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

By Stephen D’Arcy

You may have seen the video: a young white woman declares her complicity with white supremacy, insists on her own affinity and commonality with racists who murder Black people, and yet — such is her genius — she manages to depict herself in the most idealized way, as a paragon of virtuous anti-racism.

I was thinking that there should be a proper label for this increasingly common, perhaps distinctively neoliberal communicative stratagem that deploys ritual self-flagellation (“We’re quite shit!”) as a vehicle for self-exoneration (“As one of those declaring that we’re shit, clearly I’m an exemplary figure, to be admired and emulated”). But then I realized that the whole point of ritual self-flagellation, in the literal as well as the metaphorical senses, is self-exoneration, or at least a taking of one’s distance, on a now-elevated perch, from the mundane sinners all around who don’t even bother to whip themselves. So, the observation that it is used as a self-exoneration tactic is redundant, ultimately. That’s just what what we mean by self-flagellation. Still, this somehow doesn’t satisfy my hunger for phrases, so for the time being I’m going to call it “auto-exculpatory self-flagellation.”

Why do I suggest that auto-exculpatory self-flagellation might be “distinctively neoliberal”? It’s because there’s an element of brand management and self-marketing built into this practice. It is self-promotion in a properly entrepreneurial sense of the word “promotion.” More specifically, like an app-flogging tech startup, one cleverly creates the perception of a lack (in this case, a lack of virtue), even as one offers up one’s services as the local monopolist provider uniquely positioned to satisfy the new demand.

So understood, it is perhaps the substitute, among suitably entrepreneurial, neoliberal egos, for the obsolete experience of “liberal guilt.” If liberal guilt wallowed in a longing for the lost confidence in one’s own innocence, expressed in a para-Keynesian displacement of agency onto policy makers, neoliberal guilt sees instead an opportunity to cash in on one’s complicity with wrongdoing by converting it into a kind of psycho-social “income” stream, in the currency of “social capital,” namely, the prestige of being “one of the good ones.” What this situation demands, the self-exonerator thinks, is a promotional video for a campaign of viral marketing…promoting me!

But is it a bad thing? Or more pointedly, should we blame these entrepreneurs of self-exoneration?

Well, that would be the wrong way to think about such things, especially if the context is political. The way to think about politics is politically, and that means to foreground two elements conspicuous by their absence from the discourse of the guilt-neoliberal: causal explanation and strategic analysis.

Instead of the individualizing, personalizing pronouncement that “we’re shit,” or “they’re shit,” political thinking analyzes why bad things are happening, with a particular interest in the institutions, structures and systems that generate harms and injustices. On this basis, it looks to develop a strategy for defeating and (to borrow Marx’s term) smashing [brechen] these systems by means of popular resistance and social struggle, including (where feasible) the construction of self-organized alternatives.

The question isn’t, is this person (me, you) or this group of people (us, them) bad or good? Rather, the question is, how can we find a plausible path toward smashing the systems that generate so much injustice? And here is where auto-exculpatory self-flagellation falls so short. It hides the systemic, institutional causes of injustice behind a screen of personalizing moral righteousness and it eschews the development of strategies for winning, preferring instead to focus on the accumulation of social capital. The way to relate to it is not with a counter-moralism that tries to shame the self-exonerator, but to analyze the causes of this phenomenon and develop strategies for undermining its influence. Above all, that means advancing radical politics as an attractive and effective alternative to liberalism. Liberalisms of every sort, as forms of individualism, thrive in contexts where the prospects for potent collective action seem bleak. It can be undermined only by showing in practice that collective struggle can win.

Four Styles of Labour Organization: Representation, Self-organization, Networking and Institutional Coordination


It is customary, nowadays, to apply the term “organized labour” only to trade unions. This, I think, is a mistake in the way we speak or the way we allow ourselves to be spoken about. The organizations of unemployed workers, demanding food, housing, dignity and jobs; the organizations of sex workers, demanding basic labour standards and the end of abuse and harassment at the hands of the police and others; the organizations of injured workers, demanding a decent living, just compensation and access to adequate healthcare services; the organizations of the “travailleurs et travailleuses sans papiers” demanding the right to move in search of security, justice and work; the organizations of feminist workers, demanding legal remedies for women facing sexual harassment at work and discrimination in hiring, pay or promotions; or the organizations of Indigenous workers demanding jobs and fair treatment — all of these are ways in which “the labouring many” have organized in struggle and solidarity to improve their lives as working-class people. Like unions, these, too, are forms of “organized labour,” broadly understood.

NYC-based Domestic Workers United, a membership-based social movement organization

Domestic Workers United, a membership-based workers’ organization, based in New York City.

With this in mind, I want to propose a simple typology, a sort of basic classification system, for describing different styles of labour organization, in the broad sense.

I discern four basic styles of labour organization, although I want to emphasize in advance that some organizations or political projects combine more than one of them, and in effect function as hybrid forms of organized labour. The four styles are self-organization, representation, networking and institutional coordination.


The oldest, and arguably still the most important type of organized working-class struggle is self-organization. Self-organization is characterized by its “grassroots” reliance on active participation by ordinary people (that is, people who are not “professional organizers” or “staffers”), not only in the setting of goals, but also in the design and implementation of plans for joint action. In this style of labour organization, workers coordinate with one another in a participatory way, getting directly involved in articulating their grievances and aspirations, making key decisions through open debate and discussion, and then taking collective (“direct”) action to implement their decisions and pursue their shared aims. Partly because of its non-professionalized and participatory character, it is often the most frustrating for participants, because decision-making can be difficult, and there may be uneven implementation of decisions, among other problems. On the other hand, when it works well, it is arguably the style of organizing that is most inspiring and empowering for participants, who learn in practice that they can change the world by acting in common.

Some examples of working-class self-organization include popular assemblies, the camps and general assemblies of the Occupy movement, the “solidarity networks” that organize workers to support one another against wage theft or landlord abuses, self-managed worker cooperatives, the grassroots action organizations that play such a key role in struggles against poverty, unemployment, gender violence, environmental racism, and so on. Some hybrid political projects have a self-organization component, including the local grassroots action groups (in contrast to the formal “Founders” organizations or the informal online networks) organizing under the banner of Black Lives Matter or Idle No More.

What is important is not the issue upon which the groups focus, but the organizational features that they embody: by its very nature, self-organization is participatory and oriented toward direct action, in ways that other organizational forms are often not.


A second style of labour organization is representation. Whereas self-organized grassroots groups are characterized by broad participation and direct activation (or what Marx called “self-activity”), representational forms of working-class organization tend to be divided between a broad base of supporters or “stakeholders,” on the one hand, and a narrow base of “core” activists or “leaders,” on the other hand. The basic function of representational organizations is “advocacy” — speaking up for the interests of a “constituency” or represented group or “community” whose interests are served or promoted (but who are not themselves directly activated, on a broad basis) by the organization.

