Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing the Ally Industrial Complex

An Indigenous perspective & provocation.

pdf-128Printable version available here. (PDF | 3.3MB)
Print friendly cover w/corrections here. (PDF | 3.2MB)

This provocation is intended to intervene in some of the current tensions around solidarity/support work as the current trajectories are counter-liberatory from my perspective. Special thanks to DS in Phoenix for convos that lead to this ‘zine and all those who provided comments/questions/disagreements. Don’t construe this as being for “white young middle class allies”, just for paid activists, non-profits, or as a friend said, “downwardly-mobile anarchists or students.” There are many so-called “allies” in the migrant rights struggle who support “comprehensive immigration reform” which furthers militarization of Indigenous lands.

abolish-ally-industrial-complexThe ally industrial complex has been established by activists whose careers depend on the “issues” they work to address. These nonprofit capitalists advance their careers off  the struggles they ostensibly support. They often work in the guise of “grassroots” or “community-based” and are not necessarily tied to any organization.
They build organizational or individual capacity and power, establishing themselves comfortably among the top ranks in their hierarchy of oppression as they strive to become the ally “champions” of the most oppressed. While the exploitation of solidarity and support is nothing new, the commodification and exploitation of allyship is a growing trend in the activism industry.

Anyone who concerns themselves with anti-oppression struggles and collective liberation has at some point either participated in workshops, read ‘zines, or been parts of deep discussions on how to be a “good” ally. You can now pay hundreds of dollars to go to esoteric institutes for an allyship certificate in anti-oppression. You can go through workshops and receive an allyship badge. In order to commodify struggle it must first be objectified. This is exhibited in how “issues” are “framed” & “branded.” Where struggle is commodity, allyship is currency.
Ally has also become an identity, disembodied from any real mutual understanding of support.
The term ally has been rendered ineffective and meaningless.

Accomplices not allies.

noun: accomplice; plural noun: accomplices
a person who helps another commit a crime.

There exists a fiercely unrelenting desire to achieve total liberation, with the land and, together.
At some point there is a “we”, and we most likely will have to work together. This means, at the least, formulating mutual understandings that are not entirely antagonistic, otherwise we may find ourselves, our desires, and our struggles, to be incompatible.
There are certain understandings that may not be negotiable. There are contradictions that we must come to terms with and certainly we will do this on our own terms.
But we need to know who has our backs, or more appropriately: who is with us, at our sides?

The risks of an ally who provides support or solidarity (usually on a temporary basis) in a fight are much different than that of an accomplice. When we fight back or forward, together, becoming complicit in a struggle towards liberation, we are accomplices. Abolishing allyship can occur through the criminalization of support and solidarity.

While the strategies and tactics of asserting (or abolishing depending on your view) social power and political power may be diverse, there are some hard lessons that could bear not replicating.
Consider the following to be a guide for identifying points of intervention against the ally industrial complex.

“Salvation aka Missionary Work & Self Therapy”
Allies all too often carry romantic notions of oppressed folks they wish to “help.” These are the ally “saviors” who see victims and tokens instead of people.
This victimization becomes a fetish for the worst of the allies in forms of exotification, manarchism, ‘splaining, POC sexploitation, etc. This kind of relationship generally fosters exploitation between both the oppressed and oppressor. The ally and the allied-with become entangled in an abusive relationship. Generally neither can see it until it’s too late. This relationship can also digress into co-dependency which means they have robbed each other of their own power. Ally “saviors” have a tendency to create dependency on them and their function as support. No one is here to be saved, we don’t need “missionary allies” or pity.
Guilt is also a primary ally motivating factor. Even if never admitted, guilt & shame generally function as motivators in the consciousness of an oppressor who realizes that they are operating on the wrong side. While guilt and shame are very powerful emotions, think about what you’re doing before you make another community’s struggle into your therapy session. Of course, acts of resistance and liberation can be healing, but tackling guilt, shame, and other trauma require a much different focus, or at least an explicit and consensual focus. What kind of relationships are built on guilt and shame?

