Working-class struggles against sexism, racism, colonialism, environmental destruction, and capitalism are often discussed in terms of “benefits” and “interests.” In particular, the strategic challenges confronted within these movements are often framed in terms of how settlers benefit from colonialism, how white people benefit from racism, how relatively affluent workers benefit from the despoliation of the planet, and so on. The implication is that those who benefit from these forms of domination would seem to have an interest in maintaining the social relations that the struggles against these systems attempt to contest. For example, the implication of the claim that settlers benefit from colonialism is supposed to be that they have an interest in maintaining the ongoing colonial domination and dispossession of Indigenous peoples. The implication of the claim that white women benefit from racism is supposed to be that white feminists have an interest in maintaining the racial oppression of women of colour. And so on.
Conflicts of Interest?
Those who emphasize these points do so out of a suspicion that these advantaged groups might not be reliable allies in struggles that oppose the very social structures from which they derive benefits. This in turn suggests that they may not be suitable partners for a convergence in common struggle. Women of colour, for example, might have reason to doubt the reliability of white feminists in struggles against the racist domination of women of colour, since — although white feminists have an “interest” in the empowerment of white women specifically — they actually benefit from the racist subordination of black and brown women. This seems to suggest that there is a conflict of interest in play here, which we ignore at our peril.
Clearly, there is a great deal at stake here. The more we underline and emphasize this set of observations about apparent conflicts of interest within popular movements for social justice, and the threat these conflicts of interest can potentially pose to solidarity and mutual aid within and between movements, the more pessimistic we might become about the prospects for common struggle in broad-based alliances. Ultimately, the effect may be to foster a more and more fragmented and inward-looking set of oppositional movements, of the kind often associated with the “twitter Left” and the “social justice blogosphere,” where a pervasive skepticism about the capacity to mobilize broad-based popular movements based on solidarity across real differences is taken for granted as an unspoken, and usually unchallenged assumption.
Acknowledging that the Benefits are Real
Of course, this thought — that these worries about conflicting interests can seem to undermine our hopes for solidarity-building — can lead us down a terribly misguided path. We might find ourselves tempted to bury our heads in the sand, and to pretend that these concerns are not grounded in genuine insights. For example, we can be tempted to cast doubt on the perception and understanding of those women of colour who perceive these conflicts of interests within feminism. But the truth is, their assessments are based not on hasty preconceptions, but persistent experiences of disappointment within practical politics, reinforced by longstanding empirical and theoretical findings by important research traditions. Any self-blinkering refusal to admit that these conflicts of interest are both substantiated by research and repeatedly confirmed by experiences in struggle (not just twitter debates, but actual movement activism), would be a recipe for disaster for the Left. Instead of offsetting the tendency toward fragmentation and mutual suspicion, such denialism would have the effect of intensifying these divisions and reinforcing pessimism about broad-based alliance-building, by seeming to confirm the fear that interest-conflicts make those who benefit from inequalities incapable or unwilling to admit that systems of domination directed against some groups confer advantages on other groups. On the contrary, we have to begin by acknowledging the reality of these interest-conflicts, and by insisting on the need to grapple with the strategic and analytical problems they pose, rather than trying to bypass the hard questions by pretending the problem is a figment of overactive imaginations.
The first step is to acknowledge that the benefits are real. White people do benefit from racial oppression; settlers (i.e., all residents of a colonized region who are not members of one that region’s Indigenous peoples) do benefit from colonial dispossession and displacement; men do benefit from sexism; and so on. And this fact explains people’s very real experiences of unreliable alliance-partners. For instance, it helps to explain the ways that white feminism has, in some but obviously not all cases, participated in the racist depiction of black men as threats to white womanhood, or the racist depiction of “the West” as saviour of vulnerable women in the Global South via imperial “interventions” in the context of the “war on terror.” The harms visited upon women of colour by these forms of racism are much more readily recognized by women of colour themselves than by white women, in part because racism threatens the well-being and the dignity of women colour in ways that it doesn’t threaten white women. Indeed, racism can create opportunities for enhanced well-being and dignity for white women, in some ways and under some circumstances.
Against “the Whole Damn System”?
