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Anarchism in Interesting Times

On Being Divisive: Class struggle versus intersectionality or intersectional class struggle?


Toxic, hostile, liberal, middle-class, divisive; These are some of the ways I’ve heard intersectionality theory and it’s proponents described in left-wing circles over the last year or so. It’s been quite the hot topic, and has certainly divided the left into two, sometimes hostile camps, but the hostility has more often than not, come from those opposed to the idea. It seems the mere mention of the word, or anything vaguely related to it, is likely to get you into a heated, two hundred comment facebook row.

My last blog post ripped the lid off the can of worms, so to speak, when I critically called attention to a comic strip that lampooned proponents of an intersectional anarchism. That post has over ten thousand views to date and has had in excess of one thousand shares, from people who clicked the facebook button on the page, alone. The discussion has followed the pattern described in the above paragraph, with the hostile camp divided into three groups.

The first group can broadly be summed up in one sentence; Lighten up and get a sense of humour. Only one response is necessary; “It’s just a joke, like on Top Gear“. The second can be roughly put into the “anonymous insults from men in their twenties and thirties who still live with their mothers” box, and be forgotten about (Though I may post some screenshots for posterity, at a later date. Oh, Hi It is the third group I want to address here, the ones who made some attempt at a political critique. The screenshot below, while not the most eloquent example of this, neatly paraphrases the argument.

Screen Shot 2014-06-30 at 16.01.23

There is no basis to the idea that intersectionalist ideas and anti-oppression politics are middle class. The vast majority of people suffering oppressions of race and gender are working class. Intersectionality itself can be summed up as the study of how various oppressions and exploitation intersect. Understanding the intersection of various oppressions that are faced by working class people is a necessity for building a movement that is capable of challenging capital.

The charge that intersectionality is liberal, while related to the idea that it is middle-class, differs in that the former category is ideological, while the latter is (supposed to be, at least) economic. Intersectionality is not an ideology, nor is it an adjunct of any particular ideology, rather, it is a tool for examining social relations that can be used by anyone. In that respect, it can be liberal, if used by liberals. But in the hands of anarchists, it is anarchist, and when used by marxists, it is marxist. Your perspectives on class, the state and democracy are going to inform how you use it and what direction it points you in.

Our commenter above, sees all this as a “diversion from the central struggle”. He is not alone in this. Many objectors to intersectionality, that have categorised it as divisive, see the central struggle as direct opposition to capital in workplace struggles, leading to the building of a untied class movement with the capability of seizing the means of production and building a socialist/communist society based on democratic control of the economy. I agree with the goal of a communist society and I agree that workplace struggles are a key tactic, but I disagree that issues of gender and race are diversions. They are crucial aspects of building a united class movement.

The complexities of working class life can’t be reduced to a crude analysis based on production, exchange, and what happens in the workplace, the number on our payslip, how we are taxed, or worse, where we live and our preference of cultural consumptuion. The collective experience of the working class is far richer than that. The way society is currently organised casts a shadow over all aspects of our lives and narrows the choices we can make. Anyone who does not see abortion as a class issue, who does not see housework as labour, who views workplace struggles as more important to struggles surrounding childcare, who thinks the regulation of our sexuality or gender identities are the concern of liberals, reduces anarchism to syndicalist economism.

Reducing the class struggle to it’s economic dimensions can only result in a class struggle of the privileged, that is, the average white male worker, who, in the western world, generally already has the social freedoms that are denied to others. Organisations and individuals who take this approach marginalise and silence the majority of the working class in order to retain their own ideological purity. That is text book sectarianism, that is the side of this argument that is divisive.

Understanding how differences of gender, race, sexual orientation, and disability oppress is a necessity if we want to build a movement that unites a class whose majority is made up of people who face some of those oppressions. Making the space for those people to relate how they are oppressed, on their own terms, is the only way to begin to understand these differences. By fighting those oppressions together, with genuine solidarity, we can begin to build a movement capable of reconstructing society from the bottom up. The liberty of the oppressed is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment, it is the first condition of our own social emancipation.

10 comments on “On Being Divisive: Class struggle versus intersectionality or intersectional class struggle?

  1. Wesley Morgan
    July 7, 2014

    In a respectful and comradely manner, I disagree. Intentionally or not, I fear that this piece sidesteps the main issues, which I feel are critical to building a viable movement and breaking out of a subcultural niche.

