By Órla Murray (Staff Writer)
Mr. Activist, all hipster vanguard peasant chic with a scruffy beard and an identity-performance-ensemble worthy of Far Left Fashion[i]. He makes speeches, he walks at the front of the march, he has read all of Das Kapital in the original German, and he knows best.
This caricature is all too familiar to those of us who have engaged in radical politics, in student activism, in trade unions and environmental movements, in left-wing and anarchist groups. Sometimes Mr. Activist isn’t a man, sometimes we can all be Mr. Activist, because it is seductive to think that you are the expert, to enjoy others’ respect and admiration, and to gain a little bit of power even if just for a moment.
This blog piece is primarily based on my own experiences witnessing (both first-hand and through in-depth personal discussions with other activists) a variety of political organising groups, mostly in Edinburgh. In such activist groups there is often a bizarre division of labour whereby those in charge of movements are often white middle-class cis heterosexual men, while women, other men, and non-binary people are quite literally in the kitchen making and serving food. This undervalued and invisible labour is essential to sustain the movement, but does not attract the same glory and prestige as more public, performative roles. And just as in the rest of the world it is gendered and raced and classed.
But perhaps the most invisible work being done is the emotional and social work that occurs after the meetings, in the pub, in someone’s flat. Who listens and comforts when others cry? Who manages the emotional fallout when everyone is sleeping with everyone else? Who listens to the all-too-frequent stories of rape and sexual assault? Who is doing the important social work of welcoming new members and making sure people are okay?
This discussion is not particular to Edinburgh or to Scotland; one only has to look at the multitude of blogs and online discussions of women, queer and trans folk, people of colour, disabled people, and many others sidelined by left-wing, environmental, anarchist and other radical political groupings that fail to put their politics into practice ‘at home’.
Sometimes the best activism we can do, especially as a person with more privileges, is to stand aside, to be silent and listen; to ask actual people right now how their lives are organised under contemporary capitalism. And often it is best if this activism is quiet and private and not performed as explained in Black Girl Dangerous – How to Tell the Difference between Real Solidarity and ‘Ally Theater’. Unless you are becoming increasingly politically self-aware, listening to people’s experiences, and modestly accepting that you are not always right, then you are perpetuating the same oppressive structures and hierarchies of knowledge and power that we are all trying to dismantle.
Often, those who hold a lot of informal social power in the hierarchy of political groups also have a lot of sex with a lot of different activists, which introduces a ‘private’ and deeply intimate power dynamic between them and others. This is often known but left undiscussed; the elephant in the room. Each time a ‘good activist’ commits a rape or a sexual assault, there is a collective horror: how could one of us do something so awful?
We are simultaneously trying to create something better and constantly being confronted with the reality that we are so far from being there. The spectre of rape and sexual assault, and a complete inability to deal with such traumas, haunts activist circles, as the infamous decline of the Socialist Workers’ Party demonstrates. The emotional toll on survivors and those who support them in cleaning up the mess after activists sexually assault, abuse, rape, silence, ignore, exclude, sideline, and mistreat other activists is an enormous problem, one that often involves women taking diplomatic roles or managing grievances behind the scenes. And yet, this work is not valued in the same way as activities that are seen as closer to addressing the ‘real issue’. These activities are often treated like a distracting ‘interpersonal dispute’ rather than part of the structural oppression we are fighting against.
This is emotional and social labour – the unseen, undervalued, and essential work that is done to sustain activists and movements – and it is undervalued and rendered invisible just like other ‘women’s work’: household labour, childcare, and low-level administrative jobs. This gendered division of labour is sometimes justified through essentialism, (“oh, it’s something women are just better at”), or more perniciously dismissed as mere coincidence that more women than men are undertaking such labour. If we want to challenge this hierarchy of work in the world, we must begin by recognising and challenging it in our own lives.
Part of political organising must be to acknowledge and value emotional and social labour. It is not enough to recognise that some activists spend a lot of time making sure people are looking after themselves. We must also value this as on a par with direct actions. Because there is no point working out a perfectly clear Marxist analysis if one does not take heed of the actual division of labour happening right ther e in political organising.
Perhaps part of the problem is a perception that looking after oneself and one’s friends, sisters, and comrades is selfish or a distraction. How can we think of ourselves when we are trying to fight for the liberation of Palestine or an end to police brutality? However, as Audre Lorde puts it: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”[ii] This much discussed quote has become an important antidote for those, often women, who put their own needs secondary to others, to their job, to their activism, to the cause. It is an important reminder that it is not individualistic to care for yourself when your everyday life is littered with racism, sexism, and homophobia, and that the world we live is organised not in your image or with you in mind.
The politics of self-care acknowledges that people experience the world differently. It is more exhausting, more confronting, and more alienating to experience the world as a woman, a person of colour, as part of the LGBTQ+ community, a disabled person, and a person of the working class or of the global South. The energy exerted on just existing when one’s personhood is at odds with what is presumed ‘normal’ means that self-care is a revolutionary act.[iii] We cannot wait for the revolution to take care of each other and ourselves; in fact that is part of the revolution.[iv]
This is because ‘the system’ does not exist in the abstract, floating above us, oppressing us, with a few big evil men deciding how it works. It exists in everyday interactions, in writing and talking, and peoples’ actions; it is fluid and difficult to pin down, and constantly adapting and changing and appropriating our attempts to challenge it. We are all complicit to a certain extent because we live in this world.
Indeed, many practices that are deemed radical or revolutionary are the privilege of those with the means to engage in them. While there is a place for the very performative, direct actions that I mentioned before, these disruptions do not, in and of themselves, consist of revolutionary change. Rather, they are stark reminders that things are still not okay, and can help galvanise support and inspire further action.
And while that can be part of the fight, the revolution will not be one final stand-off with the Metropolitan Police. It will be the cumulative effort of millions of tiny revolutionary acts that slowly change the very nature of being in the world. By changing our own behaviour and trying to live out the utopian world we want to create, we can begin to create little pockets of refuge to escape the oppressive structures, if only for a moment. In the highly individualised, neo-liberal world, little acts of collaboration or of radical love for ourselves and others become revolutionary acts.
[i] Far Left Fashion was a Tumblr between 2012 and 2013 that parodied street-style type fashion profiles, uploading photos and profiles of left-wing activists, usually at protests, in the UK - https://www.facebook.com/FarLeftFashion/timeline.
[ii] Pg. 131, Lorde, A. (1988) A Burst of Light, Firebrand Books, Michigan.
[iv] A very useful discussion about mental health amongst activists – Class Struggle and Mental Health: Live to Fight Another Day.