The broken mirror: intersectionality and the loss of the universal
The ‘disarticulation’ of class results in the loss of the possibility of a structural and therefore truly radical critique of capitalism and instead a billion and one private, individualized and antagonistic identities are unleashed.
Intersectionality has become something of a buzzword, both revered and ridiculed. The phrase itself was coined by black feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. It was used to fill in a particular lacuna which Crenshaw had pinpointed in the legal system – that is, people whose social identity was constituted by multiple categories of oppression would often pass through the system fundamentally underrepresented. So, if you are a black, working class lesbian you would be triply oppressed and yet the movements and forms of political organisation which militate against repression are often woefully unequipped to deal with the threefold nature of such an identity. Perhaps you might join an organisation or institution which could recognise the racial prejudice you experience as a black person, but said institution would nearly always overlook the prejudice you experience as a woman. Or if you join a feminist organisation, chances are that said organisation will represent your gender while at the same time remaining oblivious to the oppression you endure as a person of colour. And so on. In other words, radical and revolutionary institutions and movements are often unable to come to terms with the way in which multiple oppressions ‘intersect’ at the point of a given individual; and because oppressions are not considered in sum, the individual forms of repression are able to persevere in all sorts of ways, untreated. Those who are most oppressed, are for the same reason, most invisible in ideological terms.
But the concept of intersectionality has older roots. The Combahee River Collective was a black feminist lesbian organisation formed in the 1970s which sought to create an ‘integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking’. Furthermore the same collective argued that these oppressions interlocked at the point of individual identity; therefore: ‘We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity.’ Such a theoretical formation came out of a social world where labour was increasingly ghettoised; black, Italian, Irish, Latino workers in the big inner cities tended to live in segregated neighbourhoods demarcated by their individual ethnicities. Black labour, in particular had been ‘ghettoised’ in as much as a racialized hierarchy of labour had been enforced with the blacks receiving markedly less money for the same jobs, and often being corralled into the position of doing the very worst jobs. The sense, therefore, that some identities, even those of oppressed groups, were being given more scope and leeway perhaps at the expense of others which remained invisible and more fundamentally exploited, is what was carried across into intersectional theory.
The Communist Party of the USA was compelled to respond to these developments in the political landscape by reconfiguring its tactics. For example, in pursing the Popular Front strategy in the mid-70s it would acknowledge official black community leaders and women’s organisation leaders as ‘legitimate representatives’ of group interests which were distinct and separate from the workers, and based on this, it evolved the concept of the ‘trinity’ – that is ‘class, gender and race’ should be elaborated as an intersecting unity. Though they were coming from very different places, and had very different histories, the methodological conclusions drawn by both the Communist Party USA and the Combahee River Collective had, in this period, certain ‘intersectional’ affinities which had been shaped as a result of the way in which the movements against capitalism and exploitation had been categorised by a constellation of autonomous struggles each seeking to push its own set of interests.
At the same time the ability of these struggles to interlink was increasingly damaged by the global recession which took off from the 1970s onwards and the intensification of a neoliberal programme which saw the power of the industrial working class across the board radically curtailed and the great civil rights movements of the 1960s sent into spiralling retreat. Perhaps part of the need to create an intersectional narrative grew out of the great interlinking struggles of the 1960s which saw civil rights marches integrate with anti-war protest, and the struggles for black rights provide a powerful impetus to feminist and gay organisations – all these phenomena had, in some sense, been pushed back, isolated, ghettoised, attacked, infiltrated, reduced and verily destroyed during the two decades which followed. The Black Panthers Party, for instance, which had had a membership of many thousands in the sixties, by the early eighties had a membership of less than 30.
Villain of the piece?
By describing a series of oppressions which are channelled through the prism of a given individuality, intersectionality posits oppression as a wider and more complex phenomenon which passes through a variety of social identities. But the question is: can such a multiplicity congeal in a collective movement with a universal scope which has the ability to issue a political challenge to capitalism per se?
Again this is a problem which first takes place at the level of social, practical existence. The political apartheid which afflicted the black population and was brought to an end in 1965 was, in many ways, continued at the economic level in as much as black workers received on average less money than their white counterparts in the same jobs. There was always a temptation to describe this racist discrepancy as a case of white workers profiting at the expense of black workers because, at the level of the superficial appearance, this was clearly what was going on. But one of the strengths of Marxism is to provide a methodology which goes beyond the appearance in order to excavate the way in which surplus value as profit is systematically extracted from labour power by capital in the process of its expansion.
