“Exploitation” versus “Privilege” in Class Analysis

If a group of unionized nurses in Oakland, California, goes out on strike, to oppose their employer’s attempt to gut their pensions and benefits; or a group of autoworkers fights with the police in Seoul, South Korea, over an employer’s plan to lay off members of their union; or if a group of tire factory workers in the French city of Amiens holds a manager hostage, to negotiate better severance packages for laid off workers — should these actions be understood as “proletarian” struggles against exploitation, which ought to be actively and vigorously supported by the socialist Left? Or are these, on the contrary, the struggles of a parasitic elite attempting to defend its unearned privileges, which have been gained largely at the expense of the actual proletariat by means of a corrupt bargain struck with the capitalist ruling class? This is the question taken up by the leftist writer, Bromma, in the book, The Worker Elite: Notes on the ‘Labour Aristocracy’ (Kersplebedeb, 2014)


BC Teachers’ Federation: Defending privilege? Or opposing exploitation?

According to Bromma, none of the struggles described above are “proletarian.” Instead, they are the struggles of a parasitic section of the middle classes, which Bromma calls “the worker elite.” And they are not, according to Bromma, struggles against exploitation, but struggles to defend privilege. Anti-capitalists who align themselves with such workers make a grave error, according to this analysis. “Flattering a failing worker elite with crocodile tears for its lost privileges…leads to disaster for proletarian forces,” above all by fueling right-wing populism (57). Ultimately, Bromma concludes, “the parasitic and patriarchal agenda of this class must be defeated” (75).

The “Proletariat” versus “Privileged Workers”

Bromma’s book is not unusual in its opposition to the struggles of unionized nurses, construction workers, teachers or factory workers, nor the first to single out these workers as “overpaid” and “privileged.” These groups of workers and their unions have always had an overabundance of enemies. What is unusual is that, in this case, the attacks originate from within the ranks of the anti-capitalist Left. Indeed, Bromma’s accusations of privilege and corruption are motivated by the very thing that (from one point of view, at least) seems least likely to pit anti-capitalist activists against workers who fight with their employers: a commitment to the class struggle of the proletariat against the capitalist ruling class.

What turns Bromma’s commitment to class struggle into a hostility toward the struggles of so many workers is the conviction, defended in The Worker Elite, that workers do not constitute a single class, but on the contrary can be divided into three distinct classes: a “lumpenproletariat” of criminals and underground economy labourers, a worker elite of “privileged” labourers, and the proletariat proper, which comprises about 80% of humankind, but excludes many people that would normally be regarded as “proletarians” by most (non-maoist) socialists. The proletariat proper is depicted by Bromma as a genuinely productive class, exploited by others. But both the lumpenproletariat and the worker elite are, like the capitalists, fundamentally parasitic on the proletariat:

[I]t is an unavoidable fact that the worker elite is an intrinsically parasitic class. The treasured privileges of the worker elite are funded by the ongoing capitalist exploitation of the proletariat….The ruling class diverts a portion of the wealth that it [exploits]…to cultivating and maintaining worker elites, which in turn are persuaded to abandon and attack the proletariat and other enemies of capital….Its prized middle class status comes from a preferential social contract, approved and paid for by the bourgeoisie (11-12).

This view will be familiar to readers of books like J. Sakai’s Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat and Zak Cope’s Divided World, Divided Class, among others. Bromma’s book is less an attempt to innovate than to lay out, in accessible, clear language, yet with considerable sophistication and relatively substantive arguments, a concise statement of the case for the claim that many construction workers, factory workers, teachers, and other workers with (especially in global terms) unusually favourable rates of pay, working conditions, health and safety protections and job security, are not only non-proletarians, but indeed are the class enemies of the proletariat and key allies of the ruling class: “The worker elite provides mass acquiescence and mass support for anti-proletarian politics, including settler colonialism, imperialist war, male domination, and genocide” (9).

All of this will be rejected by many leftists, quite emphatically. But why? What’s this dispute all about?

In my view, what accounts for the deep gulf separating the class politics of Bromma and other adherents to this view from the class politics of others on the anti-capitalist Left is a disagreement about how to think about the nature of class. Specifically, should we understand class in terms of exploitation, or in terms of privilege? (For some important background on the use of concepts like “exploitation” and “privilege,” which I can’t detail here, see my article, “The Rise of the Post-New Left Political Vocabulary.”) Whereas many marxists view class through the lens of the concept of exploitation, Bromma instead views class mainly through the lens of the concept of privilege. (I say ‘mainly,’ because Bromma does make use of the concept of exploitation, but it has a secondary role, largely to support the book’s analysis of ‘worker elite’ privilege.)

I think we can understand the issues better if we take a closer look at these two approaches: the exploitation approach versus the privilege approach to class analysis.

The Exploitation Approach to Class Analysis

In the exploitation approach, class is understood in terms of the antagonistic relationship between boss and worker, and the “friction of interests” (as EP Thompson put it, deploying a phrase from Balzac) that propels them toward conflict. In this view, workers are regarded as fundamentally productive, in contrast to members of the employer cass who are fundamentally parasitic and unproductive. In some cases, the productivity of workers is a matter of directly generating wealth in the form of commodities (for example, work producing automobiles, food, or computer software). In other cases, the productivity of workers is a matter of establishing or reproducing the necessary societal background conditions for the generation of wealth (for example, the work of teaching, caring for the physical or emotional needs of children, or restoring the health of the sick and injured). In still other cases, productivity is a matter of work enabling what Marx called the “realization” of wealth by facilitating the sale of commodities for cash (for example, shipping, advertising, or retail work). By contrast, the capitalist ruling class is strictly unproductive and parasitic: it extracts wealth from work done by others, by converting its control of productive resources (“means of production”) into relations of exploitation over workers. Capitalism is then a system of exploitation: an institutional structure through which the labour of the many is pressed into the service of the enrichment of the few.

This approach to thinking about class tends to encourage those who adopt it to look favorably upon the struggles of workers generally (including the struggles of highly paid workers, with sometimes atypical levels of job security, and so on). When workers are able to secure improvements in the terms of their employment, either through struggle (such as strikes) or through a favourable bargaining position (such as labour shortages), the higher wages or benefits that accrue to them are usually depicted by those on the Left as “gains” or “victories” in relation to the employer-class. Generally, an exploitation approach to class encourages an understanding of the advantages of higher pay, pensions and improvements in workplace health and safety as outcomes to be fought for, welcomed, and then defended, even if for the time being only some workers have made these gains, while other workers have not.

The Privilege Approach to Class Analysis

We can contrast this with the privilege approach. In the privilege approach, class is understood as a location in a system of differences, but not primarily, or at any rate not exclusively, as a two-way antagonism between boss and worker. Just as important as the boss/worker conflict, from this point of view, is the antagonism or differentiation between differently located groups of workers. The differences between them — that is, the “privileged” position of some working people, which sets them apart from other workers — may very well, according to this approach, necessitate that we treat differently positioned workers as constituting different, antagonistic classes: a privileged class of elite workers that benefits from unearned advantages that are denied to members of the genuinely “proletarian” class of workers.

Consider two groups of workers. The first group consists of non-unionized migrant workers seasonally employed in agriculture, paid at or near (or even below) the minimum wage; the second consists of unionized, stably employed nurses working at a hospital, with relatively high status, pay and benefits. An exploitation theory of class encourages us to highlight the commonality between these two groups of workers, noting their shared antagonism to the class of employers (including private investors and high-level managers in both the private and the public sector). But a privilege theory of class encourages us, on the contrary, to note the differentiation between these two groups, and the fact that the first group is shut out of the benefits and advantages — the “privileges” — of the second group. In particular, the privilege approach will encourage us to focus on ways in which the second group may have access to some of those advantages due, at least in part, to such factors as membership in a favoured racial group (whites), a favoured gender (men), a favoured legal status (citizens as opposed to undocumented people), or the fact of residence in an imperialist country.

In contrast to the exploitation view, the privilege conception of class encourages us to view advantages or gains made by some (but not all) groups of working people, not positively, as “victories for our class,” but rather negatively, as unearned advantages, subsidized by the continuing impoverishment of the lower paid, less advantaged workers.

Evidently, Bromma’s use of “privilege” as the primary concept in class analysis is a symptom of a much wider transformation of the political vocabulary of the activist Left in North America, in which the New Left political vocabulary of the 60s and 70s (with its emphasis on “systems” of exploitation and oppression and the possibility of “alliances” among anti-systemic movements, grounded in supposed cross-difference commonalities among “the people”) has increasingly lost ground to what I have called the “post-New Left political vocabulary” of today’s activist Left (with its emphasis on “intersecting axes of privilege,” and other barriers to the construction of broad alliances of the exploited and the oppressed). The privilege-focused, post-New Left vocabulary generates a much more suspicious stance toward proposals for broad-based alliances across differences.

