Book Review: Emma Dabiri’s “What White People Can Do Next ~ From Allyship to Coalition”

By Stephen D’Arcy

The recently published book, What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition (Penguin, 2021), is written by the Irish anti-capitalist and anti-racist, Emma Dabiri. Dabiri is previously the author of Twisted: The Tangled History of Black Hair Culture (UK edition’s title: Don’t Touch My Hair).

What White People Can Do Next delivers admirably on its promise to be a concise yet sophisticated introduction to contemporary anti-racism, including what is nowadays demonized by racists and the Far Right as “critical race theory” or “critical race studies.” Dabiri has a rare gift for combining a breezy, conversational, and accessible writing style that puts the reader at ease, with a deep and broad knowledge of anti-racist theory and the history of struggles over race as a form of domination, exploitation and extraction.

It is, certainly, an introduction. And yet, it is more than a broad, general overview. It includes a number of brief detours into points of detail and refuses to overlook subtleties and complications. There are so many fine discussions throughout: about racism’s intertwinement with capitalism and colonialism; about the similarities and differences between the organization of race in Ireland, the UK, and the USA (in all three of which countries she has resided and experienced racism firsthand), or indeed in Africa and elsewhere; about the limitations of online-centric approaches to (ostensibly) anti-racist ‘performance’; about the dangers of depicting opposition to racism by white people as a kind of charitable, supposedly noble act of self-sacrifice; and so, so much more.

Although it’s true that Dabiri seems to be either a marxist or (at minimum) a very marxism-influenced thinker, it would be wrong to think that in this book she simply reiterates longstanding marxist positions in an accessible way. Her book is much more rooted in and committed to engaging with a wide range of anti-racist scholarship and struggle histories, extending well beyond any narrow ideological limitations. And the book is extremely up to date: not only extensively discussing the 2020 BLM upsurge, and how it was or wasn’t processed online, but also discussing the demagogic campaigns against “critical race theory” in education, the COVID pandemic, and lot’s of other things that give the book a very contemporary feel. So, yes, it’s marxist or semi-marxist at least, but it’s not just reiterating points that are already familiar to marxist readers.

One of the most striking features of the book is its subtly subversive title: it sets the reader up to expect something that it resolutely refuses to deliver, namely, a liberal-individualist analysis of how white individuals can situate themselves comfortably on the “virtuous” side of the racism/antiracism divide. Intead, the book is from start to finish fixated on a very different set of questions: how can we win? How can race be eradicated? How can powerful, ambitious social movements be built through militant struggles and the learning processes they unleash? What is the difference between the kinds of antiracism that empower poor and other working-class Black people and the (supposedly class-neutral) kinds of antiracism that insulate systems of exploitation and extraction from critical challenges from below that pose existential threats to their continuation?

“What white people can do,” it turns out, is not mostly a matter of stepping up their tweet game, or undertaking an insular, self-obsessed or narcissistic process of self-examination, or even ‘holding businesses accountable’ for their products or ads. Instead, as the subtitle already hints, it’s mostly about linking struggles against racism with anti-capitalist, anti-sexist, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist and environmental struggles, and rethinking the idea of liberation in ways that are sensitive to the relationship between racism and other systems of domination and exploitation and the struggles against these systems. Above all, it’s about putting the project of defeating racism at the centre of our thought, speech and action around ‘race,’ and so refusing to adapt to or reaffirm the permanence or incontestable centrality of race, especially the persistent centring of white people (notably in allyship discourse) that she continually critiques.

(If you read between the lines here that Dabiri’s book is implicitly mounting a challenge, not only to racial liberalism, but also to Afropessimism, you wouldn’t be wrong — although I don’t think she explicitly mentions or criticizes directly Afropessimism. The whole tone and framework, make the point hard to miss.)

Dabiri’s book is also relentlessly critical of, and unflinchingly honest about, the failings of the forms of anti-racism that have evolved in the dysfunctional ecosystems of social-media consumption.

Overall, the book is a great introduction to anti-racism in theory and practice: utterly non-academic in tone, yet thoroughly conversant with and precise about the insights (or failings) of the past 50 years of academic anti-racist theory. Challenging to all, in a multitude of different ways, it also somehow manages to be inviting to most readers, especially readers committed to fighting to win in anti-systemic social movements.

Three Fallacies of Anti-systemic Strategic Thinking

The worst thing we could do, as leftists, is refuse to think strategically. We owe it to ourselves, our co-workers and neighbours, and indeed future generations and other species, to think collectively about how best to marshal our capacities most effectively to defeat the systems of exploitation, oppression, and ecological destruction that have wreaked such havoc and harm on the world. Capitalism, which is at the centre of these systems, will not fix itself; it continues to threaten all of us — especially the most exploited and oppressed among us — with its relentless onslaught of destructiveness, indifference to our well-being, and contempt for human dignity. Moreover, we know that everything is stacked against us: we have no guarantee that we will prevail. Success depends on our willingness and ability to fight tirelessly and courageously, but also intelligently, to defeat the formidable adversaries that stand arrayed against justice, democracy and dignity. Only in this way can we hope to overpower our enemies: the big corporations and the governments, police and courts that protect them.

