A Marxist-feminist critique of intersectionality theory from Eve Mitchell.
>In the United States, during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, a specific set of politics among the left reigns king. Today, you could go into any university, on any number of liberal-to-left blogs or news websites, and the words “identity” and “intersectionality” will jump out you as the hegemonic theory. But, like all theories, this corresponds to the activity of the working class in response to the current composition of capital. Theory is not some cloud that floats above the class, raining down thoughts and ideas, but, as Raya Dunayevskaya writes,”the actions of the proletariat create the possibility for the intellectual to work out theory” (Marxism and Freedom, 91). Therefore, in order to understand the dominant theories of our age, we must understand the real movement of the class. In this piece, I will look at the history of identity politics and intersectionality theory in effort to construct a Marxist critique of intersectionality theory, and a offer positive Marxist conception of feminism.
The Context for “Identity” and “Intersectionality Theory.”
In order to understand “identity” and “intersectionality theory,” we must have an understanding of the movement of capital (meaning the total social relations of production in this current mode of production) that led to their development in the 1960s and 1970s in the US. More specifically, since “intersectionality theory” primarily developed in response to second wave feminism, we must look at how gender relations under capitalism developed. In the movement from feudalism to capitalism, the gendered division of labor, and therefore gender relations within the class began to take a new form that corresponded to the needs of capital. Some of these new relations included the following:
(1) The development of the wage. The wage is the capitalist form of coercion. As Maria Mies explains in her book, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, the wage replaced serf and slave ownership as the method to coerce alienated labor (meaning labor that the worker does for someone else). Under capitalism, those who produce (workers) do not own the means of production, so they must go to work for those who own the means of production (capitalists). Workers must therefore sell the only thing they own, their ability to labor, or their labor power, to the capitalist. This is key because workers are not paid for their sensuous living labor, the act of producing, but the ability to labor. The labor-labor power split gives rise to the appearance of an equal exchange of value; it appears as though the worker is paid for the amount of value she produces but in essence she is paid only for her ability to labor for a given period of time.
Furthermore, the working day itself is split into two parts: necessary labor time and surplus labor time. Necessary labor time is the time it takes the worker (on average) to produce enough value to buy all the commodities he needs to reproduce himself (everything from his dinner to his iPhone). Surplus labor time is the time the worker works beyond the necessary labor time. Since the going rate for labor power (again, our capacity to labor – not our actual living labor) is the value of all the commodities the worker needs to reproduce herself, surplus labor is value that goes straight into the capitalist’s pocket. For example, let’s say I work in a Furby factory. I get paid $10 a day to work 10 hours, I produce 10 Furbies a day, and a Furby is worth $10 each. The capitalist is only paying me for my ability to work 1 hour each day to produce enough value to reproduce myself (1 Furby = 1 hour’s labor = $10). So my necessary labor time is 1 hour, and the surplus labor time I give to the capitalist is 9 hours (10-1). The wage obscures this fact. Recall that under capitalism, it appears as though we are paid the equivalent value of what we produce. But, in essence, we are paid only for our necessary labor time, or the minimum amount we need to reproduce ourselves. This was different under feudalism when it was very clear how much time humans spent working for themselves, and how much time they spent working for someone else. For example, a serf might spend five hours a week tilling the land to produce food for the feudal lord, and the rest of her time was her own. The development of the wage is key because it enforced a gendered division of labor.
(2) A separation of production and reproduction. Along with commodity production came a separation between production and reproduction. To be clear, “reproduction” does not solely refer to baby making. It also includes meeting the many various needs we have under capitalism, from cooking food and cleaning the home, to listening to a partner vent about their shitty day and holding their hand, to caring for the young, sick, elderly and disabled members of society.
As capitalism developed, generally speaking, productive (value-producing) labor corresponded to the wage, and reproductive labor was unwaged (or extremely low waged), since in appearance it produced no surplus value for the capitalist. This separation, characterized by the wage, took on a specific gendered form under capitalism. Women were largely excluded from productive sphere and therefore did not receive a wage for the reproductive work they did. This gave men a certain amount of power over women, and created antagonisms within the class based on a gendered division of labor. Silvia Federici, in Caliban and the Witch, calls this the “patriarchy of the wage” (97-100).
(3) The contradictory development of the nuclear family. With the development of capitalism and large-scale industry, the content of the nuclear family took a contradictory turn. On the one hand, as pointed out by theorists such as Selma James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa in “The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community,” the nuclear family was strengthened by the gendered division of labor characterized by the wage. Women and children were excluded from the wage and relegated to reproductive work; men received a wage and were relegated to productive work. This meant that men needed women and children to reproduce them, and women and children needed men to bring in a wage to reproduce the family as a whole (of course this wage was sometimes supplemented by a woman’s low wage earnings as a domestic or other paid reproductive worker). And so on the one hand, the development of capitalism strengthened the nuclear family.
On the other hand; however, capitalist relations also undermined the nuclear family. As James and Dalla Costa point out, the gendered division of labor is
“rooted in the framework of capitalist society itself: women at home and men in the factories and office, separated from the other the whole day … Capital, while it elevates heterosexuality to a religion, at the same time in practice makes it impossible for men and women to be in touch with each other, physically or emotionally — it undermines heterosexuality as a sexual, economic, and social discipline” (James, Sex, Race and Class, 56).
(4) The development of “identity” and alienation. John D’Emilio runs with this concept of the contradictory development of the nuclear family, arguing that “gay identity” (and we can infer “female identity”) as a category developed through this contradictory movement of the nuclear family. He argues for a distinction between gay behavior and gay identity, stating,
“There was, quite simply, no ‘social space’ in the colonial system of production that allowed men and women to be gay. Survival was structured around participation in the nuclear family. There were certain homosexual acts — sodomy among men, ‘lewdness’ among women — in which individuals engaged, but family was so pervasive that colonial society lacked even the category of homosexual or lesbian to describe a person … By the second half of the nineteenth century, this situation was noticeably changing as the capitalist system of free labor took hold. Only when individuals began to make their living through wage labor, instead of parts of an interdependent family unit, was it possible for homosexual desire to coalesce into a personal identity — an identity based on the ability to remain outside the heterosexual family and to construct a personal life based on the attraction to one’s own sex” (“Capitalism and the Gay Identity,” 104-105).
