With our oppressors uniting, it’s increasingly clear that all our struggles for freedom are interconnected, and that no one will be free until we are all free.
Angela Davis, writing about her solidarity with Palestinian BDS campaigners, for this year’s Israeli Apartheid Week.
Lola Olufemi’s new book, “Feminism, Interrupted – Disrupting Power” declares itself from the start as arguing “for the abolition of all prevailing systems of violence.” The way that ambition is expressed fits into the moral and political framework that I have been striving to articulate for years in this blog and elsewhere, in which acts which affect others’ lives (that enact power) are judged according to their anticipated health effects. Health (or good) – of individuals, households, neighbourhoods, cities, ecosystems – is like communism in that it cannot ever be fully achieved, since life damages us all and we all die. Yet it can be put forward as the aim of political struggle to create a society in which people’s capacity to damage other people is minimised, and more widely, a sustainable ecology is created, in which destruction, waste and pollution and abuse of other creatures is minimised.
The gap between politics and public health – so brutally exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic – is associated with the hegemonic ideology in which abuse, domination, bullying, coercion, that is, systems of negative power – are accepted as the prevailing structuring forces in social systems, to the extent that they become unseen, or even valued as bulwarks against chaos. The exercise of power – negative power that stems ultimately from violence – seeks to damage the health of those upon whom it is acted, even if only by limiting their own capacity to act. The phrase ‘systems of violence’, obviously includes the building and maintaining of walls – prison walls, borders, factory walls – it is not just overt violence. Also, as the Black Lives Matter struggle shows us only too clearly, the judicious repetition of past horrific excesses of violence is key to their maintenance – capitalism still depends upon the methods of its ‘primitive accumulation’ such as slavery and dispossession out of which it was founded. The literature on the different forms child abuse can take suggests also that neglect has to be included as part of such systems, such as the ‘organised abandonment’ of the poor, the disabled and the stigmatised that constitutes austerity. (Ruth Wilson Gilmore, 2020, podcast for Haymarket Books).
Olufemi promotes a feminism that struggles against the ‘sexist’ State which has led attacks on women; a feminism that is anti-imperialist – not just against militarism but against incarceration and police violence, and against all forms of racism, including the patronising ‘rescue’ of Muslim women that she terms ‘the Saviour Complex’; a feminism that stands firm against trans-misogyny; and a feminism that is against body shaming. She makes a moving call for a food politics that is centred on providing nourishment for our selves and others. This capacity for nourishment, of which the power exerted by a mother over her nurtured infant might be an archetype, is a positive kind of power that enhances the health of its agents and recipients. Other activities such as much domestic labour, education and care work also involve this kind of power, though it is mostly hidden within structures and institutions that are integrated into the systems of coercive domination – doctors’ surgeries, hospitals, schools, universities, care homes, the patriarchal nuclear family, inheritance and the like – that is, nurture refers to the existence of some kinds of power than we need to value, and disentangle from their pollutants, rather than simply oppose. “Disrupting power” may be a way of describing this feminist unpicking of power relations into their positive and negative poles.
The book makes a consistent attack on liberal feminism. In one example, Olufemi recounts how the heartrending stories of BAME victims of Ireland’s past total ban on abortion, one impregnated by rape, the other dying as a result of being made to continue with a doomed pregnancy, were used in the successful campaign to amend the Irish constitution to allow abortion, but contemporary living BAME activists who wanted to support the campaign were marginalised as a tactic not to put people off from supporting the amendment. The right to abortion in the south of Ireland has been won, but accessibility is still a problem for poor and marginal women. What we need, even when we must support struggles for abortion rights, is a wider fight for reproductive justice, which addresses deficiencies in access to contraception, and guarantees both income for reproductive labour and availability of child care, addressing problems which are more stark for poor women, especially from BAME, migrant, or other denigrated communities.
Olufemi’s feminism applies to a domestic scale of politics – women faced with poverty and poor housing, with limited opportunities due to racism in the labour market, with close relatives in prison, with domestic violence, with child abuse, with street violence and heavy policing, and so on. Equally, though, it addresses global political concerns about increasing inequality and militarism, conveying an internationalist vision to promote “solidarity as a doing word”, building ‘a strategic coalition of people who are invested in a collective vision for the future’.
