Tag Archives: joyful militancy

Happiness is bullshit

Joyful Militancy

Happiness is not joy. Under capitalism, happiness is a duty and unhappiness is a disorder. Companies increasingly sell happy experiences instead of products: happiness is a relaxing vacation on the beach, an intense night at the bar, a satisfying drink on a hot day, or contented retirement. As workers, we are expected to find happiness in our job. As consumers, we are encouraged to become connoisseurs and customizers, with an ever-more refined sense of what makes us happy. We are encouraged to base our lives on this search for happiness and its promises of pleasure, bliss, fulfillment, exhilaration, or arousal, depending on our tastes and proclivities (and our budget).

The search for happiness doesn’t just come through markets. We are also sold the rejection of upward mobility and consumerism as another form of placid containment: maybe you realize that what really makes you happy is a life in a small…

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Summary: amory starr – Grumpywarriorcool

ignitingarevIn this accessible, perceptive short essay from Igniting a Revolution, amory starr criticizes what she calls “grumpywarriorcool:” ways of being in activist spaces that are unkind, unfeeling, and exclusive.  She unpacks the way that whiteness and patriarchy has been “smuggled in” to radical organizing spaces, despite solidarity work and explicit opposition to these forms of oppression.  This is a summary of her article, and because I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, some of my own experiences and reflections are in here too.  This relates closely to Jamie Heckert’s argument in “Anarchy without Opposition,” which I summarized last week here.

starr is arguing that grumpywarriorcool is a symptom of whiteness and patriarchy in spaces that are often explicitly anti-oppressive.  She discusses subtle forms of conduct at meetings and other organizing spaces that ‘smuggle in’ practices and behaviours that appear neutral or even liberatory, but may actually reflect and reproduce patriarchy, whiteness and classism, alienating communities of colour in particular.

In this sense, she explains, “it’s not what we work on that makes our politics racist, it’s how we do it that matters… What I have finally begun to realize is that the how is deep and subtle” (377).

She identifies and unpacks a few behaviours, assumptions, and practices in particular, which come together to create grumpywarriorcool:

1) Blanket ‘diversity’ or ‘equality’ can mask internalized oppression or exclusivity: starr argues that invoking ‘culture’ to defend individualistic behaviour “claims a socio-moral status beyond reprove and a horizontality which obviates critique.  It is this framework of cultural diversity which makes it difficult to identify and address internalized oppression within radical and revolutionary countercultures” (378).  starr gives a polemical/sarcastic example: “i’m going to stink, i’m going in there even though i’m contagious, i’m going to bring my barking dog, i have the right to do whatever the fuck i want and people just have to deal with it and i’m going to call this ‘cultural diversity’… meanwhile other folks around are feeling like another white guy is doing whatever the fuck he wants” (379).  This also connects to the idea of ‘taking up too much space’ at meetings.  A familiar concept to radicals, the idea of sharing space says that we should all pay attention to how much space each of us is taking up, and we should make sure there’s space for everyone to speak and share ideas.  It has emerged in response to real problems: white dudes like me are often louder, and they talk forever, silencing others.  starr quotes her friend Jane here, who argues that the resulting ethic of ‘not taking up too much space’ can be part of the problem: “Get over it.  You better figure out how to be democratic and still be full of life” (384).  How can we figure out how to avoid dominating spaces while also bringing our passion and excitement?  Are there ways of being that actually open up or create space?  starr isn’t pretending there’s a perfect solution here: “while no culture can be universally welcoming landing pad, that doesn’t mean that organizers are absolved of any responsibility for culture” (378).

2) Norms of fearlessness, self-sacrifice, and bravery: starr argues that these norms can obfuscate the value of fear, hesitations, doubts, and silences.  “Those voices of intimate reflection are an enormous archive of knowledge, but remain hidden behind behind profound doubt and fear” (378).  Norms of fearlessness make it difficult to share (and work through) fears, anxieties, and doubts.