To some extent, organizations of this type do try to “mobilize” the wider group of stakeholders whose interests they hope to represent. They may try to hold a large “day of action,” to demonstrate (notably, to politicians, or in some cases, to prospective funders) that they do indeed have credibility with the people on whose behalf they claim to speak. For the most part, however, they engage in mobilization of a very particular and limited kind: they tell people where to show up, what to demand, and when to go home. What they do not do is invite these wider circles of people to participate in the organization’s ongoing activities, nor do they actively work to draw wider groups into directly making decisions and planning actions. In general, representational organizations draw (in practice, if not always in the way they talk about what they’re doing) a fairly sharp line between activists or leaders and the broad base on whose behalf they believe they speak.

It is worth noting that representational organizations are almost always led (or staffed) by people who are sincerely committed to winning things for the stakeholders they try to represent or “advocate for.” It is not some kind of cynical con. Nevertheless, there are a number of potential, even typical features of these organizations that arguably undermine their stated aims, in many ways. (I won’t stop to pursue the point, but one could consult a book like Paved with Good Intentions, by Nikolas Barry-Shaw and Dru Oja Jay, to get a sense of how these organizations can play a very “contradictory” role in attempts to deal with the problems they are ostensibly trying to address.)

The most clear-cut examples of representational organizations are NGOs, notably environmental NGOs. But I would describe other relatively non-participatory “advocacy”-focused organizations, like the Canadian Labour Congress, the Assembly of First Nations, and the Canadian Federation of Students as representational workers’ organizations. Arguably, the formal or semi-formal Founder groups linked to Idle No More and Black Lives Matter are representation organizations, with very limited decision-making participation by “stakeholders” outside of the small leadership circle.

I won’t go into the point here, and it may be of diminishing relevance now that social democracy has largely dissolved itself into conventional liberal electoral politics of the Democratic Party variety, but I should mention that the classical “labour party” form (e.g, the pre-Blair UK Labour Party, the German SPD, Canada’s NDP) is a specifically parliamentary variant of representational organization, in which “rank and file” party members are represented by professional politicians and other party functionaries, and the party does not really activate the broad membership except as “foot soldiers” during election campaigns and as “base voters” on election day.


Networking is another, and much-discussed, form of labour organization. In this context, I am not talking about networks of formal organizations, but networking as an informal alternative (or supplement) to formal organization

The word “networking” has a slightly “contemporary” ring to it, but networks are not really a new development. For example, when the Russian Communists urged socialists around the world to organize the “vanguard of the working class” into a political party, they understood this “vanguard” to be an already existing, but ill-coordinated, loose and informal network of anti-capitalist radicals, who could be much more effective if they combined to form a common organization. The Bolsheviks were skeptical of networks, but today networks are widely celebrated, often uncritically. Moreover, in the past few decades they have developed an ever-more acute form of self-consciousness. Yesterday’s informal, unnamed, ill-defined network tends to become increasingly replaced by today’s semi-formal, hashtag-branded, social-media-based network, often with semi-official buzzwords and catchphrases. But networks, by definition, stop short of constituting formal, membership-based organizations. Rather, they are something like shared affiliations, by which people signal to one another, or to adversaries, their joint commitment to a (sometimes only loosely defined) political project. This gives networks their main strength: they can spread in a “viral” manner, without acquiring the burden of constructing either mechanisms for accountable decision-making or the kind of large and unwieldy infrastructure that a formal organization would need in order to accommodate tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of participants.

Some of the most important social movements of recent years have functioned partly as networks. For instance, Black Lives Matter and Idle No More are in part networks organized via social media, in which people express their affiliation by deploying hashtags and other public declarations of political alignment. The way the quasi-official “Founders” describe #blacklivesmatter makes clear that they regard the wider movement as in large part a network in this sense:

“#BlackLivesMatter is an online forum intended to build connections between Black people and our allies to fight anti-Black racism, to spark dialogue amongst Black people, and to facilitate the types of connections necessary to encourage social action and engagement.”

The exact relationship between local grassroots action groups, the BLM Founders circle, and the social-media-focused network remains to be fully clarified and/or worked out in practice. However, I think most participants and observers would agree that there is a network aspect, distinct from both the local self-organization groups and the small circle of Founders.

Another notable example of networking as a form of working-class organization would be BDS, the movement calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. Although it was launched by a groups of ‘civil society’ formal organizations, BDS exists in practice mainly as an informal network that tries to motivate formal organizations, including but not limited to working-class organizations, to adopts its boycott and divestment policy proposals.

Institutional Coordination

Finally, there is institutional coordination, the type of labour organization that typifies modern unions and other formal member-funded organizations with a paid staff and a relatively passive membership base, as far as daily operations are concerned. In institutional coordination, as an organizational form in the workers’ movements, there is (usually) a formal membership, which is in principle able to democratically control the group’s activities. But in contrast to self-organization in grassroots groups, the day to day operations of unions are largely overseen by a combination of paid staff and elected office holders.

The difference between “representation” and “institutional coordination” isn’t always readily apparent, and to some extent organizations of either type can be influenced by the organizational norms of the other. But in principle, there is a clear distinction. A representation organization does not require that the stakeholders it purports to represent actually join the organization and pay regular dues, much less go out on strike if the membership decides to do so. At most, a representation organization may need to mobilize a base of supporters periodically to boost its credibility. By contrast, unions need members, and many key decisions are actually made and subsequently implemented by the members (even if there may be varying degrees of member engagement and substantive democracy in different unions). In short, institutional coordination combines the formal commitment of signed-up members, which is typical of self-organization, with the feature of being staff-led on a day to day basis, which is typical of representation-oriented organizations.

Besides unions, other examples of institutional coordination as a type of labour organizing include consumer cooperatives like Mountain Equipment Co-op, and possibly ASSÉ (L’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante), which goes beyond advocacy by organizing strikes and has a staff and a team of officials supported by a large — but most of the time, predominantly non-active — membership base.

The two main strengths of institutional coordination as an organizing style in the broad workers movement are, first,stability, since they do not disappear when the level of struggle declines sharply (which grassroots self-organization groups often do); and second, access to resources, since their stable dues-base enables them to invest in “education departments” and hiring organizers to work on campaigns, mobilizing members, or organizing the unorganized. These features give the institutional coordination organizations a credible claim to constitute a kind of backbone, or (to switch metaphors) the scaffolding, of the wider working-class Left.


