Class Struggle and Intersectionality: Isn’t Class Special?

3daxes

I have a piece in the next issue of Irish Anarchist Review that offers an epistemological, metaphysical, political and  pragmatic justification for the adoption of intersectionality by class-struggle anarchist groups. This post attempts to address a common objection to intersectionality that came up repeatedly in discussions on the topic, namely, that class is in some way special and  different to other “axes of oppression”, and therefore to regard class through an intersectional lens minimises its importance and fails to grasp its unique character.

The reflexive response that privilege discourse conditions us to make is that this objection is merely a case of privileged people trying to exclude challenges to their privilege within the anarchist movement. I think that response is both unhelpful and unfair. Unhelpful, because it places intersectional theory above criticism, and unfair, because those making the objections are often sincerely concerned with avoiding the marginalisation of women, queers, people of colour, etc. within the movement. Nonetheless, the discourse of “class exceptionalism” often has precisely that effect (a point I’ll return to later).

The following two examples give a fairly clear exposition of the exceptionalist position. The first is Slavoj Zizek:

The third thing to underline is the fundamental difference between feminist, anti-racist, anti-sexist and other such struggles and the class struggle. In the first case, the goal is to translate antagonism into difference (the peaceful coexistence of sexes, religions, ethnic groups), while the goal of the class struggle is precisely the opposite, to turn class differences into class antagonisms… What the series race-gender-class obfuscates is the different logic of the political space in the case of class: while anti-racist and anti-sexist struggle are guided by the striving for the full recognition of the other, the class struggle aims at overcoming and subduing, annihilating even, the other – even if not a direct physical annihilation, it aims at wiping out the other’s socio-political role and function. In other words, while it is logical to say that anti-racism wants all races to be allowed to freely assert and deploy their cultural, political and economic strivings, it is obviously meaningless to say that the aim of the proletarian class struggle is to allow the bourgeoisie to fully assert its identity and realize its goals. In one case, we have a “horizontal” logic of the recognition of different identities, while, in the other case, we have the logic of the struggle with an antagonist.

The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, pp. 33-4

(Interestingly this analysis seems to be copy-pasted almost word-for-word from an earlier essay that is available online.) The second is Paul Bowman in the last Irish Anarchist Review:

Otherness is socially constructed. Through socialisation we become either man or woman, white or black, straight or queer, normal or other. In the social construction of otherness, both poles of the relation must be explicitly present. The normal defines the other by projection in ways described by feminist or queer theory authors or Edward Said’s criticism of “orientalism” or Deleuze & Guattari’s becoming-other. These mutually defining poles of subjectification multiply and proliferate in the social sphere and can be combined through conjunction.

But class, as we have seen, is not an identity, nor a socially constructed role. Hence the conjunction of otherness breaks down at the class line. There is no contradiction in the conjugation of othernesses when a person identifies, for example, as a woman AND as black AND as queer. We understand that each category of otherness neither wholly encompasses nor wholly excludes the others, that their conjugation is a process of defining the overlapping of these sets that are inscribed within the same social plane that constructs identities and particular oppressions through the operation of polarising normativities in contrast to othernesses. But when we try to add class to the chain of conjugation – woman AND black AND queer AND working class – something jars. Consciously or not, we perceive that something about the last term in the conjugation does not fit with the previous ones. Society not only does not contest that the speaker is a black queer woman, it asserts it before she even speaks. In drawing attention to these identities the speaker is only re-asserting what is already socially constructed, or imposed, as fact – even if the speaker is challenging the meaning of these social facts, or the power that constructed them. But in relation to class there is no such social recognition forthcoming, on the question of whether class is a social fact in the same way as femininity, blackness or queerness, there is only silence. And as Derrida taught us, we must listen for the silences because they teach us most of all.

