There are many reasons why organizing work is especially difficult right now. There is of course the rising fascist tide and its ever-creeping influence on everyday life. The pandemic continues to be ongoing, and there are fewer people than ever taking precautions as most people refer to the pandemic in the past tense. We currently have police forces that are more funded than they’ve ever been, making police surveillance and police repression a much greater threat than they were just a few years ago. Spontaneous acts of resistance are quickly repressed with force so starkly disproportionate that inevitable future acts might be deterred.
Imperialist violence at home and abroad, in part, consists of many behaviors that are indicative of fascism’s intended influence on individuals. Behaviors that maintain oppressive systems accomplish this feat in ways that can be categorized into two major goals. One goal ensures that the intended targets of oppression continue being targeted, while the other facilitates retaliatory violence against those who resist being targeted. This is the difference between exercising oppressive power and neutralizing threats to that power. Both guarantee that oppression can continue, but they have slightly different goals. For example, white people are the primary beneficiaries of white supremacy and we see this in their way of living, but that life is also defined by anti-Blackness where Black people are perpetually subjugated by white supremacy.
While different forms of systemic oppression may have different targets, (i.e. queer, trans, and disabled people to name a few), their ability to oppress their targets is accomplished by fulfilling these two complimentary goals. The state has its own means of guaranteeing that our oppression continues, but the way we as individuals act in our respective communities determines the success or failure of the state’s endeavors.
Taking mass abuse apologism as an example, people under its influence oppose actions that confront, address, and prevent abusive actions. Likewise, they may act on behalf of specific abusive individuals to protect them from consequences and any threat to their power. Working in concert with abusers, some people engaging in abuse apologism may go so far as condemning or attacking survivors. Where apologism is ultimately a defense of abusive behavior, anti-survivorship is the silencing of survivors and the restriction of their agency.
Apologism, however, is not limited to matters of interpersonal abuse and domestic violence. Apologism can also be fascist, encompassing a more broad array of reactionary behaviors. Excuses for behaviors that promote the goals of fascism and eugenics can be described this way. Similarly, excusing prejudice and hatred towards trans people on the grounds that it is simply “too difficult” to see them as people helps make violence against trans people appear “understandable.”
Rhetoric and actions that are designed to secure empathy and leniency for oppressive systems and people engaging in oppressive behaviors are by definition apologist. Given that we are currently living through a fascist period, it is arguably more accurate to refer to apologism in all its forms as capitulation to fascism. In conceding the ability to resist fascism, fascism is granted the freedom to gain more ground. Capitulation to fascism is informed by the desire to receive power and/or resources from it (or at least be spared its violence).
Prior to the 2020 uprisings, the national political stage primarily associated misogyny, abuse apologism, anti-survivorship with republicans and other openly conservative political talking heads. Following that point, however, the political discourse at large was exposed to different flavors of these reactionary ideologies that found expression through some especially well-known prison abolitionists. This development helped enable fascist capitulation within leftist subcultures that are explicitly against oppression. In reaction to the newly heightened visibility of prison abolition, police reform has garnered more support, and leftist capitulation to fascist elements has become more common.
With this context and background fleshed out, we are brought back to the obstacles faced by leftist organizing projects. Far from reaching any consensus about why organizing is so difficult right now, leftists seem to fervently disagree about which conditions actually precede a revolutionary movement. Is it an endless race to build the mass movement up with as many recruits as humanly possible all united around only the broadest goals? Or is it a more methodical effort to make long-term protracted leftist struggles sustainable? Both of these questions are mirrored by a similar debate about whether small-scale actions can make large-scale change or if the only way to change small-scale conditions is by making large-scale changes.
Obviously, the push for a mass movement pairs very well with a belief in the singular efficacy of large-scale changes. And methodical approaches to small-scale struggles and individual behaviors pair well with a belief that small-scale actions can make large-scale change. To generalize two leftist tendencies, communists who believe in the importance of the vanguard party tend to believe the former, while anarchists who believe in the importance of decentralized actions tend to believe the latter.