It is capital which appropriates labour power and then redistributes it as wages while absorbing a portion of it as profit which, in turn, can be reinvested, saved or consumed. The integral point here is that the value labour power generates is alienated and thus assumes the form of capital as capitalists recycle it back into the productive process. It is, therefore, the capitalists who, by and large, get to determine the way in which alienated labour power is reapportioned as wages. Certainly such a determination is carried out within objective limits; the value of labour power, like any other commodity, is determined by the socially necessary labour power which is embodied in it in order that it appear in the market place. So, for instance, all things being equal the labour power of a surgeon will command a higher value than the labour power of a street cleaner, because the former has had invested in her the socially necessary labour required to send her to medical school for all those years.
Nevertheless, within those limits, the subjective capitalist has a great deal of control of how much he or she pays the worker over and above the objective value of their wage; i.e. how much of the surplus value the capitalist is able to accrue and how much of it is returned to the worker in terms of a wage which goes beyond that initial value.
This too is subject to some level of external determination – the militancy of the workers, the efficiency of any trade unions, the condition of the economy more generally; but if a black worker is being paid substantially less than a white worker it is not because in some way the value of the black worker’s wage is being drained by their white counterpart; no, in fact it is because the capitalist is able to return less of the surplus value to that black worker, pocketing more of it for themselves in terms of profit. This, incidentally, is an advantage to said capitalist – not only is he able to accrue more of the surplus value of labour power to himself in the form of profit, but also there is often a political advantage from separating out workers in terms of their benefits, for it can often create divisions in the working class itself and become a break on the uniformity and universality of sustained working class militancy.
But because ‘intersectionality’ works primarily at the more cosmetic level of political and cultural identity it cannot at the same time conceive of class as a relation to production in which labour power is alienated by the capitalist in the process of capital reproduction and expansion. Because it cannot appear to ‘intersectionality’ as an economic relation, class itself inevitably appears in its abstract guise as a purely political identity and in an individualised aspect for the same reason. It is one form of oppression that the individual encounters among many others; so someone can be oppressed as a black person, as a woman, and also as a worker.
The implication which flows rather naturally is that the black worker and the white worker are in some sense at odds; though both are exploited in terms of their identity as workers, in terms of their racial identities the white worker is inexorably alienated from the black worker and therefore enjoys a level of privilege which exists at the expense of the black worker. When class is not posed as an economic relation to the means of production, it becomes easy and natural to believe that white workers gain more money at the expense of their black counterparts. Such a logic crosses into the ‘intersectional’ position at the level of politics and culture more broadly; white male workers enjoy more representation, more visibility, at the expense of minority female workers – the former must, therefore, learn to ‘check their privilege’ and in some sense accept some level of culpability for the system which so benefits them.
Striving for equality of exploitation
A case in point. In 2018 a black Labour backbencher, Kate Osamor, endured a media storm when it was revealed that she was still living in a council house despite the fact that she earned the standard MPs salary of a portly £77,379. She should have had the decency to relinquish the house she had lived in for some thirty years (after having been a homeless single mother) because there were other tenants with much greater needs – so the argument went from all the normal suspects in the right wing press. Of course if Osamor had of moved out of Hackney and gone and lived in a more salubrious area, one ‘befitting’ her rather large salary – the same papers would have bemoaned her hypocrisy; as someone supposedly committed to the politics of the poor how dare she just up and leave in order to live the high life in an area which tends to exclude the very type of people she hopes to represent.
In the furore that followed, the journalist and left wing activist Owen Jones wrote a Guardian newspaper piece which he attempted to defend Osamor from her critics and argued that it was a very welcome thing for an MP to live in the midst of the people she represents (in North London) and that Osamor had every right to maintain her family home. The comedian and journalist Ava Vidal then penned an article which, among other things, responded to Jones’ own piece. Vidal is committed to the politics of intersectionality, and in her article she derided Jones’ own in the most uncompromising terms. But what was notable about her criticisms is their lack of political content. She dismissed his arguments as mere ‘platitudes’ but she didn’t engage with them beyond this; she didn’t provide an examination of what his arguments entailed or how they fell short. Instead she asserted: ‘The white left would rather hear platitudes from a privileged white man – such as Owen Jones, also a middle-class Oxford alumni…than listen and learn from a black woman’s real lived experiences because what could you possibly learn from her?’
