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:
- Like class, neither gender nor race can be reduced to identity.
- 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.
- 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.