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cw: discussion of depression and suicide

It was with great sadness that I learned of the death by suicide of Mark Fisher.

My first encounter with Mark’s writing was during the explosive and bitter controversy that followed the publication of his Exiting The Vampire’s Castle. I wrote a response, without really having much idea who I was responding to, in which I treated it a case of “neoconservative Marxism”, following Judith Butler’s usage of the term in ‘Merely Cultural’.

Subsequent to this, I dived into Mark’s writings, and discovered an altogether different mind to the one I thought I had been engaging with. It became clear that this was not just another bog-standard Marxbro threatened by feminism, nor a conservative in any sense (although I maintain that my usage was strictly-speaking correct in line with Butler’s, whatever that’s worth). What I discovered was a wealth of perceptive, thoughtful, lucid and emotionally sensitive writings on life in late capitalism, and as I read I had the sense of thoughts at once clicking into place and opening out onto new possibilities – the kind of sensation you only get from the thought of someone you feel sees the same things you do and has been able to understand them in ways you have not. In particular, as someone who has struggled for most of my adult life with depression, and more recently with suicidal impulses, I found Mark’s writing on mental illness extremely important in understanding my own condition as part of a collective phenomenon imposed by a bleak, ugly, inhuman world that never should have been. I think it’s no exaggeration to say that these works have made a significant contribution to my still being here.

At the same time, as I gained a greater understanding of the politics around ideas of intersectionality, privilege and social justice, and as I was forced to slog through numerous bad faith interactions with people weaponising these ideas, my patience for the more excessive aspects of this discourse waned. My perception is that I am far from the only one whose sympathies have shifted in this way: most of the people I know who at the time of the VC controversy were, like me, finding a footing within politics that were relatively novel to the much of the left, and to some degree enmeshed in its more problematic tendencies, have since grown bored and frustrated with the ritualised combat and rule-driven emotionally impoverished forms of engagement it often produces, and have come to a more nuanced and constructive understanding of what that politics is and is for.

While I still consider ETVC to be a bad intervention that paints its borders too broadly and ends up implicating a range of political tendencies that deserve much greater consideration than they are afforded, it is nonetheless clear that the tendency being criticised is real. But the problem was not, as the piece heavily emphasised, the class background and interests of those engaged in these discourses, but that we had ended up, for whatever reason, with a superego politics that enabled a self-destructive indulgence in cruelty at the expense of compassion, and this was more-or-less all that actually needed to be said about the phenomenon. It would have been better expressed, better received, and more effective had it been approached with sensitivity as a warning from within, rather than an attack from without. I’ve come to regard the piece as an outburst, an embittered and clumsy effort to tackle a real problem which he had not properly understood – one that is very much at odds with the tone and ethic of Mark’s other work, and which can be safely bracketed in considering his legacy as a writer and thinker as a whole. It is very much not what I would like to emphasise and remember in light of his death.

But sadly and predictably, those on both sides of the controversy least capable of learning and growth have chosen to respond by attempting to re-ignite it. On one side, prominent internet feminist stavvers response to the tragedy was to attempt to blame Mark for the mental illnesses of others, and to express the wish that “left misogyny would die with him“. Not to be outdone, Ross Wolfe’s response was to blame those targeted by the piece for the suicide of its author, albeit with sufficient caveats to evade responsibility for stating this directly.

Is this the best we can do? Could we not treat the suicide of a comrade beloved to many as an occasion for reflection on the inter-implication of our lives, our vulnerabilites, our need for hope, within the collective project for liberation in which all of us are entangled-together? After all, if there is to be a better world at all, those of us struggling towards it need to keep one-another alive, and that calls for the practice of compassion and love even across profound and deeply-entrenched internal battle lines. Must we re-open old wounds and rehearse our nastiest conflicts as if nothing has been learned and nothing could ever be learned from them?

The central problem with Mark’s piece, and the present renewed attacks on forms of feminist, queer, anti-racist etc. politics implicated by it, is that the critique remained entirely immanent to its object: bad tempered, essentialising, disinterested in active listening and constructive dialog, and ultimately no less identitarian. Its main effect has been to legitimate the desire to dismiss and refuse engagement among those on the side within which it placed itself, thereby retrenching precisely the problems it aimed at overcoming. If, in retrospect, it appears to some as an apt diagnosis, that’s at least partly down to the diagnosis being self-reinforcing. If there is to be a way out of the Vampire’s Castle, the interventions that make it possible must be qualitatively different in form and content from the phenomenon we wish to escape. What I think now in this regard is more or less what I thought at the time, although I didn’t then have the language to put it succinctly: the only useful way for the class-struggle left to interact with this politics is to refuse to treat non-antagonistic contradictions antagonistically, even if the gesture is not reciprocated, to place ourselves within these discourses (which, after all, whatever their faults, are expressions of the desire for the universal emancipation of humanity, often coming from those who are young and very new to political consciousness) and proceed patiently, via immanent critique, towards an overcoming-together of their limitations and problems.

Whatever “side” we’re on, if we’re serious about what our politics means, that means placing compassion before competition, and fostering forms of collectivity that refuse lines of division laid down for us to reinforce our impotence. If a lesson is to be drawn from reflecting on the Vampire’s Castle at this moment, let it be that.

This is a list of radical writings around the issues of intersectionality, privilege (theory), identity (politics), and difference. It was originally compiled by Abbey Volcano on facebook, and I’ve reproduced it here and added a couple of things. Let me know if there’s anything missing or that you think should be added (self-promotion is fine as long as it’s on topic). Also let me know if there’s mistakes or broken links here, as I haven’t gone through this all with a fine-tooth comb or anything. Linking does not imply endorsement.