Without pursuing that further, at this stage, we see also that there is a problem with the process of defining class on this basis, which after this conjugation is made, must, retrospectively, be carried out in an analogous manner to other particular oppressions. Because otherness is defined through exclusion and oppression, then class in turn must also be so defined. The experience of class then becomes reduced to social exclusion – the snobbery and exclusivity of the “middle class” – and the oppressions of economic deprivation – poverty. But to reduce class to a relation of economic oppression by poverty, is to reduce economic life to that privileged sphere of capitalist universality – consumerism. So long as class is reduced to economic oppression which is in turn reduced to relative deprivation in command power in the market for consumer goods, then it loses any meaning in relation to exploitation, the production of surplus value and the valorisation of capital and, ultimately, the active production of the totality of social relations. It becomes a passive category, a doubly passive one when we take on board the failure for it to be actively constructed by the dominant social discourse, as already noted. Reduced to this doubly passive status, the category of class becomes a mere ghost compared to the identities actively produced by the discourses of power, and must ultimately fade into the universalist background.

….

The attempts by some to create a mono-dimensional category of “intersectionality” where particular identities/oppressions intersect with each other, and class as another identity, within a unified plane of oppression, are driven by the search for a universal category. By projection, they assume that those defending the particularity of class, must equally be proposing it as a competing universal category. Indeed, there actually are some – the “class reductionists” – who make that very mistake. However the argument between the “intersectionalists” and the “reductionists” over whose category is the truly universal one, is simply a competition within the same framework – that of universalism itself.

Rethinking Class: From Recomposition to Counterpower

While these two quotes may superficially appear to be saying the same thing, there are important differences that should be recognised prior to a response. Most significantly, Zizek offers a much cruder essentialist analysis. There are, for Zizek, races that will survive the demise of racism, and which have “cultural, political and economic strivings” collectively. In Paul’s analysis, otherness is socially-constructed and can therefore presumably be deconstructed and eradicated. The purpose of including both is to tackle both the essentiallist and social-constructivist versions of the argument. In addition, Zizek’s picture of class struggle is simplistic: the class struggle is a struggle of two antagonistic classes of people, contradicting his exposition in the previous chapter of the possibility of “capitalism without a bourgeoisie”, which rests implicitly on the assumption that the proletarian struggle is fundamentally with capital (an inhuman force) rather than with the bourgeoisie as such. (Consistency doesn’t seem to be much of a concern in his writing.)

It’s also worth noting that neither analysis precludes revolutionary organisations from struggling on issues of gender, race, sexuality etc. – indeed Paul goes to great lengths to emphasise the importance of such activity in his piece. Nonetheless, I have three responses to exceptionalist position:

  1. Like class, neither gender nor race can be reduced to identity.
  2. The class-struggle is not the same from all social locations, and therefore something like intersectionality is necessary to allow a deeper theorisation of class.
  3. Even if (1) and (2) do not hold, there are pragmatic reasons to adopt an intersectional mode of analysis.

1. Theorising gender & race: beyond identity

As Richard Seymour points out “the concept of ‘intersectionality’ is a way of posing a problem, not an ultimate theoretical solution” and it’s usefulness “depends entirely on the wider theoretical articulations that the concept is embedded in”. Liberal proponents of intersectionality often make precisely the error of reducing class to classism and poverty, which can then be recited as part of a list of “isms” – bad or discriminatory ideas – which we must combat. (One of the frustrating things about Patricia Hill Collins’ recent lecture in Dublin was that she did this repeatedly.) This liberal reduction of class to classism functions to strip class of its transformative potential, confines class politics to the realm of state policy and cultural values, and reinforces the privileged role of academics in developing state policy to mediate social conflict (liberal capitalism doesn’t, for the most part, function by brute domination: amelioration of the conditions of the lower classes is permitted to a certain degree and many supposedly dissident academics feed into this) – pace whatever discourse of “social justice” it is articulated within.

My contention here is that, just as it is reductive and depoliticising to consider class struggle and classism to be identical, it is equally so to see in gender and race only identities (whether essential or socially-constructed), to fail to theorise gender and race as social relations pertaining to systems of social organisation, exploitation and domination, to see both merely in terms of “mutually defining poles of subjectification” as if both were free-floating artifices with no objective component, or to limit the horizons of these struggles to the “full recognition of the other” rather than “wiping out the other’s socio-political role and function”. I will sketch the argument here that gender constitutes a system in its own right that is neither reducible to identity, nor entirely contained within nor isomorphic to class. A similar claim can be made in the case of race, although I don’t feel I am able to do the argument justice at this point (I haven’t learned enough).

