Workers of the world unite! - Some notes on class unity and identity politics

Workers of the world unite! - Some notes on class unity and identity politics

There's been several articles posted lately critical of identity politics from a class struggle perspective. This blog addresses some of the pitfalls of the class unity v identity politics debate.

I've been meaning to write something on this for a long time, but I've hesitated as class struggle critiques of identity politics are often clumsy and serve to gloss over very real oppressions and violence. This difficulty is probably why such critiques often open with arguments from identity, such as the opening line of 'Who is Oakland?': "This pamphlet – written collaboratively by a group of people of color, women, and queers." It's testament to the power of identity politics that even critiques of it require an identitarian disclaimer.

Of course, there's lots to be said for arguing from experience. The Oakland pamphlet is excellent, some of my favourite writing lately has been the work accounts on the Recomposition blog, and Liberté Locke's excellent piece went viral not too long ago too. But it often proves tricky to navigate between the politics of class unity on the one hand and the politics of identity on the other. So this blog is going to briefly focus on 4 sets of problems:

  • The problems with identity politcs
  • The problems of class unity
  • The relationship of identity to action
  • Class structure and subjectivity

The problems with identity politcs

This piece argues that "identity politics, as a political force, seeks inclusion into the ruling classes" - that is to say the creation of cross-class identities to demand that our rulers and bosses should reflect the identities of their constituents. This critique is further elaborated in the aforementioned Oakland piece, which argues that such a politics treats identity-based oppression as a matter of indivdual, interpersonal privileges, obscuring its structural elements. And in treating such cross-class identity groups as having shared interests, it proceeds by a politics of representation, with individuals incorporated into social structures speaking for 'the black community', 'the Muslim community' and so on.

In other words, identity-based oppressions are used as the moral claim to representation in and/or recogition by existing power structures, thus strenghtening the very structures that produce them. While there sound like some differences between the US and UK here, there are certainly strong similarities. While in the US activists from the 1960s liberation struggles are now to be found in the corridors of power 'speaking for' those they've left behind, in the UK the development of an insititutionalised multiculturalism has functioned similarly.

Since the struggles of the 1970s, the population has been parcelled up into identity-based, cross-class 'communities' which are then 'represented' by 'community leaders'. The effect of this move is to depoliticise these oppressions and to turn them into constituencies. However the Oakland piece also highlights the problems facing any critique of this liberal, representative politics:

"For too long there has been no alternative to this politics of privilege and cultural recognition, and so rejecting this liberal political framework has become synonymous with a refusal to seriously address racism, sexism, and homophobia in general."

This is a trap class struggle politics often falls into.

The problems of class unity

The basic problem with a politics of class unity is that the class is not united. The proletariat is positively striated in innumerable ways. There are hierarchies of income and social status. Divisions between citizens and shades of migrant through to the undocumented workers. The relatively securely employed through to precarious work and unemployment. There are divisions of language and culture which disrupt the circulation of struggles within workplaces and across borders. There are divisions of social power between roles, with some proles having disciplinary or supervisory functions. Prole-on-prole violence is endemic and structural - just look at the prevailance of intimate violence and rape.

Proles experience racism on a daily basis, from not just the state and police but customers, bosses and workmates... Civil rights are still striated by sexuality; witness the struggles over gay marriage (as much as libertarian communists might not care for the institution of marriage itself). Feminists in the Marxist tradition often draw attention to the division of labour, and particularly the division between production and reproduction, waged and domestic labour. Once reproductive, caring labour is included, women continue to do a significant majority of the world's work, and even when engaged in wage labour still do most of the domestic labour too.

A similar argument was the basis of Errico Malatesta's criticism of the apolitical syndicalism of Pierre Monatte in 1907, when he said that "there are therefore no classes, in the proper sense of the term, because there are no class interests. There exists competition and struggle within the working 'class', just as there does among the bourgeoisie." I would only partly agree with Malatesta (more on that in a moment), but it should be clear that simple appeals to class unity at best gloss over a whole range of hierarchies and divisions and at worst silence voices of less powerful sections of the class or become complicit in their oppression.

