November 21, 2008
Zenobia has the fantastic post up, asking who is feminism reaching, and pointing out that the way a lot of contemporary feminism works (ie meeting weeknights in city centre bars) means that a lot of women are inadvertently excluded because they can’t come to meetings and the issues discussed don’t seem immediately relevant to their lives. Zenobia recommends that feminists get involved in more community-based groups instead, and I couldn’t possibly agree more. First of all, you’ll probably have a much more positive impact on people’s lives in the short-term, especially with the current severe democratic deficit. Building a community garden, for example, might improve people’s lives directly and immediately in a way that marching at this year’s RTN may not (especially as I’m not convinced RTN accomplishes what it sets out to do, but that’s a whole other issue).
Furthermore, the revolution is not going to be engineered by a small group of elite activists while everyone else just goes along with it. It’s going to come about when some sort of critical mass of people who refuse to do what authority tells them to is reached. Or basically – what if the soldiers sent to Iraq refused to fight? The army couldn’t court martial ALL of them, so they’d have to give up on the war. Similarly, wouldn’t it be better if men were educated to believe that they were not entitled to women’s bodies, and so no rapes occurred, rather than locking up rapists after the fact (and let’s not even start on the oppressive nature of the prison system). Additionally, community-based work will hopefully expose privileged activists to less privileged people (thereby, for example, convincing middle-class white women that racism is a feminist issue!) and recruit a wider variety of people to activism. On the latter point, I remember an interview an American anarchist was giving about building the anarchist movement. And he said that all anarchists should get involved in a community project – and don’t mention anarchism once. Work really hard, and develop a reputation as a really dedicated activist who really knows his/her stuff – and don’t mention anarchism. And finally, if someone asks you about your politics, then talk about anarchism a bit. If they’re still interested, invite them to a meeting, but don’t push it. Basically, if people respect you, and you’re an anarchist, they’ll be interested in anarchism; but if you’re a jackass, they’ll just write you and anarchism off.
However, a lot of the “activism” done by “activist groups”, ie protesting, circulating petitions, etc. is also really necessary. Everyone is going to be negatively affected, for example, if rape crisis centres lose their funding; but the free time and money necessary to pitch up in front of parliament protesting once a week is not a universal attribute. Some kinds of activism, particularly the time-consuming kinds and the kind that risks arrest, often require the people who do them to have a certain amount of privilege (this is not always true, and people braver than I often risk arrest despite being far less privileged). White people with British citizenship are risking less by getting arrested then migrants, or British people of colour. Yet, as Zenobia discusses, these campaigns are significantly weakened by their membership consisting mainly of privileged people. Plus, the important community-based work, discussed above, is not getting done.
The solution, I think, is to conceptualise progressive/radical movements as having multiple fronts, with need for excellent communication and collaboration between fronts. For example, No Borders is an anti-capitalist activist group the members of which are mainly middle class and mainly white (there are both people of colour and working-class people in No Border, but they’re in the minority). A lot of this comes from how people get involved with No Borders (often through university) and the fact that No Borders is a direct action group, which means being willing, in theory at least, to risk arrest. No Borders is very clear that they don’t think less of people who can’t take this risk, and I’ve never felt looked down upon because I can’t be arrested (whereas I’ve totally felt that in a feminist space before). Similarly, the preponderance of students means a lot of protests are held during office hours; this is good insofar as it means you can protest in front of government buildings while employees are actually there, but it also means that a lot of people (myself included) can’t go to the protests. There are serious problems with such a homogenous membership; on the other hand, it’s important to have people that can protest during office hours and can risk arrest.
Activists in individual anti-deportation campaigns are often working-class and much more likely to be people of colour. That’s because an individual anti-deportation campaign involves a person’s friends and neighbours rallying around him/her, and asylum-seekers are usually placed in council estates. Some inspiring stories of solidarity have come out of anti-deportation campaigns. The government, for example, won’t send asylum-seekers to certain areas of Glasgow anymore because whenever they tried to deport someone, their neighbours would run and stand in front of the person’s door, so immigration officials couldn’t get through. And these were always really grim, impoverished areas, where the government has blamed asylum-seekers for their own failure to do anything to alleviate that poverty. Yet, the residents were able to see through this propaganda, and came to the defence of their neighbours.
Individual anti-deportation campaigns are crucially important – they save people’s lives. They also expose British citizens to the racism and injustice of the asylum system, and cause people to question the basic justice of borders. But they won’t necessarily lead to an open borders policy, nor do they help people who aren’t asylum-seekers (migrant workers, for example), nor anyone who cannot rally community support.
Both types of activism, clearly, are important and necessary. Ideally, there should be close communication and collaboration between No Borders and the National Coalition of Anti Deportation Campaigns (and there often is). Those of us who have the time should get involved in both and act as a personal link between groups.
Multiple fronts are also necessary because of the inadvertent negative impact that activism can have, particularly on less privileged people. If detention centres are shut down, their staff will all be thrown out of work. Not only are working-class people more likely to find themselves in situations where they are hurt most by otherwise positive changes caused by activism (if an airline stops deporting people, they will lose money and may have to lay off staff), but they are less likely to have the resources required to recover quickly from this impact. If detention centres are shut down, the governor of the detention centre will also lose his/her job, but he’ll probably find another one pretty quickly and/or has savings and bonds and whatnot that s/he can live off of until then.
Consequently, it’s important that activists campaigning for the close of detention centres are ALSO supportive of retraining schemes and job creation programs, etc. I think this will also make us better activists, because when you scratch the surface a bit, you often see that apparently unrelated issues are in fact linked. The government’s failure to act on poverty issues, and it’s subsequent scape-goating of migrants, contributes a lot to the xenophobic atmosphere that No Borders is trying to combat.
The first step in building a movement that functions on multiple fronts is to follow Zenobia’s advice and join a local community centre. You’ll probably learn a lot more from the people there than they will learn from you. And remember: don’t mention anarchism (or feminism) until someone specifically asks.