Looking back: A self-critique

It’s never easy to look yourself in the mirror and own up to your mistakes. For a long time, I balked at the very idea. Part of it felt too reminiscent of Stalinist/Maoist self-criticism, in its ritualized form of самокритика or autocritique. Whenever a person demands that someone else “self-crit” online, the image that most readily comes to mind is that of medieval flagellants — lashing their own backs while begging forgiveness for their sins. Quite often it feels forced and insincere, as if the people who yield to the demand are just going through the motions in order to be quickly absolved and be done with the matter as soon as possible.

But another reason I refrained from public self-criticism is that my views change rather gradually, to the point where I only notice that I’ve changed my mind well after the fact. Sometimes I think a certain degree of stubbornness can be a virtue, insofar as it means you stick to your guns and don’t just bend in the direction of a shifting wind. Other times, however, it is clearly a vice, especially when you are in the wrong. Even then, when I recognize that I no longer hold my former position on a given issue, I am reluctant to announce that this is the case. Not because I’m unwilling to admit I was wrong, but because I’d prefer to demonstrate this through my actions moving forward instead of dwelling on the past.

Unfortunately, though — or maybe fortunately, for those who like to keep score — the internet has a long memory. I’ve certainly said plenty of stupid shit in my time, things I either regret or simply don’t agree with anymore. There were things I shouldn’t have said, situations I should have handled differently, arguments I should’ve considered more carefully before posting or tweeting or whatnot. You can probably find evidence of them if you look hard enough. Really it shouldn’t even be that hard, as I have not made much of an effort to scrub Twitter or other social media of dumb controversies I’ve been involved in (unless someone specifically asked me to take something down).

Perhaps it would help to be a little more concrete. Just to give one example of something I’ve changed my mind on, or have rather come to a better understanding of, take trans struggles. When debates over gender fluidity first came up several years ago, I knew virtually nothing about the issues trans people have had to deal with. I’m still far from an expert, obviously, but to get a sense of how ignorant I was at the time, I only learned what the prefix “cis-” meant around 2013. Before then, I had no idea what any of it meant. Or really what a whole host of related terms signified. By late 2014 or early 2015 I’d rethought my views.

Much of the discourse on this topic, to be fair, was pretty new back then. And it’s still evolving, though it seems to have stabilized a bit. Regardless, I could’ve done more to learn about it before shooting my mouth off or weighing in on the matter. For example, when Facebook introduced its exhaustive list of fifty-six new gender options four or five years ago, I poked fun at it on social media, since I figured the more customizable taxonomy was introduced so Zuckerberg would have more data about the users of his website to sell to ad agencies. Looking back, I don’t think what I said was too egregious or intentionally hurtful, but probably came off as insensitive all the same.  Continue reading

Journey back into the vampires’ castle: Mark Fisher remembered, 1968-2017

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I nev­er met Mark Fish­er, but we cor­res­pon­ded of­ten via e-mail. And he was al­ways very en­cour­aging. Right after I wrote a scath­ing re­view of “con­fer­ence com­mun­ism” in early 2014, “The Ghost of Com­mun­ism Past,” Mark sent me the fol­low­ing: “Your piece on con­fer­ence com­mun­ism, sent to me by a fel­low ed­it­or, fairly well nails down what we hope Zer0 isn’t. We en­joyed it, happy new year.” Fish­er would of course de­part from Zer0, along with many of his peers, to found Re­peat­er Books later that same year. Nev­er­the­less, his com­mit­ment to an ac­cess­ible, non-aca­dem­ic but soph­ist­ic­ated Marx­ism was un­flag­ging.

Cap­it­al­ist Real­ism was his prin­cip­al achieve­ment in the realm of the­ory, the fruit of a long series of re­flec­tions and in­tro­spec­tion con­duc­ted largely on­line. In it he railed against “the slow can­cel­la­tion of the fu­ture” en­acted by post-com­mun­ist cap­it­al­ism. Tak­ing its cue from Jameson’s in­sight — no less true for hav­ing been quoted ad nauseam — that “it is easi­er to ima­gine the end of the world than it is to ima­gine the end of cap­it­al­ism,” Mark asked if there was “really no al­tern­at­ive” to the neo­lib­er­al re­gime of Re­agan and Thatch­er. Some of his mus­ings about men­tal health, which reg­u­larly fea­tured on his K-Punk blog, also ap­peared with cas­u­al bril­liance in this text:

The cur­rent rul­ing on­to­logy denies any pos­sib­il­ity of a so­cial caus­a­tion of men­tal ill­ness. The chemico-bio­lo­giz­a­tion of men­tal ill­ness is of course strictly com­men­sur­ate with its de­pol­it­i­ciz­a­tion. Con­sid­er­ing men­tal ill­ness an in­di­vidu­al chemico-bio­lo­gic­al prob­lem has enorm­ous be­ne­fits for cap­it­al­ism. First, it re­in­forces cap­it­al’s drive to­wards atom­ist­ic in­di­vidu­al­iz­a­tion (you are sick be­cause of your brain chem­istry). Second, it provides an enorm­ously luc­rat­ive mar­ket in which mul­tina­tion­al phar­ma­ceut­ic­al com­pan­ies can peddle their phar­ma­ceut­ic­als (we can cure you with our SS­RIs). It goes without say­ing that all men­tal ill­nesses are neur­o­lo­gic­ally in­stan­ti­ated, but this says noth­ing about their caus­a­tion. If it is true, for in­stance, that de­pres­sion is con­sti­tuted by low sero­ton­in levels, what still needs to be ex­plained is why par­tic­u­lar in­di­vidu­als have low levels of sero­ton­in. This re­quires a so­cial and polit­ic­al ex­plan­a­tion; and the task of re­pol­it­i­ciz­ing men­tal ill­ness is an ur­gent one if the left wants to chal­lenge cap­it­al­ist real­ism.

How much sad­der it all seems, read­ing these words now, in light of his sui­cide. Mark con­fessed in an art­icle for The Oc­cu­pied Times that he “suffered from de­pres­sion in­ter­mit­tently since [he] was a teen­ager.” Ob­vi­ously it would be pre­sump­tu­ous to con­clude that the miser­able state of left­ist dis­course had any­thing to do with his de­cision to end his life; too many oth­er factors might have been more im­me­di­ate or prox­im­ate. But it would be just as mis­guided to main­tain that this had noth­ing to do with Mark’s over­whelm­ing sense of des­pair in re­cent years, es­pe­cially since he so fre­quently lamen­ted the sorry place at which we’ve all ar­rived.

Continue reading

Reap the whirlwind

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But muh rain­bow co­ali­tion of mar­gin­al­ized iden­tit­ies will smash the kyri­archy as we sprinkle ma­gic di­versity pix­ie dust over every­one and cre­ate a shiny lib­er­al Star­bucks uto­pia. Yes­ter­day was 18 Bru­maire CCXXV ac­cord­ing to the French Re­pub­lic­an cal­en­dar, by the way. Just a happy co­in­cid­ence, I’m sure.

Left-lib­er­al “pro­gress­ives” did this to them­selves. This is ex­actly what re­treat­ing in­to cul­tur­al (i.e., iden­tity) polit­ics, while abandon­ing class as the basis for a so­cially trans­form­at­ive co­ali­tion, gets you. If you make no at­tempt to ap­peal to work­ers qua work­ers, the Right will in­ev­it­ably make in­roads with­in that group. As they in­deed have. So I don’t pity any­one who is ser­i­ously dis­traught by these res­ults. Blame for Trump can­not be laid solely at the door­step of “crack­ers” and hicks; he did sig­ni­fic­antly bet­ter among blacks and Lati­nos than Rom­ney, his Re­pub­lic­an pre­de­cessor.

Most anti-af­firm­at­ive ac­tion shit is totally right-wing, so I will be­gin by say­ing that I in no way share the polit­ics of most people who look to cri­ti­cize it. But it’s ul­ti­mately a cos­met­ic meas­ure, which cre­ates a black and minor­ity bour­geois­ie and polit­ic­al elite (“black faces in high places,” etc.). When coupled with gen­er­al eco­nom­ic stag­na­tion and wage de­pres­sion, grow­ing in­come in­equal­ity and job loss, it’s a re­cipe for re­vanchist ma­jor­it­ari­an back­lash. Edu­cated lib­er­al elites ex­pressed noth­ing but con­tempt for the work­ing poor in fly­over coun­try, whom they vil­i­fied as “one re­ac­tion­ary mass” — i.e., a “bas­ket of de­plor­ables” — of ig­nor­ant ra­cists.