The relationship of identity to action

This is an enormous topic I can't do justice to here, so I'll follow a single thread. Take this quote from an old libcom piece:

"This is why we need a revolution. Firstly: of ideas. We need to stop believing in capitalism. We need to start seeing each other as equals and unite as workers, as a class, which has been successfully divided with racism, sexism and all sorts of stupid prejudices for centuries."

Here, we see an example of the problems raised above: the structural oppressions, hierarchies, power relations and violence just discussed is glossed as mere "stupid prejudices". Bad ideas. False consciousness. Identity politics thrives on the failure of class politics to address the lived experiences of the class, a politics of everyday life which speaks only to the everyday lives of a small minority. The criticism of privilege is of course answered with more appeals to unity - 'we're all workers!'. However, privilege theory is critiqued effectively in the Who is Oakland? piece, so I'll focus on the idealism.

The argument is explicit: revolution begins with a change in ideas, with everyone ceasing to believe in capitalism and identifying as proletarians with no country and nothing to lose but their chains. This shift in identity summons into being revolutionary action to overthrow capitalism. Proletarian identity is held to be a prerequisite of proletarian struggle. I would suggest it's the other way around - class identity is a product of shared activity, and in particular the collective power experienced in struggle. Judith Butler writes that:

"The foundationalist reasoning of identity politics tends to assume that an identity must first be in place in order for political interest to be elaborated and, subsequently, political action to be taken. My argument is that there need not be a ‘doer behind the deed,’ but that the ‘doer’ is variably constructed in and through the deed."

While I have differences with Butler's account (which I won't get into here), it does highlight the similarity of argument between a naive class struggle position and identity politics. To resolve this we need to look at what's different about class.

Class structure and subjectivity

Class, I have argued before is best understood as a bipolar social relationship. At one pole, the proletariat, the dispossessed, at the other, capital, whose inhuman, vampire-like logic is exposed so meticulously by Marx. What we don't have here is people, subjects. We are talking simply of social structures and subject positions, i.e. social roles which can be occupied by people. And we also have a spectrum - not everyone is fully proletarianised or fully an agent of capital. It's possible to occupy multiple roles at the same time: a worker who is also a landlord for example.

For this reason and others, this kind of analysis isn't interested in classifying individuals, but in understanding the social field and the antagonisms within it.1 And so there's still no people. It's all stage and no actors. However, it's starting to show us what's different about class. Slavoj Zizek has written of...

"...the fundamental difference between feminist/anti-racist/anti-sexist etc. struggle and class struggle: in the first case, the goal is to translate antagonism into difference ("peaceful" coexistence of sexes, religions, ethnic groups), while the goal of the class struggle is precisely the opposite, i.e., to "aggravate" class difference into class antagonism. So what the series race-gender-class obfuscates is the different logic of the political space in the case of class."

It is precisely this antagonism which is lost from the kind of intersectional analyses which speak of "classism", reducing class to merely 'economic oppresssion'. Class is not an economic category but a social one. Class struggle is the struggle against being reduced to mere human resources and to assert our human needs. This has multpile dimensions. Economic struggles over wages, conditions and poverty are just one element of it. So is the imposition of work, the imposition of motherhood (think struggles over reproductive freedom), struggles against racism, patriarchy etc.

Judith Butler notes that this ubiquitous 'etc' signifies the irreducibility of identity to a pre-existing subject. Rather, she claims that the subject - the "I" (or by extension the "we") who has an identity - is created through the performance of its identity.

It could all get very abstract and academic here, so I'm going to gloss over some pretty huge theoretical issues. But recall Malatesta's claim that classes do not exist "in the proper sense of the term." Here we can employ Marx's distinction between the class-in-itself and the class-for-itself. The class-in-itself can be recast as a subject position: proletarian, dispossessed. All these proletarians necessarily share is their condition - and nothing else, no positive attributes (ages, genders, incomes, social status and so on).

But the actual subjects who make up this class do have such attributes, which contribute to multiple hierarchies, oppressions, divisions and identities, and these subjects are always much more than bare proletarians.2 However, while struggle requires some kind of collective identity, it doesn't need to start from the global proletariat! The 'us' could be as small as the workers in a team or department, the housewives in a street or black workers in one factory... to begin with.

The 'class-for-itself', class 'in the proper sense of the term' can be understood as a collective political subject that comes into existence through struggles. Numerous partial, provisional struggles can forge shared interests and transform identities.3 Think for example how 'middle class students' and striking electricians attempted to come together in London last year, or how in 1960 and 70s Italy feminist movements, student movements and factory-based struggles linked up to seriously threaten capital's rule.

