Defining people's oppressions?
I’m canvassing opinions on the call for marginalised groups of people to “define their own oppression”.
The LGBT+ organising group at the National Education Union conference argued for a definition of transphobia which I agreed with. It was however defeated on the basis that there are conflicting views on what constitutes transphobia and that the amendment was anti-woman.
The arguments in favour were largely that trans members had agreed on the motion and we should, as a union, listen to them. I think this is a relatively weak line of argument. For example, if a group of marginalised people blame their oppression on a Jewish conspiracy, it does not mean we should simply accept that. How can we argue these issues better?
Obviously the people at the sharp end of oppression should have the major input. But, first, even if people share an oppressed identity they do not all individually have any direct subjective experience all of the array of oppression, still less can subjectively experience certain categories of collective oppression.
Second, drawing up definitions is by its nature entirely on an objective, social level, i.e. a political level. Politics matters more in drawing this definition then membership of a group or even subjective experience of oppression. Politics is contested among trans people as everywhere else. Someone cis with good politics may be able to draw up a better definition than someone trans with bad politics. A definition is a political tool.
Unless you’re a pure 19th century liberal who thinks oppression begins and ends with changing the law, the point of a definition is to point the way towards a structural systematic understanding of oppression. The tools for such a critical analysis are not the property of a specific group. Third, we should use intersectional politics as it was originally intended.
That oppression is an intersection of class, race, gender, sexuality, etc. that doesn’t mean that there need to be a separate movement for each “intersecting” combination, but that all the groups involved should take oppressions serously and attempt to build a common movement. That obviously calls for ability to critique outside your particular identity.
Rational and “liberal”
We should advocate rational “liberal forms” of conducting politics. People at the sharp end should take the lead, should be listened to and respected. But people at the sharp end will have differences among themselves, and they need to take the argument into the wider movement in order to find common ground, unity, allies, and wider social support.
There will be “clashes of interest” in all wider debates. Some of these may be “genuine” and these should be resolved by debate, compromise etc. Some will be attempts to manipulate debate. I am guessing that the argument against the definition of transphobia was disingenuous, an attempt to pit one set of identity politics against another, a zero-sum game.
Focusing on and arguing for your ideas on the structural issue of transphobia, and asking people to agree with you on the strength of your argument, while taking account of other structural oppressions as much as seems reasonable, is the only way to win the argument, and is also, in the long-run, more “just”.
If we say so, then it’s true?
I’m not too sure how this fits in, but sections of the far-right have appropriated the language of defining oppression to claim that white people are oppressed. Since “liberals” say oppressed groups define their own oppression, there’s nothing anyone can do about it. I don’t believe this is an argument they make in good faith, but it is an argument I’ve seen made.
What a movement looks like
I don’t believe Paul Mason’s analysis on the old industrial left vs the new, young, urban, woke left holds much water, and I also think it’s kind of contradictory. If that really was the divide, then how would Mason’s proposed solution of winning back the old heartlands by being tough on crime, pro-police, pro-Trident, help bridge the gap?
Speaking as a young(ish), woke, metropolitan lefty, those are two strands of social conservatism I vehemently oppose. I’m not alone in this. But some parts of Paul Mason’s recent article that are spot on. “Being seen to deliver Brexit loses votes from progressive voters and wins none back from more socially conservative ones. That’s exactly what a leaked internal poll by Hope Not Hate and the TSSA union told Corbyn back in February. It was ignored.”
And I think he’s spot on about the state of the Corbyn movement. It can’t be a sustainable movement when it’s based around one man and a historical fluke. We all piled in when we saw the crack form in Labour because everyone — liberals, social democrats. Trotskyists, hardline Stalinists — knew something had to change and there needed to be a revival in labour movement politics. But we never dealt with what being a Corbynite meant (that is not through lack of trying on the part of good comrades. I see you).
The rank and file activist base was never educated or remotely empowered. Partly that was due to the legacy of Blairism. Most people my age and younger don’t have a clue what a socialist movement looks like. We’ve never seen one. We’ve been trained our whole lives to believe that everything comes from the leadership and the apparatus. Of course we tend to think replacing them with some lefties would be enough. The problem also comes from some people actively wanting the membership at arm’s length and in the shadows.
Unfortunately, for Labour’s electoral successes, these people are not comparable to the New Labour architects. Say what you like about New Labour, but at least in the beginning they had the vision and talent to carry out triangulation and bureaucratic takeovers successfully! The left doesn’t have that, but what we do have are ideas, passion, heart and dedication. If we empower the members (really empower the members), educate them, play to our strengths, we could unleash a social movement that will define the next generation. We can win the culture war and actually drag this country to the left rather than rolling over and capitulating to reactionaries at every turn.