How to meet (and get out of?) the crises by focusing on intersectionality — 16 steps
The steps can be seen as building upon each other, trying to find different, maybe deeper aspects of what lies in the heart of the climate crisis and the idea of intersectionality.
This texts collects many ideas which different parts of the climate movement have contributed to. Thanks! (And I know, I have to improve this English translation…) The most powerful and most helpful ideas I have heard about intersectionality have never been written down by the ones who developed them, belonging to a tradition of sharing experiences and life stories, beyond academic texts. Compared to them, the following text is quite a dry sketch of some conceptual insights.
I use “intersectionality” in a broad sense: including all power relations which can highlight a dimension in which democratic “meetings on eye level” are made possible — or impossible by domination, exclusion, neglect or oppression: ethnicity, gender, class and so on. The text is written out of my privileged and narrow perspective as white middle class male human being which tries to listen to, understand and cooperate in the fight for global democracy and liberation from oppression with people from very different places on this living planet. I am very thankful for all feedback and further development of ideas and possibilities to think and act in different ways; and I am sure that I miss very important insights or misunderstand concepts — it would be great if this could be seen as work in progress which can improve.
Background/Step 0 is about the basic experience of substantial democracy — and its opposition.
In the end it is very basic, visceral. You don’t have to be a specialist in understanding the intersection of power relations as gender, ethnicity and class. It is enough that you understand what it means to have and give an unquestioned place in a social space — or not. What it means to be excluded (even taken away your rights, threatened, hurt), to be pushed down — just because you are you, or a part of a societal group or categorized as such; and what it means to feel safe, to feel seen, to be able to calm down, to breathe, to know that everyone in the social space or specific room sees you as equal and cares if you exist, and if you are healthy, and if you and your neighbor have enough resources to survive this day and the next too. What it means that you can be calm because you know that people in the room don’t accept if somebody wants to build a group which takes decisions over your head or pushes you down; or that societal classes use their privileges, building unequal relations, and holding you out of power and rights.
This is not just about trust or recognition, justice or distribution of resources; this is not only about specific relations and structures, and not just about “inclusivity”, the idea that everyone is allowed to be a part of something. All this is not enough. It is about actively creating spaces where everyone — even the one which doesn’t speak up or has huge resources and knows most — is seen and equally listened to. In this sense, it is about mutual care. And it is not only about “allowing everyone” to be in the social space (even if this is a necessary condition) — while you uphold differences in power and status. It is about how this “allowing to be in the space” is formed so that no one takes over and no one is considered as less relevant or neglected; and how the ones are stopped which exclude, accumulate resources and power. Short, it is about getting rid of existing hierarchies and relations and structures of domination, and getting into something else, what one could call humane spaces.
Does someone look around and see if someone else is not treated as equal; or if someone defends an exclusive power position? Are you the person which is focusing just on the ones already on the top of the movement or social spaces making them even more powerful and destroying democratic relations; or do you say stop, we are all here as equals?
What happens in a subtle way in small spaces, can happen on a bigger scale in society. This is how Angela Davis (https://www.une.edu/magazine/angela-davis) explains intersectionality and her kind of feminism as intersectional: as the revolution of a black woman which is different from: fighting for women’s right to become a part of a hierarchy, of the dominating culture. It is not only about breaking through ceilings so that you are on the top; it is about breaking down the structures which establish a top/down structure of the social space: it is about substantial democracy.
We cannot get out of the climate and biodiversity crisis, many argue, if we don’t show that this crisis is in its core a problem of democracy: within the movements and in global society. Change for justice and prosperity has happened in history only when people started to fight for being treated as equals and against oppression (women, working class, civil rights); making clear that the transformation will deepen democracy and bring us together. The mindshift we need in our relation to each other and nature, is — in this view — a mindshift towards substantial democracy; showing for example how the educational system in the global North often reproduces an upper middle class and its values — and thereby the status quo towards the crises; see steps 10ff. below.
People will become a part of a systemic change (which we need) only if some of them fight and push through a new understanding of what it means to live a (global) democratic life. Discussions about CO2 price levels are fine, but they won’t change society.
