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From Theory to Practice: Reflections on LeftRoots’ Feminist Articulation

Notes on the Road
to 21st Century Socialism

Issue 2, March 2020

From Theory to Practice: Reflections on LeftRoots’ Feminist Articulation

Introduction

This is a response to “Gender Oppressions and Revolutionary Strategy” by the Unicorn Collective.

My relationship to this dialogue is that I helped start LeftRoots and formulated some of the feminist elements of its foundations, based on my own practice in grassroots organizing over the last two decades in Black and Latinamerican working class organizing in the San Francisco Bay Area, in international grassroots work, and drawing from my political training through various Marxist experiments that I have been part of.

And, to be real, my relationship to Feminism is also very personal – based on my own experiences of patriarchal violence growing up working class Catholic in Buenos Aires, Argentina and then coming of age in East Los Angeles, and on my experiences of feminist solidarity, as I came out as a queer femme within the context of the people of color Left in the Bay Area in the 1990s.

In LeftRoots I served on the team of cadres that was elected by the organization to draft “We Believe that we Can Win” as a first strategy document for organizational discussion. During that writing process, in the last meeting regarding the draft “We Believe…” document, I distinctly remember saying that our Feminist analysis was insufficient – both from a systemic and historical perspective, and from the perspective of our current conjuncture. Despite my desires to keep developing “We Believe…”  further, it was time to put it out into the organization and see where the ideas and the practice of writing about strategic orientation could go. I worked to let go of what I felt was my own imperfection, and my sense of responsibility given my own identification with Women of Color Feminism. I reminded myself that everything we do is incomplete and imperfect, and that this was the beginning of something, not the conclusion. I think the thoughtful, precise historical analysis that the Unicorn Collective has laid out is a much needed and grounding contribution.

Building on the excellent historical analysis that the Unicorn comrades provided, I want to offer a perspective on our organizational moment regarding the question of Feminist theory and practice.

Theorize or Strategize?

LeftRoots has a strong basis of unity on the importance of waging the struggle against patriarchy in order to win a socialist future. And, like the rest of the social movements we are part of, our Feminist articulation is a work in progress – nascent, contradictory, evolving.

The critique of patriarchy is by no means a finished project. If anything, most conversations about gender justice and feminism often reveal a weak foundation when it comes to our movement’s understanding of patriarchy itself. Part of the usefulness of a critique is that it can help unify our forces. Given how much white supremacy, compulsory heterosexuality, transphobia and liberalism have divided and weakened Feminism, an expansive and systemic critique of patriarchy is a practical necessity for aggregating our power. A critique of patriarchy as a system builds a broad and intersectional view and has the potential to unify us across sectors and perspectives. A systemic view of patriarchy makes it clear that no one sector of people impacted by the system will alone be able to overthrow it.

This is the definition of patriarchy we used in creating the US Chapter of the World March of Women, and the Feminist Organizing School:

  1. Patriarchy is the structural domination of women based on the super exploitation of women, designated as property, enforced by the state.
  2. Patriarchy structures human relationships as familial, through which the head of the “family,” designated as father, owns his wife, his and her offspring, property, livestock, servants, serfs, and slaves.
  3. Patriarchy precedes capitalism, and shapes society as a whole. It is the framework for the domination & oppression of homosexual, queer, and transgender and gender-non-conforming people, and for the stunted development of men. Together with the exploitation of colonies/oppressed nations, and nature, it is the basis of capitalist accumulation.

We had to lay out our critique right away, we found, so that people knew that we were not trying to advance liberal, white, or transgender-exclusionary Feminism. In order to bring people into the conversation, we had to disassociate ourselves from narrow and divisive versions of Feminism that people associate with the word. In a way, our organization is figuring that out, too.

For too long, the main exposure people have had to Feminism is what they learned in college. As the mass movement slowed, in the 90s when I was in college, the academy became a place for the Feminist movement to debate movement history of the 70s and 80s. Our teachers fought it out with each other about what happened to the Feminist upsurge of their generation. We were taught the culture of critique – how to break things down, how to deconstruct an idea or set of ideas. I learned about how white women used their power to betray the cause instead of strengthening it, and how racism destroyed the movement. A whole generation of us came out of college with a long list of what not to do, and very little training about what to do. It only got worse as postmodernism took hold of academia (more on that later).

If most of us learned feminism as a form of critique, how can we re-orient, as organizers, towards what we want to do in the world? How can we orient our work towards building the power needed to win the feminist demands that are core to our vision of socialism?

