A lot of people these days are Doing The Work. The work can be anything from prioritizing your mental health to decolonizing a local museum to calling out fellow white people for transgressions like befriending black families. At a 2020 Zoom meeting of a Manhattan Community Education Council that went viral, mainly white council members berated a white attendee as a racist for briefly holding his friend’s black child on his knee. Another council member joined the pile-on to plead for more “work”:

This just illustrates to me the need for anti-racism training. … I have done my own work. And some of you have done work, but clearly we need more of it. … I don’t see you doing the work; your actions have not shown to me that you understand what racism is at the structural and institutional level—which is fine, because I don’t claim to understand it. I’m still learning, I do a lot of reading. … There’s no way around it, you have to read; if you’re not willing to read, then you’re not doing the work. And we have to get on board, we have to understand what these people are telling us, we have to do the work, we have to get uncomfortable. But I don’t see some of you willing to do that uncomfortable work.

One can identify many absurdities here: politics as training; agreement as a precondition of engagement; reading lists in lieu of discussion; claiming not to understand what you stridently assert others don’t understand. The one that threads them together, though, is the use of work as a means to conflate self-reflection, political activism, and labor.

The Work, in all its 21st-century capaciousness, has many sources: psychoanalysis, Christianity, corporate bullshit, community organizing, self-help, Russian mysticism. Its real homeland, however, is academia, where its patron saint spread the word. This was Audre Lorde (1934-1992).

An American poet and professor, Lorde is a millennial icon. Twitter users, including political and business leaders, give her a shout-out about every 10 minutes. She is best known as the godmother of intersectionality, for her insistence on differences within oppression—differences Lorde especially, and rightly, found unacknowledged in the predominantly white feminism of the 1970s. Many Lorde-isms are now part of the liberal millennial canon—radical self-care, “the crucibles of difference,” “there is no hierarchy of oppressions,” “teaching is a survival technique.” Indeed, the hallowed practice of “calling out” itself can be traced back to some of Lorde’s interventions of the late ’70s and early ’80s.

“Lorde introduced the world to the academic as the oppressed subject of history.”

Lorde introduced herself as a “black, lesbian, feminist, warrior, poet, mother doing my work” at poetry readings and conference panels. “Work,” in Lorde’s writing, functions as a dissolvant, blending the political and personal. Working on expressing feelings, for example, will have obvious mental-health benefits, but it will also stamp out bigotry; “exposing the self in work and struggle” is an escape from loneliness but might also contribute to collective forms of resistance; “a releasing of my work” is a gift to others, but through this is also achieved “a releasing of my self”; “the hard work of excavating honesty” applies inside and out; and so on.

In all these cases, the emphasis is on the service of political struggle to the individual. The catalyst of this alchemy is consciousness—one’s own and others’. The two are different in kind, of course: The work of self-consciousness is fundamentally a question of expression, of speaking one’s pre-existing self, conscience, story; the consciousness of others, meanwhile, is a target for raising awareness, waking up, and so on. Yet the two complement each other: Awareness-raising becomes an identity, and awareness is raised through the fashioning of such identities. As Lorde wrote, “I am my best work—a series of roadmaps, reports, recipes, doodles, and prayers from the front lines.”

One can immediately see the appeal of all this to academics, especially. With Lorde, professors get a politics in which class is occluded, a struggle in which what they get paid for—critical accounts of ideology and the formation of professional identity—become preeminent liberatory acts, an activism they can do from home. It naturally makes politics about what you think or the kind of person you are, rather than, say, your class position in industrial relations. And, of course, it keeps the professionals in charge.

Lorde introduced the world to the academic as the oppressed subject of history. If she was a “warrior,” her battlefield was the quad. All her major interventions involved papers, open letters, book reviews, or other arguments, and, indeed, were generally about conferences, publishing, and so on. I am not saying such things are unimportant. The question is whether they amount to a wider liberatory project, and why Lorde’s many followers imagine they do.

