Women Should Be In The Class Struggle, And That Is Not On The Red Carpet
Black working class women, like these welders, were the heart of the Left in the 1940’s U.S., as well-documented by Robin Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe.
I knew from the reactions my criticism of the Golden Globes garnered on social media that it would only be a matter of time before someone in the nonprofit world penned a piece defending such patronage activism. And Rinku Sen delivered, both criticizing the criticism as “specious” and hailing the event as “one of the most effective actions [she has] seen” in her 33 years of activism.
Sen states that she saw five main criticisms of the Golden Globes event: (1) it is not “an action” because of its class character, (2) celebrities are not committed to the struggle, (3) no policy or conditions are changed, (4) there’s no connection between the celebrity women and “suffering women in actual communities,” and (5) it gives more attention to the celebrity women. She states that these criticisms arise from the Left being “[t]rapped in binaries.”
For those not familiar, Sen is using the word “binaries” in the post-structuralist sense, which unfortunately does not have any clear definition by the classic post-structuralists (Derrida, Butler, etc.) so we will have to settle for this more recent definition:
The rendering of our world in terms of opposing binaries reflects and enables the subjugation and oppression of those located on one side of these binaries. Western thought’s bipolar division of the world posits male against female, human against non-human, and self against other, in a complex operation in which the first depends on the second, but seeks nevertheless to eliminate it; male, human, and self set at destroying female, non-human, and Other. Emerging from these more or less general binaries, other more specific binaries also exist: real/imaginary, sane/mad, science/myth, speech/silence. Similarly here the division is forced and the interdependence is neglected…
My regular readers may remember that I am incredibly hostile towards post structuralism, but my reference here is no strawman. Sen’s argument is that by dividing things like “civil disobedience” and “elections” into a binary the Left has one dominate the other, that we dismiss “elections” just because it is not “civil disobedience.” The harm in this, claims Sen, is that it limits our tactical toolkit for achieving change. And notably, Sen seemingly rejects any such limitation:
In my humble 33-year view of social change, I believe that it takes everything. Everything we’ve got. Every member, every leader, every ally, every platform, every tactic and every dime — all directed toward specific goals at specific moments.
This is often the result of post structuralism — after the binary is deconstructed (and civil disobedience vs. elections is certainly a problematic one, as Lenin among others has written about) we are left with not a coherent strategy but rather an “anything goes” ethos that could be used to justify, in Sen’s very own words, “every tactic.”
The International Women’s Strikes was started by working class women in Russia in 1917, and has been credited with starting the revolution.
Returning to the five criticisms Sen is responding to, they can actually be boiled down to two: (1) does the class character of this action matter and (2) what material gains were made? I will touch on the second in Sen’s argument for why the Golden Globes were effective.
As to the first, one imagines from Sen’s epistemological approach that this too is a binary that can be deconstructed: either as working class centered organizing vs. patronage activism, or more broadly as organizing by those without privilege vs. organizing by those with privilege. When we push past all the obtuse language Sen uses and “humble” evocations of her long time organizing experience, it becomes clear that these binaries are not problematic, and certainly not nearly as problematic as the straw men ones she gives like civil disobedience vs. elections.
While certainly bourgeois individuals (like Engels or Marshall Field III) have played their parts in progressive and revolutionary movements, those movements happened through glamourless, boots-on-the-ground organizing of people of color and the working class. And particularly with such oppressed people being in struggle against the privileged and wealthy. Claiming the work can be done across these lines of struggle is antithetical to the basic struggle component of all progressive change. As Saul Alinsky (who the aforementioned Field funded) wrote in his Rules for Radicals:
Conflict is the essential core of a free and open society. If one were to project the democratic way of life in the form of a musical score, its major theme would be the harmony of dissonance.
I would challenge anyone to prove otherwise with even one historical example.
But of course there is the possibility that the Golden Globes action, as with Engels and Field, is useful by its purpose as a cash conduit. This is one of two achievements that Sen gives for the action, the other is creating a cultural flashpoint that changes the narrative.
Sen lays out the following evidence. First, the #TimesUp campaign raised $700,000 (I presume Sen means that night, because the fund has raised over $16 million by their gofundme alone). But as Sen herself notes, this campaign was spurred by 700,000 female farmworkers. And the fund is run by the National Women’s Law Center. The role of celebrities does not seem to be of organizing but rather of fundraising. And anyone who balks at such fundraising is indeed absurd (and if you want legal assistance for sexual harassment you’ve experienced, click here). But anyone is also well within their right to say that it is not organizing because it is not organizing, at least in the political sense: it is fundraising.
