A post over at anarchowhat got me thinking. It’s about a pamphlet by Selma James, “Race Sex and Class.” I can’t recall if I’ve read that before or not. I’m gonna re-read it later today. For now, notes from a few things
Essentially [James] argues that a number of struggles provide apparent contradictions to the Marxist thesis of the primacy of class (if you can call it that). The struggles of blacks, students, and women (in the mid 20th century) were at the forefront and indeed the primary force of social struggle. There were two replies in contemporary (authoritarian marxist and activist) discourse: the struggles are outside and independent of class and moreover we don’t need to deal with capitalism as such, and that class struggle is primary and these others are secondary.
Her reply is that these struggles are in fact related to class. I say related because the text seems like it is ambiguous between two positions I see:
1. Race and gender are autonomous forces that are systematically interdependent with class
2. Race and gender are (autonomous forces) constituted by class relations
[The first implies that racism’s and patriarchy’s] solution lies in the abolishment of capital, and their content can be understood historically through capital (though are perhaps a species of class relations). You could see this as being a view adopted by someone who thinks that there is worth to Marx’s distinction between the base and the superstructure (I don’t).
Race and gender clearly pre-date capitalist class relations. It’s not clear that they pre-date class relations in society as such. I prefer to say that the biological facts (which vary tremendously and) which are bundled together as race and gender pre-date class. I’m attached to that thesis so as to avoid a claim that humanity’s biological existence thus far is historically coterminous with the existence of class division. I’m not strongly attached to that, however.
There are at least two definitions of class usable here. One is simply a differential or hierarchical position in the application of violence. The other is a differential or hiearchical position in the distribution of surplus labor. (If one sees the imposition of surplus labor as a form of violence, then the distinction collapses. I do see the imposition of surplus labor as a form of violence, but I want to retain the distinction, because the imposition of surplus labor is a specific form of violence [ie, it is not violence as such but a mode of violence], one which is historically accompanied by – produced by and productive of – other forms of violence.)
In the first sense of class it’s arguable that race and gender are in the majority of cases forms of class, as they meet the minimal definition of class proposed. Whether or not this has always been so is not subject to proving or disproving and so should be bracketed. It is clear that we can imagine in a logically consistent way a form of race and gender which is merely a difference and not a hierarchy, such that there is no important differential in the distribution of violence involved. Class in the sense here posed is not subject to that re-imagining.
Things are similar with the second sense of class. The history of class positions as hierarchical positions in the distribution of surplus labor is a raced and gendered history. (This can be reformulated two more ways – the history of race is gendered and classed, the history of gender is raced and classed.) Even if race and gender have always been categories of hierarchical distribution of violence, that would not entail that they have always been categories of hierarchical distribution of surplus labor. Even if we could prove race and gender are always forms of class in the first sense, that would not prove that these are always forms of class in the second sense. As with the first sense, whether race and gender have always been forms of class in the second sense is not subject to proof or disproof. I believe it is doubtful that this was the case.
Like I already said, we can imagine a future condition wherein class and gender are in no way forms of class in the first sense. This could come about in at least two ways. One is the abolition of class in the first sense. The second is the end of race and gender as forms of this type of class, with that type of class remaining.
It is not clear that race and gender are always categories of either type of class. I think that both are categories of both types of class is so but I am not sure how to prove this nor am I clear as to what the stakes of the argument are.
In any case, we could imagine a future condition wherein gender and race are never forms of the second type of class. This could come in at least three ways. In one, we would essentially have forms of class (in the second sense) which is, in general, systematically indifferent to race and gender, just as it is, in general, currently indifferent to whether or not one is lactose intolerant. That seems unlikely to me.
In the second case, class of the second type is abolished, but class in the first type still exists. There are at least two sub-options here. In one, race and gender remain forms of class in the first sense. In the second, they are no longer forms of class in the first sense.
In the third case, class in the first sense is abolished, such that class in the second sense also can not exist (since it is a more specific form of the first sense of class). In that case, race and gender would not be forms of class in either sense, as class in both senses would not exist.
