desirable, and more sustainable relations with which to begin fashioning our futures.

An Anarchist Intersectionality of Our Own

Despite having noted this particularly common mistake by theorists and activists writing under the label of intersectionality, the theory does have a lot to offer that shouldn’t be ignored. For instance, intersectionality rejects the idea of a central or primary oppression. Rather, as previously noted, all oppressions overlap and often mutually constitute each other. Interpreted on the structural and institutional levels, this means that the struggle against capitalism must also be the struggle against heterosexism, patriarchy, white supremacy, etc. Too often intersectionality is used solely as a tool to understand how these oppressions overlap in the everyday lives of people to produce an identity that is unique to them in degree and composition. What is more useful to us as anarchists is using intersectionality to understand how the daily lives of people can be used to talk about the ways in which structures and institutions intersect and interact. This project can inform our analyses, strategies, and struggles against all forms of domination. That is, anarchists might use lived reality to draw connections to institutional processes that create, reproduce, and maintain social relations of domination. Unfortunately, a liberal interpretation of intersectionality precludes this kind of institutional analysis, so while we might borrow from intersectionality, we also need to critique it from a distinctly anarchist perspective.

 It is worth noting that there really is no universally-accepted interpretation of intersectionality. Like feminism, it requires a modifier in order to be truly descriptive, which is why we’ll use the term “anarchist intersectionality” to describe our perspective in this essay. We believe that an anti-state and anti-capitalist perspective (as well as a revolutionary stance regarding white supremacy and heteropatriarchy) is the logical conclusion of intersectionality. However, there are many who draw from intersectionality, yet take a more liberal approach. Again, this can be seen in the criticisms of “classism” rather than capitalism and class society, and the frequent absence of an analysis of the state(6). Additionally, there is also at times a tendency to focus almost solely on individual experiences rather than systems and institutions. While all these points of struggle are relevant, it is also true that people raised in the United States, socialized in a deeply self-centered culture, have a tendency to focus on the oppression and repression of individuals, oftentimes to the detriment of a broader, more systemic perspective. Our interest lies with how institutions function and how institutions are reproduced through our daily lives and patterns of social relations. How can we trace our “individual experiences” back to the systems that (re)produce them (and vice versa)? How can we trace the ways that these systems (re)produce one another? How can we smash them and create new social relations that foster freedom?

With an institutional and systemic analysis of intersectionality, anarchists are afforded the possibility of highlighting the social flesh mentioned in the opening quote. And if we are to give a full account of this social flesh—the ways that hierarchies and inequalities are woven into our social fabric—we’d be remiss if we failed to highlight a glaring omission in nearly everything ever written in intersectional theories: the state. We don’t exist in a society of political equals, but in a complex system of domination where some are governed and controlled and ruled in institutional processes that anarchists describe as the state. Gustav Landauer, who discussed this hierarchical arrangement of humanity where some rule over others in a political body above and beyond the control of the people, saw the state as a social relationship(7). We are not just bodies that exist in assigned identities such as race, class, gender, ability, and the rest of the usual laundry list. We are also political subjects in a society ruled by politicians, judges, police, and bureaucrats of all manner. An intersectional analysis that accounts for the social flesh might be extended by anarchists, then, for insurrectionary ends, as our misery is embedded within institutions like capitalism and the state that produce, and are (re)produced, by the web of identities used to arrange humanity into neat groupings of oppressors and oppressed.

As anarchists, we have found that intersectionality is useful to the degree that it can inform our struggles. Intersectionality has been helpful for understanding the ways that oppressions overlap and play out in people’s everyday lives. However, when interpreted through liberal frameworks, typical intersectional analyses often assume myriad oppressions to function identically, which can preclude a class analysis, an analysis of the state, and analyses of our ruling institutions. Our assessment is that everyday experiences of oppressions and exploitation are important and useful for struggle if we utilize intersectionality in a way that can encompass the different methods through which white supremacy, heteronormativity, patriarchy, class society, etc. function in people’s lives, rather than simply listing them as though they all operate in similar fashions. Truth is, the histories of heteronormativity, of white supremacy, of class society need to be understood for their similarities and differences. Moreover, they need to be understood for how they’ve each functioned to (re)shape one another, and vice versa. This level of analysis lends itself to a more holistic view of how our ruling institutions function and how that informs the everyday lives of people. It would be an oversight to not utilize intersectionality in this way.

From Abstraction to Organizing: Reproductive Freedom and Anarchist Intersectionality

The ways in which capitalism, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy—and disciplinary society more generally—have required control over bodies has been greatly detailed elsewhere(8), but we would like to offer a bit of that history in order to help build an argument that organizing for reproductive freedom would benefit from an anarchist intersectional analysis. Reproductive freedom, which we use as an explicitly anti-state, anti-capitalist interpretation of reproductive justice, argues that a simple “pro-choice” position is not sufficient for a revolutionary approach to reproductive “rights.” Tracing how race, class, sexuality, nationality, and ability intersect and shape a woman’s access to reproductive health requires a deeper understanding of systems of oppression, which Andrea Smith outlines in her book Conquest(9). Looking at the history of colonialism in the Americas helps us understand the complexities of reproductive freedom in the current context. The state as an institution has always had a vested interest in maintaining control over social reproduction and in particular, the ways in which colonized peoples did and did not reproduce. Given the history of forced sterilization of Native Americans, as well as African- Americans, Latinos, and even poor white women(10), we can see that simple access to abortion does not address the complete issue of reproductive freedom(11). In order to have a comprehensive, revolutionary movement, we need to address all aspects of the issue: being able to have and support children, access to health care, housing, education, and transportation, adoption, non-traditional families, and so on. In order for a movement to be truly revolutionary it must be inclusive; the pro-choice movement has frequently neglected to address the needs of those at the margins. Does Roe v. Wade cover the complexities of the lives of women and mothers in prison? What about the experiences of people who are undocumented? Trans* folks have long been fighting for healthcare that is inclusive(12). Simply defending the right to legal abortion does not bring together all those affected by heteropatriarchy. Similarly, legal “choice” where abortions are expensive procedures does nothing to help poor women and highlights the need to smash capitalism in order to access positive freedoms. Reproductive justice advocates have argued for an intersectional approach to these issues, and an anarchist feminist analysis of reproductive freedom could benefit by utilizing an anarchist intersectional analysis.

