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, transfolks, 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.
42 thoughts on “I Am a Woman and a Human: A Marxist-Feminist Critique of Intersectionality Theory”
I really enjoyed reading this and it’s given me a lot to think about. I wonder what you think about this article written by the women’s cucus of the anarchist federation (in Britain): http://www.afed.org.uk/blog/state/327-a-class-struggle-anarchist-analysis-of-privilege-theory–from-the-womens-caucus-ml To be honest, I find it difficult to see practical differences between the two approaches even if the latter is still willing to use the concepts of privelege and intersectionality.
Thanks for reading and for your comment, Neil. Just wanted to let you know that I am reading the link and will send some thoughts asap.
Here is a comment I received from a comrade, Felix, via email that I got permission to post here:
“I’ve been thinking on your piece, which is great; as both an exposition of marxist-feminism and a critique of identity politics/intersectional theory it forms a unified whole, and I think that this was deepened immensely by locating the subject in Marx’s “Estranged Labor” instead of “Capital” (I’ll explain my reasons for thinking so below). Following the pattern you set up, I have two general responses I wanted to share: an interrelated reflection and critique, the latter following from what I think are the strengths of the piece. In one sense this response is my way of thinking it through.
In the portion where you begin to hone in on the critique, you have the very strong section on Fanon, and on appearance and essence/particular and universal. Crucial here is the part where Fanon transitively embraces black identity as a unique agency, and how this by necessity presents itself as the immediate field of struggle. However, when you take it away from Fanon and apply it more generally to identity politics and its arithmetic corollary in intersectional theory, I think something crucial goes unsaid.
You put forward that IP/IT only develops one side of the contradiction, the appearance, and reproduces the schism between the two. I believe that IP/IT in factconflates the particular with the universal, rather than either subtracting the universal (as I read your critique) or grasping the latter through the former (as I read your position). Put a different way: You state “I am a woman, and a human”, and then claim to the effect that IP/IT would state “I am a woman…”, therefore leaving off the rest of the formulation in a one-sided manner. To me, the question of appearance/essence presents itself in IP/IT in this fashion: “In this world, the real and concrete world, I am a woman; only ideally or abstractly am I a human among humans”. I believe that it is exactly this inversion, rather than separation and subtraction, which makes IP/IT bourgeois theoretically and practically.
My attention was drawn to this precisely because the positive sections of the piece contain the analysis of this contradiction in an extremely systematic and interconnected manner. However, when you conclude that IP/IT is bourgeois because it is ultimately individualistic, you leave either unstated or only implicitly stated what sustains this individualism: that static identity is taken to be an invariant condition of human life. It is in this way that IP/IT therefore affirms the essential premises of the very force it attempts to struggle against.
I thought of the section in the Grundrisse where Marx critiques the Robinson Crusoe myth, and notes that it is only with the emergence of bourgeois epoch, when all human activity has become by necessity social activity, that the conception of the atomized individual in conditions of natural scarcity is called forth to explain both the contemporary artificial social scarcity, and affirm its invariance as the natural order of humanity in the world. It is this “naturalized” ideology, the reified appearance of the world, which is taken to be the essence and universal underlying all else.
In other words, IP/IT affirms the very identity formations of the current order because it implicitly accepts the premise that the current order cannot be transformed in its totality (resulting in the theoretical rejection of totality as a category altogether). I think that without explicitly introducing this element, your critique leaves open a flank vulnerable to theoretical counter-attack.
Now back to how your piece picks up on this elsewhere: IT/IP implicitly affirms this bourgeois premise because it does not locate transformative human activity as a universality within the particular processes of human labor specific to the capitalist mode of production. It therefore does not acknowledge living labor engaged in the material reproduction of society as the active conscious agent capable of qualitatively transforming the material conditions and therefore the totality of human and non-human life. IP/IT therefore directs its strategy towards posing a “counter-hegemony”, by definition located within cultural and ideological realms like language and aesthetics, forms of appearance in which individuals can intervene on a day-by-day basis, more or less consciously and voluntarily. This also serves as a self-justification for the academicism which emerges out of the post-68 defeats of the revolutionary movements, along with lifestylism, “conscious consumerism”, commoning, etc.