“I Would Rather be a Cyborg Than a Goddess” Intersectionality, Assemblage, and Affective Politics, Jasbir Puar (2011) 

“Undocumented”: How an Identity Ended a Movement, Yasmin Nair (2013)

10 Theses on Identity Politics, JMP (2013) 

A Class Struggle Anarchist Analysis of Privilege Theory– from the Women’s Caucus of Afed (2012) 

A Neo-Anarchist Vampire Bites Back: Mark Fisher and Neoconservative Leftism, Automatic Writing (2013) 

A Politics of Humanity: Towards a Critique of Conflict, Identity, and Transformation, Scott Nappalos (2013) 

A Question of Privilege, Wolfi Landstreicher (2001) 

Against Liberalism, for Intersectional Class Politics, Garage Collective (2014)

All hail the vampire-archy: what Mark Fisher gets wrong in ‘Exiting the vampire castle’Ray Filar (2013)

Anarchism, Social Emancipation and Privilege Theory: A Critique, Jehu (2013)

Anarchist Debates on Privilege (2013; Dyspohia 4, pamphlet)

B-grade politics and reaction, Angela Mitropoulos (2013)

Be Careful With Each Other, So We Can Be Dangerous Together (2012) 

Black Feminism and Intersectionality, Sharon Smith (2014) 

BrocialismRecording Surface (2013)

Capitalism and Oppression: Against Identity Politics, Blogging The End (2013)

Class Struggle and Intersectionality: Isn’t Class Special?, Automatic Writing (2013)

Creating an Anarchist Theory of Privilege, Dónal O’ Driscoll (2013)

Damn these vampiressynthetic_zero (2013)

Decolonial Intersectionality and a Transnational Feminist MovementSara Salem (2014)

Exiting the Vampire Castle, Mark Fisher (2013)

Fragments on Intersectionality, Anger & the Left, Automatic Writing (2014) 

Further Adventures in Intersectionality: On the Hounding of Laurie Penny & Richard Seymour, James Heartfield (2014)

Gender and the Radical Left: ‘Creeping Feminism’ and the ‘Dark Side of the Internet’ Rhiannon Lowton (2014)

Gothic Politics: A Reply To Mark Fisher, Matthijs Krul (2013)

Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy: Rethinking Women of Color OrganizingAndrea Smith (2006)

I am a Woman and a Human: a Marxist Feminist Critique of Intersectionality Theory, Eve Mitchell (2013) 

Identity, Politics, and Anti-Politics: a Critical Perspective, Phil (2010) 

Identity Politics and Class Struggle, Robin D.G. Kelly (1997)

Inclusive, intersectional, anti-racist feminist class war – Many shades, second sex, Farah (2013)

Insurrection at the Intersections: Feminism, Intersectionality, and Anarchism, Abbey Volcano and J. Rogue (2013) 

Intersectional? Or Just Sectarian? James Heartfield (2013) 

Intersectionality and the Identity Politics of Class, Automatic Writing (2013) 

Intersectionality, Calling Out & the Vampire Castle -we need dialogue & change rather than exclusion, Andrew Flood (2014) 

Is Intersectionality a Theory?, J.J.M.E. Gleeson (2014)

K-Punk and the Vampire’s Castle, Not Just The Minutiae (2013)

Marginalization is Messy: Beyond Intersectionality, Aphrodite Kocieda (2013)

Marxism, Feminism & PrivilegeRoss Speer (2014)

Marxist Feminism as a Critique of Intersectionality, Sara (2013) 

On Fighting Patriarchy: Why Bros Falling Back Isn’t Enough, Kim and Arturo (2013) 

On Race, Gender, Class, and Intersectionality, Brenna Bhandar (2013)

On the Abolition of Gender, Folie à Deux (2012)

Oppression, Intersectionality and Privilege Theory, Karl Gill (2014)

Oppression Within Oppression: A Response to “A Question of Privilege,” Beyond Resistance (2011)

Postmodern Origins of IntersectionalityThe Charnel House (2014)

Privilege Politics is Reformism, Will (2012)

Privilege Theory. The Politics of Defeat, Sabcat (2013)

Refusing to Wait: Anarchism and Intersectionality, Deric Shannon and J. Rogue (2009) 

Rethinking Class: From Recomposition to Counterpower, Paul Bowman (2012)

The Dead End in Checking Class Privilege, Ryne Poelker (2013)

The Elements of Intersectionality, Mhairi McAlpine (2013)

The Identity Politics of Capital: Homogenising Differentiation, Automatic Writing, (2014)

The Oppression Ouroboros: Intersectionality Will Eat Itself, Jason Walsh (2014) 

The Point of Intersection, Richard Seymour (2013)

The Politics of Denunciation, Kristian Williams (2014) 

The Politics of Voices: Notes on Gender, Race & Class, Aidan Rowe (2013) 

The Poverty of Privilege Politics, Tabitha Bast and Hannah McClure (2013) 

The principle that there is a single world does not contradict the infinite play of identities and differences, Alain Badiou (2014) 

The Problem with “Privilege”, Andrea Smith (2013) 

The Promises and Pitfalls of Privilege Politics (2012; in pamphlet printing form, i.e. hard to read) 

The White Skin Privilege Concept: From Margin to Center of Revolutionary Politics, Michael Staudenmaier (2007) 

Tim Wise & The Failure of Privilege Discourse, Robtheidealist (2013) 

Vampires aren’t actually real, though. Class is: a reply to Mark Fisher’s castle of bollocksCautiously Pessmistic (2013)

What’s Wrong With Identity Politics (and Intersectionality Theory)? A Response to Mark Fisher’s “Exiting the Vampire Castle” (And Its Critics), Michael Rectenwald (2013) 

Who Is Oakland: Anti-Oppression Activism, the Politics of Safety, and State Co-optation, CROATON (2012) 

With Allies Like These: Reflections on Privilege ReductionismLinchpin (2014)

Marketing itself is a practice based on differences, and the more differences that are given, the more marketing strategies can develop. Ever more hybrid and differentiated populations present a proliferating number of “target markets” that can each be addressed by specific marketing strategies—one for gay Latino males between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, another for Chinese-American teenage girls, and so forth. Postmodern marketing recognizes the difference of each commodity and each segment of the population, fashioning its strategies accordingly. Every difference is an opportunity…

