This essay was drawn from the lost issue of the American Reader.
“It’s amazing how people like judging.”
In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, there was an immense showing of solidarity on the Internet. Journalists, activists, and a wide swath of people across the political spectrum embraced the #JeSuisCharlie tag to signal that they took the killings as a blow against free speech, liberal tolerance, and civil society as we know it. Very quickly, however, there was a strong response from a smaller but aggressive leftist faction: #JeNeSuisPasCharlie. For them, the massacres did not demand solidarity with the ideals of the deceased, but a critical focus on the content of the magazine, and specifically its antagonism toward Muslims and Islamic religion. The killings were inexcusable, they said, but so was the racism which Charlie Hebdo had perpetuated. Celebrating Charlie Hebdo’s content, reproducing their cartoons, was insensitive and noxious, a self-satisfied maneuver by complacent liberals. Charlie Hebdo, ostensibly a secular, liberal magazine, was in fact a tool of oppression by dominant groups in society.
The two factions could not reconcile, and the antagonism was quite bitter. I am not here to say one faction was right and one was wrong, but to look at the ideological and pragmatic gulf that separates them. The critical suspicion of #JeNeSuisPasCharlie is a core tactic of a burgeoning leftist movement that explicitly defines itself in opposition to liberalism, and indeed prefers liberalism as a target over, say, the right wing. This leftist movement, which organizes itself under terms like “social justice,” “anti-oppression,” “critical race and gender theory,” and “anti-racism,” critiques mainstream liberalism with the goal of exposing its contradictions, hidden prejudices, and empty promises. Though colloquially known as “social justice,” I will call it by the more precise and historically accurate term “anti-oppression.”
Yet why is “liberalism” such a bogeyman to this movement? Is it because the non-liberal left appears so dispossessed? We live in an age where the most “radical” book of economics to make a splash, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, explicitly distances itself from Marxism on numerous occasions, and ends by calling only for a modest wealth tax . We live in an age where the Occupy movement, despite its sometimes radical appearance, orients itself around such conventionally liberal reforms as the campaign for a living wage, prosecution of criminal bankers and tougher financial laws (e.g., “Occupy the SEC”), and exhibits a polite antagonism toward the one percent of plutocrats. The radical left’s best-known contemporary thinker, Slavoj Žižek, is treated as more of a clown than an ally by what should be his ideological homebase. (“His strategic notions,” writes Ben Kunkel in the leftist New Statesman, “are various and incompatible,” while Marxist critic Terry Eagleton deems Žižek “outrageously irresponsible.”)
One might think that the radical, anti-liberal left is just bitter that they have been pushed off the edge of the spectrum of political discourse and relegated to ever-shrinking university departments and a handful of sympathetic periodicals. The story, however, is more complicated than that—and its complications have profound relevance to the frustrations and peculiarities of the current Western political landscape. The burgeoning anti-oppression movement is concerned primarily with manifestations of false consciousness, and their diagnoses consequently center not on the overtly reactionary forces of society, but on those claiming to be liberal and progressive. Yet what does it mean to be focused on “racism without racists” when racists are hardly an extinct breed? What led to this focus, and what does it mean to the future of leftism? Classifying leftist ideology in a framework of agency and trust, I find a buried contradiction at the heart of anti-oppressive activism, one in which practitioners pathologically self-position themselves in a space of chronic moral jeopardy.
Leftist Concepts: Trust (x) vs. Agency (y)
The x-axis is the Axis of Trust, with a positive Solidarity Pole and a negative Suspicion Pole. The y-axis is the Axis of Agency, with a positive Ethical Pole and a negative Structural Pole. The labels on the graph above designate leftist positions. Some of these positions are concepts or ideologies, while others are movements or organizations. In both cases, however, their positions on the graph are a consequence of the practical implications of people who hold a particular ideology, subscribe to the validity of a particular concept or belong to a particular movement. That is to say: on the Axis of Trust, people who subscribe to labels closer to Solidarity will tend to extol the virtues of like-mindedness and shared interests among citizens, while people subscribing to labels closer to Suspicion will tend to stress the virtues of searching out damaging people and ideas and analyzing differences within citizen movements. On the Axis of Agency, people who subscribe to more Ethical labels will tend to privilege individual agency and the autonomous struggle toward virtuous, productive action; while those who subscribe to more Structural labels will tend to downplay the consequences of individual behavior in favor of large-scale historical forces, which many will unknowingly bring about.
The Axis of Trust measures how much credence a given leftist label or concept gives to the good faith intentions of individuals and institutions. Those positions that fall on the right side of the graph are most fundamentally informed by a sense of Solidarity. These positions are predicated on a belief that entities are what they say they are: what individuals and institutions profess to believe and act upon is indeed what they truly believe and seek to act upon. They are also predicated on a belief that entities do not contain the seeds of their own destruction, and can, therefore, be reformed absent total systemic overhaul. Those positions that fall on the left side of the graph are, on the contrary, most fundamentally informed by a sense of Suspicion. These positions are predicated on a deep mistrust of the claims of both individuals and institutions. Adherents worry that rhetoric and appearance are mere smokescreens, and that an entity’s true allegiances and motivations are generally quite different from, and often more nefarious than, their surface presentations.
Solidarity positions are predicated on the belief that a democratic justice system does mean to provide for justice and that its flaws are mistakes that can be corrected. Their targets are, therefore, individual entities: laws, persons, and/or specific governmental, cultural, or political institutions, groups, etc. Suspicion positions are predicated on the belief that those flaws are constitutive aspects of the system and its nature, and that good intentions are therefore not enough to fix them. Their targets are systems and ideologies. Consider the “War on Drugs”. While leftists would condemn the War on Drugs, their reasons for doing so may differ: those closer to Solidarity believe that draconian drug laws are divisive, unfair, and counterproductive, the product of good intentions gone unfortunately wrong. Suspicion thinks the damage caused by those laws is actually the inevitable and unjust end result of our system of governance, even though the system and its representatives claim to mean well. Supposed governmental good intentions did not happen to turn out badly; our system made such terrible consequences inevitable.
Within each the Solidarity and Suspicion camps, there is further ideological division: this division runs along the Axis of Agency. The determinant question here concerns the prospect of individual efficacy—do we, as individuals, have real agency? Do individuals have the capacity to bring about change through quotidian action? Adherents of those concepts existing in the top-half of the graph, or the Ethical Pole, would answer in the affirmative. The legitimacy of these concepts depend upon the existence of the free, autonomous individual who is responsible for his or her beliefs and actions, and is capable of changing and improving them through directed effort. Adherents of those concepts populating the bottom-half of the graph, or the Structural Pole, would respond much differently. For a simple example, take environmentalism. Those closer to the Ethical Pole will stress the need for individual action: recycling, green living, badgering your friends, driving a Prius, etc. If enough people were individually to take positive action, our environmental problems would be solved. Those closer to the Structural Pole instead focus on the large-scale systems that make environmental damage and catastrophe an inevitable consequence. To them, more Ethical exponents are not just inefficacious, but also wrongheaded: their drop-in-the-bucket activism creates a false sense of positive change that draws them into dangerous complacency. Nothing short of substantive systemic change can turn our civilization around.