The initial basis of IP/IT nevertheless remains: the agency invested within the most oppressed sections of the class, and the connection between the lived experience of oppression and its development into the conscious vanguard of the universal class. Here the question of mediating forms becomes crucial. Self-activity is not just a question of what the workers are doing, but what the workers are doing that reveals the concrete possibilities for transformation into the new society, including the strategic location which sections of the class hold in that regard. The organizational question and the composition of the class remain open questions; they must answer each other. Which brings us to the current moment and the tasks at hand.”
I use your piece on a Marxist-feminist critique on intersectionality theory in a master’s program I teach on community organizing. My students this semester read your piece with a great deal of interest, and I’m wondering if you would be willing to comment on their commentaries related to your work? I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks.
Just a note to say I sent you an email, Tom.
Neil’s comment is similar to some of the comments I’ve been getting on libcom and related to something I should have thought more about when writing the piece.
The broader question is what about groups who practically agree with my conclusions or seem to be organizing a class-based struggle that seeks to push on racialized, gendered, and other contradictions within the class? A great question.
I would say for these groups there is one of two things going on. Either (1) these groups are searching for a politics that transcends the limitations of our one-sided “identities” in practice and are limited by the lack of a movement that develops a new politics for us to draw from, or (2) what appears to be a practical agreement now is actually a disagreement or will be a disagreement in the future. In both cases, their practice is not aligned with their theory.
The first of these is explained in the post but I can elaborate if folks have questions.
For the second, we can look at both the piece that Neil linked written by the Women’s Caucus (AFWC)of the Anarchist Federation (http://www.afed.org.uk/blog/state/327-a-class-struggle-anarchist-analysis-of-privilege-theory–from-the-womens-caucus-ml#sdfootnote13anc), and a recent piece written by Andrea Smith, founder of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (http://andrea366.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/the-problem-with-privilege-by-andrea-smith/).
In the piece written by the AFWC, there are several political points of disagreements with the piece I wrote. I think the category “privilege” is historically limited and individualistic/antisocial. A comrade of U&S’s, Will, has written on the limitations of “privilege” as a political category (http://blackorchidcollective.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/guest-post-privilege-politics/) However, I understand that AFWC is trying to explain and push on the real antagonistic contradictions within the class. This is a necessary and historical task. So it is hard to say whether the question of understanding “privilege” is a fundamental disagreement or not.
What is a more clear disagreement is a question of methodology. The AFWC makes moralistic arguments about why class is different than other oppressions, instead of historically rooting their understanding in a communist method. This will lead to differences around questions of communism. For example, they write that class is different from other oppressions:
“This is because, unlike any other privileged group, the ruling class are directly responsible for the very exploitation they would be claiming to oppose.” And, “we aim to end capitalism through a revolution in which the working class seize the means of production from the ruling class, and create an anarchist communist society in which there is no ruling class. For the other struggles mentioned, this doesn’t quite work the same way – we can’t force men to give up their maleness, or white people to give up their whiteness, or send them all to the guillotine and reclaim their power and privilege as if it were a resource that they were hoarding.” And, “Capitalists can, if they choose, give up their privilege. This makes it OK for us to think of them as bad people if they don’t, and justified in taking it from them by force in a revolutionary situation. Men, white people, straight people, cisgendered people etc., can’t give up their privilege – no matter how much they may want to. It is forced on them by a system they cannot opt out of, or choose to stop benefiting from.” And, finally, “The ruling class and the working class have opposing interests, while the privileged and oppressed groups of other systems only have differing interests, which differ less as the influence of those systems is reduced.”
