*check out the first essay in the series here*
“We seek a world in which there is room for many worlds.”
Sub commander Marcos
Zapatista Army of Liberation (EXLN), Mexico
“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Words used by Lilla Watson, Aboriginal elder, activist and educator from Queensland, Australia.
“After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, – a world which yields him no self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.”
W.E.B. Du Bois Souls of Black Folks
“In attempting to repossess identity and culture, U.S. feminists of color during the 1960’s and 1970’s, U.S. punks during the early 1980s, peoples of color and queers during the 1990’s developed survival skills into technologies for re-organizing peoples and their collective dreams for empowerment into images-turned-facts…
Dominated populaces realize their subjection to power (that people are the words the social order speaks). The radical form of cognitive mapping that differential consciousness allows develops such knowledge into a method by which the limits of the social order can be spoken, named, and made translucent: the body passes through and is transformed.”
Chela Sandoval Methodology of the Oppressed.
“Who or what is the collective subject of history? Is it the nation? Civilization? Class? Is it Hegel’s Cunning actor, Reason? Each of these categories of comprehension, while determing present phenomena as meaningful, comes to us full of residues of the past, containing the sedimented history of utopian dreams and cultural blind spots, political struggles and power effects. Historically inhereted concepts form the collective consciousness of actors who, in turn, create history. Paradoxically, even when collective actors proclaim themselves the standard bearers for universal history–indeed, especially when they make this avant-gardist claim–they establish their identity in contrast to others, to outsiders. This brings our inquiry back to the thought with which the essay, “Hegel and Haiti,” came to a close. Is it possible to reimagine universal history out of bounds of exclusionary conceptual frames? Can we humans, in a kind of reversal of Hegel, refuse to see ourselves as history’s instrument, our particular actions meaningful only when subsumed within some overarching concept as it historically unfolds–even when that concept is human freedom? Can collective subjectivity be imagined as inclusive as humanity itself? Is there a way to universal history today?” Susan Buck-Morss “Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History.”
Differential: To be Differential is to utilize political, emotional and spiritual discernment for revolution.
Perhaps now that state power seems so unreachable to progressives in the wake of the election of Trump they will finally be open to leftist non-state centric solutions to our problems. Likewise, I am excited by the number of people who are trying to understand why people voted the way they did on both sides. Not only can this election unveil what America has always been but it can also force us to look deeply and analytically at each other’s social position to understand why we do what we do. In this exercise of trying to understand each other’s social location I am hopeful that many of us will learn to see past the veil of ideology being spewed by mainstream society. This essay, like all of the ones in this series, hopes to provide fodder for these “what do we do next” conversations. I hope it can exist as a generative launching point for collective discussion and action.
Like the Zapatistas, I believe that the way forward is “below and to the left.” That is to say that we should organize communal power structures outside the confines of the state along anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist lenses. We need to have control over our resources and communities not just control over the liberal political structures that legislate the businesses that control the resources. I believe there are many ways to do that. Groups like the next system project outline possible alternatives to way we currently organize society.
This essay, like most of the rest of the essays in this series, is more concerned with the how than the what. How do we move from where we are to where we want to go? How do we evaluate one possible vision from another? How to we work together to manifest that vision without ending up at each other’s throats? How do we overcome the social constructs of race, class, nationality, gender and ability to build a shared vision of the world capable of holding the complexity of human experiences, contexts, desires and needs?
There are many analyses of the way forward with complementary visions of the future from Marx-Leninism to Revolutionary Nationalism to Ecofeminism. This essay suggests a way to use those analyses in tandem to create complicated maps of the terrains of power that show us multiple possible ways forward. In addition to creating maps, we must also develop a political consciousness capable of seeing our place in the terrain of power rather than accepting the place we are told we live in. This is especially true at a moment when we are all being asked to give Trump “an open mind.” Armed with these maps and consciousness we can head toward the world we want not merely the worker revolution or nation our analysis says is the goal. Most importantly, with differential politics we are able to see every individual as a historical actor and envision worlds that can encompass many different visions for liberation, joy and freedom.
The book Radical Dharma contains a poetic description how our analysis created from a single view [Black people or the working class] often hem us into thinking we are fighting different battles or worse, that only one side has any real skin in the game. It is about the cops policing of Black bodies but it could be extended to include the policing of bodies in many ways including gender, sexuality, ability, respectability, class etc.
We’re in a moment in which the attention of our nation is rightfully turned to the policing of Black and brown bodies. From above, it looks like just Black and brown folks are being policed, and, while you may feel bad, at least you are free.
The policing we are witnessing is expressing itself through the State. The police force is the state institution carrying out a specific mandate. The mandate expresses an energetic need of the construct we inhabit.