That means that strategic thinking is not just a ‘niche’ interest, that can be taken seriously by some but not all anti-systemic fighters. No, strategic thinking is an obligation for all of us. But, if we’re to do it well, we have to be wary of some false friends of strategic thinking: forms of thought that seem to make good sense, but actually get in the way of clearly developing plans for effective struggle. In this short article, I want to highlight three fallacies of anti-capitalist strategic thinking. I call them, respectively, the organizer’s fallacy, the historical re-enactment fallacy, and the uniformity fallacy. 

What is a fallacy? 

A fallacy is a mistake in reasoning, which is not obviously mistaken but hides its mistake in argumentation that seems to make good sense. A fallacy is a kind of disguise in which mistakes conceal themselves as apparently sound reasoning. A simple and well-known example of a fallacy is the “ad hominem” fallacy. In this mistaken form of reasoning, one argues from the fact that so-and-so (some bad or unlikeable person) made a claim, to the conclusion that the claim itself must be false. The problem, we can see on reflection, is that a bad or unlikeable person is perfectly capable of saying something true (2+2=4, for example), or even expressing an important insight from time to time.

OK, what about strategic fallacies? Are there flaws in reasoning about anticapitalist strategy that are, like the ‘ad hominem’ fallacy, tempting but misleading? I believe so, and I think it is worth highlighting them, and trying to avoid them when we pursue our indispensable task of figuring out how to prevail against our most formidable adversaries. 

The Organizer’s Fallacy

Let’s start with the organizer’s fallacy. The reasoning goes like this. We just organized an event or activity, like a strike or a demonstration. It turned out to be a great success. We won our main demands, we humiliated our adversaries, we built a powerful coalition and emboldened people to fight and win against powerful enemies. This is just how we thought it would go, and how we planned for it to go. And we were right. Surely it must follow that the success, which we anticipated and planned for, is attributable to our excellent plan, our far-sighted and perceptive strategy! Further, since we have confirmed that it works, really we should tell others about the method we have discovered, so they can follow up on our success, and win further fights. The reasoning is very tempting, especially to those who believe that they have lived the effectiveness of their organizing activities; they saw with their own eyes how potent and effective their tactics and plans proved to be. In fact, however, this line of reasoning rests on a dangerous fallacy. The organizer’s fallacy claims that, “Since we organized X in a certain way, and X was successful, it must follow that X was successful because we organized it in that way.” This, however, is not at all true. There could be any number of factors that affected the outcome. At most, we can say that the method of organizing did not prevent success; we are perhaps entitled to suppose that it probably helped, to some extent, on this occasion. But in no way can we safely assume that the organizing methods and the outcome bear a simple relation to one another of cause and effect. 

Consider an example. In 2012, in Quebec, there was a student strike, which was in many crucial respects a resounding success (although, certainly, some of its highly ambitious aims, notably free tuition, were not realized). It was organized in a fairly specific way, using campus-based assemblies, particular types of popular education, and so on. These methods seemed to work, in the sense that the strike itself was extremely powerful. However, many strike organizers, in the grip of the organizer’s fallacy, assumed that they could then (1) get other people, in other places, to repeat their success by replicating their methods; and (2) repeat the process again, as needed, for future student strikes in Quebec. Both of these assumptions proved to be incorrect. What they ignored is the fact that, although the strike was organized in a certain way, and it succeeded, it does not follow that the strike succeeded simply because it was organized in that way. There are innumerable other factors, too numerous and complex even to fully grasp, much less to fully state, that bear upon how a struggle will play out in practice, on a mass scale. 

I do not conclude from this that we should not look at tactics or methods or strategies used in successful struggles, in the hope to learn about things that might work again in other settings. I simply insist that we avoid the organizer’s fallacy of imagining that every successful struggle that was organized was successful simply because of the way it was organized, because that is not the case. (Conversely, not every failed struggle that was organized was a failure because of the way it was organized; another struggle, organized the same way, might very well succeed, if other circumstances or factors are different and more favourable.)

The Historical Re-enactment Fallacy

Let’s turn to a second, somewhat related type of mistake in reasoning about anticapitalist strategy, which is probably even more common: the historical re-enactment fallacy. The reasoning behind this mistake is just as seductive, and just as dangerous, as the reasoning behind the organizer’s fallacy. Suppose we read about, or remember, an example in the past where a strategy was effective and led to victory. Since everybody has a different view about which struggles were successful and which struggles were failures, let’s take an imaginary example. In the (imaginary) land of Topia, a revolutionary movement emerged which, under terribly unfavourable circumstances, managed to build up the capacities of the exploited and oppressed population to create various forms and institutions of struggle that proved to be remarkably potent. In a fairly short period of time, they were able to defeat the systems that oppressed and exploited them, and to replace them with democratic, just and sustainable alternatives, which dramatically improved the lives of the people of Topia. OK, we have a case where a certain strategy was effective and produced great results. Surely it must follow — according to the historical re-enactment fallacy — that, since this is the best example we have of a successful revolutionary strategy, we have here some knowledge or insight about what works, and we can and should try to replicate it by studying and applying the same strategy, albeit obviously adapted in some ways to our own situation. Doesn’t that make sense? No, it does not.

What makes the reasoning fallacious is that, precisely because it was so successful in the past, it is very hard to imagine that it could possibly succeed again. A strategy is not more likely but less likely to succeed in the future if it has been remarkably successful in the past, because our adversaries are bound to make adjustments in their own strategies to anticipate a possible repetition, and to undermine the effectiveness of the once-successful methods. Once a successful tactic or strategy becomes familiar to our adversaries, it quickly loses its capacity to put them on the defensive, and on the contrary we are probably only playing into their hands if we try to cycle through the same methods a second time.