Now then, arguments about base and superstructure strike me as mixing up two different lines of thought. One is a matter of historical origin – marxism as philosophy of history. Those are clearly to be rejected (and there is a great deal that could be said about the function of these arguments in the rhetoric and functioning of theoretical and organizational marxism). Claims about historical origins of are difficult to support, let alone prove, with regard to the intersections of race, gender, and class. Appeals to historical origins do not tell us much about how these categories exist in the present. This is the point made a lot by the later Althusser (although not very clearly), and in the Marx bit quoted here: “The point at issue is not the place the economic relations took relative to each other in the succession of various forms of society in the course of history (…) but their position within modern bourgeois society.” One simply needs to swap “economic” for “social” and there it is.
That leads to the second aspect of arguments about base and superstructure, which is one of power analysis and strategy or simply efficacy. The claim is that in general the economic – class in the second sense, as hierarchical position within the distribution of surplus labor – is the organizing center around which most of the hierarchies in the distribution of violence (class in the second sense) are shaped.
The claim to the primacy of class in this sense has multiple parts. The first part is that the violence which is hierarchical distribution of surplus labor is a significant portion of (eliminable) violence in the world. This is true but trivially true. If one takes any form of violence as significant then the claim has no weight. If one takes this portion of violence (that of surplus labor) is more significant than others – more significant in the sense of more egregious, more violent – then one gets into difficult theoretical problems (how does one quantify violence?) and ugly political problems (calculuses of oppression, systematic moral ranking of subjects). The important parts are elsewhere.
The second part is multi-part. This is clunky and I apologize. The majority of other forms of violence in the world, the majority of hiearchical positions within the distribution of violence, and the majority of the actions of those who occupy dominant positions in the distributions of violence (actions qua occupiers of those positions, not actions as such) are bound up with class in at least three ways.
Those forms of violence, those positions, and the acts enacted from those positions are directed toward the maintenance of class in the second sense. They are also the result of class in the second sense (both the result of – or equivalent with – hiearchical positions in the distribution of surplus labor and the result of conditions – scarcity, etc – which result from the distribution of surplus labor).
These claims amount to claim that the end of class in the second sense is the most effective way to end the most forms of class in the first sense. (It’s important to keep in mind that the two senses are not opposed, but rather the second sense is a subset of the first.)
I’ve written about this in a draft of another thing I’m working on, a revision of my rant on Resnick and Wolff, in which I argue for a version of the primacy of class. In this when I talk about class and class processes I mean only class in the second sense. What I call “power processes” below is basically what I have so far called class in the first sense.
The power analysis version of the primacy of class takes the economy as the primacy expression of power in capitalist society. In that sense, then, class struggle is the most important power struggle because success in the class struggle impacts a greater number of social processes and power struggles than any other. This version amounts to the view that class is primary in that class struggle is the most important political project in the present. That is, most important project is the abolition of class via struggle at the economic base.
Class processes are the primary form which processes of power take in capitalist society, such that class struggle is not merely one form of struggle among others. This was Marx’s view, though Marx, at least in the Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, overstated this point. Marx held that the working class “has radical chains.” This means that the working class’s grievance against capitalism “has a universal character because its sufferings are universal, and which does not claim a particular redress because the wrong which is done to it is not a particular wrong, but wrong in general.” The class “claims no traditional status but only a human status.” The class is thus “totally opposed” to all forms of oppression or power process. This means that the working class “cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all other spheres of society, without, therefore, emancipating all these other spheres” (Marx-Engels Reader, 64).
Radical here means “to grasp things by the root” (Marx-Engels Reader, 60). For Marx, “radical chains” are chains which are, so to speak, chained the root of all forms of social inequality and oppression. Thus, the severing of radical chains will sever all forms of chaining of human beings. The proletariat’s severing of its chains will sever all chains. In other words, Marx held that the end of the class process or class processes will end all forms of power processes, or at least all forms of undesirable power processes.
This is an overstatement on Marx’s part. There is no reason why the end of class will end all other forms of oppression or undesirable power process. If class is abolished it is entirely possible that racism, sexism, homophobia, and other contradictions or reactionary ideas and practices will still exist. The important point remains, however, that these other contradictions or power processes will not, however, have any economic expression. In that sense, class can still be held to be primary.
