Class, racism and women’s oppression – Critical thoughts on intersectionality theory

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AngryWorkers, June 2019

Introduction

We were recently invited by our friends and comrades from TPTG [1] and the Assembly of Workers and Unemployed from Syntagma Square to Greece where we took part in a meeting about intersectionality theory – a theoretical approach that tries to understand how class, race and gender relate to each other. Some comrades had read our book review of ‘Striking Women’, about the Grunwick and Gate Gourmet disputes [2], which included a critique of the intersectional approach that the authors had used to analyse the struggles. They told us that ‘intersectionality’ is a relatively recent topic of discussion amongst the Greek Left, although of course, discussion about gender and class has been around for much longer. But the debate these days seems to have narrowed (focusing on ‘privilege’, language and changing behaviours) and is linked to the rise of identity politics. Around 50-60 people attended the discussion. We thought we would use our notes from the meeting and turn it into an article, which you will find below.

*** What is the current social background of the question of intersectionality?

The global financial crisis in 2008 has brought about a backlash of protectionist and socially conservative positions, targeting hard-won rights for women and scapegoating migrant workers. The new far-right governments have singled out multiculturalism as the cause of the bad effects of neoliberalism and say clearly to the class: liberal elitism and identity politics have undermined community in favour of individualism; there is not enough (houses, flats, resources) for everyone, we have to focus on our national terrain, our ethnic communities and our traditional family values in order to weather the crisis. In the absence of a unified class response, this neo-conservative position is not irrational or purely demagogical – as a survival strategy it makes sense for many local working class people. At the same time the actual material impact of the crisis and austerity tends to hit women workers (e.g. through disproportional employment in the public sector) and migrant workers the hardest.

On the left there are two reactions to this conservative turn.

The first is a position that merely inverses the attack of the far-right, by defending the oppressed, the minorities, and those with the least privileges. [3] The fact that women and Black workers suffer most is seen as confirmation of the idea that it is their racial and gender identity which is the reason for that suffering – not the specific historical class composition and division of labour within the class. The focus on oppression and identity is not only a defensive reaction – it is also an expression of a general shift in how social relations are understood. Since the 1980s we have seen a decline in social and class movements which explains why postmodern discourse became mainstream within academia and seeped into feminist and wider left politics. As a result, a younger generation of activists emphasise (individual) agency, experience and performances over material and historical dynamics and structures, i.e. they would understand gender mainly as a social construct and normative performance, rather than a result of the sexual division of labour of real bodies.

And secondly, we find a ‘reaction to the reaction’, people who want to defend a class position against identity politics. [4] They often use general social democratic ideas about how the working class is supposed to struggle and how to deal with divisions within the class. They call for ‘class unity‘ for economic demands, e.g. referring to the times of the New Deal in the US as a period that benefited both black and white workers. They see unity as a precondition for class struggle, not as an outcome. They tend to neglect the historical and material reasons for racial and gender divisions within the class and grasp these divisions as something that can be overcome through material redistribution and expansion of rights.

In the current situation we need theoretical methods to understand the relation between class and oppression. Intersectionality theory is presented as the best effort the left has made so far.

*** What is intersectionality theory and the problems with it?

Initially intersectionality theory emerged as an analysis and criticism of oppression (Combahee River Collective) and later on as an attempt to give the battle against oppression based on race, class and gender a legal framework (Kimberlé Crenshaw).

Intersectionality theory tries to account for race, gender and class where it has often been neglected. The approach originated in the 1970s, a time when the official (left) discourse did not tend to represent women and Black voices and their respective particular problems – or when left middle-class white feminism ignored problems of Black working class women. In order to hear and act upon those voices, certain (racial and gender) identities are invoked to make these groups visible. While, for example, women-only organising certainly has its place, the invocation of shared gender and racial identites can be problematic in so far as ‘communities of victims of oppression’ are created which can then gloss over the internal hierarchies and class differences within them. At the time the intersectionality approach was a vocal expression of a wider social struggle that questioned hierarchies – also within the class and the movement. With the decline of the social churning in the 1980s intersectionality theory transformed from a ‘struggle within the struggle’ into a static sociological theory.

Intersectionality theory kept the individual and subjective impetus to question oppression and marginalisation and turned it into the basis of understanding social categories in general. The picture that intersectionality theory paints is that of a society composed of a network of individuals and groups within a field of power. Power is unevenly distributed between different groups (men and women, ethnic groups, classes) and the way groups and individuals relate to each other reproduce power relations and privileges. Without historical and material grounding this analysis often operates with tautologies: ‘White privilege’ or ‘gender norms’ are seen as creating racialised and gendered subjects. 

Seen from the perspective of oppression it is perfectly right to see class, race and gender as equal forms: who could tell if I am more oppressed as a woman, a Black person or a proletarian? And seen from a point of experience and subjectivity it makes perfect sense to see these forms of oppression as intersecting: they affect some of us more and some of us less directly. The structures ‘intersect’ (or rather, play out to varying degrees) in the individuals or groups of people. The limits of this perspective reveal themselves once we ask about the historical origins of women’s oppression, the class system and racism – if we don’t assume that power and the ability to oppress exists in itself, but is the product of a certain practical relation between people. And more importantly, class, gender/sex and race are not ‘equal forms of oppression’ once we try to understand what social and material changes would be necessary to abolish them. We can see qualitative differences between these social categories.

*** How do we understand women’s oppression and racism in relation to class?

We won’t be able to to write a comprehensive description of what race, class and sex/gender is. Instead we present a short sketch of how sex/gender and race developed not as separate, intersecting systems, but rather as social relations within a hierarchical division of labour. This is why we cannot look at race or gender without taking class relations – as the main organising structure of society – into account. We can see that this division of labour – and the identities which it produces – is transformed through changes in capitalist production and through struggle from below within wider class struggle. 

* Women’s oppression

We would emphasise the roots of women’s oppression in the biological sex difference i.e. the fact that women can have babies, as the historical reason why a division of labour exists. This is unpopular because it seems to posit a biological determinism in the roles of men and women. But we think that accepting biological differences and changing gendered social relations are not mutually exclusive. Modern gender discourse tends to downplay biological differences for good reasons: it focuses our attention on personal power dynamics which seem easier to change and allows us to include other forms of sexual oppression based on oppressive gender norms. But there is a danger in neglecting the role biological difference plays: the reason for millenia of women’s oppression would then solely be based on men’s (cunning) power to gender subjects, in order to maintain their own privilege [5]. Women would turn into eternal victims. We would neglect how material changes in social production and reproduction influences how pregnancy, birth, lactation, menstruation, the menopause etc. impact on women’s social position. We would thereby fail to understand what material changes would be necessary to overcome women’s oppression. In the following we just give a few examples of the historic development to make this point clearer. 