Any genuinely universal emancipatory project will have to empower workers as an objective class. Yet one of Lorde’s most important feints was to replace the kind of work and workers that used to be at the center of progressive politics—that is, wage labor and the labor value expropriated by capital—with a contentless, subjective sense of mission. Work here has lost its power to explain the relation of waged and unwaged labor to capital, dissipating instead into a wholly abstract positive aura. And so the quasi-religious testimonial to virtue becomes the new radical political act.

“Class is more than just a function of prejudice and discrimination.”

On a handful of occasions, Lorde did discuss class, or did at least use the word. It appeared when Lorde tossed it into one of her celebrated salads of different oppressions—the “very real differences between us, of race, sex, age, sexuality, class, vision.” Here we arrive at the intersectional architecture of Lorde’s thought, or rather intersectionality’s absence of any architecture. This politics—for “those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are black, who are older”—claims an agility in recognizing difference within oppression. But is this really the celebration of difference it claims to be? Is being poor really similar in kind—which is to say, at all—to being a lesbian, or does a list like this simply flatten the two things into equivalence?

Not wanting to be poor is quite fundamentally different to not wanting to be a lesbian, and class is more than just a function of prejudice and discrimination. There being “no hierarchy of oppressions” quickly becomes a refusal to explain oppressions as anything more than a miscellaneous bag of wrongs to be righted with the correct moral attitudes. This entirely paratactic non-thinking, however, is inevitable when the truism that everything is political is taken to mean that everything is equally political. That Lorde, in most contemporary circles, has acquired a vague reputation for confronting class shows only how low the bar on serious discussion of that category has descended.

The us of Lorde’s crucible has also echoed through to our own time. “Those of us who are poor,” for example, entirely occupies and appropriates poverty. Lorde was not poor: When the piece was published, Lorde was a university professor earning a comfortable salary and residing in an apartment she owned in Gotham. Her kids were at Harvard, and her parents had operated a real-estate business. One might wonder why such facts didn’t prevent Lorde’s identification as, for example, a “Third World Writer.”

Then again, as Lorde’s acolytes have learned, all sites of oppression must be finally reduced to one’s identity. Lorde was a master of this tactic, identifying her own struggles against conference organizers with, for example, armed resistance to apartheid. The point, clear across Lorde’s poetry and prose, is to talk about political phenomena exclusively in terms of oneself and how it makes one feel.

Lorde’s mushy thinking can go some way toward explaining today’s novel blend of liberal authoritarianism. To compensate for The Work’s lack of objective content, its adherents invoke war. Lorde, as we noted, identified as a warrior. Though she laid claim to “sister warriors,” these were usually real activists injured, imprisoned, or killed fighting actual armed enemies; she didn’t extend the category to her professorial peers. In other words, Lorde saw herself as a lone combatant, an outsider, to use one of her favorite words. In such a position, Lorde treated politics as a question of personal tragic heroism and as a fundamentally solitary pursuit.

Lorde’s tragic heroism was on full display in her response to a group of black women in New Orleans trying to organize a feminist book fair in 1986: “These women,” she wrote, “make the early silence and the doubts and the wear and tear of it all worth it. I feel like they are my inheritors, and sometimes, I breathe a sigh of relief that they exist, that I don’t have to do it all.” Lorde constantly humble-bragged about her work being “useful” to other women the same way revivalists speak of serving as a vessel for the Holy Spirit. It is easier, of course, to see self-care as “an act of political warfare” if you take yourself to be the new messiah. We needn’t ask why self-care needs to be a radical act of political warfare, since the bonus function just comes naturally to Those Anointed by The Work.

