Anti-Racism, Intersectionality, and Strategies for the Revolution

Common Action’s Seattle branch just finished reading and discussing this interesting piece by Joel Olson, “Between Infoshops and Insurrection: U.S. Anarchism, Movement Building, and the Racial Order.” For such a short piece, it really gives a lot to talk about, and it was fun sharing perspectives with my comrades.

The main point of the article is that if U.S. anarchism is serious about being relevant and revolutionary, then it needs to do things: 1) take white supremacy seriously as a strategic bulwark of capitalism and oppression, and 2) go beyond the short-sighted tactics of either insurrectionary acts or small-scale subcultural infoshop politics, toward more long-range, strategic movement building. Of course, I highly recommend reading the article to get into the details and arguments behind those two points.

I don’t deeply disagree with the article, and I felt happily challenged by it (especially Olson’s contention about the long history of the US Black freedom struggle being more useful for US anarchists as a revolutionary tradition than the typical European anarchist histories of Spain, Bakunin, Goldman, etc.), and appreciative of its critique of anarchism’s weakness on racism. But at the same time, I’m not quite buying his point about the current racial order and anarchist strategy.

Sure, it’s true that modern anarchists need to both avoid reductionism and avoid this sort of vague, happy catch-all of “all oppressions are equal so we just fight them all at the same time.” We need strategies, and that means strategically chosen fights and political programs. It makes sense. And it also makes sense that struggling against white supremacy is strategically vital.

But that’s the thing, if we are going to really talk about strategy we’ve got to do better than this. While vague “hierarchy” or “anti-oppression” language can be strategically weak in the service of moral strength, the answer to its weaknesses is not a return back to “priority” oppressions. We are struggling against historically complex and highly dynamic social systems, that interact across all lines of collective and individual experience every day. To beat these systems, to transform them, we must understand how fast and hegemonic they are. They defend themselves on multiple fronts. Whiteness is just one of those fronts, even in the US context. Sure, the psychological wages of whiteness do create cross-class alliances that help support capitalism. Sure. But these systems also create hundreds of other strands of dependency, buy-in, and “common sense” across our culture…and if the wages of whiteness ever stopped paying off, you’d better believe that these systems will find other ways to stabilize themselves (and that has actually happened unevenly since at least the civil rights movement). Think about the Red Scare. Think about the patriarchal archetype of the breadwinner. And currently, think about the deep existential disconnect that imperialism creates between almost all folks in the US and those who extract and produce our lifestyle in other countries…the way that imperialism creates capitalist buy-in even among US people of color (even migrant folks in the US!). To be strategic, then, is to be flexible in the face of this dynamism, not to hunker down into any one structural focus that seems to be super clear, for the moment (it’s interesting because so many of the references that Olson makes date back at least 30 years or more, so it doesn’t even quite feel in the moment to me). Of course, it also doesn’t mean to do everything all at the same time with no attention to realities on the ground. Flexibility. Presence. Sharpness, sure, but sharpness that bends.

What I said tonight in the meeting is that I vastly prefer intersectionality, and particularly the contributions of woman of color feminism, as a way toward a strategic analysis. Intersectionality, when done right, doesn’t let us off the hook in terms of a tuned-in, robust understanding of race…but it also doesn’t allow us to be simplistic with that understanding. It trusts our intellects to hold the multiple structural realities that people live in their real lives…just like women of color must hold those realities every day! What keeps this from being strategically vague, then? Well, because it is based on looking at the actual experiences of those who are affected by these structures, rather than us fighting abstract categories of oppression and then trying to find structural symbols to manifest those fights (like fighting police or racist school testing to undo racism, for example). That is, we build the frame out of the intersections on the ground, rather than picking fights on the ground to fit the predetermined frame.

Still, even this doesn’t get us to the level of a winning strategy. Whether talking about anti-racism or intersectionality, there is still the same challenge of picking fights and building programs that have the greatest ability to overturn the system and build a new one…with the limited time, people, and resources that we have. This is where I agree with Olson that movement building is vital…and this is also where I think the strategic questions get really interesting and potentially innovative. If the system is as dynamic as I say, and as complex, what are the sites of struggle, the organizational forms, the demands and long-term methods of building people power that can break through that dynamism? Intersectionality (or anti-racism if one still insists) is just the analytical tool…it still isn’t the actual strategy…not even close. So what more do we need?

This is the number one political question that has been on my mind for years. And I’m glad that this and other articles are giving us room in Seattle to get to this. Maybe I’ll find an opportunity in all the difficulties of my life to share more of my theoretical ideas after all.

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi