First Things First: Let’s Put Anti-Survivorship To Rest

Estelle Ellison
12 min readFeb 20, 2023

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Content warning: generalized ableism, abuse apologism, relational violence mentions

Why is Co-Optation Reactionary?

Living under neoliberal fascism poses a specific existential threat to everyone who dreams of liberatory structures. On the one hand, the push for normalcy continues to become increasingly lethal during an ongoing pandemic alongside the growing scope of a surveillance state. On the other hand, all of the systems that keep capitalism alive appear unaffected by their decay as they continue to imperil the globe. During this period, the stewards of these systems far outnumber those who would dismantle these systems given the chance to do so. Yet, having the clear numbers advantage isn’t enough to satisfy neoliberal fascism. It must also undermine and isolate everyone who would speak against it.

The fantasy belief that the pandemic has ended exposes the undercurrent of ableism that has always been an inherent part of states throughout history. The simultaneous repression of Black uprisings, bolstering of the prison industrial complex, and co-optation of language formulated by Black radicals further exposes ruthless anti-Blackness that continues to expand its arsenals of violence developed from past and present-day slavery. Open opposition to bodily autonomy reveals unconfronted patriarchy that historically makes its presence insufferably more apparent during times of increased fascism.

With this dire situation serving as the backdrop to all of our social interactions, it is no surprise that the few remaining ways of communication we engage in to meet access needs or create some semblance of safety are all becoming more primary targets of repression and public condemnation. Neoliberal fascism craves complete control over the ways we relate to each other and the ways we survive within its oppressive systems.

Co-optation has become a massively popular tool of counter-insurgence during this tumultuous period and its widespread implementation has led to clearly identifiable patterns and cadences within discourses and conversations about oppressive power dynamics. The goal of all co-optation is to confound rather than confirm, and this is a major reason why co-optation is reactionary and not liberatory. By confounding people who would only gain from the end of oppression, they are prevented from confirming the information that would otherwise lead them to revolt. In this way, co-optation scales up and down very easily, making it very useful for anyone who has yet to disavow power gained from oppression, exploitation, and abuse.

“DARVO” tactics are a small-scale example of how people who gain from abusing and exploiting others try to confound those who would have them lose power. It refers to the manner in which abusers and oppressors alike Deny accusations, Attack survivors, and Reverse people’s perceptions of who is the Victim and who is the Offender.

Mass abuse apologism describes a larger-scale phenomenon where those who benefit most from oppressive power dynamics are defended en masse. The goal of this reactionary defense aims to confound those who wish to confront and end abuse so that they cannot confirm that abuse exists and must be stopped. To confirm abuse exists is to acknowledge that it permeates through the interpersonal relationships that are directly and indirectly affected by that same abuse. Confirmation makes bystanders more inclined to act and intervene, and that is why reactionaries push to confound rather than confirm. This is similar to how capitalism needs there to be a majority of people who fail to identify its inherently oppressive nature while also greatly outnumbering those who have grasped the root of oppression. In this way, mass abuse apologism needs there to be enough people who cannot be convinced of the importance to confront and end abusive violence.

Why must we oppose Anti-Survivorship?

Unfortunately, mass abuse apologism is present within all political tendencies, including leftist and abolition networks. Among those who claim to want to end oppressive violence, mass abuse apologism within the left tends to take the form of anti-survivorship. Anti-survivorship is a reactionary belief system based on the central argument that survivors of abuse / domestic and interpersonal violence are merely charity cases that supposedly detract from work that “actually” contributes to revolution. The work that anti-survivorship contrasts with survivor-support and anti-abuse practices is oftentimes organized by larger and more formalized institutions.

Anti-survivorship makes exceptions to its doctrine only when the survivor in question is more respectable in the eyes of a larger audience and/or funders of said institutions. These exceptions function as another means of confounding those who would end oppressive power dynamics, regardless of how they may be disguised. While the normalization of inaction is a key component of what makes co-optation a form of counter-insurgence, inaction cannot accomplish this reactionary goal alone. Repressing those who would dismantle oppressive systems is the other key component.

Pointing out this repressive component of counter-insurgence is important because it brings into view who tends to be doing the confronting. Who tends to engage in direct actions. And who refuses to be culpable within oppressive systems regardless of scale. By contrast, when we understand co-optation as a form of counter-insurgence, we may then begin to understand who all benefits from co-optation. By a wide margin, opportunists benefit most from co-optation and, during critical moments, they tend to outnumber those who would push back against oppressive power.

Opportunism can broadly be defined as an individualistic tendency that de-emphasizes the alignment of behaviors with liberatory values and instead prioritizes gaining from the closest forms of power that are within reach, regardless of the nature of that power. Put another way opportunism is a cultural tendency that is made up of those who have become the most adept at co-optation. Framed even more simply, opportunists side with the winning team.

