Beyond authenticity: the politics of agrarian localism, Part 1

In this post and the next one I continue exploring the issue of protest, violence, class and the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement I raised in the last one. I engage with some of the responses to the previous post, including one from Peter Gelderloos on Twitter, but rather than being just another iteration of that post and its responses, I’m thinking of these present two posts more as a kind of position statement on the politics underlying my forthcoming book, A Small Farm Future, and its arguments for renewable agrarianism, using the debate about XR as my foil. And also more generally on the kinds of left-wing politics that I espouse, and the kinds I don’t. I’ve found the debate quite stimulating in clarifying all this, so my thanks to everyone who’s participated for that.

I’ve written the posts in the form of thirty-three numbered ‘theses’ or assertions, sixteen in this post and seventeen in the next one (to be published in a couple of days) which encapsulate my thinking. I’ve tried to keep to the main themes I want to explore, which means with apologies I don’t respond to many interesting points and criticisms that people raised regarding my previous post. I don’t consider myself to be any great shakes as a social or political theorist (though see Point 9 below), and I’ve somewhat lost interest in it in recent years, but in these posts I try to work out a position with respect to some of it – apologies for the abstractions involved.

Peter Gelderloos suggested that I have misattributed views to him, so let me state upfront that in what follows I will try to distinguish as carefully as I can between what I think individual people in this debate have said and what I think is implicit in what they have said. Where I criticize or characterize positions without mentioning anyone by name, let me be clear that I am attributing these views to general positions and not to any specific person.

I’m taking the liberty of using first names for people who’ve engaged with me directly.

And so to the theses:

1. Human collectivities are divided by innumerable and cross-cutting social identifications such as gender, sexuality, socioeconomic class, caste, racialized, ethnic and religious identifications, age, education, bodily capacities, social and emotional tendencies and so on. Some of these are more consequential for people’s experience of the world – the opportunities they have, the threats and dangers they face – than others, but all of them are consequential. Socioeconomic class is highly consequential.

2. Membership within some of these sub-categories of identification confers advantages and privileges and tends to normalize itself as being somehow the correct, normal or automatic basis of life – for example, the widespread normalization of maleness over femaleness. I will call the experience of being in one of these socially powerful sub-categories ‘ontological privilege’ (OP) because it’s about the advantages of certain kinds of social being.

3. There is an ontological counter-privilege (OCP) to not being in one of these powerful sub-categories. Women, for example, typically have less social power or privilege than men but – precisely for this reason – are in a more privileged position to see the workings of gendered power in ways that are often invisible to men. For this reason, OCP is more generative of political actions aiming to challenge OP. This is a major reason why, for example, feminism has mainly been driven by women. This is not to suggest that feminism cannot or should not be supported or in some ways advanced by men.

4. A notion has arisen within left-wing politics that there is such a thing as what I will call absolute ontological counter-privilege (AOCP). The idea here is that people with certain kinds of OCP are able to perceive a deeper, more general and more absolute truth about the nature of the (social) world than those without it, and the political activism that this puts them in a privileged position to take enables them – once the fires have died down – to bring about an intrinsically better, less divided, freer, fairer, more advanced or less ideologically deluded society in general than what preceded it. The main intellectual history of this notion comes via Hegel through Karl Marx and a large dose of 19th century scientism (‘SCIENCE’ rather than ‘science’, as I formulated it here). It coalesced into the view that the (industrial) working-class will bring about a (scientifically) improved communist society.

5. The notion of AOCP has been an utter disaster. It’s been particularly disastrous for the people tortured and murdered by authoritarian communist regimes for their lack of it and/or for their ‘incorrect’ thought. But I think it’s been disastrous more widely and generally for left-wing politics. Not many people on the left today still subscribe to it in its crudest form that the industrial proletariat will create a communist utopia, but it still weighs like a nightmare on the living traditions of left-wing politics in an ongoing sense that some kinds of political actors and actions are more authentic than others, and some kinds of actors and actions are inherently more ‘progressive’. AOCP aside, there are many other aspects of Marxism, left-wing politics and the politics of OP/COP that are full of insight about contemporary predicaments and political possibilities for addressing them.

6. There is a parallel intellectual history of mainstream, capitalist, ‘neoclassical/ neoliberal’ economic thought which, like Marxism, also has its roots in pseudo-scientific 19th century notions of progress. And it has also been an utter disaster. But I’m not going to say anything else about it here because I can see little within its traditions that generates a politics equal to present times.

