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Anarcha-Feminisms

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In most anarchist circles it’s commonly acknowledged that North American anarchist ideas are underdeveloped. The good news is that things are looking up. The recently published journal from the Institute for Anarchist Studies (IAS),Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Issue N. 29 on Anarcha-Feminisms (now referred to here as Perspectives), is an excellent example of how anarcha-feminist theories have evolved — especially since the late 1960’s. Specifically, today’s anarcha-feminists are inspired by anti-racist/anti-colonial feminist theory. Concepts like “intersectionality” conjoin anti-capitalist efforts and multiple struggles while anarcha-feminists look outside traditional movement resources for development. Thanks to recent anti-globalization, Occupy, and Black Lives Matter movements, feminism has had a chance to further develop while both positively and negatively reinforcing aspects of anarchism. On the one hand, Perspectives’ attention to anti-racist/anti-colonial analysis, via intersectionality theory, is very strong.

On the other hand, the IAS’ special Perspectives issue is weak in the area that our current anti-policing climate demands it be stronger. Anarchism’s longstanding emphasis on tactical insurrectionary violence makes this political tendency unique. But as it embraces intersectional-style ideas, it needs to retain a distinct anti-capitalist focus to rival with the pop-intersectional approach that is attempting to absorb anti-policing resistance. Intersectionality does not automatically deliver the anti-capitalist goods, and it tends to reduce class to another identity category. This isn’t to say that we should eliminate identity categories in favor of a general anti-capitalist approach. Where I’m coming from, identity politics is a far cry from the much admired and widely studied historic liberation struggles like Women’s Liberation and Black Power. These movements have bourgeois liberal tendencies that shouldn’t be conflated with their revolutionary tendencies. A distinction between neoliberal identity politics and identity-based anti-capitalist/anti-imperialist liberation struggles, can refocus activist energy against the capitalist system without sacrificing critical analyses of race, gender and other social oppressions represented in the intersectionality framework.

Enter Perspectives, which should be read as part of the ongoing effort to expand anarcha-feminist ideas . True to form for the IAS, the issue offers a thoughtful cross-section of history and theory engaged in anarchist and popular movements: education, prisons, labor, health care, ecology, and Indigenous resistance are all included in Perspectives. In and of itself, given the challenging conditions of the academic/movement rift, Perspectives is valuable because it is grounded in nuts and bolts movement work, while also drawing from relevant academic resources as well.perspectives29_frontcover150

A full disclaimer: In 1996, I joined the IAS board, which I served on for about four years. The project’s conviction was revolutionaries need intellectual support outside of academic channels to develop ideas and movements. At the time I wrote an article for the IAS newsletter “Radical Theory, Academia, and the IAS” where I argued that university-supported theory can sacrifice “…accessibility, radical political passion, and relevance to all socially marginalized people, especially those impoverished by global capitalism’s international division of labor.”

Twenty years later, Perspectives is a testament to the IAS’ original vision to support accessible, passionate, movement-based, feminist work. From the graphics and a reader-friendly layout, to its diverse range of authors and topics, I found Perspectives to be a very engaging read. The overall impact of this journal issue was both encouraging and discouraging. This is the the usual effect I encounter when faced with something, like anarcha-feminist theory, that has great potential and many obstacles. For me, feeling discouraged is the nature of the beast. My frustration comes from general political/theoretical developments that seem historically inevitable– in many ways. Perspectives both reflects and resists its historic context and I am pleased to review it here for this reason.

Every piece in Perspectives offers material for a feminist and anti-racist anarchism that builds solidarity with revolutionaries, activists, and organizers who do not readily identify with the term “anarchist.” There’s plenty in the issue that can expand anarchism’s horizons. Consider Julia Tanenbaum’s U.S. anarcha-feminist history of the 70s decade and Hillary Lazar’s notion of “interlocking oppression”– inspired by Black feminism. Colleen Hackett offers thought-provoking “psy-ence fiction” lessons from teaching in a women’s prison, and Theresa Warburton thinks through different ways we generally relate anarchism to feminism. Laura Hall develops a comprehensive “Indigenist eco-queer anarcha-feminist” vision, and Zoe Dodd and Alexander McLelland offer an imminently practical horizontal Hep C/HIV treatment model cultivated from health crisis work. Romina Akemi and Bree Busk provoke readers with “sexual dissidence” and a multi-sectoral organizing plan, and Kelsey Cham C. develops an account of developing political consciousness (including language’s power) through addiction. Finally, there are some short and informative book reviews tucked in nicely at the issue’s end.

