Bringing Politics Into It: Organizing at the Intersection of Videogames and Academia

Introduction: The View from the Intersection

“Over the last two decades, women have organized against the almost routine violence that shapes their lives. Drawing from the strength of shared experience, women have recognized that the political demands of millions speak more powerfully than the pleas of a few isolated voices. This politicization in turn has transformed the way we understand violence against women. For example, battering and rape, once seen as private (family matters) and aberrational (errant sexual aggression), are now largely recognized as part of a broad-scale system of domination that affects women as a class. This process of recognizing as social and systemic what was formerly perceived as isolated and individual has also characterized the identity politics of people of color and gays and lesbians, among others. For all these groups, identity-based politics has been a source of strength, community, and intellectual development.” (Crenshaw, 1241-1242)

People who inhabit these sites produced through multiple relations of ruling, are at present the most active in this quest for an identity and a politics based on it. They are, to borrow a phrase of Eric Wolf, People Without History, and thus people without names of their own choosing.” (Banerji, 20)

Every identity has a history. When I call myself a videogame player and creator, a student, a researcher, a feminist, a community organizer, or a mixed-race woman, I invoke my own stories, but also the stories of many others. The intersections where our paths, stories, and identities connect become points of contact, points of commonality and sharing, but also points of contention. Who gets to call themselves by these names? What work are we doing when we self-identify in this way? How are we being identified, in turn?

Intersectionality, a term first coined by activist and scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, is typically used to describe the ways that different identities and forms of structural oppression, such as patriarchy and white supremacy, overlap and interact with one another. Over the course of the past few decades, the concept has been depoliticized and transformed into a buzzword, especially in academic circles, where it can be used to shut down discussion of specific oppressions. By separating the word itself from histories of struggle, intersectionality is reframed and cut off from its ability to act as a tool for anti-oppressive movement-building (Bilge). Despite the way that the term has been coopted, I still find the metaphor useful, both because it reveals something about the complexity of identity, and because it avoids naturalizing that identity. Intersectionality evokes an image of overlapping roads, and roads aren’t just travelled, they’re built. Roads have a history, which is intimately tied up with empire, trade, domination, and exploitation. By directing the flow of people and resources, roads help give shape to our society and relations of power, while also being shaped by them. They both enable and constrain, in ways that are often invisible to those of us with more privilege and mobility. But here the metaphor starts to fall apart, because we are never travelling just one road at a time, but many interweaving roads that culminate in what sociologists might call our “social position.” We are always at an intersection

The intersections I occupy matter, because they shape my view of the world, my material interests, and the types of experiences I have to draw on. Much of the history of feminism and identity politics more generally can be summed up as the process of making the personal political, or to put it more accurately, “recognizing as social and systemic what was formerly perceived as isolated and individual” (Crenshaw, 1241-1242). Personal experiences have always been political, but it’s only when they’re framed as such that they provide an avenue for collective action. This may be why the first battle is usually over who and what can be called political, and why feminists are so often blamed for “bringing politics into it.” As Sara Ahmed points out, when something “becomes political” it becomes a problem, which means you, as the person who pointed it out, will be seen as the origin of the problem. You become the problem, because making you the problem is easier than dealing with the problem you exposed (Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life).

As videogames have become an increasingly bigger part of my life, I’ve learned to recognize and name many different problems. The problem of targeted violence against women, queer, trans and non-binary people, indigenous people and people of colour, disabled people, and other oppressed groups. The problem of being erased, marginalized, or misrepresented. The problem of being exploited and used by people with more power and money. These problems aren’t unique to games, but it was through games that I first learned how to think about them, speak about them, and act strategically in response to them. Although videogames are often imagined to exist in a separate realm disconnected from “serious” political matters, they can also be the route through which people find and develop their political voice. By examining some of the political conflicts that I’ve encountered at the intersection of games and academia, and drawing attention to their social and economic roots using critical theory and historical materialism, my hope is that this text can serve as a travel companion or feminist toolkit for fellow travellers who might be struggling to find their way.

I begin by providing a quick overview of the two “industries” I work within–videogames and academia–and the current economic crisis, to provide some context for the analysis that follows. In the second chapter, I discuss some of the realities and limitations of community-building under capitalism. The third chapter covers some of the theoretical roots of my work, focusing especially on historical materialism, and connecting this to the concept of praxis, while the fourth chapter is a critique of liberal ideology and meritocracy. The fifth and sixth chapters discuss the rationale behind safer spaces, the pushback against feminism and identity politics, and the rise of neo-fascism.

The arguments and strategies I put forward are a reflection of my experiences navigating the game industry and academia while engaging in anti-oppressive community organizing. As I’ll note in the next section, the type of work I’m doing has no neat beginning or end, but is part of an ongoing process which stretches back at least six years. This toolkit will consist of a selection of blog posts and organizational documents I’ve already written, most of which were created for a non-academic audience, along with some additional commentary to provide context and help fill in the gaps. While the blog posts have already been published online on my personal blog, I believe there is value in revisiting this work as part of my doctoral dissertation in order to make a statement about what can and cannot be considered “scholarly research,” and what our current standards and expectations say about the role that academia plays in our society.


Chapter 1: Two Industries and a Crisis

“This is a time of great upheavals, momentous changes, and uncertain outcomes; fraught with dangers, including the very real possibility of collapse as well as the growing threat of repressive social control systems that serve to contain the explosive contradictions of a global capitalism in crisis. Certainly the stakes bound up in the raging conflicts of our day are too high for the usual academic complacency. I believe that the most urgent task of any intellectual who considers him or herself organic or politically engaged is to address this crisis.” (Robinson, 1)

“I’m going to get right to it: any critique or reporting on games that doesn’t include an intersectional perspective on the presence of capitalism in games is incomplete. There’s little else more avoided than the topics of anti-capitalism and class politics in games press and conferences outside of the usual fetishized rags to riches fables. Having money to start with is already a large part of this, but how our societies are organized by valuing people and things by their monetary value above all else structures how we talk about games. It says who gets listened to, who gets noticed, and who is valued.” (Mattie Brice, “Our Flappy Dystopia”)

Recently both the university and the videogame industry have taken center-stage in what some have called a “culture war” between, on one side, leftists and liberals advocating for new social norms and policies to combat systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and other forms of oppression, and on the other, those who claim that these measures go too far, are ineffective, or undermine “free speech.” While this war has taken place on a variety of fronts, there are two aspects in particular that have directly implicated me and my work. These include GamerGate, an ongoing harassment campaign which began in 2014 and has largely targeted outspoken feminists and marginalized[1] people working in or around the game industry, and the right-wing backlash against “political correctness,” safer spaces, and identity politics on university campuses. Uniting the two is the growth of the so-called Alt-Right, a loose coalition of far-right groups, websites, think tanks, and media personalities that operates mainly online, and has helped push fascist views and talking points into the mainstream.

Though typically referred to as a clash of values or ideas, the growing conflict between Left and Right is a symptom of a broader social and economic crisis. Capitalism is a deeply unstable and unsustainable system that is dependent on infinite growth, and while crises are a recurring feature, some are starting to wonder how much more capitalism can expand within the limits of our finite world. At the very least, we are heading towards a period of instability that the existing liberal establishment seems poorly equipped to deal with (Robinson; Smith).

In the wake of the crisis, governments in wealthy, white-majority countries are now deploying many of the same neoliberal austerity measures that were forced on countries in the Global South[2] by institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. These measures include privatizing public assets, cutting social services, and eliminating environmental regulations, workers’ rights, and other barriers to “free trade,” a euphemism for the domination of giant multinational corporations and conglomerates. Meanwhile climate change and other ecological disasters are rapidly approaching a point of no return as capital relentlessly seeks out new sites of investment in the form of ever-more dangerous and destructive resource extraction schemes such as fracking or deepwater drilling. Unemployment and precarity are also on the rise, while consumer and student debt levels are reaching record highs. All of this is inflating the pockets of the super-rich at the expense of everyone else, a situation that was put into stark relief by a 2017 Oxfam report stating that the eight richest men now own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population (Hardoon; Wolff; Smith; Harvey).

While this level of inequality may be unprecedented, many of the underlying structures which produced this situation have been a part of capitalism from the very beginning. As Marxists have long argued, the current crisis isn’t the result of a “corrupted” capitalism, which, with a few tweaks, can be restored to its former glory, but the unavoidable product of a system based on private ownership of the means of production, the division and exploitation of the working class, and the endless accumulation of wealth (Wolff; Smith).

In their book Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Videogames, Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter argue that “video games are a paradigmatic media of Empire— planetary, militarized hypercapitalism— and of some of the forces presently challenging it” (xv). Noting the massive scale of the global game industry, its close connections to the military industrial complex (particularly in the United States), and the capacity of games to serve as testing grounds for new technologies of social control and resistance, the authors provide an overview of the many ways that games and global capital are intertwined. To do so they draw on terms like “immaterial labour” and “cognitive capital,” both of which point to the increasing role that information and communication appear to play in the development of contemporary capitalism, from the rise of just-in-time production techniques that depend on advanced logistics and communication technologies, to the growing importance of intellectual property and financialization. While I take issue with the idea that information or thought is somehow “immaterial,” I also find these terms useful in that they allow me to make connections between the subject that I study (videogames) and the context in which I study them (academia).

From their birth, videogames and academia have been closely intertwined. The first videogames were created in research facilities at Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and other universities, using equipment paid for by the United States Department of Defense during the Cold War (Dyer-Witheford & De Peuter). This origin story is telling. For all that academia maintains an image as a bastion of progressive thought, the active role it has played as part of the military industrial complex in supporting imperialism and anti-communism should not be forgotten. By partnering with private interests, universities also play a role in funneling public money into private hands. As Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades note in Academic Capitalism and the New Economy: Markets, State, and Higher Education, when “taxpayers pay for the federal research that professors perform in universities, they effectively subsidize the corporations that partner with universities to develop technologies based on [that] research” (6). This tendency is only becoming more pronounced as universities are consumed by the same neoliberal logics that increasingly govern the rest of society. The result is a system that prioritizes “public-private partnerships” over work that lacks clear commercial implications, as demonstrated by the mass defunding of humanities programs. The romantic image of the university as an institution dedicated to the “public good” must be put in tension with the acknowledgement that academia has always functioned, at least in part, as a means of advancing private and state interests, and cannot be disconnected from the mechanisms of power that operate elsewhere.

The politics of an institution, or an industry, can be seen in which bodies are included or accepted as the norm, and which bodies are treated as trespassers (Ahmed, On Being Included). Over the course of six years I’ve seen many examples of marginalized people being pushed out of academic and game-related spaces because their politics, their outspokenness, or their very existence caused “problems” for people in positions of power. This was often carried out through repeated acts of violence, by which I mean both the subtle ways that people are informed that they don’t belong or that they are worth less, as well as more direct forms of exploitation and aggression. These acts include everything from off-hand sexist remarks to sexual assault, doxxing (publishing someone’s private information online), stalking, surveillance, online/offline harassment, death threats, withheld wages, forced overtime, and jobs that don’t pay enough to cover the costs of staying alive. When carried out by and against certain groups of people, they form a pattern that reproduces oppression and marginalization.

The way that certain types of work are valued or encouraged in academia, while others are devalued also plays a role in reinforcing existing hierarchies. I’ve spent most of my time as a graduate student doing things I wasn’t supposed to do, at least according to the norms of the institution, which insists on a standard set of research methods, writing styles, citations, and publication formats on the one hand, while at the same time preaching interdisciplinarity and boundary-breaking on the other. For all the talk about innovation, the publish or perish model adopted by neoliberal universities often works to limit how much time or freedom academics have to experiment. This system punishes people who decide to pursue “extracurricular activities” such as grassroots volunteer work, popular education, and community organizing, rather than spending those hours attending expensive conferences, applying for grants, or publishing in established, peer-reviewed journals. In other words, it encourages people to make the bulk of their work inaccessible to the general public, while doing everything they can to please their higher-ups.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the institution doesn’t also benefit from the efforts of “rogue” students and community partners, which it regularly coopts in order to help boost its public image and maintain the impression that it is indeed a force for positive social change. In fact, from what I’ve seen, the progressive image of the university is upheld, in large part, by the same types of unpaid labour that are being systematically discouraged and devalued (Vossen; Ahmed, On Being Included).

As is often the case, the people who suffer the worst abuses under this system tend to be those who are marginalized in one way or another. Women, people of colour and indigenous people, people from working class backgrounds, queer, trans, and non-binary people, disabled people, and all those who are systematically oppressed and othered have to deal with a variety of invisible obstacles that have the overall effect of ensuring that academic institutions continue to be dominated by straight, white, middle class, cisgender[3] able-bodied men (Ahmed, On Being Included; Stabile; Mirza).

This has been particularly evident in game studies, a still-emerging field which seems to be suffering from a bad case of collective imposter syndrome. In an effort to establish games as a “serious” site of study, game studies scholars have often ended out celebrating and re-entrenching some of the most the toxic elements of both videogame culture and academia. This includes centring and naturalizing the perspectives of middle class white cis men, while erasing or downplaying structural violence (Miller, “Gaming for Beginners”; Fron et al.; Shaw “On Not Becoming”; Vossen, “On the Inaccessibility”).

At the same time, the push for more feminist scholarship and spaces, both in games and in the university, has helped bring these dynamics to the surface, and created at least some room for feminist communities to form in the cracks of the institution and in the peripheral spaces surrounding the game industry. These communities are not without their own limitations however, either due to a lack of material support, or because even the most radical spaces are not immune to the effects of systemic oppression. In the next section I’ll briefly outline my own experiences with community groups, as well as questioning what community means in the era of neoliberal capitalism.


Chapter 2: Community Under Capitalism

“The power of these primordial communities had to be broken, and it was broken. But it was broken by influences which from the outset appear to us as a degradation, a fall from the simple moral grandeur of the ancient gentile society. The lowest interests — base greed, brutal sensuality, sordid avarice, selfish plunder of common possessions — usher in the new, civilised society, class society; the most outrageous means — theft, rape, deceit and  treachery — undermine and topple the old, classless, gentile society. And the new society, during all the 2500 years of its existence, has never been anything but the development of the small minority at the expense of the exploited and oppressed great majority; and it is so today more than ever before.” (Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, 99)

“How else can we appeal for or to others if we do not do so in the name of community? To ask such questions at this present moment is to make clear that the word ‘community’ does not itself secure a common ground, for such questions suggest, by their very nature as questions, that community itself is ‘in question’, as a question mark, as well as a mark of questioning. It is uncertain what the word ‘community’ does, or what it might do, in the different contexts in which it is named.  For some, community might be a word that embodies the promise of a universal togetherness that resists either liberal individualism or defensive nationalism – as a ‘we’ that remains open to others who are not of my kind or ‘who have nothing in common’ with me. For others, community might remain premised on ideas of commonality – either expressed in the language of kinship and blood relations or in a shared allegiance to systems of belief. Or community might be the promise of living together without ‘being as one’, as a community in which ‘otherness’ or ‘difference’ can be a bond rather than a division. And, for others still,  community might represent a failed promise insofar as the appeal to community assumes a way of relating to others that violates rather than supports the ethical principle of alterity; that is others matter only if they are either ‘with me’ or ‘like me’. Community enters into the debate about how to live with others and seems to be crucial as a name for what we already do (or do not do); what we must do (or not do); or what we must retain (or give up).” (Sarah Ahmed & Anne-Marie Fortier, “Re-imagining communities,” 251-252).

I use the word community, not because I think it’s an accurate description of what currently exists, but as a hopeful gesture towards a potential future. Saying community is a way of making community, of calling it into existence. If community is a set of social relations marked by interdependence, collective responsibility, and mutual aid, something which is created through organization and everyday acts of solidarity, then capitalism works to destroy community, and remake it in its own image, because it’s only as isolated individuals deprived of all other means of subsistence that we can be pushed to sell our labour on the market for a wage. As long as we’re part of a community that can support itself through the use a shared commons, there’s no need to subject ourselves to the demands of the market. Unsustainable, fractured, and exploitative communities become the norm because this is what capitalism requires (Federici, Revolution at Point Zero).

Communities can look very different depending on where you stand within them. My position within the local games community in Montreal has been shaped in large part through my participation in two organizations: first as as student at the Technoculture, Art, and Games Research Centre (TAG) at Concordia University, and later as a volunteer for the Mount Royal Game Society (MRGS). It’s because of my involvement with these two organizations and the communities that surround them that I found my way to feminism, and through that, to anti-capitalism. To explain how, and why, I’ll first have to explain something about the organizations that helped to bring me here.

As the name suggests, TAG’s mission is to produce research about games, technoculture, and art. What​ ​kind​ ​of​ ​research​ ​mostly​ ​goes​ ​unsaid, to the benefit of the university which values the centre primarily for its ability to attract new students and bolster the reputation of its host institution. The vagueness of the centre’s mission signals the absence of a specific political stance or set of values, allowing it to appeal to the broadest possible market, even as it masks the divisions that grow within it. Like the rest of the university, the centre is run in a hierarchical fashion with professors near the top acting as middle managers, and students and staff at the bottom providing the majority of the labour. While TAG has afforded an entry point and gathering place for me and many others who came to the university with an interest in studying or making games, it has also been a site of conflict and struggle, particularly over issues of accountability, gendered violence, and the exploitation of students and staff.

While TAG is firmly rooted in the values and structures of the university, it also maintains connections to organizations outside academia. It was through TAG that I first got involved with the Mount Royal Game Society (MRGS). MRGS started as an informal meetup for game-makers organized by a handful of friends, but has since developed into a small, volunteer-run non-profit with a mission to promote the interests of marginalized people in games, support non-commercial game development, and generally provide a counterpoint to mainstream gaming culture and the game industry.

MRGS’ role in the local game ecosystem is defined by a number of contradictions. Through organizing events, it has helped further the growth of the industry by creating spaces where developers can network, learn new skills, showcase their games, and find jobs. Many local game companies as well as a number of commercially successful indie game projects were launched by people who met through MRGS events. At the same time, organizers have worked hard to prevent the organization from being co-opted by those who would prefer that MRGS align itself more directly with business interests. For example, rather than focus on mainstream, commercial titles, MRGS organizers have made repeated efforts to showcase the work of underrepresented and hobbyist game-makers, while also laying down rules to prevent its social gatherings or online spaces from being primarily used as marketing or recruitment platforms. The organization has also played a significant role in promoting the use of safer space policies that prioritize the needs and experiences of marginalized people–a position that has put it at odds with the dominant culture in games, and led to a number of conflicts both within and outside the organization.

Although most of MRGS’ organizers are marginalized in some way, and its politics are implicitly if not always explicitly feminist, the organization’s association with “indie games” has often made it difficult to attract an audience outside the dominant demographic of straight white middle class cis men. While indie games have often been represented as an alternative to the mainstream industry, which is ruled by multinational, “AAA” companies like Ubisoft and Electronic Arts (EA), the bulk of the indie scene has never managed to make the leap from a vague desire for creative freedom, to an anti-capitalist political strategy that would extend this dream beyond the limited pool of people who are either independently wealthy, or can scrape up the venture capitalist funding required to quit their day jobs. Indie games emerged as a response to the crushing realities of factory-style game production, but just like other independent movements before it, it wasn’t long before the focus shifted from economics to aesthetics, and indie games were smoothly incorporated back into the capitalist machine as just another genre of commercially-produced games (Lipkin; Ruffino).

Far from being a solution, indie games are part of the problem. The fantasy of “going indie” provides an outlet for workers who are fed up with long hours and a lack of creative control, offering an alternative to unionization or other forms of collective struggle that would put them in direct conflict with their bosses (Legault and Weststar). Instead of organizing with other employees to fight for better conditions, the more privileged and experienced developers leave to create their own startups, beginning the cycle of exploitation all over again. While startups may initially allow for more creative autonomy for workers, this often seems to come at the cost of longer hours, lower wages, no benefits, and less job security–conditions which tend to exclude people who lack the privileges necessary to take these kinds of risks (Boucher-Vidal; Thompson et al.). Many of those who can dedicate long hours to their work are only able to do so because of the unpaid domestic labour of family members or partners, who are often women. Indie game studios remain very white, very male, and very middle class in part because other groups are systematically excluded, in the same way that they are excluded from the rest of the industry. Market pressures also limit how much indie developers can experiment, since at the end of the day they must still be able to sell their games to a consumer base that is accustomed to certain conventions, genres, and norms. Whatever the internal culture of the company, startups must still compete with larger game companies on the market, meaning that those that fail to reproduce the exploitative conditions, economies of scale, and top-down management styles designed to maximize profits are at a disadvantage. Even when small studios manage to succeed, despite the odds, the ownership structure of a startup means that the benefits will tend to flow to the founders/owners, not the employees.

One of the reasons MRGS supports non-commercial game development as part of its broader focus on diversity is because the dynamics of commercial game studios, whether indie or AAA, tend to result in the same kinds of games being made by the same kinds of people. This link between the content of games, who makes them, and the conditions of their production is crucial. However recognizing this link is one thing–actively bringing about change and building solidarity in an industry where workers and studios are desperately competing for jobs and sales is another. “Capitalism, games, and diversity work,” is the transcript of a short talk I presented at a social event organized by a volunteer-run, women-in-games non-profit called Pixelles. Inspired by the work of Mattie Brice, a black trans game developer, organizer, and critic, the piece speaks to the constraints that capitalism imposes on our efforts to call out or address injustices by creating a situation where our livelihoods depend on “not burning bridges” with gatekeepers who determine whether or not we have access to necessary resources. As marginalized people fighting for inclusion, we’re encouraged to dehumanize ourselves in order to appeal to bosses and investors. When we sell diversity using terms like “untapped markets,” “increased productivity,” and “good PR,” we become just another asset companies can add to their portfolios, supporting the assumption that diversity only matters as long as it helps companies make more money.

This corporate approach to diversity also emphasizes putting women or other marginalized people in positions of power, without challenging the exploitation of poor women and people of colour both here and in the Global South, where working conditions are often significantly worse and wages are generally lower. Large parts of the game industry and the people who power it are routinely ignored, from factory workers in Foxconn’s manufacturing plants, to miners in the Congo, to cleaning staff and “booth babes.” By failing to acknowledge the crucial role that these workers play in creating the devices and performing the labour that allow game development jobs to exist in the first place, the possibility of a truly liberating politics, one which spans across global divides, is foreclosed, and the feminist movement as a whole is weakened (Huntemann and Aslinger; Did).

If anti-oppressive projects are going to be successful, they not only need to include and support workers around the world, but also those who perform the unpaid labour that is absolutely essential to our collective survival, such as unemployed or retired workers, housewives, students, and prisoners. As Angela Davis, Sylvia Federici, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Selma James, and many others have pointed out, unpaid labour is typically devalued or ignored because it does not directly produce profits for capitalists (although it does do so indirectly). It’s no accident that much of this unpaid labour–including housework, child-rearing, emotional support, and other forms of caretaking–has traditionally been performed by women. The sexist culture that persists to this day is more than just a reflection of bad attitudes or a hangover from a “less civilized” pre-capitalist era, it is the result of a gendered division of labour that benefits men at the expense of women, and breaks up the working class into tiers so that they can be more easily exploited by capital. In a similar way, racialized divisions of labour, which are connected to the history of slavery, colonialism, and Western imperialism, and reinforced by laws and institutions, lie at the root of racist attitudes. These biases are perpetuated in large part because workers at the top of the hierarchy benefit from having access to better, higher paid jobs, while the worst, most degrading forms of labour are reserved for racialized people (Davis; Federici, Caliban and the Witch; Costa & James).

