This is an Amazon training exercise. Because i come from political movements that failed at explaining the present or radaring the storms moving in from the future. (Let’s leave aside the point that previous movements of rebellion often claimed “victories” that were really defeats). We didn’t understand things as basic as winning & losing. Instead of seeing victory & defeat as parts of a contradiction, interdependent and interwoven, we were taught to believe that victories were only a straight line of stepping stones to even more victories. While defeats were something separate blamed on factors outside us, on conditions beyond our control or even on the enemy. That’s no longer acceptable because it gets us nowhere. The limitation is not men’s repression but within ourselves.
Patriarchal histories left Harriet at the end of the Civil War, triumphant, her war finished. Ready to head back to her home in New York and a much-earned retirement. Like the happy ending of the Hollywood romantic comedy, this only works because of the audience’s “willful suspension of disbelief.” Forgotten is her original “home” on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where she often vowed to return a free woman. If Harriet had returned South then instead of heading North into permanent exile, she surely would have been murdered as so many New Afrikan activists were after the Civil war (as even her former husband was).
Even more to the point, we don’t live in a world where Harriets won. i mean, if Harriet won why was i sitting in the Mississippi State Penitentiary in 1961 with women who couldn’t even vote and who lived under daily terrorism? That victory & defeat in 1865 changed everything. Changed the Black struggle, changed the u.s. empire, changed Harriet. And this principle isn’t just about New Afrika. How come if women’s liberation won in the 1970s–as we’re told every single day–we watch with disinterest as 30 million women are dying of AIDS in a coldly deliberate mass murder in Afrika? A program of cutting-edge mass murder that even dwarfs the old Afrikan Slave trade and the Nazi death camps. Nor is any victory of women’s liberation compatible with European rape camps and the exploding global sex slavery of millions of women. The known outcomes and how we’ve been ordered to think about reality aren’t compatible. We have to relearn how to think, not as a philosophical luxury but as a necessity of life or death.
We have to look at the military situation, then, the political-military situation if you will, at the end of the Civil War. On one day it all changed. Winning & losing had changed everything. The u.s. empire with its new industries and military, were suddenly freed from internal strife to gaze outward, to turn their attention towards colonial expansion in all directions. Especially towards finishing off their remaining problems with the Indian nations and peoples. For so long estranged into two competing brother social systems–slave capitalism versus semi-slave capitalism–euro-amerikans were once again united in one settler empire. Northern Wall Street was king, but symbiotically needed its recent enemy, the Southern bourgeoisie, as its local manager over the New Afrikan labor that produced the cotton, tobacco and other valuable cash exports. Victorious white Abolitionism withered into dust as the Southern white terrorism of the defeated Confederates rose up and up. The New Afrikan freedom struggle had ended chattel slavery by its military alliance with the Federal government and the Union Army. But the next day this same alliance became the new chains that reenslaved. While the Black Nation of ex-slaves found itself with a class and gender hierarchy it had never experienced before. And Harriet, she won & lost on the same day. Because winning & losing changes everything.
Let me repeat it, to double the stitch: this is an Amazon training exercise. If i can’t learn to analyze victory & defeat in herstory, where all the forces & factors, hopes & outcomes are known, how can I decipher the chaotic present?
The present, we are told, is all we need to focus on. Really, the present is so razor-thin a slice of reality that we teeter on it unable to keep our balance. Only by triangulating it with past & future do we know our ground. We don’t study the present to learn the future. It’s the reverse: we reveal the hidden past and look out at the future to really understand our present.
That moment where Harriet won & lost on the same day is an example not simply of change but of the inner way that change happens. It was a nodal point, a point of complication where accumulating quantities of change suddenly crystalize into a change of basic quality. A sudden knotting and unknotting of change. For instance, the point where the ebbing of life in a body becomes death is one such nodal point. This is a basic process in all reality. Harriet always remembered that moment on her Northward escape when she knew that she had reached Pennsylvania, and was no longer a slave. “When I found that I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything. The sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”
The step-by-step freeing of what had been a slave society resulted not simply in individuals who were legally free, but in a transformed Black society. Which in its turn reshaped how New Afrikans faced the unexpected challenges of the post slavery period called Black Reconstruction. Nor was that just their story alone, in isolation, or just white settlers’ story. Both were part of a wave of world change, a new stage in the development of capitalism as a civilization.
This is something we’re not used to, which is why it’s so hard. Searching beneath the surface of stories we never told, stories handed to us as subliminal orders, to find not only a deeper level but many overlaid levels of reality at once. To start with, there is the reality of winning & losing.
