Theories of oppression

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.


About timothyscriven

I study philosophy at Sydney University. In the grand scheme, I'm not very important.
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2 Responses to Theories of oppression

  1. Tabitha says:

    the thing that i don’t understand about your theorisation of intersectionality/kyriarchy is that it’s reliant on a reactionary way of thinking about politics which is completely non-applicable to those who intersectionality applies to, i.e. women of colour (who patricia hill collins created the concept for)

    women of colour politics often revolves around support and celebration of subjective experience and creating positive, optimistic communities. there is little to no moralising because it does not revolve around those who do not share our identity. we “attack” domination by subverting its expectations within ourselves, by strengthening our minds and our hearts, by self-love and beauty standards that exist outside of white beauty norms, by conceptualising new spaces of belonging. we do not seek to convert others while we have the legacy of internalised racism to deal with within ourselves.

    bell hooks talks a lot about how her criticism of others comes from a place of love, and from a place of understanding. being “called out” for your privilege requires a certain amount of hope and honesty in that person to change. every single person on this planet is oppressive in some way or another because of internalised values, and they’re oppressive towards themselves, and i think in activism spaces there should be room for growth and for those un-internalising processes. as much as i agree that class analysis is important in attempting to rid ourselves of power structures, treating the symptoms of oppression is also so important, especially when they can be so deeply rooted in your psyche. so yeah. ummmmmm politics of positivity pls.

    • Hey Tabitha, thanks for your comments.

      Intersectionality is a concept which can be understood outside a kyriarchal framework and is definitely a concept that’s worth thinking about.

      Building communities of people who share identities is great for some purposes, I’ve got no objection to it, but to be fully politically useful, must be oriented against that which exists. If you want to turn against what exists with full force it’s pretty essential to understand the intergral nature of class.

      I’m not against “treating the symptoms of oppression” as you say. My argument is simply that the macro-structure of oppression is determined by class.

      Overall my disagreement could be summarised with the thought that oppression is not something which exists primarily or in the first instance in our heads, especially the heads of those who would seek to oppose oppression. Rather it is rooted in the structures we inhabit, not within persons, but between them.

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