The division of labour between men and women in nomadic times was less prominent and private property didn’t exist, therefore the question of who gives birth and whose child it is was less important. In agricultural slave-holding and land-owning feudal societies a patriarchal rule was more established because it needed more children as labour power and clear lineage to demarcate property and heritage. The control over women and their reproductive capacity became more important.

With industrial capitalism this changed. The hierarchy between men and women was now less defined by property (as people became propertyless and proletarianised). The division between household (private sphere) and factory (public sphere), which was to become the defining base for the transformed hierarchy between women and men, was initially at the centre of conflict. At the beginning of industrialisation manufacturing was done predominantly in household cottage industry – but this didn’t give the capitalists enough control over the productivity of the proletarian household. Skilled male artisans were not easily subjected to new machinery, which would have taken away their skill-based power. Industrial factory labour – based on machinery and as a separate sphere from the household – was introduced as a sexist division: many of the former male artisans became skilled machine minders who supervised the female and child labour. [6] Once the sphere of production and reproduction was separated women were excluded from production during times of child-rearing and (partly as a consequence of this) relegated to unskilled labour. Bosses often pitted men against women as skilled versus unskilled workers. It was not because they were ‘women’ per se that unions in the 19th century were hostile to women’s entry into men’s jobs, rather the fact that they undermined male wages. Women did work for less wages because their income was seen as supplementary – men were supposed to be earning a family wage. The family/household system was already in place, with the total separation of productive and reproductive labour occurring with the advent of capitalism. Investing in things that would make women’s participation in the labour market equal to men, for example childcare and breastfeeding breaks, is not an expense that capitalists will make if they can help it. The point is that unions did not create the inequality by shutting women out of the labour market, rather the inequality already existed and needed to be maintained for the benefit of certain sections of (male) workers. 

Since then the rapid development of the forces of production has laid the basis for women to overcome the constraints of biological reproduction (e.g. through machinery, socialisation of care work, nurseries, medical interventions etc.) but at the same time capitalist relations of production continue to limit the development towards equality. This is due to periodic crises that cut standards of living, which prevent a break with the family/household system and reinforces the subordination of women.

Once seen from a historical perspective we can see that women’s oppression and class struggle under capitalism are neither identical nor separate issues. Women’s oppression in various forms has existed over thousand of years, but only became a social issue (as the ‘women’s question’) under specific historical conditions. In Europe and the US, this happened in two main waves, which are mirrored by the development of feminism. We write about Europe and the US because the process of women’s proletarianisation, urbanisation and decline of the extended family was first completed there. [7] In other parts of the world this process is still ongoing and contested, but it follows similar patterns. 

The initial emergence of the ‘women’s question’ was based on: the demise of the ‘natural’ oppression within the agricultural patriarchal family through proletarianisation; the ‘bourgeois’ struggle for citizen rights vis-a-vis the aristocracy: the entrance of more women into waged factory work during the industrial revolution, and increasing numbers of educated middle-class women who were confined solely to leisure pursuits. This provided the social and material basis for largely middle-class women to raise the issue of equality, mainly in legal terms (voting rights, access to universities etc.).

Only once women entered more central positions within the working class during the first half of the 20th century – ironically related to the demand of militarised economies of two World Wars – did women’s oppression became a truly social issue. Their class position and changes in production and reproduction (‘equalising’ use of machinery, new forms of contraception) provided women with the social and material power to question relations between women and men more fundamentally, not merely as an issue of legal equality. The power obtained in social production allowed women to shed light on and socialise the problems of the sphere of reproduction and personal relationships. Only this turned class into a universal and transformative social category. 

Modern gender discourse seems radical and immediate – it questions our daily behaviour and norms. [8] The problem is that by abstracting from biological differences when it comes to reproduction this type of discourse tends to ignore the deep social and material changes necessary to abolish the basis of women’s oppression. Under conditions of the nuclear family or other socially isolated units the process of pregnancy – and the physical and psychological attachment between mother and growing child – can be used as emotional blackmail to force women into the role of the main carer. [9] This then becomes the basis for most gender norms, which are socialised and affect even women who don’t want to or can’t have children. (We can see that even amongst very gender-role aware couples, things often change dramatically towards the traditional once children are involved). In addition to this emotional dependency there is the increased material dependency on the male wage during times of pregnancy – even if working class women take only a relatively short time off work. Again, the ‘potential of pregnancy’ and how this affects the cost calculation of bosses effect women across the board.

These factors – reproduction in social isolation, emotional blackmail of pregnancy, material dependency – are the material basis which make male domestic abuse systemically possible – and from which certain norms and behaviours arise. For us the question here is less why men have oppressed or abused women over millennia – and what biological/physical differences have to do with it – but rather what social and material conditions would be required to diminish the ability to abuse. Apart from challenging male abuse when it happens, it will require a material revolution: radically changed architecture and means of ‘domestic’ work to facilitate larger reproductive units etc. [10]

By ignoring biological inequality gender discourse misunderstands and potentially white-washes the limits that capitalism poses for women’s liberation: gender hierarchies are not mainly a privilege-granting divide-and-rule policy, but an expression of capitalism’s inability to invest in social infrastructure that would allow the abolition of motherhood and family (in whatever traditional or queer form). It will require a women-led working class revolution to materially transform industries and households and the urban-rural divide.

It is also slightly ironic that a theoretical discourse that sees hierarchies between men and women largely as social constructs based on norms and privileges ignores its own privileged position within the global context: it is relatively easier to question gender norms and ignore the impact of biological differences in New York or London compared to a village in India or Africa, where becoming, being forced or prevented from becoming pregnant is often still a question of life and death.