7. Regarding the XR movement, it is a necessary and constructive thing for people with OP who are active within it to be continually reminded of this privilege and to try to learn from OCP critiques of OP. One clue to whether these critiques are well motivated is when they are directed to the specific actions or inactions of people within the movement. Saying that the movement is ‘white’ or ‘middle-class’ is not a specific critique.

8. There are a lot of left-wing critics of XR, and a lot of right-wing ones too. The criticism is ferocious, relentless and often non-specific. Some of it seems fair enough to me. Much of it doesn’t, and frankly I think a lot of the left-wing critics protest too much. I think XR challenges their residual commitment to AOCP manifested in a notion that XR is not pursuing ‘authentic’ politics, of which they are self-appointed guardians.

9. It’s a minor point perhaps, but I think this residual commitment to AOCP might be present where both Peter and Ruben raise the point that either me in particular or middle-class XR activists in general need to do the reading to be legitimate protagonists. This kind of admonition is not widely levelled on the left towards BIPOC or working-class political protagonists. Well, it’s always good to do more reading. But it’s interesting to watch the numerous ways that people warrant their greater authority to speak truth in interactions with others. A commitment to AOCP can provide rich resources for this. I think there’s possibly an implicit assumption here that black and working-class people are more authentic or sui generis political actors. Whereas white and middle-class people need to do the reading.

10. Ruben writes that “white people would be wise to recognize our lack of epistemic privilege concerning protest”. I think there’s some truth in that. But the best way of gaining epistemic privilege concerning protest is by protesting. That is what (white) people within XR are doing. They are making mistakes. They are learning. They are engaged.

11. There is a constellation of ideas within left-wing traditions (of which AOCP is one) that greatly romanticizes working-class violence as an agent of positive social change. It is true that violent working-class actions sometimes prompt significant social change. But usually they don’t. The same truths hold in the case of non-violent actions. But there seems to be a view among some on the left that violence is in itself a route to political redemption. This is mistaken.

12. Violence against property or people can be a political tactic, with weighty political and moral implications. Such tactics are not intrinsically associated with any particular social group. The social groups that have achieved the greatest political successes through violence are the ones with the most OP – male, ‘high’ caste or class, white. But with OP comes greater opportunity to use political violence successfully.

13. Nonviolent political activism is another political tactic. It can easily be coopted by the existing power structure and rendered harmless and invisible within what Ruben calls ‘the protest space’. Nonviolent civil disobedience is a way of trying to overcome this cooption. So is violent political activism. Neither form necessarily avoids cooption, and one of them is not better than the other in every circumstance unless you subscribe to the romantic notion that political violence is intrinsically redeeming.

14. Ruben writes “when XR rolls in proclaiming non-violence to be the answer…yes, that is mighty white of them.” But I don’t think XR activists generally proclaim that nonviolence is ‘the’ answer. I think they have signed up to the view that nonviolent civil disobedience is the best way to build a mass movement of climate change activism in present circumstances in contemporary Britain. I agree with that view, whereas in different circumstances I might not. I don’t think it is ‘mighty white’. I’d also note the implicit appeal to black authenticity in the term “rolls in”.

15. As I see it, there’s a hugely problematic homology lurking behind this whole white, nonviolent cooption idea. This is what it looks like:

  • White – middle-class – nonviolent – confirms existing order – politically negative
  • Black – working-class – violent – overturns existing order – politically positive

I think this is disastrous. Do I need to spell out why? Consider the various racist and right-wing stereotypes it implicitly mirrors. All you need to do is swap over ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ between lines (1) and (2) and you pretty much have Donald Trump’s re-election strategy. There can be cooption of working-class violence by the existing political order as well as middle-class nonviolence. But this homology is implicit in a lot of left-wing thought, perhaps because the residual commitment to AOCP makes it seem transformational rather than simply dogmatic.

I felt that this homology was implicit in Peter’s ROAR essay, but in his Twitter comment he seems to be saying that, yes, white and middle-class people can engage in nonviolent action that results in positive political transformation (perhaps there is some vagueness around my phrasing of ‘positive agency’ that muddies the water here). If that’s so, the inferences I was drawing about his essay were wrong. The tone and content of some of it then seems rather odd to me, but that’s another issue. Whatever his own views, I think the homology I sketched above invests a good deal of left-wing criticism of middle-class political activism, including XR. And it’s deeply problematic.