An essay in the New Left Review, (Nov/Dec2019) by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, called‘“Empire”, twenty years on’ seems to look towards a similar strategic coalition. I had struggled, indeed I think, failed to finish reading ‘Empire’ when I attempted to understand it, probably 20 years ago, but this article starts with a brief recapitulation of its themes along with updating it for the present, a time when, they write, the upsurge of various nationalisms has made the hegemony of the Empire superficially less legible. This article seemed relatively comprehensible – though not exactly on the same level of easy reading as Olufemi. ‘Empire’ refers not to US military and cultural domination but to an interlocking global extractive system based on various axes of domination, that works through destruction of the commons – privatising public assets and systems, destroying the atmosphere, accumulation by dispossession, and so on – its sovereignty shared between levels which Hardt and Negri characterise as containing monarchical, oligarchical and democratic elements, in a parallel with what was said of the Roman Empire. The Empire includes groups ostensibly oppositional – one example (in the ‘democratic’ tranche!) might be ISIS, born in opposition to US hegemony but actually effectively promoting the global arms industry, Islamophobia, and the new authoritarianism. Empire feeds on overlapping crises. Hardt and Negri see it as an attempt to contain the threat of a strategic coalition to create globalisation from below: so neoliberal ideology and practice they see as the Empire’s response to the de-colonisation and wave of social liberation of the 1960s. Empire promotes upheaval and fragmentation at every scale from the domestic to the global, always aiming to keep its subjects subjugated.
For Hardt and Negri, the result of this is that the working class is fractured, it can no longer be held up as a unified subject, and its organisational structures, party and unions for example, have been broken; workers are divided by geography in worldwide supply chains, by language and cultural barriers, by racism, gender, precarity of employment, levels of citizenship, entitlements and documentation, and so on. Instead of resistance to capitalism coming from the working class, for the past twenty years, to them, noted opposition has come from manifestations of the ‘multitude’ – such as in Cairo, in Ferguson, in Standing Rock, in Athens or Madrid, but these mobilisations have been short-lived and their gains frequently lost.
What they hope to promote, or perhaps better what they see as emergent, is this ‘multitude’ becoming organised, becoming an ‘intersectional class’. Anticapitalist struggles “must be cast together and on an equal basis with struggles against other axes of domination – feminist, antiracist, decolonial, queer, anti-ablist and others.”…this is where their text began to read like Lola Olufemi’s voice again. These struggles are undertaken with the awareness that no one structure of domination is either primary or reducible to the others, they are relatively autonomous, have equal significance and are mutually constitutive. Indeed they can all be seen as different class systems (they cite Mbembe on race class and Delphy on gender class systems).
Hardt and Negri quote Delphy pointing out that the participants in a gender class system “are not constituted before they are put in relation, their relation is what constitutes them as such.” In other words, ones’ identity is a product of a system of domination, before it is, as it is generally subjectively experienced, either a quasi-natural category, or a way of naming oneself as a member of a certain class along that axis of domination, as a start to organising resistance. This insight, which seems to place a kind of basal, untargetted domination or violence at the genesis of all identities, would, if widely acknowledged, seem to open up the possibility for the sought-after strategic coalition against it. What is needed is not just solidarity in coalition between the groups fighting these different axes of domination, with a merely additive logic, but ‘an internal articulation of these different subjectivities’, to become ‘subjectivities in the key of multiplicity’ leading to an anti-subordination project. This project stems from a shared conviction that you cannot be an anticapitalist without being a feminist, a pro-migrant anti-racist, opposed to transmisogyny, and so on…that is, you are ready always to act in solidarity with the precarious and the dominated and to check and acknowledge your own involvement in negative power systems.
Domination, or bullying, and a politics of resistance to it, does not need any list of human rights; it may be sufficient just to claim for all living creatures the right to breathe, as Mbembe (The Universal Right to Breathe ~ Achille Mbembe, 13 April 2020) puts it. This negative right we should all claim and should all recognise is simply the right not to be abused. Hardt and Negri do refer, in relation to migration, to “the right to escape” – and in the context of the uneven distribution of actually enacted violence this amounts to the same claim. For them, the people exercising this right and challenging the increasingly militarised Europe border regime, trying to follow the material and financial resources that are being relentlessly drained by extraction from the poorest communities across the globe are themselves, albeit in a scarcely articulated way, actively resisting Empire. The same claim might be made about women seeking to escape from domestic abuse. This seems to be a claim that those who most feel that they have no agency, those who are thought of, too, as desperately lacking resources, are, almost by miracle, important political agents. As it is with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, disarmed, penned-in, and picked off for murder or torture, mere survival and collective solidarity is resistance. Through stories, music, film, all sorts of cultural exchanges, that resistance can be amplified, acted on across the world, in acts of solidarity articulated with other forms of struggle against other modes of violence. The miracle also requires the recruitment into active solidarity of the witnesses who are not victims. Solidarity as a practice, arises from never contemplating the possibility of addressing the injustices of any one of these systems of violence by mobilising one of the others, introduces a new and challenging kind of politics. It even in a sense overthrows politics as we have known it – a kind of violent trial of strength between different classes – in which the weak will always suffer what they must.
