The Agency

Here’s a cool conspiracy theory: writers are purposely injecting popular left discourse with a perverted interpretation of the concept of “agency.” And I don’t mean in university settings but more democratic spaces like Twitter. It’s being used by ostensible lefts only in service to US foreign policy and never in opposition.

Agency is “the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.” Typically, however, this is considered against the problem of Structure: “those factors of influence (such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, customs, etc.) that determine or limit an agent and his or her decisions.” Playing up agency while ignoring structure is associated with the political right. That’s why it’s been surprising to see this tendency among left-identifying figures.

An example of right-wing playing up of agency is when my Fox-watching dad complains, for instance, that black people “know better” and slavery and Jim Crow and the drug war “aren’t an excuse.” It’s The Liberals who are actually racist (by denying agency), not those who think “criminals” (stealing and dealing for sustenance, sabotage against class enemies, expressions of righteous anger are included) are “responsible for their own acts.” In this flavor — the kind most modestly educated people would recognize — this usage loses its humanist luster.

And like the usage the country’s conservative boobs favor, the kind wielded by those we like to call the Celebrity Left is being twisted to serve a system that systematically denies people their agency.

Now… I normally wouldn’t ascribe to mendacity what I could pin on naiveté — maybe I should start doing that — but the remarkable frequency of Vice contributor Molly Crabapple’s smug non sequiturs over the last year poking fun at the very idea of CIA involvement in her crew’s messaging at least forces me to mention it. Not ONE instance of “CIA” in her feed is serious. At least her homie, Danny Gold, is willing to entertain CIA involvement in, well, anything. Journalists, especially foreign correspondents (Crabapple went to Syria for a minute one time) are often suspected of being actual spies and more commonly, handlers and assets. It’s a rather pervasive phenomenon, as Carl Bernstein — not a crank — documented in 1977. It ain’t that implausible of a charge, especially if your messaging seems useful to power. For the record, the CIA is not simply rumored to have been involved in an unknowable number of plots around the world, that is its actual openly admitted purpose. The CIA, obviously, engages in psychological operations. Even David Graeber seems loose with his suspicions as long as the same isn’t done with him.

In fact, I noticed a lot of “agency” (lol) talk when Ukraine was being backhoed by the international democracy machine earlier this year. I had only a faint idea of who Crabapple even was at that point; in my mind she was a radical definitely opposed to empire. I realize now I probably only had this perception because it’s her very specific branding. This is why I was surprised to see her “fuck yeah“-ing the release of the criminal former prime minister of Ukraine and making fun of those honestly curious about Greenwald sugar daddy Pierre Omidyar’s role in helping finance the latest USAID color revolution.

When I told her she was glorifying US foreign policy objectives and her “dismissing discussion of billionaires co-funding US foreign policy objectives is profoundly, proudly reactionary” she began her “agency” spiel:

Bonus: Tarzie never loses an opportunity to be prescient:

It’s not like anyone against whom the concept is rhetorically weaponized has argued the poor/minorities/workers/foreigners are not capable of identifying their interests and acting to satisfy them. It’s that we have an international juggernaut with almost literally all the money in the world behind it and a propaganda machine that has most people under its direct control — and many in its indirect control — believing its actions are righteous. Workers can strike — against a ruling-class owned asset. The Third World can organize a defense — against the ruling class’s war machine and massively destructive deployment of capital. We’re defined by our position relative to capital and the war machine. We’re too deep in the hole to just think positive.

Know who also has agency? The people who run the empire. Which is also the structure. So.

To establish a bit of perspective, here’s a map of countries in which the US has intervened just since WWII, often disastrously, despite these nations being populated by literally billions of agency-having human beings!


From William Blum’s Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, 2004

That’s a pretty bloody map. The US military and CIA are responsible for millions of casualties, the installation of dictatorships, and the gutting of totally agency-born democratic revolutionary processes throughout this period in one-third of the countries of the planet. That’s not a theory.