When one looks closely at U.S. corporate ideology (and, to a lesser but still significant extent, at U.S. corporate practice), it is clear that corporations do not operate simply by excluding the gendered and/or racialized Other. In fact, the old modernist forms of racist and sexist theory are the explicit enemies of this new corporate culture. The corporations seek to include difference within their realm and thus aim to maximize creativity, free play, and diversity in the corporate workplace. People of all different races, sexes, and sexual orientations should potentially be included in the corporation; the daily routine of the workplace should be rejuvenated with unexpected changes and an atmosphere of fun. Break down the old boundaries and let one hundred flowers bloom! The task of the boss, subsequently, is to organize these energies and differences in the interests of profit. This project is aptly called ‘‘diversity management.’’ In this light, the corporations appear not only ‘‘progressive’’ but also ‘‘postmodernist,’’ as leaders in a very real politics of difference.

Hardt & Negri, Empire, pp. 152-3

I

In One Dimensional Man, Marcuse develops the concept of “repressive desublimation” as a critique of the consumerist politics of desire: In its consumerist phase, capital no longer operates primarily through the denial and repression of desire, but through the satisfaction of desires that it itself produces, thus preventing rebellion and ensuring the reproduction of the capitalist system with a fully closed circuit of desire and consumption. There is a disciplinary machinery at work within the supposed free play of desire: one’s desire must always lead back to capital. One must want only what capitalism offers, and increasingly one must not refuse to want it. As Zizek claims, increasingly “the permissive ‘You May!’ [turns] into the prescriptive ‘You Must!’… permitted enjoyment turns into ordained enjoyment” (The Superego and the Act) but this enjoyment is strictly regulated: “you can enjoy everything, BUT deprived of its substance which makes it dangerous.” (Passion In The Era of Decaffeinated Belief) There is, therefore, an unsatisfying banality to consumerist gratification:

“Behind the glitter of spectacular distractions, a tendency toward banalization dominates modern society the world over, even where the more advanced forms of commodity consumption have seemingly multiplied the variety of roles and objects to choose from… life in this particular world remains repressive and offers nothing but pseudo-gratifications.” (Debord, The Society of the Spectacle)

* I have substantial disagreements, however with Marcuse’s historical thesis and his account of desire: there was never a purely libidinally repressive capitalism with which to compare modern permissive capitalism, while at the same time the immiseration of previous “phases” continues to coexist with consumerist abundance which confounds any notion of historical rupture in this regard.

Thus is the ambivalence of capitalist “freedom”. Who, after all, would want to return from “repressive desublimation” to repression simpliciter?* And yet there is, if anything, a more profound alienation associated with the capitalism that gives us what we want: alienation at the point of production – that is, the alien presence of capital within us, appropriating our will and intent – is generalised to the whole of social life – capital lives within us as desire – the desiring-production of capital

II

I wish to propose a similar (and somewhat related) concept in relation to the (postmodern) capitalist politics of difference: that of “homogenising differentiation”.

In its postmodern phase, capital encourages – indeed in certain senses relies upon – the free proliferation of difference across the social world, both as a necessary correlate of the deconstruction of national boundaries, as a field of opportunity for marketing and consumption, and as a source of productive creativity.† But capital also must impose certain limits on the emergence of new subjectivities to ensure they continue to feed into the production and consumption of commodities, and must continually reterritorialise all escapes. “Let a hundred flowers bloom!” capital says, but in blooming one must remain a flower: you can have whatever identity you like, as long as it is capable of functioning as a marketplace and a workshop for commodity consumption/production. The immanent logic of capitalist pluralism is thus to homogenise the very difference it pursues, to circumscribe and constrain the field of possibilities it simultaneously opens, to reterritorialise with one hand what it deterritorialises with the other.

† Of course, as Hardt & Negri point out, this “global politics of difference established by the world market is defined not by free play and equality, but by the imposition of new hierarchies, or really by a constant process of hierarchization” (Empire, p.154) Capital, even at its most utopian, retains and develops an alliance with patriarchal, heteronormative and racist biopolitical regimes, but this is not our primary insterest here.

This is not at all a matter of opposing a virtual or superficial difference to a real underlying sameness, as if gender, race etc. are merely the surface phenomena of a universal worker-consumer, nor is it a matter of opposing (universal) form to (particular) content. Rather it is the operation of a material process of subjection, universal in scope but particular in application, that organises the subject to produce a certain set of functions, potentials, imperatives, without reducing it to merely another copy of the same. Many different machines can plug into the universal machine of capital, so long as they can manifest certain features: i.e. can speak the universal language of money, submit to work-discipline, produce value, desire commodities, gaze upon the spectacle. In other words, we do not discover a universal figure of the worker-consumer beneath particular articulations of race, gender etc., and thus reassert the political/ontological primacy of class; there is no sub- or super- structure here, but a multiplicity of processes of interpellation that structure a common material.

Put simply: capitalist diversity is internally contradictory, not simply because it relies on the perpetuation of structural racism, sexism, homophobia and the like for its reproduction, but because the logic of (even, or perhaps especially) those capitalist processes that Hardt & Negri claim “have long been postmodernist, avant la lettre” (Empire, p.151) requires that it must continually ward off the emergence of a truly radical otherness that it cannot recuperate.

III

Official (state and corporate) multiculturalism takes this form. The racial/cultural other is officially embraced so long as that otherness never exceeds the implicit bounds set by the state and the market. “We love your exotic foods and dances, your spiritualism, your ecologically sound approach to nature,” multiculturalism says, but in the same breath this incitement to diversity is also a proscription: “this is to be the content of your difference”, which must never exceed the bounds of good citizenship and of enthusiastic neoliberal subjectivity. The celebration and incorporation of “good diversity” is in the same moment the abjection and suppression of “bad diversity”: “Muslims yes! Political Islam no!”

