by Lierre Keith / Deep Green Resistance
“We know that relying on argument we wandered for forty years politically in the wilderness. We know that arguments are not enough…and that political force is necessary.”
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Two of my favorite people from history. My dad gets upset because they don’t really teach science anymore in the public schools, and this is mostly because the Right Wing can’t bear the thought of evolution. My mom gets sad because they don’t really teach history anymore and my sister fairly weeps because you don’t get art anymore in the school system. But I say, “they just don’t teach revolution anymore in those public schools.”
So this talk is the basic political education that really, we all should have gotten, and really most of us didn’t. And I start here with liberals and radicals because I think this is the main division.
I think this is important because a lot of times in our friendships and our activist networks and even in our groups, and across broader movements, there are these tensions that can be really painful and profound and a lot of it really comes down to the difference between liberals and radicals. I, in the end, don’t care which side of this you decide to land on. You’ve got to figure out which world view actually describes the world as you know it (and that’s up to you really). But it can really help to understand where these different perspectives are coming from because then when you have these conflicts suddenly you can think, “right, that’s liberal and I’m radical, and that’s why we’re never going to meet in the middle” because these are profound differences, politically. Doesn’t mean we can’t work together; lots of coalitions need to happen.
I am not trying to demonize anybody but these are different positions that people can take across the spectrum. I would say the main division between liberals and radicals is individualism.
Liberals believe that society is made up of individuals. That’s the basic social unit. In fact individualism is so sacrosanct that in this view, to be identified as a member of a group is seen as an affront; that’s the insult.
This is totally different for radicals over on the other side of the chart. Society is not made up of individual people, it’s made up of groups of people. In Marx’s original version this was class, it was economic class. This is the debt that all radicals owe Karl Marx. It doesn’t matter if you are a Marxist or not, he figured this out. It’s groups of people and some groups have power over other groups. That’s what society is made of.
In the radicals’ understanding being a member of a group is not an insult. In fact it’s the first primary step you have to take coming to a radical consciousness and then ultimately having effective political action. You have to identify as a member of that group. You’ve got to make common cause with the people who share your condition. That’s how political change happens. This is both an active and a critical embrace of that group identity.
We radicals get accused all the time of creating this kind of “victim identity,” but that’s not what’s going on. We are more than what they’ve done to us, and we do have agency. But we do have to recognize that there is power in the world and we’re on the receiving end.
The other big division is between the nature of social reality. Liberalism is what’s called idealist. Social reality, for them, is made up of attitudes, of ideas; it’s a mental event. And therefore social change happens through education. Through changing people’s minds.
Materialism, in contrast, over on the radical side: society is organized by concrete systems of power, not by thoughts and ideas. Society is organized by material institutions. And the solution to oppression is to take those systems apart brick by brick.
The liberals will say, “we have to educate, educate, educate,” and the radicals will say, “actually we have to stop them.”
Political movements need education. This is an educational event, here we are. And you need active proselytizing. The oppressed need mechanisms to understand political oppression such as consciousness raising. This is all really profoundly important.
But for radicals, education alone does not change social reality. Because the world is not an internal state. It’s not a mental state. The point of education is to build the movement that can take down those oppressive structures and bring about some kind of justice.
If you remove power from the equation oppression looks either natural or voluntary. If you’re not going to see that people are formed by these social conditions how else are you going to explain subordination? Either those people aren’t quite human, so they’re naturally different than us—that’s why they’re subordinate, or they’re somehow volunteering to be subordinate. Those are the options that you’re left with.
For instance, race and gender are seen as biological. These are supposed to be physically real. Well they’re not, they’re politically real.
It’s brutal, vicious subordination that creates those things. But it’s ideology, and it is the ideology of the powerful that says this is biological. They make the claim that this is biological because how are you going to fight God or Nature or 4 million years of evolution? Well you’re not.
There are physical differences between people who are from northern Europe and people who live at the equator, just like there are differences between males and females but those differences only matter because power needs them to. It is power that creates the ideology and it’s a corrupt and brutal arrangement of power.
These are unjust systems that we are going to have to dismantle, and these are social categories we are going to have to destroy.
Just like naturalism operates in the service of power, so does volunteerism. If you are not going to go the biological route, all you are left with is volunteerism as a concept.
This is the thing that liberals do not understand. With power removed from the equation, if it looks voluntary you are going to erase the fact that it’s social subordination.
Florynce Kennedy said,
“There can be no really pervasive system of oppression without the consent of the oppressed.”
Ninety percent of any oppression is consensual. That’s what it does. It does not mean it’s our fault, it does not mean we are responsible, it doesn’t mean it will somehow crumble if we withdraw our consent. All it means is that the powerful—the capitalists, the white supremacists, the masculinists, whoever—they can’t stand over vast numbers of people 24/7 with guns. Luckily, for them, depressingly for the rest of us, they don’t have to.
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