This debate has spanned over a century by this point. However; it is significantly complicated by the challenges that fascism presents us today. Which of these tendencies is better suited to the task of ending fascism in our lifetimes? This essay is in part a critique of an essay arguing for the primacy of mass movement building, but this essay also asks whether fascist capitulation, however strategic, best serves our liberatory aspirations during this historical period.
From the opening lines of “How Much Discomfort Is The Whole World Worth?” the authors, Kelly Hayes and Mariam Kaba lay out the main thesis of their essay: “Organizing is not a process of ideological matchmaking.” The authors instantly draw a line in the sand on the grounds that their opponents are apparently committed entirely and singularly to “ideological matchmaking.” Setting a both-sides-of-the-aisle tone, they evoke timeless accusations that leftist communities are just echo chambers. It is worth noting that the accused always seem to be leftists who don’t seem to be attracting enough numbers in comparison to much larger groups, political parties, and non-profits.
The authors summarize what they believe motivates their political opponents: “…the desire to shrink groups down to spaces of easy agreement is not conducive to movement building.” So the reader is faced with the central critique the authors have of their faintly sketched-out opponents in this essay. Their opponents believe organizing is a process of “ideological matchmaking” and this belief is informed by a “desire to shrink groups down to spaces of easy agreement.”
This argument is disingenuous, but it is perhaps not immediately obvious to the reader because of the tactical vagueness and dubious caricatures the authors rely upon here. They clarify that their own goal of building a mass movement differs from their political opponents and “oppressed people [who] demand ideological alignment or even affinity when seeking to interrupt or upend structural violence.” Rather, the authors instead assert that they “are not talking about launching search parties to find an undiscovered army of people with already-perfected politics with whom we will easily and naturally align.” Indeed, their pursuit of a mass movement will only appeal to the broadest and simplest slogans, without vetting or expectations about how fellow members of the mass movement interact with and relate to one another.
Their rationale here is that white supremacists and capitalists “collaborate and work together,” and this is apparently unlike leftists. This line of argumentation is common in discussions of whether ex-nazis should be allowed in movement spaces but it also shows up regarding other ways of capitulating to fascists the authors will later advocate for. On the national political stage, we have many examples of fascists disagreeing about who deserves to be most urgently oppressed. The republican party frequently demonstrates its inability to reach critical agreements. But, it can be argued that white supremacists overall have an easier time uniting around broad hatred than leftists are able to unite around one way forward. The reader is left to decide for themselves whether a white majority population in a white supremacist nation has anything to do with oppressed minorities struggling to get free.
As we critique their essay, we will find there are many moments where the authors ask the reader to grant them the benefit of the doubt. However; given their organizing history and body of published work, the inaccuracy of their statements comes across as far more deliberate. They conjure the image of leftists who simply refuse to work with people who do not share their values, and their explanation of why these imagined leftists behave this way is that their opponents’ goal is to make groups smaller just because. This caricature is intended to be familiar, as it is arguable that all leftists have witnessed a disagreement before. But it is made unconvincing by how consistently they obscure the way they erase the political realities of the spaces they describe.
In claiming that their political opponents want to shrink down mass movement spaces, they rule out the possibility that shrinking spaces are a function of fascism’s creeping and growing strength. How many spaces shrink in size because they commit to tolerating transphobia? How many shrink in size because they do not consider ableism to be a form of oppression worth organizing around? What about people who quit an org when they find out an abuser retains power over an organizing project? What about the cyclical waves or organizers who simply burnout, only to be replaced by a fresh batch of college students eager to make a change in the world?
As those of us who have been neglected and or abused outright by community and political homes know, the smallness of our networks is not a function of our primary objective, but, rather, a direct result of a larger group of people refusing to support us in times of great vulnerability or suffering. Similarly, queer and trans people who have repeatedly been rejected, invalidated, harmed, or abused by these spaces may end up in smaller spaces simply because that is where they are respected, seen, understood, and supported. Especially during this pandemic which the vast majority of people believe is over, there are very few of us who still strive to take covid precautions and mitigate risk when we are forced to expose ourselves to the ever-increasing number of covid strains and unmasked people.
