Combating the Reactionary Forces of Liberalism
One Hamilton Member, Two Toronto Members, Two Former Members
To be honest, this is not the article that we set out to write months ago. Our original intention was to take the three most potent reactionary tendencies that we see percolating under the surface of Canadian working-class culture: an emboldened, backward-looking misogyny, a domestically jingoistic nationalism intransigently opposed to anti-colonial struggle, and a supposedly enlightened secularism that only thinly conceals a deep seated racism – dissect them, and prescribe treatment. Relying on recent and more historical struggles against reaction and backwardness within our class, we intended to help light the way forward by contributing to a deeper understanding of what it is that we are up against, and how it is that we will defeat it. This did not come to pass.
Instead, what we have for you is less a treatment regimen for what ails the working class (and, by extension, the Left), and more of a diagnostic report of three salient examples of reactionary tendencies attacking its composition and consciousness: Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs), anti-Native sentiment, and Islamophobia. We intend to take up how to mount a counter-offensive in a later article. It is imperative that multiple counter-offensives target these three reactionary tendencies and “movements” and defeat them.
In taking on the work of better understanding the political underpinnings of our adversaries, it gradually became clear that we are not faced with the forces of reaction our political forebears struggled against. Further, in our colonial, North American state of affairs, we cannot uncritically adopt strategies and analysis from our anti-fascist contemporaries in Europe without recognizing major differences in historical and political context. Our enemies today are not the neo-fascist boogey men we make them out to be; they are liberals – through and through. Make no mistake, we are not claiming that this political alignment makes them less of a threat to the interests of the working class. In fact, they may present more of a threat, in that we (the Left) continue to misread them as we fail to mount an effective response. These reactionary currents destabilize the working class by attacking its more marginalized segments, opposing working-class interests and struggles, and shifting liberatory politics even further into the realm of the liberal.
In order to formulate a salient strategy of dealing with these threats, we need to first understand who and what it is that we are up against. We determined that we were unable to accomplish both of these tasks in a single article. Instead, we chose to put the horse before the cart, for a change. So, please, join us as we examine the reactionary forces of liberalism, and as you read, think on how best it is that we will extinguish them.
What are Reactionary Ideas? What are Reactionary Tendencies and Movements?
Reactionary ideas, broadly defined, are political beliefs that develop in response to social change and which seek a reversal of said change – usually in the form of a return to some idealized past. Often, reactionary ideas take root among socially dominant demographics (such as white men) in response to the struggles of oppressed or otherwise marginalized groups. More often than not, this phenomenon is associated with conservative, or right-wing political currents. This is, however, not always the case. For example, Stalinism and primitivism are two reactionary ideologies with roots in the Left.
In this article we speak mostly of reactionary tendencies. By this, we mean a loose collection of reactionary ideas, public forums, small organized groups, and other elements that have not yet coalesced into a full-scale reactionary movement. In this article, we describe working-class anti-Native sentiment, MRAs, and Islamophobia as tendencies, because they have not yet given rise to mass social movements to the extent that, for example, the US Christian Right or the global Wahhabist movement have. The difference between a tendency and a movement can be understood as the degree of organization, influence, and unity of purpose and action among the different reactionary forces present.
Reactionary tendencies are mass phenomena, engaging and mobilizing significant numbers of the working class. It is this fact, above all others, that makes them so dangerous; they present anarchists with the challenge of taking on a mass movement. Mass reactionary movements can be, and often are, led or directed by the ruling class. But they can also be autonomous from, and in direct conflict with the ruling class, forcing anarchists into what is sometimes described as a “three-way fight.”
What is at Stake?
Reactionary tendencies present a clear danger to anarchists, and a significant challenge to our ability to build class power. In a worst-case scenario, these tendencies could rapidly take on a mass movement character, forcing us into a three-way fight for which we are currently ill prepared. To be clear, this would be a fight which would take place on our streets, workplaces, and campuses, and our enemies would be made up of neighbours, co-workers and classmates. This is what it means to be in a three-way fight with the ruling class and a mass reactionary movement. Even if this scenario doesn’t come to pass, and today’s reactionary tendencies fail to crystallise into a mass movement (something which cannot be assumed), they nonetheless spread and reinforce divisions within the class – divisions that must be contended with if we are to build up working-class power.
Reactionary tendencies are currently on the rise across the globe. Some – such as far-right nationalist parties in Europe, the global Wahhabist movement, and the constellation of forces grouped under the Tea Party and Christian Right in the United States – have already established themselves as full-blown reactionary movements. Within this international context, we believe that the potential exists for the current cesspool of reactionary tendencies in Canada to consolidate, or otherwise develop into one or more mass reactionary movements. We feel it’s important to try and understand the dynamics driving this development, in order to help determine what role anarchist communists can play in the building of an effective response. We may already be in a race against time.
Anti-Native Reaction, Men’s Rights and Islamophobia: Reactionary Tendencies in Our Backyard
We’ve chosen these three festering reactionary tendencies because they appear to us as the most pressing at the moment. We readily acknowledge that other reactionary tendencies exist within the Canadian working class, and that the specific tendencies we are looking at here overlap with, and are part of broader systems of oppression such as white supremacy, imperialism/colonialism and hetero-patriarchy. But anti-Native reaction, MRAs and Islamophobia appear to us as to be the most dynamic, and the most likely sources (separately, or in combination) from which a reactionary social movement might emerge in our backyard, and so these are what we will be looking at.