Similarly, the “progressive” corporations are pro-gay but virulently anti-queer. Increasingly, capital heroically champions the rights and inclusion of same-sex couples but on its terms. It is interested precisely and only in those wishing to opt-in to heteronormative kinship structures and associated consumer practices, and thus “[t]he sphere of legitimate intimate alliance is established through producing and intensifying regions of illegitimacy” (Judith Butler, Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?). Pride is gradually stripped of its political content and instead becomes just another celebration of consumer culture, and the movement began with a demand for liberation – that is, to open new spaces of livability, to push the horizons of experience, and to resist the disciplinary violence of society – becomes “just another interest group, another demographic, another corporate social responsibility box-ticking excercise allowing big business to claim progressive credentials, obscuring the exploitation at the heart of their operation.”

IV

According to many on the Left, this is precisely the sort of thing that postmodernism, identity politics, and intersectionality are incapable of seeing. Focusing myopically on a set of disconnected particulars, so the argument goes, those who pursue a radical politics of difference fail to see the trap that is identity. Capital has outflanked us by incorporating the very politics of difference we seek to deploy against it within its marketing strategies, management practices, modes of biopolitical governance, etc., leaving the postmodern left chasing the ghost of a modernist capitalism that no longer exists. What is needed, therefore, is a return to macro theories with global applicability, and the recomposition of a universal historical (class) subject.

What this perspective is missing is an understanding of the immanent tension of a bourgeois politics of difference, the inescabable insufficiency of capitalist inclusiveness, and thus the tendency of a radical politics of difference to exceed what capital is able to deliver. After all, the space of consumer flavours does not exhaust the potential of human life, and capital must continually frustrate our becomings, blocking paths, recoding and redirecting renegade desires. We should not abandon the postmodern pursuit of difference to the capitalist apparatus of capture, but rather relentlessly push at the boundaries of experiential possibility to pursue a radical difference that capitalism is inherently incapable of realising: “Not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to ‘accelerate the process'” (Deleuze & Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, pp.239-40) – an accelerationist identity politics, not technological and productivist, but experiential, subjective. A transversal politics continually shifting focus between structure and intersection to discover possibilities for insurrection – a revolutionary intersectionality that exceeds the individuating and identitarian bureacracy of liberal thought.

This was my first attempt to write about intersectionality from an anarchist perspective. Originally published in Irish Anarchist Review #7

As class-struggle anarchists dealing with the relations between gender, race and class, we must, in theory and practice, pick a path between two pitfalls. On one side is economic reductionism – the reduction of all political questions to the social relations of production – which erases the perspectives and struggles of women, queers and people of colour; submerges their voices within an overly generalised class narrative, in which the idealised Worker is implicitly white heterosexual and male; or consigns their struggles to a secondary importance compared to the “real struggle” of (economic) class against class. On the other is a stultifying and inward-looking liberal-idealist identity politics, concerned fetishistically with the identification of privilege and the self-regulation of individual oppressive behaviour to the (near) exclusion of organised struggle, which, while amplifying the voices of the marginalised, consigns them to an echo chamber where they can resonate harmlessly.

While both poles described are actualised within the anarchist milieu, we should not make the mistake of thinking that both pitfalls are equally imminent. White supremacism and patriarchyi are hegemonic within our society and this is reflected in anarchist spaces: dismissive “critiques” of identity politics are far more common than over-enthusiastic engagement. Therefore this piece will not offer yet another of these critiques, which more often than not function only justify the continued ignorance and inaction of those unwilling to destabilise their privilege.ii

Rather this piece deals with a more difficult question: “How does one reconcile the diverse political perspectives of feminists, queers and activists of colour with the tradition of class-struggle anarchism?” I do not offer a complete or authoritative answer, but rather attempt to move forward a conversation which seems to be perpetually re-iterating its own beginning: “we must begin to talk about gender and race issues”. Indeed we must, but we must also move beyond beginning.

The traditional approach

Most class-struggle anarchist understandings of the inter-relation of gender, race and class allude in one way or another to the Marxist base-superstructure model of society, that is, that the relations of production are the base of society, which generate the political superstructure which includes the state, culture, gender and race relations etc. A vulgar Marxist idea of the base-superstructure model holds that the base determines the superstructure absolutely and the superstructure is unable to affect the base. The implication of this is that no specific agitation on gender or race issues is needed: if women, queers or people of colour wish to improve their position in society they should simply participate in the class struggle which will necessarily and automatically result in the dissolution of all hierarchies. A particularly crude but somewhat instructive example of this thinking tells us:

In any class society—thus, in any society in which the state and the economy exist—only the ruling class can be truly said to have privilege… [S]o-called privileges are nothing more than a minimal easing of the conditions of exploitation experienced by people in these specific social categories. They are intended to convince these people that they have more in common with their exploiters than with those not granted the same “privileges” and to convince the others that their real enemy is not the ruling class, but rather those granted a less intense level of exploitation… Since only the ruling class truly has privilege, the destruction of privilege will only occur when we destroy all rule.iii

This sort of utopian thinking denies that gender or race have any autonomy from class: patriarchy and white supremacism are merely tools employed by the ruling class to divide the workers. Of course, in reality, the establishment of a communist economic system does not preclude the continuation of patriarchy or white supremacism. One can easily imagine, for example, a communist system where women are held to be the collective sexual property of men, with sexual access ensured by systematic rape and battery, whose economy is perfectly functional.

More sophisticated variants of this model, often accompanied by some dialectical flourish, acknowledge the necessity of specific anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and anti-transphobic agitation, lest these dynamics persist “after the revolution”, but still understand gender and race issues as being essentially forms of bigotry fostered by the ruling class to divide workers against themselves to prevent the realisation of their collective “objective” interests as a class. Gender and race struggles are thus positioned as ancillary to the class struggle, even if they are formally considered “central” to it. Patriarchy and white supremacism are not understood as constituting systems in their own right and forms of power other than the economic are rendered invisible. The pertinent question here is not whether this picture is correct in some “objective” sense – whether metaphysically all power “really” resides in the means of production – but rather: which voices are amplified by this framing and which are muted? What forms of action are opened and foreclosed by choosing this framework at the expense of another? Who among us has the power to define the “objective” interests of the working class?

