home Economy, Feminism, North America, Politics, Sex The weird elitism of “the personal is political” saps our strength

The weird elitism of “the personal is political” saps our strength

Has the old battle cry “The personal is political” been taken too far or perhaps, too literally?

More importantly, have our politics descended into a form of narcissism, of trying to purify ourselves so that we can look down our oh-so-enlightened noses at everyone else?

When our identity as “one of the good ones” becomes more important than reaching others, organizing suffers. It creates hierarchies instead of breaking them down. It creates that kind of elitism that makes people so angry—because they’re right, we are looking down on them. It becomes a kind of affirmation of who we are and why we’re different and better.

Greenwashing is only the latest example of this trend and the most obnoxiously consumerist. Spend more money on your eco-friendly recycled paper towels—that are still paper towels, disposable and wasteful—or your 100% certified organic clothing that makes sure to declare it splashily across the front. Drive your Prius. Shop at (union-busting) Whole Foods and buy your Fair Trade coffee at (union-busting) Starbucks. But don’t spend one second realizing that you cannot buy your way out of the climate crisis one Burt’s Bees product at a time and God forbid don’t think about redefining your relationship to commodities at all. Make yourself feel better.

Guerrilla Mama wrote:

whether or not i drank coke. had much more to do with the relationships i had in that office in chicago, or with other progressives. than it had to with my relationship to colombians.

and then i started to add up all the hours and dollars and energy that i put into my lifestyle choices. i thought about how i could have actually been using that time to do build relationships with people and ideas. how much more time i could have spent studying history so i had a better grasp of the present. learning from my elders. and mentoring.

in other words working toward liberation, rather than trying to buy my way out of it.

Of course, it’s not all about what you can purchase—it’s not as simple as consumerism vs. anticonsumerism. It extends to all reaches of our lives. I remember telling a friend not long ago that feminism is lousy sex ed. That I can talk the talk about equality and objectification and Othering as well as anyone but sometimes in the bedroom I want to be thrown and held down and called nasty names and you know what, I’ve examined until the cows come home and I still get off on what I get off on—and it doesn’t hurt anyone. Yet I’ve seen one too many so-called feminists spend countless hours telling others that the decisions they make at home in the bedroom are somehow hurting all women.

That’s entirely too much like the argument that the right wing uses when it argues that gay marriage will somehow ruin straight marriages. Or the way the corporate media justifies spending hours and column inches talking about Peter Orszag’s “love child” or Mark Sanford’s affair and not the political decisions these men have made that effect each and every one of us. When we make the qualifiers for solidarity one’s personal issues, well, ain’t none of us pure enough.

State of Emergency wrote:

I hate how radical politics can shrink your sovereignty to your physical skin. I need more space than that and I can’t negotiate bodily agency without that space, maybe not a room of my own but at least a minute to myself and a fistful of secrets.

Yet somewhere along the line we’ve stumbled into a world where self-flagellation over personal privilege replaced examination of privilege as a social issue. Because that’s what privilege is. It’s the way the world treats you based on how you look/speak/where you come from. Beating yourself up for your privilege is just another way to keep your politics centered on you, you, you.

As Guerrilla Mama and State of Emergency point out, all of this is more ritualistic, more religious, than political. Clean living–”right living” if you want to get Buddhist about it—is personal. Religion, spirituality, all of it is personal—haven’t we been trying to argue that for years, for the separation of church and state? If the ritual of recycling cans or only shopping at the local food co-op is important to you, then go ahead with it: make your life easier and more fulfilling any way you can. But it becomes pernicious when it allows you to feel separate and better than others. As Jello Biafra likes to say, doing something is always better than doing nothing, but it shouldn’t become an excuse to sit in the corner with your arms folded, feeling better than everyone else.

