More on class and activism
October 31, 2008
I discussed a lot of the issues I brought up in this post with my friend The Historian, as well as reading the excellent posts on Pink Scare. This led to an email, which part of which I’m publishing here as well.
So I actually spent a fair amount of today, when I wasn’t busy with work, thinking about our conversation last night. Basically, I would agree that at this moment class seems the best site of struggle for revolutionary change. I think that’s true because the gains made by other movements, like feminism, anti-racism, and gay rights, have been important but are often co-opted by capitalism. Capitalism is able to modify itself and live to see another day.
I will however attach the caveat that such a movement can only succeed if it recognises that capitalism intersects inextricably with racism, sexism, abelism, homophobia, transphobia and other oppressions.
There are two reasons for this. First, the intersection of oppressions means that if an anti-capitalist movement isn’t also fighting sexism, racism, etc., it’s probably not doing a very good job of fighting capitalism. A woman worker’s experience of capitalism can’t be separated from her experience of sexism, nor can that experience be reduced to class. Moreover, sexism, racism & capitalism all work together – and not just in a simplistic “dividing the working-class” way. “Heavy care” work in the NHS, for example, is largely done by women of colour because of the combination of gender roles (women do care work) and imperialist racial roles (people of colour as little more than pack animals). An anti-capitalist movement that fails to understand this can’t possibly succeed. Our modern ideas of gender & race were forged during the industrial revolution but are not merely byproducts of it. Pardon the academia, but the relationship is more dialectical; they fed into each other, shaped each other, promoted each other & supported each other. At this point in time, these oppressions are like a giant ball of tangled wool – it’s impossible to pull at one strand and hope that that particular strand will come free, or that the ball will magically unravel. Instead, the hard work of carefully picking our way through individual strands lies ahead of us.
Secondly, as with so-called identity politics, a movement based solely on class will just lead to the privilegeing of working-class white, heterosexual, able-bodied, cissexual men at the expense of others. We will have a socialist utopia where women are still doing all the dishes. Lesbian separatism came under a lot of fire in the 1970s from working-class women of colour, not only because it failed to address these women’s needs to work with men in their community in opposing shared oppressions (like racism), but because it just ignored the differences of race and class among lesbians. Rather than creating a non-hierarchical movement, white lesbians became the elite.
In envisioning this class-based movement, how we define class obviously matters. There are disadvantages in this case to both the Marxist and what I’ll call Liberal (North American) view of class. Interestingly, I think it should be noted that these definitions are not completely separate. Obviously, the Marxist working-class are more likely to be “poor”. But, there’s also a fair amount of slippage in how the terms are used, even among orthodox Marxists. When I said in the last meeting that assuming that everyone has a garden in London is classist, which everyone agreed with, I was using the Liberal definition. A well-paid lecturer or accountant can afford a house with a garden, so clearly not everyone in the Marxist working-class is living in flats. When we object to classist stereotypes in the feminist movement or in the media, like the use of the term “scally” what we are really objecting to is the denigration of the poor. Our activism also tends to focus on the most vulnerable workers, like the Tubecleaners, who are struggling the most financially.
The Liberal Definition of class is in a way more inclusive when we talk about organising along class lines, as it extends to basically anyone who is low-income. However, as you pointed out last night, there is serious potential for conflict within the movement because of different short-term interests (I’m assuming the end of capitalism is in everyone’s interest in the long-run). Farmers and workers might not necessarily see eye-to-eye because of their different short-term goals – it is not necessarily obvious to farmers why they would benefit from the workers seizing control of the means of production, and certainly small business owners would not like this at all. Organising around the Liberal Definition would also mean probably not working with the more affluent members of the “marxist” working-class. However, these people often have the most resources and the most personal freedom, and therefore can participate in social and political movements with the most impunity. When I was helping to organise my call centre, the reason I was brave enough to do it was the fact that I knew I could afford to lose my job.
However, there are also serious issues with organising solely along the Marxist definition of class. First, a lot of orthodox marxists I’ve met have an unfortunate tendency to an “us & them” mentality. Some of the conversations at the Marxism 2007 conference were fairly bloodcurdling, as speakers suggested with a straight face simply killing the entire bourgeoisie if you wanted your revolution to succeed. People’s politics aren’t reducible to class – farmers, small business holders, doctors, other professionals, even people from wealthy backgrounds may support or come to support an anti-capitalist movement. Ultimately, like racism & sexism, capitalism damages the people who benefit from it most as well. We shouldn’t assume the existence of enemies. Furthermore, in a socialist utopia, we’re still going to need farmers, doctors, etc. Someone has to grow food, someone has to cure the sick. The revolution is going to have to include people who aren’t working-class.
There is also the issue, already discussed above, of privileging white working-class men by organising solely from a Marxist standpoint. Affecting both kinds of class-based organising is the fact that other oppressed peoples may simply have different priorities. Women may feel that sexism is more significant; people of colour may feel that racism is more significant. They may feel that sexism and/or racism is why they’re poor. Any class-based movement has to figure out how to reach out to these people and work with them – and not just lecture them about how wrong they are. I think organising along the Liberal definition of class probably makes this easier. Women who see sexism as the reason they are poor will still get involved in an anti-poverty movement, but may not want to be involved in an anti-capitalist movement they don’t see as reflecting their reality.
My solution is that we should be organising along both definitions of class. Ultimately, despite my criticisms, I believe the Marxist definition is more transformative, but the Liberal definition is more inclusive and provides an answer to the plight of impoverished people who do not fall under the Marxist definition of working-class.
I think here it is important to differentiate between short-term and long-term goals. While both kind of organising should go on simultaneously, in the short-term, the Liberal definition is in my opinion more useful. It allows the linking together of various groups and social movements, and for increased popular education. It allows us to improve the material conditions of the lives of small business owners, for example (because no one should be struggling to make ends meet), while working to convince said small business owners of the wonders of anti-capitalism. Alot of these changes will happen in the short-term within the system – I would favour, for example, government help to small business owners provided certain workplace conditions are met. This may not be revolutionary in the short-term, but the revolution is unlikely to happen tomorrow and small businesses not only provide jobs, but their owners should be able to pay their heating bills. In the long-term, organising along Marxist lines is more transformative, but the use of the Liberal definition in the short-term should have allowed us to integrate small business owners, professionals and farmers into our revolutionary society.