16. All of this suggests to me that we may be in for some strange political realignments down the line, somewhat akin to the journey of Britain’s Revolutionary Communist Party to far-right nativism. On the one hand, left-wingers who are still clinging to notions of AOCP might cleave towards right-wing populists in their antipathy to the inauthentic middle class, ‘the liberal elite’, ‘cosmopolitans’ and other people who are ‘not real’. On the other hand, we will hopefully also see left populist alliances between middle-class and working-class people, white and black people, committed to human freedom and social and environmental justice along the lines nicely sketched by Josh in this comment. Originally, I planned to elaborate on this trajectory in this follow-up post and perhaps I will at some point, but for now I think I’ll pretty much leave it at that. Suffice to say that I want to dissociate myself from the first tendency and associate myself with the second. Perhaps I’d just add that theories articulating an intrinsic working-class violence as the engine for radical left politics need to account very carefully for it also as the engine of radical right politics.

16 thoughts on “Beyond authenticity: the politics of agrarian localism, Part 1

  1. Am now looking to procure a couple T-shirts:
    I have a pitchfork. Don’t make me use it

    I have a pitchfork. I can show U how to use it

    The first for all the violent street protests I need to ‘read’ into… the second for on farm demonstrations once the small farm future becomes the small farm present.

  2. In Gelderloos’ article (ROAR), he mentions that an insistence on nonviolence is a way of “delegitimizing the anger”. This suggests that how one expresses anger can be construed as another indicator of authenticity.

    Violence is clearly not the only way to express legitimate anger. In an earlier essay, Chris mentioned Marshall Rosenberg’s “Nonviolent Communication” which doesn’t shy away from anger, whether expressed or received. Getting results is important, but results based on fears of violence would seem to be more tenuous than results based on understanding and empathy.

    In the article linked below, Roxy Manning (an Afro-Caribbean immigrant to the US) expresses her anguish and rage in ways that allow others to better understand and empathize with her. She closes with this entreaty to “put down the master’s tools” of separation and division:

    ‘Audre Lorde said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” It’s time for us to put down the master’s tools of blame, shame and judgment, of separation and division, and pick up new tools — resistance grounded in empathic understanding and compassionate embracing of all our humanity — if we hope to create a world where everyone has the conditions they need to thrive.’

    https://www.nonviolentcommunication.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/How-can-NVC-be-helpful-in-these-transformative-times_-PuddleDancer.pdf

    “How can Nonviolent Communication (NVC) be helpful in these transformative times?”
    by Roxy Manning, PhD

  3. On the other hand, we will hopefully also see left populist alliances between middle-class and working-class people

    Well, hope springs eternal, and has been springing for the many decades of my life, yet somehow the alliance never seems to come about. At first the lack of such an alliance was a mystery to me, but not any more. The reason is to be found in Josh’s comment when he points out that “the upbringing, education, media, and social environments of PMC liberals train them to view the WWC as a bunch of stupid bigots.” I am a card-carrying member of the PMC Liberals. I disagree about the assumption of stupidity by my cohort, but not the bigotry. Differing attitudes about race are the main barrier keeping the two groups politically separated.

    Members of the PMC may not be doing much to ally with people of color in their daily lives, but they are certainly willing to do so in the political arena with regard to voting rights, promotion of economic equality, acceptance of the principle of equal human dignity and equality before the law. I sincerely believe that the same cannot be said about the WWC.

    I also suspect that the WWC has even more reason to ally with people of color than does the PMC, since their economic interests are much more closely aligned, yet somehow such an alliance has always seemed fanciful to both the WWC and working people of color, and for good reason. Too many of the WWC are indeed bigots (certainly not all, but too many) and neither the PMC nor people of color (especially people of color) are willing to set that bigotry aside so as to enable a political alliance with the WWC.

    More important, the WWC has never been willing to abandon their refusal to work with the PMC or their class compatriots of color. The WWC wants to “own the libs” and also, since the earliest days of the USA as a country, they want to “own the blacks”. The only thing that prevents a political alliance of overwhelming power from being created, an alliance between the PMC, the WWC and people of color that could re-shape civilization, is the refusal of too many whites to accept people of color as their equals.

    Unfortunately, in the current political climate, that refusal is likely to become even more entrenched as time goes on. The WWC has it within their power to change the world by welcoming an alliance with people of color and the PMC, but first they need to change their attitudes about race. As I said, hope springs eternal.

    • This is an interesting comment, and I am not going to disagree with it, exactly.

      I too am a product of the ‘PMC’. I grew up comfortably (a long time ago) in suburban Southern California. By all rights, I should fit the white, male PMC stereotype, and I probably do to a large extent.

      But… much of my experience tells me that while what Joe, and the conventional wisdom says may be true, the world is much more complicated. I wonder how much of the inability of the PMC & WWC & POC to work together has been caused by a too easy acceptance of the kind of narrative Joe cites.