This is not a question of seizing power, but of exercising it - collectively. Through class struggles, proletarian unity moves from a negative, abstract common condition to become a concrete political force against capital. Autonomist Marxism has called this process 'political class recomposition'. Insofar as this force fails to vanquish capital, it undergoes a corresponding process of decomposition as capital reimposes itself on the proletariat, and the fractures, hierarchies and striations of the class in itself return to characterise everyday life and struggles.

It would take a short book to do this argument justice, but hopefully I've sketched an outline of a class politics that neither glossses over identity-based oppressions nor lapses into identity politics itself. 'Workers of the world unite!' is a statement of intent, but that unity must reckon with the multiple hierarchies, striations, divisions and identities in the proletariat.

  • 1. This kind of bipolar analysis also allows analysis of processes of proletarianisation/embourgeoisement, commodification/decommodification, enclosure/making common, the division of family/market implied by the dominance of wage labour, the role of the state in creating these conditions and preventing them being torn apart, and many other matters besides. But these aren't our concern here.
  • 2. Where these individual subjects come from is one of the bracketed huge theoretical issues, and raises questions of structuralism vs post-structuralism, materiality and discourse, the meaning of subjectivity and agency... Gulp.
  • 3. There's nothing automatic about this, which is why radical movements have often actively fostered collective, class identities, which points to the importance of culture and discourse in constructing the shared identities which sustain material struggles. See: Music and the IWW: the creation of a working class counterculture

Posted By

Joseph Kay
May 18 2012 18:30

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  • Identity politics thrives on the failure of class politics to address the lived experiences of the class, a politics of everyday life which speaks only to the everyday lives of a small minority.

    Joseph Kay

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Ramona
May 18 2012 18:50

Haven't had time to read this all the way through, let alone all the stuff you've linked to, or properly respond, but I'm really looking forward to cos this is excellent and really interesting. Especially:

Quote:
Here, we see an example of the problems raised above: the structural oppressions, hierarchies, power relations and violence just discussed is glossed as mere "stupid prejudices". Bad ideas. False consciousness. Identity politics thrives on the failure of class politics to address the lived experiences of the class, a politics of everyday life which speaks only to the everyday lives of a small minority. The criticism of privilege is of course answered with more appeals to unity - 'we're all workers!'.

You've just said in a few lines what I've been thinking about for ages and never quite managing to articulate. Awesome blog.

Nate
May 19 2012 04:14

Thanks for this Joseph, it's really good. I've not clicked through to any of the links, I'll read through at least some of that stuff later. I'm curious if there's any top pieces you'd recommend of those, as you link to a lot. One thought that occurs to me is that I think sometimes within class struggle political milieus there are turns toward bad ways to address racism, sexism, and others form of oppression. In my experience this tends to involve left people talking in a rather in-group way about their already constituted milieu. There are really important versions of this which should continue (I'm thinking of the safer spaces policy that Ramona wrote about somewhat recently), but there are a lot of bad ones too. I think that class politics moving to address the lived experience of the class is likely to be most successful when tied to a push to address people not currently in the milieu, which in turn will likely bring about a fair bit of conflict over those differences.

p.waterman
May 19 2012 07:21

Joseph

Not sure if I entirely endorse your argument. I've only given it a rapid read but I have doubts about two concepts. The first is 'revolution', with all its historical associations (France, Russia, China, Cuba and their violence, blood, 'maximum leaders' and problematic outcomes). I prefer 'emancipation', the meaning of which requires invention and dialogue. The second is the working-class 'for itself'. Is this a working class which is Marxist? Leninist? Libcomist? Or Whatist? It seems to me that the concept of a class 'fuer sich' forecloses on what the variety of workers, in a variety of times and places, with a variety of ideologies does or might do.

However, I would like to see your argument reformulated so as to make it available to a sympathetic/critical readership unfamiliar with the previous texts (Oakland, etc) referred to.

This for a Special Issue of Interface on 'New Worker Movements', for which the first deadline was May 1. If you are ready and willing to consider this, email me: peterwaterman1936@gmail.com. I cannot guarantee publication of any submission but...

