I watched the Kony2012 viral video and response with mounting horror. A slick, professional propaganda film, heavy on emotional pull demanding US intervention in Central Africa gained a visibility that most activist campaigns can only dream of. The campaign has been critiqued in a variety of places from a variety of angles, yet one must consider why this video has achieved such purchase within Western populations. I suggested on Twitter that “ Invisible children gets away with the neo-colonial
#kony2012 propaganda project because the left doesn’t take internationalism seriously”, which was robustly challenged by a number of “lefties”, particularly from the point of view of invoking that abstract concept of “the left”.
“The left” exists. Its boundaries are fuzzy, but it includes self-identified socialists, marxists, anarchists, greens, primitives, feminists, anti-colonialists, vegans, community campaigners, trade unionists, student activists, human rights activists, and probably the biggest group of all on the left – the telly shouters. Yet within the left, there are a number of differing and competing priorities both in terms of practical time and attention, but also in terms of theory. Sometimes these theoretical differences reflect differing ideological perspectives; more often they reflect ideological laziness.
As white Westerners, we live pretty insulated from the horrors of colonialism, its consequences and its modern instigations. We don’t fear that our country will be invaded by a foreign power, that our assets will be stolen through dodgy quasi-legal means, that our homes will be bombed and our families killed. The closest we may get is hearing the screams of a neighbour as they are shipped off to Dungavel for deportation. We benefit from colonialism and are shielded from seeing its effects.
The Scottish Socialist Party was founded on the principle that socialists spent too much time arguing over small points of difference, and that what we should be doing was concentrating on the 80% that we did agree with, while agreeing to differ on the 20% of our differences. That project blew apart when it became apparent that feminism and the role of women within the movement could not simply be shunted into the 20% of “other stuff we don’t want to talk about because it might cause a big row“. Women must be central to any revolution, and it is a failure of “the left” that they are frequently marginalised. While it is not necessary to have a full understanding of feminist theory to be an asset to “the left” there is a minimum understanding of the fundamentals of patriarchy, below which you stop becoming an asset and start becoming a liability.
So too with internationalism. “The left” has a terrible tendency to identify the most horrible aspects of neo-colonialism, based generally on a particular Western intervention and campaign with a narrow focus and emotional pull. #Kony2012 mimics the intervention of the left, only it does it better: more money, cuter kids, more shock value, greater production quality. “The left” needs to get a grip on colonialism as a discourse – not in terms of any particular intervention, but as an overarching system of structural global control and develop it within the movement. Just as the male-dominated left frequently able to utilise their privilage to hold onto power, both within the movement, but more critically to stop radical examinations of the gendered power structures in wider society, so too the white left uses its faux-internationalism as a sop to fundamental examinations of the structures which support neo-colonialism abroad and racism domestically.
We cannot simply disavow the sexist, racist left, they are part of us and they are our responsibility. We need to challenge within our movement on the basis of oppositional conciousness, taking leadership from those closest to the struggle and making the links between pockets of resistance under a sound educative framework of anti-colonialism. Racism and sexism are not external things to the left – to be fought against as the other – they are within our movement and they are part of us. Only by developing “the left” drawing it cohesively together on the basis of oppositional conciousness can we hope to ever effect a revolution, rather than just another change of management.
First published on Better Nation on 13th March 2012