cover jacket reason

The missing category of totality

Feminist Fightback
, an activist collective based in the UK, published an article several months back which asks: “Is intersectionality just another form of identity politics?” Recently the piece was featured on the LibCom website, receiving renewed attention through broader circulation. The authors critically examine two of the better pieces to emerge from the Vampires’ Castle debacle a couple years ago, both of which have been reposted on this blog. Eve Mitchell’s Marxist-feminist critique of intersectionality and Michael Rectenwald’s theoretical reflections responded to the ire of those who felt intersectional analysis offered a much-needed corrective to Marxism’s obsessive focus on class — i.e., its supposed “class reductionism.” Some prominent Marxist bloggers had already begun to reorient their politics around what Richard Seymour called “the point of intersection.”

While the authors from Feminist Fightback right to point out that the concept of “intersectionality” started out as a critique of various forms of identity politics operating in isolation from one another, it is not as if Mitchell or Rectenwald overlooked this fact. Mitchell explicitly acknowledges that “[i]ntersectionality theorists correctly identified and critiqued [the narrowness of] identity politics.” But she immediately adds that “while intersectionality theory seems to overcome the limitations of identity politics, it falls short,” diagnosing it as a form of bourgeois ideology. Rectenwald likewise recognizes that intersectionality originated as part of a polemic against identity politics, but concurs with Mitchell that the former shares many weaknesses with the latter:

[O]perating under the same schema as a more simplified identity politics, intersectionality theory serves to isolate multiple and seemingly endless identity standpoints, without sufficiently articulating them with each other, or the forms of domination. The upshot in political practice is a static pluralism of reified social categories, each vying for more-subaltern-than-thou status on a field of one-downsmanship.

Perhaps the Feminist Fightback members who wrote this article felt that Mitchell and Rectenwald did not take intersectionality’s challenge to identity politics seriously enough. Still, it cannot be said that either was simply unaware that intersectionality first arose in opposition to earlier movements based on identity. Moreover, it is unclear whether intersectional politics is ever able to fully escape the horizon of identity politics. Instead, it simply ends up multiplying or overlaying various identities to in order to form a more comprehensive perspective. This perspective alone, claim its adherents, is adequate to the unevenness and complexity of contemporary reality. What they fail to grasp, however, is that identity is precisely the problem. Marxism aims at the abolition of class, race, and gender, and the forms of group identity associated with them. Feminist Fightback insists that the analysis of intersecting axes of oppression emphasized structural rather than individual aspects of identity-formation, especially in its earliest iterations. “Early proponents of intersectionality clearly stated that this theory was about how oppressions were inextricably intertwined at a structural level,” they write.

How exactly are these structures articulated, though? In my view, what is missing from all these political perspectives based on group identification is a concept of the social totality, as well as an historical pivot from which to critique and transform it. Totality here refers to a unified whole comprised of “conceptually distinct but interrelated parts,” as Marx put it in Capital, a singular process divisible into objective and subjective moments: “the objective conditions of labor (the means of production) and its subjective conditions, purposively active capacity for labor.” Revolutionary criticism must take into account “the total labor process as such, with the totality of its objective and subjective interactions” [Capital, pg. 981]. Georg Lukács expanded on this line of thought, stressing that “only the dialectical conception of totality enables us to understand reality as a social process. For only this conception dissolves the fetishistic forms necessarily produced by the capitalist mode of production and allows us to see them as mere illusions which are not less illusory for being seen to be necessary” [History and Class Consciousness, pg. 13].

A standpoint is required from which to view this totality, however, in order to see how structures or configurations of race or gender “interpenetrate” and “overlap.” Without such a standpoint, and a unitary approach by which to arrive at it, the historically transient character of race and gender is lost. Race and gender appear frozen, like class, as permanent features of all social organization throughout time. Once again, I would suggest that the standpoint of the proletariat alone allows us to glimpse this socially dynamic, if historically static, totality of relations under capitalism. In this, I follow the arguments of Lukács nearly a century ago. Elsewhere I have elaborated why this is the case, refusing to subsume gender and race under the rubric of class while nevertheless still upholding Marx’s contention that the proletariat is uniquely positioned within the system of productive relations to overturn the existing social order.