3) Individualism and the dream of shedding the past to find community in the future: “a hallmark of white countercultures is the vision of individualistic self-creation in which oppressive childhood values and institutions are cast off, and political compassion embraces what might best be theorized as ‘imagined community‘” (380).  This describes my process of radicalization to a tee: i came to see my middle-class, white, suburban upbringing as the thing I had to unlearn, and (parts of) anarchist subculture became the community i belonged to.  This isn’t a problem in itself (well, there were lots of problems with this anarchist community, but that’s different).  The problem is that this experience gets universalized, and “many find it hard to imagine parents participating in radical political action” (380) because my reality (and the one I impose on everyone else) is that people have an ‘awakening’ sometime in their 20s, and they organize in ways that work for other, twenty-somethings.  In contrast, starr argues, many activists of colour “envision social movements in intimate terms; fighting racism is protecting their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children.  Struggle and survival are principles learned at home, from family and elders, at church” (380).  Indeed, I’m just starting to recognize in concrete terms that it tends to be white, middle-class people (NOT all people) who lack community.  I’m just starting to learn about and prioritize care, vulnerability, trust, and generosity, while recognizing that these values and practices are second-nature to folks with different backgrounds than my own.

4) This individualism has important implications beyond misunderstandings and false universalisms.  It means that intellectual and formal aspects of politics are often privileged over everyday life and the nitty-gritty face-to-face interactions that happen in organizing.  This one hit a chord with me: “when activists focus energy on clever communications and/or disruptions which even the mainstream media will cover, they imagine that the cleverness and surprising courage of these actions will excite people to participate in various capacities” (380).  This is the classic anarchist fantasy of ‘propaganda by the deed’.  Disruption leads to inspiration leads to politicization and recruitment leads to creating a community of resistance: “joining a movement is understood as an individual intellectual act, not a social one” (381).  To admit that this is a fantasy connected to whiteness and masculinity doesn’t mean that it’s totally ineffective, but it’s likely to attract more people like me: people who’ve felt alone, and get attracted to politics for intellectual reasons, or because it seems exciting and daring.

5) Similarly, starr points to ‘smart radicalism’ as a fundamental premise of white organizing: a commitment to radical principles and theories, a ‘correct’ interpretation of these principles and theories, and the assumption that this correct radicalism will avoid fetishism or mistakes (382-3).  I’ve participated in this one, too: being part of spaces where people are hungry to correct each other and ‘get it right.’  starr suggests that this is often connected to an attack on ‘reformism’ within radical groups, where the militancy of members is judged by their willingness to engage in high-risk direct action.  She contrasts this to the priorities of anti-rarcism: “while ideological and tactical radicalism exist in antiracist organizing, they are not the standard by which organizations and organizers relate with participants.  Instead, friendliness, comfort, safety, generosity, and reliable personal connection are the necessary elements of ‘good’ political work (383).

6) Direct democracy can end up substituting formal equality for genuine relationships and exchange.  In direct democracy, leadership often exists in the form of ‘facilitation’ and tends to be temporary, rotating, and random “affirming that all participants have equal (and equally limited) authority (381).  starr isn’t dismissing this tradition, explaining that they’re “similar to anti-racist practices in that they are local (unlike mass actions and international campaigns), building community, and empower marginalized people” (381).  But, she says, these meetings themselves aren’t often comfortable or empowering, and this isn’t a priority because “white organizing assumes that activists arrive at meetings having decided already to be committed and to do inconvenient, uncomfortable things in the service of their commitments” (382).  This was another place where starr’s diagnosis hit home for me.  I’ve been to lots of meetings where people aren’t welcomed, ideas aren’t affirmed, and people aren’t friendly to each other.  When people are hesitant to commit to things, or complain that meetings suck, or stop showing up, I’ve often told myself it’s because they lack commitment.

