Towards a Holarchy of Resistance
Placards at Occupy Edinburgh
Mhairi McAlpine is a Scottish left activist who has been involved in the SSP and is currently active with the Coalition of Resistance and as a Unison shop-steward in Glasgow. In this article she looks at how to unite the strands of resistance.
The unification of the left is a problem which has plagued radical action for centuries, far predating the People’s Front of Judea syndrome which has become an ironic joke amongst the groupings which comprise it. The temptation of left groupings is to define the “one true way”, to develop a coherent and well developed ideology then draw people towards it. In such a situation, theory becomes privileged, and new developments must be incorporated into the overarching ideology. Unity is the holy grail of the left, many have sought and few have found, and frequently just as they thought they had it, it turned into a chimera – shattered by an inability to incorporate a strand of radical thought that had been suppressed until objective conditions demanded its attention.
This is an attempt to suggest a drawing together of the forces of opposition on the basis of mutual respect. Learning from the experiences of women of colour, who shift their affinity based on localised oppositional consciousness, it suggests an alternative model, based not on the one true way, but on an appreciation that there are many paths and the purpose of the left is to draw people to the end goal while leaving them to find their own way.
The Problem of the Borg
Rather like the star trek Borg, the one true way advocate tries to assimilate all which crosses its path, drawing it in, gradually assimilating their concerns into its own framework and ideology. The overarching model is a monolithic beast which can be influenced but is a juggernaut incapable of reacting to conditions on the ground in a timeous manner. It cannot see what is happening clearly as everything must be looked at through the lens of the dominant radical ideology. The theoreticians are privileged over the activists as those who are able to unite the conditions on the ground with the conditions of action.
Like Borg, resistance to the dominant radical ideological hegemony is futile as it assimilates new members into its collective mindset. Those who refuse to submit to the dominant radical ideology are isolated and eventually leave the activist arena. The activists become the puppets of the theoreticians, whereby their actions are more to defend the theoreticians than to challenge the conditions. As the theory deviates from the on-the-ground conditions, their actions can serve to undermine rather than promote change as change may challenge the radical ideological hegemony that they are recruited to serve.
Those who refuse to submit to the dominant radical ideology are isolated and eventually leave the activist arena. The activists become the puppets of the theoreticians, whereby their actions are more to defend the theoreticians than to challenge the conditions.
But the community of activists is not a homogeneous mass, it is a diversity. Most activism is not undertaken within formal political structures, be that parliamentary or radical but through small pockets of resistance which spring up in response to localised and personalised issues, setting up groups – either formally or informally – with specific aims and objectives which are relatively shared through a common consciousness formed through both personalised experience, raised awareness and collective action. Such groups, for example a group of pensioners who want the post office to open earlier, may not have any formal meetings, or written constitutions, but from discussions and sharing concerns, come to a shared understanding of the issues and solutions.
These groups, either formal or informal, have issues which are individual, as a small group they will have greater praxis and affinity than a large one – as they are closer to the “ground”. They have a greater understanding of the oppression that the current situation creates and feel it most keenly; at the same time they have a better understanding of where the weak spots are, how most effectively to challenge and are connected to the larger community affected by it.
The “them” and the “us”
Within the activist movement there is a concept of “us” and “them”, where “us” are the challengers, the dominated and the oppressed, while the “them “ are the establishment, the dominating and the oppressive. Within a narrow framework of identity politics, the us/them dichotomy is easy to locate. The “us” are women, or the “Blacks, or the gays; within traditional class politics, the “us” are the working class, however within the complex nature of late capitalism, there are not such easily identifiable splits.
Traditional class politics, sets those who own the means of production against those who do not. This class split is no longer as clear cut as it once was – intentionally so. The complexity of modern day personal finances, where debt and investment makes people simultaneously wage slaves and beholden to the international finance markets to fund their old age, leads to a complex inter-relationship to capital in the West. As a worker in a supermarket, it is in your interests to demand higher wages; as a member of the employee shareholder scheme, it is in your interest to exploit yourself as much as possible. From an objective viewpoint, it is clear to see that your paltry shares pale in comparison to that of major shareholders, but at an emotional level the discourse of being a shareholder has a strong pull which is heavily promoted. This is the failure of traditional class politics – it sets up hard divisions between the “us” and the “them”, when in reality they are more integrated.
Identity politics, a refuge that many rejecting traditional class-based analysis fall into assumes a uniformity within the identified which is not always followed through in practice. Identity is heterogeneous; although may identifiable divisions – such as race, gender or sexuality the way that these are manifested and experienced intersects with a range of other aspects, to provide a unique experience of that identity. This is the failure of identity politics – it sets up hard divisions between the “us” and the “them”, when in reality these divisions are more fluid.
Humans are multi-facteted. The sum of our experiences, actions and interactions each individual creates their own meaning within the dominant discourses.. Frequently the discourse is not homogenous, but there are a range of competing ideologies challenging the dominant hegemony within any particular discourse. Many times – “we” are the “them”.