This is a marked difference from what I lay out in my post. It suggests that there is a group of capitalists who choose to oppress a group of workers, giving subjectivity to the ruling class, and ignoring Marx’s conception of self-estrangement. It is the working class which alienates itself; the working class is the Subject of history. Furthermore, capitalism does have a level of objectivity, meaning it is inescapable and all-encompassing (we go to work every day because we, as individuals, cannot opt out). But this objectivity cannot be reduced to individual capitalists. In Capital, for example, Marx is very clear that these social roles of “capitalist,” “worker,” “seller,” “buyer,” etc., are not assigned to particular individuals. Therefore it is not about particular individuals’ interests, but a totality of social relations that gives our power as workers over to the valorization process; the capitalists are mere managers and overseers of this system. To individualize these social roles and relations could allow for a strategy that appeals to the consciences of the rulers. Capitalists are not “bad” people. The individual people the capitalists are does not even necessarily matter, except in a strategic and tactical sense. Instead, the struggle for communism is a struggle against the current social relations of production. Furthermore, it is not simply about seizing the means of production, but reorganizing production in a way that frees our self-activity. Without an emphasis on free self-activity, the AFWC’s vision for communism could end up looking like state capitalism. To be clear, I’m not saying that is their vision, but I think a methodology that rests on moralism alone will leave them vulnerable to that.
The problem with all of this; however, is that I am only able to evaluate their praxis in the realm of ideas. Since I haven’t worked directly with these folks, it is hard to say whether in practice we are able to agree on a method in this particular moment. In a low movement time, such disagreements may be latent. But in a higher movement time they will come to the surface. I think for many who evoke an intersectional analysis, this may be the case: we are able to work together practically for now but a commitment to intersectionality would be a point of contention in the future.
This leads me to Smith’s arguments, which I think rest on a deeper disagreement that practically play out even in this low movement time. For me, the disagreements with Smith’s methodology becomes clear since I have worked with Incite! affiliates. My disagreement with Smith is perhaps opposite to the disagreement with AFWC: Smith’s theoretical analysis is very similar to what I’m laying out but her practice is different and therefore inconsistent with what she and I are both laying out. This schism between theory and practice is characteristic of activist and nonprofit circles in this moment. For example, many activists are unable to reach a level of abstraction that allows them to connect their single-issue activism with broader, historical and objective movements of the class. This is why we see so many projects organized around what people are “passionate” about, or what affects them direction, and not necessarily what is an objectively sound project based on where the class is at, the history/historical conditions of class struggle, and what has the ability to move the class forward in a revolutionary direction. Further, this practical methodology is consistent with identity politics/intersectionality theory because it places the emphasis on the individual’s subjective interests and experiences versus a social, historical materialist framework, and is based on forms of appearance of society.
To comment more specifically on Smith’s article and Incite!, I agree with her rejection of privilege absolving rituals, rooted in her analysis that these are individualistic substitutions for organizing that place the “oppressor” as the Subject of history. However, she argues that privilege can be “undone” through collective struggle. I argue that this is not possible, but contradictions within the class can be worked out through struggle. She makes the argument through her practical examples. Smith writes,
“Rather than focus simply on one’s individual privilege, [Incite!] address[es] privilege on an organizational level. For instance, they might assess – is everyone who is invited to speak a college graduate? Are certain peoples always in the limelight? Based on this assessment, they develop structures to address how privilege is exercised collectively. For instance, anytime a person with a college degree is invited to speak, they bring with them a co-speaker who does not have that education level. They might develop mentoring and skills-sharing programs within the group.”
Here, Smith’s practical emphasis is on quantitative representation (a methodology consistent with identity politics/intersectionality theory) even though her theoretical argument is for a qualitative collective struggle.
I also agree with what Smith says Hiram Perez argues, that identity politics fixates a certain identity to oppressed people and allows “privileged” people to exist with a post-identity. To put this in my words, the rulers have access to multi-sided, universal labor but oppressed people are stuck in various one-sided identities. But I disagree with how Smith practically interprets Perez’s theory. To provide a method that differs from identity/privilege politics, Smith writes,
“As I have discussed elsewhere, many of these models are based on ‘taking power by making power’ models particularly prevalent in Latin America. These models, which are deeply informed by indigenous peoples’ movements, have informed the landless movement, the factory movements, and other peoples’ struggles. Many of these models are also being used by a variety of social justice organization throughout the United States and elsewhere. The principle undergirding these models is to challenge capital and state power by actually creating the world we want to live in now. These groups develop alternative governance systems based on principles of horizontality, mutuality, and interrelatedness rather than hierarchy, domination, and control. In beginning to create this new world, subjects are transformed. These ‘autonomous zones’ can be differentiated from the projects of many groups in the U.S. that create separatist communities based on egalitarian ideals in that people in these ‘making power’ movements do not just create autonomous zones, but they proliferate them.”