7) This is one of the problems starr is pointing to: an everyday activist culture emerges lacking kindness, trust, generosity and vulnerability.  She calls this cool: “the reification of self-indulgent insecurity” (384).  It’s a problem because “it gets us into a place where we then feel undignified and vulnerable smiling, approaching someone, talking to strangers, or being unilaterally friendly” (384).  I don’t think this means making everything fun or easy; this mixes up ease with openness.  Nor is it about telling oppressed people to be more cheerful in their struggle: starr’s criticism is aimed clearly at privileged folks like me.  This really resonates: recognizing the reality of structural oppression and my privileged place within it not only made me feel guilty, it made me terrified of messing up.  And the best way to avoid humiliation is to humiliate others: never let your guard down, be relentlessly critical, and display your anti-oppression for the world to see.  As I cultivated this way of being, I found others who shared similar tendencies.  The result was an activist culture that was terrifying for newcomers and often cold even to insiders.

It’s not just that we have to be ‘critical’ of culture; we have to be open and able to having a range of conversations about subtle cultural behaviours and norms, in different ways.  The trap is to assume spaces or actions are culturally neutral and therefore inclusive, which starr argues amounts to “an act of indifference or disregard for other people” (which is often reflective of white and male privilege) (379).  starr frames this analysis as a way to “discuss together the kinds of power we believe in, how power manifests, and then what is the face, the gesture, the relationship with strangers, and the greeting?”

All of these elements intersect and reinforce each other to create what starr is calling grumpywarriorcool.

Grumpywarrior cool is the intersection of blanket ‘diversity’ that masks whiteness and patriarchy, norms of fearlessness and self-sacrifice, individualism and struggle-against-our-upbringing narratives, the fetishization of disruptive direct action and publicity, intellectual radicalism and correctness, and cool unwelcoming judgmental activist spaces.

So what are the implications of this critique?  These aren’t just failures of analysis, but deeply ingrained ways of being: just because I read this article and find it convincing doesn’t mean I’m going to start being vulnerable, open, and kind.  If starr’s analysis is correct, then grumpywarriorcool is something white activists are steeped in, and it will take a lots of work, dedication, and experimentation to create different ways of being.  These are the limits of critique: it’s one thing to unsettle and critique ways of being that have come to be natural or normal.  It’s another thing to displace them with an alternative; that’s a much bigger challenge. And if part of the problem is relentless critique that fetishes the ‘correct’ analysis, then this criticism of white activist culture is always in danger of participating in this dynamic.  The critique of grumpywarriorcool and end up being just another trump card to display radical/intellectual superiority.  As starr laments, it’s a strange challenge to talk to people about subtle behaviours, assumptions, and the looks on their faces–is this about telling people how to behave?

What’s the alternative?  starr suggests an ethic of discovery: “not only getting to know each other, but also interrogating the structural contents of political concepts and space we take for granted which, as it turns out, have a huge impact on the shape of our political work” (379).  I am just starting to see grumpywarriorcool as a problem in my own community, and I’ve been lucky enough to stumble on alternatives that are more convivial, kind, and vulnerable.  In some ways, they’ve always been there, and I’ve dismissed them as wishy-washy, too hippy-ish, or they just freaked me out because I had to be vulnerable to share in those spaces.  In general, the spaces I’ve encountered are no less radical or militant, but there’s space for people to be silly, kind, joyful, sad, scared, supportive, vulnerable and angry.  It’s messier and more dangerous: when we open up to each other, there really is more danger of humiliation, getting hurt, and hurting others.  But this isn’t about yet another duty that tells white men like me that we need to do this or that: it’s about being really present and feeling alive.  For me, this has always been scarier than sneaky direct action.  starr ends the article with an updated exhortation from Black Panthers to white allies: “Let us see as central to our politics the replacement of indifference with discovery” (385).