I. Anti-Native Reaction: Unfinished Business
Anti-Native reaction, or hatred of Indigenous peoples is, of course, one of the founding pillars of the Canadian settler state. White supremacy – the ideology of the racial and cultural superiority of Europeans, historically manifested through genocide and colonialism – remains the dominant paradigm through which the Canadian working class views the country’s Indigenous population. The common racist tropes that have developed over four hundred years among settler farmers and workers are familiar to anyone who has ever had a conversation on the subject, and we do not need to restate them here. To this day, they continue to provide mass ideological justification for the colonial project of appropriating (or holding onto) and exploiting Indigenous lands, while pushing their inhabitants to the brink of cultural extinction.
But today, for the first time in decades, Indigenous resistance is reaching a scale and strength that is once again challenging the Canadian colonial project. This resistance is fueled by several concurrent factors: a powerful cultural revival especially among Indigenous youth (many being the first generation with some distance from the genocidal residential schools), the high growth rate of Indigenous populations (approaching fifty percent in Saskatchewan), a multiplication of militant land reclamations and defense actions, a growing re-establishment, or re-assertion of self-government by various means (for example the autonomous revival of the traditional Six Nations government) and to some extent, growing awareness and support among non-Indigenous people (especially among environmentalists and activists in general) for anti-colonial struggle. We don’t want to paint too rosy a picture; Indigenous revolutionaries and organizers face many challenges – not least of which being their own Indigenous colonial administrators, and petty bourgeois parasites. But the past decades have witnessed a steadily increasing pace of Indigenous self-organization and resistance, having reached a level that has not been seen for over a century. And all signs indicate that Idle No More was just one step in the growth and consolidation of this burgeoning movement.
At the same time, under the guidance of the Harper government, the Canadian ruling class is pursuing an accumulation strategy centred around an incredibly aggressive approach to resource extraction. This is epitomized by the Alberta tar sands, but the same process is taking place across the country. The Ontario and Québec governments’ plans to massively expand mining in their northern territories (known as the “Ring of Fire” and “Plan Nord” respectively), the ecologically devastating pipeline projects planned or in construction from the coast of British Columbia through to the Maritimes, and the increasingly aggressive maneuvering by the Canadian state to secure disputed Arctic territories for resource companies, are all part of this aggressive push by Canadian capital. All of this is happening within a context of growing Indigenous resistance, so it is not surprising that we are seeing an increasingly intense clash between the Canadian state and Indigenous peoples defending their lands and culture.
In a colonial nation such as Canada, the combination of an Indigenous cultural and political revival with an intensification of conflict between Indigenous peoples and the state is likely to generate a more aggressive, or active, anti-Native reaction among the non-Indigenous working class. We would argue that this is indeed what is already happening, and increasingly likely to happen.
By “more active,” we mean a reaction that goes beyond the “normal” levels of passive political support shown by the majority of working-class Canadians for the colonial project; something more than just morally supporting, or turning a blind eye to the colonial maneuvers of the Canadian state and capital from afar; something beyond simply partaking in the myriad everyday ways in which residents of a colonial state commit violence against a colonized people. What we mean is the growth of more emboldened anti-Native political sentiment, and the spread of organized groups who demand a more aggressive colonial project, and are willing to actualize this demand independent of, or even in spite of, the state. This is a generalization, but we might say that as Indigenous resistance continues to approach levels not seen since before the consolidation of the Canadian state, we may also be approaching a return of anti-Native forces that look more like the private settler-farmer militias of old than the bigoted passive voter, or online troll of today.
Does this seem too extreme a conclusion? We think not, and for a potential warning of things to come, we point to the so-called “Caledonia Crisis”: a wave of Indigenous resistance and non-Indigenous reaction that began in February 2006, in response to a housing development project, which was being constructed in flagrant disregard of an unresolved land claim. By October, over a thousand local residents were marching in the streets as part of a so-called “March for Freedom,” demanding swift state intervention. Playing the role of peaceful white victims, an anti-Native crusader from Richmond Hill named Gary McHale and his supporters in Caledonia focused their anger at the supposedly “Native-pandering” Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), and their apparent inability to enforce “law and order” in a town shaken by the spectre of Indigenous terrorism. Employing liberal rhetoric calling for “equal treatment by the law” and “equal rights,” McHale’s organizing in Caledonia was a direct reaction to the resistance undertaken by the Haudenosaunee people of the Six Nations on the Grand River against the continuing theft of their lands.
On April 20, 2006, about five months before the March for Freedom, one hundred OPP officers violently raided a land reclamation encampment at the Douglas Creek Estates, which was established as the central site of Six Nations struggle against the developers. In a fashion not quite resembling the police favouritism alleged by McHale and his supporters, officers descended on the site, violently attacking members of the encampment with pepper spray and tasers, and placing many under arrest. The resurgence of Six Nations struggle following these raids saw an escalation in tactics in the form of highway roadblocks, and a consistent determination from Six Nations resisters to defend lands under the threat of colonial theft. It is in this context that McHale and his supporters began to make the plea for heavier policing to bring “law and order” and “equality before the law” down upon the heads of defiant Six Nations residents.