I came to politics through punk rock and rock’n’roll is more my religion than any church. I worship a guitar lick, a David Bowie wail, the throb and crash of a pit at a punk rock show. I loved the community of it and yes, the aesthetics that said I am one of you. But I’ve watched what used to be a D.I.Y. ethic that led to community-building slowly devolve into fashion statements and ostentatious displays of difference. The line between punk rock culture and hipsterdom, wherever it fell, might be a line between sincerity and mockery, but most importantly it was a line between reaching out, building something and using a display of identity through aesthetics to exclude and look down on others.

Mark Rudd, who knows something about ostentatious displays of different-and-better, was right when he wrote:

“In other words, it’s not enough for punks to continually express their contempt for mainstream values through their alternate identity; they’ve got to move toward ‘organizing masses of people.'”

To actually make change, we’re going to have to not only get over individual differences, but get over trying to use our politics to make ourselves feel better than someone else. We’re going to have to move beyond activist/ally as identity and start thinking about organizing. About solidarity not with people who have ritually purified themselves and can bond over liking the same brand of overpriced “fair-trade” coffee but with those who are willing to work.

We have to think about the differences between the personal and the political, the differences between activism and organizing, between lifestyle-changes and social change, between movement-building and personal choices. Buying a lightbulb, buying clothes on Etsy, deleting the word “insanely” that I still automatically start to type and replacing it with “ridiculously,” listing off a bunch of my own privileges as apology before everything I write is not enough to change the world. Having discussions in public and working to spread that awareness and communicate and organize however we can—that can change things. To build a movement you have to move beyond yourself.

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Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe is former deputy editor of GlobalComment. She's interested in politics and pop culture, and has a special place in her heart for comics.

8 thoughts on “The weird elitism of “the personal is political” saps our strength

  1. Very good points; the arrogance & smugness of the “elite” Left is exactly what alienates the working class in this country & blocks attempts at mass resistance. Till folks get off their high horse & actually talk with the people they have such contempt for, we won’t have a broad base. Nobody’s going to listen to a lecture about why all their choices are wrong & stupid. But that’s exactly how too many in the Left approach change.

  2. Great post.

    Just look at how the labour party prostituted itself to get elected in the uk. It got cosy with “Cool Britannia” big business even Newcastle Football Club who were the darlings of the sport in the 90s. The middle classes lapped it up and spent the best part of a decade creating a hideous social experiment well away from middle England.

    I’m not sure what music has changed politically of late. Since rap became all about the pimp and reinforced stereotypes that white America could deal with it was allowed to blow up huge. What happened to Public Enemy, KRS1, and Ice Cube? Such a shame they were swallowed up in different ways. You may not have agreed with them but they were about something. Coldplay? If that’s all we’ve got then forget it.

    The real activists are not really activists at all but people who work in their communities trying to give people choices beyond their immediate postcode. The real punks had holes in their clothes because they were poor. As soon as it ended up on a London postcard it was dead. The community of a music movement can be the best thing in the world but ultimately most of us have to get a haircut and knuckle down to get a job. Its what you do then that really counts.

  3. The way you’re using “the personal is the political” here is totally backwards and ahistorical. It’s actually unrecognizable to someone who grew up with it.

    “The personal is the political” means that the struggles you or I face in our daily lives are very often political in nature.

    It came out of the consciousness-raising of the sixties, where people would get together and discuss their experiences and realize that they weren’t just being oversensitive or “seeing things that aren’t there.”

    It means that getting turned down for a job, or having your opinion ignored, or being stuck with the grunt work, or being pushed to the back of the line, for being female, or nonwhite, or the wrong age or size, isn’t just a personal problem. It is a political one.

  4. I wholeheartedly agree with the meat of the post, about the hypocritical consumerism and elitism that is still present in self-identifying liberals and feminists today. I know I’m plenty guilty of it myself and could do with a good soul searching.

    But I’m not sure what this has to do with the phrase in question. Maybe I just missed the connection.

    It’s also worth noting that while everyone has their own unique sexual preferences there’s a world of difference between refraining from condescendingly demonizing someone’s kinks and refraining from exploring (and yes, maybe criticizing) the influence of sexism, culture, and media on our sexualities.

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