Cultivating Shared Agency

The process of revolutionary consciousness by Rowan Fortune.


Lately, I have been thinking a lot about those political activities that inspire me, and those that dispirit me. Those that enthuse me with a sense of open possibility, and those that close off the future. There have been two principal reasons for having these thoughts at this time.

The first is that I increasingly have less and less of myself to give to activities in the world. Various medical and mental health conditions have converged, exacerbated by environmental concerns (grief, heatwaves, political crisis) to render the ability I have to be involved increasingly limited.

It is easy to muddle an excess of capability with infinite capability. When you do not feel yourself constrained in what you want to do, you can feel yourself to be boundless. Similarly, it is easy to feel that when capabilities quickly diminish, you have none whatsoever. Importantly, both of these confusions are just that: misperceptions. We always make choices. And in overcoming the feeling of disempowerment my problems have produced, I have needed to very carefully consider choice.

The second principal reason for thinking about the impact my political activities have on me is that I have recently engaged in a flurry of them that foreclose rather than expand, that diminish rather than grow my agency. And this has cast my mind back to those activities I have done in the past that were likewise unfruitful.

And so, I find that I am not only thinking about choice abstractly, but specifically the bad political choices I have made and continue to make. I do not mean bad in that they are directed at bad ends, that I have indulged bad political content. (In the distant past I certainly did, as is true of most anyone, endorse politics I no longer profess, but that is another topic.) What I mean instead is that I make bad choices in how I invest my limited resources in pursuing a good politics.

This is not unrelated to bad political content, however. These choices are not just about wasted effort, but also how my efforts shape me. Make me more resentful or hopeful, angry or loving, optimistic or pessimistic, and how these general attitudes will inevitably come to reflect on the content of my politics.

So far in this essay I have taken on a first-person account. But that is only to explain and contextualize why I have taken on this subject. I will continue to draw from my experiences, but I will not limit my focus to myself. The stakes are high. For all of us.

Marxism is revolutionary. It aims at the transformation of society by revolutionary means, an upheaval that fundamentally alters the roots of our social system. It therefore rejects reformism. But the nature of this rejection is not always clear.

In arguments about how marxists ought to relate to reformism, there is a difference over whether or not any participation in reformist goals constitutes reformism. I agree with those who argue that it does not. Marx discusses consciousness at length, and he regards participation in projects to reform capitalist society as an important development of consciousness that, by discovering the limits of those projects, lead to revolutionary consciousness.

My comrade Logan and I have come to regard allyship (the explicit external solidarity of people outside of a struggle against oppression) as a flawed stage of consciousness that must burgeon into a true solidarity, one that recognizes that nobody is fully external to anyone else’s oppression, that we should operate alongside people whose social positionality is oppressed not as allies but as comrades, friends, accomplices. The basis for our thinking was discussed in A Trans Guide to Cis Solidarity.

In class terms, Marx makes the distinction between the working class in-itself (a form of consciousness that seeks to reform class society) and the working class in-and-for-itself (a form of consciousness that seeks to abolish class society and therefore its own existence as a class). Both in-itself and allyship are examples of what Logan and I call dualistic thinking; it sees the agent of change as external to the problem. When we think monistically, we see that this split is false. We cannot change society without changing ourselves, as socially constituted beings.

To oppose allyship outright, to oppose the class in-itself, in favour of a truer solidarity, in favour of a class in-and-for-itself, is to oppose childhood in favour of adulthood. We cannot hope to wholly avoid dualistic errors in a society that, because it is alienated and therefore alienating (splitting us off from one another, from our labour-power, from our species essence) is inherently dualistic in its everyday habits, rituals and beliefs. Dualism must be struggled through.

Therefore, to bypass these earlier, flawed forms of struggle is to create a movement that lacks its own formative possibility. It is a kind of forced precociousness, which results in an unstable basis for radicalism. That is not to propose that we encourage false struggle as some kind of necessary delusion, but that we engage with it where it appears, and guide it towards its maturation into a revolutionary form of consciousness.

Earlier I mentioned that I have been engaged in unfruitful political actions. Two recent examples would be creating a government petition in protest against prominent transphobe Joanna Cherry’s elevation to chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, and writing to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) in protest about a Telegraph article that framed the opinion columnist Nick Cohen’s suspension from his Observer job around allegations of sexual improprieties as a trans rights row, even though the suspension has nothing at all to do with transgender people.