It is probably too simple to say that a strategy or tactic is “ruined” once it has been seen by out adversaries to succeed in practice. But we have to admit, at least, that it is far, far less likely to succeed, once it has been found to be successful in the past. People who think they are giving us reason to adopt a strategy by pointing out that it was used successfully in the past are actually giving us a reason to reject that strategy. (On the other hand, broad strategic principles, like ‘try to put your enemy on the horns of a dilemma,’ are much more useful over time.)

The Uniformity Fallacy

A third type of fallacy that can lead anti-systemic strategic thinking astray is what I call the uniformity fallacy. This is the reasoning which suggests that, because one strategy or tactic is the best strategy or tactic, then the most effective movement will be one in which everyone pursues that strategy or tactic. After all, this line of reasoning goes, anything other than the best tactic or strategy will be inferior to the best option, so why do anything other than what’s best? It’s easy to see how tempting this line of thought might be to someone who wants a movement to maximize its effectiveness. But it is entirely fallacious. To see why, consider a military analogy. 

Imagine a war in which the best weapon available is a tank. Someone might conclude, on this basis, that the entire army should be equipped with tanks, in order not to settle for an inferior weapon, but to rely instead wholly on the very best option. This line of thinking can seem tempting, but a moment’s reflection will reveal the problem. An army that relies only on one kind of weapon, even if it is the best available one, is easy to defeat, because it pursues a one-dimensional, predictable, uniform course. Its enemy only has to prepare one kind of defence. Moreover, the enemy is relieved of exactly the burden that strategic analysis is supposed to force upon it: it will not be put on “the horns of a dilemma,” that is, it won’t have to expose itself to one type of vulnerability because it is focussed on protecting itself from another kind of vulnerability.

Because a single-tactic, or single-strategy enemy is by far the easiest to predict and the easiest to defeat, we have to draw exactly the conclusion that the uniformity fallacy steers us away from drawing: that a complex, differentiated, multi-layered, ideologically (and in other ways) diverse and relatively unpredictable social movement, pervaded by multiple currents and constant debates, is likely to be the most effective kind. More specifically, it is likely to be more effective than one in which everyone follows the unitary, single best (‘best’) strategy. Uniformity of strategy and tactics, or indeed of leadership or decision-making structures, spells disaster for a social movement. Uniformity is a gift to our enemies.


Thinking strategically about how to defeat the most powerful institutions and systems in the world is the obligation of anyone who claims to be committed to human liberation. The willingness to take on this challenge is part of what distinguishes the sincere fighter for liberation from the social media consumer committed only to curating a ‘progressive’ online persona. Doing the work of strategic analysis is difficult, not only because our enemies are so powerful and our own forces are so fragmented and disorganised, but also because we are continually tempted to think in lazy or superficial ways about what it would mean to win, and what it will take to win. Avoiding the strategic fallacies is one way to help steer our struggles in the right direction.

(Steve D’Arcy is author of Languages of the Unheard: Why Militant Protest is Good for Democracy.)

The problem is snitch culture, not “cancel culture”

Snitch culture is the social practice of treating it as normal or legitimate to respond to real or imagined wrongdoing by informing the police or employers in the hope that these authorities will penalize those accused by charging them with crimes or firing them from their jobs. The most obvious effect of the practice is to enlist ordinary people into the role of enhancing and intensifying the power of employers and the police. But the sinister seductiveness of snitch culture is such that people are drawn to it out of a desire to stand up to injustice or abuse, which is obviously an important and laudable aim. The tragic irony of snitch culture is thus that people think that they’re helping when they participate in it.

(To avoid misunderstanding, note that when I mention snitch culture I’m talking about the ‘vigilante’ spirit of seeking to encourage and assist powerful people to punish alleged wrong-doers, not the defensive response of people hoping for protection from dangerous attacks or threats, a matter I address below, in my concluding paragraph.) 

The most enthusiastic advocates of snitch culture are often “very online” consumers of corporate social media ‘platforms’ like Twitter. They can frequently be found openly boasting about the capacity of social-media consumers to get people fired from their jobs, simply by informing employers en masse and urging bosses to discipline their employees. To be sure, many of these snitch mobs regard themselves as part of the Far Right (“patriots,” as fascists call themselves in North America), eager to inflict harm on BLM protesters, feminists, trans rights activists, or trade unionists. But quite often, possibly even more often, the snitch culture enthusiasts see themselves as part of the broad Left (occasionally even the Far Left), as surprising as this may seem to those who are unfamiliar with social media consumption patterns. 

What makes this broadly lefist self-understanding possible for snitch culture enthusiasts is that, even if the form of their behaviour seems obviously alien to the values of the Left, as informants demanding that the police crack down on criminals or that employers discipline workers, nevertheless because the basis for their complaints is accusations of racist or sexist or anti-worker behaviour, they assume that the snitching behaviour itself must be anti-racist, anti-sexist, and pro-worker. But the reasoning is clearly fallacious. Suppose I fear that my safety is threatened by burglars, and in response I surround my home with dangerous traps and landmines. This may indeed harm any would-be intruders, but it is at least as likely to end up harming me or people I want to visit my home. In the same way, snitch culture may offer some minimal forms of redress or protection, indirectly, but its main effect is to strengthen the most powerful adversaries of democracy, justice, and the Left: bosses and cops. It’s a classic case of trying to put out a fire by pouring gasoline on it.