The working class consists not only of the waged employees that the capitalist class accepts as workers, but also retired workers, sick or injured workers, unemployed workers, people whose social labour is neither paid nor commodity-producing but is nevertheless exploited by capital in a wider sense, and students bound for the labour market upon graduation. Marx was right to count not only wage labourers, but also the many “surplus populations” excluded from paid employment into his expansive understanding of the workers’ movement (“the movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority”). And, just as our understanding of the class needs to be broad and expansive, so too does our understanding of what it means to organize workers. Our conception of organized labour obviously must include, crucially, the various forms of workplace-based organization, notably unions and workers’ cooperatives. But it must also include ways in which workers are organized outside the workplace to defend or advance working-class interests and demands for justice. The conception of organized labour that emerges from such a perspective will necessarily be differentiated, one way or another. What I offer here is only one of many possible ways of analyzing that differentiation. Hopefully, by noting these differences, we can get a better look at the strengths and weaknesses of different organizational forms and methods, and see more clearly how they might help or hinder our efforts, depending on the context and circumstances in each case.

Some Early 20th Century Views on Anti-Racist Strategy in the USA

By Steve D’Arcy

There’s a tendency to assume, perhaps unconsciously, that radical political analysis gets better and more sophisticated over time. Sometimes it really does. But certainly not always. Often, when we think we’re discovering something new, what’s actually happening is that we’re groping towards a rediscovery of the long-forgotten but hard-won insights of earlier generations. Too often, the collective intelligence and accumulated wisdom of the powerful and transformative social struggles of yesteryear have been carelessly consigned to oblivion by what one famous historian of poor people’s movements has called “the enormous condescension of posterity.”

In light of the recent intensification of the struggle against police killings of working-class Black people, it is worth taking a look back at how radicals of earlier generations, especially (in this case) some US-based Black revolutionaries, thought about the strategic questions posed by struggles of this kind.

When we do look at what they had to say, the superficial campus cliché according to which early 20th century marxists were “class reductionists” who ignored anti-racism altogether, or at best “subordinated anti-racism to class struggle,” begins to unravel in the face of a reality that bears little relation to the old liberal talking points.

Back in the 1940s, CLR James tried to sum up the early-20th century marxist view of anti-racist strategy for the USA in three points:

“We say, number 1, that the [Black] struggle, the independent [Black] struggle, has a vitality and a validity of its own; that it has deep historic roots in the past of America and in present struggles; it has an organic political perspective, along which it is traveling, to one degree or another, and everything shows that at the present time it is traveling with great speed and vigor.BlackPowerMatters2

“We say, number 2, that this independent [Black people’s] movement is able to intervene with terrific force upon the general social and political life of the nation, despite the fact that it is waged under the banner of democratic rights, and is not led necessarily either by the organized labor movement or the Marxist party.

“We say, number 3, and this is the most important, that it is able to exercise a powerful influence upon the [wider] revolutionary proletariat, that it has got a real contribution to make to the development of the proletariat in the United States, and that it is in itself a constituent part of the struggle for socialism.

“In this way we challenge directly any attempt to subordinate or to push to the rear the social and political significance of the independent [Black people’s] struggle for democratic rights. That is our position.” (From CLR James, “The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the US,” 1948).

[[Note: in the passage above, in order to focus the reader’s attention on the meaning, rather than the obsolete terminology, I replaced the word “Negro” with “Black,” but in the quoted passages below, I leave the wording as it appeared originally.]]

These three points — which James equated with “the position of Lenin thirty years ago” (see below) — have their roots in Karl Marx’s view of the relation between anti-colonialism and anti-capitalism, according to which “the most important object[ive]” for European workers hoping “to hasten the social revolution” against capitalism should be to help secure “the national emancipation” of colonized peoples, which workers in the colonizing nations should recognize as “the first condition of their own social emancipation.” In his main work, Capital (1867), he famously applied this same logic to racism in the US: “In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.”

Since I do not think the development of anti-racist politics in the US has been entirely for the better in the years since James underlined his three points (in spite of some hugely important advances, like thisthis, this, this, and this, to name a few), I want to encourage anyone who hasn’t studied early marxist views of anti-racist strategy in the US to look into a few of the classic contributions to the marxist tradition in this area. Below, I provide links to several key texts, including one by Marx himself in 1870, and then seven others published in the first half of the last century. For each of the links, I have included a brief excerpt, hoping to whet the appetite of possible readers. Apart from Marx and Lenin, all of the others — George Padmore, CLR James, Harry Haywood, WEB DuBois, and Claudia Jones — wrote the relevant pieces while living in the United States, as far as I can tell. (On the other hand, it’s striking that three of them — Padmore, James, and Jones — were born and initially educated in Trinidad.)

I should point out that — unsurprisingly — the opinions elaborated in the following works do not all neatly comply with James’ formulation of what he depicts as “the” marxist view. In many cases they diverge from one another very directly, and in important ways. But the divergences are also instructive and important, and repay careful study.

1. Karl Marx, On the relation between anti-colonialism and anti-capitalism (“Letter to Meyer and Vogt”) (1870)

“And most important of all! Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life….He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards [Irish workers] is much the same as that of the ‘poor whites’ to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A…..This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the…working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.”

2. V.I. Lenin, “Draft Theses on National and Colonial Questions” (1920)

“The Communist International’s national policy…cannot be restricted to the bare, formal, purely declaratory and actually non-committal recognition of the equality of nations to which the bourgeois democrats confine themselves….In all their propaganda and agitation—both within parliament and outside it—the Communist parties must consistently expose that constant violation of the equality of nations and of the guaranteed rights of national minorities which is to be seen in all capitalist countries, despite their ‘democratic’ constitutions….[A]ll Communist parties should render direct aid to the revolutionary movements among the dependent and underprivileged nations (for example, Ireland, the American Negroes, etc.) and in the colonies. Without the latter condition, which is particularly important, the struggle against the oppression of dependent nations and colonies, as well as recognition of their right to secede, are but a false signboard….”

3. George Padmore, “Black Slaves in the New World” (Chapter 2 of The Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers) (1931)

“Even in the United States, which the apologists for bourgeois democracy consider the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave,’ we find 15 million Negroes brutally enslaved. The story of the oppression of Negroes in the United States forms one of the darkest pages in the history of capitalism. In no other so-called civilised country in the world are human beings treated as badly as these 15 million Negroes. They live under a perpetual regime of white terror, which expresses itself in lynchings, peonage, racial segregation and other pronounced forms of white chauvinism….Race prejudice or white chauvinism is one of the chief weapons in the hands of the capitalist class in order to oppress and enslave the black workers. In the United States the working class is made up of different nationalities and races which are grouped into white and black. In order to prevent these workers from uniting together in militant struggle against the bourgeoisie who rob them all alike, the employers and their agents in the Labour movement…encourage the workers to hate each other by playing up racial and national differences….Even in the North, where Negroes are supposed to be better off than in the South, they are still the victims of varied forms of social oppression. First of all they are isolated from the rest of the working class by traditional social codes imposed upon the workers by the bourgeoisie, in order to maintain an ideological influence over the white workers, who are taught to hate and despise their black comrades. Therefore, we find that the less class-conscious white workers, like the capitalists, have the tendency to consider the Negro workers as social outcasts – members of a pariah race.”

