Class vs. “Identity Politics,” Intersectionality, Etc.: Some General Observations

Those of us involved in various justice movements of the Left sometimes argue among ourselves as though the struggles for class, racial and gender justice existed in a zero-sum relationship.

Many people in the workers’ and economic justice movements complain — rightly so in my view — that “identity politics” in far too many cases became a substitute for class struggle, with racial and gender justice movements led by upper middle-class managerial-professional types focusing almost entirely on equal representation in the professions and boardrooms at the expense of economic justice. This approach is commonly derided as “black, female, etc., faces in high places.”

We can see this in the recent high profile coverage of the version of feminism promoted by Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Mayer, notably, was hailed as a triumph of feminism at the very time when she’d been showing her contempt for working mothers by eliminating Yahoo’s work-at-home arrangements.

On the CNN special “Black in America” several years ago, Soledad O’Brien cited, as evidence of the fulfilment of MLK’s dream, the fact that “Some are Secretary of State; some are CEO” — a source of some dismay for those of us whose fondest dream is to strangle the last Secretary of State with the entrails of the last CEO.

But some of the above-mentioned critics from the economic justice movement go even further, blaming gender and racial “identity politics” as a distraction from the class struggle. The struggle for labor rights and economic justice should take precedence over racial and gender justice, they say, because racism and sexism have been subsumed to a large extent within the class struggle. And to the extent that structural racism and sexism, homophobia and transphobia continue to be real problems, the victims of such oppression should throw in with the economic justice movement and treat winning the class struggle as their immediate priority — after which the working class will return the favor by shifting its fraternal efforts to the racial and gender justice fronts.

This goes too far — way too far. First of all, it’s not just a question of priority. It’s a matter of people not being actively horrible to one another. The most radical members of one social justice movement are frequently the most bigoted and hateful voices against victims of other forms of oppression. A good example is the slew of radical feminist writers at The Guardian, the American RadFem (and, ahem, corporate trademark lawyer) Cathy “Bug” Brennan, and Rosanne Barr — all of whom have assaulted transgender people with the most vile, toxic abuse imaginable. RadFems also commonly take a dismissive and patronizing attitude toward sex workers, ignoring their own agency and preferences in the quest to criminalize sex work “for their own good.”

Second, for those who mercifully do at least recognize in principle the validity of other struggles against oppression, it’s important to recognize that these struggles are not in a zero-sum relationship with one another. They are complementary and cumulative. It is not a distraction from the racial and gender justice struggle to put a special focus on the needs of the economically oppressed. It is not a distraction or detraction from the struggle for economic justice to address the needs of workers of color or of women, gay and transgender workers. Just the opposite. It creates a positive synergy.

Treating the relationship between these struggles as zero-sum undermines each one severally. Treating them as mutually reinforcing, as natural allies in a larger fight for justice, on the other hand, creates a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

That’s what the idea of “intersectionality” — paying attention to the way that intersecting membership in more than one oppressed group — is all about. Intersectionality is sometimes dismissed by critics of “political correctness” as a sort of “oppression olympics” in which people compete to see who is the most oppressed of all, in order to extract maximum guilt from everyone else.

In fact it’s just the opposite. Intersectionality is not a source of division, but of unity. The idea of intersectionality is to strengthen each movement internally and create solidarity, by considering the special needs of each member and giving her whatever help she needs to function effectively as a comrade in the struggle. It eliminates potential divisions within the movement that might otherwise be used as a weapon by its enemies.

Differential levels of oppression and exploitation are a lever for maintaining the system of exploitation by the privileged classes. An economic justice movement that fights for the rights and empowerment of workers, without specifically addressing the special needs of the victims of racial and gender oppression in its ranks, is a gravely weakened and divided movement.

Access to underpaid and exploited minority, female and unskilled labor undermines the bargaining power of white, male, skilled labor. Industrial managers in early 20th century labor struggles, who deliberately chose unemployed blacks as scabs to break strikes, understood this. So did landowners in the south who exploited racial divisions to break the tenant farmers’ union. So, on the other side, did the Wobblies and CIO, who eschewed the racial segregation that so weakened the AFL’s craft unions.

Intersectionality undermines the ruling class’s “divide and conquer” strategies of labor market segmentation as a strategy for weakening the bargaining power of labor. The workers’ movement, as such, by giving additional aid to the most disadvantaged and oppressed segment of the labor force, increases the power of labor as a whole.

Meanwhile, there is a sense in which the struggle for economic and material justice, for everyone’s control over the means of livelihood, is of central importance to racial and gender justice movements. The reason is that even primarily non-economic forms of injustice, like racial and gender oppression, depend to a considerable extent on control over access to the means of material subsistence.

Much of the leverage not only for class and economic oppression, for oppression on the basis of race, gender, sexual preference and gender identity as well, comes from the ability to obstruct access to the means of independent livelihood, and to withhold or take away the prerequisites of comfortable subsistence. the extent to which they are in what Friedrich Engels called the “realm of necessity,” as opposed to the “realm of freedom.”

By eliminating the material bases of class exploitation — by rendering unenforceable the artificial scarcities and artificial property rights from which the ruling class extracts rents — the economic justice movement eliminates the lever of necessity as a central component of all forms of oppression.

Let’s consider a few examples. When the price of land falls precipitously as a result of vacant land no longer being held out of use by artificial land titles, and vernacular building technologies like cheap, snap-together, modular housing designs become widely available without obstruction from local building codes, discrimination in rental housing will likely be significantly less important than it is now. The larger the share of our necessities of life that can be met through self-provisioning in the informal and household sector rather than paying for them with money earned through wage employment, the less will be the proportional effect of job discrimination on our access to the means of subsistence. If freed slaves after the Civil War had received “forty acres and a mule” from broken up plantations, and had been in widespread possession of the means of armed self-defense, the material balance of power would have been far different from that which allowed the reimposition of white rule after 1877.

That’s not to say that many people won’t continue to depend on rental housing or wage employment for some time, or that discrimination won’t matter to them. But the larger the share of the public that has the realistic option of walking away from the bargaining table, the less leeway the owners and employers will have to exploit those who remain.

The less a person’s material dependence on others for survival, the more it becomes feasible for her to pick and choose her interactions with others, and interact only on terms of dignity and equality. When the majority of people in a society — including oppressed racial and gender groups — obtain the lion’s share of their material subsistence needs independently of the will or whim of others, and are in the habit of seeing themselves as free economic agents in independent control of their own means of livelihood, the spillover effects will color their relations with one another in other areas of life as well.

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