* Racism

Unlike women’s oppression racism is not based on a biologically determined division of labour. It emerged from a historically coincidental and geographically uneven development of global capitalist relations (although modern industries developed in China, too, proletarianisation and industrialisation historically spread from western Europe). Racism became the biological justification for enslavement – as a line of demarcation between formally free and unfree labour – and colonial power. With the defeat of slavery and colonialism racism later on developed into an institutionalised segregation and hierarchy within the labour market, education system and urban space and thereby into a material division within the working class. In this sense racism was always closely tied to state power and its legal repressive arm.

Race and racism are not fixed categories or systems. The form of racism changed drastically with the form of labour it was attached to and supposed to impose. 

Bluntly we can say that crude biological racism corresponded to slave labour and forced labour imposed on poorer sections within colonised countries. Although it is true that the racialisation of African slaves was also an attempt of the imperial state to break solidarity between black and white lower classes, it cannot just be seen as a divide-and-rule policy, but rather a complex ideological system based on pseudo-science and enforced by brute force. The final attacks against slave labour – from the revolution in Haiti to the period of Reconstruction after the American Civil War to the many uprisings against colonial power – undermined this ideological system of biological racism severely. 

Racism transformed once slave labour was integrated into the lower ranks of the labour market and later on when colonies gained their ‘independence’ as low waged peripheries of the world market. The era of institutionalised racism, best represented by Jim Crow and South African Apartheid, was based on cultural justifications and legal enforcements for a segregation of the labour market, education and the housing sphere. While the foundations of biological racism were destroyed by violent pre-proletarian rebellions, institutional racism was severely shaken by Black working class struggles: the position obtained by Black workers in the US during and after the years of World War II and in South Africa during the industrial boom of the country allowed Black proletarians to question the hierarchical racist divisions – often against the (organised) resistance of white workers, e.g. Black industrial workers had to strike against the racist politics of trade unions which tried to keep them out of certain jobs. 

We could describe similar developments for the defeat of the village based caste-system in India. The caste system was imposed as a semi-religious, semi-racist ideology to justify bonded labour and a rigid division of labour and patriarchal rule of the village economy. For hundreds of years the material conditions in rural India allowed only for sporadic rebellions of Dalits (‘untouchables’, lower-caste poor) and tribal people despite their severe and brutal oppression and exploitation. The expansion of market relations with the British Imperial rule imposed an institutionalisation of caste relations beyond the village sphere, e.g. by granting selective voting or taxation rights. Only with capitalist development, first and foremost the expansion of the rural labour market, wage labour and agricultural commodity production allowed Dalits to confront upper-caste rule beyond the village – as a more unified proletarian force. While bourgeois representatives of the Dalits (Ambedkar etc.) emphasised ‘self-improvement’ and education as the main forms of anti-caste struggles, it was the entry into rural and industrial workers’ struggle which really broke the old customs – in particular during textile strikes which questioned the division of labour amongst castes within the textile mills from the 1920s onwards.

The working class rebellions and struggles of Black proletarians of the 1960s broke legally sanctioned racism and gave rise to a substantial and influential strata of Black and Dalit bourgeoisie and political representatives. [11] The defeat of formal and legally sanctioned racism doesn’t mean that there is no racism within institutions (management, police, schools etc.), but this alone hasn’t got the social power to reproduce racism today. Racism today is largely reproduced economically, and partly through political/state intervention towards certain class segments. Labour markets and national borders are structurally selective and limited – this hits those proletarians hardest who find themselves historically on the lowest ranks. While there might be managers in Indian call centres or software companies who are biased towards Dalits, the main reason why you find less Dalits working there is due to their poorer background which doesn’t allow them to enter further education. The ideological form of racism today is predominantly sociological: certain ‘ethnic’ groups have been in impoverished for generations, which has resulted in their social and cultural degeneration. This chauvinism against the ‘underclass’ also targets (a smaller segment of) white proletarians. 

If capitalism was a permanently expanding system we could expect that the material basis for racism would erode over time. The problem is that capitalism has the tendency of crisis, uneven development and the production of a surplus population. The racist industrial mass extinction under the Nazi-regime demonstrated the limits of enlightenment in a capitalist society – modern industrial relations, a sophisticated state administration and an advanced apparatus of bourgeois science can advance crude biological racism if the ruling class believes that it would help get the system out of crisis.

Geographically and historically regions of under-development and proletarians on the margins of the labour market are disproportionally non-white. A lot of anti-poor state measures (incarceration, border controls etc.) are therefore experienced as racist measures. At the same time the economic crisis since 2008 has hit the wider working class and the weakness of general class struggle gave impetus to an ‘each community for themselves’- type of politics. This is the basis for a re-emergence of biological and cultural racism and the far-right. Racism becomes a tool of competitive advantage. 

Racism can less and less be fought through ‘anti-racism’ in terms of asking for equal rights in social mobility. A lot of anti-racist initiatives or Dalit proponents of positive discrimination who argue on the basis of ‘their community’ rather than from a class perspective involuntarily play into the hands of those who accept the limited scope of capitalist (labour) markets as a given and thereby establish it as a terrain of the battle of ‘all against all’. Identity politics becomes the extension of the economic competition on the market into the sphere of politics. At the same time it would be naive to think that the criticism of racism can be reduced to a criticism of ‘divide-and-rule’ – as if it was just a form of imposed wrong consciousness. The division and hierarchies within the class have to be understood as historically developed and socially reproduced. From the point of view of ‘intersectionality’ and oppression we would not be able to grasp this historical development. We need a historical class perspective, which takes into account the material changes of production, e.g. the shift from a village economy to a capitalist agriculture or from a plantation economy to a factory system, in order to understand how the basis and potentials for the struggle against racial oppression and for general human emancipation has changed. 