Capitalism requires these divisions and exclusions in order to function. This is why “diversity work,” when carried to its logical conclusion, forces us to confront the capitalist system and build solidarity with all members of the working class. Class oppression is not separate from oppression based on race, gender, ability, sexuality, and so on, but something which is created and maintained through these other forms of oppression. Recognizing how these forms of oppression work is crucial to understanding the system as a whole, something which is impossible if we try to either ignore class (as some liberal feminists do), or reduce everything to one type of social relation (as happens when Marxists fall into the trap of class reductionism) (Banerji).

“Demystifying Activism: A 101 Guide to Getting Involved,” is a blog post I wrote shortly after the election of Donald Trump which offers advice on starting or joining political organizations. It sums up my views on community building and anti-oppressive activism by outlining some of the key lessons I’ve learned in the last few years of political engagement. While I have a lot of hope in the utopian possibilities of community, I also feel it’s important to point out the many ways that people are divided, bonds are broken, and collective responsibility is disavowed even in spaces that present themselves as alternatives to the status quo. While the organizations I’ve worked with may help create a sense of togetherness for some of the people working in and around games, they can also play a role in reinforcing the divisions produced by structural oppression. In order to recognize the difference, we need to move beyond the individualistic definitions of classism, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism favoured by liberals, and push for a materialist analysis that addresses the structural roots of these different forms of oppression.


Chapter 3: Praxis and Historical Materialism

“Who suffer the effects of oppression more than the oppressed? Who can better understand the necessity of liberation? They will not gain this liberation by chance but through the praxis of their quest for it, through their recognition of the necessity to fight for it. And this fight, because of the purpose given it by the oppressed, will actually constitute an act of love opposing the lovelessness which lies at the heart of the oppressors violence, lovelessness even when clothed in false generosity.” (Freire, ch. 1)

“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” (Marx, “Preface”)

To paraphrase Sara Ahmed, we learn about worlds through our efforts to transform them (“Women of Colour”). Anything I have to say about videogames or academia comes in large part from my experiences organizing with others to try to change the world around me. It’s because of this that I prefer to refer to my work (which is really our work) as praxis rather than theory. The concept of praxis cuts against attempts to divide theory from practice, thought from action, or to establish a hierarchy where one takes precedence over the other (Freire; Gramsci). Praxis is always both, simultaneously, working together as one.

For Marxists like Georg Lukacs and Paolo Freire, praxis is connected to a particular set of social contradictions or tensions–namely the opposing interests of the oppressors and the oppressed. This distinction between those who dominate and exploit, and those who are dominated and exploited by others, is a key aspect of both Marxism and feminism–the two traditions I draw on most heavily–as well as other branches of critical theory. It’s important to note, however, that these categories describe a relationship, rather than two distinct groups of people. Most of us are both oppressors and oppressed, and the specific way that these categories align with or give rise to different identities also shifts over time. For example, while patriarchy existed under feudalism as well as capitalism, the ways that women are oppressed by men, and the very concepts of womanhood and manhood, have changed as a result of the praxis, or struggle against oppression, of a wide range of people working together to bring about social change, as well as the reactions of those in power.

According to the materialist view of history developed by Karl Marx, all ideas are the product of specific social relations and material conditions. Marx’s methodology, which we now refer to as historical materialism, is opposed to idealism, which assumes the separation of ideas from matter and prioritizes the former over the latter. Instead, Marx insists that “we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process” (The German Ideology, sec. 4).

Historical materialism starts from the understanding that human beings must be able to live and reproduce themselves in order to make history. This means taking care of basic needs like food, water, clothing, and shelter. If we examine how people meet these needs, then we have a basis for understanding the political organization and ideology of any given society.

Human labour is necessary in order to fulfill our needs and transform raw materials into useable goods. In order to make our labour more efficient, humans have a tendency to cooperate and divide up tasks between different people. Through this division of labour, people enter into different relations with one another and with the materials, instruments, and products of labour. As technology develops and the division of labour becomes more complex, the society may reach a point where its members can collectively produce more than they need to survive. This allows some people to stop performing labour altogether, and instead rely on the labour of others by appropriating the surplus (i.e. everything that is left over after the labourers’ own basic needs are met). This situation is only possible however if one group or class gains control over the means of production, meaning the instruments and raw materials needed to make goods, and is able to restrict access in such a way that the labouring class is forced to work for them and give up a portion of the surplus they produce in order to survive. Once formed, these two classes, the owning (or ruling) class and the labouring class, have fundamentally different relationships to the means of production, which results in opposing interests. It’s in the best interests of the ruling class to maintain control over the means of production and maximize the amount of surplus they appropriate because it allows them to live a life of leisure and plenty, while it’s in the best interests of the labouring class to resist exploitation and seize back the means of production in order to improve conditions for themselves (Marx, Preface in A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy; Marx, Gundrisse).

It is these sorts of internal contradictions that animate history, according to the historical materialist point of view. This is an ongoing process, and therefore it’s important we understand our own work as being part of this process. This means being prepared to revise our ideas and strategies on the basis of new evidence, while also keeping in mind that social contradictions are likely to express themselves through our work. Instead of positioning ourselves as outside, disinterested observers, we need to remain conscious of our role as participants in the social whole.

Historical materialism is a method that encourages us to avoid looking at things in isolation, and instead consider how they relate to one another and how these relationships change over time. In this sense it holds the same basic tenets as systems thinking (Arnold and Wade). However many branches of systems thinking lack a direct connection to history, praxis, and theories of class struggle. While historical materialism is framed as a tool for liberation, systems thinking is frequently detached from explicit political aims. This has been addressed to some extent by critical systems thinking, which is committed to “critical awareness, social awareness, [and] human emancipation,” among other things (Flood, 279). However what exactly is meant by “human emancipation” isn’t entirely clear, particularly when supporters of critical systems thinking fail to name capitalism as the dominant mode of production. “Critical,” in these contexts, simply refers to the capacity to solve problems, and is not about challenging systems of domination in any concrete or defined way.

Action research is another recent approach that adopts a “relational stance,” but is often co-opted and used in ways that betray its more radical roots (McNiff; McTaggart). Although action research embraces the unity of theory and practice, the professional contexts in which action research is often carried out may influence how far practitioners are willing to go in working towards social transformation, and what kinds of transformation they work towards. This perceived shortcoming has led to the development of participatory action research, which is more explicitly anti-oppressive. However, as with systems theory, the core of action research–which involves a cyclical process of planning, acting, observing what happens, and analyzing or reflecting on those observations–can be detached from political goals and turned towards purposes that may benefit people in positions of power (McTaggart).

The fact that academics feel the need to rely on terms like action research and systems thinking to describe their work may be a reflection of the way that Marxism and historical materialism have been marginalized or sidelined in Western academia in the wake of the Cold War and the second Red Scare (Palmer). While this trend may be reversing somewhat with the emergence of “new materialisms,” which involve a renewed focus on the body and its role in politics, as well as broader economic and environmental concerns, Marxism remains something of a dirty word in many academic circles (Coole and Frost). But as Bryan Palmer points out, the “end of Marxism” should be treated with the same suspicion as the so-called “end of history,” i.e. the belief that Western liberal democracy was the ultimate endpoint of history and the “final form of human government” (Fukuyama). As we enter a period of capitalist crisis, Marxist political economy and historical materialism seem, for many of us, more relevant than ever. If radical critique is about getting “to the root of things,” then perhaps critical theory also needs to return to its historical materialist roots.


Chapter 4: Liberalism and Meritocracy

“None of the so-called rights of man, therefore, go beyond egoistic man, beyond man as a member of civil society – that is, an individual withdrawn into himself, into the confines of his private interests and private caprice, and separated from the community. In the rights of man, he is far from being conceived as a species-being; on the contrary, species-life itself, society, appears as a framework external to the individuals, as a restriction of their original independence. The sole bond holding them together is natural necessity, need and private interest, the preservation of their property and their egoistic selves.” (Marx, Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 3, 164)

“Experience teaches us no less clearly than reason, that men believe themselves to be free, simply because they are conscious of their actions, and unconscious of the causes whereby those actions are determined; and, further, it is plain that the dictates of the mind are but another name for the appetites, and therefore vary according to the varying state of the body” (Spinoza, Ethics, Part III, 4).

If Marxist feminism works to reveal and explain the social divisions that exist under capitalism, then the role of liberal ideology is to mask them. The history of liberalism can be traced back to the European Enlightenment, and the revolutions that marked the downfall of feudalism and the rise of capitalism as the dominant mode of production. While there are many different strands of liberal thought, in general liberalism privileges abstract individual rights over material access, including the right to free speech, the right to freedom of assembly, and above all, the right to private property. The capitalist institution of private property creates a separation between those who own the means of production, and those who own nothing and are required to work for a living. This leads to an unequal division of power in society that remains unacknowledged in the liberal framework, which attempts to bracket off economic matters, separating them from political rights or freedoms. Human beings are imagined as individuals, which, in their natural state, exist apart from society. As Marx suggests in the quote above, society is seen as something which is imposed from the outside, rather than something that is essential to our survival and an integral part of who we are as individuals (Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 3; Manent; Hallowell).

I address this point of contention in the blog post “Merit is a Myth,” which deconstructs the concept of merit and argues that there is no way to separate our “merit” from the social structures that shape us. As Stephanie Fisher and Alison Harvey point out, popular understandings of what it means to succeed in the game industry (and in academia) are often premised on the myth of meritocracy, which covers up or denies the effects of systemic oppression by presenting success or failure in terms of individual strengths and weaknesses. The unstated assumption is that anyone can make games, and the only thing that separates the “winners” from the “losers” is dedication, work ethic, skill, or other supposedly inherent traits. As a result, oppressed people end out being blamed for the additional challenges that they face, and are further excluded and marginalized, while those who come to games with the necessary privileges are hailed as “geniuses” and entrepreneurs.

Also included in this chapter is a short post entitled “Against Grading,” which focuses on the role that educational institutions play in reinforcing the myth of meritocracy. This piece is based on Louis Althusser’s observation that ideology isn’t simply spread through words or images–rather it’s a system of meaning that is reproduced on a daily basis through our encounters with institutions. By assigning grades to our students, and then determining privileges and opportunities based on those grades, teachers, school administrators, and bosses play a role in shifting responsibility away from systemic oppression and onto students. By subjecting them to our evaluation, we also hail them as subjects, recognizing them as “free” individuals so that they in turn learn to recognize themselves this way. Our students come to obey us, and figures of authority more generally, in part because we treat them as free subjects, encouraging them to view their actions, and the outcome of those actions, as originating from their own “free will,” and not from any external coercive force.

This process also extends to employment. In Willing Slaves of Capital, Frederic Lordon explores the question of how and why workers find happiness or joy in a relationship which is, at its core, fundamentally coercive. Although workers must essentially sell themselves to their employers in order to survive, many seem happy to spend their time doing work for someone else’s benefit. The spectacle of the happy workforce is especially evident in the creative industries, as well as other sectors where people are expected to be deeply invested in the work they do. The game industry, for example, thrives on the “passion” of its employees, who regularly sacrifice their own health and wellbeing for the sake of their work. The predominance of crunch time, where developers work exceptionally long hours for an extended period of time, usually in an attempt to meet a deadline set by the studio or publisher, is often explained away as something employees engage in “willingly” (Williams; Dyer-Witheford & de Peuter). No one is forcing them to do it, or so the story goes, so how can it be a problem? This is how the discourse of individual agency is used to justify exploitation, and erase the role that power structures play in shaping people’s desires.

