Consuming coverage and conversations about the war between Russia and Ukraine almost everyday for the last five months has given me a new perspective of war.
When I think of war, I think of large-scale, constant violence between sides. I’ve seen that war isn’t just about one issue, there’s often collateral damage, and that reaching solutions is complicated. War is also about national myths and propaganda. War is also about intersectionality.
From the very first day of the war, there were reports that immigrants from Africa and other people of colour living in Ukraine home were discriminated against at the border in Ukraine and neighbouring countries as people attempted to flee the war. Members of Ukraine’s LBGTQ refugees also experienced discrimination immigrating to certain countries with anti-LGBTQ laws. The United Nations warned that people with disabilities faced extra difficulties escaping the war zone or finding shelter, resulting in 2.7 million people feeling “trapped and abandoned.”
Many people have also called out the way that people have responded to the war. They’ve highlighted instances of bias and racism in some coverage, people have also commented on the differences in the widespread public support for Ukrainians in the war effort, in comparison to other geopolitical conflicts like the tensions between Palestine and Israel, or the war in Yemen.
In short, war is senseless, ugly and unfair. Lori Fox would describe capitalism in similar terms.
Fox is a queer, non-binary writer and journalist based in Whitehorse. Much of their work is drawn from lived — and often difficult — experiences. Fox believes that only through radical vulnerability that we can truly be honest with ourselves and others, and effect change.
In their book, This Has Always Been a War: The Radicalization of a Working Class Queer, Fox argues that capitalism has infiltrated every aspect of our lives. The book has been described as “a series of dispatches from the combative frontlines of our present-day culture.”
It’s a scathing critique of capitalism and a quote I think summarizes Fox’s argument best is:
“Capitalism is not simply an economic system; capitalism is culture. Specifically, capitalism is our culture. And under capitalism — within our culture — working class bodies are property.”
This article focuses mainly on their answer to the question of why they named the book “this has always been a war?”
The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity
Lori Fox: I chose that title very specifically and carefully. In the book I talk a lot about the time that I’ve spent as a homeless person. I’ve seen things that probably not a lot of people with my skill set, who are in media have seen. My position is somewhat unusual in that I’m a professional writer and journalist. But I’ve also had these very different experiences than my peers.
This morning I attended a presser about housing affordability and how to build housing stock. There were people there from national media outlets and I was the only person who used “rent” or “working class” in my questions. I think that that’s very telling of the unusual position that some of my experiences have put me in in terms of perspective. The things that are happening right now, and have been happening in terms of poverty and capitalism are — in a lot of ways — passive acts of violence against working class bodies. Particularly and most especially, working class bodies of colour, queer people and women.
They’re passive in that they are accepted in the day-to-day course of events, we accept that it’s okay for some people to be homeless. We accept that it’s okay for some people to have so much more than they could possibly ever need, while other people are hungry or don’t have nearly enough. We’re taught to accept that there is some kind of an inherent moral trajectory to those events. When I was homeless the kindest people that I met were people like me, working class and poor people. When I talked to rich people, especially rich white people, one of the most eye-opening things was how surprised they were to find that I’m an articulate, fully-competent person because I didn’t look and behave like what they expected.
Particularly when I was working in wine country and fruit-picking, where some of the people I was working with were people of colour or people on working visas. I have a sense that they expected that I was just on some kind of a holiday, just futzing around. It let me unpack all of the layers and all of the ways that capitalism, patriarchy, racism and classism interconnect to form this shield that lets rich people, even middle-class people, feel like everything is fine, even as they’re seeing things that are terrible.
I’ll never forget driving through Penticton and just seeing people baking in the sun without water. For me, there was no place to bathe or get clean drinking water. There was no place to sit and be cool unless I bought something, there was nowhere that wasn’t a public space that I could be removed from. Those aren’t things that we associate with good, well-run societies. And what was most stunning was watching people actively pretend those things didn’t exist, even as they did things that made it harder for people who didn’t have enough money, they did things to make us disappear.
