Why Class Matters

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One of the discussions that has emerged since the election is how much focus should be on class in future progressive politics—not only due to the arguable consequence white working class voters had on the result, but also for the broader question about the lines along which a political force—which may or may not be the Democratic Party—should contend for power to counter Trump and the rightward-bound Republican Party. In left-of-liberal, more radical circles, the perennial class politics vs. identity politics debate has gotten further accentuated due to increased criticism of the Democratic Party and liberalism from a class-oriented perspective—and the backlash against this from radicals focused on various anti-oppression struggles. But in the mainstream too, Bernie Sanders fanned the flames of this debate during a recent book tour stop in Boston. When asked by an audience member how she could become the second Latina senator in U.S. history, he took the occasion to remind her that her identity doesn’t entitle her to votes, and wondered whether the Democratic Party would be able to “go beyond identity politics.”

In many left circles—in fact, arguably in the mainstream of the left (the term “left” referring to left of the Democratic Party)—this has provoked another few days of decrying “brocialism.” This is the categorization stamped upon purported blindness to various social oppressions, which supposedly plagues many leftist (typically) white men. Complementing these vilifications, much of the left has been standing up for “idpol” and the necessity of paying heed to the problems that occur on the lines of race, gender, etc. In liberal and radical circles alike, class-focused discourse has acquired a reputation for being merely the odious recourse of white men who don’t like the conversation to not be about themselves. The term “class reductionist” gets thrown around to describe anyone who talks about class in the general context of politics.

However, in these times, marked by the rise of anti-modern, far-right politics around the world, during a civilizational moment of truth with respect to climate change, the exigency of organizing that can yield material impact may never have been greater. There is still much to be said about the sustained importance of class. This can and should be done without de-emphasizing the gravity of issues faced by various subjugated groups and their struggles.

The first thing to note about contemporary discourse is that it’s less that the oppressions of various minorities are being de-emphasized; rather, class is increasingly being abandoned as a terrain of contestation. Intersectionality is frequently used in contradiction to itself, as an excuse to deem someone’s voice illegitimate in a certain context, or irrelevant at large, even if this voice belongs to the great American mass of the downwardly mobile. “Class reductionist” or “brocialist” has largely become a straw man to effortlessly account for the ineffectuality of the left and discredit anyone who might bring up class in a political conversation devoid of it, rather than a pointed and appropriate charge against someone who actually reduces all social inequalities to class exploitation or pooh-poohs the concerns of people of color, women, etc.

Very few people in the left actually do such things anymore. Bernie Sanders was not doing this. Essays in overt class-oriented socialist publications in the wake of Trump’s victory that called for renewed working class organizing did not do this. Yet, the mainstream of leftism is increasingly becoming hostile to any assertion of the importance of class, and in knee-jerk fashion, interprets such assertions as attempted de-prioritizations of other oppressions. (An intriguing exception to this, for some reason, is in the context of environmentalism and veganism: Bring up ecological concerns and animal rights to so many leftists for whom the specter of “brocialists” is otherwise anathema, and the instinctive response to such a large extent will be, “Oh but environmentalists/vegans are classist.”) And liberal social justice advocacy, in the wake of fascistic terror unearthed by the Trump victory, is doubling down on a microscopic focus on the issues facing minorities, but again—and now it’s even more clear, with the vitriol unleashed against the presumed hicks who voted in Trump—to the exclusion of class.

But excluding class misses both the theoretical and strategic mark. It is with good reason that class has been regarded as fundamental to progressive and radical politics—from Roosevelt and Sanders to MLK and Lenin—and that many leftists today still regard it as especially intersectional, as the relation of power that most tints all others. For there is a qualitative difference between exploitation by capital and oppression or domination by other forms of power. The former is based upon extremely real, materially embedded social relations—the ownership or non-ownership of property for societal production is no spook—whereas the latter, though experientially real, are based upon and recreate identities that are at least partially discursively constituted and have as the crux of their existence the social reproduction of the identities themselves; as we know, there is little material or biological validity to the division of races or genders (and thus sexualities). Because of this, simply by the fact that class is grounded more in “objective” reality more than other oppressions, it is inherently more liable to direct and far-reaching transformation.