Even if we recognize the systemic factors behind crunch and other labour issues, it can be difficult to imagine an alternative. Many of us have been taught that capitalism is the best possible system, and that change (insofar as change is even necessary) must be brought about by gradual reforms implemented in a top-down fashion. This view is summed up by Margaret Thatcher’s famous slogan, “there is no alternative” (Fisher). However a growing number of people refuse to accept that we are indeed living in the best of all possible worlds, pointing to massive inequalities and daily experiences of abuse and violence in order to demonstrate that the “perfect system” promoted by political, media, academic, and business elites continues to produce a great deal of suffering for those at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Some have attempted to construct their own alternatives to the status quo within existing structures and institutions, in order to provide a space where marginalized people can socialize, organize, create, or simply exist without the ever-present fear of violence. Building on what I’ve discussed here, the following chapter explores the processes, policies, and conflicts involved in creating safe(r) spaces in games and academia, using my own experiences as a starting point and touchstone.


Chapter 5: Creating Safer Spaces

The Mount Royal Game Society was one of, if not the first game-related organizations to adopt a safer space policy in Montreal. The policy, which was initially based on a text posted on the Geek Feminism Wiki, has been modified over the years and includes a set of guidelines or general principles that event participants and organizers are expected to abide by in order to make the space safe(r) for marginalized people. Following MRGS’ example, a number of other organizations and collectives in Montreal, Toronto, and New York have adopted similar policies for their own events and spaces. As one of the main organizers for MRGS, I gained a great deal of first hand experience dealing with the issues and conflicts that came up in regards to the policy. While reports of abuse have been relatively rare, these incidents and the resulting fallout have substantially changed my outlook on the games industry, academia, and feminist community building.

The lessons we learned through those experiences were eventually recorded in the Mount Royal Game Society’s Guide to Running Safer Spaces, a document I produced in collaboration with two other organizers. The document includes an explanation of what safer spaces means to us, basic principles we follow, considerations for who should be in charge of handling reports, suggestions for intervening, and rebuttals to common arguments against the use of safer space policies. While our approach to safer spaces is likely different from that of many other organizations and community groups, we have found that the policy has had a polarizing effect, leading to conflicts between those who support the idea of prioritizing the needs and decisions of marginalized people, and those who would prefer we stick to a more conventional model based on existing institutional policies or the criminal justice system, where all parties are treated as if no inequalities exist. Our primary argument against the later approach is that the game industry (like society as a whole) is not an even playing field, and ignoring power imbalances will only result in more marginalized people being pushed out of games, since they are already at a disadvantage. If MRGS is committed to challenging the established norms of the industry, then its policies should reflect that by altering the balance of power–to the extent, that is, that such a thing is even possible within the existing system–and allowing marginalized people who experience violence or abuse to decide for themselves how they would like us to handle the situation.

Safer spaces are based on the recognition that most spaces are not safe for people who are oppressed or marginalized. Often, however, the ways that they are made unsafe are largely invisible to others. The blog post “A Partial Guide to Treating Women with Respect and Avoiding Subtle Sexism,” which is based on both first and second-hand experiences with sexism in games and academia, speaks to the way that oppression, particularly in more privileged, liberal-minded circles, often takes the form of a “million tiny papercuts” that build up over time, rather than the more dramatic and overt forms of violence we associate with words like oppression. These include things like unwanted romantic advances, or ways of speaking that automatically assume women know less than men. The consequences of these acts range from mildly annoying to potentially life-threatening, but even if the individual acts themselves, taken alone and deprived of context, appear relatively harmless, the collective impact can be devastating, particularly when combined with other forms of oppression.

Speaking up about these experiences can mean inviting more targeted violence into your life. The pushback against safer spaces and other feminist and anti-oppressive practices has often been highly gendered in nature, so that the very act of sensing violence, of being sensitive to it, is turned against you, and presented as a personal flaw. Feminists of all genders are charged with being oversensitive, attention-seeking, spiteful, irrational, weak, manipulative, and vain–insults that have long been used to denigrate women–and these qualities are assumed to justify more violence, threats, even murder. As I’ll discuss in the next chapter, liberal institutions are often complicit in this reactionary violence, a trend which was evident during GamerGate and is even more obvious now as the conflict between neo-fascists and anti-fascists continues to escalate.


Chapter 6: GamerGate and Neo-Fascism

As videogames have moved from a niche hobby to a global, multi-billion dollar industry, the scope of games, the types of topics they address, and the number of people working on and playing games has expanded. Gaming companies can no longer afford to cater only to a select audience of white, cis male, middle-class, able-bodied gamers, and those who do are more likely to face criticism from the public. These changes have opened the doors, to some degree, for those who have struggled to find a space within games, but they have also sparked anger and resentment. While GamerGate began as a harassment campaign targeting a specific female developer, the campaign was quickly recast as an issue of ethics in gaming journalism, attracting a much broader audience, including many who had a bone to pick with so-called “social justice warriors” (a pejorative label used to describe people advocating for socially progressive views, including feminism, identity politics, multiculturalism, etc.). While targeted harassment directed at marginalized people in games is hardly unusual, the scale of the backlash generated by GamerGate seemed to be unprecedented, and continues to this day.

Under the guise of protecting free speech, GamerGaters have accused feminists of censorship, harassed those who speak out, and attacked media outlets that publish feminist critiques. As I discuss in “GamerGate and the Right,” the core of GamerGate’s activities, the people it’s targeted, and the impact it’s had on the world of gaming and beyond, suggest that it can be characterized as a right-wing, reactionary campaign. It has also played a role in the rise of what is now called the Alt-Right, providing a testing ground for many of the strategies and tactics that have since become hallmarks of the neo-fascist movement. While fascism is often associated with specific figures, symbols, and tactics, the surface level details of fascism are much less important than the historical role it has played in suppressing the Left and disrupting any attempt to establish an alternative to capitalism. Fascism is a movement that emerges during a period of crisis and has its mass base in the middle class–a relatively privileged sector of society that benefits to some degree from imperialism, white supremacy, or other oppressive social structures. This base uses violent, organized force as a way of protecting their privileged status by turning against those who are lower in the social hierarchy than they are (Robinson; Parenti; Trotsky).

Neo-fascists have used GamerGate and the Alt-Right as a means to push their views into the mainstream, linking fascist conspiracies such as cultural Marxism–the idea that academic and cultural institutions have been infiltrated by (Jewish) Marxists who are trying to undermine and destroy Western society–to more popular terms like political correctness (see for example Lind). Liberals have often participated in this process by helping to popularize the idea that safer spaces, trigger warnings, “callout culture,” and political correctness are indeed a threat to “free speech,” while protecting fascists and conservatives who try to normalize oppressive language and far-right talking points. As I point out in “The Limits of Free Speech,” this simplistic and one-sided view of free speech has become a dangerous tool in the hands of a growing neo-fascist movement.

It’s important to note, however, that the liberal support for fascism is driven not by ignorance, but by material interests. The imperialist wars in the Middle East, the industrial practices that created climate change, and the implementation of austerity policies, all of which have been carried out by liberal capitalist institutions, states, and corporations, are some of the major factors that have contributed to the growth of fascism. Similarly the repression of grassroots, leftist movements such as Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, “fourth-wave feminism,” and the anti-austerity movement has meant that many people who are fed up with the status quo and seeking change are left with no alternative to fascism. As I write in “Fighting Fascism,” while it is important to confront fascists and prevent them from gaining power, people who would oppose fascism also need to address the conditions that produce fascist movements in the first place, including patriarchy, capitalism, and imperialism, and provide a viable alternative. A feminist, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist movement that is well organized and able to make real, material gains for its members will be far more effective in preventing fascism from growing than a political strategy that is limited only to “education” or awareness-raising. Social change only happens when enough people act collectively to apply pressure in the same direction. Building the networks and organizations capable of making that collective action both possible and sustainable on a global level is a major challenge, and we’ll need every tool at our disposal if we’re going to succeed.


Chapter 7: Unlocked Doors and New Beginnings

“Feminism, in giving you somewhere to go, allows you to revisit where you have been. We can become even more conscious of the world in this process of becoming conscious of injustices because we had been taught to overlook so much. A world can flood once we have let it in, once we have unlocked the door of our resistance.” (Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life, 31).

There is something deeply colonial about the way knowledge is typically produced in academia. It’s all about charting new territory and staking your claim, as if knowledge was something an individual could own, rather than a shared cultural legacy. When we let go of the pressure to create something new, we may find ourselves covering old ideas in new ways, or in new places, acting as a kind of intermediary or doorstop for people who may have been locked out, for one reason or another, from the passages we inhabit. We may even find that there is something particular about our experience after all, a door only we can open, because we’ve been through that door many times before, or because others have opened doors for us.

In Living A Feminist Life Sara Ahmed describes her method as “putting a sponge to the past” (22) and seeing what gets soaked up. This is more or less what I’ve tried to do, using my own life experiences and the things I’ve written in the past as a springboard for a broader theoretical reflection on capitalism, liberalism, fascism, and many things in between. While I have been highly critical of liberalism, I hope it’s clear from the trajectory I’ve followed that liberal feminism can and often does act as an entry point for a more radical politics. Although it’s important to highlight the limitations of liberalism, it’s only by coming up against these limits, through direct experience, that I learned how to move past them. Marxists who sneer at identity politics, intersectionality, feminism, and so on are only cementing their own irrelevance, as are liberals who continue to bracket off economics from the rest of social existence. The push for more diversity in the game industry must go hand-in-hand with calls for unionization and international solidarity, or neither one will be successful. A holistic, intersectional approach that can re-unite cultural critique with collective action, and which leverages workers’ economic power in the fight against patriarchy and white supremacy, will be crucial moving forward in these dangerous times.


[1] Marginalization refers to the process of pushing people towards the edges of a society or group and away from centres of power. Marginalized groups often have limited access to resources, and little or no political representation or power. The terms marginalized and oppressed are sometimes used interchangeably, although they have slightly different connotations. Marginalization can also be understood as one facet of oppression, which also involves exploitation and control extending over a long period of time.

[2] The term Global South is typically used to refer to poorer countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America which are exploited by countries in the Global North, including wealthy areas of Europe and North America. Global South is often used as a replacement for older terms like “Third World” or “developing countries,” but can also be used to refer to north-south divisions within wealthier countries.

[3] A cisgender or cis person is someone whose gender identity and presentation corresponds with the sex assigned to them at birth. In other words, they perform the gender identity and role that society considers “appropriate” for someone of their sex.


List of Blog Posts and Documents


Chapter 2

“Capitalism, Games, and Diversity Work.” Jan. 24, 2016.

“Demystifying Activism: A 101 Guide to Getting Involved.” Nov. 14, 2016.


Chapter 4

“Merit is a Myth.” Jun. 28, 2016.

“Against Grading.” March 6, 2017.


Chapter 5

“The Mount Royal Game Society’s Guide to Running Safer Spaces.” Dec. 20, 2016.

“A Partial Guide to Treating Women with Respect and Avoiding Subtle Sexism.” Sep. 14, 2015.


Chapter 6

“GamerGate and the Right.” Oct. 21, 2014.

“The Limits of Free Speech.” Jun. 23, 2017.

“Fighting Fascism.” Feb. 5, 2017.