Regarding Zizek’s implicit claim that there are two sexes which might one day come to fully recognise one-another, I have three responses. First, as Judith Butler argues, there is no “sex” that is not a product of social construction – that is, a result of a socially-constructed categorisation of bodies according to their perceived (or socially-assigned) function. Neither is there a meaningful distinction between sex and gender, whereby some deterministic process “inscribes gender meanings on anatomically differentiated bodies” that does not ultimately reduce to “the biology-is-destiny formulation.” (Gender Trouble, p.8) Second, as Monique Wittig argues, “sex” as a category is inseparable from the power relations in which it is constructed. “It is oppression that creates sex and not the contrary.” (The Category of Sex) Third, even if we attempt to reduce sex to some politically-neutral observation about bodies, as Foucault points out in Discipline and Punish, bodies themselves are at least in part materially socially-constructed by disciplinary mechanisms. Thus it is meaningless to talk of what sex or gender would look like after the success of feminism. (I give a slightly more detailed argument on this here.)

The above argument already hints at my main point: there is something deeper going on here than just “identity politics”. In fact, what we are looking at is what Foucault termed “biopolitics” – the rationalisation and control of phenomena of populations of living beings by political powers –  and in particular, the social organisation of sex as a key concern of biopolitics. In ‘Marxism, Method & State’ Catherine McKinnon lays out the argument:

Sexuality is to feminism what work is to marxism: that which is most one’s own, yet most taken away. Marxist theory argues that society is fundamentally constructed of the relations people form as they do and make things needed to survive humanly. Work is the social process of shaping and transforming the material and social worlds, creating people as social beings as they create value. It is that activity by which people become who they are. Class is its structure, production its consequence, capital its congealed form, and control its issue.

Implicit in feminist theory is a parallel argument: the molding, direction, and expression of sexuality organizes society into two sexes – women and men – which division underlies the totality of social relations. Sexuality is that social process which creates, organizes, expresses, and directs desire, creating the social beings we know as women and men, as their relations create society. As work is to marxism, sexuality to feminism is socially constructed yet constructing, universal as activity yet historically specific, jointly comprised of matter and mind. As the organized expropriation of the work of some for the benefit of others defines a class – workers – the organized expropriation of the sexuality of some for the use of others defines the sex, woman. Heterosexuality is its structure, gender and family its congealed forms, sex roles its qualities generalized to social persona, reproduction a consequence, and control its issue.

Understood in this way, it is clear that while identity is an aspect of the gender system – perhaps the most obvious aspect, or the aspect most immediate to one’s experience – it is not the whole picture. Gender identity is in fact constructed according to one’s role in an economy of sex in which the sexuality of one sex is expropriated. While clearly the logic of the political space is not identical to that of class, the condition of women’s liberation is clearly not the mutual recognition of each gender’s social role but the annihilation of the socio-political role and function of men and women. (I think it is important to point out here that just as the bourgeoisie are constructed by capitalism, men are constructed by patriarchy, and neither are necessarily conscious of their role as dominants and exploiters. I think it is incorrect to conceive, as some radical feminists do, of patriarchy as being the conscious construction of men as a class. Rather, it is an inhuman system which produces men and women in antagonistic relations to one another.)

2. Class struggle? Whose class struggle?

One of the key insights of intersectional theory is that in any resistant politics, questions of race, gender, class etc. are always-already posed. The totality of social relations is composed of interlocking, mutually constructing and supporting systems of oppression, which combine to produce any particular experience of the social world. It is therefore impossible to develop a generic class politics, separated from any analysis of race or gender, which holds in all social locations: the class struggle simply isn’t the same, in either its subjective or objective dimensions for all observers.

When we conceptualise The Worker as an ideal type around which to build a theory we already have somebody in mind. Even if, like a more radical Rawls, we attempt to produce a “veil of ignorance” in our heads behind which is a disembodied, genderless, raceless, abstract proletarian and attempt to imagine the class struggle from their perspective, we find ourselves in a web from which we cannot untangle ourselves. Gender and race are so embedded in our thought and language that they cannot be overcome: they are preconditions for legible humanity. Our Worker is always-already inflected with racial and gendered meanings whether we are conscious of them or not: if he is not a woman he is by default a man; if he is not of some particular race he is by default white. The dominant category is understood as universal, the subordinate as particular; the post-gender, post-race subject is beyond the limits of our imagination at this moment in history.