PeterW

fingers malone
May 19 2012 09:33

JK, this is excellent.

To add something I've seen when there is a power dynamic, or "hierarchies, oppressions and divisions" within a struggle. Say for example a struggle of workers where there is also racism directed at the black workers. Or sexism within a tenants' struggle . The people who are dishing out the racism or sexism, or benefiting from it, will often want "workers unity" but with the hierarchies oppressions and divisions kept intact. So in second example, the men (or some of them) will want the women involved in the struggle, but will still want their dinner on the table on time, won't listen, etc. Now if this is challenged, they will angrily denounce the challenge and evoke workers unity. They will also simply attack, because they think their privileges are under threat.
So workers unity can mean, for a lot of people, being told to shut up and do the dishes. The people benefiting don't see themselves, and are not criticised by others, as undermining class unity through their sexism or racism or whatever, it is only evoked when someone complains.

Sumthing
May 19 2012 10:20

This is very good. Strictly class politics has been distrusted in minority communities due to the "after the revolution" fobbing off of present prejudices. I'm not so clear how the article proposes the situation be improved.

Quote:
This is not a question of seizing power, but of exercising it - collectively. Through class struggles, proletarian unity moves from a negative, abstract common condition to become a concrete political force against capital.

This sounds good but how does this happen in practice? How does the make up of revolution/anarchist groups, which is of a particular type, turn to truly reflect upon racial, gender and other internal hierarchies?

Probably in the long run two movements need to be made. Pushing classism away from its strictly economic interpretation of social ills and engaging identity politics in a way that exposes the systemic [economic] basis of prejudice.

the croydonian ...
May 19 2012 13:12

This is brilliant.

Joseph Kay
May 19 2012 18:51

Whoa, ok, loads to respond to...

In terms of the number of links, this is kind of a hurried write up of various working notes i've had from reading various things, so all the links are kinda there to try and acknowledge where different bits are coming from. it does make it even more dense than it already is though, so sorry about that.

In terms of what this means in practice... I was responding to a theoretical debate and the blog is therefore theory-heavy. I think there's a number of issues. First of all, I'm not sure how well the distinction between in-group and outreach holds up. I mean, take the example of sexual assault. If the radical milieu fails to take it seriously, or worse, slut-shames and victim blames, then lots of people (mainly women) aren't going to stick around. Which means those voices aren't there when articulating interests/activities etc.

So I think the 'safer spaces' side of things probably feeds into groups being less dominated by relatively powerful demographics, which in turn probably leads to a practice which is more plural in terms of the class needs it aims to address. In terms of the outward looking stuff, I think a lot is probably the stuff any good organising should do anyway: if a lot of co-workers (residents in your area/etc) are parents, maybe meet at lunchtime not after work; if a lot of them are practising muslims, don't meet in a pub. This seems really obvious, but once there was an SF event where the national secretary (who was a wheelchair user) travelled all the way down only to be told the venue wasn't accessible and have to turn around and drive back. So I think a lot of this happens literally without thinking.

I guess there's also other areas for organising. When it comes to work, or landlords, there's some fairly developed tactics knocking about for tipping the power balance in our favour through collective direct action. But with other issues, not so much. We did recently discuss possible anti-stalker tactics (thinking about that SolNet style intervention that was on YouTube), but that hasn't been necessary yet. Though the person involved at least knew she had support if she needed it. I don't know how you'd go about organising around say, the burden of domestic labour. But I think we should be aiming at least at making these conversations possible.

fingers malone wrote:
So workers unity can mean, for a lot of people, being told to shut up and do the dishes. The people benefiting don't see themselves, and are not criticised by others, as undermining class unity through their sexism or racism or whatever, it is only evoked when someone complains.

Yeah, this was the kind of thing I had in mind. Like the Occupy Glasgow rape, where being raped was apparently "divisive", but raping was presumably fine, cos [insert victim blaming]. I guess the thing is everyone's a 'minority' of some sort, in that no experiences are universal. The problem of 'false unity' arises when particular interests are asserted as universal ones rather than a substantive unity when plural interests are asserted together. Which requires a culture where people can speak up. If we oppose the politics of representation, we need to create the conditions where people can speak and act for themselves.