The Structural orientation is a systematic and much more totalizing political vision: an individual is always a product of larger historical and/or societal forces; one’s social, moral, and political potential—in short, one’s revolutionary potential—is essentially determined prior to the exercise of any seeming agency one might possess, and indeed, tends to deform or defeat such exercises. Such deterministic visions of history, from Polybius to Vico to Hegel to Marx (above all) to Spengler to Toynbee, assert that the individual is subjugated to the overpowering waves of natural laws (cyclical, teleological, rational, chaotic, or any other type); these natural laws, in their indelibility and implacability, render individual will an illusion. This historico-materialist determinism need not be predictive—that is to say, a Structural position does not necessitate a belief in the impossibility of efficacious reform, revolution, or radical action (cf., the fourth quadrant, the “Radical Cluster”). This determinism does, however, posit a structure of laws and forces that supplant conventional notions of human agency, and places Structural adherents in firm contradistinction from their Ethical counterparts. [1. I call the negative pole of agency the Structural Pole, after Georg Simmel (and not after the Structural movement). Simmel himself opposed “agency” to “structure,” but to avoid confusion I prefer to label the entire axis one of agency, negative (Structural) to positive (Ethical). To the extent individual agency affects politics, it links the Ethical to the political.]
Labels placed on these two axes are not necessarily incompatible with one another. On the contrary, labels that are close to one another are very often symbiotic, as with Communism and Revolution, which easily pair together. On the other hand, the farther between two labels on the graph, the more likely those two positions are to produce a dissonant conflict. In the extreme case, with concepts at opposite corners, it is difficult to see how the positions could ever possibly be reconciled. A liberal idealist who believes in the strength and efficacy of republicanism and rational discourse, for example, cannot also believe consistently in a dark hegemonic vision (such as Foucauldian biopolitics, as we will see) in which power relations are intrinsically and inevitably corrupt and corrupting.
Now that we have established the axes, we can gloss the four quadrants that their intersection produces. The labels within each quadrant form a Cluster of positions which tend to share the same views (positive or negative) of both Agency and Trust. I will start from the upper right quadrant and move clockwise:
- In the realm of Ethical Solidarity, we have the conventional, mainstream Liberal Cluster: the belief in the underlying good faith of individuals and systems and the power of individuals to make free choices to better society. At its extreme, there is critical theorist Jurgen Habermas’ ideal speech situation, the hypothetical construct in which each citizen participates critically and rationally in deciding what is best for society, and comes to a superior agreement.
- In the realm of Structural Solidarity, there is the Radical Cluster: traditional mass reform and revolutionary movements, from organized protest all the way to revolutionary communism. Here, the individual matters less than the forces of history, which drive large-scale entities (the proletariat, a vanguard party, etc.) to better society through radical changes in organization and politics. Those who do not trust wholly in historical determinism, societal power structures, or mass movements may opt for a more tempered form of radical belief such as anarchism or autonomism.
- In the realm of Structural Suspicion, there is the Theory Cluster, which emphasizes the need to do theoretical work to find out what is really going on underneath the surface of civil society and government. Suspicion mandates that those appearances are not to be trusted, and so the theoretical work from Nietzsche to Adorno to Foucault and beyond attempts to create a replacement theory of society beyond the shared myth that we’ve been conditioned to believe. Though Karl Marx’s communism and dialectical materialism both certainly belong to the Radical Cluster, Marx’s critique of (false) ideology, dubbed “false consciousness” by Friedrich Engels, in which ideologically conditioned illusions lead workers to act against their own interests, falls squarely into the Theory Cluster.[2. False consciousness, as a concept, is ubiquitous yet poorly grounded. Its long history and its various flaws are covered well by Michael Rosen’s On Voluntary Servitude. For present purposes, my usage is perhaps closest to Raymond Geuss’s definition of false consciousness in The Idea of a Critical Theory (1981) as “an ideological form of consciousness” that generates a “false representation of social reality” . One such false representation, for instance, would be “a color-blind society,” in which one’s everyday being and actions does not promulgate racism. A phrase such as “internalized racism,” when deployed against minorities, also fall into this definition of false consciousness. In addition to the problem of whether such theories of false consciousness are themselves potentially instances of false consciousness, there is also the open question, which Jon Elster brings up in Sour Grapes (1983), of whether an emancipated consciousness is in fact more beneficial to self or society than an ideologically false one.]
- And finally, the realm of Ethical Suspicion is the Moralist Cluster, in which we find much of online leftist thought and practice today. Today’s Moralist accepts a more moderate version of the Structural critiques of the Theory Cluster, acknowledging that good intentions may mask underlying prejudice at the individual and societal level. But the Moralist also reverts to a more Ethical focus, demanding of individuals that they comprehend the Structural framework, struggle against it, and finally emancipate themselves from it. At its extreme, the Moralist Cluster is embodied by the callout, the act of finding fault and inadequacy in the words or actions of another, which, even when well-intentioned, nevertheless constitute a betrayal of leftist ideals. Indeed, the good intentions are themselves problematic since they, in their seeming innocuousness, may succeed in obscuring a malevolent force of injustice. The callout demands that the target rectify this mistake (and so doing, alleviate suspicion) by staging a public or semi-public admission of fault and aggrievement, and applying for absolution from a community of his, her, or its cultural peers.
Leftists may draw ideas and practices from any of the four quadrants, but the further apart two principles are, the more likely they are to come into tension with one another. (Thus, individuals will tend to themselves take ideas and positions that are closer to one another rather, inasmuch as they tend toward coherency and consistency.) Many internecine struggles within the left can productively be understood as resulting from the distance between positions on the graph. In particular, the far leftist attitude toward liberalism is not a consequence of marginalization nor of resentment per se, but instead stems from the sense that liberalism is in fact the most virulent danger facing leftism today, the true center of reactionary and conservative forces—the space where these forces lie hidden rather than out in the open, and, thus cloaked, frustrate the possibility of real change.
What’s most crucial here is how these struggles occur not from a debate about praxis, but from underlying conceptual motifs. Even though leftists may broadly agree on their eventual goals (equality, liberty, justice), their disagreements do not stem from different tactical approaches, but from fundamental differences about how the world works. Moreover, these differences may not just occur between leftist factions, but even within them. In particular, anti-oppression politics contain a deep-seated dissonance that arises from embracing positions too far apart on the graph. The foundational nature of this dissonance is not obvious, and it will take some digging to reach it. So first, consider a simpler conflict in feminism that arose along the Axis of Trust.
Suspicion vs. Solidarity
Jenny Turner’s provocative piece in the London Review of Books, “As Many Pairs of Shoes as She Likes,” is a model example of the interaction of concepts from the four clusters, as well as the tensions that they can cause. Turner, a novelist and an editor at the London Review of Books, levies accusations of false consciousness on a Western feminist movement she describes as being “out of touch” and characterized by “narcissistic self-absorption”—qualities, she contends, that are most clearly evidenced by Western feminism’s general clumsiness surrounding, if not outright disregard for, issues of race and class, both within and beyond the movement. The majority of the piece consists of a broad-scale, foundational attack on middle-class feminism—from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Andrea Dworkin to Susan Faludi:
There’s Selma James and the strange marginalisation of her ideas, not to mention the way the whole family-in-a-house image goes unchallenged, even by feminists, lesbian and gay couples, and single-parent campaigners, let alone in government, advertising, the popular media etc.
This account is as vague as it is all-encompassing—and it is, in fact, precisely this combination of vagueness of crime and vastness of implication that renders reconciliation nigh impossible. Turner endorses Selma James’ Marxist “Wages for Housework” campaign as a positive exception, but cites its rejection by mainstream feminism as an indication of feminism’s overall inadequacy; the criticism James and her campaign endured from other feminists is, to Turner, a sign of “Wages for Housework”’s legitimacy (“the enemy of my enemy is my friend…for now,” says Suspicion). Short of admitting they’ve been wrong all along and packing up shop, it’s hard to see a way for mainstream feminism to appropriately address Turner’s criticisms, because the specific problems she isolates in her critiques are merely disguised generalities.