Step 1: Even if intersectionality is about the “intersection” of the different power dimensions of privilege or oppression, it shouldn’t mean to hop over or neglect every single dimension in itself. It is not, as some theories say, about relativizing the feminist fight, or the fight by BlackLivesMatter or the oppressed classes.
This means that no dimension of oppression can be ignored. Just to focus within the climate movement for instance “helping” only rich upper middle class people (wherever they live) and to ignore poor working class people in the same countries, leads not to the democratic fight we need. It is the opposite: to play out the intersectional dimensions against each other; we all should stop such tendencies.
In this sense, this whole text focuses just on one dimension of “intersectionality”: not, as almost all texts, on the central idea of studying and reacting to the effect of different power orders (gender, class, …) on each other, but on the common ground of all of them.
Step 2: So, once starting to take care of the different dimensions (of the lack of democracy: of being pushed and hold down), an intersectional analysis of the people who are most affected by the climate and environmental crisis (MAPA):
- can, for example, contribute to see the suffering (for example by BIPOC communities exposed to pollution);
- and be motivated to do something against it, questioning one’s own privileges, or being motivated to speak up for ones and others unjust life situation;
- making place to the voices and the movement lead by the most affected.
- (soon link to: Rapport by Boell-Stiftung; and British Columbia report)
Step 3: An intersectional analysis of the people who are most responsible for the crises can open up for
- demands of accountability and “reparation” (or however one can understand, name and organize the reaction to historic violence and damage);
- understanding of the change needed. The most obvious dimensions here are gender and class, analyzing the group of the 1 percent which is the richest producing most emissions and owning most businesses which produce most emissions. But even the richest 10 percent (global North) are producing around ten times more emissions than would be sustainable;
- an understanding which can open up for strategies for movements but also for understanding the transformation needed.
Step 4: The last two steps combined open up for an intersectional understanding of the just transition needed into a sustainable, renewable, substantially democratic and regenerative just society — which must happen during the next ten years.
It is “easy” for privileged global North activists to demand an immediate stop and phase out of the fossil society or for a global price on CO2, but:
- on the level of the workers in the fossil industry and the working class, this dramatic change needs to be done with care for their lives, needs and safety;
- on level of indigenous peoples rights, the energy transition (wind, water etc.) has to respect the needs and rights of these communities;
- on level of whole societies (or sectors like agriculture), the move away from fossil fuels can disrupt the country’s economy so that a global fair transition is needed, making it clear that we are one people on one planet;
- on the level of “green fund” and “investments” for example by high income countries into low income nations, the focus has also to be on the background structures of exploiting communities and economies by exporting cheap resources, outsourcing the wealth production into white male North communities.
Step 5: Some theories suggest that we can not only focus on people and different (power) structures, but even commit to an intersectional analysis of the system which is producing the crises.
This analysis highlights that it is a systemic feature of the society we live in which is responsible for all seemingly independent non-democratic power structures: the postindustrial financialized information-technological late capitalism with its colonial history — which can be seen not only as a form of “economy” but of societal logic which — in this theoretical view — would be the common ground for patriarchy, racism, the heteronormative imperative and the exploitation of social classes.
This analysis makes the question possible: how an alternative to this society could and should look like. Often the opposite is imagined as “doughnut”, not going for the capitalist necessity to produce economic growth but to fulfill all peoples needs within the planetary boundaries. (I will sketch my own approach of a convivial society and its political economy towards the end of this text.) The question arises even if there is a more basic dimension within the intersection of power struggles.
Step 6: There is one special important aspect linked to this view that there is a common systemic ground for all intersecting dimensions: it is about the exceptional role played by the financial sector and its societal logic. Susan George often uses the framing of a pyramid which is on its head: with the financial sector governing the whole economy; which governs the society, including all cultural relations; which governs our relation to nature and the biosphere. It should function the other way around.
This analysis makes it even possible to question the most spread definition of sustainability as balancing economic, ecological and social aspects of society: because the ecology, the biosphere should be seen as fundament.