D’Emilio’s understanding of “identity” is key for understanding identity politics and intersectionality theory; however, I would slightly change his framework. In distinguishing between “behavior,” and “identity,” D’Emilio is touching on what could be broadened out to the Marxist categories, “labor” and “alienation.” I digress in order to fill out this idea.
For Marx, labor is an abstract category that defines human history. In his early texts, Marx refers to labor as self- or life-activity. In “Estranged Labour,” Marx writes,
“For in the first place labour, life-activity, productive life itself, appears to man merely as a means of satisfying a need — the need to maintain the physical existence. Yet the productive life is the life of the species. It is life-engendering life. The whole character of a species — its species character — is contained in the character of its life activity; and free conscious activity is man’s species character. Life itself appears only as a means to life” (76).
Life-activity, or labor, is an abstraction that transcends a specific form, or a specific mode of production (capitalism, feudalism, tribalism, etc.). However, labor can only be understood within the context of these forms; it is through these forms, the social organization of our labor, that humans engage in the ever-expanding process of satisfying our needs, introducing new needs, and developing new ways of fulfilling our needs. Labor encompasses everything from our jobs under capitalism to tilling the land under feudalism, to creating art and poetry, to having sex and raising children. Through labor and its many expressions, or forms, we engage with the world around us, changing the world and changing ourselves in the process.
Under capitalism, there is a separation between our labor and our conscious will. When Marx says “Life itself appears only as a means to life,” he is pointing toward this contradiction. As noted above, under capitalism, labor is divorced from the means of production so we must work for those who own the means of production. We engage in the same form of labor all day every day, and we receive a wage for this activity in order to exchange to meet our needs. We produce value in order to exchange for the use-values we need to survive. So what appears under capitalism as a mere means to satisfy our needs (work), is in essence the activity of life itself (labor). Because of this schism between our labor and our conscious will, our labor under capitalism is alienated, meaning it is not used for our own enrichment, instead, we give it away to the capitalist. Our multi-sided labor becomes one-sided; our labor is reduced to work. In “The German Ideology,” Marx writes, “as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood” (53). We are not fully enriched human beings, engaging in all forms of labor we wish to engage in, we are relegated into one form of labor in order to exchange to meet our needs. We are call center workers, hair stylists, nurses, teachers, etc. This one-sidedness, as the precondition for meeting our needs, is unique to the capitalist mode of production.
In applying Marx’s categories to D’Emilio’s explanation of homosexuality, we could say that homosexual behaviors are an expression of labor, or self-activity, and homosexual identity is a one-sided, alienated form of labor unique to capitalism. It distinguishes the difference between a person who consciously engages in homosexual acts, and one who is defined by one form of labor: a homosexual. Women and people of color experience something similar in the development of capital; a shift from engaging in certain types of labor to engaging in feminized, or racially relegated forms of labor. To put it another way, under capitalism, we are forced into a box: we are a bus driver, or a hair stylist, or a woman. These different forms of labor, or different expressions of our life-activity (the way in which we interact with the world around us) limit our ability to be multi-sided human beings.
If we understand “identity” in this way, we will struggle for a society that does not limit us as “bus drivers,” “women,” or “queers,” but a society that allows everyone to freely use their multi-sided life activity in whatever ways they want. In other words, we will struggle for a society that completely abolishes, or transcends, “identities.” I will explain more on this later.
What is Intersectionality Theory and How Did it Develop?
The term “intersectionality” did not become commonplace until the early 1980s. According to most feminist historians, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw was the first to coin the term, in a series of articles written between roughly 1989 and 1991 (for example, see “Mapping the Margins“). Intersectionality theory was then popularized by many critical race and gender theorists.
Despite where the term was coined, intersectionality theory has its roots in the 1960s and 70s class struggle movements in the US and Europe (roughly speaking). This period was generally characterized by autonomous struggles based on the gendered and racialized division of labor. Black folks were the vanguard of this form of struggle, developing and leading many types of organizations from revolutionary parties like the Black Panther Party, to majority black workplace organizations like the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement. These forms of struggle influenced other groups, such as white women, latinos, gays and lesbians, to form similar organizations along race, gender and sexuality lines (while there were multi-ethnic projects in this time period, and many contradictions within these organizations themselves, it can be said that in this specific time and place, there was a general tendency to organize along these lines). This was due to the gendered and racialized division of labor; black folks were relegated to certain neighborhoods and certain forms of labor, the value of a black person’s labor was less than a white person’s, and a socially constructed skin color hierarchy and corresponding antagonisms within the class was fully developed and materially enforced. To be black meant to be objectified, relegated into one form of labor: producing and reproducing blackness. Black Power was therefore the struggle against the alienation and one-sidedness of blackness, a struggle to liberate labor, releasing its multi-sidedness, unifying labor with its conscious will.
Similarly, women organized in response to the gendered division of labor in effort to break free from the alienation of “womanhood.” For example, women struggled for reproductive and sexual freedom in effort to gain control over the means of production (their bodies). Maria Mies describes how women’s bodies are their means of production under capitalism, stating, “The first means of production with which human beings act upon nature is their own body,” and later, she writes, “women can experience their whole body, not only their hands or their heads. Out of their body they produce new children as well as the first food for these children” (Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, 52 and 53). Since women’s use of their bodies is a unique form of alienated labor for women under capitalism, it is historically the site of struggle for liberation.
However, there was also a tendency within second wave feminism that sought to reproduce capitalist relations, arguing for “equal wages for equal work.” Both of these tendencies were acting in response to the gendered social relations under capital, and both shared a methodology of identity politics, arguing that women could unite on the basis of a shared “woman” experience, or “womanhood.”