Even before McHale entered the picture, local reactions to the Six Nations land defenders, while mixed, were channeled through the business-led Caledonian Citizens Alliance (CCA), which mobilized thousands of locals and neighbouring supporters to oppose the land reclamation. Seizing on these tensions, McHale, through his web-based project, Caledonia Wake-Up Call (CWUC), and his provincial organization, Canadian Advocates for Charter Equality (CANACE), joined up with other prominent reactionary figures in order to mobilize opposition against Six Nations struggles and the reclamation in Caledonia. This wave of anti-Native organizing crested in July of 2009, with the formation of the Caledonia Militia (later re-branded as the Caledonia Peacekeepers), which prides itself on performing citizen’s arrests on Six Nations land defenders. Employing a discourse that merges the racist paranoia of the War on Terror, colonial depictions of the “savage Indian,” and liberal claims of white victimhood under a “two-tier justice system” that discriminates against non-Indigenous Canadians, McHale and his counterparts managed to gain a following that is worth serious attention. The fact that, in 2008, McHale tied for votes with a candidate from the New Democratic Party (NDP) when running as an independent candidate in the Haldimand-Norfolk region is further indication of the significant local support for his anti-Native political line. The implication for us, as revolutionaries, is that there is a real potential for the anti-Native reactionary tendency in our class to develop into a mass anti-Indigenous reactionary movement as the clash between Indigenous resistance and the Canadian state heats up.
What is at Stake?
The (re)emergence of a mass social movement anchored around anti-Native reaction would increase working-class support for the more brutal and violent aspects of colonialism, for more state repression of Indigenous, anarchist and other anti-capitalist resistance (happening before our eyes with Bill C-51), and for a more aggressive, ecologically destructive resource extraction accumulation strategy. On the other hand, if anti-Native tendencies can be countered, and support for Indigenous resistance increased among the working class, this will make it harder for the state to crack down, thereby providing more room for the anti-colonial, and ecological struggles to grow. As anarchists, we have every interest in seeing Indigenous resistance to the Canadian state and capital continue to grow. Anti-colonial resistance already provides a radical pole for other struggles to gravitate towards; if it continues to gain traction, it is likely to pull these other struggles in a more militant, revolutionary direction. While the outcome of anti-colonial struggles depend, first and foremost, on the organization and commitment of their Indigenous participants, all revolutionaries have a vested interest in helping to see them succeed. For non-Indigenous revolutionaries, a particularly important task is countering the anti-Native tendency among the non-Indigenous working class.
Making the Case Without Resorting to Liberalism
The question is how, exactly, to best go about doing this. Admittedly, Common Cause members do not yet have much experience directly working to counter anti-Native tendencies in our class – though our members do have a fair amount of experience organizing against other reactionary tendencies. From our discussions on the subject so far, we have concluded that we are skeptical of the “ally” model common among Indigenous solidarity activists, primarily because it is oriented away from building broad working-class support for Indigenous struggles. Instead, when Common Cause members have discussed how we should support Indigenous resistance, we have focused on the question of how we can build active political support for Indigenous struggles in the working class. More specifically, we have asked the question of how we can convince our neighbours that it is in their interest to see Indigenous resistance succeed. We are still in the early stages of developing our thoughts on this question, but two political arguments have been put forward with some tentative support in the organization. First, locally, in southern Ontario, we see much in Haudenosaunee political thought that is both revolutionary and, we believe, appealing to our neighbours and the wider working class. In practice, this will require convincing our friends and neighbours to turn their back on the benefits of siding with the colonial project, in return for aligning with Indigenous resistance in a project of mutual liberation from capitalism and the state. Despite the daunting challenges inherent to this task, it is crucial work to incorporate into mass organizing, because – and this is the second point that we tentatively agree on – given the balance of power, Indigenous struggles cannot ultimately succeed against the Canadian state, despite their impressive scope and militancy, without significant support from an organized, revolutionary working class. Neither friends organized into ally activist groups, nor liberal apologies for past wrongs that lay out the multicultural welcome mat while brushing over revolutionary Indigenous aims, will suffice. The revolutionary aims of the most militant Indigenous resistance must be recognized fully, and clearly presented as such to our class – not dressed up in liberal and solely moralistic terms. This will mean moving beyond the self-validating framework of the Indigenous ally and towards an organizing approach that actively and seriously seeks to achieve adequate levels of support among the non-Indigenous working class.
II. Islamophobia: White Supremacy’s Leading Edge
Over the past forty years, xenophobia and racism within the Canadian working class have been tempered by the official state policy of multiculturalism, anti-racist movements, and large-scale immigration from post-colonial and neo-colonial states. Despite this, xenophobic and racist tendencies continue to hold the potential to galvanize a mass reactionary force in the working class. We’d be foolish to think otherwise. While successive decades of anti-racist struggles and equity-seeking reforms have helped shape official state policy and working-class sentiment, white supremacy remains very much intact. Today, we would argue that Islamophobia – a less-than-ideal phrase to describe western anti-Muslim sentiment – is the leading expression of the timeless Canadian tradition of working-class racism.
