Race, Gender and Class: Guess which one doesn’t belong

by Jehu

As you might know, of late the twitter Left has been aflame with intersectionalismvarious expressions of the circular firing squad that is intersectional politics. First, it was some feminists confronting transgendered folks (“Your penis is not female!”); this later morphed into women of color taking on white feminists (#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen); later episodes featured a (for me at least) long-awaited World Series of intersectional disputes: black women expressing their anger at the abuse they have suffered over the years at the hands of black men.

So it goes.

Which is not to say any of these internecine outbursts were unjustified. I just wondered for a while where it would erupt next. So while I was waiting for the next front in the circular firing squad, I figured I would do some reading up on intersectionality. I decided to read two very interesting articles: “MARXISM AND CLASS, GENDER AND RACE: RETHINKING THE TRILOGY” by Martha E. Gimenez and a popularized Marxist take on the same subject, “What is intersectionality?” by Shanice McBean.

Frankly, I am not impressed with either argument.

There have been reams of paper, gallons of ink and trillions of web page electrons devoted to this question. I am no expert on the matter and admit at the outset all the nuances of the discussion probably go right over my head. So if this commentary seems theoretically naive, chalk it up to someone putting his nose in the middle of a dispute where it doesn’t belong.

In any case here goes:

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In the first paper, Gimenez offers a critique of the journal, Race, Gender and Class and makes four points

First:

“the RGC perspective erases the qualitative differences between class and other sources of inequality and oppression, an erasure grounded in its essentially atheoretical nature.”

Second:

“From the standpoint of Marxist theory, however, class is qualitatively different from gender and race and cannot be considered just another system of oppression.”

Third:

“Class relations … are of paramount importance, for most people’s economic survival is determined by them.”

Fourth:

“As long as the RGC perspective reduces class to just another form of oppression, and remains theoretically eclectic, so that intersectionality and interlockings are, in a way, “up for grabs,” meaning open to any and all theoretical interpretations, the nature of those metaphors of division and connection will remain ambiguous and open to conflicting and even contradictory interpretations.”

In the second paper, McBean argues the problem in the discussion can be attributed to the fact that most discussions of intersectionality proceed from the theoretically weak basis of privilege theory:

“So intersectionality only treats class as another form of oppression if the explanatory framework you use it within also treats class as oppression. For example, if you put intersectionality within the framework of privilege theory, then there are a whole host of criticisms we could draw out against intersectionality. But we should be careful not to confuse criticisms we have of privilege theory with those of intersectionality. If you place intersectionality within the framework of privilege, you should not blame intersectionality for the conclusions that privilege theory leads to.

If you use intersectionality within the framework of Marxism, however, then the problem of class is immediately remedied. Once you put it in a Marxist framework, intersectionality can become an important descriptive study of the way in which differing social relations intersect to shape the lives of oppressed and exploited groups of people.”

Both papers makes a vigorous defense of the notion class is fundamental to any analysis of society and of the problem of working class solidarity. McBean in particular makes a very interesting argument for intersectionality proceeding from the assumption that class is fundamental to any analysis of society:

“The importance of political battles against oppression cannot be overstated. Oppression seeks to divide the working class and keep us weak. For that reason we need to be seen to be the best fighters against oppression – in the immediate – in order to draw black and white, women and men, trans and cis folk, gay, straight or bi (etc) together into battle against capitalism.

If our politics are to truly speak to the global working class we have to talk about the global working class, with all its specificities and nuances. What have we got to say about the global womanisation and racialisation of the working class and how this affects state sanctioned sexual abuse against women of colour, for example?”

Gimenez explains that the theoretical problem posed by any attempt to set race and gender on par with class must lead to ambiguous result. One of her strongest arguments in this regard is that class in fact tends to be downplayed in reality because it is very often invisible even to members of the working class. What they apprehend in their relations with other members of society is racial prejudice or misogyny. The privileged role for class emphasized by Marxists is determined by its place in the very material survival of the individual. This leads to a problem for theory: on the one hand, class is not always evident in the perceptions of the working class, while, on the other hand, it determines their lives.

Unfortunately, neither paper quite grapples with the problem that this category, class, which, apparently, although of such material importance to members of the working class, nevertheless appears unimportant to them in every day life. Class actually figures nowhere in the immediate consciousness of the working class — particularly in United States. What looms larger in the minds of the working class are the forms of relations grounded in various non-class “identities”.

I think, this is the question Gimenez and McBean should have investigated, rather than objecting to the attempts by the journal, Race, Gender and Class and by privilege theory in general to set race, gender and class on par. If in fact race and gender loom more important in the minds of the working class than class, and if this is a reflections of their material conditions of life, not some simple academic failure, how does this happen? It is one thing to criticize an academic journal or theoretical tendency for neglecting class or reducing it to just another form of oppression, it is quite another to admit sheepishly that this is exactly how the working class itself sees things. Explaining the journal’s error or the defect of privilege theory is a matter of critique of methodology and assumptions, but, as Gimenez admits, and McBean implies, this appears to be actually how the situation looks to society itself.

How do you explain this?

It can only be explained by the fact that materially, class relations plays little or no role in society. This conclusion however obvious must nevertheless be rejected by the Marxist, who “knows” this is the central and over-riding factor in all social relations. The Marxist is, therefore, confronted by the fact that what she “knows” to be reality, is not reality at all so far a the mass of the working class is concerned in practice.

And any Marxist worth her or his salt “knows” why this has happened: The reality apprehended by the working class must be a false reality — an illusory reality, an ideology. This ideology serves to conceal “real” reality beneath layers of bourgeois thinking. And what explains this bourgeois thinking? The bourgeoisie, of course. As Lenin put it in What is to be Done, bourgeois ideology dominates the thinking of the working class,

“For the simple reason that bourgeois ideology is far older in origin than socialist ideology, that it is more fully developed, and that it has at its disposal immeasurably more means of dissemination.”