      For instance: I grew up in a very white neighborhood. There was exactly one black family in my school district. The McGees were popular, had many friends at my school, and I don’t recall hearing any racist comments. But what would I know at 15 years old?

      It also happens that my closest friends lived across town in a very poor neighborhood. Their father was a mostly unemployed alcoholic construction worker. My friends went to school with many people of color, and said all manner of racist things about them. Some of these people of color were their friends, and they all said racist things about each other.

      After high school I got a series of working class jobs making minimum wage, more or less. I met lots of working class people, white and otherwise. The only generalization I will make about them is to say that all of them (us) would have been happy to get paid more.

      Then I went for a drive across the USA. From Los Angeles to Florida to start. I had never been to the deep south, but I drove across Mississippi. The Kudzu!
      One Friday evening I needed to stop for gas in a tiny town in rural Mississippi. The only gas pump was attached to a little roadhouse bar, and you filled your tank, then went in to the bar and told the bartender how much you owed. This was 1978. It was Friday evening after work, and the bar was filled with working men having their first beers of the weekend. There were were white working class Mississippians joking and sharing beers with black working class Mississippians. My sheltered Southern Californian self didn’t know what to make of that.

      I could tell more stories, but I will stop there.
      What I am going to assert is that it is complicated.

      I will also say that the working classes are not stupid. Nor are they uniquely racist. The rich kids I went to school with were racist too. The main difference between my rich friends and my poor friends was that the rich ones were more polite. That and they were richer, so had much more margin to let things slide.

      I think this is the heart of it. The poorer classes feel the need to press every advantage they have available to them. The richer classes can choose to be polite to the people under them, because it doesn’t cost anything, and besides their betters think it is rude to yell at the help.

      Of course, this tidy stratigraphy gets roiled up when political narratives are aimed to cause conflict among naturally allied groups – and when are they not?

      So let’s say first, that from those to whom much is given, much will be required.
      Then, let’s ask ourselves what exactly are the master’s tools that we must put down?
      I assert that chief among them is money.

      We must all learn to be poor. Because we will all be much poorer soon.
      But also because being poor together is the way forward. Wealth inequality is causing a huge portion of the trouble we are having, and we will never erase inequality by making everybody rich. That isn’t possible.
      So we must learn to be poor.
      And learn how to do it well.
      My poor neighbors are terrible at being poor. And my rich neighbors are worse, they don’t even have a clue.
      We have work to do.

      • After growing up in Oregon in a very poor family (with Phd parents), I finished high school in North Carolina. I went to four years of college in Florida. I have had numerous non-management jobs working with the WWC. My wife and I lived in a rural working class county in Washington (logging community), among whom I had many friends and acquaintances. I sat and watched my working class friends make strongly racist comments about black basketball players while we watched our favorite team play. I worked in a power plant alongside other operators who were puzzled by my lack of interest in jokes about black people (and women).

        Besides this personal exposure to the attitudes of the WWC, I have seen the political effects of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which were instrumental in prompting the previously Democratic southern states to turn solid Republican via the Southern Strategy. I’ve seen the WWC response to BLM.

        So, I stand by my characterization of the white working class, even while admitting that it is a stereotype (all of these groups we’re discussing are stereotypes). And of course there are plenty of racists in the PMC as well as in other non-working classes. There are nuances galore that are missing from my comments, but as long as we are talking about class stereotypes in the first place, we may as well concentrate on a few significant attributes, including attitudes about race. If you want a more nuanced look at the WWC, this paper is pretty good:
        https://www.immigrationresearch.org/system/files/Other_America_Report.pdf

    • Interesting comments from Joe and Eric here. I think we have to be careful with the idea of the WWC, as it doesn’t exist in the same way as the PMC, which describes a group of people United by common economic interests. In contrast the WWC is an ideological notion that exists specifically to drive a wedge between people who do actually share an economic common interest, as Joe says. I agree with Eric that the reality ‘on the ground’ is a lot more complicated. I think it’s important not to give the WWC too much credence – it only helps the hate-mongers.

      In Britain, analysis of Brexit and other voting patterns has suggested that racist attitudes can certainly be found among the working classes, but they don’t saturate the white part of it. Perhaps more importantly racist attitudes are also found among a significant portion of the middle classes, especially self-employed tradespeople, the owners of small businesses, etc, and it’s often these people that drive the reactionary politics of groups like UKIP. Marx’s petit bourgeoisie – middle class economically, but not usually in terms of the culture that is often ascribed to the term ‘middle class’.

      So a division in the middle class is probably more important here than any notional distinctions within the working class. It correlates to an extent with levels of higher education, but also with interests in different scales and forms of capital. I don’t know how this maps on to the American situation, but suspect it might. How this informs political strategies is unclear to me!

