Don’t Mourn Your Privilege, Use Your Power!

You can’t do a thing unless you have the capacity to do that thing.  It’s  a fact.  A tautology.

It sits uncomfortably with another fact, one that many people are recognizing these days, some for the first time:  the fact that, within the confines of a class-divided society built on slavery, white supremacy, and sexist domination, the capacity to act is not distributed equally.  Far from it.

These two facts are facts. There is no getting around them without being a fool or else some kind of free market fascist.  And yet they don’t fit together without friction:

How can we take action in the name of universal dignity and equality for all when we know that so many many others are presently denied both, to the point that they are not free (or may not feel themselves free) to take part in the action at hand?  Are we hypocrites for acting in ways that others cannot?  Are our egalitarian principles thereby compromised?  And so on…

Yet moralizing or beating ourselves or others up about the fact that these facts don’t comfortably fit is not particularly helpful either.

I’ve been excited in recent weeks to see so many people I know stepping into serious political protest for the first (or second!) time in their lives, in the wake of Trump’s election, and in response to overt attacks on so many values and so many people that we hold dear.  I am daily inspired!

But I am also pained at times by the wrangling I see many of these sisters and brothers going through, as they beat themselves and others up with the question:  Is this latest protest action–such as tomorrow’s “Day Without a Woman” national strike–an exercise of “privilege”?  Is this action something that people should denounce or distance themselves from rather than unite with and build?  Is our most radical protest only going to do more harm than good, colored as it may be by our “privilege”?

But as I see it, these ‘theoretical’ questions should be recast as *practical* ones.

The more practical and pressing questions, it seems to me, go something like this:

How can the forces of equality and liberation organize and mobilize in such a way as to increase the capacities of this social movement as a whole, including the capacities of those who don’t yet have (or who don’t *know* or *feel* that they have) that capacity to participate fully at the moment (either for circumstantial reasons or subjective ones).

How can the present movement for liberation be radicalized, so that it aims at not just increasing the power and freedom of a few, but of ALL?

In other words: if we are using the terms of “privilege,” the question is not whether or not an action depends on having privilege–of COURSE it does, without a certain capacity to act, no act is possible!–but rather a different one:

How can we use whatever privilege–or better yet, capacity,  or better yet, POWER–that we’ve got in a way that increases the power of the movement for liberation and equality in general, not only by claiming present gains for ourselves, but by challenging, delegitimizing, and helping to defeat those political forces whose stated and unstated aim is to silence, punish, and suppress the most oppressed among us.

Let us throw all the force we can find into removing the boot from our oppressed brother or sister’s throat.  The task of liberation centrally requires unleashing the voice of those who are themselves most oppressed or fearful or otherwise silenced to the point of not being (or not feeling) able to turn out for the action of the moment.

But at the present stage, it also includes rallying and mobilizing and inspiring and sharpening the consciousness and determination of those who are *not* the most oppressed among us, those who presently *are* able to be active.

The next questions might then be:

How can we engage with these emerging activists in a way that helps influence the trajectory of their politics in the best possible way?

How can we create the conditions that can best enable those presently excluded to take up the struggle in the next round?

How can we help link up these “privileged” actors with the struggles that are *already* underway in our most oppressed communities–after all resistance to oppression may not  always be occurring where it can easily be seen, but we can be damn sure that the struggle among the oppressed is always already ongoing.

From here the next practical question might be:  How can our present mobilization–be it a protest, a speak-out, a march, or a strike–best orient so as link up with those efforts already ongoing among the oppressed, so as to offer them aid, offer them inspiration, provide them support and cover, and otherwise contribute to their own self-liberation?

Finally then, in the present context, in the wee hours of the start of International Women’s Day:  Can we imagine a form of collective action that would better provide the oppressed and the fearful space and cover to step forward  and speak out and assert themselves then to have millions of their sisters and brothers–relatively more “privileged” though some of them may be–to be standing up, marching, striking in the name of defeating the political enemies that stand over them, boots on their necks?

Even better:  to have such a massive strike action coupled with conscious efforts to make the next round of mobilization even more powerful, more inclusive, more radical and emancipatory for all?

I hope ten million sisters and brothers and friends strike today.  Or if not tomorrow, then next time.  (May 1st, anyone?)

Joseph G. Ramsey is an activist and writer living in Boston. He is a contributing editor at Red Wedge, a co-editor at Cultural Logic: an electronic journal of Marxist theory and practice, and a contributing board member at Socialism and Democracy.

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