All this “agency” talk leads very cynically into the quaint notion of “blowback.” The idea that “terrorism” exists solely because the US has predictably provoked it, that it has poked at masses of drooling animals and they have responded the only way they know how: extreme, senseless violence and oppression. This ignores that these “savages” nonetheless form focused militancies with specific goals. Yes, the US did “help” create the Islamic State but not in the “oops” way — it literally armed and financed either itself or through proxies organized groups of killers who have acted in ways probably not specifically predicted by the empire but whose actions will certainly benefit it in some way or another once it’s figured out how to profit from them. And it usually does. It’s happening now in Syria, and is ongoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the idea that these groups are deliberately promoted and often even created by Western and allied intelligence agencies is bizarrely dismissed as a denial of agency. Are we questioning that Muslims are capable of forming horrifying death-cults in hairtrigger response to previous “bad” interventions? Racist. Orientalist.

When this endless slaughter industry results in a handful of imperial citizen casualties this shouldn’t be looked at as “blowback,” a misnomer at best, or even a cost of doing business. A smattering of American deaths are so useful for the perpetuation of the machine. The ruling class is only strengthened. It is the structure.

Satire-forever-collapsing-into-itself Aaron Bady, on the question of whether we should destroy Libya, figured in 2011 that since our opinions don’t matter — and this is of course true — he’ll opine that hey Obama was probably right on this one, guys. Gadhafi was a real stinker, killing political opponents in his own country. In America, we brainwash our opponents and save the slaughter for people who don’t hold G8 passports. He spent 5,500 words gnawing on the reasons why the left might oppose intervention; the only one he doesn’t consider is that of principled anti-imperialism. It’s a tactic later taken up by David Graeber — who also supported attacking Libya — on “helping” the Kurdish revolutionaries in splintered Syria.

But all actions we might consider “imperial” are not equal, as Bady argued. When Gadhafi invests in infrastructure in Chad — even though it seems like a dick move to have it bear his name — it is still an anti-imperialist action. When Chávez funds political movements in Bolivia — even though they serve to reinforce his influence on the continent — this is still anti-imperialist action. This is because all of this is done in the face of the biggest imperial force: The West, The Empire. Washington and its closest, most murderous allies such as the UK and France are omnipresent, their roots snaking through the soils and breaking the pavements of almost literally every single country on the face of the earth. The kind of left that equates Russian state funding of RT America with Soros funding of “civil society” organizations in Georgia is not serious about even talking in opposition to the ideology that allows the West to remain astride the world’s peoples.

None of this implies anti-imperialist actions can’t be objectionable even to those who oppose the empire. I’m not a fan of revolutionary terror or liquidation of political opponents or even political imprisonment and I’d probably think that even if, as an anarchist, I weren’t among those who are usually first against the wall. But if the Cuban government puts away people who, even if they don’t intend to, are subverting anti-imperialist policies, it’s because they coincide with Washington’s goals. And if the United States has proven anything over the last 60+ years, it’s that its goals are to completely fucking destroy any Cuban system not within the firm grasp of the ruling classes. That is, it’s a reaction to empire. We all have agency, yeah, but outside forces — structure — shape our ability to fully express it.

The origins of this crap don’t matter, though apparently this twisting of the valid concept of agency made its way into pop leftism from philosopher Pascal Bruckner via Slavoj Zizek. What really interests me is a discussion of who gains when we look to our rulers for the solutions to the problems of being ruled. Which system is cemented? I think asking the question is answering it. Whether they mean to or not, the Celebrity Left is doing the empire’s propaganda work. That means they’re the structure. They’re denying agency.

I mean.

Thanks to @RedKahina for her nonstop unpacking of imperial garbage and Tarzie for his help with research and general encouragement. Big credit to @PhilGreaves for providing many more examples of how “agency” is used to undermine anti-imperialist and revolutionary narratives.