This methodology, while based on a similar theory, constitutes a clear practical difference from what I argue above. Autonomist zones, like what the Zapatistas have in Chiapas, or cooperative factory takeovers in Argentina, or even the Paris Commune, are not to be fetishized. Within these spaces, there is still a division of alienated labor, and these spaces must interact with the rest of the world. A utopic “autonomous zone” is irrelevant without global revolution, meaning a global liberation of the self-activity of the working class and the peasantry. The Zapatistas still exist in a global economy; the social relations of production necessarily permeate every social relation of the world. A factory worker is still a factory worker engaging in one form of labor (even if that form is breast feeding), regardless of whether the factory is collectively owned or not.
Furthermore, Smith actually argues for a peaceful revolution stating,
“However, if movements began to build their own autonomous zones and proliferated them until they reached a mass scale, eventually there would be nothing the state’s military could do. If mass-based peoples’ movements begin to live life using alternative governance structures and stop relying on the state, then what can the state do? Of course, during the process, there may be skirmishes with the state, but conflict is not the primary work of these movements. And as we see these movements literally take over entire countries in Latin America, it is clear that it is possible to do revolutionary work on a mass-scale in a manner based on radical participatory rather than representational democracy or through a revolutionary vanguard model.”
I too disagree with vanguard model and the bourgeois democracy model; however, a peaceful revolution where we squat land, meet our basic needs, and ignore the foundation of capitalist society, alienated labor, is no alternative. Furthermore, it does nothing to unleash and use our human creative potential to benefit ourselves, society, nature, and the world as a whole. Smith’s practical conclusion is actually consistent with identity politics and intersectionality theory because it argues that prefigurative politics are possible; we can actually positively build a new society without negating the old. This is in spite of what she lays out theoretically.
To be clear, I am not arguing that it’s world revolution or nothing, but that we cannot think of struggles as isolated acts. Of course, factory takeovers and land struggles are an important part of the process of freeing our self-activity. But these acts are not freed self-activity in and of themselves. This is why communization is a process unfolding over time, through the movement and transformation of social relations, and not a form that can be achieved in isolation here and now.
Finally, I would say that having worked with Incite! affiliates, I do not think most would actually get down with my practical example #5 (workplace organizations in feminized workplaces like nonprofits), considering the fact that most Incite! affiliates are nonprofits. If your struggle is through the nonprofit form, despite your criticism of nonprofits on paper, you are by definition seeking liberation through the capitalist system, i.e. through selling your labor power.
So, to reiterate my original point, what appears to be an agreement in practice is, in essence, a serious theoretical disagreement, or vice-versa. These differences will lead to very different methodologies in the course of struggle. Or, in some cases, they may become clarified and unified once the class is able to develop a politics that transcends identity politics and intersectionality theory.
I think this essay breaks some very important new ground in the use of Marx’s approach to thinking about social realities and especially in understanding the value of the notion of “moments” to direct our attention to the specificities of lived experience rather than a variety of abstract categories as the basis for critical political thought and action.