In her combination of macrostructural Marxist concerns and wide-ranging Suspicion, Turner orients herself within the Theory Cluster. Longtime British feminist activist Beatrix Campbell, who had seen the British Communist Party ban her Communist-feminist journal Red Rag in 1972, rejoins her with a note of Solidarity. Denouncing what she termed Turner’s “splatter critique,” Campbell claims that Turner demonizes feminism by lumping it in with predominant power structures:
Turner…relies on an American leftist critique that feminism has narrowed its focus from a politics of redistribution to recognition (identity) politics: recognition can be accommodated, redistribution cannot. It claims that feminism thrives in neo-liberalism. It does not thrive. Remarkably, however, it survives. There’s a difference.
Campbell contests Turner’s exaltation of Selma James, claiming that for all its Marxist bona fides, her “Wages for Housework” campaign was more conservative and hostile to women’s rights than less sectarian feminisms: “[Wages for Housework’s] theory was crude and its practice toxic.” To Campbell’s mind, James’ “virtuoso sectarianism was not attractive, and her leftist populism named an important issue (unpaid domestic labour) without challenging the power structure that produced it…it didn’t challenge the patriarchal political economy, or the domestic division of labour, or men.” Campbell accuses James of not being sufficiently radical, depicting her as a fifth columnist within the feminist movement, someone who threatened the Solidarity between other feminist movements of the time.
Yet for someone of a Suspicious persuasion, it is precisely Selma James’ antagonism toward mainstream feminism, her unwillingness to follow the larger crowd, that is proof of her greater integrity and virtue—the sort of internecine dissent that Campbell finds fault with, is, for Turner, a prerequisite for activist authenticity. This is why she does not praise or even mention Angela Davis, the quintessential Radical, whose activism has consistently invoked radical, revolutionary Solidarity with little suspicion. When Campbell asks, “Would anyone in their right mind malign Angela Davis or Stuart Hall because they’re black and middle-class,” Turner does not respond. The answer appears to be yes—Suspicion dictates as much. After all, when Turner cites Joan Didion approvingly, it is not because of any activism on Didion’s part but rather because the suspicions evinced in Didion’s 1970 essay, “The Women’s Movement” align with Turner’s own. Because Turner’s orientation is fundamentally Suspicious, she distrusts activism, however effective it may seem, and instead extols the cleansing power of critique.
Regardless of which side one takes, the axis along which the conflict runs seems indisputable: though both agitate for a Structural solution, their perspectives on the nature of the problem are divergent—Campbell boosts the logic of Solidarity and so works within the “Radical Cluster,” whereas Turner advances the logic of Suspicion, and so works within the “Theory Cluster”.
Turner and Campbell argue broadly within a Structural framework, downplaying individual agency in favor of large-scale social forces. For an example of the conflict between Solidarity and Suspicion in the more individualistic upper half of the graph—that is, in the region of the Moralists and the Liberals—we can consider the recent #YesAllWomen hashtag, which arose in response to the Elliot Rodger killings. The #YesAllWomen campaign falls comfortably and squarely into the “Liberal Cluster” since it (a) stresses solidarity among a group—women—that is considered to have properly aligned intentions and is expected to act in accordance with those intentions when properly instructed, and (b) takes as its target individual cases of sexism and violence against women. No Structural argument was made about societal forces; the argument was simply that there was a preponderance of misogyny, with each incident being regarded as a separate ethical failure. No generalized target was picked (the campaign avoided “the patriarchy” and other structural terms), despite the efforts of Men’s Rights Activist types to claim that all men were being made a target. (Of course, no feminist campaign has ever been sufficiently positive not to be threatening to some men, even if campaigns stress the extent to which men in toto are not being faulted.)
#YesAllWomen, then, is a representative liberal target of Jenny Turner’s attack on middle-class feminism, as it downplayed race and class in its attempt to access the “out of touch” first-world solidarity that Turner bemoans. (In fact, in praising #YesAllWomen, Rebecca Solnit explicitly denied intersectionality: “Violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender.” Blogger C. S. Bhagya criticized Solnit on this point.) Yet a popular, well-meaning, and seemingly uncontroversial movement like #YesAllWomen is precisely the sort of target that invites criticism from adherents of the of the other three clusters. While liberal bastions like the Nation, the New Yorker, and ThinkProgress wrote up #YesAllWomen approvingly, more radical organs such as the New Statesman, In These Times, Jacobin, and the New Inquiry ignored the campaign. The New Inquiry’s editor-in-chief, Ayesha A. Siddiqi, did indirectly tweet about #YesAllWomen, in order to deploy Structural Suspicion against the pre-existing #NotAllMen tag:
the automatic impulse to defend ‘all men’ when some are challenged betrays identification with male power above empathy for womens’ pain
— Ayesha A. Siddiqi (@pushinghoops) May 25, 2014
But that was all. This silence is meaningful—it contains implicit critiques of #YesAllWomen from the other three clusters: the Radical Cluster finds it insufficiently critical of Structural factors, the Moralist Cluster finds it too naively trusting of rational discourse and the good intentions of the average man (and woman), and the Theory Cluster combines both of those critiques to find that it damages the very cause it purports to support, by making individual women feel like they have a voice in a society that is actually suppressing them. The assumption that raising awareness of misogyny is sufficient for present society to begin addressing the problem is, to those harboring a sufficiently Structural or Suspicious critique, actively dangerous, discouraging, and deradicalizing. “No, it’s not that easy,” is their irritated response.
It is little wonder that the other clusters distrust liberalism so much; liberals appear self-satisfied and conservative, celebrating ideals that they will never be able to put into practice. In light of overpowering Structural forces, #YesAllWomen is, to their minds, an impotent anodyne, all the worse for providing false reassurance that our societal structure is incrementally reformable. At the extreme of Suspicion lies the fear that purported allies are actually fifth columnists, far more dangerous than your opponents because they will lure you into complacency. One hears this in the words of Marcus Garvey in 1922, after he was harshly criticized for meeting with the Ku Klux Klan:
I regard the Klan, the Anglo-Saxon clubs and White American societies, as far as the Negro is concerned, as better friends of the race than all other groups of hypocritical whites put together. I like honesty and fair play. You may call me a Klansman if you will, but, potentially, every white man is a Klansman, as far as the Negro in competition with whites socially, economically and politically is concerned, and there is no use lying.
For Garvey, the potential of betrayal by liberal whites was a preordained danger that could not be mitigated by individual protestations or claims of enlightenment. The Suspicion that some or all of us may indeed be doomed to hypocrisy and negative moral impact becomes all the more dire when it bears the impact of Structural thinking. This combination is manifested in the “Theory Cluster”.
The Pit of Despair: Structural Suspicion
I have analyzed Turner’s article mostly through the Axis of Trust. Though the Solidarity-Suspicion axis may appear equivalent to optimism vs. pessimism, that is not quite the case: Liberalism can be just as informed by the perceived limitations of human nature as Moralist Suspicion can be convinced of its liberationist utopian potential. Nonetheless, the combination of Suspicion and Structure does make for a singularly dark vision.
At the extreme of Structural Suspicion, we have French social theorist Michel Foucault’s vision of biopolitics, in which ubiquitous, decentralized forces of government and society roll over dehumanized individuals and make them all part of a writhing, hydra-like entity of power, control, and punishment[3. Foucault’s analysis of biopolitics only makes up a small fraction of his published work, but has had disproportionate influence in Anglophone interpretations of his work.] In The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, the Liberal political theorist Jürgen Habermas memorably formulates two of Foucault’s key points, both epitomes of Structural Suspicion, as follows:[4. I find Foucault’s mid-period political writing to be unhelpfully disorganized, which may account for its lack of impact in France (if not in America). It is ironic that Habermas, Foucault’s avowed opponent, puts Foucault’s theses more memorably than Foucault himself does.]
