From Anarchist Writers by Andrew Flood
Discussions about Identity Politics (IdPol) absorbs a huge amount of energy across the political spectrum. Discussion on the left however is often complicated and made overly hostile because they take place along the single axis of oppression which means proponents of IdPol get lumped in with Hilary Clinton while opponents get lumped in with Donald Trump. This understandably encourages bad faith discussions that throw a lot of heat and very little light. Here we are going to argue that a much more useful exchange can happen when we instead create a plot where one axis is oppression and the second is exploitation as that puts both Trump & Clinton a good distance away from socialists. [Audio of this article]
A visualisation might help. The different positions on Capitalism and Identity Politics can be plotted two dimensionally where one axis is exploitation and the other oppression. We put those keen on both oppression and exploitation in the top right corner, this is where most fascists belong. We put those most against oppression and exploitation at bottom left, here is where anarchists should stand. The clarity brought by this plot to discussions of Identity Politics is that it places the likes of Obama, Clinton and Google at bottom right, ie whatever they say about opposing oppression they are upholders of exploitation. And that section of the left that supports at least some oppressive politics ends up in the top left quadrant.
‘Intersectional left’ as a shorthand that performs two useful separations in reference to discussions of progressive politics. In the first case the ‘left’ part serves to distinguish between those who support an anti-oppression politics that includes the radical redistribution of property as a core component and those who do not. The left hand side of the plot versus the right hand side. And in the second case the ‘intersectional’* part distinguishes between those who see fighting oppression within the working class as fundamental to achieving communism and those who see it as secondary, and perhaps a divisive distraction from ‘the struggle’. The bottom left of the plot versus the top left.
Some of the bottom right do claim the term intersectionality but only see a problem, and often a downplayed one, in the oppressive element of class societies. This is sometimes referred to as classism or more commonly known as snobbery. That is the set of oppressions that follow from someone’s class identity as it is read by others from their accent or neighbourhood and which lead them to be discriminated against in terms of employment opportunities.
This claim to be intersectional without being socialist was deployed by Hilary Clinton in the 2016 primary and election. It doesn’t recognise the exploitative side of class, that is the division in the world between the very few who own the means of production and the very many who must therefore hire their labour to those capitalist owners. Indeed she used the claim to be ‘intersectional’ to attack the Bernie Sanders campaign as ‘BernieBros’. Again our 2 dimensional plot comes in useful here in demonstrating that regardless to how seriously you take Clinton’s opposition to oppression relative to Sanders he still comes closer to everyone on the left than she does.
Google even more than Hillary Clinton could be considered to illustrate the contradictions of this ‘intersectionality without socialism.’ It’s a company that claims to take oppression within the workplace extremely seriously while at the same time being all about exploitation within that same workplace. Consider this statement included with a 2017 Google job advertisement “At Google, we don’t just accept difference - we celebrate it, we support it, and we thrive on it for the benefit of our employees, our products and our community. Google is proud to be an equal opportunity workplace and is an affirmative action employer. We are committed to equal employment opportunity regardless of race, color, ancestry, religion, sex, national origin, sexual orientation, age, citizenship, marital status, disability, gender identity or Veteran status. We also consider qualified applicants regardless of criminal histories, consistent with legal requirements. If you have a disability or special need that requires accommodation, please let us know”
However the vast majority of Google profits flow to the shareholders, including the management, rather than the workers. Such companies might track gender and race promotion statistics but you can get fired for just revealing how much you earn to a fellow worker. And while engineers are well paid there are also many poorly paid workers, often employed at arms length though sub-contracting to ensure they have poor conditions and little legal recourse. This apparently is just fine for woke capitalism.
Google workers are not unionised. We aren’t setting ourselves up as the arbitrators of who is and is not intersectional. But we do think the Google, Obama and Clinton positions are more clearly described as ‘woke’ capitalism or capitalist IdPol. IDPol being a popular shorthand for ‘Identity Politics.’ Generally Clinton supporters and the ‘progressive’ tech sector already use the term Identity Politics as a positive descriptor while those on the intersectional left may avoid it because such use and the negative use by the right make it a rhetorical trap of misunderstandings. Woke capitalism is serious about minimising oppression and even willing to fund Affirmative Action programs aimed at overcoming the consequences of historical oppression for particularly talented individuals, Just don’t ask them to increase the minimum wage in jobs like fast food where oppressed workers are often disproportionately employed. Not to mention suggesting equality on wages.