‘Scientific socialism’ and subjectivity

No theory, no ready-made system, no book that has ever been written will save the world. – Mikhail Bakuniniv

A particularly egregious influence of Marxism on anarchist thought is the supposed need to understand the world systematically – to render the world objectively knowable through the development of a theoretical system, which totally describes reality, and provides a set of objective truths against which other understandings of the world can be compared – related to the failed project of “scientific socialism”. Anarchists (Bakunin in particular) have long recognised the authoritarian nature of this project: a movement mobilised according to scientific theories can only be a movement of “experts” leading the masses – the “false consciousness” of the masses can only be directed to revolutionary ends by the Party, which, by some unknown means, comes to be the bearer of true consciousness backed up by objective scientific facts.v

Objective or universal knowledge is impossible. We exist within a web of social relations and only a god would be able to view the totality of social relations as an objective observer. What we see and what we do not is dependent both on how we are positioned relative to others and in which directions we choose to look. The systems we develop for understanding the world are therefore products of the particular web of power relations in which we are situated; are necessarily at best partial, subjective and tentative; and reflect both the oppressions and privileges to which we are subject. Their proper function is as working theories that enable us to act as effectively as possible within our social context, not as dogmas to which reality must be made to fit. Claims to objectivity and universality are nothing other than a power grab; what is considered central to the struggle for human liberation is a reflection of who has power within the movement. The centrality of economics to our theory, and our particular conception of what class struggle entails and what it does not must be critically re-evaluated in this light.vi

Intersectionality and privilege

[T]here is an important value in overcoming the fear of immanent critique and to maintaining the democratic value of producing a movement that can contain, without domesticating, conflicting interpretations on fundamental issues. – Judith Butlervii

Feminist theory provides useful theoretical tools for analysing the inter-relations of gender, race and class. Critiques of second-wave feminism, particularly from women of colour, highlighted the role of universalist feminist narratives in the marginalisation of working-class women, women of colour, and those whose gender expression or sexuality deviated from the norm: the idea of a universal female experience in practice meant the universalisation of the issues of the most privileged sections of the feminist movement. The theory of intersectionality was developed to address the issue of how a movement could begin to accommodate the incoherency of perspectives entailed by the abandonment of universalism and still continue to function effectively.viii

Intersectionality recognises that these incoherences are not merely intellectual disagreements, but rather reflect real differences in the experience of oppression from different subject-positions. We are all oppressed and privileged in various ways within various systems, and these systems interact in complex ways to produce a totality within which gender, race and class cannot be disentangled and approached as distinct objects: ones positioning with respect to race, for example, changes qualitatively what it means to be a certain gender. We must therefore reject the notion that the class struggle is or could be the same for everyone, and turn to the more complex task of treating class as contingent on other hierarchies.

Dare to look at the intersectionalities. Dare to be holistic. Part of the heart of anarchy is, dare to go against the grain of the conventional ways of thinking about our realities. Anarchists have always gone against the grain, and that’s been a place of hope. – bell hooksix

Examining intersectionalities means not just developing an understanding of the different forms of oppression and the struggles against them, but also means asking certain questions about the ways in which they intersect. To illustrate, let’s examine two seemingly distinct areas of recent WSM activity – the Campaign Against the Household and Water Taxes (CAHWT), which is a particular tactical engagement in a more generalised struggle against austerity, and the campaign for abortion rights in Ireland, which forms part of a wider struggle to maximise reproductive choices for women – and ask: what is the relationship between austerity as a generalised imposition on our class and the restriction of reproductive choice as a particular imposition on women? What are the common forms of social control mobilised in these two seemingly discrete spheres?

Both are biopolitical projects; that is, both aim, at the level of the individual and of the population at large, at producing certain kinds of people and not others in the furtherance of particular objectives. Austerity, which is commonly understood as a mechanism of extracting capital from the population and transferring it to a capitalist class in crisis (which is true), is also a project aimed at reshaping our lives to produce austere subjects: idealised workers primed for participation in neoliberal markets, who provide a maximum of productivity at a minimum cost, living lives with a minimum of material comforts, a restricted sphere of social activity, whose activity is continually aimed at maximising marketable skills, actively seeking job “opportunities” etc.x The restriction of reproductive choices, while often seen as merely a result of backward religious moralism, must also be understood in this way: by denying women access to abortion outright and ensuring that access to contraception is expensive, sexual activity (and the social activity surrounding it) is disciplined toward the production of life within certain normative contexts (i.e. the stable monogamous relationship, called marriage in its ideal form) while other forms are precluded.xi Both involve the mobilisation of many of the same mechanisms of social control: the police, the judicial system, the contraction of the welfare state (in particular the cuts to child benefit function to prevent problematic sections of the working class from reproducing and placing a burden on the state, while imposing a particularly cruel form of discipline on those that do), the taxation system (VAT on condoms, for example), education, public health etc.

An intersectional approach thus reveals the deep interconnections between superficially distinct spheres of political activity. Women’s struggles and the class struggle are found to be inseparable. The slogans “Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay” and “My Body, My Choice” resonate deeply with one another, as both involve a refusal of biopolitical control and an assertion of the right to live self-directed lives autonomous of the demands of the powerful. Intersectional praxis involves, in part, uncovering these interconnections and writing them into the public discourse.

Speaking and listening

As anarchists, we are not immune to the effects of being formed within a social context in which women, queers and people of colour are sytematically oppressed. Practices of dominance and submission are deeply ingrained into our culture and habituated within normative forms of social interaction, and cannot simply be dispelled with the performative declaration: “I am anti-racist”, I am anti-sexist”, “I am an anarchist” etc.xii Put simply: if left unexamined, our subconscious habits in social interactions will reproduce the marginalisation of the already-marginalised within the anarchist movement.