Dangers of Giving Up on the Exploitation Approach

Is this shift toward a privilege conception of class a welcome development? Whatever the pros and cons of adopting a ‘privilege’ conception of racism, sexism, and other social hierarchies and antagonisms, I am convinced that this approach is unhelpful when introduced into class analysis. There are two basic reasons: one theoretical, and the other practical.

Theoretically, a privilege conception exaggerates the importance of distribution, and tends to obscure the importance of production. To be sure, writers like Bromma and Cope claim to be highlighting a difference between a productive class of proletarians and an unproductive parasitic class of ‘labour aristocrats’ in the ‘worker elite.’ But Bromma bases this claim largely on the difference between the wages and working conditions of the two (supposedly distinct) groups. If the wages and benefits of autoworkers in Detroit were, in the next 20 years, to fall to a quarter of what they are today, Bromma would no doubt re-define them as proletarians. But that, surely, is not the key variable for understanding the class structure of capitalism. Instead, what matters is (1) the exclusion of most people from control over means of production (workplaces, machinery, patented processes, etc.), which forces them to seek paid employment (as bearers of commodified labour-power) in the labour market, and (2) their consequent subordination to bosses in the workplace. How much pay or benefits they can extract, by means of such measures as union organization and strikes or political mobilization leading to expanding welfare state provisions, bears on our understanding of the of prevailing distribution of wealth. However, it tells us little about the basic structure of capitalism as a system production, and therefore it can’t be the basis for a plausible analysis of capitalism’s class structure.

Practically, the implications of the privilege approach to class analysis are even more troubling. By singling out the most organized sections of the labouring population, with the most potent capacities to organize strikes, including general strikes, or indeed to launch mass protest movements; by depicting this group of workers as the class enemy of the “proletariat,” to be not supported, but “defeated” by the proletarian struggle; and by stigmatizing gains won through strikes or reform campaigns as “corrupt” and “anti-proletarian” — the “privilege” approach can be fairly described as actively hostile to unions, and either indifferent to or enthusiastic about the disappearance of hard-won advantages that some workers enjoy: pensions, job security provisions, health and safety protections, restrictions on child labour, and so on (all of which Bromma describes as privileges available exclusively or disproportionately to the worker elite).

I hesitate to describe a sincerely advanced political position held by some people on the Left as “reactionary,” so I will simply say that this conception rests on a view of what it means to be pro-proletarian that I find highly suspect. Its widespread adoption on the Left would, I fear, have the effect of badly disorienting workers’ movements and the Left. (I have offered what I regard as a much better way of understanding the material basis for the decline of militancy and anti-capitalist politics among various groups of workers, in the article, “Why Rebellion is Rare, or Why Solidarity Matters.” There, I analyze workers’ acquiescence in capitalist domination in recent years in terms of what social scientists call “collective action problems.”)

For the time being, Bromma’s view seems to be a marginal one on the Left. Most people who identify as leftists continue to regard unions favourably, more or less, and fear rather than welcoming the dissolution of the advantages that union struggles and political mobilization have made available for some workers. But, given how rapidly and thoroughly the problematic (interpretive framework) of privilege has come to pervade the discourse and the strategic thinking (such as it is) of the activist Left in recent years, one can’t help but wonder how long the exploitation approach to class analysis can continue to shape the politics of activists, especially in Canada and the United States (where the post-New Left political vocabulary is now most entrenched).

The exploitation approach is a kind of residue or remainder of an earlier incarnation of the anti-capitalist Left (above all, its marxist variants). Increasingly, many younger activists have begun to embrace a more individualistic analysis of colonialism, patriarchy and racism, preferring to talk about these oppressions in terms of individual privilege rather than in terms of large-scale systems of institutional power. Will the same shift lead, sooner or later, to the displacement of the exploitation approach to class analysis? It’s hard to say. But no doubt the prospect of such a transformation is a real danger, to be discouraged if possible by vigorous attempts to insist on a conception of class that is crucially linked to the analysis of capitalism as an exploitative system of production.

Interview on Militancy and Democracy

On 21 April 2014, the leftist web site, Rabble.ca, published an interview with me, on the topic of militancy and democracy. The interview was conducted by Meg Borthwick. Here’s the text, reproduced from Rabble: Revolution 101: Interview with Steve D’Arcy on Militant Protest.


Meg Borthwick (MB): In your book Languages of the Unheard you explain, in detail, what makes a form of protest militant. What distinguishes militancy from other forms of protest?

Stephen D’Arcy (SD): First, let me say what I don’t mean by “militancy.” I’m not using this word as a euphemism for violence. The whole theme of violence and nonviolence gets too much attention and distracts us from more basic and pressing questions. Instead, I define militancy as grievance-motivated collective action that is both adversarial and confrontational.

Militancy is adversarial in the sense that, instead of seeking to find common ground with its targets, it identifies them as adversaries to be defeated or to be forced into retreat. For example, the companies that profit from the tar sands, and the politicians that serve these business interests, are not potential partners for a meeting of the minds. If they are to be stopped, it will have to be through determined struggle; relentless, escalating, and with a broadening base of participation. We have to identify these targets as adversaries, and work to build an alliance of people and organizations willing to fight them and defeat them.

Militancy is confrontational in the sense that it actively encourages conflict, rather than seeking to resolve or limit the animosity and disorder that conflict generates. In Martin Luther King’s words, militancy seeks “to create a crisis” and “to foster tension.” Defeating a determined and hostile adversary — someone like Prime Minister Stephen Harper, for example — requires a willingness to defy the authority of that adversary, and to disrupt the functioning of the systems of power from which that adversary draws strength.

Militancy, so understood, stands in contrast to forms of protest that treat their targets as susceptible to rational persuasion. The hope, in some cases, is that a politician, a corporation, or some other target of protest can be made to see the protesters’ point of view. In some cases, this can be useful as an initial approach. But soon enough, we discover that corporations and governments tend not to be responsive to the public interest, or to the requirements of social and environmental justice. And that puts the ball back into our court: Will we respond to the intransigence of elites, and the unresponsiveness of systems of power, with a compliant and patient attitude, which King denounced as “the tranquillizing drug of gradualism”? Or will we respond in the way he proposed, insisting on what he called “the fierce urgency of Now”?

Speaking somewhat loosely, we can distinguish in this way between “persuasion-oriented” and “confrontation-oriented” protest. Militancy, as I use the term, is this second type of protest.

MB: At what point do you think militant action is justified or, more importantly perhaps, can be seen to be justified?

SD: We can think about it by analogy with everyday interactions. Everyone can agree that sometimes it is necessary and justified to confront other people, to demand that they stop what they are doing, because it is harmful or abusive. But suppose all we need to do is ask. Suppose they will stop if we simply express our concerns clearly. Then we should try ordinary communication and asking. The need for more forceful forms of confrontation only arises in cases where asking does no good, when our concerns are persistently ignored. When this happens, a more confrontational stance is needed, and we have no trouble justifying this escalation toward confrontation. After all, we tried communication and reasoning, and our concerns went unheard.

It is the same with confrontational social protest. We don’t immediately go for an option like launching an unlimited general strike, or even acts of civil disobedience. That kind of escalation is something we have to build up to, as our persistence and determination to secure justice come up against intransigence and dismissal from those who wield power.

I like to call militancy a “remedial virtue.” When we admire militancy, when we regard it as a virtue, like the “marvelous militancy” that King mentioned in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, it is because it offers a remedy for the problem of elite intransigence. When people with substantive and pressing grievances raise their concerns in public, but the powerful see fit to ignore them, or to silence their voices with repressive policing or just stubborn indifference, this poses a real threat to democracy, in the sense of public empowerment. It weakens the power of people to exercise collective control over their own lives. In these circumstances, militancy is the “marvelous” impulse to push back against the power of money and privilege, on behalf of justice, and to refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer. That’s why I borrow King’s description of rioting, “the language of the unheard,” for the title of my book. Militancy is how the exploited and the oppressed can find their voice, when — as happens so often — the powerful refuse to listen.