“The bourgeois constitutional state is a dysfunctional relic from the period of absolutism.”
“Socialized individuals can only be perceived as exemplars, as standardized products of some discourse formation—as individual copies that are mechanically punched out.”
Consequently, it is impossible for government, law, and civil society to be truly “liberal”: attempted reform is a “blind alley,” as Foucault puts it in Power/Knowledge, and the hand that guides society onto that doomed path is often modern liberalism itself, in all its falsity. It is in this vein that Foucault defines liberalism as “the general framework of politics”[5. The Birth of Biopolitics, 1979]—which is to say, liberalism as the wellspring of an imprisoning social order—and seeks to study it as such. For Foucault, modern liberal government is simply “a general technology of power”: liberalism is to fascism “what techniques of segregation were to psychiatry, what techniques of discipline were to the penal system.” It follows from this that civil society is in no way autonomous from government, but very nearly indistinguishable from it: both supervise and control bodies, populations, and movements. Foucault puts it much more bluntly: “Civil society is, I believe, a concept of governmental technology.”
The means by which these entities are transformed into tools of governmental power are in no way obvious or linear. Power does not just flow from top to bottom, but courses from everywhere to everywhere else, and then back again:
It’s all against all. There aren’t immediately given subjects of the struggle, one the proletariat, the other the bourgeoisie. Who fights against whom? We all fight each other. And there is always within each of us something that fights something else.
Under these circumstances, it would seem that individual Ethical action is not just futile but structurally impossible; even if you happen to stumble on an Ethical form of behavior, you can never be sure it’s not just another expression of power relations. Even “truth” is inextricably tied up with power, since “every society has its regime of truth” and “all knowledge rests upon injustice.” When one cannot get outside the system to analyze it objectively—that is, when even Ethical action is structurally enthralled with and tied into power and its political and social operations—the only viable form of resistance is constant, vigilant Suspicion. For, although “not everything is bad,” still “everything is dangerous,
…which is not exactly the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do. So my position leads not to apathy but to a hyper- and pessimistic activism. I think that the ethico-political choice we have to make every day is to determine which is the main danger.
This is bad faith writ large, on the societal scale. Everyone is always guilty, and each of us is both warden and prisoner. Activism is both chronically necessary and fatally impotent. Politics, and political analysis, thus become a prison of permanent neurosis. Foucault occasionally makes vague gestures toward “the possibility of a new form of right” and “the possibility of constituting a new politics of truth,” but gives no indication of how we could meaningfully escape the oppressive wheel on which we, as obedient punched-out robot hamsters, are currently stuck.
Foucault represents an extreme and heterodox variation on the similarly pessimistic pronouncements of the Marxist Frankfurt school of Adorno, Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse. His compelling, paranoiac vision is far more visceral than Herbert Marcuse’s similarly fatalistic but more schematic theory of consumerist society. Born of the Marxist critical theory that was developed by the Frankfurt School, Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man posited a world in which capitalist consumerism permits the rise of an oppressive, techno-industrial order that proves just as oppressive as Soviet bureaucracy. Liberal tolerance turns out in fact to be a “repressive tolerance,” in Marcuse’s phrase, since what is tolerated is mostly industrial domination and conformity. In its place, Marcuse suggests “liberating tolerance”: “intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left.” Foucault offers no such anti-liberal solution, since domination exudes from all corners. Far more than Marcuse, Foucault leaves little space for effective activism (rather than “hyper- and pessimistic activism”) or improvement, and so constitutes a dead end, practically speaking. If Foucault’s account is indeed true, then Foucault served biopolitics well by painting it in such despairing terms so as to crush all hope of overcoming it.
More praxis-oriented theoreticians, who wanted to leave open the possibility of effective activism, modified these biopoliticial visions in an effort to move away from the extremes of Structural Suspicion. Some, like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Empire and Multitude, took steps back toward a traditionally optimistic Radical Structural vision (I classify them loosely under the Autonomist label in the Radical Cluster), but these efforts read as curiously defanged: the shadow of Foucauldian suspicion looms too large over these works, and Hardt and Negri posit such totalizing leviathans of power that their optimism toward slaying them appears naive and archaic. The more hopeful Hardt and Negri become, the more watery and diluted they read. The need to affirm both Solidarity and Suspicion neuters their work, which these days goes mostly unremarked upon, despite its initial splash. Recognizing this danger on some level, Slavoj Žižek instead seems happy to work in the deep end of the Theory Cluster, cheerfully bandying provocative and nihilistic pronouncements, dismissing everything from liberty to Wikileaks to representative democracy as false pablum. He Suspiciously bemoans that modest reformist Thomas Piketty as an idealistic utopian: “Sometimes to be modest in a false way is the greatest utopia.” He is Foucault’s tragedy repeated as farce, but his critique is more “successful” because it is not as conceptually fraught as Hardt and Negri’s.
A Suspicious Return to Ethics: Anti-Oppression Politics
Žižek may call himself a communist, but his communism is so infected with biopolitical paranoia that he begins by calling for “terror: severe limitations of liberal ‘freedoms’ and the technological control of prospective lawbreakers.” His magazine columns, written for outlets including the London Review of Books, In These Times, and The Guardian, consistently attack “the limits of representative democracy,” i.e., liberal democracy. He disdains identity politics and speech sensitivity (“political correctness is the exemplary liberal form of the politics of fear”), and treats western ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity as a joke. He rejects tolerance in favor of the ideal of a “common struggle” into which individuals are dissolved.
Since Žižek’s affirmations embrace the potentials of the irrational and paradoxical, while rejecting existing notions of multiculturalism and respect and tolerance for other cultures;his conclusions seem patently unacceptable through the lens of the contemporary anti-oppression or “social justice” movement.[6. Confusingly, the secular anti-oppression movement is often colloquially called the “social justice” movement, though the term “social justice” is overloaded with associations ranging from its Jesuit coiner, Luigi Taparelli, to John Rawls. For the purposes of this essay, “social justice” and “anti-oppression” should be taken to be synonymous.] Anti-oppression politics present an alternative to Žižek’s anti-humanism by elevating ideas of difference to a preeminent position: its adherents occupy the Moralist Cluster, which preserves Foucault’s Suspicion while tempering his fatalistic sense of Structure. Anti-oppression politics attempt to restore elements of Ethical agency and Moral hierarchy to politics, while still preserving a fundamentally Suspicious orientation. It is this movement, in fact, that gives us much of online activism today.
Though the roots of anti-oppression politics reach back to radical 1960s and 1970s movements with thinkers like Barbara Smith and Audre Lorde and writings such as the Combahee River Collective Statement, it was only with the rise of critical race and gender studies in the 1980s that the current anti-oppression toolbox began to be populated. The seminal text here is Peggy McIntosh’s 1990 essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” which has set the tone for so much of contemporary anti-oppression activism today. The article is a memorable, pithy recipe for self-suspicion, challenging the reader to discover his or her unexamined and unearned “privilege.” McIntosh begins by seemingly rejecting the idea of the individual Ethical Agent:
I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group…My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will.
In spite of individuals’ good intentions, this lopsided, self-perpetuating power structure exemplifies “racism without racists” (in sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s term). McIntosh continues to evoke Foucauldian biopolitics in a sweeping analysis of false consciousness in the majority:
Obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.