From this development, intersectionality theory took hold. As the autonomous struggles of the 60s and 70s began to recede, groups like the Combahee River Collective responded to the material divisions within the movement. They argued that the objectively white second wave feminist movement excluded women of color by assuming the white woman’s experience could be extended to women of color, and that white women were adequate spokespeople for women of color. In contrast, they argued that a revolutionary praxis must be informed by the experience of black lesbian women, stating,
“This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression. In the case of Black women this is a particularly repugnant, dangerous, threatening, and therefore revolutionary concept because it is obvious from looking at all the political movements that have preceded us that anyone is more worthy of liberation than ourselves” (“Combahee River Collective Statement”).
What developed in practice through the Combahee River Collective’s specific set of identity politics (a black, lesbian, working class-based politics) was solidified theoretically with the development of intersectionality theory. The intersectionality theorists who emerged in the late 70s and early 80s rightly expressed antagonisms within the class, arguing that one cannot discuss gender without discussing race, class, sexuality, disability, age, etc.
Patricia Hill Collins describes intersectionality theory as an “analysis claiming that systems of race, social class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, and age form mutually constructing features of a social organization, which shape Black women’s experiences and, in turn, are shaped by Black Women” (Black Feminist Thought, 299). Using this definition and the prominent intersectionality theorists’ writings, I have identified four core components of the theory: (1) a politics of difference, (2) a critique of women’s organizations and people of color organizations, (3) the need to develop the most oppressed as leaders and take the leadership from them, and (4) the need for a politics that takes all oppressions into account.
(1) A politics of difference. Intersectionality theorists argue that our various identities, such as race, class, gender, sexuality, etc., necessarily differentiate us from people who do not have those identities. So a ruling class, gay, black man will have a different experience, and therefore, a different politics, than a straight, white, working class woman. On the other hand, people with shared identities, such as being black or lesbian, will have a shared experience that organically unites the individuals. Some of these shared identities are more likely to unite some people than others. As Collins explains,
“On the one hand, all African-American women face similar challenges that result from living in a society that historically and routinely derogates women of African descent. Despite the fact that U.S. Black women face common challenges, this neither means that individual African-American women have all had the same experiences nor that we agree on the significance of our varying experiences. Thus, on the other hand, despite the common challenges confronting U.S. Black women as a group, diverse responses to these core themes characterize U.S. Black women’s group knowledge or standpoint. Despite differences of age, sexual orientation, social class, region, and religion, U.S. Black women encounter societal practices that restrict us to inferior housing, neighborhoods, schools, jobs, and public treatment and hide this differential consideration behind an array of common beliefs about Black women’s intelligence, work habits, and sexuality. These common challenges in turn result in recurring patterns of experiences for individual group members” (25).
This is a cornerstone of intersectionality theory: some individuals or groups are differentiated from other individuals or groups based on their experiences. This can be cut along many different identity lines.
(2) Critiques of women’s organizations and people of color organizations. Women of color were marginalized in the 1960s and 70s women’s, Black Power, Chicanismo, and other people of color-led organizations. Most intersectionality theorists attribute this to a unique experience women of color (and particularly Black women) have around race, class, gender, and other forms of oppression. For example, Collins argues that women of color have abstained from joining white feminist organizations on the grounds that they have been “racist and overly concerned with White, middle-class women’s issues” (5). Similarly, Collins argues that black studies is traditionally based on a “male-defined ethos,” and contains a “predominantly masculinist bias” (7), despite historically joining and feeling marginalized in African American organizations. Again, this is an objective and historical situation that intersectionality theorists attribute to difference along identity lines.
(3) The need to develop the most oppressed as leaders, and take leadership from them. Following this analysis, intersectionality theorists argue that the experience of being an oppressed person places individuals in a uniquely privileged position for struggle. In other words, if you’ve experienced the multiple, identity-based oppressions, you are the vanguard of the struggle against it. bell hooks writes,
“As a group, black women are in an unusual position in this society, for not only are we collectively at the bottom of the occupational ladder, but our overall social status is lower than that of any other group. Occupying such a position, we bear the brunt of sexist, racist, and classist oppression. At the same time, we are the same group that has not been socialized to assume the role of exploiter/oppressor in that we are allowed no institutional “other” that we can exploit or oppress … Black women with no institutionalized “other” that we may discriminate against, exploit, or oppress, often have a lived experience that directly challenges the prevailing classist, sexist, and racist social structure and its concomitant ideology. This lived experience may shape our consciousness in such a way that our world view differs from those who have a degree of privilege (however relative within the existing system). It is essential for continued feminist struggle that black women recognize the special vantage point our marginality gives us and make use of this perspective to criticize the dominant racist, classist, sexist hegemony as well as to envision and create a counter-hegemony” (Feminist Theory from Margin to Center, 16).
This point justifies the need to develop queer, women, and people of color as movement leaders, and allows intersectionality theorists to explain why historically the most oppressed tend to be the most militant.
(4) The need for a politics that takes all oppressions into account. Finally, all intersectionality theorists argue the need to analyze every form of oppression, using the terms, “interlocking system of oppressions,” “matrix of domination,” or some variation thereof. The idea is that it is impossible to view one identity or category of oppression without looking at all the others. As Barbara Smith simply puts, “the major ‘isms’ … are intimately intertwined” (The Truth that Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender, and Freedom, 112); they cannot be separated.
While intersectionality theory seems to overcome the limitations of identity politics, it falls short. The next section will show how intersectionality theory is, in fact, a bourgeois ideology.
A Marxist Critique of Identity Politics and Intersectionality Theory.
Identity politics is rooted in a one-sided expression of capitalism, and is therefore not a revolutionary politics. As noted earlier, “identity” can be equated with alienated labor; it is a one-sided expression of our total potential as human beings.
Frantz Fanon discusses something similar in the conclusion to Black Skin White Masks. He writes, “The black man, however sincere, is a slave to the past. But I am a man, and in this sense the Peloponnesian War is as much mine as the invention of the compass” (200 – Philcox Translation, 2008). On the one hand, Fanon points to a particular, one-sided expression: blackness. On the other hand, he points toward the multi-sides of a potentially universal human. Fanon is at once both of these things: a black man, and a man (or, more generally, a human); a particular and a universal. Under capitalism, we are both the alienated worker and labor itself, except the universal has not been actualized concretely.
