By Jason Michael

SOCIAL MOVEMENTS ARE NOT what they used to be. Thinking of the black civil rights movement in the United States through the 1950s to the emergence of the Black Panther movement with its connections to revolutionary groups around the world, we are struck by their rational, articulate, and uncompromising character. This was an age of the flowering of protest. Old empires had toppled under the weight of imperial conflicts, the grotesque equality of the trenches and the global struggle against fascism and communism had given birth to a new political consciousness, and as the victors of 1945 attempted to reassert the challenged certainties of the pre-war era during the post-war settlement the dominated resisted.

In Ireland, as the Troubles once again began to flare up, voices like that of Bernadette Devlin rose up; resolute in their conviction that there should be justice for all in their country. Sectarianism was confronted along with the structural violence in the occupied six counties which kept one part of the population under the thumb of another. “My function in life,” declared Devlin, “is not to be a politician in parliament, it is to get something done.” Activism, whether social or political, was, in the thinking of that generation, about action; about getting things done. Perceiving the futility of playing politics at the heart of the British imperial system, she said:

Basically, I have no place in organised politics. By coming to the British Parliament, I’ve allowed the people to sacrifice me at the top and let go the more effective job I should be doing at the bottom.

Organisation, education, and agitation – the politics of the street, “at the bottom” – were the mother’s milk of social and political movements around the world that sought, through struggle, to end the hegemony that kept them in the chains of their present conditions. This active focus on the goal of the movement was brilliantly and memorably articulated by the Black Panther leader and the author of Soul on Ice, Eldridge Cleaver: “What we’re saying today is that you’re either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem.”

Both the movement objective and the activist subject were understood as elements of the revolutionary equation in fusion. Each individual, be they active, passive, or uninvolved in the process, was in him and herself a means to the ends of the movement. The efforts, inactivity, and the reaction – of activists and the reactionaries alike – were inextricably linked to the fortune of the movement and its chances of success and failure. The movement was personal and the personal was movement, making each and every member part of the solution or part of the problem. Solidarity, thus understood, gave the movement its solidity; giving real meaning to the slogan: The people united can never be defeated!

We lack this solidity because we lack this meaningful sense of solidarity. Still the same need for change is felt and we see and feel the effects of the same and similar injustices, but struggle has atrophied. It has become diseased to the point of near uselessness. Struggle, as a mode of resistance and as a means of affecting change, has deteriorated and has become pathetic.

Perhaps the fights for the greater justices have continued on even after their victories were won, creating the “social justice warrior” – the phenomenon of the fighter for the ever-decreasing justice. When the war for women’s rights was won Feminism went on and fractured into new feminisms, battling against smaller and smaller giants until at last it is duelling with phantasms and fictions. Here Camille Paglia is correct:

Women infantilize themselves when they cede responsibility for sexual encounters to men or to after-the-fact grievance committees, parental proxies unworthy of true feminists. My baby-boom generation demanded and won an end to such parietal rules, and it is tragic indeed how so many of today’s young women seem to long for a return of those hovering paternalistic safeguards.

As with so many modern justice struggles, feminism – in many of its more recent iterations – has become hypersensitive to the merest slight, seeing in every criticism and angry word the ancient Titans of sexual inequality, misogyny, and structural sexism. Every man becomes the enemy and every utterance from the lips of men a proof of misogyny and violence against women. But this disease isn’t limited to modern feminism. It is eating away at the soul of all the great social movements’ progeny. Socialism, racial justice, gender rights – the works, have all sunken into the mire of whining so-called progressivism, a meaningless quasi-leftist political terminology.

Progress is subjective. The achievement of class and movement goals is objective. Yet, part of this subjectivity is the subjectification of the goals themselves. Rather than seeing the work of mass social and political movements in society, we have tribes – ever shrinking tribes – of whimsical and individualistic “rights” battles. As these petty struggles proliferate and intensify their activists become increasingly more pathetic in the defence of their rights. Hyperbole is the order of the day; every detractor, every opponent, and every criticism becomes for them the most extreme form of intolerance and injustice since the dawn of human civilisation. Is it any wonder the hyper-macho political right is on the march over Europe and North America?

At some point, if we are to recover the élan of the effective social movement, this wastage has to be checked. Somehow people’s attention has to be returned to the idea of real struggle and the need for solidarity. The personal has to be reintegrated into the idea of common cause, for without this essential adhesive there can be no mass movement, and so there can be no effective social force for change in society. The newly emerging precariat is a class-becoming, having not as yet discovered a class identity and politics of its own. It is beset by the disease of infantile wants and petty struggles, but if there is to be any hope for change then it is this class that must discover its true class interest and so mobilise as a body to fight for its goals.


Camille Paglia talks to Ella Whelan about feminism

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