While reading Perspectives, I was immediately encouraged to see the 38 year old anarcha-feminist anthology, Quiet Rumors, is now circulating in a newly released form from AK Press (2012) and still impacting today’s debates. More than one Perspectives author mentions Quiet Rumors, which is also critically reviewed at the issue’s end, but not everyone appreciates the text the same way. For example, “Breaking the Waves: Challenging the Liberal Tendency within Anarchist Feminism” authors Romina Akemi and Bree Busk offer the criticism that Quiet Rumors essays “stand in isolation” and “lack a coherent thread to follow from one idea to the next.” These are common criticisms of anarchist thought in general — and without apology the authors take issue with anarcha-feminism’s own “fuzzy boundaries” (p. 106).

Akemi and Busk also challenge Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s preface statement in the newly reissued Quiet Rumors that suggests “consulting our [anarcha-feminist] predecessors” will help anarcha-feminists change the world. In response, the authors provide an insightful observation: “It is often the case that anarchist feminism is defined exclusively by these revolutionaries at the expense of understanding them in the context of the organizations and movements in which they operated” (p. 107).

A little dissent in the ranks of Quiet Rumors’ readers suggests anarcha-feminism isn’t monolithic (hence Perspectives’ pluralized title), and the anarcha-feminist theorizing embodied in these 148 pages isn’t monolithic either. Perspectives reminds us we shouldn’t shy away from differences as we engage anarcha-feminist histories, how these histories overlap with socialist feminisms, and the contemporary conditions of anarcha-feminist theoretical deployments.

Speaking of these deployments, Theresa Warburton’s essay “Coming to Terms: Rethinking Popular Approaches to Anarchism and Feminism” skillfully assesses the relationship between these two bodies of thought. (It may have been useful to include Warburton’s piece earlier in Perspectives, since it gives a helpful overview.) Warburton summarizes three common ways the relationship between anarchism and feminism is described: the genealogical approach, the equivalent approach, and the exchange approach.

Appearing after a well-written introduction by the Perspectives editorial collective and Cindy Crabb’s seemingly light-hearted, but ultimately profound, graphic artwork, Julia Tanenbaum’s article “To Destroy Domination in All Its Forms: Anarcha-Feminist Theory, Organization and Action, 1970-1978” provides an example of Warburton’s genealogical approach. The approach provides a chronological history of individuals and their ideas, and in the anarcha-feminist case, it shows how feminist ideas persist throughout U.S. anarchist history.  But Warburton also reminds us that history can have a conservative function. Historical genealogies of anarchist women’s contributions can mask current movement sexism by tokenizing individuals and their ideas. (“Anarchism is sexist, ladies? Here you go! May I present to you Ms. Emma Goldman!”)

Here we are reminded there is a stark difference between putting up seemingly feminist wallpaper– while avoiding substantive criticisms of heteropatriarchy– and tearing down the whole infrastructure.

Next, Warburton’s “equivalent approach” argues all feminists are “unconscious anarchists.” This approach suggests a natural affinity between anarchism and feminism at the risk of obscuring the persistent affinity between anarchism and heteropatriarchy. This excellent point can aid sexual/gender violence accountability measures enacted in contemporary anarchist spaces. In other words, being an anarchist doesn’t mean you are automatically anti-sexist. No “natural affinities” exist that shield anarchists from heteropatriarchy’s relations of ruling. Likewise, feminist and anti-racist commitments are ideological, not innate tendencies latent within anarchism. To assume they are would be like saying Marxism is automatically anti-racist and feminist: that’s just not how it is.

The idea that feminism should learn from anarchism and vice versa constitutes Warburton’s final approach: the “exchange approach.” This is described as a two-way street where a synthesis of anarchism and feminism can be reached. Warburton states this approach is positively inspired by feminist of color activism, like INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence organization and Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectional (gender, race, and class) analysis. Yet, it is feminist of color activism that challenges anarchism’s relevance in the formation of current politics.