* Class

In the current debate people use the term ‘class’ in different ways, predominantly as a socio-economic category, a cultural or community background and as a subjective political formation. We see following problems with these understandings of class:

For example, the authors of the book ‘Striking Women’ that we reviewed, who claim to use an intersectional approach, see class mainly as another sociological background: e.g. apart from being women of East-African Indian descent the striking women used to belong to the educated middle-class in their home country and were demoted to the manual working class after their arrival in the UK. A sociological usage of the category class is definitely describing something empirically concrete – a certain income strata, a certain group of professions or educational levels. The problem is that from this perspective it is difficult to understand the inner and practical relations within the class and its social historical dynamic – its antagonism. According to this view the common denominator of the working class is its – to use a modern phrase – economically disadvantaged position. Similar to the disadvantaged position of women or Black people, people of working class background mainly need a more equal playing field and distributive justice. Ironically many people on the Left who are critical of intersectionalism actually share a rather economistic and formal view of class. For many social democrats and Marxist-Leninists the working class is largely negatively defined as being propertyless and dependent on waged work. From this perspective emancipation is largely limited to a formal change of ownership, e.g. from private to public. The form and content of work and the social division of labour remains untouched. [12]

A cultural understanding of class is mainly used in order to explain the recent right-wing turn of what is called the ‘white working class’. Again, a cultural or even identitarian usage of class is actually describing something real: the 1980s have undermined many industrial-urban areas, there was a real attack on working class communities of struggle. The 1990s and 2000s meant the individualisation of society (the neoliberal subject) on one hand and the emergence of ‘communities’ as a project of integration of formerly rebellious social subjects: the gay community, the Black community, the British Asian community etc.. The state encouraged ‘community formation’ in various ways – from welfare programs to electoral politics. ‘Communities’ are by definition cross-class and are prone to produce a middle-men and representative layer. Large parts of the left – often as outsiders of these ‘communities’ – fell in line and shared this perspective theoretically and often practically, e.g. when addressing local social issues. From the perspective of the ‘local working class’ it seemed that everyone else has a community and is talked about in the media, but them. The left has got itself trapped, stuck between trying to differentiate between the good (oppressed) communities and the rather ugly ‘white working class communities’ on one side and pandering to some nostalgic feelings of working class identity on the other. Currently larger parts of the left seem to accept that they have lost this ‘culture war’. They propose that the only way to oppose the right-wing hegemony within the local working class is not to organise class power on a multi-national level, but to oppose the right through anti-fascist and humanist battle. [13] This opens the door to a liberal democratic left alliance which created the problem in the first place.

A fusion of the first (socio-economic) and second (cultural) concept of class is used when trying to understand the current phenomena of ‘popular revolts’ – which doesn’t help to grasp the actual contradictory class composition and dynamics within popular movements such as the Yellow Vests in France.

The third usage of class is an anarchistic or ultra-left reaction to the traps of the economistic or identitarian understanding of class mentioned above. By turning class into a purely political category (the class only exists as revolting subjects) they often only invert the problem. Communisation ‘theory’ and insurrectionists mainly operate with Hegelian and other idealistic mind-tricks: class is the struggle to abolish class, workers have to overcome their workers identities to be truly revolutionary and so on. They can support their perspective with various Marx quotes, confirming that the class is revolutionary or nothing. The problem is that the working class can only abolish itself through a material revolution that socialises labour: by materially evening out regional differences in technological development, by physically changing production systems based on rigid divisions of labour etc.. This process will need men and women workers who can apply their specific knowledge – and might even develop a certain pride in being able to do so, after having been socially and historically sidelined for centuries.  

We cannot avoid the traps of an identitarian or economistic understanding of class by merely inverting the perspective or by just adding more and more social categories and oppressed subjects to the category. If we talk about ‘class composition’ we don’t primarily speak about who the class is composed of sociologically, e.g. where workers come from and how they are seen. For us the category of class only makes sense once related to the category of capital. If we see capital and class only as momentary snap-shots, and not as a historical process, then class is merely defined by its proletarian condition – having nothing or near to nothing. Seen as a process we can see that it is the actual social production process – the social division of labour – which makes capital appear all powerful and which explains why the social product belongs to capital and not to the social producers. Class describes your position in this social production process. Although ‘being poor’ and disenfranchised from political power is one aspect of class, only the discovery of the fact that it is our cooperation under capital’s command that makes us poor and gives us the power to produce a different world turns class into a transformative and universal category. 

We can also see that hierarchies within the class are not merely imposed from an ‘external power’, but the results of different historical positions that, for example, women or Black proletarians have within the social division of labour. A merely economistic view on class will not be able to undo these hierarchies – it is not enough to call all workers to unite. The material divisions between intellectual and manual labour, between production and reproduction, between over-exploited and under-employed sections of the class have to be attacked within a class movement. 

Intersectionality doesn’t grasp the social dynamic of class formation. Historically the working class did not emerge as a social category separate from women’s oppression or racism: the working class formed within an industrial system that relegated and isolated certain aspects of reproduction to the domestic sphere (material basis for gender hierarchies) and depended on the integration of slave plantation labour initially, then the north/south division of labour (material basis for racism). Struggles against exploitation change the way we produce and reproduce ourselves and therefore the gendered and racialised character of the working class is always changing. Capitalism relies on the socialisation of labour to increase productivity – this is the material basis for class being a universal category. 

The capitalist mode of production has a universalising tendency to undercut oppression based on gender and race as more and more people are brought into the wage labour system. Once people are brought together in large numbers under this exploitative regime, they are less likely to accept personal oppressions. This is why 1950-70 was the period for struggles against women’s oppression and racism to assert themselves. The entering of women and Black proletarians into central industries provided the power to question social oppression. While there won’t be a full and even integration into the global labour market, class as a process has got two characteristics that qualitatively different from race and sex/gender: it has a universal and inclusive tendency and it can materially transform and abolish itself.

Capitalism is unable to rid itself of the material bases for sexism and racism because it has to deal with crises that does not allow it to make concessions  (e.g. universal childcare, full employment) that would undermine women’s and black peoples’ socially disadvantaged position. It cannot afford to invest in services that would make an equal playing field for everyone on the labour market. It cannot integrate surplus populations because of contradictions inherent in capitalist modes of production. It is easier to focus on ‘changing attitudes’ and greater representation of marginalised groups instead of attacking the actual material bases for oppression and exploitation i.e. the separation from the means of production, the separation of reproductive work from the so-called productive sphere, and the process of accumulation that creates under-development and surplus populations.

*** What’s the way forward?

In the current phase we find ourselves in a field of tension: the capitalist crisis will increase competition amongst proletarians. This in turn will most likely result in a widening of historic divisions within the class and an increase in influence of organised political forces who propose racist and sexist solutions to the problem, ranging from white-supremacist organisations to religious fundamentalist fascists. It is easy to be dragged into a reactive kind of politics instead of working towards a genuine unification of the class.