The mandate is to control Black bodies.
The need is to have the constant specter of the other.
When the other exists, it strengthens your need to belong.
Your belonging is necessary for compliance.
Your compliance maintains the system.
You are policed, too.
You are policed by your need for belonging.
Your need for belonging requires control of the other.
…Or at least the illusion of it.
You are policed through the control of my body.
You are policed, too.
Once you are aware of how you are being policed, you can begin the process of self-liberating, from the position of realizing the mutuality of our liberation rather than suffering under the delusion that you are doing something for me. There is intimacy in that realization. And because Dharma is ultimately about accepting what is, it can undermine the need for control that keeps you invested in the policing of my body, thus freeing yours.”
This multi-focal approach, this attempt to view the system from seemingly opposing perspectives at once is, to me, at the core of differential modes of organizing. Not only does it allow for polycentric analysis of policing but also connects the visceral and emotional world that policing penetrates that is often left out of our analysis. The differential modes of resisting domination is a concept I first encountered outlined by Chela Sandoval in “The Methodologies of the Oppressed.” Differential movement, in this political sense, is to be able understand one’s own and one’s opponent[s] social location deeply while also being able to read power in complex ways and to use this reading to subvert, hide from, retreat from or disrupt domination and oppressive power thrusts.
A boxer, if they are any good, is hyper aware of their own body and its ability to move, dodge and fight. In order to win, a boxer must be able to read their opponent’s body and capacity with equal precision. You have to see not only the jab but the hook that the jab is trying to set you up for. The bobbing and weaving of boxer as well as the combos and breathing techniques, is all differential movement.
At it’s best differential movement exist in non-binary terms, when there are multiple combatants. This is something I always loved about the X-men comics. Sure they had superpowers and [sometimes] cool costumes. Yet what made them great was their teamwork, Cyclop’s detailed action plans and their opposition research. They had to put together all of their powers in order to exploit the weakness of their opponents. The had to fight opponents who shifted and changed and adapted while learning to see the positive side of their most volatile and unhealed teammates [i.e. Wolverine’s berserker rage or Magik’s fractured soul]
Differential movement is like the improvising of a musician. Improvising only works within the context of boundaries. What separates improvising from random notes is an understanding of the underlying structure of notes, rhythms, harmonies and melodies that are possible. One might decide to play off key or without discernable rhythm but it is the decision that makes its improvisation and not chaos. Improvising is better when you understand the science of music and the art of the instrument you are playing. This is why most Jazz musicians are classically trained. In order to, as Miles Davis said, “play what’s not there” you have be able to see what is there and know how slide beauty and quirks into the gaps.
Whether the task is fighting or making music, differential movement takes both feeling and study and practice to be effective. Differential movement is not purely intuitive even if it is driven by our visceral experience. Perfect pitch, a musical ear, naturally deft hand eye coordination are all helpful but are basically meaningless without knowing how to read music, knowing how to play an instrument or heading to the gym.
All of this is true for differential political movement. Tools like dialectical materialism, intersectionality, social reproduction feminism, and de-colonial lens all help organizers read power and determine their own social location. Ideologies like Marxism, Revolutionary Nationalism, or Anarchism help provide models of the terrain of power in which you are struggling. Boycotts, rallies, speeches, agit-prop distribution, shut-downs, strikes, campaigns, twitter storms, canvassing, bird-dogging, insurrections, people’s war and sabotage are the strategies and tactics that constitute political movement. They are the notes and combos that organizers must learn to employ effectively.
Perhaps most controversially, spiritual, social and emotional techniques like meditation, yoga, conflict resolution, thought-stopping, restorative processes, emotional intelligence, generative somatics, visioning, manifesting, healing praxi etc are all skills [human technologies] crucial to the interpersonal aspects of differential political movement. They allow us to ask us where it hurts and then map those answers to the terrains of power that political tendencies create. If our politics is geared towards ending human suffering then it should include the emotional and spiritual technologies we have developed to name, process and soothe human suffering. If our politics is not geared towards ending human suffering then it is not geared towards liberation.
To be differential is to not be dogmatic. It is not to follow a map blindly. One does not organize to seize the means of production just because we read it in a book. Just like one should not try to jump across a canyon because it looks like a small ditch on our map. We should not organize our political strategy over what the polls say. We have to learn to use our eyes and use maps only as extra information to aid us in our journey. In a negotiation you cannot just assume that a white male capitalist is going to react a certain way based on an ideological understanding of the world, you have to read their body language, have empathy [though not necessarily sympathy] with their situation in order to decide how, which and when to press demands.
By understanding our social position in such a complicated way, we all have the tools to create a compelling narrative of personal and communal freedom. It opens up the possibility of a multi-front campaign against domination in which we are experts in our chosen field of battle. Rather than have those with “privilege” stand as “allies” in other people’s fights, differential politics allows people to understand where their fight is.
