Intersectionality is a dead end
Sections of the left are beginning to cotton on to the extent to which ‘identity politics’ and ‘intersectionality’ are neoliberal projects, argues Mike Macnair. But they do not yet offer a clear alternative
Science and Society, the theoretical journal associated with the Communist Party USA, in its latest issue (April 2018) carries a symposium on ‘intersectionality’ from “Marxist-feminist” points of view, with short pieces by Hester Eisenstein, Martha E Gimenez, Barbara Foley, Lise Vogel and Shana A Russell.1
S&S is not alone in interrogating the issue. The website ‘nonsite.org’ titles its issue No23 (February 2018) “Naturalizing class relations”.2 The introduction by Kenneth Warren sees the issue as seeking
to lay out, as clearly and as programmatically as we could, the reasons why, despite protestations to the contrary, anti-racism - understood as insisting on the symmetry of fighting discrimination and fighting exploitation - suppresses the development of a working class politics rather than offering a road to it.
Adolph Reed junior’s ‘Black politics after 2016’ is a particularly trenchant account of the history and the way in which ‘anti-racism’ is deployed as a form of red-baiting against attempts to raise class politics.
Meanwhile, Verso in May this year published Asad Haider’s Mistaken identity: race and class in the age of Trump. I have not yet got a copy of this book, but it has been favourably reviewed in The Guardian, and Haider has been interviewed on The Intercept,3 as well as writing in Viewpoint Magazine (of which he is executive editor) on related issues.4 Though this paper should review the book, there is probably enough coverage available to get a sense of the argument for present purposes.
There are certainly other critiques. Googling “intersectionality critiques” produces 136,000 hits; limiting the search to the last year still produces 230. “Identity politics Marxist critique” produces 138,000, with 220 in the last year.5
However, the interventions of S&S, nonsite.org and Haider are interesting because they seem to reflect a dawning awareness that ‘intersectionality’ and ‘identity politics’ might in fact be neoliberal political traps, in the wake of Trump’s election victory and that of the Republicans in 2016, and of the Clintonistas’ deployment of identity politics against the Sanders movement. “White identity politics” produces 465,000 hits, with 280 in the last year, while “Christian identity politics” brings up 765,000, 230 in the last year ...
This partial recognition is thus perhaps a limited step forward for at least the US left (the British left is still catching up with the process of stupefying itself with US intersectionality arguments from two decades ago, even while the ‘anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt displays their real meaning).
But in fact the S&S, nonsite and Haider critiques of intersectionality all in one way or another remain stuck with aspects of the common problems of the ideas of the left: either misunderstandings of what the idea of class politics is about or clinging to practices of undue politeness - a kind of ‘united front’ self-censorship derived ultimately from Gyorgi Dimitrov’s arguments at the 7th Congress of Comintern; or assumptions of single-issue campaigning and ‘movements’, which leave out of account the question of party, and hence would in practice be actually trapped in the intersectionalists’ inability to take decisions about priorities.
In order to do justice to these issues, this article will be divided into two parts. This one will focus on the origins of the ‘intersectionality’ concept and the Science and Society symposium. The second will look more at the nonsite.org and Haider critiques, and go a bit further into general issues.
The term ‘intersectionality’ was coined by black feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. Born in 1959, Crenshaw is just a little too young to have been an active participant in the leftwing feminist and/or black movements of the early to mid-1970s. She is in her higher education a child of the opening up of the elite universities in the 1960s-70s: she got her BA in ‘Africana and government’ at Cornell in 1981, her JD (law degree) at Harvard in 1984, and LLM (postgraduate law degree) at Wisconsin in 1985; she then clerked for a senior Wisconsin judge, before getting her first teaching job at the University of California in 1986.
She may have used ‘intersectionality’ earlier, but a standard reference is her 1989 law review article, ‘Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: a black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics’.6 The first part of this article is an analysis of court decisions on US anti-discrimination law, which allowed employers to argue that they were not discriminating against black women either because they treated white women better or because they treated black men better.