An anarchist intersectional analysis of reproductive freedom shows us that when a community begins to struggle together, they require an understanding of the ways that relations of ruling operate together in order to have a holistic sense of what they are fighting for. If we can figure out the ways that oppressive and exploitative social relations work together—and form the tapestry that is daily life—we are better equipped to tear them apart. For instance, to analyze the ways that women of color have been particularly and historically targeted for forced sterilizations requires an understanding of how heteropatriarchy, capitalism, the state, and white supremacy have worked together to create a situation where women of color are targeted bodily through social programs such as welfare, medical experiments, and eugenics. How has racism and white supremacy functioned to support heteropatriarchy? How has sexuality been racialized in ways that have facilitated colonizers to remain without guilt about rape, genocide, and slavery, both historically and contemporarily? How has white supremacy been gendered with images such as the Mammy and the Jezebel(13)? How has the welfare state been racialized and gendered with an agenda for killing the black body(14)? Systemic oppressions such as white supremacy cannot be understood without an analysis of how those systems are gendered, sexualized, classed, etc. Similarly, this kind of analysis can be extended to understanding how heteropatriarchy, heteronormativity, capitalism, the state—all human relations of domination function. This is the weight behind an anarchist intersectional analysis. An anarchist intersectional analysis, at least the way we are utilizing the standpoint, does not centralize any structure or

institution over another, except by context. Rather, these structures and institutions operate to (re)produce one another. They are one another. Understood in this way, a central or primary oppressive or exploitative structure simply makes no sense. Rather, these social relations cannot be picked apart and one declared “central” and the others “peripheral.” And they are intersectional. After all, what good is an insurrection if some of us are left behind?

From the new edition of Quiet Rumours: An Anarcha-Feminist Reader from AK Press

Notes

Notes

  1. Harcourt, Wendy, and Arturo Escobar. 2002. “Women and the politics of place.” Development 45 (1): 7-14.
  2. “Refusing to Wait: Anarchism and Intersectionality.” http://theanarchistlibrary.org/HTML/Deric_Shannon_and_J._Rogue__Refusing_to_ Wait__Anarchism_and_Intersectionality.html
    (last accessed 5/10/2012).
  3. Combahee River Collective Statement. 1977. In Anzalduza, Gloria, and Cherrie Moraga (Eds). 1981. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Watertown, Mass: Persephone Press. Available at http://circuitous.org/scraps/combahee.html (last accessed 5/10/2012).
  4. For example: Crenshaw, Kimberlé W. 1991. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review, 43 (6): 1241–1299.
  5. See: Purkayastha, Bandana. 2012. “Intersectionality in a Transnational World.” Gender & Society 26: 55-66.
  6. “Refusing to Wait: Anarchism and Intersectionality.”
  7. Landauer, Gustav. 2010. Revolution and Other Writings, translated by Gabriel Kuhn. Oakland: PM Press.
  8. For more analysis on how race, gender and sexuality shaped capitalism and colonialism in the U.S., see: Smith, Andrea. 2005. Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
  9. Smith, Andrea. 2005. Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
  10. For example: http://rockcenter.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/11/07/ 8640744-victims-speak-out-about-north-carolina-sterilization-pro- gram-which-targeted-women-young-girls-and-blacks?lite
    (last accessed 5/30/2012).
  11. For a good book that shows examples and the history of reproductive justice, see: Silliman, Jael M. 2004. Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice. Cambridge, Mass: South End Press.
  12. Trans* is taken generally to mean: Transgender, Transsexual, genderqueer, Non-Binary, Genderfluid, Genderfuck, Intersex, Third gender, Transvestite, Cross-dresser, Bi-gender, Trans man, Trans woman, Agender.
  13. Hill Collins, Patricia. 1991. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge.
  14. Roberts, Dorothy E. 1999. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York: Vintage.
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Call for Papers: Queering Anarchism

Posted by J. Rogue on February 17, 2010

Radical queer politics and anarchism have much in common. Queer theory argues against traditional identity politics, recognizing the social construction of “sexuality” and identity categories. Anarchism argues against any structured hierarchical arrangement of humanity that allows some members of society to systematically exploit and oppress others. Thus, both projects argue for a need to move beyond hierarchical and naturalized arrangements of socially constructed identities–though, at times, articulating those arguments in different ways.

Nevertheless, despite these commonalities, little has been written about the deep connections between anarchism and radical queer politics. This edited volume is an attempt to fill that gap.

With this book, the authors wish to assemble writings that are useful to activists (i.e. not written in obscure academic jargon and relatable to social movement contexts) working in the intersections of queer and anarchist politics. Many anarchists use the term “queer” as shorthand for the LGBT community and have little understanding of what queer theory can provide for a contemporary radical praxis and how it differs from traditional LGBT politics—even some radical strands. Likewise, there are many among the queer community who know little to nothing about anarchism—relying mostly on the sensationalist news medias’ construction of anarchists as terrorists, anti-organizationalists, etc. This volume, then, will attempt to address some of those misunderstandings, while drawing connections between queer and anarchist politics.

Interested authors should send a small abstract (just a paragraph explaining exactly what it is you wish to do) along with your name and brief bio (100 words or less, please) by March 1st, 2010 to queeringanarchism@gmail.com, first drafts to be due April 15th, 2010. Finished pieces will range from 2000 to 4000 words. Below are some suggested questions and issues (feel free to come up with your own fantastic topic too!):

What can anarchism learn from queer theory? What could queer theory learn from anarchism? How do queer politics relate to class struggle, anti-racism, feminism, post-colonialism, etc.? Can queer theory be meaningful in movements if it remains written in academic jargon? What might “street” queer theory look like and how might it differ from the queer theory that emerges from the university? Should we think of queer as something we are or something we do?