Summary: Anarchy without Opposition by Jamie Heckert

queeringanarchismHow might being “against” systems oppression and domination actually support those systems?  How might “being radical” end up distancing radicals from the people they want to be engaging?  This is a summary and analysis of “Anarchy without Opposition,” by Jamie Heckert, a chapter in Queering Anarchism.  Heckert unpacks the ways that anarchists often set themselves in opposition to systems of oppression, and he claims that this opposition can actually be a kind of counterproductive attachment.  By defining themselves against what they’re not (oppression, capitalism, the State, and so on), anarchists can end up reinforcing those very structures.  As an alternative, Heckert suggests a queering of anarchism, which would make it more open-ended, relational, dynamic and compassionate.  He draws together strands of queer theory, anarchism, permaculture, non-violent communication, and buddhism, creating a narrative that is both theoretical (highlighting ideology and opposition as bordering practices) and personal (sharing stories of his own attempts to navigate spaces with openness and compassion).  He writes:

My aim in this essay is to queer that notion of anarchism in a number of ways.  To queer is to make strange, unfamiliar, weird; it comes from an old German word meaning to cross.  What new possibilities arise when we learn to cross, to blur, to undermine, to overflow the hierarchical and binary oppositions we have been taught to believe in? (64).  

In the simplest terms, I think, Heckert’s problem is the way in which (LGBT and anarchist) identities and ideologies can end up preserving rigid borders and oppositions, which close off possibilities for more openness, compassion, and newness.  At stake in this problem is the capacity to embody anarchy: ways of being and relating that are fluid, loving, kind, creative, and open to difference.  He asks:

what kinds of politics might become possible if we all learn to be less concerned with conforming to certain labels and more capable of listening to the complexity of our desires?(66)

Heckert differentiates State-oriented LGBT politics from anarchist queer politics, suggesting that the State-oriented version seeks to sustain and legitimize identity, whereas queer politics “might ask how the identities themselves might already be Statelike with their borders and policing” (66).  He makes a similar point about anarchism, asking about the way its borders are policed:

How much energy that could go into creating other-than-State-like ways of living gets lost to efforts to appear anarchist enough?  I know I’m not the only one who suffers from anarcho-perfectionism!  Likewise, I’ve seen loads of energy to into arguments about whether so and so is really anarchist or not, or such and such is really anarchism (66).

The general problem he’s getting at is the ways in which identity and ideology function as bordering practices that close off possibilities: “when I again get caught up in my own thoughts, my own desires, my own stories about who I am, and who you are, what should have happened, how the world should be… then I see so little outside the dramas of my own mind.  Everything I see, everyone I meet, I reinterpret through the lens of those fictions.  I take myself and my beliefs very, very seriously.  Just like the State” (74).

In this sense, Heckert is arguing that ideological and identitarian boundaries are part of seeing and thinking like the State (or more radically, that those are the State, insofar as the State is a way of seeing and organizing the world):

“Here’s a queer proposal: the State is always a State of mind.  It’s putting life in boxes and then judging it in terms of those boxes, those borders, as if they were what really mattered.  It’s trying to get other people to do what you want them to do without so much regard for their needs, their desires.  It’s self-consciousness, self-policing, self-promotion, self-obsession.  It’s anxiety and depression.  It’s hyperactivity stemming from the fantasy that being seen to be doing something is better than doing nothing, even if what you’re doing might cause more harm than good.  It’s resetnment at self and others for not doing it right, for not being good enough.  It’s the belief that security comes from control.  And it’s a source of temendous suffering in the world.  It’s also something I do…” (73).

So what’s the alternative?  “What might an anarchy refusing to be contained by the borders by its opposites look like?” (67).  For the skeptics, he explains that he’s not saying anarchism should include everything; he’s saying that “interesting things are likely to happen if folk inspired by anarchism make connections with folk who see things differently, who do things differently” (67).  This isn’t recruiting, either: “To do so is not simply to try to convince others that anarchism is right, but perhaps even to let go of such judgments” (67).

