In theory or in practice?

Michal Osterweil

‘There are no shortcuts, and if there are they are only “table tricks”. There is only experimentation as method and substance of the “becoming-movement”?’

Theory/Practice Divide?

I think a big part of why many people have been so excited about the politics ushered in by the Zapatistas, Seattle, and Social Forums – to name just a bit of what constitutes the motley ‘movement of movements’ many speak of – is because they embodied and posited deliberate reactions to the practical and theoretical failures of previous political approaches on the Left.

That is, leftist movements, unions and parties clearly failed to achieve or effect change based on the parameters and theories they were working by: they did not defeat capitalism or achieve equality. But these failures were not primarily due to a thwarted strategy, a forced compromise or a political loss to another side. Rather, there were fundamental problems with the modes and political visions these leftist movements were using and basing their practices on. These included: the reproduction of oppressions and micro-fascisms within supposedly progressive organisations; an inability to deal with the differences posed by contextual (historical, geographic, cultural, personal) specificities; and an inability to articulate a sustainable form of relation between movements and everyday life or society, and between movements and the ‘political’ (i.e. the State, or other more permanent forms of political organisation). Finally these movements failed to relate to human desires – for leisure, love, fun and so on.

In contrast, one of the most inspiring things about the ‘movement of movements,’ is precisely the visibility and centrality of critical and reflective practices captured perhaps most famously by the Zapatista phrase caminar preguntando – ‘to walk while questioning’. Today, almost everywhere one looks among many of the diverse movement networks, there are various attempts to think through, investigate and experiment with different political practices, imaginaries, as well as different analyses of the systems and sites in which we are struggling. Moreover, this theoretical production strives to find language and concepts adequate to the complex, messy and unexpected elements always present in the lived realities of efforts at social change.

While movements have always produced theories to help guide their action, what I find particularly notable is what seems a common tendency, among many parts of this disparate movement, in the nature of both the content of the theories, and the ways they are produced. They seem based in an ethic of partiality, specificity and open-endedness; a willingness to be revised and reworked depending on their lived effectiveness; and a sensitivity to the fact that unexpected conflicts and consequences might arise when different subjects or circumstances come into contact with them. Of no coincidence, these mirror forms of theorising and political practice that many align with feminism.

I first heard a comparison to feminism almost five years ago when I was visiting Italy in an attempt to learn about the phenomenal movement that had brought over 300,000 people to the streets of Genoa; had made Italians some of the most active participants in myriad alter-globalisation meetings and protests outside of Italy; and had seen the emergence of local social forums – where non-representative forms of government were experimented with on a regular basis – in many Italian cities. The Bologna Social Forum (BSF) was one of the most active of these local forums and I am told that, at its height, it was not unusual for 500 people to attend, many of whom were individuals not affiliated with any party, union or militant organisation. At the first meeting of the BSF I attended, one of the leaders of the then Disobbedienti opened his remarks with a bold and strange statement. He declared, ‘Io credo che questo movimento sía una donna’ – ‘I believe that this movement is a woman’. He then went on to explain that what he meant was that this movement was female because it functioned according to different logics than previous movements. It functioned according to logics of difference, dispersion and affect: no central group or singular ideology could control it, and it was propelled by an energy, from subjects and places, that far exceeded those of traditional forms of leftist organisation and practice. To him this was intimately tied to feminine/feminist notions of politics – and therefore to the figure of woman.

After his remarks the space was filled with silence, smirks, smiles and some hesitant nods of agreement. I shared the ambivalence. On the one hand I was intellectually intrigued and somewhat in agreement with his claim about the ‘feminine’ or minoritarian logic of this movement, but on the other, I was a bit disturbed by the comment. Besides a visceral reaction to the very use of the term ‘woman’ (by a man) to describe something as dynamic and heterogeneous as the (Italian) alter-globalisation movement, it made me uncomfortable because throughout a meeting lasting well over two hours, only two or three women had actually spoken. Moreover, when they did speak, they took less time and spoke with less authority than the many male activists. In spite of this rather blatant tension – that the movement was a woman, but the women hardly spoke – the phrase and analogy struck me quite profoundly.