The identity politics of the 60s and 70s conflates a particular moment, or a determinant point, in the relations of capitalism with the potential universal. Furthermore, it reproduces the schism between appearance and essence. Under capitalism there is a contradiction between the particular and the universal; appearance and essence. We appear to be alienated individuals (a bus driver, a hair stylist, a woman, etc.), though in essence we are multi-sided individuals capable of many forms of labor. Identity politics bolsters one side of this contradiction, arguing for collective struggle on the basis of “womanhood,” or “blackness,” or “black lesbianhood,” etc. To borrow from Fanon, identity politics states, “I am a black man,” “I am a woman,” or “I am a black lesbian,” etc. This is a key first step. As he writes in his critical chapter, “The Lived Experience of the Black Man:” “I finally made up my mind to shout my blackness” (101), “On the other side of the white world there lies a magical black culture. Negro sculpture! I began to blush with pride. Was this our salvation?” (102), and
“So here we have the Negro rehabilitated, ‘standing at the helm,’ governing the world with his intuition, rediscovered, reappropriated, in demand, accepted; and it’s not a Negro, oh, no, but the Negro, alerting the prolific antennae of the world, standing in the spotlight of the world, spraying the world with his poetical power, ‘porous to the every breath in the world.’ I embrace the world! I am the world! The white man has never understood this magical substitution. The white man wants the world; he wants it for himself. He discovers he is the predestined master of the world. He enslaves it. His relationship with the world is one of appropriation. But there are values that can be served only with my sauce. As a magician I stole from the white man a ‘certain world,’ lost to him and his kind. When that happened the white man must have felt an aftershock he was unable to identify, being unused to such reactions” (106-107).
For several pages, Fanon argues that black people must embrace blackness, and struggle on the basis of being black, in order to negate white supremacists social relations. But to stop there reproduces our one-sided existence and the forms of appearance of capitalism. Identity politics argues, “I am a black man,” or “I am a woman,” without filling out the other side of the contradiction “…and I am a human.” If the starting and ending point is one-sided, there is no possibility for abolishing racialized and gendered social relations. For supporters of identity politics (despite claiming otherwise), womanhood, a form of appearance within society, is reduced to a natural, static “identity.” Social relations such as “womanhood,” or simply gender, become static objects, or “institutions.” Society is therefore organized into individuals, or sociological groups with natural characteristics. Therefore, the only possibility for struggle under identity politics is based on equal distribution or individualism (I will discuss this further below). This is a bourgeois ideology in that it replicates the alienated individual invented and defended by bourgeois theorists and scientists (and materially enforced) since capitalism’s birth.
Furthermore, this individualism is characteristic of the current social moment. As left communist theorist Loren Goldner has theorized, capitalism has been in perpetual crisis for the last 40 years, which has been absorbed in appearance through neoliberal strategies (among others). Over time, capital is forced to invest in machines over workers in order to keep up with the competitive production process. As a result, workers are expelled from the production process. We can see this most clearly in a place like Detroit, where automation combined with deindustrialization left hundreds of thousands jobless. The effects of this contradiction of capitalism is that workers are forced into precarious working situations, jumping from gig to gig in order to make enough money to reproduce themselves. Goldner refers to this condition as the “atomized individual worker.” As Goldner has written elsewhere, this increased individualism leads to a politics of difference, where women, queers, people of color, etc., have nothing in common with one another.
Intersectionality theorists correctly identified and critiqued this problem with identity politics. For example, bell hooks, in a polemic against liberal feminist Betty Friedan, writes,
“Friedan was a principal shaper of contemporary feminist thought. Significantly, the one-dimensional perspective on women’s reality presented in her book became a marked feature of the contemporary feminist movement. Like Friedan before them, white women who dominate feminist discourse today rarely question whether or not their perspective on women’s reality is true to the lived experiences of women as a collective group. Nor are they aware of the extent to which their perspectives reflect race and class biases…” (3).
hooks is correct to say that basing an entire politics on one particular experience, or a set of particular differences, under capitalism is problematic. However, intersectionality theory replicates this problem by simply adding particular moments, or determinant points; hooks goes on to argue for race and class inclusion in a feminist analysis. Similarly, theories of an “interlocking matrix of oppressions,” simply create a list of naturalized identities, abstracted from their material and historical context. This methodology is just as ahistorical and antisocial as Betty Friedan’s.
Again, patriarchy and white supremacy are not objects or “institutions” that exist throughout history; they are particular expressions of our labor, our life-activity, that are conditioned by (and in turn, condition) our mode of production. In Capital, Marx describes labor as the “metabolism” between humans and the external world; patriarchy and white supremacy, as products of our labor, are also the conditions in which we labor. We are constantly interacting with the world, changing the world and changing ourselves through our “metabolic” labor. So patriarchy and white supremacy, like all social relations of labor, change and transform.
Patriarchy under capitalism takes a specific form that is different from gendered relations under feudalism, or tribalism, etc. There will be overlap and similarities in how patriarchy is expressed under different modes of production. After all, the objective conditions of feudalism laid the foundation for early capitalism, which laid the foundation for industrial capitalism, etc. However, this similarity and overlap does not mean that particular, patriarchal relations transcend the mode of production. For example, under both feudalism and capitalism there are gendered relations within a nuclear family, though these relations took very different forms particular to the mode of production. As Silvia Federici describes, within the feudal family there was little differentiation between men and women. She writes,
“since work on the servile farm was organized on a subsistence basis, the sexual division of labor in it was less pronounced and less discriminating than the capitalist farm. … Women worked in the fields, in addition to raising children, cooking, washing, spinning, and keeping an herb garden; their domestic activities were not devalued and did not involve different social relations from those of men, as they would later, in a money-economy, when housework would cease to be viewed as real work” (25).
A historical understanding of patriarchy needs to understand patriarchy from within a set of social relations based on the form of labor. In other words, we cannot understand the form of appearance, “womanhood,” apart from the essence, a universal human.
A Marxist Conception of Feminism.