This view questions the analysis of society in sectorial terms, as if the changed politics could just focus on agriculture, transport, energy and so on in themselves without considering the driving forces behind the business models and infrastructure of all sectors — which Vogl calls financialization of the capitalistic organized markets in combination with the digital information technology with their platform economies — which undermine democratic governance. To create democratic relations, with an intersectional analysis in mind, means in this view to change these forces; and it seems highly problematic just to demand a higher price on CO2 if one doesn’t see the problem with the non-democratic governance of the market forces themselves.
Step 7: Now, we can maybe move even more closer to the heart of “intersectionality” as concept and idea. It is possible, I suggest, to zoom in and look for the “logic of domination” which is common for all the intersecting dimensions, securing privileges and unjustified power, creating suffering. Strange enough this aspect is often neglected (in theory and practice); for example in the important book (Burkhart, Schmelzer, Treu) about the new Degrowth-movements (highlighting intersectional dimension), just naming “dominance” or “domination” without giving an analysis of this phenomenon in itself.
With some theories (Johnstone 1987) one could say that to understand “dominance” can and should in itself be a bodily social imaginative process (for example: playing with forms of domination in micro-sociopsychological transactions). In this view, it becomes a daily challenge for all, and the opposite is the exercise of the democratic craft of mutual care.
The most influential aspect of this acceptance of the logic of domination in seemingly democratic modern societies is, according to philosophers as Eva von Redecker, linked to the most basic aspect of this very society: the definition of ownership in the tradition of John Locke (as the license to destroy) and of human rights (in the tradition of Jefferson as freedom to own). To acknowledge an intersectional analysis means in this case to replace these definitions by ones which include indigenous worldviews and a sustainable democratic framework.
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sUpY8PZlgV8 (Bell Hooks)
- See https://davidfopp.com/lecture-inputs-stockholm-university/
- https://antipodeonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Book-review_Roy-on-Burkhart-et-al.pdf (about Burkhart, Schmelzer, Treu: Degrowth)
Step 8: We can understand even deeper how this logic of dominance (as foundation of an intersectional system) is coming into the world and is reproduced — as hegemony, an upholding of a normalization of practices, power relations and discourses (in media, politics, culture, education etc.); making it perfectly possible for “educated” upper middle class people to be passive about the climate breakdown — and making it very difficult to change politics (- an explanation why climate psychology must be routed in sociology and societal analysis if it is not just reproducing an upper middle class individualistic world view).
This is just another aspect of understanding society as a complex system with systemic features:
- making a system analysis possible of leverage points and different levels of transformation;
- not only focusing on policies but even on mindshifts and paradigm change;
- understanding that the transformation from one system to another one needs a holistic approach;
- questioning (climate movement) interventions which suggest sitting on the table with the ones dominating the hegemonial discourses and power relations (see Rancière´s and Cox critique of deliberative approaches).
- http://greatmindshift.org/ (Maja Göpel)
Step 9: A crucial role, I would suggest, in this process of upholding a “wrong normality” (of the acceptance of intersectional relations of dominance) which legitimates oppression and privileges, is played by the school and educational system. An intersectional analysis could especially focus on the class aspect — focusing on the very definition (and violent reproduction) of the norms in concepts like intelligence, reason, knowledge and competences; which are defining what it means in our societies to be “able”, “worth”, making the life of a lot of children “to hell”, forcing them to a certain form of learning and excluding them from further studies — directly linked to the “choice” of professions, income and so on: systemically justifying the reproduction of the social (upper) middle class; as one OECD report after the other shows.
This goes for the content of the curriculum as well as the teaching methods — which are legitimizing the rule of a specific class by focusing on memo-techniques, neglecting the ability to care for each other and nature, to show empathy; and ignoring the dimension of the need to be cared for, not only being seen as able, competitive or productive.
This dimension of intersectional oppression by the educational system is often neglected in the climate movement, but especially in school and university itself. You hear very seldom even progressive professors question their own institution (of white middle class people with a house in the countryside; teaching students which are not coming from working class backgrounds).
