The various Occupy movements which have garnered widespread support and mainstream media attention over the past year have been exciting and heartening to watch and participate in. They have also received many criticisms from all kinds of communities, and from other movements. One of these critiques, which I don’t feel has been given enough attention, is the notion put forth by some factions of the movement that corporate force–and the economic orders it represents–is the root of all evil and inequity. The underlying rhetoric around much of the Occupy and many other anti-capitalist and anarchist movements, is that the elimination of global capitalism would effectively dismantle all forms of oppression and inequity in its wake. Though many queer, Brown and feminist activists have already critiqued this idea, I have some points I would like to add.
The idea that capitalism is the root of all injustice is not a new one, and has not only been espoused by straight, white men. Perhaps the most famous activist who often expressed such sentiments was Lucy Eldine Gonzalez Parsons–a legendary anarchist and feminist of Indigenous, Mexicana and African decent–renowned for her contributions to radical labor movements of the late 1800s. Much of her own work and activism traced the origins of multiple forms of oppression–including racism and sexism–back to the economic order of capitalism. As a Brown, working class woman, she saw the hierarchy and scarcity inherent in capitalism as the cause of many other kinds of disparity, all of which it depended on to function. It was these claims, bold for their times, which often incited the most volatile reactions from her comrades and critics, who in their era saw race and gender as abstract ideas, not linked to something like economics, which they saw as concrete.
The controversial claims which Parsons made in the late 18 and early 1900s are still debated in activist communities today. However, whereas Parsons linked gender and race to capitalism at a time when it was discussed almost exclusively in relation to wages and resources, activist and organizing communities in our current moment express these links more commonly–much of the populist rhetoric surrounding Occupy Wall Street being a prime example. Yet the problem which many of these arguments run into is the same one for which many other Brown feminists of later generations called out Lucy Parsons: Because we often see race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability as necessarily linked to capitalism–as I believe we should–we come to see modern economics as the root of all other systems of oppression. Instead of imagining capitalism as one order of inequity which must be addressed alongside all others, we make the claim that by attacking capitalism, we are effectively attacking all systems which perpetuate injustice.
As oppressed people, but particularly as Brown, Indigenous and queer people, we should know that the eradication of capitalism and corporate force (while desirable) will not eliminate all forms of inequity, disparity and systemic prejudice. For each of our cultures holds long legacies of slavery, ethnic cleansing, patriarchal rule, and systemic violence which predate colonialism and global capitalism by centuries. What the rise of these systems has represented is not the introduction or invention of these forms of oppression, but a fundamental shift in how they are instituted, who has the power to institute them, and which groups and identities have been created and united as their targets. In other words, and for example, Black people killed, robbed and enslaved one another for generations before the category “Black” even existed. This is something that we Black people in 2012 would do well to understand and remember, as we fight not only to better understand our place in current orders, but how to align ourselves with all people in our efforts to transform them.
As people bearing multiple forms of oppression, we understand in ways that others may not the ways in which all systems of injustice are inseparable, but simultaneously distinct. This is a kind of awareness we must learn to bring to anarchist and anti-capitalist struggles, not as a means of undermining them, but of reminding them that they are not inherently inclusive. We have and continue to experience violence, silence and invisibility under more regimes than solely that of global capitalism. Understanding that inequity and domination exist before, outside of, and even in opposition to capitalism is an ability which comes simply from remembering our own histories as colonized subjects, and our intersecting identities today. We have sometimes been the ones who treated capitalism as the source of all injustice. Let us fight in the present and into future to paint a broader of image of what oppression consists of, and work to unite all people in opposing it in every form.
I held lots of romantic ideas about what a classroom community could and should look like before I actually started working with kids. I imagined a learning space organized, run and determined entirely by students, one where creativity reigned and authority was nonexistent. I envisioned a room without walls, a curriculum without requirements. I dreamed of a truly deconstructed schooling, free of grades, codes and oppressive strictures of any kind. This vision became challenged, however, as I embarked on my journey as an aspiring educator, first as an after school tutor and coordinator, and more recently as a classroom teacher-in-training.
After a very short amount of time in the company of kids who had been entrusted to my care, I came to understand how necessary structure was to ensuring their safety and success. From walking a group of ten year-old boys five blocks to the library, to guiding a group of third graders through a math worksheet; from refereeing a friendly basketball game, to passing out snack; from introducing the work of a new poet in a writing workshop, to mediating a heated debate about sexual identity, it quickly became obvious to me that structure was imperative to effective communication, and scaffolding a community with trust and respect.
I also came to understand that structure was an expectation placed on me by other members of the communities I belonged to. Any experienced family member, caregiver, educator or guardian knows how important structure is in providing expectations and outlines for young community members as they grow into their own places. In order to gain the respect and consent of the community as an educator, it was given that I would continue to set these same expectations for the children in my care. Yet these new realizations and community expectations caused me some confusion. As an oppressed person with radical politics, a core belief I held was that all structures had to be radically challenged and ultimately dismantled for a truly just world to be realized. How could I aline this belief with being a classroom teacher, and with the expectations placed on me by family members and caregivers from my own community?
Gioconda Belli, the renowned Nicaragüense poet, writer and thinker–who is perhaps best known for her involvement with the Sandinista forces during the Nicaraguan Revolution–speaks powerfully to this very question. Belli once wrote that July 19, 1979, the day the FSLN entered Managua and declared victory against the U.S.-backed military dictatorship, was one of the most terrifying days of her life. Even though the struggle she had invested herself in for so long appeared to be over, and the revolutionaries with whom she had fought were victorious, she found herself feeling lost. She had existed in opposition to Las Contras for so long, had constructed all of her spiritual, emotional and political energy against them so completely, that when they were finally overthrown and her own party was in power, she felt as though she no longer had a purpose, a passion with which to push her struggle forward. She realized in that moment, as she would later describe it, that as difficult as it was to challenge an oppressive order, it was even more difficult to democratically arrive at new and just order which could take its place. This is where the real struggle, the real need for creativity, imagination, and compassion, comes in.
Where Belli’s profound realization leaves off is, I believe, exactly where an insurgent form of education picks up. For when we examine any community of which we are a part–be it queer, working, immigrant, family, religious, academic, etc.–we see that there is always structure, in the form of tradition, ritual, language, art, or something else beautiful. Structure is not the inherent enemy, and providing structure for the members of our community who need it is not something we should feel guilty about. Instead of demonizing structure altogether, what we should ask as educators as we attempt to construct communities of learning is: What is this structure molded after? What is it designed to do? Who designed it? Was it created collaboratively? How is this structure going to support our vision of a community? Who gets to determine if this structure is working properly? If this structure needs to change, who has the voice and the power to change it? By asking these questions, a concrete vision of a learning space can be adopted, one which does not need to forfeit any radical and romantic visions like the ones I had before I actually began teaching. What I believe all of our communities have the power to teach as (and what I think anarchist-educational politics would have taught me if I had originally understood them with more nuance) is that structure is oppressive when it is determined by the elite for the benefit of a few. When we are creative, collaborative and visionary about it, the ways that we structure our classrooms, our lives, and our own communities are entirely up to us.