And yet — crucially — this is not the whole story. There is a much more subtle set of dynamics at work here. For one thing, there is a clear, albeit no doubt complicated sense in which everyone — or all but the most wealthy and powerful few, the “ruling class” or the “one percent” — would benefit from a post-racist, post-sexist, post-capitalist, post-colonialist world. Some people try to point to this more complicated and seemingly contradictory situation by saying (in my view, too hastily) that the conflicts of interest discussed above are merely apparent, but not real. That is, they say that, even if it seems to almost everyone concerned that these conflicts of interest exist, in fact the conflict is a kind of ruse or deception, which conceals an underlying commonality of interests. According to this view, racial and gender oppression, colonial and capitalist domination, and other such hierarchies and inequalities, actually create a common interest of all exploited and oppressed people in overturning “the whole damn system” of racist, sexist, colonial, ecocidal capitalism. When we fail to confront and challenge all of these forms of domination, we merely shoot ourselves in the foot, by propping up the very system that attacks us all, albeit in different ways and by different means. Our real interests, or at least our “long term” interests, according to this view, actually converge on one overriding, shared interest in overturning the system and establishing a post-capitalist, non-oppressive, ecologically sound, egalitarian and democratic society that prioritizes the welfare of all, instead of the enrichment and empowerment of a few.
There is a grain of truth in this view, to be sure. But I am convinced that it fails to get at the central point. The point is not that the interests or benefits in maintaining inequalities and oppressions are merely apparent, instead of real interests, nor that they are merely short term, instead of long term interests. Instead, the point is that the very real, and quite possibly long-term interests that advantaged groups have in maintaining inequalities only exist in a context of atomization and individualization (so that we can speak here of “asolidaristic” interests), but they would not exist in the context of a common struggle where the fate of each was bound up with the fate of all (where asolidaristic interests give way to “solidaristic” or “alliance-dependent” interests).
“Benefits” and “Interests” Distinguished
To see this point, consider an analogy. Suppose a group of 20 people are being held hostage by one person, a man who is carrying a knife. The hostage-taker is the only one who is armed, and so he has a great advantage. Any of the 20 who tries to overpower the hostage-taker can expect to be wounded or killed. But suppose 10 or 15 of the hostages were to try all at once, in a coordinated way, to overpower the hostage-taker. In that case, they could easily prevail, with only a modest risk of serious injury to any one of them. Seeing this threat of a possible coordinated rebellion, the hostage-taker institutes certain benefits or advantages to those who comply with his instructions, and imposes penalties to those who resist. Now ask this question: do the 20 hostages have an interest in complying with the hostage-taker’s instructions, thereby helping to prop up his dominance, or do they have an interest in cooperating with each other to mount a coordinated assault on the knife-wielding hostage-taker, liberating themselves and each other through a common struggle, as if an injury to each were an injury to all?
We should not be too quick to answer this question. Before we can answer it in a sufficiently nuanced way, we need to become sensitive to a distinction that has lurked in the background of this whole discussion: the distinction between a benefit and an interest. In most cases, we have an interest in X whenever we benefit from X. But there is an important class of exceptions to this general rule. Sometimes, benefits come at a price that is so high that claiming the benefits is self-destructive, and hence contrary to one’s interests. Importantly, though, they do not stop being benefits. In such cases, benefits and interests cease to coincide. In the present context, the most important type of example occurs when a group of people is given access to certain privileges denied to others, where this differentiation of group fates is deployed by elites as a form of social control. Karl Marx, the social theorist who pioneered this kind of analysis, gives the example of colonial domination of the Irish by the English. According to Marx’s analysis, the offering of privileges to English workers, as benefits conferred upon them from England’s colonial domination and occupation of Ireland, and the related anti-Irish racism within England itself, were indeed linked to benefits made available to English workers. But the deployment of these benefits, and the correlative disadvantaging of Irish workers, were in fact a ruling-class stratagem of social control that weakened the social power of both Irish and English workers. The benefits in question, according to Marx, were “the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its [high level of] organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.” In short, the English workers benefitted from colonial domination and dispossession of the Irish, but because the deployment of these benefits or privileges undermined the potency of the workers’ movement in England, English workers were undermining their own position by failing to repudiate and help to overturn their own access to those benefits.
With this distinction between benefits and interests in mind, let’s return to our hypothetical question about the hostages. Where do their interests lie? Do they have (1) an interest in offering compliant assistance to the hostage-taker, in order to secure personal advantages as a reward for collaboration, or (2) an interest in rebelling against the regime of the hostage-taker in order to overthrow their own subordination along with that of all their fellow hostages? We know that, as long as the hostage-taker is offering advantages to compliant individuals, then hostages will benefit from docile and cooperative compliance with the hostage-taker’s regime. But do they have an interest in that kind of compliance?
