The Conservative Tendencies of "Radical" Critique
I picked up a new copy of School Schmool today. A day planner described as “your radical guide to your often unradical school,” it also contains short essays showcasing “non-judgemental, anti-oppressive, decolonial and intersectional” perspectives preferably written by “Queer and/or Trans Black and/or Indigenous and other contributors of colour.” (1) The topics vary widely, from pieces on cultural appropriation to intersectional feminism and Canadian prisons, and I recommend grabbing a copy on campus and offering a donation. But I am not here to plug. A good bulk of the essays pieces are recycled from year to year, and for that reason I was excited by a piece written by Catherine Jeffrey called “The Limits of ‘Tenant’s Rights’ Advocacy,” as the publication has a record of valuable information on housing issues.
I was disappointed and somewhat shocked by what I had read. Jeffrey’s insightful analysis into the tendency of tenant’s rights advocacy to ignore the heightened vulnerabilities of tenants of a certain race and gender (but incidentally not class*) is valuable, and I find it helpful for housing movements going forward. What was worrying was the way in which their critical analysis slips off into a profoundly conservative suggestion for ways of dealing with abusive landlords, advising that instead of supporting vulnerable sectors of the tenant population through solidarity and collective action, we ought to pay them a wage for fighting for their rights because of how much labour they must put into it.
The idea of giving tenants some sort of vague wage is at worst totally unrealistic and at best, a concession made by systems of power and authority to pacify the population into submissive acquiescence.
I highlight this particular article not to bash Jeffrey, someone who I know personally and find friendly and sincere in their beliefs, but in order to make sure that the method of direct collective action remain on the board in the midst of “radical” critiques of how we combat structures of domination and authority. We must use intersectional racial and gendered critiques to bolster our movements, not to arrest them, and Jeffrey’s article shows a worrying example of how “radical” criticisms of the racial, gendered, and class based dynamics within social movements can be quite unradical to the extent that they forget to emphasize the golden rule of grassroots social change: organize, organize, organize. To be clear, I think these criticisms are vital if we are serious about working towards a project of societal liberation that does not leave the most vulnerable sectors behind. And yet history attests that this project of creating a more decent society does not come without movements, and to have movements we need “radical” writing that stresses collective action and solidarity as the only way to move forward in our emancipatory goals.
Jeffrey’s analysis into how “the constraints of systemic oppression” leave marginalized people more vulnerable in confronting their landlords is worthwhile, critiquing a notion of tenant rights based advocacy that to them fails in acknowledging how the assertion of one’s rights is more difficult and frightening for queer, women of colour in particular*(check) but presumably other marginalized sectors as well. Jeffrey then shows several generally convincing reasons why certain people might hesitate to assert their rights, including physical, legal, and social barriers (but not economic). Soon after, however, Jeffrey trails off into a fantasy land, arguing that the severity of these barriers render any expectation of tenants to keep their landlords in line as “not only unrealistic but also unethical,” (27) thereby concluding that if tenants must go through the effort of transgressing these barriers to keep their landlords in line then“we should be paying them a wage for that labour.” I say fantasy land because of their tacit assumption that, for one, it is conceivable that one can be rewarded by the state for challenging deeply entrenched institutions of authority, and two, that solidarity for people who struggle against the barriers they face all their lives amounts to providing them charity for their exhausting labour, a notion of solidarity that was once critiqued by Martin Luther King in “Beyond Vietnam” when he said that “true compassion is more than flinging a coin at a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Frankly, then, I was outraged by Jeffrey’s earnest preference for charity based activism because it refuses to confront and challenge the power of the landlord over the tenant, in addition to other institutions that make the assertion of housing rights for certain sectors of the population so arduous.
So long as our literature does not seek to upend this presentation, indeed, so long as it tacitly accepts it, we slide into the danger of wishing it into truth.
In addition to their limited understanding of solidarity, Jeffrey also does not seem to have the tactic of collective action on their radar at all when answering the question of “How can we enhance the system to actually work for marginalized people, and prevent tenants from having to do all the labour just to have their rights respected?” Jeffrey’s answer suggests a near total ignorance of how social change occurs and how it has always occurred. To be blunt, systems of power and authority do not give out lootbags to those who challenge them. The idea of giving tenants some sort of vague wage is at worst totally unrealistic and at best, a concession made by systems of power and authority to pacify the population into submissive acquiescence. The reality is that rights are not given, but fought for, and to maintain the claim that one ought to be rewarded for efforts to dismantle illegitimate structures of power and authority in order to create a more decent society is very different from the question of will they be rewarded, from which a quick look into history will provide a blunt “no.”
How do we enhance the system? The only way progress towards a more decent society has been obtained: grassroots movements that identify structures of power and domination and challenge them to justify themselves. It follows then that the way to “enhance the system” is to challenge it. In concrete terms, that means organizing movements around tenants rights issues in solidarity with the most vulnerable. There is no room for “radical” writing that accepts and promotes the assumption that we ought to wait for handouts, wages, pies in the sky. Instead, empowering ourselves and each other to work together upon a radically compassionate notion of solidarity that looks after the most vulnerable is what ought to be expected from so-called “radical” writing, and it was for this reason that I was so upset by Jeffrey’s piece.
The only way progress towards a more decent society has been obtained: grassroots movements that identify structures of power and domination and challenge them to justify themselves.
And for those who are struggling with how to do this, how to assert your rights as a tenant, look into your local Comite Logement and reach out. For fuck’s sake, organize; let us awake from a dream world in which progress to a more decent society comes from anywhere else but dedicated and committed collective effort. Ultimately, let us not be uncritical of writing that presents tenants as isolated, atomized individuals. So long as our literature does not seek to upend this presentation, indeed, so long as it tacitly accepts it, we slide into the danger of wishing it into truth. It is not true. Together, tenants are an overwhelmingly powerful force. They are not vulnerable as long as they are organized, they are not weak so long as they are supported, and they are not alone so long as our movements practice solidarity.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the McGill Left Review's editorial board.