We’ve already came up with a shorthand which probably covers the non-intersectional left, that is the Nostalgic Left. That shorthand reflects their opposition to anti-oppression politics which today often stems from a nostalgic look to an most imagined past when the left was not complicated by what they also call Identity Politics. It also includes the reactionary elements of the left like the US Revolutionary Communist Party that until recently saw homosexuality as bourgeois deviation. That specific pro-oppression attitude is now unusual in the western left but hostility to trans liberation has stepped in as an area where some on the Nostalgic left support oppression. We wrote about the Nostalgic Left at more length previously so won’t repeat that here.
Another way of looking at all this is in terms of how ‘progressives’ view exploitation and oppression. Exploitation is where workers only receive back some of the value of what they produce, their employer pocketing the rest as profit. Google or Clinton have no problem at all with exploitation, indeed Google could not exist without it. Oppression is where you are discriminated against because of the identity assigned to you. Google or Clinton profess to be horrified by oppression while embracing exploitation. Lean in feminism seeks a path to more women running the machinery of exploitation rather than opposing it.
However the division between oppression and exploitation under class society is very porous. The exploitation that comprises capitalism means that oppression is fundamental to building the wealth of the few through keeping the many divided. This history of the development of capitalism is not simply a history of exploitation of the worker in the factory but also the oppression of colonialism and the racism of slavery providing the wealth which funded the building of those factories.
The Intersectional Left is best used to describe that section of the left that recognises oppression and exploitation are inter twined with each constantly recreating the other. For this reason you can’t win through prioritising the fight against one over the fight against the other.
A three way fight?
This three way division expresses the fault lines far better than a binary one of being for or against ‘Identity Politics’ does. Possibly by design the label Identity Politics lumps together the Intersectional Left and Woke capitalism. That lumping works well for Woke capitalism, it enabled Clinton to try and mobilise the Intersectional Left against Sanders for instance. But despite that it has also been uncritically adopted by the Nostalgic Left because it enables them to pretend Woke Capitalism is intersectionality rather than a rather obvious bad fit to the concept. The US election primary campaign proved this to be sectarian foolishness that damaged Sanders. But it also means Nostalgic Left theorists often don’t understand the ideas they think they are arguing against and so their confusion with Woke Capitalism gets read as bad faith or at time it is sectarian bad faith.**
‘Identity politics’ is a 4 sided conflict
Finally it is important not to forget the 4th side to the conflict. Woke Capitalism is a utopian*** development of a particular tendency within capitalism but for most of history most capitalists have recognised oppression and exploitation as going hand in hand and essential to each other. The wealth of British capitalism was built through slavery & colonialism - those capitalists developed racism as part of that process and it was essential for generating the capital and markers that made the industrial revolution possible at that point in time. Racism was the motor that drove the labour requirements of the sugar plantations of the West Indies, enormous profits were made but that needed huge quantities of labourers working in conditions of low life expectancy. It’s probably not a co-incidence that the apparently ‘progressive’ companies today are those with comparatively few workers to vast amounts of capital in what can only be a short lived period of rapid growth. When that growth plateau’s and those workers start to organise collectively it could very well be that the like of Google will rediscover the value of manipulating divisions in its workforce.
Unity through a solidarity that is diverse
The need to define a division between the Intersectional and Nostalgic left is a product of both the progress the left - broadly defined - has made in fighting oppression in the 20th century and the resultant transformation of what is still very much a capitalist society in the 21st century. Clarity around this division is also needed because of the failures of the left and in particular the failure of strategies that focused on the concept of a ‘core industrial working class’ that was assigned the vanguard role. This was the mostly white and male working class of the European banana (the industrialised zone running from England through the Ruhr and down to Northern Italy) and what is now the US rust belt.
It turned out that the very strong union organisations built in these zones and, in the European case, the strong parties of the left built alongside them were vulnerable to being picked off in isolation - as with the 1984 British miners strike. They were also vunerable to capitalist restructuring, both replacement through automation and moving jobs to less organised regions of the globe. Often workers unity was fragmented through the pre-existing if papered over, fractures along the lines of race, gender and sexuality that, as defeats accumulated, allowed the growth of right and even fascist parties in the deindustralised one time left bases.
