CAPITALISM AND OPPRESSION: AGAINST “IDENTITY POLITICS”

This essay draws heavily on Selma’s James justly famous “Sex, Race and Class.” This brilliant work contains the clear foundations of a Marxist conception of the relationship between capitalism and oppression which neither reduces the importance of oppression, nor suggests gender and race oppression are separate social systems to capitalism. I’d suggest reading “Sex, Race and Class”, it’s better than anything I could write.

I

The problems of this world appear to us, at first, like a huge pile of broken things; War, poverty, environmental destruction, and of course racism, sexism, queerphobia and ableism to name a few. The view that these forms of strife are not independent but have a common essence is what I will defend here.

What is objectionable about identity politics is that it construes, at least implicitly, various social struggles as fragmentary and particular fights around specific identities. Granted, identity politics generally concedes that these identities intersect and interact, and oppression is mutually reinforcing, but any notion of the underlying unity in the order of things through capitalism is rejected. This in turn leads to inaccurate, or at least unnuanced, analysis of topics like privilege and the basis for solidarity. The point we will be arguing here is not that we shouldn’t fight around specific identities, but that we must see these fights as components of a larger struggle, the struggle between the producers and the ruling class.

I am going to argue that the various forms of oppression center on capitalism, or a system where a few individuals own the means of production, and primarily live off the takings from them. Meanwhile most have no choice but to work for a living, or if they can’t find work, live on charity or unemployment benefits.

Capitalist society is by its very nature class society, so it’s important to be clear on what we mean by class here. The most popular way of looking at class bases it on how much money you earn, what schools you went to, whether you like high-brow or low-brow art etc. However, none of these are directly related to class in the sense we mean. Class in the Marxist sense, a sense also used by many anarchists, is a question of whether you earn your living through your labor, or through ownership of the means of production. Those who earn their living through work are said to have ‘surplus labor’ extracted from them. These victims of surplus labour extraction are said to be the proletariat or working class.

What many critics of Marxism, and even many Marxists, don’t realize though is that we don’t merely have surplus labor extracted from us at formal jobs and workplaces. For example, home-makers who raise children and clean houses are doing labor which is absolutely indispensable to the maintenance of the workforce. Capital needs that labour in order to continue, yet domestic labour is not paid for directly. Instead homemakers in effect receive a portion of their spouse’s income.

Students at schools and universities are doing work that capitalism needs to function, they are transforming themselves into value added human capital, yet they are also not compensated for their work directly. Instead they are given the often false promise of higher wages or better jobs down the track if they do well.

Then there are even stranger ways still that surplus labor is extracted from us. If you’ve ever used a self-serve checkout, labor is being extracted from you; you are effectively doing some of the work for the capitalist who is selling you things. If you’ve ever used Facebook, you’ve helped generate information which is then used to market products to you and your friends.

We can go further than that. If you’ve ever given a friend a shoulder to cry on, you’ve done some of the emotional labor that capital needs to keep its producers healthy. We are always doing things which keep this society running for the disproportionate benefit of a few. Almost every single person who reads this will be a worker, yet most of you have never worked in a factory in your life.

II

So we’ve seen that this extraction of surplus labor can happen anywhere- in the home, at university, and of course at our jobs. The division between those who do most of this labor, and those who benefit from it through their ownership of the means of production, defines the division between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, in other words the division between the producing class and the ruling class.

But class can’t just exist as this simple abstraction: some do the work and some profit. It needs more than just this one single asymmetry. Marx said that the peasants of France were like potatoes in a sack, homogenous. Each village, each farmstead and in a sense even each peasant was similar. With French peasants this wasn’t a threat to class society, because of their geographic dispersion and the difficulties this created for them in organizing effectively.

Among the working class though, if there were no internal divisions, there would be little preventing us from revolt. Without the logic of competition within the working class itself revolution would be a quick inevitability. The only sustainable working class is a working class riven with divisions. Thus the working class is organized into a series of binaries or oppositions, one part of which is superior in power and the other subordinated. To name a few such divisions, men and non-men, straights and queers, whites and people of color, white collar workers and blue collar workers, workers in the Global South and the Global North. The division between the producers and the exploiters can only be sustained through a proliferation of other social divisions. Proper class analysis always attends to the intricacies of how the class is structured, for the way it is built also constitutes the chains which restrain it from action.

