“Good Politics”: Property, Intersectionality, and the Making of the Anarchist Self

Now that I have revised this work substantially for a press, I find the original dissertation lacking—but please download it here if you can’t wait. 

My upcoming essay titled “Anthropology” in The SAGE Handbook of Marxism (eds. Farris, Skeggs, Toscano and Blomberg, 2022) provides a summary of certain theoretical and ethnographic elements, including my discussion of identity as property.

The transcript of my dissertation presentation at the North American Anarchist Studies Network conference in Mexico City in 2017 also provides another summary of the work, in Spanish only.

I published Occult Features of Anarchism (2019) first, but don’t worry about Good Politics—I’m on it.


This book is an ethnography of transnational activism, yet also culminates as an ethnography of the intersectionality concept.  I study the social life of “intersectionality” in everyday activist practice based on a decade of multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork (2006-2016) within non-profit organizations, campus associations, and anarchist social movements across the Americas. 

My exposition begins with a study of transnational anarchist solidarity campaigns with indigenous peoples’ movements.  Here readers learn about anarchist activists, who aim to manifest non-hierarchical social relations within their own social milieu, as well as topple the social hierarchies that characterize mainstream society.  We discover many pitfalls of “anarchoindigenism” when articulated by non-indigenous anarchists, however, these being similar yet different in places such as Venezuela, Mexico, and Canada.  Whether zooming in on the micro-politics of the “collective”, or zooming out to consider the “network”, we behold inspiring tales of collaboration across difference, and also vivid stories of solidarity gone wrong. 

In the process, I illustrate the everyday life of “intersectionality” among North American activists.  I analyse ways in which their praxes surrounding intersectionality are not necessarily those originally called for by black feminists, and begin to explore why this might be.  In the final analysis, by considering activist networks that cross Québec, the United States and Mexico, we learn that North American activism is characterized by contradiction, especially insofar as it is shaped by notions of self and property (propriety) dominant in the English-speaking world.  My comparative study provincializes the practices of university-educated Anglo American leftists, and draws on anthropological, feminist and critical race theory to show how they have pre-empted the black feminist challenge of intersectionality by recuperating its praxis within the logic of neoliberal self-making projects.

Ultimately the anarchists are presented as a limit case: even within their activism that aims to be entirely autonomous from the logic of the state and capital, we observe how the modern governing logic of statistics, liberal possessive individualism, and the imperatives of the propertizing self all prevail to influence anarchists’ mobilizations of intersectionality, and together constitute what I call the game of “good politics”.  Within this game, diverse forms of “anti-oppression” are performed in front of professional colleagues in the realm of representation, without coherent accompanying action.  The profound proposal for epistemological cooperation and radical coalition politics within black feminists’ original development of intersectionality is reduced to self-valorizing manoeuvres compatible with individual advancement within neoliberal employment markets. 

I analyse this process in terms of both self-appropriation and identity-appropriation, and the connection between the two.  I illustrate a certain homology among activists’ tendency to privilege words over action, their subcultural sanction against emotional expression (and its relation to imperatives of “safe space”), and their abstraction of experience into fixed and bounded identity-categories:  In each instance, performance of transcendence is valued over a necessarily imperfect dialogic orientation, as is the abstract self over the relational body, which itself must be bounded and self-contained as much as possible.  At this juncture I explore the cross-cultural relation between semiotic and legal property to then illustrate the common articulation of these ethnographic phenomena with the logic of modern liberalism and private property; I demonstrate the historical connection between the logic of “good manners” and the logic of “personal rights”, beyond how these combine to form the specific game of “good politics” that defines my ethnographic field.  It becomes clear how the value of transcendence over immanence is replicated within different orders of activity in both the ideological and physical domains of the game of “good politics”, wherein this resonance serves to constitute and naturalize the game. 

“We sang for hours, getting better with each bottle of course.  The Venezuelans knew the Cuban revolutionary songs and the Cubans knew the ones from Argentina.  The Yankees sang Solidarity Forever and everyone knew the chorus, same thing in reverse for A Las Barricadas.  The Italians who had just arrived sang Bella Ciao and most of us knew the lyrics in Spanish.  The French sang the Internationale and the rest were drunk enough to fake it.”

“Where Foucault (1990) meets Deleuze and his fans, interesting things could happen. One might wonder why the rhizome becomes such an interesting metaphor for the Left at the historical moment it does; one might inquire into so much consensus around the rhizome, and wonder what is accomplished by so much talk about it. Where Bourdieu (1984; 1986) meets Deleuze, even more interesting things can happen. One might notice that the “networking” among elites that Bourdieu pinpoints as the conversion of “cultural capital” into “social capital” (into “economic capital” and back again) may also apply to networking anarchists. Deleuze and Guattari invite us to “follow the plants”, and yet the wisdom about plants they put forth to illustrate their point is a quote from Carlos Castañeda’s The Teachings of Don Juan (1971), a fictionalized ethnography about a person who might not exist written by a guy who has probably never dug up a rhizome in his life (1987, 11).”

