Gothic Politics: A Reply to Mark Fisher

by Matthijs Krul on November 27, 2013

Introduction

There is a certain depressing circularity about certain arguments on the left. Those having to do with what is often termed ‘identity politics’, more particularly when expressed in the language of privilege (or lack thereof), tend to divide into two mutually hostile camps. For the one, privilege is the bread and butter of critical analysis, and what could be called traditional Marxism has been replaced, or at least complemented, by a perspective based in the body of critical theory on identity, discourse, and the concept of privilege. These arose out of a certain meeting between attempts to theorize the intersectionality of oppression – initially mainly race and gender, but later extended to many other subjects – on the one hand, and on the other the political critique of discourse and discourse analysis of French poststructuralism. Here, privilege often becomes the key concept binding together the experience of individuals and the discourses and structural forces that determine these experiences. Building on some feminist critiques of Marxism, this ‘privilegetalk’ could be read as an attempt to overcome the dichotomy between exploitation and oppression in the traditional Marxist approach and to integrate this with the tools and mentality of ‘critical theory’ and discourse analysis (including those of largely anti-Marxist thinkers such as Foucault and Derrida).

In the other camp are those for whom the above is anathema, and who insist on the clear separation between class and all other identities, or even reject reading class as an identity at all. Here, exploitation and oppression are either systematically distinguished – as in more classic Marxist views – or are seen as varieties of working class experience. In the latter case, the class relationship is nonetheless still seen as central. What distinguishes this camp is its dislike of any talk of identity, privilege, or similar terms at all. Where the first decry the economism of the second, the latter fire back with equal vehemence against the idealism or liberal individualism of their opponents. For the former, identities; for the latter, the working class – this is how the distinction is often presented by the partisans of this view. And never the twain shall meet.

Of course, this is a crude caricature, and in reality there are a great number of diverse positions on both sides, making the camps as I have portrayed them more akin to a family resemblance or ideal type than a true description. Nonetheless, the crude arguments it produces are sadly all too frequent. One problem here is a sense of essentialism pervasive to both: either essentializing identity and experience into tokenism and purely psychological struggle, or essentializing the ‘true working class’ as an undifferentiated agent whose exploitation is more ‘real’ than any mere oppressions of the marginal could ever be. To my mind this is completely unnecessary, given that both views can perhaps be bypassed by creative application of the insights of the Marxist feminism associated with the ‘social reproduction perspective’. But perhaps at least as importantly it seems fruitless because the relevant insights both of the Marxist theory of exploitation and of its ‘critical critics’ should be carefully unpacked, not lumped together in these great opposing forces that they have increasingly become. As I have argued in other contexts, to distinguish analysis and strategy is essential here. Within what is crudely called ‘identity politics’, there are many different views and positions, and so there are within the actual social groups in question, whether within the working class or among certain genders or races or what have you. It is exactly the unwillingness to engage the arguments in their own right, rather than the mutual fight against straw opponents, that is so annoying about this whole discussion.

Entering the Vampires’ Castle

It is here that I want to focus on a critical reading of Mark Fisher’s article in The North Star entitled “Exiting the Vampire Castle“. Though written in a UK context – where those who criticized celebrity comedian Russell Brand for his sexism after he called for revolution in a political interview with Jeremy Paxman drew Fisher’s ire – it is clearly intended for more general consumption. The argument of the article is depressingly familiar: Fisher illustrates all the errors of the second camp, which is precisely why it is worth examining. Though it is too long for a complete close reading, some important elements stand out. Firstly, Fisher accuses the British left, especially on Twitter, of a certain miserablism: “an atmosphere of snarky resentment”, in which the calling out of individuals is more important than establishing some popularity for left-wing ideas. Here, he calls on the frequent left criticisms of Owen Jones, as well as the tendency for the radical left (outside Counterfire c.s. at least) to dismiss the People’s Assemblies as yet another top-down adventure in entryism from a Trot sect. Then, Fisher goes on to defend Russell Brand, whom he insists is precisely so worth defending because he defended leftism on public television while being working class in background, and moreover did so with humor and verve, something the left profoundly lacks. This all forms the leadin: the main section of the article is to describe the two “libidinal-discursive configurations which have brought this situation about”. Those are, in order, the Vampires’ Castle (plural this time) and the anarchist tendencies of the UK left.