Don’t dismiss this as so obvious. Women have a real trouble sorting this out. Winning & losing doesn’t mean merely that the winners get their way for awhile. Both victory & defeat change the players themselves. Change the very ground we stand on. This is more real than we’ve dealt with. Look at what happens to us, to women, whenever we are defeated. Even our bodies are changed. It isn’t just old Chinese footbinding or the constricted, literally imprisoning clothing that white women were ordered to wear. Or the genital mutilation of millions upon millions of girl-children. It’s also the deliberate downsizing of muscle + bone, the breeding out of women’s physical strength and abilities. So that capitalism’s socially idealized woman is weaker, smaller compared to men, less able, dis armed, dependent on men in men’s world. Listen to how many euro-people say that Venus and Serena aren’t physically like “real” women should be, because they’re too powerful.
Because the war with patriarchy isn’t simply between women and men, in some linear way. Women’s bodies are the land that the war has always been on (which is why the Barbara Kreuger pro-choice poster, “Your Body Is A Battleground”). We ourselves, whether we win or lose, whether we recognize it or not, are a military terrain. Which is why Amazon thinking is women’s military thinking in a whole deeper logic.
It’s not so much that we are ignorant, it’s that women are still disoriented. In my EMT course we were told that to be disoriented is to be confused as to location, time, and identity (the reason ER doctors ask patients regaining consciousness if they know who they are, where they are and what day it is). This is us. Regaining consciousness but still disoriented as to location, time, and identity. We need to relearn how to think.
There are two main kinds of thinking in the Western world. The first, in rough shorthand, we can call Aristotelian thinking, after the Greek philosopher. This kind of thinking sees things as having a fixed identity, belonging to rigid categories that are unchanging, bending if at all only under the pressure of outside forces. The second is dialectics, which sees everything as the flow of constant inner change of contradictions.
Quick picture: dialectics is based on seeing that everything calls into existence its own opposite. Not as something external to it, but as something internal, an evolving unity of the original and its opposite. The old Southern system of slavery, for example, called into existence its polar opposite the Black Nation, and was of necessity composed of itself and this New Afrikan colony. One didn’t have an existence without the other. Dialectics reveals how nothing is static or monolithic, but everything moves forward from the playing out of these internal contradictions. Change comes from within as the struggle of opposites, but these opposites always interpenetrate and recreate each other in new forms.
This is a global recognition of the non-linear, underlying wave pattern of reality, although in the West it is usually ascribed to the German 19th century philosopher Hegel and his more revolutionary disciple, Karl Marx. Hegel, however, was himself shaped by Taoism from China. Whether Taoism and Zen Buddhism in China and Japan or Jainism in India or radical philosophy in Europe from the time of the Greek philosopher Democritus onward, we can find in one rough shape or another this same recognition of dialectics. It is easier to crudely outline the yin & yang of it than it is to really learn it, but we can’t make war successfully without tuning ourselves to it.
Modern bourgeois classes may praise Aristotelian thinking, but their system itself tries not to use it. They couldn’t stay on top if they did. In Aristotle’s original theories, nature was composed of many species but no evolution. Society, too. His own Greek slaveowner class was considered eternally better, just as men had to forever rule women. That type of thinking has been used as ruling class ideology & propaganda for centuries but it isn’t functional in a modern world.
Even high capitalist military theory had to be hastily ripped apart after radical peasant guerrilla armies began defeating their suburban military in the 1950s and 1960s. Amerikkka’s one-sided advantage in “B-52 science” wasn’t enough to win, even as the established global superpower with a two million man professional military using everything from helicopter-born army divisions to chemical weapons. Now, newer imperialist counter-insurgency theory uses dialectical thinking, and is based on finding internal contradictions to change the very nature of oppressed societies. Not simply brute outside force. Like empowering men in self-destructive gender-classes on a mass scale, freely arming them into rightist warlord gangs whether in Central America or South L.A.
In the Internet, in art, in physics, in the biosciences, in field after field those responsible for making things work have pragmatically moved away from old modes of thinking. So modern international classes may deny dialectical thinking– but they use it economically, militarily, scientifically. While they school us in this useless linear thinking from before the Middle Ages that isn’t functional, that doesn’t allow us to grasp the terrible opportunities of change.
In the 1960s the Palestinian liberation movement adopted the slogan “From One Generation To the Next–Until Liberation.” It had a seeming power to it, not only of expressing mass determination but of inexorable struggle making progress inch by inch, year by year. Only problem, it ‘s not true. Because winning & losing changes everything, including all the players and all the sides. You don’t have generation after generation, you only think you do.
Especially here in amerikkka, women believe in constant “progress” for us. That no matter how disappointed we are today, that next year or next generation life will inexorably be freer for us no matter how little we do about it. Only because we have been systematically wiped clean of knowing that we don’t notice the little rips and tears in this silly lie. That Iroquois women had more legal power over government in their society in the 19th century than college educated professional women today can even imagine having. That East German women had rights in 1970 that they don’t have today. That abortion rights in the u.s. keep disappearing in hospital after hospital, county after country, area after area as the tide of men’s neo-fascist politics spreads.
Winning & losing changes everything. We need to remember this against the amnesia and drift of daily life in the world of men.
More by Butch Lee