People whose names we will never know propelled liberatory struggles of the past. With plenty of contradictions and messiness, they fought oppression and exploitation, nurtured freedom dreams, and won victories that we sometimes take for granted today. For the most part, they were neither rich nor famous, nor did they become rich or famous through their movement efforts.
The same is true for those engaged in struggles right now. The current configuration of popular culture and education, however, produces confusion about this basic fact. And unfortunately, this confusion – along with a whole set of accompanying habits – has a corrosive impact on our movements today.
Where does this confusion come from? Much of it has to do the dominant approach to history-telling, which focuses on individual heroic figures – usually men – as the primary agents of change. Although this approach has long been discredited, it still significantly structures how most people learn and talk about the past. In classrooms, news, and entertainment, we are taught that positive social changes have come through the benevolence of the rich and powerful rather than as contingent outcomes of struggle.
When struggle is acknowledged, as with the U.S. civil rights movement, it’s frequently represented through what activist scholar Dean Spade calls “obscuring fictions” about social movements and social change. Spade’s recent writing on radical mutual aid organizing – clearly in conversation with Big Door Brigade, Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, and other grassroots initiatives – helpfully examines these representations and their consequences. In an article for Social Text, he explains, “Such representations center charismatic individuals and hide the realities of mass participation and coordination that does not produce careers or notoriety for most participants.”
These representations, Spade emphasizes, grow out of dominant hierarchies of value and visibility related to work. This is a key feminist insight: in our current social arrangements, the labor of care – whether cooking, minding children, supporting people having hard times, mediating conflicts, or coordinating logistics – is feminized and often devalued and unrecognized.
“Social movements,” writes Spade, “reproduce these hierarchies, valuing people who give speeches, negotiate with bosses and politicians, get published, get elected, and otherwise become visible as actors in ways that align with dominant hierarchies. Forms of celebrity similarly circulate within movements. It is glamorous to take a selfie with Angela Davis, but it is not glamorous to do weekly or monthly prison visits. The circulation of dominant hierarchies of valuation inside movement spaces shapes how people imagine what it means to participate in work for change, who they want to meet, and what they want to do and be seen doing.”
This dynamic has a corrosive double-sided impact on movements. On the one hand, the bulk of crucial organizing effort – overwhelmingly involving care and frequently not in the public spotlight – goes unrecognized and unappreciated. Longtime organizer Harsha Walia puts it bluntly: “most of the web of frontline movement work is invisible, especially in our social media age.” And because it’s so often made invisible, we don’t have the necessary discussions at the necessary scale about how to share, sustain, and improve it. This weakens our efforts.
On the other hand, when our movements reproduce dominant hierarchies of value and visibility, they skew our perceptions about what’s important. As activists and organizers, we can come to focus more on how we are seen individually than on what we are doing together. Writing a decade ago for Upping the Anti, RJ Maccani highlighted the concept of “protagonismo” from Mexican autonomous movements as a way to understand this challenge. He defines this as “the problem within movements (or society as a whole) of people taking credit for work that is not theirs, the problem of self-promotion over promotion of the struggle, of placing one’s own recognition or fame over the growth of the movement.”
This is not simply a personal failing or a toxic form of ambition. The current organization and administration of power in our society fosters an individualistic, acquisitive, self-promotional orientation. Culturally, we can see this in the pervasive “cult of entrepreneurship,” proliferating forms of media-propelled celebrity status, and Hollywood representations of social movements. As Maccani explains, “this internalized dimension of capitalism has us ever fighting to ‘get ahead’ in school, at work, and even in the movement, and forgetting the ways in which such structural privileges and oppressions as class, race, gender, citizenship, sexuality, and social currency, are warping the form and face of our organizing.” This is a dead end.
Thankfully, there is an alternative. Instead of creating individual brands, we can aim to build collectivities in struggle. This, writes Spade in his new book Mutual Aid, “means cultivating a desire to be beautifully, exquisitely ordinary just like everyone else. It means practicing to be nobody special. Rather than a fantasy of being rich and famous, which capitalism tells us is the goal of our lives, we cultivate a fantasy of everyone having what they need and being able to creatively express the beauty of their lives.”
The best history-telling can help us to do this. I think here of Barbara Ransby’s Ella Baker and The Black Freedom Movement, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s As We Have Always Done, Emily Thuma’s All Our Trials, and Scott Neigh’s Talking Radical books. Although focusing on many different efforts, all of these books share stories of the hard, consistent, beautiful, rarely-flashy work of people struggling for collective liberation. There’s much we can learn from these stories and many others akin to them.
Let’s strive to be the ordinary, the nobodies special, the ones who care, build, and fight without any likelihood of fame or fortune – that is to say, those who make history together.