This dynamic presents a challenge for us. If most of us learned feminism as a form of critique, how can we re-orient, as organizers, towards what we want to do in the world? How can we orient our work towards building the power needed to win the feminist demands that are core to our vision of socialism?

I think it’s key for us to move from theorizing to strategizing, and that LeftRoots has a key role to play in making that transition possible in our movement. There are several components of a strategic orientation regarding gender that I think could help us do this.

Components of a Strategic Orientation

1. Shed our opposition’s Theory of Power

There’s a post-modern way of understanding power that says essentially that any place where power is negotiated is equally important (a pedestrian crossing, the supreme court, an interpersonal interaction, your sense of your own identity). The idea that power is all around us and often not immediately visible is useful, particularly for those of us with a systemic perspective that recognizes that the deep structural changes needed require looking at often invisible aspects of our life such as the economy. But the idea that all negotiations of power are equally important is an anti-strategy perspective that prevents us from forming a strategy to make systemic change. This relativist theory of power is reinforced by the neoliberal new age self-help ideology that encourages people to disengage from the power they have to change the structures that cause their suffering, and instead figure out how to adjust to those structures, and/or find a way for their unique individuality to be reflected in those structures.

While it can be a very useful individual coping mechanism to focus on influencing what you have control over, if we did that as strategists, we would shrink our vision down to the scale at which we currently have power, instead of building the power necessary to change things at the scale that matches our vision.

…too often, thanks to the influence of right wing and neoliberal ideology in academia – we fetishize our marginalization, as if marginalization itself was a source of power. As if the fragmentation of our movement was something to be defended and celebrated. We wage the endless struggle to determine who is the most oppressed, only to come out of that process having a harder time building the kind of power and solidarity it would take to change the source of that oppression.

The post-modern theory of power is strong within our social movements. It also shows up in the ways we see and approach marginalization. We have learned to recognize that we have been marginalized, and that can be an eye-opening realization. But, too often, thanks to the influence of right wing and neoliberal ideology in academia – we fetishize our marginalization, as if marginalization itself was a source of power. As if the fragmentation of our movement was something to be defended and celebrated. We wage the endless struggle to determine who is the most oppressed, only to come out of that process having a harder time building the kind of power and solidarity it would take to change the source of that oppression.

A narrow view of power prevents us from forming new solidarities, and from building the scale and depth of power needed to advance an agenda that combines recognition, representation, and redistribution.

2. Recognition, Representation and Redistribution

Nancy Fraser, a US feminist academic, noted how the institutions of academia pushed the feminist struggle towards focusing on questions of recognition and representation (which are essential and important), and away from focusing on questions of redistribution (which are transformational and structural). As organizers, this dialectic is important for us to pay attention to. The dynamic tension between representation and redistribution plays out in our movements, today.

It is important to recognize that patriarchy has imposed an impossible and de-humanizing amount of work on women and that people work incredibly hard at caretaking work which is essential to our society. Having more women and gender-oppressed people from oppressed communities in positions of economic and political power is important. But recognition and representation by themselves are insufficient to change the structural dynamics at play.

Even within our movement most of the interventions we make tend to be about recognition and representation – the visibility of women of color and gender oppressed leaders, the appropriate use of gender pronouns, the inclusion of a phrase or concept in a document, appreciation for care work that makes movement meetings possible. These interventions represent an advance in our feminist practice, and by themselves they are insufficient to win the scale of change we need to address patriarchy as a system. We are struggling to articulate a feminist agenda of redistribution – concrete ways to reduce the burden on women and those doing “women’s work,” at the scale of society as a whole, a state whose resources and infrastructure support the freedom to inhabit the full spectrum of gender without the threat of violence, the possibility of a social division of labor that isn’t based on exploitation.

Even within our movement most of the interventions we make tend to be about recognition and representation – the visibility of women of color and gender oppressed leaders, the appropriate use of gender pronouns, the inclusion of a phrase or concept in a document, appreciation for care work that makes movement meetings possible. These interventions represent an advance in our feminist practice, and by themselves they are insufficient to win the scale of change we need to address patriarchy as a system. We are struggling to articulate a feminist agenda of redistribution – concrete ways to reduce the burden on women and those doing “women’s work,” at the scale of society as a whole, a state whose resources and infrastructure support the freedom to inhabit the full spectrum of gender without the threat of violence, the possibility of a social division of labor that isn’t based on exploitation.