    First off, some quick background. I will admit, in the past year or two, I have been confused by the way people have been using the term “intersectionality”. I am familiar with intersectionality as an academic perspective that has come to the fore in social history, labour studies, and sociology in the past couple of decades. It defines my own approach, I think it is valuable, but it can be a bit esoteric in its details – like most intersectional theorists, my take was very Hegelian. Indeed, it is a Hegelian solution to “problem” that feminism and anti-racism posed to standard Marxism and the initial “unhappy marriage of feminism and Marxism” in academia.

    My confusion is that “intersectionality” now seems to be a word that includes some of the general, over-arching insights of intersectionality theory, or at least a Coles-Notes/Introduction-to version of such a theory, but mashes it together with something else altogether. This is familiar to me from an earlier period in my life, before grad school, when my primary milieu was university/ campus activism/ trade unionism (campus support staff were unionized). But in those days, this was not called “intersectionality” this was called “anti-oppression”. And then, like now, this was associated with practices like “calling-out” and “trigger-warnings”.

    Both intersectionality and anti-oppression raises a number of issues for the anarchist movement to deal with, and take seriously, but they are different things. There is nothing liberal about intersectionality, although it is an ivory tower academic perspective – while some of the concrete historical studies (like Pamela Sugiman’s work on women in the Canadian auto industry and related union struggles) are accessible, the theory is dense and often demanding in terms of philosophical and theoretical concepts.

    Anti-oppression politics is a different thing altogether. It is hard for me to imagine that talk of “middle class political correctness” is addressing intersectionality and not anti-oppression politics. Purposely or not, I fear this is a strawperson, which distracts from a discussion about anti-oppression politics that the anarchist movement needs to have.

    • El Marko
      July 7, 2014

      Hi Wesley, thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m not sure just how much disagreement there is here. At least I can only see little bits from your comment. The people I was addressing in the main here, are exactly the type of people who throw trigger warnings and calling out in with intersectionality. Now I don’t disagree with either of those things, I was careful not to introduce them into this post, because that’s not what it was about, despite this, a thread on my facebook page still managed to deteriorate into an argument about trigger warnings (which I regard as common courtesy).

      I realise that I presented a brief overview of intersectionality, but wouldn’t begin to go into the finer detail in a 900 word blog post that I knocked off in the space of an hour, and there are others who I would prefer to see do that who would do a far better job than I ever could. At any rate, what I’m really interested in here, is incorporating an intersectional approach to the politics of class struggle. My response was shaped by the arguments that have occurred within the Irish left over the last year, which seem to be replicated in the UK and beyond from what I have seen online. So I wasn’t really sidestepping anything, I was tackling those criticisms head on.

      I’ll get to your other post later, for now I have to make dinner.

    • huddsludds
      July 8, 2014

      Dear Wesley. I agree with you, although I haven’t a clue what ‘intersectionality’ or ‘trigger warnings’ are, or why they arose in this debate, despite being involved in left politics for a very long time. I don’t see what they add to our understanding of the very old problem of how we prioritise and link up various campaigns and struggles . Neologisms are fine, indeed vital, in defining new phenomena. But when they are just a new, but slightly cracked, bottle for putting in the old wine of experience I think they are more of a hindrance than an aid to clarity and understanding. We will never communicate our ideas to people unless they are clear and relevant to their problems. Also abstract theory can become a form of exclusivity and underpin intellectual hierarchy. The cartoons, which led to this debate, are an attempt to make this point – though some may cross the line from irony to cynicism.

  2. Wesley Morgan
    July 7, 2014

    Felt I should put this in a new comment, so it does not get to unwieldy. Last comment was talking about intersectionality, this one talks about anti-oppression. Intersectionality, a recognition of the diversity of the working class, is not liberal, although it is academic. Anti-oppression politics, along with associated practices such as giving trigger warnings and calling-out, is, I argue, fundamentally liberal, with the focus being on righteous moral outrage rather than efficacious social interventions.

    There are two pieces that I would submit for reading – they put it much better than I could:

    In particular, the first piece is critical because it also highlights the importance of moving beyond the “common sense” notion of harm that becomes enacted in anti-oppression politics. There is more to it than that.

    I would argue that there are three key reasons that anti-oppression politics are misleading and, I would argue, a dead end.

    1. What sociologists call a level of analysis problem – seeking individual-level solutions to collective problems. Does not work. We need collective solutions to collective problems.