The reactive nature of significant parts of the left, e.g. the re-emergence of anti-fascism not as a tactic of self-defence, but as a political current, is only partly explained by the severity of right-wing attacks or repressive state measures against minorities. It is also only partly explained by the fact that many of us haven’t had the chance to take part in wider social movements which brought together different segments of the class and  people with diverging political opinions. This experience would have most likely shown that people’s attitudes, relationships, opinions and their hierarchical relations to each other are mainly questioned not by discourse or awareness-raising, but through conflicts while collaborating towards a common goal. While sensitivity for each other and the will to question once own privileges is necessary to be able to work together, large parts of the current left seems to think that these things are a pre-condition that is achieved through intellectual (and largely individual) change in consciousness, rather than a dynamic within a collective process. 

A main factor for the current paralysis of the left – paradoxically the deepest crisis of capitalism meets a fundamental crisis of the left! – seems to lie in the heavy ideological blanket that 30 years of neoliberalism has thrown over our heads. Just because Jordan Peterson is a conservative jerk doesn’t mean that the problem of cultural Marxism doesn’t exist. [14] Intersectionality as theory has partly contributed to this aversion on the left to engage in social contradictions. By compartmentalising class, race and gender as separate systems, rather than historical processes, this approach encourages a view that separates the dealing with different forms of oppression and makes it issues of specific groups. By emphasising the subjective experience it becomes difficult to focus on a wider social perspective. While talking about privileges makes sense when it comes to a particular group of workers or comrades who cooperate and struggle together, many left theories make the question of privileges a central point of social critique. Applied to the whole working class privilege discourse is a dead-end: instead of focusing on general improvements or emancipation it factually demands a levelling out of misery, e.g. a poor white male is supposed to question why he is only so and so many per cent less likely to be shot by the cops than his Black brother. We have to get used again to back up valid humanist goals, e.g. the right to freedom of movement, with arguments that engage with (local) working class concerns, such as an increase of competition on local labour or housing markets. Again, the privilege discourse of recent years prevents us from doing so.

It is therefore necessary to question some of the current theoretical approaches of the left, which have become stumbling blocks when trying to understand the current, contradictory global class composition. The current re-emergence of anti-imperialism or theories which claim that the passive nature of the working class in the global north is due to its profiting from the exploitation of the global south are not only empirically questionable [15], they also hinder us from exploring the main opportunity that capitalist ‘globalisation’ since the 1980s has given us: the potential for working class struggles that communicate across borders. 

In amongst these complex social relations, it is useless to call the working class to just ‘unite and fight’. We have to support the struggles from below against the internal hierarchies within the class. But we have to do this with the goal of class unity as part of a fundamental social change in mind. In the end the demand for ‘class unity’ doesn’t have much weight if we relate it only to some minor social democratic reforms – these will always be much better represented as national projects.

The question of equality is awkward. Historically it was the male white working class which first fought for equal social rights (voting rights, access to education etc.) vis-a-vis the bourgeoisie. From a revolutionary point of view the problem is that this struggle went hand in hand with the attempt to integrate workers as citizens and the incorporation of workers‘ organisations (social democratic parties and trade unions) into the nation state. From a revolutionary point of view ‚equality‘ can only mean to strive to struggle as equals, to take different constraints of different workers into account when it comes to developing common strategies. We are not interested in ‚equality‘ as a legal or public discourse detached from questioning the foundations of inequality: wage labour.

Apart from a theoretical debate we need militant research into the actual dynamics within the working class. Where are the tendencies that undermine racist or sexist divisions, which are the tendencies that reproduce hierarchies? In the factories and warehouses where we work the majority of workers are non-white, at least half of them women workers, occupying the worst paid positions. Political strategies like the ‘women’s strike’, with its open call for participation based on being a woman and with no roots in the actual organisation of women at work, has no relevance for the women in these workplaces. The women’s ‘strike’ does not engage with the bases of structural weaknesses of women within capitalism, other than highlighting that they are over-burdened with reproductive as well as productive work. The economic strike is apparently passe, excludes women and we don’t need it anyway. But in order for women to start challenging their over-burdened position within capitalism – as waged and unwaged workers – building power at work is absolutely necessary. [16]

Below we give some examples of how these tensions play out in daily situations. These are just snap-shots, they would have to link up with empirical research and further theoretical debate in order to get to a more general picture. We encourage  comrades to engage in this process.

*** Examples from west-London

1) We were emailed by a local Polish worker in a food warehouse. He was angry because of what he described as the very racist working conditions, with Indian workers being treated better than white Eastern European workers because the managers were all Indian and so treated ‘their own people better.’ He wrote long descriptions of being overworked, overt discrimination, harassment, being forced to take holidays when business was slow. In short it was a generally toxic work environment where managers had no accountability. But this worker understood it only in terms of a racial divide. We think this is a limited lens through which to see what is happening, and more importantly, how to act in a way that actually brings workers together against the bosses. So in our newspaper we responded to this worker. We decided to downplay the racial element of his understanding of what was going on because we didn’t want to reproduce this mode of thinking. Instead we suggested ways in which many of the things he described were cross-cutting issues and how to go about building the confidence of a group of workers  experiencing similar problems. 

2) A similar example from the local past: Grunwick women workers, who arrived in west-London from Uganda in the 1970s and who were interviewed in the ‘Striking Women’ book saw management sending away white women workers because ‘the job and wage would not be appropriate’ as racist. Years later, Gate Gourmet workers at Heathrow airport, who came from Punjab decades earlier, see it as racist that Polish agency workers are now bought in to undercut them. While these women experienced this as racism, there is something else going on, and pointing it out should not be seen as disrespecting someone’s sacred cow of personal experience. Because it also works the other way around: the mainly white-British London black cab drivers face competition through Uber, a taxi company that uses GPS systems and don’t ask their self-employed drivers to memorise every London street, like the black cab drivers do. Many black cab drivers focus on the fact that most Uber drivers are non-white migrants (“they don’t speak English”) – rather than the under-cutting of fare prices through new technology, such as GPS and internet-platforms. Another way to look at it is that it’s not one’s identity that determines the process you are incorporated into the labour market, rather it is the position that you find yourself within the labour market that determines your social position and therefore racialised/gendered identity.