If, as I have argued, the building-blocks of anarchist theory and practice are the subjective perspectives of those who experience oppression directly (as opposed to ready-made theoretical systems) then an awareness of the ways in which privilege manifests in inter-personal relations is of particular importance.xiii The ability to contribute to shaping the direction of the movement is predicated on the ability to speak and be listened to by others within the movement. The ability to speak from an authoritative position, with the expectation of being listened to, understood and treated seriously, the ability to rely on certain culturally-specific assumptions (common sensexiv) in making a point, and so on, are more readily available to those who are already privileged by power structures than it is to those who are not. Awareness of privilege, then, is an important counterbalance to social forces which produce marginalisation, which allows us to organise more effectively against those forces. This is the precise opposite of the liberal-moralist theory of privilege, which elevates privilege awareness to the status of an abstract good.

The class struggle

At this point one might be wondering what precisely the implication of this argument is. Do I mean to say that class must no longer be at the centre of anarchist politics? Or am I saying that class is understood in a way that is too narrow? I am saying both of these things, or, more precisely, both are valid ways of parsing the same argument. If class is understood as being simply a matter of economics, and particularly those aspects of capitalist economics that appear most pressing to white heterosexual men; if class-centricity means that a deep understanding of the way in which capitalism produces capitalists and workers is essential for all anarchists, while deep understandings of the way in which patriarchy produces men and women, and white supremacism produces white people in relation to a multiplicity of (in)subordinate racesxv, are not; worse still, if it means that obscure historical knowledge of failed revolutions and exegesis of the texts of dead theorists takes precedence over the experiences of living people, then class must be removed from the centre of our theory. If, however, class is understood as encompassing the totality of hierarchical social relations, as being the product of many systems acting sometimes in concert and sometimes autonomously of one another, and moreover as bringing together a diversity of experiences and struggles in a spirit of solidarity and mutual recognition, then this is precisely the heart of anarchism.


i I am using these terms in a broad sense for the sake of readability. White supremacism encompasses all oppressions on the basis of race, ethnicity, culture, nationality and migration status which function to empower whites. Similarly, patriarchy includes the oppression of women, queers, trans* people and others oppressions on the basis of gender.

ii For a balanced critique, see “The Poverty of Privilege Politics” by by Tabitha Bast and Hannah McClure, Shift Magazine, http://shiftmag.co.uk/?p=679

iii “A Question of Privilege”, Venomous Butterfly, http://www.geocities.ws/kk_abacus/vb/wd8priv.html

iv Quoted in Michael Bakunin (1961) by E. H. Carr, p. 175

v Within the Marxist tradition, this attempt to attribute the “perspective of totality” to the Party has been criticised by John Holloway. See Change The World Without Taking Power, p.35, http://www.edtechpost.ca/readings/John%20Holloway%20-%20Change%20the%20World%20Without%20Taking%20Power.pdf

vi At the risk of stating the obvious, I am not advocating here a rejection of science as a methodology or the embracing of irrationalism; rather we should embrace a certain epistemological modesty and reject the power effects of positioning a particular set of ideas as scientific/universal/totalitarian.

vii “The End of Sexual Difference” in Undoing Gender by Judith Butler, p. 176

viii See “Refusing To Wait: Anarchism and Intersectionality” by Deric Shannon & J. Rogue, http://www.anarchist-studies.org/node/339 for an account of the history of this development, as well as an excellent exposition of intersectional theory.

ix “How Do You Practice Intersectionalism? An Interview with bell hooks”, Common Struggle, http://commonstruggle.org/bellhooks

x In particular, various reforms of the social welfare system have a particular aim of disciplining the unemployed in this way.

xi The fact that this project is increasingly an abject failure producing an assortment of individually and socially problematic situations is besides the point here.

xii See, for example, “Towards an Anarchist Anti-Racism” by Dónal O’Driscoll, http://www.wsm.ie/c/toward-anarchist-anti-racism

xiii For another class-struggle anarchist perspective on “Privilege Theory”, which takes a somewhat different approach from mine, see “A Class Struggle Anarchist Analysis of Privilege Theory” from the Anarchist Federation Women’s Caucus, http://www.afed.org.uk/blog/state/327-a-class-struggle-anarchist-analysis-of-privilege-theory–from-the-womens-caucus-.html

xiv “Many quite nefarious ideologies pass for common sense. For decades of American history, it was “common sense” in some quarters for white people to own slaves and for women not to vote. Common sense, moreover, is not always “common” — the idea that lesbians and gay men should be protected against discrimination and violence strikes some people as common-sensical, but for others it threatens the foundations of ordinary life.” “A `Bad Writer’ Bites Back” by Judith Butler, https://pantherfile.uwm.edu/wash/www/butler.htm

xv See “Abolish Whiteness” by Noel Ignatiev, http://imaginenoborders.org/pdf/zines/AbolishWhiteness.pdf for a development of this point.

 I

The genie will not go back into the bottle. The recent Cambrian explosion of critiques of the Left – deploying the concepts of intersectionality and privilege – is not a reversible process. The old and comforting unities that have been disaggregated by these critiques cannot be reassembled – or at least not in the same way. Whether one is happy about this or not, intersectionality is now an active element of the Left, and the pre-intersectional Left cannot be recovered, even if one wished to.

 II

Those who insist upon rejecting intersectionality in toto – whether due to nostalgia for previous compositions of the Left from previous phases of struggle, or to utopian visions of what the Left could be – have retreated into idealism. They construct transcendental standards of what the Left must become (once again) against which the Left is compared and inevitably found wanting. Such an approach cannot succeed. The immanent self-development of the Left can only be a process of self-transformation reckoning with and utilising the material of the actually-existing Left.

