A critique of anti-assimilation - Gayge Operaista

A critique of anti-assimilation - Gayge Operaista

In this piece, Gayge Operaista critiques how anti-assimilation politics of many radical queer tendencies ignores class struggle, and recasts queer liberation in terms of the class struggle, countering the worst excess of identity politics with an introduction to models of class struggle.

A really big, important concept in radical queer thought and struggle is Anti-Assimilation, which, at its most basic, is "we don't want to elevate our position in the social order by becoming as much like the straights as possible"; clearly, there are a wide variety of possible positions that could be described as anti-assimilationist by that decision - from the communist position of "abolish the present state of things, the revolution is communization" to a very reformist view that just seeks to allow all genders, sexualities, expressions, etc, to be put on an equal footing. Between these two very different poles lie most people who would describe themselves as anti-assimilationist; in fact, I bet many who read this would point out that the very limited, reformist view of anti-assimilationism is not held by many who would use the term (which is true).

I feel that a lot of radical queers (and even anarcho-queer tendencies) tend to fall somewhere in the middle; there is the realization that things other than heteronormativity need to be abolished, but, there is a serious lack of class struggle content that stems from a poor understanding of very basic concepts we use when we speak of class struggle. The root misunderstanding is not getting what class is, which is a social relation, in particular, the relationship to the means of production.

At the most basic, we have the proletariat (the working class) that has no access to the means of making/acquiring the necessities of life, and thus must sell their labor power (go to work each day) so they can acquire said necessities, and we have the bourgeoisie (capitalists), who own the means of production, and buy the labor power of proletarians so that the labor is used to transform commodities into other commodities; they sell the commodities, and out of that, pay their workers some of the value of their labor and keep the rest of it. We call this last bit exploitation, as the capitalists take surplus (in the sense that the worker can survive to the next day on the value they are paid in wages) labor value from the workers. Sure, we can talk about stratifications in classes, petite vs. grande bourgeoisie, etc., but that's really not important to the very basic understanding we're going for here.

Okay, as time goes on, I'll try not to repeat the prior paragraph too often in this blog, but it's pretty central to the critique of the concept of "classism" and, if you come from an anti-oppression/social justice background, nothing like the definition of class you've seen over and over. That definition revolves around sociological factors: amount of education, type of work done, cultural cues, etc; often times we'll see the small business owner and the office worker both placed in a "middle class" and "working class" as code for working poor. While stratifications within classes are meaningful and worth talking about, particularly those in the working class - they're not the core of what class is about. By ignoring the relationship to the means of production, the sociological model of class naturalizes the capitalist organization of society.

The deployment of a sociological definition of class lets one talk about classism, the idea that class is nothing but systemic prejudices where there are a hierarchy of classes going on, each one privileged over the ones below it and oppressed by the ones beneath; and that class is reducible to something much like race or gender or sexuality, making it one more thing to try and undo oppression in, rather than abolish.

Thus, we have a fundamental misunderstanding of what class is leading to a massive strategic error in what to do about it. A strategic error that has us set aside the central goal of the communist movement: the working class, through its self-directed struggle, as a class stepping outside of capital and destroying it. We replace this with the much less inspiring goal of getting one social stratification to be nicer than another.

The more important effect of this, for purposes of this discussion, is that now class can be "safely" ignored for most or all of the time, or reduced to some anti-oppression speak. This allows us to construct an anti-assimilationist politic that doesn't include whether mass organizations are mainly serving bourgeois interests or proletarian interests. For instance, two short critiques of the classic assimilationist LGBT organization, HRC.

First, the "classism" critique:

"HRC seems to really only represent the interests of white upper middle class gender normative cis lesbians and gays. I think it's classist that even when they talk about the economic benefits of marriage, they assume either partner actually has health insurance. They don't seem to present any options for queer youth who have difficult times in their families of origins and now have to resist the military being presented to them as a way out. As an organization, HRC is pretty classist."

Now, a more class struggle critique:

"HRC is clearly an organization that represents bourgeois interests. Their agenda comes from the top down, and they don't offer opportunities for working class queers to participate in decision making processes - just raise funds and market a brand. While marriage presents real economic benefits to some working class queers, the way HRC has made all queer struggle about marriage, and channeled that struggle into electoral and legal campaigns, where it is controlled by politicians and big law firms, has sapped a lot of the energy to struggle from a lot of working class queer communities, and taken away from attempts to gain survival and moderate term needs of working class queers: access to health care, strong self-organization of the working class to help protect ourselves from homophobia and transphobia in our workplaces and neighborhoods, networks of mutual support, and so on."