What does existing queer anarchist praxis look like? How would we queer current anarchist praxis and what might emerge from that? What challenges have you faced as a result of combining queer political practice with anarchist involvement in social movements? What challenges go along with bringing anarchist political practice into existing queer groups?

Have you had personal experiences of marginalization within the anarchist community for your queer politics? Have you been ignored among the queer community because of your commitment to anarchism? Have you had good experiences combining anarchist and queer activism? What made you feel marginalized or good in those contexts and how can we use those experiences as a catalyst for creating more inclusive movements? How have ideologies of normalcy affected your activism within the anarchist community? How have expectations of ideological normalcy limited the field of politics in queer groups in your experience?

Author Bios

Christa B. Daring is currently a student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. Christa is involved in Common Action, the Olympia Street Medics Collective, and Gateways for Incarcerated Youth. Her academic studies regularly include Popular Education, Feminist Marxism, Queer theory and Sex Work. She predominately reads non-fiction of theory and praxis, but is trying to read more fiction because she knows it’s good for her.

J. Rogue is a queer anarchist-communist feminist who has been organizing in anarchist, feminist and radical queer communities for ten years. Her recent projects have centered around HIV/AIDS and prisons, with the Austin chapter of the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) as well as the Inside Books Project, which sends free books to Texas prisoners. She has also been involved in transfeminist organizing with Camp Trans, and participated in several radical queer and feminist conferences and projects over the years. Rogue is a member of Common Action and the Workers Solidarity Alliance

Deric Shannon is a long time social anarchist activist with roots in groups like Anti-Racist Action and Food Not Bombs. He is a part of the editorial collective of Contemporary Anarchist Studies (Routledge, Spring ’09), the entry for “Anarchism, Communism, and Socialism” in the Encyclopedia of Modern Revolutions (James DeFronzo, ed.), and co-editor/co-author of An Economy of Sustainability: Anarchist Economics (AK Press forthcoming) and Political Sociology: Oppression, Resistance, and the State (Pine Forge Press forthcoming). He currently lives in Connecticut where he works with Hartford Food Not Bombs, Workers Solidarity Alliance of Connecticut, and Queers without Borders.

Abbey Willis is a former and hopefully future graduate student currently living in Connecticut where she is involved with Hartford Food Not Bombs, Hartford Independent Media Collective, Queers Without Borders, Workers Solidarity Alliance of CT and NEFAC (Northeastern Federation of Anarchist Communists). Her academic and activist interests include anarcha-feminism, the politics of identity, and most things radical and queer. She absolutely loves a good graphic novel and currently recommends Y: The Last Man, Preacher, and anything by Neil Gaiman.

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Refusing to Wait: Anarchism and Intersectionality

Posted by J. Rogue on November 7, 2009

“Without justice there can be no love.”–bell hooks

by Deric Shannon (WSA/NEFAC) and J. Rogue (WSA/Common Action)

Anarchism can learn a lot from the feminist movement. In many respects it already has. Anarcha-feminists have developed analyses of patriarchy that link it to the state form. We have learned from the slogan that “the personal is political” (e.g. men who espouse equality between all genders should treat the women in their lives with dignity and respect). We have learned that no revolutionary project can be complete while men systematically dominate and exploit women; that socialism is a rather empty goal–even if it is “stateless”–if men’s domination of women is left in tact.

This essay argues that anarchists can likewise learn from the theory of “intersectionality” that emerged from the feminist movement. Indeed, anarchist conceptions of class struggle have widened as a result of the rise of feminist movements, civil rights movements, gay and lesbian liberation movements (and, perhaps more contemporarily, the queer movements), disability rights movements, etc. But how do we position ourselves regarding those struggles? What is their relationship to the class struggle that undergirds the fight for socialism? Do we dismiss them as “mere identity politics” that obscure rather than clarify the historic task of the working class? If not, how might anarchists include their concerns in our political theory and work?

Why Intersectionality? How We Got here

Many people locate the beginning of the feminist movement in the U.S. with the struggle of women to gain the vote. This focus on electoralism was criticized for its narrowness by many turn-of-the-century radical women. After all, what did the vote provide for working class women? How could voting for a new set of rulers put food in their mouths and the mouths of their families? In fact, many radical women of this time period refused to identify as “feminists”, as they viewed feminism as a bourgeois women’s movement unconcerned with the class struggle (for an interesting discussion of this in the context of early 1900s Spanish anarcho-syndicalism, see Ackelsberg 2005: 118-119 and 123-124). Indeed, many working class women saw their “feminist” contemporaries as being in alliance “with all the forces that have been the most determined enemies of the working people, of the poor and disinherited”–that is, they saw the early feminist movement as a purely bourgeois women’s movement that had no solutions to the pervasive poverty and exploitation inherent in the working class experience in a classed society (Parker 2001: 125).

Anarchists of this time period, on the other hand, at times anticipated some of the arguments to come out of the feminist movement regarding intersectionality. We argued against the class reductionism that often occurred within the broader socialist milieu. Early anarchists were writing about issues such as prostitution and sex trafficking (Goldman 2001), forced sterilizations (Kropotkin 2001), and marriage (de Cleyre 2004 and 2001) to widen the anarchist critique of hierarchy to give critical concern to women’s issues in their own right, while also articulating a socialist vision of a future cooperative and classless society. Much of this early work demonstrated connections between the oppression of women and the exploitation of the working class. The refusal of many working class women to join their “feminist” contemporaries likewise demonstrated some of the problems of a universalized identity-based feminism that saw women’s oppression as a hierarchy that can be fought without also fighting capitalism.