 III

Intersectionality is not a ruling class conspiracy to destroy the Left. It is a critique of the Left from within the Left. Or, as Foucault would perhaps put it, an “insurrection of subjugated knowledges” within the Left. (Society Must Be Defended) It is the collective discursive assemblage deployed by minorised subjects within the Left to combat their marginalisation – a cutting tool to break through the ossified exclusions of Left theory and practice. Those who respond by waging a rhetorical war of annihilation against intersectionality and privilege have, as Mao might say, clearly gone wrong.

IV

There are no purely creative or productive transformations. Creation always entails a measure of destruction. The Left must continuously be destroyed in order to be produced anew. “The passion for destruction is a creative passion, too!” (Mikhail Bakunin, The Reaction in Germany)

This does not, however, mean that all destruction is also creation. There exist negations that are not dialectical. An atomic bomb does not produce a resurrection after it destroys.

V

If intersectionality is to be a force of revitalisation of the Left, how could it proceed but through negation? If the collective assemblages of the Left are ineffectual, stultifying, exclusionary, they must be broken apart – and parts thrown away, perhaps – before they can be assembled differently. The expectation that the intersectional transformation of the Left proceed only through pure positivity is in effect the demand that it not proceed at all.

VI

If one is working on an old house, one is likely to uncover elements of toxicity and decay – asbestos, mould, rats, damp, cracked walls, rotting beams, even shaky foundations. While it might seem as though the problems uncovered have appeared as a result of the work undertaken, the truth is they were there already. The Left is an old house.

Intersectionality as a process has uncovered relations within the Left that are toxic. These are often unpleasant to deal with. But putting the carpet back down does not stop the floorboards rotting.

VII

Fixing the Left is not an end-in-itself. It is not enough to get all of our internal relations in perfect balance. We are building a war machine, not an ornament.

VIII

The Left has always been angry. The Left has always been animated by the anger of the oppressed and exploited, as well as our hopes, desires, loves and aspirations. A Left that is not angry has succumbed to centrist capitulation, bureaucratic drudgery or hippy escapism.

The Left has never been unified. There has always been conflict and disagreement, sometimes bitter, because our divisions matter. A Left that has done away with all internal conflict is a Left that has given up all serious ambitions of transforming society and retreated into pantomime.

Why then has the presence of anger and conflict within the Left suddenly become intolerable?

IX

Anger is political. It is gendered and racialised. The question of when, how and by whom anger is to be expressed is a matter of political contestation. One might reasonably be troubled at the intensity of anger within a discourse, but any remedy to the problem must not involve resubmerging the anger of the oppressed beneath a cold ocean of silence.

X

Anger is more than a mere feeling: it is an energy, a potential. It is a creative moment of an individual. It is not enough for that anger to find expression and recognition – that is a circuit of containment – it must be allowed to flow – to produce, transform and overthrow according to its own immanent truth – and not merely diffuse. It is a matter for the individual to develop such an ethical relationship to their anger, and not for any external apparatus of policing or mediation.

XI

“Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” (Assata Shakur)

Moralism is not the same as ethics. The former is based in what Nietzsche calls ressentiment, a resentment of the powerful that accepts the inevitability of one’s own powerlessness, and aims only at constraining the actions of the powerful, while valorising the condition of powerlessness. Moralism operates by setting up transcendental standards of good and evil which by the force of their ethical rightness are expected to determine the behaviour of individuals. In this sense it is an ineffectual idealist approach to ethics that can challenge power only in the abstract, rather than transforming the material conditions that enable that power.

For those struggling to make justice a material reality, moralism is a condition to be escaped or warded off. This does not, however, entail an abandonment of ethics, or a rejection of micropolitics. Any social movement that aims at being transformative must produce and practice a counterethics that aims at displacing and abolishing the dominant ethics by sweeping away the material mechanisms of the dominant ethics on all levels (individual, intersubjective, and social). Rejecting moralism in no way implies that we must compromise on our ethics, but rather that we develop a materialist and transformative approach to ethics – a counterethics conceived of as a component of a revolutionary machine.

This is a response to the piece Exiting the Vampire Castleby Mark Fisher.

I don’t know anything about Mark Fisher. He wrote a book, called Capitalist Realism that a lot of people seem to like, but I have no idea what’s in it or if I should care. But I do know Mark is afraid of me. He is afraid of me, because I am an anarchist, because I engage with “identity politics”, because I think the Labour Party is a load of bourgeois shit, because I believe that influential figures should be held to account for oppressive speech-acts, and because I (occasionally) go to university. Moreover, he is afraid of me because I am destroying something precious to him, something to which he has attributed meaning and invested desire – the Left; a figure, an image and a real assemblage, which produces intense affects in those who believe in its necessity and potential, and whose evident failure to intervene decisively at this moment of capitalist crisis has induced flows of despondancy across the entire social body.

How does one deal with such intense negative affect, with frustrated desire, with a pronounced, emasculating political impotence, which threaten to overwhelm the subject? What happens to the revolutionary breaks and flows of the communist machine when there seems to be precisely no way to productively intervene in the political situation? One possible line of flight is to retreat into nostalgia, pining for a workers movement of yesteryear, which was powerful and decisive and unified, while conveniently forgetting that it was this same workers movement whose failure allowed neoliberalism to claw its way into every last nook and cranny of social existence. Another is to project one’s negativity onto a scapegoat, a monstrous vampiric Other, which can be blamed for sucking the vitality and hope out of the Left.