Inverted Hierarchies: Substituting Struggle for Liberation with Horizontal Hostility

First, to define what I mean by an inverted hierarchy, I mean the valuation of people by some trait/identity/social position, in which a community, scene, or milieu values people in terms of that trait the inverse of how the large society views them. For instance, people who conform to their assigned gender roles have an easier time in the larger society; in queer communities (some) gender nonconformity is often seen as making someone more queer, and often results in a better social position within the subculture. Of course, this interacts with a strong preference for masculinity in queer communities. Similar things occur around sexual practices, number of partners, etc. The specific instances are not important here - just the concept.

How does this arise? Well, without a coherent model that both has the potential to unite the majority of humanity in a common struggle and that sees exploitation and oppressions as part of a social structure (the capitalist mode of production), one is left with various oppressions floating around, sometimes intersecting, sometimes not. Even the attempts to create a coherent, over-arching model that puts all oppressions (and generally views class as a system of oppression, rather than a relationship to the means of production), tends to view them as an ever-shifting mass where everyone is oppressing everyone else in some way.

This model where all straight people systemically oppress all gays, all white people all people of color, all cis people all trans people sets us up for a struggle of everyone against everyone, and, combined with the individualism that is hyperpresent in the US, there's a motivation to show that oneself is less of an "oppressor" than everyone else around them, thus, what we call the Oppression Olympics occurs - everybody tries to prove they are the most oppressed, and thus they are the most valid because everyone else around them is participating in their oppression. Thus, the people who can claim the most oppressed identities get the most cred. Now, of course, there are the real effects that the actual stratifications built into the working class by things like racism and sexism have on people's lives - the person who is the "winner" and at the top of these inverted hierarchies is generally not the worst off; they just played the game the best.

I instead propose a model that states the following:

1) That the class struggle is the motor of history: the autonomous struggle of the working class and the reactions to this by capital drive history along. Social revolution can only be achieved by the working class itself.

2) That oppressions have been built into the working class, and produce stratifications in it; struggle against these oppressions are part of the class struggle.

3) While some members of the working class may have petty and apparent privileges over other members of the working class, those privileges are far less than what could be achieved through unified struggle.

4) It is less than useful to talk about oppressions on an individual level - individual circumstances in someone's life, although they are affected by race, gender, sexuality, etc, mean these are not in any way strict determinants of anything on the micro level. It's far easier and more useful to talk about groups of, say, women, then being able to absolutely say exactly what all the effects sexism has on one woman. Besides, we struggle as a class and as sections of the class, not as individuals.

5) Identity labels don't even work well on the individual level - there are too many shades of gray and too many fuzzy boundaries such that we can conveniently box in every single individual in an unproblematic way. Not only is determining someone's value based on these categories undesirable, it's also problematic.

6) 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, as homophobia and transphobia arose out of regulations on gender and sexuality that were enforced by the bourgeois during the birth of capitalism to insure that there was adequate production of future labor.

Of course, nothing I am proposing for a model here is new - it merely draws on the rich libertarian communist tradition.

Originally posted on Autonomous Struggle of the Glittertariat Part 1 and 2

Comments

Joseph Kay
Mar 23 2012 17:33

This is really good... I've been struggling to articulate the problems I have with 'intersectionality' for a while, and this really helped:

Gayge Operaista wrote:
The deployment of a sociological definition of class lets one talk about classism, the idea that class is nothing but systemic prejudices where there are a hierarchy of classes going on, each one privileged over the ones below it and oppressed by the ones beneath; and that class is reducible to something much like race or gender or sexuality, making it one more thing to try and undo oppression in, rather than abolish.

Thus, we have a fundamental misunderstanding of what class is leading to a massive strategic error in what to do about it. A strategic error that has us set aside the central goal of the communist movement: the working class, through its self-directed struggle, as a class stepping outside of capital and destroying it.

Basically, class is treated as an economic category, and therefore talking about class struggle is seen as 'reductionist'. but like the the article argues, struggles against oppression are part of this struggle. sure, a lot of the time they are overlooked or even re-enforced by other sections of the class, including otherwise radical/militant ones. But that doesn't make them not class struggle. In fact it's the other way around: if class struggle has no place for anti-sexist, anti-racist, LGBTQ struggles and so on, then it isn't the struggle of the class, but a certain section of it. It reminds me of this Zizek quote:

Zizek wrote:
...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: while the anti-racist and anti-sexist struggle are guided by the striving for the full recognition of the other, the class struggle aims at overcoming and subduing, annihilating even, the other - even if not a direct physical annihilation, class struggle aims at the annihilation of the other's socio-political role and function.