Yet McIntosh begins to let some air in. At least some people possess “freedom of confident action,” a concession Foucault would never allow. McIntosh finally equivocates between the total determinacy of Structure and the possibility of individual agency:
Individual acts can palliate but cannot end, these problems… Systemic change takes many decades… It is an open question whether we will choose to use unearned advantage, and whether we will use any of our arbitrarily awarded power to try to reconstruct power systems on a broader base.
Unelucidated here is the path from “individual acts” to “reconstructing power systems,” which presumably can only come about through a coordinated combination of individual Ethical actions. McIntosh affirms the possibility that Foucault ruled out, the ability to change the system of oppression productively. The only guideline she gives is through emancipatory knowledge, e.g., her essay. But her caution is clear: things will not get better anytime soon, and individual actions are momentary painkillers.
McIntosh’s essay occupies the same space as the work of Kimberle Crenshaw, who coined the term “intersectionality” to describe the overlapping structures of oppression at work in the case of, for example, black women. Crenshaw’s work is more complex and subtle than McIntosh’s, but echoes some of the same themes in reintroducing Ethical agency into an originally Structural picture.[7. McIntosh’s essay is far better-known than Crenshaw’s, though both constitute key texts for this discussion. McIntosh might well claim that her essay’s comparative prominence owes to her being white and Crenshaw’s being black, a possibility I do not discount.] Here I summarize and quote the conclusion of her famous essay on intersectionality:
On existing anti-oppression practice: “this structure imports a descriptive and normative view of society that reinforces the status quo.” [Structural, Suspicion]
A prescription for action: “addressing the needs and problems of those who are most disadvantaged [Ethical] and with restructuring and remaking the world where necessary” [Structural]
Reforming current anti-oppression theory: “challenge the complacency that accompanies belief in the effectiveness of this framework” [Suspicion]
The importance of discourse: “we may develop language which is critical of the dominant view [Suspicion] and which provides some basis for unifying activity” [Ethical, Solidarity].
The note of Solidarity at the end is purely projective and hypothetical: Solidarity may only exist after corrective measures are taken to repair the existing structure that causes such suspicions. Again, there seems to be a wide chasm between, on the one hand, the immediate Ethical tasks of “addressing the needs of the disadvantaged” and developing critical language, and on the other hand, the daunting Structural task of “restructuring and remaking the world.”
That gap—the distance between palliative action and revolutionary social change, the same lacuna found in McIntosh’s essay—is perhaps the central motif of contemporary Leftist discourse, and it remains an unsolved problem.[8. In Making Sense of Marx (1985), Jon Elster suggests that an ill-founded conception of false consciousness, replete with “ill-founded functional explanations…arbitrary explanations in terms of ‘similarities’ or ‘homologies’ between thought and society and frictionless speculations,” may be at the root of this inability to formulate a convincing, grounded link between individual action and societal change.] The combination of (1) Structural oppression, (2) false consciousness in both oppressors and oppressed, and (3) an Ethical imperative to reconstruct the system, sets an immense challenge for Leftists, far beyond the challenge liberals (in their ostensible false consciousness) pose for themselves.
Crenshaw does, however, provide one notable practical guideline which is only implicit in McIntosh’s paper: the Rawlsian imperative to focus on the most disadvantaged. Here, at least, is one rule that can be followed on the Ethical level: the more marginalized an individual or group, the more they merit attention, and the more that attention will be capable of escaping the Structural trap. Consequently, anti-oppression discourse sometimes turns into an arms race (sometimes caricatured as “Oppression Olympics”), in which participants appear to compete for the label of who belongs to the most oppressed groups. But the cause is not just narcissism or ressentiment, but the prerequisite of some sort of comparative ranking (taking intersectionality into account) in order to do anti-oppression work. Addressing those who are not most disadvantaged only “reinforces the status quo.” One intersectionality advocate condemned the Matthew Shepard Act, which extended hate crime law to gender and sexual orientation, on the grounds that it “it uses the name and experience of a white cisgender man to exemplify queerphobic hate violence,” rather than invoking “further marginalized” victims. The intersectionality calculus also provides a way to adjudicate disputes; for instance, trans-exclusionary feminists (or TERFs) are part of the problem, since cis women are less oppressed than trans people.
Hence the taxonomizing and ranking of oppression, in the Suspicious aim of preventing Leftists from falling into (or back into) the false consciousness through which they become oppressors. This tendency gives rise to charts like this one, from Mary Crawford’s 2006 textbook Transformations: Women, Gender, and Psychology:
Such diagrams and analyses may not pin down one group as the “most disadvantaged,” but certainly assist in building a taxonomical hierarchy of Structural oppression. In its general assemblies, Occupy Wall Street sometimes employed a “progressive stack” in determining speaking order, in which members of “traditionally marginalized groups” were given priority. The quantification of oppression, allowing for ranking individuals on a scale of more versus less oppressed, permits a quick, heuristic ordering. By its light we can see the tentative development of an Ethical formula for action.
It is important to note how much of a departure this thinking is from its supposed progenitors. Consider the earlier writing of Audre Lorde, which avoids taxonomy and purgative practice in favor of a far more viscerally articulated activism, even acknowledging the potential impossibility of McIntosh’s challenge. She wrote in 1981, in “The Uses of Anger”:
What you hear in my voice is fury, not suffering. Anger, not moral authority…The angers of women can transform difference through insight into power. For anger between peers births change, not destruction, and the discomfort and sense of loss it often causes is not fatal, but a sign of growth.
Rather than gesturing toward a vague restructuring of society, Lorde paints an upcoming day of reckoning in apocalyptic, millennialist tones. Will we save or doom ourselves?
Guilt is only another way of avoiding informed action, of buying time out of the pressing need to make clear choices, out of the approaching storm that can feed the earth as well as bend the trees.
This is a far ways from Crawford’s dispassionate chart. Nothing in Lorde’s work articulates such a precise and regimented practice in the way that her distant scions would. McIntosh and Crenshaw’s essays are far less urgent and far less angry, but considerably more concrete and practical, offering an Ethical formula for everyday action in place of Lorde’s fury, albeit conditionally and with great Suspicion. The difference in focus amounts to a shift in ideology. Lorde’s view suggests that such routinized practice, which posits guilt and shaming concerning one’s privilege as a central, motivating force, is in fact a way of avoiding the sheer magnitude of the problems in question, preferring to operationalize the world in a schoolbook chart rather than engaging with the realities of the oppressed. These routinized practices are divinations of the Moralist Cluster—they include certain staples of internet activism, most notoriously “the callout” and the call to “check one’s privilege”.
Ideas of structural prejudice, privilege, performativity, and intersectionality all derive from a fundamentally Structural root. An individual may enact and perpetuate oppression without the slightest intent, or even with the ostensible intent of combating oppression. The system is more powerful than the individual. Moralist activism utilizes these Structural ideas, but inverts the balance of power: through individual, Ethical, anti-oppressive practice, an individual may manage to gain autonomy and “beat the system,” escaping Foucault’s closed loop of fatalistic Structure. Yet the Moralist borrowing of Structural concepts creates some lingering contradictions in the Moralist’s Ethical imperatives, which ultimately short-circuit her efforts.[9. There are Moralist concepts and practices without much in the way of deterministic Structural precepts, including (1) individualist forms of anarchism; (2) performative subversion of countercultural movements like the Beatniks, the Merry Pranksters, the Yippies, etc; and (3) the primarily critical contrarianism of writers like Randolph Bourne, George Orwell, Gore Vidal, Leszek Kołakowski, Noam Chomsky, and perhaps Gilles Deleuze. None have held hold particular political force in America recently, however, so here “Moralist practice” is synonymous with the anti-oppression politics of today.]