The latter is easily described: for Brand this is simply the rejection of united or popular fronts, those shibboleths of Trotskyist organizing, and the equal rejection of Labour Party support or attempts at ‘reclaiming Labour’ through one or another form of entryism (we can put Jones in this category). For Fisher, “there’s a strange implicit rule here: it’s OK to protest against what parliament has done, but it’s not alright to enter into parliament or the mass media to attempt to engineer change from there.” This he decries as an anarchism that will render the left irrelevant. But more important is the analogy of the Vampires’ Castle. This occult phenomenon is his favored phrase for a series of sweeping generalizations about what is clearly identifiable as the first camp of the polarization of the left described above. The Vampires’ Castle, Fisher tells us, “individualize and privatize everything”. They make humour impossible, seek to create guilt everywhere, and most of all essentialize the enemy, which is to say their opponents on the left. And here’s the kicker: they do all this as a strategy to pass themselves of as left-wing, when they are in reality liberals, and of an “invariably wealthy, privileged or bourgeois-assimilationist background” at that. Sounds terrible, no? Time someone went in with a stake!

Des Pudels Kern

Unfortunately, not a single one of these arguments is persuasive, and quite a few are downright unfair or absurd. Let us therefore enter Fisher’s Vampire Castle, stake and garlic in hand, and see what monsters we encounter there. Some may be oddly familiar to us – especially those who look at the castle from the viewpoint of the introduction above. In the entrance hall, things are still going well. It is certainly true that – both online and offline – the radical left has long been characterized by a venomous atmosphere, in particular a refusal of any charity of reading or interpretation to those deemed oppositional or those that have previously caused offense, and good faith efforts are not much rewarded and therefore rarely in evidence. Sometimes, this leads to incredibly vindictive, personalized, and emotional disputation that does little good to solving any problems or advancing any cause, but does cause much more hurt and isolation than was already present at the start.

Nonetheless, this observation is somewhat covered in cobwebs, like an old suit of mail opposite the central staircase. It must be treated with charity in its own right. The internet, which combines a very direct and personal means of communication with a very limited possibility of nuance, body language, and context, contributes much to this problem. But even offline, the often hostile atmosphere is at least in part caused by the very importance of the politics themselves to those involved in them. One of the classic arguments of the privilege-talkers is precisely that it is much harder to abstract or disengage from arguments when your wellbeing, your sense of dignity, or your very life may be at stake in the outcome of a particular political dispute. Under such conditions, it is very difficult (though not impossible) to not take it personally. Here, the personal is indeed political. If this attitude is to be criticized, it can’t be for stating this obvious reality – at most that it sometimes overlooks that if the personal is political, that is not necessarily a good thing, and making the political as personal as possible is not necessarily the right response.

When we press onward, however, we soon start running into the occult obstacles Fisher’s castle presents to us. The hagiographical treatment of the likes of Owen Jones and Russell Brand looms at us, like the remarkably large shadow cast over the balustrade by a remarkably small cat. Why should we think that Jones is “most responsible for raising class consciousness in the UK in the last few years”? I am not as hostile to him as some of the UK radical left perhaps is, but I doubt even Owen himself would recognize himself in this description. Class consciousness is, after all, by definition a collective and a political process of self-awareness and self-mobilization – not something brought about by a well-meaning individual with a column in the Independent. Indeed, Owen may have helped some to raise morale, by making the hegemony of neoliberal ideas seem less complete, but that is not the same thing as the political becoming of a class.

The same can be said for Russell Brand. Perhaps his interview with Paxman was an unusually left-wing discourse for the staid political television of Britain. But there is no reason why this should mean his gratuitous sexism should be accepted, nor does the working class of the UK really need Russell Brand to tell them that they exist, or to provide them with left-Labour banalities that inequality is too large or that revolution would be a nice idea, in the abstract. If Fisher thinks that this is both necessary and sufficient for class consciousness, so “fragile and fleeting” it needs comedians on Jeremy Paxman’s show to sustain it, he has a much lower idea of the working class’ intellectual capacities than do his vampiric opponents. (The People’s Assembly I won’t even bother dealing with – it is in our terms like the papier-mâché skeleton made by a primary schooler menacing in the wardrobe: irrelevant, incapable of frightening anyone, and easily disposed of.)