In such an at­mo­sphere, even the slight­est over­ture to the work­ing class was bound to res­on­ate enorm­ously. Here, of course, the ap­peal was made us­ing xeno­phobic and hate­ful rhet­or­ic, ex­ploit­ing long­stand­ing ra­cial di­vi­sions and cap­it­al­iz­ing on deeply-felt anxi­et­ies. Plus, the lack of any ap­peal to the work­ing class by the Demo­crats also meant that poor minor­it­ies were not en­er­gized to vote for them. Smug, latte-sip­ping lib­er­als just res­ted on their laurels, se­cure in their be­lief that vic­tory was as­sured by simple demo­graph­ic shifts. All this while of­fer­ing noth­ing to work­ing blacks or Lati­nos, and prom­ising con­tin­ued war on those parts of the globe from which the refugee crisis first arose. Continue reading

Capitalism and gay identity


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John D’Emilio’s classic essay, with a brief
contextual introduction by Rosemary Hennessy.
Reblogged from Communists in Situ.
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The birth and short-lived life of gay Marxism:
“Capitalism and gay identity” in context

Rosemary Hennessy
Profit and Pleasure
(July 26, 2000)
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The Stonewall uprising in New York City in June 1969 was the most immediate catalyst for the formation of the gay liberation movement. Before the end of the summer of 1969, the Gay Liberation Front had formed in the United States, and within the following year gay liberation groups sprang into existence across the country (D’Emilio 1983, 232-233). Gay liberation was itself an outcome of the adjustments of late capitalism that spawned the general international insurgency circa 1968. Most immediately, it was inspired by the black power movement and the rise of feminism — both of which included fractions that aimed to articulate the historical relationship between culture and class, local and global forces. As in much of the New Left, there was general agreement within gay liberation thinking that capitalism was oppressive. Many gay liberation manifestos at least rhetorically drew connections between capitalism and repressive sexuality, racism and imperialism. But the gay liberation movement was by no means thoroughly influenced by Marxism or a united socialist front, and its internal debates sorted out in what seem in hindsight to be predictable ways. There were those who, despite references to capitalism, basically focused on and advocated for cultural change, and there were those more avowedly Marxist groups that stressed that political and cultural concerns needed to be linked to more global economic structures in some way.1

One set of texts that succinctly demonstrates these different leanings is Carl Whitman’s “Gay Manifesto” and the reply to it written by the gay socialist group Red Butterfly (Blasius and Phelan 380-390). Although Red Butterfly supports Whitman for generally linking the individual effects of gay oppression to “the social and economic facts which are at once the cause and effects of this situation,” they note the tension in his manifesto between personal freedom and the need for collective action, and they critique Whitman’s promotion of “coming out” as an inadequate strategy for social change in itself because it can so easily separate personal liberation from changing the social conditions that foster gay oppression. Comprised of a loose network of collectives, journals, newsletters, study groups, conferences, and actions whose most intensive activity lasted only until the mid-seventies, the Gay Left represented a short-lived but vital willingness to make use of Marxism as a critical framework to link sexual oppression to global capitalism. In fact, however, there were more gestures in this direction than there were developed theoretical explanations from which to forge a fundamentally anticapitalist activist politics. Nonetheless, the fact that a broad sector of the discourse of gay liberation was at least in spirit directed toward connecting sexual oppression to the history of capitalism made this one of the most exciting flash points in the historical development of a critical and materialist understanding of sexuality. Continue reading

Politics of affirmation or politics of negation?

Joseph Kay
Libcom.org

Nov. 2008
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Below you can read Joseph Kay’s excellent 2008 post on affirmation, negation, and identity. Many of the themes I touched on in my last post are covered here as well, but couched in less philosophical language. I have taken the liberty of editing it lightly, Americanizing the spelling and fixing some minor grammar mistakes. While I might take issue with a couple of its claims, for the most part I agree entirely.

Enjoy.
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Political debate often tends to quickly polarize into simple binaries. This is perhaps even more so online. Mainstream politics has its liberals versus conservatives and left versus right. Radical politics has its Marxists versus anarchists and reform versus revolution. Almost invariably these dichotomies are false ones, obscuring the subtleties of the debate and leading to endless circular slanging matches with the protagonists becoming ever more entrenched.

