A short while ago, while driving with some friends through a small town, I noticed a sign outside a building advertising “strange yoga” classes. When I looked up, I noticed that the building was the “Oddfellows’ Hall.” I might have forgotten that little incident if I hadn’t picked up Su Negrin’s book Begin At Start from a friend’s bookshelf and started reading it. Very early in the book, Su describes herself as a “freak.” I think this term, which many people who took part in the 1960s-early 1970s counter-culture/hip culture used, is largely forgotten. Its intention at the time was to emphasize the refusal of those who used it to assimilate into mainstream culture. And some of us who still remember the term continue to relate to it in this sense.
For me, the term has the interesting connotation of a group or “class” of people whose shared trait is that they are all different from each other, all unique. An interesting paradox, but perhaps significant in developing a new, specifically anarchist, conception of revolution and social conflict.
Interesting in a similar way is the fact that in 1972 (when Su Negrin published her book) the word “gay” could still have some radical connotations, whereas public gay liberationists rarely used the word “queer,” but now the latter word has been taken back in a way that is often wonderfully open-ended. If some try to restrict the term to narrow identity concepts, others use it to describe all of those who choose not to conform to the accepted norms of gender and sexuality, those who, whether due to some seemingly irresistible internal compulsion or to a personal preference, define their own gender and sexuality or strive to reject all such definition. Some may do this because of a seemingly insurmountable feeling that they are one gender trapped in the body of another, others because they see gender and sexuality as flexible games to play, still others because they reject gender as a limiting social construct. But, in any case, the category “queer” is very much like the category “freak,” but specifically as applied to gender and sexuality. It is also a category in which the shared trait is that every one included is different from the others.
What significance does this have for how we might conceive of revolution? Revolution has generally been conceived as class struggle. Even though Marx established this conception, most revolutionary anarchists have accepted it to one degree or another. This is not so surprising when we consider that the systems of social relationships that we call capitalism and the state determine the broad outlines of how the present social world operates, and class relationships are central to these systems. However, a revolution conceived as a struggle between classes will tend to become a battle over class power and will thus tend to re-create the state and, with it, the economy, leaving daily life essentially intact.
But there have always been a few revolutionaries (usually anarchists) who conceive of revolution differently. They also recognize the determining power of the state and the economy, and the centrality of class relationships to these institutions, but, seeking the destruction of centralized power, they seek the destruction of the state and the economy, and so the destruction of class itself, not just of a specific class. This destruction is seen as an essential step toward seizing and transforming daily life—and thus all relationships from the broadly social to the deeply intimate. And in such a revolution, wouldn’t those in the forefront be those who defy classification, the freaks, the queers, the unique ones? But let me be clear; they would not be in the forefront as leaders, a vanguard for the masses, but simply as those whose exploration of and experimentation with the unclassifiable, the unnameable ways of moving through the world have already put them in revolutionary conflict with the world of class and category. The very nature of this sort of revolution rules out any possibility of a vanguard of the masses, because mass has no place in a revolution that liberates each individual as unique. The only way that one can take part in such a revolution is by rising up from the mass, defiantly refusing every classification, and creating oneself in each moment in relation with others who are doing the same and defiant toward whatever seeks to pin a role or classification upon one. In other words, one enters into this revolution by becoming a freak, a queer, an outsider—one who doesn’t belong—in every area of one’s life.
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One of the things that stands out in Begin At Start is Negrin’s confidence that a real global transformation to a society of free individuals was under way. If her book reflects many areas of self-doubt and criticism of the specific movements of cultural and social change going on at the time, it is all expressed within the context of this confidence. She wrote this book just a couple of years before I discovered radical ideas, and I also got caught up in that same confidence. In fact, within the anarchist movement, it seemed to continue well into the 1990s, though with plenty of ups and downs. One of the reasons for this confidence was that so many of us had begun to conceive of revolution as a revolution of everyday life and, thus, as an ongoing process of creating our freedom. As such, it was not something that could be won or lost. It could only expand and contract, advance and retreat, depending on circumstances. This is still how I view anarchist revolution, and it probably accounts for the fact that I have continued to go on, if not with confidence, at least without the sense of defeat that seems to pervade so much of the anarchist milieu these days.