I have two quite different comments to offer. If I read the post directly, Eve locates the source of both identity and intersectionality theories in the movements of the 1960s and 1970s. I’d like to suggest that it would be helpful to start looking at and theorizing about the significance of developments that occurred earlier than those that are briefly cited (such as the Black Panther Party). It seems to me that the decisive moments that we need to remember and appreciate were the moments of the Civil
Rights Movement from 1954 (although its early days were earlier still) to
1968. Those were the years when many who became activists against the war in Viet Nam, the initial proponents of women’s liberation and sexual liberation (and, yes, the counter-culture) and, in smaller numbers still, anti-imperialists and communists, had their formative experiences. The Civil Rights Revolution made possible the recognition of and the emergence of movements against all sorts of other oppressive and exploitative realities. Had we stayed true to some of what I consider to be the core of the Civil Rights revolution, we might have had black liberation rather than black nationalism, women’s liberation rather than feminism, sexual liberation rather than the liberalization of sexuality, and possibly workers’ revolution rather than progressive politics. I think what I’m arguing is that the limitations of the political theories that Eve criticizes so well have their origins not in a somewhat undifferentiated movement of the 60s and 70s but, instead, in a later day domestication of the most radical aspects of the earlier movements. I might be wrong about this but, as a bit of evidence that I’m not, I’d recommend that people read John Steele’s inspiring account of his experiences in Mississippi in 1964 at http://kasamaproject.org/history/1657-89new-kasama-pamphlet-where-s-our-mississippi.
My second point is about women’s labor. Eve’s argument is hinged on a comment quite early in her post—“Women were largely excluded from the wage and relegated to reproductive work; men received a wage and were relegated to productive work. “ What would it mean if that claim was wrong? A month or so ago, I came across a recommendation to read Marilynne Robinson’s Mother Country, a book published in 1989
that I had never heard of. I had read Robinson’s novels, Gilead and Home, but had not known about Mother Country. The book is about many things which I hope to address in an essay in a future issue of Insurgent Notes but she makes one argument that I think turns our world upside down when it comes to the gendered division of labor:
The Victorians are famous for their rigorous notions of female purity, their exquisite awareness of female delicacy, their lisping attention to pretty children. Yet industrial labor from its beginning was overwhelmingly the work of women, and of children as well. Women were not recruited into a system designed for endurance greater than theirs. The worker around whom industry developed was a woman. Men, when Engels wrote in the nineteenth century, were considered unemployable4 except at odd jobs by the time they were forty, and regularly became the dependents of their wives and children, who, though preferred to men as workers, were paid considerably less
(which heightened, one must assume, the degree to which they were preferred). The primary earner in a household having so brief an active life, the incomes of families were pieced together out of the trifles paid to supposed dependents. All in all, the economy of the nineteenth century was as if designed to demonstrate the toughness of women, while at the same time the myth of female delicacy elaborated itself endlessly.
A few sentences later, she writes:
The Victorian home flourished over and against the working-class household in which everyone above the age of five or six might be employed, leaving the littlest ones unattended through an endless Victorian workday. “Slum” is cant slang from the word “slumber.” These people must have done little more than sleep in the few hours they had to themselves. It was often remarked that they were deficient in domestic culture.
I should note that she’s making these points in the course of a larger argument against the greed and hypocrisy of the English ruling class and the contemptible collaboration of a variety of so-called socialists in the immiseration and degradation of the English working class—through 1989 and, I would guess, until today.
Later on in the book, she writes:
Friedrich Engels’ study of the working class in Manchester tends to describe streets and quarters—how they were built, how populated, what sanitary conditions prevailed in them—or to describe categories of workers and factory conditions. ….. Engels’ method reflects his belief that the working class were the victims of their circumstances …”
Engels’ investigations recorded in that text deserve far more than the occasional allusion they receive. Among other things, they provide detailed descriptions of the centrality of women and children to 19th century industrial labor in England. Here’s a link to the full text:
I think that our own thinking about these issues today would benefit a great deal from a renewed emphasis on the specifics of working class and women’s circumstances. That project is, I think, completely consistent with the political vision described in Eve’s post.
