Materialism not Metaphor

This piece was originally published in The Organizer, a publication of the now defunct Collective Power Network. It has been republished with the author’s permission.

Sacramento DSA’s Annabel V. argues that our movement must win more concretely than “sparking consciousness,” and that metaphorical language and goals distract organizers from the work of material gains.

Our current political moment often seems endlessly complex. Our challenges are of mortal consequence, and the communication age has produced an overload of information. The institutions that govern our lives are opaque, inaccessible, and bureaucratically inert. Workers are deeply, fundamentally disorganized and alienated. Left political organizers are awash in unknown variables. In the face of these puzzles, there’s a concerning tendency on the left to fill the gaps in our knowledge with immaterial, speculative, symbolic, or metaphorical placeholders. Some examples, among many, that we see frequently:

When our communication is excessively metaphorical and figurative, it indicates that our ideas are immature and under-developed. This habit to describe our political observations in terms of spontaneous phenomena seems to indicate antiquated thinking around our politics– phrases more reminiscent of pre-scientific medieval medicine than 21st century political analysis. We try to fill our knowledge gaps with this kind of speculation in amateur polemics and esteemed publications alike. Even when there is case study, we often run into subject bias, interviewer bias, or questionable causation. Consciousness, solidarity, struggle, and revolution are the Four Humours of modern left politics.

Some might say that we can allow ourselves to make these leaps in order to popularize a narrative of dialectical conflict and build an identity around class struggle. It’s suggested that this kind of narrative building is necessary to assemble a new hegemony of worker power because it expands the limits of our political imagination. But actually these fantastic narratives only serve to promote idealism over material gains. We get cajoled into supporting ill-conceived, or even fraudulent, political campaigns solely on the power of rhetoric. We end up reifying working class politics itself by turning it into a memorizable doctrine that upholds its very own social order. Hermetically insular parties and organizations pop up, premised on fiercely independent politics, authoritative scholarship, and internal discipline, but with no demonstrable power or relevance to the outside world. These institutions come to resemble secular churches that exist for their own sake, and are ultimately a total retreat from real politics.

Many repeat the slogan “to make change everywhere, start anywhere.” This is demonstrably false. It’s possible to conduct the mapping, analysis, and research needed to identify optimal targets, build a strategy, and develop effective tactics.

It’s ironic to call ourselves anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, abolitionist, etc. as long as the state that operates on our behalf continues to commit unabated atrocities. What does it mean to adopt these labels as long as our political movement remains unsuccessful? Operating within a realm of immeasurable, abstract, symbolic goals can only produce invisible victories. Our will to contest for power is subverted into a desire for divine grace in the eyes of history. It builds an overly-optimistic anti-political artifice that exists comfortably within an enduring neoliberal order.

Many repeat the slogan “to make change everywhere, start anywhere.” This is demonstrably false. It’s possible to conduct the mapping, analysis, and research needed to identify optimal targets, build a strategy, and develop effective tactics. Our movement partners in labor unions, tenant organizations, the electoral sphere, and elsewhere, all demonstrate this practice regularly. Not all initiatives are of equal value, and the avoidance of evaluative practices indicates a concerning impulse toward demagogic individualism. Conversely, other left organizers demand direction above all else, and will continue to pursue initiatives even when they do not bear measurable gains. “When we fight, we win.” In these circumstances, immaterial, phenomenological benchmarks of “greater class consciousness” are introduced as a post facto justification when material gains are never won.

It’s imperative to recognize this reliance on metaphor, immaterial phenomenon, and speculation in left organizing, and to utterly reject it. Being led by immaterial benchmarks and interpretive phenomena is as good as reading tea leaves. It makes us vulnerable to clannishness and demagoguery, and undermines our ability to practice internal democracy. With so little time to waste, we need to methodically scrutinize our every action and appraise it for its measurable, material effectiveness and transformative potential.

The success of our movement cannot be regarded as a matter of interpretation, or worse, opinion. When we fail to set standards, our movement becomes centered on testing and confirming the beliefs of a few thought-leaders, rather than transforming the reality of the masses. We can and must set measurable goal posts, conduct structure tests, keep track of our own progress, and use this data to light the path forward into the vast unknown of the new political era.