The term ‘intersectionality’ reflects this specific context: it is taken, not from the relationship between different oppressed sections of society (as it is now commonly understood), but from the ‘intersection’, the road junction, reflecting the position of black women as injured by both the racist and the sexist streams of traffic, travelling in different directions and colliding.
It is perhaps a result of a British academic lawyer’s assumptions that I found it surprising that Crenshaw explained these decisions by an ‘intersectional’ gap in the legislation, rather than as fairly obvious examples of artificial reasoning animated by judicial bias in favour of employers.7
The second part of her article is addressed to feminist theory. Crenshaw comments:
When feminist theory attempts to describe women’s experiences through analysing patriarchy, sexuality or separate-spheres ideology, it often overlooks the role of race. Feminists thus ignore how their own race functions to mitigate some aspects of sexism and, moreover, how it often privileges them over and contributes to the domination of other women. Consequently, feminist theory remains white, and its potential to broaden and deepen its analysis by addressing non-privileged women remains unrealised (p154).
The citations are, understandably, to academically ‘reputable’ literature. The less respectable antecedents of this argument, growing out of the ‘western Maoist’ version of labour aristocracy theory, and its role in the processes of self-destruction of the ‘liberation movements’ through sectarianism in the 1970s, disappear. It is possible that Crenshaw, given her age and geographical background, was only indirectly aware of the leftwing antecedents, and of the splits, which will have appeared only in small-press ephemera.
More widely cited is Crenshaw’s 1991 article, ‘Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color,’8 probably because the issue of violence against women had become so central to radical feminism in the 1980s (as contrasted with the ‘economic’ concerns of the 1970s left). The core of this article is a complex and careful study of the double-oppression aspects of race and gender in the contexts of rape and domestic violence, analysed in terms of structural intersectionality, political intersectionality (conflicts of organised feminism and organised anti-racism) and representational intersectionality (cultural figures of violence).
While this article does not show the same plain blindness to the judicial pursuit of capitalist class interests that appears in the 1989 piece, there are aspects of the 1991 account in which race fairly clearly serves as a proxy for poverty and all its consequences. By doing so, again class inequality as a category tends to disappear.
The conclusion includes the comment:
… intersectionality might be more broadly useful as a way of mediating the tension between assertions of multiple identity and the ongoing necessity of group politics. It is helpful in this regard to distinguish intersectionality from the closely related perspective of anti-essentialism, from which women of colour have critically engaged white feminism - for the absence of women of colour, on the one hand, and for speaking for women of colour, on the other. One rendition of this anti-essentialist critique - that feminism essentialises the category ‘woman’ - owes a great deal to the postmodernist idea that categories we consider natural or merely representational are actually socially constructed in a linguistic economy of difference. While the descriptive project of postmodernism of questioning the ways in which meaning is socially constructed is generally sound, this critique sometimes misreads the meaning of social construction and distorts its political relevance ... (p1296).
This nod to postmodernism - followed by a defence of identity politics against “vulgar constructionism” - helped to make the 1991 version ‘take off’ among ‘postmodern’ lefts and feminists (along with the use of violence against women as the core exemplar). It fits, again, with the disappearance of class as an explanatory category.
In Crenshaw’s account in these articles, intersectionality is primarily the condition of being affected by double forms of oppression, which standard single-issue politics fails to engage: “The problem with identity politics is not that it fails to transcend difference, as some critics charge, but rather the opposite - that it frequently conflates or ignores intra-group differences” (p1242).
The problem with this approach is that - as with the US left use of double oppression in the 1970s, which tended to reduce the movement to gravel - it precludes the possibility of solidarity. This matters little for a law review article, because radical lawyers are precisely seeking ‘saviours from on high’ (the judges) to deliver their clients from oppression - not collective action, and hence do not require solidarity.