We can see, here, the Utopian aspect of militancy. The impulse that animates militant protest is summed up in the Zapatista slogan: “Here, the people rule, and the government obeys!” Every time people say, “Enough! Here, now, the people will rule!,” it opens a window into the possibility of another kind of politics, where no one is silenced or ignored, where everyone has a voice, and where people’s concerns are taken seriously and, as far as possible, addressed. This is why militancy is so closely associated with assembly democracy, the coming together of people to hear each other and be heard, and to make decisions about matters of common concern on the basis of listening to one another and hearing the voice of the other. Militancy and democracy are connected in the most intimate way. Ultimately, militancy is justified because democracy is justified.

MB: We currently are living under a federal government that is intransigent. They do not listen, they do not respond to concerns raised by the people. Is it time for large-scale, cross-country militant action? If so, what form would that militancy take. Would civil disobedience be enough?

SD: It’s very true. The Harper regime is deeply committed to a politics of elite intransigence. They embrace the Thatcher model: insisting at every turn that “there is no alternative” to the transfer of both wealth and power from the poor and marginalized to the rich and powerful. In one sense, the rest of us can learn from them. We, too, can refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer. We, too, can be determined to impose defeat on our adversaries. In our case, of course, we do so to expand democracy and establish justice. In that sense, what we do will always be the very opposite of what someone like Harper is trying to accomplish.

The role of militancy here is important, but difficult to get right, because if we put forward the proposal to launch immediately a militant campaign to defeat Harper, starting from where we are at right now, at such a low level of mobilization and struggle, it comes across as unrealistic, as mere posturing. People agree, in principle, but they don’t regard it as credible, because they know how hard it would be to make it happen.

But there is a chicken-and-egg relationship between planning to win and actually winning. If we resign ourselves in advance to the inevitability of defeat, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, because we will find ourselves reluctant to do the difficult and challenging things needed to build a powerful movement. But if we are committed from the beginning to winning, it will inspire us to adopt bold and challenging tactics. Just as important, a clear path to victory is crucial to motivating others to join our movement and contribute their energy, skills, and commitment to our struggle. Few people are interested in joining a movement that has no prospect of winning.

The kind of militancy that would be needed to turn the tide, to begin to force Harper and his allies into retreat, is in short supply right now. It would take organized workers in the public and the private sectors shutting down their workplaces. It would take large-scale campaigns of disruption and defiance in the streets. And it would have to be relentless, escalating, and with a broadening base of participation. We would have to learn from the example set by some of the strongest models of resistance out there: the Mi’qmak of Elsipogtog First Nation on the east coast, blockading a highway to defend their land from fracking, and the Québec students emptying their schools and filling the streets for six full months to oppose tuition hikes. These forms of struggle, with the same intensity and determination, would have to become the “new normal” for hundreds of thousands of people.

It’s not easy, but it can be done. Here in Ontario, we began to do some of that large-scale organizing during the Days of Action, in the mid-1990s, with many tens of thousands of people walking off the job for single-day general strikes, followed by large-scale street protests, in several cities. Thousands of people who had never protested in the streets were drawn into the movement, because they came to see mass protest as a way to force a determined adversary into retreat. At the same time, more confrontational tactics were being introduced by groups like the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, setting a good example for the wider movement. But in the end, the will to follow through with the necessary escalation wasn’t there among the highest-level union officials, and they were able to demobilize the struggle.

We can learn positive and negative lessons from these experiences, but one lesson is clear: hundreds of thousands of people can be motivated to walk off the job and to march in the streets to oppose the kind of politics that someone like Harper represents. That’s crucial to keep in mind, because it’s that kind of mobilization, in the workplace and in the streets, that offers hope, realistic hope, for building the kind of grassroots counter-power that could impose defeat on Harper and the agenda that he so single-mindedly pursues.

A Radical-Left Response to the ‘Gun Control’ Debate

By Stephen D’Arcy

The mass killing of twenty-six school children and education workers in Connecticut, a little over a year ago, horrified everyone concerned about public safety. It also re-ignited the longstanding debate about ‘gun control,’ and whether there is anything more that can or should be done to protect people in their neighbourhoods and workplaces from attacks by violent people armed with assault-type weaponry and wearing body armor. Normally, the debate is dominated by two positions: a “libertarian” position that favours the unfettered right of people like Ted Nugent to bring an assault rifle into a coffee shop or a school whenever he chooses, and a “liberal” position that wants “the authorities” to be empowered to exercise unilateral power from above in imposing gun regulations deemed by politicians to be “sensible.” Is there a third position? More specifically, is there a radical-Left position, based upon the values and principles of egalitarian democracy and worker empowerment? 

I believe that there is such a position, but that it has not been adequately articulated, with the result that many on the Left have come to believe that the “libertarian” and “liberal” positions are the only ones available. The following comments attempt to introduce a Left perspective into the debate, sketching the elements of a community-based, radically democratic approach to firearms regulation.

The present situation in many jurisdictions (such as Utah, to give an extreme example) is intolerable, from an egalitarian and democratic point of view. What makes it unacceptable is that (i) it shows callous indifference to the most basic standards of workplace health and safety, allowing anyone, including open fascists and violent police officers, to bring guns, in some cases even assault weapons, into workplaces and classrooms; (ii) it prevents workers and communities from taking grassroots action to limit the capacity of fascist or quasi-fascist militias to set up and train paramilitary organizations (of which there are several dozen in the US), whereas if anyone on the Left attempted to do the same thing on a similar scale they would be brutally suppressed by the state, regardless of the law, as history amply illustrates; and (iii) it assigns sole authority to regulate or not regulate firearms to the least trustworthy institutions in society, employers and the capitalist state, completely disempowering workers’ organizations and neighbourhood-level community organizations.


This situation can and should be changed, by bold action from below, to reclaim public authority that now wrongly resides with employers and the state. Such authority ought to be exercised democratically, by participatory-democratic public assemblies. Only democratic regulation of firearms by the people, in workplace and neighbourhood assemblies, can be relied upon to put the public interest ahead of the interests of elites in (a) maximizing the unchecked power of the police, and (b) insulating far-Right militias from public accountability or limits imposed by those most endangered by such groups, especially the racialized groups and immigrants that are their main targets.

In practical terms, a community-based approach to gun regulation would begin by establishing Public Safety Assemblies in every neighbourhood, and Workplace Safety Assemblies in every workplace. These Assemblies would be empowered to impose substantive limits on the carrying of weapons within the areas of their jurisdiction. No employer or state agency should be able to force workers or other persons to endure unfettered gun-wielding by strangers entering their neighbourhoods or work sites. If such risks are to be taken, it should require prior authorization by democratic assemblies of the people who live and work in those places. These Assemblies would offer a means by which such authorization could be granted, or denied, on a democratic basis.

Among the substantive regulatory proposals that such Public Safety or Workplace Safety Assemblies could entertain, any of the following can serve as examples: that only persons with permission of the Assembly may carry assault weapons in the workplace; that no police officers may carry weapons into the workplace or neighbourhood, except under specifically enumerated circumstances set out by the Assembly, or with special permission of the Assembly; that the storing of weapons by openly racist militias within the jurisdiction of the Assembly shall be prohibited; and so on. Such proposals could be rejected by the Assemblies, of course. The point here is that it should be up to workers to decide whether or not such regulations make sense for their workplaces; and it ought to be up to residents to decide whether such regulations make sense for their neighbourhoods.

Note that this proposal is not like conventional forms of “gun control,” as advocated by many liberals. Because community-based gun regulation relies on democratic control from below, by workers’ and neighbourhood Assemblies, the process is actually neutral between those who believe that arming people more heavily would improve public safety and those who believe that restricting firearm use, at least in certain areas or by certain people, would improve public safety. The Assembly process would require people to deliberate publicly with their co-workers and neighbours about the merits of various proposals. In some cases, this might lead to ‘stricter’ controls; in other cases, the controls might be made ‘less strict.’

For example, under a community-based gun regulation system of this type, Starbucks workers would be empowered (as they are not, as of now, as a matter of company policy) to designate their work site as a gun-free zone. Conversely, those same workers could decide to allow open or concealed carry of firearms in their workplace. Or they could allow workers to be armed, but not customers. And so on. The most basic commitment of a community-based approach to gun regulation is not a commitment to ‘strict’ or to ‘lax’ gun regulations, but to democratic gun regulation, from below, on the basis of empowered, participatory deliberation in public by workers and neighborhood residents.

This proposal cuts against the “libertarian” impulses of many on both the Left and the Right. But where libertarianism promotes, not liberation, but the disempowerment of workers and community members, and serves objectively to insulate the police from public control, and to embolden fascists to militarize their operations, we ought to choose egalitarian, horizontal Assembly democracy over “libertarian” misunderstandings of freedom.