The importance of Ethical agency is not specific to the Moralist Cluster. Nietzsche’s finding of ressentiment in the general population of Christians, liberals, and moralists—claiming moral superiority as a compensatory mechanism for a lack of power and control over one’s self and one’s environment—haunts the foundations of left-liberalism as well. The smug moral superiority of everyone from organic shoppers to cyclists to recyclers represents the Ethical pillar at work. The Moralist Cluster is distinguished, rather, by its use of Suspicion mechanisms: the tendency to assign authentic, positive agency only to themselves while distrusting the proclaimed motives of others. Activists must presuppose their exemption from any substantive false consciousness in order to avoid cognitive dissonance and self-abnegation.
Through the lens of Suspicion, Moralist activism places a harsh onus on individuals to bring about social change without unknowingly reinforcing oppression. This is best embodied by the callout, the act of “drawing [public] attention to problematic behavior,” in Lucy Uprichard’s definition. “Call-out culture might seem harsh, especially to those who have fallen foul of it, but it’s a necessary part of creating the best possible spaces we can.” The callout focuses on unintended facets of one’s behavior: accidental use of race-inflected language, unwitting assertions of privilege and power over members of less advantaged groups, and general lack of awareness. The internet is tailor-made for callouts and has provided a fertile and febrile ground for them.
Such unintended, counterproductive behavior lies squarely in the domain of Structural false consciousness, and so it may seem surprising to find false consciousness deployed in an Ethical manner. The Moralist response is that ignorance is no excuse. The callout generally does not treat good intentions as a mitigating factor, since good intentions are little more than an anodyne byproduct of such false consciousness. There is a curious element of synecdoche here: the target of a callout, critique, or charge of exclusion comes to stand for the larger social force of injustice that the target temporarily represents. The accusers define themselves against this concrete target, in part, because they cannot readily define themselves against the abstract principle. “Racism” and “Classism” do not have Twitter accounts, so even if we have “racism without racists,” the activist must locate an individual to criticize. Were the accuser to invoke the abstract principle, their activism would fall back toward the cul-de-sac of Foucauldian biopolitics, thus negating any perceived efficacy. So take heart, the callout declares: the target may be a tool of oppression, but the target can still fight back! A Moralist callout critiques an individual’s agency, yet the critique only carries weight within the larger context of a fundamentally Structural vision, which makes the synecdoche stick. Moralist practice depends on such large-scale principles as racism, sexism, ableism, inherited from the Theory cluster, in order to ground its accusations of false consciousness. Moralist praxis is patently Ethical, yet its conception of good and evil remains Structural–the system is the source of sin, not the individual. Thus, for the Moralist, Structural and Ethical considerations play a symbiotic yet contradictory role. The Ethical triumphs in the moment because the callout must retain its validity, but the callout would have no force without the Structural remnant within it. The callout demands of its target that she first recognize her role in the unconscious Structural forces of power, yet promptly recant and Ethically purge it. Likewise, the Moralist may always doubt her Ethical practice due to the Suspicion that she might be unwittingly embracing Structural oppression while seemingly fighting it.
The callout is intrinsically an ad hominem. The reasons for this are somewhat obfuscated. A callout is indeed based on personal attributes of the target such as race and gender, not just the particulars of the target’s behavior, but this sort of ad hominem is hardly specific to the callout. (Consider the term “mansplaining.”) Where the Moralist departs from standard ad hominem practice, rather, is in the insistence on false consciousness.[10. While anti-oppression politics frequently grants greater epistemic authority and compensatory credibility to members of oppressed groups, such membership is not a Get Out of Jail Free card, as a marginalized person may have unconsciously “internalized” oppressive ideas. Moralist phrases like “internalized misogyny” and “internalized racism” are popular in callouts, leading to such occurrences as white men attempting to call out the false consciousness of black women. Under anti-oppression theory, it should come as no surprise that white men are some of the most aggressively loud practitioners of callouts.] In declaring that the stated, conscious intentions behind a target’s behavior are subordinate to the social forces causing the target to promote oppression unknowingly, the Moralist makes an argument about the target’s character, namely that she is the victim of false consciousness. False consciousness is not a costume one dons and discards at will; it is something that the target carries with her, and so an individual callout, while focused on a single bad act, is in fact an indictment of a person’s entire character—a character that is founded upon, and must forever reckon with, the original sin of false consciousness. This is why the callout can never truly be answered in a single instance; the most one can do is promise to try to do better in fighting the system, knowing that eyes will be watching from that point on. Should the target deny the callout, the target will then lose the ability to claim ignorance as an excuse for her faulty behavior from that point on. Those who deploy callouts put themselves in the position of an anointed Moral elect, diagnosing false consciousness as a character flaw—though this does not exempt them from being targeted by other members of the elect.[11. As with any similarly conceived elect, from Plato’s guardians to Calvinism’s unconditional elect to Ayn Rand’s creators, there is an ongoing need to identify and police the boundary of the elect from the non-elect: those of pure character and those of false, oppressive character. This process is particularly urgent to Moralist activists, as there is frequently a need to adjudicate competing callouts, sometimes by expelling one of the parties from the elect. Since expulsion amounts to a pronouncement of moral inferiority, the stakes are high. Two primary strategies exist to identify and police elect members: first, the hierarchical quantification of oppression described above, so that members of more oppressed groups carry greater Moral authority, alongside privileged “allies” who have had their awareness sufficiently raised; and second, what anthropologist Judith T. Irvine defines as“formal speech” (e.g., “privilege,” “intersectionality,” “ally,” “structure”) which rhetorician George Kennedy explains as an elite, regimented linguistic practice known primarily to a priestly caste. These two mechanisms ameliorate but do not prevent the frequent schisms in anti-oppression circles.]
Anti-oppression education, therefore, is better thought of as character reform than as pedagogy per se. It teaches a consciousness-raising practice by which one may attempt to emancipate one’s self from widespread false consciousness. Echoing McIntosh, Tressie McMillan Cottom eloquently explains the theoretical deployment of Structure and Suspicion in the classroom:
As a teacher, I find that all students struggle with the idea of structure. The American myth of rugged individualism is alive and well. We love to believe that nothing determines our life’s chances but our capacity to dream and work hard, despite reams of evidence to the contrary…And when the structure in question is racism and someone who looks like me is leading the discussion, white students struggle particularly hard. How can something be racist if they do not intend it to be racist?
If I want to piss off the majority of higher education’s customers, then defying the natural superiority of men by being a female authority figure, countering white oppression beliefs by appealing to structural racism, and making young people feel the emotions of being offended would seem like a good way to go. If…I were a professor hired to teach diaspora studies, doing so would be my job.
The tensions engendered by the new requirements of Ethical education are here evident: it is a tall order to ask an instructor to conjure enlightened epiphanies from pissed-off reactions. If the Structure is so persistent, insidious, and prevalent, a single semester hardly seems sufficient to counter unintentional, ingrained oppressive tendencies. And, given the indelibility of false consciousness, pissed-off reactions are precisely what the Suspicious would expect to arise from a Moralist instructor’s pedagogical confrontations. Short of the instructor being a historicizing force herself (again, a tall order), there is no theoretical reason why the instructor should tend to triumph over the Structural forces at work in her classroom, and indeed at work within herself. The Moralist educator sets herself a task that on its own terms defies success, even while she equates pedagogical failure with moral failure.
