Chris Samuel chats about his latest book and the issues surrounding it
At the end of December, I was lucky enough to attend a book launch and host a conversation with the author, former Edmontonian Chris Samuel. His new book, Conform, Fail, Repeat: How Power Distorts Collective Action, is brilliant and you should just go buy it already. In it, Chris uses examples from LGBTQ organizing (It Gets Better campaign, the sit-in staged by Black Lives Matter—Toronto (BLM-TO) during that city’s Pride Parade a few years ago, the controversy with Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, also in Toronto) and anti-globalization efforts (which Samuel calls “alter-globalization”) to illustrate how progressive movements don’t realize their full potential.
Samuel suggests that mainstream LGBTQ movements have “conformed” to existing power structures: we might be here and queer, but we’re also quite white, male, cisgender, and middle class. With this lens of conformity, Samuel provides a fantastic analysis as to the current state of LGBTQ organizing in Canada. Ultimately, this is a book that is deeply concerned about justice and the potential of collective action to reduce the suffering of marginalized people. Fair warning: the book is based on Samuel’s PhD but he does an admirable job making some pretty heady philosophy accessible to a general audience.
Chris and I had a conversation over email about the book and the future of LGBTQ organizing.
Vue Weekly: What was the question, or spark, or inspiration that led you to this project/book?
Chris Samuel: No matter how abstractly or ambitiously they write, philosophers are really just trying to understand their place in the world. For me that meant working through all the contradictions and messiness of my own political desires and disappointments. I was, and am, committed to radical progressive change, but had spent years struggling with idealism, pragmatic demands, competing ideas about justice and a shifting and hostile political landscape. Conform, Fail, Repeat is my effort to work through the meaning and possibilities presented by radical progressive movements.
VW: What’s one thing you hope people, specifically non-academics, take away from the text?
CS: I would love for readers to understand how internal fighting and resentments stall social movements and serve the status quo. That doesn’t mean we should stop challenging each other; it just means we need to commit ourselves to making those internal struggles productive.
VW: You spend a lot of time thinking through contemporary LGBTQ politics, including the continued conversation about BLM-TO and police presence at pride parades. Where do you see these conversations heading? Overall, what’s your impression of the future of LGBTQ politics?
CS: For me, policing represents a clear flashpoint for the difference between queer and assimilationist approaches to LGBTQ politics. For years, racialized queers, poor queers, and disabled queers have been saying that the policing system doesn’t work for them. With recent news about an alleged serial killer in Toronto and lack of police action to catch him earlier, some white queers are realizing that policing doesn’t work for them either.
Ideally, white queers would just listen to other voices rather than waiting for it to happen to them, but that hasn’t been the norm. I think, though, that there are other systems that more and more people are going to understand don’t work for them: the economy is becoming increasingly divided into the one percent and the rest of us. Trump-supported racism and xenophobia is a gateway to renewed homophobia and that doesn’t work for us. Rape culture does not work for us.
I’m optimistic about progress being made in some areas, but queers need to reconnect their fights against homophobia and transphobia to other economic and political struggles.