This is not to suggest that anarchists weren’t at times reductionist. Unfortunately, many anarchist men were dismissive of women’s concerns. Part of the reason that the Mujeres Libres saw a need for a separate women’s organization around the time of the Spanish Civil War was because “many anarchists treated the issue of women’s subordination as, at best, secondary to the emancipation of workers, a problem that would be resolved ‘on the morrow of the revolution'” (Ackelsberg 2005: 38). Unfortunately, in some contexts, this attitude isn’t just a historical oddity, though it should be. And it was these kinds of assumptions that became an important theoretical backdrop for feminism’s “Second Wave”.

Competing Visions in the “Second Wave”

During the late 60s through the early 80s, new forms of feminism began to emerge. Many feminists seemed to gravitate to four competing theories with very different explanations for the oppression of women.

Like their historical bourgeois predecessors,liberal feminists saw no need for a revolutionary break with existing society. Rather, their focus was on breaking the “glass ceiling”, getting more women into positions of political and economic power. Liberal feminists assumed that the existing institutional arrangements were fundamentally unproblematic. Their task was to see to women’s equality accommodated under capitalism.

Another theory, sometimes referred to as radical feminism, argued for abandoning the “male Left”, as it was seen as hopelessly reductionist. Indeed, many women coming out of the Civil Rights movement and anti-war movements complained of pervasive sexism within the movements, being relegated to secretarial tasks, philandering male leaders, and a generalized alienation from Left politics. According to many radical feminists of the time, this was due to the primacy of the system of patriarchy–or men’s systematic and institutionalized domination of women. To these feminists, the battle against patriarchy was the primary struggle to create a free society, as gender was our most entrenched and oldest hierarchy (see especially Firestone 1970).

Marxist feminists, on the other hand, tended to locate women’s oppression within the economic sphere. The fight against capitalism was seen as the “primary” battle, as “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles”–that is, human history could be reduced to class (Marx and Engels 1967). Further, Marxist feminists tended to believe that the economic “base” of society had a determining effect on its cultural “superstructures”. Thus, the only way to achieve equality between women and men would be to smash capitalism–as new, egalitarian economic arrangements would give rise to new, egalitarian superstructures. Such was the determining nature of the economic base.

Out of the conversations between Marxist feminism and radical feminism another approach emerged called “dual systems theory” (see e.g. Hartmann 1981; Young 1981). A product of what came to be dubbed socialist feminism, dual systems theory argued that feminists needed to develop “a theoretical account which gives as much weight to the system of patriarchy as to the system of capitalism” (Young 1981: 44). While this approach did much to resolve some of the arguments about which fight should be “primary” (i.e. the struggle against capitalism or the struggle against patriarchy), it still left much to be desired. For example, black feminists argued that this perspective left out a structural analysis of race (Joseph 1981). Further, where was oppression based on sexuality, ability, age, etc. in this analysis? Were all of these things reducible to capitalist patriarchy?

It is within this theoretical backdrop that intersectionality emerged. But it wasn’t just abstraction and theory that led to these insights. As mentioned before, part of the reason feminists saw a need for a separate analysis of patriarchy as a systemic form of oppression was due to their experiences with the broader Left. Without an analysis of patriarchy that put it on equal footing with capitalism as an organizing system in our lives, there was no adequate response to male leaders who suggested that we deal with women’s oppression after we deal with the “primary” or “more important” class struggle.

But these tensions were not limited to the Left, they also existed within the feminist movement. Perhaps one of the best examples of this on the ground was in the pro-choice movement in the United States. Before Roe vs. Wade in 1973, abortion law was considered an issue to be dealt with on a state-by-state basis. Feminists mobilized around Roe Vs. Wade to see that legal abortion would be guaranteed throughout the country. The ruling eventually did give legal guarantees to abortion through the second trimester, but the “choice” and “legalization” rhetoric left too much unaddressed for many feminists.

And this experience set the stage for re-thinking the idea of a universalized, monolithic experience of “womanhood” as it is often expressed in traditional identity politics. Black feminists and womanists, for example, argued that focusing solely on legalized abortion obscured the ways that black women in the United States underwent forced sterilizations and were often denied the right to have children (see Roberts 1997). Further, working class women argued that legalized “choice” is pretty meaningless without socialism, as having abortion legal, but unaffordable, didn’t exactly constitute a “choice”. True reproductive freedom meant something more than just legal abortion for working class women. Many wanted to have kids but simply couldn’t afford raising them; some wanted a change in the cultural norms and mores of a society that judged the decisions women made about their bodies; others wanted proximity to clinics for reproductive health–in short, a “reproductive freedom” framework would take into account the interests of all women, not just be structured around white, heterosexual, middle-class women’s concerns (the seeming default position of the “pro-choice” movement).

Intersections

These experiences within the feminist movement and the broader Left raised many questions for feminists. How do we create a movement that isn’t focused around the interests of its most privileged elements? How do we retain our commitment to socialism without being subsumed into a politic that sees women’s issues as “secondary”? What might political organization look like based on a common commitment to ending domination rather than an assumed common experience based on some single identity? These questions began to be answered largely by feminists of color, queers, and sex radicals with the theory of intersectionality–a theory that was critical of traditional class and identity politics (see especially e.g. hooks 2000; Collins 2000).

Intersectionality posits that our social locations in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, nation of origin, ability, age, etc. are not easily parsed out one from the other. To speak of a universal experience as a “woman”, for example, is problematic because “womanhood” is experienced quite differently based on race, class, sexuality– any number of factors. As such, a non-reflective feminist movement centered ostensibly on the concerns of “women” tended to reflect the interests of the most privileged members of that social category.

As well, our various social locations and the hierarchies they inform intersect in complex ways and are not easily separable. People don’t exist as “women”, “men”, “white”, “working class”, etc. in a vacuum devoid of other patterned social relationships. Further, these systems of exploitation and oppression function in unique ways. To name two rather obvious examples, class is a social relationship based on the exploitation of one’s labor. As socialists, we seek the abolition of classes, not the end of class elitism under capitalism. This makes class unique. Similarly, the idea of “sexual orientation” developed in the 1800s with the invention of “the homosexual” as a species of a person. This effectively created an identity out of preferred gender choices in sexual partners, more or less ignoring the myriad other ways that people organize their sexuality (i.e. number of partners, preferred sexual acts, etc.). It also effectively limited sexual identity to three categories: hetero, homo, and bi–as if there could not be a large range of attractions and variety within humanity. Part of liberation based on sexuality is troubling these categories to provide a viable sexual/social existence for everyone. This makes sexuality, likewise, unique.

