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Identitarian deference and organizing - 7/8/16
In the wake of this week's round of murders in the United States, I'm seeing a lot of conversation on the liberal-left about what we can do to organize resistance against police brutality. One recurring line of thought goes something like this:
There's no need for us to be creative or to take initiative ourselves - we should base our activism on the assumption that the oppressed will lead the struggle.
This is a close paraphrase of an actual argument I've seen online (quoted indirectly because the writer isn't a public figure) - and again, it rehearses a fairly common position. And one that, however well intentioned, is philosophically bankrupt and strategically disastrous. Historically, this version of the "oppressed must lead" rhetoric has its basis in both the doctrine of identitarian deference (ID) and in left critiques of Blanqui-style vanguardism - but it crucially misunderstands them both.

A major premise of ID is that the oppressed understand their oppression better than anyone, and that privileged people should therefore defer to their insights about it. There are all kinds of serious objections to this theory, but here it's enough to point out that ID does not actually imply that the oppressed are better positioned and resourced to organize anyone, or that they have some kind of superior insight and expertise into questions of strategy and tactics. These are bizarre extrapolations from ID that its philosophical basis does not even aspire to support; it's cargo cult identitarianism, wholly disconnected from the intellectual tradition it's borrowing its rhetoric from.

What ID specifically argues is that people who are oppressed better understand the experience of oppression. A woman, for example, understands misogyny in a way that a man never can precisely because she has been subjected to it and experienced its consequences, whereas he has not. For this reason, we should defer to a woman when she is telling us what her oppression is like, rather than second-guessing her or substituting our own perspective. The man who (for example) says that catcalling on the street is "no big deal" is not actually in an epistemelogical position to make this claim, because he has not experienced a life of catcalling and has no way of really knowing what it is like.

All of this will read like fairly common-sense to the modern liberal-leftist; its argument overlaps directly with Hegelian and existentialist premises about subjectivity that most readers will take for granted. Suffice to say that nothing here even remotely suggests that the oppressed, from their oppression, will derive some kind of superior plan for emancipation. There is no particular reason why, for example, a woman would necessarily have some superior judgment about whether or not catcalling is a problem best dealt with through social shaming or legislated fines. Nothing about this sort of oppression gives one insight into problems like the administrative logistics and efficacy of speech fines, or the large-scale, long-term viability of shaming as an effective tool of ideological discipline. A woman might know more about this by virtue of being smarter than a man, or better educated, but nothing about being catcalled last week somehow imparts this kind of knowledge.

Another point of origin for the "oppressed must lead" rhetoric comes from the historical anarchist critique of vanguardism, which concerns itself with the power dynamics that can emerge when a small group of people attempt to lead an aspirationally democratic movement. This line of criticism has been around forever, but it became most historically prominent when mobilized against Lenin's efforts to build a party that spoke for the proletariat. As Martin Buber warned, this sort of cadre is always in danger of abusing its organizational power to exercise political power: "One cannot in the nature of things expect a little tree that has been turned into a club to put forth leaves."

The standard Marxist response to the critique, articulated by writers like Gramsci (among others), was to insist that the proletariat can only "become the leading and the dominant class to the extent that it succeeds in creating a system of class alliances which allows it to mobilize the majority of the working population against capitalism and the bourgeois State" (Pre-Prison Writings 320).

Put simply, left organization must proceed on the basis that we can only win if we cooperate. That is what keeps any particular vanguard or organizer from assuming power: the understanding that they can only win with the support of other oppressed groups. Leftists who are focused on the anticapitalist aspect of activism have to appreciate that they can only succeed if they share power with those who are focused on antiracism, and feminism, and so on. The solution here is not to try to engineer elaborate rules of who gets to have the power when we are organizing - it's to take power out of organizing altogether by emphasizing shared struggle and solidarity.

This vision of organizing is certainly compatible with the "oppressed must lead" rhetoric in the broadest sense that it is a coalition of oppressed groups that have to lead the fight against oppression. However, it is quite at odds with this narrower attempt to bracket off interrelated struggles from each other and to segregate the oppressed into independent vanguards. That approach is not only baseless from a historical and philosophical perspective, but will certainly doom the left to endless atomization and internecine conflict.