However, there is one pairing I’ve often found useful: that which distinguishes between leftist politics and communist politics. This is not to use “leftist” as a slur, although many (generally North American) post-leftists and primitivists are wont to do just this. (As indeed are Trots, with “ultra-left”). Rather, it is deployed here as a political term in order to distinguish between the politics which characterize “the left of capital” — sectarian groups, union bureaucrats, NGOs — and the communist movement.

To this end, I tend to use the following definitions: Communist demands are those which stress the concrete material needs of the class (wage demands, universal healthcare, the length of the working day, through to the rejection of wage labor altogether). Leftist demands are those which stress how capital should be managed to accommodate the struggles to impose those needs (tax this! nationalize that!).

While this definition is fine to distinguish communist politics from those of your average Trots in many situations — as they push union candidates to manage the struggle “better” on the workers’ behalf, demand nationalization of the banks, or call for higher taxes on the rich, etc. — it doesn’t adequately address a host of other political positions that cluster around leftism. These include support for national liberation movements and identity politics, particularly with regard to gender, race, and sexuality (though in light of the SWP’s recent love affair with Islam, now ethno-cultural identity too).

For example, consider the argument of the prominent platformist Wayne Price. “Central to anarchism is a belief in self-organization and self-determination of the people,” writes Price. “But there are topics on which many anarchists reject the pro-freedom position, particularly involving free speech and national self-determination.”

Here, he clearly envisages particular groups as subjugated, as needing to affirm themselves by practicing “self-determination.” Implicitly, Price means workers, women, and/or ethnic minorities. Explicitly, but perhaps more controversially, he means “oppressed nations.” As Price goes on to state, “revolutionary anarchists must be the champions of every democratic freedom, every struggle against oppression, whatever its immediate relation to the class struggle as such” [my emphasis]. The oppressed need to assert themselves. (The fact there are ample precedents for this position within the anarchist tradition is not at issue here.)

I would like to juxtapose this leftist approach to one of my favorite political quotes, from Gilles Dauvé. For me, this is emblematic of a communist politics:

If one identifies proletarian with factory worker, or with the poor, then one cannot see what is subversive in the proletarian condition… The proletariat is the dissolution of present society, because this society deprives it of nearly all its positive aspects. Thus the proletariat is also its own destruction… Most proles are low paid, and a lot work in production, yet their emergence as the proletariat derives not from being low paid producers, but from being “cut off,” alienated, with no control either over their lives or the meaning of what they have to do to earn a living.

I will for the time being ignore that Dauvé is talking only of the proletariat and not other possible subject-positions. (I do hope to return to the important differences — not hierarchies — between class politics and politics of race, gender, as well as sexuality in a future blog). The important thing here is that Dauvé is outlining a politics of the dispossessed, a negative politics which must destroy both its adversary along with itself in the course of its liberation. That is to say, a politics of negation.

This is in contrast to the position above, of which Wayne Price is just a convenient example: a positive politics of self-determination for the oppressed, a politics of affirmation. Continue reading

Non-identity and negation

“Identitarianism” and the
affirmation of difference

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we are generation identity, blood and soil

Renovators and renegades

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In a classic 1952 essay on “The Historical Invariance of Marxism,” Amadeo Bordiga identified three contemporary forms of opposition to Marxist theory. First of all there were the bourgeois apologists, who denied the validity of Marx’s critique of political economy. Next there were the Stalinists, who verified Marx’s insights in word but falsified them in deed. Last but not least came the renovators, who tried to modernize Marx’s concepts — i.e., the “self-declared advocates of revolutionary doctrine and method who nonetheless attribute its current abandonment by most of the working class to defects and initial gaps in the theory which must be rectified and brought up to date. Deniers — falsifiers — modernizers. We fight against all three, but we consider the third group [of adversaries] to be the worst of the lot.”

Bordiga’s hardheaded “invariance” was of course largely strategic, meant to sustain a set of principles against unwarranted revisions, additions, subtractions, etc. Marxism addresses itself primarily to history, to changing conditions which must be dealt with on their own terms. Principles, while not totally sacrosanct, should not be compromised at a whim, in order to accommodate regression or to rationalize defeat (Stalin’s motto of “socialism in one country,” for example, was only adopted after it became clear that proletarian revolution had failed in the West). Recently, however, it has again been suggested that Marxism must be supplemented, augmented, or otherwise updated so as to be more inclusive or appeal more to a broader range of people. LIES: A Journal of Materialist Feminism at least poses this as an open-ended question: “How do we assess the many different theories that attempt to describe the structure of race, gender, and class?” Questions like this seem to suppose definite answers, though, which invariably prove weaker than the original line of inquiry.