And yet, the authors condescendingly state that “to create movements, rather than clubhouses, we need to engage with people with whom we do not fully identify and may even dislike.” These decisions we make for our safety from matters that are not infrequently about life and death situations are minimized as mere “clubhouses.” We are instead asked to engage with people we “may even dislike,” independently of our reasons for disliking a person. This is exemplified by the way the authors minimize oppression. We might generously interpret this tendency to minimize all conflicts might merely be a stylistic use of vagueness. However, the sheer number of instances where oppression is minimized betrays the authors’ explicit intentions.
The introduction of this essay alone contains incessant instances of minimizing language: “stumble,” “offend one another,” “discomfort,” “dislike,” “comfort zones,” and “matters of respect.” This pattern is so consistent it begs the question of why won’t the authors simply state that they are not talking about severe potentially life-threatening (or at least precarity-inducing) situations. Why not clarify that they are only referring to minor conflicts? If they are only addressing readers with white fragility, why not state this outright? The omission of words like abuse, domestic violence, and mass disabling event, just to name a few alongside the well of creative euphemisms for conflict the authors draw from suggests that this is simply how they perceive severe crises that do occur in movement spaces. Even terms that clarify race are absent here. This happens to be very consistent with the inescapable volume of minimization in their essay.
The authors make it known why they minimize matters that don’t fall neatly into their mission statements: “It is no exaggeration to say that the whole world is at stake, and we cannot afford to minimize what that demands of us.” They concede that “great harms have been committed and very difficult conversations are needed, but refusing to do that work, in this historical moment, is an abdication of responsibility.”
This brings us to the main complementary strategy to minimization in this essay, contradictions. In their eyes, what’s actually being minimized is not the “great harms,” but, rather, “that work” the authors champion and lead. We do not have a responsibility to address the ways that individuals help ensure that oppression continues, but rather a responsibility to tolerate oppression from each other so long as we have a liberatory goal in common. This goal is apparently unaffected by reactionary behaviors from those striving for that goal. A lot is accomplished by these lines. Here, we have a rare explicit admission from the authors that harm can be “great,” but they immediately spoil their admission by setting “conversation” as the ceiling for what can be done about it. And just after that, it is minimized before the “work.”
It is no mistake that, within prison abolitionist movement spaces, restorative and transformative justice are both very effective means of providing endless venues for conversations about abuse and “great harms” but rarely if ever mobilize material actions that stop and prevent abuse and “great harms.” This minimizing rhetoric is preceded by an anecdote from Ejeris Dixon describing the work of escaping a police kettle during a demonstration:
“Once the attack begins, there are two sides: armed police inflicting violence and everyone else. We need to be able to see each other in those terms, reeling in the face of unthinkable violence, scrambling to stay alive and uncaged, and doing the work to protect one another.”
Aside from how unrealistic it is to suggest that clubhouse conversations happen in this dangerous context, the authors fail to mention that it is oftentimes self-proclaimed leaders of marches that increase the likelihood of a police kettle. There is a romanticization of street combat here that helps minimize abuse and “great harms.” This posturing aims to convince the reader that matters too awful to be accurately described by “great harms” simply do not exist, and the “great harms” that do exist are minimized before the world’s apparent demands of us. In evoking the need to save the world, they offer their alternative to their opponents:
“Instead, organizing on the scale that our struggles demand means finding common ground with a broad spectrum of people, many of whom we would never otherwise interact with, and building a shared practice of politics in the pursuit of more just outcomes.”
Here again, we find contradictory rhetoric. Taken at face value, the authors want things both ways. They want their opponents dismissed as mere “clubhouses” standing in opposition to “more just outcomes.” Yet, the authors constantly minimize those of us who are fighting in pursuit of more just outcomes within our own communities and respective organizing spaces and political homes. This demonstrates that the authors believe that smaller-scale issues have no bearing on larger-scale issues, until of course the largeness of that scale is diminished when organizers because their supposedly small issue wasn’t dealt with.
The call for a mass movement is rather common, to the point of perhaps being unremarkable. But it would be naive to view this allusion to people “we would never otherwise interact with” as referring to simple geographical distance. Rather, that phrasing is intended to evoke reasons why we would choose to never interact with someone. If we base our analysis entirely on what they say explicitly, we might conclude that these minor clubhouse spats where someone used the wrong word at the wrong time are the only reason why someone would refuse to interact. But again, given the authors’ body of work and extensive organizing experience, it is extremely difficult to believe that they can imagine nothing more severe than this informing a person’s refusal to be in the same room as another. The deliberate implication here is that those severe instances are included and are still worth setting aside. And they can be set aside because they have been minimized into a non-issue.