  4. The absence of left populist alliances doesn’t seem surprising at all to me – all the money has been pushing in the opposite direction for years. Wasn’t he whole point of the Republican’s Southern Strategy. I think in the years immediately after WWII there was a sense that inclusive, cohesive societies were a desirable thing – many politicians still pay lip service to this idea but the truth is the prospect of power tends to attract sociopaths for whom the aquisition of power trumps other concerns and so the idea of divide and conquer reemerged into post-war politics and has been growing ever since.

    Here in the UK the Conservatives got a massive 80 seat parlimentary majority at the last election. If you look at the 40 most marginal of those seats you’d only require 51000 voters to have voted differently to have wiped out that majority and created a hung parliament. That sort of arithmatic makes increasing division a winning strategy – make the divisions greater such that the chances of a voter switching sides becomes ever less likely. Secure your base and then you’ve a smaller number of voters you need to win over and advertising online can be micro-targeted at just them. As I’ve said before the majority of the money funding political parties and the the think tanks (lobbyists) that feed them their ideas have been pushing in that direction.

    I was talking to an old friend a few weeks ago – he now lives in China so we don’t speak often. The pandemic had got him onto youtube where he’d found stuff blaming China (a message he was very open to) but alongside those videos the youtube recommendation algorythym had thrown up all sorts of right leaning talking heads and before long he was watching people like Stephan Molyneux and videos on the genetic basis for the superior intelligence of white people – this is a person with lots of friends from all around the world, different races, religiions etc and yet in a few months he’s been sucked into a very different position – how well that broad circle of friends will stand up to the change in outlook this person is under going remains to be seen. It does seem strange to me that anyone would seek to find their understanding of the world in a space where most of the information is weaponised (i.e. its propaganda) but that does seem to be what’s happening – and again the money is mostly on one side of that battle – and they’re better at knowing how to really hook people (anger, fear, outrage (there’s another one that I can’t remember)).

    I’ve been reading about aboriginal culture and it seems that for the Australian aboriginals (and I suspect most indigeneous land based cultures) the original sin is narcissim – the idea that ‘I am more than you’ or ‘I am better than you’ (and being an I is a property ascribed to all other beings and to the landscape itself). It might be that this is a natural thought in humans but there culture recognises it’s destructive nature and is all about neutralising it – ours on the other hand promotes it in allsorts of ways – I think much of what Chris outlines above as OP, OCP & AOCP have those thoughts at their root – as does much of the arguing that goes on on Twitter and online forums (perhaps even my current screed). Its also at the root of Mumford’s Mega-Machine which has so been so successful at over-powering indigineous cultures and thought.

  5. I find a lot to agree with on this post, but I wonder if networks and dynamics of power and privilege need a little more emphasis. I’m going to quibble with the terminology as a way of trying to get at this.

    I like the idea of Ontological Privilege, but think it’s important to recognise that ‘privilege’ refers to power structures and their maintenance through socially approved activities. The notion of Ontological Counter-Privilege uses the same word to describe social positions that are defined by their lack of socially-constituted power, so ‘privilege’ seems wrong here. Perhaps ‘Ontological Counter-Insight’ (OCI) works better with what you describe in the post.

    I suggest that the action of protest is specifically aimed at building social power for those deprived of it – that is to say, Ontological Counter-Privilege is actually the goal of political protest and resistance more broadly, but its existence must be considered to be in flux whilst such resistance remains necessary. Ironically, if OCP is established and stabilised, then it basically becomes OP.

    I think that what you’re getting at with AOCP is a fetishization of the OCI of the most oppressed in society, and I’m sure you’re right about the political use of such a fetish in Stalinist Russia. In today’s politics, we no doubt do see some on the left fetishizing OCI in a way that suggests that the most oppressed groups have a higher status in the resistance. I think you’re right to emphasise the danger in this.

    But I think it’s also important to emphasise the differential distribution of OCI (which I think you acknowledge in the post) when it comes to political strategy. People occupying different positions in the networks of power and privilege will find different opportunities for protest and resistance. The point therefore is not whether XR is overly white and middle class (which it undoubtedly is), but how it’s protests can unite with those in other positions resisting in different ways, whether violent or non-violent.

    I hope it can. The importance of arrest in XR has been criticized as demonstrating white privilege, in that such arrests are not as dangerous for white people as for BAME. The relative dangers are no doubt real, but if the emphasis is placed on the use being made of police power to control dissent, if the wrongful nature of the arrests are highlighted, then there is scope for resonance with, for example, BLM. In both cases the role of the police in propping up OP can be revealed as illegitimate. White middle class people and BAME people are working in different ways towards the same goal: the creation of OCP.