4. Harry Haywood, “The Struggle for the Leninist Position on the Negro Question in the United States” (1933)

“The emphasis upon the development of economic struggles among the Negro toilers does not mean to slacken but on the contrary to increase in every way the struggle around general issues of Negro liberation, such as Scottsboro and the fight against lynching. It is necessary to broaden out and deepen these struggles, bringing forward our full program of social equality and right of self-determination and building the broadest united front on these issues. Our chief task, however, is to bring this struggle into the shops and factories and on the land, linking it up with the more immediate demands of the Negro toilers, making the factories the main base in the struggle of Negro liberation and our trade unions the main lever for the organization of the Negro working class. At the same time the revolutionary mass organizations and particularly the trade unions must come forward more energetically in the struggle on behalf of the political demands of the Negro toilers. This must go hand in hand with the ruthless combating of all forms of chauvinist and Jim Crow practices and the patient, systematic but persistent struggle against the ideology and influences of petty-bourgeois nationalists among the Negro toilers.”

5. WEB DuBois, Black Reconstruction (1935)

“That dark and vast sea of human labor in China and India, the South Seas and all Africa; in the West Indies and Central America and in the United States — that great majority of [hu]mankind, on whose bent and broken backs rest today the founding stones of modern industry — shares a common destiny; it is despised and rejected by race and color; paid a wage below the level of decent living; driven, beaten, prisoned and enslaved in all but name…–how shall we end the list and where?…Here is the real modern labor problem….Out of the exploitation of the dark proletariat comes the Surplus Value filched from human beasts….The emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown, and black.”

6. CLR James, “The Right of Self-Determination and the Negro in the United States of North Americas” (1939)

“Up to 1935, organized labor, as represented by the AFL, discriminated against the Negro as sharply as the capitalist class; today the poor whites of the South are the most savage of lynchers and the most rabid upholders of the theory of white superiority….[N]ot even a socialist revolution can immediately destroy the accumulated memories, mistrust, and suspicions of centuries; and today, in this period of capitalistic decline in America, the racial prejudices are more than ever based on economic privileges, possessed by one group of workers at the obvious and immediate expense of the other….Three centuries of property and privilege have used their wealth and power to make the Negroes feel that they are and must continue to be outcasts from all sections of American society, rich and poor; and the political backwardness of the American working-class movement has made it an easy victim to this propaganda, fortified by tangible if slight economic advantages….The desire to wipe out the humiliating political subservience and social degradation of centuries might find expression in an overpowering demand for the establishment and administration of a Negro state….Should the masses of Negroes raise this slogan, the [marxists], in accordance with the Leninist doctrine on the question of self-determination and the imperative circumstances of the particular situation, will welcome this awakening and pledge itself to support the demand to the fullest extent of its power.”

7. Harry Haywood, “The Negro Nation” (Chapter 7 of Negro Liberation) (1948)

“The ‘white supremacists’ insist on presenting the Negro question as one of race. This makes it possible for them to ‘justify’ the notorious color-caste system in the name of spurious race dogmas which depict the Negro’s servile status in American life, not as the result of man-imposed prescription, but as a condition fixed by nature. Negro inequality is supposedly due to natural inherent differences. In this credo, Negroes presumably are a lower form of organism, mentally primitive and emotionally undeveloped. ‘Keeping the Negro in his place’ is thus allegedly prescribed by nature and fixed by Holy Writ. Color of skin is made an index to social position. Race…[is] used as an instrument for perpetuating and intensifying Negro subjugation. The Negro problem is explained in terms of natural conflict between races, the result of inborn peculiarities. This hideous distortion, whose roots go back into ante-bellum times and beyond, permeates the entire cultural pattern of the South; this vile calumny is fixed in the South’s folkways, mores and customs, sanctioned in its laws, and, in the last analysis buttressed by violence and lynch terror. The lie of natural, innate and eternal backwardness of the Negro and other dark-skinned peoples is the theoretical foundation upon which rests the whole noxious system of Negro segregation and its corollary, ‘white supremacy.’ Formerly a rationalization of chattel slavery, it is used to justify the Negros present-day vassalage….From its taproot in the semi-feudal plantation system, anti-Negro racism has spread throughout the country, shaping the pattern of Negro-white relationships in the North as well. With the clandestine encouragement of Yankee financial power and its controlled agencies of public opinion, art literature, education, press, and radio, the dogma of the Negroes ‘inherent inferiority’ has been cunningly infiltrated into the national consciousness of the American people. Woven into the national fabric, it has become an integral part of the ‘American way of life,’ despite repeated refutation by authoritative science.

8. Claudia Jones, “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of Negro Woman” (1949)

“The bourgeoisie is fearful of the militancy of the Negro woman, and for good reason. The capitalists know, far better than many progressives seem to know, that once Negro women undertake action, the militancy of the whole Negro people…is greatly enhanced. Historically, the Negro woman has been the guardian, the protector, of the Negro family. From the days of the slave traders down to the present, the Negro woman has had the responsibility of caring for the needs of the family, of militantly shielding it from the blows of Jim-Crow insults, of rearing children in an atmosphere of lynch terror, segregation, and police brutality, and of fighting for an education for the children. The intensified oppression of the Negro people, which has been the hallmark of the post-war reactionary offensive, cannot therefore but lead to an acceleration of the militancy of the Negro woman. As mother, as Negro, and as worker, the Negro woman fights against the wiping out of the Negro family, against the Jim-Crow ghetto existence which destroys the health, morale, and very life of millions of her sisters, brothers, and children.”BlackPowerMatters

On the Social Ontology of ‘Race’ — Was Karl Marx White? And Is He?

By S. D’Arcy

There are those who think of Karl Marx as a classic example of the kind of “dead white males” that universities in the West lavish with such rapt attention. But is this quite true? He was male, to be sure. And he’s fully dead. But was he white? Or — in what appears on the surface to be the same question — is Karl Marx white?

