The Threat of Power and the Limits of Solidarity

protestkyates“Power concedes nothing without a struggle. It never did and it never will.” Frederick Douglass sums up the fundamental attitude that has animated the American radical left and labor movements for the last 150 years. To place one’s hopes in electoral politics, business reform, or the goodwill of elites, from this perspective, is to believe the fairytales of Liberalism. Far from being a series of reasonable conversations by reasonable people, labor organizers and radical leftists have a much more Realpolitik conception of politics: it is a struggle of power. If workers, minorities, women, the LGBTQ community, etc. want change, they have to identify, expand, and mobilize real power to force those in positions of authority to either cede to their demands, or be removed from office.

In short, whether explicitly or not, leftism recognizes the truth of Marx’s claim that human social relations were largely (if not entirely) reducible to class struggle: political and economic structures are simply means of extracting value from workers while returning to them less value (in food, clothing, etc.) than they generate. The margin between the two, between revenue and expenses, is profit, itself the essential fuel for the engine of reinvestment, by which capital reproduces itself.

Fundamentally, this view of human society results in radicals’ taking an adversarial stance to all of those in power, whether government administration, in business, or indeed in mainstream culture. All such figures are understood via their structural, rather than individual, identities: their incentives are to maintain the system that gives them power, wealth, and prestige, and so no matter how morally upstanding they may be as individual people, they will, push come to shove, always serve the interests of capital, even if that means horrendous devastation for workers, the environment, racial or sexual minorities, etc. It is the structure of power, and not the personal qualities of the various officers, representatives, or managers, that is essential.

Now, one could certainly, even from a radical-leftist perspective, challenge this account. I’ve attempted to compress nearly two centuries of political theory and practice into three paragraphs, so inevitably I have engaged in massive generalizations. But for the moment I want to assume this basic framework of political thought to raise a question about specific political practices (a debate about how accurate the above account actually is would itself, of course, be valuable–but I won’t be addressing that in this space.)

In short, assuming the above account, how does one avoid falling into a kind political nihilism? If it’s the case that everyone, without exception, is only serving their particular role in reproducing capital as an abstracted value controlled by a small class of property-owners, then how can workingpeople ever generate real communities of resistance? Won’t it be the case that even fellow workers will themselves always be waiting to take their own cut of capital’s spoils? If all are corrupted by the structure of capital’s mode of self-reproduction, on what foundation can real movements of justice and liberation be built?

Well, the committed leftist can respond, according to the theory of class struggle itself, those who do not find themselves directly benefiting from the generated profit of capital’s reproduction–e.g., the workers whose labor is exploited, from whom this value is ripped–have a unique structural role within capitalism. From this (more or less orthodox Marxist) viewpoint, the goal is to clarify the confusion of false consciousness, to make it clear to all workingpeople who their real enemies are, and thereby build solidarity among such people–who, after all, generally constitute a majority or near-majority of most populations in industrialized nations.

From this perspective, then, power is built in a perhaps cynical, but at least honest way: workers should be willing to commit to radical leftist politics for their own individual interest, even if lofty concepts like justice and equality in the abstract don’t motivate them. The problem with this perspective has become particularly clear through experience of organizing in the US during the 20th century. So long as workers view the political landscape this way, and sign on to radical politics only so as to get theirs, they will constantly have an incentive to abandon the movement if capital offers them a better deal. Indeed, this is what has happened time and again, perhaps most obviously in the case of the AFL, which as a craft/trade union of skilled workers, has often (especially in the early 20th century, before joining with the more militant CIO) had incentives to abandon industrial workers and other low-skill workers in their contracts. This historical fact reveals that in many ways, many workers themselves are basically potential petit bourgeoisie, or to put it more plainly (and to quote* John Steinbeck): “I guess the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.”

This tendency of workingpeople to break ranks and make separate deals is a serious problem, and, unsurprisingly since this is not my area of study, I have no helpful or pragmatic response to it to offer here. But it also brings a related problem into sharp relief:

In many ways, the basic theory of class struggle hurriedly outlined above has only been made even starker by critical theory and Michel Foucault‘s work, which (to massively generalize and paraphrase), stresses that all human communication is fundamentally oriented to the maintenance and expansion of power, even–perhaps especially–if the person communicating doesn’t realize this (it’s not always their power that is being maintained or expanded, of course, e.g. internalized racism). This view simultaneously brings important, if depressing, facts about human social life to the surface, but also runs the risk of destroying the potential for building solidarity among workingpeople, for if everyone, no matter how marginalized, is simply a node of power reproducing itself, if we are all in truth temporarily embarrassed millionaires, if all of our interactions are really just sly flanking maneuverings in socio-economic combat, isn’t all hope for a liberatory politics lost?

This is not a purely theoretical question, as many of the political movements among Millenials have focused on precisely this problem, albiet often somewhat implicitly. I offer two examples: first, I would point you to the claim made by some black feminists and womanists that “solidarity is for white women“, a phrase that spread as a Twitter hashtag in 2013 and which simultaneously exposes the real fault lines of leftist and progressive movements as well as the cynicism which lies just beneath the surface of a political discourse that so often tries to build itself on a foundation of hope. Likewise, the honesty of many black organizers in the Movement for Black Lives has led to many of them directing sharp criticisms both at politicians one expect them to see as likely allies–e.g. both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton–but also at white allies more generally.