  6. Thanks for another excellent set of comments. I think I’ll publish my second part tomorrow and then perhaps return to some of these points, but quick responses now.

    Steve rightly raises non-violent communication and Audrey Lorde. Indeed, I think this points to a problem in Gelderloos’s framing that I mentioned above – violence has always been a resort of the powerful far more than of the downtrodden. I don’t think I’d rule it out a priori for every circumstance, but yes generally I think it’s wise to seek all possible alternatives, and not to use the master’s tools.

    I’m very interested to read Joe, Eric and Andrew’s discussion of class/race identifications. I don’t think I have much to add right now, but I’m thinking about this. Suggestion: class identifications are changing – particularly around notions like the ‘petit bourgeoisie’, which as I see it no longer have much purchase. A cynically manipulative ruling class is courting elements of the working class by stoking divisions over race and culture, while the PMC is being deskilled and disempowered in ways that bring it closer to the remnants of the ‘petit bourgeoisie’ and other working class elements – all of this refracted through various local, historical and urban/rural framings. So indeed, hope springs eternal…

    Bruce’s comments on aboriginal cultures interest me greatly, and my reading is similar to his in terms of the rooting out of OP within them. I think modernist civilization needs to learn from this. And the best option open to us presently on this front is a localized small farm one, with – as Eric says – less liquid capital floating around in it.

    I find Andrew’s comments helpful and thought-provoking. I need to think about it more, but yes my concept of OCP maybe buys too much into the Marxist AOCP tradition that this is indeed a privileged vantage point and OCI as a route to OCP works better. And then we get back to the points raised by Steve, Eric & Bruce – what kind of society are we trying to bring forth, and how are people entitled within it?

    Finally, great T-shirt idea Clem. I already sent you an order for 50 but haven’t heard back. Is there some kind of problem with the US postal service at the moment?

    Thanks also for the links, I’ll take a look.

    • The USPS… wow. So as not to derail the our present and prescient conversation on PMC, WWC, racism and poverty I’ll forgo launching into a rant on politics and the postal system on our side of the pond…. and in the same spirit I’ll not inquire about a certain governmental backsliding on promises made to former partners on your side. Fair enough?

      Politics make for strange bedfellows…
      All politics are local…

      Other bromides about politics may be appended here…

      [as for T-shirts… I’ll make this offer – you make it to the States to support your book, and if at all reasonable I’ll make it to a book signing with T-shirts in hand.]

      • Genuine apologies if that comment appeared smugly nationalistic. I’m happy to state that Britain’s (England’s?) current government is more talentless, mendacious, anti-democratic, complacent, hubristic and ill-equipped to meet the challenges of our times than any in living memory. And the competition is stiff.

        And it’s a great T-shirt idea. Offer accepted … though making it to the States is challenging right now…

  7. It may be that the best option currently open to us in terms of rooting out OP is a localized small farm one but I’d love you to explain why you think so. It seems to me that in a land based culture access to land is the thing that would grant such priviledge and so one would need to do something clever around land ownership models, inheritance etc in order to undermine that. Which to my mind brings us back to culture as primary and, given that cultures in which power is concentrated seem to outcompete culture’s in which power is more evenly distributed, this seems immensely problematic.

    Jem Bendell has been writing about this in his own way here https://jembendell.com/2020/06/28/the-collapse-of-ideology-and-the-end-of-escape/
    It’s kind of long but the first thing he tackles is ‘Entitlement’ which is sort of analogous to OP but he’s probably using it in a broader sense – even the most downtrodden of humans may well have a sense of entitlement vis-a-vis the natural world.

    I realise that in all my responses to this thread I’ve not really said anything about violence/non-violence. I think that for some people espousing the idea that violence is always negative is a way of refusing to deal with the world as it really is – that’s not to say that violence is or isn’t a negative thing – just that a dogmatic position lets one avoid asking hard questions about the situation we face. Jem Bendell’s essay talks about this asking if we (inadvertantly) prioritise responses to the climate crisis that make us feel good over those that might actually work – we’ll have electric cars (and planes) rather than relocalise our lives etc. And Derrick Jensen is more direct and asks, if a foreign power or alien race invaded and started polluting your water supplies and destroying you farmland what response would you feel was appropriate then?