There are examples of campaigns LeftRoots comrades are building that move in the direction of a broader strategy. Campaigns for government subsidized childcare, Medicare for All, well-funded public schools – these are battles for a redistribution of society’s resources that have a feminist underpinning. Care work, health, and education are all aspects of what is traditionally considered “women’s work” (“social reproduction,” to use the Marxist term that refers to all the often invisible labor that goes into reproducing the working class so that workers show up to work each day). The devaluing of that work stems from the ideology of patriarchy, which claims that care work is natural for women (i.e. half or more of our society) and therefore free. In this context, if care work is paid at all, it’s not worth much – because alternately, it is free. Patriarchy is one hell of a strikebreaker. People of all genders who do this kind of work – nurses, teachers, childcare professionals – experience the conditions that patriarchy has created and have a vested interest in ending it.

This dynamic also shapes the neoliberal state. Corporate interests – neoliberal and right wing – are shrinking the aspect of government that can play a redistributive function and allocate money and people towards childcare, Medicare for All, funding for public schools. Meanwhile, there is seemingly no end to the resources available for the aspect of the state that plays a repressive role – police, prisons, military spending and wars.

In my community, most of us are hustling to win Schools and Communities First (SCF), a ballot initiative which seeks to redistribute California’s money towards public schools and local communities. SCF is part of a decadeslong campaign led by grassroots organizations of people of color that began in the 90s to address the Republican tax structure imposed in 1978. It advances the interests of women and gender-oppressed people when it argues that the state should be used to redistribute money from the rich to the rest of us, funding public schools.

The last few years have been marked by wildcat teacher strikes, where community organization demands and union demands were fused together, in an approach the growing left in the labor movement calls “bargaining for the common good” (as opposed to just bargaining for your own wages as a teacher, for example). This is another example of a fight for redistribution.

Both of these examples also carry recognition and representation demands – SCF gives local communities more power over the allocation of money, creating new room for under-represented working class and immigrant communities to lead. Teacher strikes that bargain for the common good often include demands for racially equitable representation of parents on decision-making bodies. The fusion of recognition, representation and redistribution is a way to exercise an expansive and strategic approach to power.

As our movement grows able to articulate a program of demands that includes redistribution, we can build a more collective, more strategic intervention. We can build new solidarities.

And, in order to build these new solidarities, we have to take stock of the concrete context of the conditions within which we are working and living.

3. Assess the political juncture from the perspective of gender

We have not yet built a coherent understanding of the way patriarchy shapes the conditions we confront in our organizing every day, and the political and social terrain upon which our campaigns and struggles take place. Our movement needs to build a conjunctural analysis of gender, in order to begin to articulate a strategic orientation to the political moment that bridges the ideological and organizational aspects of our work.

Some of the other dynamics worth understanding, as the basis for organizing:

  • Right wing organizing at the international scale, recruiting men by speaking to their alienation stemming from the lack of economic power and changing gender norms;
  • Changing gender roles and family structures – most families are not composed of a married man and woman with children and a home they own, new levels of visibility of gender non-conforming people in our society and our movement;
  • The positioning of movements in defense of housing rights to address downward mobility from the left;
  • The strength of women of color and “women’s work” industries in the current labor movement;
  • The contestation for leadership over the LGBTQ movement, and the new space organizing-oriented people of color have to push towards an agenda of redistribution;
  • The dynamic tension between the unmet demands of women within the gender binary, and the breakthrough demands of gender non-conforming people;
  • The dynamic of displacement of work onto women and gender oppressed people who take up the burden of doing and organizing care work when the state fails to;
  • The particular form the above dynamic takes within the context of climate disasters;
  • The potential for re-alignment between community organizing and labor, particularly the sectors of labor who are organizing strikes and the sectors of community organizing that are reaching for scale through electoral work.

There is so much more. I share this incomplete and imperfect list in the hopes that it can be part of a broader conversation we keep advancing, together.

Conclusion

In order to build from theory to strategy, we need to make strategic shifts in our practice. If we can shed our opposition’s theory of power, we will be better equipped to build the power we need. If we help build an agenda that spans recognition, representation, and redistribution, we can help build new solidarities, and new alliances. If we can develop our own assessment of the political moment and correlation of forces, we will be more ready to formulate and carry out a strategy.

Our grounding in organizing work and in building a truly mass-based left prepares us to reach towards strategy in a real way. I’m hopeful that LeftRoots is a vehicle through which we can help the movement as a whole make these and other important strategic shifts. We are not bound to philanthropic institutions who we have to translate our ideas for, or try to win over. We are not under the pressure of academic institutions to come up with a new idea that destroys everyone else’s and sells books. We are under the pressure of our own longing to be free and whole. We are building an organization that counters the fragmentation and despair that surrounds us. We are accountable to our own vision of a socialist future.

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