Against Personal Politics

We’ve abandoned politics for consumption.

Image: Brooke Cagle

Once, as a way of summing up his feelings on Che Guevara, my college history professor warned, “All of you wearing Che T-shirts are the first ones he would put against the wall.” I assume he meant to criticize my classmates for their devotion to radical politics, but in retrospect it seems equally apt as a criticism that they were not devoted enough. And while I’m not fond of summary executions, that interpretation seems more to the point today, because the tendency to reduce politics to a matter of acquiring certain properties has only grown.

Since Shepard Fairey convinced a generation of activists to adopt Obama’s visage, designers and artists flock to create special-edition apparel for candidates and movements, and slogans are printed on anything that can be sold in an online store, both for profit and not. “The modern practice of feminist activism has become inextricably tied to what we buy and what we wear,” Leah Finnegan wrote in the perfectly titled “Nevertheless, She Bought a Shirt.” The same is true for racial justice, environmental justice, even economic justice.

Social justice campaigns are key facets of the world’s most rapacious brands, so of course corporations and capitalists would find ways to subsume politics to the market. There’s even a certain appealing logic to it: issues like climate change and white supremacy are so pernicious, so pervasive, that what else can you do but buy organic T-shirts, witty mugs, and flashy bumper stickers? Even critics of this most capitalist brand of activism tend to offer only a different, supposedly more authentic kind of consumption as the alternative. Don’t buy sloganed shirts at the mall, prove your conviction by purchasing them directly from marginalized communities! Subscribing to the New York Times isn’t true activism, buying a Safety Pin Box is!

Though of course we should welcome material benefit going to the oppressed, doing so through purely market-based methods means accepting the right-wing ur-narrative. If it really works, then justice really does come from entrepreneurship, and if only we got our branding right, we could have full communism tomorrow.

There’s always some asshole trying to profit from any worthwhile endeavor, and left-wing politics isn’t any different. If the problem ended there, we could have our mocking fun and move on. But even today’s most genuinely praiseworthy political movements fall into the same fallacies. They may not hock material goods, but only because they hock immaterial ones — knowledge of your privilege, your identity as an ally, some life-changing awakening. What else would you expect from the generation that champions “‘experiences’ over stuff?”

Take Standing Rock. In a report from the last days of the protest, Awl pal Jay Caspian Kang concluded: “Dissent can propagate quickly now, but it also means that every protest, however specific and physical in its conception, ultimately gets reduced down to a generic feeling.” It’s those feelings we increasingly cling to, in the way we might also cling to a branded, organic cotton throw. And because the protests did not stop the pipeline, “the historic legacy of what happened at Standing Rock,” as Kang said, “will have to be parceled out through small, personal victories.” Not, the implication goes, by stopping future pipelines.

The same thing happened at Occupy Wall Street: big claims about ending inequality morphed into reflections on what individuals learned, how they’ll remember it. The Women’s March was praised and condemned both for how individuals felt in its crowds, not whether it’d help a movement take power, as Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor has argued. The final measure is what experiences, memories, knowledge individuals acquired, and little more.

Of course, these things do matter. But if they are all that matters, then that douchebag in college who would only quote Das Kapital was more enlightened than you, and the corporate HR departments paying thousands for antiracism trainings organized by boutique consulting firms are the militants in a new world order. To state the obvious, that’s simply not true: self-satisfied proselytizing is a dead-end (and not just for its pedagogical failings), and your payroll rep isn’t the harbinger of an egalitarian utopia.

What’s missing in these views is everything outside of an atomized individual’s scope — structural inequalities, massive wealth discrepancies, the distribution of power — and any sense of whether we can change what we find there. This brand of personal politics can offer insight only into how individuals experience those structural problems, not into the construction of the problems themselves, and thus not into how we can overcome them. We’ve abandoned politics for consumption. We have a host of personal essays when what we need is one good, compelling manifesto.

That doesn’t mean we should echo those dudes on campus carrying Das Kapital who ramble on about how if only people had class consciousness. People went to Standing Rock and Occupy and Ferguson to address specific, widespread problems; we fall back on personal victories because we keep losing, and if any experience or idea was powerful enough to defeat the cops and their dogs and the rest of the Right’s tools, we wouldn’t be losing in the first place. And with Trump and his band of Disney-villain Republicans leading a blitzkrieg of regressive campaigns, we’re only going to keep losing unless we figure out a better strategy.