Although that could be problemetised slightly with an 'abolition of gender'/'abolition of race' perspective, even then the abolition cannot arise out of antagonism between them.

erikathered
Jan 30 2014 20:11

This is a topic I have been thinking about a lot recently, as I have been trying to move from my queer social justice background to a more libcom, class conscious perspective. A lot of this post resonated strongly with me as it did an excellent job of putting in words ideas I had been mulling over. However, I think there are some blindspots to this analysis, and indeed to the majority of "class struggle vs. identity politics" that I'd like to address.

I was certainly pleased that this post did not attempt to outright deny the existence of oppression which produces stratification within the working class. However, I think the consequences and the ways this oppression is enforced was largely glossed over, in part by asserting that the privileges afforded by one's relationship with oppressive structures are inconsequential. While this might appear to be true from a class conscious perspective, this is clearly not the view of those members of the working class who repeatedly - sometimes violently - reproduce and defend these structures in the hope of maintaining whatever illusory privileges they afford.

I think this is why so many queers and members of other marginalized groups struggle to accept this "class unity" model - they often have trouble seeing where that unity might come from. It is difficult to maintain the view that the bosses are the sole enemy when the other proletarian kids at school are the ones beating you up, when your fears of being raped do not make class distinctions because rapists make few class distinctions. This is not to say that individual experiences should be the focus of our struggle, but that these experiences shape the views of groups who share them, and that they obscure any sense of class unity.

Effective class struggle, then, must admit not only that oppression serves to divide the working class by offering "petty privileges" to certain segments, but that it has worked, and that this must be undone. We can not simply turn a blind eye to the phenomenon of workers promoting and reproducing the oppression of their fellow workers - we must address this as a portion of the struggle against the bourgeoisie. To do otherwise would be akin to bumrushing the general in a battle - it is a bad strategy if one is surrounded on all sides by those who would act on his will, even if this might be in denial of their class interests.

Gayge Operaista wrote:

Quote:
This model where all straight people systemically oppress all gays, all white people all people of color, all cis people all trans people sets us up for a struggle of everyone against everyone, and, combined with the individualism that is hyperpresent in the US, there's a motivation to show that oneself is less of an "oppressor" than everyone else around them, thus, what we call the Oppression Olympics occurs - everybody tries to prove they are the most oppressed, and thus they are the most valid because everyone else around them is participating in their oppression. Thus, the people who can claim the most oppressed identities get the most cred. Now, of course, there are the real effects that the actual stratifications built into the working class by things like racism and sexism have on people's lives - the person who is the "winner" and at the top of these inverted hierarchies is generally not the worst off; they just played the game the best.

While so-called "Oppression Olympics" definitely occurs and produces useless or even counterproductive dialogue, I feel the characterization of all "inverted hierarchy" as serving this purpose to be a little reductive. It is my experience that the basic premise of privileging more "oppressed" people in queer or social justice communities is to add positively to an understanding of how these structures function. This serves to make visible structures, or aspects of structures, which might otherwise be ignored when an "egalitarian" perspective on contributions is adopted. It also recognizes that those members of the working class who positioned to "benefit" from these structures are most prone to distort or outright deny their existence. Again, while "Oppression Olympics" occurs, and is frustrating when it happens, it would be a mistake to throw out what is essentially a recognition of varying relations to partitions within the working class as counteractive or divisive.

I really loved this post, especially the first half which gave a very clear and effective example of replacing the tepid and reformist notion of "classism" with a more revolutionary analysis based on class struggle. And it may be that I've misunderstood aspects of this post or assumed the author takes positions she does not. If so, please let me know - I'm still working things out, and I'm new to Libcom smile

Kureigo-San
Sep 8 2014 10:56

"The struggle for queer liberation is not against straight people; it is part of the struggle against the bourgeoisie, as homophobia and transphobia arose out of regulations on gender and sexuality that were enforced by the bourgeois during the birth of capitalism to insure that there was adequate production of future labor."

Didn't marriage exist prior to capitalism?

wob4lyf
Jan 6 2015 20:59
Kureigo-San wrote:
"The struggle for queer liberation is not against straight people; it is part of the struggle against the bourgeoisie, as homophobia and transphobia arose out of regulations on gender and sexuality that were enforced by the bourgeois during the birth of capitalism to insure that there was adequate production of future labor."

Didn't marriage exist prior to capitalism?

Yes, and also, obviously there has always been homosexuality or otherwise non-hetero coupling practiced prior to and during capitalism, but never at levels that would threaten the "adequate production of future labor." I'm not saying the bourgeoisie haven't tended to encourage homophobia or transphobia, but I don't think this is a plausible explanation.

Croy
Jul 28 2015 14:27

I couldn't agree more with the oppression Olympics bit, it is a poisonous thing that I think has taken over a lot of so called anarcho feminists.