These structured inequalities and hierarchies inform and support one another. For example, the labor of women in child-bearing and rearing provides new bodies for the larger social factory to allow capitalism to continue. White supremacy and racism allow capitalists control over a segment of the labor market that can serve as stocks of cheap labor. Compulsory heterosexuality allows the policing of the patriarchal family form, strengthening patriarchy and male dominance. And all structured forms of inequality add to the nihilistic belief that institutionalized hierarchy is inevitable and that liberatory movements are based on utopian dreams.

Proponents of intersectionality, then, argue that all struggles against domination are necessary components for the creation of a liberatory society. It is unnecessary to create a totem pole of importance out of social struggles and suggest that some are “primary” while others are “secondary” or “peripheral” because of the complete ways that they intersect and inform one another. Further, history has shown us that this method of ranking oppressions is divisive and unnecessary–and worse, it undermines solidarity. As well, when organizing and developing political practice, we can self-reflexively move the margins to the center of our analyses to avoid the biases of privilege that has historically led to so many divisions in feminism and the Left.

A good contemporary example of intersectionality in the context of social movement practice is Incite! Women of Color Against Violence. Incite! “is a national activist organization of radical feminists of color advancing a movement to end violence against women of color and our communities through direct action, critical dialogue and grassroots organizing” (Incite! 2009). One reason Incite! stands out against other anti-violence organizations is their systemic analysis. They see women of color who have experienced violence as living in the “dangerous intersections” of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and other oppressive structures and institutions. Rather than simply reducing the experiences to the individual, they recognize the systems that oppress and exploit people and have structured their approach in such a way that calls for the “recentering” of marginalized folks, as opposed to a method of “inclusiveness” based on one single identity or social location. Incite! argues that “inclusiveness” simply adds a multicultural component to individualistic white-dominated organizing so common in the United States. Instead, they call for recentering the framework around the most marginalized peoples. This push is to ensure that their organizing addresses the needs of those historically overlooked by feminism, with the understanding that all people benefit from the liberation of their more marginalized peers–while focusing on the more privileged elements within a given social category leaves others behind (as in the examples we gave in the struggle for the vote and the legalization of abortion). Incite! makes a point to focus on the needs of the working class who have generally been neglected (i.e. sex workers, the incarcerated, trans folks and injection drug users). By centering these people in their organizing, they are focusing on the people standing at more dangerous intersections of oppression and exploitation, therefore tackling the entirety of the system and not just the more visible or advantaged aspects. Additionally, Incite! views the state as a major perpetrator of violence against women of color and seeks to build grassroots organizations independent of and against it. Anarchists could learn a lot from Incite! about the importance of addressing the needs of ALL sections of the working class and their attempt to check the tendency of the Left to ignore or dismiss the concerns, needs, ideas and leadership of people living in the dangerous intersections of capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, etc.

And What Can Anarchism Provide the Theory of Intersectionality?

We firmly believe that this learning process is a two-way street. That is, when synthesizing our practice to include these concerns raised by feminists, feminism could stand to benefit from learning from anarchism as well. We see the contributions of anarchists to intersectionality in two major areas. First, anarchism can provide a radical base from which to critique liberal interpretations of intersectionality. Secondly, anarchists can offer a critical analysis of the state.

Too often people using an intersectional analysis ignore the uniqueness of various systems of domination. One way this is done is by articulating a general opposition to classism. While we believe that class elitism exists, often this opposition to “classism” does not recognize the unique qualities of capitalism and can lead to a position that essentially argues for an end to class elitism under capitalism. As anarchists, we do not just oppose class elitism, we oppose class society itself. We do not want the ruling class to treat us nicer under a system based on inequality and exploitation (i.e. capitalism). We want to smash capitalism to pieces and build a new society in which classes no longer exist–that is, we fight for socialism. Anarchists, as part of the socialist movement, are well-placed to critique this liberal interpretation of intersectionality (see especially Schmidt and van der Walt 2009).

Likewise, as anarchists, we are well-placed to put forward our critiques of the state. The state, in addition to being a set of specific institutions (such as the courts, police, political bodies like senates, presidents, etc.), is a social relationship. And the state has an influence over our lives in myriad ways. For example, former prisoners are often unemployable, particularly if they have committed felonies. One only needs to take a cursory glance at the racial and class make-up of US prisons to see how intersectionality can be put to use here. Former prisoners, workers who are targeted for striking or engaging in direct actions and/or civil disobedience, etc. all have specific needs as subjects in a society that assumes political rulers and passive, ruled subjects. And the state tends to target specific sets of workers based on their existence within the dangerous intersections we mentioned above. Anarchists can offer to the theory of intersectionality an analysis of the ways that the state has come to rule our lives just as much as any other institutionalized system of domination. And we can, of course, argue for smashing such a social arrangement and replacing it with non-hierarchical social forms.

Refusing to Wait

In many ways, anarchists have historically anticipated some of the ideas in intersectionality. Further, anarchism as a political philosophy–and as a movement against all forms of structured domination, coercion, and control–seems well-suited for an intersectional practice. Unfortunately, we still have debilitating arguments about what hierarchy is “primary” and should be prioritized above others. Like in times past, this leads to easy division and a lack of solidarity (imagine being told to give up some struggle that directly involves YOU for the “correct” or “primary” fight!). Further, the smashing of any structured hierarchy can have a destabilizing effect on the rest, as the simple existence of any of these social divisions serves to naturalize the existence of all other hierarchies.