The impetus for Vidal’s critique was, without doubts, an important one. That women, people of colour and working class people go hugely underrepresented in the media is a woeful truth which not only affects the quality of our politics but also our culture; consider, for instance, how banal much popular comedy has become on the BBC of late, saturated as it has been by a stream of upper class white males who have nearly always emerged from the venerable, ancient bastions of privilege of Oxford and Cambridge. While, on occasion, some genuinely subversive and funny programmes break through, more often than not the tone has been set by vehicles like Little Britain which proffer up an image of society in which those who are poorest and most marginalised are treated as circus freaks – fat ‘chavvy’ teen single mums or elderly incontinent working class women – caricatures served up on a platter in order to better validate every spiteful prejudice from their sneering patrician ‘betters’. Such an insidious vision lacks any genuine humour because, of course, it lacks any genuine humanity; but how very different it was from the eighties when the public broadcaster was a considerably more open terrain, subject to a wider array of cultural and political influences from broader sections of the society and programmes – such as the wonderful Only Fools and Horses – were the order of the day. The high level of invisibility of women, working class people and people of colour is not, therefore, just an explicitly political question; it is also an aesthetic one.
But while I take no issue with the motivations of ‘intersectionality’ its methods are more problematic. When Vidal criticises Jones from an intersectional perspective, she suggest that, because he is a ‘privileged white man’ he gets to air his views volubly at the expense of the ‘the real lived experience’ of the oppression of black women. An almost symbiotic relationship opens up between Jones’ privilege as a white middle class male and the lack of privilege of black working class females. Through his privilege, Jones, albeit unintentionally, contributes to the systematic un-voicing of the latter. At the cultural and political level, intersectionality performs the same mental operation as those who believe that minority workers receive less pay because white workers receive more; i.e. it registers the type of critique which recognises – either implicitly or explicitly – that the interests and identities of the oppressed are fundamentally at odds.
Again what is interesting about Vidal’s critique of Jones’ article is that it really does not reference his article at all. In fact Jones is making the type of argument which chimes with Vidal’s own; i.e. the media hounding of Osamor is not only unsavoury and unfair but also smacks of prejudice. But Vidal does not refer to the way in which her arguments and Jones’ dovetail, both attempting to rebut criticisms which have been made by a politically motivated and privileged elite against a politician who promotes the interests of those at the bottom; what is significant is not Jones’ arguments themselves but the fact that he is yet another ‘privileged white man’. But surely the answer to the underrepresentation of minorities in the media is not to push out voices like Jones’ but simply to fight to make sure more minority voices are heard alongside progressive commentators like Jones. In the economic sphere too, surely the correct political strategy toward the fact that, on average, white workers enjoy higher wages than black workers would not be to attack ‘the privilege’ of those white workers – i.e. to bring their wages down to the level of the black workers and thereby ensure an equality of exploitation; surely the correct tactic would be to uplift the wages of the black workers so that they reach the same level as the whites.
In a similar vein intersectionalist-feminst Laurie Penny decries ‘male privilege’. You might not have asked to be born as a male ‘into a world where being a boy gave you social and sexual advantages over girls’ but nevertheless in assuming that male identity you and every other man – ‘all men’ – are ‘implicated in a culture of sexism’. What is notable about this phrasing is that an inescapable identity – that of maleness – implicates you in a culture of exploitation whatever the nature of your views or individual activities; your identity allows you to access privilege by denuding another group of theirs. Viewed from the purview of intersectional methodology – which can only ever conceive of oppression in its abstract aspect as an individual identity (albeit several strewn together) – such an account makes eminent sense. After all, as an individual man I will on average receive higher wages for doing the same job, I am more likely to have access to the political elite, I am more likely to be represented in the media, and I am less likely to be reduced by others to the level of my appearance.
