Intersectionality and the identity politics of class

The focus of much of my writing (1 2) and thinking over the past year has been on bringing intersectional theory and theories of class struggle into a productive dialogue with one another in a way that neither collapses one into the other (by, for example, suggesting that intersectionality provides nothing more than a way of making the class struggle more cognizant of ‘particular’ oppressions that are thereby positioned at the periphery of political struggle; or, in the other direction, by converting class into a mere analog of gender and race, problematically rendering the three political spaces precisely isomorphic to one another) nor dismisses one on the basis of the other (intersectionality is simply the latest incarnation of middle-class/academic/liberal identity politics, class struggle is merely another colonialist metanarrative which empowers white men, etc.) but that, at the same time, does not assume that the two can be simply and unproblematically stapled together as if there were no conflicts and tensions. Rather my aim has been to treat these tensions as sites of productive inquiry which pose important challenges to our theorisations of political struggle, which so often only sustain internal coherence as the result of troublesome excisions and occlusions.

My motivation in this undertaking is partly pragmatic: intersectional discourses have displayed a vibrancy and vitality in recent times that has been largely absent from a stagnant and marginalised revolutionary left such that increasing numbers of (particularly young) activists are learning to express political ideas through the language of intersectionality (and its theoretically impoverished cousin ‘privilege’) and, indeed, evaluate political movements and organisations on the basis of their practical and theoretical engagement with intersectionality. In this context, having nothing to say about intersectionality, or worse having something trite and dismissive to say (sorry love, your oppression is the product of determinate economic forces, not “patriarchy”) is a recipe for reproducing our own irrelevance. At the same time, the proliferation of identitarian and liberal theories of class through intersectional discourses risks entrenching what are, in the end, pro-capitalist political theories within the left and requires proactive but careful engagement. On a less instrumentalist level, I feel that engagement with intersectionality by the revolutionary left has the potential to open us up to important new political possibilities. At a minimum, intersectionality and privilege theory provide useful insights into the micropolitics of social movements and heuristics for minimising the reproduction of oppression and marginalisation within movements. (In this regard, privilege theory’s lack of theoretical sophistication is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, its simplicity makes it easily understandable and generalisable, and provides practical shortcuts which avoid messy and involved theoretical debates when dealing with specific issues. On the other hand, the tendency to treat privilege as a thing-in-itself leads to a reification which occludes the workings of power, treating manifestations of systems of domination and exploitation as if they were the systems themselves. Privilege thereby becomes its own cause and effect and undue emphasis is placed on particular privileges enjoyed by privileged groups rather than the systems which produce them.) However, intersectionality’s real value, in my view, is that it offers an approach to theory-formation and practice which holds the potential to recover the possibility of a collective self-emancipation of the oppressed and to escape the labyrinth of postmodern particularisms. Intersectionality insists that we theorise systems of oppression always in the light of one another, that we abandon the quest for the one ontology to rule them all and instead begin to recognise the heterogenous multiplicity of antagonisms that divide the social sphere, and therefore that we embrace tensions, contradictions and incoherences as occasions for democracy and the deepening of insight, rather than producing neat theoretical resolutions which so often are merely exercises of power.

Unsurprisingly, given the hegemony of liberal intersectionalities within the broad left and the revolutionary left’s reluctance to engage with intersectional theory, largely due to a paranoiac fear of being drawn into “identity politics”, the nature and location of class within an intersectional frame has been a recurring sticking point. Regarding class intersectionally, we are told, necessarily occludes some key metaphysical quality of class and thus effects a retreat from class struggle in some sense. Intuitively, I don’t think this is true – intersectionality as a mode of analysis doesn’t strike me particularly as imposing a particular form on the systems which it proposes to theorise together; in fact, I would argue the imposition of a universal structure on all forms of struggle is precisely not what intersectionality is supposed to be about – but the intuitions of others appear to diverge sharply from my own. I think an important and, unfortunately, often unacknowledged complicating factor in this and other debates on the left is the polysemy of ‘class’ as a signifier, which makes pinning down precisely what object this term ‘class’ refers to intensely difficult (that is, significantly beyond the inevitable failure of all signification to fully represent the signified). The signifier ‘class’ always effects multiple significations, both at the level of the subject and of discourse between subjects. Put simply: class has a variety of different meanings both to different people and coinciding within the same person, which often cannot be reconciled.