Community-based, democratic firearms regulation, on a horizontalist, participatory-democratic basis, is an idea whose time has come. It ought to be embraced by the Left, both for the benefits it offers in terms of public and workplace safety, and for the challenge it poses to the unchecked power of irresponsible elites to usurp powers that rightly belong in the hands of the people.

[Note: An earlier version of this text was posted on ZNet]

Militancy as a Civic Virtue

{The website, Rabble.ca, has posted this excerpt from my book, ‘Languages of the Unheard.’}

“What we must see,” Martin Luther King once insisted, “is that a riot is the language of the unheard.” Recourse to rioting, he suggested, is seldom a marker of irrationality or mob psychology. More often, it is an attempt by marginalized people to find their voice, to gain a hearing, to assert their refusal to be silenced or ignored.

King’s remark was as controversial as it was illuminating, yet he stopped short of depicting riots as defensible. He insisted only that they were understandable — a frustrated response to persistent injustice that made some sense in the face of long experience with intransigent elites and unresponsive systems of power. But his wording hints at the possibility of a stronger view: that these outbursts of rebellion might sometimes be defensible, even admirable, because they make it impossible to ignore the grievances of the exploited and the oppressed.

What if we, today, were to adopt this interpretation of riots? How might this idea transform our understanding and evaluation of these spontaneous revolts? And could this understanding be extended to other forms of confrontational protest and rebellion: to general strikes, sit-ins, road blockades and occupations, to the monkey wrenching saboteur, the black bloc street fighter or even the armed insurgent? Could these forms of militancy be regarded, in the same way, as languages of the unheard?

In pursuing these questions, there can be no better guide than King himself, whose writings and speeches are peppered with enthusiastic references to what he called “the marvelous new militancy” of the 1960s. This book borrows freely from the terminology that he uses when discussing confrontational protest. Key themes, especially in the opening chapters, emerge directly from engagement with his work: an account of the militant’s vocation as giving a voice to the voiceless; a definition of militancy as grievance-motivated, adversarial, and confrontational collective action; a typology of defiance, disruption, destruction, and armed force as four distinct styles of militancy; and finally, an insistence on the importance of distinguishing — although I diverge from his way of distinguishing — sound from unsound militancy.

But not everyone will join me in endorsing King’s judgment that “militant organization” is “indispensable … to our struggle” for democracy and social justice. Indeed, militancy has many critics. Some are relatively easy to dismiss, for instance, the grim, law-and-order crackdown advocates, well described by King himself as being “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” Their weak attachment to the importance of social justice and public autonomy is reason enough for them to wring their hands when they see bold action against racism or poverty, colonialism or sexism. Other critics of militancy, however, are sincerely committed to the resolution of urgent grievances. Their concerns about using confrontational means to this end, therefore, cry out for a serious response. These are the many social justice advocates whose liberal attachments to notions of equality and democracy are genuine, and whose numbers swell the ranks of many popular demonstrations and social movement organizations.

Their concern — which I call the liberal objection — is that by resorting to forceful pressure, rather than consensus-building and reason-guided public discussion, the militant protester in effect reverts to force, rather than dialogue, and in this way breaks with the democratic ideal. Can militants offer a principled reply, or do they have to follow those advocates of militancy (notably, anarchist writer Peter Gelderloos) who disavow the claim to be on the side of democracy, thus seemingly conceding the liberal’s main point?

I believe that a principled and convincing rebuttal to the liberal objection is available to militant protesters. And this is what I offer in this book: a normative standard, by appeal to which it can be shown when and on what basis militancy is a support, not a danger, to democratic norms.

In the response that I propose, I break with King in one crucial respect . Unlike King, I am unconvinced by one of the most popular standards of legitimacy for militant resistance, namely, the fixation on the difference between “violence” and “nonviolence.” Time and again, one hears that protesters went too far by resorting to violence, or that the people who indulge in violence are not really part of movements for social and environmental justice or for political and economic democracy. The violent protesters are said to be part of the problem, not the solution. The standard that I propose draws the line between justifiable and unjustifiable militancy at a different point: the crucial contrast is between democratic and undemocratic, not between violent and non-violent.

The distinction between violence and nonviolence cannot be the basis for distinguishing justifiable from unjustifiable protest, because the very idea of “violence” always already presupposes some degree of unjustifiability. If I push a man to the ground to prevent him from stabbing a nearby child, I am using physical force. But am I committing an act of violence? Most of us would be reluctant to use the word in this way. In contrast, suppose that I push the same man to the ground in order to block him from accessing a building that I am picketing, in the context of a general strike. Here, many would be only too quick to reach for the word “violent”; others, still, would hesitate. Consider a third case: What if I push that same man to the ground to express my contempt for his religion? In this case, perhaps everyone would agree that this is a violent act. And yet, in all three cases I perform an act of the same type, namely, pushing a man to the ground. Why do we not describe all of these actions, or none of them, as violent? The answer is clear: we are reluctant to call any act violent if we regard it as admirable and morally sound. This is one reason why one hears so little talk of “violent self-defence.” Self-defence is considered morally acceptable, so we resist describing it as violent.

The implications are both obvious and important. To ask, Is violence acceptable? is already a mistake. In effect, it amounts to asking, Is unacceptable force acceptable? Instead, we should pose questions that are far less loaded, and for this reason far more interesting: Is it acceptable to participate in a riot? When, if ever, is it defensible to use or threaten to use armed force? What about arson attacks against unoccupied buildings? Can black bloc street-fighting tactics ever be justified, and if so, under what conditions?

These questions are more challenging. It is easy to declare, in a rather self-satisfied way, that all violence is unacceptable. But as long as this is only a covert way of saying that it is unacceptable to use unacceptable force, it tells us nothing. If one were to say that it is wrong to push a man to the ground to prevent him from stabbing a child, this would at least qualify as a substantive position on a controversial question. On the other hand, it would show ar ather shocking undervaluation of the importance of protecting children from physical attacks. As a practical matter, almost everyone who claims to oppose all violence would in fact support the use of physical force to repel a child’s attacker. We should, therefore, regard sweeping pronouncements against all violence with a suspicious eye. For the most part, these declarations are a way of hiding the difficult questions behind a veil of superficial moral certainty. In this book, I aim to address real questions with direct, if sometimes controversial, answers that are grounded in a principled position about what makes confrontational protest — in very many cases — defensible as an aid to democracy.

I call my articulation of such a position “the democratic standard.” Its aim is to vindicate the conviction that, for the most part, militant protest is good for democracy. The democratic standard has two parts. First, it offers an interpretation of the democratic ideal, which equates democracy with public autonomy, that is, the self-governance of people through inclusive, reason-guided public discussion. Second, it proposes a set of four principles of soundness, which jointly spell out when and on what basis it is consistent with the democratic ideal to set aside discussion and apply forceful pressure through adversarial, confrontational protest.

In developing this standard, I have drawn together two strands of my own background. On the one hand, I am a long-time social activist, shaped by my participation in grassroots social movements, including the Occupy movement and other experiences of popular resistance. These experiences have helped me to appreciate the importance of assembly democracy and the building of grassroots social power outside of and often in direct opposition to the institutions of the official political process. On the other hand, I am an academic political philosopher, specializing in normative democratic theory. The conception of democracy proposed in this book, which I call autonomous democracy, is a kind of anticapitalist radicalization of a view that has gained wide acceptance among democratic theorists today, “deliberative democracy.” This is the view that democratic legitimacy is a function not so much of voting (or of preference-counting generally), but of “voice,” the capacity to raise one’s concerns in a public forum and to have these concerns addressed through a deliberative process that gravitates toward consensus.

The assembly democracy of the activists and the deliberative democracy of the philosophers converge on the view that a political community or social structure should be recognized as democratic to the extent that it proceeds on the basis of the self-governance of people through inclusive processes of reason-guided public discussion. In my variant of this conception of democracy, it is especially important that the authority of these discussion processes should be neither usurped by unaccountable elites nor overridden by institutions or systems of power. If intransigent elites or unresponsive institutions ignore the decisions that emerge from such discussion, thereby denying voice to many people, then democracy is fatally undermined. Democracy, according to this view, is a process of hearing stakeholders and resolving conflict through inclusive and empowered processes of collective decision-making.