I highly recommend Tarzie’s comment offering more “agency” blather from the usual suspects, including The Intercept‘s Maz Hussain, Omidyar acolyte Jillian York, and even Tom Friedman. Yes that one!


Jillian York has pointed out below that she regrets her defense of Omidyar and has changed her thinking on “taking US money.”


An excellent and much more in-depth riff on “agency” from @aseriesofpoints

“I think it’s important to clarify that liberals don’t really believe in agency; what they mean by agency is the people affecting situations without necessarily changing structures.”


  1. alphonsevanworden · October 28, 2014

    Reblogged this on Alphonse Van Worden's Blog.


  2. olaasm · October 28, 2014

    Reblogged this on Anti Social Media and commented:
    “Playing up agency while ignoring structure is associated with the political right. “


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  4. roastyagain · October 28, 2014

    Love this, great post man… inspired a tangent from me:


  5. Tarzie · October 28, 2014

    If there is a better answer than this to the toxic ‘agency’ tribe, I can’t imagine what it would look like. This is superb. I have nothing to add except to notice the similarity of this literal inversion of meaning — intervention fosters agency; not intervening denies it — to Graeber entirely flipping the meaning of imperialism and anti-imperialism. This is some seriously Orwellian War is Peace meaning-erasing going on here.

    I also want to point out that while Molly Crabapple is among the more avid fans of US Military/CIA/USAID/Omidyar Network-promoted agency, and Bady was an early adopter, they have quite a lot of company.

    Here’s First Look’s resident anguished imperialist, Maz Hussain:

    Maz is not invoking “agency” here but the same history-blind minimization of Empire is in play. Of course, as an employee of joined-at-the-hip-to-USAID Omidyar, he has even more incentive than Crabapple and Graebs to sell this swill.

    Here’s another Omidyar affiliate, Jillian York — who writes for Omidyar-funded Global Voices and works for the Omidyar grant recipient Electronic Frontier Foundation — commenting on Pando’s publication of an article accurately implicating the Omidyar Network in Ukraine’s regime change:

    Finally, it give me great pleasure to announce that the New York Times’ resident radical, Thomas Friedman, is also a member of The Agency club:

    Believe it or not, it’s not all about what we do and the choices we make. Arabs and Kurds have agency, too.

    Interestingly, Friedman says this after remarking upon how countries “America has had the least to do with” are faring the best, which means in this one instance at least, he is less imperialist than the riff-raff cited above, who are all talking about interventions where the US is deeply involved. Which raises the question that I’ve been asking myself for a while now: What’s left about the Celebrity Left ?

    Liked by 2 people

    • jillian · October 29, 2014

      Since this was pointed out to me on Twitter, I figure I’ll comment.

      First, I agree with the overall point here, and as I said on Twitter, realize the wrong in my remarks quoted here. To offer an explanation and not an excuse, despite understanding the deep damage done by the US in all of these spaces (though particularly the one in which I work), I’ve watched friends in other parts of the world really struggle to do the work they care about without any funding, and communities in those parts of the world get torn apart in these debates. And I’ve watched some of those same friends take US money, and most of them deeply regret it. That is all to say that it’s taken awhile for me to understand this.

      Second, Omidyar acolyte? This tweet from March and those that follow it are the *only time ever* I’ve said something positive about them, and I’m not remotely connected to them on a personal level. Yes, they have provided grants to an organization that pays me and one that never has, but that is the limit of my connection and will continue to be.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sassy Sourstein · October 29, 2014

        “Acolyte” was my quickly chosen label, I’ll update the update. Thanks for the comment!


      • Tarzie · October 29, 2014

        Hi Jillian:

        Reflection and owning an error are things I don’t see too much lately, so I very much appreciate your taking the time to bring us up to date. I didn’t introduce your remarks to stir shit — FWIW I like you — but I wanted to furnish additional examples because I think there is risk of this stuff being too strongly identified with particular individuals. Our discussion about Ukraine back then stuck in my mind and so I searched it out.