This is not merely a problem of imagination, however. The unity of interests presupposed and embodied by the idealised Worker is a false unity established through the occlusion of real antagonisms within the class. To take a concrete example, both the racialised undocumented migrant worker and the white unionised worker are both basically of the same class, but experience a very different class struggle. Moreover, there are real antagonisms between both; the power of the union which protects the white worker may well be undercut by bosses exploiting undocumented migrant labour, while the racialised migrant may well be excluded from the same union. The classic leftist call for unity in a universalist project of class struggle across such divides ignores the reality that the immediate goals of one are not the same as the other, and may in fact contradict. Which set of interests are most likely to win the race to become those of the generic worker?

Intersectional theory tells us that any movement of workers must learn to act with those contradictions intact, without domesticating either (by, for example, adopting an on-paper opposition to racism, while in practice focusing on the struggles of more privileged groups of workers), or it will continue to reproduce various forms of marginalisation in the name of unity.

3. Discourses and their effects

In Society Must be Defended, Foucault asks the following questions of Marxist proponents of “scientific socialism”:

What types of knowledge are you trying to disqualify when you say that you are a science? What speaking subject, what discursive subject, what subject of experience and knowledge are you trying to minorize when you begin to say: ‘I speak this discourse, I am speaking a scientific discourse, and I am a scientist.’ What theoretico-political vanguard are you trying to put on the throne in order to detach it from all the massive, circulating, and discontinuous forms that knowledge can take?

By analogy, we should ask whose interests, experiences and politics can more readily be spoken through the discourse of class struggle? What precisely are the power-effects of refusing intersectionality and insisting on class exceptionalism?

Moreover, if the discourse of class centricity can adequately accommodate the political demands of feminists, queers, people of colour etc., then adopting an intersectional position offers no threat. If it can’t, then why bother defending it? Does the theoretical project of proving that class is special move us closer to the eradication of relations of domination and exploitation? If not, what good is it? The empirical fact of the continued marginalisation of these groups within even the most progressive of anti-capitalist movements speaks to the need for something like intersectionalism, in the sense of adopting a conscious practice of analysing class always alongside race and gender, even if we can do without it in theory.

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19 comments
  1. mhairi said:

    Interesting post.

    Class is material, it is the relationship to the means of production – that means of production has two elements, raw materials and labour power. Patriarchy and colonialism exist as ideological justifications for the appropriation of the future labour power and raw materials in the interests of capital. Colonialism works to give ideological justification to land grabs, patriarchy to give power over future labour units.

    Class is different and sits outside the kyriachial framework which primarily operates ideologically.

    • Borscht said:

      It simply isn’t true that patriarchy and colonialism have no “raw materials,” which is what you are suggesting. Patriarchy has made of female bodies, for example, raw materials out of which it makes “women” and “men,” and babies. All of these areas (patriarchy, capitalism, etc.) have ideological aspects and material aspects, none of which are dominant– the material and ideological are in a feedback loop and, in any case, every “oppression” is a hybrid to begin with.

      • Borscht said:

        oops, you can strike out “female” there. it should just read “has made of bodies…”

  2. Great post.

    Just a small thing in relation to the last paragraph, I’m pretty convinced intersectionality is impossible, at least for now. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t try to achieve it, but I wouldn’t dismiss theories that *fail* to incorporate intersectionality anywhere nearly as quickly as those that *choose not* to incorporate it.

    Also, you’re bang on about the pragmatic need.

    • Thanks Muireann. What makes you say that intersectionality is impossible? Because it will always be held back by counterveiling forces, or something else?

  3. For the same reason I think it’s impossible to avoid bias completely. No one is situated at every intersection of experiences, and experiences can only communicated so well. This means all work/writing/theory/ideas are limited. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that it is impossible, just that we should be clear about how we evaluate things. In the same way that we should be critical and aware of bias, without ever expecting or demanding value free work, I think we can be critical and aware of essentialism, without needing to demand fully intersectional work.