“Exploitation & Co-optation”
Those who co-opt are only there to advance self interests (usually it’s either notoriety or financial). As these “allies” seek to impose their agenda, they out themselves. The ‘radical’ more militant-than-thou “grassroots” organizers are keen on seeking out “sexy” issues to co-opt (for notoriety/ego/super ally/most radical ally) and they set the terms of engagement or dictate what struggles get amplified or marginalized irregardless of whose homelands they’re operating on. The nonprofit establishment or non-profit industrial complex (NPIC) also seeks out “sexy” or “fundable” issues to co-opt and exploit as these are ripe for the grant funding that they covet. Too often, Indigenous liberation struggles for life and land, by nature, directly confront the entire framework to which this colonial & capitalist society is based on. This is threatening to potential capitalist funders so some groups are forced to compromise radical or liberatory work for funding, others become alienated and further invisibilized or subordinated to tokenism. Co-opters most often show up to the fight when the battle has already escalated and it’s a little too late.
These entities almost always propose trainings, workshops, action camps, and offer other specialized expertise in acts of patronization. These folks are generally paid huge salaries for their “professional” activism, get over-inflated grants for logistics and “organizational capacity building”, and struggles may become further exploited as “poster struggles” for their funders. Additionally, these skills most likely already exist within the communities or they are tendencies that need only be provoked into action.
These aren’t just dynamics practiced by large so-called non-governmental organizations (NGOs), individuals are adept at this self-serving tactic as well.
Co-optation also functions as a form of liberalism. Allyship can perpetuate a neutralizing dynamic by co-opting original liberatory intent into a reformist agenda.
Certain folks in the struggles (usually movement “personalities”) who don’t upset the ally establishment status quo can be rewarded with inclusion in the ally industry.

“Self proclaiming/confessional Allies”ally-badge
All too often folks show up with an, “I am here to support you!” attitude that they wear like a badge. Ultimately making struggles out to feel like an extracurricular activity that they are getting “ally points” for. Self-asserted allies may even have anti-oppression principles and values as window dressing. Perhaps you’ve seen this quote by Lilla Watson on their materials: “If you come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. If you come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” They are keen to posture, but their actions are inconsistent with their assertions.
Meaningful alliances aren’t imposed, they are consented upon. The self-proclaimed allies have no intention to abolish the entitlement that compelled them to impose their relationship upon those they claim to ally with.

Parachuters rush to the front lines seemingly from out-of-nowhere. They literally move from one hot or sexy spot to the next. They also fall under the “savior” & “self-proclaimed” categories as they mostly come from specialized institutes, organizations, & think-tanks. They’ve been through the trainings, workshops, lectures, etc., they are the “experts” so they know “what is best.” This paternalistic attitude is implicit in the structures (non-profits, institutes, etc) these “allies” derive their awareness of the “issues” from. Even if they reject their own non-profit programming, they are ultimately reactionary, entitled, and patronizing, or positioning with power-over, those they proclaim allyship with. It’s structural patronization that is rooted in the same dominion of hetero-patriarchal white supremacy.
Parachuters are usually missionaries with more funding.

“Academics, & Intellectuals”
Although sometimes directly from communities in struggle, intellectuals and academics also fit neatly in all of these categories. Their role in struggle can be extremely patronizing. In many cases the academic maintains institutional power above the knowledge and skill base of the community/ies in struggle. Intellectuals are most often fixated on un-learning oppression. These lot generally don’t have their feet on the ground, but are quick to be critical of those who do.
Should we desire to merely “unlearn” oppression, or to smash it to fucking pieces, and have it’s very existence gone?
An accomplice as academic would seek ways to leverage resources and material support and/or betray their institution to further liberation struggles. An intellectual accomplice would strategize with, not for and not be afraid to pick up a hammer.

Gatekeepers seek power over, not with, others. They are known for the tactics of controlling and/or withholding information, resources, connections, support, etc. Gatekeepers come from the outside and from within. When exposed they are usually rendered ineffective (so long as there are effective accountability/responsibility mechanisms).
Gatekeeping individuals and organizations, like “savior allies,” also have tendency to create dependency on them and their function as support. They have a tendency to dominate or control.

“Navigators & Floaters”
The “navigating” ally is someone who is familiar or skilled in jargon and maneuvers through spaces or struggles yet doesn’t have meaningful dialogue (by avoiding debates or remaining silent) or take meaningful action beyond their personal comfort zones (this exists with entire organizations too). They uphold their power and, by extension, the dominant power structures by not directly attacking them.
“Ally” here is more clearly defined as the act of making personal projects out of other folk’s oppression. These are lifestyle allies who act like passively participating or simply using the right terminology is support. When shit goes down they are the first to bail. They don’t stick around to take responsibility for their behavior. When confronted they often blame others and attempt to dismiss or delegitimize concerns.
Accomplices aren’t afraid to engage in uncomfortable/unsettling/challenging debates or discussions.

