The debate we need to have on the left is what is the structure of domination? The two most popular (but by no means exhaustive) theories are:
1. The structure of domination is decentralised. Class, Race, Gender, Sexuality, Ability to name a few exist as (relatively) independent axes of domination.
2. The structure of domination has a core. Domination on the basis of class structures other forms of domination according to its purposes.
The first theory does not mean that differing forms of oppression are non-interacting, or do not reinforce each other. Merely that they are relatively independent, and there are no relations of primacy between them. The second theory does not necessarily mean that these forms of domination would disappear if class disappeared, merely that these forms of domination are both structured and aggravated by class. Class domination creates the forms they take, and class domination aggravates them.
We call the first view the kyriarchal view, and the second view the materialist view. The first view is sometimes called “intersectionality” which is odd, because intersectionality is a different and much more specific idea.
The question “which view is right?” is not abstract. It influences practical politics at numerous junctures. For example, if there is no centre to domination, it is difficult to imagine a decisive revolution against domination, thus there is some tension between kyriarchal politics and revolutionary politics (though perhaps that tension can be overcome.) Other points of practice include the relative weight given to principles like solidarity and autonomy. Indirectly other issues are implicated as well; kyriarchal analysis tends to worry more about issues of language and representation than materialist analysis, which tends to fuss over more tangible things.
We’re not having this debate at the moment. While most activists subscribe to one or the other view, there is little to no interchange between the viewpoints. Being a materialist myself, I can’t help but wonder about the seeming obliviousness of supporters of the kyriarchal model of politics- an odd kind of meta-obliviousness at that. They simply do not seem to grasp the concept that a left wing person might understand their ideas and still disagree. Like all ideas with some kind of hegemony, the kyriarchy analysis obscures its own content, it presents itself as simply the politics remanent when you “check your privilege” or “stop being a douchebag”.
It’s a shame that it obscures itself so because it doesn’t take much thought to see that it is completely unworkable. We are presented with a world in which different people have different kinds of privilege (and there are countless axes). Almost everyone falls into at least one category of privilege, and almost everyone into at least one category of oppression. As a friend put it cheekily Everyone is the baddie and everyone the goodie. Almost everyone is the victim, we all get a share in the communal project of overthrowing the existing order.
How could you overcome a structure like this? How could you break out into clean air? Why would the people with power (pretty much everyone) to give up their power? There are probably many different theories on this point, but none of them strike me as satisfactory. All we see is the constant repetition of the claim that each person should “check their privilege”. What seems to be being suggested is a new political morality, a political morality that will enable each to see their complicity in structures of tyranny, and subsequently through a moral epiphany of sorts stop oppressing on the basis of privilege in their daily lives etc, etc. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think basing one’s praxis on scolding others for their privilege is likely to be very effective.
The alternative materialist theory has a very clear account of how we can attack domination that does not rely on appealing to some sort of progressive empathy. Organise a workers revolution (or for reformists, a movement of workers power) in the interests of everyone except the ruling class. In the interim the class can and should self organise, including against attempts to divide it (racism, sexism, queerphobia, ableism etc).
In the materialist analysis the privileges afforded to whites, men, straights, the able-bodied etc are conceived of as illusory, barriers to be overcome and delusions to be broken in the quest for working class power. Yes straight people have certain advantages over queer people, but unless you’re a capitalist, the advantages you gain are only relative. In absolute terms, both parties would be better off without queerphobia, a form of oppression which only serves to strengthen the capitalist class thus harming almost all straights and queers alike. It’s not a theory that simply boils down to be more sensitive to the unfair advantages you have over each other. It emphaises the drive towards unity and solidarity in the working class (including the unemployed) and the fundamental similarities in our positions, despite attempts to divide us through various axes of oppression.
None of which is to deny that greater sensitivity to privilege isn’t something we have to do in our own spaces- like almost all wrong and popular ideas it has some merit. But the things we have to do to build inclusive movements shouldn’t form the basis of our praxis as a whole. Moralising cannot form the heart of our political strategy. Materialism has an alternative to endless moralising, but as best as I can tell, kyriarchal analysis doesn’t.