  4. Eoin said:

    That was a great read thanks. I have never really gotten “the problem with gender” before. I have not read Judith Butler and I don’t intend to either after hearing it is tough going. But now I think I see it. In all forms and applications one has to fill out in the modern life one usually has to tick a box where the choice is male or female. After reading your article I realise that some people have a problem with this because they don’t or don’t want to “fit into the box”. And if a tolerant society is to be created this cannot be ignored. Thanks for the enlightenment. What about gender quotas as a progressive tool against patriarchy then? A temporary tool until gender is eliminated? Sorry for bringing the discourse back a few decades, I skipped Feminism 101… A one sentence answer is enough 🙂

    • Thanks for the really nice comment. Personally, I don’t oppose gender quotas but I don’t think they’re a useful demand politically as they don’t really offer anything to the vast majority of women.

  5. mish said:

    Zizek’s attempt to portray class as not integrative but exclusive is somewhat odd, as if the position of a class is a self imposed one. It is enforced upon us, and breaking the chains that hold us isn’t the destruction of slavers but of slavery, right? I fail to perceive one’s right to exploit as a human right. 🙂
    Greetings from Croatia!

  6. Paul Bowman said:

    Hi Aiden. Stimulating article although of course I disagree with significant aspects of it. Before enganging directly, let me make two preliminary points, one somewhat flippant, the other entirely serious.

    Firstly I’d like to say I’m more than a little miffed at being put alongside a performing seal like Zizek. Much as my resentment of the Slovenian slobberer maay be put down by the meanspirited to simple jealousy due to my significantly lesser amounts of published work, fame and indeed, hair, I maintain that his work is more in the way of entertainment than serious theory. As indeed your succint but deft references to the inconsistencies in his positions in the above article make out. But even more so, that such a facilely essentialist approach to gender, sexuality, race and like issues in this day and age reveal a laziness and lack of willing to seriously engage with the current thinking in those fields.

    Moving on from the partially flippant to the more significant preliminary, I put it to you that the major threat to intersectionality comes not from the class warrior “left”, but the liberal “right”. That is, despite the desire by people within the libertarian left who have contributed to the intersectonality trope, for it to be independent from the kind of liberal, pro-capitalist, “anti-classist” politics dominant on US college campuses, in fact the term has already been simply assimilated by the latter – the way is over and the good guys/gals lost. The reason for this is not due to a lack of willing by the libertarian left or anarchist proponents, but by a major strategic theoretical weakness – the failure to theorise any unbridgeable rupture or break separating the radical anticapitalist contigent and the dominant liberal ideology means that they have already eaten your lunch and you have no response to them. That fact is external to the engagement between our positions, but I would argue, it is actually the weakest aspect of your position that you are already reduced to engaging with the communist minority rather than the liberal majority, given the actual state of affairs.

    So, preliminaries dealt with, how best to unpick a thread where to start teasing out the differences between us? Perhaps the best place is if I start with the one phrase in your article that lept out at me in the greatest contrast, namely “The classic leftist call for unity in a universalist project of class struggle across such divides…”. The key phrase here is the idea of a “universalist project of class struggle” which basically is using the term “universalism” in an orthogonal sense to the one I was using in my article on class composition. That is, for me the notion of a “universalist class struggle” is a contradiction in terms. To be lazy, I’ll just quote the relevant sections on universalism from that article for reference:

    “What useful extra does class add to that? In what way does class step outside the dead end of the “rationalist” programme? Simply put, by rejecting the unspoken, underlying presumption of such a programme – by rejecting universalism – and its bogus moralising.

    A class analysis accepts the truth that the status quo is not against everyone’s interests. That being the case, any attempt to construct a programme of radical social change in the name of the “general interest” is doomed to failure, because there can be no universal interests so long as the interests of a minority resist change. In fact it is the very ability of a tiny minority to make its own interests rule over those of the vast majority that is one of the most important things that needs to change.”

    “… the universal admits no other. That is, an other to itself, as opposed to the particular others it constructs by valorising corresponding norms. It cannot and must not do so – the universal is the social plane within which all particular others are inscribed. To struggle against the oppressions specific to a given category of otherness is to assert your right to the universal. At least by default in the first instance, not that this is the predetermined limit of such struggles, by any means. Nor, let’s be clear again, should we be opposed to the consciousness raising strategy of contrasting the ideal of equal human rights for all, with the reality of particular oppressions that make a mockery of such rights. It is both a natural and a necessary first step. The problem arises if, and only when, the composition of a movement against particular oppressions fails to go beyond that first step, and remains constrained within the bourgeois horizon of universalism – a horizon that fails to challenge the separation of the political sphere from the economic. Universalism is the utopianism of capital.”