For some, the question is to be answered by fixing one’s gaze on the colour of Karl Marx’s skin. One is invited to pour over old sepia photographs, looking for clues. I think there’s good reason to doubt the soundness of this approach, as I will note below. But, for the sake of scrupulous comprehensiveness, let’s look briefly at the matter of Marx’s skin. In his first year as a student at the University of Bonn, according to Jonathan Sperber’s recent biography, Marx’s classmates dubbed him “the Moor,” because of “his swarthy complexion,” i.e., his dark skin. Another biographer, Franz Mehring, says that the nickname was “given to him on account of his jet-black hair and dark complexion.” The label stuck with him until his death almost five decades later. He was judged by his contemporaries, apparently, to have physical features associated (in their minds, at least) with the Maghreb region of North Africa. On the other hand, another biographer, Jerrold Seigel, makes a convincing case that the nickname was — at least in part — a reference to the hero of Friedrich Schiller’s famous Romantic novel, The Robbers [Die Räuber], whose name was Karl von Moor and who denounced the corruption of the rich and powerful. (Note that, as Seigel points out, Marx’s nickname was spelled Mohr, in German, not Moor, so the match is inexact.)karl-marx-ageing

In any case, Seigel makes another point which, as I see things, is more relevant to the matter at hand: the nickname served within his milieu to highlight Marx’s Jewish heritage, hinting that he wasn’t fully recognized as German. Seigel notes that, in spite of his father’s conversion at the age of 35 to Lutheran Christianity (and his corresponding name change from Heschel to Heinrich), which was necessary because a post-Napoleanic Prussian legal reform made it illegal for Jews to practice law, Marx was regarded by his peers as a Jew. Indeed his daughter Eleanor Marx Aveling, who was as secular as Marx albeit less estranged than him from their common Jewish roots, continually referred to herself proudly as “a Jewess.” (Eduard Bernstein, in an obituary for her, wrote that, “At every opportunity she declared her [Jewish] descent with a certain defiance.”)

I will put my cards on the table, at this point: If we come to judge that Marx wasn’t white, it should not be because we think his skin was too dark to count (or “pass”) as white. It should be because we decide that Jews in Germany (and Europe more broadly) in the 19th century were racialized as exterior to the “white race.” In other words, if Marx wasn’t white, it’s because other Jews of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Rosa Luxemburg or Leon Trotsky, were also not white.

The question of whether or not Marx was white holds considerable interest, I think, for two reasons. First, it raises some interesting and important questions in social ontology; and second, it raises the possibility that although Marxism arose in Europe, obviously, it may never have been a political tradition dominated by white people, since it has been crucially shaped by and centrally associated with racialized (that is, racially subordinated) people from its inception. Anyone can observe that in our own time, and indeed since no later than the mid-20th century, marxism has been a political tradition whose adherents have been overwhelmingly confined to the Global South. That applies both to intellectuals and to workers’ movements and leftist political parties. There are far more marxists in India today than in Europe, the USA and Canada combined. But it isn’t as well known or well-understood that even many of marxism’s earliest and most influential adherents within Europe were also non-white, including its main founder.

To make the point fully clear, two things have to be established: that European Jews in the 19th century weren’t white; and that Marx and many other leading early marxists were also Jewish, in the relevant sense, even if they were secular and/or atheist, as most were. These two issues are in fact closely related, because in order to make the case that European Jews in the 19th century were not white, one has to establish that Jews were regarded, not simply as a religious group, which one could exit by means of conversion to another religion or adoption of atheism, but a racial one, from which no escape was possible.

Certainly, anyone would agree that Jews in Europe in general, and in Marx’s Germany specifically, were subjected to systematic subordination, often being persecuted mercilessly. The mechanisms of this subordination ranged from the pogroms (violent anti-Semitic rioting) of the Russian empire, to longstanding denial to Jews of civil rights across Europe, to the spread of (sometimes biologically and sometimes culturally framed) ideologies of Jewish inferiority, typified by Immanuel Kant’s depiction of Jews as “a nation of cheaters,” who were “bound by an ancient superstition” which encouraged them to “seek no civil dignity and [to] try to make up for this loss by the advantage of duping the people among whom they find refuge, and even one another” (Kant, 1798, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View). As recently as the late 1920s, the most important logician since Aristotle, Gottlob Frege, could insist that the Jews should not “be considered as Germans,” expressing support for the project of expelling them from Germany outright, if possible, and in the meantime advocating the denial to them of equal civil rights.

So, yes, there was a system of wide-ranging persecution and subordination of Jewish people, certainly. But the question is, was this a matter of “religious persecution” or “racial subordination”? This matters here particularly, because Marx’s family converted to Christianity, with the result that he grew up in a secular family that was officially or formally affiliated to Lutheranism, not Judaism.

Interestingly, according to George M. Fredrickson, author of Racism: A Short History, “The word ‘racism’ first came into common usage in the 1930s when a new word was required to describe the theories on which the Nazis based their persecution of the Jews” (Racism: A Short History, p. 5). But was the anti-Semitism of the Nazis racist, specifically, and why? How, if at all, was it fundamentally different from the more longstanding anti-Jewish religious persecution of earlier times?

The racist version of anti-Semitism differed from the religious version in that it was linked to an essentialist interpretation of what was viewed as disreputable about Jewishness. In religious persecution, it is one’s religious affiliation that is discrediting, but that can be changed by means of conversion; in the racist version, the view is not that Jews are bad because their religion has disreputable features, but rather that their prior, more fundamental Jewishness explains the supposed defects of the religion that most of them practice, and no mere change of religious affiliation can make that go away. Thus, in religious persecution, one is a Jew because one adheres to the Jewish religion; in racist anti-semitism, if one adheres to the Jewish religion, it is just one of many possible expressions of one’s more basic Jewishness. To the Nazis, it didn’t matter if one practiced Judaism; either way, a Jew was a Jew.

But was this type of racial anti-Semitism a specifically Nazi invention? No, certainly not. Although the details are better left to historians, the overall picture is clear enough: the rise of modern nationalism, beginning at the end of the 18th century, in combination with the rise of modern imperialism, encouraged the development — nowhere more forcefully than in Germany — of the idea of a people bonded by ethnic commonality, distinguished from and superior to foreigners. “Previously, their Christian neighbours had thought of Jews as members of an alien and false religion, adherents to a broken covenant. Now secularized antisemites would hate them as members of an alien and inferior race, unassimilable by those among whom they lived, a dangerous source of pollution for the cultural and racial purity of their neighbors” (Nicholls, Christian Anti-Semitism, p. 313). “Jews were now to be regarded as a race….This was especially true in Germany, where the Romantic movement spoke of the Volk, the ancient Aryan race in its pure German form.” In this form of anti-Semitism, the Jews “were aliens, unassimilable even when they did their utmost to assimilate” (Ibid., p. 289).

It is for this reason that Marx’s nickname, the Moor, is significant: its hint that Marx, in spite of his atheism and his parents’ conversion to Christianity, was nevertheless regarded by his peers as a foreigner, a Jew, whose roots were to be found in the Middle East, not Germany.