The point of this semiotic excursion is to say something important about the limitations of theory. Territorialistic* theoretical defences of particular conceptions of class, whatever their sophistication, whatever the force of their argument, and whatever productive new becomings they effect in their readers, do not collapse the semiotic constellation ‘class’ into a single meaning. (To argue otherwise is, in my view, to place an undue faith in the performative power of language and in the humanistic notion of the rational thinking-subject.)

Situating ‘class politics’ in relation to ‘identity politics’, then, requires us to consider not just what we would like the term ‘class’ to mean, or what it might theoretically mean, but how the term ‘class’ is really embedded in the discourses of the left and the full range of meanings to which it relates. Particularly, we need to recognise the specific history of class-as-identity within the revolutionary left, which situates class (at least partially) on the plane of identity politics as a competitor for the privileged status of the universal Subject of historical change. In other words, we need to recognise that it is not just pro-capitalist liberals who participate in an identity politics of class. This tendency has a clear relationship to representational modes of politics where political ideologies and movements are supposed to “represent” the aspirations and interests of some identity category or other, which, I would argue, can only operate through the the territorial ‘marking out’ of a particular set of aims, concerns, goals etc. as legitimate to that political project, and delegitimisation or deprioritisation of those which fall outside of that particular political territory. That is to say: ‘working-class politics’ can only ever secondarily be concerned with feminism or anti-racism, and only insofar as those things can be demonstrated to be the proper concern of The Working Class.

Representationalism (and, by extension, identitarianism) is quite obviously embedded in the politics of both the parliamentary and vanguardist revolutionary variants of socialism, where a particular political organisation attempts to capture state power “on behalf of the workers” and to pursue working class political interests through the state machinery. But the hegemonic nature of representational politics exerts an orienting influence even on those with a formally anti-representational politics. While anarchists might reject the representationalism of the state socialist (what we might call ’embodied representation’ – representation embodied by an actual group of people who aim to represent the working class) there remains an impetus among anarchists to develop a politics that authentically represents a working class political subjectivity (which I’m calling ‘abstract representation’ – representation through ideas that needn’t be materially embodied). The notion of class as an immanent antagonism of capital is never quite as distinct in practice from class-as-identity as it might be shown to be in theory; ‘class politics’ easily mutates to become ‘working class politics’ which then becomes ‘the politics of the workers’ movement’, and, through this kind of metonymy, we end up reproducing the same identity politics of “the workers” which we purport to have rejected. Note, for example, the central role afforded to the trade union movement in the recent online debates (1 2 3 4 5) over the efficacy of the WSM and of anarchism as a political practice and near total absence of any discussion of pro-feminist, pro-queer or anti-racist work. How effective we have been at intervening in the trade union movement appears to be central to judging the WSM as an organisation in a way that questions of race and gender politics simply are not. What does this signify? Some ethical failure on the part of the individual contributors to the discussion? Or perhaps that we continue to be shaped by the workerist baggage of a revolutionary left centred around an exclusionary and identitarian conception of class struggle?

It is here that we must recognise the necessity of intersectionality (even in its most reductively identitarian form) to the rebuilding of any kind of effective left. Intersectionality, by insisting that systems of power are always theorised together, and, what’s more, by insisting that this be an embodied practice and not merely a theoretical outcome, forces us repeatedly into the difficult and “divisive” discussions which we must have if we are ever to afford issues of gender and race the respect and significance they deserve.

* The notion of ‘territory’ is used in this piece to convey both the notion of a space with borders, and a proprietary relation to a space, with an associated attack-and-defence mindset, which I think describes a common and problematic approach to political/theoretical questions. I intend to write a fuller account of this in a subsequent piece.

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