As an activist challenging capitalism it is uncomfortable for us to appreciate that we can at times be the “them”. If you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem, so the old phase goes. The “problem” however is larger than any individual, it surrounds us, encompasses us in a web that raised consciousness can on occasion see though, but even with raised consciousness, the web can be too sticky to escape. It can well be acknowledged that McDonalds is an evil multinational which trashes workers rights, promotes obesity and destroys the environment, but at the same time, they are cheap, convenient and do rather tasty fishburgers.
A purist approach risks alienation from those more trapped in the web. It is only the relatively free who can break out completely, leaving the trapped struggles with less support from the empowered. Even while being while being initially relatively unencumbered by the web, those who manage to break out and achieve a purist lifestyle have made considerable sacrifices to do so. A mixture of resentfulness at the harshness of the struggle, smugness at the achievement and isolation from the class leads to a rather snobbish attitude towards those enmeshed which is, at best, unhelpful.
The “them” within the “us”
Each of us is both a “them” and an “us”. Within every activist there is a reactionary conditioned by the social and media pressures and within every reactionary there is an activist influenced by the objective conditions of their lives. No-one is immune from this duality. Identification as an activist is identification with the “we”, however over-identification can lead to an ignoring of the “them”.
It is the duty of each activist to recognise their own “them-ness”. To actively challenge themselves; when confronted with issues to listen carefully to those most directly affected, even where the overall level of consciousness is relatively low, and to interpret it through both the perspective of the oppressed and through our own developed understanding of the manner and operation of capital.
“Them-ness” is not necessarily a bad thing. It is the internal conflict between the “them” and “us” which also makes us appreciate extent of our conditioning and the challenges inherent in overcoming a complex system. It makes us connected to the class, understanding the pressures, wants, desires and attitudes within an oppressive hegemony. Developing an oppositional consciousness, understanding when we are “we” and when we submit to the “them”, means there is less likelihood of activists defending positions because they are unhappy at being identified with the “them”, rather than as a fully considered position. A benefits advisor implementing an unfair rule, fully in the knowledge that the rule is unfair, discriminatory and repressive, but regardless is part of their job and that implementing such an unfair rule is a compromise that they make with the system, is a far better than one which seeks to arbitrarily try to bend rules or regulations. Offering solidarity to claimant activists seeking to change these rules is of far greater benefit - appreciating that their fight is an aspect of the larger fight that the movement faces, but at the same time, appreciating that their own enmeshment shapes their own behaviour, sometimes in reactionary ways.
And the “them” also have an “us”. The police officer holding the line at a demonstration, goes home to their mortgages and car payments, sees the run down of services and experiences the same frustration at the state of affairs as the activist they have been opposing. While many activists have difficulty relating to some of the more overt repressive state functions, such as the army, the police or the prison service, it must be recognised that the vast majority of its members are also members of the working class. Campaigns in and around the military to ensure appropriate safety equipment for soliders, may stick in the craw of activists challenging imperialism and illegal warmongering, but their struggles must be respected.
Allowing ourselves to be led to by the “we” – the radical force close to the oppression, even where the level of consciousness within it may be less developed, both ensures praxis and insures against ingrained privilege – whether that is the privilege of the socially dominant or that of the radical - overtaking the local understanding.
The concept of the Holon
First coined by Koestler in the mid-60s and further developed by Wilber in the 90s, a holon is something that is simultaneously a whole and a part. Each entity is comprised of sub-holons, which are in themselves holons, and holons can unify, when put together in a particular arrangement to become a new holon. To be a holon, something must be automous and self-reliant in its functioning, while possessing a degree of independence. While a holon is by definition autonomous and self-reliant, as it is comprised of lower level holons it simultaneously influences and is influenced by them – at the same time, it influences and is influenced by any holons of which it is embedded.
A structure is much more stable if it has organised substructures within it, it can therefore build on a stable base, should errors be identified the holons can be reconfigured to create a more stable structure, without building from the ground up.
A structure is much more stable if it has organised substructures within it, it can therefore build on a stable base, should errors be identified the holons can be reconfigured to create a more stable structure, without building from the ground up. Holons are organised within a hierarchical arrangement, where each holon is simultaneous comprised of and comprises other holons within a heirachical arrangement called a holarchy. Within each holon however, the other holons are associated with each other in a heterachical arrangement where each holon is of equal position of power and authority. Moreover, a holon may not necessarily be of an enduring formation of subholons. The Paradox of the Ship of Theseus is a good example of an indentifiable holon (a ship) which over time has none of its original constituent holons, yet the higher holon has not been lost.
The concept of oppositional consciousness comes from the struggles of women of colour. Multiply oppressed, they redefine their identity dependent on the context in which they find themselves. Within a struggle concerned with gender, they minimise their racial differences; within a struggle concerned with race, they minimise their gendered status. Because they have to continually emphasise or hide different aspects of their identities depending on the context and configurations of power in which they find, tactically choosing which aspects of their identity to emphasise to best serve as agents of resistance and social change.