The correct answer, I think, is that it all depends. Both are possible interests that they could have. Which of these two interests they do in fact have, in practical terms, depends on what they have reason to expect one another to be willing to do, given the situation in which they find themselves. If any one hostage has reason to expect that, were he or she to rush the hostage-taker, very few or none of the others would join in the effort, then proceeding to rebel in isolation and without support or cooperation would be self-destructive: a recipe for personal disaster. In this scenario, where the hostages do not coordinate their response, each of the hostages is clearly better off seeking to curry favour with their overseer as best they can, in the hope of receiving benefits in return for collaboration and complicity. On the other hand, however, if each of the hostages could plausibly expect that, were he or she to revolt, several of the others could be counted upon to join the fight and to coordinate their efforts in a common struggle to disarm their shared captor, then a new calculation would be necessary. In this second scenario, it would actually be self-destructive to collaborate with the hostage-taker in pursuit of personal benefits, because such collaboration in pursuit of personal gain would actually prop up artificially the hostage-taker’s dominance, by insulating it from the prospect of a coordinated challenge from the dominated majority. The result of collaboration would be disastrous, because it would foreclose the possibility of a potent common struggle to disarm the hostage-taker. Collaborating with the hostage-taker, instead of revolting, would ruin their only chance of ending the ordeal once and for all.
The predicament outlined in this parable very precisely maps onto the situation described above. Settlers really can gain advantages (benefits) by collaborating with the colonial domination and dispossession of Indigenous peoples, but by doing so they foreclose the possibility of accessing a far greater benefit of common liberation, which is only available on the basis of a coordinated, solidaristic struggle against “the whole damn system” of domination and exploitation. White feminists really can secure benefits by embracing the racial hierarchies that subject people of colour to domination and exclusion, but by doing so they prop up the very system that blocks their own access to liberation by insulating that system from a coordinated, solidaristic challenge from below. These cases echo the situation Marx described: the benefits are real, but they don’t generate interests, because the claiming of privileges blocks access to the kind of potent, solidaristic revolt that could bring liberation from forms of domination to which the privileged are also subject. If that’s the case, then (non-elite) settlers would seem to have no interest in propping up colonialism to claim benefits, white feminists would have no interest in propping up racism to claim benefits, and so on.
Unfortunately, this falls short of the neat and tidy resolution that our minds might wish we could find for these problems. What makes the thought raised here unsatisfying is the “big if” that it references. If they can count on broad-based solidarity and reliable mutual aid in a context of a common struggle for their joint liberation, then, and only then, will they have an interest in renouncing the dubious benefits of collaboration, in order to gain access to the liberation promised by a broad-based, anti-systemic revolt from below: a potent, transformative, and liberating rebellion against the system as a whole. Where that condition — that “big if” — is met, the asolidaristic interest in seeking to protect access to benefits, by collaborating with the prevailing distribution of power, would give way to the solidaristic or alliance-dependent interest in rebelling alongside all the exploited and oppressed against a ruling class and its system that blocks the emancipation of all workers.
At this point, the more pessimistic among us will be only too quick to insist that, alas, the crucial condition is not in fact met. There is no plausible basis to anticipate that such reciprocity and mutual aid will be forthcoming. Therefore, the pessimist will conclude, the interest in rebellion (and the benefit-renunciation it would entail) does not exist, as a practical matter, even if it exists “in principle” or would exist, counterfactually, under different circumstances. Indeed, this thought has real merit as part of an explanation for the low levels of popular revolt in many parts of the world today. Rebelling feels far too much like the self-destructive attempt of an individual to rush the knife-wielding hostage-taker all by herself, with no expectation that others will “have her back” and support her, “shoulder to shoulder,” in the way that working-class rebels of yesteryear could often expect to be backed up by neighbours, co-workers and comrades in the movement. To most people, in today’s very different context, it seems that the best way to gain benefits for oneself and one’s family is by pursuing an individualistic path to improved well-being: getting a better job, a raise, or whatever, by “impressing the boss” and “staying out of trouble.” In short, the problem with alliance-dependent interests is that they tend to evaporate in the absence of the reliable expectation of solidarity upon which they depend in order to have real weight in people’s decision-making about what to do. In the absence of reliable solidarity, asolidaristic interests reassert themselves.