    “…the specific utopianism of capital – that society is already, from the start, one undivided sphere of sociality.”

    So, hopefully it becomes a little clearer when I say that I reject the frame of “class exceptionalism” for my own position, which I would rather describe as one of ontological dualism. The exception proves the rule, which is to say that to frame class as an exception is to already accept that the social sphere is already one undivided sphere – the very ontological starting point which I fundamentally reject. The graphic chosen for the above article, using an unproblematised metaphor of space or topology, extended in the notion of class being “…different to other “axes of oppression”” is a tacit presupposition of ontological monism. My article definitely did not propose that class was different from other axes of oppression, it said it was not an axis of oppression at all, but a relation of exploitation, and further that exploitation and oppresssion are distinct relations, under the historically specific social relations of capitalism. NB regarding this position, that ontological dualism is not a general theory of history or society, but historically specific to capitalism alone.

    So, to lay down the ontological grounds, which abstract as it may appear, actually has real-world organisational and political implications, which I will get to in response to the third challanging thesis proposed in Aiden’s piece. Firstly, as already stated, there is the monist assumption of an undifferentiated social sphere. Universalism is the liberal (i.e. anti-class) version of this, but there are also left-wing variants, for e.g. the post-autonomists who followed Negri into declaring the death (or more coyly “crisis”) of the law of value and the ending of the separation between the spheres of economic and political logics. Argueably we could also include a number of the “Communisation” tendency, following Cammatte’s theory of “full subsumption” (which Negri has also appropriated). Similarly the neo-anarchosyndicalist ideology of SolFed and its volutarist (and imo utopian) strategy of the “political-economic” unitary organisation, is based implicitly on a monist ontology.

    The other non-dualist ontology is the determinist separatism of the old-school orthodox Marxists and, whisper it, the Friedmanites, Hayekians and other Austrian-inspired free market right libertarians. This Cartesian-like ontology accepts a strong separation of the economic and the political, but valorises the former at the expense of the latter, whether through the base/superstructure determinism of the orthos, or the “defend the markets from political interference” of the market fundies.

    Ontological dualism is the recognition that the “ontological doubling” that capitalism effects, is real not illusory, but not dichotomous, i.e. not a fully separating cleavage. Further that the two logics, while genuinely autonomous, are not independent – that economic crises create political crises and vice versa. More, epochal crises in global regimes of accumulation (such as the one we are currently in) are always, to some degree, crises in the very separation or the autonomy of the spheres – witness the frustration of market traders at the moment at the binary swings of risk on/off trading currently surging backwards and forwards to the rythym of the political and economic crises of the Eurozone compositional/constitutional process inter alia.

    Grounds established (or at least sketched in outline), lets move to the substantive. Taking Aiden’s 3 theses in reverse order, let’s start with number 3. As always in any serialisation of arguments, the last is really the most important. Everybody likes to end on a KO if they can. The proposition is:

    “Even if (1) and (2) do not hold, there are pragmatic reasons to adopt an intersectional mode of analysis.”

    The main argument (other than a slightly tangential Foucault quote on the authoritarianism of the ortho claim to “scienticity”, which any anarchist accepts) for this is:

    “…if the discourse of class centricity can adequately accommodate the political demands of feminists, queers, people of colour etc., then adopting an intersectional position offers no threat. If it can’t, then why bother defending it? Does the theoretical project of proving that class is special move us closer to the eradication of relations of domination and exploitation?”

    We’ve already discussed the failure, mostly, of intersectionality to prevent itself from being absorbed by liberal bourgeois ideology at the start, so I won’t belabour that point. But the abandonment, not of a class “centricity”, because again, that would put class on the same plane or within the same ontological sphere as that of relations of subjectification, but of ontological dualism is a threat to the project for class recomposition and the overthrowing of capitalist social relations. Given the specific relations of capitalism, the recognition that relations of domination and exploitation operate by distinct logics is a vital theoretical precondition for strategic effectiveness.