All that is undoubtedly true, when taken from the perspective of the abstract individual man. But when the same issue is posited on a class wide basis – i.e. when the same issue is posited from the point of view of a group of people who are defined by their relation to the means of production – then it becomes fundamentally transformed. If, as a working class man I expect my wife or partner – also a worker – to have the dinner on the table when I get home, if I believe she should have this done because she is, by virtue of her femininity, more servile and less capable of self-determination than I – then I am at the same time cleaving to a form of ideology and social practise which has the most devastating implications for class solidarity. If I do not believe that my wife has the same potentialities for freedom and self-determination which I hold myself, than it becomes that much more difficult to cooperate and organise with the other women who are part and parcel of the working class because I do not recognise in their political activity the premise of my own unfolding freedoms. If such sexist views are widespread, than I begin to lose contact with a good proportion of my class, the class solidarity which is necessary for political organisation and action becomes limited and degraded.
The universal class
In other words, the question of freedom becomes radically reconfigured depending on whether it is posed from the purview of a pure abstract individuality and the immediacy of material privilege or a historically conditioned class standing in a concrete relation to the means of production. One of the fundamental tenets of the Marxist perspective is that it endeavours to describe the working class in terms of a historical process which has the power to liberate the slumbering potentials of human freedom by fusing the political sphere with the economic; by virtue of its class position, the proletariat has the possibility of taking control of the means of production at the economic level, in the factories and the workplaces, in and through the self-conscious creation of democratic forms of workers control at the political level. Such organisations provide, in embryonic outline, the forms and structures of a new society; if they are able to assume power, so the Marxist argument goes, the workers automatically dissolve the capital-labour power relationship and abolish the class-based character of capitalist society itself. In assuming power, the working class abolishes its own particularity as a class; for this reason, Marx referred to it as ‘the universal class.’
But by rendering class a political ‘identity’ which intersects with many others, intersectionality relieves it of the universalism which the class process calls into being at the level of historical and structural existence vis a vis the means of production. And when the theorisation of radical or revolutionary struggle is allowed to collapse back into a multiplicity of cosmetic political identities, then the way in which political action is shaped and determined devolves into particularity and fragmentation once more. If oppression is not posited (most fundamentally) in and through the exploitation of one class by another as a historically given mode of production, if it is only comprehended through the various political identities an individual accrues as a result of the intersecting prejudices that person experiences through their ‘lived experience’ – than it follows that true freedom is also to be won at the level of that self-same ‘intersected’ individual. The more the individual is oppressed, the more the individual forms a point around which a multiplicity of oppressions meet – the more that subject holds within themselves the potentiality for radical or revolutionary overcoming. A black middle-class man might have some revolutionary potential, in as much as his identity as a black person means that he suffers oppression and discrimination, but a black working class woman will have even more revolutionary potential because she is subject to a multiplicity of prejudice and oppression. Bell Hooks writes:
“As a group, black women are in an unusual position in this society, for not only are we collectively at the bottom of the occupational ladder, but our overall social status is lower than that of any other group. Occupying such a position, we bear the brunt of sexist, racist, and classist oppression. At the same time, we are the same group that has not been socialized to assume the role of exploiter/oppressor in that we are allowed no institutional “other” that we can exploit or oppress…Black women with no institutionalized “other” that we may discriminate against, exploit, or oppress, often have a lived experience that directly challenges the prevailing classist, sexist, and racist social structure and its concomitant ideology. This lived experience may shape our consciousness in such a way that our world view differs from those who have a degree of privilege (however relative within the existing system). It is essential for continued feminist struggle that black women recognize the special vantage point our marginality gives us and make use of this perspective to criticize the dominant racist, classist, sexist hegemony as well as to envision and create a counter-hegemony.”
What is important here is that the historical subject, the social agency which is to carry revolutionary transformation, attains its power not because it forms a unified group with a historically developing relation to the means of production (a group with the collective capacity to transform the social relations of production thereby) but because of the oppression which comes from being black and female as it coincides at the point of the individual’s lived experience; such individuality is then posited in its collective form as a group – ‘black women’ – but a collective which has been abstracted from its material and historical context. Racist ideology and oppression is a relatively modern phenomenon which grew out of the way in which various states and the ruling classes which stood behind them pursued the extraction of mass amounts of surplus product (wealth) through plunder and enslavement at the level of imperialisms competing on the global stage; the pseudo-scientific description of racial classification grew out of the need to ideologically rationalise and justify the horrific crime of creating a whole mode of production, in America in particular, from the millions of Africans who had been kidnapped and exported to labour in perpetuam. Modern racism, then, was something which emerged from a specific point in the development of the global division of labour and the way in which ideology mediated the relationship between exploiting classes and those underneath; it was used to nurture and protect the existence of a slave economy and also to undermine the solidarity between poor whites and black slaves which had increasingly began to manifest in events like Bacon’s rebellion.