Two years later, I had a conversation with another male activist, again part of the Disobbedienti network. Once again I was referred to feminism as a theoretical perspective I really ought to get familiar with if I were to make sense of the ‘movement of movements’ and its potentials. I smiled and raised my eyebrows, and so this activist, excited by my apparent interest in his own interest in feminism, jotted down a few books and essays that he believed were critical reads. I smiled again and nodded to myself, starting to make more sense of at least the cause of the ambivalence provoked by such moments.

Each time I was simultaneously compelled and disturbed by these references to feminism: excited because I too think there is something to this linking of feminism with the politics of contemporary movements. But I was disturbed because the potential was not matched in reality. I was and am continuously struck by the ways the politics and potentials of our recent movements seem to posit the possibility of a refreshingly different politics: politics that are more dynamic and sensitive, more pleasurable and immediately satisfying, better able to meld with the future worlds we would like to construct, and better equipped to theorise inadequacies. And yet, when these possibilities don’t match the reality, we seem at a loss for words.

Today, although I remain inspired by the critical openness and ethos of experimentation, the willingness to theorise, analyse and reflect upon the efficacy of our actions while remaining oriented towards political transformation – traits that I believe characterise the best of our movements – I have become increasingly worried about this gap that exists between our ‘new’ and ‘better’ theories, and our lived realities.

What does it mean to see yourself as part of a movement governed by feminist and minoritarian logics when in so many of the most visible spaces, the voices and languages of women continue to be less audible? Does it matter if we have a fabulously astute and sensitive notion of what a good democratic – non-representative – politics would look like if we cannot involve more people in the conversation? Worse, is it of any use to have a great theoretical notion of the politics you want, but the very subjects you are claiming to be inspired by – that is those who have traditionally been othered, marginalised, excluded – are not present to participate in the discussion? If theoretical and reflective practice is so important to us today, even as an ethical and formal element, how do we live with such inconsistencies between our theoretical language and our experiences?

Case in Point!

If you haven’t yet noticed, the pages of Turbulence are mostly filled with pieces by men. There are very few female voices, and only one member of the editorial collective is female (me). While we can identify a lot of specific reasons this particular case of such an obvious and outrageous imbalance occurred – and even point out the fact that several women were invited and even intended to contribute articles – I think we ought to think more analytically about the issue. For despite our best intentions and the belief that we were not exclusive or biased, I don’t think that the absence of many voices, especially those of women, is a coincidental or accidental occurrence. I believe it was influenced by dynamics that have everything to do with the mostly white, male editorial board, as well as cultural-structural factors harder to articulate. Moreover, I don’t think going to press – despite these obvious lacks – was an obvious or inevitable choice. Rather it was the product of a certain rubric of value. One that placed greater value on both getting it out there, and on the time and effort we had put into publishing this journal regardless of the shortcomings, over the cost of having a journal with so many voices and perspectives missing. At this point, I am not making a judgment about whether that was a good choice – I am also torn – I am simply pointing to the fact that it was a choice.

While these absences are disheartening and politically very problematic, I want to see if it is possible to turn them into a useful moment to enlist those theoretico-practical capacities to engage this persistent, yet difficult to adequately define, problem within our movements. Personally, I have been struggling over how to both put into words and address concerns about the continuing dominance of male activists and masculinist politics. (Conditions that seem to be worsening – if not in a quantitative sense, then certainly in a qualitative one, because we should know better by now.) This dominance is quite obvious in the disproportionate visibility and audibility of men in many movement spaces and, more subtly, in a political modality that, despite the proclaimed absence of formulas and ideologies, remains unable to deal with specific problems and inequalities that inevitably arise in the course of collective endeavours. Not only the relative absence of female and other voices in this issue of Turbulence, but also the lack of women speaking at the BSF in Italy, for example. While I do not want to argue for a simplistic politics of representation, as if the mere presence of more women and more people from the global South would immediately or necessarily correspond to a better politics, I do believe that really prioritising more diversity could give us a better chance of producing such a politics!