It’s important to distinguish the concept of snitch culture from a seemingly similar, partly related concept, constantly trumpeted on the Right: “cancel culture.” Cancel culture is what philosophers might call a “heterogeneous ensemble,” that is, a cluster of different things that do not share a common set of characteristics, but are grouped together arbitrarily, usually for ideological reasons.

Indeed, part of what people call “cancel culture” is actually snitch culture. But part of it is what Marx called “ruthless criticism” of public figures in public forums. And that type of criticism has an important place within democratic politics. There are, to be sure, pathologies associated with public criticism of public figures, such as the political vice of self-righteousness, and sometimes also disturbing excesses, such as suicide and self-harm encouragement, relentless bullying of individuals for transgressions that, though in many cases blameworthy and deserving of sharp criticism, are relatively inconsequential when compared to the actions of most CEOs or high-level politicians, and so on. We’re right to view some forms, some bases, or indeed some degrees or intensity levels of criticism with a healthy sense of distrust, or even contempt, to the extent that they undercut what we value as leftists, or as decent people more generally. As always, the Left is committed first and foremost to the dignity of each and the welfare of all, and leftists should continue to insist on the primacy of these democratic values, so routinely scorned by social media consumers. But we can never countenance a reluctance to embrace ruthless criticism of powerful people and (especially) powerful systems and institutions, because we recognize that criticism of the powerful is an indispensable ingredient of democratic politics, and it has to be resolutely defended by the Left and all the working-class social movements (feminism, anti-racism, anti-colonialism, the labour movement, and so on). 

It is, in short, necessary to distinguish between (1) ruthless criticism of powerful people and institutions, (2) appropriate levels and forms of criticism of wrong and harmful behaviour on the part of individuals, (3) snitch culture, and (4) a variety of pathologies of public criticism like self-righteousness, sensationalism, pettiness or bullying. This need for a differentiated analysis of where criticism can veer into either healthy and democratic directions (like 1 and 2) or unhealthy and undemocratic directions (like 3 and 4) should encourage us to discard the vague, misleading, unhelpful language of “cancel culture,” and replace it with less ideological, more scientific and ethically illuminating terminology, so that we may better distinguish the helpful from the harmful types of critical engagement in public life. Concepts like “snitch culture” can help in this effort, but ideological jargon like “cancel culture” is more likely to foster a drift to the right.

I think it has to be said, in the context of criticizing snitch culture, that the Left (and its social movements) in most countries today lacks the capacity to repel violent attacks or threats of violence, among many other types of immediate danger to vulnerable people. This means that attacked and endangered people cannot usually come to the Left for protection. Inevitably, they will sometimes turn to the state, often in the mistaken expectation that the police can help. Even though we rightly insist on the demand to defund and eventually to abolish the police, we are in no position to complain about people turning to the state when they’re endangered, as long as we fail to offer any viable mechanisms to protect public safety. For this reason, it is important to distinguish between, on the one hand, snitch culture’s toxic encouragement of appeals to bosses or cops to crack down on our enemies, a form of toxicity that we rightly condemn, and on the other hand, working-class people turning to the legal system hoping (perhaps naively) to gain a measure of protection from dangerous attacks or other serious threats. It isn’t my aim here to equate all instances of recourse to the legal system with the noxious practice of “snitching.” But we have to commit to a culture that rejects the snitch ideal, the ideal that encourages people to actively seek out opportunities to urge bosses and cops to crack down on people — even people we despise and condemn. We have to build up our own methods, our own capacities, and our own ethical standards for responding, and in many cases crushing underfoot, people who promote anti-social, anti-worker, racist, sexist, and generally oppressive behaviour. (The last thing — the very, very last thing  — I would want to do is suggest that we refrain from trying to impose crushing defeats on the enemies of justice.) Bosses and cops are best seen as bulwarks of oppression that offer support to exactly these adversaries of justice, democracy and human decency. The power of corporations and the power of the police are a big part of the problem, not the solution, and we should aim to defeat them, not to offer them tips and information that support their rule and dominance over us.

(Steve D’Arcy is the author of Languages of the Unheard: Why Militant Protest is Good for Democracy.)

Related posts:

Dead Letter: Rescuing Free Speech from the Liberals who Claim to be Defending It

Self-exoneration via Self-flagellation: The structure of neoliberal guilt

Dead Letter: Rescuing Free Speech from the Liberals who Claim to be Defending It

For the past six weeks, the USA has been mired in the grip of a profound crisis of free speech. In response to a sharp rise in public expressions of dissent and attempts by ordinary working-class people to campaign for an end to racist police violence, the authorities have responded with a relentless counter-campaign of brutal violence and unrestrained repression. 