I guess I have in mind something like Wendy Brown's conception of freedom as the power to act together. Barriers to that freedom typically come from the bosses, the cops, letting agents etc but sometimes from comrades too. And that can't be let slide in the name of unity, it has to be overcome in the cause of freedom and collective power (and therefore substantive class unity). I guess sometimes that could require autonomous organising, which often gets erroneously labelled 'separatism'. As Gayge Operaista's blog put it:

Gayge Operaista wrote:
While groups within the working class can and often must struggle autonomously, those struggles need to return to and generalize throughout the rest of the class as they progress. The struggle for queer liberation is not against straight people; it is part of the struggle against the bourgeoisie
fingers malone
May 19 2012 20:12

Regarding the ingroup/outreach thing, I think both JK and Nate are making good points. Thinking about issues like access, timing of meetings and so on is important but it's only a start. Many community/workplace struggles have really serious racist or sexist dynamics running through them and we usually don't really know how to change that. Political people who are not directly affected by racism or sexism can be really dismissive of it or blind to it in this situation.
Sorting out our internal dynamics in our groups and scenes is important but working out ways to deal with these issues in active struggles is also very important and something I've not often seen dealt with well.

A fantastic book about racism in the class struggle is "Organised Labour and the Black Worker" by Philip Sheldon.

Jared
May 19 2012 20:56

Thanks JK. Have you seen this text by a comrade in our collective? It touches on some of the naive reductionism you mention: http://libcom.org/library/oppression-within-oppression-response-%E2%80%9C-question-privilege%E2%80%9D

Nate
May 19 2012 21:56

JK, yeah, I don't mean to overemphasize the point. Trying again: there's making our existing milieus/groups more just internally for the people current involved. Then there's trying diversify the composition of the milieu, in part by addressing experiences in people's lives that aren't as close to the milieu's current ideological center of gravity. (So, talking about work and poverty, more what class politics tends to do, while talking about other stuff, less so - I take this to be something like your point about failing to address loads of parts of working class experience, though I'm not putting it as clearly.) In my experience in the US people tend to conflate these things and talk about the demographic make up of left milieu as if it's a result of how people in the milieu treat each other - so, like, stuff like "the white people talk too much, that's why there's not more brown people here." I'm sure that that *is* a factor, but I'm not convinced it's the biggest factor. And more than that, two things, one, the main reason to make the milieu more just is not because it will make the milieu grow, it's because that's the right thing to do. Two, people interact with fucked up institutions all the time - there's loads of women in churches and oppressive families, for instance. I'm not minimizing the need to improve things in our milieus, I think that stuff is super important, but in my experience at least in the US this kind of thing can be an excuse for not expanding. As in, there's this idea that the problems in the milieu have to be fixed before people in the milieu can meaningfully start to address currently unaddressed aspects of everyday life outside the milieu. The most concrete example of this that I can think is pushes for current leftists to attend workshops on privilege which involve mostly leftists talking about being within the left. I think that reinforces more than challenges the dynamic you identified when you said "Identity politics thrives on the failure of class politics to address the lived experiences of the class, a politics of everyday life which speaks only to the everyday lives of a small minority."

Edit: Reading this over again, I've jumbled together quantitative growth and the qualitative change that Joseph is talking about (expanding what aspects of life under capitalism that class struggle perspectives address in a meaningful way). That's probly unhelpful. I can't express myself any clearer on this just now, unfortunately.

fingers malone
May 19 2012 23:20

Ok, so we want to think about:
"the failure of class politics to address the lived experience of the class"
what is our problem here? We don't know much about the lived experience of a lot of people in our class, maybe? We know some stuff, but we don't know where to start when it comes to fighting on these issues? We don't connect well with people who have different life experiences from us, so they don't approach us during their struggles?

penny
May 20 2012 00:54

hey - so good to have this stuff talked about. I kinda felt unsatisfied though.

firstly, i don't agree with this quote - its assuming all minority identities are reformist.

Quote:
"...the fundamental difference between feminist/anti-racist/anti-sexist etc. struggle and class struggle: in the first case, the goal is to translate antagonism into difference ("peaceful" coexistence of sexes, religions, ethnic groups), while the goal of the class struggle is precisely the opposite, i.e., to "aggravate" class difference into class antagonism. So what the series race-gender-class obfuscates is the different logic of the political space in the case of class."

