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What It Means to Put Class First

Analysts of capitalist society who give primacy to class relations—sometimes branded “class firsters”—have been met with a mix of false and contradictory charges. Michael Yates’s CounterPunch (12/24/18) essay, based on his book Can the Working Class Change the World? (Monthly Review Press, 2018), is a good example of this muddled criticism. Yates’s piece warrants a close look for two reasons: first, unlike “race reductionists” who tend to operate without a structural analysis of capitalism, Yates explicitly offers such an analysis; and second, by sorting out where he goes wrong, it might be possible to find a way forward.

One of Yates’s key points, reiterated multiple times, is that capitalism, racism, and sexism “cannot be separated.” Racism and patriarchy, Yates says, are “essential features” of capitalism; along with ecological destruction, racism and patriarchy are “fundamental to capitalism.” In his book, Yates suggests (p. 79), invoking W. E. B. Du Bois, that it is not even possible to imagine a non-racist, non-sexist capitalism. In light of this insistence on the ontological inseparability of capitalism, racism, and sexism, it rings odd, then, when Yates criticizes class-firsters for failing to see that “to some extent, race and gender are independent of class.”

Aside from the apparent contradiction between claims that race/racism and gender/sexism are both inseparable from and independent of class, there are two problems here. One is that the people Yates identifies as class-firsters—most notably Adolph Reed; though perhaps with Walter Benn Michaels also in mind—don’t at all fail to see that race and gender, as systems of inequality, are “to some extent, independent of class.” Indeed, this is part of what they’ve been arguing.

The class-first argument, as made by Reed, Michaels, and others, is not that sexism and racism are unimportant, tolerable, or likely to be swept away by social democratic reforms. The argument, in brief, is that ending sexist and racist discrimination, as worthy a goal as this is, won’t end the inequality and suffering created by capitalist class relations. It would be possible, the argument goes, to end sexist and racist discrimination and still be left with vast inequalities in wealth and power—a rainbow capitalist society that affords a more diverse group of people the opportunity to dominate and exploit others. A further result might be, as Michaels has argued, a reinforcement of class relations because, absent the barriers of discrimination, greater blame could be placed on those who fail to get ahead.

The reason, then, to foreground capitalist class relations is not that the suffering caused by racism and sexism is less severe than the suffering caused by economic deprivation. Rather, it’s a matter of getting to the root of things: an economic system that fosters status differences to legitimate the exploitation of targeted groups; that uses these differences to divide and weaken the working class; that encourages discrimination and opportunity hoarding as ways to seek advantage and protect economic interests; that inherently undermines democracy; and that delivers the fruits of human labor to a tiny few at the expense of the many. It’s a matter of attacking causes rather than symptoms, without dismissing the importance of relieving those symptoms.

To suggest that recognizing the foundational importance of class relations means not taking racism and sexism seriously is unfair; class relations are a problem in part because they help perpetuate discrimination. It’s also unfair to suggest that those who emphasize class fail to see how capitalism is deeply connected to racism. Adolph Reed, in particular, has devoted a significant part of his scholarly work to examining precisely this connection. I suspect that this charge arises, as seems to be the case with Michael Yates, from confusing historical connections with theoretical ones.

It’s clear when looking at the North American case that racism and capitalism developed hand in hand. Capital accumulation, in both the North and South, was aided by or largely dependent on the brutal exploitation of people of African descent. It’s also clear that the ideologies of racial inferiority created to legitimate slavery, as well as the laws and institutions created to enforce the continuing subordination of Blacks, Native Americans, and other people of color, shaped what capitalism became in the United States. And so if historians and other analysts of race and capitalism say that US capitalism is thoroughly inflected by racism, to the point of being what can be called “racialized capitalism,” there is little room, based on historical actuality, to object.

But Yates, in criticizing the class-firsters, does not merely say that capitalism and racism in the US are intertwined as a matter of history. He says, as noted earlier, that they are inseparable; that racism and sexism are essential to capitalism; and that capitalism is unimaginable without racism and sexism. From an analytic standpoint, and from a wider historical vantage, this is incorrect. Moreover, it is important both theoretically and practically to distinguish capitalist class relations from racism and sexism.