Great paper, very much needed. Several things I would like to comment on, but one point in particular that I find most fascinating is how your call to transcend ‘identity’ (in a manner of speaking) very much aligns with Adorno’s negative dialectics. I am curious as to whether you have made this connection personally? In sum, Adorno’s negative dialectics essentially works through similar identity problems that you outline, wherein instead of Hegel’s ‘identity of identity and non-identity’ Adorno formulates the ‘non-identity of identity and non-identity’. A mouth full, indeed – but the basic thesis here is a theory of ‘non-identity’ that strives for ‘something more’ in behind object (to break the conceptual stranglehold of capitalism, one might say). This translates into a lot of exciting avenues of research which I don’t think have been fully explored, including a more ‘multidimensional’ perspective of phenomena. Politically however – as I have written elsewhere – Adorno’s negative dialectics translates into a politics that aims to transcend the limitations of the one-sided/one-dimensional identities that crystalise in capitalist societies (which from this theoretical background is argued to be the result a certain abstract analytic structure: i.e., a critique of epistemology in the Dialectic of Enlightenment). Long story short and skipping ahead several paces, in the past whenever I thought about how Adorno could contribute to a radical feminism, it was precisely along the lines of your argument above, which I find both exciting and inspiring.
I’d be interested to engage with you more about the above and also regarding the notion that we’re many-sided human beings that you seem to be working toward, as I have been working toward something similar over the past few years, particularly via a critique of epistemology and around the formulation of an alternative epistemology, anthropology and cosmology.
Anyway, Keep it up!
I’ve republished your paper on the website of the critical theoretical organisation of which I am present a part: http://www.heathwoodpress.com/i-am-a-woman-and-a-human-a-marxist-feminist-critique-of-intersectionality-theory-eve-mitchell/
(I trust this is ok with you, as your paper fits in nicely with our overall project/aims/ongoing research and would contribute a wonderful voice to the above subjects)
Thanks for reading and reblogging! I am not super familiar with Adorno’s negative dialectics but would definitely like to read more about it, especially given your comments here. I will look into it and hopefully we can engage more in the future.
One quick comment. You wrote, “I personally wouldn’t limit a critique of identity politics to labour” I think this is a place where many have misunderstood my writing about labor. Some people are assuming I mean a flattened one-sided category, meaning “work,” or the restricted forms of work we do under capitalism. But what I actually mean is a universal category that encompasses all of our creative self-activity. It is a broad concept including every possible interaction with the world around us. So I am not sure how a category like that could “limit” any other category.
Perhaps you could clarify if this is a misunderstanding of how I represent the category or maybe what you mean by “labor” and how it might limit an understanding of identity.
Definitely a small point compared to what you’re raising here but it was something that caught my eye that others have mentioned in the past….
I have some major contentions with some of the assertions. As
a Marxist feminist my understanding of oppression is that we are not all merely
oppressed as exploited workers. The private property system is very much based
on the subjugation of women to control their reproduction so fathers know that
they are passing their property and dynasties on to their heirs which wasn’t
the case under tribal systems. Engels already talked about this over a 100
years ago. Capitalism is based on genocide and slavery or the super
exploitation of Black people. For Capitalism and colonialism to develop these
institutions needed free labor and to steal a lot of property and resources
from the people who already existed on that land. You justify these practices
with racism and sexism. Therefore any movements to transcend these oppressions
are revolutionary in themselves. Although there is something lost in identity politics
when fighting capitalism is left out of the equation. This article discounts
many leaders for liberation that came from the GLBT, civil rights and feminist movements.
Many fights for social and economic justice are often spearheaded by the most
oppressed out of necessity. If there is to be a socialist revolution it can’t
simply be white male dominated or it won’t succeed.
Emma, I think it would help if you could explain the assertions that you’re disagreeing with, and where you see them in this essay. For example, I don’t know where you read the author advocating for a white, male leadership. In fact, she’s theorizing, albeit tangentially, just the opposite.
From what I understand, this blog post is contesting a particular analytical framework for thinking about sex, race, and class, and is instead attempting to posit an alternative.
I think citations from the essay would help.
Plus leaders from oppressed groups don’t need to be developed. They already have existed.
I finally made a pdf/print version of this piece. I’m having trouble with the site so for now I’ll post a link here.
I have two queries about the context section (haven’t read the rest):
1. The author writes, “The development of the wage is key because it enforced a gendered division of labor.” This doesn’t seem to be supported by anything that comes before it.