We’ve tried here to explain the rise of the theory of intersectionality within feminism and describe its contours. Perhaps more importantly, we’ve attempted to relate it throughout this piece to political practice and social movement struggles so as to avoid complete abstraction and theorization apart from practice. We hope that more anarchists become acquainted with intersectionality and put it to positive use in our political work. Finally, it is our hope that more people from marginalized groups refuse to wait, that we recognize the value of all fights against injustice and hierarchy in the here and now–and that we build a reflexive practice based on solidarity and mutual aid instead of divisive prescriptions about what struggles are “primary” and which ones, by extension, are “secondary” or “peripheral”. Rather, they are all linked and we have good reason to refuse to wait until after “the revolution” to address them!

Bibliography

Ackelsberg, Martha A. 2005. The Free Women of Spain: Anarchism and the Struggle for the Emancipation of Women. Oakland: AK Press.

Collins, Patricia Hill. 2000. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge.

de Cleyre, Voltairine. 2001. “They Who Marry do Ill”. Pp. 103-113 in Anarchy!: An Anthology of Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth, edited by Peter Glassgold. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint.

_____. 2004. “Sex Slavery”. Pp. 93-103 in The Voltairine de Cleyre Reader, edited by A.J. Brigati. Oakland: AK Press.

Firestone, Shulamith. 1970. The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. New York: Morrow.

Goldman, Emma. 2001. “The White Slave Traffic”. Pp. 113-120 in Anarchy!: An Anthology of Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth, edited by Peter Glassgold. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint.

Hartmann, Heidi. 1981. “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union.” in Women and Revolution, by Lydia Sargent (ed.). Boston, MA: South End Press.

hooks, bell. 2000. Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Incite!. 2009. http://www.incite-national.org/. Last accessed, October 2009.

Joseph, Gloria. 1981. “The Incompatible Menage à Trois: Marxism, Feminism, and Racism.” in Women and Revolution, by Lydia Sargent (ed.). Boston, MA: South End Press.

Kropotkin, Peter. 2001. “The Sterilization of the Unfit”. Pp. 120-123 in Anarchy!: An Anthology of Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth, edited by Peter Glassgold. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. 1967. The Communist Manifesto. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Parker, Robert Allerton. 2001. “Feminism in America”. Pp. 124-126 in Anarchy!: An Anthology of Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth, edited by Peter Glassgold. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint.

Roberts, Dorothy. 1997. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York: Vintage.

Schmidt, M. & van der Walt, L. 2009. Black Flame: The revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism. Oakland: AK Press.

Young, Iris. 1981. “Beyond the Unhappy Marriage: A Critique of the Dual Systems Theory.” in Women and Revolution, by Lydia Sargent (ed.). Boston, MA: South End Press.

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Strengthening Anarchism’s Gender Analysis: Lessons from the Transfeminist Movement

Posted by J. Rogue on June 22, 2009

Transfeminism developed out of a critique of the mainstream and radical feminist movements. The feminist movement has a history of internal hierarchies. There are many examples of women of color, working class women, lesbians and others speaking out against the tendency of the white, affluent- dominated women’s movement to silence them and overlook their needs. Instead of honoring these marginalized voices, the mainstream feminist movement has prioritized struggling for rights primarily in the interests of white affluent women. While the feminist movement as a whole has not resolved these hierarchal tendencies, various groups have continued to speak up regarding their own marginalization – in particular, transgendered women. The process of developing a broader understanding of systems of oppression and how they interact has advanced feminism and is key to building on the theory of anarchist feminism.

Transfeminism builds on the work that came out of the multiracial feminist movement, and in particular, the work of Black feminists. Frequently, when confronted with allegations of racism, classism, or homophobia, the women’s movement dismisses these issues as divisive. The more prominent voices promote the idea of a homogenous “universal female experience,” which, as it is based on commonality between women, theoretically promotes a sense of sisterhood. In reality, it means pruning the definition of “woman” and trying to fit all women into a mold reflecting the dominant demographic of the women’s movement: white, affluent, heterosexual, and non-disabled. This “policing” of identity, whether conscious or not, reinforces systems of oppression and exploitation. When women who do not fit this mold have challenged it, they have frequently been accused of being divisive and disloyal to the sisterhood. The hierarchy of womanhood created by the women’s movement reflects, in many ways, the dominant culture of racism, capitalism and heteronormativity.

Mainstream feminist organizing frequently tries to find the common ground shared by women, and therefore focuses on what the most vocal members decide are “women’s issues” – as if the female experience existed in vacuum outside of other forms of oppression and exploitation. However, using an intersectional approach to analyzing and organizing around oppression, as advocated by multiracial feminism and transfeminism, we can discuss these differences rather than dismiss them. The multiracial feminist movement developed this approach, which argues that one cannot address the position of women without also addressing their class, race, sexuality, ability, and all other aspects of their identity and experiences. Forms of oppression and exploitation do not exist separately. They are intimately related and reinforce each other, and so trying to address them singly (i.e. “sexism” divorced from racism, capitalism, etc) does not lead to a clear understanding of the patriarchal system. This is in accordance with the anarchist view that we must fight all forms of hierarchy, oppression, and exploitation simultaneously; abolishing capitalism and the state does not ensure that white supremacy and patriarchy will be somehow magically dismantled.

Tied to this assumption of a “universal female experience” is the idea that that if a woman surrounds herself with those that embody that “universal” woman, then she is safe from patriarchy and oppression. The concept of “women’s safe spaces” (being women-only) date back to the early lesbian feminist movement, which was largely comprised of white, middle-class women who prioritized addressing sexism over other forms of oppression. This notion that an all-women space is inherently safe not only discounts the intimate violence that can occur between women, but also ignores or de-prioritizes the other types of violence that women can experience; racism, poverty, incarceration and other forms of state, economic and social brutality.