Nevertheless, reality will routinely disappoint expectations founded upon this idealized conception. In practice, we can be quite sure that intransigent elites and unresponsive institutions will repeatedly stand in the way of democracy as dialogue. Politicians will often brazenly disregard public opinion, declaring that there is no alternative but to impose an unpopular but business-friendly tax policy. Corporations will often act out of shameless indifference to the public interest, appealing to the higher authority of market forces as if this were a sufficient justification for their contempt for social justice.

And this is why democratic theory needs a standard for discerning when militancy is appropriate. When, precisely out of respect for the ideal of self-governance through reason-guided public discussion, is it justified to take action on a different basis: not as partners in a deliberative process converging toward consensus, but as adversaries locked in struggle, fighting to defeat a corporation that is unmoved by the force of the better argument or a politician who refuses to listen to reason? It is this sort of guidance that the democratic standard is designed to offer: guidance about when and on what basis one might sometimes be entitled, or even obligated, to adopt a course of militant resistance, when reason-guided discussion alone is helpless in the face of unreasonable power.

At the heart of the democratic standard lies a set of four principles. These criteria can be used to determine when militancy is consistent with democracy, and what kinds of militancy are consistent with democracy in specific contexts. The principles are explained in detail in chapter three, but for now, I will confine myself to bluntly stating them:

1. Opportunity Principle: Militancy should create new opportunities to resolve substantive and pressing grievances, when attempts to do so through reason-guided public discussion are thwarted by intransigent elites or unresponsive institutions.

2. Agency Principle: Militancy should encourage the most directly affected people to take the lead in securing the resolution of their own grievances.

3. Autonomy Principle: Militancy should enhance the power of people to govern themselves through inclusive, reason-guided public discussion.

4. Accountability Principle: Militancy should limit itself to acts that can be defended publicly, plausibly, and in good faith as duly sensitive to the democratic values of common decency and the common good.

Together with the underlying democratic ideal from which they are derived, these principles make up the democratic standard that is applied to controversial cases of militancy in this book.

Stephen D’Arcy is an associate professor of philosophy at Huron University College, Western University. A long-time social activist and protest organizer, he teaches and writes about democratic theory and practical ethics.

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The Rise of the Post-New Left Political Vocabulary

If a handful of time-travelling activists from our own era were somehow transported into a leftist political meeting in 1970, would they even be able to make themselves understood? They might begin to talk, as present-day activists do, about challenging privilege, the importance of allyship, or the need for intersectional analysis. Or they might insist that the meeting itself should be treated as a safe space. But how would the other people at the meeting react? I’m quite sure that our displaced contemporaries would be met with uncomprehending stares.

It’s not so much that the words they use would be unfamiliar. Certainly ‘privilege’ is not a new word, for instance. But these newcomers to the 1970 Left would have a way of talking about politics and political action that would seem strange and off-kilter to the others at the meeting. If one of the time travellers told others at the meeting to “check their privilege,” it’s not that anyone would disagree, exactly. It’s that they wouldn’t understand what was meant, or why it was supposed to be important or relevant.allpowertothepeople

We can reverse the scenario, and the picture looks similar. If a group of time-travelling activists from the heyday of the New Left, members perhaps of the Black Panther Party, the Organization for Afro-American Unity, or Students for a Democratic Society, were transported to a political meeting of activists in our own time, they might quickly begin referring to the need to unite “the people” in a common struggle for “liberation,” by constructing “an alliance” based on “solidarity.” In this case, the problem would not be one of understanding, so much as credibility. They would be understood, I imagine, at least in general terms. But would they be taken seriously? The terms in which they express their politics — the people, liberation, alliances — seem like (and indeed, are) a throwback to an earlier era. It seems likely that they would be deemed hopelessly insensitive to the specificity of different struggles against privilege. They would be accused, perhaps, of glossing over key issues of “positionality” and “allyship” by referring not to “folks,” as most contemporary activists would, but to “the people,” as if it were unitary and shared a common set of experiences.

Reflecting on the chasm of mutual incomprehension that divides today’s Left from the Left of the 1960s and 70s, we should resist any rush to judgment. Instinctively, some people — whether out of nostalgia or out of deeply held political convictions or both — will recoil from the vocabulary of today’s activists. There is no shortage of (usually older) critics who complain about the focus on “privilege” and “calling out” in the contemporary activist scene. But we should not be seduced by the broad-brushed dismissal with which these critics, whose political sensibility was shaped (for better and for worse) by the 70s New Left, reject the politics that pervades today’s activist subcultures. We should remain open at least to the possibility that some aspects of the new vocabulary may offer important insights, even if we retain our reluctance to embrace it wholesale.

Conversely, some partisans of the post-New Left will insist that any resistance to the new jargon must be rooted in an attempt to cling to privileges which, allegedly, the new discourse threatens. This, too, reflects a narrow-minded sensibility that renounces the very possibility of learning from engagement with perspectives that contest one’s own basic assumptions. It is this fundamentalist sensibility that has earned “the Twitter Left” and the “social justice blogging community” a sometimes well-deserved bad reputation, but it shouldn’t be allowed to insinuate itself into the real-world activist Left.

In fact, neither of the two political vocabularies considered here should be deemed to be either above reproach or beneath contempt. Both are ways of articulating the politics of people committed to the struggle for social justice, so they deserve, if not necessarily our endorsement, at least our willingness to listen and, where possible, to learn.

Two questions really do have to be addressed, however, in the face of this terminological fork in the road:

  1. First: why are these vocabularies so different? Does the emergence of the new vocabulary, roughly in the 1990s, reflect a learning process, so that we can think of it as more sophisticated and illuminating than the jargon of the 60s and 70s New Left — the product of a new sensitivity to key issues that were previously overlooked or badly understood? Or does its emergence, with its symptomatic timing in the wake of the Reagan/Thatcher era and the wave of defeats inflicted on the Left in those years, indicate that the new vocabulary is not so much innovation as errancy, straying from radical politics in the direction of a de-fanged adaptation to defeat and political marginality?
  1. Second: why, if at all, does it matter that they are so different? Are these just competing styles of speech and writing, or do they embed within them contrasting sets of assumptions about the nature of the Left, its main targets or aims, the appropriate way to respond to injustice, and the place of the Left in the wider society?

Without claiming to have figured anything out, I touch on both questions below. But before turning to that, we need to get a feel for these two vocabularies, and how they differ. Consider the following table. In the left column, several keywords of the New Left era are listed, along with their definitions. In the right column, each word is paired with a keyword from today’s activist Left, which has largely displaced the older term.





“Oppression”: a pattern of persistent and systematic disadvantage imposed on large groups of people, in many domains of social life, including employment, social status, treatment by the legal system, vulnerability to violence, and more; e.g, racial oppression, gender oppression, etc. “Privilege”: a set of unearned benefits that some individuals enjoy (and others are denied) in their everyday lives, by virtue of their place in a racial or gender or other ‘identity’-hierarchy, e.g., male privilege, white privilege, cisgender privilege, etc.
“Exploitation”: a feature of economic systems, including capitalism, in which unpaid labour is extracted from working people for the benefit of a relatively small number of exploiters, who comprise, in economic terms, a ruling class. “Classism”: an attitude of scorn, condescension, or disrespect toward persons of low income, similar to what once was called “snobbery” or class-based “elitism.”


“Alliances”: the confluence in struggle of large-scale social forces (like social classes, or social movements), as part of a strategic orientation toward the coordinated pursuit of common aims. “Being an Ally”: a sincere commitment on the part of a privileged individual to offer ongoing support to individuals, groups or organizations that oppose that kind of privilege, and to take direction from them about the form that support should take.
“Consciousness-raising”: a process of popular political education, in which learners are viewed as already having an implicit grasp of critical insights about injustice and social change, but invites them to participate in a collective learning process in order to become fully aware of these insights and their implications through dialogue with peers. “Calling Out”: an approach to challenging “folks” who show a lack of insight or concern about issues of privilege, in which they are confronted by peers and urged to “check” their privilege. A regional variant in parts of the US is the phrase, “calling people on their shit.”


