Capital’s New Face is Intersectional

To celebrate this past International Women’s Month, Pipeline Equity’s CEO Katica Roy has been promoting the company’s proprietary SaaS platform using artificial intelligence to assess and address intersectional inequity (the overlap of multiple identities- race, gender, sexuality, etc) in business hiring, pay, and promotion practices.

In its promotional materials, Pipeline announced that its customers saw a “65% increase in their intersectional equity progress” within the first three months of using their platform. The company cited a “massive economic opportunity to the tune of $12 trillion globally” for companies when addressing workplace intersectional inequity- for every 10% increase in intersectional gender equity, an increase of 1-2% in revenue.

Even the Big Three, or the three largest management consulting firms for Fortune 500 companies, McKinsey & Company, Boston Consulting Group, and Bain & Company, are all advocating for the $7.5 billion DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) industry to shift to an intersectional or multiple identities analysis in the businesses’ DEI practices.

From social justice warriors, to Hollywood actors, to multi-billion-dollar companies- everyone’s talking about how we need to be more “intersectional.” The question is- for us regular people- will a theory and analysis of intersectionality help us to liberate ourselves from and eliminate oppression by race, gender, sexuality, and economic exploitation?

Intersectionality as the coda to the class-reductionist v race-reductionist brawl?

Recall when on the 2016 Democratic primary campaign trail Hillary Clinton attacked Bernie Sanders as a “single issue candidate.”? As reported by NBC News:

“Not everything is about an economic theory, right?” Clinton said, kicking off a long, interactive riff with the crowd at a union hall this afternoon. “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow – and I will if they deserve it, if they pose a systemic risk, I will – would that end racism?”

“No!” the audience yelled back.

Clinton continued to list scenarios, asking: “Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community? Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?”

The spar continued between Bernie supporters and antiracist activists. Antiracist activists denounced Sanders and his supporters as class reductionists- disrespectful in dismissing identity-based inequities in the claims that social welfare programs, such as universal healthcare or free public education would address gender and racial oppression. The DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) and Sanders supporters accused antiracist activists of being race-reductionists- delusional in the belief that addressing racism first would solve income inequality. According to the class reductionists, race, gender, sexuality, etc, only affect particular groups within the population, while class, usually perceived as an economic problem, cuts across all groups. After all, whatever identities you have, you have to eat and survive.This economic determination worldview is shared among progressives as a path to bring together a divided America.

While Sanders continued to fumble his responses when asked whether race or class was more important,  Clinton pronounced herself as the “intersectional” candidate- and not a “single issue candidate,” using the rhetoric of identity politics and privilege. Of course, all while amassing $204 million in Super PAC money.

The theory of intersectionality entered the mainstream during the 2017 Women’s March, and in 2018, during his second bid for presidency, Sanders shifted his answer to the class vs race question to conclude: “It’s’ not either-or. It’s never either-or. It’s both… It is also addressing the special problem of racism, of sexism, of homophobia, etc.”

Has the term been perverted?

Legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw originally coined the term “intersectionality” in a 1989 paper, entitled “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex,”  but many of Crenshaw’s ideas echo ideas from Bell Hook’s 1981 book Ain’t I A Woman and Angela Davis’ book Women, Race, and Class, published in the same year. Both Hooks and Davis argue that black women are marginalized from the feminist movement, which centered its demands around white middle class women. In the same vein, black women are marginalized from the antiracist movement, which used the struggle against racism to justify and supersede demands to address sexism. In her 1989 paper, Crenshaw applied these theories to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) cases, calling for antidiscrimination laws to consider not only either racial discrimination or gender discrimination separately- but both at the same time. Failure to do so, she argued, marginalized black women who did not fall neatly in an either/ or category, and favored the relative privileges of white women and black men, and in turn, denied restitution for the discrimination faced by black women.

Since entering the mainstream lexicon in 2017, activists have broadened the idea of intersectionality to fight oppression by physical ability, nationality, citizenship, partisan identification, body size, education level, elongating those check your privilege walks you practice in our workplaces and schools. The term has been applied to fields as diverse as films, fashion, and art.

While Crenshaw notes that intersectionality has become muddled as a “blanket term to mean ‘Well, it’s complicated,’” perhaps the reason why its usage has been able to become so perverted from its original intent is because the theory was never liberatory to begin with.

Intersectional exploitation 

The problem with the theory of intersectionality is that it treats class, race, gender, sexuality, etc, as one and the same, turning individuals into either victims of their multiple identities or, at best, facilitating their access into the halls of power.

In one example, amid its union-busting campaign, Starbucks has boasted of its “intersectional practices” with half of its 11-member board being people of color and nearly half being women. Besides this, the company has announced it aims to achieve 30% BIPOC representation at their corporate levels and 40% in their retail and manufacturing roles by 2025. The company has also committed to increasing its annual spending with “diverse suppliers”  to $1.5 billion by 2030. (Last year, the company was exposed for working with Guatemalan suppliers who worked children as young as 8 years old for more than 40-hours a week to pick their coffee beans.)

Starbucks is quickly transforming its profit-making strategies to meet the demands of intersectionality. So if you have intersectional identities, you have the equal opportunity to be exploited or become the exploiter, domestically or internationally. Those are your choices within the framework of intersectionality.