At the same time, when I consider a lot of what was going on in radical movements at the time when Su Negrin wrote her book, I can see how far her path of liberation diverged from the broader projects of liberation she brings up in her book. She makes it very clear that freedom—meant as the freedom of individuals to create their lives on their own terms—had to be the aim of this revolution of everyday life, and that this aim had to be realized immediately in struggle. She also clearly recognized that the emphasis on equality could get in the way of this ongoing process. She saw the various liberation movements of that time as people’s attempts in different circumstances to discover how to create their freedom against the oppression they suffered. There is no doubt that there is a lot of truth in this perspective. But these movements also remained attached to the identities of their oppression. The exploration of these identities is, of course, necessary to exploring the potentials of freedom, but we have to strive beyond those identities to actually realize that freedom. As long as we remain caught in these identities, we will view the world through the lens of the privilege/oppression dichotomy, give equality priority over freedom, and political change priority over the transformation of daily life. This is precisely what brought the radical movement in the US to its extremely contracted and paralyzed condition, its apparent non-existence.
Equality appears in the world within a context. This is necessary to provide a background for measuring equality (which is a quantifiable quality). The context for measuring social equality is the present society with its roles, its hierarchies, its titles, its laws and its categorizations. Achieving equality within this context requires recognition as a group. This is true, first of all, because equality, as a quantifiable comparison, is inherently abstract and requires dealing with human beings as abstractions. One understands human beings best as abstractions when one can place them in a category or a set of categories. This means that when one strives for equality above all else, one identifies with the categories into which one has been placed and seeks recognition of these categories within the context of this society. In other words, one seeks rights, which is to say social entitlements. And that is always a matter of laws, politics, authorities granting representation. Inevitably, it reinforces the ruling order and maintains what is.
Of the various liberation movements Su Negrin mentions, kids’ liberation most clearly shows how this misdirection of energies can not only twist something, but actually turn it into its opposite. The concept of kids’ liberation that she puts forward aims for the freedom of children to determine their own lives, to create themselves on their own terms, to take on responsibility for themselves. It aims to transform the relationships between children and adults from relationships between social categories to relationships between actual individuals. But when kids’ liberation gets twisted into guaranteeing the rights of kids in the present society, it first becomes an attempt to protect children from exploitation, and eventually becomes the imposition of “protection” of children that not only reinforces, but also magnifies their dependent status, making them less and less capable of determining their own lives. It is inevitable that in time this dependent status of childhood will extend (after all, children are not being prepared for independence and responsibility) to include teenagers and in more and more ways adults as well. Every last vestige of liberation has disappeared here.
But this example from kids’ liberation doesn’t tell the whole story of how the emphasis on equality over freedom has distorted other liberation movements. This emphasis moves liberation (or the conception of it) from daily life into politics, and this creates changes in attitudes towards social categories (race, gender, even sexual preference) so that now, in the United States, there is a black president, a woman secretary of state, blacks, latinos, women, minorities of all sorts in positions of power. There are openly gay mayors and representatives, even in the Midwest. But how far does this affect daily life? In the family, in “love” relationships, on the job, on the streets, what do women deal with? Are blacks and latinos no longer watched by security guards or other store employees when they go shopping? What about cops shooting down unarmed blacks and latinos on the streets—has that ended? Do queers have nothing to fear as they walk down the street? In politics and in public spheres like sports and entertainment, it can sometimes almost appear as though racism, sexism and homophobia have disappeared. And there is no question that this reflects a change in attitude as well on a broad level. But it doesn’t reflect any sort of liberation, because this very thing has developed hand-in-hand with an acceptance of increasing policing, surveillance and government intrusion into our lives. What is missing in all this legally enforced, government-granted equality is freedom, because freedom cannot come from above. It must be taken. And in the name of security, in the name of protection, in the name of guaranteeing equality, the government keeps on taking more and more freedom away. As the various liberation movements that should have woven together against a common enemy instead pursued the game of identity politics, playing into the hands of that enemy, we individuals who were (and are) determined to take our own freedom rejected or moved beyond these movements to explore other ways of fighting the ruling order and creating our lives against it on our own terms, but in the process, we became far, far fewer. Those who chose the political path have had their victories and defeats. We have had neither, nor have we wanted them. Every victory that has been won from the social order for women, blacks, latinos, indigenous people, gays, etc., has been won at the price of the loss of every individual’s freedom to determine her life on her own terms, at the price of equal enslavement for all, because they have been won as laws, regulations, policies, treaties administered by the governing minority that strives to define our existence by this set of rules. In other words, these victories have been won as abstractions that maintain our daily lives as something alien to us, something out of our hands, administered at a distance through decisions separated from the realities they are deciding. In this way, these movements, no matter how “separatist” some of them may consider themselves, have been (or are being) thoroughly assimilated, precisely as separate identity groups.