While anti-racist/anti-colonial activism exhibits anarchist principles, like anti-statist mutual aid, Warburton argues these activists have “come to critiques of the state and capitalism… through different genealogies than anarchists.” In making this point about potentially different genealogies, we must be careful not to erase anarchists of color’s historic and current contributions. That said, Warburton’s acknowledgement that various traditions and contexts shape anti-statist/anti-capitalist views expresses important solidarity with non-anarchist struggles.

Other essays in the issue affirm intersectionality theory’s widespread influence; this awareness is gleaned from women of color’s experiences, knowledge production, and political resistance. Matrix of domination, interlocking oppressions, a tangled knot, and Indigenist intersectionality are all related concepts mentioned in Perspectives. In fact, “intersectionality” and its related concepts is the “coherent thread” connecting the Perspectives issue’s essays– upholding anarchism’s longstanding principled opposition to all forms of domination. But transforming the material conditions of oppression and exploitation is the goal here, not simply changing how we talk about it.

Oppressive conditions grow greater and more challenging than our rhetoric can ever capture. This summer will be remembered for some very serious events from Orlando’s Pulse nightclub massacre to the ongoing routine murders of Black and Brown people at the hands of police, to the murders of five police officers in Dallas, Texas and three in Baton Rouge, Louisiana… How can the noblest intention to inclusively connect all the dots and represent women of color’s experiences, via intersectional analysis and similar approaches, develop the kind of political resistance that would threaten the status quo of systemically murderous police officers?

It is not surprising to see intersectionality/interlocking oppression/tangled knot type concepts valorized throughout Perspectives. This decades-old concept offers an accessible and inclusive framework for many grappling with power’s multi-faceted effects — including routinized death at the hands of police. At minimum, intersectionality represents an important spirit of inclusion, originating from the erasure of women of color in social theory and movements. But, like other widely disseminated terms — such as Marxism’s “proletariat” — it can lose its effectiveness and become another loose political phrase tossed around out of habit (all good intentions notwithstanding).

Another limit to mention here is when intersectionality is adapted as a political practice it implies an achievable state of a pure political existence that is, in fact, illusory. In “Breaking the Waves: Challenging the Liberal Tendency Within Anarchist Feminism,” Akemi and Busk analyze links between prefigurative efforts to “be intersectional” and what I am calling, for our purposes here, liberal authoritarianism. They write: “…pure prefiguration has grown into a collective practice of hyper-vigilance in which callout culture has emerged as a new power structure” (p.114). The authors agree with prefiguration as a practice, they simply warn against “the interpretation of prefiguration as a state of fixed purity instead of an ideal we are always in the process of realizing” (p. 114).

Intersectional prefiguration more accurately reflects lived material conditions, but Akemi and Busk warn how these ideas cohere with practices — like “symbolic action and online debate” — to erase the material conditions of working class communities. In the old days, someone might suggest that intersectional prefiguration is symptomatic of a bourgeois decadence. It’s not this simple, but politically there’s nothing but our own desires keeping the inclusive intersectional spirit from total absorption by liberalism and liberal feminism. Inclusion of marginalized voices is not inherently anti-capitalist unless we make it that way. In fact, the term “intersectionality” does little but assert that multiple oppressions exist and are connected. But the term does not guarantee an anti-capitalist remedy for solving the problem of oppression.

There are some general notions about how best to describe multiple oppressions, and Hillary Lazar discusses this in her Perspectives essay “Until All Are Free: Black Feminism, Anarchism, and Interlocking Oppression.” Lazar criticizes the “additive” model of intersectionality– which almost depicts oppression as happening in a systematized layering process (like a 3D printing machine building an object). Instead, Lazar favors an “interpretation of oppression” that has a more “slippery and dynamic relationship.” Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa’s “theory in the flesh” and Maria Lugones’ “curdling” are mentioned here as alternatives to intersectionality (p. 37).  What will really make the intersectional spirit effective is directly relating various identity-based categories (gender, sexuality, race/ethnicity, national identity, religion, age, ability, etc.)to revolutionary anti-capitalist politics. How to relate identity-based oppression to capitalist exploitation becomes the issue here.