What ‘intersectionality’ has become in general is something broader than Crenshaw’s use, but still with the same vices. It is a combination of the claim to pre-emptively and exclusively ‘speak to’ one’s own oppression on the basis of personal experience; and hence to a veto of any collective statement by the larger group, which might be taken as adverse to the particular group.
Conversely, it implies that every resolution or public statement must engage all sections. And, though class may be admitted to the ‘sections’, in the sense of admitting that the working class forms an oppressed section, the ruling class is still ‘disappeared’.
Science and Society
The S&S symposium is introduced by Hester Eisenstein, author of Feminism seduced: how global elites use women’s labor and ideas to exploit the world (2009). “I do not want to crush intersectionality, but rather pay tribute to it,” she says (p256). Since liberal-imperialist/globalist versions of feminism are Eisenstein’s primary target, it is perhaps understandable that she should be relatively sympathetic to ‘black feminism’, as countering ‘white feminism’. But in fact Eisenstein’s piece also genuflects in the direction of the ‘white feminism’ of famous early 1970s feminist authors: “the habit of referring to ‘all women’ was a dominant part of the classic writings ... And indeed such a trope was, one can argue, a necessary part of the struggle to differentiate gender as a category of analysis ...” (p249).
And the resulting discussion is distinctly ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’. Eisenstein has “hesitations about intersectionality”, which include that it “undermines the primacy of class” (p255); but, on the other hand, likes some current academic research being done in an ‘intersectionality’ framework (pp257-58).
Martha E Gimenez is considerably more robust: “From the standpoint of Marxist theory, intersectionality is a powerful ideology that obscures the meaning and significance of class relations, even among those who should know better” (p263). But even here, too, there is a degree of undue deference. Gimenez argues (pp263-64) that:
when examining class at the level of analysis of the capitalist mode of production, it would make no sense to take into account gender, race or other forms of oppression. Class is identity-blind. Far from being an error, or a problem in need of correction, this ‘blindness’ indicates that the logic of class relations, exploitation and capital accumulation is indifferent to the individual characteristics of capitalists and workers.
And: “To make the point more concretely, female, black and ‘Hispanic’ capitalists cannot be expected to behave differently from their white male counterparts.”
However, she goes on to argue:
At the level of analysis of the social formation (eg, the United States), the aggregates of individuals sharing the same class location are divided in terms of a variety of criteria, such as gender, race, national origin, citizenship status, sexual orientation, marital status, ethnicity, religion, etc. To each of these divisions there corresponds an ideology that reifies these divisions ...
This particular version of the Althusserian division of analysis into levels of mode of production and ‘social formation’ has the effect of removing the analytic role of class to the abstract, since it is with the level of the social formation that operative politics will have to engage. Gimenez critiques what lies behind intersectionality: the earlier idea of the ‘trilogy’ of gender, race and class. But on this basis it is not clear why one should do so.
Gimenez in fact ends with reference to Mark Lilla’s identification of the racist right as an “identity movement” and with the entirely correct point that “The rise of nationalisms and extreme rightwing politics in Europe should alert us to the need to move beyond intersectionality, beyond identity politics; to end, once and for all, [what Ellen Meiksins Wood in 1986 called] the ‘retreat from class’” (p268).9 The problem is that the concession in the theory of ‘social formations’ undermines the theoretical force of these points.
Barbara Foley also starts with a hat tip: “Intersectionality addresses questions of vital importance to anyone - scholar or layperson - who is concerned with matters of injustice and committed to understanding the kinds of causality that give rise to the egregious inequalities pervading present-day society” (p269). Like Gimenez, she points to the idea of the ‘trilogy’ of gender, race and class as lying behind ‘intersectionality’. But she argues that, “while gender, race and class can be viewed as comparable subject positions, they in fact require very different analytical approaches” (p272).
She concludes that for “a comprehension of the causes of the social inequalities that grow more intense every day” (emphasis added) radical students “would do much better to seek analysis and remedy in an anti-racist, anti-sexist and internationalist revolutionary Marxism” (p274). True enough, but not terribly explanatory.