After complaining about organizers the authors are apparently close to having their “performances of solidarity” seen by other leftists as “fall[ing] short” or “deemed insincere,” they blame “a ‘zero tolerance’ attitude about political ignorance or missteps.” This provides readers with an insight into the authors’ intentions. They’ve established that they must always strive to create the mass movement, but they communicate a resentful feeling of being burned for trying to appeal to a new generation of leftists:
“When the performance of solidarity via the replication of the right words or slogans becomes our central focus, it’s not surprising that responses might read as empty or even insincere.”
These sentiments are of course in contradiction with other parts of their essay. They defend themselves as not being a part of the “abdication of responsibility” to meet the world’s demands of them, yet they condescendingly brush off feedback about whether their work is effective. Many leftist movement spaces foment open resentment for anyone with any grievances about the way the work is being done, and the authors reveal to us that they participate in this tendency.
The reader might reasonably conclude this is the opposite of what the authors want given their inclusion of this Ruth Wilson Gilmore quote:
“When people delve into activism, they often grapple with questions like, ‘Am I willing to get arrested?’ when often the more pressing question for a new activist is, ‘Am I willing to listen, even when it’s hard?’”
What the authors fail to say outright is that they are describing unidirectional listening, where leaders decide who should be listened to and who should do the listening. Returning to the solidarity actions the authors alluded to earlier, why dismiss the feedback that performances of solidarity fell short or seemed insincere? What was the solidarity action? How did they fall short? How were they organized? It is no coincidence that the performances are left as vague as the accusations of insincerity. By strong implication, the authors ask the reader to take their word for it that these critiques were unfounded, comparing the negative feedback to “reality television,” where “favorites emerge, and people are voted off the island.”
As we will see in many more examples, they decry the words they’ve been newly introduced to when leftists point out their lack of comprehension or are not satisfied with the quality of their work. But, they also want to emphasize the use of words they believe are the most important. They are so important that they implore us to “listen” to these words that are worth hearing to save the whole world. To the authors, saving the world is a kind of double bind wherein oppressed people must embrace those who participate in and benefit from our oppression for the sake of having a broad spectrum of people on board in movement work. The key to attracting that broad spectrum is unidirectional listening and keeping quiet about the “small” stuff.
The authors concede that “we are all entitled to some amount of sanctuary,” but they swiftly invalidate this concession: “But broader movements are struggles, not sanctuaries. They are full of contradiction and challenges we may feel unprepared for.”
They minimize any concrete reasons why we might find a “sanctuary” (to the extent one can truly exist during these times) desirable. Movement work is defined as struggles that necessitate what supposedly boils down to “contradiction and challenges we may feel unprepared for.” Curiously though, the growing number of people who refuse to capitulate to fascism and, as a result, do make recruitment efforts less effective do not constitute a challenge that movement organizers are unprepared for.
The purpose of such a sprawling web of contradictions is further revaled to us, “How much empathy can you extend to people who do not fully understand your identity or experience or who have not had the same access to liberatory ideas?”
The authors say the quiet part out loud here. The reader (who the authors have acknowledged in this sentence may very well be trans) is asked to explicitly embrace people invalidating their identity in the name of saving the world. It is rare that rhetoric like this lays its intentions so bare. But in the face of a trans genocide and violence towards queer folks at large, our authors express a desire not to miss out on recruiting the people who have a hand in our destruction. They authors make good on their promise that they aren’t sending out “search parties to find an undiscovered army of people with already-perfected politics with whom we will easily and naturally align.” They are instead content to find an undiscovered army of people who do less than the bare minimum actions of solidarity.
In recruiting into a mass movement, requiring prospective members to gender people correctly is not “worth the whole word.” “Identity” is placed alongside “liberatory ideas” people may not be familiar with. Here the authors reveal that gender identity is one of their own stumbling points in their organizing pursuits. They imply here that technical marxist economic terms deserve respect as much as people’s pronouns, which apparently is not very much respect at all.