At this point, I should make myself very clear and state that the limitations of identity politics and intersectionality theory are a product of their time. There was no revolution in the US in 1968. The advances of Black Power, women’s liberation, gay liberation, and the movements themselves, have been absorbed into capital. Since the 1970s, academia has had a stronghold on theory. A nonexistent class struggle leaves a vacuum of theoretical production and academic intellectuals have had nothing to draw on except for the identity politics of the past. A new politics that corresponds to a new form of struggle is desperately needed; however, the Marxist method can provide some insight into the creation of a politics that overcomes the limitations of identity politics.
Marx offers a method that places the particular in conversation with the totality of social relations; the appearance connected to the essence. Consider his use of the concept of “moments.” Marx uses this concept in “The German Ideology” to describe the development of human history. He describes the following three moments as the “primary social relations, or the basic aspects of human activity:” (1) the production of means to satisfy needs, (2) the development of new needs, and (3) reproduction of new people and therefore new needs and new means to satisfy new needs. What is key about this idea is that Marx distinguishes between a “moment” and a “stage.” He writes, “These three aspects of social activity are not of course to be taken as three different stages, but just as three aspects, or, to make it clear to the Germans, three ‘moments,’ which have existed simultaneously since the dawn of history and the first men, and which still assert themselves in history today” (48). The particulars of this specific argument are not relevant; what is key is Marx’s use of “moments” juxtaposed to “stages.” Marx makes this distinction to distinguish himself from a kind of determinism that sees the development of history in a static, linear fashion, versus a fluid and dialectical historical development. Throughout many of Marx’s writings, he refers back to this term, “moments,” to describe particular social relations in history, or, more precisely, particular expressions of labor. “Moments” also helps fill out Marx’s idea of fluid modes of production. As noted earlier, for Marx, there is no pure feudalism or pure capitalism; all relations of production move and must be understood historically.
This concept is useful for understanding our various alienated existences under capitalism. For example, in the Grundrisse, Marx writes,
“When we consider bourgeois society in the long view and as a whole, then the final result of the process of social production always appears as the society itself, i.e. the human being itself in its social relations. Everything that has a fixed form, such as a product etc., appears as merely a moment, a vanishing moment, in this movement. The direct individuals, but individuals in a mutual relationship, which they equally reproduce and produce anew. The constant process of their own movement, in which they renew themselves even as they renew the world of wealth they create” (712).
To be a “woman” under capitalism means something very specific; it is even more specific for women in the US in 2013; it is even more specific for black lesbians in the US in 2013; it is even more specific for individual women. But, in a universal sense, to be a “woman” means to produce and reproduce a set of social relations through our labor, or self-activity. Taking a cue from Fanon, our method must argue: I am a woman and a human. We must recognize the particular in conversation with the totality; we must consider a moment, or a single expression of labor, in relationship to labor itself.
It is important to note that identity politics and intersectionality theorists are not wrong but they are incomplete. Patriarchal and racialized social relations are material, concrete and real. So are the contradictions between the particular and universal, and the appearance and essence. The solution must build upon these contradictions and push on them. Again, borrowing from Fanon, we can say “I am a woman and a human,” or “I am a black person and a person.” The key is to emphasize both sides of the contradiction. Embracing womanhood, organizing on the basis of blackness, and building a specifically queer politics is an essential aspect of our liberation. It is the material starting point of struggle. As noted earlier, Frantz Fanon describes this movement in “The Lived Experience of the Black Man” chapter of Black Skin, White Masks. However, at the end of the chapter, Fanon leaves the contradiction unresolved and leaves us searching for something more, stating, “Without a black past, without a black future, it was impossible for me to live my blackness. Not yet white, no longer completely black, I was damned” (117), and, “When I opened my eyes yesterday I saw the sky in total revulsion. I tried to get up but the eviscerated silence surged toward me with paralyzed wings. Not responsible for my acts, at the crossroads between Nothingness and infinity, I began to weep” (119). Fanon points to the contradiction between the particular form of appearance (blackness) and the essence, the universal (humanness).
In the conclusion, as noted earlier, Fanon resolves this contradiction, arguing for further movement toward the universal, the total abolition of race. He writes,
“In no way does my basic vocation have to be drawn from the past of peoples of color. In no way do I have to dedicate myself to reviving a black civilization unjustly ignored. I will not make myself the man of any past. I do not want to sing the past to the detriment of my present and my future” (201).
For Fanon then, and for Marx, the struggle for liberation must include both the particular and the universal, both the appearance and essence. We must build upon and push on both sides of these contradictions.
Some Practical Consequences.
Since identity politics, and therefore intersectionality theory, are a bourgeois politics, the possibilities for struggle are also bourgeois. Identity politics reproduces the appearance of an alienated individual under capitalism and so struggle takes the form of equality among groups at best, or individualized forms of struggle at worse.
On the one hand, abstract “sociological” groups or individuals struggle for an equal voice, equal “representation,” or equal resources. Many have experienced this in organizing spaces where someone argues that there are not enough women of color, disabled individuals, trans*folks, etc., present for a campaign to move forward. A contemporary example of this is the critique of Slut Walk for being too white and therefore a white supremacist or socially invalid movement. Another example is groups and individuals who argue that all movements should be completely subordinate to queer people of color leadership, regardless of how reactionary their politics are. Again, while intersectionality theorists have rightly identified an objective problem, these divisions and antagonisms within the class must be address materially through struggle. Simply reducing this struggle to mere quantity, equality of distribution, or “representation,” reinforces identity as a static, naturalized category.
On the other hand, identity politics can take the form of individualized struggles against heteropatriarchy, racism, etc., within the class. According to Barbara Smith, a majority of Combahee River Collective’s work was around teaching white women to stop being racist by holding anti-racism workshops (95). Today, we might see groups whose only form of struggle is to identify and smash gendered, machismo, male-chauvinist, misogynist, and patriarchal elements within the left. Another example is Tumblr users’ constant reminder to “check your privilege.” Again, it is important to address and correct these elements; however, contradictions and antagonisms within the class cannot be overcome in isolation, and individual expressions of patriarchy are impossible to overcome without a broader struggle for the emancipation of our labor. We will never free ourselves of machismo within the movement without abolishing gender itself, and therefore alienated labor itself.