Marx, in short, was regarded as a Jew, not a white person, not a German or even a proper European. Of course, it might seem like a leap to go from saying (1) Marx was regarded by anti-Semites as a Jew, not white, to saying (2) Marx wasn’t white. Shouldn’t the critical distance we rightly take from the racist view of Jews lead us to ignore ascriptions of racial categories by racist Europeans in the 19th century?

Well, that would hold if we believed there there were such a thing as mind-independent races. But surely we should not think that. Here, we touch on one of the ontological points that I want to make. Race is “socio-genic,” that is to say, it is the outcome of a social process of differential status-assignment that institutes hierarchically ordered social positions and consigns people to these positions, not because of what they already are (as if racial assignments reflected natural differences), nor because of how they look (as if racial difference were something we that social orders simply registered by noticing pre-existing diversity), but instead by actively establishing as authoritative and thereby instituting socio-political criteria for sorting people into groups using diversity, sometimes phenotypic (physical appearance) and sometimes non-phenotypic, as a pretext. In short, racial categories are a socio-political invention. Racial positions are instituted, socially. (A view that is, in broad outlines, consistent with this view is applied to the case of American Jews in the book, How Jews Became White Folks, and What That Says About Race in America, by Karen Brodkin.)

Of course, it is an invention that is taken very seriously, both by its inventors and by those who take their cue from them. Employers, landlords, judges, police officers, teachers, and many, many others routinely decide how to talk about someone, how to treat someone, and more generally how to relate to someone, based in some large part on the racial category into which they class that person. We all know that. But what’s less clear is why they do that. Or, more to the point, how is the practice of racialization functional for powerful institutions and systems? I won’t stop to try to answer that question, except to say that my own view is heavily informed by Martin Luther King’s view, according to which white supremacy was “engineered” by elites as a form of social control. (For more on that, see “Some Concise Research Notes on Two Concepts in Early Marxism: The ‘Volksmasse’ and ‘Antagonismus.’”)

But it is crucial to see that races exist in much the same way that 20 dollar bills exist: they exist in a way that depends crucially on the fact that people think that one thing (a piece of rectangular paper with certain markings on it) counts as another thing (a unit of currency). Once that social condition is met, however, 20 dollar bills produce very real effects. The idea that they are only imaginary (just because they are, among other things, imaginary) is gravely mistaken. No, they are not mere figments of imagination, but institutions, constituted in part by socially shared imaginings. The key to understanding races, including counterfeit cases of racial ‘passing,’ is to understand that, like universities and 20 dollar bills, races are institutions.

I want to close these comments by returning to my starting-point. Was Marx a “dead white male,” in the sense that people use that term to criticize the narrowness of “canonically” “important” intellectual work? Although Marx was not white, his inclusion in a so-called “Canon” of so-called “Great Philosophers” could still be seen, today, as a maneuver enabled by his acceptance, long after his death, as white (an acceptance made possible by virtue of the very “background” that once precluded him from being recognized as white: his German Jewish heritage).

He wasn’t white, but he is white. He switched races many years after his death. (Of course, this seems like a less remarkable feat when compared to Socrates, who took thousands of years to become, posthumously, a “homosexual.”)

As for Marxism, it should be accepted, I think, that Marxism did not emerge mainly from white society, or rather, from white people. Many of its most important early promoters and innovators were not white (until they were made so, well after their deaths): people like Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Julius Martov, Otto Bauer, and György Lukacs, to name only a few. For the most part, marxism emerged from racialized, non-white intellectuals and activists in Europe, just as racialized non-white intellectuals and activists outside of Europe are today its leading exponents and innovators. Of course, it did emerge from European society and European culture, so the implications of its origins in Europe would have to be discussed separately. There are important works that address this issue, and I will mention four: Samir Amin’s Eurocentrism (which isn’t specifically about marxism, but deploys and addresses it); Kevin Anderson’s Marx at the Margins; Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital; and Robert Biel’s Eurocentrism and the Communist Movement.

Ideology and Practices

One of the basic mistakes that intellectuals specifically tend to make about ideology — a mistake against which Marx took pains to warn us — is to imagine that ideology is a matter of what people think. Marx insisted, on the contrary, that it is “their social being [gesellschaftliches Sein] that determines their consciousness.”sexist-books-in-harrods-toy-kingdom

This is easily demonstrated. After all, to adopt an opinion, to assert a propositional content, one has to rely on one’s acquired competence or facility in navigating meaningful contexts, in the manner of pre-cognitive engagement. But that is precisely a matter of practice. In participating in a practice, one “knows” (in the practical sense of “know-how”) what one is doing, without having to think about it. Indeed, we may be quite unable to (readily) state what we are doing, precisely because our mastery of the practice is so thorough. How does one swing on a swing-set, exactly? It’s a little complicated, but we could explain it, if we thought about it for a while and developed — for the first time — an explicit account of what we do. But in no way does this count against us having known how to do it from our earliest days.

If one were to ask a child who speaks her mother tongue effortlessly to state three or four of the grammatical rules of the language, the child would likely stumble in the attempt. And yet everyday she deploys these ‘rules’ (which are better called ‘practices’) with impressive proficiency.

Since ideology is often misconstrued as a matter of “opinions” that people come to have, it is important to insist that practical competence of the sort considered above is more basic and “originary” than opinion formation. After all, it is that background of competent ease which furnishes both (1) the kind of inferential know-how (e.g., being able to recognize and keep track of the implications of affirming or denying a claim) upon which meaningful opinion formation depends, and (2) the countless non-discursive forms of life that lend determinacy, at the level of practices, to the concepts and descriptions that we deploy in our opinions.

For instance, suppose I say, “There’s a wooden sculpture on the desk.” At the risk of crudeness, we can say in a simplified way that, first, this act of assertion relies on our prior competence in handling the practices that determine proper usage for terms like, “wooden,” e.g., to cite trivial instances, that this rules out liquidity and gaseousness. As a practical matter, when we say that the sculpture is wooden, we’re committing ourselves to denying that it is liquid or gaseous. If we lack the competence to navigate the thick and inexhaustible terrain of commitments and entitlements that give content to the claim in question, then we cannot subscribe to the claim via the act of assertion. Second, language (in the narrow and primary sense) aside, we can only form opinions about works of art, e.g., sculpture, if we are competent in the practices associated with understanding things as art objects. A wooden object of a certain shape can only be recognized as a sculpture if we are competent participants in the social practice of conferring aesthetic import on objects that are created (in the central types of case) by one or more persons whose aim was to present a work for just that type of (aesthetic) engagement or appreciation. (Note: I’m not trying to define art, but to draw attention to the fact that there is a practice, in which artists and audiences share a differentiated — artist/spectator — competence, within which specially prepared objects are presented by artists for aesthetic appreciation by spectators; on the margins of this practice, attempts to complicate or subvert these categories are also part of the practice, just as constitutional amendment processes are part of the practice of constitutional law, as a deviation allowed for by the practice itself. Such “reflexivity” is a hallmark of specifically “modern” practices.) If one has no competence to navigate the practicalities, the “social being,” that constitutes the wooden object as a work of art, then one cannot make assertions about it being a sculpture. That is, one cannot form the opinion that it is a sculpture. It is in this sense that the form of life, the social practice, lends determinacy to the terms deployed in the asserted claim, not in an inferential sense, but in the sense that a whole domain of connected practices (aesthetic judgment, artistic creativity, critical appreciation, insulation of the object from the demands of certain standards of utility, etc.) has to be part of one’s cultural know-how or competence-repertoire before the very idea of “sculpture” can seem pertinent to talking about wooden objects.