This shifting indicates a tactical subjectivity where women of colour seek to explore where they can be most effective in challenging the dominant ideology, siding with their “we” nature – a woman when confronted with sexism, but Black when confronted with racism. By locating themselves within multiple “we”s and selecting the “we” which best challenges the conditions of the time, the radical subjectivity promotes challenge. They operate within an ideology of flux, asserting their affinity with those who share their aims in challenging the conditions of oppression at any one time. Unions are made with Black men and with white feminists where such an alliance is productive on the basis of affinity rather than identity. Rather than arguing as feminists for an awareness of race issues, instead they align themselves with Black men to do so; similarly for issues of gender within fights designed to overcome racism.
Women of colour demand that white feminists take a back seat when discussing issues of race, and that Black men take a back seat in discussing issues of gender. They are exclusive in their identity politics in that they understand that their experiences of gender in challenging a sexist society gives them an insight that their brothers within the Black liberation movement cannot fully appreciate, nor can their white sisters fully appreciate the experiences of racism – although they accept solidarity in their struggles. By necessity women of colour have had to form coalitions across differentials with people whom in other arenas they would see as the reactionary force to be resisted – the “them”.
This approach is useful beyond mere identity politics. As outlined above, the “us” and the “them” are enduring themes within radical action. By selecting appropriate identities – identities most likely to challenge the status quo, and continually locating ourselves within the “us”…but moreover identifying those who are not the “us” and excluding them from “our” struggle, while accepting their solidarity; and also appreciating where we are not the “us” and offering solidarity but accepting that their struggles are separate to our own.
Towards a Holarchy of Resistance
The alternative to the “one true way” Borg like attempt to unify resistance is to build a holarchy. By connecting and interconnecting different struggles – appreciating that activism is multi-faceted, that activists privilege different parts of their identity and experiences at different times. That in some struggles some activists will lead, while in others they will support and in still others they will offer solidarity.
Each person can be considered a holon in and of themselves. Their multi-faceted nature means that each has a range of experiences, interests and identifications which draws them in with other people. Identification of affinity, where activists have a particular link to a campaign, an action, an event or a situation is critical in identifying where the links can be made and each holonic entity drawn into something bigger, such as a campaign grouping, a political grouping, an identity grouping or a geographic grouping. Each of which themselves constitutes a larger holon, that holon is influenced by its constituent members, which each exert a level of influence on the others, and are in turn influenced by them, increasing the coherence of the larger grouping.
What they are actually concerned with is a secondary consideration – this is at once, completely irrelevant and absolutely central. It is their presence within the larger holon, which counts as a part of a whole, they are equal to one another, yet at the same time it is their function that gives them their power and the qualitative aspect of “we”. By starting with the individual and the individually affected, the holon groupings grow the qualitative “we-ness”. Within each grouping the individuals involved grow in their “we-ness” from the influences and understandings of the others, actions undertaken on a collective basis have high levels of praxis as actions which appeal most strongly to the individuals within the grouping will have higher levels of support than those which do not, eventually meaning that high praxis actions will be better supported.
Single issue campaigns or localised groupings have limitations on the extent to which they can challenge the dominant hegemony. Bringing them together is critical for effective challenge to be mounted. The temptation of the traditional model – to set up an organisation, draw people to it and then establish a leadership which will then dictate the future course is ever present. Such attempts however frequently lead to the theoreticians, the charismatic and the committed taking over. A more productive course of action is to grow the holon. By appreciating the individual groupings have a validity in the leadership within their own area of expertise, gathering them together and offering support and solidarity, a larger holon can be created.
The challenge for the radical is always to grow radical consciousness and skills. By allowing local leadership, yet drawing groupings into a wider umbrella – one which recognises each of their unique perspectives and values their understanding within the arena in which they operate; by allowing other grouping holons to interact with them, define their affinity with them, influence them and be influenced by them; by offering support and solidarity, sharing skills and resources on a voluntary basis; learning from the skills of women of colour who by necessity shift perspectives and affinity on the basis of the required oppositional consciousness most effective in challenge at any given stage, a truly organic movement of resistance can be built.
A solid praxis – a true integration of theory and activity is key to effective challenge and raised consciousness.
Such a holonic movement will draw in the wider armchair socialists, who now have a number of routes into the movement, a good well rounded holonic movement will have a wide affinity with working people through its multifaceted nature. Within each grouping, individuals will be valued for their “we-ness” the aspect of their consciousness which leads to affinity within the grouping. The groupings themselves will have high praxis. A solid praxis – a true integration of theory and activity is key to effective challenge and raised consciousness. Each grouping will have a close relationship with the aspect of challenge in which it is mounting – the “we-ness” of the grouping will be heightened. By allowing localised affinity at the individual level, yet drawing together localised issues at at a higher level the “we-ness” both qualitiatively and quantitatively will be strengthened.