Liberal Imperialism Abroad
Western states, including Canada, have fueled Islamophobia through their military responses to the ongoing resistance of people in the majority-Muslim world. Canada has been engaged for over a decade in sustained military conflict with majority-Muslim populations that refuse the position assigned to them by Western imperialism. But unlike past imperialist episodes, the state has relied less on the assertion of the superiority of the “white race” and its Christian civilization (though this remains an undercurrent) and instead wields the values of liberalism to build ideological support for foreign wars. Military campaigns against religious extremism, justified in the name of women’s rights, and other liberal-democratic freedoms – this is the imperialist ideology of the post-1960s era. The ruling class, having survived and beaten back the movements of the 1960s, have now appropriated their rhetoric in order to help shore up working-class support at home for its wars abroad. This ideological strategy is made more palatable by the fact that some of the most organized and well-funded forces of anti-imperialist resistance are made up of reactionary authoritarians (led by the Wahhabist movement above all). The brutal actions of groups like the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram are justifiably revolting to the consciences of working-class people – not just in western countries such as Canada, but globally. This righteous opposition to the spread of Wahhabist fascism, is then co-opted by the state and channeled into Islamophobia, and increased support for imperialism.
Liberal Racism at Home
The liberal rhetoric marshaled towards battling external “barbarians” gives rise to an “internal” expression, in the form of Islamophobia (and other racist, xenophobic ideas) disguised as, and fueled by a vigorous defence of secular liberal values. The so-called “reasonable accommodations” and “Charter of Values” political ploys in Québec, along with the federal Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, have been portrayed by their supporters as necessary defences of liberal values against religious and cultural minorities – most of all Muslims. Ultimately, these laws are nothing more than cynical manoeuvres by political parties designed to consolidate the more reactionary sections of their electoral bases without losing the larger, more moderate sections who (it is hoped) will support reactionary ideas when presented in liberal form.
In Québec, the Parti Québécois (PQ) tried to use the Charter of Values to recoup the white working-class Québécois voters that it had lost to new challengers from its right, such as the Action Democratic du Québec (ADQ) and the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ). The PQ hoped that by positioning itself as the defenders of liberal feminism and the separation of church and state, in a way that clearly identified Muslims, Sikhs and Jews as “the problem,” it could rebuild its traditional coalition of right-wing and liberal/left-wing nationalist voters. While the PQ failed to win the election on this platform and the Charter was never passed, their experiment actually consolidated a consensus among the main parties that a growing unease with Muslim immigration exists among Québécois voters, and that this sentiment ought to be opportunistically stoked and incorporated into their own respective electoral strategies.
The strategy of Québec’s provincial parties has been mirrored by the federal Conservatives. The racist Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act and a much stricter immigration policy together form the core of this strategy. Under the Harper administration, more immigrants are being accepted into Canada per year than under any previous government – the majority of whom are coming from the Global South. Even refugee numbers have remained steady, at roughly twelve thousand per year. So how do we square an expansive (if more ruthless) immigration policy with reactionary racist legislation?
Harper and his gang are motivated above all by neoliberal ideology, and a desire to undo the perceived damage done to their country by the ruling-class politics they identify most with Pierre Trudeau and his followers – including what they perceive as a culturally-relativist multiculturalism. The Reform/Alliance/Conservative Party gained a significant electoral base for its politics by riding a wave of reactionary resentment, “the white hot anger” with the ruling-class status quo. Then-leader of the Reform Party, Preston Manning, believed that this was a necessary strategy to build the base needed for a new aspiring ruling-class faction. The Barbaric Cultural Practices Act is a bone being tossed to this traditional base. It is a good example of the new liberal racism in action, designed to have a certain ring in the ears of the Conservative Party’s “white hot angry” working-class base – a stroke that rings out: “we know... and we are keeping those people out, or at least forcing them to change their barbaric ways, and we will not be intimidated by the liberal media, academics, NGOs and activists. We are with you, fellow white Christian Canadians!”
At the same time, federal immigration policy has been revamped and geared towards bringing in, and gaining the support of immigrants who the Harper faction hope to attract to their own brand of social conservative, neoliberal politics. By all accounts, they have had a great deal of success building an electoral base among the over two million new Canadians who have migrated to the country during Harper’s time in office so far. The Conservatives have accomplished this by recruiting upwardly-mobile “economic” (as opposed to family reunification) immigrants from the developing world’s new middle classes, appealing to the social conservative values of some groups, and diversifying their party apparatus.
Upon closer examination, it’s clear that the Barbaric Cultural Practices Act has been purposefully designed so as to avoid affecting the Conservative Party’s fragile immigrant base. First of all, it doesn’t add new legal prohibitions that don’t already exist on the books. Second, the number of people materially affected by it will be very small. Third, many immigrants are also quite opposed to the practices that the legislation singles out (such as forced marriage, and honor killings), and view them as unwelcome reactionary vestiges of the places that they have worked so hard to leave behind. Immigrant communities are not internally homogeneous, and many differences and prejudices exist between groups. This legislation plays on existing internal dynamics and cultural divisions in a manner that is unlikely to have much of a negative impact on Conservative efforts to build their suburban immigrant base. After all, given the current state of Canada’s electoral system, they only need around thirty five per cent of the vote in a single riding to win. And as of April 2015, they are polling at around this figure in the Greater Toronto Area, and even a bit higher in ridings in Mississauga and Brampton that are heavily populated by immigrant voters. Their strategy seems to be working.