Floaters are “allies” that hop from group to group and issue to issue, never being committed enough but always wanting their presence felt and their voices heard. They tend to disappear when it comes down to being held accountable or taking responsibility for fucked up behavior.
Floaters are folks you can trust to tell the cops to “fuck off” but never engage in mutual risk, constantly put others at risk, are quick to be authoritarian about other peoples over stepping privileges, but never check their own. They basically are action junkie tourists who never want to be part of paying the price, the planning, or the responsibility but always want to be held up as worthy of being respected for “having been there” when a rock needed throwing, bloc needs forming, etc.
This dynamic is also important to be aware of for threats of infiltration. Provocateurs are notorious floaters going from place to place never being accountable to their words or actions. Infiltration doesn’t necessarily have to come from the state, the same impacts can occur by “well meaning” allies. It’s important to note that calling out infiltrators bears serious implications and shouldn’t be attempted without concrete evidence.
“Acts of Resignation”
Resignation of agency is a by-product of the allyship establishment. At first the dynamic may not seem problematic, after all, why would it be an issue with those who benefit from systems of oppression to reject or distance themselves from those benefits and behaviors (like entitlement, etc) that accompany them? In the worst cases, “allies” themselves act paralyzed believing it’s their duty as a “good ally.” There is a difference between acting for others, with others, and for one’s own interests, be explicit.
You wouldn’t find an accomplice resigning their agency, or capabilities as an act of “support.” They would find creative ways to weaponize their privilege (or more clearly, their rewards of being part of an oppressor class) as an expression of social war. Otherwise we end up with a bunch of anti-civ/primitivist appropriators or anarcho-hipsters, when saboteurs would be preferred.

Suggestions for some ways forward for anti-colonial accomplices:

Allyship is the corruption of radical spirit and imagination, it’s the dead end of decolonization.
The ally establishment co-opts decolonization as a banner to fly at its unending anti-oppression gala. What is not understood is that decolonization is a threat to the very existence of settler “allies.” No matter how liberated you are, if you are still occupying Indigenous lands you are still a colonizer.

Decolonization (the process of restoring Indigenous identity) can be very personal and should be differentiated, though not disconnected, from anti-colonial struggle.
The work of an accomplice in anti-colonial struggle is to attack colonial structures & ideas.

The starting point is to articulate your relationship to Indigenous Peoples whose lands you are occupying. This is beyond acknowledgment or recognition. This can be particularly challenging for “non-federally recognized” Indigenous Peoples as they are invisiblized by the state and by the invaders occupying their homelands.
It may take time to establish lines of communication especially as some folks may have already been burnt by outsiders. If you do not know where or how to contact folks, do some ground work, research (but don’t rely on anthropological sources, they are euro-centric), and pay attention. Try to more listening than speaking and planning.
In long-term struggles communication may be ruptured between various factions, there are no easy ways to address this. Don’t try to work the situation out, but communicate openly with consideration of the points below.
Sometimes other Indigenous Peoples are “guests” on other’s homelands yet are tokenized as the Indigenous representatives for the “local struggles”. This dynamic also perpetuates settler colonialism. A lot of people also assume Indigenous folks are all on the same page “politically,” we’re definitely not.

While there may be times folks have the capacity and patience to do so, be aware of the dynamics perpetuated by hand-holding.
Understand that it is not our responsibility to hold your hand through a process to be an accomplice.
Accomplices listen with respect for the range of cultural practices and dynamics that exists within various Indigenous communities.
Accomplices aren’t motivated by personal guilt or shame, they may have their own agenda but they are explicit.
Accomplices are realized through mutual consent and build trust. They don’t just have our backs, they are at our side, or in their own spaces confronting and unsettling colonialism. As accomplices we are compelled to become accountable and responsible to each other, that is the nature of trust.

Don’t wait around for anyone to proclaim you to be an accomplice, you certainly cannot proclaim it yourself. You just are or you are not. The lines of oppression are already drawn. Direct action is really the best and may be the only way to learn what it is to be an accomplice. We’re in a fight, so be ready for confrontation and consequence.

If you are wondering whether to get involved with or to support an organization:

Be suspect of anyone and any organization who professes allyship, decolonization work, and/or wears their relationships with Indigenous Peoples as at badge.

Use some of the points above to determine primary motives.
Look at the organizations funding. Who is getting paid? How are they transparent? Who’s defining the terms? Who sets the agenda? Do campaigns align with what the needs are on the ground?