I am also concerned that this problem is particularly insidious in the ‘autonomous’ or horizontalist area of the movement’ that most of us on the editorial collective identify with. ‘Particularly insidious’ because ‘we’ have been so critical of NGOs, ‘reformists’, parties and so many others for not being more politically consistent and for failing to recognise their complicity in maintaining and even reproducing the very things our movements contest. We have touted our ‘more democratic’ forms of organisation, our horizontality, our lack of hierarchy, our fluid, dynamic and affinity-based organisations, while we ourselves are guilty.

Could it be that, at least in part, our inability to address these imbalances and absences is an unintended consequence of the supposedly ‘new’ political theories that tend to see affinity, fluidity, horizontality and lack of identity as their defining logics? Could it be that this failure has everything to do with the language and theoretical approaches of feminist and other subaltern positions we have turned to using, but without having had the experiences that produced those theoretical and practical insights in the first place? Perhaps we’ve misinterpreted many of these new logics – we’ve read them devoid of their situational contexts, forgetting what they are a reaction against, and without recognising the fact that the logics themselves are overdetermined by a sensibility that goes against any form of theorising or theoretical language that is abstracted from the messy particularities of specific situations.

Experiential vs Abstract conflict and theory

Last fall I attended a four-day gathering in the north of Spain. The space was beautiful: an old Spanish church with a great deal of unused land, now home to Escanda, a live experiment in sustainable collective living. The aim of the gathering was to turn the principles and insights that have been promoted and experimented with at various counter-summits, social forums, encuentros and myriad other sites of our anti-capitalist activist networks, into a lasting and ongoing project where the difficulties and complexities of actually living such a politics on a day-to-day basis would be confronted. It seems fitting then that true to this spirit of taking on the challenges and difficulties we still face despite even our best-intentioned activist efforts, several women decided to organise a women-only radical (anti-capitalist) gathering. It was, to my knowledge, the first gathering of its kind: a space organised specifically and deliberately to address the ‘gender problem’ in the radical areas of our movements. In contrast to most women-only or feminist meetings, the gathering, also known as ‘Booty Camp’, self-identified first as part of the anti-capitalist/anti-authoritarian/radical-environmental networks that had been quite active in Europe for about a decade, and only secondarily as feminist. In fact, many of us arrived very critical of separatism and the exclusion of men – both in terms of whether that was good politically, and whether we would like it personally.

Despite my own concern to this end, the gathering turned out to be one of the most significant experiences I had had in years – both on a political and on a human level. The event changed me and I have not been able to engage with my political projects (or the world) in the same way since. This might sound a bit dramatic, like a cheesy harking back to the consciousness-raising groups of the 1970s where many of our mothers became empowered and from which many a legend about mirrors and masturbation come. I too felt a little overcome by how strongly I reacted to it. But in spite of the fact that I might be accused of promoting a romanticised nostalgia for a feminist movement of days gone-by, I think the parallel might be worth something, not only because of the feminist movement’s widespread effects, but also because of how and why it has been so effective and how it has changed over time.

For who can deny the transformative and lasting effects of feminism? No, it hasn’t ushered in an age of equality or the end of patriarchy, machismo, or capitalism, but it has profoundly transformed our social relations, our cultural norms, our very ways of being and seeing in the world. Whatever our gripes with its multi-generational manifestations – and believe me there are many – there was/is something about the feminist movement that has made it effective in truly widespread, durable and still dynamic ways: becoming a part of the ‘common sense’ (at least in the global North). I am not claiming that other movements like civil rights, labour, environmental and others haven’t had important effects, but I do think feminism-as-movement – as an ethic and sensibility that forces people to consciously and continuously challenge dominant norms – is quite special.