        Again, thanks for taking the time to sort things out and for making a potent addition to the discussion generally.

        Liked by 1 person

      • jillian · October 29, 2014

        Tarzie –

        Replies only allowed 2 deep on WP, but no worries. I don’t mind being called out for shit when I’m wrong.


    • Mokhalef · October 29, 2014

      What about that argument liberals typically make, that Tarzie-Khruschev and those sharing similar views are stuck in a Cold War mindset that no longer applies to present day?


      • Tarzie · October 29, 2014

        “Tarzie-Kruschev”, that there is some Cold War stuff. Lemme guess, you’re OLD.

        Seen the news lately, dumbass? The Cold War’s back and I had nothing to do with it.

        Better trolls, please.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Sassy Sourstein · October 29, 2014

        Wait, I *don’t* think Russia is an equivalently evil empire and *I* am stuck in a Cold War mentality? k.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Lorenzo · October 29, 2014

    This is a really great piece. On the history of “agency” as a weapon for erasing structures, I think it also has an origin story tied up in neoliberal/imperial feminism. I could be wrong, but I think this reactionary idea of agency came partially from the idea that to enact personal choice within an institution like capitalism or the military was *good enough,* since it demonstrated self-sufficiency. Clare Chambers calls this neoliberal feminism’s “fetishization of choice.” Interestingly, one of the first people I heard deploy this argument was Greenbacks, back in 2008, with his defense of Max Hardcore. He deployed the “agency” argument, complete with its component of totally inverting the meanings of words. He neoliberally posited that an adult can never be coerced, because they are autonomous (whoo AGENCY!!), and anyone who says otherwise is the real misogynist.

    As an aside, this takes me back to Krabapple’s “white guys are all up in my mentions saying bombing Syria is bad.” For “most repulsive thing said by a member of the Celebrity Left,” I still have to cast my vote for “anti-imperialism is an expression of white privilege and sexism.”

    Liked by 3 people

    • Sassy Sourstein · October 29, 2014

      Thanks! That’s so interesting about Greenbacks, yeah that fits nicely here. The “fetishization of choice” is perfect for describing this tendency, almost as if they’re reclassifying the ability to choose within a given structure as “freedom.” It’s pretty liberal.

      Yeah see, I got some concerns about “picking on” MC but she really is a perfect avatar for this kind of shit, she has made ALL the terrible, dishonest arguments. She’s a perfect go-to to find an example of one instead of surfing all over looking for someone else who may have said it, when you at some point she has. She’s also the most popular.


    • Tarzie · October 29, 2014

      He neoliberally posited that an adult can never be coerced, because they are autonomous (whoo AGENCY!!), and anyone who says otherwise is the real misogynist.

      I don’t want to ratify GG’s use of misogynist here, but I do think there is a difference, in terms of agency, between white American sex workers — GG was debating a pornographer going to jail for five years — and being subject to the government-toppling designs of the CIA. Nonetheless, there is certainly some overlap in that GG rarely considers power differentials except in cases of obvious and overt coercion and institutionalized unfairness.

      He separates his concerns about two-tiered justice almost entirely from inequality, seeing it more as the result of a culture shift among elites that happened when Ford pardoned Nixon. His free speech absolutism is equally lacking in class consciousness. There is no consideration that some people have bigger platforms than others, or don’t have the means to counter hate speech or remove themselves from it, and interestingly, this absolutism, when it takes the form of actual advocacy, always falls down on the side of dominance: white supremacists, pornographers, fast-food chain owning homophobes and corporations. At the risk of being banal and personalizing things, I don’t think GG even recognizes the difference between himself and obscure people like me who criticize him. I have the same right to sic trolls on detractors as he does is. That I don’t have any is entirely beside the point. If I don’t want to be subject to the outcomes of that disparity, I can choose to stop criticizing him.

      For “most repulsive thing said by a member of the Celebrity Left,” I still have to cast my vote for “anti-imperialism is an expression of white privilege and sexism.”

