Intersectionality is a Hole to Bury Capitalism In

Recently Bruce Dixon wrote a column for Black Agenda Report that targets intersectionality and Afro-pessimism as two philosophical orientations that are to the detriment of the American “Left” (if such a thing actually exists at this moment). I wanted to try to develop a response here based around a notion that I call class-based intersectionality, a praxis that can and should articulate a rebuttal to both Dixon and neoliberal identity politics.

Let’s begin with some preliminary theses on this matter.

First, neoliberalism undeniably and totally has co-opted the language, vocabulary, and grammar of the postcolonial liberation struggles and solidarity movements that were the forte of the New Left half a century ago. Mandela, Arafat, and Clinton each, in their own ways, were tri-continental figureheads of this co-opting. Each had a moment in the sun as opponents of Western imperialism (admittedly Bubba was a pale comparison to the former two in his youth but his rad-chic credentials as a staffer on George McGovern’s quixotic presidential campaign were enough of a pass in the ’90s when his presidency streamlined and created the hegemony of neoliberalism that Reagan never could) before becoming collaborators with finance capitalism. As such, we need a new language and a new praxis. Does intersectionality provide such a set of tool? I would argue it can be a part of this new framework if the basic cornerstone is class-based. I will accede to Dixon that intersectionality divorced from a material and therefore class basis does function as a new form of identity politics and that is part and parcel of this usurping of the language, vocabulary, and grammar of the postcolonial liberation struggles and solidarity movements. But that does not negate the possibility of such a class-based intersectionality.

Second, intersectionality can and does have a class basis. Indeed, in its preliminary form it functions as a critique of class-based violence. The original formulation was offered in a paper by Kimberlé Crenshaw titled Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics using an analysis of the case DeGraffenreid v General Motors. She wrote:

In DeGraffenreid, five Black women brought suit against General Motors, alleging that the employer’s seniority system perpetuated the effects of past discrimination against Black women. Evidence adduced at trial revealed that General Motors simply did not hire Black women prior to 1964 and that all of the Black women hired after 1970 lost their jobs in a seniority-based layoff during a subsequent recession. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendant, rejecting the plaintiffs’ attempt to bring a suit not on behalf of Blacks or women, but specifically on behalf of Black women… Although General Motors did not hire Black women prior to 1964, the court noted that “General Motors has hired…female employees for a number of years prior to the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”‘ Because General Motors did hire women-albeit white women-during the period that no Black women were hired, there was, in the court’s view, no sex discrimination that the seniority system could conceivably have perpetuated. After refusing to consider the plaintiffs’ sex discrimination claim, the court dismissed the race discrimination complaint and recommended its consolidation with another case alleging race discrimination against the same employer. The plaintiffs responded that such consolidation would defeat the purpose of their suit since theirs was not purely a race claim, but an action brought specifically on behalf of Black women alleging race and sex discrimination. [Emphasis in original]

I point this passage out and quote at length because Dixon writes in response

Intersectionality doesn’t deny the existence of class struggle, it just rhetorically demotes it to something co-equal with the fights against ableism and ageism and speciesism, against white supremacy, against gender oppression, and a long elastic list of others. What’s sneaky about the substitution of intersectionality for solidarity is that intersectionality allows the unexamined smuggling in of multiple notions which directly undermine the development and the operation of solidarity.

This is where my difference with Dixon begins and where my first conclusions derived from the previous theses start. What Crenshaw offered first and foremost was a case of class-based oppression. In the legal sense of that term (meaning the use of the word in the phrase ‘class action’), it is defined as “all those persons in the same category, level of rights (e.g. heirs of dead person who are related by the same degree), or who have suffered from the same incident. Whether a person is part of a class is often crucial in determining who can sue on behalf of the people who have been similarly damaged or collect his/her share if a class action judgment is given.” The Marxist definition provided by the Marxist Internet Archive is “a group of people sharing common relations to labor and the means of production.” There is enough overlap here to justify a comparison because the divergence occurs only in the concluding logic of each definition, meaning the difference between the legal word and the Marxist word returns to Rosa Luxemburg’s query, reform or revolution.

