Eleanor Robertson looks at the debate over intersectionality and identity politics, and what these concepts can offer for a renewed version of class politics. This article originally appeared in Meanjin.
Nobody knows what intersectionality means. I certainly don’t, and the more I read about it the more confused I become. There are a few things I think I know: it’s something to do with oppression, especially multiple oppressions; if you run in certain feminist circles, especially online, it’s bad to not be it (intersectional); if you run in certain socialist circles, it’s something to make fun of. Every time I feel I’m getting closer to an acceptable definition I find someone using a different one, usually to defend or condemn their particular version of the concept.
It’s not just me, either: the scholar who coined the term, UCLA law professor and critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, said in 2009 that she is ‘amazed at how [intersectionality] gets over- and underused; sometimes I can’t even recognize it in the literature any more’.
This is perplexing because Crenshaw’s original work, which she began producing in 1989, is a clever juridical recapitulation of foundational ideas in black feminism. She took a basic observation—black women are subjected to racism by a predominantly white feminist movement, and sexism by male-dominated anti-racist organisations—and asked why this dynamic repeats itself in places such as anti-discrimination law and domestic violence services.
Using DeGraffenreid v. General Motors as a case study, a 1976 employment lawsuit brought against GM St Louis by a group of black women, she noted that one of the reasons the plaintiffs lost was because the plant could show it hired black men and white women. Under the rigid categories of the Civil Rights Act 1964, the court could not examine a combined claim of race and sex discrimination, and so could not offer a remedy specifically for black women. In Crenshaw’s 2016 TED Talk on the urgency of intersectionality, she explains the problem like this:
The challenge that I faced was trying to figure out whether there was an alternative narrative […] so it occurred to me, maybe a simple analogy to an intersection might allow judges to better see [Emma DeGraffenreid’s] dilemma. So if we think about this intersection, the roads to the intersection would be the way that the workforce was structured by race and by gender.
So far, so good. If Crenshaw were the final word on intersectionality, the concept would be a useful metaphor to capture the awful real-world shortcomings of anti-oppression efforts based on rigid categorical abstraction. But, as she says above, hers is not the last word, and her work has receded almost entirely into the background. Intersectionality is the buzzword to end all buzzwords, the term that launched a thousand hot takes, a discursive sinkhole where political disputes go to die. Depending on who you ask, it’s the most important theoretical innovation in feminist history; the cancer that’s killing the left; a critical tool in on-the-ground organising; or a totally meaningless liberal shibboleth.
I am not overly invested in trying to claw back some kind of clarity on what intersectionality ‘means’. Like much of the work done by feminists and queer theorists around the same time, there is a certain ambiguity to intersectionality, if only because many of the people interpreting it come from this poststructuralist milieu. Rather, I see these disciplinary attempts as one in a large series of objects grouped together under the ‘tag’ of intersectionality. It is vague enough to function as a Rorschach test, but specific enough for an outside observer to consider those who choose to use the word, whether to celebrate or disparage, as politically separated by only a few degrees. This makes it an interesting tool with which to consider contemporary left debates about identity, class and the eternal question of what is to be done.
• • •
It’s hard to pick a standout tweet from the 2016 American presidential election campaign, rife as it was with ill-advised online communiqués from pretty much everyone. But Hillary Clinton’s official account posted two of my favourites on 7 March. While they don’t have the clownish psychopathy of Trump’s tweets or the hysteria of some liberal media-hall monitors, they are almost charmingly disingenuous.
‘Flint’s water crisis is an example of the combined effects of intersecting issues that impact communities of color,’ she tweeted. ‘We face a complex, intersectional set of challenges. We need solutions and real plans for all of them.’
These tweets are accompanied by a mind map–style visualisation of matters relating, both directly and tangentially, to the crisis. Nodes named ‘Accountable leadership’, ‘Good public schools in every ZIP code’, ‘Investments in communities of color’ and ‘Jobs programs for unemployed youth’ are connected by an apparently arbitrary network of lines. The blog Naked Capitalism described the image as a ‘hairball’. It bears no real resemblance to Crenshaw’s idea of intersectionality, nor any of its vernacular activist interpretations.
What Clinton’s intersectional hairball does illustrate is the downside of having your activist jargon undergo such extreme semantic dilution: any idiot can pick it up and have a go. There’s no Académie française of anti-oppression terminology; nothing stops your supposed enemies from appropriating your language to use against you, and saying ‘we didn’t mean it like that’ rings a little hollow when those enemies consider you a soft enough touch that they’d bother with such transparent pandering in the first place. Clinton’s whole presidential campaign was based on the idea that she could best manage an economic decline, which should be an unappealing prospect for any liberation movement; yet it seemed almost natural that she would press its terminology into her own service.