Are there local grassroots Indigenous People directly involved with the decision making?

  122 comments for “Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing the Ally Industrial Complex

  1. Brendan
    December 13, 2014 at 1:14 PM

    Just a few comments. When you refer to ”returning the land”what exactly can that possibly mean in 2014 ?
    Are you calling for some sort of mass deportation of the overwheming majority of the population of North America that aren’t descended from the original peoples ? And if so are you calling for just those who’s families came from Europe ? What about African-Americans ? Do they get some sort of ”Green Card” ?
    And about Asians. At least one Black Nationalist group , The African Peoples Socialist Party (Uhuru House) describes Koreans , for example, as ”Colonizers” ! And what about Latinos . Of course many are of mixed race but many aren’t . So are those Latinos who are mestizos acceptable but those who are of probably only Spanish descent not ?
    BTW I don’t know what you think of the legacy of Che Guervara but you do know his grandparents were of Spanish descent and one was a immigrant from Ireland ? So he was not a person of color .
    I think that in contrast to this Ultra Nationalistic vision of a movement we should build a Multi racial movement based on shared class interests and principles

      January 6, 2015 at 8:22 PM


    • Andy
      April 5, 2015 at 5:32 PM

      I think there are some great points in this piece which expand on the kind of work that groups like INCITE have done surrounding the non-profit industrial complex. The piece is very good at updating and naming the kind of hollow language radical nonprofits use on groups and individuals they want to profit from. Although I understand that the piece self-identifies (to use a perfect example of radical nonprofit and academic speak) as a “provocation” I don’t follow why the role of “ally” needs to be replaced with the equally dubious “accomplice”. I guess I’m too old to find crime terminology excitingly romantic. “Comrade” has perhaps too many marxist-leninist associations but I think it’s better than the bad-ass “accomplice”. But the goal I think is to find a place where everyone is working towards liberation, their own and that of their comrades.

    • May 3, 2015 at 8:52 PM

      About 1/3 of the lower 48, all towards the east coast, has been fully and effectively genocided, so if you want to be sanctimonious about not having anywhere to go, maybe you can go here and continue your self-righteous indignation on fully cleansed and purified-for-your-use fallout of 500 years of colonial terror territory that’s “technicall” all yours….that is if you can live with the endless screams of agony from the ghosts who live there

  2. Paula
    December 14, 2014 at 1:14 PM

    So much to think about here. Unfortunately one sees oneself here and there…and recognizes unflattering motives. How very interesting. Thanks to James for starting this conversation.

  3. heavystone
    December 14, 2014 at 10:27 PM

    This is terrible advice. You demonize everyone, especially those who try to help you. The recommended alternative isn’t even real, it’s just abstract posturing. You are a disgrace.

    • tom
      December 22, 2014 at 7:58 PM

      Well said, heavy stone!

  4. December 23, 2014 at 10:46 PM

    It is a lot to think about ..I believe it is a valuable conversation. To the person worried Europeans and other non Natives wii be thrown off their land: how about if we help keep corporations and mining off? This way we willl incur good willi with indigenous people. I did not read all of this. I will try to save it to my wall for catch up.

  5. December 27, 2014 at 9:02 AM

    These are important issues to bring to the table — we should all assume that struggle for social justice is not just about an enemy outside — it is about a continual recreation of healthy relationships within the group — including calling each other out on unequal power dynamics and the like. I understand perhaps the impulse to use “accomplice” to distinguish it from ally but it is a difficult word for me because I am not participating in criminal activity. (The state may think I am but I refuse to take on the identity assigned me by the state) We make the road by walking it.

  6. January 17, 2015 at 10:18 AM

    Hello, we are a group of women and QPOC living in France, and would like to translate your text in french. Its possible ?

  7. anabraxas
    January 25, 2015 at 2:51 PM

    Late but not too late… translated to French here:

    Awesome critique, and very useful for anyone in or willing to join this ongoing resistance.

    Set to appear as well in a project by Ill Will Editions soon.

  8. February 11, 2015 at 7:04 PM

    Thank you for writing this. I didn’t know very much about the indiginous rights movement before reading this but I feel like it applies really well to the social just movements I know more about and am a part of.