    Consider one of the impulses for ontological monism (beyond the “common sense” cognitive bias that corporeal space is undivided), that I call the 9/11 impulse. We find this echoed in the Indignados slogan that “the crisis is a con!”. After 9/11 many americans found the pricking of the bubble of US state invulnerability so psychologically threatening that they preferred to turn to conspiracy theories that the US government had engineered the whole thing. Faced with the option of believing either that the people “up there” you thought were in control, were either not in control at all, or were still in control but lying evil schemers, many people find it psychologically easier to believe in the evil of power rather than its lack. Similarly, one of the biases towards monism, to believe that the economic crisis is not that the powers that be haven’t got a clue how to manage the global economy, but that the crisis is simply another mean trick to make those evil parasite finaciers even richer at the expense of the ordinary people. Of course the flipside to the notion that the crisis is simply another neoliberal conspiracy, is the idea that voting for a SYRIZA or other anti-neoliberal social-democratic party can make the crisis go away. The idea that the economic system does have an autonomy that neither a SYRIZA nor a (god-forbid!) ULA government could tame, is too threatening for some. These ontological questions are not merely abstract, but profoundly political, imo.

    I’m running out of time (and energy) and as usual, what started out as a brief note is metastatizing into a monster, so the rest will have to be in the form of notes:

    In relation to proposition 2 “The class-struggle is not the same from all social locations, and therefore something like intersectionality is necessary to allow a deeper theorisation of class.” I mostly agree but two things:

    1) The issue at question here is not “something like intersectionality”, but the specific form of intersectionality being proposed here which denies ontological dualism and the distinction between relations of domination and exploitation.

    2) also there is a hidden presupposition here, which actually goes to the heart of the matter. The problem at issue here is the problem of representation […]. But to problematise representation presupposes a project of commons or collectivity. After all, the market fundamentalist can easily accept the proliferation of multiple identities (so long as these are safely reduced to consumer choice and the individuals con cerned have the money to pay…) without seeing any problem of representation, for the simple reason that for them the market solves the social issue, hence the creation of a collectivity or commons is a non-problem. To problematise representationalism then presupposes some vision of the composition or recomposition of a collectivity across the lines of gender, race, etc. The liberal or universalist presupposition is of a universal collectivity that includes all political citizens regardless of wealth, rank or privilege. The perspective of class recomposition takes the class as the collectivity for recomposition, in the left libertarian formulation, in a manner not mediated by the interposition of representational class figures, such as the idealised “worker” or other class figure, which, as agreed, necessarily acquires by stealthy default the dominant “norm” attributes of being implicitly white, male, heterosexual and so on.

    In relation to proposition 3. “Like class, neither gender nor race can be reduced to identity.”. I would say, a) my article does not reduce the domain of subjectification merely to “identity”. Oppression is more than the sum total of intersubjective relations, there are the forces exercised by social institutions and the state, also – hence for e.g. the distinction often made between racial prejudice and racism proper. However the object/target or “surface on which relations of power are inscribed” remains the whole individual. Whereas relations of exploitation can operate, machinic-fashion, through cricuits of sub-individual (or “dividual” as Lazzarato, following D&G in the Anti-Oedipus, puts it). b) the attempt to draw equivalences or analogies between class, race and gender do not stand up to even the most basic scrutiny. Flippantly put, the appendage of “war” to all three terms demonstrates this fairly transparently. But further than that, that McKinnon quote is frankly bizzare. Truly her world is upside down – production as “consequence” of capitalism? srsly? – McKinnon is no more a Marxism than I am a tap-dancing Dalek. c) Class is not a structure, it is a contradiction of capital. Capital is a real abstraction – we can analyse its accumulation and how its cycle of self-reproduction contradicts with our own. But if there is a similar real abstraction that is to gender or race what capital is to class, I would be interested to hear it.

    Basta for now.

    • Borscht said:

      Interesting comment.

      don’t understand your last point about how “appending war” demonstrates that there can be no analogy between class, race, and gender. Could you spell that out a bit more?