Sarah Hegazi was an Egyptian revolutionary socialist and LGBT rights activist who was imprisoned and tortured for raising a pride flag at a concert in 2017. She moved to Canada where she sought asylum. Away from her family and suffering with PTSD from her time in prison she committed suicide this week. The damage done to people by the perpetrators of domination practices is not just the present restriction that is imposed on their flourishing, there is always the possibility of their having received permanent or at least long-lasting injury, causing a long-term disability, with emotional, mental and physical components. Some of this damage is reflected in the tendency to repeat the trauma, for example by self-damaging practices which provide some relief by reclaiming autonomy. Whilst these practices of self-harm can sometimes be seen as forms of resistance, such as overuse of psychotropic drugs removing you from the labour market, others – venting your fury on those on whom you depend emotionally through domestic violence for example – reveal a process of recruitment into the ‘prevailing systems of violence.’ Not only do some of these injuries to mental well-being thus contribute to the ranks of perpetrators and to the practices and ideology of authoritarianism and militarism, but they also mean that a significant proportion of those who are most entitled to speak, those whose activism most needs to be nurtured, are rendered less able to do so. This is quite apart from their also being deprived of resources – in terms of time, mobility, nutrition, and so on. The abolition of all prevailing systems of violence in this situation becomes a slow, difficult process of working together, and alongside, not something for a vanguard that will be all too ready to substitute itself for the dominated ranks on whichever axis of class.
Those of us who are committed to this ‘overthrow of all prevailing systems of violence’ whose background and income, gender, and sexuality place them in the dominating, violent class and outside the oppressed classes need to listen hard to their voices, and to struggle to avoid contributing to the abuse, to avoid being an agent of its repetition, then to signal support and solidarity – by writing, by attending meetings, by financial contributions to a struggle, by being another body on a picket line or a demonstration, or by whatever means are available to us. Some sort of leadership from this position is conceivable, I suppose – Jeremy Corbyn might be cited as one who makes a good stab at it – but the contradictions and difficulties of such a role seem great. To have social capital is not an unequivocal asset when it comes to a moment of social upheaval. We need collective strength that does not exhaust itself into putting some individuals or any particular party into positions of power within the prevailing structures of violence, but rather pulls those structures down through a constant undermining.
Lola Olufemi says loudly to the relatively privileged women whose oppression presents itself to them only on the axis of patriarchy, that a feminism that struggles for their liberation on that axis alone, and not taken as equal to other axes, obliterates the concerns and needs of other women – of the majority of women – and will fail. Patriarchy, racism and capitalism cannot be fought separately. Care jobs (like those of most of the frontline workers in the present covid-19 lockdown) are badly paid and insecure, and this is related to capitalism’s reliance on unpaid domestic reproductive labour that is ideologically the preserve of women: we should not be fighting for more women to have well-paid jobs in the City of London but for the people who do society’s essential caring work, reproductive labour, to have equal pay and equal status to those financiers, or better to do without those “bullshit jobs” altogether. Women struggling against their oppression as women have to address the struggles of the most dominated and abused amongst them, and in so doing they will make links with struggles against racial domination, transmisogyny homophobia, ableism, ageism and so on.
What are the practical implications of this politics? After the 2019 election defeat and the leadership change in the Labour Party from Corbyn to Starmer, from a leadership aiming for socialism to one seeking a doomed centrist electoral ’triangulation’ many Labour members are considering whether to go on putting energy into trying to turn the party in to a vehicle for the overthrow of systems of violence; quite a few have already been expelled, joining the many political activists who have never seen Labour as an important arena of struggle. I think the struggle that Olufemi, Hardt and Negri urge us all to join points us towards plenty of arenas and groups and group activities, some inside but more, probably, outside any one political party. We are talking about organising a patiently built social revolution which includes the overthrow of the regime of private ownership of wealth and of land that others use; it has to involve the creation of workplace and local democracy, and a regime of global democratic governance. We need to fight for the closure of prisons, the ending of debt, the disappearance of borders, the end of armies and of weapons of mass destruction, indeed of the whole apparatus of negative domination.