But what does this idea, that “gesellschaftliches Sein,” social being, determines consciousness, tell us about ideology?

It tells us that, by the time we get around to engaging in political discourse (opinion-formation), there is a whole domain of pre-discursive, pre-cognitive (pre-opinion) know-how through which we glide effortlessly as a taken-for-granted field of obviousness. And that is where ideology resides.

In short, ideology is not what we think; it is that which is so obvious (in the sense of “obvious,” i.e., deeply questionable) that we don’t have to think it. Almost all of our thinking already presupposes it and takes it for granted. Ideology is what needs no special mention.

Some examples?  Let’s start with something — an opinion or claim — that is not ideology, even though it might seem to be. Here’s one:  “Canada is a democratic society that treats its citizens fairly.”

It may be bullshit, but it’s not ideology. The ideology is this: that one barely notices the fact that there are “borders” instituted around “nation states,” and that one of these is “Canada”; that this “Canada” is “a society,” in the singular, rather than multiple societies, or multiple systems and structures some of which cross borders, etc.; that “countries” can be labelled “democratic,” rather than institutions or practices or specific decisions, so that the question of whether it is or isn’t democratic is a sort of total judgment, appealing to some unspoken but supposedly obvious criterion; that many of the people in the supposed “country” are “citizens,” while some are “non-citizens”; that the standard for treating “citizens” “fairly” will differ from the standard for treating “non-citizens” fairly. And so on. Ideology lies here, in this stew of unexamined obviousness. None of it is stated in the claim under consideration (“Canada is a democratic society that treats its citizens fairly”). But all of it is presupposed by that claim. (Note: I state these “obvious” points as a series of opinion-like propositions for explanatory clarity; but my claim here is that we “learn” all this not by the formation of opinions, but by socialization into practices in which all of this is embedded in competences, like being able to differentiate between ‘countries,’ to recognize ourselves as implicated in citizenship practices, like having a social insurance number or a passport, etc. It all consists, in the first instance, of practical know-how, skill in navigating practices, and only at the level of higher order discursive competence does it show up in the things we say or believe.)

If we need a definition (to be unpacked along the lines laid out above), it could be this: Ideology is the zone of forgetfulness or the oblivion-structure that sustains the obviousness of practices presupposed by opinion-formation processes. Or just this: Ideology is the way “social being…determines consciousness.”

On Crisis Learning: A Materialist View of Political Learning

One of the most important insights of modern philosophy is that “knowing that,” or “propositional knowledge,” is a “founded” or derivative mode of engagement with the world. More specifically, it is founded upon knowing-how, or practical competence. For instance, to cite a simple and obvious example, our propositional knowledge of grammatical rules is founded on something that is more “originary” [ursprünglich], to use Heidegger’s term, which is our practical competence to speak and understand our mother tongue. Children learn to speak much earlier and much more readily than they learn to state or recognize any of the rules of grammar, or even the definitions of words (for instance, any small child knows how to use the word, “time,” but very few people, even as adults, can say what the word “time” means).

A famous resistance practice-form: women banging garbage bin lids in the occupied counties, Ireland.

A famous resistance practice-form: women banging garbage bin lids in the occupied counties, Ireland. 

Probably, you can produce a set of verbal instructions detailing the steps to go through in order to tie your shoes. But this is not because you carry around with you a set of beliefs about these steps. Instead, it is because you are able to reconstruct the steps by reflecting on something more basic: your pre-cognitive facility/aptitude or know-how, by virtue of which you can readily perform the task with competence and ease, without any need to think of the steps, or to have any beliefs or opinions about how it’s done. This was a key theme in Heidegger’s Being and Time, but also Mao Zedong’s On Practice, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, and Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness, to name only a few examples of important philosophical works in the early 20th century that touched on this theme. 

There are many ways in which this matters. But here I want to focus on one particular way: how people learn about politics. 

There are, I think, at least three ways that people learn about politics: first, and least importantly, there is learning through political discourse. In political discourse, people develop opinions by considering arguments that they hear or read. So much energy is devoted to the activity of making arguments (even arguments against arguments, the paradoxical apex of political discourse) that one might suppose that it was the main way in which political learning takes place. In fact, however, hardly any political learning happens this way. Part of the reason is that most people, most of the time, only bother to listen or pay attention to political arguments that they find agreeable in advance. Seldom does a socialist read something written by a conservative, or whatever other examples you can think of, in a spirit of open-minded inquiry, i.e., finding out what’s true without assuming it in advance. On the contrary, one knows in advance that one’s adversary’s main claims will be false, but perhaps one wants to find some opinions to attack, or to construct some counter-arguments to discourage others from taking the writer seriously. Actual inquiry is confined largely to exploring the nuances that divide oneself from one’s co-thinkers, on small details or narrow points of disagreement. To the extent that learning takes place via political discourse, it is mostly elaboration and clarification of what one already takes oneself to know (which is itself mainly a function what one habitually does). 

A second type of political learning, which is far more important than political discourse, is political socialization. This is the process by which one develops practical competence in forms of political activity. This can take the form of learning how to identify people and positions as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ or ‘feminist,’ etc., based on various signals, such as vocabulary, priorities, paradigmatic ‘tropes,’ and so on. One learns that use of terms like ‘privilege’ and ‘oppression’ is often an indicator that someone is a leftist of some sort, while use of terms like ‘taxpayers’ and ‘law and order’ is an indicator that someone is a conservative. Another type of political socialization or competence acquisition is learning how to perform certain types of political act, for instance, complaining to a public official, or signing a petition, or attending or organizing a protest, and so on. The number and variety of forms of this kind of political competence acquisition are far too many and varied to try to enumerate all or most of them. For now, it is enough to notice that this is not a matter of thinking and reasoning, but a matter of acquiring facility or competence and know-how. There are beliefs involved, of course, but this type of learning is not mainly about belief or opinion formation. It is mainly about learning how to carry out certain performances competently. In this sense, it is more like learning to speak a language with pre-cognitive (that is, non-propositional, non-opinion-based) competence, than it is like learning a set of explicit grammatical rules. It is learning how to perform in certain ways, not what to believe about certain things.