In the first two weeks of protests against the murder by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the regime arrested over 10,000 dissidents. By the end of the first month, the number of arrestees had risen to over 14,000. Of those arrested, the vast majority had either violated no laws, or had only violated legal constraints that themselves were symptomatic of the growing free speech crisis: defying orders to disperse, for example, or simply being outdoors after the regime-imposed anti-protest ‘curfew’ laws that more than 200 US cities have imposed. Countless thousands of regime critics have been brutally beaten by club-wielding police and soldiers, gassed with chemical weapons, and in some cases murdered by far-right vigilantes, spurred on by the regime, with leading government officials declaring that the dissidents were “terrorists.” In at least two cities, New York and Detroit, uniformed officers drove police vehicles headlong into crowds, apparently with the intent to maim or kill their victims. 

The Department of Justice has publicly admitted that it views the movement as a manifestation of “domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly.” The Attorney General announced that the formidable arsenal of lawless surveillance at his disposal would be deployed against anti-racist protest organizers across the USA: “To identify criminal organizers and instigators, and to coordinate federal resources with our state and local partners, federal law enforcement is using our existing network of 56 regional FBI Joint Terrorism task forces” against anti-racist regime critics.

No surprise, then, that the United Nations high commissioner for human rights felt compelled to intervene, urging the US government to cease its ongoing use of “excessive force” against protesters, as well as its longstanding use of racist police violence generally. The regime, however, has ignored such pleas, continuing its attacks on the most basic democratic rights, the right to assemble, to freely associate, to publicly express dissent. 

Meanwhile, an uncertain number of dissidents have been killed while protesting, either by police violence, including the effects of chemical weapons deployed by the regime to disperse dissenters, or by wealthy regime-aligned terrorists.

The free speech crisis obviously calls for a response from everyone who purports to care about basic democratic rights. Intellectuals, indeed, are particularly obligated, arguably, to stand up for free speech, in a situation where that ideal is under siege by the most powerful and lawless of adversaries: the armed power of the state, with its cops, its soldiers, its judges and its jails, deployed everywhere to demonize, criminalize and punish dissent and anti-racist protest.

This is the context in which a Letter, published in Harper’s magazine, has appeared. The letter, signed by several of the most high-profile intellectuals of our time, purports to be a defence of free speech. It should be noted, if only in passing, that the speech of the authors of this letter has continued to flow, quite freely indeed, during the whole free speech crisis of the past six weeks. Almost every day we are treated to breathless reportage on the latest declaration of J.K. Rowling about gender, for instance, and another signatory, David Brooks, has both a regular weekly spot on a national television program and a weekly column in the New York Times. All the more welcome (not to say uncharacteristic) would it be, therefore, for these free-speaking, prominent and inescapable ‘talking heads’ to stick up for others, notably for those who lack their favourable access to high-profile platforms: the hundreds of thousands of anti-racist protesters targeted by the state and demonized as “terrorists” by the President, the Attorney General, and the FBI.

Does the Letter do this, though? Does it respond to the crisis with a much-needed defence of the value of lively public controversy and vociferous protest? Does it denounce the demonization, criminalization and the state violence directed against anti-racist protesters? Alas, no. In fact, it neglects — or rather, pointedly refuses — even to acknowledge the scope or the character of the free speech crisis. The letter offers not a word about the massive wave of violent attacks on regime critics; it says nothing about the thousands and thousands of arrested dissidents; it is rigorously silent about the imposition of curfews in hundreds of US cities in the weeks prior to the Letter’s publication; it is written as if its signatories don’t know, or refuse to admit, that the US government has openly criminalized anti-fascist activism and deployed its apparatus of supposedly “anti-terror” surveillance and disruption to thwart democratic engagement by anti-racists. The strict and uncompromising silence about the free speech crisis, in a letter that purports precisely to be a defence of free speech, is astonishing. 

Instead, the Letter focuses on something entirely different: the fact that some people are mean on twitter. 

No doubt they are right about this much. Some people are mean on twitter, or other public forums, and sometimes people get drawn into over-the-top ‘piling on’ against people who say or do controversial things. The rush, on some occasions, to condemn some speech as ‘beyond the pale’ may not have reached the heights in recent years that it did in earlier times, e.g., when liberals orchestrated the ‘Red Scare’ in the 1920s and the anti-communist ‘Witch Hunts’ in the 1940s and 1950s. Even so, it would be foolish to deny that the problem exists today. To cite one type of case, notwithstanding the norms of academic freedom, professors have been fired from their jobs as a result of this type of process, for example, for expressing criticisms of the Israeli state. One professor was attacked online for defending a Black-only anti-racist gathering: she “was bombarded with online complaints, hate mail and even death threats,” before being fired arbitrarily by her employer. Other workers, especially unorganized workers lacking union protection, have been arbitrarily fired by brand-sensitive employers attempting to distance themselves from controversy at the expense of workers’ rights. 

More generally, it is fair to say that most people rightly regard the political culture of twitter and other social media sites to be, to varying degrees, insufferable and off-putting, due to its well-known attachment to the spirit of self-righteousness, which is mostly a liberal and conservative thing, but admittedly also affects parts of the left. 

But please, please, please — can we keep our eye on the ball for a moment? The rampaging and lawless targeting of dissidents with violence and repression from the state has been underway for a full six weeks. And while we do need intellectuals to intervene, along with unions, social justice and social movement organizations, and people generally, the last thing we need is a screen discourse about “cancel culture” that is thrust into the foreground, not to shed light on what’s actually happening, but on the contrary to avert our attention from the real crisis of free speech that is painfully visible — for those willing to look — in the daily attacks on protesters in the streets of city after city, across the USA and beyond. 