At some points, Heckert calls for an anarchism with “no borders, no purity, no opposites,” which seems a bit unrealistic in practice, since our lives are full of all kinds of borders and boundaries, some of which are desirable, and others that we can’t simply get rid of (refusing to “see” the borders of private property will probably land you in jail).  But I think his main point is that we don’t have to take these borders for granted; they can be queered, unsettled, and shifted.  In this sense, this isn’t a call to get rid of all borders or divisions or oppositions, but to pay attention to what happens to them; to attend to them, to loosen them up, rather than assuming that they’re necessary or good or right.  Heckert admits that identity and other borderings can be useful:

Taxonomies of species or sexualities, categories of race or citizenship, borders between nations or classes or types of politics–these are fictions.  To be sure, fictions have their uses.  Perhaps in using them, we may learn to hold them lightly so that we, in turn, are not held by them (64).

Furthermore, the really important and interesting stuff happens at the borders, not inside them.  Heckert draws on permaculture’s insight that edges are the most productive and fertile parts of ecosystems, suggesting that anarchism would benefit from attending to the social edges, where people and communities permeate and connect: “The more that anarchism, a many branched river in our social ecosystem, mixes and mingles with swamp and stone, soil and soul, the more diverse forms of life will benefit” (69).

An important problem with all this (and I wished he spent more time on this) is the fact that these ways of being aren’t just beliefs that we can change by thinking critically or declaring ourselves otherwise.  As Heckert puts it: “declaring a politics to be nonhierarchical, anarchist, feminist, safe, or queer does not magically make this happen.  It takes a different kind of magic: practice” (70).  Both the positive and negative ways of being are held in our bodies; they’re accumulated habits of relating to ourselves and to each other, and they’re often-unconscious attachments and investments.  And working at being otherwise means working that through our bodies, and shifting our unconscious desires.  How?  I think Heckert’s suggestion is that we practice radical acceptance: of ourselves, of others, of the world, and of its hierarchies and borders (even if we want to tear them down): “there is no such thing as evil; there is nothing to oppose.  Instead, we might learn to both empathize with the desires of others, and to express our own” (71).  This is a politics “that starts off accepting everything just as it is.  From the basis of acceptance, we might then ask, what service can be offered?  How can anarchy be nurtured, rather than demanded, forced?” (71).  His final questions in this paragraph are particularly important, I think:

What ways of living and relating can we practice that are even more effective at meeting the needs of everyone for life, love, and freedom?  And in what ways might we learn to accept the pain we feel when that doesn’t happen, instead of distracting ourselves with resentment or chocolate?  And in what ways might we learn to be gentle with ourselves when we realize we’ve been drawn to strategies of distraction or even domination? (71).

So is he saying that we should just accept the status quo, try to love everyone, and be nice?  I don’t think it’s that simple.  I think that acceptance is the alternative to moral judgement, for Heckert.  It’s about escaping the normative fictions that encourage us to think about how things are wrong and bad and should be different.  This closes off our capacity to work with what’s actually here, because the here-and-now is too imperfect and messy for rigid borders of identity and ideology.  In contrast, acceptance entails finding ways out of the borders that constrict our perceptions and affections, we can see and feel more, be open to more, and create new relationships that have been closed off by the borders we’re transgressing.  Radical acceptance entails a recognition that domination and exploitation are happening, with or without our acceptance.  When domination becomes something that’s not monstrous, totally unacceptable, and something outside us that we can oppose, then we can also begin to work with ourselves more gently, because we’re prone to dominate and mess things up too:

to hold tightly–to shame, resentment, or any emotion or any story of how the world really is–is to be held tightly.  This is not freedom.  To hold gently is to be held gently.  This, to me, is freedom.  No opposition, no tension, between intimacy and spaciousness (72).