For example; no public bathrooms unless you buy something. If you’re living on the street or even just walking around, and you don’t have money to spend where exactly are you supposed to piss? What that does is create a covert barrier between people who have money and people who don’t. It pushes people from those areas because that very simple resource is not there for them. Another example, in British Columbia you can’t sleep in your car in town. If they catch you sleeping in your car or sleeping in the park, the pigs will rouse you, and you gotta leave because they don’t want the nice, rich people coming to town seeing who actually does the work; that’s us.
There are no public showers in Penticton. If you want to take a shower at the recreation centre, you have to buy a day-pass for about $20. These are all micro barriers to actively push people who are poor, out of sight of people who are rich, by guarding these resources, and keeping them from that space. They had a guard posted at the Penticton library ostensibly to watch for overdoses but it was more about keeping people out of the bathroom for too long. These are all aggressions that coded as a public service, morality, and safety. But whose safety and whose morality? What that means is those spaces aren’t available to you unless you meet a certain economic threshold and standard.
That reminds me of hostile architecture, because as you say, it’s a small thing that seems like it’s for your safety, but safety for who and who’s being kept out?
It’s these tiny things that are built structurally into our society and morality, which teaches us that when you’re poor, you deserve this, that these spaces aren’t for you. So you learn subserviency through your environment and the way people treat you. When you aren’t poor and you don’t experience these things, and you watch other people experience them, you either don’t see and are unaware of the aggression. Or you passively participate in it because it’s normalized for you.
You asked me what “this is a war” means, this is a literal combat zone, socially. This is an active social war because there are two very distinct groups who are constantly in combat with each other and one of them has to be subjugated so that capitalism can continue to function the way that it functions. When I say “two groups” I really want to be clear that I understand the different ways that race and gender, and all of these other intersectionalities come into play. When I say two groups, I mean specifically the working classes which also encompasses many of these other subgroups. But for the sake of capitalism, and the upper and middle classes, who benefit from that system, it’s simpler in this context to talk about them as one unit. There’s a huge intersectionality issue even within that working class unit. But for the sake of identifying who’s our aggressor as the working class, I make that division as an intellectual artificiality.
The back of the book reads “capitalism subverts and controls the other in order to keep the working lower classes divided.” So, what would be a way to go about showing that even though people are in these separate groups that they have the same aggressor?
It requires a cultural shift within the working class, it also requires two components. The first is that, as we saw during the pandemic, we require enough leisure in order to have time to think about the position we’re in. That’s one of the things I talked about in my Globe and Mail article, which is that suddenly everything stopped, and you weren’t running like an animal anymore, and you were like, “Wait, why am I running like an animal?” That allows you to step back and look objectively at your situation and that of people around you. That requires us, as a class, to either take leisure or make wages that allow us to work less in order to acquire leisure.
Step two is to as a class and look at ourselves and our neighbours and see the ways that we’re pitted against each other. Within my own community for example, queer people of colour or queer people who also have disabilities have different struggles than white working-class people or able-bodied working-class people; but we’re all working together and we’re all being suppressed by the same forces. Which is capitalism, which is in-and-of-itself, a white cis male heteronormative form of industrial fascism at this point.
We’re told that we’re working towards the good, that we’re doing what we’re supposed to but we’re miserable and we don’t have our basic needs met. We’re all we’re all in this even when we’re oppressed differently. I’m not sure how one draws all of those groups together but I think that understanding that is the first step; we have a common enemy. We’re divided by these different subcategories to the benefit of those who oppress us.
As you’ve laid out these steps, it reminds me of Nora Loreto’s book, Spin Doctors: How Media and Politicians Misdiagnosed the COVID-19 Pandemic. I feel like similar problems and similar steps have been laid out and talked about throughout the pandemic and the fact that there are more chances to act on them now. But as things are opening up, it feels like all these plans were kind of left on the table and I’m worried. I keep coming back to this idea that this structure relies on people being undervalued and infighting.