“Solidarity”: a stance, within and between social movements, of treating “injuries to one” as if they were “injuries to all,” and resisting them in common, as matters of shared priority, rather than as the concern only of those under attack. Example: The “I am Trayvon Martin” slogan used in anti-racist protests in 2013, which echoed the old labour-movement principle of solidarity (“An injury to one is an injury to all.) “Positionality”: a practice of acknowledging the specificity of one’s social position, especially one’s access to privilege, which may make one incapable of understanding or speaking authoritatively about the ways others are impacted adversely by the operation of privilege. Example: the “I am not Trayvon Martin” meme” from 2013, which urged white people to refrain from identifying with African-American resistance, for reasons of positionality.
“The People”: a label for the totality or potential collectivity of those who are not members of the small, ruling elite; it is usually seen as including workers, the unemployed, small farmers, students, and almost all women, people of colour, and so on. “Folks”: a term that refers to groups of people, in the plural, without suggesting that they comprise a singular totality that could be united in one common struggle, which may be precluded by the difference of their experiences and degrees of privilege.
“Liberation”: a term used to refer to ultimate victory in struggles against systems of oppression and/or exploitation, e.g., national liberation, women’s liberation, black liberation. Cf. “emancipation,” e.g., the emancipation of women, the emancipation of the working class. “Safe[r] Space”: the attempt to create occasions or locations wherein the adverse effects of privilege on marginalized people are minimized in everyday interpersonal interactions, notably by encouraging “folks” in those spaces to “check their privilege” and by “calling out” any failures to “be an ally.”

Some immediate caveats and qualifications are necessary, to ward off misunderstanding.

First, the new vocabulary is used almost exclusively by the English-speaking Left in a few countries, especially Canada, the US, and (to a lesser extent) the UK. Elsewhere, such as in Latin America and southern Africa, the Left has its own distinctive vocabularies, which would have to be analyzed separately. 

Second, the old vocabulary is still in use today. Indeed, many people use both vocabularies, or at least draw from both, even if they have a primary vocabulary that dominates their speech and writing about activism. But it seems clear that the first vocabulary has faded and continues to fade from use within today’s activist subcultures, as the second one continues to gain ground.

Third, it is possible to use one set of words to express the other set of meanings. That is, one can retain the words, “solidarity,” “oppression,” or “consciousness-raising,” while using them in a way that is shaped by the new vocabulary, so that by “solidarity,” you mean acknowledging positionality; by “oppression,” you mean individual privilege; and by “consciousness-raising,” you mean calling people out. Conversely, one can use the new terms, but give them the old meanings. For this reason, if one hears a contemporary activist use the word, “alliance,” which would be a rare thing, it is worth stopping to ask, Do you mean the confluence in struggle of large social forces like classes or social movements, or do you mean privileged people being committed as individuals to offering support to those adversely impacted by privilege, and taking direction from them? Only in this way can you confirm which vocabulary is being used, strictly speaking. 

Fourth, my remarks refer to ‘ideal types,’ not the exact ways that every activist talks. In other words, although my account of the post-1990 activist vocabulary is intended to be recognizable by everyone familiar with contemporary activist subcultures, it is probably a bit more reflective of some ‘scenes’ than others. For example, it will be immediately recognizable, I think, to anyone familiar with the work of Tim WisePeggy McIntosh, Melissa Harris-Perry (recently described in The Atlantic as the USA’s foremost public intellectual), or many of today’s ‘social justice blogs.’ but my core contrast (in the two columns) may appear overdrawn and exaggerated to people whose contact with activist subcultures is mainly through grassroots protest organizing. In organizing contexts, most activist speech is infused with a pragmatic focus on getting things done, so some of this jargon recedes into the background. Nevertheless, I would be surprised if anyone (familiar with today’s activist subcultures) claimed not to recognize the terminology that I attribute to today’s activists.

Having said all that, I can now proceed to my two main questions, listed above (why are the vocabularies different, and how much does it matter).

So, why are these vocabularies so different? What accounts for this mutation in the mode of speech typical of Left political activists in recent decades? A close examination of the two systems of terminology reveals some underlying principles that are driving the transformation. In particular, one can discern the operation, just below the surface, of three fundamental shifts.

  1. A Shift in Priorities from Ultimate Victory to Challenging Everyday Impacts. The older vocabulary looked at capitalism, racism, and sexism (for example) as social systems or institutions that could and probably would be defeated, once and for all, in the foreseeable future. Accordingly, activists of that era defined and described their movements as struggles for “socialism,” “black liberation,” or “women’s liberation.” By contrast, the new vocabulary tends to suspend judgment on (without denying) the prospects for ultimate victory, and to focus its attention on challenging everyday impacts of capitalism, racialization and gender, in the here and now. This prioritization of resistance to everyday impacts infuses, not only the way activists today talk, but also how they choose what to do. For example, what is happening in this meeting, today, is emphasized much more, because it is not seen merely in instrumental terms as a means to destroy systems of domination. The meeting itself is generating impacts that have to be challenged as they arise. Addressing problems of “process,” which once would have been seen as a “distraction” from an urgent liberation struggle, is now seen as part and parcel of what the Left is for.
  1. A Shift of Focus from Analyzing System Dynamics to Analyzing Interpersonal Dynamics. The old vocabulary assumed that political analysis should study large-scale, often transnational social systems and structures, centuries in the making, e.g., systems of oppression and exploitation. In contrast, the new vocabulary assumes that race and gender and other forms of privilege are enacted in everyday, interpersonal interactions. This is key to the concept of “privilege.” It is likened to “an invisible backpack” of advantages or monopolized benefits that some receive and others are denied. Privileged persons gain these benefits whether or not they even know or acknowledge it. Thus, whereas activists in the late 60s and 70s were keen to use history and political economy to develop a sophisticated analysis of the historical process, centuries-long, that established European colonial domination of much of the world, the new vocabulary both reflects and encourages a change of focus, toward how racism (for example) is enacted or reproduced in the everyday interactions of white people with racialized people, as individuals or in groups. The analysis of the power dynamics of these everyday interpersonal interactions has tended to gain in prominence and sophistication, in parallel to the relative de-emphasis of the importance of political economy and critical sociology within the activist Left.
  1. A Shift in Emphasis from Commonality (Among Social Groups) to Specificity. The vocabulary of the 60s and 70s grew out of and contributed in turn to the construction of broad-based popular movements, in which hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of people participated. By contrast, the vocabulary of today’s activists emerged in a completely different, and arguably much less favourable context. One symptom of this is a change in emphasis from the search for commonalities that could be the basis for building alliances and expanding the base of support for militant mass movements, to grappling with the barriers to joint organizing and common struggle. In brief, the old vocabulary emerged in a context where opportunities to encourage solidarity and collaboration were actively sought, whereas the new vocabulary emerged out of the frustration of failed efforts to bridge gaps between people and organizations that reflected real differences. There is a certain optimism in the idea of “consciousness-raising,” or the concept of “the people,” that seems naive and unconvincing to many of today’s activists. The shift from “consciousness-raising” to “calling out,” for instance, reflects (and encourages) a loss of confidence in the capacity of people to learn about, understand and oppose forms of inequality that do not adversely impact them as individuals. These doubts are, in turn, elaborated in terms of positionality and privilege.

Taken together, these three shifts go a long way toward explaining the transformation of the way activists talk, which has been noticeable at least since the 1990s. But is this a turn in the right direction? Or has the activist Left gone badly astray?

As we try to assess both the gains and the losses of this change, it is necessary to acknowledge two fundamental, and incontrovertible facts:

First, it is true that the vocabulary, and the practice, of the Left in the 1960s and 70s had several serious problems. There is no denying the fact that their movements were vastly more potent, and drew in vastly more people from all walks of life, than any political organizing that happens on the Left today, with the possible exception of the Occupy movement during its height. And yet, many people entered and participated in those movements in spite of serious concerns about the persistence, within movement activities, of sexist behaviours and attitudes, forms of machismo that were at once misogynist and homophobic, and ways in which (in some organizations and struggles) college-educated, middle-income white people tended to dominate the proceedings and set the agendas. To the extent that the movement was plagued by problems of this kind, the 60s New Left’s practice belied the radicalism of is official rhetoric, and made its universalistic claims about the “unity” of “the people” ring hollow. It seems clear that the attentiveness in today’s Left activist subcultures to interpersonal dynamics within the movement reflects a genuine learning process. It is a step toward beginning to address problems that were, in effect, glossed over and ignored by phrases like “the people” and a complacent view of the prospects for building genuine “solidarity” and “alliances.”