Moreover, exploitation by capital extracts value (in the ostensible form of profit) from productive labor. And it is with such surplus value—which is to say, on the shoulders of all who sell their labor power for wages, which are necessarily a cut from the total value they produce—that the world, for all its good and bad, is perpetuated. Other oppressions do not make the world go around, they are but brute forms of domination of some humans by others, to be fought against and nullified. This does not mean that they could not exist in some other forms in a noncapitalist world. This does not mean that they do not have their own autonomous (though overlapping) histories. It simply means that in this world, they are powered by the workings of capitalism—because it happens to be capitalism right now that powers, by the generation of economic value, the material transpiration of every social process that occurs in this world.

So, for a politics that is serious about ending all of these dominations, it seems an obvious step to concern itself with reclaiming this power, or at least, being able to call more shots about how it is used. Which necessarily requires focusing in part at least on class. In particular, it requires a focus on the class of producers of value—or in other words, in its precise thrust and extensive guises, the working class. Regardless of the problem to be solved, organizing a body of value-creators wielding the power to hurt the bottom lines of the rich has always been the best bet to get power to listen to us—even if it doesn’t want to. And ideally in this undertaking, of course, the dispossessed—numbered disproportionately by peoples marginalized in various ways—would take control of the productive organs and conduits of society, so as to create a society in which the value and agency created are used not for marginalizing or dominating, but for maximizing and actualizing the value in all humans and the prosperity of life at large.

Even if another way of changing the material realities of the world were possible, out of mere practicality too, organizing along lines of class makes sense. This is because the experience of material insecurity is one that cuts across and unites all other dominations more than any of these dominations cuts across and unites all others. This is not an empty speculation; polling shows that the biggest problems for all people except for rich people—be they black, hispanic, women, or white middle-class—are ultimately problems of money. Without doubt, women are most at risk of being sexually assaulted, black people have to worry about police violence more than others, brown-skinned Asians and Africans are vexed at airport security more than others. But still, in aggregate, each group, on a day-to-day basis, has to worry about economic travails—food, clothing and shelter—more than anything else. In this circumstance, organizing along class lines—if focusing on class weren’t made synonymous with racism in liberal and left discourse—would make sense simply for wide coalition-building. And such a coalition of the economically exploited, again, would be disproportionately flanked by minorities, for it is they who are most dispossessed by the workings of capitalism.

Now, all that said, it is undeniable on the other hand that working class blacks, working class women, working class trans people, etc. face more challenges in their social existence than working class white men, and so, it would be both erroneous and illegitimate to dismiss the concerns of various marginalized peoples. Furthermore, just as it is true that modern races and racism are creations of the modern world, which is to say, of capitalism, so it is also true that capitalism directly benefits from racism, not just in its manifestations as colonialism and imperialism, but even domestically, be that through private prisons or the centuries-old alliance between rich and poor whites, achieved by the former feeding the latter paltry crumbs, while simultaneously pointing to racial Others as potential thieves of these scraps. Categories such as race and gender are surely imagined, but they are not imaginary. Even if not tied in as close a link to physical reality as access to natural resources and technical means of production, the experiences accompanying marginalization and domination through different identities are very real.

Because of the very construction of these categories, and the delegitimization of the thoughts and desires of minorities that found their basis on their very construction, even our processes for social progress, to this day, contain within themselves biases that normalize and reinforce the subjugation of certain peoples under others. If the dynamics governing the imagined realities of race, gender, sexuality, ability, age, etc. are not taken into account, and if more egalitarian norms aren’t actively promoted in all domains of our society, we will likely lug these inequalities into tomorrow’s world, whether that is a world of capitalism, socialism or something else.

And, most simply, the fact that black people are particular targets of economic and state violence, as just one example of oppression, is a serious matter that has tangible impacts on real lives, and it seems intuitive and obvious that efforts should be made to address that in the here and now. The same goes for violence against women, LGBTQ people, etc. When it comes to violence and subjugation, it matters less whether it is the ruling class or men that benefit from patriarchy, for example—what matters are the people dominated under patriarchy, and the fact that they should be championed in proclaiming and instituting their full humanity.

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For this, however, identity politics in the form that is increasingly the norm in all strands of contemporary leftism is not enough. This is the politics of moral display, characteristic of twenty-first century campus progressivism and the Clinton campaign alike. Here identity is a matter of individuality, rather than collective strength. And since it is about individuals, it is by logical necessity about subjectivity, or in particular, about pure feelings—as opposed to being about thoughts, which can be identically held across minds or outside of minds, or about structures, which cannot be felt as baldly as insults.