2. The author writes, “Women were largely excluded from productive sphere …” This certainly isn’t the picture presented in Capital (vol. 1). If anything women and children were preferred to men: machinery meant that stronger labourers were not required, and women and children were cheaper.
Thanks for reading and thanks for your queries. Here are my responses:
1. This is just poor writing on my part. The sentence is meant to be a transition from “The Development of the Wage” to “A Separation of Production and Reproduction.” The “Separation” section describes how the wage has historically been a key social relation that enforced a gendered division of labor.
2. What you argue is similar to John’s comments above that I never addressed. You and John are correct that Marx claims that in the period corresponding to formal subsumption of labor, women and children were integral value producers. I have three caveats/qualifications.
a. Women working in the productive sphere was a historical phenomenon based on the period corresponding to formal subsumption of labor, established through the contradictory development of gender relations themselves. In “The Working Day” chapter of Capital Vol 1, Marx describes also how limitations were placed on women’s and children’s labor (and ultimately, limitations on the entire working class’s labor) via the Factory Acts. This represents the State’s liberal “protection” of women and children that reified divisions within the working class. The State saw women and children as different from, and more vulnerable than, men, and unable to do, or “free” from doing, some specific kinds of (value-producing) labor. This is directly linked to the reproductive work that women did in the unproductive sphere. Federici describes this as a phenomenon that grew out of the primitive accumulation moment in the “transition” to capitalism. She basically leaves alone the productive sphere but soundly argues that this period corresponded to the development of “women’s work,” (reproductive labor, split from productive labor). On the one hand, women were completely locked out of some forms of work including vagabondage and migrant work (because of lack of mobility and exposure to male violence); on the other hand, because of the unwaged labor women were forcibly responsible for as this “transition” took place, women’s waged labor power has always been generally cheaper than men’s. Women have always been limited to low paying work (or unpaid work). As Federici simply puts it, women found it more difficult than men to support themselves (74). As Marx describes in “The Working Day,” women and children simply could not survive considering the amount they worked and the wages they were paid in the capitalist moment corresponding to formal subsumption of labor. Federici and James add that this created a situation where women were forced into marriage in order to survive.
This fissure within the class was exploited by capitalism in the interest of surplus value extraction. The movement into a period of real subsumption of labor created a surplus (productive) population, firstly expressed as women and children, and therefore a reified division between productive (expressed as waged men’s work) and unproductive (expressed as unwaged women’s work) labor. The unwaged/unproductive-reproductive sector developed in a dialectic with the waged/productive sector; Marx describes this phenomenon in “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation” chapter of Capital Vol 1 (see, for example, p. 785 of Penguin edition, where Marx describes expanding markets in relation to one another).
In sum, I think my original formulation is a bit sloppy or imprecise. It takes a specific side of a relation as a general law of capital. To be more precise, it is not that the unwaged/reproduction-waged/production split has existed in a strict sense since the beginning of the development of capitalism, but rather this is a relation that has developed over time to serve the needs of capitalist accumulation and valorization in a specific historical way. Its maturation is expressed in the moment of real subsumption of labor.
Over time, the gendered division of labor became generalized and women began to ONLY worked in feminized labor, including everything from the home to pink collar low-waged jobs.
b. For the purposes of an argument against identity politics and intersectionality theory, we can assume a separation between production and reproduction along gender lines, since these politics were born from the period of corresponding to real subsumption of labor.
c. I think it’s also worth mentioning that the wage is only one side, or expression, of how gender mediates value. Another side I have been thinking about lately is the way in which labor power is realized in a gendered form. I do not recall Marx diving into this deeply in Capital; however, it is clear that over time, the sensuous activities that we do to realize the labor power exchange develop certain parameters around them. So, if we agree to sell our labor power as a server, we usually do not agree to also do a song and dance, or lay bricks, or file taxes, etc. Instead, there is a general agreement that you will be waiting tables, prepping salads, etc. These general parameters are developed through many reified acts of selling “server” labor power in exchange for a wage.
