A Politics of Scarcity

We are all trapped in what labour organiser Ai-jen Poo describes as a ‘politics of scarcity.’ By keeping us hungry, the government and those higher up the chain of social power and command keep us snapping at each other; we are fighting dogs, held in kennels, released periodically to tear at each other because we’ve been trained to do so. We have been controlled for so long that all we know is a hunger for recognition, and we zero in on it as though it’s a limited commodity, as though only some of us will be able to access it. We see only one bowl of food, as it were, and thus we have to knock everyone else over in our hurry to reach it.

This is a politics that works brilliantly for those in power, of course, allowing them to retain power by giving the impression that they are in control of all the resources and they can dole them out at will. It keeps us subjugated, tearing each other apart, focused on each other as enemies. It puts us in the position of policing each other, deciding who is enough to qualify for a movement, to ‘deserve’ resources, to take a part in the active fight for self-determination.

I am not writing to tell you that we should all give up and hold hands and be friends, that none of the issues within social movements matter. I am not writing to say that we are all one and we should ignore the very real and present injustices within social movements in the interest of taking down the man. But I am writing to say that active policing within social movements, distinguished from legitimate concerns about equality, is harmful, and serves only one purpose: Maintaining the existing status quo.

Challenging disabled people on whether they are disabled enough, or suggesting that some disabled people are ‘appropriating disability,’ is harmful. That attitude is born from the idea that disability resources are limited, and should be saved for those who need them most. While it’s true that they’re limited, that’s not because some mentally ill people identify as disabled, or because some people with chronic pain consider their pain to be disabling. They’re limited because society as a whole has chosen to not make disability a priority — and this is the thing we should be fighting, collectively, instead of challenging people on their disability status and insisting that only those who fit some imaginary standard are to be allowed under the umbrella of disability justice.

Insisting that some women aren’t ‘real’ women again prioritises the interests of society over those of an oppressed class — in this case, women. Separating out some women from others to suggest that some women need resources more than others, that some women are more ‘valid,’ creates a denial of identity and personhood that makes it easy for society to turn on marginalised women. Transgender women pushed out of ‘women only’ spaces or questioned about their femininity are women, but what society learns when they’re blocked from women’s spaces and resources is that they’re fake, pretenders.

The list goes on. Within every marginalised group, policing occurs, with people eager to identify some people as those experiencing ‘real’ oppression, while others are, what, ‘fake’? This is not to do with valid and important conversations like the discussion in the Black community about how shades of colour come with shades of meaning, how there is a very real difference in experience for a light-skinned Black woman compared to a dark-skinned Black woman. It is to do with the desire to create internecine identity politics within solidarity-based movements, creating fissures and competition in spaces where people should be supporting each other.

Every time people act like resource limitation is an excuse to remove some people from the club, it’s noted by society in general. Society identifies the people treated as the least important, as the unstable, weakest links, and it treats them accordingly. For people pushed out of their own movements, cultures, and communities, access to resources becomes even more limited because not only are they competing for scarce resources, they’re also doing so without the support of their community, which might otherwise help them — thus mentally ill people struggle alone to access services, for example, and trans women fight police brutality on their own instead of with cis women by their sides.

Resource scarcity is an artificial construct. It’s not that society doesn’t have resources for marginalised groups, but rather than it refuses to allocate them. Members of these groups have two choices: They can replicate a politics of scarcity within their own group dynamics and push people out in an attempt to access the limited resources available, or they can push back, demanding more resources, demanding equality, demanding fair treatment for everyone — no matter where they fall along the spectrum of marginalisation.

This solidarity should lie at the core of social movements, because in it lies a key element of achieving justice, yet, for so many, the heart of a movement seems to be about determining who does and doesn’t belong in it, and then moving on to the next stage. All too often, movements become frozen in this process, much to the glee of those who dominate society. So long as we battle ourselves and deny our own humanity, they think, they won’t have to admit that everything is wrong, and they are driving that wrongness.

Image: Fighting cubs, Tambako the Jaguar, Flickr