Eve Mitchell’s “I Am a Woman and a Human: A Marxist-feminist Critique of Intersectionality Theory” is a rigorous, excellent contribution to the emerging body of leftist literature critical of the sudden adoption of the notion of intersectionality among radicals, cribbed from bourgeois legal theory, postmodern discourse, and Derrick Bell’s critical race theory (CRT). Prior to 2011, intersectonality was seldom addressed, let alone endorsed, by Marxist or socialist theorists. Outside of the academy, the notion had some currency among anarchist and activist circles. (Patricia Hill Collins is a notable exception to this rule). The reasons behind intersectionality’s renewed salience, whether real or imagined, is something I’ve also been interested in lately.
Mitchell’s piece is especially valuable, in my mind, not only in terms of its original argumentation — though she should be praised on this score as well — but in her careful synthesis and application of a number of overlooked theoretical developments that took Marxism, or historical materialism, as a methodological point of departure. For example, Mitchell employs John D’Emilio’s outstanding 1981 article “Capitalism and Gay Identity” to situate identity as a specifically bourgeois category, owing to the rise of the individual as the main economic and political unit of bourgeois subjectivity. D’Emilio’s article is seldom read today, sadly. Second, Mitchell goes over Frantz Fanon’s first major book, Black Skin, White Masks (1952), a work often overshadowed by his later text Wretched of the Earth. A few months ago I posted Sunit Singh’s review of the new translation of this book. Last but not least, she leans on the work of one of the better living Marxist theoreticians, Loren Goldner, a left communist and editor of Insurgent Notes. Goldner appeared on the “Radical Interpretations of the Present Crisis” event in New York, which I moderated.
The one caveat I would perhaps mention is the same as came up in connection with James Heartfield’s piece on “Intersectionality, Or Just Sectarian?” I’ve told James in the past that I disagree with his framing of the humanist/anti-humanist dichotomy, which strikes me as an extremely unhelpful and peculiarly French leftover of debates within Marxism from half a century ago. The proletariat is radical because it takes as its root the self-transformation of humanity itself (“to be radical is to go to the root of things, but for man the root is man”) — a humanity which everywhere remains an ideal and is nowhere yet an accomplished reality. No one is yet human, nor can they be in an inhuman world. Enjoy.
I am a woman and a human
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.
Detail of ancient Greek cup with two athletes wrestling, by Epictetos
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. Continue reading