Within this context, the approximately two per cent of Canadians who identify as Muslims provide a convenient and expendable punching bag. Harper can afford to appear culturally insensitive, or even aggressive towards certain groups at times, so long as the overall message remains: “work hard, accept certain core Canadian values and you will have a job, model minority status, a house in the suburbs, and the freedom to take your kids to hockey, cricket, or soccer, and church, mosque or temple.” Those who have bought into the multicultural, middle-class deal are not going to be too bothered if some among them are given worse treatment (be they Muslims, refugees, undocumented workers, or the larger immigrant working poor). At least this is how things appear at the moment.
This chameleon-like quality of Islamophobia makes it an appealing ideology for political parties. It allows them to play to different, and often contradictory electoral bases at the same time. It provides an effective basis for national political messaging that conveys different meanings to the various components of a diverse electoral base, while nonetheless providing an overall unifying ideological framework. It is a strategy well-adapted to a terrain shaped deeply by the significant but incomplete advances of past social movements, including global anti-colonial struggles. These days, overt white supremacy and xenophobia will result in the marginalization of political parties in Canada, in large part by costing them the support of key electoral districts among the now vast and still rapidly expanding immigrant working class. But key organized groupings of the ruling class (like the PQ and the federal Conservatives) also have important bases that are increasingly open to a more forceful push of white supremacist ideas. Islamophobia weaves these contradictory conditions into what is, for now, a workable electoral base-building strategy.
What is at Stake?
One potential outcome of this current dynamic could be a homegrown Tea Party phenomenon, replete with its own Canadian characteristics. The combination of officially-sanctioned racism, militarism and Islamophobia, within a context of economic crisis and war, could very well give rise to such a movement. In this hypothetical situation, the reactionary ideas stoked and encouraged by the ruling class could give rise to a forceful reactionary base that is no longer content to simply follow the leadership of Harper and company on questions of immigration and assimilation. In fact, we have already seen this happen in Québec, where a loud, angry, racist and xenophobic base has taken root – one that is not content to remain loyal to any political party, but which instead pushes all of them further to the right.
Left Responses: The Dead Ends of Cultural Relativism and Racist Secularism/Feminism
How should the Left react in this situation? Here the fight around the Québec Charter of Values is informative. In that particular episode we saw the Left act in two ways, both of which amount to political dead ends. A large part of the Québec Left supported the Charter in the name of defending liberal values, such as the separation of church and state, and equality between men and women. This part of the Left, including leading Québec feminist activists and organizations, saw itself as refusing to accept cultural relativism and taking a principled stand in support of liberal values that it believed ought to be universal – or at least, ought to be the norm in Québec, regardless of one’s cultural or religious background.
Another leftist response to the Charter, especially evident in discussions outside of Québec, tended to take a postmodernist, culturally relativist approach. According to this line of thinking, any questioning of cultural and religious practices of oppressed minorities is unacceptable, as it only serves to promote xenophobia, Islamophobia and imperialism. The principled response to the Charter, then, is to defend the rights of minorities to practice their cultures and religions, not only free from state intervention, but also free from any intervention whatsoever, from any part of society – including those leftists asserting the supremacy of liberal secular values. Often this was an argument that could be heard in the silence of its proponents when confronted by the question of what to do about patriarchal violence within targeted minority communities.
In our opinion, both of these approaches are politically bankrupt. The culturally relativist approach sheepishly abandons core leftist principles, such as feminism, for fear of provoking accusations of racism. In a confused manner, some principles are elevated above others, depending on the context. But a principled approach demands that core values be held equally, always. It means not making ethical trade-offs between our core principles out of fear of being personally attacked by other leftists, and charged with holding “privileged” views. Those who cower to this form of reductive politics leave feminists from communities targeted by Islamophobia and liberal racism out in the lurch. They give the Right the opportunity to paint the Left as spineless, elitist apologists for an “anything goes” anti-racism or pro-immigration politics – an orientation that appears to give exactly two shits about liberal democratic values, and by extension, the majority of Canadians who hold them. This pushes large segments of the population to look to the Right as the defenders of working-class values and interests, including, for example, working-class LGBTQ members, who have their own reasons to fear the homophobia of certain conservative religious and cultural groups.
But the “more principled” leftist response also has a fatal weakness. The problem is not in asserting the defence of certain core principles, such as gender equality, against an unprincipled dead-end cultural relativism; the Left ought to be unapologetic in its espousal of certain core principles as universal – in the sense that we consider principles such as gender equality to be non-negotiable, and that we desire to see them spread and take hold across the global working class. We should call bullshit on shouts of racism that stem from criticizing objectively oppressive practices. We should have no tolerance for hierarchy and oppression in any and all communities, no matter what cultural or religious justifications are used to prop them up.
The problem is that this part of the Left reproduced broader social dynamics of white supremacy and national oppression by failing to take the lead from feminists and leftists from the actual communities targeted by the Charter. While the cultural relativists silenced these same voices out of fear that any critique of subjugated cultural/religious groups would send cries of racism their way, the pro-Charter Left silenced these voices by, at best, seeing those facing oppression inside their communities as helpless victims in need of rescue by white feminists and liberals (using intrusive state legislation, no less). At worst, these groups were presented as complicit in their own oppression, and therefore a threat to liberal values and the freedoms of others. You can be a principled leftist at the level of theory and still engage in racism at the level of practice – and this is exactly what the pro-Charter Left did. In doing so, they entered into a coalition with right-wing reactionaries, a move that will not end well for them, or us.