    The problem with violence in our society is that access to violence is unevenly distributed and much of it doesn’t even look like violence – Look at how Chevron evaded paying any compensation for polluting forests in Ecuador on which many native peoples rely for their living https://www.dw.com/en/a-slippery-decision-chevron-oil-pollution-in-ecuador/a-18697563 And I’ve developed some sympathy for the militia movement in the US – the idea that certain actors in a society shouldn’t have a monopoly on violence seems sensible – although the disparity in power between State and militia seems to me to make this more symbolic than real – AR-15 v F15. More than that I’d want an armed society to be one whose culture didn’t glorify violence or think of it as the best way of settling disputes and even an AR-15 puts violence way beyond a human scale – the question of inhuman scale seems common to so many of our current predicaments

    So I guess my feeling is that violence shouldn’t be off the table as a tactic (however uncomfortable it might make us middle class liberals (Oh shit I’ve become one of those ;-)) nor should it be seen as an answer. Given that violent protest is always going to face forces with far greater access to violence then avoiding violent confrontation seems sensible and I think XR have been wise to stick with non-violence (so long as those participating understand that its a tactic not a dogma). My own feeling about XR is that they’ve perhaps strayed too far toward avoiding confrontation under the flag of non-violence – that real non-violent activism can be (probably should be) highly confrontational in that it gets right in the face of those it opposes and forces them to decide to either accomodate the demands being made or use it’s violence. I’m not sure I’ve the courage for such a thing but what else is there right now?

    • Thanks for that, Bruce. Good points and questions. I’ll try to answer them under the newer post … but probably not immediately.

  8. Hrm. 



    I suppose I should be flattered you found enough in my comments to respond to so many times, but I am definitely disgruntled to be misrepresented. I think much fault lies with my writing, but I think some also lies with your argument.

    And let me start by saying I am going to say some things that many people find very difficult to hear. 



    What I am not doing is saying that you are a sheet-wearing, cross burning racist. 

In fact, I have every belief that you are a truly good person who has dedicated a great deal of your life to increasing justice and liberation for the downtrodden. I think you are a fantastic thinker and a great doer and a truly important model for the world we find ourselves in.

    So perhaps if I start with my disagreement with your classifications I might be able to get around to the rest of the concerns.



    P2
    Ontological Privilege (OP)
    The privilege that comes from your be-ing. Male privilege and white privilege, for example.
    I like it. 



    P3
    Ontological Counter-Priviliege (OCP)
    Women, for example, typically have less social power or privilege than men but – precisely for this reason – are in a more privileged position to see the workings of gendered power in ways that are often invisible to men.

    I think this is a disastrous innovation in theory and language. I said Epistemic Privilege. The academy uses Standpoint Theory. 



    Ontological counter-privilege suggests there is a physically manifest privilege descending from subjugation—a privilege of be-ing.
    Epistemic Privilege clearly indicates privileged knowing. If you read the Wiki on Standpoint Theory, there is no whiff of being, just of knowing, of perspective. 



    You correctly describe Epistemic Privilege, but you mislabel it as ontological.

    P4
    Absolute Ontological Counter-Privilege (AOCP)
    The idea here is that people with certain kinds of OCP are able to perceive a deeper, more general and more absolute truth about the nature of the (social) world than those without it, and the political activism that this puts them in a privileged position to take enables them – once the fires have died down – to bring about an intrinsically better, less divided, freer, fairer, more advanced or less ideologically deluded society in general than what preceded it.

    I am on record, and have been for many years, as thinking AOCP is total crap. I don’t think there is anything better about women or people of colour that will magically predispose them to be better leaders or stewards of cultures or environments.

    And so it chaps my backside that I said people of colour had epistemic privilege, but you suggested in P9 I think they have AOCP, when in fact I believe their privilege is neither absolute nor ontological. 



    P7
    7. Regarding the XR movement, it is a necessary and constructive thing for people with OP who are active within it to be continually reminded of this privilege and to try to learn from OCP critiques of OP. One clue to whether these critiques are well motivated is when they are directed to the specific actions or inactions of people within the movement. Saying that the movement is ‘white’ or ‘middle-class’ is not a specific critique.



    In fact, the fact XR may be white and middle-class is a specific critique, you just missed it because you relabeled knowing as being. A movement that is white and middle-class, by definition cannot know the experience of the poor, the rich, or people of colour, and that lack of knowledge can have specific consequences which I stated and you elided. 



    P9
    I think there’s possibly an implicit assumption here that black and working-class people are more authentic or sui generis political actors. Whereas white and middle-class people need to do the reading.

    I said nothing about authenticity, nor did I suggest some unique knowledge. What I said was that many people of colour have knowledge and experience that the WMC typically does not. 



    I also think white people wold be wise to recognize our lack of epistemic privilege concerning protest. Very, very few of us have grown up in a culture with a history of protest, have been schooled in that history, and are participating in ongoing scholarship about success and strategy.