Considering the variety of identity-based oppressions that intersect with each other and the economy, we return to the centrality of fighting capitalism. This is not to make anti-capitalism the only game in town in a crass Marxist argument, but to suggest it is the deal breaker — the great political divider within identity-based movements. As Hillary Clinton’s ruthless campaign for next Imperial President reminds us, capitalism has long divided any imagined feminist community along lines involving who starves and who doesn’t; who is housed and who isn’t; who has health care and who doesn’t; who goes to college and who goes to prison. I call her brand of feminism “money feminism,” which traces back to the liberal wing of the women’s liberation movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. (By the way, the best history of this movement is Alice Echols’ Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975.)

The need for militant anti-capitalist labor/community organizing is urgent– as the events of this past month alone attest to. Describing police violence as a capitalist containment strategy for “dispensable” populations, for example, provides both crucial solidarity and an alternative to a framework that keeps people focused on denouncing one sensationalized “death porn” media event after another.

It’s always a struggle, and Perspectives’ clear intention is to build anti-capitalist resistance. The intersectional ideas expressed in its pages have very different goals than the now popular mass media acknowledgement of “gender, race, and class” that even Hillary Clinton has mentioned. Why isn’t Clinton threatened by intersectionality rhetoric? Because, devoid of explicitly linking oppression to capitalist profit motives, the idea suggests that “Oops! Some of you have been forgotten, but Democrats are going to include all of you this time!” For neoliberal feminists like Clinton, intersectionality helps perpetuate the Democratic promise of social inclusion in an imperfect, but always reform-able, capitalist economy.

Great ideological and class divisions loom large behind the widespread circulation of the intersectionality concept. (And this is to suggest that even when activists claim they are anti-capitalist, their practices may imply otherwise.) Given this widespread use of a popular term that can favor liberal over radical applications, intersectional/interlocking oppression analysis offers anarcha-feminist theorizing new challenges.

One reason I turned to socialist feminist theory over two decades ago was my desire to centralize anti-racist/anti-colonial theory in a revolutionary feminist theoretical framework. I was heavily influenced by Angela Davis’ Women, Race, and Class (1981), and I also realized that the Combahee River Collective Statement, credited with coining the term “identity politics” or organizing around your own oppression, was a socialist feminist-inspired project. Later, the “systems debate” about single (“Capitalist Patriarchy”) dual (“Capitalism and Patriarchy”) and multiple systems (“Capitalism, Patriarchy, and White Supremacy”), captured in Lydia Sargent (edited) Women and Revolution: The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism (1981) explored capitalism’s relationship to white supremacy and heteropatriarchy. This discussion is still alive today (with “heteropatriarchy” frequently and suspiciously dropping off that short list of oppressive systems in both anarchist and socialist circles), and socialist feminists have made some of the best contributions to the “systems debate” in the North American/U.S. context.

U.S. socialist feminists have a stronger historical affinity with intersectionality-style frameworks than anarcha-feminists, and Perspectives’ authors acknowledge some of these socialist feminist contributions. This is a positive step in the direction of building, instead of burning, bridges among various revolutionary feminisms. Instead of focusing on what is distinctively anarchist, Perspectives promotes its own inclusive anti-capitalism, finding commonalities instead of finding differences with like-minded people.

Paradoxically, while an anarchist preoccupation with ideological separation from other anti-capitalist orientations, and the left, usually has me irritated, here I find myself wishing that Perspectives contributed more regarding one specific and distinctly anarchist topic: insurrectionism and tactical violence.  Perhaps the topic remains under-explored in Perspectives due to the controversial, seemingly conservative, implications of critically engaging the topic–as if you aren’t a real anarchist if you question political violence. But it is my contention here that anarcha-feminism can’t avoid the topic of violence. While many Perspectives authors acknowledge sexism and sexual/gender violence exist within anarchist scenes, no author explicitly interrogates links between this sexist violence and anarchism’s  general “smashiness.” Meanwhile, constant exhortations to “abolish/ smash the police state” are expressed in the streets and in social media posts, rendering smashiness a popular ethos outside official anarchist circles… There are lots of people talking about alternatives to policing these days.