A Principled Left Response
An alternative to these two flawed approaches was led by leftists and liberals from within the communities targeted by the Charter, with the support of the better part of the ally-left (which included much of the anarchist movement in Québec). Their opposition to the Charter looked a lot different than that of the cultural relativists; it asserted that patriarchal oppression within subjugated cultural communities is, for one, real, and two, is best fought (and being fought already) by members of those communities themselves. State intervention fueled by widespread Islamophobia actually hurts those fighting patriarchal oppression within these communities, by increasing Muslim women’s dependence on male partners and family members. For example, the Charter would have made it harder for Muslim women who wear the hijab to find paid work, and thereby establish social networks outside the family. In short, you don’t fight one form of oppression by increasing another. What is needed is a principled, anti-racist, feminist Left whose practice is based around the concepts of solidarity, mutual support, autonomy, and the self-organization of the oppressed. There should be no room on the Left for either a cultural relativism that wants to “protect” oppressed groups by shielding them from valid criticism and internal resistance, nor for a racist secular feminism that sees a need to “defend” liberal or left principles in order to “protect” members of an oppressed group “for their own good.”
III. Men’s Rights Activism
The examination of MRAs as a tendency which is actively organizing to perpetuate patriarchal social relations began in Mortar Volume Two (Taking Account of our Politics: An Anarchist Perspective on Contending with Sexual Violence). Here we take it up again, with an eye to the role that this tendency might play in the development of a mass reactionary movement.
What is it?
In the late 1960s, social and political advances attributed to the struggles of the Women’s Liberation Movement led to the creation of a parallel Men’s Movement. This vaguely progressive, yet inadequate movement saw men attempt to analyze their experiences with patriarchy using a feminist lens. Unfortunately, the effort yielded paltry results, as both progressive and revolutionary men found little incentive to participate in long-term anti-patriarchy organizing with feminists. This failure produced a void that was filled by the initial manifestation of a reactionary movement against feminism. Men whose personal comfort and success often rested on the unpaid domestic work of women began to characterize feminists as threatening and selfish, because they felt their own problems, real or imaged, had gone unaddressed. The reaction to this perceived affront was the creation of a Men’s Rights Movement.
The current manifestation of MRAs, and their much larger base of allies and sympathizers, take positions on a panoramic range of issues including health care, family law, fathers’ rights, war, education, gender roles, gender identity, sexual orientation, the workplace, domestic violence, criminal law, prisons, abortion, rape, dating, and sex.
Gender Peace and the Disposable Male
Warren Farrell’s 1993 best-selling book, The Myth of Male Power: Why Men are the Disposable Sex was seminal to the development of MRAs into their contemporary tendency, as it popularized the idea that it is men, not women, who are disadvantaged, oppressed and “disposable.” Farrell, a former board member for the National Organization of Women, took a sharp turn to the right in the late 1970s over the issue of child custody, where reforms had been made which sought to equalize the legal framework of divorce.
In The Myth of Male Power, Farrell makes the argument that as individuals, men are seen as less socially valuable than women. Relying heavily on cherry-picked statistics to highlight many areas of life in which men objectively experience more risk to their personal safety and restrictions to their freedoms, Farrell’s reasoning is appealing to some; it is undeniable, for instance, that men compose the majority of prisoners, soldiers, and victims of workplace injuries. Foreshadowing the popularization of the then-nascent (and still scientifically-controversial) field of evolutionary psychology, Farrell conjectured that this fact was an evolutionary imperative that had derived from women’s role as child-bearers, which made them more valuable, in an evolutionary sense. Because a man can inseminate multiple women in a short timespan, whereas women must complete a nine month long pregnancy and all the risks of childbirth before they can conceive another child, the evolutionary argument follows that an individual man’s body is a more rational sacrifice when faced with the prospect outside danger.
Karen Straughan, Contributing Editor at A Voice for Men, advances this theory in a video blog entitled Feminism and the Disposable Male. Straughan posits that a sort of informal social contract was formerly in place, whereby men would accept these necessary conditions in exchange for more social power. However, she claims that feminism has disrupted this purported gender peace by allowing women access to social power (in the form of jobs, money, celebrity, etc.), while doing nothing to ameliorate the enhanced exposure to danger faced by men. “[M]en don’t even get our admiration anymore,” she concludes. “All they get in return is to hear about what assholes they are. Is there any wonder why they’re starting to get pissed off?”
Straughan elaborates on this broken arrangement in order to mourn the death of what she sees as an imagined “golden age” of gender peace, and to call on MRAs to reverse this process of male emasculation and victimization. Yet there is little MRAs can do to stop this trend – particularly if they continue to misidentify the source of their own declining living standards and social standing. The “grand bargain” between capitalism and sexism, whereby working-class men, by virtue of their sacrifices as the family provider, received, along with domination over women, higher wages than women, is being eroded by more profitable economic arrangements. Capitalism commodifies all people, and under this economic order anyone can be made disposable.