The ease with which liberal-capitalist forces have incorporated the language of intersectionality into their electioneering and marketing material make it a sitting duck for people looking to sheet home blame for the ‘death of the left’. Back in the good old days we had simple, honest labour movements, the kind of vulgar Marxist or social-democratic workerism that anyone could understand. Sometime in the 1970s postmodernists and other wreckers took over, junked the notions of universality and the totality of social relations that powered labourism, and replaced them with a weak, defeatist politics of difference and contingency.
Intersectionality is like flypaper for this kind of analyst. A hefty seven-syllable academic megalith intended to do the work of reform under capitalism, beloved by rich liberal college students and the extremely woke and incredibly online: if it didn’t exist, they’d have to invent it. This is why we can’t have nice things any more. This is why we have to spend all our time monitoring Wonder Woman for traces of feminism instead of reversing the decline in union density. This is why we lost the twentieth century.
There is truth to this: non-workerist movements did take over the mantle of the left. Class politics was marginalised to the point of nonexistence. We do spend way too much time in simpering adoration of mass culture that offers the most condescending scraps of recognition. We should try to reverse the decline in union density. Fuck Wonder Woman.
But for people who are supposed to be materialists this is a strangely idealist position, a kind of culture war–style battle in the free market of ideas, where Marxism and labourism were simply gazumped by the flashy reformism of identity politics. There is some truth to the contention that something like intersectionality is a liberal idea, but the resentment that suffuses these positions often makes it impossible to conduct a more nuanced assessment.
It is no coincidence that modern identity politics and neoliberalism were born at roughly the same time. Nor is it coincidental that an avatar of the status quo such as Clinton is well known for humouring nominally radical social movements. But blaming intersectionality for being a product of its time betrays a substantial muddling of cause and effect, one that mischaracterises a historical period that is quickly coming to a close and one from which we have much to learn. The organised left shows signs of resurgence, and it would be a pity to treat the past 40 years of its somnolence as a true death in which nothing of value was accomplished.
• • •
In his 2015 lecture ‘Capitalism, Temporality and the Crisis of Labor’, University of Chicago historian Moishe Postone makes this comment:
The theoretical focus on agency and contingency in recent decades is as one-sided as the structural-functionalism it superseded. If the latter achieved a currency during the high tide of state-centric capitalism, the former has done so during the neoliberal epoch. Neither approach schematised their relation to their own historical context.
What Postone is saying here, I think, is that the workerism of the early to mid twentieth century and the postmodernism of the late twentieth century both had their unacknowledged blind spots, their unquestioned assumptions about what is possible and desirable. These assumptions reflect the time and place in which they occurred.
As I mentioned earlier, this accusation is frequently levelled by contemporary Marxists and socialists against identity-political concepts such as intersectionality and other products of the postmodern turn. This period was characterised by a rejection of totalising theories or ‘metanarratives’ such as God, universal truth and, crucially for this discussion, twentieth-century Marxism, with its insistence on a discoverable trajectory of history and the universality of the industrial working class. Critics of postmodernism point out that this is a sort of despairing retreat into localism after the collapse of existing socialism and slow, seemingly inevitable decline of social-democratic state capitalism.
Without some kind of totalising theory, they argue, we are simply flailing around in the dark, condemned to docility because we cannot recognise where we stand in relation to power and history. This is reflected in postmodernism’s unconscious acceptance of its own metanarrative: ‘there are no meta-narratives’. There is no shared understanding with which to make rational decisions about the best course of action to pursue, no way to imagine what the future might hold. At best we can achieve cosmetic or local change; at worst we become atomised and ignorant, unable to understand why we are acting as we are, apart from shallow moralism and unexamined intuitions. We act, in essence, as though we believe this phase of capitalism when it tells us we have reached the end of history.
Postone is an interesting figure among egghead Marxists because of his insistence that this critique applies equally to particularist postmodernism and what he calls the ‘traditional’ Marxism of the twentieth century, which he describes as a framework in which ‘[capitalism] is understood essentially in terms of the market and private property; its overcoming is thus seen in terms of the overcoming of the exploitation of labor and the coming into its own of labor’.
He argues that this analysis, which claims universality, mistakes capitalism for its nineteenth- and twentieth-century instantiations. It is therefore unable to offer a convincing diagnosis of our situation, where things have progressed significantly beyond the relatively simple industrial phase in which ‘traditional’ Marxism became dominant. It is, in its own way, just as insufficient as postmodernism. On Postone’s reading this means there is a significant danger that the materialist left will simply attempt to repeat the past, acting out its own version of the end of history:
Yet we have varieties of left wing thought that still glorify proletarian labor, still implicitly have a notion of a society based on full employment … Or, more social-democratically, they look back to the successful Fordist-Keynesian synthesis of the post-war decades, where many more people were employed, where wages were higher … But, there is no return. They are looking back to a past that no longer can be re-established.