Yesterday, in a discussion about how to conceptualize race under capitalism, one ostensible left communist remarked that “there are any number of left communists who are ready to explain to you where ‘intersectionalism’ fails, but how many of them can account for why it exists?” Another discussant then asserted that “a left communist fusion with identitarian points of view is necessary. We need to do more than dismiss a whole perspective just because of differences in language and analysis.” Terms such as “identitarian” and “identitarianism” are of fairly recent vintage, stemming from several sources, hence polysemic. Black socialist critics like Adolph Reed use these terms to denote “essentialized ascriptive identities, commonly referred to as identity politics.” Here the identities in question are multiple, referring to discrete groups whose distinct characteristics, fluid social relations, are fast-frozen and held aloft as if solids. Or else they are snatched from the air, from the misty realm of ideology — as the reified distillate of cultural stereotypes. For the critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno, “identitarian” signified just the opposite, the idea of a harmonious social totality in which every antagonism had been surreptitiously removed.

Anyway, I objected that a fairly widespread identitarian movement already exists across Europe and the United States. It is one with which socialists must not fuse, however, under any circumstances. Since 2002, the extreme right-wing nationalist Bloc Identitaire has been active in France. Now it has managed to set up a branch in England and establish a foothold in America. Generation Identity, as it calls itself, is the logical culmination of the “identity politics” foolishly embraced by many parts of the Left these last few years. “Our only inheritance is our blood, soil, and heritage,” reads their headline, with clearly fascist overtones. “We are heirs of our destiny.” Just a couple months ago, the National Policy Institute (NPI) held an entire conference devoted to identity politics in Washington, DC. Claus Brinker, who covered the event for the website Counter-Currents, reported that it aimed to ascertain “the future of white racial identity politics.” In the comments thread of a post several years ago by Red Maistre, “On Identitarianism: In Defense of a Strawman,” Maoist veteran Carl Davidson argued that the real enemy was tacit “white male identity politics.”

Tacit or not, it is clear that formations like Generation Identity and Bloc Identitaire represent something new. When I brought them up, the aforementioned discussant did not seem to appreciate it. “You must have been confused by my terminology,” was the reply. “I did not mean that particular brand…” My response was to ask what the approved brands of identitarianism might be, expressing my concern that drawing distinctions of this sort is reminiscent of the attempt to distinguish “good” from “bad” nationalism. Special pleading routinely accompanies support for the “nationalism of the oppressed,” and relies on a similar logic. One wonders if a similar rationale might not be used to justify cheering on various national liberation projects, like every other Maoist and Trotskyist sect. Even anarchists can get in on some of this action now, with the PKK’s Bookchinite municipalism. Why not just ditch the whole left communist schtick if what you really want is to wave a Palestinian, Kurdish, or Naxalite flag? Continue reading

Identity crisis: Against capital and nation

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Below you can read a couple English-language translations of texts by the German Gruppen gegen Kapital und Nation. They are relevant to a number of issues which I plan to cover in a forthcoming post.

Gegen Kapital und Nation is chiefly informed by Marx’s original writings, but draws inspiration from the anti-nationalism of Rosa Luxemburg and the council communism of Anton Pannekoek as well. It is useful to revisit these texts, both released in 2010, since many self-declared ultraleftists seem to be wavering on issues of national liberation and the politics of identity. Activistic Maoism and academic poststructuralism have sadly not lost any of their allure.

Enjoy.

the longing for identityProud to be… so what?

Gegen Kapital
und Nation
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Identity, the forced community of individuals

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When the term identity is applied to a person, a reasonable interpretation would be to understand it as signifying their self-awareness as a thinking entity in a material body, both of which — in this dyadic union — are forced to endure a great deal in this society already, well before acquiring the capacity of even thinking in such terms. But all humans are also branded with another type of identity: They are combined into groups according to their “sex,” gender, nationality, “race,” sexual desire and a plethora of other categories. This is more than just a harmless indication of a person’s physical characteristics, the pigmentation of their skin or whom they happen to be in love with. To a considerable degree, this sorting influences one’s material circumstances, psychological state, and even the duration of one’s existence.