In addition to dividing the working class, these splits also serve to create specialists. Women are nudged into being reproductive laborers, housemakers and the like, and also into various forms of care work such as social work and nursing. People of color are channeled into low paying jobs, and all too often into the prison industrial complex. Trans* people are often funneled into sex-work. When we realize the vast complexity of the different types of labor people do, white collar and blue collar, waged and unwaged, legal and illegal, it becomes easier to see the intricate patterns class takes in relation to oppression than when we are stuck with an image of the proleterian as factory worker.

All too often, Marxists have accepted the following picture of the working class. In the first instance it just is a sack of potatoes, secondary to that there are divisions and differences. I would like to emphasize again how deeply wrong this is. In addition to being an abstract relation of surplus labor extraction, class is always a concrete institution with indispensable specificities. These specificities are not merely “unfortunate” for us or “fortunate” for the capitalists; class cannot live separated from its specificities, any more than a body can live separated from its organs. Those organs may change and mutate over time, some might even come in and out of existence. Nevertheless the organs as a whole are absolutely essential to the body. It is not merely that the body causes the organs to come into existence, rather, neither can survive long without the other. Really they are one.

What I am proposing is not that class is primary. Class is no more primary than, for example, gender- because gender is absolutely essential to defining the actual shape that class takes in our society. Rather I think that class is not the same sort of thing as these other modes of oppression. In order for class to be sustained it needs a whole series of differentiations and complexities. Any capitalist society without such differentiations would be overthrown quickly. Modern class society cannot be a sack of potatoes. Oppression is vital part of that structure of differentiations and complexities class needs to live and prevent us from living.

III

Anyone who wants to defeat class society has an interest in weakening the divisions created by oppression. If one were to attack a body, it would be prudent to target its vital organs. If class society depends on the division of the working class into dominant and subaltern components then we must oppose those divisions.

Moreover, it is useful to make a distinction between relative advantages and absolute advantages. It’s obvious that straight people have it relatively better than queer people, white people relatively better than people of color and men relatively better than non-men. But this does not imply that both groups in each couplet wouldn’t be better off if oppression were defeated. If every form of oppression is deeply valuable to capitalism, and if every worker has a tremendous interest in the defeat of capitalism, this would suggest that every worker has an interest in the defeat of every form of oppression.

If working class men ultimately benefit from patriarchy, then it is unclear how non-males could persuade them to fight against the oppression of women, except through abstract appeals to morality. However, if we see that we have a common enemy it is clear why working class men should be allies to working class women, because the liberation of one is bound up in the liberation of the other. Our solidarity should not be based on charity; rather it should be based on a shared path to liberation.

The solution to attacking the system of relative advantages given to parts of the working class is not to pretend that they don’t exist, but to recognize that fighting and ultimately defeating them through the abolition of capitalism is essential. Precisely because the advantaged within the working class lose out less from oppression, and are often even duped into thinking they gain from it, it is important that those most interested in defeating every form of oppression, the oppressed group themselves, have space to organize autonomously against their subjugation.

I’m concerned that the picture of oppression as made up of a series of separate cultural institutions which are independent but interacting has encouraged movements to think that their various interests are either potentially opposed to each other or at least not intimately linked. When we realize that we have a shared enemy, we can act in a greater spirit of love, solidarity and mutual support, fighting oppression more effectively both within our own left spaces and within broader society.

The concept of privilege needs to be interrogated, though not rejected. The relative differences in status and power of various sections of the class are real and must be fought, but in the ultimate sense no one in the class gains from them. In talking about privilege we need to be very clear on this point, because of the strength our common interests give us.

Recently I was attacked by a bigot in the street. Partly because our society does not really care about such things the worst that happened to him was a black eye. Surely then he gained from queerphobia? That depends what you mean by gained. Certainly he was better off without repercussions, but he would have been even better still living in a society where gender and sexuality simply didn’t exist, and consequently either capitalism didn’t exist, or its hold on us was weakened.