Another instructor described precisely this problem in the comments to McMillan Cottom’s article:
There was a kind of pedagogy I got exposed to in grad school that did dictate that it was a professor’s duty to awaken students to the realities of racism and racist history et al, and to help students “own their privilege” and identify their own internalized racism. There was the implication in that pedagogy that if you did not do that as a professor, you were, yourself, continuing the racism. And that if you couldn’t “get” the students to own their privilege and confess their racism, they, too, would be continuing racism…
The problem with that pedagogy is that students do often not have enough historical information about systems of oppression in general to understand how all that works. Without the historical grounding, it’s hard to not take the challenge to “own your privilege” and “confess your racism” personally.
The tension persists. If a student were to comprehend those systems of oppression, then Suspicion would dictate that “owning your privilege” and “confessing your racism” would hardly be sufficient to make a dent in those systems, and could just as likely be facades behind which Structural prejudice would continue to play out.[12. The Moralist elision of the difficulty is also revealed in the unresolved double meaning of the injunction to “Check your privilege,” which activists alternately use in the sense of “investigate” (easy enough) or “inhibit” (very hard).] The only way to thread the needle would be if the class became some kind of emancipatory, self-actualizing moment for the student, who was prisoner to her Structural false consciousness on entering the classroom, but who leaves a free Ethical agent. Yet the groundwork for this sort of consciousness-raising is not properly prepared.[13. Again, see Geuss’s The Idea of a Critical Theory, where the “emancipation and enlightenment” promised by such a critical theory as anti-oppression “must, therefore, itself be acceptable by the criterion it extracts from the agents’ behavior and form of consciousness, and uses to undermine their ideological world-picture.” The dual requirement of being both true and appealing (e.g., not offensive) is intimidating.] Nowhere does Moralist practice guarantee such emancipation (quite the opposite, as we have seen), and genuine epiphanies are difficult to force on students even in the best of circumstances. Needless to say, this pedagogy tends to be even less successful in online callouts, leading to the near-constant frustration of Moralist activists on Twitter, where callouts serve more of a performative than an educational function.
One sees this frustration on display in the third episode of Aphrodite Kocieda’s web comedy “Tales from the Kraka Tower.” Graduate teaching assistant Lakisha (played by Kocieda) starts her first class of “Diversity in the United States” by talking about “systems and domination,” only to be foiled and frustrated by know-nothing students declaring, “Racism just doesn’t exist anymore” and “Women and men are equal these days.” While this is precisely what a Moralist would expect to find in an undergraduate classroom, Kocieda portrays the situation not as a failure of pedagogy, but as the failure of the students themselves: a failure in character. The teacher cannot work miracles with such poor base materials. The best she can do is call them out, time and again.
The Radical Response
The hardline exponents of Structural Solidarity, be they Communists, Autonomists, or Anarchists, tend to disdain the Moralist cluster as much as they do the Liberal cluster. To them, Moralist activists are effete, sanctimonious dilettantes ignorant of Marx and scared of revolution. Radical critiques of Moralist tropes are not especially visible in American culture for two reasons: first, institutional forces from academia to media are generally lacking in Radical presence; and second, Radical types avoid engaging in mainstream discourse. Where Moralist types conduct internet-based rhetorical warfare (conflicts like 2009’s RaceFail and 2014’s GamerGate reveal the inordinate extent to which Moralist activists will spend time online repeatedly calling out their opponents one by one), more Radically associated websites like Lenin’s Tomb, The North Star, or K-Punk tend not to engage with their ideological opponents, or even reach out to the unconverted. Consequently, they critique Moralist ideas in much the same way as they attack Liberal ideas, decrying Ethical action as a false panacea using the traditional rhetoric of class conflict. (Moralist rhetoric, in turn, pretty much ignores the Radical cluster.)
Mark Fisher’s “Exiting the Vampire’s Castle” is a clumsy, ripping attack on Moralist tenets, condemning Moralist activists as bourgeois, privileged individualists who use “an ultimately liberal understanding of race and gender to obfuscate class” with “a logic of solipsism which insists that we cannot understand one another unless we belong to the same identity group.” Fisher’s white-hot rage does not counter Moralist arguments, but seeks instead to wipe them off the map. Michael Rectenwald’s response, “What’s Wrong With Identity Politics (and Intersectionality Theory)?”, corrects some of Fisher’s excesses while agreeing that identity-based Moralist politics are fundamentally reformist, liberal, and useless:
Identity groups, such as “straight white man,” “gay black man,” “lesbian black woman,” “trans* person,” etc., are not natural categories into which people are born and sorted. Rather, they are relatively recent formations possible only under capitalism, equivalent to occupations with their own forms of alienation attendant upon the division of labor.
The problem is that Fisher and Rectenwald beg the question against the Moralist (and Liberal, for that matter) charge of ethical fallibility. Even if identity groups are products of capitalism, membership in a vanguard group does little to inoculate one against such prejudices. The best a Radical ideology can promise, in keeping with its Structural bent, is that after the revolution, all such prejudices will be swept away and that oppressed groups just need to sit tight until then. The argument that such prejudice is inevitable in a pre-revolutionary society fails to be convincing in light of such incidents as the recent rape-coverup scandal in the British Socialist Worker’s Party, in which the party’s leadership appeared to hush up and dismiss a rape accusation against a senior party member. The deprioritization and suppression of rape allegations in service to a revolutionary cause is exactly the sort of Solidarity-backed move that provokes outraged Suspicion. Party members were heavily dissuaded from going to the police; seeking remedy within the existing system is tantamount to being counterrevolutionary—consequently, ethics itself must take a back seat to the larger struggle. As David Ingram said of Marx, “Sounding more and more like Bentham, he never ceases to remind us how useless such vapid notions as human rights are in adjudicating conflicts over property and other matters of distributive justice.” To those galvanized by the death of Michael Brown into seeking more immediate remedies against racially-based violence, Radical promises of eventual justice are not sufficient.
An entirely more thoughtful critique is “With Allies Like These: Reflections on Privilege Reductionism,” which appears to be the work of anonymous Ontario anarcho-communists. Rather than elevating class struggle, they argue that Moralist ideas, which they term “anti-oppression politics,” restrict the capacity for positive change and are impotent against “the institutional foundation of oppression.” They describe the Moralist struggle toward anti-oppressive enlightenment in the terms of a self-help program.
For the privileged subject, struggle is presented as a matter of personal growth and development—the act of striving to be the best non-oppressive person that you can be. An entire industry is built on providing resources, guides, and trainings to help people learn to challenge oppression by means of “checking their privilege.” The underlying premise of this approach is the idea that privilege can be willed away. At best this orientation is ineffective, and at worst it can actually work to recenter those who occupy positions of privilege at the expense of wider political struggle…
The culture of anti-oppression politics lends itself to the creation and maintenance of insular activist circles. A so-called “radical community” — consisting of collective houses, activist spaces, book-fairs, etc. — premised on anti-oppression politics fashions itself as a refuge from the oppressive relations and interactions of the outside world. This notion of “community”, along with anti-oppression politics’ intense focus on individual and micro personal interactions, disciplined by “call-outs” and privilege checking, allows for the politicization of a range of trivial lifestyle choices. This leads to a bizarre process in which everything from bicycles to gardens to knitting are accepted as radical activity…
Privilege is a matter of power…It is much more than personal behaviours, interactions, and language, and can neither be wished, nor confessed away…We must organize together to challenge the material infrastructure that accumulates power (one result of which is privilege). Anything less leads to privilege reductionism—the reduction of complex systems of oppression whose structural basis is material and institutional to a mere matter of individual interactions and personal behaviours…
Proceeding from a fundamentally Structural orientation, the essay hones in on the tail-chasing flaw in Moralist practice, which we saw back in McIntosh’s essay: that there is no roadmap by which an ad hoc series of callouts and individual epiphanies can achieve Crenshaw’s vague “restructuring and remaking the world.” The authors cleverly deploy the Theorist sense of futility against Moralist techniques: “No amount of call-outs or privilege checking will make us into individuals untainted by the violent social relationships that permeate our reality.” In other words, an individual’s self-actualizing emancipation from Structural forces is an illusion. By illuminating internal contradictions in the Moralist position, the authors acknowledge the validity of the Moralist critique while making an acute case for both Solidarity and Structure.