It is, though, the solitary nature of Lorde’s work that clarifies its true status. “Part of my work,” she said, “is to ask you, are you doing your work?” It sounds suspiciously like something a manager would say, but the bigger idea here is that each has his own work to do, that collectivity is no more than the aggregation of individual efforts. In her thinking, you find yourself in collectives only insofar as they reflect your glory back to you. In this world, having your grievance heard is the pinnacle of self-expression, being seen to personally suffer the upper limit of agency, and a place among the intellectual elect the horizon of victory.

Pejoratives like “snowflake” miss the point of such politics. This isn’t a discourse of oversensitivity, but of hardheaded pragmatism. It hasn’t led people to fragility; it has led them to the most brutal instrumentalism in which no experience is lost as an occasion to bolster one’s brand and work one’s way up whatever institutional ladder. One of Lorde’s many hagiographers describes her as a “consummate revolutionary,” as if revolutionary political struggles were something an individual might master like the violin. Yet the ridiculous praise bears a kernel of truth: Lorde was among the first to practice politics as a mastery of cultural capital, as a tune to play with correctness and proficiency, as a brand to flash to institutions.

This often led to political positions justifiable mainly by their capacity as an aid to self-aggrandizement: “I have often wondered why the farthest-out position always feels so right to me; why extremes, although difficult and sometimes painful to maintain, are always more comfortable than one plan running straight down a line in the unruffled middle.”

I wonder if Lorde really did wonder this, but it is the form and audience of the practice that is most important. Because Lorde’s trick was to speak entirely within the academy, to the academy, for the academy, while making it seem that she was against and outside of it. It was a thin veil—her challenge to “truly work for change, rather than merely indulge in academic rhetoric”—but the fact the distinction had to be made at all shows its milieu clearly enough. Lorde had seen construction workers come out for Nixon against students in the early ’70s, and from then on, she saw workers as nothing more than obstructions on the heroic path of the associate professor toward enlightenment.

Lorde’s most famous essay, first delivered at a feminist conference in 1979, is “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” It is about a conference line-up. Whether universities are really like slave plantations or not, I will leave for others to decide. The broader question is why Lorde’s politics was so singularly and uncritically obsessed with the university in the first place. A very small minority of people inhabit academe, and even fewer new ideas emerge from there, and yet it is the front line. Today, almost no public discussion exists outside of its frameworks.

“Lorde was among the first to practice politics as a mastery of cultural capital.”

In Britain, we have just witnessed the most disruptive labor strikes for decades, on the railways. The strikes gave rise to the astonishing spectacle of a working-class union official, National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers chief Mick Lynch, unapologetically representing the interests of his fellow workers before people who take him for an idiot prole. Lynch’s refusal to even hear, let alone speak, the language of culture-war-goading and cry-bullying used by craven journalists and whining centrist politicians brought these groups dangerously close to a realization that Not Everything Is About Them. The public discourse, for the first time in a long while, resonated with a voice from outside of the woke technocracy, and it was like someone had opened a window in a stuffy room.

The trade-union of British academics, meanwhile, has transformed itself from a workers’ organization concerned with labor conditions into an NGO pursuing its members’ personal hobbies. Priorities now include meaningless virtue-signaling about American political issues; calling the government fascist while demanding that maximum Covid-emergency powers be surrendered to it; and, in a novel move for a trade union, getting people fired for unorthodox views. The union may not be able to get the vote out to take industrial action, but it is unambiguously winning social media, canceling deplorables, and colonizing the small corner of the online left it takes to be the whole world.

This is natural, because trade unions, for all their failings, can only be vehicles for narcissism if they stop concerning themselves with questions that relate to work proper—that is, the dialectic of waged and unwaged labor in its antagonism with capital. This focus comes with a recognition that we won’t simply be able to proclaim ourselves free; that complaint, raising awareness, grievance, testament, self-care, and other practices, noble or self-serving as the case may be, simply aren’t enough. The material relations of workers and bosses are, finally, found beyond The Work one does on oneself and others, and will only be changed accordingly.

Ben Hickman is a senior lecturer at the School of English at the University of Kent.

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