Selma James “Our Time is Now: Sex, Race, Class, and Caring for People and Planet”

Book Review by Nora Ziegler

Selma James is a founder of the Wages for Housework (WFH) campaign which later became known as Global Women’s Strike (GWS). James’ new book “Our Time Is Now: Sex, Race, Class, and Caring for People and Planet” includes articles, press releases and essays from 50 years of grassroots organising against poverty and violence. James is based at the Crossroads Women’s Centre which is home to a radical coalition of feminist, anti-racist and anti-capitalist groups including Women Against Rape, English Collective of Prostitutes, All African Women’s Group, Queer Strike among many others.

I first got to know members of GWS and other groups organising together at Crossroads when I joined them in observing the trial of the G4S guards who killed Jimmy Mubenga during a deportation flight. Over the years that I was living at the London Catholic Worker, a house of hospitality for migrants and refugees, we collaborated on a number of different events and actions. For example, we organised a conference about care work and a week of protests and teach-ins bringing together different groups resisting borders and deportations.

I am inspired by the radical perspective and practice of GWS which has formed through decades of experience in navigating difficult contradictions: fighting campaigns to win without leaving anybody behind, embracing diversity without losing collective vision and purpose. The groups organising at Crossroads seem to be able to endure and make productive a level of messiness and uncertainty that many groups tend to avoid. “Our Time Is Now” shows how the GWS’ organising strategy developed through decades of experience and shares this learning with others.

The organizational strategy of autonomy

James describes how the WFH’s structure developed, unplanned, as the campaign developed. The campaign started out as an international network demanding money for unwaged mothers and caregivers. Over time, different groups joined the campaign or formed within it representing various “sectors” of grassroots movements, including lesbian women, sex workers, women of colour, women with disabilities, farmers. Each autonomous sector represents itself and at the same time represents and contributes to the international movement.

Autonomy here is the opposite of separatism. It isn’t about doing whatever you want, putting your needs above others. Autonomy is fundamentally relational. It is about maintaining mutual relationships between different groups: “each of us had to be accountable to all of us”.

The aim of autonomy is to stop more powerful members and groups from dominating the campaign, giving space to all the different skills and perspectives that enrich each other and the campaign as a whole. This means that groups can draw from the social and material power of white and middle-class members as well as the leadership, tactics, and experience of the less powerful members. In this way, “the power of each sector becomes a power for all”.

This involves a constant and simultaneous battle of two fronts: against domination by the more powerful groups, and against claims to “special status” by those who are particularly vulnerable to persecution and violence. For example, James describes learning to oppose the racism of white women as well as the use of anti-racist rhetoric by people trying to advance their own careers. She also recounts how a group of sex workers were reluctant initially but then agreed to be accountable because they felt more powerful and protected as part of the campaign.

This example shows how the organising strategy James describes is based on trust that has to be built and rebuilt again and again. Mutual relationships across differences of power are difficult to balance and maintain. According to James, learning how to do this was “an important part of our political education”.

An income to care for people and planet

To many organisers, a care income might seem like a reformist demand. Selma James and Nina López show how a care income would give power to oppressed groups and communities to radically transform society. They argue that “even considering a care income opens the way for all genders to rethink how we relate to each other and to the natural world, what we produce and what we may want to refuse to produce”. 

Demanding money is only reactionary to those who already have it. Following sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, I think the demand for money can seem a “twice-told tale” to the rich, while the practices by which the rich try to disinvest themselves from capitalism (veganism, non-violent direct action, voluntary poverty etc.) can seem like “Greek” to the poor. I think, like all demands to governments, there is a danger that a care income could potentially undermine grassroots movements if people become invested in the structures that empower them and accept the authority and exploitation inherent in those structures.

But as James and López powerfully illustrate, the people doing the hard work of caring for human and non-human life understand these dangers and contradictions very well and are experienced in trying to balance them: “on the one hand, you want your children to “do well”, but that means accepting authority and competing with others. On the other hand, you want them to be happy and true to themselves, which often results in standing with others against authority”. 

I think it is hard for individuals to balance this contradiction on their own. Capitalism divides and dominates us by forcing us to choose, sacrificing material wins for a “pure” radical perspective or sacrificing our radical vision for material wins. However, working together in coalition, across differences of power, we can have both: a vision for a future beyond capitalism, imperialism and patriarchy, and the power to bring that future into being.

Our Time is Now: Sex, Race, Class, and Caring for People and Planet. Selma James. PM Press. 2021. ISBN: 978-1-62963-838-6

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