“One is not born a woman, but becomes one”

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With this truth, feminist critics have unmasked the differences asserted by various (social) groups as socially constructed, well over sixty years ago. Without fail, all people are subsumed under any given number of collective identities. They are ascribed qualities and behavioral patterns which are attributed to their alleged “essence.” Predications of ethnicity, gender, “race,” sexual orientation, (dis)ability, or class manifest themselves as essentialist judgements. The people in question are subjected to binding statements which aim at fundamentally defining their lives, their thoughts as well as their actions. In that process they are being differentiated from one part of humanity while a strong bond is constructed with another, with whom they are supposed to share a common fate. Many of these statements are simply false (“all black men have large penises”), while some are undue generalizations (“all British people drink warm beer” and “all Canadians wear tuques”), and even where a particular attribution actually does characterize a large number of people (homo homini lupus), it is socially produced.

All this is not the same as saying that “all footballers are idiots,” which would be no more than a polemic conclusion, equating a social practice with someone’s propensity for reasoning, in order to attack a sports craze. One can stop playing football at any time, while one cannot stop being black. An attribution based purely on social practice is a distinctly different thing than one based on someone’s supposed nature.1 As soon as an essentialist judgement has been coined and socially established, the people affected by it have no choice but to react to it: judgements must be refuted, positively or negatively adopted — or criticized. In some cases, the affected groups may even break up into sub-collectives in the course of the debate over different strategies of response. These judgements are all the more severe wherever they are part of strategies of discrimination or even form the legitimization for the exclusion or oppression of a particular group. That is wherever such judgements are taken as proof for any given group’s inferiority and serve as the basis for their subjugation. Continue reading

The missing category of totality

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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.

Marxism and class, gender, and race: Rethinking the trilogy

Martha Gimenez
Race, Gender, Class
Vol. 8, № 2 (2001)

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Photo: 
Young Uzbek woman from Tashkent holding up her Komsomol membership card, 1927.

Dr. Martha E. Gimenez is an Argentinian Marxist-feminist theorist and retired Professor of Sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she was instrumental in the creation of the Women’s Studies Program. She studied Law and sociology at the Universidad Nacional de Cordoba, receiving her Ph.D. from UCLA in 1973. She has published numerous articles and book chapters on Marxist Feminist Theory, the political economy of population, U.S. politics of racial/ethnic construction, and problems of democratization in the global economy. Gimenez is the founding editor of PSN — the Progressive Sociologists Network, PPN — the Progressive Population Network, and together with Chrys Ingraham and Rosemary Hennessy, founded MATFEM — Materialist Feminism, and together with Malgosia Askanas and Carrol Cox, moderates M-Fem — Marxist-feminism. In her work, Martha E. Gimenez has sought to use Marx’s methodology and theoretical framework for understanding the oppression of women under the capitalist mode of production. Her work aims to demonstrate the continuing relevance of Marx and Marxist theory for feminist theorizing and feminist politics.
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Introduction

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A taken for granted feature of most social science publications today, especially those about inequality, is the ritual critique of Marx and Marxism in the process of introducing theoretical alternatives intended to remedy its alleged “failures.” This practice became popular in early feminist literature: Marx and Marxists were criticized for not developing an in-depth analysis of the oppression of women, their “economism,” “class reductionism,” and “sex blind” categories of analysis. Soon after it became common place to assert that Marxism was also at fault for neglecting race, demography, ethnicity, the environment and practically everything that mattered to the “new social movements” in the West. As the movements died, scholarship informed by those political concerns flourished; the energy that might have been spent in the public arena found expression in academic programs (e.g., women’s studies, racial/ethnic studies) and efforts to increase “diversity” in the curriculum and the population of educational institutions.