A truly revolutionary feminist struggle will collectively take up issues that put the particular and the form of appearance in conversation with the universal and the essence. Elsewhere, I have offered the following as examples of areas that would do that work:
Grassroots clinic defense takeovers and/or nonprofit worker committees that build solidarity across worker-“client” lines.
Neighborhood groups engaged in tenant struggles with the capacity to deal directly with violence against women in the community.
Parent, teacher, and student alliances that struggle against school closures/privatization and for transforming schools to more accurately reflect the needs of children and parents, for example on-site childcare, directly democratic classrooms and districts, smaller class sizes, etc.
Sex worker collectives that protect women from abusive Johns and other community members, and build democratically women- and queer-run brothels with safe working conditions.
Workplace organizations in feminized workplaces like nonprofits, the service industry, pink collar manufacturing, etc., or worker centers that specialize in feminized workplaces and take up issues and challenges specific to women.
There are many, many others that I cannot theorize. As noted, we cannot project the forms of struggle and their corresponding theories without the collective and mass activity of the class, but it is our job as revolutionaries to provide tools that help overthrow the present state of affairs. To do so, we must return to Marx and the historical materialist method. We can no longer rely on the ahistorical, bourgeois theories of the past to clarify the tasks of today. For feminists, this means struggling as women but also as humans.
Taken from http://gatheringforces.org/2013/09/12/i-am-a-woman-and-a-human-a-marxist-feminist-critique-of-intersectionality-theory/
I sympathise with the
I sympathise with the 'identity abolitionist' sentiments here...
I think this kind of analysis points at a queer/feminist/anti-racist/anti-work version of class politics. And I think it's fair to say much intersectional theory is basically liberal ("bourgeois ideology" in the terminology of this piece), and affirms these identities rather than challenging them. But then, most of the intersectionalists I know would wholeheartedly endorse the practical/organising suggestions with which the article ends. Are they doing so despite of rather than because of intersectional theory?
In addition, there are definitely 'identity abolitionist' takes on intersectionality. Though again, they're certainly critical, and perhaps going beyond the origins of the theory in say the Combahee River Collective Statement. So for example Jasbir Puar is critical of intersectional theory, citing "the representational mandates of visibility identity politics", but she nonetheless cautions that in some instances "intersectionality as a heuristic may well be indispensable". Though if you think intersectionality is academic, wait til you see Puar's replacement in assemblage theory!
I've mainly encountered intersectionality as opposition to exclusionary identity politics (e.g. transphobic feminists), leftist power structures (e.g. rapey Marxists and the hierarchies which enable and protect them), as well as a defence of and rationale for the kind of activities this article advocates. Maybe intersectionality is operating "as an heuristic" here, something to stimulate critical thinking rather than a theory in its own right. But I've fortunately not encountered tumblr intersectionalists whose exclusive practice is shouting 'check your privilege' into the internet. So yeah, wholeheartedly agree with this:
*But* with the caveat that very very similar rationales are often given to suppress these divisions and antagonisms in the name of unity - and indeed, 'the struggle'. In this sense there's a dual struggle. The struggle itself, and the simultaneous struggle to define the universal (i.e. the goals and methods which unite people in struggle), which defaults to white, masculine, heterosexual interests (think rapists on the central committee for a very clear example). That is to say the counter to the politics of representation is a politics of self-activity, out of which a universal interest can emerge (rather than existing timelessly and objectively to be discerned by intellectual vanguards). Weirdly though, most of the intersectionalists i've encountered would fall on the latter side of that split. Perhaps they're closer to an autonomist Marxism in practice, and just haven't shed the intersectional vocab.
Most, if not all,
Most, if not all, intersectional theorists DO concieve of race and gender as fluid, historically contingent categories, shaped by (and shaping) capitalist relations. And, as Joseph Kay points out, activists who draw on intersectional theory are often the main force behind campaigns such as the ones suggested by the author. Indeed, if Mitchell is not familiar with the work and theory of the Incite! Collective, I would highly recommend their books to her. So. while Mitchell's criticisms do apply to the way identity politics is practised on occasion, I don't think her article invalidates any of the really good intersectional theory I've read, including that of Patricia Hill Collins or bell hooks. Fundamentally, all intersectional theorists are arguing is that capitalism, racism and sexism are mutually constitutive, and cannot be understood, or resisted, separately.
I've read the piece and I
I've read the piece and I don't understand what 'identity politics' is supposed to mean here other than that is has something to do with how people identify themselves. In general that term seems to get used as a kind of swear word something like 'bullshit' or something and I never really know what people mean by it other than that they don't like it and it has something to do with race and gender and stuff. I think it'd probably help if people talked about particular instances of what they take to be 'identity politics' rather than talking about 'identity politics' as such. I mean, 'marxism' is a huge vague term covering massive disagreements. I would bet that 'identity politics' is too. I also think it's a little weird to dismiss identity claims while being like "reject that stuff and instead check out what we marxists think" because marxism (or rather, marxist) is in a way a kind of identity. Ditto 'feminist'.
I also think the attribution of identity (and reduction of people to one-sided categories) to capitalism is probably wrong. Either way I'd be interested in seeing it empirically supported, rather than via theoretical appeals. For a start, roles like father, mother, husband, wife, son, daughter, etc pre-existed capitalism and arguably they were more limiting before capitalism. Likewise categories like serf and slave - and for that matter, waged worker, since there were waged workers prior to the existence of capitalism as a social system. As well as proto-national categories of group belonging, whether geographic, (pseudo)biological, or religious.
Finally: "Black Power was therefore the struggle against the alienation and one-sidedness of blackness, a struggle to liberate labor, releasing its multi-sidedness, unifying labor with its conscious will." Like I said, I don't really get what the piece means by 'identity politics.' I assume that Black Power counts as identity politics. If it does then it seems to me this quote shows that identity politics isn't necessarily a problem, because in certain instances it can go beyond what we might take to be its predictable or logical/theoretical limits. Ideas and terms being material things, ie., things of practice, people can use them in unexpected ways and I think this quote shows how a kind of identity claim can be part of practices which points toward greater universality than the piece over all seems to allow for.
