If I ever asked you to describe your politics, the exact word you’d label those politics with is a lot less important to me than the actual ideas and principles you’d be using that word to describe. This is something that comes to mind a lot when I’m asked to describe my politics (or am trying to put a label on myself, like for a social media profile). I know what my politics are, but putting a label on them is always fraught, because different people use the same words for drastically different things. For example, here are some of the labels I could use (and sometimes have), and the issues with each of them:
- socialist: this is probably my favourite, but so easily misunderstood. Some people think the government paying for literally anything is “socialism” (umm, no) and others think totalitarian dictatorships are “socialism” (fuck no).
- revolutionary socialist: I’ve sometimes used this to make clear I am not pro-capitalism, but it still can be confused for a pro-dictatorship position, and I think it’d be pretty presumptuous for me to use it these days when I haven’t been actively involved in IRL activist circles (doing anything revolutionary) for years.
- communist: this one, at least, sidesteps the issue of people thinking I love capitalism with just a little bit of public services, but has the even worse effect of people thinking I love totalitarian dictatorships. Most people do not know that “communism” as originally defined had nothing to do with the Stalinist-style system that emerged in the 20th century. So uhhh, in most circles this label is also not useful.
- Marxist: similar to “communist”, except plays a bit better in academic circles (at least if you study history like I did!). Still not exactly broadly useful.
- anarchist: if I use this one, nobody thinks I love capitalism with public services or totalitarian dictatorships. But there are still a lot of people using the word “anarchist” to describe politics that I still think are really crappy (individualists who think you can take on capitalism through solitary acts of sabotage rather than collective organising, for example, or apolitical lifestyle “anarchists” who don’t get why you would challenge capitalism at all…) and I don’t want to be confused with those people either.
- feminist: I use this word just to mean I support women’s liberation and oppose all the ideological bullshit that keeps women oppressed. But some people think if you use it you must literally subscribe to patriarchy theory, and others think using it means you subscribe to that whole “Lean In” pro-capitalist crap.
- revolutionary feminist, socialist feminist: as attempts to clarify what kind of feminist I am, but to very political people this implies specifically Heidi Hartmann-style politics that I’m not sure I have
- anti-capitalist: pretty accurate, although again some dimwits think this means you run around throwing bricks through windows, and others think this means you try to somehow “abstain” from capitalism in the here and now, which is impossible because we’re all living it whether we like it or not. Even though I think capitalism as an economic system sucks, I can still appreciate it when cool or useful new products become available.
- left-wing: also inescapably accurate, and doesn’t tend to give people any incorrect impressions, although it’s also so vague I doubt it gives people any impressions at all.
I’ve used literally all of the above labels with different people at different times, depending on what I think they will see as the most accurate label to describe my politics. I suppose some people might see this as slimy or inconsistent, but I don’t see it that way at all. For me, my politics are relatively constant (I can sometimes be persuaded to change my mind on things, haha, but not my fundamentals). The labels are merely a shorthand to try to convey to somebody quickly what they are – a means to an end, not the end all by themselves.
Some people on the Left can, in contrast, be very rigid about labels, insisting that their own ways of defining them are Correct, and that everyone else is Using The Words Wrong. For example, when I was involved in IRL activism, most of the people I worked with insisted that the word “feminist” referred exclusively to bourgeois feminism and patriarchy theory, and if you ever pointed out that other groups and people claim the label “feminist” you’d get a response like, “Oh sure, there are uneducated people who don’t know what the word means, but…” I just find this infuriatingly pointless. Debate other people’s ideas if you like, but if you don’t even get around to those because you’re spending your time policing their semantics, what are you even doing.
So when I describe my politics with the words above, the principles I’m referring to are:
- I think capitalism is a bad economic system for the modern world, and should be replaced by something better.
- I don’t think “liberal democratic” governments are very democratic, beholden as they are to corporate interests. Things like privatisation, continued inaction on climate change, cuts to welfare, etc. continuing to occur despite being very unpopular (in Australia at least) proves this point. They’re still better than authoritarian regimes and outright dictatorships though – civil liberties are important.
- The kind of post-capitalist society I envisage would be truly democratic, egalitarian, collectivist in mindset and environmentally sustainable. Centred around meeting human need (and human comfort), not profit. There would not be a state.
- We still need to fight for reforms under capitalism that make people’s lives better in the here and now. There’s no sense being such a purist that you’ll abstain from modern political processes and refuse to fight for anything at all “until the revolution comes”.
- I really hate sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism and all other forms of bigotry. These need to be challenged in the here and now, too.
- Imperialism is evil, and I don’t think “being anti-imperialist” means throwing your lot in behind another imperialist power like Russia or China. You can hate US imperialism and Russian imperialism and Chinese imperialism and this is no contradiction, seriously.
- Colonialism is evil, too. Countries like Australia, the US and Canada have been founded on the dispossession of other nations and these states are rotten to their foundations.
- The mass of ordinary people around the world shares much more in common with each other than we do with our national governments or local big business overlords. Being anti-US imperialism (for example) doesn’t mean hating ordinary Americans. I’m an internationalist – I believe in building solidarity between the people of every country, not sowing division on the basis of our stupid governments.
People with these kinds of principles can use all kinds of labels – socialist, anarchist, revolutionary feminist, etc. – and it kind of shits me when they won’t communicate because they don’t like the label another person has given to the exact same, or 99% convergent, ideas. You don’t have to merge, or gloss over the differences you do have, but like… work together! Speak to each other! Don’t condemn the Left to continued irrelevance by pretending that minor doctrinal differences make your #1 priority sniping at each other indefinitely 😭
When I’m weighing up whether to follow someone for their political content, I don’t care so much the exact label they use to identify themselves. What I really want to know is how much their principles align with mine. I don’t have to agree with someone on everything to follow them, especially if they have some expertise in a specific niche, like urban planning or technology, or do investigative journalism in a given region of the world. Actually I follow a lot of people who I’m sure are not revolutionary or anti-capitalist at all. But things like putting people above profit, opposition to bigotry, cynicism of government – these are pretty non-negotiable.
But returning to my own labelling… the last thing that makes it hard for me to decide what to put on social media profiles is that a lot of the time I’m not even posting about politics. I guess I don’t want to put people off subscribing for pet photos or my adventures with Small Web-type stuff or my book reviews or whatever else I might post by making myself sound too hardcore about politics. It’s not like I want to conceal my principles or anything, but I’d like to think I’m a well-rounded individual, and I want to manage expectations, haha. This is probably the main reason I’ve settled on “left-wing feminist” for now. I’ll let people know there’s a certain perspective behind my posts, but since I’m not exactly going deep into political analysis all the time I leave it at that.