Again, because, as capital developed, a gendered division of labor developed where women were relegated to reproductive labor/”women’s work,” through the initial process of primitive accumulation that Federici describes, there is necessarily room for added reproductive labor in the parameters around women’s sale of wage-labor. In simple terms, as part of the gender relation under capitalism, women are expected to do more sensuous labor than men. Concretely, this means we are expected to look pretty/sexy (but not too pretty/sexy) to provide added sexual or affective reproductive labor, we are expected to get our male bosses coffee and lunch, we are expected to comfort others, to be quiet and docile, to do unpaid childcare, etc. These are all a byproducts of the reified gendered division of labor under capitalism. This is part of what makes women actually more profitable and better workers, from a capitalist standpoint, than men. We are gendered to do more work, and, as notably argued above, we are gendered to do more for less.
Ultimately, I think my piece is a bit imprecise and I’m still working out some of the specifics of it but I wanted to get down some of the more technical things I’m thinking about lately and that these comments have me working through. I welcome anyone else’s thoughts on these questions.
Thanks for your reply. Very good response! I am satisfied 😀
Perhaps for that early/pure capitalist, “gender” is simply the wage difference between male and female workers.
I’ll continue reading …
Hey Ivan! Just to be clear – I think “gender” is a lot more complicated than just the wage gap. Wages are just one side of gendered alienation. I’m hoping to expand on some of the ideas above very soon…
Wow I have never seen all these ideas tied in together before. I am still learning feminism (in my free time I mean, I’m not an educated person) and I think I just learnt more from this one essay than I have over the past year! *Crosses out ‘Radical Feminism’… Replaces the words ‘Marxist Feminism’ *
I love you :-))
I did find myself saying “huh?” quite a number of times throughout reading (as would be expected from a noob reading such academic discourse I suppose) but you never disappointed in providing the accessible explanation that followed. I will read it again later to make sure I got it all but I think I agreed with absolutely everything.
Thanks for reading, Chelsea! I’m glad you enjoyed the piece. I was going for some sort of mix between accessible and high level theory so I hope people with many different educational and political backgrounds could get something from the piece. Definitely check out some of the pieces I reference as a good starting place to develop a (Marxist) feminist politics. Federici’s Caliban and the Witch is probably my favorite place to start. Anyway, thanks for sharing your experience with the piece and feminism!
Thanks, I will look it up! I know of her I’ve read her “Wages against Housework” it was awesome.
I was fortunate to be part of a super interesting discussion on this piece in NYC yesterday and a point came up that I wanted to mention here so it didn’t get lost:
The theoretical leap from D’Emilio to identities as a form of alienated labor needs to be made clearer. D’Emilio himself does not make this leap. He makes the claim that homosexual acts existed pre-capitalism but that homosexual identity is unique to capitalism. But it is not clear why, then, these identities are expressions of alienated labor. My response was potentially insufficient––that if we agree that race and gender are social relations, expressions of our labor, and all labor is alienated under capitalism, then race and gender are expressions of alienated labor. But clearly this doesn’t get at the specifics of race and gender. More work is needed here.
Great article. Intersectionality theory has always reminded me of Peter Sloterdijk’s phrase, “enlightened false consciousness” (as used in his book “Critique of Cynical Reason). It is sort of a lesser evil approach, but as you wrote, intersectionalists are not wrong but incomplete.
Following up on your references to Fanon, who based his work in psychoanalytic theory, Alenka Zupančič gave two interviews in the LA Review of Books that offer some additional insights: “On Sex Without Identity: Feminist Politics and Sexual Difference” and “Too Much of Not Enough: An Interview with Alenka Zupančič.”
Good article. When you talk about intersectionality theory being insufficient, I’m reminded of Peter Sloterdijk’s phrase “enlightened false consciousness” (from “Critique of Cynical Reason”), which highlights how
intersectional theory is sort of a lesser-evil approach.
Your article relies heavily on Fanon. Along the same lines Alenka Zupančič gave some interesting interviews with the LA Review of Books: “On Sex Without Identity: Feminist Politics and Sexual Difference” and “Too Much of Not Enough: An Interview with Alenka Zupančič.”