Yes, feminism has certainly been rife with conflicts, rifts and problems. Open conflicts have taken place between and among women from different economic and cultural backgrounds, of different sexual and gender identities, and from and within different global regions: it is/was continuously the object of critique. However, understanding these conflicts as wholly negative is in part a problem of how we read conflict and critique. For I believe that one of the reasons feminism has been so significant, despite its most problematic manifestations, is precisely because it has managed (or been forced) to really engage the conflicts and complexities that have traversed it throughout its history: conflicts between universalism and difference, cultural values and rights, North and South, etc. And because the multiple and at times contradictory elements that comprised it have subsequently worked to transform the discursive and lived spaces of feminist articulation to life and politics. Some of the most important insights about organising across differences came as a result of the fact that women of colour, queer women, anarchist women and women from the global South (among others) critiqued, seceded and worked to change what was perceived as a hegemonic feminism. While there is no doubt that the critiques must continue and the conflicts still exist, it is also undeniable that they have been extremely productive, if not constitutive of some of feminism’s most important contributions and insights into the nature of power and social change. This ethos and ability – the experience – of engaging the intersectional complexities of life despite, or even with and through, conflicts and differences without falling apart or disbanding was part of what made the Escanda gathering so powerful.

Concluding Thoughts

I think that at their best our recent movements have the potential to have similar lived lessons emerge from encounters and even clashes among our different elements. It is that potential people were sensing when they referred to the movement as woman, as new, as exciting. However, while the language of networks, affinity groups and difference have been critical additions to our political vocabularies, they can also quite easily justify a level of complacency and comfort about remaining within our differences – as separate groups. Moreover, while we have imagined and deployed this discourse and rhetoric of difference, becoming and affect, I fear we have forgotten about the lived and messy level of experienced conflict, as well as the time and effort it takes to work through them productively. Recognising irreducible differences, attempting to work with forms of organisation that are more fluid, dynamic and based on affect and pleasure, rather than structure and strategy, are key and important elements of the ‘new politics’, but they are not sufficient. Nor, I would add, is theorising and calling them part of a new post-representational political logic.

Ultimately one of the most important lessons of feminism, as well as of Zapatismo and other sources of inspiration for our new politics, is that the most important insights come from lived and unexpected experiences, including lived encounters with difference and lived experiences of the limitations of certain political models and ideologies. If we only talk and theorise amongst ourselves we are very unlikely to come across encounters that disrupt our ways of doing and thinking. So it is not sufficient to come up with a new narrative of social change: the terms and modality of the conversation must be recast as well. However, we need more people talking, arguing even, to truly change the terms of the conversation. That is why despite my serious reservations about the choice to publish this issue of Turbulence, I feel that it may be OK. Or rather I hope that through its attempt at opening up an ongoing space and project of interrogation and reflection – where it may itself be an experienced object of critique – without trying to definitively capture a snapshot of, or define absolutely an adequate politics for our movements, it could turn out to be a good thing. But only if people engage with it, argue with it, add to it…

I know that I have generalised here about the ‘movement of movements’ and in the process obscured important differences and the fact that many groups continue to act like the older left characterised briefly at the outset. I have chosen to do so to highlight trends that, while certainly less valid among certain groups, still characterise a general tendency among many.

The opening quotation is from Global Project, www.globalmagazine.org. For more on the links between feminism and the politics of the movement of movements, see J.K. Gibson-Graham’s A Postcapitalist Politics, and http://www.communityeconomies.org/index.php. Michal Osterweil lives in Carrboro, North Carolina, teaching and studying at UNC-Chapel Hill while working on various community projects. In addition to Turbulence, she has been active in trying to create spaces for integrating movement work with research/intellectual-theoretical production, locally and beyond. She can be contacted at mosterweil[at]gmail.com

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