Archive

Tag Archives: privilege

1. Male privilege isn’t a thing. You can’t possess it or have it as an attribute of your person. No one is actually carrying around an invisible knapsack of privilege.

2. What male privilege is first and foremost is a concept: a machine for thinking with that performs a certain function in relation to certain kinds of problem. What the concept of male privilege does is allow us to identify a broad tendency across society, and to think the particular dynamics of a variety of distinct situations as instances of that tendency. It joins the dots between a bunch of different things that tend to happen in the world by allowing us to say that together they constitute a particular phenomenon.

3. The way the concept of male privilege accomplishes this is by referring all these instance to a single abstraction that stands in for the actual relations and processes that link them in reality. It is not a theory of anything. It doesn’t tell us anything about what these relations and processes actually are. It’s a placeholder for when you don’t want to map out the whole reality in order to talk about it. It’s a concept that problematises rather than explains, and that’s fine. It’s important to have concepts that compose problems for us to think, as long as we don’t confuse that for the thinking itself.

4. What Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wants to do with the concept of male privilege is altogether different. She wants to take it as the principle of a logical system that allows her to deduce things about the experiences of others. We are no longer using it to relate things we know about experience, but to directly produce knowledge out of abstractions. The work it’s now supposed to do is to allow her to infer the experience of another by virtue of how that other’s body signifies its sex to her. It’s a way of not thinking the complexity of the world by imposing a pre-constructed image over reality. It’s not just trans women’s experiences, but everyone’s, that disappear in this kind of thinking.

5. This deduction requires her to have an account of gender socialisation that uniformly attaches privilege to bodies according to sexual difference. Historically, feminists have strongly opposed this kind of functionalist thinking about socialisation precisely because it invites the kind of conservative use to which Adichie puts it: overwriting experience, denying agency and variability, and justifying the status quo. Socialisation is not a pressing plant. We are not all of one uniform human substance stamped into universal binary forms. It requires the dismissal of basically every significant contribution feminism has made to our understanding of gender socialisation to think this way.

6. There is no automatic relationship between sexual difference and gender socialisation. Rather it depends on the enactment over time of symbolic roles that gradually shape us. These enactments are situational, and do not necessarily map onto the differentiation of bodies by sex. Bodies marked male can be and are made to occupy feminine positions in particular dynamics and vice versa, and our relationship to ‘privilege’ is contingent on this positioning. Our gender socialisation is a complex mosaic of impressions that form us over time, not a simple binary categorisation.

7. Even the raddiest of radfems have historically been sensitive to the enormous harm done to ‘male’ children in the process of making them men. Children are trapped by absolute dependence in the relations of care into which they were born, and enclosed within various repressive authoritarian institutions (family, school, community, church, state). The processes by which those children marked to be men are by those environments brutalised and taught to fear emotion are not privileges, they are kinds of violence, for which no one should be told to be grateful.

8. Adichie’s women are defined by a lack in relation to men: the lack of male privilege. And moreover, given what she has to say about privilege and socialisation, this maps exactly onto the way women are traditionally defined by lack in relation to sexual difference: by the presence or absence of the Phallus. The thing about the Phallus is: it’s a fantasy, specifically, a male supremacist society’s fantasy about the virility of masculine agency that is not commensurate with the reality of anyone’s actual existence (men’s actual social dominance is considerably more fraught than its representation in fantasy). Adiche’s imaginings about the lives of trans women (it’s very obvious she hasn’t actually talked to any of us about it in any depth) are projected fantasies of phallic agency: we are deemed to have what women lack because we are deemed to have an experience of agency structurally barred for women as a correlate of how our bodies are sexually differentiated from those of cis women, and therefore are disqualified from being women. One way of responding to this is to simply show empirically how the fantasy diverges from reality, by describing all the commonalities in how we are hurt and subordinated by patriarchal society. But I think the more important point is: we should not have to parade our lack in order to be accepted as women because we should not be accepting this phallocentric model of agency in the first place. Woman is not simply what you get when you take away whatever gives men power, and Man is not the fully empowered humanity denied women. Both are ways of being divided against and alienated from oneself by the system within which we are trapped. Both are impoverished forms of human existence. One only benefits from either role in relative terms.

9. What I’m trying to get at here is that there are problems with overextended concepts of male privilege such as Adichie’s beyond that they exclude trans women from being women. They confuse the social function ‘man’ with the actual humans that enact it, and so empty out our understandings of those experiences by reducing them to the dimension of privilege. Being seen as a man allows contingent access to social privilege, but it also quite often involves being hurt a lot and having to pretend you’re not. The kind of feminism that makes a theoretical system out of privilege, and therefore dismisses men’s expressions of dissatisfaction with their gender as the whining of the privileged, adds to the social repression of men’s vulnerability and closes off possibilities for the expression and politicisation of the dissonance of men’s humanity to their expected social function. Drawing an arbitrary line to protect trans women from that kind of treatment isn’t good enough. There are all kinds of experiences of male existence that don’t fit the model of what’s implied by ‘male privilege’ that are not trans experiences, and the concept shouldn’t be deployed to invalidate these either.

10. Personally, transition has helped me to begin to understand the gendered dimensions of some of the ways I have been victimised during my life, and to integrate these with my understanding of myself. But this is not what I value about it. What matters is that in femininity – or rather particular kinds of femininity: feminist femininity, queer femininity, punk femininity – I have found a model for my own agency that is authentically mine and that feels like agency. Adichie’s Woman is a passive effect of the accumulation of sufferings: all history no futurity. Who the fuck wants that? What does it matter how my miseries stack up next to hers or anyone elses? My womanhood is an active creative potential immanent to my being. It is not my shitty childhood nor does it have to answer to anyone else’s. There is nothing positive in defining yourself by victimhood because there’s nothing good about being a victim. Slave morality feminism is politically useless and personally corrosive.

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)

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.