During conflict and crisis, opportunists tend to put more of their effort towards being held in positive regard by all the parties involved until one begins to emerge as a likely victor. It is at that point that opportunists pick the winning side. At both stages of this tendency, co-optation proves useful because it facilitates virtue signaling that covers inaction when action is needed, and later it allows for more elaborate retroactive justifications of the winning side’s future actions. It is important to state here that the confounding nature of this tendency remains apparent, despite opportunists’ differing criteria for determining which side is winning.

Returning to mass abuse apologism, we can now contextualize anti-survivorship as a form of opportunism. During this neoliberal fascist period, we are inundated on nearly all fronts with ableism, anti-blackness, and gendered violence. We may have an abstract understanding of how these oppressive systems work separately from each other, but it is rare to see people understand how all of them intersect and take concrete form in oppressive behaviors, abuse, and interpersonal conflicts. Well-suited to its job, mass abuse apologism effectively obscures the ways that oppressive behaviors, abuse, and interpersonal conflicts are a culmination of ableism, anti-blackness, and gendered violence.

It is in this context that anti-survivorship unaligns its actions with whatever leftist values it claims to uphold. Through its actions, anti-survivorship rides the current of mass abuse apologism that has become a prominent distinguishing feature of today’s neoliberal fascism. Under the guise of its supposed liberatory values, anti-survivorship continues a trend of inaction against gendered violence and assists in making survivors a primary target of ableism and anti-blackness. These actions increase the opportunities to gain from a trend of mass abuse apologism that feels nearly all-encompassing. Co-opted language won’t ever change the fact that anti-survivorship only ever brings more ableism, more anti-Blackness, and more gendered violence into the world.

Movement Compromises and Contradictions

People align their actions with liberatory values by working to support survivors and those who engage in anti-abuse actions. Those of us who share an affinity around this alignment are severely outnumbered within a culture of mass abuse apologism. Opportunists have no issue turning us into fodder by encouraging those on the sidelines in the fight against patriarchal violence to turn away from we who feel compelled to push back. This reactionary trend paired with the surveillance state makes it much more difficult for anti-abuse actions to find visible public support.

It is contradictory to believe that survivors who have been incarcerated for defending themselves are worthy of support while condemning survivors who seek to stop gendered violence without turning to the state or ending up incarcerated themselves. The contradiction is itself anti-Black and implicitly suggests that self and community defense are only respectable when they come with a prison sentence. It is because the forms of defense marginalized individuals and communities have access to are so policed and are so hated by a culture of mass abuse apologism that anti-abuse practices simply cannot be nearly as visible as mass abuse apologism. Self and community defense are far less marketable and far less safe to make visible online than TJ frameworks that invite abusers and settlers alike to forgive themselves and pressure the people they’ve harmed to forgive them as well.

You can’t build a world without ableism with structures that consistently fail disabled people. The only thing normal about an unmasked pandemic is animosity for immunocompromised people. Likewise, we can’t end oppressive violence if survivors in our respective networks have no access to care, resources, and spaces that aren’t controlled and influenced by their abusers. Ableism won’t be ended by systems that criminalize drug users and deny them care any more than ableism will be ended by systems that aim to silence people for speaking up about harm and abuse. Organizations in constant decay from work that burns out wave after wave of recruits can never bury capitalism which thrives off of those same patterns of burnout with lethal results. Making an exception for ableism in any of these examples will always be reactionary and this is a critical part of why it is important to denounce anti-survivorship.

Compulsory forgiveness is the pre-requisite of a normalcy where millions of Americans expect to be treated with compassion for endangering the lives of immunocompromised and people who simply wish not to be disabled by this pandemic. The ability to force forgiveness is very desirable to people who expect to be forgiven for their oppressive behaviors they have no interest in transforming. It is telling that despite making up an overwhelming majority of the population, mass abuse apologism is universally silent when it comes to demonstrating that those who benefit from abuse and oppressive dynamics will voluntarily change their behavior and give up power. Where those participating in survivor support and anti-abuse actions seek to confirm whether safety is or is not being established, counter insurgence seeks to confound anyone who would see to it that no one has the power to oppress and exploit others.

Anti-survivorship would have you write off these matters as unimportant to the project of liberation. But we have to ask, why is it that they find it important to write these matters off?

Why does fascism want to force forgiveness?