In both cases the action put me face to face with the indifferent machinations of bureaucratic politics. The petition was rejected because it made accusations against an individual who was, despite being an MP, outside of parliaments jurisdiction (alongside other equally spurious pretexts).

None of the substance of the complaint against the Telegraph was challenged, either, but IPSO made the categorically true point that they have very little power to regulate the press, that lying and directing hate against groups of people is perfectly acceptable behaviour in the British media landscape.

I did not undertake either of these admittedly low effort courses naively believing that doing so would make some tremendous difference to the world, but the responses were nonetheless infuriating. In both cases, the feeling was one of powerlessness in the world. Anti-trans bigots currently control the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights (as they did under its previous chair, another transphobe Harriet Harman), but also the executive’s Minister brief for Women and Equalities, and the “independent” Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Essentially, when hate crime against us increases and increases and increases, those who direct hate against us control every relevant civil society body. And there are no plausible official avenues in civil society to protest these circumstances, or intervene in the media consensus that trans people ought to be dehumanized. Even the supposedly liberal BBC depicts us as threats to cis women and lesbians, citing ludicrously unscientific polling orchestrated on social media by hate groups, while the Guardian rarely misses a chance to opine against our autonomy and safety.

The essayist Lily Alexandre wonderfully outlines in the video “Why Is Queer Discourse so Toxic?” that social media today—without in any way romanticising the past—has enormous structural problems for the healthy and flourishing development of queer consciousness. Problems that likely cannot be solved within the sphere of social media itself. It is perhaps, then, unsurprising that both my petition and my letter to IPSO were inspired by engagements I had on twitter.

The disheartening nature of twitter is something on which I have written before, when I quit it for some time. (Currently I block social media 90% of the time, but still value my ties to certain people there.) Reflecting on this, I made a poll in which of 28 participants over 78% said that they found the website made them feel more defeated and pessimistic than empowered and hopeful. This is clearly not a scientific poll, in case any BBC “journalists” are reading, but it nonetheless paints a picture of a sphere that is deleterious to the political will of those who engage with it.

In the argument over whether we should engage in reformist activities (at lower end this includes petitioning and letters of complaint, and at the higher joining the Labour Party or frequent agitating on social media), we should consider choices. Not just abstractly, but the particular choices of the particular person considering such activities, where they are (literally as well as figuratively, is their local Labour Party a hotbed of encouraging radicalism or a mess of inane Blairite bureaucracy), what is their current consciousness, etc.

Before I attempted to establish why we cannot reject activities that pursue reform as a rule of thumb. But nor can we embrace them as a rule of thumb either. Indeed, we cannot have any general rule on what amounts to a question of the development of struggles. We must constantly appraise both the general situation and the particulars of involvement.

But in making that calculation a crucial question is how actual or potential cadre will be impacted by taking one course of action over another. And even for those of us less closed in by circumstance than I, there are always temporal choices. We exist within the confines of our capacities in time. Endless defeat, unmitigated victories, both within limited horizons, can distort consciousness.

Marxists, like everyone, can often provide excellent answers to the wrong questions about the wrong things. Meticulous plans about how to organise effectively in a fundamentally dispiriting and disempowering sphere of influence that ultimately only kills radicalism is a good example of a good answer to a bad question. Underlining a question such as this one is often the assumption that we do not need to make choices about where we choose to organise at all.

A focus on recruitment often leads marxists to neglect the needs of existing cadre, resulting in the loss of those cadre. This is because marxists do not overcome the aforementioned dualism, and tend to see themselves and their organisations as not absolutely situated in the very society they judge so harshly, vulnerable to all of its harms and evils. They see themselves as a special caste removed, above, elected and elevated, not those struggling to change themselves in the course of changing the world.

To cultivate shared agency, we must all start thinking a lot more about those political activities that inspire us, and those that dispirit us. Those that enthuse us with a sense of open possibility, and those that close off the future. We may come to some erroneous answers, but at least we will be asking the right questions.

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Rowan Fortune authored Writing Nowhere; edited the anthology of utopian short fiction Citizens of Nowhere; and contributed to the collaborative book System Crash. It writes on utopian imagination, revolutionary theory and trans* liberation.

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