Okay - I'm a bit wary of using the panthers as the universal example. But! The black panthers (for e.g.) were not all about promoting harmony - they were about ensuring safety. What about feminist separatist groups? Not all of us are looking for harmony with our oppressors.

Personally, as a trans person and a worker i want a revolution which overthrows capitalism AND gender oppression. For me, these things are interlinked.
I function as a component of capitalism as a buffer for the anger of other oppressed peoples, and as a source of easily exploitable labor under capitalism.

I don't want harmony with the ruling class, I want to promote harmony amongst the working class IN ORDER to overthrow capitalism and grow a society in which doesn't rely on structural identity exploitation to function.

fingers malone
May 20 2012 07:30

I agree that that quote is actually quite annoying. I don't remember anti-racist politics and so on being all about peaceful coexistence.

Joseph Kay
May 20 2012 08:39

I took the quote to mean the abolition of class society is through escalating class war, but the abolition of sexist society isn't through escalating sex wars and the abolition of racist society isn't through escalating race wars.

madashell
May 20 2012 09:22

Mmm, but it is just factually wrong though, for instance I don't see anti-racist politics as being simply about the equal validity of all racial identities, but the destruction of race as a category by which we define people, ditto gender and sexuality.

Also Zizek is unbearably smug.

Joseph Kay
May 20 2012 09:38
madashell wrote:
Mmm, but it is just factually wrong though, for instance I don't see anti-racist politics as being simply about the equal validity of all racial identities, but the destruction of race as a category by which we define people, ditto gender and sexuality.

Yes, but do you abolish race by aggravating racial tensions?

madashell
May 20 2012 10:04
Joseph Kay wrote:
madashell wrote:
Mmm, but it is just factually wrong though, for instance I don't see anti-racist politics as being simply about the equal validity of all racial identities, but the destruction of race as a category by which we define people, ditto gender and sexuality.

Yes, but do you abolish race by aggravating racial tensions?

Obviously not, but Zizek doesn't just talk about the means of struggle, he's making a definitive statement about the desired end (""peaceful" coexistence of sexes, religions, ethnic groups"), which is only actually true of reformist anti-racism, feminism, LGBTQ politics, etc.

fingers malone
May 20 2012 10:31

Agree with madashell there, it's only true for a certain kind of anti-racism etc.
Hey, but we started out by talking about the lived experience of the class and now we are talking about Zizek. Isn't this part of the problem? That we are comfortable talking about Zizek (I'm not, but other people are) but not about how to deal with people's real situations and real needs?

Joseph Kay
May 20 2012 10:41

Right, but it doesn't say 'everyone who is against racism is a reformist', it says placing race-sex-class in a series obscures fundamental differences in these relationships when it comes to antagonism. Now Zizek, having rather crude Leninist politics, quite possibly makes this point in order to advance a crude workerism (I dunno; the source text is a critique of liberal multiculturalism hence the swipe at "peaceful coexistence").

But what I'm arguing is that rather than see race-sex-class as a series of oppressions, it's more useful to see class as a social relation with numerous dimensions, and 'economic' struggles (wages, hours), 'political' struggles (for control, freedom), anti-racist struggles and feminist struggles as dimensions of the class struggle. Which both pre-empts the reduction of class to economics, and pre-empts the problem of cross-class identity-based 'communities'.

Afaik the 'race-sex-class' series comes from more radical feminists (not Radical Feminists) trying to reintroduce race and class to a movement dominated by upwardly mobile white women. But the price of that seems to be to have adopted the liberal frames of reference ('individuals are not just disadvantaged by gender, but also class and race'), which is why I think even attempts to use it to critique reformism end up reducing class to a matter of individual privilege (which can be renounced) rather than social antagonism (e.g. bell hooks).

fingers malone wrote:
but we started out by talking about the lived experience of the class and now we are talking about Zizek. Isn't this part of the problem?

quite possibly.

fingers malone
May 20 2012 11:23

I don't disagree with anything you're saying, but Zizek is critiquing liberal multiculturalism, but you're trying to do something better than that, aren't you? Because Zizek's objective is to be very clever and shocking and get famous, and ours is to change the world.

