Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Critique of Anti-Assimilation, Part II

Or "Inverted Hierarchies: Substituting Struggle for Liberation with Horizontal Hostility"

Last time, I talked about the problems with the term "classism", what sort of model the term arises from, and how it tends to lead to flawed theory and action. This time, I'd like to talk about how inverted hierarchies arise in queer communities/scenes, and how abandoning class struggle and trying to determine who is most oppressed leads to a lot of horizontal hostility.

First, to define what I mean by an inverted hierarchy, I mean the valuation of people by some trait/identity/social position, in which a community, scene, or milieu values people in terms of that trait the inverse of how the large society views them. For instance, people who conform to their assigned gender roles have an easier time in the larger society; in queer communities (some) gender nonconformity is often seen as making someone more queer, and often results in a better social position within the subculture. Of course, this interacts with a strong preference for masculinity in queer communities. Similar things occur around sexual practices, number of partners, etc. The specific instances are not important here - just the concept.

How does this arise? Well, without a coherent model that both has the potential to unite the majority of humanity in a common struggle and that sees exploitation and oppressions as part of a social structure (the capitalist mode of production), one is left with various oppressions floating around, sometimes intersecting, sometimes not. Even the attempts to create a coherent, over-arching model that puts all oppressions (and generally views class as a system of oppression, rather than a relationship to the means of production), tends to view them as an ever-shifting mass where everyone is oppressing everyone else in some way.

This model where all straight people systemically oppress all gays, all white people all people of color, all cis people all trans people sets us up for a struggle of everyone against everyone, and, combined with the individualism that is hyperpresent in the US, there's a motivation to show that oneself is less of an "oppressor" than everyone else around them, thus, what we call the Oppression Olympics occurs - everybody tries to prove they are the most oppressed, and thus they are the most valid because everyone else around them is participating in their oppression. Thus, the people who can claim the most oppressed identities get the most cred. Now, of course, there are the real effects that the actual stratifications built into the working class by things like racism and sexism have on people's lives - the person who is the "winner" and at the top of these inverted hierarchies is generally not the worst off; they just played the game the best.

I instead propose a model that states the following:

1) That the class struggle is the motor of history: the autonomous struggle of the working class and the reactions to this by capital drive history along. Social revolution can only be achieved by the working class itself.

2) That oppressions have been built into the working class, and produce stratifications in it; struggle against these oppressions are part of the class struggle.

3) While some members of the working class may have petty and apparent privileges over other members of the working class, those privileges are far less than what could be achieved through unified struggle.

4) It is less than useful to talk about oppressions on an individual level - individual circumstances in someone's life, although they are affected by race, gender, sexuality, etc, mean these are not in any way strict determinants of anything on the micro level. It's far easier and more useful to talk about groups of, say, women, then being able to absolutely say exactly what all the effects sexism has on one woman. Besides, we struggle as a class and as sections of the class, not as individuals.

5) Identity labels don't even work well on the individual level - there are too many shades of gray and too many fuzzy boundaries such that we can conveniently box in every single individual in an unproblematic way. Not only is determining someone's value based on these categories undesirable, it's also problematic.

6) While groups within the working class can and often must struggle autonomously, those struggles need to return to and generalize throughout the rest of the class as they progress. The struggle for queer liberation is not against straight people; it is part of the struggle against the bourgeoisie, as homophobia and transphobia arose out of regulations on gender and sexuality that were enforced by the bourgeois during the birth of capitalism to insure that there was adequate production of future labor.

Of course, nothing I am proposing for a model here is new - it merely draws on the rich libertarian communist tradition.


  1. These posts have been great. I guess I'm a little fuzzy on #4 on this list though. I'm sure we don't want our political discoursento dissolve into anecdote, sure, but I think our personal experiences often inform our politics, and help us more clearly identify problems that may be foreign to someone.

  2. Corso, I think you're absolutely right - obviously, our personal experiences help inform our politics (they shape who we are, after all), however, I see a pretty general trend to go too far - to assume one anecdote is equivalent to something systemic. I think that stems from the fact that a lot of queer politics owe a big debt to Third Wave Feminism, and a serious issue with a lot of Third Wave Feminism is every personal decision or event being seen as politically significant.

    #4 is definitely something that makes the most sense in the context of a lot of radical queer politics - where people turn exceptional personal experiences or tiny scenes that diverge significantly from the rest of society into the general models. I'm pretty sure that if the trend were the opposite - if people rigidly applied macroscale rules and didn't allow any room for personal experience, I'd be making the opposite point.