This analysis appeals to me not because I think we should abandon Marxism—I agree with Postone’s contention that Marx is indispensable in understanding the present and the future—but because it puts a finger directly on the unwarranted arrogance that some socialists display when they dismiss identity politics. The substance of these dismissals suggests a few things: first, that these Marxists believe they have all the answers, which non-class social movements simply ignore due to their pettiness or under-education; second, that identity politics originates from somewhere external to the working class, and is perhaps a kind of artificial distraction or psyop; and third, that Marxists have nothing to learn from the collapse of existing socialism and social democracy in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
It is the second of these implications that is relevant here, and to which I think a theory such as intersectionality has the most to say. Regardless of its definitional vagueness and susceptibility to being co-opted by ruling-class elements, the enthusiasm with which intersectionality has been taken up by feminists suggests that it addresses itself to a real problem: the tendency in radical spaces to repeat forms of hierarchy and domination present in wider society. It also signposts the danger of imposing a predetermined form of universality—one based on the glorification of implicitly white, implicitly male industrial labour—onto a twenty-first-century proletariat that is extremely different in character.
It is hard to overstate the importance of this insight for anyone interested in building a mass movement against wage labour and capitalism in the present day. Many of the old tools, the old lines, the old certainties simply will not work any more, because they belong to a different era. The task at hand is to extend, deepen and radicalise people’s expressed dissatisfactions with life under capitalism in a way that shows the universal character of particularist grievances without falling into historical re-enactment. This requires listening carefully to what people are saying about their lives and experiences.
Crucially, we must understand that the content of identity politics in general and intersectionality in particular was not injected into radical movements from the outside. It is better viewed as a set of demands from inside, made by marginalised and ignored members of the working class at a time when the ‘traditional’ left was in the wilderness. What better time to conduct a proper internal audit than when you’re out of power? It is a profound strategic error to conflate all criticism of the left with the neoliberalism that was crushing it at the same time. This applies even if some of that criticism reflects the defeatist assumptions of neoliberal reformism, and even if it has been clumsily co-opted in the service of power. I think we are smart enough to sort out which bits are which.
As Postone argues, a proper understanding of the context in which these ideas arose allows us to appreciate them for what they got right while also acknowledging their shortcomings. This requires an understanding of the mood during the latter parts of the twentieth century, when it really did seem as though socialism had been dealt a world-historical defeat. In this environment, is it surprising that many people reorientated their efforts towards extracting as many concessions as possible from the dominant order? A dismissive attitude to these efforts, especially projects such as Crenshaw’s intersectionality that advocated on behalf of people suffering terrible forms of violence and immiseration, does nothing to build the solidarity we urgently need.
The brief collapse of left universalism opened up a much needed space for the consideration of particularity and difference, giving us a new range of tools and perspectives with which to build a robust coalition. There is nothing to be gained from throwing the identity-politics baby out with the neoliberal bathwater, especially considering how easy it is to show that the vibrant, radical potential of ideas such as intersectionality can never be realised under capitalism.
• • •
Despite encouraging signs of a dialogue and even integration between traditional socialism and intersectional identity politics, there is still a great deal of tension between the two approaches. Some of this tension, as I have argued, is productive and necessary; but the loudest manifestations are often the least helpful, and receive the most airtime.
Much of this overblown friction can be laid at the feet of capitalist apologists in politics and the media. The birth pangs of a new universalist movement that attends to race, gender and sexuality must be a frightening prospect for those most deeply invested in the continuation of the status quo, and this fear finds its expression in blatant wedging attempts. Once again Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign provides the perfect illustration, this time a rally she held in Las Vegas in February of that year.
‘Not everything is about an economic theory, right?’ Clinton asked the assembled. ‘If we broke up the big banks tomorrow—and I will, if they deserve it, if they pose a systemic risk, I will—would that end racism?’
‘No!’ responded the crowd.
‘Would that end sexism?’
‘Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community?’
‘Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?’
This call-and-response speech is a clear jab at her Democratic opponent for the presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders, whose platform focused on far-reaching economic reforms in the social democratic mould. But the sentiment—that there is a fundamental contradiction between addressing the economic and the sociocultural elements of oppression—is echoed over and over again in the mainstream media.
The increasingly panicked tone of these remonstrations suggests that the danger of a revived left populism, able to offer a vision of something better to many people in different circumstances and of varying backgrounds, is keenly perceived by the ruling classes. It suggests that we are, in some sense, on the right track. At a time when voters in many countries are losing trust in institutions that can’t deliver material change, and transformation of the social whole seems possible once again, this is a very encouraging development.
Neoliberalism is running into its historical limits, exhausting its ability to stabilise capitalism and pacify those to whom it has doled out poverty and misery. An identity politics that is detached from material and historical questions cannot help us now; neither can faithfully repeating the left tactics of the twentieth century. The process of reconstituting something new, something that addresses the unique situation in which we find ourselves, has begun. We must let go of defeatism and nostalgia, reject crumbs thrown off the table by capital, and watch carefully for openings and opportunities. Anything could happen. Let’s make it something good.