Spelling out that difference matters because money, as useful as it is to movements, is not determinative. Not to be idiomatic but I would think someone of Sen’s humble 33 years would know that throwing money at a problem doesn’t make it go away. I certainly hope the Times Up Legal Fund brings justice to as many women as possible, but the legal system that gutted VAWA’s civil remedy and created an unconscionable “undue burden” standard for reproductive rights will remain intact if there is not organizing of the ordinary working class women most harmed by the injustice. As Sen herself writes, when celebrity events create “no actual action,” it results in “a pattern that depresses engagement rather than fuels it.” She believes the actual action of charity is sufficient to avoid this; my concern is that since it is not organizing, engagement very much could be depressed. After all, if the way to plug into “the movement” is donation, who cannot engage?
But there is the other achievement Sen credits to the action: changing the narrative through a cultural moment. I actually do not disagree with Sen about the power of symbols and such (despite being an organizer of a more humble 10 years, I have at least learned that much). I too am inspired by Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling, or to give another example the chant and corresponding gesture en masse of Black Lives Matter’s “Hands up, don’t shoot!” We are emotional beings, and such symbols serve as arguments just as much as any policy white paper. But the question beyond how well a symbol touches our hearts is what argument does it lend itself to. And the argument that came out of the Golden Globes action was not one of the power of 700,000 farmworkers but rather the power of celebrity and the purse to effect change. Hopefully you can see where I am heading with this:
Waking up to this email from Color of Change was rather unpleasant.
Well if we go by wealth, the un-Trump.
The narrative that has come out of the Golden Globes action hasn’t been “700,000 farmworkers spur Hollywood into action,” it has been “Oprah is going to run for President.” Even Sen’s own organization gave the “organizing” second billing to the billionaire:
Nothing says solidarity like not mentioning those 700,000 farm workers even once!
And yet Oprah gets only a quick mention in Sen’s piece, a spright “I don’t know any details of how Oprah’s speech got written, but it’s obvious that she, too, had been organized.” Why would Sen, interested in the cultural moment created by the action, ignore the headline grabbing main attraction? I do not know the answer, but it is a question worth asking. Regardless the cultural moment that actually happened, the ascension of Oprah into the political spotlight and the affirmation of the mainstream narrative that only powerful individuals create change, seems fundamentally different from the one that Sen gives us of cross-class solidarity and patron supplemented movement building.
And what is the movement? A movement of donors? Of plaintiffs? Sen does not give us clear answers to what should be easy questions, e.g. Black Lives Matter is a movement of Black people against state violence, Democratic Socialists of America is a movement of socialists against capitalism, etc.
You would think after the first billionaire we elected used the presidency to make himself money we would have learned our lesson.
But Sen is right that we should not condemn the organizers who went to the Golden Globes. Hell if I were invited I’d go, not just for the opportunity to rustle up some money for my cause but just to see what it was like. Nor should the Left approach the event from a stance of cultural superiority, that us enlightened few are above the spectacles of late stage capitalism. Unfortunately Sen’s alternative seems almost as condescending: “Most people,” Sen writes, “are too shallow to do more than the bare minimum on anything.” Such conclusory pessimism surely is not the way to mobilize for change (though it fits fine into the model of Oprah having to save us).
I propose a third path: be critical of the narrative without being disdainful of the emotional impact. In line with their condescending view of the masses, the patronage activists might allege that ordinary people cannot understand an argument with such nuance. But to the contrary, such arguments can and have succeeded in the past. One of the greatest human symbols of change, Martin Luther King Jr., gave many such arguments, one of which was his “Beyond Vietnam” speech:
Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns, this query has often loomed large and loud: “Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent?” “Peace and civil rights don’t mix,” they say. “Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people?” they ask. And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.
King literally brings the voices of his critics into the room, states that he understands the “source of their concerns,” states that despite that understandable source they are wrong, and then spends the rest of the speech explaining why.
And I really doubt that most of us cannot understand the “source” of the excitement about Oprah and other such celebrity saviors. In a society increasingly isolated by the very technology that connects us, a celebrity can seem just as close to us as a friend since we view both mostly through a screen. And unlike our friends, we know celebrity’s power and wealth allows them to do things our friends (as individuals) cannot. I too cried watching Oprah’s speech, because how could you not when thinking about little girls seeing on TV someone telling them that we can have a world where no one needs to say #MeToo. I rejoice that so many people are inspired by that message.
But how Oprah says we will get to that world, which she attributes to an ambiguous everyone (but especially “those in the room,” as in the celebrities), is wrong. And the media’s narrative following it of how we get to that world, electing Oprah, is also not how we get to it. How we get to that world is overturning the system of power that allowed both Harvey Weinstein and Oprah, and more importantly allowed the 700,000 female farmworkers to be abused and exploited. And we will only overturn that system by organizing ordinary women. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the Golden Globes; there is a whole lot wrong with calling it organizing.
We can see the centrality of working class women organizing best in a place at the intersections of oppression, like West Africa. Here, women protest the oil company Shell for exploiting and poisoning the people of the Niger Delta.
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