IV

So I’ve argued that it’s absolutely essential to attacking capital to attack oppression, indeed every attack on oppression is an attack on capital. What about the converse, that in order to attack these forms of oppression we must ultimately try to dismantle capitalism?

Capitalism doesn’t simply passively benefit from divisions in the working class problems. Rather capitalism works to sustain them. The popular culture it produces mirrors existing prejudices back at us. The way its wage systems are structured means that it renders many more women dependent on men than men dependent on women. The so called justice system is really a prison industrial complex which serves mostly to defend property rights and simultaneously maintain white supremacy, othering and criminalizing people of color. Then of course there is the savagery of the job market, turning us against perceived enemies in a frantic effort to get what we need to live.

But what about prejudice, the subjective component of oppression, wouldn’t that stick around after a revolution, even if the material base of oppression in the extraction of labor is defeated? It’s one thing to abolish the class structure, but how would this act to end things like racist slurs, queer bashings or even rape?

I don’t think that anyone could guarantee that ‘interpersonal’ oppression would disappear immediately if capitalism were defeated. However I also don’t believe that prejudice is simply a free-floating system of ideas. Rather I think that without the material bases that capitalism provides for prejudice, such as the production of competition between groups, racist, sexist and queerphobic popular culture and the massive violence of the state, prejudice would fade.

In school we are taught that prejudice is a mistake that people tend to make sometimes. We are rarely, if ever, taught to think about the systematic roots of oppression. Our whole society tells us that oppressive conduct is primarily a mistake that individuals make, as if it were a problem similar to lying, being mean or cheating at cards. The truth is though because prejudice is not natural it must be constantly reinforced. The ways capital does this are immeasurable- by dividing communities so we only spend time with people like us, by the generation and propagation of images of prejudice for mass sale, by telling us that our jobs are at threat because of women or people of color. Thus I think there is reason to be confident that just as oppression of all sorts is indispensable to capitalism, so capitalism is indispensable to all forms of oppression. Now you might argue that prejudice could continue indefinitely after the dismantling of capitalism because it is embedded in our discursive structures or something like that. But even if you do think that it, it seems clear that there would be far more space for fighting such things in a non-capitalist world.

V

A useful way to sum this up might be to contrast three models. The first model, the Classical Marxist model, suggests that the class divide is society’s most fundamental divide. From this arise other divides, sexism, queerphobia, racism and the like. The second model, the model we have been critiquing, suggests that society is defined by a plurality of divides, which while they may be mutually reinforcing, are independent.

The third model, that we are defending, is similar to the first model in that it suggests that class is society’s fundamental divide, but also similar to the second model in that it doesn’t see gender, race and sexuality as the mere effects of an underlying class contradiction. Rather it suggests that there is only one social contradiction. The contradiction between the producers who labour and the rulers who control capital. Call this contradiction what you like, but taken as a state of being, rather than a process of struggle, we call it capitalism. The ongoing social battles which constitute gender[1], race and sexuality are moments in the war of the producers and rulers.

But what about the objection, already alluded to, that it seems unlikely that oppression will end the moment capitalism does? Surely even if different forms of oppression will eventually splutter out in a non-capitalist world, their persistence, even if temporary, proves their separateness?

Take a bowl and smash it. Fragments will fly everywhere. Does this demonstrate that they were not one? After capitalism is defeated, all sorts of problems will persist for a while, some of them obviously class based (illiteracy, ill health from a lifetime of poor working conditions, even snobbery), others obviously associated with sexism, racism and queerphobia, but no less based on class for all that.

It’s worth reiterating, the conjecture that the defeat of capitalism is tied to the elimination of all forms of oppression does not mean that oppression doesn’t need to be struggled against. Grasping that oppression via identity is inextricably linked to capitalism tells us that to fight capitalism, we must fight oppression based on identities. Thus I finish by echoing Selma James:

Power to the oppressed and therefore to the class.


[1] Incidentally I think this is a very important point that is often missed. Genders, races and sexualities are not states of being; they are battles in the social war. Gender, for example, is an ongoing process of struggle.

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About timothyscriven

I study philosophy at Sydney University. In the grand scheme, I'm not very important.
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