The Transfeminist Manifesto states: “Transfeminism believes that we construct our own gender identities based on what feels genuine, comfortable and sincere to us as we live and relate to others within given social and cultural constraint. (1)” The notion that gender is a social construct is a key concept in transfeminism, and are also essential (no pun intended) to an anarchist approach to feminism. Transfeminism also criticizes the idea of a “universal female experience” and argues against the biologically essentialist view that one’s gender is defined by one’s genitalia. Other feminisms have embraced the essentialist argument, seeing the idea of “women’s unity” as being built off a sameness, some kind of core “woman-ness.” This definition of woman is generally reliant on what is between a person’s legs. Yet what specifically about the definition of woman is intrinsic to two X chromosomes? If it is defined as being in possession of a womb, does that mean women who have had hysterectomies are somehow less of a woman? Perhaps, if we reduce the definition of “woman” to the role of child-bearer. That seems rather antithetical to feminism. Gender roles have long been under scrutiny in radical communities. The idea that women are born to be mothers, are more sensitive and peaceful, are predisposed to wearing the color pink and all the other stereotypes out there are socially constructed, not biological. If the (repressive) gender role does not define what a woman is, and if the organs one is born with do not define gender either, the next logical step is to recognize that gender can only be defined by the individual, for themselves. While this concept may cause some to panic, that does not make it any less legitimate with regards to a person’s identity.

It is important to note that not all transgender people chose to physically transition, and that each person’s decision to do so or not is their own. The decision is highly personal and generally irrelevant to theoretical conceptions of gender. There are many reasons to physically change one’s body, from getting a haircut to taking hormones. Some reasons might be to feel more at ease in a world with strict definitions of male and female. Another is to look in the mirror and see on the outside (the popular understanding of) the gender one feels on the inside. Surely, for some, it is the belief that gender is defined by the physical construction of one’s genitalia. But rather than draw from speculation as to the motivations for the personal decisions of trans people (as if they where not vast and varied), it is more productive to note the challenge to the idea that biology is destiny.

Thus far, gender and feminist theory that includes trans experiences exists almost solely in academia. There are very few working class intellectuals in the field, and the academic language used is not particularly accessible to the average person. This is unfortunate, since the issues that transfeminism addresses affect all people. Capitalism, racism, the state, patriarchy and the medical field mediate the way everyone experiences gender. There is a significant amount of coercion employed by these institutions to police human experiences, which applies to everyone, trans and non-trans alike. Capitalism and the state play a very direct role in the experiences of trans people. Access to hormones and surgery, if desired, costs a significant amount of money, and people are often forced to jump through bureaucratic hoops in order to acquire them. Trans people are disproportionately likely to be members of the working and under classes. However, within the radical queer and transfeminist communities, while there may be discussions of class, they are generally framed around identity – arguing for “anti-classist” politics, but not necessarily anti-capitalist.

The concepts espoused by transfeminism help us understand gender, but there is a need for the theory to break out of academia and to develop praxis amongst the working class and social movements. This is not to say that there are no examples of transfeminist organizing, but rather that there needs to be an incorporation of transfeminist principles into broad based movements. Even gay and lesbian movements have a history of leaving trans people behind. For example, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act does not protect gender identity. Again we see a hierarchy of importance; the gay and lesbian movement compromises (throwing trans folks under the bus), rather than employing an inclusive strategy for liberation. There is frequently a sense of a “scarcity of liberation” within reformist social movements, the feeling that the possibilities for freedom are so limited that we must fight against other marginalized groups for a piece of the pie. This is in direct opposition to the concept of intersectionality, since it often requires people to betray one aspect of their identity in order to politically prioritize another. How can a person be expected to engage in a fight against gender oppression if it ignores or worsens their racial oppression? Where does one aspect of their identity and experiences end and another begin? Anarchism offers a possible society in which liberation is anything but scarce. It provides a theoretical framework that calls for an end to all hierarchies, and, as stated by Martha Ackelsberg, “It offers a perspective on the nature and process of social revolutionary transformation (e.g. the insistence that means must be consistent with ends, and that economic issues are critical, but not the only source of hierarchal power relations) that can be extremely valuable to/ for women’s emancipation. (2)”
Anarchists need to be developing working class theory that includes an awareness of the diversity of the working class. The anarchist movement can benefit from the development of a working class, anarchist approach to gender issues that incorporates the lessons of transfeminism and intersectionality. It is not so much a matter of asking anarchists to become active in the transfeminist movement as it is a need for anarchists to take a page from the Mujeres Libres and integrate the principles of (trans)feminism into our organizing within the working class and social movements. Continuing to develop contemporary anarchist theory of gender rooted in the working class requires a real and integrated understanding of transfeminism.

This article neglects to address another important concept: the idea that biological sex is somewhat socially constructed as well. Given the high prevalence of intersex folks, it is worth re-evaluating whether or not there are only two supposed biological sexes. This is a whole additional discussion, and one that would require a bit more research. Recommended sites for more information are http://www.isna.org and http://www.eminism.org.

Notes

1. The Transfeminist Manifesto by Emi Koyama (2000)

2. Lessons from the Free Women of Spain an interview with Martha Ackelsberg
by Geert Dhont (2004)

This article appears in the latest issue of the Northeastern Anarchist

Posted in Anarchism, Feminism | 3 Comments »

Lights! Camera! Direct Action! An Anarchist Review of “Battle in Seattle”

Posted by J. Rogue on September 21, 2008

I spent my nineteenth birthday in the cold and rain, breathing in tear gas and fleeing the police. It was 1999 and I was in Seattle, joining in the tens of thousands who descended on the city to protest the World Trade Organization’s first Ministerial Conference in the United States. I was sympathetic to the myriad of issues represented by the various sections of protesters, from the environment to workers struggles to access to medicine. I proudly marched with my banner reading, “Think the WTO is bad? Wait til you hear about capitalism!” The reasons to oppose the WTO were a thousand-fold, but central to me was the larger system at play: global capitalism.