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The trouble with “antifa”: On media bias and anti-fascism

Criticisms of anti-fascism and social justice movements are widespread and seemingly never-ending. The idea that “antifa” or other left-wing movements aren’t treated critically by the press is a popular right-wing talking point, but it’s not held up by evidence. Even in the month immediately after Heather Heyer was murdered by a neo-Nazi in Charlottesville, a time when popular support for anti-fascism seemed to reach a peak, mainstream publications posted just as many articles condemning anti-fascism as they did condemning fascists. This “both sides” framework was also promoted by Donald Trump, helping to cement the belief that anti-fascism and fascism are morally equivalent.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that concerns about media bias are wrong. People are right to be suspicious of the mainstream media, as well as alternative media platforms that appear to have large amounts of money at their disposal, or that rely on advertisements and maximizing clicks as their primary source of revenue. The media is an industry, like any other, made up of businesses that are largely owned by rich investors and media moguls like Rupert Murdoch. As businesses, they represent the interests of their owners and/or advertisers. If you’re a shareholder who’s invested billions in the oil industry, you’ll probably want to avoid spreading the idea that fossil fuels are connected to climate change and extreme weather events. Similarly, if you want to prevent poor and disenfranchised people from rioting in the streets, you aren’t going to focus on wealth inequality, or the destructive and violent actions of corporations (especially not the ones you own). Instead, you’ll try to direct that anger against other groups: perhaps Muslims, so you can justify the drone bombings in the Middle East, or immigrants, so you can continue to exploit them for cheap labour while threatening them with deportation if they try to resist. These dehumanizing narratives about “hordes of invading refugees” and “Sharia law” don’t just happen by accident, they emerge and spread because they serve the interests of the powerful, because that’s what’s “good for business.”

The people involved in shaping and spreading these stories don’t even need to be consciously aware of what they’re doing. When journalists and editors publish badly researched reports or one-sided narratives, it’s not because they’re following some grand scheme or explicit instructions from their high-ups. It may just be because they’re overworked and lack the resources to do their job properly, or because they sense, intuitively, that standing up for certain principles will likely get them fired. It has nothing to do with good or bad intentions. As with other systemic issues like gentrification, the steps that lead to biased media coverage aren’t just being made by one person, but rather a whole network of people whose actions are shaped by the institutions and organizations they occupy, material constraints, and the relations of power within those spaces.

The far right is growing in large part because their interests happen to align, at least for the moment, with people who hold most of the money and power in our society. The news that came out recently connecting alt-right figures like Milo Yiannopolous and Steve Bannon, and the billionaires who fund their platforms, to neo-Nazis and white supremacists isn’t the exception, it’s the norm. The rich are using fascist groups and ideas as a way to divide and conquer. While the poor are fighting one another, they won’t come after them. This strategy isn’t new, by any means, but it reaches its height in periods of crisis, when large parts of the population start to realize that the status quo isn’t working for them, and threaten to revolt. Rather than let these sentiments develop into a powerful anti-capitalist movement, the rich will participate in turning a slightly more privileged middle class against minorities or other vulnerable groups, encouraging people to punch down rather than up.

Opportunists like Milo Yiannopolous or Tomi Lahren are able to capitalize on the self-interests of the rich, gaining fame and fortune by tapping into the resentment of groups that feel overlooked and disenfranchised, but aren’t quite as badly off as the people they are taught to fear and hate. Whether or not these opportunists actually believe what they say about Muslims, or social justice warriors, or any other group is beside the point. The point is that they can make a killing at it if they play their cards right, and many liberals and centrists are willing to go along with it in exchange for a share of the pie.

Anti-capitalism, which has been a fundamental component of anti-fascist movements since the early 20th century, is not nearly as profitable (surprise!). Turns out capitalists, no matter what their stated politics are, don’t want to fund you when your long-term goal is to dismantle capitalism and other forms of exploitation. This is why the far-right conspiracy theories about anti-fascist and social justice movements being funded by Jewish billionaire George Soros are so hilarious to actual anti-fascists, who are known to chant things like “George Soros, where’s our paycheck?” at demonstrations just for kicks and giggles. The people who participate in anti-fascist actions aren’t attending parties on private yachts like Bannon and his gang, and unlike fascist groups, they don’t have the support of the police or other state institutions. Even universities, which are often seen as left-leaning, have sided with the far-right when subjected to pressure from some students and donors. And while it’s true that a few university professors (and many student groups) have been supportive of anti-fascists, most professors have been silent on the issue, refusing to take sides in such a “controversial,” and potentially career-threatening debate.

Without institutional backing, anti-fascists must rely entirely on grassroots support. As a result, the anti-fascist movement, as a whole, is fairly decentralized and composed of many different groups. Even if anti-fascists tend to agree that fascism is a force that must be confronted head on, and that violence is sometimes necessary in that struggle, they won’t necessarily see eye-to-eye when it comes to using specific tactics in specific situations. Internal disagreements and criticisms about when, how, and under what conditions violence should be used are bound to happen, in part because anti-fascists see the struggle they’re engaged in as a matter of long-term survival. Having seen what fascism is capable of, and learned from the ways it grew and developed in previous eras, they know the stakes of this battle are incredibly high, and that the odds are stacked against them. It’s not just their lives that are on the line, but also the lives of all the other people that are currently being targeted by far-right violence.

Anti-fascism may have emerged as a form of resistance to fascism, but ultimately it’s about much more than that. The end goal isn’t just to defeat fascism or fight ongoing forms of oppression like patriarchy and white supremacy, but to take back control from the billionaires and politicians that are screwing us over. Anti-fascism shouldn’t be seen as separate from other movements and struggles, including anti-colonialism, anti-racism, feminism, and so on. In fact, many of the same tactics and arguments that are being used to demonize anti-fascists are also being used against “social justice warriors,” feminists, anti-racists, and environmentalists, among others. Recognizing these tactics for what they are — a desperate attempt by the rich and powerful to keep us down — is an important step in building stronger movements that are actually able to make a positive difference in people’s lives.

The fact that the rich are pushing so hard to keep us divided is a reflection of the latent power of the working class—the people who work for a living and produce all the goods and services that keep capitalism running, and who can shut it down if they’re united and organized. For all their money and power, the rich are weak, because they don’t actually produce anything for themselves. They depend on us much more than we depend on them, and that dependence will be their undoing. General strikes, industrial sabotage, and disruptive protests are just some of the strategies that have been used to exert pressure on capitalists and the state, and win important reforms like the 8-hour work day, health care, and higher minimum wages. With the backing of a global movement, we could not only beat back fascism, but also overhaul the entire economic and political system to create a more democratic and egalitarian society. Just as capitalism replaced feudalism several hundred years ago, a crisis in the current system opens the possibility for a new one.

Mistakes will be made along the way — anti-fascists are only human, after all — but the best criticisms tend to come, in my experience, from the people who are actually organizing on the ground. If you have concerns about a movement and the direction it’s taking, but share the same goals overall, the best way to change it is to get involved. There are more than enough backseat drivers in the liberal media, pretending to show concern without ever lifting a finger to help or to try to change things for the better. Fascist movements are growing—anti-fascism needs to grow too. There will be lots of time to debate strategy and tactics at the next meeting.

The Limits of “Free Speech”

The claim that free speech is under attack is everywhere. Given how important the concept seems to be, you’d think people would be more concerned with carefully explaining what free speech is and why it matters in the first place. Instead, you tend to get vague remarks about a “free society,” or hypothetical scenarios that have no bearing on actual reality. Most of us have been raised to believe that free speech is a good thing, and we tend to take this idea for granted, so maybe it’s not surprising that we rarely ask ourselves more fundamental questions like “What does free speech mean?”, “Why is free speech important?”, and “Who is benefiting from the support of free speech?”. In an effort to clear up some of the confusion around free speech, who has it and who doesn’t, and how it’s being used, I’m going to tackle some of these questions head on.


What is free speech?

What do we mean when we talk about free speech? Free speech laws such as the First Amendment in the United States are supposed to protect individuals and organizations from government censorship and repression—they have nothing at all to say about how ordinary people treat one another. This distinction is important, in part because most governments, even those that are supposedly democratic, are in practice run by and subservient to the interests of the rich and powerful. With corporate lobby groups and private donors wielding so much power, the state can’t be trusted to regulate speech. Even hate speech laws, which are supposed to protect marginalized groups, tend to be abused. For example, in 2015 the Canadian government used hate speech laws to criminalize protests against the Israeli state’s occupation of Palestine by equating criticism of the Israeli state with anti-Semitism.

There’s also a big difference between having the right to speak, and having the right to a platform. While social media has made it easier for ordinary people to share their views with an audience outside their immediate friends and family, most of us don’t have access to large, established platforms, which include things like TV appearances, articles in widely circulated newspapers or magazines, popular YouTube channels, public speeches, etc. These platforms significantly magnify the effects and reach of a person’s speech, granting them a disproportionate amount of power and influence, and so it makes sense that this person’s views should be subject to some degree of scrutiny and public oversight. When someone like Milo Yiannopolous is invited to speak at a university, he is making use of resources provided by the student body and, through government grants and subsidies, the public at large. When members of the public decide that they don’t agree with how those resources are being used, and show up to protest the event (usually after trying to go through official channels and being repeatedly ignored), they are not only exercising their free speech, but also asserting democratic control over the use of public resources. This kind of public accountability is essential to any real democracy, since it helps to prevent abuses of power.

The only way you can support Milo’s right to “free speech” in this situation is if you have a very broad interpretation of free speech, and a very narrow interpretation of democracy. In other words, you have to see free speech laws as applying to everyday interactions between ordinary people (which, legally speaking, they do not), while at the same time arguing that democracy is limited only to procedures involving the government, and is not about ordinary people acting collectively or making decisions about things that affect them on a day-to-day basis.

In theory, free speech is a right available to everyone; in reality, it’s a function of power. The more power you have, the more freely you’re able to speak, the larger your platform, and the less likely you are to be silenced by the threat of violence.  Because of widespread inequality and differences in power, some speech also prevents other speech. When a cop tells you “stop talking or I’ll have you arrested,” chances are you’re going to shut up. Similarly, you probably aren’t going to tell your boss that the joke they just made was racist if you think they might fire you because of it, but you will be careful not to mention that you support Black Lives Matter in front of them. And when someone’s YouTube video containing copyrighted materials is taken down because of a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) complaint, people rarely say that the corporation that owns the intellectual property and/or YouTube is infringing on that person’s free speech. The point is that the broad definition of free speech doesn’t actually hold up in the real world, because very few if any people are free to say whatever they want whenever they want without consequence. It takes a whole lot of power, money, and privilege to have that kind of latitude, and most of us aren’t Donald Trump.



Why is free speech important and who is benefiting from the support of free speech?

Free speech can play an important role in preventing government abuses or empowering people who are typically disempowered. However it can also be used to hurt people and reinforce existing hierarchies, which is why it’s essential not to talk about free speech in the abstract, but instead look at how the concept of free speech is actually being used, and to what effect.

Because we’re taught that free speech is automatically good, we also tend to think that anyone “attacking” free speech is automatically bad. This knee-jerk reaction can be used against us, and so we need to be able to recognize when arguments in support of free speech are being used selectively to benefit certain groups, while dismissing or demonizing others.

For many, free speech only seems to be an issue when it affects people in positions of power or authority. One of the reasons we’re seeing so much talk about free speech these days is because groups that are historically silenced and denied access to public platforms are making use of tools like social media and collective action to speak up and share their experiences and criticisms with the rest of the world. Critical discussions about race, gender, capitalism, policing, borders, and so on are becoming more mainstream as different voices enter the public arena for the first time. This situation makes people in positions of power, people who aren’t used to being challenged or held accountable for their actions, uncomfortable and defensive. But we should be asking ourselves, why are these people’s comfort more important than the well-being of the people who are being hurt by the systems of oppression and exploitation that these discussions are trying to address?