Warburton’s essay comes closest to addressing this issue. Her essay’s conclusion inquires about “how violence is rooted and reinforced using radical principles” in anarchist spaces. But Warburton doesn’t answer the crucial question she poses, instead positing that we should first “vulnerably” mourn anarchism’s limits and then undertake an “architectural rebuilding” to “create a new foundational structure from which to develop the discussion itself” (p.76). The discussion she refers to would be based on this question: “How does anarchism root and reinforce sexist violence using radical principles?”

As a committed non-pacifist, I am suggesting that any “architectural rebuilding” requires rethinking popular anarchist approaches and aesthetics as they shape political subjects. While real tactical physical resistance against the state is a constant, a superficial and macho romanticization of anti-state violence could attract, bolster, and reward movement men who already have a disposition toward violent interpersonal expression. Put another way, can “streetfighter man” leave his militant disposition at the doors of his non-smashy meeting and domestic spaces? (I know there are plenty of street fighter women, but can anyone sincerely suggest there is nothing to examine here from a gender/feminist perspective?) If anarcha-feminism is now adapting anti-racist feminist ideas, a serious engagement with questions of violence should accompany this process. After all, it’s communities of color who experience the highest levels of violence and are developing the most militant responses to this violence– whether explicitly anarchist or not.

No one wants weak anarcha-feminisms that celebrates seemingly safer aspects of intersectionality theory and feminist of color community activism while ignoring the urgent gender and race-related issues of  police violence and community resistance– including insurrectionist/“violent” tactical responses to murderous cops. There’s a notable difference even between an (albeit awkward) calculated/ formalized solidarity (from which the dead on arrival term “accomplice” arises) and anon-committal self-serving adventurism. I am suggesting anarchism can do better to distinguish the two, ultimately forming relationships that lead to less awkwardly formal approaches in the long run. At minimum, calculated solidarity in insurrectionary moments requires a self/other awareness that anarcha-feminism can develop. It can help people interrogate the foundations of a political tendency consistently recognized (and sometimes unfairly stereotyped) for its insurrectionist contributions. It can also encourage more understanding of and relationships to anti-police “violence” that is not explicitly anarchist.

Sure, there’s more to anarchism than insurrectionism (like anti-hierarchy, anti-statism, and direct democracy), but it is intimately related to this moment’s need for real militant solidarity. Anarchism can make unique contributions in today’s political climate. But until it grows more aware of its own orientations toward tactical and personal violences, it will further stagnate within its own contradictions. Let’s avoid the mistake of simply gaining theoretical/political inspiration and information from communities most affected by violence without having the self-reflective dialogues leading to real tactical support, and less smashy posturing, for communities most impacted by murdering cops and immiserating economic practices.

Especially in these post-Ferguson uprising days, many anarchists support Panther-style community-based self defense. It may seem like an inappropriate time to address this, but (pseudo) militant macho posturing can really hurt political scenes and obscure the complex, and very real, relationships many have toward (planned, unplanned, kinda planned, sorta planned, spontaneous as all hell) “violent” resistance. In the wake of new anti-policing activism, this is a good time to discuss how collective approval of and commitment to militant or positive violence against the state can still produce negative violence in organizations and interpersonal relationships. We can interrogate how militant anarchist dispositions shape movement spaces, and awkwardly co-exist with peaceful appeals for prefigurative revolutionary relationships, without sacrificing self defense as a tactic. Can’t we?

Overall, this issue of Perspectives reflects how theory relates to evolving political resistance, in the anarcha-feminist context, and it returns me to the conclusion I made about U.S. feminism’s (unhappy marital) relationship to Marxist theory sixteen years ago in my doctoral dissertation on the subject. Today, open relationships with anarchist and Marxist/ socialist theories can benefit feminism. Like any open relationship, feminism should see anarchism and Marxism/socialism regularly, but not exclusively.

Suppose all those serious about smashing capitalism and its parallel police state connected more across our various ideological dividing lines, without surrendering our unique attachments to those ideologies, and our visceral identifications with various identity-based liberation struggles. This may result in new, less defensive, ideological intersections, with the best of communist, socialist, and anarchist ideas working together to get the job done– once and for all. 

You can pick up this copy of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory from AK Press here!

Michelle Renee Matisons, Ph.D. can be reached at michrenee@gmail.com.

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