Solidarity can be Cultivated
But this bleak thought misses something important. The expectation of solidarity is not an “all or nothing” affair. Solidarity can be built. Trust can be cultivated. Relationships of reliable mutual aid can be fostered over time. The norms of solidarity and cooperation that working-class movements against racism, sexism, colonialism and capitalism relied upon in the past did not spring up out of nowhere. They were constructed over time. People had to learn how to count on one another for backup. They had to discover, as a hard-won practical lesson, that sacrifices made by one person this year could be reciprocated by that person’s neighbour the next year, so that even apparent self-sacrifice pays off in the end, as our common strength is bolstered by our commitment to stand and fight by one another’s side.
But let’s not look on this learning process in a mythological, rose-coloured and cartoonish way. Often, in the years of the Left’s former periods of relative “ascendancy,” there were bitter failures of solidarity. There were unforgivable betrayals. There were reversions to sectionalism, individualism, and very often racism and sexism. This is the flip-side of the slogan, “workers of the world, unite.” Very often, working people failed to unite; otherwise, why exhort them to do so? In the same way, the slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all,” would be unnecessary and pointless, if not for the fact that some injuries, often of the most egregious and brutal kind, were treated by many workers as if they were “someone else’s problem,” or no problem at all. And yet, rather than simply react to these tendencies toward the dissolution of solidarity and common struggle as “facts of life,” forever precluding a common struggle, the Left traditionally grew out of the opposite impulse: the impulse to insist on solidarity, even in the face of betrayals and disappointments; to exhort neighbours and co-workers to embrace mutuality and cooperation, even as the drift toward individualism, sectionalism and competition continually undermined efforts at effective working-class organization.
A “Mission Statement” for the Left?
This, then, is what we need to recall today, in the hour of the Left’s most grim marginality and seemingly bleak prospects. The Left was founded upon a singular, very precise insight: that the exploited and the oppressed, or what Marx called “the downtrodden millions,” could liberate themselves only on the basis of a repudiation of the “bourgeois” values of careerist self-seeking and individualistic competition, and a corresponding embrace of the opposite values of solidarity, cooperation and mutual aid. It is no accident that the slogans of the classical Left continually foregrounded this thought: “workers of the world unite!”; “an injury to one is an injury to all!”; “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere!”; “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all!” Neither should we be surprised that the gravest vice against which the Left continually railed was that of the turncoat who, seeking a personal advantage, exempted himself or herself from the common obligation of unbreakable unity: the dreaded scab.
Recalling the sheer repetitiveness and even shrillness of the constant exhortations to solidarity that accompanied the rise of the Left in its heyday should remind us of something decisively important: solidarity, and the common interest in revolt that it brings in its wake, is not a given. It has to be fought for, continually, against systemic pressures and elite stratagems that always work to erode and undermine it. The recomposition of reliable, practical solidarity has to be nurtured and pursued as a high-priority political objective. Without it, the alliance-dependent interest in revolt tends to evaporate, generating asolidaristic “conflicts of interest” within the wider workers’ movements.
Perhaps this, then, can serve as a kind of mission statement for the Left: our role is to defend solidarity, not by denying every departure from it, not by ignoring the many failures to deliver on it, but by exposing and reversing these missteps, by working to repair our solidarity whenever it breaks down, reinforcing it wherever it falters, and embodying it materially when it threatens to degenerate into a mere pious ideal. The broad-based, working-class interest in rebellion is a special, alliance-dependent interest. It only emerges, as a practical matter, when we have good reason to count on our co-workers, neighbours and comrades to back us up as we move into struggle. That makes cooperation and solidarity into precious resources upon which the very fate of humanity depends. The challenge of building solidarity won’t take care of itself. And the benefits it confers are by no means automatic or unassailable. We have to put the rebuilding of solidarity on our shared agenda, across all our struggles, and to recognize it as a matter of both the greatest difficulty and the highest importance.
(Stephen D’Arcy is a member of Climate Justice London, author of the book, Languages of the Unheard: Why Militant Protest is Good for Democracy, and co-editor of the forthcoming book, A Line in the Tar Sands: Struggles for Environmental Justice.)