It is, I think, no coincidence that Mark Fisher chose this historic moment of deficit (the opposite of a “moment of excess”) to dust off an old and conservative discourse, give it a new psychoanalytical gloss, and to use it to rhetorically storm the “Vampire’s Castle” he’s built in his head. Its resonances, both positive and negative, across the left seem to me to be symptomatic of the current (de)composition of the Left as a social force, where old antagonisms along identarian lines have been invested with a new urgency by the collapse of organised resistance to the present capitalist assault. It is the confluence, I think, of a number of affects specific to this period of crisis, some, perhaps, understandable and forgivable, others thoroughly unpleasant and reactionary, which produce the libidinal underpinnings of this discourse, which, following Judith Butler, I shall call “neoconservative Marxism”, namely:

  1. feelings of uncertainty, hopelessness, and directionlessness, that result from witnessing one’s organising efforts come to nothing

  2. a sense of an urgent need for unity to compensate for the evident weakness of the Left as it stands

  3. a sense of the urgency of class struggle at this particular moment, combined with a sense of competition with non-class struggles for increasingly scarce resources

  4. a felt need for robust, “no bullshit” discourse, which also has the side effect of producing a masculine affect

  5. a need to participate in the psychodrama of conflict at a time when there seems to be no way to hit your enemies where it hurts

  6. concomitant feelings of discomfort around the difficult and patient work of rebuilding, rethinking and re-orienting left resistance, and

  7. a jealousy towards the relative vitality and vibrancy displayed by intersectional/feminist discourses

One might recognise oneself in this characterisation, or one might strongly resist such psychological speculation. My purpose here was to demonstrate that the neoconservatism evinced by Fisher could also be analysed as a “libidinal-discursive formation”. But it also, I think, demonstrates why Fisher’s decision to position himself as analyst and to interpellate numerous comrades, as analysand, is both rather presumptuous, and a piss poor form of argumentation. It allows the author to negate the subjectivity of his opponent, and whatever arguments they might marshall in support of their position, and instead indulge in a patronising performance of “I understand why you think the way you do” faux-insight.

Perhaps it would be better to interrogate the substance of the argument.

The Worker and the Vampire as Gothic horror

Exiting the Vampire Castle is ostensibly an attack on the essentialising tendencies of something called “identity politics”, a style of argument that has been rehearsed often enough to constitute a genre in and of itself. This time, however, the usual genre tropes are given a distinct Gothic twist. The hero, as usual, is the ordinary British (i.e. white) working class man, this time played, somewhat incongrously by Russell Brand. The worker, trapped in a castle made out of political correctness gone mad, is stalked and preyed upon by vampires: bourgeois liberal academics posing as leftists, who hide in the shadows waiting for the worker to say something mildly sexist so they can sink their fangs of guilt and shame into the worker’s lovely neck. Once bitten, the worker is subjected to a horrific fate: he is essentialised as a sexist. The vampires may claim that they are interested in things like liberation, justice, solidarity and collectivity, but their bloodlust, it is revealed to our horror, is motivated by something much darker: petty bourgeois class interest. It is only by re-asserting the primacy of class that the vampires can be slayed and the worker can finally escape the castle and carry out his historic mission of abolishing capitalist society.

As is often the case, poorly-conceived horror morphs into camp comedy. Russell Brand, with his millions of pounds and his habit of subjecting women to public and sexualised humiliation, is hardly convincing as the hapless victim. Indeed, what else is there to do but laugh at a class analysis in which a working class person can be a multimillionaire comedian and film star and retain their working class identity, but a worker who becomes an academic and pursues an interest in Cultural Studies is inevitably possessed by a petty bourgeois essence which structures their discourse according to a subconscious desire to own a prosperous corner shop. One might also wonder in passing whether a worker might be a woman, or queer, or not white, which might recast our tragic male hero in a more ethically ambiguous light, spoiling the dramatic effect.

Neoconservative Marxism as identity politics

There are rather obvious contradictions at the heart of Fisher’s argument: How can one rail against essentialism, while essentialising (and therefore dismissing) a whole family of left discourses as petty bourgeois, and academic? How can one oppose identity politics by valourising a working class identity that is apparently independent of one’s material situation? How can one oppose the supposed suppression of class struggle on the left, while putting forward a view of class as essentially a cultural attitude abstracted from actual material struggle?

These contradictions resolve themselves if one considers Fisher’s intervention not as an opposition to identity politics per se, but as a territorial dispute over which identity politics should have primary status on the Left. For Neoconservative Marxists, the real problem with ‘intersectionality’ and such ‘identity-politics’ discourses is that they are seen as introducing division into the left, fracturing the a priori unity of the working class. Political struggle is seen as a zero-sum game: there can only be one historical Subject, and it must be the worker. Since the worker is now positioned as the sole political subject, aspects of feminism, anti-racism, and queer struggles which cannot be assimilated into an analysis of economic struggles must be something else: ethics, not politics. Therefore, those women, people of colour and queers who refuse to play their allotted role in the class struggle are infecting the workers movement with a debilitating moralism, rather than participating in a (sometimes tense and difficult) negotiation towards a recomposition of “the real movement that abolishes the present state of things”.

Perhaps the most useful lesson to take from Fisher’s piece is that, while it’s relatively easy to produce a critique of identity politics, it is far harder to transcend in practice. It might be accurate to say that intersectional discourses work with reified identity categories (although that too would be an oversimplification), but to understand that reification as merely an illusory effect of intersectionality or identity politics, rather than a material reality, is idealist in the extreme. One does not transcend identity categories by performative critique. Unity pursued through the repression of difference, is only ever purchased through the exclusion, marginalisation and domestication of gendered and racialised minorities within the left. Truly democratic unity, which in any case is never perfect and is always merely a productive conjuncture of difference, is always the effect of a successful prior coming-together on the basis of respect and mutual recognition. The revolutionary force that finally sweeps away this oppressive system is only going to be materialised in a tense coalition of heterogenous political subjectivities: workers, environmentalists, feminists, queers, people of colour, punks, anarchists, socialists, communists, liberals (even). The most prudent form of intervention on this question, then, is not to insist on collective identities that flatten out differences, but to work to build coalitions that honour and respect difference, which become unified through a collective project or vision for social transformation. Interventions like Fisher’s only serve to accentuate divisions. It doesn’t actually advance any kind of project of recomposition.

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.