It is not a new thing, this incapacity or unwillingness of liberals to defend free speech, beyond their ritualized affirmations of the virtue of ‘civility,’ by which they mean refraining from boisterous protest. Marx wrote an important book about it, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Liberals, he observed, always choose order over justice, their quiet enthusiasm for the power of capital over the risky actualization in practice of their superficial commitment in principle to the rigorous protection of civil liberties. The old song by The Clash put the point well: liberals want us to know our rights; they just don’t want us to try using them.

But we should not allow liberals, nor their hapless new Letter, to distract us from the importance of mounting a vigorous defence of free speech. Karl Marx, who so perceptively criticized the hypocrisy and superficiality of liberals, could not bear the thought of ceding the defence of civil liberties to the ideologues of official liberalism. He insisted instead that working-class people should continue to assume their longstanding role as liberty’s only guarantors against the incursions and overreaches of power and wealth. As Marx put it: “The political freedoms, the right of assembly and association, and the freedom of the press — those are our weapons. Are we to sit back and abstain while somebody tries to rob us of them?”

Today, Marx’s point is as timely as ever. A concerted push-back is urgently needed, carried out by all working-class people and organizations, led today by the movement for Black lives, against the state’s crackdown on dissent, its criminalization of anti-fascism, and deployment of violence and demonization against anti-racist protest. The Letter itself should mainly be ignored, but not before pointing out just how dangerously wrong-headed liberalism is on this issue. If we leave the defence of free speech to the likes of Todd Gitlin, Matthew Yglesias, and J.K. Rowling, and the rest of the Letter’s signatories, the present crisis of free speech will surely get worse, and the lawlessness of the state will go unchecked by the kind of forceful pushback from the people that we so urgently need right now. 

(Steve D’Arcy is the author of Languages of the Unheard: Why Militant Protest is Good for Democracy.)

A Brief Note on the Spontaneist Case for a Turn to Organizing

Recent events, namely, the wave of mass struggles spearheaded by the grassroots movement for Black lives, have fully vindicated the ‘spontaneist’ argument that the Left mainly advances through self-activating protest upsurges and the political dynamism and social ferment they generate, not through recruiting people one-by-one into steadily growing membership organizations.

Minneapolis, 2020, protesting the police murder of George Floyd.

Nevertheless, it has always been part of the spontaneist argument to insist that, once spontaneity has done its work of activating masses of people and generating waves of oppositional enthusiasm, it is crucial for organized parts of the Left to consolidate these advances and draw newly activated people into forms of sustained commitment to longer-term organizing projects. Only in this way, spontaneists insist, can we prevent the dissipation of the movement’s energies under the pressures of ‘everyday’ social integration and the reassertion of capitalist ‘normality.’

Massive surge in popular support for movement aims

The spontaneity of the militant popular struggles of 2020 has already had a transformative impact on popular consciousness and in this way lent core aims of the anti-systemic Far Left, like police-abolition and anti-capitalist revolution, a relevance to broad publics that they have lacked for generations. It’s now time, though, to shift from an overriding emphasis on agitation — activating people by creating entry points into struggle — to a new, more focussed emphasis on organization — drawing people into long-term collaborative projects and an ongoing engagement as regular participants in the work of the activist Left.

In the present conjucture, therefore, the dispute between those who insist on the primacy of organizing and those, like me, who insist on the primacy of agitation and spontaneity, is temporarily suspended: we should all agree, right now, about the urgency of the task of consolidating and integrating large numbers of newly activated and politicized people into the organized activism of the anti-systemic Left.

Why is Philosophical Writing Sometimes Difficult to Read?

Philosophy is sometimes saddled with a reputation for presenting its supposed insights in writing styles that are verbose, obscure and pretentious. I don’t think the charge is quite fair, for reasons I want to set out here. But there’s no need to be deliberately obtuse, denying that there’s ever a problem with opaque prose in philosophy. Probably the most influential modern Western philosopher, Immanuel Kant, routinely served up sentences like the following one from his Critique of Practical Reason: “Consciousness of this fundamental law may be called a fact of reason because one cannot reason it out from antecedent data of reason, for example, from consciousness of freedom (since this is not antecedently given to us) and because it instead forces itself upon us of itself as a synthetic a priori proposition that is not based on any intuition, either pure or empirical, although it would be analytic if the freedom of the will were presupposed; but for this, as a positive concept, an intellectual intuition would be required, which certainly cannot be assumed here.” 

Kant wasn’t known in his time, as Shakespeare was in his, for “honey-tongued eloquence.”

One could multiply the examples, of course. Sometimes philosophical writing is a burden to read. But is this a fact about writing in philosophy, or is it a fact about writing generally? Some people write very, very poorly. But there are bad writers among people who write press releases or legal decisions, instruction manuals or self help books, not only among those who write about philosophy. It is asking too much of any area of life to rigorously exclude from participation anyone who struggles and fails (or just fails, without bothering with the struggle) to write passably well.

Even so, some people think that philosophy makes a particular point of refusing to present its insights, if that’s what they are, in a way that is sufficiently “accessible” to general readers. And this is a claim that I want to take up here: why isn’t philosophical writing more accessible to more people?

I think we can distinguish at least seven ways in which “accessibility” in philosophical writing might be impaired. In all or almost all of these ways, however, the problem is not specific to philosophy, but a generic problem that affects specialist discourses as such.