I sympathize with Nate's
I sympathize with Nate's complaint here. I think this piece is highly metaphysical & this highly abstract metaphysical framework really does not add clarity but obscures what the author is getting at. Given Marx's distaste for metaphysical argumentation, this creates a sort of pragmatic contradiction the piece suffers from.
The various kinds of mixed struggles/organizing that the author lists at the end are exactly the sort of thing advocated by people who advocate intersectionality, as Laurette points out. The claim that intersectionality theory is "bourgeois individualism" is poorly argued because of the highly abstract & obscure (metaphysical) language.
I really didn't get anything
I really didn't get anything metaphysical about this. Nor did I find it particularly abstract, considering the scope of the subject.
IMO, Intersectionality seems like a convoluted attempt rehabilitate identity politics - or perhaps more cynically, an attempt to artificially bridge the divide between class struggle and the monstrosity that is the post-modern liberal left.
I don't think it's all bad news tho. The development of identity politics within the working class has had the very positive effect of forcing revolutionaries to reexamine the class struggle issues of race, gender, sexuality etc. in a much more critical and fundamental manner than ever before. The important point missing from this piece is that the growth of identity politics was just as much about the failure of the left to address (or even recognize at all) these elements of the working class struggle, than it was about capitalism creating the conditions for them to exist.
Biffard Misqueegan wrote: the
Sort of. Except the Black Panthers and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers were engaged in a kind of identity politics (I still don't know quite what people mean by this but those groups are mentioned in this piece), and they were part of the left. I want to say that at least parts of second wave feminism did so as well (second wave feminism is overly maligned IMHO), like for instance the Chicago Women's Liberation Union and other socialists feminist groups. So parts of the left *did* recognize these elements in the mid 20th century, and there are other earlier examples. Personally I think any such recognition is going to look - at least to hostile observers - like some kind of identity politics.
I think mostly this is an argument about vocabulary - 'it is pronounced "sibboleth," not "shibboleth," you must speak like my tradition speaks." There is perhaps a genuine theoretical disagreement in the mix, about a) the relative autonomy or not of different structures of power (class, race, gender, and others), and perhaps about b) the relative priority or not of one kind of struggle over others. Those disagreements could persist after rejecting the vocabulary of intersectionality and taking up a marxist vocabulary.
The examples you mention, as
The examples you mention, as well as many more, certainly did exist in the 60s and 70s, but they were largely "new-left" movements that came out of and against the old left, which had refused to address and often openly opposed the issues of race, gender etc. They were just as much about confronting their issues as they were about confronting the inherent weakness of traditional leftist organizations. Those new-left movements had their origins in the traditions of the old left and as a result looked to explain and understand their relative issues in the context of capitalism (at least to the extent that the Stalinist and Maoist ideology that dominated many of those milieus could). But whatever value and insight that movement may or many not have had, it nonetheless gave way to modern identity politics movements and theories.
It really isn't about vocabulary or some idea that "altho we may say it differently, we mean the same thing". It's about understanding the historical origins and trajectory over time of these oppressions and "identities" within the material context of society. That perspective informs how ones deals with the issue and more importantly, point to ways that it can be abolished/rectified. If one views racism as something that is independent of class society and capital (and therefore something that can be rectified within capitalist society), they will approach the issue very differently than somebody who sees identity as historically tied to the social structures of bourgeois society.
Biffard Misqueegan wrote: the
I'm not convinced that's accurate. The Communist Party in the U.S. had extensive conversations about what they called 'the Negro question.' Opposition to lynching was one of the core elements of the Popular Front in the 1930s in the U.S. There was also extensive conversation on 'the woman question'. I'm not defending the CP and I'm not saying the old left was right on that stuff or that it was adequate, but I don't think it's true that there was refusal to address those issues. There's also both a women's movement and an African American civil rights movement in the U.S. prior to the 1960s, with some overlaps with the marxist influenced left. A good example of this is Robert F. Williams, who had fled the U.S. by the time the New Left really kicked off but who was an influence on some people in Black Power circle. He wasn't a response to the supposed failures of the old left and if anyone was doing something it makes sense to call identity politics, then I think he was. I think the "the old left didn't care about race and gender" line is at least as much a product of how the new left talked about the old left as it's a result of what the old left actually did.
I'm not sure I agree with that. I do think different forms of oppression are at least relatively autonomous from capitalism and maybe absolutely autonomous. That theoretical point matters IMHO. But it doesn't necessarily mean anything in activity, though. I think Race Traitor influenced people or Sojourner Truth Organization influenced people tend to see race as derived from capitalism but in practice I think they don't really differ from people who see race as autonomous.
I'm pretty sure there were
I'm pretty sure there were strikes against both women and blacks entering the (unionised) labour force well into the post-WWII period.
There were but I don't
There were but I don't understand your point for the purposes of this discussion. If that's meant as a criticism of the old left, I don't think it's accurate to attribute that to the old left though I'd be interested in hearing an argument.
There were also significant mobilizations of blacks demanding entry into those jobs (maybe women as well but I don't know about that particular history), which I think is another example of stuff prior to the New Left that I think could be called identity politics. There are quite a few other such examples and significant overlap with the old left on this (old left in the sense of the socialist and marxist influenced left). Some of the most important early 20th century black freedom movement intellectuals had engagements with the old left - Hubert Harrison, A. Philip Randolph, W.E.B. DuBois, George Padmore, that's off the top of my head and I've only read casually about this stuff. They may be more.
Again none of this to say the old left was especially awesome nor to say that these black freedom movements were always awesome either, it's just to say that I think the 'identity politics arose response to the genuine failures of the old left' strikes me as inaccurate on at least two counts: because what people seem to be criticizing here under the term identity politics goes way back earlier in time, and because the old left's failures weren't nearly so simplistic as presented here IMHO. (It also strikes me just now that some of what I'm saying is actually compatible with/supportive of the 'reject intersectionality and go back to Marx and marxism' call in the original piece, because there's traditions of socialist and marxist engagement with these issues which might offer resources to that project.)