  9. Patrick Cate
    March 7, 2015 at 1:27 AM

    For those settlers (and I am a settler) who feel somewhat indicted by this typology, I think the point isn’t to see these differing destructive identities of allyship as platonic absolutes that you either fall into or don’t. I think its a point of entry for self-reflection, and that if I see a bit of myself in any of these types of allyship then I am already doing the work by learning to be self-reflective about how and why I do things, and working to rid myself of them in the future, That is the first step in decolonizing myself. I can’t take it personally; it’s part of a journey towards liberation for not only myself but for all people. I know that if I see myself as somehow magically immune to the systems of oppression I was born into, as a settler, than I am clearly missing something of vital importance, and I am eternally grateful for those who have taken the time to think critically about my role and what I can do to improve it.

    • GreenNinja
      June 4, 2015 at 10:31 PM

      nicely said.

  10. March 11, 2015 at 5:53 AM

    My name is Fania, I am a black queer franco-haitian ciswoman and my friends and I have just launched an intersectional French-language magazine: AssiégéEs (Beleaguered), the first issue of which will be coming out next June. The magazine will be available by donation online and paper issues can be ordered on demand (provided we reach our crowdfunding goals).

     The AssiégéEs team is composed of radical women and (a few) men of colour who stand firmly as: anti-racist AND anti-sexist AND anti-homophobic AND anti-transphobic AND anti-capitalist AND anti-Islamophobic AND anti-respectability politics. AssiégÉs is a magazine accessible to all, and is not an academic journal we set at a
    maximum of 40% the number of contributions produced by academics and offer writing support for people uncomfortable with this form of expression, while accepting others types of submissions (drawings, graffiti, poems, etc..). All magazine contributors are people of colour. The first issue will be on traps. Traps set by identities, but also by struggles and demands. How to find support points, live at intersections? This often
    leaves one feeling at an impasse. I am contacting you today because we would like to translate your text to include in this first issue. Because your work is of particular relevance, for us, and since our magazine strives to be non-classist, we would like that English-languages texts be made accessible to people who do not master the language. 

    With this in mind we would like to know your financial requirements for reprinting and distribution.

  11. April 2, 2015 at 12:29 PM

    Are non-natives who occupy non-native lands necessarily colonizers? What can they do, in positive terms, to legitimately occupy the land they were born on that their ancestors stole, for example? I can’t fight this fight if I emigrate.

  12. Susan James
    May 12, 2015 at 10:55 PM

    Excellent article and an eye opener actually. Man there is a lot of self serving do good ears out there. I actually get each category personality types you have addressed . Money shit man people get paid to do this , workshops on it?? He’ll we just say na governments wrong lets protest or occupy and send the appropriate heads to parliament to battle ! Interesting article very interesting we thoroughly absorbed much of it and ill have to read it a few more times to totally absorb all .

  13. marcos
    June 2, 2015 at 8:43 PM

    The most productive era of activism that I’d ever worked in was during the mid 1980s in Austin where there were several intersecting radical formations that offered up mutual aid, another term for accomplice. Earth First!, pro-choice, ACT/UP, anti-apartheid, anti-US intervention in Central America and refugee support organizing all synergized to create an action and goals oriented volunteer radical army.

    The moment that activism gets professionalized it morphs into advocacy which carries a different dynamic. The antidote to this neoliberal resistance poison is ongoing mass democratic participatory organizing and mobilization.

    And today’s youth to my mind are overly fixated on language and group identity in ways that simply are not reflected in self perception of those in these groups who are outside of the academic and activist bubble. What counts more than language is measurable progress towards emancipation and justice. These ideals of groups and language must yield to the material reality we confront. You cannot speak your reality into existence, that is magical thinking, there is no substitute to risk taking and participatory organizing. I could imagine how today’s sensitive flowers would have fared at Stonewall or Compton’s or the Edmund Pettis Bridge which were not safe spaces by any means.

    Nor can we expect to organize free of some degree of racism, sexism and homophobia given that we live in a racist, sexist and homophobic culture and most folks who come to participate will come with that baggage. We need to identify means of addressing these issues effectively in real time without stopping the show.

    Both for-profit and non-profit capitalists (brilliant!) share one thing in common: a mutual contempt for the people because they do not trust us. Emancipatory political activity cannot succeed when it is mediated by a wage. Thank you for this wonderful piece.

  14. Will Shetterly
    August 9, 2015 at 9:23 AM

    Excellent post. It reminds me of two things:

    1. I’ve long wondered how much money Tim Wise makes.

    2. In the ’60s, allies weren’t expected to share the same ideologies. They were only expected to share the same goals.

Add your comments (racist, sexist, & homophobic comments will not be published)