    Yet many people of colour from around the world have exactly that.

    P10
    This point is where the rubber hits the road, and why I am upset with the preceding.

    I said:

    As can be seen ad nauseam, white mass murderers are captured alive and fed cheeseburgers, while black men are shot seemingly at random.

    After weeks of rioting against police violence, American police are still just shooting wildly.

    Just not at white people.

    So the reality is that white people can do a lot to ratchet up the tension of protest and conflict. But that tension is going to be released on people of colour.

    That is why it is best for us to be in service of indigenous led protest movements—they are the ones that are going to die, and they should have the chance to decide how and when they want that to happen.

    And you wrote:
    10. Ruben writes that “white people would be wise to recognize our lack of epistemic privilege concerning protest”. I think there’s some truth in that. But the best way of gaining epistemic privilege concerning protest is by protesting. That is what (white) people within XR are doing. They are making mistakes. They are learning. They are engaged.

    I think you fundamentally do not yet “get” epistemic privilege. In this point you again suggest the way to get knowing is by doing.

    The point of epistemic privilege is what you know by be-ing.

It is true, you can get “better” at protesting by protesting (better in quotation marks because I already made clear what I consider to be the measure of success—removing carbon from the atmosphere as one example)

But that isn’t what I said. I said:

    But that tension is going to be released on people of colour…they are the ones that are going to die…That is why it is best for us to be in service of indigenous led protest movements

    You have diminished the insight that thinking about epistemic privilege offers, and as a consequence, you have elided the murderous reactions towards black and brown people.

    So you make the white, middle-class jump to unity. What ties us together? Why, protesting ties us together (or more commonly, class). And so if we protest together, and I protest as much as you, then I have as much knowledge as you do about protesting, and you and I are the same. 

You made the white, middle-class dodge around the epistemic privilege you cannot have and will never have. What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be a person of culture—or to have been torn from it?

    Get more specific. What does it mean to be Black. How about to be a person of colour, emigrated from one of the Empire’s former dominions?

    What does it mean to be First Nations, and to have genocide, colonization and pandemic be still destroying your people?



    P14
    14. Ruben writes “when XR rolls in proclaiming non-violence to be the answer…yes, that is mighty white of them.” But I don’t think XR activists generally proclaim that nonviolence is ‘the’ answer. I think they have signed up to the view that nonviolent civil disobedience is the best way to build a mass movement of climate change activism in present circumstances in contemporary Britain. I agree with that view, whereas in different circumstances I might not. I don’t think it is ‘mighty white’. I’d also note the implicit appeal to black authenticity in the term “rolls in”.

    Perhaps we are having geographic differences in this one. You live in the UK, which I would say is land from which many peoples are indigenous that would now be called white as a general label, though very many of them would self-describe by indigenous names—Welsh, Cornish, Scot, Irish, etc. 



    You have freed various slaves and imported various cheap labourers as your empire contracted, which has created modern racial tension, but I think it is useful to see that the people who are indigenous to the UK are commonly called white. 



    I live in North America, where the indigenous are not white, nor are any other people of colour indigenous to this continent. I live where many areas and nations were never conquered, and who have unbroken culture reaching back millennia. In fact, I have First Nations friends who see Black people as colonizers—they were enslaved colonizers, but nonetheless. 



    So, on the territory that I live on, not only do the First Nations people have far more knowledge of the nuts and bolts of protest than almost any white person, we are also on. their. land. And in many cases, that is not some Social Justice Warrior figure of speech, we actually are just on their land. 

So perhaps our difference about the mighty whiteness of protest behaviour arises from our very different circumstances.

    A final point of low importance, but one that again chaps my backside, I would point out as far as appeals to black authenticity are concerned, that my affinity is with the liberation of First Nations first, and other cultures afterwards. Is that because they are a more authentic Noble Savage? No? It is because they are people who have been most comprehensively screwed over on land I live on. So, not only am I not appealing to black authenticity, I am alert to the erasure of Indigenous people by Black activists. 


    So, the specific action I am critiquing is that you replaced knowing with doing, and therefore replaced something you can never have with something that you can have. This is quite precisely erasing the experience of others. This is a very common thing for white people to do, and as I said, it can have very real consequences for non-white people.

    And let me repeat again that even though this part of your argument is very white, I believe that is due to your lack of epistemic privilege in certain areas. I do not in any way believe you to be a hood-wearing racist. I know you to be profoundly concerned with justice, for all people and for the living world, and I think the project you articulate—and which I am greatly looking forward to in book form—is terribly important.

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