Joseph Kay wrote:
Afaik the 'race-sex-class' series comes from more radical feminists (not Radical Feminists) trying to reintroduce race and class to a movement dominated by upwardly mobile white women. But the price of that seems to be to have adopted the liberal frames of reference ('individuals are not just disadvantaged by gender, but also class and race'), which is why I think even attempts to use it to critique reformism end up reducing class to a matter of individual privilege (which can be renounced) rather than social antagonism

Yes, that's fair enough and goes back to the points you made in the OP.

Look, this is what I'm trying to say.
You don't fight racism with race war and sexism with sex war. Men and white people aren't 'the enemy'. I agree with that.
You don't fight them through cross class reformism and representative community politics. I agree with that.
You can't just wait until after the revolution. I agree with that.
But my question is- the way we do effectively fight racism and sexism as part of the class struggle is..... what? And that's what I think we should talk about, not the opinions of some well paid academic with a stupid beard.

madashell
May 20 2012 11:50
Joseph Kay wrote:
Right, but it doesn't say 'everyone who is against racism is a reformist', it says placing race-sex-class in a series obscures fundamental differences in these relationships when it comes to antagonism. Now Zizek, having rather crude Leninist politics, quite possibly makes this point in order to advance a crude workerism (I dunno; the source text is a critique of liberal multiculturalism hence the swipe at "peaceful coexistence").

It's been a while since I read the article that quote comes from, but yeah, crude workerism was how I read it.

Having said that, I pretty much agree with this:

Quote:
But what I'm arguing is that rather than see race-sex-class as a series of oppressions, it's more useful to see class as a social relation with numerous dimensions, and 'economic' struggles (wages, hours), 'political' struggles (for control, freedom), anti-racist struggles and feminist struggles as dimensions of the class struggle. Which both pre-empts the reduction of class to economics, and pre-empts the problem of cross-class identity-based 'communities'.

So it's a bit of a moot point what Zizek's intent was, really.

fingers malone
May 20 2012 11:56

Ok, so, examples of struggles against racism and sexism in real life, good or bad, and what can we learn from them?

Joseph Kay
May 20 2012 12:10
fingers malone wrote:
But my question is- the way we do effectively fight racism and sexism as part of the class struggle is..... what? And that's what I think we should talk about, not the opinions of some well paid academic with a stupid beard.

agreed. some possible ideas:

- researching examples of when the kind of sexist/racist dynamics within struggles you've described have been successfully challenged
- making these more widely known and/or creating resources and training to support people in that situation in future
- understanding things like the current attacks on reproductive freedoms as part of the class offensive against us, and fighting them accordingly wherever we have the power to do so (which might be opposing anti-choice groups, or rioting like fuck if the government changes the law).
- autonomous organisation and discussion either in place of or alongside the main ones (whether that's student assemblies, strike committees, unions, whatever) to actively organise against these problems, pushing the idea it's racism/sexism preventing class unity, not the people complaining about it

fingers, do you think you could expand on some of your experiences with these dynamics and how they were (or weren't) effectively challenged?

fingers malone
May 20 2012 12:15

Oh God.
Errr.... maybe.
Probably be more of the "weren't than the "were" though.

Joseph Kay
May 20 2012 12:18
fingers malone wrote:
Oh God.
Errr.... maybe.
Probably be more of the "weren't than the "were" though.

Personally I'd still find that helpful. I don't have much experience with these dynamics in struggles, let alone seeing them challenged (or not - the reasons they weren't would be helpful too). Might help focus conversations on more concrete, practical matters, perhaps thinking what could have been done with hindsight.

fingers malone
May 20 2012 12:56

Ok, a relatively easy one to start with.
This was an anti gentrification struggle in London.
The struggle got massive popular support, quite incredible in fact. We were squatting in a building that the tenant had been evicted from, it was a greasy spoon cafe in a gentrifying area, and we were demanding that the building wasn't to become luxury flats iirc. The tenant was involved in the struggle and there had been three big demonstrations previously to stop him being evicted. There was another tenant in a similar position on the other side of the road who was involved, who had a fruit and veg shop.