So I haven't actually read this in full, but from what I remember it seems to back up Nate's argument in as much as it tackles two perceptions of the 'old' union movement: (a) that it was inherently reactionary on questions of race and (b) that the CIO (and especially the left-led unions within it) were bastions of racial progressiveness. Basically the conclusion is that a little bit of both were true and that it changed over time, place, and union.
Nate wrote: Biffard
The CP was pretty fucking reactionary, despite some heroic anti-racist actions in the 1930s (like defending the Scottsboro Boys). Even an extremely pro-CP historian like Philip Foner makes clear that the Communist Party "lost prestige" among black workers during World War II by failing to protest the imprisonment of Japanese American in concentration camps (pp. 278-280 in Organized Labor and the Black Worker). Actually, the CP -- and the CIO and all unions except the IWW -- fully supported this racist attack on Americans of Japanese descent. Both the CP and CIO also expelled all of their Japanese American members. But this was nothing new; all unions, again with the exception of the IWW, had historically repeatedly signed onto campaigns against the Chinese -- with the Exclusion Act of 1882 -- and all other Asians -- with the "Yellow Peril" scare and the "Asiatic Barred Zone Act" of 1917. So despite whatever "civil rights" rhetoric the Old Left spouted, they were straight-up racist.
The CP also lost prestige (according to Foner) for its strident defense of the no-strike pledge and work-incentive programs during World War II, as well as for its opposition to A. Philip Randolph's attempted March on Washington in 1941 (Randolph had resigned from the CP in 1940, attacking it for giving priority in all its activities to support for Russian foreign policy). This was when the CP abandoned civil rights in the interest of unconditionally supporting the U.S. in the war effort. Just as much as the CP flip-flopped on opposing and supporting the war, they vacillated between supporting black workers and their "black belt nation" policy. When William Z. Foster took a position in the leadership of the CP in 1945, he was part of reconstituting it as a party (Early Browder having disbanded it in 1944, to become a "Political Association," to engage in patriotic jingoism in support of the U.S. in the war), rejected Earl Browder's "Americanism," and attacked Truman's foreign policy with the intent of obediently following the Moscow line.
If you want to see "trenchant" criticism of the CP first-hand, from a black ex-member, I suggest reading Charles Denby's Indignant Heart; also check out chapter 14 for his critique of Walter Reuther and the UAW. Jimmy Boggs The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker Notebook offers the same insider perspective from a black worker dealing with the hypocrisy of the Old Left.
Hieronymous wrote: The CP was
I agree. Fuck the CP, for all kinds of reasons. But "the old left ignored race and gender" is false. And just to reiterate, me saying "the old left did not ignore race and gender" does not mean "hurray for the old left." It just means I think the particular points above about the old left just aren't really true.
Thanks for reading and for
Thanks for reading and for y'all's comments. And thanks to Steven for re-posting the article on libcom.
I wrote up a long comment that addresses some of what folks are raising here, including Joseph Kay's comment, Laurette's comment, and syndicalistcat's comment about how intersectionality theorists appear to have a practice consistent with what I laid out.
You can find the comment on Unity and Struggle's blog where my article was originally posted: http://gatheringforces.org/2013/09/12/i-am-a-woman-and-a-human-a-marxist-feminist-critique-of-intersectionality-theory/
In terms of the argument that the piece is not empirically rooted, I would suggest checking out the pieces I linked to in the text, particularly John D'Emilio's article, Maria Mies' book, and Silvia Federici's book. I didn't feel the need to fill out the empirical arguments because I thought these pieces do that on their own.
Sorry, I wasn't clear. The
Sorry, I wasn't clear. The bit about empirical evidence was more of an aside about what I think is a minor point, I should have said so. I didn't mean to say the piece generally needed empirical evidence, it doesn't. I meant only that as about the bit on the relationship between capitalism and identity. I don't think your piece needs that bit, I don't think it doesn't any important work in the article. I also think the claim is probably wrong, like I said. I don't think that's a big deal because I don't think you need that for your piece. I still think though that people interested in that point, it would be best dealt with empirically. Did identity claims like those under capitalism exist prior to capitalism or not, that's a question subject to empirical evaluation. I've not read D'Emilio but I will. I've read Mies and Federici closely (those are great books that everyone should read). I don't think they deal with this particular issue of capitalism and identity, which isn't a criticism of those books.
Theories are just models that
Theories are just models that try to explicate the world. They are the direct result of how a particular subjectivity decides to articulate an understanding of that world
Theories are NOT the world. You seem to keep conflating the two.
Until marxist political ideology doesn't allow for internal reflexivity it will never move on from being what it turned itself into: a dogma unable to rethink itself, eternally reproducing narratives of revolution that do not meaningful question their own assumptions.
Here's the assumption I would start questioning: that of a so called 'universal essence'
There are no universals
'Your' universals (the universals in Marxist thinking), which set the record to what is objective (real) in 'your' world, is in reality one dominant subjectivity (white supremacist imperialist patriarchy) trying to impose itself above the others
The very definition of 'essence' in marxism is not acknowledged as a product of a particular historical standpoint (yours- the producers and reproducers of the 'theory')
So yes, historical materialism is a useful method to understand certain aspects of the social and economic systems in which we live, to deconstruct how these systems reproduce themselves etc, but it seems to me that the Marxist political ideology that was created on the back of it, keeps hanging on to the hope (maybe self righteous entitlement?) that it is a comprehensive model to understand the reality of everyone, everywhere
Intersectionality could well be intelligently used as a tool to help Marxist political thinking to build itself up from its own stagnation, but it doesn't seem to be taking that opportunity, at least by your account
I have some caveats, but to
I have some caveats, but to hell with them. This woman is brilliant.
Hey I'm not sure how to do
Hey I'm not sure how to do this but if here's a link to the pdf/print version of this piece if someone could add it to the "Attached Files" area above... http://werehirwerequeer.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/intersectionality-pamphlet.pdf
Except you just refuted the
Except you just refuted the very existence of truth itself, the entire premise on which science itself rests, all with excessive foucauldian terminology.
SO guess what?
Your post-modernism is feckless, serves only to obscure, and contradicts even itself. However even you know this, you know it only exists to serve a particular end, ever wonder why they fund your activist work?
This isn't dailykos, seriously get the hell out of here.