January 8, 2012 by tristan savage
What can the anarchist labor movement teach us about solidarity in the fight against sexual violence?
Can Men and Women Have One Big Union?
[posted concurrently @ FeministMormonHousewives]
Back in June 1905, workers representing dozens of unions from around the United States gathered in Chicago to form one big revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World. IWW members, or Wobblies, as they came to be known, left a permanent mark on our country, helping to win battles for the 8-hour day, free speech, overtime pay, workplace safety, and the right to organize. But the biggest thing they left was their idea of ‘solidarity unionism,’ summed up in their motto, “an injury to one is an injury to all.”
Heard through the filter of today’s liberal multiculturalism, that motto might ring of “we’re all in this together”, the sort of hollow inspirational grandstanding we’re used to seeing on classroom posters and corporate advertising and moralistic sermons from capitalists in suits. But that’s not at all what the Wobblies meant by it – they were the original class warriors of American labor, and if there is a clear historical precedent to today’s “We Are the 99%” it is probably the preamble to the IWW constitution: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common”. But even after drawing a clear line between the ‘owners’ and the ‘workers’, the abusers and the abused, they were still left with one major challenge: how to convince the 99% of people who worked for a living, as divided as they all were by race, gender, language, and trade, that they had common interests. The Wobblies emerged out of an environment where only white male skilled workers (like carpenters and railroad conductors) were really encouraged to organize for better labor conditions. The Wobblies, though, saw that ultimately if there were any workers that could be underpaid and abused on the job, those conditions would eventually become a reality for everybody because they could always replace you with someone a little more desperate for the job –a prediction that’s been dramatically illustrated over the last several decades, as US corporations have gradually replaced their ‘good union jobs’ with outsourced sweatshops.
The Wobblies’ predictions and their message of solidarity hit close to home. I work as a volunteer at the Workers’ Dignity Project, a scrappy outfit of immigrant workers and allies fighting to stop the wage theft epidemic in Nashville. Since I answer the organization’s phone, I’m the first listener for desperate stories. This morning a construction worker called; fifteen minutes earlier his former boss had spotted him on the interstate and chased him, tailgating his truck, pulling alongside the cab to shout, and following him off the exit –when the worker pulled off and stepped out of his truck, the boss yelled he was going to have him killed, soon, if he went anywhere near the Workers’ Dignity Project again, before jumping back in his Mercedes and speeding off. Or last week: I got a call from a woman whose husband was picked up by the police in a routine traffic stop during a construction job in Louisiana, and has been incarcerated for more than three weeks because he didn’t have an ID. Their boss is refusing to pay the $8000 he owes for weeks of contracted work, and now she is about to give birth, without her husband or the cash to cover medical expenses.
When workers in Nashville do stand up to this kind of brutality, they usually do so with an explanation like this: “I am tired of being treated like nothing. I might not win this battle, but if I don’t stand up, my boss is going to do this to lots of other people after me, like he did to me and lots of people before me.” They are struggling for the benefit of someone else down the line, knowing that if one worker can be abused with impunity the bosses will get used to it and eventually use those same tools against everyone.
The Tyrant’s Toolbox
For men engaged in the struggle against patriarchy and sexual violence, “an injury to one is an injury to all” isn’t always easy to apply literally.
We might resonate with the touchy-feely idea that we’re ‘all in this together’, or the sentimental notion that I’m just affected as my girlfriend by misogyny because I love her and don’t want her to feel bad, or the real but still laughably inadequate worry that oppression hurts the oppressing class (in this case, men) as much as it hurts the oppressed (in this case, women). But, in the end, women are still usually the ones that bear the brunt of sexual violence. Is gender just different, or does the Wobbly slogan hold any promise for us here?
I think men can benefit enormously from a feminist (woman-centered) analysis of power and abuse, even when they are trying to fight violence against men. Bear with me for an example or two:
Last month I read Yashar Ali’s “A Message to Women From a Man: You Are Not ‘Crazy’,” about what happens when men are cruel, and then when women confront that cruelty men blow it off as women being ‘overly emotional’ or ‘unable to take a joke.’ For this, Ali borrows the term ‘gaslighting’ from the 1944 film Gaslight, in which a greedy husband schemes to steal his wife’s jewelry:
He realizes he can accomplish this by having her certified as insane and hauled off to a mental institution. To pull of this task, he intentionally sets the gaslights in their home to flicker off and on, and every time [his wife] reacts to it, he tells her she’s just seeing things. In this setting, a gaslighter is someone who presents false information to alter the victim’s perception of him or herself.