The challenge for the Intersectional left is to build new movements for communism that don’t contain the weakness of that fragile and false unity. Real strength is built through movements that fundamentally challenge oppression throughout their existence. The other challenge is to prevent Woke Capitalism presenting itself as the way to fight oppression, through the suggestion of a path towards a mythological capitalist system of exploitation that does not rely on using divisions within the working class.
You probably have seen a two dimensional political axis before, but where the first axis was left V right and the second authoritarian V anti-authoritarian? Someone with better drawing skills that those in our sketch might well want to add a third dimension, the authoritarian V anti-authoritarian axis.
Anarchists need to ensure these movements for communism are anti-authoritarian in nature as we understand that top down revolutions will end up recreating oppressions despite what might be good intentions. The Intersectional Left needs to become anti-authoritarian if it is to defeat both exploitation and oppression in any sort of way that avoids the historical tendency of authoritarian socialism to recreate both.
>>>> Further reading <<<<
>>>> Expansions & Explanations <<<<
The plot and the placement of groups in it is for illustrative purposes, there is no precision and indeed part of the purpose of the exercise might be to discuss the relative placements of Clinton V Corbyn for instance. A couple of the groups are probably obscure in particularly the pre-20002 RCP which is a reference to the US Maoist organisation of that name that as late as 2002 was still maintaining the once widespread line that ‘homosexuality is a bourgeois deviation’. That position is now rare on the Western left but its not at all uncommon to still encounter a similar attitude towards trans rights from elements of the Nostalgic left, particularly those more prone to see Stalin sending Russian tanks into Hungary in 1956 to put down the workers revolution as a good thing, the Tankies on the graph. Mujeres Libres was an organisation of anarchist women that formed during the Spanish Civil War and Revolution in part because of the way the marginalisation of women continued within the anarchist CNT union.
The term intersectionality refers to the way people’s multiple identities intersect to create a whole that is not simply the sum of the component identities. The experience of oppression a black woman faces is not simply the addition of being black and being a woman, but also contains additional components from being at the intersection of those two oppressions. Although it largely developed as a critique of white feminism, it also provided a critique of a common tendency on the left to see unity as being best achieved behind a single working class identity. That almost inevitably became the identity of the straight white man, the literal image of ‘the worker’ found in so much left iconography in less copped on times.
** Shorthand & Legacy
Shorthand always has the problem that it is a simplification of a more complicated situation. In this case it lumps into three distinct groups what will actually be a spectrum of opinions along two distinct axes. And the differences at the extremes within each of those groups may be almost as large as the differences between each of the groups. That problem is also a necessary cost of political clarification and organisations. All left organisations, unless they are simply cults, are groups of people who have different opinions but have agreed to join an organisation that has a collective opinion which will never be absolutely identical to theirs. We need to group together in this manner to achieve more than the sum of our parts, one person can’t put out a newspaper (unless they are very wealthy) but 100 people can by pooling resources. Left groups were often defined by ‘the paper’ for just this reason.
In the past those groupings within the left have often defined themselves using shorthand around personalities. Trotskyism V Stalinism for instance where the personalities stood in for a range of opinions that person held including socialism in one country, social fascism, permanent revolution etc. The emerging categories used here are just as real as those earlier broad divisions and describe the modern world and modern left more usefully. The old divisions don’t map neatly onto one or the other, anarchists tend to be Intersectional but there are certainly some that are Nostalgic. Marxist-Leninists are often Nostalgic but many are Intersectional.
It’s certainly possible to sit down and trace a thread through anarchist movements and thinkers to make the claim that (some) anarchists were always ‘intersectional’ but others, including important movements and thinkers were not. To us such anarchists were inconsistent in a way that would have stopped them achieving anarchism so although we think anarchists have to be intersectional we are not adopting the term ‘intersectional anarchism’ as this would suggest you could have a consistent non-intersectional anarchism.
Used here in the sense of something that sounds nice but can never happen because of the nature of capitalism which creates and reproduces oppression as part of the machinery of exploitation.