April 2017Theory

Complexity of "Intersectionality" is explored at March Socialist Salon

March's installment in Metro DC DSA's ongoing Salon series was an exploration of intersections in feminism, labor and racial justice in the context of capitalist society. Members heard from Nikki Lewis, a former organizer for Jobs with Justice and Restaurant Opportunity Centers United, and Jamille Fields, a reproductive justice activist and health policy analyst currently at Planned Parenthood. Speakers shared their concrete experiences as organizers and as humans in a society beset by racism, misogyny and capitalist abuse of the working class.

Their concrete accounts furthered an ongoing exploration within DSA of the relation of economic factors to individual and group struggles that encompass more kinds of factors.

Intersectionality, the frame of the Salon discussion, is an increasingly well-represented concept in modern left discourse because it addresses a hole in the prevailing theories and attitudes of the past. It's a negation of the premise that one single facet of oppression, the element of class--or at least a strictly orthodox, economic notion of class--is enough to explain and address the harms of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and the other faces of oppression, whose manifestations are as diverse as humans themselves. It is the assertion that the forces that oppress us are different, but connected, and also that the solutions we bring can be diverse but must have the same character of interconnection as the offenses against our mutual humanity.

"Intersectionality always seemed like such a natural concept to me. I don't get to be black one day and a woman the next," Fields laughed. "[Intersectionality] recognizes that people are whole people, and that if you're really saying that feminism is concerned about the advancement and growth of women and seeking equality for women then you can't just focus on a few things. You can't say "I'm concerned with equal pay but I care nothing about immigration." When families are destroyed, she noted, incomes disappear. "If you're concerned with folk's [material] conditions, then you are concerned with the equality between genders."

Often enough, both people who face oppression and people of conscience have arrived at that conclusion, too, recognizing either by experience or by empathy that different manifestations of oppression have mutual features and outcomes. But the history of the left, we find, has been tainted by material and theoretical conflicts that challenge our solidarity and tempt just-minded people to divide the movement. For instance, capitalists have always used schisms of race and gender to divide and control workers, to insinuate and reinforce notions that the liberation of blacks and women will come at the expense of men and whites.

On the theoretical or rhetorical front, leftists (inside and outside DSA) still divide themselves, and some struggle to assert the dominance or primacy of class above struggles for social justice. Class reductionism, as it is called, doesn't deny the reality of racial or gender injustice, but it does insist that all justice ultimately fits a specific model of economic exploitation.

"Intersectional theory is trying to undermine Marxism. At the basis of Marxism is the primacy of class," tweeted Jacobin Magazine this week, live-tweeting professor Nivedita Majumdar's response to a question about class struggle at an event. The full context of her statement takes some of the edge off this point, but her reductive assessment sparked a small firestorm as liberals and left critics held this as evidence that the sphere of the left adjacent to the magazine, which many say includes DSA, puts forward a distinctly white and often male vision of socialism. (Majumdar is neither white nor male, but it may be beside the point.)

The divide between class reductionists and intersectionalists has some theoretical substance that transcends cliquish disputes between different political zones on the left, but both sides agree that racial and other injustices do manifest as poverty, that poverty manifests as injustice, and that all forms of oppression are tied to the ways in which workers are manipulated and abused in our society. The questions that remain are usually about words like "primacy." The question that sparked Majumdar's response was, in fact, "Are you saying that the class struggle is superior to all others?" Her initial answer was no, it is not "superior," it merely has "primacy."

Today, on the brink of disaster, socialists can't afford to engage in a kind of rhetorical ballet that pits Marxist orthodoxy against social justice. Reducing injustice to economics is a mistake that transcends simple bad optics, not because class and economics are unconnected to social injustice as mutual causes and effects, but because class reductionism amounts to a demand that women, people of color and others who face oppression have to describe capitalism in terms that erase the specific racial and gendered character of their experiences.

Nikki Lewis related an experience with a white woman she bonded with briefly at the Women's March. As they talked, the woman suddenly reached out and touched her hair to admire it. It was an upsetting experience, but Nikki described her attempts to come to terms with the ambivalence she felt about a person with good intentions who had nevertheless failed to understand or respect her experience. "It's important to recognize all the identities that we hold and when you come together to work on an issue, to assume the best of each other--assume the best intentions--because it takes time to get to know each other and it takes time to build trust," she said. "I think it takes patience to learn and understand other people's perspectives and what they bring to the table."

It is a generous expression of extraordinary patience. Yet if socialists, particularly those with social privilege, come to rely upon forgiveness we will rightly be disappointed. Economic theories of class are fundamental to our understanding of power relations under capitalism, but if we insist that all perceptions of the same phenomenon must somehow look the same from different perspectives, the left will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and remain fractured when it has every cause for solidarity.

You can watch the full salon with Nikki Lewis and Jamille Fields on dsadc.org: https://vimeo.com/208923778 

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