All this presents itself as needing to be done in short order before the planet burns and drowns. Meanwhile, as global catastrophes follow on one another with increasing frequency, the capacity for the most oppressed to act seems to be in danger of being further diminished by the increasing intensity of their suffering, their displacements and their stigmatisation. At the same time the wealth of the richest grows, as does their capacity to use their resources to put their agents into positions of state power. We confront massive military power and we cannot resort to counter-domination as a strategy. However, if we set our clocks at five minutes to midnight, as David Renton warns (The New Authoritarians, 2019, p232) there is a danger some on the left become prey to the allure of quick routes to political success, forming alliances with centrists who offer nothing to the poor and are all too willing to join in stigmatising the dominated – as in voting for Starmer to lead the Labour party. In fact, across the world authoritarian regimes have flourished in this age of climate catastrophe, as if the world’s natural resources having revealed themselves as limited has stoked the urge to violent claims of property and ownership, and moving the balance of political forces to the right. For the necessary attitude to time ( or to have Hope without optimism as Terry Eagleton puts it (2015)) we have to admit that just as we cannot see at all clearly what a society that will not be structured by violence will look like, we cannot know the extent that it is achievable, or the timescale involved and so we have to take solace in the struggle itself, in the idea that solidarity is its own reward. Resistance to subordination not only aims for health for all, it also expresses and enacts it in the present – it is care, nurture, nourishment. It is worthwhile and necessary in itself, whatever the prospects of future success or failure.
If we can keep a group of articulate insurgents (like Zarah Sultana) within the House of Commons and make it grow, so much the better, so I would urge comrades who are in Labour to stay in, and indeed to recruit others. They should carry on campaigning for mandatory re-selection of parliamentary candidates, all across the country (and particularly in Holborn and St Pancras constituency).
Voters in elections for the UK parliament, as for states elsewhere, are right to recognise that the bourgeois State is there, self-consciously, to foster and maintain the regimes of violence – that is, of the individuals, institutions and groups that control most of the world’s assets through direct violence – from domestic to military – upholding ownership, walls and enclosures, and borders; it cannot be suddenly taken over for another purpose even for one that is obviously more moral and more rational, if the balance of nourishment/violence forces has not already been changed or at least been thrown into serious question. Voting for social revolution is rightly seen as futile, unless that social revolution is already in progress. We should not blame ignorant voters, but review our tactics and alliances.
We just need to keep on being active, supporting all campaigns of resistance, and we need to recognise one another, striving for that ‘articulation of different subjectivities’ at the same time as not compromising with centrists, neoliberals or liberals. This points to a limit of Corbynism, in that it did not sufficiently emphasise the evident necessity of completely changing the system, which was not surprising as it lacked the strength to argue this even within the Labour Party – the leadership did not want to draw attention to its radical differences from the interests of the establishment.
If the realistic prospects look bleak, then if we look at where the Empire is driving us, it is a frightening place where very few, even the super-rich themselves, will want to go – wealth concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, environmental catastrophe, hunger, disease, warfare, chaos and suffering on an unprecedented scale involving not just humankind but all species. Purely on the level of economics, the impoverishment and over-indebtedness of the vast majority of the population is not compatible with economic growth, and extraction of the remaining small pockets of wealth in the middle classes, through rents and fees, is draining a finite reserve.
The Covid-19 pandemic, on top of the accelerating disasters attributable to climate change shows us, as Tithi Bhattacharya and Gareth Dale argue in ‘Covid Capitalism’, that “the accumulated economic pasts of capitalism and its cumulative depredation of nature have etched their indelible marks on the system…rescuing this system through reform is no longer an ambitious hope or the subject of an interesting intra-left debate, but a dangerous fantasy.”
To put it differently, the pandemic shows us that we do need governments (not just or not necessarily of nation-states but at all sizes of territory) that are democratically accountable as institutional actors whose power lies in their capacity to mobilise resources to enable society collectively to provide care and protection for all within each territory. Such effective government has been found severely wanting in the UK, even more notably than elsewhere, but the fact that political action has had to manifest itself as an exercise in care is already a significant change, a brief moment of insight, to which the UK government has had to adapt, through the reluctant temporary exercise of many of Labour’s supposedly wildly expensive economically and socially unacceptable policies, that they and their billionaire-owned press and corporate funders had demonised before the electorate only a few weeks before. They will try to go back to asserting that ‘there is no alternative’ to a regime of negative power, but we have a chance to demand that a regime of care, fostering public health, remains in sight and grows, as we all have glimpsed its necessity and its possibility.