So, the struggle was massively popular, but was also riddled with contradictions like woodworm. One problem was all kinds of shit behaviour, which was usually ignored if it was carried out by people perceived as "working class locals". The political group involved in organising the occupation were very keen on the participation by working class locals (which obviously was crucial, and was a very good thing) and they felt that ... well I don't know exactly what they felt, really, but if you complained about anything they just massively put you down. They would say that they wanted local people involved and "you can't expect your right on lefty standards here" or something. Shit behaviour included sexual harassment, men sitting around in filth and waiting for women to come and clean it up, chucking their dogends on the floor while you were cleaning, women being literally told to make the tea (I went along once with a friend, a south american chambermaid, and this happened, I went ballistic, and she bravely chipped in saying "we aren't your lady teas" which was almost a good comeback.)Some people were permanently drunk, two sexist blokes had a massive "I am the top dog massive arsehole in this occupation!" "No I am!" hostility thing going on. There was also a lot of racism, although there were quite a few black people involved, and there was an infamous incident when a mate of mine, who was African, came to an event and wasn't allowed in till I went to the door and verified that he was my mate. Apparently it wasn't just because he was black, it was also because he was missing a tooth, so the combination of these two facts meant that he was probably a crackhead.
How were these problems dealt with? They weren't, unfortunately. I went to a meeting and raised the issue of my mate not being let in and was just massively publicly put down. The sexual harassment thing wasn't challenged, so for example a lot of women just stopped staying the night there for quite a while. My mate never came back but he did, quite surprisingly, go to benefit gigs in support for ages, and bring his friends, as he said he still supported the cause.
In the end we were evicted and the place as far as I know is still empty.

fingers malone
May 20 2012 13:25

Errr, right, well I've got all that off my chest, now I should get a little bit political I suppose.

When these things happened, with hindsight, I didn't deal with them strategically, for example that horrible meeting I didn't talk to anyone else beforehand and say "back me up!" I just turned up at the meeting and said "Why did you do this?" However, it's also a bit wrong to be too wise after the event about that, someone got treated with racism, I went to the meeting and straightforwardly complained, they wouldn't admit it. That's because they didn't want to. Having the best approach in the world might not have changed that. Re. all the sexism, thing is sometimes there weren't many women involved, and the ones who were might or might not have agreed there was a problem, we could have got together to talk about it, that would at least have been a start, but we didn't. At the time there was so much of a big ideology around "local working class people" that there would probably have been a lot of hostility if we had done that. Also I didn't know a lot of the other women before the occupation so I would have been kinda unsure about suggesting it. It's still probably a good suggestion.

Thing is, the people who behaved really badly would have militantly defended their right to behave like that, and the political group were very very sure they were right about everything, and it would have been pretty tricky to challenge both at once. Also, I genuinely cared about the occupation, and I didn't want to be a "distraction"....

gypsy
May 20 2012 13:59

cheers for that fingersmalone.

Mike Harman
May 21 2012 07:17

I was a member of the political group at the time, and loosely involved with the occupation. I lived the opposite side of Hackney, was mainly there afternoon as opposed to evenings/overnight, and disappeared late Autumn since my daughter was close to being born. I also left the group not long after the occupation finished.

With all those caveats, I didn't notice any of the bad behaviour examples mentioned (although I agree the entire thing was riddled with contradictions), while the only one that actually surprises me is the 'lot of racism'.

I'd be interested to know whether those examples were from the first few or last few months of the occupation or across the whole thing - i.e. whether I missed it while loosely involved, or if things got worse towards the end when I wasn't there to see it anyway.

I should mention people in that political group would definitely put up a lot of resistance to 'lefty' stuff so definitely recognise that general phrasing. I just only saw that applied personally to things like having specific political events in the cafe - but again I may just not have been involved enough to pick up on much of this.

fingers malone
May 21 2012 07:54

Thanks for writing.
Maybe it's too strongly worded to say 'lots of racism', there were some incidents, but they affected friends of mine, so I reacted strongly to them and they stuck in my memory.
I was usually around in the evenings after work and not in the afternoons, bad behaviour was more likely in the evening when people had been drinking.
It's a fair question about when in the occupation this was but I don't really know, I remember the things I'm talking about clearly but I don't remember whether they were early or late in the occupation, sorry.
The sexism thing for example, I raised it once with a member of the group, he was totally dismissive, then I didn't say anything to anyone else, so you probably wouldn't have known.
But come on, you must remember some of the guys sitting around chucking their dogends on the floor, they did that consistently for the whole occupation!