The Politics of Self-Absorption

This piece originally appeared in Samar 16: Fall/Winter, 2003

This is the first in a series of editorials about the state of the South Asian Left.

Props to all who fought the long and hard battle that has resulted in the recent repeal of the Special Registration program of the US government. Organizations in NY and LA, Atlanta and Chicago, San Francisco and DC have all struggled hard for the first broad victory inside the territorial limits of the US since Sept 11th. The poetry of raised fists and endless hours of work has paid off and our comrades who did the bulk of that work need our continued support.

And yet, even as I try to remember all the hours of struggle, I cannot help but feel a moment of sadness, as I see the messages flashing across my screen. Most often these messages of congratulation were from South Asian or Arab groups and only occasionally from other civil liberties organizations and political formations — African American, Latino or White. Why, I am forced to ask, are we so isolated in our struggles?

My intent in asking this question is not to point fingers at anybody else. Instead it is a moment for us to examine our own political practices. That liberal multiculturalism and the State have pushed us into our own political enclaves is certainly true. But we need to ask how it is that we have been complicit in this process of our ghettoization. The enclave of the ethnic and the ghetto of the specific are crafted in American politics through the fetishization of “experience.” Political practice in America is constantly created out of spaces that claim an exclusive experience for oneself.

Years ago when I first came to NYC, I ran into an African American book seller — Hakim Hasan — at the corner of 6th Ave. and Greenwich. Over many months Hakim and I became friends. I would often sit on a milk crate while he minded his books, and talk about all and sundry — from Vietnam to the Black Panthers. One day, many months after we had first met, Hakim turned around and asked me, “Who owns these newsstands? Who runs them? How are they financed?” It was a conversation that spanned many days — when I spoke of the Indian trading classes migration to the US in the mid 80s, the circulation of credit within caste/jati communities and how those who work in the newsstands may have village or town based links to the ownership. But when I finally asked Hakim why he was so interested in the newsstands, he had only one thing to say. “You know,” he said, “if we don’t talk to each other directly, South Asians and African Americans, it won’t be long before our conversation will be mediated by white folks… How we speak and what we speak with each other will be determined in large part by the white ruling class…” Hakim’s statement rings more and more true for me and the conditions of possibility for this conversation between minorities looms today as one of the politically most significant ones.

Each time, I walk into a political meeting and see the contradictions of the “politics of experience” bearing themselves out I am reminded of Hakim. At around the same time as I was having this conversation with Hakim, I was also invited to join a short lived collective called “Scholars for Radical Social Change” with an intent of providing research support for activists. The group was constituted by primarily a few professors and a handful of CBO “activists” — all Asian. When a few of us suggested that we bring in some African American and Latino intellectuals and activists into the group, it was received with concern. “Our issues will get overshadowed,” we were told. Such battles of representation are commonplace. The anti-war coalition in the post-Sept 11th phase fell apart on a difference of perception of how the word “justice” was being used. In Youth Solidarity Summer, I have often heard the discussion-killing line — “I feel silenced…” It is often a line that is followed by the longest silence. In workshops that I have conducted across the US for South Asians, I have heard the complaint from one group or the other that their “experience” was not “reflected in the workshop ” — what was invariably missing was a unique Pakistani or a Sri Lankan experience, a working class experience or a GLBT experience. Clearly, in as much as I had no way of experiencing a first hand American immigrant working class life, there is not much of a conversation to be had. Of all these encounters, one in particular stands out, for it produced the maximum personal acrimony and bitterness. It was a meeting of anti-Globalization “activists” a little more than 2 years ago. I was there because I had been helping another collective organize around the Narmada Bachao Andolans work. The meeting lasted exactly twenty-five minutes for me as a small group of people of color activists problematized the “all too white” nature of the anti-globalization movement. Surely the room was mostly white and I sat a mute spectator to the unfolding downward spiral. Some minutes after I had left the meeting I ran into the POC group who had also left the meeting after me. I had walked into a bar and watched as they entered the bar, faces wreathed in the sweat of victory. We began speaking and for the first time I said that I disagreed with them and their strategy. Our conversation was also not the friendliest but we persisted (probably because none of us wanted to abandon our drink and leave). “Can you understand how racist these guys are who think they control the whole thing?” one of them asked me, “they think that they can order us around…” I agreed that surely it is possible that the “movement” was riddled with racist attitudes, but “why are we so self absorbed?” I asked in response. My question prompted new accusations and retorts. “Why should I put up with that shit?” and a challenge to the authenticity of the white organizer — “what do they really know about the third world?” For me the anti-globalization movement is rooted in a long history of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles, the multiple socialist and communist movements that struggled in the context of the cold war against American imperialism, and the many off shoots of these struggles that emerged as both Socialist/Communist programs and New Social Movements all across the third world in the 1990s fighting neo-liberalism. So, to say that the anti-globalization movement was “all white” was a pathetic reduction — a complete succumbing to one’s personal experience of the movement in the US and a fundamentally ahistorical position. What was worse was that one’s racial position here was being leveraged to lay a claim of authenticity.

Experience, is a category that belongs to the inside. The only other people who share my experience are those who have most, if not all of their lives in common with me. Deployed as a tool of political empowerment it is by its very nature a conservative tool for it affords a person or a group empowerment at the cost of leaving all those who do not share that experience, outside — with no role to play. It is a perfect way to kill a dialog. It is a core strategy of the self-absorbed who seek empowerment only for themselves and not others. Experience is the anti-solidarity machine.

As against experience, if we are to locate ourselves in political dialogs as people or collectives with a historical consciousness, we leave behind the space of the personal — the space that we do not share with anybody else except with our very own — and build instead a situation where we not only create some distance from questions of personal hurt and anger on the one hand but also a space where a common historical understanding of a situation emerges — something multiple peoples can feel empowered to act from within. In the anti-globalization movement, it is only the historical perspective that gives me a sense of how small an actor I am here in the US. In the anti-war movement, it is a history of resistance to imperialist wars and occupations that gives us a perspective of how long term a struggle this is and how long people from across the world have already been committed to it. History is a perfect antidote to the self-absorption of experience.

This is not to say that experience is by itself to be disregarded. Hardly. My experience is valuable to me in as much as it is a fundamental building block in anything I learn. It is the way I reach inside me and understand my relation to the landscape of history; it is the way I may even empower myself in that originary moment of political action. But to go beyond this is to leave some part of oneself — the experiential that is most invested in ones ego at the doorstep before stepping into a political space. In the post-Sept 11 political landscape, we may have reached that moment when the politics of isolated enclaves must be left behind. While there surely are a plethora of issues to deal with in the building of a new politics, part of the demand on us is to go beyond the politics of experience and identity.

Biju Mathew is an organizer for New York Taxi Workers Alliance and a major contributor to the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate.

Leave a comment