[Note: this is the third in a series. The earlier articles may be found here and here. “Silos and Enclaves” will appear in three successive posts. ~JB]

I. Labour and the Identity Carnival.

Whither the Left? is a question that the Left itself, reduced these days by its failures to a seemingly endless discourse of self-reflection, persists in asking. No one else seems to care very much.

Self-reflection in the sense of questioning one’s previously unchallenged or unconscious assumptions, checking privilege and so on, thinking about the past and how to proceed, is an essential component of good praxis. But there’s just a hint of another meaning there, too‚ÄĒnarcissism.

Narcissism is what I see in that parade of glittering identities worn like costumes, each with its proudly-owned history of oppression. Under the radical gaze, a taxonomy of new identities is burgeoning, new voices hitherto suppressed by privilege, hastening to join in. The parade, though, is a joyless affair. The participants are full of anger, but mostly directed at each other. Like the rest of us, they have no idea where they’re going, or, rather, too many conflicting ones. Every now and then, parts of the militant mass break off and head up other avenues until they are out of sight.

Make no mistake: I’m no renegade. I’m still in there, gamely limping along with the labour contingent in a different parade. But that’s not always so enjoyable either. I keep remembering that time in Quebec City when a huge gathering of brothers and sisters marched away from the fence enclosing the Third Summit of the Americas, to a place four miles distant where more than twenty speeches were delivered. Suitably metaphorical?

Yet the modern labour movement, whatever its strategic errors, is at least founded upon an ethics of inclusion. There are many reefs and shoals in those waters, of course, and we are far from having navigated them all. But there is a general recognition that our ranks reflect, in microcosm, all of the stresses and strains of a society shot through with intersecting lines of oppression, and that the solidarity we seek requires deep understanding, a willingness to listen, and challenging conventional thinking, attitudes and institutions‚ÄĒincluding our own.

Superficial solidarity, papering over the deep cracks among the rank and file, is, or should be, a thing of the past. Modern unions have vibrant equity committees and social justice funds, and their priorities include whole pages from the feminist handbook. Moreover, the big mergers we have observed recently are underpinned by an “industrial union” ethos unseen since Samuel Gompers diverted the labour movement from it a century ago. The recent election of progressive, grassroots-oriented Hassan Yusuff as President of the Canadian Labour Congress marked a watershed moment for Canadian labour.

“But just as we seem to be occupied with revolutionizing ourselves and things, creating something that did not exist before‚Ķ” Well, you know.

By “we,” here, I don’t mean the labour movement all by itself, of course, but the grand social coalitions that always seem to founder upon organizing models and mutual distrust. Here I’m thinking of the New Politics Initiative, the Action Canada Network, even grassroots uprisings like Occupy. I’m hopeful about the Quebec anti-austerity coalition‚ÄĒas I once was for BC’s Solidarity Coalition. Hope is good. But I’m full of revolutionary pessimism, which I came by honestly.

I’m a lumper, not a splitter. My work in the labour movement reinforced that approach. I looked for the common ground, the places where interests converged, the discourses that linked rather than sundered. But I didn’t succumb to the idiotic universalism that meant, in real terms, that everyone should act and speak white, male and straight. I wanted integration‚ÄĒnot homogenization.

In my own union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, ad hoc equity-seeking members formed grassroots pressure-groups to prod the union in the right direction. These groups were later embodied into the structure of the union itself, a move not without risk‚ÄĒfor the groups, not the union. But on the whole it seemed a positive step, a material recognition of difference. The enclaves were moved indoors, the first half of what was needed. The second was integration: bringing those various equity lenses to bear upon the union project as a whole, turning enclaves into redoubts. I shall leave it to others to determine how successful we have been in that respect.

But splitting, as opposed to lumping, has its role as well, as I’ve just indicated. How else do straight white men, who have historically dominated in these venues, begin to learn about the collective experiences of the racialized, of women, of people living with disabilities, of those with sexual orientations other than straight? How do we all learn from each other? At its best, a dynamic tension between the two tendencies is constructive. At its worst, however, the dialectic threatens to explode.

[The second part of this piece, “Voices from the Silos,” will appear on Monday.]