Many (white!) commentators immediately dismiss such critiques, calling for maturity, pragmatism, or (insert other code-word for “please shut up” here) among such activists and organizers: even if they have serious critiques of white allies, the thinking goes, they should keep quiet for fear of giving ammunition to the real enemy (Republicans, et al.) But this tone-deaf response fundamentally misunderstands what these black critics are pointing to: that even among well-meaning whites, decisions are still being made according to a power calculus, and these activists are refusing to settle for any less than their fair share of power. They are being honest that it is this that they want: power, and nothing less. Real power. Decision-making power. They don’t simply want to place some well-meaning white in authority and trust that she or he will do the right thing. They don’t trust us (and why should they!?) Instead, they are saying: give us the power, and we will make the decision. Nothing less will do.

In its own way, this is a return to the stark but deeply insightful political analysis of the 60’s Black Power movement, a turn away from the emphasis on electoral politics and slow reform and progress that defined the civil rights movement from the 70’s through the early 00’s. Trust was given and was broken, not only by white politicians, but also by many black ones, who prioritized maintaining and expanding their own personal power over doing what was actually best for their constituents. And, of course, this is precisely the sort of behavior that Marxist and (in its own way) critical theory/Foucauldian analysis would predict. Everyone’s actions are, in some way or another, movements to maintain or expand power. To get what you want, you have to maintain and expand your own power. In that sense, BLM and critiques of white feminism are both products of serious reflections on the reality of politics.

But this brings us back to our original question: what can we expect the result of this realpolitik to actually be? Does this honest assessment of power have the potential to generate a truly liberatory politics? Or is it actually just the opposite, the codification of exploitative power? For if the above account is correct, then no one–not even the current leaders of the BLM–can ultimately be trusted. To the extent that they succeed and gain real power for themselves, they can be expected to act to maintain and expand that power itself, rather than necessarily wield it responsibly in the struggle for justice. This, of course, is not some particular critique of these individuals, but simply applying to them the very lessons they have learned from their own lives and the history of their communities, as catalogued above.

At this point, dear reader, you probably see the double-bind: recognition of the reality of how power operates simultaneously gives and takes away. It gives marginalized people the knowledge they need to see their own political, economic, and social conditions more clearly (i.e. dispels “false consciousness”) and to work to develop power with other marginalized people to overturn the structures that are crushing them. On the other hand, and by the very same token, it also predicts what will happen if they succeed: the same cynical use of power by whoever manages to lead such organizations of liberation.

I hope I have accurately diagnosed the problem, even if only in a very generalized and truncated way. But as for solutions to the problem, well…it’s at this point that my mind moves to further philosophical and theological speculation, precisely because I think what the above suggests is that politics is itself the very problem that liberatory political activity seeks to solve. But as Audre Lorde made clear: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Applying this insight to political economy, having dis-covered the fact that our very lives and identities are both causes and effects of the way in which power is reproduced according to the structures of capital, can we expect that wielding power itself, if it is wielded in precisely the way that the owners of the means of production wield it, can lead to real liberation? I hope to have made clear in the above that I am not optimistic about such a program, no matter how “democratic” it seeks to be.

But, then what? Am I just contributing to the very cynicism I earlier seemed so wary of? I can’t really deny the claim, and as I said above, I have no concrete answer or solution to offer. But I can offer a more general, theoretical point: what is needed is a transformation of the way we think about ourselves, about power, and about each other. We need to exist in such a way that we see ourselves and each other differently, and–by the very definition of what I am saying–I can’t imagine what this other way of seeing self and other will be, because, of course, if I could imagine it, I would know it! I would already be occupying that epistemic perspective. I can’t imagine what it would be to not see myself a power-managing being wrestling with other power-managing beings.

Now, I am not suggesting that simply by thinking of ourselves differently, we can magically transform our material circumstances or social relations; rather I am saying that a condition of possibility for such a real transformation of the material and social is a new way of thinking. In short, we have to be able to imagine a different mode of relations in order to challenge the current one. But if it is true that our imaginations are themselves limited by the very social relations in which we currently find ourselves, then the double-bind explored above comes back with a vengeance. I have to imagine the possibility of a new set of social relations, which I can only do once I am already existentially defined by those very (as of yet non-existent) social relations(!)

At this point, Marxist theories of the Proletariat as the Subject of History, or the deeper Abrahamic narratives of the eschaton upon which the former is based, loom in my mind. But these, of course, have their own well-rehearsed limitations and failures. I want to end here, honestly, having charted the terrain and perhaps made a simplistic map. That I can’t see beyond the horizon of my own social location to new possibilities of a transformed power, a power that can be more than zero-sum, doesn’t mean that someone else necessarily won’t be able to. May my map, however poorly drawn, be of some help.

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