This is the essence of what is meant by political discernment. When we tie this discernment and analysis to our visceral unease with our way of life we are prepared to change our circumstances. When we connect a polycentric political analysis to a practice of asking ourselves where it hurts a seed of oppositional consciousness is created. Oppositional consciousness is knowing that there are more ways forward than society wants you to believe. It is knowing that Trump is still dangerous and autocratic regardless of the conciliatory tone he and the establishment are presenting. It is realizing that however real white supremacist institutions might make its effects, race is a social construct whose rules need only be noted, not abided by. Oppositional consciousness is knowing that bullshit is bullshit. It’s being able to see that what we are being feed is lies and recognize the truth of our own power. Hip Hop and Black Folk religion are two great examples of human technologies for transmitting the oppositional consciousness that arises in Black autonomous spaces.
Hip Hop is culture based on radical self-expression and living against the grain of anti-Blackness and urban deprivation. Black folk religion is a set of human technologies that allowed enslaved people to build community and celebrate their collective humanity and individual worth in the most soul crushing of circumstances. At their most authentic, they help Black people choose freedom over slavery and radical hope over crushing despair and helped Black people survive a system we were not meant to survive. Hip Hop and Black Folk religion were many Black communities’ way of playing the notes the system denied us but that we knew we needed to survive. Of course, no technology is perfect. Like both Jazz and Vodun, Hip Hop and Black folk religion have been co-opted, revised and repackaged to suit purposes antithetical to their creation. This is one reason that Black communities constantly create new genres [human technologies] for spiritual, cultural and political expression.
This is one reason why culture is an important terrain of struggle. Culture holds us down and makes our organizing spaces sustainable. Culture also reminds of who we are and our history. Rather than disdain the joy that folks get from a Beyonce video, radicals do and should understand the importance of Black popular music to oppositional consciousness. We should push our artist to be more radical and systemic in their analysis and support artists whose radical content makes them marginal. We should also consider what cultural strategies we could use to tell polycentric stories about the world we live and and the world we want. What human technologies can we create to navigate power in the age of Trumpsim and the internet? What will be the caperoria of our Black abolitionist movement?
Oppositional consciousness is crucial to sustained differential politics in the coming era when neo-liberalism will sell prison to you as affordable housing and a jobs program. Differential political movement is developing a strategy of reading corporate and state invasions into our communities and assessing the power dynamics that make them work in order to disrupt them with strategies from previous eras of social movements used as tactics. For instance, when Wal-Mart tries to enter your community you can either fight to unionize them as a labor organizer might have in the 70’s or take a strategy from a more liberal play book and try to get community members elected to the zoning board. This choice is based on which tactic better suits your community’s needs, abilities and long term goals rather than a dogmatic theory of change from an earlier era. The liberal approach might not bring liberation but it might be an easier way to keep the homes where you plot liberation.
Central to differential politics is the understanding that all systems analysis is fiction, a good story and useful map. Marx-Leninism views the oppression of Black people in one vein and revolutionary nationalism in another. Neither of them actually explain the full range of Black political, social, emotional, spiritual, physical and sexual experiences. Like all stories the questions is not whether they are true or false but whether they are accurate and useful. Just like Newton’s Laws of Physics, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity or Quantum Mechanics are all accurate at specific scales for specific questions and uses, so too are Marxism, Nationalism, Anarchism and yes even identity politics. Differential political movement is the discernment to know when to use which tool and how, never confusing accuracy for truth.
One great example of effective differential movement is Black Lives Matter Cleveland’s Campaign against the District Attorney Mcginty. After the DA refused to prosecute the cops who murdered Tamir Rice, it would have been easy to simply run another candidate. Yet, BLM: Cleveland understood the limits of electoral organizing and the limits of getting anyone, even a movement leader, in office. Thus, instead of backing a better political candidate, launching their own campaign or trying to build a campaign to reform government they simply ensured that the local democratic party did not endorse any candidate. This meant that candidates had to go directly to communities in order to raise the funds and awareness to be viable. This made politicians accountable to Black communities without wasting energy trying to influence a fatally flawed system. The base that was built to pressure a non-endorsement can now be utilized towards more revolutionary goals. This is a brilliant example of differential political movement.
In order to be effective, differential political actions must be made from a place beyond domineering ideology in order to not reproduce oppressive social relationships. Take over your zoning board if you need to but don’t confuse proximity to power or bureaucracy with autonomous power. As mentioned in previous essays to be beyond oppressive ideologies is not to be beyond ideology itself necessarily. Rather, it means to be able to read the ideological context within which one is organizing and set one’s strategies to oppose the naturalization of oppression and domination. It also means to move without the blindness of narrow sectarian ideologies.
