In the article, The Politics of Privilege-Checking by Sharon Smith, the author argues that we need to build a mass struggle rather than offer our individual identities to no end. Most activists have sat in a circle of others and listened to each person talk about their identity. Of course, useful conversations can come out of this kind of organizing, but simply talking about identity in terms of ways that you are privileged and ways that you lack privilege ends the conversation there without any further collective action to oppose the institutions that uphold privilege and oppression.
Smith says that we must build a connection to working-class strategy to create revolutionary struggle, and, unfortunately, a lot of political theory, like post-modernism, got away from working-class strategy by focusing on subjectivity and individual identity instead of class struggle. As an activist, I completely agree with the limitations of identity labels, though I think the idea of raising consciousness is subjective, and I struggle with how to connect each individual to a larger mass struggle. I don’t think I’m doing a good job of connecting myself to the collective struggle, and that’s exactly what this blog is about– a growing sense of failure to fully connect with activism.
I go to protests, marches, speak-outs, meetings with fellow feminist organizers, radical political events, etc… I write poetry. I work on building a voice of resistance to a society steeped in violence and oppression. My participation in activism is volunteer work. It’s unpaid labor. It’s an extracurricular. It’s work I do outside of employment. Karl Marx said that capitalism exploits the worker by robbing her of her value, whether that means getting paid nothing or getting paid too little. In other words, when we participate in activism (unpaid labor) we are subject to the exploitation inherent in the capitalism system.
When I was sick for a long time, I couldn’t participate in activism. I stopped going to feminist meetings. I stopped going to radical political events. I stopped marching etc.. Why did my activism end when my health plummeted? Because my relationship to activism has always been individual, not collective. I give my unpaid labor to organizing, and, when I had no individual labor to give, I had nothing to use to connect with the mass struggle. Of course, I still went on Facebook and signed petitions, which helped me stay connected, but I felt frustrated that I couldn’t be more connected.
How does someone who cannot afford to give their unpaid labor participate in activism? I have never been able to organize in such a way that offers a solution. I have heard stories about unions and strikes, which sounds very collective in a genuine way, not falsely collective in the way that I try to be in my individual efforts. I would like to already be collective, but, like most people, I have never held a job that was unionized, and, as someone who sees work as a means to survive rather than an ends to fair and ethical relations, I can’t imagine feeling collective and included in employment.
So, when Marxism says to build a larger mass struggle of the working class, I don’t disagree, but I don’t know how it’s going to happen when I keep struggling individually, giving my unpaid labor to activism, and hoping to build a larger mass struggle. Whether you are acting individually or collectively isn’t based on how you feel but on how you relate to the economic system. Individuality is a unit of capitalist exploitation. I know that I am a unit of exploitation even when I participate in struggles that are supposed to be collective. That’s why when I got sick, I had to stop trying to be collective. Activism had to take a back-seat in my life.
Instead of privilege-checking, activists should focus on their relationship to activism and how to transform that relationship from individual to collective struggle. We should be honest about the limitations rather than romanticizing a false collective because it is the false collective that capitalism creates as a mirage in a desert of neoliberalism. We have to realize the ways we are pawns doing unpaid labor, and we have to realize that this realization will never be enough to address the gross inequality of wealth without real collective struggle.