Let us ignore such small scares and proceed into the very inner chambers, where Fisher’s ‘laws of the Vampires’ Castle’ await us. Fisher’s first claim is that the politics of privilege, which is clearly the vampires’ life-blood (or unlife-blood?), is not a legitimate expression of the struggles of the oppressed, but a bourgeois-liberal perversion of them. Indeed, the theme of perversion can never be far off where vampires are present, and if this is so, then the Twitter left appears as a veritable Boris Karloff of repressed gothic sensuality. The argument nonetheless follows some lines as ancient as the castle itself: “rather than seeking a world in which everyone achieves freedom from identitarian classification, the Vampires’ Castle seeks to corral people back into identi-camps, where they are forever defined in the terms set by dominant power, crippled by self-consciousness and isolated by a logic of solipsism which insists that we cannot understand one another unless we belong to the same identity group.” Now here I think Fisher does have one point: I have long been skeptical of the assumption of some (not all) writers on privilege that it is impossible to relate to others unless one shares their same identity and experiences. If this were true, then indeed nobody would be able to ‘speak to’ the issues of anyone else at all, to use this jargon; the reality would be that, due to the irreducability of human diversity, all political solidarity and indeed all communication would be impossible. This is perhaps a reductio ad absurdum, but some of the stronger versions of this argument are not far off, and I share with Fisher a hostility both to the implicit misanthropy and the political implications of this argument.

Some of Fisher’s points are not uninteresting, and could lead to some more exciting directions: less explored wings of the building. One thing he points to is the conflation on the part of some privilege-talkers of the act of (say) homophobia and being a homophobe. Now this is a double-edged sword, to remain in the sphere of the gothic, as it is often used as an excuse by those who both are and do to avoid the consequences of their attitude. But among radical activists it has also been remarked that this conflation can be quite unhelpful, precisely because it is an example of a false essentialism that the politics of identity was – at least in some versions – intended to undermine. If you call someone a homophobe, they are in a sense forever branded, and yet no alternative is concretely offered. Whereas calling an act or a statement homophobic allows for correction and change, and it is therefore at the least more strategically constructive in those cases where there is no need to move from the one to the other. Indeed, some would abuse the charity and good faith offered to them in this case, and there are many who lack the self-reflection to merit it. But it is a good policy, in my opinion, to err towards giving someone you criticize a way to correct themselves. The cultural repertoire of shame, dignity, and standing can so effectively be mobilized positively, rather than – as is now often the case – being a one-way street in a direction against the oppressed. This is something that calls for a case-by-case examination, and people’s character and circumstances will differ sufficiently that attempting any general rule would be unwise. At most, here one could invoke once more the benefits as well as moral discipline of charity of interpretation, and to give people a certain leeway (but hardly an unlimited one) in phrasing things the way they see it.

But that is not to say that the argument as Fisher poses it is much better. It is simply not true that the ‘identitarians’ try to keep people in their identities. There is always a risk of essentializing, and indeed tokenism is not unusual, strongly reinforced by this notion that you can only talk on topic X if previously approved by the representatives of topic X, those who share a politically mobilized identity on that basis. But even in such cases the purpose is to overcome oppression, not to maintain it, and the voicing through identity and the policing of its boundaries comes from a need to protect the humans that are ‘carriers’ of these identities in the post-structuralist sense. However flawed in individual cases the strategy and assumptions about human communication may be (and more on those below), protect the humans from oppression is not at all the same intent as to protect the identities themselves from emancipation or change, and Fisher’s conflation of the two does a great injustice to – and is in fact very uncharitable towards – those he aims his barbs at.

The same thing is true when we encounter the first vampiric lackeys of the master vampire, the lord of the castle. This lord, it turns out halfway our adventure, is in reality academia and the bourgeoisie in general. Fisher suggests his privilege-talking opponents are either wilfully accumulating ‘academic capital’, or are simply deluded by those that are doing so. But here he reveals one major mistake in his thought, when he writes: “The VC, as dupe-servants of the ruling class, does the opposite: it pays lip service to ‘solidarity’ and ‘collectivity’, while always acting as if the individualist categories imposed by power really hold.” But this is precisely the fundamental insight that the first camp has and the second camp lacks – namely that however much one may wish it otherwise, these individualist categories imposed by power do really hold. If Fisher at all understood the subject he was talking about, he would realize that those identities are not like a cloak that one dons at will, but like the very skin branded black or white, male or female, gay or straight and so forth.