Publication of the journal Race, Sex, & Class (changed afterwards to Race, Gender, & Class), in 1993, signaled the convergence of those political and intellectual interests into a new social science perspective that soon acquired enormous visibility, as demonstrated by the proliferation of journal articles and books with race, gender and class in their titles. This perspective, put forth primarily but not exclusively by social scientists of color, emerged as a reaction to feminist theories which neglected racial/ethnic and class differences among women, theories of racial/ethnic inequality which neglected sexism among men of color and, predictably, as a corrective to Marxism’s alleged shortcomings. For example, Jean Belkhir, editor and founder of Race, Sex, & Class, prefaces an article on this topic as follows: “The ‘failure’ of Marxism to develop adequate tools and a comprehensive theory of ethnicity, gender, and class issues is undisputable” (Belkhir, 1994: 79). The list of putative “failures” could be as long as we wanted it to be but what would that prove, beyond the fact that Marx’s and Engels’ political and theoretical priorities differed from those of contemporary social scientists? Less biased, albeit debatable, is the conclusion that Marxism, although offering “crucial and unparalleled insights” into the operation of capitalism, “needs to develop the analytical tools to investigate the study of racism, sexism and classism” (Belkhir, 1994: 79). To refer to class as “classism” is, from the standpoint of Marxist theory, “a deeply misleading formulation” (Eagleton, 1996: 57; see also Kandal, 1995: 143) because class is not simply another ideology legitimating oppression; it denotes exploitative relations between people mediated by their relations to the means of production. Nevertheless, it is the case that neither Marx nor Engels devoted the intensity of effort to the investigation of gender and race (and other issues) that would have satisfied today’s critics. It is (and any literature review would support this point) far easier to emphasize their “sins” of omission and — in light of current political sensibilities — commission, than it is to use their theoretical and methodological contributions to theorize and investigate those aspects of capitalist social formations that today concern us. Notable exceptions are Berberoglu (1994), who has examined the underlying class forces leading to gender and racial divisions in the U.S. working class, linking gender and racial oppression to capital accumulation, and Kandal (1995), who has forcefully argued for the need to avoid the racialization and feminization of social conflicts while minimizing or overlooking the significance of class.

In this essay, I intend to argue that Marxism does contain the analytical tools necessary to theorize and deepen our understanding of class, gender, and race. I intend critically to examine, from the standpoint of Marxist theory, the arguments for race, gender, and class studies offered by some of their main proponents, assessing their strengths and limitations and demonstrating, in the process, that Marxism is theoretically and politically necessary if the study of class, gender, and race is to achieve more than the endless documentation of variations in their relative salience and combined effects in very specific contexts and experiences.
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Race, gender, and class as part of a social science perspective

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Long before the popularization of the race, gender, & class (RGC) perspective, I suspect that most Marxist sociologists teaching social stratification were already adept practitioners. For many years, for example, the Section on Marxist sociology of the American Sociological Association included in its annual program a session on Class, Gender, and Race. I certainly called my students’ attention, in twenty nine years of teaching social stratification and other subjects in which inequality matters, to the fact that everybody’s lives are affected by class, gender, and race/ethnic structures (in addition to age and other sources of inequality). We are, in Marx’s terms, “an ensemble of social relations” (Marx, 1994: 100, emphasis added), and we live our lives at the core of the intersection of a number of unequal social relations based on hierarchically interrelated structures which, together, define the historical specificity of the capitalist modes of production and reproduction and underlay their observable manifestations. I also routinely called students’ attention to the problems inherent in the widespread practice of assuming the existence of common interests, ideologies, politics, and experiences based on gender, race, and ethnicity because class location, and socioeconomic status differences within classes, divide those population aggregates into classes and strata with contradictory and conflicting interests. In turn, aggregates sharing the same class location, or similar socioeconomic characteristics within a class, are themselves divided by gender, race, and ethnicity so that it is problematic to assume that they might spontaneously coalesce into class or status self-conscious, organized groups. This is why, in the late sixties and early 1970s, I was critical of feminist theories which ignored class, racial and ethnic divisions among women and men, and theories of patriarchy that ignored how most men under capitalism are relatively powerless (Gimenez, 1975). Later on, I published a critical assessment of the “feminization of poverty” thesis because it was not sensitive to the effects of class, socioeconomic status, racial and ethnic divisions among men and women; it neglected the connections between the poverty of women and the poverty of men and overlooked the significance of this thesis as a powerful indicator of the immiseration of the lower strata within the U.S. working class (Gimenez, 1990).

I am aware, however, that most sociologists do not take Marxism seriously and that theorists of gender and racial oppression have been, on the whole, hostile to Marxism’s alleged reductionisms. More importantly, this is a country where class is not part of the common sense understanding of the world and remains conspicuously absent from the vocabulary of politicians and most mass media pundits. Continue reading

A Marxist-feminist critique of intersectionality theory

Eve Mitchell
Unity & Struggle
Sept. 12, 2013

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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.
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I am a woman and a human

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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

Detail of ancient Greek cup with two athletes wrestling, by Epictetos

The context for “identity” and “intersectionality theory”

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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