The defining features of capitalist class relations are capitalist control of the means of production and, by virtue of this control, the exploitation of wage workers to generate profit. There must of course be people whose minds and bodies are available to be exploited, and this exploitation, if it is going to last, must be ideologically legitimated. This is where racism and sexism come into play. Both can be used to create vulnerable others and justify exploitation; but neither is essential. Economic dispossession—as in Britain prior to the Industrial Revolution—can create a working class. And other status inequalities—based, for example, on ethnicity or religion—can be (and have been) used to justify the exploitation of workers, as well as their civic and political subordination.

Recognizing that capitalist exploitation can be analytically separated from racism and sexism, and that racism isn’t necessary for capitalism to function, carries an important implication: racist and sexist discrimination could be eradicated while leaving capitalism intact. Economic exploitation could survive, inequalities in wealth and power could grow, even in the absence of race and gender hierarchies. As long as a sufficiently large group of people could be exploited, and this practice could be legitimated on some ideological grounds, class society would be preserved. This is another point that class-first analysts, as I understand them, have been trying to make.

To be clear, Yates and others are right that the solidarity needed to transform capitalist society requires combatting racism and sexism. So anti-racist and anti-sexist efforts can’t be postponed until capitalism is transcended, because these efforts are necessary to achieve that goal. Racism and sexism are also morally wrong and harmful in themselves, and for these reasons ought to be opposed—now, not later. But analysts who appear to put class first do not deny these points. Their critique is not of anti-racist and anti-sexist work per se, but of such work that does not directly oppose—and even appears to accept—the fundamental class relations that cause the greatest suffering for working people in all social categories.

The what-comes-first or what-is-more-fundamental debate is old and perhaps inevitable whenever exploitive economic arrangements are combined with oppression based on status differences. It’s understandable that people in the most marginalized or least-privileged groups want relief from what feels like their immediate source of pain—no matter what anybody else’s theory says is more basic to a society’s core dynamics. I suspect that part of the reason this debate has become such a mire today is that the discourse of intersectionality masks a failure to think seriously about class even while regularly invoking it as an evil on par with racism and sexism.

Casual reference to “race, class, and gender” as the three major systems of inequality on which industrial capitalist societies are built, or claiming to look at inequality through an “intersectional lens,” creates the impression of having thought about how these systems work together. The problem, however, is that this lens has come to give a clearer view of racism and sexism than of class. Which is why intersectionalists so easily slide into speaking of fighting “racism, sexism, and classism.” This phraseology tends to reduce all three to matters of prejudice, most perilously obscuring the nature of class as a set of institutionalized relationships among groups that control greater or fewer economic resources and opportunities.

Without a structural conception of class and an understanding of how racism and sexism arise from and fuel economic exploitation, talk of intersectionality remains analytically shallow and politically stunted. It can even lead to delusions, such as thinking that opposing “classism,” which is just another name for elitism, is equivalent to opposing capitalism. What thus gets lost is the class-first insight that ending interpersonal bigotry won’t, by itself, alter capitalist class relations, challenge capitalist domination of the state, or even reduce overall economic inequality.

Unlike intersectionalists who lack a structural understanding of class relations, Michael Yates looks at capitalist society from a Marxist perspective and would, I presume, accept most of the class analysis I’ve offered above. Much the same analysis, minus the points I’ve disputed, is laid out in Can the Working Class Change the World? And much of what Yates calls for (see chapter 6) by way of change points squarely at the economy and the state. So why is there a problem here? Why sharpen the divide between Left analysts who are, in the long run, seeking the same social transformations?

Perhaps criticizing those who center the analysis of class relations is a backhanded way to attract readers who might be put off if racism and sexism are not foregrounded. Perhaps it is just what one must do to appeal to a generation of activists raised on the language of intersectionality but with only cultural notions of what class is or how it works. Perhaps for some critics of class-firsters—and here I exclude Yates—the unspoken objection is that putting class into question goes too far, threatening their own class position and privileges. For these critics, liberal intersectionality, focusing mainly on racism and sexism, is okay; radical intersectionality, treating class itself as a problem, is not.

It’s a dispiriting irony that analysts who try to expose the roots of inequality in capitalist class relations should have to fend off criticism from the Left. Some of this criticism, as I’ve suggested, is driven by a popular discourse of intersectionality that invokes class in a superficial way. Some of the criticism is just wrong, especially suggestions that class analysts don’t care about the myriad forms of discrimination and injustice that capitalism generates. What they care about, and I count myself in this company, is what ought to unite us: a desire to uproot an evil tree and not be content merely to prune its branches.

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Michael Schwalbe is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at MLSchwalbe@nc.rr.com

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