The first source of inaccessible writing is the unfamiliarity to outsiders of concepts that are familiar to those who have already gone through a learning process. This may be a barrier for those who have not yet gone through that learning process. For example, someone who has studied mathematical logic or number theory for years might not be fazed by a writer’s reference to “the transitive closure of a binary relation,” but readers who have not studied the background taken for granted by the writer may need several minutes, or even a few hours, of remedial logical and mathematical learning, so that they can clearly understand what is meant here by “transitivity,” “closure,” and “binary relation.” The same might apply to a basketball fan or commentator saying that a certain team’s “bigs can post up or stretch the floor.” Someone who has no background in watching or playing basketball might be able to guess what “bigs” are, with more or less precision, but probably wouldn’t have a clue what “posting up” or “stretching the floor” might mean. This seems like a hard barrier to remove on the front end (that is, to remove from basketball talk among fans of the sport): people just wouldn’t be able to talk efficiently about basketball if they had to explain what they meant by “low post” or “pick and roll” or “drive and kick” every single time. People approaching an up-and-running discourse, into which most participants have already been ‘brought up to speed,’ simply have to accept the burden of working over time to learn what these expressions mean, so that they know the basic terms and concepts that people are using. In the same way, if you want to read books and articles about the philosophical ‘method’ known as phenomenology, you’ll need to look up terms like “eidetic analysis,” “traditionary sedimentation,” and “noematic correlate.” But there’s no way you can expect people to either stop using such terms, or to explain them again and again and again, every time they use them. The same goes for economists using terms like “elasticity,” “commodity futures,” and “demand curve,” or whatever. The burden has to fall on the newcomer, otherwise these discourses simply won’t be able to proceed with the requisite efficiency. 

A second source of inaccessibility is the fact that, in some cases, the complexity of the material can be a barrier for people who are considering an issue for the first time, and are still trying to get a sense of the basic questions, and so may not be ready to take up more complicated topics. Whether in philosophy or in any other domain of inquiry, discussing complicated matters often requires taking for granted that several simpler matters have previously been discussed, and don’t need to be reviewed from scratch just now. Talking about simple things and complicated things are not so much alternatives, forcing us to choose between them, as they are a sequence: we discuss simple things, and move on from there to take up more complicated matters. For example, a person who is trying to understand what causes climate change might first need to understand the basic dynamics: the drive of private sector industrial firms to maximize profits and how this affects their choices of fuel sources and production methods, and so on. But there are levels of complexity that go far beyond this basic analysis: how profit-motivated technological R&D choices are affected by the dynamics of worker resistance, how regulatory changes interact with environmental protest movements, how pipeline or other energy extraction-infrastructure projects are contested by Indigenous land defenders, and countless other social factors, not to mention the complex matter of weather pattern dynamics, as they interact with the social processes, and so on. It is impossible for all of this to be addressed all at once. For the most part, discussion of matters of higher complexity and finely detailed specificity will tend to be conducted as a conversation among people who have already worked through some of the more basic dynamics, and don’t need or want to work through those points all over again every time they talk about it. And although this isn’t unique or specific to philosophy, it certainly impacts the accessibility of many philosophical texts.

A third source of inaccessibility is the need to find or construct a vocabulary for articulating insights that are important to express, but hard to express in the inherited vocabulary of common sense or everyday speech. For example, some of the difficulty one finds in path-breaking books like Heidegger’s Being and Time or Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, is related to the fact that these books tried to express something that no one had previously tried to be articulate about. Hegel’s book tries to find a way of talking about philosophy and knowledge, when we switch from thinking about knowledge in terms of a singular encounter between a knowing subject and a known object, to thinking instead about a progression that unfolds over time between an earlier stage and a later stage of an unfolding learning process. Hegel finds that he has to bend the inherited jargon of philosophy (terms like “concept,” “truth,” and “absolute”), in order to express the complex dynamics of what he called “the progressive evolution of truth.” Similarly, Heidegger wanted to talk about how cognitive forms of intelligibility (like believing something or intending to do something) were derivative in relation to more basic forms of intelligibility that were not a matter of “knowing that something is so” but instead a matter of knowing how to navigate some routinized social practice or skill-guided activity (like exhibiting the social-cultural competence to interact in appropriate ways with strangers in a workplace, or to engage practically with place-settings and servers and menus in a restaurant). When we try to find a way of talking about something that no one has ever really tried to talk about, we’re in the unenviable position of having to make up a new way of talking. Heidegger found himself making up terms like “everydayness” and “the they-self.” Sometimes, the weirdness of these new ways of talking diminishes over time, when more and more people learn how to talk in the new way. (For example, a lot of ways to talk about sexuality and gender and the family that fifty years ago would have seemed to most people to be strange, or even nonsensical, now seem perfectly clear and obvious to millions of people.) But in other cases, the new way of talking doesn’t catch on, except within a small circle of specialists. This is often what happens within academic disciplines, and in some cultural or political subcultures, or indeed professions like carpentry or beekeeping.

