Rethinking Anarchism

A Gap in the Theory: Mass Work and Anti-Oppression Work
July 31, 2009, 4:46 am
Filed under: Analysis | Tags: , , , ,

I organize unions. It’s what I do. It’s simple and unglamorous. It usually goes something like this: I talk to a coworker, or a worker who works in another workplace. I find out they have problems at work or problems that are caused by work. We discuss these problems and think about ways to bring their coworkers together to put pressure on management to fix these problems. I try to do this in a way that builds class unity and hatred of the boss.

Some of my activist friends think that what I do does not address oppressions based on race, gender, or other forms of identity. They think that what I do is basically a way of  “escaping” from my own white male identity, as if I’m somehow “slumming,” just pretending to be a regular workaday guy for a littiel while until I go to grad school. This is pretty insulting, but there is a real theoretical question buried in the uncomprehending activist bullshit.

What is the relationship between mass organizing and anti-oppression organizing?

There is a gap in the theory here. Marty Glaberman writes about “Black Cats, White Cats, Wildcats,” telling us that in the struggle against the boss, racism often evaporates. But there’s more to it than that. What about the struggle against racism itself? Can we only fight racism when struggle against the boss erupts? Is it possible to fight the boss as the boss, and fight racism (and sexism, and homophobia, and so many other oppressions) as its own system of oppression? Is this what we need to do?

In my own experience, I have found that building mass organization is a powerful way of building solidarity across all kinds of lines of difference in the working class. But the question remains: what is the relationship between mass work and anti-oppression work?

This theoretical gap is not likely to be filled by corporate liberal “anti-oppression” trainings. Let’s get thinking. We need to find our own solutions.


4 Comments so far
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Toward the end of this article on autonomist Marxism by Harry Cleaver, he talks about the autonomist idea of the circulation of struggle. It seems to me to go beyond the more orthodox Marxist position that all oppressions stem from the nature of the capitalist economy — some do, some don’t. I’m not really sure if I completely understand the concept fully, but I really liked this line from Cleaver: “the forms of organization which work best are those which facilitate the circulation of struggle among groups, i.e., which enhance the complementarity of their efforts, and those forms must change and adapt to the changing patterns of struggle.”

Comment by A is for...

Hoenstly, I’ve come to the conclusion that this “gap” is perfectly okay. Anti-oppression (which I don’t think is really corporate liberal at all, but anarchistish and postmodernist academicy) is generally a waste of time, I’ve decided after wasting years dealing with it. There’s lots of awesome ways to help people become less oppressive and to talk about structures of domination that don’t involve lots of guilt and “calling people out” like it’s a game. Man, fuck that shit.

Comment by Brendan

I think much of what falls under the term “anti-oppression work,” or at least what comes into my own head when I hear the term, are trainings talking about race and oppression between activists (and usually between white activists). While that certainly has its role, I think thats different from the terrian of mass organizing that you might do in a workplace.

While I certainly think that there’s plenty more thinking to be done around the overlaps and contradictions around race, gender and workplace organizing, I think the idea that workplace organizing ignores these issues has its own set of problems. This is mainly that workers are woman and are people of color and not just workers. To organize workers around workplace issues means to address the complexities of their needs and issues around who they are. You can do organizing in a way that ignores these issues, but good organizing would create spaces to bring these out.

One last point is that social groupings and divisions in workplaces are reflections of how regular people identify in actuality, whereas often as folks on the left we imagine these things very diferently in our heads. Where these are problematic is when they become barriers rather than aids to identifying and addressing actual issues of power and consciousness…. for instance, in my work experience race and gender are not the primary social divides, rather they have been age (younger workers vs. older “lifers”) or immigrant workers vs. non-immigrant workers who are multi-racial.

Comment by adamfreedom

hey dude,

I think these are great questions. I tried to write some stuff on this as the start of a pamphlet, I never finished it, I’d love it if folk have any ideas on how to finish it, it’s here –

Here’s my personal experience. I’ve had a lot of people say the some stuff to me and it bugs me to no end (I’ve been a feminist and an anti-racist longer than I’ve had any other political point of view – I come from a family with a history of abuse and we’re a mixed race family, so I take the assumption that I don’t care about this stuff personally in a huge way). I remember friends and acquaintances in activist circles saying this kind of thing when I was organizing janitors and cafeteria workers, saying stuff about how I put too much emphasis on work and that the unions are messed up etc etc. I would be like “hey I’m not saying everyone should do what I do, but you need to recognize that what I do is valid too.” Their attitudes used to really get under my skin also cuz the committee and the units I worked with were almost all latin@ or African American, and majority women. Here were these folks taking huge risks for things they thought mattered a lot and me trying to help them build it, and my white activist friends were going to say stuff that implied they were chumps and that I was leading them astray or something? Ugh.

When it would come I would talk about how in my organizing the latinos always said “oh, the black workers are scared” and the african american workers always said “oh the mexicans are scared” and the men always said “oh the women are scared,” as part of everyone’s excuse for why they didn’t want to step up (cuz everyone said “I’d totally step up if there was a group but see no one else will step up cuz they’re all scared”). Eventually we got people to interact beyond their own social circles (often largely racially homogeneous and usually gender homogeneous too), breaking down some of those barriers, and fighting their bosses so they could have more control over their lives. I also told stories of ways that management abused these workers in ways that the activist folk would really be hit by, like when Marsha had to work nights despite being in tears that her sons were home along in a violent neighborhood, or when a 70something year old immigrant worker had a heart attack on the job and they tried to fire him (which would have cost his health insurance) then when he came back they made him do the same task that he had had the heart attack while doing.

When I told those kinds of stories of real problems and how workers took action the activist cats usually shut up pretty quick, cuz the best most of them could do was usually stories about white people talking about what it’s like to be white.

Reading this over again I think I’m only barely on topic at best, sorry about that. I’ll get back to you with some more substantive thoughts to your important point after I’ve had time to reflect on it more. Actually you’re totally making me want to write a blog post on this.

take care,

Comment by Nate

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