On Strike Critiques and Beating All Meaning Out of the Word “Privilege”

(Image: Aaron Cynic)

Today I am joining the #womensstrike. I have seen a lot of talk lately about how choosing to join the strike is a privileged decision. In my case, that’s true. I will not be penalized for missing a day’s work, because my publication’s leadership chose to support those who wanted to join the strike. To make a long story short, my workplace would not have the character that informed the decision to support us if our publication had not unionized in 2009. Truthout was actually the first online-only publication to unionize, and even though I didn’t work there at the time, I have always felt a bit of pride around that.

But to get back to privilege: Activism is expensive, and committed people give what they can. When I was only bringing in my intern’s stipend from Truthout, while also organizing full-time, losing any amount of pay would have been injurious, to say the least. But I still spent way too much money than I could afford to on activism, as many of us do. Now, as a full staff member, I worry less about my finances, and I have more flexibility in running off to do movement work. I also have access to insurance through my job. I’m a union member, which means I have some rights that everyone ought to have. A lot of people like me, who won’t endure any punitive impact for participating today, will do so, and will do what they can to advocate for women. Many others will be taking a legitimate risk or financial hit to participate.

I’m in favor of accessibility in our work, but if we are critiquing people for withholding their labor, we are straight up off the rails.

Is the #womensstrike an effective maneuver? That’s an entirely separate debate, but I would argue that if it builds solidarity and people continue to learn new lessons about organizing, then it will be a victory. If it makes a cultural impact, in terms of a rising resistance, it will be a victory. If it inches people a little closer to radicalization, that’s a victory.

I can’t tell you with certainty what will create the necessary momentum to defeat fascism, but I can tell you what won’t: a circular firing squad of movement critics.

Entering awkward and mismatched organizing situations is part of the work. And to be clear, I know there are many people who will be participating today whose politics will never align with mine. I am willing to negotiate with that, to varying extents, to mitigate the catastrophes ahead. My conscience is demanding as much, even as I, at times, continue to struggle with such tasks.

Could this or any project not pan out as hoped? Of course. That’s always possible. When you stop thinking such things are possible, you’re probably on your way to a colossal fuck up. And let’s remember, no one ever won anything without trying.

Remember, none of us are movement managers. We are organizers, whose work is building community, culture and action around the possibility of a different way of life. This does involve social critique, but it also involves a different immediate intention than that of a culture critic.

If you do critique, realize, from jump, that you may be underestimating the work itself or the complexity of the situation. How many times have you been involved with something that had all sorts of angles — stories that deserved to be understood in their own right? This is definitely the case with the #womensstrike, an issue that has been well addressed by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.

But let’s assume for a moment that you’re in a situation where you’re dead right about someone’s tactic or strategy being flawed. You are still not a mass movement manager. Because your work is in front of you, and your power and creativity are needed front and center. You simply cannot micromanage a mass movement. Because if it’s small enough for you to keep the whole of it consistent with your politics, in this political climate, it’s too small.

So what can we do to work our way out of our silos?

First, we have to get over our startle responses to people not doing everything as we would do it. All of us. This is about obstructing what could be the swift end of the world, and what will, at the very least, claim many lives through neglect and abuse in the United States, and through militant violence, climate change and willful deprivation elsewhere. I could argue that privilege is flexing critique all day, and describing the water while people are drowning, but I won’t, because at this point, I have come to agree with Mariame Kaba about the utility of the word “privilege.” When a word means everything, it means nothing, and when “privilege” means that going on strike is a crime against those who can’t, I’m not sure I have any further use for it.

Of course, none of this even begins to address how out of touch with history these critiques are. I wonder if these people would have condemned the strikes and boycotts of the last century — actions that are well celebrated in the history books and in movement spaces today, despite the fact that they centered the participation of those who could enact a particular tactic. I wonder if these people have even read such histories, including the history of International Women’s Day. Do the people launching angry think pieces about the strike understand that this day is rooted in a labor strike? If not, I recommend checking out Zoé Samudzi’s thoughts on the subject, but don’t expect the indulgence of any followup questions, because Samudzi has opted to join today’s strike by refraining from unpaid intellectual labor.

Yes, that’s right, there are ways to become involved with today’s strike without skipping a day of paid work. The idea that gendered work is uncompensated in many forms is one that is being addressed today by numerous participants. If you didn’t know that, there is probably also a spectrum of politics involved with this strike event that you may be unaware of (hint: it’s not just about the people who planned the Women’s March).

Can we spend more time exploring and learning than we do critiquing? Because the left is the only land I know of where people actually think that picking apart every emerging project will somehow lead to the emergence of an adequate project.

Ask yourself, what are you building? What are you healing? The vast majority of the time, if you can’t answer that question, you are misdirecting your energies.

An escalated culture of fugitive capture, and brutality, has emerged around immigrants. Police departments around the country, already rampant with abuse, have been given a hall pass to commit heinous acts of violence. Life-sustaining health care is being replaced with the expectation that workers save up to become catastrophically ill. The water of Black and Native communities is disproportionately tainted — and let’s just think about the fact that the word “disproportionate” is a necessary qualifier when discussing poisoned water in a country with as much wealth as the United States.

People are going to die because of Trump. Maybe millions of people. It’s springtime for fascism and the “resistance” is currently comprised of a bunch of leftists reenacting the last scene of Reservoir Dogs.

If we have any hope of halting Trumpism in its tracks, or even dulling its impacts, we as leftists will have to do the unthinkable: work in concert, despite our differences, and quarrel with the enemy more than we quarrel with each other.