Step 10: The link to the climate crisis — by this intersectional analysis of the educational system and the broader “attitude” of a society — can be analyzed in terms of the lack of giving institutional and monetary value to the dimension of care for each other and the networks and life cycles of nature.
In other words: An intersectional analysis shows that it is not enough just not to discriminate; not to oppress. Indifference and neglect are two of the most powerful violent forms of social interactions.
To get out of oppression means to get into something else: something like humane spaces. The books (and policy documents in schools) about intersectionality lack often the second part: how to create such humane spaces. I use here the concept of non-neutrality. You cannot be non-discriminatory, indifferent. Either you dominate — or you care.
In a broader perspective: “Care” has always been in the center of all economies, as unpaid work often done by women and oppressed classes; and, of course, not being a part of the polluting aspects of fossil society.
An intersectional analysis leads so to a redefinition of the concept of value and being valuable in relation to society, of being worth.
Step 11: In terms of an intersectional analysis, the question is now: how to define these humane spaces in terms of the opposite to “domination”? What is the counterpart to intersectional domination: we can call it creating connectedness, making real connections of support (which is maye even more than “showing solidarity”). This reflects on a socio-psychological level what it means to be included, not only to be tolerated but to be seen as described in the basic experience above. A lot of children’s books try to catch this dimension: of being positively connected to the self, to the other, to one´s own feelings, the living soul — or being cut off, separated, alienated; losing the connection to one self, others and the environment; often becoming ill. An intersectional analysis can show that this dimension is not socio-psychological alone; being connected means even: having and providing resources to life, to each other.
The opposite of domination — creating and allowing connectedness — can in this theoretical approach not only be seen as a specific quality of democratic substantial relations and can be analyzed on different levels, from neuropsychology to social interactions; it can also be seen as a “material logic” of social spaces, being destroyed where some few rule and others have few or no resources to live.
There are different levels to analyze this alienation or connectedness: from neuropsychological, physiological of muscle tensions and intersubjective to group dynamical and political (Fopp 2016 and 2021).
On a physiological level, it means to get aware of and rid of anxiety, muscle tensions — which reflect an alienation (Immordino-Young, Alexander); creating trust. On a intersubjective level it means to get into relations of transmodal affective attunement( Daniel Stern). On the broader level of societal interactions towards the environment and nature, it means not to split up, but to regenerate, build life cycles and holistic networks (“Gestalt”) (von Redecker).
All this can even be applied onto the understanding of the systemic transformation of all sectors: from energy systems (not burning away nature, but working with it) to agriculture and forestry (regenerative), to the definition of “value” and the financial system; and so on, linking these sectors to a different way of treating nature and each other.
Step 12: Being humane
The advantage with an intersectional approach is that one hasn’t to deny structures and relations of dominance — one can make them visible and work with them. In this sense, to get rid of them means to make them visible and to establish an ethics “beyond ethics”: not denying impulses and structures of dominance, but leading processes through them, out of them. In a safe, small space, this could mean to play with impulses of higher status for example. The idea is that it is by far not enough just to proclaim that “all are equal” and should be empathic or compassionate — we have to make dominance visible and change it as bodily, social, imaginative human beings, living in unequal structures.
Traditional ethics and a traditional global North humanism is not enough: instead of just demanding empathy or compassion, we should create ways to see domination and to get out of the dominant relations and structures together. That could define a new “humane-ism”.
Step 13: We could call the positive result, our shared task in life and politics: the task of dealing with the paradox or difficult balance of democracy as the positive result of the intersectional analysis of the problems with “meeting on eye level”.
The following can be seen as the big challenge, from the level of friendships and families to school classes, working space groups, local communities to national and global democratic relations.