Strangely enough, some of the staunchest “supporters” of free speech, are also the ones terrorizing Muslims, people of colour, and other marginalized groups. White supremacist and neo-fascist groups have discovered that rallying under the banner of free speech is an effective way to push their far-right views into the mainstream, while benefiting from the protection of well-meaning liberals. Often these groups will tone down their language, re-frame their views, or use humor and irony in order to appeal to a broader audience and maintain plausible deniability (for example saying “I didn’t mean it that way” or “it was just a joke” when called out), knowing all the while that their arguments are a stepping stone to more extreme and violent forms of racism, misogyny, transphobia, etc.

This is why the white supremacist website Daily Stormer celebrates Pewdiepie, a famous YouTuber with over 50 million subscribers who has recently taken to making anti-Semitic jokes, for his “normalization of Nazism and Jew hatred.” Fascists understand the importance that a large platform plays in growing their movement and achieving their long-term goals.  Pewdiepie, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Milo Yiannopolous, and other relatively well-known figures may not be fascists themselves, but they play a crucial role in creating the conditions that allow fascism to take hold.

Free speech is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. It’s essential that we learn to think about free speech in critical terms, especially when the mainstream media is stoking fears about “social justice warriors” and “political correctness,” as a way to avoid deeper discussions about the role our institutions play in maintaining and justifying systems of oppression.  

Fighting Fascism

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Fascism is on the rise. It’s more than just the Orange Menace in the White House, it’s a global movement that’s growing in the cracks left by the capitalist crisis, and it’s threatening to tear us apart. If we really want to stop it, our best bet is to study fascist movements, develop an understanding of how they work and where they come from, and learn from the people who have confronted fascism in the past.


From what I’ve been able to gather after several years of research, there are 2 strategies that are effective against fascists. One is to disrupt their ability to organize by shutting down their meetings, rallies, shows, conferences, message boards, and anywhere else that fascists get together to talk to one another, spread their views, attack or terrorize marginalized people, or recruit new members.

Recently there’s been a lot of uproar over the protest that forced authorities to cancel Milo Yiannopoulos’s scheduled appearance at UC Berkeley. Whatever you think of Milo Yiannopoulos as an individual, there’s no doubt that his speeches are serving as a recruitment ground for fascists. While Milo repeatedly tries to distance himself from the more extreme elements of the far-right, he still welcomes their presence and legitimizes their views. If you actually pay attention to the content of his speeches, they’re all about painting white men as the victims of a leftist conspiracy called “political correctness” (also known as cultural Marxism in more anti-Semitic circles), and delegitimizing the grievances of oppressed and marginalized people. It’s a message that’s particularly appealing to the disaffected white men that his speeches tend to attract, and it plays directly into the hands of the fascists, who similarly argue that white men as a group are under attack and must band together to defend themselves from the invading hordes. Fascists also hate SJWs (social justice warriors), liberals, and leftists, and people like Milo and his entourage provide a convenient cover for their activities, as well as a rich recruiting ground.


No one is going to change Milo’s mind. Trust me, people have tried. But his softcore white supremacism—rebranded as edgy anti-establishment conservatism—is working extremely well for him, providing all the fame and money he could ask for. He’s found his niche, and he’s going to run with it (same goes for Richard Spencer, Steve Bannon, Matthew Heimbach, and others). So you’re left with two options: 1) try to convince everybody that attends his talks that his views are wrong (good luck with that), or 2) shut them down. If you’re currently assembling an army of rhetorically-gifted people to follow Milo wherever he goes then great, but there are other people who don’t have the luxury to wait for well-meaning liberals to get their act together. These are the people who are directly targeted by the violence Milo legitimizes and tacitly encourages, people like the transgender student he singled out and mocked at his talk in Milwaukee, people who have been harassed and doxed by his followers online, people who are racialized or disabled and have to deal with both state violence and racist vigilantes.



The second strategy that works against fascists is providing a viable alternative to fascism by directly confronting the conditions that produce it in the first place. That means more than talk, or ideas about tolerance; that means real, concrete alternatives to capitalism, which brings with it the gradual collapse and privatization of public infrastructure and social services, unprecedented levels of economic inequality, ever-expanding prisons and the militarization of police, ongoing wars and bombings carried out in the service of corporate interests, climate change, and the eventual destruction of the biosphere.

The only effective way to fight fascists, other than confronting them in the streets, is to organize to address the very real needs and inequalities that make fascism appealing in the first place. Instead of accommodating racism or protecting it under the guise of free speech, we need to make racism irrelevant by ensuring that everyone has access to basic necessities and that no one is in a position to systematically dominate, oppress, or exploit others. Racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of oppression are tools used by the ruling class to maintain and protect their position of power. The seeds of fascism were planted long before Trump became president, and until we take the fight directly to the capitalists and their institutions, fascists will keep popping up and demanding a platform. We not only have to deny them that platform, but also pull out the carpet from under their feet. In short, we have to fight capitalism if we’re going to fight fascists.


Demystifying Activism – A 101 guide to getting involved

The US elections have made it increasingly clear to many of us that things need to change, and fast, before they get a hell of a lot worse. But while you may have heard plenty of calls to “take action” and “organize,” it’s not always obvious what that means. Not only that, but I know from experience that activism can seem scary and intimidating when you’re on the outside looking in, especially when all you really have to go on are stereotypes and sensationalized media reports.  If you’re going to take a chance by getting involved, it helps to know what you’re signing up for, so in the spirit of demystifying activism, I thought I’d share a bit of what I’ve learned in the last few years. Just to be clear, I’m hardly a seasoned veteran, and while I’ve spent a fair bit of time studying social movements of various sorts, I still have large gaps in my knowledge. So please take what you’re reading here with a grain of salt, and definitely read other things about activism and organizing if you can. But for those who feel like they’re grasping at straws, hopefully this is a start, at least.

1. Pick an issue. This can be switched up with step number two, but if you haven’t already joined or formed a group with people who share some common ground, then the first step is figuring out which issues take priority for you. The most important thing to remember here is that you can’t do everything at once, so don’t try to—you’ll only burn yourself out. A good rule of thumb is to start with the issues that have a direct and immediate impact on your life, because those are also the areas where you’re likely to have the most amount of influence and the most enduring motivation to make some kind of positive change. Your personal experiences will help you figure out what needs to be done, and also build connections with people who are in a similar position.

That doesn’t mean that if it doesn’t affect you, it doesn’t matter of course. Solidarity is really important, because all issues are interconnected on one level or another. But you can show solidarity when it really matters, while still focusing mainly on the things that impact your day-to-day life. For example, two of the major things that impact me and make my life harder as a mixed race cis woman are sexism and racism. I also work in digital games, which is why most of my organizing efforts have been focused around combating racism and sexism in games and/or tech, and making games more accessible. I didn’t pick this issue because I thought it was THE MOST IMPORTANT ISSUE EVER or that everyone should care about it as much as I do; I settled here because it’s an area where I’ve managed to build up a sense of community and a knowledge base, and where I have some amount of social capital that I can use to try to make things just a little bit better. There are lots of other areas where I could potentially make a difference, but this is the place where I feel like my words and actions have the most impact, at least for now.

If this doesn’t really speak to you, here are some other things to consider. Are you unhappy with your working conditions or pay? Do you live in an area where they are planning to build a pipeline or other destructive infrastructure project? Are you a student being affected by cuts to university funding or high levels of student debt? Are you an immigrant struggling to be allowed to stay in a country that you consider home? Are you and your neighbours being driven out of your neighbourhood by high rent and gentrification? Are there industries nearby that are poisoning your air, soil, or water? Are you dealing with barriers related to a disability or your mental health? Do you have family members or friends in jail who are being mistreated? Are you a sexual assault survivor trying to reclaim your life? Are you a visible minority worried about getting beaten up by fascist thugs? All of these are issues you can organize around. If you’re just starting out though, I recommend picking just one–whichever feels the most urgent or the least scary to you–and going from there.


2. Form a group, or join one. If you live in a larger centre, chances are that there are already lots of groups out there, from established non-profits to grassroots community groups to reading clubs, political parties, and artist collectives. If you happen to live in a smaller town, or if the groups that exist aren’t tackling the issues that you care about, try starting your own. We’ll get into the specifics of this a bit later, but first I want to mention some things that I think are important to consider when choosing or creating a group.

a. Is it not-for-profit? Many of the problems that exist in the world today can be traced back to one thing: profit. The transatlantic slave trade was started for profit. Fossil fuels continue to be exploited for profit. Wars are fought, more often than not, for profit. In a capitalist society, profit takes priority over people, and the people who make the most profits are the people who call the shots. No matter how much effort for-profit companies put into branding themselves as progressive, or “green,” or socially conscious, as long as they were created to serve the bottom line, they cannot be trusted to make decisions for the benefit of anyone other than their owners/shareholders (note that the situation is slightly different for workers’ coops, where the workers are the owners and can make decisions for themselves, although even they have to deal with market pressures).

b. Is it beholden to corporate backers? Unfortunately, corporations and banks control the vast majority of the world’s capital, which means that even non-profit organizations often need to turn to them for cash. Sponsorship deals almost always come with strings attached, but those strings can range from “you have to include our logo on your website” to “we control the direction of your entire organization.” Figuring out how much power private interests have over your chosen group is very important, because it will affect pretty much everything about what they can or cannot do or say. For example, I once worked for a national non-profit environmental organization that prevented its staff from writing or saying anything about climate change or corporate destruction of the environment, because they were afraid of scaring away their major donors, which included oil companies. By the time I finished working there, it was fairly clear to me that this organization was doing more harm than good, providing a large scale greenwashing service for the very same companies that were directly responsible for damaging the environment in the first place.

c. Is it inclusive and welcoming to marginalized groups? While no group is ever going to be perfectly inclusive, groups that perpetuate classism, racism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of oppression (even if it’s through silence or inaction), and refuse to change when they’re called out on it, are likely going to fall apart or make themselves irrelevant in the long run. Why? Because the people who are the most invested in progressive social change, and who can teach us the most about how to move forward, are the groups that are harmed and marginalized by the status quo. By playing into the divisions created by capitalism and other forms of oppression, we only make ourselves weaker. That means all groups that are striving for social change should be making at least some effort to include marginalized people who aren’t already well-represented within their group, unless there is some obvious reason not to. For example, a women-only group might not include men of colour at some or all of their events, because that’s not what they were created for, and that’s fine, but they should be open to working class women, women of colour, trans women, and disabled women. What’s the difference? Well men, as a group, have systemic power over women (even if class, race, and other factors complicate how the power relations actually work out on an individual level), meaning they have certain kinds of advantages that women, as a group, don’t enjoy. Excluding men is a temporary measure meant to make it easier for women to organize or do certain activities until we manage to eradicate patriarchy forever. Trans women, however, do not have power over cis women, just as women of colour do not have power over white women, and so excluding them is a matter of bigotry rather than practical necessity.

d. Are the people who are directly affected calling the shots? Lots of organizations claim to “help” people, while never directly involving them in the organization or decision-making. Sometimes there are practical reasons why the affected groups can’t be present at every meeting (for example, a solidarity group working with people abroad, or people who are imprisoned in institutions), but at the very least you should be consulting with them about major decisions, including questions about where resources are directed. Most environmental groups, for example, should prioritize the needs and experiences of the people who are most directly and negatively affected by climate change and environmental destruction, including indigenous people, people living in the global South, farming communities, etc.