Today, when the term is referenced, it’s usually because the perpetrator says things like, “You’re so stupid,” or “No one will ever want you,” to the victim. This is an intentional, pre-meditated form of gaslighting, much like the actions of Charles Boyer’s character in Gaslight […]
The form of gaslighting I’m addressing is not always pre-mediated or intentional, which makes it worse, because it means all of us, especially women, have dealt with it at one time or another.
Those who engage in gaslighting create a reaction — whether it’s anger, frustration, sadness — in the person they are dealing with. Then, when that person reacts, the gaslighter makes them feel uncomfortable and insecure by behaving as if their feelings aren’t rational or normal.
As the online comments attest, the article served as a sort of inkblot test for its readers. One critical comment that really stood out to me, though, and which I think can help us think through the politics of solidarity in male feminism, goes roughly like this: “Gaslighting is done by and to all genders; it isn’t just a tactic men use against women.” Which is, of course, true, although the commenter misses the article’s point: when was the last time you heard a guy say, “ya, that girl was just cray-zee”? Probably yesterday. When was the last time you heard a girl say that about a boy? Probably less recently.
But on the other hand, this gender-neutral theory of abuse has a point: the reality is that abusers are often not that creative – they use the weapons and practices they already know, and use them against whoever they have selected as their next victim. But abusers do often have a lot of practice – and in a patriarchal society, a lot of their abuse is practiced at the expense of women. Let’s think of a typical example from my middle-school days: girls were treated as though they were more irrational, weaker, less intelligent, and generally less valuable than boys where I lived in northern Alabama. So when a boy wanted to pick on another boy, it was generally as simple as labeling that boy a “girl” and then treat him as he would normally treat a girl.
Tactics like these are used all the time to hurt both women and men- but they are developed and practiced most often and viciously on women. When men get ‘gaslit’ (or worse), we are being subjected to a patriarchal tactic that exists largely to subordinate women. If we really want to understand what we are experiencing, feminist analyses of patriarchy will help us see general patterns. Similarly, a lot of the tools that were developed by American white supremacy are now used against white people too – for example, the abuses of convict labor in our prison system were developed as a way of violently controlling African American laborers after the ‘abolition of slavery’, and those patterns persist, but those tools are now used against white prisoners as well.
Even if we recognize that today’s abusive CEO’s and prison guards could very well be African Americans themselves, our critiques of the prison system will always lack depth and our resistance will lack grounding if we don’t recognize how those tools became patterned and practiced through white supremacy.
Derrick Jensen, my favorite male feminist thinker and a creative writing teacher in the California State Prison system, suggests in his book The Culture of Make Believe that:
Most people acknowledge that at least on the inside, rape is not a sex crime, but a crime of power. In an all-male prison, the absence of women forces men to create women, that is, to create a subordinate class, the feminine to their masculine, the submissive to their aggressive, the penetrated to their penetration, to create a class of the fucked.
Male prison rape, then, is an atrocity in which, on the surface, no women seem to be involved. But in a real sense, women are intimately involved: they are the class on which this kind of brutality is rehearsed ‘in real life’. After all, as Jensen goes on to point out, male prisoners are raped at a rate between 9 and 20 percent, but,
There’s something interesting about the rate at which men in prison are raped: it’s lower than the rate at which women are raped in the culture at large. Most studies suggest that 25 percent of women in the United States are raped during their lifetimes, and another 19 percent have to fend off rape attempts. I suppose you could say that for women –and not just those in prison – rape is “a fact of life.” When a man goes to prison, everyone seems to think: “Oh, shit, he’s going to get raped.” But every day, women walk down the streets, or stay in their homes, and face that same possibility.
To adapt the Wobblies slogan, then: behind every injured man, there is a series of injured women. We begin practicing solidarity by understanding that we all have different experiences, different risks, different privileges and vulnerabilities, and the structures of oppression in our society are a result of specific racialized and sexualized patterns that go back hundreds or thousands of years. Oppression is not equal. Then, we realize that even if some of us are at more immediate risk than others, we can’t afford to ever let the oppressors successfully practice, because they will inevitably use that practice against us, too.
Check back for Part 2: Rape survivors organizing against capitalism in today’s IWW, and the politics of gender in Occupy Nashville.