Six of One
It is well documented that the Fascist regimes of twentieth century Europe gained their initial base by exploiting mass anxieties of economic and social decline, and redirecting socialist and syndicalist programs towards right-wing nationalist ends. Since WWII, the Left has been on a perpetual look-out for any reconstitution of neo-fascist movements. In a number of countries situated within the economic peripheries of the European Union, this has indeed come to pass. However we must contend that in English-speaking North America, the issues that might otherwise have led to working-class support of neo-fascism have instead been taken up by a variety of reactionary tendencies that are liberal at their heart.
Contributing editor for Harper’s and Rolling Stone, and observer of right-wing movements Jeff Sharlet notes that many of the grievances that MRAs complain about are consistent with those of “late stage American capitalism” but, because liberal rhetoric is so easily and readily available to them, there is no reason to reach this far in their analysis.
Irreproachable concepts like equality, human rights, tolerance, and nonviolence are mobilized as patronizing, easily-digested substitutes for liberation. MRAs express considerable concern for issues that are also of central importance to revolutionary leftists. Prisons, war and workplace conditions are common topics of conversation. But instead of questioning the social utility of prisons, MRAs demand to know why incarceration isn’t more equitable; likewise, little reflection is given to why the state requires such a steady stream of dead men’s bodies, both civilian and in uniform. MRAs must be facing an epidemic of repetitive strain injuries from all the blogs that they’ve written on the economic troubles facing men today. And these problems are certainly real, given the rampant and ongoing capitalist restructuring, which continues to leave fewer and fewer working-class men able to support themselves and their families. Growing levels of unemployment, as MRAs rightly point out, cast a massive blow to the feelings of self-worth of men conditioned under patriarchy to feel that earning a wage is their primary responsibility. Yet instead of questioning the actual source of their economic trouble, capitalism, or the idea that each family unit is responsible for themselves, these people, in a stunning “correlation indicates causation” error (which the many “skeptics” who are sympathetic towards this movement should be ashamed of) blame a social movement whose militant and revolutionary tendencies actually seek to address these problems.
Do not mistake this for us saying that MRAs are actually misguided, would-be revolutionaries. They are, for the most part, unrepentant misogynists and class traitors who deserve to be treated as such. However, their striking use of liberal vocabulary is appealing to individual men (and women) who observe problems in their lives, and are in search of answers in the form of analysis and solutions. And once drawn in, their patriarchal impulses are strengthened and honed. MRAs are significant, not so much for their ideas in and of themselves, but for the seamless way in which they adapt their rhetoric to liberal ideology.
Power is still conceived in terms of domination over others, rather than as the capacity to make changes that benefit everyone. Women are disproportionately employed in precarious jobs, and presently take home only sixty-nine cents for every dollar a man makes in Ontario. Sexism fuels consumerist exploitation, and vice versa. MRAs will never offer an honest answer for young working-class men worrying about how they are going to make it – just as liberal mainstream feminism will never offer a viable means for liberation to working-class women.
Half a Dozen of the Other
The MRA movement is, at its heart, a liberal tendency that willfully misunderstands collective aspects of feminism and the quest for liberation. “Women make less money than men,” says feminism, but “I am unemployed, and make no money” says the MRA—who probably wouldn’t take a minimum wage casual position as grocery store cashier or after-hours office cleaner if it were offered to him, preferring instead to wait for the cushy IT job he was trained for. The movement also assumes that there is not enough to go around: not enough economic resources, not enough children, not enough emotional well-being, and that advances made by women as a whole must somehow detract from men.
Men’s rights activism is reactionary to the core. It offers its followers simplistic answers and a clear target for all that ails them. Its goal is to undermine progress and recoup the dismantling of patriarchal structures. Its praxis, while dishonest and misogynist, is attractive to men unsure of themselves and their future in these precarious times. Deliberate or not, MRAs have a developing relationship of mutuality with the political and religious right, despite the liberal nature of their vocabulary and strategy.
What is at Stake?
So far in North America, the mainstream political involvement of MRAs has been just about non-existent. Some of the MRAs’ loudest voices, like A Voice for Men founder Paul Elam, insist that politicians will never have a voice in their movement. There are hints of a change, however. For example the Canadian Centre for Men and Families, which is located in Toronto and opened its doors in 2014, has moved men’s rights activism away from the university and the electronic sphere, and onto “Main Street,” so to speak.
In the US, MRAs know that they can count on traditional conservative political actors to keep a slightly more publicly presentable anti-feminist agenda moving. For example, the Utah state legislature is presently debating definitions of rape, and considering for the record if engaging in sex with an unconscious individual constitutes rape. Definitions of rape and debates over what constitutes consent are a central issue for MRAs. Many MRAs want marital rape laws overturned, as they claim these laws violate the marriage contract that gives men the right to sex on demand from their spouse. They have support in Virginia, where a legislator claims that spousal rape is impossible, and that laws criminalizing it would unfairly damage men’s reputations if their accusations made it to court. Regarding men’s rights to abortions, a few US states already have pending legislation that would require written, notarized consent from the “father of the unborn child” before an abortion could be performed or induced.