3. Talk to people around you. The best way to figure out what needs to be done is to talk to other people who care about the same issues you do. These conversations can happen in person, online, over the phone, or whatever else works for you, but they need to happen. All organization depends on communication, and while you don’t want to spend ALL of your time talking, you also don’t want to rush ahead and just do something for the sake of doing it, without knowing if it will be effective or if you have the necessary support to pull it off. Collective action often comes with costs attached, including time, energy, and material costs, so unless everybody involved is fully onboard, it’s not going to happen. That means you’ll probably need to spend a lot of time listening to and sharing concerns, coming up with possible solutions, and potentially convincing those who are on the fence.

If you’re playing any kind of leadership role, self-criticism is SUPER important here, because whatever you do will have an impact on other people’s lives and welfare. Make sure you are clear with yourself and with others about where your interests really lie, what you have to lose and what you have to gain, and how far you’re willing to go to achieve your goals. If other people have power over you and might influence your actions, that needs to be discussed too. Learn about anti-oppressive practices like active listening, and don’t dismiss concerns out of hand, especially if they make you feel guilty or uncomfortable about your own privilege—chances are those are the things you most need to hear. Collective action can be incredibly powerful, but once you’ve broken someone’s trust, it can be very, very difficult to win it back, which is why communication and consent are so essential.

4. Dream big, but don’t forget to participate in the little things. A lot of activism and organizing work is thoroughly unglamorous. If you want to have a meeting, someone needs to send an email or notify people, someone needs to find and book a space, someone needs to bring food if there’s going to be food, and someone needs to clean up the dishes and garbage afterwards. All of this takes work, and while it may seem boring and mundane, it’s important that everyone participate in these little tasks, and try to share the labour equally (for example, make sure it’s not just the women or people of colour who are cleaning up and doing the dishes!). Capacity-building takes time, so have patience. It’s also worth noting that even if you don’t have major goals in mind right away, building up a community of people that can look after one another and support each other still has a lot of value. People tend to turn to fascism when they have nowhere else to go, and if you can provide an alternative, one that promises to make a real difference in their lives, it can make a huge difference. While direct action is an important piece of the puzzle, not all activism involves chaining yourself to heavy equipment or marching on city hall, and behind every dramatic, headline-grabbing event that happens, there are countless people working behind the scenes trying to keep the wheels turning. If putting your body on the line is scary or inaccessible, there are still plenty of other things you can do that are just as valuable.


5. Apply pressure. Only the rich and powerful get what they want just by asking (or paying) for it. Unless you’re a member of the elite, the people who have the power to make the changes you want to see in the world are going to take some convincing, because as far as they’re concerned the status quo is working just fine (for them). While it would be nice to think that a well-reasoned argument that’s supported by strong evidence would be enough, that is almost never the case. That’s where pressure tactics come in. Protests, strikes, occupations, media campaigns, petitions, boycotts, and acts of sabotage are all ways to apply pressure to groups that can tip the scales in your favour. It’s all about making sure that the perceived costs of continuing with the status quo are greater than the perceived costs of giving in to whatever demands you’re making. This is ultimately how companies and governments function, and it’s also why protests, strikes, and other actions usually have to be as disruptive as possible in order to work. The people who complain about sitting in traffic because protesters are blocking the streets often aren’t aware that this disruption is the main thing that makes protests effective. Yes, they can raise awareness about an issue and help get more people involved, but if they aren’t causing problems for someone, no one (other than the people who are already invested) will pay attention to them, including the mainstream media. In order for progressive change to happen, you need to make it impossible for corporations and governments to continue with business as usual, even if it’s just for a few hours. This may lead some people to get angry and dismiss protesters, and it may even turn “public sentiment” against them, but often it’s a choice between doing that, or having no impact at all. It’s also worth noting that direct action, meaning occupations, strikes, sabotage, etc., is almost always a last resort, something that happens after “official channels” have already proven to be dead ends.

6. Don’t let them divide you. One of the best ways to bring an organization down is to turn the more moderate members of the group against the more radical members. Attempts to demonize people who engage in direct action, or refuse to compromise with people in positions of power at the expense of marginalized groups, are widespread and, in many cases, incredibly effective. It’s helpful if you can recognize this tactic, understand where it’s coming from, and try your best to keep this from happening within your own group.

7. Find a balance. Burnout is a big problem in activist communities. The work can be exhausting, all-consuming, and very unrewarding at times, especially if you’re facing major setbacks. Remember that every project has its ups and downs, and just because things aren’t going as planned, doesn’t mean you’re failing. Also try to keep in mind that you won’t be able to help anyone if you’re too sick or depressed to get out of bed. There are lots of guides out there to help you identify and deal with burnout (for e.g. here, and here)—make sure to take some time to look them over, not just for your own sake, but also for the people around you. Activism isn’t a competition, so try to avoid comparing yourself to others or feeling bad about yourself for “not doing enough.” Remember that there’s nothing wrong with just surviving—for lots of people, that’s a full time job. While projects can be more rewarding if you stick with them for a long period of time, there are also times when you may need to let go and move on, or step back for awhile, and that’s ok too. Just because you’ve spent the last 5 years working on something, doesn’t mean you have to spend the rest of your life there, and in some cases you may actually learn more and be more productive if you switch to something new.

8. Learn from the past, plan for the future. The best thing about organizing is that you don’t have to do it alone. Not only is it by definition a collective activity, but it’s also something that has been around for a really, really long time. That means that there are lots of great books and other resources out there for you to learn from, like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, so please don’t stop here!

Do you have other suggestions, stories, or tips that I haven’t mentioned here? Do you have fears or concerns that I haven’t addressed? Please feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to incorporate them.

The “Trump supporters are just dumb” argument isn’t helping

Why is Trump getting so much support? Wouldn’t you like to know? Well, according to articles like “The Psychology Behind Donald Trump’s Unwavering Support” there’s a simple explanation for it all: Trump supporters are just less intelligent than everyone else. There are a lot of these sorts of articles floating around. They’re appealing, reassuring even, because they appear to offer an “inside look” into a phenomenon that lots of people just don’t understand. However, I think we need to look critically at these articles for a number of reasons. Let’s start with the one I linked to above, which is as good a specimen as any.


The biggest problem I have with this piece is that it completely decontextualizes (or recontextualizes) the results of the scientific studies it cites to encourage one, overly simple interpretation: conservatives are dumb, lesser beings driven by emotions rather than reason. I think this message is appealing to liberal intellectuals and anyone else who doesn’t support Trump, because it makes them feel superior, and allows them to avoid any sense of responsibility for what’s happening. But when you combine this with stereotypes about “white trash” and conservative “rednecks,” it gets pretty classist pretty fast. There are a lot of possible ways of interpreting these studies, the first being that heightened fear responses amongst conservatives are a response to repetitive exposure to stressful environments and more precarious living conditions. Without knowing anything about the studies’ participants, other than that they were identified as “conservatives,” it’s impossible to know how many of these differences are a result of past trauma, financial instability, recurring threats to physical safety, etc. The point about conservatives having a bigger amygdala implies that there are innate biological differences, and that no other explanation is necessary, which is an incredibly lazy and irresponsible way to frame a complex social phenomenon.

The argument that Trump supporters “aren’t smart enough to know they’re dumb” is even worse. I’ve personally seen just as many, if not more, instances of the Dunning-Kruger effect among liberals as I have among conservatives. In fact, I’ve probably had more productive discussions with conservatives, who are at least willing to admit that something is terribly wrong with how things are currently working (even if we completely disagree on the underlying cause of those problems and the solutions), than I have with the “America is already great” brand of liberals. And if anyone is tempted to say, “hey this is just anecdotal evidence, it’s not science!” then yes, I completely agree, but I’m also providing just as much scientific backing for this statement as the author is for theirs: none.

The conclusion to the piece, which states that there is nothing we can do because Trump supporters are just biologically wired to support Trump, is also incredibly suspect. One of the major reasons that people support Trump (that isn’t mentioned in this article) is because he seems to be the only alternative to Clinton, aka the establishment, aka the status quo, and people are sick and tired of putting up with a system that isn’t working for them and only seems to be getting worse. Both liberals and conservatives have pushed the “there is no alternative” message pretty hard, for quite some time now, both through media messaging, school curriculums, etc., and by concretely repressing any individuals or groups that threaten the two-party system and the neoliberal, capitalist agenda it supports. The Red Scare, the systematic undermining of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, the violence committed against pipeline protesters and Black Lives Matter activists– all this stuff contributes to creating the “polarized” environment that we see emerging in the US, where you’re either for Clinton or for Trump, and no other position is possible. This benefits both the liberal and the conservative political class, as well as the ruling class which supports both sides, because the threat of one drives people into the arms of the other (the Canadian system works the same way). Both of these options are bad for the vast majority of people, but most people don’t know what to do about it, and articles like these aren’t helping. Personally, I suggest dismantling the whole system and/or working outside of it until it collapses in on itself, but that option is almost never put on the table, because it’s considered too threatening to the powers-that-be, and will probably get you fired.

I write this as someone who is virulently anti-Trump, so I have my own biases, but I don’t think alienating conservatives in this way is helpful. If you’re going to alienate conservatives (or liberals), do it by fighting racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, and every other oppressive system. Relying on classist, ableist language and assumptions is a step in the wrong direction, no matter how good it might make us feel in the face of the terrifying spectacle that is Trump vs. Clinton 2016. We don’t need op-eds that dehumanize the “other side” through naïve appeals to scientific authority, especially when those narratives lead us towards some very scary places. What we need are collective movements and organizations that can build lasting, democratic alternatives. What we need is a way out.

Merit is a Myth

When people talk about the “myth of meritocracy,” they’re usually referring to the fact that so-called meritocracies rarely work as promised. These arguments claim that instead of doling out rewards and punishments based on someone’s merit, i.e. their inherent abilities, decisions are made on the basis of race, gender, class, and so on. However these critiques, as much as they can be helpful for pointing out existing inequities built into the system, often assume that something called “individual merit” really exists, and that it can be separated from other aspects of a person’s identity, background, and social context. They assume that a “true” meritocracy is the ideal, and that the current system is a broken and dysfunctional version of that ideal, a pale shadow of the perfect form. Few arrive at the conclusion: “What is merit, exactly, and do we really want merit to serve as the basis of our imagined, ideal society? Is this really what we should be striving for?”

In their article, The Meritocracy Myth, Stephen McNamee and Robert Miller state that merit is “generally viewed as a combination of factors including innate abilities, working hard, having the right attitude, and having high moral character and integrity.” They then go on to examine each of these qualities in turn, questioning what, if anything, is inherent, innate, or individual about abilities, hard work, having the “right” attitude, or having high moral character and integrity. Aside from pointing out that these qualities are often vaguely defined—what do we mean by the “right” attitude, exactly?—the authors also note that each of them is ultimately inseparable from the social context and experiences of the person whose abilities are being “measured,” as well as those of the people doing the measuring. Talents, attitudes, and morals are never recognized or developed in a void; they are as much a product of the society we live in as anything else in this world. 


At this point, many people fall back on biological arguments—the idea that some people are “naturally” better at performing certain tasks thanks to genetics or other biological factors. This argument is flawed in two ways. First, it relies on an artificial division between “nature” and “culture,” human society and the natural world. Just because we treat biology and sociology as two separate fields of study, organizing them into disciplines and departments, doesn’t mean that this separation exists in reality. Even a person’s physical characteristics are influenced by socially-conditioned factors, such as their mother’s diet, stress levels, and access to quality care during pregnancy, which is in turn tied to issues like poverty, food sovereignty, working conditions, the chronic underfunding and privatization of healthcare institutions, and so on. 