So much of the politics pejoratively labeled “social justice warfare” finds fulfillment in self-righteous public demonstrations of progressive values meant to raise or change consciousness in superficial ways, in the most trivial behaviors and meaningless sensibilities of individuals who are presumed to not be as “woke” as them. Both participants in this activism and the targets of it are made to regard rigidly defined identities as the central elements of their existence, and are taught to affirm their individualities as centrally derived from these identities and to wield them in ways that do not hurt those with identities of less privilege. In this process not only are complex elements of the psyche and individuality that go beyond historically contingent categories of identity overlooked, but as the stress here is placed on rights, privileges and behaviors of the individual, the formation of collective strength is rendered a non-issue—though this would be the only way to actually change the circumstances to which opposition is signified through these gestures.

This type of politics is to varying extents in implicit or explicit concurrence with neoliberal or Democratic Party-type identity politics of representation. In its most base form, which has nettled Bernie Sanders so much over the last year-and-a-half, this is the value-system according to which Hillary Clinton deserved to waltz into the White House just because she was a woman, i.e. a member of an identity group that has been insufficiently represented in society. In general form, this is the idea of justice that Adolph Reed Jr. describes would consider society fair if “1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources so long as the dominant 1% were 13% black, 17% Latino, 50% female, 4% or whatever LGBTQ, etc.”

What matter for neoliberal identity politics are not the structures in place, but just the representation of identities. Diversity is sacrosanct here, but as Jodi Dean points out, “[t]he missing subtext of the Democratic Party’s embrace of diversity was that its was a diversity of the successful, of the winners, of the multicultural celebrities and photogenic talented tenth who appear as so many talking heads on MSNBC. The Democratic substitution of entrepreneurs for workers under the guise of racial inclusion is class war, a war that leaves in its wake disproportionate numbers of black and brown bodies. White-washing the working class legitimizes policies that diminish the lives and futures of millions of working class people of color.”

Whether it be on campus or on the campaign trail, this identity politics talks about privilege rather than power. As a group of Oakland-based women, POC and queer organizers put in a pamphlet on anti-oppression politics, “According to the dominant discourse of ‘white privilege’ for example, white supremacy is primarily a psychological attitude which individuals can simply choose to renounce instead of an entrenched material infrastructure which reproduces race at key sites across society – from racially segmented labor markets to the militarization of the border.” An identity politics attacking this infrastructure, a radical identity politics, would be something to be cherished. Instead, Clintonite identity politics goes the other way. Asking “But will breaking up the banks solve sexism?” is a silly question. Of course it won’t, by itself. But the intent behind the question also is not to “solve sexism”; its point is merely the slick denigration of attempts at the material transformation of society and the cessation of the status quo.

Insofar as identity politics is comprised of tautologically and thus vacuously asserting the identities one is defined by, making a cottage industry of spectral gestures that draw attention to the inviolability and legitimacy of these identities, and framing this as meaningful politics—it is squarely to be dismissed and moved beyond. In its place should be a radical and truly intersectional identity politics. And for the goals of such politics, due to the potency of class in attacking, say, racially segmented labor markets or the militarization of the border, this category too would have a legitimate place. It must, after all, in any form of social progress that actually attempts to substantially and tangibly alter conditions of life. Likewise, such identity politics would have a legitimate place in class politics, as such struggles, primarily meant to improve the lives of socially constructed but materially subjugated minority populations, would necessarily transform systems of power such as the economy and the nexus of governmental institutions.

Class matters, unambiguously, and the left must concentrate on it far more than it has recently. But because it has mattered so much over the centuries, so do racism, sexism, etc. These have been used in the service of capitalism, and also stand to benefit from capitalism. The various matrices of oppression that run rampant in our society are precisely the reason why there should be a greater focus on class, a focus that doesn’t discount these oppressions. The only thing that really does discount these oppressions, in fact—by spurning substantive traditions of radical black liberation, proletarian anti-colonialism and socialist feminism in favor of facile and piddling customs of self-congratulatory privilege-checking, virtue-signaling and tokenism—is today’s prevailing faux-progressive identity politics.

The problem of the election or of politics today isn’t identity politics per se; it’s neoliberal ideology having comprehensively infiltrated the cultural and political mainstream, it’s liberalism masquerading as serious social progress, but in reality shunning material change and manufacturing an identity politics meant to preserve things as they are. This will never be able to win true liberty and security for minorities. But as has always stood in contrast to liberalism (and, for sure, conservatism and fascism), the solution and the ideal is communism. One inclusive of all oppressed peoples and responsive to all subjugations, but still communism—the project of the producers of material reality and economic value, marginalized in multitudinous ways, taking charge of these processes of production, to together create a world liberated by and for all.

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