Related to the issue of fatherhood and masculinity, the recent attention raised by the Black Lives Matter movement to the racist praxis of the North American law enforcement and criminal justice systems has racism apologists on the defensive. MRAs have chimed in by claiming that racism is not the issue. Some point to feminized school environments and the lack of “father figures” in Black households as the issue. World renowned neurosurgeon and conservative US presidential hopeful Dr. Ben Carson specifically charges feminists with removing male mentors from the formation process of boys at home and at schools. He maintains that young Black men are not learning to be subservient to authority, and thus neither are they able to exercise proper male authority. This, says the doctor, leads to criminal behaviour and to trouble with the police and this has nothing to do with racism. It “has to do with the women’s lib movement.” So the doctor`s diagnosis promotes an agenda that the MRAs strongly support, but won`t ever advance themselves via their misogynist tirades.
While Canada lacks a mass movement similar in nature and scope to the US Christian Right, the arguments put forward by MRAs have found a strong echo-chamber on the Internet, and often overlap with those of other reactionary tendencies, such as “New Atheists” and other secular Islamophobes. Their effective and innovative use of widely-held liberal values to manipulate feelings of male victimization pose a significant threat. This threat, while already acute, would be particularly dire should MRAs ever merge with other reactionary tendencies, thereby helping to instill a mass reactionary movement with a vitriolic and dehumanizing hatred of women.
Towards a Response
For anarchists, MRAs certainly present a point of contention – whether this comes in the form of individual misogynist attitudes sabotaging a group’s mass organizing efforts, or, when the need arises for anarchists to help defend against orchestrated hate campaigns. There might indeed be times when direct, physical confrontations with MRAs are in order. Of course those organizing more confrontational actions should do so with an understanding that MRAs make political hay by playing the, “see how these feminists oppress us” card. Shutting down or interfering with an MRA event can be an occasion for them to build support on a university campus – but then, so can a forum held without opposition. The important thing is that direct confrontational tactics should encourage others opposed to MRAs to confront them as well.
In organizing alongside neighbours on issues such as tenancy, worker justice, and police violence, one can see signs of a feminism that is rooted in the best of what feminism means. When a woman leads her fellow tenants in organizing against a slumlord, and they mount a successful rent strike, one sees people equipped to take on other oppressive men and patriarchal institutions as well. These actions, and others like them build confidence and a sense of power for those who participate. They point towards a rejuvenated militant feminism that can stand up to capitalist and patriarchal exploitative practices. As we’ve shown, MRAs will never offer an honest answer for the anxieties of young working-class men. This leaves us with organizers, activists and scholars like bell hooks, who to paraphrase, suggests that the struggle to end sexist oppression will succeed only by organizing with a commitment to bringing about a new social order by means of a social revolution. All that gets in the way of this must be contended with.
And there you have it: what we hope will be taken as as our contribution to better understanding what it is that we have standing in front of us. We hope it will be taken well, because it isn’t just an era of austerity, environmental decline, and a capitalist regime that intensifies its domestic and international military offensives on the working class that we struggle against. The forces of reaction and division have bored from within liberal concepts and “discourse” and have prepared the ground for dynamic movements to emerge from sectors of the working class, to the detriment of the class as a whole. Revolutionary class struggle is both an inter- and intra- class struggle. For our class to struggle for itself it must also simultaneously struggle with itself.
Antonio Gramsci is a dead Italian communist. Among his more “utilized” (read: referenced) concepts is that of the “war of position” and the “war of maneuver”. Essentially, the war of position is that in which revolutionaries pursue greater influence within the class in a slow and deliberate way, whereas the war of maneuver is that in which outright conflict takes place, usually in the form of clashing with the state for power. These are understood to be sequential affairs: first (position) and only after - the second (maneuver). When it comes to reactionary movements, our “war of position” doesn’t precede our “war of maneuver”. In fact, there is no distinction between the two when confronting the long germinating reactionary tendencies within the working class as they give rise to movements of class treason.
Despite the fact that it shouldn’t — it still surprised us to admit that those best “positioned” to out “maneuver” the Left are not updating their “commies to kill list” between shaving their heads and polishing their jackboots. They’re lecturing people on tolerance, free speech, and equality under the law between claims of oppression and tirades of hatred for all things Left. This is neither a laughing matter, nor an underwhelming adversary. The stakes are high and the already stacked odds will only compound against us as long as we refuse to take stock of the facts before us.
These are not discreet tendencies. Islamophobes, MRAs, and anti-Native reactionaries attack the class as a whole. With their movements’ growth, working-class solidarity erodes as working-class people are attacked by others within the class on liberal principle. No working-class organizing can hope for success under conditions wherein these tendencies aren’t countered with simultaneous maneuver and position by revolutionaries. No counter-offensive can hope for success when it holds to conceptions of its adversary that are more morally convenient than politically accurate.
Our class enemies can’t be defeated by a fist fight any more than they can by an introspective privilege check. They can, however, be defeated by the informed and deliberate organizing by the working class towards its own emancipation. This is what class war means. It has many fronts that require equal attention. To not meet the enemy today in the interest of “positioning” will only mean we will be outflanked by reactionary tendencies tomorrow. What successful struggle against class treason should look like and how the working class can organize itself to carry it out is not for any one article to answer. Here we have only briefly offered a few points of strategy upon which to develop more fully a dynamic, multi-pronged approach. But make no mistake — this organizing needs to happen, we intend to be there, it needs to be as honest, principled and merciless as possible, and it needs to win.