This is why, ad nauseam, so much of the writing of poststructural and feminist theory has been about the body, its sufferings, and its agencies: because the adscription of identity is as much something one undergoes as it is something one does to oneself. Fisher in fact has already implicitly acknowledged this when he points out he is prone to forgetting he is male and white as ‘identities’: it is precisely this forgetting that the oppressed identities can never do, and that is what makes these identities salient in a political sense. If indeed the discourse of identity is the lackey of the bourgeoisie, it is not because of its self-awareness, but rather because it is simply a consequence of the reality of capitalist society. Its self-awareness, even when wrongly expressed, is a potent weapon against the invisibility of some forms of the reproduction and rule of this society – and thereby a weapon, however blunt at times, against the true lord of the castle.

The Vampire Is In Another Castle

What remains so curious about Fisher’s whole gothic structure is nonetheless how inadequate it is to its subject. He accuses his opponents, without otherwise naming or identifying them, of being bourgeois, academic, posh, and privileged – yet he is by his own acknowledgement a white male academic and a commissioning editor at a left-wing vanity press. If he therefore does not recognize himself in this image, it must be because, like the vampire, he has no reflection… Similarly, his chatter about ‘witch-hunts’ maintains his sense of victimhood. But aside from being a rather inappropriate historical analogy, given the witch-hunts were systematic cases of the reassertion of patriarchy and religious order and mostly against women, it is difficult to sustain this reasoning when Fisher can’t give any real examples of the power of his opponents or of his own suffering at their hands. It seems he certainly has major disagreements with their interpretation of social structure and discourse, and also with the political strategies some on the left draw out of these. This is legitimate, and should remain legitimate: nothing is free from criticism, and that includes the language and politics of privilege.

But sadly, while an interesting argument could be had about these (and has been had many times before, not least among the ‘identitarians’), Fisher does not engage in this. Rather, he throws the whole of M.R. James at his opponents in an attempt to depict them as terrors of the night. The effect is akin to the puppeteer holding the bogeyman doll in front of us. It assumes we are children, both in thinking we cannot see that he is really moving the bogeyman about, and in assuming we would be scared of it. This is a shame, because it is perhaps overdue that the various camps of the left talk to each other seriously and productively about the problems of communication that must be overcome if solidarity is to work practically between its various sections.

Finally, before we exit the castle in despondence at the lack of action – the villagers so promised us we would find monsters! – something must be said about the gothic imagery itself. It is striking how badly Fisher’s vampiric metaphor fails. But what is interesting is not that it does so, but how it does so. Fisher’s image of the Vampires’ Castle fails in two ways. Firstly, because he wishes to ascribe laws to this castle. But laws of a castle are laws that hold within the castle, or insofar as the inhabitants of the castle can enforce them beyond the walls. Fisher has no desire to go into the castle, that much he makes clear, but he does not tell us what powers of enforcement it has, beyond criticizing celebrities and creating a bad atmosphere on Twitter.

Now I say this not quite jokingly – I have personally witnessed various occasions in which both online and offline the use of privilege-talk played a major role in causing enormous personalized conflicts between participants and activists who had otherwise (and also afterwards) been able to communicate productively even where disagreement could be considerable. This question of atmosphere is a practical one, not just a matter of whining about how mean it is to say bad things to a university professor. But if the exact dynamics cannot be clarified, and if it cannot be explained what in talking about oppression in a particular way causes unnecessary strife – as opposed to justified oppositions to bigotry – then the problem is not addressed. Fisher’s blanket dismissals and empty workerism do not solve this problem at all, as a rudimentary knowledge of social reproduction theory or writing on intersectionality could have made obvious.