By using tendencies as models for terrains of power, we can use them like overlays to create more complex maps of our social location. These new maps allow us to see the different intersections of structures of oppression. With this intersectional power mapping we can strike where we are strongest and empire is weakest. This intersectional power mapping is what allows for the Palestinian Student Movement to stand in solidarity with M4BL Black August actions against mass incarceration. An anti-imperialist lens makes the international-personal connection while a marx-leninist allows you to hit the Imperialist in the pocket book where it hurts.
In our planning sessions and debrief as well as in the streets we also create a new communal identity of solidarity that can, at times, transcend the limiting social constructs we live in.
Lastly, differential political movement is a skill that is learned over time. Like most skills it takes practical experimentation and the fruits of scientific observation to master. Once base level differential action has been mastered and studied aspects of it can be written down and general principles can be learned in a book. Yet, there is no preparation like experience doing it. Fortunately, most oppressed people naturally learn differential political skills. Anything from code-switching, to learning to navigate welfare offices to learning to avoid the police is differential movement. Organizers must recognize, name, praise and nurture the preexisting differential strategies in the communities we organize.
Likewise, we have to remember that scientific observation has very concrete limits and the context within which we experiment is constantly changing anyways. Thus it generally better to create space for people to recognize their pre-existing differential skills. Then we can set people up to learn as much of the general principles as possible and to support them in gaining the practical experience necessary for mastery. This is where Autonomous spaces are useful. In an autonomous space, away from the hegemony or mainstream views, it is easy to analyze the terrain of power. Once you have removed yourself from the mist of capitalist, white supremacist, cis-hetero-patriarchal ideology and its values it is easier to decide how to combat it.
What does this mean practically speaking?
“What if every time that the consciousness of individuals surpassed the confines of present constellations of power in perceiving the concrete meaning of freedom, this were valued as a moment, however transitory, of the realization of absolute spirit? What other silences would need to be broken? What undisciplined stories would be told?” Susan Buck-Morss “Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History”
At its most basic level, differential politics allows us to move past sectarian divides that no longer serve us. It also allows us to be more strategic by providing us with a better sense of the terrain and our place in it. At its highest level differential politics, with its oppositional consciousness and intersectional power mapping, allows us to swarm our enemies with expertise. Rather than have allies off on the sidelines in support roles or trying to lead on someone else’s front line it allows for a total war against domination in which our tactics come from the human technologies we have learned to navigate empire.
Earlier in the essay I asked what will be the Capoeira of our generation. To me, this is not a rhetorical question. What human technology will we create to bring tribes together, away from state supervision and practice revolution? How might we attack the supply chain of domination from where we currently stand instead of constantly rushing to other people’s communities from call to action to call to action? What would happened if we held onto the “absolute spirit” of freedom and visioned the polycentric world of the future with that lens? I think these are questions that need answers and I think differential politics can go a long way in doing that.
In today’s movements, I think you see differential politics helping people make critical connections between movements. At standing rock you see it connect environmentalism, anti-racism and national sovereignty into a powerful movement for autonomy that is sparking fires in many communities across the globe. We have chance to come together in these moments strike a powerful collective blow to empire.
What might be the result if low income Black and Brown communities shut down the trains carrying pipeline equipment to protest the invasion of Native land AND the fact that trains run through their already polluted neighborhood? What if middle class Black homeowners owners launched lawsuits against the financial backers of the pipeline who happened to also be same banks that redlined them into “less desirable” neighborhoods and higher interests rates? What if people who were raced white threw massive cultural festivals geared towards creating a new culture based neither in whiteness nor in cultural appropriation that simultaneously raised awareness of the cost of assimilation and funds for standing rock? What if a contingent of south asians held teach-ins on eastern religions to decolonize the practices of white burners who appropriate their culture will raising funds fo Standing Rock? What if all of this work was considered historically important and we stopped fetishizing [or demonizing] those with the resources, time and inclination to chase calls to action?
What if we coordinated events with same guiding questions, spiritual grounding and sense of liberated culture? What if worked to build a shared polycentric understanding of our shared human skin in this fight? Might those who have been stolen from their lands or whose nations have been so destroyed by imperialism that we left to come struggle against extermination and assimilation connect with those whose lands have been stolen to assert a way forward that heals the wounds of our ancestors and suggests a new way to live liberated right now. At it’s core, differential political action is about this kind of radical possibilities in context.
The next essay in the series will dive more into the what: autonomous spaces. As always, please give me any feedback, pushback or questions you have. Feel free to write a response! I think building a culture of critique and rigorous engage with political issues is necessary to develop differential politics.