3) Another example from our area: a friend of ours works as a recruiter in a recruitment agency for building workers. Most of his colleagues are from Eastern Europe. He overheard them talking to each other: “We shouldn’t hire black people, they are lazy” and saw that they excluded black people from jobs. We discussed the situation and advised him that if talking to his colleagues about this would not change their behaviour he should put in a formal complaint, even if this would mean that his colleagues get disciplined by management. Perhaps management itself was racially biased, which would only leave the option to protest more openly.

4) In the factory where one of us works, there are 60% women workers but the work is highly segregated in terms of sex/gender. Women work on the assembly lines which is termed ‘unskilled’ and are paid the least even though it’s the hardest job. It is mainly men that occupy the middle and higher management positions. Women experience sexual harassment at work, that much is clear. But when we raise the issue in our factory newsletter, we try and point out how this is related to how the work is actually organised. It is not just a question of forcing the male managers to change their behaviour (although we also ‘Name and Shame’ individual managers in our ‘Bully of the Month’ section,) but the work process itself is creating the conditions in which sexual harassment can flourish. For example, women are stuck on the line and micromanaged by the mainly male managers. Productivity targets are so high and the work so pressurised that everyone is shouting and bullying everyone all the time. We are understaffed and there aren’t enough people to do the work, which makes everyone take out their stress on the people below them. Managers wield a lot of personal power and favouritism over who gets overtime, who gets to work where. Without questioning the pace and culture of the general working environment and how work is actually organised, there will always be the conditions for men to harass women and get away with it. In one of our factory newsletters we pointed out the verbal molesting of a certain manager, who came from Goa, towards female agency workers (who are generally from Eastern Europe). While distributing the newsletter it was disturbing (though perhaps not too surprising) to see that male workers from Eastern Europe were mainly angry about the fact that it was an Indian manager who molested ‘their’ women. 

5) In the same factory allegations of racism were brought up by a new (white) union organiser, who called the bad treatment of Indian workers in terms of pay and working conditions ‘racist’. Yes, the management exploit the fact that most workers cannot speak english well. But ‘racism’ as the sole explanation for the fact that these workers are employed and exploited excludes the role of the mainly white Eastern European agency workers that work alongside the mainly Indian permanent workers. It glosses over the fact that the union has been ineffective and reliant on a complacent union bureacracy that is made up of other Indians who have a higher social status within the so-called Indian community. It fails to see how different groups of ‘Indians’ are segregated along caste, sex/gender and work role lines, and how they themselves have a role in reproducing these by what they think and say. 

6) Another example of the sex/gender question is raised during the current £4bn equal pay claim at Tesco, where one of us works. The claim is that workers – majority women – who are employed in Tesco supermarket stores and who work as check-out workers or who stack shelves earn significantly less than workers – majority men – who do similar jobs in Tesco distribution centres. Both sides of the dispute try to prove that (female) store workers and (male) warehouse workers have either similar skills and performance levels and therefore deserve equal pay, or different skills and performance levels, and should therefore be paid differently. Obviously we should support claims for equal pay amongst workers, we have to be clear about the particular reasons for differences in wages. Without this knowledge we will have difficulties to find the most effective and empowering ways to fight for better conditions. In the Tesco case, the reason why workers in the stores earn less than workers in distribution centres is not primarily because they are women, but because store workers have less material clout vis-a-vis Tesco. Distribution centres are a massive concentration of workers on which dozens of stores depend, whereas stores employ less workers and strikes would have less of an impact. Workers in stores are subsumed under the USDAW union and Tesco partnership agreement, which doesn’t allow for voting on pay agreements and excludes industrial action, whereas distribution centres are individual bargaining units that can go on strike – as happened recently in Dagenham. [17] There is obviously a sex/gender imbalance between stores and distribution centres: stores offer more part-time positions, which many women workers are forced to take due to the double burden of reproductive work; and there might be a ‘male culture’ in warehouses, too, which forms a barrier for female employment. We have written on this issue based on our own experiences. [18] But in this case, to claim that warehouse workers are paid more primarily due to ‘male privilege’ helps hide the only power that workers have vis-a-vis capital: their collective productive power. A class perspective and intervention would have to address the issue in all its aspects: a) the main reason why workers in distribution centres earn more is because they are not shackled by the union-management agreement and because of their structural power; a common strategy has to be developed from both distribution centres and stores b) women are still paid less because of ‘sexist culture’ in workplaces (“who runs machines, who operates forklifts”), but mainly due to deeper structural reasons: the burden of reproductive work still subsumes women to a male full-time wage, which is the reason why the male wage is still calculated as the main source of family income. This is a wider social structural force that affects even single mothers or women who don’t have children. In this situation, to argue on the level of ‘skill levels’ is a trap – no wonder that the Tesco equal pay claim is entirely in the hands of middle-class lawyers (who are probably all aware of intersectionality theories).

7) We lived in a shared house of 7 people meant only for 4. This was the only way we could afford it, and overcrowding in our area is very common because the rents are so high and wages so low. In the next room, we overheard the couple arguing and it sounded like the guy was hitting his girlfriend. I wasn’t sure what to do – in England especially, the privatised nature of domestic life is pretty deep seated and intervening in domestic situations is not common. I did end up knocking on the door to see if the woman was alright, but how do we analyse this? On one hand, yes, it is a case of domestic abuse by a man against a woman. But the relationship was built on an inequality based on dependency, creating the pre-condition for him to take advantage of the situation. She was younger, had worse English, was not so confident, had a ‘less skilled’ job that paid less so she was more financially dependent on him, they were sharing a room in which they slept, ate, and hung out in which added to the isolated and co-dependent relationship. We need to address these material bases that encourage privatised and abusive relationships. In our newspaper, we wrote about this case, but we also did not just see this situation as a total dead end. The Left would just complain about the working class as victims in this situation, bemoaning the fact that there is overcrowded housing. The fact that we are all crammed together, working long shifts, is an opportunity. Why not open our bedroom doors? Why don’t we share the cooking and alleviate some of the reproductive tasks that would make all our lives easier and more communal?