This is compounded by the second way Fisher’s metaphor fails: namely, in the vampiric. Vampires presuppose that vampirism is going on, in other words, that one feeds off another’s life-blood in some way. But Fisher’s vampires are posh, they accumulate academic capital, they are lackeys, they produce guilt, they do all sorts of things; but suck blood they do not. And this is not a simple flawed analogy. What it reveals is that underlying Fisher’s argument is a deeper sense in which he implies that there exists a kind of hidden establishment that leeches off the real or legitimate left by ‘perverting’ or perhaps diverting its processes of class activism and class consciousness. Precisely by ascribing to his opponents all sorts of bad identities, he engages in identity politics in his own right – such as calling them posh, or their views alternately bourgeois and petty-bourgeois. His workerism, too, is essentially identitarian. So the talk of identity itself cannot be the problem. Rather, it is this sense of a hidden parasitic establishment that pervades his writing, and gives it its creepy atmosphere. Fisher refuses to tell us who they are, rather producing his gothic imagery as a way of cloaking the They of his narrative in a convenient manner.

If one may use one gothic novel against another, where Fisher thinks he is writing Dracula, he is actually writing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The Dr. Jekyll of our story is Mark Fisher who wants to protect the left from the anarcho-bourgeois individualism, misanthropy, and strategic self-destruction. I have many disagreements with him, and some minor points of agreement. More generally, there is an argument there that is worth engaging with, although it needs serious reformulation on the basis of a more serious inquiry into the theory underlying the narratives of privilege and identity, something that far too many critics (again, rather uncharitably) neglect to do. However, there is also a Mr. Hyde in this story. This Fisher is a disturbing figure, one who inhabits a castle of his own and sallies forth against all who rebel by branding them vampires and traitors – indeed shades of witch-hunting, but with himself as the knight inquisitor. As in Stevenson’s story, this is probably not how Jekyll-Fisher intends it; it is rather that the Mr. Hydes both inside and outside the left find this more amenable – being able to depict all those who talk about identity, privilege and so forth as merely bourgeois saboteurs attempting to divide the left, when quite the opposite is the case. Here, Jekyll-Fisher should restrain the Hyde within him.

Conclusion

What I would recommend Fisher is to do some reading. Firstly, to read some of the writings on intersectionality, privilege, social reproduction Marxism, and so forth, much of which rightly or wrongly serves as the main inspirations for those people he so stridently dismisses, and of whose arguments he understands little. Secondly, he should read David McNally’s excellent Monsters of the Market. From that, he can learn how a gothic Marxism is properly employed. The vampire, he will learn from McNally, are not the ‘identitarians’, but it is capital itself, and if the working class has a gothic referent, it is in the figure of the zombie, labouring without will or direction at the behest of others. The zombie, which must be brought back to a state of real life or be destroyed, confronts us with the real choices involved in class consciousness: much as I dislike that phrase, the consciousness of a class always already constituted by race, gender, sexuality, and so forth. Without this awareness, any cure for the problems Fisher poses will be worse than the disease.

And the same applies not just to Fisher, but to many who would criticize without the burden of due care to understand their opponents. Indeed, it is telling that neither of the two camps involved can grant the other understanding or charity in the least, while both are always ready to demand it for themselves. I suspect this is the result of both positing a false universality: either a negative universality, a rejection of the universal based on irreconcilable difference of lived discourse and identity, or a false positive universality based on the super-emergence of the subjectivity of the working class above all forms of life. I will not elaborate further on that here, as that requires its own treatment. But if we are to overcome the hostilities and the circular firing squads of the left, online or offline, a good starting point is in our common desire to acquire a real knowledge of the other – where this desire exists, misanthropy cannot. That is the first law of gothic politics. De te fabula narratur!

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

SeanJohnston November 27, 2013 at 6:43 pm

Matthijs Krul is definitely one of the best writers the left has at the moment.

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Po November 28, 2013 at 10:34 am

Writers? He’s a bit too academic if you ask me…

But there’s no doubt that Krul is one of the best *thinkers* we have right now.

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SeanJohnston November 28, 2013 at 3:17 pm

well excuse me then

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scottishinlondon December 1, 2013 at 8:31 am

That’s you told eh? I agree, this is a fine bit of writing.

