Notes on Peter Frase, “Stay Classy.”

Frase quotes Ehrenreich:
“The abolition of hierarchy demands not only racial and gender equality, but the abolition of class.”

The rest of the quote suggests that Ehrenreich is talking a social vision, a society free of hierarchy. The point is that a hierarchy-free society can not have classes, and can not have racial or gender inequality. That is, gender inequality, racial inequality, and class are hierarchical. This implies that gender and race do not necessarily include hierarchy: race and gender could exist as difference without hierarchy, because race and gender are not inherently hierarchical social structures. The existence of class, however, entails the existence of hierarchy, because class is an inherently hierarchical social structure. That’s the claim. Frase is unclear as to whether he agree with this or not. He gestures toward “the abolition of both race and gender.” He adds that
Ehrenreich has “no vision of anti-racism or feminism beyond the horizon of liberal tolerance.” In the context of his essay, the implication seems to be that anyone who doesn’t call for that abolition is stuck within “the horizon of liberal tolerance.” But then he implicitly walks the claim back without saying so, at least with regard to gender. He points to Silvia Federici and suggest that what she imagines is “a world in which gender differences don’t disappear, they merely lose their function as categories of hierarchy and oppression.” It sounds like Frase agrees but it’s not clear. Either way, it seems to me that this is what Ehrenreich was also talking about, and I don’t see how this is different from what Frase writes off as “liberal tolerance.” My impresses that Frase meant to also criticize Federici, but the essay doesn’t read that way. It could be a mistake at the level of prose, and that he meant to reject Federici’s view too, but the essay reads like he’s agreeing with Federici – even though she seems to be saying the same thing that Ehrenreich said, which Frase rejected. If that’s the case, and I think it is, then Frase seems confused.

Now, it’s possible to argue that gender and race are inherently hierarchical categories as well. I thought that’s the direction the essay was going to go in, with the reference to abolition of race and gender, but then Frase quotes Federici rejecting this view with regard to gender. Federici writes that it is “absurd to assume that any form of gender specification must always, necessarily become a means of exploitation and we must live in a genderless world.” From the way Frase quotes Federici it seems like he agrees.

In my opinion the arguments about race and gender as inherently hierarchical are important when it comes to talking about a vision for a hierarchy-free society. At the same time, it seems to me that the abolition of gender and the abolition of race prior to the abolition of capitalism would really be nothing more than what Frase rejects as ‘liberal tolerance.’ Here’s how I see it. In the visions of class that Frase is talking about, I think, the idea of ‘class equality’ and ‘class without exploitation’ are contradictions in terms. For ease of expression, I’m going to just use the term ‘equality’ here rather than ‘equality and lack of exploitation.’ He criticizes Ehrenreich for suggesting, basically, that racial equality and gender equality are possible while class equality is not. It seems to me that racial equality and/or gender equality could potentially be achieved under capitalism. We would then have a less racist and/or less sexist capitalism. I’ve met people who argue that the abolition of gender would end capitalism, and other people who argue that the abolition of race would end capitalism. I think this is a possible but not a necessary outcome of the end of race and gender. Race and gender are extremely important to historical capitalism/actually existing capitalism and the end of race and/or gender might well be such a shock that class society couldn’t adjust. (I’m saying ‘class society’ here instead of capitalist society, to keep with Frase’s discussion of class.) That’s possible. It’d have to play out in time to really know, because there isn’t a necessary logical relationship between these categories – a nonracist and/or nonsexist class society is definitely logically possible. We can definitely say “abolishing race and/or gender would pose a massive challenge to class society and that challenge has the potential to end capitalism” but it’s only a potential, not a certainty.

That point cuts in other directions as well: abolishing race does not mean abolishing gender, and vice versa. The same is true of class: we could abolish class but not abolish race and gender. The abolition of class means the end of exploitation and of specifically economic forms of hierarchy. Not all forms of hierarchy are economic, and so non-economic forms of hierarchy could still exist after the end of class. (I wrote a blog post on this a long while back, suggesting that Marx’s claims about the working class as having ‘radical chains’ was wrongheaded.)

I’ve wandered from the point I wanted to make a moment ago, that I think in the short term ‘abolish race/gender’ really isn’t much more than liberal tolerance. We can imagine revolution as the end of all hierarchy. We can also imagine the end of some particular hierarchies before others. It seems to me that liberal tolerance taken to its logical conclusions (I’m not totally sure here, because Frase doesn’t define his terms) implies full equality. Let’s imagine two scenarios: In one, we achieve full gender equality while racial inequality and class still exist. That would mean that there was no hierarchy specific to gender relations, while other hierarchies existed. In another, we achieve the abolition of gender while race and class still exist. That would mean gendered hierarchy no longer existed. We could swap the terms around, shuffling race and class and gender, to make similar scenarios. It seems to me that these two scenarios (and the versions we could come up with by shuffling terms) are only different at the level of semantics. ‘Abolish race’ and ‘abolish racial inequality’ mean the same thing, at least if that abolition is achieved while gender and class exist. So the difference between abolition and liberal tolerance on which Frase hangs his criticism of Ehrenreich seems mostly made up to me. Maybe this is why Frase says he disagrees with Ehrenreich while apparently agreeing with Federici saying basically the same thing as Ehrenreich, just in different terms.

“class as the unifying symbol,”

accuses the people he criticize of “juxtapose[ing] categories at completely different levels of analysis.”

The essay usefully points out that categories like class, race, and gender have two kinds of use, as structural categories and as identity categories. For the people Frase criticizes, class is structurally unequal and hierarchical all the way down, while race and gender are not. The argument he looked like he was going to make but didn’t is that race and gender are similarly structurally unequal and hierarchical all the way down.

