Image of one hand grasping at another hand reaching up from below, implying solidarity and mutual aid, set against a blue background with Pacific art patterns. Art commissioned from Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho

What We Can’t Fix: Advocacy and Class Struggle

By Emilie Rākete


Some of the activists and organisers I look up to the most are those who do advocacy work. The work of changing the world doesn’t usually take place behind a keyboard or in front of a live studio audience. We change the world when we locate the sites of class struggle and go to them. The place of revolutionaries is with people, so advocating for and with the people suffering from injustice is a vital task. Lobbying WINZ staff, arguing with prison administrators, and filing complaint after complaint are all forms that this guerrilla social work can take. As a prison abolitionist and organiser with People Against Prisons Aotearoa, I’m proud of the advocacy that I’ve been able to do for incarcerated people who really needed help.

In many ways, advocacy is an attempt to grasp for what some have called a prefigurative politics. We do not live in a society in which everyone has enough food to eat, but by advocating for a beneficiary’s right to a food grant from WINZ, we can ensure that this particular person does. Writing on prefigurative politics, Guiomar Rovira Sancho says that “[w]hat all these rebellions display is a prefiguration of another kind of politics and another possible world.” For prefigurative politics, the ends and the means used to achieve them are one. Advocacy is worthwhile work, the pitopito of the new society stretching to unfurl from the fetid dirt of the old one. At the same time as advocacy is both meaningful and inspiring, the way that prefigurative thinking can cause us to see the world we are fighting for as the world we live in now is strategically dangerous.

Prisoner advocacy is one kind of advocacy which reveals the pitfalls of prefigurative politics. Incarcerated people have some of the most complex needs people can have. Prisoners disproportionately come from the most deprived sections of the working class, almost all have a history of mental illness, brain injury, illiteracy – in short, they suffer from all of the ways that our society makes life miserable for poor people. Because they are, by definition, in prison, many incarcerated people already have a history of causing harm to others. They don’t behave like this because they are intrinsically “bad” or “harmful” people, but because the conditions of capitalist society produce people who act in these ways. This is the reality of the situation in which all of us find ourselves. We already live in these social conditions, and have no option other than to proceed from them. When we do advocacy work with prisoners, we cannot impose some new reality onto the world from outside. With prisoner advocacy more so than other kinds of advocacy work, it is possible that people we work with will go on to cause harm to others. This harm is real, and cannot be minimised or excused because we would prefer it did not happen.

The danger with thinking that our advocacy work prefigures the new society we want to build is that the people we work with live in the world that currently is. They have come from a history marked by the class violence of poverty and deprivation. They have been subjected to the brutal, violent, ineffective prison system. They leave it and return to communities hollowed out by decades of austerity and neoliberalism, where the resources they need to live a healthy and tranquil life do not exist. These are the actually-existing conditions under which, regardless of what we do, they will live their lives. Capitalist social conditions are the structural causes of violence, and so no amount of work by advocates or organisers – no matter how well that work is done – can make the occurrence of violence impossible. This is the first danger of prefigurative politics: it lets us believe we live in the world to come, leaving us shell-shocked when the violence of reality intrudes.

When advocacy doesn’t fix the problems we care about, it’s essential we recognise why this has happened. I’m a Marxist because the methods developed by Marx for the analysis of society allow us to properly seize and understand situations like this. In the introduction to his (very good, but wordily-titled) Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx explains how things happen. Marx distinguishes between two parts of society: its material base, consisting of the social relations necessary for production to occur, and its ideological superstructure, consisting of the beliefs and individual consciousnesses that are shaped by those social relations. Marx’s insight is that the things we think and the ways we act are the result of the society in which we live, and of the economic relationships that structure that society. In a capitalist society, where the wealth of a tiny class of capitalists depends on the exploitation of a massive class of workers, our ideas and personalities are shaped by that exploitation. Prisons are grotesquely overcrowded with poor, suffering people because capitalists require us to be poor and to suffer.

Seen through the lens of Marxist science, the means must produce the end. If a society without violence is our goal, we must create social conditions which make the trauma and desperation which lead to violence impossible. Prefigurative politics, by contrast, insist that we can overcome these problems by simply living as though the cause of these problems did not exist. We believe we can end violence by treating people the way we would want those living in a society without violence to treat them. When this kind of prefigurative advocacy fails, when capitalist society’s causes lead to their effects, we are paralysed. Can these people not be helped? They can, of course, but not without changing the society that produced them. This is the second danger of prefigurative politics: it lets us believe we can simply transcend the contradictions of our time, when the only solution is to resolve them.

Advocacy is a meaningful way of resisting the effects of structural violence, but on its own this tactic cannot actually end the violence and horror of capitalism. If the problems we intend to address are the outcome of a mode of production premised on most people being miserable, we must break that mode of production. Advocacy is part of this struggle, but not the whole of it. It can only be one tactic within a broader strategy of communist revolution. If we look at advocacy all on its own, when it fails, these tragedies appear to be defeats of our movement. Instead, we must recognise these as symptoms of the thing we are fighting to overcome. This victory won’t come from helping ordinary people out, but by putting them in the driver’s seat. The world we need to survive, the world the people we advocate for need to survive, does not exist. Our task is to build it!

Emilie Rākete is a founding member of Organise Aotearoa and People Against Prisons Aotearoa from Ngāpuhi and Te Rarawa descent. She has been advocating for incarcerated people since 2015.