As a practical matter, the ideology of the working class is, therefore, not an expression of its material conditions of life, but of the ideological pressure exerted on the working class by the dominant class. It follows from this that academic journals, other advocates of intersectionality, schools, and the mass media are mere devices through which this foreign class ideology is transmitted to the working class.

Thus we end up in the lap of Noam Chomsky and his “manufactured consent” hypothesis.

The thinking of the working class is no longer a valid expression of its material conditions of life, but acting out the material conditions of life of the other class. It is, in other words, completely bourgeoisified in its thinking. What matter for the working class, under these conditions, is what matters to the bourgeoisie: the glass ceiling, a black president, how many women are CEOs and what is their pay compared to men CEOs., pink collar labor and unpaid house work, comparative prison populations of black versus white, stop and frisk, Immigration reform, gay marriage — the list of purely bourgeois concerns is really fucking endless.

Moreover, on these “issues” the working class is on both sides! It is for the military granting gay soldiers full recognition and for California laws denying this recognition. Which is to say, working class “politics” is completely incoherent — much as we would expect, since, as we already know, the category class itself is a political form.

Theoretically, however, this incoherence is said explained by an even greater incoherence: that one class can express the material conditions of life of the other class.

Let’s be clear about one thing: This is NOT fucking possible. It is a violation of fundamental assumptions of historical materialism. In historical materialist approach, the consciousness of any class must express its own material conditions of life.

And this forces us to one of two conclusions: The working class is completely bourgeois or its material conditions of life cannot be expressed as a class consciousness.

There are numerous examples of arguments made for the former conclusion — the working class is corrupted and completely bourgeoisified, racist, misogynistic, nativistic, etc.. This would support the idea that the intersectionality critique is itself simply an expression of a completely bourgeoisified working class.

So far as I know, there is only two theorists who came to the other conclusion: that the material conditions of the working class cannot be expressed as a class consciousness. And those two were the founders of historical materialism: Marx and Engels. They make two critical arguments in this regards.

First,

“The separate individuals form a class only insofar as they have to carry on a common battle against another class; otherwise they are on hostile terms with each other as competitors.”

Which is to say, a class consciousness only forms in conflict with another class.

Second,

“This subsuming of individuals under definite classes cannot be abolished until a class has taken shape, which has no longer any particular class interest to assert against the ruling class.”

Which is to say, what is peculiar to the proletariat is that it is not in conflict with other classes. Marx and Engels argue the working class is, therefore, incapable of any sort of class consciousness whatsoever and this incapacity is itself an expression of its material conditions of life.

If the consciousness of the working class does not express its material position in society vis a vis the ruling class, what does it express? It must express the fact that the working class is “on hostile terms with each other as competitors”.

Really folks, this is Marxism 101: Introduction to Historical Materialism. If we cannot pass this course, we cannot go on to Marxism 102: Labor Theory.

Does my argument deny that there is in fact a conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie? Absolutely not. There is actually a very vicious full out open-ended unconstrained class war raging within society — but the problem with this class conflict is that working class isn’t even aware of it. The bourgeoisie is waging continuous war on the proletariat and the proletariat has no consciousness of this war. But there is a very bizarre thing about this war: Every success enjoyed by the bourgeois class in its class war on the working class only increases the working class and reduces the number of capitalists. The greater the success of the bourgeois class in its unrelenting war on the working class, the fewer capitals remain.

But that is not the only strange thing about this war: On the other hand, every increase in the numbers of proletarians only serve to increase the competition among proletarians. It is this competition that must, sooner or later, become intolerable to them — not bourgeois rule itself — and against which their efforts must be directed: to throw off this competition and replace it with association. Simply stated: the “class struggle” caricatured in most Marxist arguments doesn’t even figure in this process at all.

This has profound implications for explaining the weaknesses of the Marxist approach. In its political activity, the working class is reacting to, and motivated by, its growing intolerance to its own fragmentation and divisions, not the other class. We place great importance on the conflict with the other class, but historical materialism suggests our attention should be placed on the outrage against the empirically apprehended ever growing competition within the class itself.

It is this outrage that can only be addressed by association.

The question posed by intersectionality is how the working class can overcome its own divisions and fragmentation. This clearly calls for a revolution in consciousness and is not a simple matter of declaring in advance that we aren’t racist or misogynist. The competition within the working class exists independently of any such declarations and can only be abolished directly in association.

Moreover, fragmentation and division cannot be resolved within the realm of politics, since all politics is class based and the working class is not really a class. I think this is the core problem Holloway raises, which he labeled the “urgent impossibility”. Which is to say, the solution to the problem of fragmentation and division is to abolish fragmentation and division — an apparently circular argument. The argument must seem wholly unsatisfying to anyone with two working brain cells. Which, I think, is to say there is no possibility that overcoming competition, fragmentation and division can be accomplished “naturally”, i.e., in conflict with the bourgeoisie.

The first step of the working class bringing all of its material conditions of life under its control is to put an end to competition. This can only be accomplished consciously in which the expressed and conscious aim of its practical activity is to put an end to competition. And this conscious expressed aim can only have a global (i.e., universal) expression. It cannot take place on the national level and within the realm of a national politics, but must be immediately global. Until putting an end to all competition within the working class becomes the expressed aim of the class, it is impossible for it to emancipate itself.

I would emphatically reject the intersectionality critique because it displaces the source of the problem. But I would reject the Marxist critique of intersectionality for the same reason. The problem is competition within the class, not the other class nor the manifold forms this competition can assume within the class.

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