“At that same “Creative Resistance” workshop leading up to the FTAA summit in 2001, where the Ya Basta guys popped in to say that we should come glue their foam weapons together because we “weren’t doing anything”, I also said something that inspired a symphony of groans…”

“Carmen is quite sure she will still be indigenous if she gets to sleep off her hangover like everybody else instead of being dragged out of bed at 5 am to make tortillas.  Why should the guys get to be the ones who define “indigenous” – or “culture” in general – anyway?  Very often “cultural relativism” is brought to relativize everything except for a certain idea that one must always submit to existing social authority and male social authority in particular, the slip being hidden in a move whereby not Magdalena, not Carmen, but Mr. NEFAC, Juan, a hypothetical village leader or Carmen’s boyfriend get to decide what “culture” comprises and whether or not it should stay the same.  Even if a definitive village authority were known, present, and real, if a person judges that Carmen should behave the way the village authority commands, this person is arguably neither a “relativist” nor “anti-imperialist” (nor an “anarchist” for that matter):  He or she deigns to adjudicate between Carmen and the village leader from the position of distant observer, and based on an imported and a priori premise of his or her own that stipulates that women should always act the way male village authorities say (while supposedly anarchists are all about “questioning authority”)…” (Lagalisse 2016, 228)

“It should be clear at this point that the anti-oppression game requires a fair amount of math…the power relations among activists cannot be rendered with any algebraic formula, nor can the activity of activists who refer to such formulas.  The salient point is rather that activists mentally refer to these in the first place, and build pedagogical games based on them (and then mentally refer to them even more).  The same activists and scholars thereof who refer to dynamic non-linear complexity as an overarching theoretical metaphor for the movement are, in their everyday relations with others, still operating largely according to simple atemporal algebra.”  (Lagalisse 2016, 341-4)

There do remain features—marked practices—of ‘working-class-ness’ that working class people value, and imagine taking with them when building a post-capitalist society, such as ‘sincerity’, ‘solidarity’ and ‘sharing’.  Crucially, these are collective value practices rather than values that can be imagined as embodied by one individual. Also crucially, these use-values, which have no exchange-value in the bourgeois arena, may also be found within indigenous, black or other racialized groups, or within networks of reciprocity among neighbourhood women. As collective value practices within these groups, they cannot cross the threshold into exchange value in the bourgeois sphere either. The fact that the immutable properties that come to stand in for ‘woman’ or ‘person of colour’ can, however, mean that within relevant fields of exchange, these properties can be recuperated to stand in for the practices themselves in order to valorize the self. The (processual) practice of sincerity cannot have exchange value, but a (reified) symbol for it can, which is what we see happening in the game of ‘good politics’ wherein (legibility as) ‘woman’ comes to stand in for ‘superior communication style’, or (legibility as) ‘indigenous’ comes to stand in for ‘superior relationship to the land’. To use the activist lingo, oppressed groups may indeed be characterized by ‘cultures of resistance’, yet the potentially subversive content of these ‘cultures’ (the sincerity or sharing itself) is necessarily liquidated at one and the same time as group members adopt ‘sharing’ or ‘sincerity’ as a property of their individual persons. This is especially true if they then proceed to valorize themselves vis-à-vis one another by similarly reifying as many other use-values as possible, which is what the epistemological regime cum logic of exchange in their anti-oppression workshops encourages them to do.

Foucault was of a different sensibility, but even he, in a rare passage that suggests a way out of all the traps he wrote about, suggested that “the target nowadays is not to discover what we are, but to refuse what we are”; and the political problem we face is not merely to “liberate the individual from the state and the state’s institutions, but to liberate us both from the state and from the type of individualization that is linked to the state.” (1983, 216).  With such “refusal” in mind, Audra Simpson’s (2014) ethnography of Mohawk sovereignty and its complex memberships is entirely different than my own, yet each in our way we seek to historicize, explain, and critically engage the fact that there is simply “no place in the formal political discussion for qualities” (170), even though these might matter the most in the project of dismantling settler colonialism.  Anna Tsing’s (2015) critique of the modern biological assumption that species are self-contained and self-replicating entities likewise intersects with my point.  As I have suggested, her call to behold “patches” of interdependent multi-species life vs. taxonomies of mutually-exclusive “abstract kinds” (“mutualism” vs. a falsely imagined “autonomy”) is logically parallel to beholding social relations as opposed to reified properties.

In other words, a lot of what I have been saying is not entirely new, yet the common failure to perceive the role of property in the composite of “good politics” is partially responsible for the failure of each theoretical camp represented above to enter into dialogue with one another and recognize where they connect.  Only by sacrificing the property that is mobilized by each theorist to speak for and above the others according to the logic of academic knowledge production (e.g. “sociology”, “anthropology”, “class”, “race”, “intersectionality” itself) will anyone actually get past the “class vs. identity” impasse. In other words, the problem is not “identity” – a word that is currently used to refer to an enormous multiplicity of phenomena – but property…”  (Lagalisse 2016, 382-383)