Frase’s main interest seems to be in identity categories and in criticizing wrongheaded criticisms of identity politics. He wrote an article I liked a while back – – where he argued that all politics is identity politics in an important way, arguing that “all successful political movements rely on the construction of what historian Benedict Anderson refers to as an ‘imagined community.'”

In his newer essay though Frase seems to confuse identity in two sense – identity as a category of mobilized political belonging and as a category of lived experience. (Maybe this is a problem in the older essay too and I just missed it.) On the second, that race and gender shape experience and are key to making people who they are, their identities collectively and individually, that seems undeniable to me. These categories are no less fundamental than class, at least today. (In the future they might not be, as I said race/racial inequality could end while gender/gender inequality and class persist, or class could end while gender[ed inequality] and race[d inequality] persist. It seems to me that the end of one kind of inequality would lessen the importance of that category in shaping people’s experiences and identities.) But all of that is different from political identity in the sense of collective participation in a political project tied to interests. That is, “my sense of myself is shaped by being a straight white man” is different from “I am pursuing my political interests as a straight white man.”

Frase criticize Sam Gindin and based on what he quotes, I agree with him in rejecting Gindin’s take. I’ve not read the Gindin article though, so who knows. In any case, I agree with Fraze in rejecting the view that Fraze attributes to Gindin, a view something along the lines of ‘unite and fight,’ meaning set aside race and gender-based grievance and focus on class-based grievances. Reject that doesn’t require Frase’s larger arguments, though.

Frase writes that class is more than an identity, but so are other categories. That’s true, and important, but the way he illustrates this strikes me as confused: “Patriarchy is more than sexism; white supremacy is more than individual racism.” That’s also true. But it’s not a true thing that supports the claim about structure and identity. As written, the “Patriarchy is more than…” sentence seems like it’s supposed to serve like this: “structural version of concept: identity version of concept”, as follows: Class: class; patriarchy: sexism; white supremacy: racism. But why are sexism and racism identities? I don’t get it.

Where Frase’s essay is good is on the categories that shape lived experience, or maybe I should say on the ways in which structural categories are lived in experience. He writes that “[c]lass as an abstraction, as the extraction of labor time by capital, only manifests itself through concrete social forms — including gender, race, and what we call “class” in its cultural sense.” “[T]he working class is always some particular working class.” Those are good points. The implication as well is that any particular working class is made up of particular groups of workers and individual workers who differ in important ways. The view that he seems to be criticizing is that those differences matter less than the common elements – the fact of being working class – and that it is a mistake to politically emphasize those differences. I agree here, but again this doesn’t seem to me to require Frase’s other arguments. It would also be good if Frase had emphasized that it is also a mistake to neglect the class-specific elements of experience and class-specific political grievances. (And similar arguments can be made without discuss class — in struggles over racial inequality, it is valid to discuss gender inequality, and vice versa. In thinking about and acting against one kind of inequality or hierarchy it is a mistake to overlook other kinds.)

“Far too often, exhortations to reject “identity politics” in favor of “class” amount to an insistence that the unmarked worker be taken as the definitive example of the genre.”
Here “the unmarked worker” means something like “white male workers whose whiteness and maleness is hidden.” The point is that talking about class without qualification tends to smuggle in white men as the standard working class person. That could be but without examples it’s hard to say, and “too often” strikes me as weaselly. The point would be much stronger if there was engagement with named and quoted writers, and it’s not the case that all such exhortation do this — he implicitly recognizes this with “often” instead of “always.” What’s the difference, then, between these kinds of exhortations that do make white men the standard and those that don’t? That seems worth talking about.

Finally, Frase ends with ‘class does not dissolve identity categories’ and the caption at the top of the article is “Class is not the universal solvent that does away with all identity.” Sure. But it’s not clear that anyone argues that it does. The people he’s talking about don’t seem to be saying (or if they do, he didn’t show them saying) class does away with those other identities. The people he’s talking about are saying ‘build a movement that holds common grievances around class in the structural sense.’ From the quotes Frase supplies, Gindin seems to say that doing so requires setting aside grievances around race and gender in the structural sense. (Frase seems to say that Ehrenreich holds this view as well but doesn’t show it and from his treatment of Ehrenreich and Federici I’m inclined to think he’s made a mistake, but I’m not sure, not having read the Ehrenreich beyond what he quoted.) That view that Frase attributes to Gindin is wrongheaded. But it’s not a view that says ‘class does away with identity.’ It’s a view that says ‘try to build one kind of movement instead of another.’ Frase suggests, and could do so much more forcefully, that the kind of movement called for here would be a sexist and racist movement (or, at the very best, a movement with inadequate responses to sexism and racistm) that served the interests of only part of the working class (or, at best, served different parts of the working class in unequal ways, creating or maintaining inequality among different working class people) while claiming to serve the interests of the entire working class. That’s important, but again it doesn’t require Frase’s bigger arguments and it’s not clear how that important point relates to the Ehrenreich quote Frase started with – “The abolition of hierarchy demands not only racial and gender equality, but the abolition of class.” Really, Frase could agree with quote and just flip the order: the abolition of hierarchy demands not only the abolition of class, but also racial and gender equality. The view he attributes to Gindin neglects the latter and so is insufficient. (It reminds me of a quote I really like from Jacques Ranciere: “It is always in the heart of the worker aristocracy that a hegemonic fraction forms, presenting itself as *the* proletariat and affirming the proletarian capacity to organize another social order, starting with the skills and values formed in its work and its struggle.”)


note to self:
the stuff on radical chains in Marx, that came up in these two posts in discussion with Todd

and this post, in the long comment