      Well, Crabapple sure didn’t invent that one, which was among the talking points during election 2012 aimed at cudgeling people into continued support for Obama. I heard it more from white guys like Erik Loomis at the time than I heard it from anyone else.

      Liked by 1 person

      • alphonsevanworden · October 29, 2014

        “Anti-imperialism is an expression of white privilege and sexism” is also a favourite theme of Zizek since the early 90s, the right Hegelian idea being that refusal of the civilizing mission is a condescending posture of abandoning the periphery to its backwardness.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Lorenzo · October 29, 2014

        God, I just realized that I had blocked most of the 2012 election from my mind. I had successfully forgotten that Rebecca Solnit piece that bequeathed you the “rancid” until now.


      • Tarzie · October 29, 2014

        I’m sorry.


    • nicecore · November 6, 2014

      I came back to this great piece today, and Lorenzo’s reference to MC ascribing opposition to bombing Syria to white male privilege made me think about these elections we just had here in the US. Some seemed to be using similar logic to argue that it was only white men who would argue that the two parties were the same, and in some cases everything seemed an awful lot like water-carrying for Democrats. Although, I guess it is a somewhat different case since a GOP governor/legislature in x state might very well mean the shutting down of all or all but one abortion clinic, to give just one example. I know that was very off-topic and rambling but it is my way of saying that this piece and these comments are helping me figure out a lot of shit, and I look forward to reading a lot more of your (and y’all’s) writing.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. tommyknocker1 · October 29, 2014

    Reblogged this on tommichaels886.


  8. Comrade Keaton (@Antiwar2) · October 29, 2014

    For fuck’s sake, Sourstein, get your head out of your ass. Crabapple would be working in the mail room at The Nation if she had a dick. She is an authority on nothing. Of course she’s full of shit. Women get ahead by sucking the dick of power. Like Whatsherface Edmonds, she rides entirely on the fact that brain dead pseudo-activists want to fuck her.

    Fuck you, Tarzie, “pornographers, fast-food chain owning homophobes..” Hating pornographers is code for right wing ownership of my twat and every other woman’s twat. There is nothing revolutionary about hating porn or traded sex or any other bullshit that I can get from from Hillary Clinton or Samantha Power. As for fast food chains, if you are middle class and still feasting off the bodies of once sentient beings, go kill yourself.


    • Tarzie · October 29, 2014

      I like you comrade Keaton so I’m gonna be nicer to you than I would be to random troll spewing the exact same way you just have:

      Fuck you, Tarzie, “pornographers, fast-food chain owning homophobes..” Hating pornographers is code for right wing ownership of my twat and every other woman’s twat.

      Where did I say I hated pornographers? In fact, in my remarks to Lorenzo, I specifically made a distinction about agency, pornography and the cia that his remarks did not seem to account for. I was even a sex worker at one time and have no regrets. I don’t think all pornography is exploitative.

      I was simply saying that when it gets down to actual advocacy, Greenwald is on the side of dominance, and as pornography is an overwhelmingly white-male dominated industry, and Greenwald invoked the agency of actors to defend, not actors, but a pornography producer, the point stands without embellishment. But I will point out that Greenwald’s advocacy was for Max Hardcore — who leased women’s twats to make extremely misogynist porn and who some performers complained was abusive. This is not to say he should have gone to jail, but to point out that making the case simply about agency and autonomy is exactly the kind of oversimplification we’re discussing here. Some time after calling liberal feminists misogynists for not getting behind Hardcore, Greenwald applauded a Supreme Court decision upholding the right to make and distribute animal torture porn and dog fight videos. You want to swear at me over my objections to that?

      if you are middle class and still feasting off the bodies of once sentient beings, go kill yourself.

      Well I’m a vegan, so thanks for your support, but your point eludes me. Is your point that Greenwald was right to excoriate the communities attempting to rid themselves of Chik-Fil-A because by focusing on the owner’s support for anti-gay groups, they did so for the wrong reasons?