Second, however, it is also true that the series of shifts from the old vocabulary to the new one has entailed certain losses. In particular, the relative de-emphasizing of system-level causation, in favour of a new emphasis on the importance of individual action or inaction, tends to weaken the integration of everyday Left discourse with the theoretical analysis of systems like capitalism and colonialism. It is true that, in exchange, we have a vocabulary that better enables us to focus on class privilege and settler privilege. But if we are to defeat colonialism and capitalism, we cannot do so one person at a time, or one interaction or relationship at a time. The systems themselves have to be named, understood, attacked and overthrown. This issue is, obviously, closely connected to the loss of a focus on liberation. A liberation focus and a systems focus share a common understanding: that the purpose of the Left is to defeat systems of exploitation and oppression. Challenging immediate impacts is important, but not enough. It is necessary, but by no means sufficient. Moreover, the way we challenge everyday impacts should be informed by our understanding that they are not produced simply by individual actions, but by the operation of large-scale systems. The Left needs a vocabulary, and a self-understanding, that highlights and foregrounds the importance of constructing and expanding anti-systemic movements that aim to defeat systems of oppressive and exploitative power. It is hard not to think that the older vocabulary better expresses this insight, even as it obstructs our access to other critical insights that are also indispensable.

One could certainly say more about the gains and losses associated with adopting either of these two vocabularies. But perhaps it is enough, in the context of a blog post, to have sketched an approach to thinking about the question. Both vocabularies have been formed to address indispensably important concerns, so we should be reluctant to give up on either one. The most important thing, I would suggest, is to refuse to allow either of these two ways speaking, writing and thinking about Left activism to evade the challenge raised by its counterpart. Personally, I would be reluctant to give up an expression like, ‘the people,’ and to take up ‘folks’ in its place. But I hope that the way I talk about the people is disciplined by a certain amount of sensitivity to the motivation that has led some activists to drop it from their vocabulary. On the other hand, I hope that people who have embraced the newer way of articulating Left politics will (begin to, or continue to) see the importance of highlighting issues of system dynamics, large-scale alliance-building, and ultimate liberation, rather than letting these urgently important matters disappear from view entirely.

What is the State? A Public Autonomy View

By S. D’Arcy


Anti-austerity protesters in Athens, outside the Parliament, 2011.

The concept of democracy as “public autonomy” stands directly opposed to its counter-concept: the state, the great dissolver, usurper, and corrupter of the democratic impulse.

Of course, this suggests that, lurking behind the concept of public autonomy, there must be an implicit “state theory,” or at least some rough conception of the core features of the state form, which is taken for granted. Indeed there is (a rough conception, although not a theory). Here I want to spell out the basics of that conception, in the simplest possible terms.

In broad outlines, the state consists of four main types of structures, and four further types of processes:

  1. structures of representation, such as parliaments or legislatures;

  2. structures of bureaucratic administration, such as the ministry of education, or any one of many regulatory agencies;

  3. structures of judicial decision-making and judicial review, such as courts and tribunals;

  4. structures of armed coercion, such as the police, the prison system, and the military;

  5. processes of policy-formation, such as backroom lobbying, the production of reports, and public hearings;

  6. processes of ideology-propagation, such as government campaigns of ‘civic education’ and ‘national unity’ cultivation;

  7. processes of system-steering, such as the use of monetary policy to affect aggregate demand in the economy, or the deployment of tax incentives to encourage people to purchase houses; and finally,

  8. processes of service-provision, such as employment counseling, public education, and government- organized (not just funded) healthcare delivery.

(The four processes are spread out across the four structures, especially the first two.)

On one level, calling all eight of these diverse structures and processes “the state,” as if this were the name of a unitary entity, is intellectually questionable. No doubt, there is much to be said about what differentiates these eight state functions. But what all these structures and processes share is a joint commitment to the insulation of nominally “public” decision-making authority from the direct and unfiltered influence of actual public participation.

If there were an “essence” of the state, it would be this: the establishment of structures and processes that institute and/or defend forms of nominally public authority that are protected from actual popular power, either because they establish conditions for participation that are inherently disempowering (like voting for a representative, or filling out a form), or because they block entry to all but the few who can pass through a forbidding filtering system, or because they ensure that power flows from the top down, but not the other way, or (as in the case of service-provision by the state) they encourage the re-definition of social problems as personal or psychological rather than as politico-economic.

If there are democratic aspects to the way the “liberal” state operates, these would have to be understood as, at best, a type of rigidly indirect democracy, that is, democracy in which popular influence can be exerted only indirectly upon the direct decision-makers. For the most part, though, it seems best to acknowledge that the whole thrust of the state is toward protecting key systems of power (in and out of the state) from the perceived threat of public empowerment.

All of these are points about modern states as such. Even a post-capitalist state would — as Marx pointed out — serve as a direct barrier to the extension of democratic control over society. But what makes the capitalist state so particularly effective at performing the disempowering function of the state is that it adds to the above eight elements a further, decisive constraint: the imposition of constitutional limits on the scope of public authority over the exercise of “private” power. In short, it constructs and defends a “private sector” beyond the reach of public decision-making.

The capitalist state disempowers, therefore, both because it is a state in general, hence inherently disempowering of mobilized publics, and because — through its liberal constitutionalism — it institutes and enforces a sharp protective barrier that limits the scope of public decision-making authority in such a way as to insulate the huge concentrations of private power at the centre of modern society, the Corporations, from even the pretence of accountability or responsiveness to the public interest or the popular will. This idea that the state may not intrude on key decisions about investment and the allocation of social labour and resources, but must instead defer such decisions to “the private sector,” underlines the uncompromisingly anti-democratic nature of capitalist states, regardless of what party is “at the helm” of them at any given time.

With their power thus protected, corporations can always wield the threat of shifting their investment capital toward jurisdictions that prioritize private profits over the public interest, and away from jurisdictions that threaten to experiment with public policies that are responsive to considerations of social or environmental justice. The imperative is always in play: give the corporations what they want, and no one has to lose their jobs (although they may do so anyway). Threaten their bottom line, however, and there will surely be a price to pay in lost jobs and reduced tax revenues. This familiar dynamic, a standing system of blackmail, ensures that the capitalist state not only dissolves or precludes public autonomy; it also actively establishes corporate power over the whole policy-making process, including (perhaps especially) the process of making policies that ostensibly “regulate” or “constrain” corporate behaviour. The power of the energy industry is nowhere greater than in the energy regulatory system itself. The same goes for the banking industry, and the food industry: the regulations that supposedly rein them in are in fact direct expressions of their own power, dictated unilaterally, for the most part, by hand-picked industry functionaries in and out of government.

What does all this tell us? Mainly, that Marx was right. The problem with the state is not that the wrong people are in charge of it. No, “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes,” he insisted. On the contrary, by its nature the modern state is “a public force organized for social enslavement…, an engine of class despotism.” He was right to conclude that, rather than expending our energy on getting hold of the engine, or trying to redesign the engine, we were better off trying to “smash” [zerbrechen] it. This is so, even if (as he also says) some “social functions will remain in existence…that are analogous to present day state functions.” For instance, public services will still be provided after the breaking of the state form. The insulation of such service provision from participatory-democratic oversight, and deliberative-democratic input, would certainly have to end, however. So, too, would the stranglehold that private concentrations of power now wield to steer public policy decisions in the interest of business elites.

Under modern conditions, Marx said, “the precondition for every real people’s revolution” was ”no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it” (Marx’s italics; Letter to Kugelmann, 1871).

In his book, Changing the World Without Taking Power, John Holloway calls Marx’s idea, “refraining from taking power.” To be more precise, he distinguishes between two kinds of power, and he favours not taking power of only one of these kinds. There is, first, power-over others, public heteronomy, which is what the state is constructed to generate. But there is also, second, power-to (“changing the world,” in Holloway’s idiom), or humanity’s capacity for creativity and cooperation, which in politics finds expression in public autonomy or collective self-governance. This form of “power,” this “anti-politics” of power-to, Holloway wants us to liberate and expand. However, we do that not by seizing the state, but by refusing to allow our creativity and cooperation to be expropriated by the state. Our power-to-do can retain its liberating power as potentiality only in the form of community-based popular self-organization, which is exactly what the state is designed to reject.

To confuse the empowerment of popular self-liberation with some sort of “taking over the state” is the gravest error that a socialist can make. It is to choose as one’s favoured political vehicle a social form that Marx rightly identified as “an engine of despotism.”

George Jackson on ‘the 1%’ and ‘the 99%’

By Steve D’Arcy

The idea of a class struggle between ‘the 99%’ and ‘the 1%’ is Marxist in origin, having been introduced by Black Panther Party member, George Jackson, in the early 1970s. More recently, of course, it reappeared in the discourse of the ‘Occupy’ movement, where it infused a certain type of class politics into the self-understanding and public profile of the movement.


George Jackson, 1941-71 (art by Santiago Mazatl)

Jackson on the 99 percent

In his posthumously published 1972 book, Blood in My Eye, Jackson wrote: “Revolutionary change means the seizure of all that is held by the 1 percent, and the transference of these holdings into the hands of the remaining 99 percent” (p. 9). (Note: all page references are to George L. Jackson, Blood in my Eye [NYC: Random House, 1972].)