Lise Vogel’s 1983 Marxism and the oppression of women: towards a unitary theory was in 2013 reissued by Historical Materialism with a new introduction. It is one of the founding texts of ‘social reproduction theory’ as a way of approaching the oppression of women under capitalism.
Vogel’s piece in the symposium is addressed primarily to the standard historical narrative, under which the ‘second-wave feminism’ emerging in the late 1960s was monolithically white and middle class, and ‘intersectionality’ in the 1980s provided a challenge to this. She argues forcefully that this is a falsification of history; the race/class/gender ‘trilogy’ was already present in the 1960s, and probably part of CPUSA thinking, going back to ‘triple burden’ ideas in the 1930s-40s. She suggests that ‘intersectionality’ may have seemed more flexible - but it may also have been “much better to obscure the meaning in those conservative decades” (1980s-2000s).
She argues, as the other authors do to, that ‘intersectionality’ is descriptively useful, but lacks analytical value. Rather, “it is becoming possible, even acceptable, to recognise class as key, while at the same time incorporating analyses of other factors” (p283). As an example, she refers briefly to “social reproduction theory”.
Most of these authors are veterans: Hester Eisenstein, born 1940; Lise Vogel active in the civil rights movement in 1964-65; Martha Gimenez, MA 1969; Barbara Foley, born 1948. The last contribution is ‘A young scholar responds’ by Shana A Russell. Russell obtained her PhD (supervised by Foley) in 2015 on the highly ‘intersectional’ topic of ‘Domestic workers, sex workers and the movement: reimagining black working class resistance in the work of William Attaway, Richard Wright and Alice Childress, 1935-1960’.
She starts with the comment on ‘intersectionality’ that, when she first encountered it (as an MA student), she thought it “was simply another term for inclusivity” (p287). Like the other authors, she argues that the term may have descriptive, but not analytic, value. But she has rather more concrete objections to it: first, that in the movement it serves as “a sort of ideological gatekeeping”. What is being protected by this gatekeeping is also protected by a false origin story; and “This origin story assumes that each scholar would arrive at the same conclusion: that race, class and gender are intersectional and weighted equally.”
This story flattened out “productive intellectual tensions among black women scholars” (p288). Her archival work led her to a different story: of women workers for whom “what mattered … in this moment was their status as workers” (p290). And identity politics itself, in the civil rights movement and in the Black Panther Party, was influenced by versions of Marxism (p290).
Nonetheless, like the other authors, Russell cannot quite give up on the identity-politics method of approach:
… contemporary Marxist scholarship suffers from the problem of representation. While the majority of the world’s workers are people of colour, the most visible and celebrated theorists, past and present, are, with a few exceptions, white men ... Marxism’s answer to intersectionality should be to consider the ways that gender and race, as social dimensions of difference, broaden our understanding of capitalism and class exploitation” (p291).
As I said earlier, it is a problem of these critiques that they are too polite. I already indicated that Crenshaw’s original articles tended not merely to deprioritise class, but to erase class in contexts where it is profoundly important - judicial bias in favour of the ruling class; and issues of vulnerability, constrained by resources. In fact, the use of ‘intersectionality’ arguments as a defence of Zionism - arguing that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic and thus ‘hate speech’ - began on US campuses well before its recent appearance in the UK as a stick with which to beat the Labour left.
I am not arguing here for the use of abusive language or a sort of leftwing version of Trumpism. If anything, we already have too much trolling and trashing (usually anonymous or pseudonymous) on online fora of one sort and another. But there is a difference between vulgar abuse and fake news production, on the one hand, and, on the other, a clear expression of political differences in a way which brings out what the real choices are.
Here, the S&S symposium participants are hesitant to state clearly and upfront that the political path we have travelled with ‘identity politics’ over the last 40 years, and more recently with ‘intersectionality’, has turned out to be a political dead end, which leads to rightwing identitarianism (Trumpism, and so on), to the use of ‘intersectional’ gatekeeping in the interests of US foreign policy (the Zionism issue) and to control of workers’ organisations by the labour bureaucracy (eg, the 2009 Unison ‘monkey trial’10).