I talked about the fact that there are no options for you because you’re constantly struggling to pay bills, you’re forced to pay for basic things like food, water, shelter. What looks like choice is actually subjugation because if you stop, and you step out of the system, and say, “this is a lot, there are some problems and we need to fix them,” you actually can’t. Because if you stopped, then you would have even less than you have now, and in the case of working-class people, you would have nothing.
Things like taking a sick day. Just before the pandemic, I wrote an op-ed because for the first time I had enough of a nest egg set aside that I could take a day off from work. And I predicted that if COVID-19 becomes a serious problem, it’s going to hit restaurant workers hard and people are literally going to die because we spread this because either they can’t take time off so they get sicker or they spread it to other people because they literally cannot stop.
If you can’t stop and question the system, you can’t stop to make changes to the system, that’s not really a choice; no matter how many brands of cereal are in the aisle. Capitalism is at this stage where it’s no longer a choice, you have choices in how to spend your money, but you don’t have choices in how you live your life. I sincerely from an existential and philosophical position, as well as from a very practical one question how that is not subjugation?
It’s interesting that you mentioned philosophy because I think you could make the argument that capitalism is like soft determinism. You have choices but limited choices, and because XYZ has happened, their parameters have been set.
In an article about deep Soviet Russia, they found that people needed choices in order to feel happy. So, in supermarkets, you had two different brands you could choose from but in the can, they were the same product with a different label. They do this in grocery stores now. Oftentimes, the brand name stuff is made in the same plants as the no name stuff, they just slap a different label on it and you pay 50 cents for one and you think you have a choice but it’s purely to draw more profit from you.
Capitalism is full of flashbangs, where you’re constantly stimulated by these things that are happening around you that feel like an emergency or feel like the direction you should be going. Like how am I going to get a new car? How am I going to get a better house or apartment? At the core of it, the real problem isn’t any of things, the problem is that you live in a capitalist society where you don’t actually have any freedom to make any choices about those things that aren’t related to money. When you’re working class, you have even fewer choices. You could argue all day about whether money is real or not but what it translates to is power, it translates to choices.
If you have $1,000 to buy a car, you have fewer choices than if you have $10,000. What that means for a working-class person in a capitalist society is that you are kept bound to your position by your lack of choices. And they need you there so that you can prop up this entire system, and that’s true of so many subclasses within the working class. Racism, sexism, classism, and poor-phobia are like the four cornerstones on which the capitalist patriarchy sits. You have to keep those people down, and preferably hating each other so that you can have a foundation on which to build this house for the few people who get to occupy it.
A friend recently left their job and the reason they left wasn’t because she was sinking but she felt like she was swimming as hard as she could but wasn’t getting anywhere. She said “I know that I can’t stop treading or I will sink but I know that continuing to swim is not going to get me anywhere and it’s exhausting.” What you just said reminded me of that. You can’t stop swimming, you don’t have that option.
That’s precisely why this is war. Because if you can’t stop swimming or you drown, swimming is no longer a choice. People die because they can’t get medical care. People die because they don’t have housing. People live lives that are so much less than what they could have been because the numbers don’t add up. And numbers aren’t real, they’re arbitrary. In so many ways, capitalism has supplanted religion because we just accept that this guy has $10,000 so he can do whatever he wants, and this guy has $100, so he can’t do the things that the guy with $10,000 can. And somehow, those dollars are real. Just as it used to be that if you got sick, that must be the will of God, and someone who gets better that that’s also the will of God.
“Every little act, whether intentional or not, makes us a little less than we were, than we would have been. It takes something from us. That’s what patriarchy is. That’s what capitalism is. Taking from the many to empower the few.”
– Lori Fox, “This Has Always Been A War.”
Marcus is a poet, editor and freelance journalist based in Toronto. He currently works with New Canadian Media as an Editor and as a Freelance Writer for ByBlacks.com, The Edge: A Leader's Magazine and The Soapbox Press.