Central to the framing of anti-survivorship is the implication that all organizations and all political leaders who have been “called out” or “cancelled” are simply victims of envious counter-revolutionaries who would rather get in the way of “good work” than fall in line within the structures of a truly revolutionary organization. The notion that formal organization, be it horizontal or hierarchical, is the only means by which anyone can help make revolution is an easy pre-requisite belief for anti-survivorship to establish. From there, callouts, cancellations, and even mere critiques can be separated from their merit and instead be reframed as unprincipled threats to the movement. This process of reframing speaks to opportunists as well as well-meaning people who do genuinely want to do “good work,” and it implores them to dismiss matters of conflict entirely. Here, again, co-opted rhetoric helps facilitate cognitive dissonance when an organization’s work is ineffective or worse, contributes to the very dynamics they gesture towards combatting.

In recent years we have seen opportunists and reactionaries alike stubbornly wield mass abuse apologism to prevent marginalized communities from identifying the presence of oppressive dynamics and the absence of safety. By confounding those who desire safety and want to stop gendered violence, anti-survivorship exploits people with an earnest desire to help advance the project of liberation. In this way, the fear of contributing to our own oppression and the oppression of others is weaponized against us so that we may lower our standards, compromise our values, and barter for whatever hierarchical power can be gained from formal organizations that have compromised with mass abuse apologism. To be clear, this is not to say that formal organizations can never be engaged in what we may consider to be genuinely “good work.” The assertion here is that “good work,” that is revolutionary or insurrectionary work, speaks for itself. Acts of liberation do not need to be and cannot be supported by an inherently reactionary culture and a fascist state.

Forced forgiveness is invaluable to opportunists because it allows them to act with impunity. It is for this same reason that abusers and abuse apologists alike prefer TJ frameworks that uniformly condemn consequences and punishments, including but not limited to callouts and cancellations. Under neoliberal fascism, any framework that guarantees forgiveness is attractive. Rather than demonstrate changed behavior, establish safety, or give up power that was abused, forgiveness derived by one means or another is for the most part the only thing we are offered that supposedly demonstrates a just transformation has occurred. And more often than not, mass abuse apologism fails to show any forgiveness at all from those who were most impacted by abuse and/or other oppressive dynamics.

Mass abuse apologism and anti-survivorship both simply foment resentment towards survivors on the patriarchal grounds that everyone is owed a chance to force forgiveness from the people they’ve hurt and derived power from hurting. It is no surprise that capitalist media has always invested in depictions of “genuine” apologies that immediately force forgiveness. Mass abuse apologism coerces us into believing we are always owed a chance at forgiveness, if not owed forgiveness outright.

The predictability of entitlement

Similar to how mass abuse apologism makes people feel entitled to opportunities to force forgiveness, it also encourages people to feel entitled to disclosures that they harmed or abused someone. In practice, this entitlement to disclosure leads to people giving themselves permission not to consider or reflect on how their actions may have hurt someone until or unless they disclose that they felt hurt. This less obvious expression of anti-survivorship sets the stage for people to dismiss disclosures that supposedly took too long to come to light. In this way, it de-emphasizes our personal responsibility and agency over how to act once a disclosure of harm or abuse is received.

Experiencing harm and abuse is a valid enough reason not to want to disclose. None of us are owed a disclosure that we’ve caused harm, but we can choose how to act if someone does choose to disclose that to us. Feeling entitled to disclosure is not dissimilar to expecting forgiveness. If there is not even compassion around a survivor’s reasons for not disclosing, how can there be compassion around abuse that survivors have endured?

Anti-survivorship occupies the spaces that survivors would access if their respective communities valued safety. Sometimes this occupation looks like abuse apologia on the bestsellers list, sometimes it is facilitated by reactionary algorithms, sometimes it takes the form of quiet individualistic reasons for disassociating from survivors’ needs or dismissing the severity of abuse they’ve experienced.

Oppression will never be brought to an end by those who believe it’s appropriate to leave some forms of oppression uncontested, instead choosing to contest the decreasing avenues of insurrection and self-defense we have access to during this neoliberal fascist period. There is a rhyme and a reason to the ways that opportunists move, and they will always seek to access power that can be gleaned from oppressive dynamics.

The people who jump at the opportunity to denigrate women will always be the same people claiming that people aren’t nice enough to men. The people who want normalcy and business as usual will always be the same people claiming the pandemic is over, or that abuses of power are simply acceptable actions from a just leader. The people with the greatest access to institutions, reactionary audiences, and the good graces of funders will always be the first to decry “lynch mob” or “carcerality” when facing a possible loss of power. The language they use may shift from day to day or discourse to discourse, but the investment in oppressive power dynamics will always be there.

Settler colonialism wants desperately to throw revolutionaries off its scent, and it will confound and confuse at every opportunity. For this reason, the work of liberation will only ever consist of confirming the obstacles before us and removing them with the strength of our collective power. You need only the desire and determination to act during a time when no one else will.

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Estelle Ellison

Time dissuades us from getting free... Black Trans Disabled Writer (She/They)