“Burn the Fucker Down to the Ground”
“I was freed not by propagandists but by composers, novelists, and poets who spoke to me of more interesting and freer ways of life.”
The Moralist Cluster chronically struggles with the fatalistic Structural remnant buried within its ideology. You can see this tension at work in the Moralist responses to Tal Fortgang’s infamous defense of privilege in the Princeton Tory, “Checking My Privilege,” in which he checks his privilege and finds it to be just super. The responses tended to stress Fortgang’s lack of understanding and the need to educate him: “he clearly hasn’t checked his privilege—because he doesn’t even understand what it is”; “he had been ultimately unsuccessful in examining his own privilege”; “if he takes the time to really check his privilege, people will be able to tell, and maybe he won’t be instructed to do so again.” Yet there is a pro forma and almost hopeless air to these critiques, as though recognizing that the conservative Fortgang will surely refuse to let himself be educated no matter how much Moralist “instruction” he is forced to endure. “Throw us a bone, at least admit that we’re right,” they seem to say.
One of the most incisive critiques, “You Don’t Have to Apologize for Being White,” by Dexter Thomas, took a more broadly Structural view, blaming Time for republishing Fortgang’s article rather than Fortgang himself. Thomas expresses sympathy for Fortgang and says he’ll probably wise up in a few years time. But Thomas underscores the difficulty of individual activism and personal development: if the system elevated Fortgang only because his views reinforced the status quo and would otherwise have ignored him, what possibility is left but radical Structural change? What is the point of all this anti-oppression talk in the first place when they should be plotting revolution? Fatalistic Structure reasserts itself.
Which is to say, the Moralist Cluster faces the problem that their Suspicion, rooted as it is in ideas of false consciousness, dictates that their own concerns be ignored by the prevailing power structure, which in turn negates the Ethical force of their activism. (The Theory Cluster faces this as well but more readily accepts non-revolutionary activism as futile.) While the Ethical may appear to triumph in each individual callout battle, it is losing the war. The underlying themes of Structural oppression pull Moralist activists down toward the Theory Cluster, but they need to resist this pull for their activism to remain meaningful. Suspicion has transformed past Radical calls for open and even violent separatism and revolution into vague (and sometimes intentionally rebarbative) attempts at consciousness-raising, which appear to be succeeding about as well as their Structural background would predict. In a Mic essay attacking the Women Against Feminism movement, Derrick Clifton alternately brandishes jargon and contempt, requesting that said women “more fervently practice intersectionality,” even as he condemns their characters as “either unaware, brainwashed by MRAs or blissfully ignorant.” (Has this sort of argument ever convinced without the threat of hellfire?)
When incremental results fail to meet such high expectations, the Moralist Cluster can quickly generate a harsh backlash. In 2014, when the Moralist science-fiction convention Wiscon allowed an editor to attend who had received a formal harassment complaint at the previous year’s convention, the outrage blew up into a scandal that caused the resignation of the convention’s Member Advocate and a widespread feeling of total betrayal, best articulated by science-fiction writer Kameron Hurley when, after said editor received a mere four-year ban from attendance, she demanded: “Burn the fucker down to the ground”:
Wiscon has shown its true colors in this decision, and it’s this: “feminism” is just a marketing phrase, just another way to differentiate a regional con from some other cons. As has been pointed out by others, “feminist convention” means exactly fucking nothing; never has, though I sorely wished it and hoped for it and so assumed the best with this rather obvious incident – I mean, a serial harasser with 20 years of known issues; should be a no-brainer to boot them from a feminist convention right? Wrong. It’s just another convention. Another space you navigate within a massively sexist society, a space that shelters abusers and harassers above those they target. It’s a safe space for the world’s many predators, even and especially men, many of whom have gone there for the cookies for decades, and never been called on it.
Wiscon is not your friend. Wiscon is not your ally. Wiscon is a part of this fucked up world; a world that will contort itself in uncomfortable ways to pretend to uphold its principles while shitting on those it pretends to advocate for. At least San Diego Comicon doesn’t fucking pretend to be anything but a promotional brofest. It doesn’t pretend it’s interested in giving a shit about anything but itself and your money…
Wiscon can fuck itself. I hope it burns down to the ground. I hope for a hundred thousand real feminist convention heads to sprout from its ashes.
Hurley’s rage-born preference for megacorporate San Diego Comicon over Wiscon closely parallels Garvey’s preference for the KKK over white liberals. Alternating between Ethical betrayal and Structural futility, her essay ultimately settles on the hope that something better will take its place, without explaining how that will happen. Consequently, destruction becomes the order of the day. Moralist video game critic Mattie Brice resigned her Indie Games Festival judgeship in disgust after the festival organizers “threw her under the bus” when she was targeted by GamerGate activists, tweeting, “i don’t care if every woman, queer, and brown person drains from the industry because i’m not more involved, i hope it happens.” Burn it down, we hear, as the Moralist slides into despair.
The #CancelColbert hashtag blew up in early 2014, attacking leftist satirist Stephen Colbert over his tongue-in-cheek parody of the racist Washington Redskins name. The originator of the tag, Moralist activist Suey Park, attracted much liberal opprobrium for it, and responded unyieldingly: “There’s no reason for me to act reasonable because I won’t be taken seriously anyway.” This is, of course, the return of the Structural Suspicion combination that we saw in Foucault. A fellow Leftist at The New Inquiry offered perverse encouragement to Park by assuring her that it is “obviously true” that she won’t be taken seriously (not even by the liberal New Yorker). In a world of Suspicion, this constitutes affirmation. Structure dictates that her voice will not be heard, and, following Dexter Thomas’s argument above, Time published Park’s editorial on #CancelColbert with the foreknowledge that she would come off badly, just as they republished Fortgang’s editorial in the hopes of boosting his position. Certainly her confusing essay is a far less cogent explanation of anti-oppression attitudes than any of the aforementioned pieces, a defensive muddle that reinforced prejudiced preconceptions of the unenlightened masses rather than emancipating them. “If you need to explain whatever it is that you were trying to do, it’s not working,” writes Park, explaining whatever it is that she was trying to do.
Tal Fortgang and Suey Park may disagree on everything, but Structural Suspicion treats them as functionally and morally equivalent. Both are Foucault’s “standardized products,” presorted by society and received accordingly. This is the subterranean aporia of Moralist ideology: plagued by Suspicion, unable to ground itself in impeccable authenticity, its Ethical victories are hollow. In such a vision, Moralist activism can come to seem like a frustrating joke, as Kameron Hurley discovered. If your Theoretical background tells you that your place in society is not under your control and your own motives are suspect and meaningless, your activist practice will be plagued by self-doubt and you may turn your Suspicion into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Smiling faces, smiling faces sometimes
They don’t tell the truth
Smiling faces, smiling faces
Tell lies and I got proof
Your enemy won’t do you no harm
‘Cause you’ll know where he’s coming from
Don’t let the handshake and the smile fool ya
Take my advice I’m only trying to school ya
—The Undisputed Truth, ”Smiling Faces Sometimes” (1971)