As an aside unrelated to these matters at hand, Dixon dismisses Crenshaw as a scholar in an off-hand manner because “[a]s a legal theory [intersectionality] hasn’t gained a lot of traction.” Such a statement contains within it a basic and mistaken perspective on legal scholarship being a field that is not equivalent to the liberal arts humanities in their standing as locations where praxis can and sometimes is formulated. In fact legal scholarship not only is a location where Left praxis can be formulated, it is where scholars like Prof. David Abraham have ended up building their career after being chased out of the humanities by anti-Communist red hunts. Abraham in particular was exiled from the historical profession after his neo-Marxist history of Weimar Germany and the ascent of the Nazis caused a stir within the mainstream currents of the profession and now teaches law in Miami while also doing lectures on German history occasionally. Perhaps it also bears mentioning that Lenin himself was a lawyer and devoted hours to studying tsarist legal codes so to find locations to emphasize contradictions in Russian society? It is undeniable that there are plenty of scholars who use tenure as a protective shield to perpetuate ultra-left nonsense or build sectarian cults around themselves. But there are also scholars like Gerald Horne, who incidentally used to be a lawyer.

I would further point out here that, for the record, it is not like the Left had a stellar record during the last century regarding anti-oppression work and formulating a praxis that was not at moments homophobic, misogynist, or even bigoted on the inter-personal level. Gus Hall, the longtime chair of the Communist Party USA, was a bit of a sociopath and was cited by Gil Green for anti-Black racism in an interview with Anders Stephanson. Frantz Fanon’s classic Black Skin White Masks was derived from his own personal experiences of racism in the French Resistance during the Second World War. The South African Communist Party had as an early slogan “Workers of the world, unite and fight for a white South Africa!” Eugene V. Debs refused to address the Socialist Party analysis specifically towards what the later Communist Party USA called the national question, at one point saying “We have nothing special to offer the Negro, and we cannot make separate appeals to all the races.” Finally, need much more than a passing reference be offered regarding Stalin’s insane moments of uniting with Nazism and Italian Fascism in the decade prior to Operation Barbarossa, from Soviet commerce and trade with Mussolini to the impact of the Comintern’s Third Period on the German Communists? If there be a place for serious improvement in these matters, it is the formulation of an inter-personal anti-oppression praxis that goes beyond the realm of Maoist struggle sessions or ANC Truth and Reconciliation efforts so to implement true methods of reparation for genocide, slavery, and other forms of chauvinism. In closing to this first conclusion, I would emphasize that the polar north of a class-based intersectionality is fundamentally low-income single Black mothers. It is by centering praxis upon their plight that one reaches a true watermark where a rising tide would genuinely lift all ships.

My second conclusion comes from a recent article by Noel Ignatiev titled Rainbow Coalition or Class War? :

Why, when the task is to unite the laborers, focus on the things that divide them? Doesn’t it make more sense to focus on the grievances they have in common, their common subordination to the banks, railroads and corrupt public officials? The answer is, no, it does not. History shows it does not. This sort of false unity always leaves the black worker on the bottom. It is black and white together on the picket line, and after the strike is over the white workers return to the skilled trades, the machining departments and the cleaner assembly areas, and the black workers return to the labor gang, the coke plant and the open hearth. Every “victory” of this kind feeds the poison of white supremacy and pushes further off the real unity of the working class… The only way to overcome the divisions within the working class is to confront them directly. The problem of white supremacy must be fought out openly within the working class. Without a direct challenge to the race differential and to the institutions that reproduce it, all denunciations of white supremacy and all appeals for working-class unity are empty words. In fact, they may do more harm than good…

This point is a deeply important one that demonstrates conclusively to me that class-based intersectional feminism is an essential tool for liberation.

What role Afro-pessimism can and should play alongside class-based intersectionality is difficult and perhaps improper for me to comment upon. In brief, I would point out that Afro-pessimism can serve as a substantial critique of liberalism and progressivism, two political philosophies that promote the march of the Industrial Revolution and progress in a fashion which excuses genocide. I think that an Afro-pessimist critique of the right wing elements of the Green Party is certainly in order, particularly following what I have seen since November 2016. But beyond these casual observations where I see interesting discussions being possible, it is not my place to tell a Black person how to think philosophically when confronting white supremacy and settler colonialism.

I would close here with the quote of Aime Cesaire, ‘There is room enough for all at the rendezvous of victory’. It is my view that class-based intersectional feminism creates that space for everyone.

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.