8) We need to question the notion of ‘community.’ We don’t say that communities of women or black people should not organise together, but as an exclusive way of organising it is limited because it often does not see the community as being composed of different class elements. E.g a few weeks ago we went to a march in Southall which is an overwhelmingly Indian area that saw riots in the 70s to get the National Front out of the area. One guy died in the riots as local people tried to stop the NF meeting in the town hall, a meeting that was being protected by the police. The 40th anniversary was commemorated and framed in a way that saw the ‘local community’ (read punjabi Indian) out on the street. However, this community was actually quite diverse even in the 70s, both racially and from a class perspective. Since then the community has diversified even more, at the same time the state encourages the concept of (ethnic, religious) community and poorer people depend on ‘community infrastructure’, such as free food at temples or charities. At the same time the community has become a cover for excessive exploitation. In our solidarity network we have supported recently arrived migrant proletarians against landlords, visa agents and bosses of ‘their’ community. These exploiters have used the community ties and dependency to rip them off and pay them below the minimum wage. When we counter-attacked they blamed the proletarians as ‘traitors of their community’. The anti-racist or anti-islamophobic discourse of the left involuntarily plays into the exploiters hands.

*** Ideology vs. economic determinism

After our presentation in comrades in Greece, the discussion raised some interesting points. Some of our examples were questioned on the basis of their over-emphasis on class. After all, it is not just women who are economically dependent on men who suffer from domestic or sexual abuse. Do we do away with the concept of ‘The Patriarchy’ if we’re just going to boil everything down to class? Can we talk of a patriarchy today and if so, what do we mean by it? Someone questioned how much a situation of abuse is down to patriarchy and how much is down to class?

Our point is not that if we get rid of a class society that men will not at least try to abuse women. The point is: how will they not get away with it? What situations make it less likely that it will occur, and in what situations are women more likely to refuse to accept it? This would entail a fundamental breakdown in the divisions between productive and reproductive labour, the public and the private, the intellectual and manual, the annihilation of the family/household system as we know it. These splits put women at a structural disadvantage upon which the ideology of women’s lower value can be maintained. Even if individual women can break out of these dichotomies (by not having children, getting a well paid intellectual job), women as a whole are unable to escape the wider social reality that relegates them to a marginalised position in the labour market, and a more isolated position within the nuclear family.  

The opposition between ‘patriarchy’ and class is misleading. They are not two independent systems. ‘Patriarchy’ in the current context that it is usually used, and often in opposition to class, is usually meant as an economic and social system enforced and controlled by men, for men – a system with structures that maintain men’s privileges and subordinates women. The social reality is more complicated than this though, as we see women complicit in the maintenance of the existing social order and some men that have no power vis a vis other men and women especially on the transnational level of uneven development. 

There is a disconnect between the level of inequality and violence against women with the fact that legally at least, gender discrimination is outlawed. The sex-blind tendency of capitalism that pulls in all labour actually works against the idea of excluding women from waged work, as too do technological advances that limit the need for physical strength in most jobs. To make sense of this contradiction, it is easy to see how the perpetuation of sexist ideas becomes the only plausible explanation for women’s continued marginalisation. We know it when we see it, and we can call it out and try and make sure it doesn’t happen again. This is obviously necessary. However, (sexist) ‘ideology’ on its own would have to be very strong indeed to counteract the equalising tendencies of capitalism. We are not saying ideology has no part to play, but there must be some material rooting that maintains its power. And ultimately we would need to address these things too, for full liberation. What then is the role of ideology within a materialist understanding of women’s position in the capitalist mode of production? 

Ideology’s power must be based on real experience, rather than just being the wrong set of ideas. However, these experiences are not objective truths. Rather, we would say that these real experiences are only partly understood. And they are only partly understood because people have different levels of reality, based on their position within the social production process. Alienation, not just in waged work but at the level of consciousness that affects our personal and familial relationships , especially in terms of sexuality, must be taken into account within this context.  This explains why women play a role in their own oppression, and the fact that we can’t just think or behave our way out of women’s or racial oppression. At the same time collective resistance hardly ever forms by ‘attacking the material core’ of things – workers don’t go on strike against ‘surplus value production’, but because it stinks to work in the warehouse. And women attack machos mansplainers in an assembly much more than ‘the socially isolating experience of motherhood’. Attacks against the daily surface expressions of underlying material relations are the point where collectivity emerges – our question is, where can it go from there? 

*** Footnotes

[1]

http://www.tapaidiatisgalarias.org

[2]

https://angryworkersworld.wordpress.com/2018/09/13/the-limits-of-intersectionality-angryworkers-book-review-of-striking-women-struggles-and-strategies-of-south-asian-women-workers-from-grunwick-to-gate-gourmet-by-sundari-anitha-and-ruth-pe/

[3]

Here we would make a difference between practical defence of victims, e.g. of deportations, and a wider political approach which analyses the whole of society as composed of different degrees of victimhood and which acts accordingly: focus on ‘safe spaces’, ‘privileges’ etc. 

[4]

In our future reading groups we will try to understand if people like Adolph Reed (and others in the Jacobin debate) primarily see the class position of Blacks in the US as defining their social position because they are social democratic Bernie Sanders supporters – or whether these two things are not directly related

https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/08/bernie-sanders-black-voters-adolph-reed-trump-hillary/

https://jacobinmag.com/2018/11/democratic-socialism-class-organizing-racism-sexism

[5]

This passage is a good example of the mental contorsions of current gender discourse. We are in process of writing a more detailed response, partly as a result of our ‘German Ideology’ discussion group: 

“Since gender is an expression of these relations of production and not of biology, where does that leave sex? Some psuedomarxists claim sex forms the material base of gender, but this is a laughable understanding of historical materialism which centers biology before relations of production. Biology influences our reality, but our social systems find their basis in our material conditions. But sex is a thing and, if it isn’t the basis of gender, what is it? Well, this formulation isn’t wrong, per se, it’s merely backwards. Gender forms the basis of sex. We are not born with sex already within us. We have penises, vaginas, breasts, beards, chromosomes, etc, but these things are not sex on their own. They are features of our biology, but we group them into sexes. When we call penises boy parts we are creating and imposing gender upon the body. What this means is that sex is the gendering of our biological features. We assign gender to our biology and claim them to be innate.”

http://libcom.org/library/gender-accelerationist-manifesto

[6]

If Marx had not been too sexist to listen to his best pals working class girlfriend Mary Burns he would have understood more about the gendered introduction of machinery and wouldn’t have had to rely on bourgeois sources. A comrade of ours wrote a great article about this, unfortunately only in German.