My fellow anarchists worked alongside union members, sea turtles, and activists of all kinds in an effort to shut down the WTO’s meeting. The diversity of the protesters brought with them a diversity of tactics, and the anarchists participated in many, from locking down in intersections and doorways, to squatting a building downtown, to breaking the windows of targeted multinational corporations. While the debate about the protests and aftermath has seen hundreds of opinions, perspectives and critiques, there is one thing most can agree on: the 1999 WTO protests brought American attention to global economic issues. In addition to successfully shutting down the meeting, activists in the U.S. illustrated an awareness of and resistance to the WTO’s repression and exploitation of peoples across the globe.

Almost ten years later, the protests have inspired a feature film. Directed by Stuart Townsend, Battle in Seattle is a clearly well-researched fictionalized drama taking place during the WTO protests. The pacing and general narrative is quite accurate to the events as they actually unfolded. This new, sympathetic attention to a pivotal moment of the anti-globalization movement brings up many old questions and debates, most of which still linger on today. The movie itself is engaging and likeable, with plenty of well-staged action to keep the viewer’s interest. Michelle Rodriguez, bad-ass as always, makes a fierce anarchist (in the interest of disclosure, I watched Blue Crush three times and Blood Rayne twice just for Rodriguez). The intentions of the film are clearly sympathetic to the protesters and seek to bring to light the motivations and ideas of the activists, which had not been well represented by the media.

The film is independently produced, not a product of Hollywood, though it uses Hollywood style to capture its audience. Like the popular Oscar-winner Crash, it weaves together individual stories and illustrates how they connect. For an effort as collective as the WTO protests, this approach ultimately focuses too much on individual people. One of the shortcomings of the film is the fact that it is comprised of anecdotes. Certainly, to be an entertaining movie, one has to tell the story of some compelling characters, but when telling the story of the WTO protests, this causes some key ideas to slip through the cracks. By focusing on the personal lives and motivations of a handful of characters, we miss the greater, systemic causes at play.

Consequently, the film focuses on the isolated “mistakes” of the Seattle police and to a lesser extent, the media. There is not a larger awareness of the fact that institutions like the WTO rely on media whitewash of their activities and a negative portrayal of protesters, not to mention police repression. Cops fighting protesters is (on a smaller scale) par for the course given the violence of the WTO (poverty, white supremacy, etc). Corporate media also has something to gain by dramatizing the conflict and making the protesters look bad; sensationalism is what gets the ratings, after all. There is a broader systemic analysis of capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy, their roles in the WTO and the states that control it, which is missing from the film.

Of all the characters in the film – a cop, his wife, the Mayor, an NGO professional, an African delegate – Director Stuart Townsend gives the most screen time to various activists. Townsend has explained that Battle in Seattle’s glorification of the professional activist is aimed at trying to inspire people to become more active in progressive causes, but in an effort to show them in a positive light, their achievements are overblown. The breakaway segment of the protest’s labor march was portrayed in the film as directed by the activists, when in fact it was led by the steelworkers and other militant union folks. Townsend does make activism look sexy and exciting (though Michelle Rodriguez could make doing laundry look sexy and exciting), but as a strategy with greater political goals, it is misguided. The movie unintentionally perpetuates the middle-class do-gooder cultural concept when a more important focus would be the large-scale popular movements. Individualist activist culture has a component of vanguardism and elitism, which the movie reinforces – the film’s activists all share various motivations, but none of them seek to change the conditions of their own lives. Any strategy that overlooks the people most affected by exploitation and oppression, neglecting to put grassroots social movements in the foreground, is unsustainable.

Battle in Seattle lacks an awareness of a major theme of the protests, perhaps their most successful element: solidarity. Many of the protesters were vocal in their solidarity with those around the world in resisting global capitalism, and that piece is largely missing from the film. The film overlooks the essential movement-building debates that followed the protests, namely those concerning race (Elizabeth Martinez’s “Where Was the Color in Seattle?”) and gender (such as The Rock Bloc Collective’s essay “Stick It to the Manarchy”). While some of the main character roles were people of color, the film lacks any important dialog regarding the general whiteness and affluence of the protest demographic As organizer Hop Hopkins explains in the WTO protest documentary This is What Democracy Looks Like, “Solidarity doesn’t mean we don’t talk about issues that separate us… You’ve got to take it a step further. Race, class, gender, sexism, heterosexism, the whole nine yards… If that’s not in your analysis, than you’re only half-stepping, and you’re not really working for revolution.”

By devoting more screen time to bouts of melodrama and hot, intense protest action than actual ideas, the film’s politics are exciting but sterile. The superficial politics end up misrepresenting many protesters, especially anarchists, even when it is unintended. With the exception of Michelle Rodriguez’s character Lou, anarchists are portrayed solely as macho insurrectionists. While there were certainly many of those types within anarchism, particularly at the WTO protests, the film neglects to mention there were anarchists participating in many, many types of actions. The diversity of thought and strategy within anarchism is ignored, and in its place is a one-dimensional, sensational caricature of anarchist politics, despite being slightly more educated then the usual media portrayal.

For all its errors, Battle in Seattle provides a fun opportunity to return to the question of why the WTO protests represented such a massive victory, and what we as anarchists should focus on in our political work nearly ten years later. After all, the film arrives in a year when protests are again in the news. The summit protest has again become a popular draw for new activists and old hands alike, as we have most recently seen here in the United States with the DNC protests in Denver and the RNC in St. Paul. After several years of involvement in the protest circuit, many anarchists are developing criticisms of the usual methods, creating alternatives, or withdrawing from that scene altogether (usually in favor of organizing grounded in local struggles and communities). The group Worker’s Solidarity Alliance, in a recent statement on the RNC protests, perhaps put it best. “Specifically, we must avoid playing into the hands of the state by using rhetoric, rituals, and tactics that isolate us from the majority of the world’s population that suffers under capitalism. We call for a resistance based not exclusively on the advanced tactics of a jail-ready minority, but the solidarity and militancy of a revolutionary social bloc, organized in workplaces and neighborhoods, fighting for self-determination. As the raids on activists spaces have already shown, anything less is political suicide.”

Jen Rogue and Andrew Hedden are members of Common Action in Tacoma and Seattle, WA, USA.

From Anarkismo

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