If class is abolished via the abolition of capitalism, abolition of the appropriation of surplus labor, much of the teeth of other contradictions will be abolished. Gaybashing, racist violence, sexual assault, domestic violence and other atrocities may all still exist in post-capitalist society. There will not, however, be economic power present which serves to reinforce them. Companies will no longer be able to decide whether or not same-sex partners shall be covered on the company insurance plan, because healthcare will be provided to all. Racists will not be able to appeal to the lie of immigrants lowering wages, because wages will not exist. Abusive partners will not be able to use their partners’ economic dependence on them to trap the partner in the violent relationship. Employers and privileged employees will not be able to use their power in the workplace to provide them with the power to inflict sexual harassment with impunity upon those below them in the workplace hierarchy, because the institution of the waged workplace will not exist.
Any preferential/discriminatory practices in hiring, firing, wage levels, housing, access to healthcare, or other forms of inequality in the distribution of means of subsistence will not exist after capitalism is abolished. This is the meaning of the slogan Marx liked, describing communism as “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need!” (Marx-Engels Reader, 531). There may well still be contradictions, reactionary ideas and practices remaining after the abolition of capitalism. These will need to be dealt with. With the end of capitalism, there will be more resources available for education to erode some of the bases for reactionary ideas. In addition, because we will no longer be having so much of our time stolen by the capitalist class’s forcing of surplus labor upon us, we will all have more time available to support those victimized by reactionaries and more time to deal in the requisite fashion with reactionaries.
Final note on this in particular, before changing gears. It seems to me that John Holloway’s phrasing of struggles as “in, against, and beyond” capital is useful for understanding the class – but not just class – content of race and gender struggles.
I’ve ranged pretty far from James, I’ll return to her work later. For now, George Caffentzis has much to say about the importance of the perspective James puts forward, in an interview here, as does Harry Cleaver here.
Caffentzis says “[fo]r me the Wages for Housework perspective was like a social Copernican revolution, once on the other side of it, I never went back.”
He note a tension around this which was present in Zerowork from the beginning of the project.
“[T]he “refusal of work” and “end of work” perspective, explicit and/or implicit in much of the theory coming from Italy, was really clashing with the Wages for Housework. The latter pointed to a tremendous amount of unwaged work that was going on which capital was appropriating and turning into surplus value. The Italian extraparliamentary left theorists seem to be oblivious to this work.”
“Silvia Federici pointed out the contradiction most forcefully because she was very familiar with refusal of work perspective. She wrote a beautiful piece in 1974 called “Wages Against Housework” whose argument was that women do not want wages for housework in order to do more housework. On the contrary, the whole point of the demand for wages for housework is to be in a better position to refuse this work!
She also pointed out that the refusal of work perspective is largely dependent on the existence of a hierarchy within the working class, for only the most powerful sectors of the working class have taken it as their motto. But as long as only they are in a position to refuse work, new divisions within the working class can be created by this politics. For example, it was all well and good for white workers in apartheid South Africa or segregationist U.S. to take up a refusal of work politics, but if it led to capital intensifying the exploitation of black workers, it could hardly be the basis of the recomposition and homogenization of the working class! For one has to take into account the hierarchies and divisions within the working class before taking up a political slogan, because a slogan or demand that might appear perfect for one sector of the class might actually be catastrophic for another. “
Thus far the point is quite amenable to a sort of Leninist and Maoist perspective: looking for a weak link in capitalist production, one located in the third world (whether a subordinated country or a subordinated third world within the first), such that the subject located there is the vanguard sector. That’s not what Caffentzis means, though.
“Introducing unwaged workers is not a matter of a contest over who is of “more or less importance” or of who is more or less exploited, but of having a better understanding of what keeps capitalism alive. Once you bring into focus the largely unwaged part of the reproduction cycle of labor power, then your politics change dramatically. You immediately have to deal with divisions and hierarchies that are often neglected by working class movements and are even engineered into working class organizations. One merely has to glance at the scandalous history of working class racism and sexism to get the point.”