A fourth barrier to accessibility may have to do with mismatches between intended versus actual audiences. If I write something that I expect only to be read by people who have read Donald Davidson’s and Michael Dummett’s books and articles on truth and meaning, and for some reason it finds its way onto the reading list of people who have never read any philosophy, they will find my use of the term “propositional attitude acriptions” or “de dicto specification of propositional contents” to be impossibly opaque and hyper-technical. Of course, had I imagined that my audience would be non-specialists, with no philosophical training, I would have written differently, and presumably stopped at a more general-interest level of detail. But since I took my intended audience to be people interested in late-20th century philosophical semantics, I helped myself to a vocabulary that would be familiar to that group of readers. (In practical terms, this point overlaps considerably with my first point, about how some conversations proceed on the assumption that participants either have already undergone a learning process, or at least would be willing to do so; but perhaps it adds something to express the point also in terms of intended or assumed audiences.)

A fifth source of inaccessibility is the failure or refusal to use terms in a precise and consistent way. This, however, is often not a matter of being deliberately obscure. Rather, the problem is that some philosophical writers — the later Heidegger comes to mind — deliberately seek out words that are “evocative,” and rich with “poetic resonances,” rather than having clear and precise meanings. Normally, as in Heidegger’s case, this is rooted in some opinion about what the functions of language are. In Heidegger’s case, he believes that the most basic function of language is not to communicate thoughts, or to express claims, but rather to open up or “disclose” “worlds,” that is, to illuminate the world rather than to represent it. (Similar factors require Lacan’s psychoanalytic texts to surrender the pretense that an author has a command over the semantic functioning of the text he or she — seemingly — produces, a gesture necessitated by some of his central theoretical claims, if that’s what they are. The question of how to read a text that is deliberately calling into question our assumptions about meaning, reading and writing is certainly relevant here, but it is too big a topic to fully address in this setting. It is enough, I think, to acknowledge frankly that some philosophical writing is obscure because it is trying to do things other than convey straightforward claims from a writer to a reader. This is what gives us the self-consciously “stylistic” philosophical writers like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Lacan and Derrida. But it would be even more confusing if a writer both relied shamelessly upon, and denied the very possibility of, straightforward communication of singular “thoughts” from a writer’s mind to a reader’s.)

A sixth source of inaccessibility is that ‘difficult language’ is sometimes needed  to invoke a semantic context. It may seem that the expression ‘invoke a semantic context’ is itself needlessly academic and perhaps inaccessible. And it may indeed be academic in style, but not needlessly so. One could rephrase the point by saying, instead, that one wants to ‘bring into play a wider set of meanings that are relevant to the point being made.’ In a way, this seems to mean the same thing as ‘invoke a semantic context.’ But the original formulation has the merit that — I dare say — it invokes a semantic context that the second formulation does not, notably, the difference between the semantic, pragmatic and syntactic ways in which sentences function, as well as the difference between a semantic context and other contexts, like historical, cultural or intellectual contexts. For this reason, the phrase ‘invoke a semantic context’ does more work, conveys more significance, than its lengthier proposed substitute. I can readily imagine situations in which I would opt for the longer, but less academic substitute, but that would be a sacrifice of a certain kind. I would have to omit part of what I wanted to say, or else find a way to add it in later. But if I thought I were writing for an audience that would probably know what I meant (whether the audience was academic or not), I would no doubt remorselessly help myself to the more meaning-packed formula. The same inclination to bring into play a relevant semantic context might lead a philosophical writer to opt for a word like “transcendental,” when “necessarily presupposed” could have done the trick, or a word like “hermeneutical” when “interpretive” would convey a very similar point more accessibly. This impulse to invoke semantic contexts that lend specificity to one’s claims and situate them in wider background-coversations can indeed be a dangerous temptation. But it would needlessly impoverish one’s writing, or indeed one’s thinking, to abstain from it entirely.

A seventh factor that can lead to inaccessibility in philosophy is a writer’s adoption of an oracular affectation. (Indeed, perhaps my use of the term “oracular affectation” may seem to some — wrongly, I think — like a case of adopting an oracular affectation.) An affectation is a mode of self-presentation that is ‘studied’ or carefully cultivated, as opposed to being spontaneous and authentic, and an affectation is oracular if one’s self-presentation tries in effect to invite one’s hearers or readers to consume humbly one’s wise pronouncements, rather than to challenge what one says or press for more detail, evidence, precision or clarity. A philosophical (or other) writer who adopts an oracular affectation wants, apparently, to be listed to with uncritical reverence, and possibly even with a certain sense of awe.

Generally speaking, it is only the last of these forms of inaccessibility that should be regarded as disreputable. It is reasonable to expect a writer to treat one as an equal, generally, even though it is not reasonable — for reasons set out above — to expect a writer to communicate only in ways that make it possible for every reader to understand her meaning immediately, without preparation or effort. When sports fans or sports journalists use a piece of basketball jargon, like “weak side help,” this does not treat the uninitiated as somehow ‘less than equal.’ It is not pretentious or self-indulgent for a carpenter to use expressions like “wainscot” or “cantilever,” which are unfamiliar to many outsiders. It simply reflects an assumption that entry into a specialist discourse is a process that unfolds over time. It probably also reveals an optimism that the uninitiated can navigate the challenge of getting up to speed, in the long run, as so many others have done before them.

Of course, when we return to Kant’s sentence, quoted in my opening paragraph, we are still hard-pressed to defend it. But I hope we can see it for what it is: evidence that among the ranks of philosophy professors, as among the ranks of accountants, economists, and engineers, there are some people who don’t write particularly well.