      As for your other, uh, ‘point’, it is not Crabapple’s authority that anyone cares about. It’s her influence. I don’t think ostensible ‘leftists’ with any sort of following at all who are making sales pitches for empire to niche audiences should be ignored, especially when she is simply being invoked here as an avatar of a larger trend.

      Fuck’s sake.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Comrade Keaton (@Antiwar2) · October 29, 2014

    You’re a vegan and a former sex worker? I need to retweet you more.

    Ok, yes, I see what you mean by influence re: Crabapple. Originally, I was sure that not many outside of our sphere know who she is apart from an MSNBC appearance. She didn’t say anything technically wrong about but she imparted nothing that would convince anyone that staying out of Syria might be the wisest and most ethically just course of action. A few hours of reading however and I’ve got to revise that.

    Actually, the more I read on this topic and re-read Danny Postrel, interviews with Max Blumenthal (admire his gonads on many things but here he’s wrong,) Paul Woodward and others were engaging in shaming the antiwar movement for not immediately waving a magic wand to solve the problems of the Syrians.

    So thanks. Thanks for giving me more things to hate. Thanks for making me side with the commies. Thanks for putting me on the side of jerks like Edmonds. Thanks for making me worse.


  10. Bolved Wemon (@brenempty) · November 2, 2014

    Great piece. I was thinking of how this co-option of left/revolutionary rhetoric is also used by empire itself in the form of color revolutions. Of course they do everything in their power to crush genuine resistance. But despite the emptiness of American political awareness (John Steppling’s latest is great on this as relates to culture ) , I do think there’s at least a vaguely growing awareness of the potential power of dissent. For all its flaws, Occupy was at least a temporary inconvenience to power that got a lot of media play. Ferguson continues to be in the news. Environmental blockade/resistance groups get a small amount of coverage. Block the Boat is scoring some victories. All these are either already plagued by liberal “leaders” (Occupy, the Bill McKibben/ wing of the climate change “movement”) or (for the moment) very small potatoes. But taken together I think they form a sort of formless blob of a concept of “resistance” that the general American public is at least aware of. So empire, very shrewdly, uses that exact language for its color revs. I’ve not delved deeply into the Burkina Faso situation, but from twitter posts/links it seems this is a genuine movement that is quickly seeing the same old color rev players installed as “leaders” of the opposition. It’s amazing how quickly this tactic can be deployed even in a situation not instigated by the empire.
    And to take a (maybe too-)charitable view of the *everyday* liberal- not the academics, journalists, activists that Sassy’s piece critiques, but the average person who (like everyone) is bombarded by constant messaging of Republican vs. Democrat, right vs. left, NPR vs. Fox, and feels obligated to take the “correct” side- the color revolution rhetoric is understandably seductive. Change your avatar to a green square on behalf of the people of Iran! Support pussy riot! Save the Syrians! This piece started with an ironic mention of “conspiracy theory,” and Patrick Higgins and others have commented on the idea that just to simply speak the truth about empire, capitalism, the CIA’s many coups, etc etc, is to be branded “unserious” and a “conspiracy theorist.” Of course this is immediately linked to Truthers, Birthers, Alex Jones, etc, and most good liberals who are trapped in the prevailing conventional wisdom are very uncomfortable being anywhere near that label. So without per se defending the workaday American liberal mindset, I think it’s clear why the color rev tactic is effective. And to circle back around, the professional leftists are the very ones disseminating that left-friendly rhetoric. No matter how “far left” one is on the mainstream scale, there is a trusted public figure pushing this shit. NBC. PBS. NPR. Chris Hayes. The Intercept. Crabapple. Etc etc etc. The situation seems almost intractable because for the american public to view these issues through an anti capitalist, anti imperialist lens would require a complete rebuilding of the background, unquestioned assumptions/worldview/conventional wisdom on which our society is based, and which has a juggernaut entertainment, education, and news industry to maintain it.

    Liked by 1 person

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