    2. An almost fetishistic belief in the power of language and naming. Symbols are not unimportant, the power and meaning of symbols and words arises not from dictionaries, but from material social interaction.

    This point was driven home to me when I was visiting Singapore, I saw the (can’t remember name) School for Spastics. Here is the thing – spasticity is a real medical descriptor, when it was coined for usage, it was as a cold, descriptive medical term without any other implications. But of course, “spastic” and “spaz” entered into popular slang as derogatory within a few years. Retarded, similarly, was once upon a time a cold, descriptive medical term that was used because it did not have negative connotations. When I was a child, “special” was promoted in a well-intentioned attempt at re-branded. Now “special” is also stigmatized. Because it is not the word, keep the same material social interactions, and the next combinations of sounds and syllables will gain the same insulting meaning.

    The words are part of a circuit of social interaction, but changing the words does not change the social interaction.

    3. Calling-out. There have been a variety of social movements in the past two centuries in our world, a number of them have adopted political practices that used personal denunciation, in every case, this has been toxic and unleashed negative social dynamics. Calling out is a great way to grandstand and feed one’s self-righteousness, but it is poison for a social movement.

    • El Marko
      July 11, 2014

      I find it hard to take what you wrote seriously after you saying that trigger warnings and calling out are “fundamentally liberal”. I would go as far as saying that your understanding of ideology is fundamentally flawed. To say trigger warnings are liberal, is akin to saying nutritional information on food packaging, “may contain nuts” warnings and spoiler alerts are liberal. I hope you can forgive me for saying that idea is outrageously ridiculous. Trigger warnings are common courtesy. I’d add, that calling out, is far better than allowing perpetrators of sexual violence and men who use their positions of power in patriarchal society to behave like assholes to be given free rein.

      I’ve read the two articles you linked before, they offer the same old tired whiney view I’ve read a hundred times already. But in response I offer these:

  3. huddsludds
    July 7, 2014

    Thanks for taking the trouble to respond to my post and encouraging further discussion. Maybe it is my lack of eloquence, but I think you have misunderstood my main point. I am not against single issue political campaigns, nor do I see them as diversions from the central struggle. They are all parts of the struggle for emancipation as each person identifies and combats his or her own oppression, severally or collectively, in the ways that they think fit. What I oppose is the parody of this struggle by people, often middle class, who do not understand racism, the womens’ or gay people’s struggles, environmentalism, or whatever struggle, but reduce them to cliches, slogans and formulae, which are not part of a a revolutionary struggle, but are merely memes emanating from statutory and voluntary sector organisations , whose main interest is implementing state legislation – legislation they no doubt believe to be progressive, but which is actually co-optive. Herein lies the limitations of middle class liberalism. Sadly some of these people, perhaps from the best of intentions, also engage in left activism, but are unable to break away from the simple struggle for ‘rights’ within a framework imposed by the state. They repeat cliches, without any depth of understanding, and in some case, commitment. It was this i identified with in the cartoons you criticised. I believe it is a phenomenon Anarchists should be aware of and should discuss. One of the things which led me to Anarchism was the realisation that economistic work-place centered struggles, of the kind I had been involved in as a worker , were alone incapable of transforming society and that ALL forms of resistance to state oppression and capitalist exploitation are valid. Such resistance does not come from the working class alone. My reference to ‘middle class political correctness’ is not an attack on the middle class as a whole, but a precise reference to particular phenomenon, as I hope I have clarified above.

  4. C Harty
    July 7, 2014

    The second can be roughly put into the “anonymous insults from men in their twenties and thirties who still live with their mothers” !!!!!!! Was scanning this- this jumped out!!!!! Think it shows an incredibly narrowed minded attitude! You use this as an insult!!!! Why, whats wrong with living with your mother- for one it prevents rent being paid to a landlord. Also shows an incredibly lack of knowledge about housing- a huge amount of people can’t afford rents- also once HAPS starts to kick in they will be a lot more people living with their mothers to try and stay on the social housing list.

    • El Marko
      July 7, 2014

      Lighten up mate, it’s just a joke.

  5. Pingback: Critical Engagements: Intersectionality, Privilege, and Identity Politics | Full Opinionism

  6. Pingback: Five Reasons why “If Modern Anarchists fought in Spain” isn’t Funny or Clever. | Self Certified

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This entry was posted on July 7, 2014 by in Anarchism, anti-work, Class, Class Struggle, Communism, Feminism, Intersectionality, Privilege, Unions, Work.
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