Another strength of Heckert’s piece is his clear, personal, and humble writing style.  It can be really challenging to speak to the importance of compassion, love, and openness without sounding naive, and I think Heckert pulls it off.  It’s even more challenging to point to the ways that anarchism can be hypercritical, ideological, holier-than-thou, and so on, without lapsing into this tendency oneself, by claiming a new critical insight that reveals yet another thing that people are doing wrong.  In short, critique of being hypercritical is still critique.  Heckert moves on and beyond this paradox by gesturing towards alternatives, foregrounding compassion, empathy, openness, and discussion.  There’s a danger here, too, which I think he avoids pretty effectively.  The danger consists in turning this alternative into a new imperative, a new ideology, or a new prescription for behaviour.  I think part of the strength of this essay is that Heckert admits that these open ways of being aren’t a static destination, and that he lapses into ideological certainty often; he doesn’t have it all figured out.  After proclaiming that his anarchism “has no straight lines, no borders, no purity, no opposites,” he readily admits:

Okay, I’ll be honest.  My anarchism can grow rigid, bordered, oppositional.  I know the satisfaction of imagining myself more radical than others.  The thing is, this comes with the risk of being not-radical-enough, or even not really anarchist.  It also gets in the way of betting along with people, of working together, of even meeting (68).

I can relate to this.  As someone who became politicized through learning about oppression and exploitation through university and anarchist activism, I was (and still am, sometimes) attached to a politics fuelled by resentment: of myself, my friends and family, and my guilt about my own privilege and complicity in systems of oppression.  I think Heckert is talking about this kind of resentment, and it’s different than anger: this kind of resentment makes me afraid of not being radical enough, it makes me want to hit people over the head with the Truth rather than having a conversation, and it keeps me from being able to meet people where they’re at and be open to difference and new insights.  Being more open, for me, has meant cultivating some of the qualities that Heckert is talking about: accepting and loving myself, being curious and open to learning, and understanding the ways that I’ve reproduced rigid borders in the ways that I relate to people when I’m trying to be pure or self-righteous, or when I’m feeling insecure.  I used to think “love” and “openness” was a bunch of hippy shit.  Now I find myself agreeing with Heckert: I want love, intimacy, and openness to be at the core of my politics, not as a new moral imperative or strategic insight, but because these are things that make me feel more alive, connected, and capable of transformation.

 

Random Not-so-Random Acts of Kindness

Cindy Milstein’s words on kindness, generosity, care and love in the context of the struggle for radical change: “It’s not that random not-so-random acts of kindness constitute revolution, or that if we accumulate enough of them, those acts will tip the imbalance of power, bringing all those structures of social domination, exploitation, and oppression to their knees. Yet they are part of (re)schooling ourselves in how to practice, routinely, the lost arts of caring, neighborly, and empathetic face-to-face social relations. And as many of us have personally experienced during uprisings like Occupy, the lack of such rigorous yet tender practices on a daily basis makes us woefully unprepared to be the people we want to be during our own experiments with egalitarian and directly democratic forms of social organization.”

Outside the Circle

photo-11

It’s night 5 of Hanukkah in my Brooklyn home. Colorful little candles are casting a warm glow against the tarnished-golden metal of the menorah — bringing light into the world, even if only temporarily.

Night 1, also in Brooklyn, was an evening of pausing and remembrance for me — good practices for nearly any day (http://cbmilstein.wordpress.com/2013/11/28/the-light-of-remembrance/).

Nights 2 through 4 were missed, and instead replaced with a two-hour trip north by train to the hilly, rural, calming landscape of the Hudson Valley for warmth, pauses, and remembrances of other kinds — calling forth illumination, too, but in different ways: woodstoves, sunsets near the end of hikes, star-studded skies, and most especially, friends old and new.

At this dark time, light becomes crucial to sustain our spirits, our humanity. Perhaps, to be generous, the tacky-kitschy-comic displays of electrified outdoor Christmas (and increasingly Hanukkah) lights starting to reappear could be…

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