Cait is one of the people who donated to help get me to Women in Secularism 3. In return, she asked me to address an argument.
I know a fair number of socialists whom I usually like but who have presented me with one version or another of this argument too many times over the years. Various versions of this argument were made as General Assemblies sorted themselves out in the Occupy movement. I’m sure it predates me as well. It goes something like this.
We need to address class issues. Women are severely affected by poverty. Racial minorities are severely affected by poverty. We must put aside these issues of identity politics to focus on what we all have in common, which is our relationship to capital. If you play identity politics, you’re serving the interests of the current owners of capital.
Here is one particularly lofty and recommended form of this argument, lest I be accused of strawmanning it.
Where identitarianism seeks to somehow unify the world’s often highly contradictory personal narratives of oppression into a coherent idea of social justice, Marxism looks at what makes the system itself tick, and finds that the vast majority of people have something very real in common: their position within the economy, i.e. their relationship to capital and the means of production. It’s around this that it seeks to rally people – not around moral or personal judgement, but around their objective common interests. Ideologies of social division, in the socialist view, mainly exist to keep people from realizing precisely those interests. Divide and conquer, as they say.
Socialism does not seek to unify people on the level of social, national or cultural identity; it is inherently internationalist and transcultural, because it operates on a completely different level. But that’s precisely why socialism is emancipatory by necessity: because to unite the working class means to unite people across the barriers of identity. The concept itself is inclusive, and cannot be realized without the inclusion of the majority of people, including people of all social identities. Nor does it exclude those who wish to see systemic change but belong to the upper classes; after all, it’s about reorienting the goals and methods of the system, not about personal moral judgement or the condemnation of people because of an accident of birth. Socialism does not posit some sort of economic equivalent of Original Sin that makes people unable to see beyond their own lives.
It’s got all the hallmarks: reduction of things like sexism and racism into mere personal interactions, implying that identities other than class identities are made up, the idea that critiquing socialists is playing into the hands of capitalists, calls for the vague ideal of “unity”, equation of privilege with sin. But boy, the words are big and the horse is high. More importantly, it has the same failure that all arguments of this stripe exhibit. The author of this piece is unwilling or unable to address the fact that not all power comes from capital.There are two unconscionable aspects of that failure. First of all, the understanding that there are multiple sources of power is inherent in the most basic of the language we use to talk about power. We would not even have the word “plutocracy” if capital were equivalent to power. There would be no tools socialists could use to fight for more equal access to capital if capital alone decided everything.
Secondly, treating class as the only systemic inequality elides the clear and continuous drum-beating of the scholars and activists who have brought and continue to bring transparency and awareness to the ways that sex, gender, race, sexuality, physical and mental disability, religion, and so much more are baked into our systems in ways that benefit some to the detriment of others. Everyone who pays serious attention to these issues is aware of this work, much of which had at least its start in the same kind of analysis Marx applied to class. Leaving it out when talking about identity politics marks the speaker as either broadly ill-informed on their chosen topic or intellectually dishonest.
“Everyone is affected by their class” is a generally true statement within our “system”, but it isn’t an exclusive statement. Everyone is also affected by their sex and gender. Everyone is affected by their race. Everyone is affected by their sexuality. Everyone is affected by their religion. Everyone is affected by their level of ability. The only people who think these things don’t affect them are the people who are considered the “default” of each. Patriarchy really does hurt men too. Whiteness exists even when we don’t name it.
For all that these socialists sneer at those taking an intersectional approach to justice, I have yet to see any intersectional analysis that ignored issues of class. These scholars and activists understand that economic justice is essential to all justice. They just didn’t stop looking at the system in the 1800s.
The moment you include an honest picture of intersectional scholarship, the whole “Klasse über alles” argument falls apart. When you do look at the large body of scholarship on the relationship between various kinds of identity and political power, it becomes apparent that systemic issues of identity continue to need to be addressed under any economic system. A few of the issues socialism doesn’t solve:
- Socialism does not ensure that police and legal systems are well-educated on issues of domestic and sexual violence. Myths around those issues interfere with access to justice, and many of those myths are predicated on identity. “Women lie.” “Men can’t be raped.” “Black people are sexually aggressive.” “Asians are sexually passive.” “Crazy people and drug addicts can’t be trusted.” “Those people had it coming for X.”
- Socialism does not ensure that police and legal systems are free of prejudices about which racial groups are criminal. It doesn’t change judgments about when violence, invasive searches, or abusive questioning are “reasonably” applied to minority populations.
- Socialism does not ensure school systems free of prejudice about who is suited to study what or pursue what career. It doesn’t urge teachers to praise and encourage based on interest and ability rather than stereotype.
- Socialism does not ensure that all medical treatment is equally accessible. In Ireland, even with socialized medicine, abortions are severely restricted.
- Socialism does not ensure that sex workers are heard on matters involving their health and their lives. The “Swedish model” of prosecuting those purchasing sex work and third-party involvement (e.g., brothel owners) was not wanted by sex workers and has been criticized for increasing the stigma they face.
- Socialism does not ensure that immigrants are accepted, either legally or socially. Denmark has internationally recognized problems with racism, both structurally and socially.
- Socialism does not ensure that the mentally ill have access to the treatment they need to maximize their participation in society. Sweden has only recently reversed a treatment mandate that was based in economics, not efficacy.
All of these boil down to the fact that socialism does not ensure equal representation and voice in matters of governance, and who is in charge matters. It matters when we have a de facto plutocracy. It also matters when our lawmakers are almost exclusively wealthy or white or male or heterosexual or without mental or physical disability or a host of other things because there’s no one there to tell them what they’ve overlooked–not because of “Original Sin” but because they’re human and limited in their experiences just like all the rest of us.
It particularly matters when those in power refuse to hear the voices of people who have experiences they don’t. They may do it because they code those voices as “angry” or “uncivil”, which is something that can be fixed with education and perspective. When they do it by coding those voices as “divisive”, however, they’re sending a clear and ugly message. They’re telling us that they consider differing perspectives and priorities to be inherently bad. They’re telling us that not only is representation something they don’t want now, but also that it will never be acceptable as long as there’s an issue that matters to them more. A socialist movement that vilifies people for looking at the world through any analytical lens aside from class, that vilifies people for demanding representation among those in power, will consist of those who aren’t motivated to such analysis and don’t have to make such demands. Once that happens, it doesn’t matter how much those people talk about inclusion and representing the interests of everyone. It’s just talk. It’s a movement that can’t effectively think about justice for all, much less deliver it.