Trans genocide is not included in the authors’ view of “that work, in this historical moment,” they claim to be engaging in. This glaring omission is another one of this essay’s rare clearly explicit instances of capitulation to fascist trends. The pitfalls of scale-focused organizing are made apparent here, as a minority of people who are the targets of oppressive violence are minimized in the face of a majority of people (perhaps most of whom are transphobic) who could inflate the numbers of a group aspiring to build the next mass movement.
The authors try to throw the reader off their scent as they supposedly offer an example of the identities they refer to: “The concept of “allyship,” for example, is often grounded in presentation rather than substantive action.”
Is “allyship” the only identity they are talking about? If so, why the vagueness? The only instance of “trans-” in this article is in the following words: “transform,”“transformation[s],” “transformational,” “transforming,” and “transformative justice.” If allyship isn’t the only identity they are talking about, they are instead asking the reader to view liberal allyship in the same vein as trans and queer identity. Perhaps they implicate all identity categories as being “grounded in presentation rather than substantive action.” Perhaps there is no substantive action that helps people of marginalized identities get free if we take the authors at their word.
Rather than set a high bar of entry, where there are non-negotiable agreements about how people will treat each other, the authors place the bar beneath the ground, writing a think piece about why your identity is no big deal instead of publishing an article addressing the severity of the crises trans people face. There certainly is something to be said about people equating inherent goodness to certain identities, but the patent refusal to acknowledge that different people exist is still capitulating to reactionary trends.
As many leftists in recent decades have noted, groups that embrace or excuse trends of reactionary behaviors are far more likely to be infiltrated than groups that take such behavior seriously and refuse to tolerate it. This fact is confirmed in the inverse by the state itself, which has on numerous occasions noted the difficulty it has infiltrating groups with strong vetting practices, operational security, and a commitment to embodying shared values.
However, the authors believe the opposite is true. They again quote Ejeris Dixon who “points out that when trust is lost, organizing not only becomes more difficult, but it also becomes more vulnerable to surveillance and infiltration: ‘A huge piece of COINTELPRO was around seeding distrust.’ Therefore, she says, a key part of organizing is building bonds of trust, and that can only happen within a context where people are allowed to be vulnerable and make mistakes.”
It is a bit irresponsible to evoke COINTELPRO in this article when so much has been vaguely alluded to. This notion also runs counter to what we know. Lowering the bar of entry into spaces that truly should require operational security practices is opening them to surveillance and infiltration. We know misogynists make great informants. We know laxed expectations of anti-racism tend to allow for white supremacists to infiltrate. But in this world where the authors and their cadre lament the need to hear new words and address concrete dynamics, it’s people’s refusal to compromise over vital issues that is the risk. Respecting vulnerability and allowing for mistakes may be okay in a vacuum. But it is not uniformly the most appropriate reaction to every form of conflict, struggle, harm, and abuse.
Here is another instance of the authors wanting things both ways. They want to implicate trans people, but they only explicitly name allies. Being asked to use the correct pronouns is said to seed distrust while being lenient about such things apparently builds “bonds of trust.” The authors have already established they think this leniency is appropriate with other more severe matters like the elusive aforementioned “great harms.” Still, they continue to brush off such “clubhouse” matters on the grounds that “the mastery of language does not spur systemic change or alter anyone’s material conditions.” How are we supposed to communicate about creating dynamics that we simply have not seen in our lifetime at any notable scale? Yet, using language to talk about specific real-world systemic threats to marginalized people is viewed as a vain pursuit of “mastering” language.
Apparently forgetting about today’s trans genocide, the authors make a plea to the reader not to be so upset about being misgendered:
“People whose words and ideas don’t yet align with our own often need room to grow, and some people grow by building relationships and doing work — often in fumbling and imperfect ways.”