Secondly, even if we accept that there are certain biological differences that are “natural” and therefore outside the realm of human influence, we’re still left to wonder why we would want to accept a social order that discriminates on the basis of genetics or other biological traits, particularly given the bloody legacy of so-called “scientific racism.” Referring to something as natural, and then using that as a basis for normative arguments about how things “ought” to be, is known as the naturalistic fallacy, and is often used to reinforce the status quo.

Morals, meaning socially-held assumptions and norms that separate people, objects, or behaviours into categories such as right and wrong, good and bad, are also a product of our society. While McNamee and Miller stick to debunking the myth that moral integrity and wealth are closely aligned, pointing to corporate ethics scandals and white collar crimes like insider trading and tax fraud as evidence, the argument that the rich are not so noble or pure as they’re often made out to be is hardly a revolutionary idea at this point, even in the birthplace of the American dream. Instead, we could go one step farther and say that morals are themselves the product of a society disproportionately controlled by and organized in favour of the rich and the powerful. This is how you end up in a world where ultra-rich capitalists like Bill Gates are put on a pedestal and praised for “giving back,” while their “charities” buy shares in Monsanto and Cargill, companies responsible for innumerable human rights violations and widespread environmental destruction. This also explains why Black Lives Matter activists are criminalized and imprisoned for protesting police brutality and racism.


What we consider to be right and wrong, good and bad, has been shaped over generations. Far from being natural or universal, these values and morals are the product of our collective interactions with institutions like schools, the criminal justice system, the Church, the job market, and the media. Together these institutions create a system of rewards and punishments that we internalize over time. Eventually we no longer need to be told that failing a test is bad, or that arriving to work on time is good. We learn that our survival is dependent on pleasing those people who have power over us, the people in positions of authority, whether they are our parents or teachers or bosses or bureaucrats. We also learn to suppress the fact that we ever learned these lessons in the first place. From a young age we’re told that it’s considered rude, taboo, or just plain depressing to talk about power, inequality, and social control in any direct sense. In order to get by in this environment, we unconsciously accept the things that are rewarded as good/right, while rejecting the things that are punished as bad/wrong. This allows us to continue believing that we’re free, even when we have very little power or autonomy, while still conforming to social norms: “I didn’t clean the kitchen because my mother told me (and demonstrated through her actions) that that’s what women are expected to do in our society, I cleaned it because it was dirty and I wanted it to be clean,” or, “I did it because it was the right thing to do.”

Of course saying that the elite have a disproportionate influence on the rest of society isn’t the same as saying that they’re the only influence. If that were true, critiques of racism would probably never have developed or become part of our moral landscape. People who are exploited, enslaved, and oppressed have a tendency to push back, and in the process, morals shift and change, becoming a site of struggle and resistance. You can see this happening right now in the debates over sexual assault on college campuses, which include arguments about what “counts” as sexual assault, and who should be held responsible. Similar to the fight to include non-consensual sex with a spouse (i.e. marital rape) under the legal definition of rape in 1983 in Canada, this push to establish new moral (and legal) norms is coming mostly from people who are harmed and disempowered by the status quo.

Perhaps one of the most deeply ingrained moral norms that exists today is the importance of hard work. Insults like “a waste of skin” and “good-for-nothing” often connect a person’s value as a human being with their productivity, while terms such as industrious, entrepreneurial, active, and diligent are considered compliments. There’s nothing worse than being seen as lazy or unable to work in a society that valorizes hard work, particularly if you’re poor or racialized. Aside from the fact that it’s often difficult, if not impossible, to determine exactly how “hard” someone is working, there’s also the question of why hard work is so valuable, and for whom. What exactly are we working for, and who benefits from all this hard work? Most people need to work to survive, but when we start to see the act of working hard as valuable in and of itself, such that working hard becomes a central part of our identity, we open ourselves up to whole new forms of exploitation.

It’s no coincidence that the notion of a “strong work ethic” has emerged and developed within a capitalist system that depends on maximizing profits through lowering pay, increasing productivity, and extending the length of the working day. While it’s possible to coerce people into working harder through threats of violence or deprivation, it’s even more effective to encourage workers to self-police, especially in industries that rely heavily on intellectual and creative labour. Teach people to think of “hard work” as a positive trait, as something they can brag about to their friends or carry around as evidence of moral fortitude, and you no longer need to hold a gun to their head.

This isn’t to say that arguments for the value of certain forms of labour aren’t useful when they’re made strategically. Care work and domestic labour have historically been devalued alongside the women and people of colour who most often perform these tasks, and it makes perfect sense to fight back against that trend. But problems arise when we stop connecting these arguments to actual, material conditions, such as when we fail to recognize that people are working harder and longer for less pay, because the joy of working at a job you love is assumed to be its own reward.

And where does merit fit in all of this? In some ways, merit functions as a smokescreen for the social and material relations that make up our society and determine our place within it. Merit is the simple story that we tell ourselves to explain away all the societal factors and influences that authority figures refuse to account for directly. The reason we have so much trouble separating merit from “non-merit” factors is because there is no separation, not really. And yet throughout our school years and our working life, our value is constantly being measured and quantified in relation to something called merit. If we fail to get the job, get a low grade, or get paid less than other people, we’re told that it’s because we just don’t have what it takes—we lack merit—which also implies that we don’t deserve to have what other people have: we don’t merit it. Since merit is supposedly the property of an individual, we’re told it’s our own responsibility if we fail according to these measures. Merit, by focusing the gaze inwards rather than outwards, both naturalizes the status quo and cuts short any attempt to examine the collective effect of these structures and systems that determine who is rewarded, when, why, and how. It becomes about our own personal failure, our own inadequacies, rather than the inadequacy of a system that values some lives above others. 


Merit is a constant source of insecurity, stress, and anxiety, but it can also act as a source of pleasure for those who find themselves on the winning side. I work in videogames and academia, two areas where the concept of merit is very deeply embedded. In mainstream gaming culture, competition and demonstrations of skill are highly valued, often under the assumption that what distinguishes games from “real life” is that games present players with an even playing field. Equal opportunity is seen as an essential component of any “real” meritocracy, however it’s unclear where exactly the equality begins and ends. If the only thing distinguishing players is their skills, then should players not also have an equal opportunity to acquire those skills? If one player has 60 hours a week to practice, and the other only has 5, can it still be called an even playing field? What about players who have different physical abilities due to an accident of birth or circumstance? What about players who don’t speak the language or are bullied or harassed due to their race, sexuality, or gender presentation? Who exactly is this “even playing field” for, and who is being invisibly excluded by our reluctance to challenge the concept of merit?


FireShot Capture 15 - Casual gamers are ruining gaming I IGN_ - http___www.ign.com_boards_threads_

You might expect academics to “know better,” however academic institutions have the dubious honour of being both the source of many of the critiques of meritocracy, and a place where the concept of merit is systematically reinforced through grades and performance metrics, honorifics and degrees, grant committees and various other forms of gatekeeping. 

In the case of academia, it can be tempting to replace merit with “intelligence” in an attempt to dodge the issues I’ve raised above, however the concept of intelligence also needs to be unpacked. There is a long history of separating the body from the mind (or soul) in Western philosophy and science that I won’t get into here, except to say that the process of assigning the body to a lower status has served to naturalize a social order where the ruling classes, who are free to engage in “higher” pursuits like education, politics, and the arts, are viewed as innately superior, while the lower classes, who are typically forced into manual labour and are more likely to be preoccupied by basic, bodily needs like food and shelter, are seen as inferior, crass, vulgar, and unfit to govern their own affairs. The concept of the mind, and everything that follows from it, has important social and political implications, lending power to some groups while disempowering others; however it is also, itself, shaped by those relations of power. This comes through in the devaluation and erasure of indigenous knowledge by colonial powers, as well as the selective application of terms like “genius” and “madness,” concepts which are closely linked to prevailing social norms

The argument that intelligence is not about what you know, but about your ability to learn, does not erase the fact that the development of any skill, learning included, is highly dependent on free time and access to resources, something that is rarely taken into account by academic structures. When I’m grading students, I’m asked to assess them based on the work that they’ve produced, without giving any consideration to the context in which the work was created, or the background of the student who made it. To give you an idea of just how much this leaves out, here’s a partial list of some of the things that instructors aren’t expected to think about when giving grades to undergraduate students:

Were they working full time? Do they have children or other dependents they need to care for? Are they sick and/or suffering from mental health issues but won’t reveal this to me because of social stigma? Do they have a safe and quiet place to work? Are they taking the class simply because they need the credit and the structure of the university left them with no other options? Are they put off by the fact that my course outline consists entirely of work by white men, which doesn’t reflect or even directly discounts their experiences? Is the content forcing them to relive past trauma, which is affecting their ability to work? Is English their first, second, third, or fourth language? Has their attendance dropped because they were abused by other students in the class? Are they living with high levels of debt and stressing out about their future? Are their family or friends supportive of their decision to go to university? What else is going on in their lives?

There’s no room for any of these questions in a system dominated by GPAs (grade point averages), especially when that system is also expanding the size of classes, reducing the number of staff, demanding more work for less pay (often under precarious conditions), eliminating essential support structures like health services and benefits, and generally screwing teachers and students alike in the name of “cutting costs” and “improving efficiency.” In this context it’s difficult—if not impossible—for instructors to provide the individualized attention and care that students need. Students are reduced to a series of letters and numbers on a page, as are the instructors, and most of us are too tired to do anything about it. 

Despite these obvious problems, many people work to protect and reinforce the status quo, because they’ve come to identify their own self-worth with that system of letters and numbers. Whether it’s gamers protesting the “casualization” of their favourite series or genre while pining over the “good old days” when games were really, really hard and only real men… ahem, I mean real gamers, could rise to the challenge, or professors reminiscing about the sleepless nights they spent desperately trying to get through the 5 million books they were expected to read as graduate students, the old guard vigorously defends the rituals and barriers to access—the “rites of passage”—that also function as the source of their own legitimacy. “Why should they have it easy, when I suffered so much?” “I worked hard to get where I am today.” “This generation is so coddled and self-centered.” This is the inevitable outcome of a system organized around the concept of individual merit. When your own worth depends on the exclusion of others, on your capacity to succeed where others fail, then equality and access will appear to work against your personal interests, rather than for them. This is why we are so hostile to the notion of privilege, because it runs counter to the idea that we worked hard and suffered for what we have, that we “deserve it.” 

Merit is ultimately about deserving, and about legitimizing private ownership and inequality. It is ideological through and through, perhaps even more so than the things we typically think of as “ideological,” because it often works subconsciously and involves strong emotional responses. When we’ve invested so much in the current system, through our own blood, sweat, and tears, it can be hard to let go. I think we must let go, but to do it, we also need to support each other, to find new ways to invest in one another and in ourselves. We can’t strip away a person’s sense of self-worth, replace it with nothing, and expect them to simply let it happen. That void needs to be filled, somehow. 


by Nicole Em

We can start by telling the people around us that we care about them, that they matter to us, that they are worth so much more than their productivity or their ability to “succeed” in a fucked up system based on “merit.” We can start by guiding each other through the process of deconstructing that system, helping each other to ask the tough questions, and standing by each other in moments of despair and desperation. We can start by questioning our own investments, and the way we punish or reward people based on their behaviour. We can start by listening to the people challenging inequality, wherever it exists, and instead of tearing them down, recognize that all our struggles are connected. We can start by organizing new systems and new structures that can replace the old, and by changing the ones we currently occupy. We can start by imagining something better than a “genuine” meritocracy. We can start by practicing solidarity. We can start by believing that another world is possible, and that we have what it takes to get there.