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.