Lacking the self-awareness to see how similar this rhetoric is to open fascists’ ridicule of trans people’s pronouns, the authors minimize the life-threatening material conditions trans people face and how the minimization of misgendering as transgression helps facilitate more severe transphobic violence. The reader is asked to assume good faith, which, if we are extremely generous, we might conclude that the authors themselves are deserving of patience as they learn to respect trans people. It is debatable if this generosity is appropriate as their omissions appear so deliberate, but it is inarguable that there are millions of willing participants in today’s trans genocide who do not deserve the generosity the authors ask for. From the authors’ vantage point, we must force ourselves to forgive transgressions for the sake of the movement.
We find more contradictory rhetoric here, “political transformation is not as simple as handing newcomers a new set of politics and telling them, ‘Yours are bad, use these instead.’” This is undoubtedly how the authors imagine their opponents in their “clubhouses,” but they again lack the self-awareness to understand that they position themselves as the arbiters of what words are good or bad. Misgendering involves language that is apparently not bad enough to take seriously, but the language of minimization that capitulates to fascism is good and should be used whenever organizers have grievances about “great harm.” Indeed, we are asked to embrace, pamper, and tolerate abuse and “great harms” in service of other people’s growth. This is precisely what transformative justice has become. Perhaps the authors’ condescending attitude to the reader would be less egregious if the issues we face in movement spaces were simply matters of minor discomfort, but that just isn’t the case.
Admittedly, this critique completely discards an interpretation of this article that assumes the authors are just referring to minor spats and disagreements. This is because the article is absolutely laden with vague allusions to harm and violence that aren’t so minor. Despite gestures about street demonstrations, the article’s conception of fascism and the world’s demands of us is shockingly narrow and inaccurate. What was once referred to as class-reductionism, organizing as if class is the only important vector of struggle, looks to be edited down by the authors to just reductionism, where all struggles are reduced to the all-important mass movement. There is a consistent deception throughout this article that only serves to facilitate fascist capitulation.
The desire to compromise with fascism is an intended product of the way it isolates its primary targets. While no leftist formation is immune to the influences of fascism, the authors here provide us with evidence that organizing methods that are singularly focused on recruitment may be at a greater risk of capitulating to fascism. Rhetoric like this is most effective on leftists who treat urgency and shortcuts like synonyms. Every acute large-scale struggle is an opportunity to retroactively condemn everyone who put their efforts towards addressing smaller-scale dynamics and a triumphant “join an org, any org” can be bellowed once again. Like profit-driven hierarchies, the constant push for a mass movement is never satisfied with who shows up, never content to pause and think about matters of safety and sustainability.
These sentiments are always the backdrop of leftists’ reactionary behaviors. Treating survivors, queer, trans, and disabled people as if they are only ever detracting from the real work when they advocate about their conditions. Fascist capitulation never deems these marginalized groups worthy of meaningful solidarity. At best, we get “performances,” and we are seen as ungrateful when we point out that performances do nothing to change our conditions. This aversion to getting clear and establishing safety before considering the topic of growth only serves to prop up inflexible leadership structures, placing them above critique.
Failing to address reactionary behaviors during this historical moment when people are being folded into fascism en masse is cowardice. Finding the discomfort of being isolated by fascist normalcy unbearable is just the desire to gain entry into a far larger “clubhouse.” This is the textbook definition of opportunism. What room for trust and comradeship is there with people who are coveting the people who help grease the gears of our oppression? Who make compromise after compromise until they’re indistinguishable from our worst enemies? What can the mass movement hope to accomplish after the margins have been crushed into non-existence?
Our liberation necessitates that we who struggle living in the margins survive. If we understand that any wins against oppressive system must be hard-fought, why must the difficult work of learning about and addressing the unique existential threats to different people excluded from what makes liberatory fights hard? The authors may not seem to care about who suffers when the mass movement cuts corners, but we cannot forsake each other. Fascism would love nothing more than us letting each other down and leaving one another to fend for ourselves in the face of an imperialist police state. As the pressure to capitulate to fascism grows heavier, we must remember that resisting this influence is the work that is worth doing. However demoralizing neglect from would-be comrades may be, we fight to survive and, in doing so, fight for our liberation.
If this piece resonated with you please consider compensating me for my writing, research, and organizing work long-term on Patreon. For more Anarchist Zines made by QTBIPOC visit Brown Recluse Zine Distro.
This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.