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Carl Davidson November 28, 2013 at 12:18 pm

I start with the notion of ‘conflicted consciousness,’ borrowed from Hegel, Gramsci and WEB DuBois, on this matter. Viewed singularly, any given consciousness is a hologram of colluding and contending interests, identities, core values and beliefs. It has both the ‘I’ of reflectiveness and the ‘me’ shaped by our social transactions.

I prefer it to ‘false consciousness,’ a term Marx never used, because that implies a ‘true consciousness,’ which is a slippery slope to both metaphysics and a backward elitism.

All this is my way of holding that it’s not ‘class’ vs, ‘identity’. One’s class interest is shaped by one’s relation to production, while one’s identities–and there are a lot of them–are shaped by one’s family history, position in a social order, biology and so on. Values are often embedded by family and church. and new values can replace older ones over time.

As an organizer, one of my tasks in the practice of the ‘mass line,’ is to draw people out on these matters, so I might gather up all the contradictions in their conflicted consciousness, learn some new things myself (I am one with a conflicted consciousness, too), and then try to find a progressive path, mobilizing all positive factors in our thinking, isolate the negative, so we can move toward a more ‘awake’ and all-sided revolutionary consciousness.

Finally, I’ll just note that the ‘mother lode’ on privilege is Ted Allen’s ‘Invention of the White Race’ (Two volumes, Verso). Ted was Marxist to the core, and saw the white-skin privilege, a term he coined, in class terms, ie, as a social control instrument reinforcing a notion of ‘race’ that has no existence in biology. He also saw it as not in the class interest of any worker, any more than ‘the worm on the hook is in the interest of the fish.’ Others may have made different uses of the term, but I’d go to the source for a deeper understanding.

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Aaron Aarons November 29, 2013 at 2:40 pm

The argument that “white-skin privilege […] [is] not in the class interest of any worker” [emphasis added] is circular, if not tautological, since one can argue that, however much it is in the material interest of at least some white workers as human beings living in capitalist society, it is not in their class interest, since it is not in the interest of the abstract, universal working class — a class that includes, supposedly, the $0.20-per-hour young woman worker in a third-world sweatshop along with the way-more-than-$20-per-hour white male U.S. worker who owns his own home, car, 42-inch television, and more.

In other words, the common identity of those who work for wages is no more real than is the common identity of those who are treated differently due to their skin color, nationality, gender, etc..

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Carl Davidson November 29, 2013 at 3:43 pm

If it’s in the ‘material interest’ of the white worker, why is it, then, that in those areas where the relative inequality between ‘white’ and Black is greatest, that the overall conditions of all workers, including those identified as ‘white,’ are lower than elsewhere? It’s an odd ‘material interest’ that drags one down, don’t you think? As for being ‘circular,’ I suppose one could say that the class interest of workers and the goal of socialism is ‘circular’ as well, no? Perhaps, but it’s certainly not obvious, which is why we have a tough fight on our hands.

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Aaron Aarons November 30, 2013 at 3:10 am

I’d be interested in seeing a study of the correlation, positive or negative, between inequality between ‘races’ and the standard of living of the better-off group. If you look just at the U.S. South vs. the North and West, the particular agrarian history of the South and its subordination to Northern capital after the Civil War have to be taken into consideration. And if you look at South Africa both before and after racial capitalism put on blackface about 20 years ago, you might find that there is great inequality between white and Black workers and that white workers there have a high standard of living even by ‘first world’ standards.

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Carl Davidson November 30, 2013 at 12:14 pm

But what does it mean to take the peculiar circumstance of the South into consideration? The primary one is that the overthrow of Reconstruction ended any chance of ’40 Acres and a Mule’ for the Freedmen, and thrust most Blacks into the peonage of the sharecropper system. The relative distance between white and Black was greatest in the South, and the institutions that enforced it held the entire region down, leaving the white worker, even those in Southern manufacturing, at a lower level than workers in similar circumstances elsewhere where the relative advantages weren’t so wide. The white-skin privilege thus holds back the entire class, and its allies as well. It’s a lead weight tied around their necks, and it needs to be cast off and replaced with solidarity. It remains to this day, with non-union auto plants in the South paying less than unionized plants elsewhere. That’s one of the ‘benefits’ Southern workers get for not yet finding a way to overcome privilege with solidarity, and why the ‘Organize the South’ drive is key strategically.

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