No one doubts that Jackson strongly identified with Marxism. “I met Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Engels, and Mao,” he wrote in his other book, Soledad Brother, “and they redeemed me.” But is this way of understanding the fundamental antagonism between the ruling class and ‘the people’ ultimately compatible with Marxist theory? Some people who identify with Marxism are doubtful. They suggest that the blunt contrast between the 1 percent and the 99 percent is “fundamentally too vague to be useful as an analytical tool.”

For some, the objection is a matter of arithmetic: the ruling class, they say, actually comprises more than 1% of the population. But this objection seems to miss the mark, because no one (including Jackson) intends the formula to be understood in such a hyper-literal way, as a numerical estimate of the exact ratios. Rather, the notion of the 1% signifies the tiny minority of people whose wealth and power vastly exceeds that of most people. This small ruling elite arguably makes up the main adversary of the oppositional movements of the exploited and the oppressed. In the same way, the 99% should not be mistaken for a precise numerical formula. It simply points out the antagonism in principle between the profit-motivated ruling class and all of those many millions of people whose well-being is sacrificed and whose aspirations are thwarted by the systems of power that impose oppression, exploitation and alienation on the bulk of humankind, in a variety of ways and to varying degrees.

Marx on the ‘Immense Majority’ and the ‘Nine Tenths’

Karl Marx, being rather more upfront about the irrelevance of numerical precision in this context, referred (in the 1848 Communist Manifesto) to this vast segment of society simply as “the immense majority.” He described the anti-capitalist movement as “the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.” Elsewhere in the same work, he got more specific, identifying this movement with the 90%, subtracting nine percentage points from George Jackson’s catch phrase.

In Marx’s words,

“You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society.”

Should we conclude that, precise numbers aside, Marxism can well accommodate the basic thrust of Jackson’s 99% phrasing, give or take a few percentage points? Perhaps. But there are further objections to consider.

Differentiation within the 99%

A second objection is that the formula glosses over, or even actively conceals, antagonisms that exist within Jackson’s “99%,” or indeed within Marx’s “nine tenths.” There are, for instance, class differences within what Jackson calls “the people,” dividing working-class people from middle-class people, such as professionals, managerial employees, and small business owners. These middle-class people are not part of the investor class (the 1%), but they are not really or entirely part of the working class, either. Marxist theory labels these intermediate class positions “contradictory class locations.” (It should be said here that the upper echelons of the professional, the managerial, and the small-business classes actually overlap or merge with ‘the 1%’; conversely, at the low-paid and precarious end, the line between these ‘intermediate’ groups and the wider working class becomes blurred. I can’t explore these nuances in this article, however.)

Importantly, the interests of ‘professionals’ can sometimes clash with those of workers, because professional labour is partly de-commodified by guild-like ‘associations,’ like the ‘medical associations’ of doctors and the ‘bar associations’ of lawyers, which create a partly distinct set of interests and political priorities, as well as distinct advantages, notably more autonomy at work and higher pay and status. In the same way, although only the richest upper-level managers gain entry into the 1%, people in lower- and middle-level managerial or supervisory jobs can find that their interests diverge from workers in very direct and clear ways, since their work may entail hiring, monitoring, and disciplining workers. Finally, people who own small businesses or family farms, very few of whom could plausibly be seen as members of the ruling class, often count on hiring low-paid and precarious labour as part of their business model. In these ways, there can be class conflict within the 99%, and the phrase seems to downplay, if not to deny this possibility.

In the same vein, other kinds of antagonism or tensions within the 99%, which are just as important, also need to be taken into account. For example, there are entrenched hierarchies that differentiate women from men; settler populations from Indigenous peoples; non-racialized from racialized groups; and so on. These hierarchies of systemic advantage and disadvantage within “the 99%” seem to some people to cast doubt on the usefulness of the catch-all phrase, ‘the 99 percent.’

It would be foolish to deny the seriousness of these criticisms, and no doubt we should keep them in mind at all times, to avoid turning Jackson’s 99% concept into a source of obfuscation and confusion. But it is worth noting that Jackson did not see these two points as being in tension. He was alert to both the possibility of a broad anti-capitalist alliance (addressing the grievances and aspirations of the 99%), and the necessity to acknowledge and address actual or potential conflicts of interest and aspiration within that proposed alliance.

Just after highlighting the fundamental clash between the 1% and the 99%, Jackson notes that “we must understand the racial complexities that exist” (p. 11); he highlights the importance of “internal colonialism” (p. 10); he notes that African-Americans are, but whites are not, subjected to routine police violence; he highlights the political differentiation between rightist and leftist workers (p. 63); and so on. But he sees these “complexities” as posing a political challenge for the oppositional struggles, a task to be taken up by the broad anti-capitalist movement: “to devise a policy,” that is, a program, “which takes account of…racism,” as well as colonialism, sexism, class differentiation, and other sources of potential divergence and conflicts of interest. This, he suggests, is the common task of all “sections of the left revolutionary movements” (p. 11).

If the jargon of the 99% and the 1% makes it harder to “devise a policy” within the anti-capitalist movement that can “take account of” the “complexities” and internal antagonisms that do (or threaten to) obstruct the emergence of a common front against the ruling class and its system, then we should dispense with Jackson’s formula. But, in a time when a broad, differentiated yet united movement against the system seems so sorely lacking and elusive, it may be that what we need most is to reawaken the very ambition, now largely absent, to construct an anti-capitalist alliance that draws in a wide array of forces, while recognizing the autonomy and distinct integrity of movements that cannot be simply collapsed into a single, undifferentiated super-movement. Alliances, by definition, are forms of coordination and strategic convergence of differentiated forces. They are not fusions that deny or suppress the specificity of different participating organizations, groups and projects. Nevertheless, an alliance entails a process of realignment, in which partnered forces assume a coordinated posture of common opposition to a shared main adversary.

George-Jackson-Lives-The-Black-Panther-newspaperEnduring Insights

It is worth recalling at this point that Jackson was a Leftist of a different time and place, when the level of struggle was much higher, and the political debates on the Left were linked intimately to the construction of mass organizations and the conduct of broad-based and militant popular struggles. We should not succumb to nostalgia, but it can’t escape our notice that Jackson wrote at a time when one still spoke of “forging alliances,” the confluence in struggle of large social forces, not just about “being an ally,” which is understood nowadays to be a process of personal growth undertaken largely by individuals (as opposed to mass organizations, movements or classes). Today, terms like “alliances,” “liberation movements,” and “revolution,” have largely dropped out of the activist vocabulary (examples: 1, 2), so it is a challenge for some to understand Jackson’s mentality and his strategic sensibility. But Jackson wanted to build — starting right away — a militant mass movement that could topple capitalism, imperialism and all forms of oppression and exploitation. His concern wasn’t how to live together within the systems and constraints of capitalism, racism, sexism and imperialism, but how to destroy them, by means of a broad-based popular struggle from below: what he called “the protracted war of the worker bees” (p. 83).

It was, I suspect, just this concern — the concern to construct, precisely on the basis of our insistence on “the complexities,” a broad but militant anti-capitalist alliance — that motivated Jackson’s introduction of the formula of the 99% versus the 1%.

There is no doubt that Jackson well understood the magnitude of this ambition. And he worried that revolutionaries might be tempted to stop short in the pursuit of it:

“If the 1 percent who presently control the wealth of the society maintain their control after any reordering of the state, the changes cannot be said to be revolutionary….If the 1 percent are simply displaced by another 1 percent, revolutionary change has not taken place….A social revolution after the fact of the modern corporate capitalist state can only mean the breakup of that state and a completely new form of economics and culture” (p. 9).

In this respect, too, Jackson’s revolutionary spirit foreshadowed what was best in the Assemblies movement, which spread from North Africa to Southern Europe, and eventually to Zuccotti Park and beyond, with its resolute repudiation of official politics and its zeal to create the new.

To be sure, there are large parts of George Jackson’s political strategy that we can clearly see, at least in retrospect, to have been doomed to failure. In particular, his support (e.g., pp. 66-70) for what I have described elsewhere as “the clandestine cell model of armed struggle,” which he depicted as the basic form of revolutionary politics in our time, proved to be disastrously mistaken. Not all of his proposals have aged equally well. But his passion to construct a broad anti-capitalist alliance of the 99% against the 1% seems to be one thing that George Jackson got exactly right.