The background to this is that it has become a cultural norm of the broad left to be ever so courteous to people you disagree with, to the point of obscuring differences. This is not, in fact, particularly new. Uncritical support for this or that ‘official left’ (most recently uncritical Corbyn fan clubs) go back a long way. The idea that the suppression of communist criticism was essential to the creation of fighting unity was already argued by the social democrats in the inter-war period. The early Comintern insisted on freedom of criticism alongside unity in action. But Gyorgi Dimitrov at the 1935 7th Congress argued:
“The communists attack us,” say others. But listen, we have repeatedly declared: we shall not attack anyone, whether persons, organisations or parties, standing for the united front of the working class against the class enemy. But at the same time it is our duty, in the interests of the proletariat and its cause, to criticise those persons, organisations and parties that hinder unity of action by the workers (emphasis added).11
Since then, the acceptance that unity requires suppressing or at least toning down disagreements has been extremely widespread on the left. Even the Trotskyists, who claimed to be the defenders of the first four congresses of Comintern, which explicitly rejected unity on the basis of suppression of criticism, have in modern times come over to the Dimitrov version. The history is now largely forgotten; all that is left is a cultural tic of writing confused arguments by toning down polemic for the sake of unity.
The second fundamental weakness of the S&S symposium is that, by and large, reference to class analysis remains stubbornly abstract and at the causal level, rather than at the level of immediate politics. Martha Gimenez’s comment that “To make the point more concretely, female, black and ‘Hispanic’ capitalists cannot be expected to behave differently from their white male counterparts” is not really followed up, and the other authors tend strongly to see class in terms of a proletarian class position, rather than of capitalist and middle-class class positions.
Gimenez’s point is fundamental. The same is true of female, black and ‘Hispanic’ imperialist politicians. In 2016, this was posed with extreme concreteness. Hillary Clinton is a woman (and, indeed, a ‘1968er’) - neoliberal warmonger. Trump, of course, was and is a liar, and presented himself as an open sexist and racist (which he may be, for all we know; he is so much a liar that it is impossible to tell) in the hope of winning votes. But Clinton could not be posed (as her supporters tried to pose her) as the candidate of a race-gender-class coalition (perhaps a ‘broad democratic front’) or anything at all other than a lesser evil, compared to Trump (and at that a very doubtful one, given her open warmongering).
In short, the result of the policy of broad-front coalitions, treating gender, race and class - and sexuality, and so on - as issues of equal standing was to prevent any actual political alternative to the policy of neoliberalism being offered - and hence to lose on the issues of gender, race and so on.
The question of class is not merely an analytical issue underlying strategic dynamics. It is a present political issue. A workers’ class movement which aims for class political independence from the capitalists can offer the approach of the 1880 Programme of the Parti Ouvrier that “The emancipation of the productive class is that of all human beings without distinction of sex or race.” The policy of the broad front and intersectionality, by sacrificing the politics of class to those of gender, race and all the others, fails in its own aims.
1. https://guilfordjournals.com/toc/siso/82/2 (subscription required).
3. Review by B Tarnoff The Guardian May 31; interview by R Kumar, May 27: https://theintercept.com/2018/05/27/identity-politics-book-asad-haider.
5. Quite a lot of these are irrelevant to my present concerns: eg, rightwing critiques of identity politics as Marxist, or identity-political critiques of Marxism. The point is merely that, even without looking carefully, there is a lot of material.
6. University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989 pp139-67.
7. Compare D Renton, ‘Tribunals and tribulations’ ISJ No124 (2009).
8. Stanford Law Review Vol 43 (1991), pp1241-99.
9. E Meiksins Wood The retreat from class London 1986.
10. See ‘The Unison monkey trial’ Weekly Worker September 10 2009; or ‘£49,000 for union activists branded racist over “wise monkeys” pamphlet’ Evening Standard September 11 2013.