  7. Paul Bowman said:

    On the same topic, I also liked this from the great Wildcat review of Graeber’s Debt. (http://www.wildcat-www.de/en/wildcat/93/e_w93_bb_graeber.html)


    Once again, the point here is not to criticise the practices associated with the ’99 per cent’ slogan (and obviously not to propose its adjustment to 75-25, 50-50 per cent or any other ratio). The simple-mindedness of slogans dividing the world into identity groups (whether 99-vs-1 per cent, nationalities or ‘classes’ as hallucinated in cultural terms) is emphasised only because what it occludes is precisely the way contradictory interests cut across all such groupings. Only a dynamic conception of interests – one extending far beyond Graeber’s ‘pursuit of profit’ definition, all the way in fact to his ‘love, spite, pity, torpor’ etc., as mediated by the crudest material need – allows some understanding of the contradictory needs, stakes or exposures intersecting in any subject position and the relations of dependence binding these contradictory elements together.

    Nor is attention to interests in any way pessimistic. Graeber is relentlessly hostile to ‘impersonality’, which he finds gestating throughout ‘coin economy’ episodes in world history until it becomes the defining characteristic of ‘capitalist empires’. But he fails to see why the impersonality of interests – and of the classes comprised by them – holds out the only possibility of overcoming intra-class warfare, even as the depth of conflicting dependencies makes the attempt so traumatic. A subject does not belong to its interests in the way a person is imagined (for as long as the superstition holds) to belong to categories of identity: kinship, caste, feudal station, nationality, psychological profile, etc. These latter categories also represent interests with coercive social weight of their own, of course, but once they are recognized as such – or secularized – the spell is broken. An interest bespeaks a relation, a situation, rather than an innate personal attribute. As such it may be contradicted by other relations or interests binding the same subject. And as such, unlike personal properties, it is susceptible to change, repudiation, or, in the language of identity so often superimposed on interests, betrayal.

    Repudiation of interests is not a matter of inner conversion but of changing ‘external’ relations, as a consequence of which a subject position composed of interests may change. Again, this is not some outlying Marxist notion. A conception of contingent, interest-bound, internally contradictory subject positions is implied in the Realpolitik practised by the factions administering bits of capital in their dealings with each other and their private discussion of the merely-breathing-and-working class. Identity superstitions are only introduced when the administrators address their inferiors, who are welcome to maul one another in the name of ‘competition’ or ‘community’ but can’t be trusted not to turn a realistic image of contradictory interests into the wrong kind of social explosive.

    A collective interest is possible in a way that a collective identity is not, because an interest doesn’t fully account for the bodies involved: it describes one shared relation to the social totality, leaving all other contradictions raging. Solidarity in a collective interest must overpower the contradictory interests of the same subjects if it is not to be destroyed by the contradictions (as, for example, in a strike defeated by the immediate threat to the strikers’ means of survival). Self-betrayal for the sake of collective or expanded self-interest may be merely momentary (as in the ‘gang truce’ reported during last year’s London riots), or otherwise slow, uneven and perpetually reversible (as in the ordeals of class formation through history). Its generalized, irreversible form is as yet unseen: Marx called it the self-abolition of the proletariat.

  8. Avak said:

    “By analogy, we should ask whose interests, experiences and politics can more readily be spoken through the discourse of class struggle? What precisely are the power-effects of refusing intersectionality and insisting on class exceptionalism?”

    The answer is precisely described in the post above. The “interest” is in having a theoretical framework for unity, something that goes beyond our own subjective demands. Class is merely the relation of domination within the totality of social hierarchies. It is not a thing in itself. I would even argue that it describes precisely that relation between men and women in the Catherine McKinnon quote.

    I would inverse your question and ask, in whose interest is it to see our struggles as fragmented and to relativize one term, class, which describes the system which binds them all together? If you think about it, you’ll see why Foucault and other post-modernists have thrived so well in the academy.

  9. It often happens, as here, that discussion of intersectionality misses out the entire issue of disability. How will the disabled person who is black, gay, transsexual, or working class going to perceive themselves within the argument offered?

    • You’re absolutely right, this whole discussion passes over the issue of disability, and that’s a problem. It’s a weakness I’m aware of, and I would hope to improve my understanding of disability issues so they might permeate my thinking. I’d be interested in hearing how you think disabled people’s perspectives might complicate or conflict with what I’ve written here?

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