In another example, last year the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) released a video recruitment ad depicting a Latina CIA employee nicknamed “Mija.” In the video, Mija celebrates the CIA’s promotion of her identities as she says, “a woman of color,” “a daughter of immigrants,” “bilingual,” “a cisgender millennial diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder,” and finally-  “an intersectional.” The video received a lot of flack for using progressive language as “woke bait.” But the reality is, in the wake of intersectionality, Fortune 500 companies and even the CIA are realizing that in order to deepen the exploitation at home and abroad, they need intersectional representatives, structural changes- that replaces who  sits at the head of a company or government- to maintain and legitimize their acts. After all, it’s much more difficult to rally people against imperialist wars abroad or union-busting campaigns at home when capital’s representative is Mija, and not another old white man.

The narrow economism of today’s class, racial, and gender equality demands 

When most people speak of class, they speak of it as an economic issue, solved with more money, more pay, more jobs. What’s overlooked is the reality that our system, built on exploitation, is perpetrated by violence, a violence that works people to death by robbing them of their health, their family, their lives, through exacting long work hours at work or impossible workloads.

Racism, sexism and other forms of oppressions have historically made such violence socially acceptable. For example, it is no coincidence that grueling, inhumane 24-hour workdays can exist- more than a century after the movement for the 8-hour workday- in the home care industry in New York City where most home attendants are immigrants and women of color. Instead of denouncing the 24-hour workday, local progressives and even the workers’ own union 1199 SEIU are advocating for more money- not for workers, but for bosses who they argue don’t have the money to pay the workers. An end to this violence? Well, it can wait until the bosses make even more money off the back of the workers.

Thus, likewise, when most people speak of racial and gender oppression, they also speak of the problem as an economic issue, solved with more money. This thinking is embraced by the Biden administration which, perceived as the champion for race and gender equities, advocates for a minimum-wage increase and more public investments in social welfare programs. It has been incorporated harmoniously within the intersectionality framework.

Both the narrow economist view of class exploitation and racial and gender oppression, coupled withthe primacy of structural over systemic changes coincide in the theory of intersectionality and keeps workers chasing the illusion that liberation comes when one is equal to the white, male, cis-gendered worker. On the other hand, white, male, cis-gendered people without any identities to intersect are pitted against other workers. They either become nominal  “allies” to other workers  or shift further right, angry at a “new hierarchy” that has them “at the bottom of the totem pole,” angry that they are passed over for more exploitable immigrants and women of color.

There is a difference between economic demands- demands based on the belief that the best we can do is negotiate a higher value for our labor under a system of exploitation and political demands- demands that unify the working class so that workers collectively have the power to control the way they live and work. For example, home health care workers today are leading the fight against the 24-hour workday,  and exposing how racism and sexism are used to rob workers of their health and their lives. Instead of merely settling for more jobs, higher wages or stolen wages for themselves, these workers are uniting other workers, across race and gender to fight for control over our time.

Superexploitation as a liberatory analysis 

It is an analysis of super-exploitation- not intersectionality- that will move us forward towards liberatory political demands.

Within a theoretical framework of super-exploitation, oppression by race, gender, and sexuality do not just meet at the intersection of class exploitation, but rather they deepen exploitation by creating an underclass or sub-classes– layers within the exploited class that the ruling class can super-exploit- pay less, work harder, work longer, so they can amass even greater profits. As long as there is super-exploitation, capital will use this underclass of workers to divide the working class and pit them against one another to undercut conditions for all workers. Every worker loses in this race to the bottom, and so every worker, even white, male, cis-gender, workers have a stake in eliminating racist and sexist oppression, to fight against super-exploitation, to bring about unity and build power for the working class.

In Racecraft historian Barbara Fields criticizes as ahistorical the idea that slavery, as an economic institution, stemmed from the ideology of white supremacy,“as though the chief business of slavery… were the production of white supremacy rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice, and tobacco.” She describes instead how it was the need to super-exploit labor, to quickly extract superprofits from agricultural production, that gave rise to our country’s racist ideology. The racist ideology was developed through time and then embedded in structures of power to maintain and reproduce an economic system of exploitation and the accumulation of super-profits for white planters. Black women during slavery, who were forced to work in the fields and birth and care for the next generation of slaves, faced an additional layer of exploitation.

Theorists from Althusser to Gramsci have stressed that ideologies, such as racism and sexism are developed to meet the needs of capital. But in turn, in order to preserve its profits, capital must also adapt when mainstream ideologies change; thus, capital’s adoption of intersectionality. So, if we deem ideologies as ahistorical and natural, for example, if we assume that the foundation of our social evils is patriarchal white supremacy, then how do we fight? What can we fight for except to be treated like the white man? Do we dare dream for more?

The working class needs an ideological framework independent from that of the ruling class. Armed with a theory of super-exploitation, working people can fight not just in opposition to racism, sexism, and homophobia, but to eliminate these oppressions. We need not be perpetual servants begging for more crumbs, nor aspire to transform from servant to master. Instead, we should organize to become the masters of our own collective destiny- to control how we live and work.

If we realize what the 1% already knows- that capital must don an intersectional face in order to continue to rule and amass super-profits, then we must unmask their new ideological weapon and unite the working class across all identities to eliminate super-exploitation.

Josephine Lee is a Houston-based educator and organizer with previous works published in Truthout, Salon, The Daily Beast, and other outlets. Zishun Ning is NYC-based organizer and member of the collective Pointed, and has previous works published in City Limits, The Indypendent, and Common Dreams.