Before turning to the third type — referenced in my title, ‘crisis learning’ — I want to make a couple of concise observations about political socialization (competence acquisition), in contrast to political discourse (opinion-formation). The acquisition of competence is less influenced by debate and discussion. For the most part, it is influenced by leading, i.e., drawing people into a practice, which invites them to internalize standards of skillful performance that may be hard to state, but which are (as it were) internalized by people who learn how to perform in the practice. For instance, people might be invited to attend a town hall public meeting. They might see others stand up and make demands on a politician. Over time, they might develop the competence to stand up and try the activity out. Gradually, they may develop skill and facility or competent ease in the performance. They come to know how it’s done. But it would mostly be pointless to tell them what to do. Instead, it is a matter of drawing them into a practice, where exemplary performances can be witnessed, appreciated, and replicated. 

Two things follow from this practical character of political socialization. First, it tends to be only very weakly influenced by what people say or argue. Second, when people have learned to perform (behave) in a certain way, it is very hard, not to say impossible, to argue them out of it. In other words, once I learn how to tie my shoes in one way, I am unlikely to be easily won over by someone talking to me about some great new style of shoe-tying, which is much better than the way I have learned to do it. No matter how passionately they argue with me, no matter how comprehensive and rationally compelling the arguments are, I am liable to be unmoved. This isn’t because I’m irrational or a victim of ‘brainwashing.’ It is simply because how I act is not a function of opinions so much as it is a function of habits and competences that are more “originary,” to return to Heidegger’s word, than opinions. Know-how has a much firmer grip on me and how I act than knowing-that. 

This brings me to the third type of political learning: crisis learning. Suppose I find myself in the middle of a general strike. Perhaps I am one of those rare individuals who has all sorts of opinions about general strikes and how they should be conducted. (Indeed, I certainly am such a person.) In that case, my learning will be atypical: mostly a matter of figuring out how to “apply” my opinions. If so, it would be a grave error if I were to imagine that my form of learning, as applying opinions, is typical of how most others will learn during the unfolding strike process. On the contrary, most of the learning, by most of the people involved, will have little to do with the formation of opinions based on political discourse. 

For most of my neighbours and co-workers, who (1) have no opinions about general strikes and how to organize or conduct them, and (2) also have very few habits or competences that are particularly relevant to the challenges at hand, their learning will be of a very different sort: not a matter of applying opinions, but a matter of groping around for new habits. That is, they will have to cultivate new kinds of competence, in a hastily contrived way, in the absence of clear exemplars to appreciate and emulate. They may have known for years how to tell the difference between the way conservatives talk and the way feminists talk, or whatever. But now they will have to learn how to react to police officers threatening to beat them if they don’t “move back” or disperse from an area. Or they might have to learn to notice, and finds ways to push back against, certain “cooptation” dynamics in struggle-settings (which is something everyone saw happening during the Black Lives Matter organizing), or how to handle the jailing of dozens of comrades, or whatever. Depending on the background of the persons in question, this might be the first time they have had to cope with situations like this. And so, they have lots of things to learn. 

But clearly, new opinions are not what the situation demands. What they need is a kind of competence reconfiguration. And crisis learning is the kind of semi-improvisational competence re-configuration that people engage in when circumstances demand of them performances for which their existing repertoire of competences offer no guidance. 

It’s a bit like someone who was an only child (hence no younger siblings) and never did any babysitting (hence lacking any childcare skills) suddenly being charged with the care of a baby. The person in this predicament will have to very quickly find makeshift coping routines, and develop new competences, without having the luxury of comfortable socialization into an up-and-running practice with readily visible exemplars of skillful performance to emulate. This is what I want to call crisis learning. 

Politically, crisis learning is far less common than political socialization. And yet, for people with a keen interest in those rare moments of opening, in which upsurges of struggle impart an atypical dynamism and fluidity to political life, crisis learning is one of the most important aspects of politics. 

One could say a great deal about crisis learning, of course. But I only want to underline one simple point: that political discourse is a less helpful or ‘generative’ framework for intervention into this kind of dynamic situation than something else that can be done to facilitate crisis learning: the popularization of portable practice exemplars.

What I’m calling ‘portable practice exemplars,’ Michel Foucault called ‘political technologies.’ It simply means designs for the configuration of activity that can be transported and adapted to multiple contexts and situations, and can serve as a basis for coordination and mobilization in pursuit of certain ends. This is something we saw in the Assemblies Movement. Initially, in Egypt, a simple practice-form was established in Tahrir Square: camp out in a public square, set up assemblies that facilitate public discussion and at least rudimentary decision-making, and use self-organized infrastructure to both address the practicalities of the convergence and to prefigure forms of egalitarian and horizontal cooperation that inspire hopes for a more far-reaching social transformation. This basic practice form was then transported and activated in other places, including Greece and Spain, and later at Occupy Wall Street and eventually in hundreds of cities and towns around the world. 

What makes portable practice exemplars so important is that they can be transported and activated, and used as a framework for rapid crisis learning, without the need for experienced exemplary persons, whose skill at navigating a social practice can be observed, appreciated and replicated. A portable practice exemplar, like the General Assembly, can be set up in a town where no one has any experience in its workings, and everyone can learn together, quickly, in a structured and manageable manner. In crisis learning situations, political discourse is largely irrelevant to the tasks at hand, while political socialization of the usual sort (which draws people into up-and-running practices where they can learn by following the examples of those who already have the practical competences needed) is a luxury that isn’t available, for reasons of time and reasons of fundamental novelty, due the sudden dynamism and instability of the context. 

The final point that I want to make is suggested by my example. It is clear that the General Assembly in a Public Square proved to be a very infectious and fast-moving portable practice exemplar. It worked, in that sense. But did it work, in the more important sense, by moving struggles forward, and helping to open up new opportunities for far-reaching social change? It’s less clear, anyway. Other portable practice exemplars from the past have had similarly mixed results: the consciousness-raising group, the urban guerrilla cell, the ‘party of a new type,’ the commune, the pluralist anti-capitalist network, the women’s caucus, the ‘proletarian guard,’ the spokescouncil with affinity groups, the workers’ council, and so on. None of these has proved decisive, in the manner of a quick fix or secret recipe.

Still, what can be said for them, in contrast to political discourse, is that they answered (either well or poorly) to the needs of the moment in contexts of political crisis: they served as vehicles for crisis learning. And, if nothing else, that made them important and influential in shaping the political learning process of many thousands or in some cases millions of people. It’s a form of learning that ought not to escape our attention.