Because identity politics is based on oppressed individuals identifying with the group identity through which they have been oppressed, it also requires maintaining the identity of the oppressors as a group identity. So what does a “white” person who is striving to dismantle her whiteness, not out of guilt, but for her own liberation, do? What of a “man” who seeks to get beyond his “manhood” for similar reasons? Only within the context of a fight for the freedom of every individual to create her life on her own terms is it possible to find ways to interweave the fights of blacks, latinos, indigenous people, etc., against racism with the fight of a euro-mutt against the limitations of whiteness. Only within this context can the battle of women and gender queers against sexism interweave with the fight of men against the limitations of manhood. And euro-mutts can only truly be accomplices (as opposed to a lickspittle auxiliary support group) of those fighting their own racial oppression, when they join this battle to fight the limitations that their supposed “whiteness” has imposed on their individual freedom, in other words, when they are fighting racism and the very concept of race for themselves and their own freedom. And the only comrades you can truly trust are those who have joined battle with you for themselves. The same logic applies to biological males in their fight against sexism. If they aren’t starting from their own battle against the limitations that “manliness” imposes on them, then they aren’t fighting for themselves, and they will not make reliable comrades, because willing slaves can never be trusted. In fact, this logic applies across the board.
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But I have wandered far from my original thoughts—wandering thought, vagabond theory, the lightly traipsing steps of free thinking, now slowly circling back. To put it simply, a revolution of everyday life, transforming the way each of us encounters life here and now, cannot be for a cause, but only for oneself. This is the only way to keep it immediate. I fight racism not for abstract concepts of justice or equality, nor for whatever groups of people are being oppressed because of their so-called race, but because the construct of race also places limitations on me in the form defined as “whiteness.” This is why anyone can trust me as an accomplice in the battle against the everyday practice of racism; I am in it for myself. If I wasn’t, you would be wise to search for some hidden benefit I was getting from playing your game in an apparently altruistic manner. Again, the same logic applies to sexism. But since I am in it for myself, there is bullshit I will not put up with. I won’t submit to the limitations of politically correct versions of these struggles. Political correctitude is politics. It assumes the dichotomy between equality and freedom and promotes the former. In the process, it suppresses humor, poetry and playfulness in the name of protecting women, racial minorities, queers, etc., to prevent them from feeling hurt, offended, unsafe. And such protection turns those who demand and accept it into dependent wards of whatever paternal authority enforces that protection. In other words it turns them into house slaves.
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A revolution that aims to completely transform daily life cannot be a political revolution. Individuals who pursue such a revolution are out to destroy politics and, with it, all the categories politics creates. At the same time, politics and its categories have caused real damage in the daily lives of individuals—in particular, oppression based on being socially identified as part of a specific category. We will not overcome these categories simply by ignoring them. In order to destroy them, we need to face them firmly with ourselves as individuals. My essence (whatever that means), your essence, certainly does not lie in a race, a gender, a sexual orientation or preference, or any other role that may be used to define us in the social world. Since we each want freedom for ourselves, we cannot possible fit into any of the categories imposed on us. We are too big for that. This is why we do not fit into the ruling social order, why we are outsiders. And if people want to name us, there are names that fit, precisely because they say nothing about who we are, only about what we are not. “Freak” is such a name; so is “queer” in its broadest sense. And then there is the name a certain sarcastic anti-philosopher came up with more that a hundred fifty years ago: “unique.” All words that at their best defy definition, defy categorization. And I am convinced that we who have placed ourselves beyond social categories are the closest thing that there will ever be to a “revolutionary class,” because we are the ones who, in our desires, in our daily lives, destroy the impositions and institutions that make up the present social order. I appreciate Su Negrin’s book for provoking these thoughts in me.
From the Armchair >