Overthrowing Institutions

On oppression and insurrection (1)

Diverse types of inequality increase leverage for universal insurrection.

A diversity of inequalities will always make revolutionary politics difficult. Of course, many previous revolutionary projects tried to solve this problem by simply ignoring some types of inequality and prioritizing the equalization of certain, select inequalities. Clearly, in the most infamous revolutionary projects of the twentieth century, class or economic inequalities were typically prioritized over other types of inequality, such as those related to race and gender. This is one of the reasons why, today, the very idea of large-scale collective insurrection is widely and quite reasonably mistrusted.

As consciousness of race and gender oppression displaces the failed history of class-centric revolutionary projects, to even express interest in large-scale insurrection against inequality and domination as such—rather than framing one’s opposition in terms of specific vectors of oppression—is often seen as suspicious and sometimes explicitly accused of erasing differences between people. The result is that we are increasingly aware of diverse vectors of institutionalized oppression which increase our felt need to overthrow all of them, at the same time we have become deeply suspicious, to the point of preemptively dismissive, of anyone too passionate about overthrowing all of them. Precisely as a generalized insurrection appears more and more necessary, activists are less and less able to speak of, let alone believe in, the very idea.

My argument is that the diverse types of inequality we see today, the complicated distributions of privilege and oppression which characterize modernity, actually increase our collective leverage against the dominant institutions and the small elite which benefit from them, while rendering elite control increasingly brittle in comparison. The main problem is that the diversity which characterizes modern society poses extraordinary interpersonal challenges for which very, very few people have any training or patience, for the understandable reason that our identities today are precisely refractions of the very divisive institutions which dominate and oppress us all differentially.

The reason why almost all the revolutionary projects in history fail or end with terror is precisely because they have always tried to clean an open wound with a dirty hand, over-eager to fix some things but under-concerned with fixing others. Today, in our increasingly information-based existence in which it is possible to know any fact but nearly impossible to live, we have the opposite problem: we are so aware of the dirt on our hands that we don’t believe we can fundamentally heal this collective wound which masquerades as a society. It often seems that because people sincerely don’t want to hurt anybody else, nobody wants to even dream aloud about how one could exercise revolutionary agency in one’s own way, let alone possibly in conjunction with others’ autonomous agency at some point, somehow.1

I think that what we need are methods for identifying rigorously the emancipatory pathways available to different people in different situations at different times. It would seem to me that any vision for the possibility of social revolution in a society rife with diverse divisions and hierarchies would need to be composed of heterogenous battle maps for heterogenous situations. These maps should and must be made by different folks for different purposes and there does not need to be any overarching process of verification or legitimation for us to nonetheless wish, hope, and try to make them connect up to whatever degree that becomes possible. The mistake of previous revolutions has been to ask certain groups to wait for other groups; we can affirm everyone’s equal right to immediately do whatever they think most important, and we affirm our desires to attune ourselves to what others want to do, whether we understand it or not, then we can also affirm the dream of a massive and collective abolition of inequality and domination as such, without ever “prioritizing” anyone over anyone else.

What follows in this manuscript might be more immediately useful to those who already have certain privileges and resources which I’m lucky enough to have. I don’t know, one doesn’t know how limited is one’s perspective until one formulates it, until one takes its measure. That is probably an ineluctable condition of anyone thinking or writing anything in the contribution to collective social change. Still, I don’t know, I still believe in the possibility of individuals and groups contributing to the dream and, ultimately, the plan for concretely ushering in an era of real justice and real equality in this lifetime. I believe in at least trying to think through a process whereby diverse groups could aggregate effectively but justly into a massive insurrectionary force toward universal justice, understanding that a truly universal justice would have to be one that is absolutely consistent with all particular identities and desires.

To begin conceptually delimiting a philosophy of intersectional battle maps, of potentially infinite and absolutely autonomous units but facing only the direction of universal, insurrectional unity. We might begin by hypothesizing that wherever tactical opportunities open up in such a fashion that only a relatively small group of people are able to exploit them, that specific small group is a revolutionary avant-garde of that specific front, not by rights or necessity but by chance. No vanguard of “the revolution” or “the movement,” just one of many revolutionary vanguards growing from the logic that the emancipatory opportunities available today are extremely diverse and separated, and contingent on the different positions occupied by different individuals distributed across our hierarchical and divided societies.

And it is no criticism of the individuals first possessed of certain revolutionary perturbations that they are merely “privileged” or “bourgeois” as if that disqualifies them from the resistance. It is a conservative, bourgeois ideology to critique revolutionaries for having a bourgeois background, for not only is it a patently _ad hominem_ argument, it’s effect is to disqualify a faction of society which is sometimes the only faction with the material resources (time, education, technology, etc.), to undertake certain types of activity in certain times or places. Just as there will be crucial types of activity which, I imagine, could only be done by the less privileged. If someone is truly revolutionary, their only function is to spread freedom through contagion from wherever they find themselves, to embody a freedom whose specific nature and function is to proliferate and multiply itself through a process I’ve modeled elsewhere with respect to the political vanguard and according to which the avant-garde will expand just as well. The simple reason why the avant-garde as well as the vanguard have been critical concepts in art and politics is not because there need to be leaders, as in the disastrously erroneous doctrines of someone like Lenin. The limited quantity of representatives in any emergent avant-garde or vanguard is simply a function of the evolutionary fact that everything has to start somewhere, with some minor perturbation in the system.

  1. In some sense this is good, because perhaps it means the pendulum has swung away from authoritarian tendencies, and perhaps it means that the next massive revolution to shake the world will be constitutionally incapable of lapsing into authoritarian terror. But in another sense, it is clearly a peculiar pathology for an allergy to authoritarianism to become a kind of authoritarian norm precluding the possibility of a generalized explosion of diverse freedoms.

Cite this post: RIS Citation BibTeX Entry

Murphy, Justin. 2015. "On oppression and insurrection (1)," https://jmrphy.net/blog/2015/05/12/oppression-insurrection-1/ (December 14, 2018).