On the one hand, there is the formal aspect of having the same rights; of being able (or excluded) from taking part in formal common decision making processes and elections — as alike, without formal domination by specific groups or people. But this is not enough — and has never been, in most theories on democracy. Because: There is the possibility and the very real danger that formal decision making processes lead to political rules and the distribution of power which is damaging the substantial aspect of democracy, defined in the intersectional analysis above. The seemingly formal democratic decisions upholding the fossil society which damages BIPOC communities and the global South much more than richer communities goes against the principal of “meeting on eye level”. By acknowledging the “logic of connectedness” as substantial core of the foundation of democratic relations, this approach here gives a compass for all formal decisions. Decisions which justify dominant power relations can’t be accepted and should be questioned (civil disobedience).
On the other hand, if you just focus on the dimension of substantial democracy and ignore the formal processes of giving everyone a chance to contribute alike to decisions and the creation of worldviews and mindshifts, you go against democratic principles as well. Therefore, one could speak about the necessary paradox — or very difficult balance — of democracy: holding on to the compass of substantial meetings on eye level, planetary boundaries and “connectedness”; while creating formal decision making processes which include everyone and give everyone the possibility to contribute alike.
In this sense, formal and substantial aspects have dialectically to improve each other (which is one thought behind the very idea of a “constitution” in the legal space).
To take the substantial aspect of democracy serious means for the climate crisis: to deepen the decision making processes for example with citizen assemblies, including science and youth; and redefining democracy on the global scale, seeing all of us as citizens alike; and so on.
Believing that just formal national elections in the existing system will bring forward the needed systemic change towards a sustainable society, ignores the lack of this dimension of substantial democracy even within liberal democracies. We need to take the planetary boundaries and the existential (“connectedness”) into account and transform them into formal decision making principles.
This basic idea of balancing the formal and substantial aspects is even relevant for the understanding of democracy at working spaces and in the economy as a whole. With an intersectional analyses in mind, it seems to be obvious that all sectors must be organized in a substantially democratic way; getting rid of structural hierarchies which form the core of the way how most societies define working spaces and economic ownership relations. And on the other hand, the very concept of “rights” has to be redefined, informed by the substantial view on democratic processes, going beyond the Lockian problematic tradition within Jeffersons view on modern legal relations.
- https://vimeo.com/531417225 (lecture y me on this democratic challenge)
Step 14: Creating together the “material of integrity”:
In this way, one can try to find descriptions for the “material of integrity” itself which lies in the intersection of all power dimensions — or which is made and restored when creating local and global substantial democracy; and destroyed or hurt when going against it. This “material” is the most valuable one; can easily be broken by violence, anxiety and hunger; but also restored, repaired. It accumulates a historic dimension (of colonialism for example), integrating past injustice and the impact of the future on today’s children. It links us to nature, making us visible as the ones, animals we are, which can suffer or be broken; and it transcends every materiality opening spaces of reparation and forgiveness. It can’t be owned, but is worth more than any object. It is the dough of which the doughnut is made of: Kate Raworth safe, prosperous space within the planetary boundaries and everyone’s needs. And it takes daily work to make it visible for each other; democratic leadership. But we don’t have to invent it; it is already there; constituting literally our very existence.
Step 15: Convivialism beyond classical -isms:
Putting the intersectional analysis of real democratic spaces in the center of the idea of a sustainable society links it to a governance on all levels which one would could call convivialism.
It should be clear now that it is not based upon the structures of dominance built in in late platform capitalism with its markets dominated by the financial sector; nor in state socialism which upholds structures of domination in relation to nature and democratic relations. It can neither be described as social green market economy. It follows its own rules and values, sketched above.
In this sense, it can be descried in terms of “postgrowth”, following the insight by the degrowth-movement in the need of a drastic reduction of the “throughput” of resources and energy in high income countries; but insisting on substantial democracy and “connectedness” as core compass — which replace the focus on growth mechanisms by stressing the aspects of political economy which are responsible for domination; or the opposite, regenerative relations.
Step 16: New global politics, activism and societal transformation:
For more specific politics around a “doughnut”-framework and the systemic transformation of the fossil into a sustainable, regenerative society by a convivialistic approach; and for the ways to fight for it: see
David Fopp, PhD in humanities, Ass.prof/lecturer at Stockholms university (since 2017), grown up in Switzerland and…