Working On The Relationship: Political Field Notes From Women And Feminisms Of The Past

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“It is not just Trump’s ever wavering policies we need to reject but a political culture based on anger, hatred, and othering.”

During the primaries this summer political discourse and relationships descended to new lows. People on the right and left engaged in hateful, bullying exchanges, and during the campaign Trump and his supporters so normalized personal attack, unvarnished racism, sexism, homo and xenophobia that the headlines consisted of little more than subtly validating reports on the latest outrage. Even school children were reported to be echoing his language.

During times when I feared Trump might win, I considered moving to Canada where people are reputed to be “nice,” where the handsome Prime Minister has appointed 50% women to his cabinet and has been photographed with pandas. If Trump were to win, I thought, I would need those pandas and a feminist head of state.

But now that Trump has won and moving to Canada appears more difficult than it had seemed, what do we do with his continuing influence and the growing cultural power of the white supremacists who support him and are involved in running his presidency? I have no grand theory or plan, but there are personal and local efforts we might engage in to bring about a less toxic political culture.

I’m a great believer in the idea that the personal and local can bring about large social change. The women’s movement, after all, while engaging in some familiar forms of organizing, did not require a vanguard party, a unified global movement, and was far from imposing a single ideology. It achieved unprecedented transformations through local and national struggles and through personal practices such as consciousness raising and the invention of new forms of identity and relationship. We need some of the same practices now.

One of the things we might do is to examine the thinking and feeling that we bring to our own political relationships and conversations. According to the economic geographers Katherine Gibson and Julie Graham, two leftist-feminists who published one of my favorite books A Post-Capitalist Politics in 2006, there is an emotional orientation we bring to our politics which deserves scrutiny. Some on the left, they argue, are immersed in ways of feeling that are oriented to closure and despair. The insistence, for example, that large scale revolution is the only real means to political change and the dismissal of more local and partial efforts as a diversion from the business at hand can lead to nostalgia for past modes of political organization, like international movements for worker solidarity, and thereby blind one to the possibilities in smaller, more local forms of political organizing.

Those who get stuck in nostalgia for millennial revolution may also become prey to what the theorist Wendy Brown calls “leftist melancholia,” a belief that working with “the establishment,” means inevitable cooptation, an attachment to guarding and demonstrating our purity rather than mucking around in everyday politics, and an inclination to demonize those who do engage in such work as “betraying their values, sleeping with the enemy, bargaining with the devil—all manner of transgressions and betrayals.” Stuck in “leftist melancholia,” we may come to love “our leftist passions and reasons, our leftist analyses and convictions more than we love the existing world that we presumably seek to alter.”

What Gibson and Graham urge in place of paralyzing melancholia is the practice in our selves of embracing a “politics of possibility” which means relinquishing the need to have a theory that explains everything, which means openness to potential allies whose politics do not completely align with ours, working with those in power while striving not to be co-opted, and forming political communities based not on purity and othering but on “friendliness, trust, . . , and companionable connection.” Our repertory of tactics for getting people together, they continue, might include “seducing, cajoling, enrolling, enticing, inviting,” and there could be a greater role in our thinking for” invention and playfulness, enchantment and exuberance.” Playfulness and humor, Gibson and Graham argue, can toss us on to the terrain of new possibilities.

Gibson and Graham are not the first leftists to argue that a lack of attention to people’s hunger for companionable community accounts for many failures or absences of coalitions on the Left. That half the staff for the newly born “Our Revolution” jumped ship earlier this year partially in response to coordinator’s bullying behavior is one of the latest examples, and as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor of the Black Lives Matter movement puts it in a recent article, being arrogant and moralistic, mocking, deriding, or dismissing those who have not achieved the same level of consciousness is a sign of a “political immaturity that continues to stunt the growth of the American left.”

But what would a politics of possibility look like?

One version of a politics of possibility was practiced in the Civil Rights Movement by the many grassroots black women who organized large numbers of ordinary people by going door to door, listening to their needs (instead of coming at them with an agenda), who worked at meeting those needs and who built face-to face relationships of friendship and trust. According to Belinda Robnett’s How Long? How Long? Black Women and the Civil Rights Movement, it is emotion that creates movement culture, emotion that is the conduit through which self-interest moves toward consonance with collective interest. Love, not purity and othering, builds the movement.

Another example of a politics of possibility is the cross race community I participated in at U.C. Davis when faculty from the women’s,’ American’s, and four ethnic studies programs formed a political alliance to defend our programs from being disappeared, to address issues of inequality on campus, and to form a community in which we would feel at home. Largely led at first by women but then by men as well, this inter-racial community came together because of small everyday acts of working on the relationship—showing up at each other’s talks and demonstrations, becoming engaged with each other’s’ personal lives, listening to each other, checking in, talking out conflict, offering support, throwing parties, occasionally dancing joyfully with each other in the hallways outside our offices, and eating meals together. “Food,” according to Peter Brock, “brings the spiritual into the room.”

As we establish an anti-Trumpian politics, it is not just Trump’s ever-wavering policies we need to reject but a political culture based on anger, hatred, and othering, a culture he has exacerbated and at the same time normalized.

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