Read this entire blog post before you respond. If it’s too wordy for you, or too “theoretical,” then get a bigger fucking vocabulary. These concepts are not difficult.
DISCLAIMER: First of all, this post is not about discouraging groups that want to empower themselves because society has got them down. And second of all, this is not about me trying to get oppressed minority groups to fight for a society that only I will benefit from. (That is what is wrong with the society!)
And thirdly — this is always a bunch of bullshit to me — the stereotype that only younger, inexperienced, college students have “revolutionary ideals”. (This time coming from black women bloggers complaining about stereotypes which society assigns to them.) For me personally, as I became older, as I employ myself in my own business, and as I step out of an educational system and into the “real world” I become more convinced that what me and my comrades stand for is completely authentic. As I became older I became more involved with this.
The problem I have is with empowerment itself.
“Empowerment” is all about making the group more wealthy or more successful in society. This society is inherently corrupt. People who want to achieve success in a corrupt society, are just empowering themselves to be as corrupt as the society they live in.
Today’s advocates of “empowerment politics” — that is, the empowerment of specific identities like black women, Latino women, foster youth, LGBTQ — do not expect to be called out for being “narrow minded”. But let me explain why I say that their politics are “narrow-minded”.
With very few exceptions (like the organization INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence or something like Bash Back!), empowerment politics does not have a “shared analysis” of the systems of oppression: racism, patriarchy, and capitalism. They do not critique any of these oppressive systems, or if they do, their critique is fragmented — addressing only one of them, or only addressing them partially. Instead, empowerment politics has a “shared vision” of empowering specific identity groups to gain power and respect within those systems of oppression.
All their energy is aimed at making their identity group more respectable within a patriarchal, racist, and capitalist society. They don’t care about the systems of oppression that affect society as a whole: racism, patriarchy, and they don’t even care to know what’s wrong with capitalism, so their analysis stays at the level of petty, singular “issues” which only pertain to specific groups who live in that society. All they’re trying to do is make their group more integrated into racist, patriarchal capitalism. And by doing so they feed the systems that generate the system of oppression for everyone.
(I would similarly criticize anyone’s anti-capitalist politics if it did not have a strong analysis of patriarchy or racism, or anti-racist politics for not having a strong analysis of capitalism or patriarchy, and so on.) Just read some of the marketing blogs out there about social “empowerment”. Or read this post about women’s self-empowerment written by someone who thinks feminism gave the “women’s self-empowerment” movement a “bad reputation”!
Then, a division of labor installs itself within the politics of empowerment. Groups split off into a thousand little points of light, each with their own narrow-minded goal, but none of them seeing the “big picture”.
“Improving the image of black women in the media.”
“Giving each Latino worker with four children running water.”
“Reconstructive surgery for every cleft-lipped foster youth under the age of 14.”
As part the individual group’s analysis, nowhere do they say they are part of a broader social movement toward ending this or that system of oppression. They have one goal. They are treading water but do not realize it.
Then, the “recuperation” of these groups by capitalism is evident too. Non-profit empowerment organizations are praised by governments and the business community for promoting voluntary effort, local level involvement and community regeneration aimed at “regenerating” capitalism and patriarchy and racism. They are regarded by the free market as being conducive to the development of the new corporate culture and “shared vision” of business-led urban renewal. Empowerment plays a role in creating the conditions for the integration of human capital into the wider system.
Consider Angela Davis, a revolutionary black woman who is a prison abolitionist. She is not fighting for some other group’s empowerment. She is fighting against the system that had disempowered her personally as well as the Black Panther movement that she was a part of. She has a specific goal: to abolish the prison system because it is inherently corrupt. Her organizations (like Critical Resistance) and all her work is infused with an anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal and anti-racist critique. If we use Angela Davis as an example, we can be for the empowerment of other people, but not because we want them to be successful at disempowering other people (by being a part of the luxury classes, etc.) Angela Davis is a highly successful activist and a professor. She is not some dumb ass empowerment guru who wants other black women to simply integrate into the capitalist system.
My critique is that “empowerment politics” fundamentally lacks depth.
It does not consider how far its tiny analysis of one oppressed group can go. The only group that matters is theirs, and the only problems that exist are the immediate ones pertaining to their group’s survival in the capitalist system. The politics of empowerment are fucking ridiculous to me. It’s all about a group of people who want to be extremely successful within a corrupt society, but because the society is so corrupt, they have to form an empowerment group to encourage the attitudes and social sensibility that will propel them towards the top. I have no sympathy for upwardly mobile individuals who just want to be part of a higher class, no matter what race, gender, or class you are.