Ironically, Marx still has the most compelling answer, precisely because he insists class consciousness isn’t something individuals can develop on their own. All his talk of the proletariat as the agent that would overcome capitalism wasn’t because he thought the working class was somehow more oppressed, or more aware, or more intelligent than any other oppressed people. His point was a strategic one: what is important is that when the masses entered the factories, they were, for the first, time working side-by-side in one place with, well, the rest of the masses. There were lots of them working together, building relationships, and they were doing so in places they could use for leverage — stop the coal mine or the one train track running into a city in 1860 and you suddenly find yourself with a lot of power. It’s not that we should fetishize the proletariat, it’s that Marx’s logic was sound; we must find the places where we can turn existing relationships into sites of power. To stop commercializing politics, we must start politicizing daily life.

Today’s dilemmas are compounded by the fact that unions have been on the decline for decades, contract and remote work are further separating coworkers, and people are either locked out of work or forced to work longer hours. On top of that, schools are being resegregated, community programs are being defunded, and the public sphere in general is under attack, increasing the alienation and isolation of individuals, making it ever harder to form the kind of powerful collectives that offer a way forward. No wonder radical politics has often drifted into an activist subculture pining for a past protest, and no wonder civic engagement — like attending unthinkably long, boring city council meetings — is left to the rich and the ideologues.

But there are some creative, grassroots approaches to organizing that are rebuilding the kinds of community that can wield power. A number of municipalities around the world have responded to resurgent right-wing movements by forming “rebel cities.” They’re creating minimum-wage laws, antidiscrimination ordinances, and similar local legislation to support their citizens. But those cities could go further, taking a cue from the sewer socialists, who, back in the early 1900s, created publicly owned utilities, grocery stores, and more. Do that, and simply by living in the city you’re helping fund community endeavors. Add in experiments with public banking, new public housing, and expanded community programming, and these cities could spur a robust, integrated community that could form a base of power from which to grow.

Local politics can often devolve into politicking and influence peddling, especially when state laws prohibit cities from enacting any strong legislation, so new democratically run, cooperative, community-owned developments are key. Nowhere is that clearer than in Jackson, Mississippi, where Cooperation Jackson has been creating a network of worker-owned businesses. In these cases, political organizing is built in the fabric of the community: if your neighbors get their child care from a worker-owned cooperative in the neighborhood, backed by a community credit union, then child-care becomes an explicitly political issue that the co-op can leverage. The same is true for unions, as the Chicago Teachers Union showed when they went on strike in 2012, stopping life in the city and earning broad community support. The fact that Cooperation Jackson has used these projects to build a base for a movement that just won its second mayoral election is proof that these approaches can build power in traditional political arenas as well.

With Trump’s nativist corporate agenda looming, it’s also important to build underground networks to protect the most vulnerable, who are essential parts of our communities. That means organizing neighborhoods — especially gentrifying neighborhoods — to physically interrupt deportations and protect the undocumented, granting sanctuary in the short term and creating ways to recognize their residency legally in the long term. It means creating groups that can help women get safe abortions if Roe v Wade suffers a fatal blow, or in places where abortion is functionally outlawed thanks to TRAP laws and other right-wing legal tricks.

These approaches help bring a political register to the problems people are already living, where they’re being lived. It’s turning a lunch-time bitch-fest with your coworkers into a union meeting, providing some organization to help it grow and knitting individuals into collectives with power. It’s more essential than ever, because Trump reigns only if Thatcher still does, too: the only way a chintzy, billionaire real-estate developer could fashion himself as a populist revolt in the first place is if there is no alternative to capitalism. Resisting Trump without resisting Thatcher’s legacy leaves us with the meager comforts of new T-shirts, memorable experiences, and fragile identities. To win more than that, we must transform our already existing community bonds into the core of a political movement, whether through state-supported programs or — when voter suppression and gerrymandering prevent us — institutions we build ourselves.

Matt Hartman is a writer from Durham, North Carolina.