[7]

Angela Davies explained how family structures – and therefore the relation between men and women – were very different for white working class women and black women under the condition of US chattel slavery. The exploitation of slave labour depended on the constant decomposition of social relations amongst slaves, which included the breaking up of families. Male slaves were not allowed to develop traditional male masculine roles, female slaves were often denied traditional mothering roles. In the post-slavery period South-North migration made it equally difficult for traditional nuclear family structures and roles to develop.

[8]

Even when it comes to explanations for particular gender norms and performances a look at the particular class position can often help. For example it will be difficult to understand what is widely labelled as ‘toxic masculinity‘ (domineering loud behaviour, emphasise on physical strength and sexual potency, display of homophobic attitudes etc.) if we don‘t relate it to the fact how working class men experience and discipline their bodies as manual workers or as people who are more likely to face violent environments (prison system, army, street gangs etc.). Amongst middle-class intellectual men male supremacy will express itself in other, perhaps more subtle, but not less sexist ways.

[9]

The identity of ‘mother’ is probably the most poignant example for the limitations of identity politics – politics which base the trajectory of emancipation on your particular condition and your subjective identification with it. While forcing women into motherhood (having the main responsibility and identification with a child) is the cornerstone of women’s oppression, each woman, once in this situation and in particular as a single mother, will be under enormous pressures to identify with her role. We don’t merely talk about moral and social expectations to ‘be a good mum’, but about emotional compensations in an intimate relationship with a needy creature. Will we be able to blame the mother for ‘identifying with her oppression?’ No. Will we blame her for developing feelings of ownership and power over her children? No. Will we turn hippy, glorify her condition and take it as the starting point of social emancipation through Earth Mother? No. We have to turn outwards to the social and material world, rather than inwards into the world of gendered feelings and expectations in order to find solutions.  

[10]

In this part we have emphasised the division of labour between women and men as the foundation of sexual hierarchies. What we should not underestimate is the historic impact of the state when it comes to male violence against women: the brutalisation of men in armies and wars, which creates ripple-effect into society, increasing levels of domestic violence. And although it can be said that the state tried to compensate men in gendered terms (allowing soldiers to loot and rape), it would be more than cynical to claim that being drafted or lured into war is an expression of ‘male privilege’ or due to men’s violent nature.

[11]

Here we agree with Cedric Johnson, who points out that even in the 1960s it was false to speak of a ‘Black community’ when it comes to the struggle against racism. Not only were there various class positions within that community, the political trajectories were very diverse, ranging from liberal movements for citizen rights, to ‘Blacks as inner-colony’-positions to Black nationalism and Islam to Black revolutionary working class politics. To a certain degree this view of Black exceptionalism still prevails today. Black Lives Matter is one example. This movement promotes a primarily race-centric analysis for mistreatment by the police. This leaves the class differences and competing interests within black political life untheorised. In terms of numbers, most people killed by the police in the US are white and poor. Black people are disproportionately killed and targeted by the police, also and mainly because they are disproportionately poor and identified with the surplus population. It is not only that by focusing largely on Black victims of police violence and incarceration the movement runs risk of losing possible allies amongst proletarians of other backgrounds. The race-centric view also potentially traps us once we deal with explanations for, e.g. the fact that knife crime in London is predominantly a problem of Black young men. In this case people rightly point out that there have been high numbers of violent crimes in predominantly white areas, for example Glasgow, and that the reasons for higher levels of violence are to be found in urban poverty and related informal economies rather than ethnic backgrounds.

https://catalyst-journal.com/vol1/no1/panthers-cant-save-us-cedric-johnson

[12]

Unfortunately the interesting trend of ‘base building’ within the revolutionary left in the US seems to be limited by an understanding of class as a mass of impoverished people. Comrades talk about ‘mass base’ and ‘mass politics’ – in consequence the relation to the class seems external (providing food or advice in order to get one’s organisation rooted), rather than trying to relate to the power that workers have under specific conditions – some workers more than others, which is the actual material challenge of organisation. It is not by becoming individual members of an organisation that we develop class power, but by finding forms of organisation which relates the organic power of workers as producers to the lack of power of workers in other social conditions.

https://theleftwind.wordpress.com/2018/03/16/its-all-about-that-base-a-dossier-on-the-base-building-trend/

[13]

Paul Mason is a good barometer to gauge where the intellectual left is heading. He seems convinced that the main contradiction lies between the liberating qualities of modern networking and automating technologies on one side and the danger that the right-wing uses these means to undermine democracy. The working class mainly appears as a victim of excess labour (which tends towards the right) and the main social subject is the enlightened precarious intellectual, who rediscovers the humanist roots of the left to fight the ‘culture war’ (now within the EU).

https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/14254/beyond-noise-paul-mason-humanism-and-british-crisis

[14]

Some say the opposite, but by limiting themselves to an instinctive reaction against right-wing conspiracy they miss the point: from Foucault onwards to Subaltern and Post-Colonial studies, we have witnessed an intellectual errosion of Marxist theory which turned it from a tool to beat exploiters and oppressors into an academic commodity to beat anyone who still believes in universal human emancipation. Or even to think about what things are general and in common. We have to face up to this fact and understand how this happened – and unlike the alt-right we don’t have to look for reasons in the back-rooms of the elite, but in the defeat of class movements, its re-compositions and divisions and the failures on the (Marxist) left to understand them.

[15]

At the peak of the British Raj in India the average life expectancy of a worker in Liverpool was below 40 years. The armies used to maintain colonial power were armies of the same nation states which butchered millions of white-male proletarians during the two World Wars. Turning the correlation of welfare states and colonies into a causal relation (welfare states in the north were financed by exploitation of colonies) is questioned by experience of the welfare states of Scandinavian countries, who didn’t own colonies etc. Wages of workers in the global north declined over the last three decades, decades when a lot of productive capital was shifted towards the south – meaning that profits made in the south did not end up in the pockets of workers in the north. There are significant wage differences between workers in globally and the border system puts workers from the north in a relatively privileged position – the reasons behind this are more complex as the picture of ‘workers north profit from workers south’ wants to make us believe. A more complex view on global developments can be found here:

https://libcom.org/library/global-working-class-wildcat-germany

[16]

A good critique here: http://organizing.work/2019/03/the-womens-strike-reconsidered/ 

[17]

https://notesfrombelow.org/article/tesco-workers-strike-dagenham-distribution-centre

[18]

https://angryworkersworld.wordpress.com/2018/11/19/women-and-the-union-a-factory-in-west-london/