Today its use against blacks, Arabs, Muslims, Asians (not that these categories are mutually exclusive) and so many other groups is also bound up with the imperial project, the carving up of the Middle East by Western and Russian military power, the continued poverty and exploitation of black people, Latins, native Americans in the American heartlands; the ongoing decimation of indigenous populations across the globe; racism’s endemic, multifarious forms deployed against so many peoples and populations are the ideological excrescence of a systematic and totalising capitalism and class oppression on a global scale, and for the same reason, cannot be fully treated by a never-ending series of discrete and individualised battles in which specific ethnicities fight to transcend their local oppressions. Instead anti-racist struggles must converge with one another becoming syphoned into a social agency which by virtue of its structural and historical position has the ability to convert such struggles into a broader universalism, a universalism which has the capacity to fundamentally transform the categories and forms at the level of social existence which have given rise to racism in the first place. As Martin Luther King once said: ‘We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism are all tied together…you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others…we are saying there is something wrong with capitalism’.
The absurdity of “check your privilege”
Does this mean that the recognition of the rights and the struggles of minorities, of women, of the racially oppressed, is simply dissolved in the generic waters of an all-encompassing class purview? I don’t think that any revolution worth its salt can refuse to acknowledge and actively fight for the rights and freedoms of blacks, women, trans-women, homosexuals and so on, and that such commitments provide a further reservoir of energy for the revolutionary struggle in ever broader terms. The relegation and dismissal of these fights to some kind of ‘lifestyle’ backwater is nearly always a symptom of the mechanical, ossified and dogmatic depiction of class struggle which comes straight from the playbook of a moribund Stalinism. But I also think intersectionality involves more than just the rightful and important recognition and commitment to these struggles; at the methodological level, its logic works to sever them from one another, it provides a framework in which their interests are seen as fundamentally at odds – even if that is not the conscious intention of the intersectionalist in question.
By devolving the role of class from a relation to the means of production (which can thereby be constituted as a universal at the level of practical, social existence) to merely another identity of oppression which intersects with an almost unlimited series of others – intersectionality creates a series of methodological tangles. If class is not the fundamental power by which all others are mediated at the level of social existence in and through the practical transformation of the mode of production, then how is fundamental social transformation to be enacted? Intersectionality’s answer, exemplified by bell hooks, is that those individuals whose identities are criss-crossed by the most intensive complex of oppressions are those individuals who are most capable of registering consciously the objective forms of oppression on a society-wide basis and thus those people most capable of leading others in the resistance against such oppression. As hooks writes: ‘It is essential for continued feminist struggle that black women recognize the special vantage point our marginality gives us and make use of this perspective to criticize the dominant racist, classist, sexist hegemony as well as to envision and create a counter-hegemony.’ When some people, like the Marxist author Sharon Smith, try to combine intersectionality with a fundamentally class driven politics – they encounter problems because of this. The first problem is – like hooks, you can posit that black women are by virtue of their intersection oppressions – the most repressed and therefore the most equipped to take up the leadership of the struggles of those from below more generally. But then the issue becomes vexed by the fact that there are an almost infinite variety of various intersecting oppressions at the level of identity. Not just black women, but also black lesbians. Not just black lesbians, but also black lesbian disabled people. Not just disabled, but also those from a Third World background. And so on. How do you choose which specific group has the most refined consciousness and how can that group be organised at the level of radical practise?
The second problem is related to the first. If you decide that say, for example, black working class women have the most revolutionary consciousness by virtue of that intersecting identity, then it also follows that white working class men have less revolutionary consciousness because their individualities as ‘white’ and ‘male’ means that their lives enjoy certain privileges and their consciousness has a tendency to reflect that. In other words, we get two blocs of people who may share the fact of being working class but are riven by identities which create a different set of consciousness’s which mediate often radically opposed interests. The classical retort of intersectionality, the demand that someone check not so much their ideology but their ‘privilege’ is the natural outcrop of this.
But more than this, when reading intersectional manifestos – beyond the demand for the more privileged individuals to become aware of their privilege and to cede the stage to the voices of those whom up until this point their privilege has allowed them to drown out – beyond the demand to ‘check your privilege’ – the details of the way in which an ‘intersectional tendency’ is to be organised are remarkably hazy. Does one set up a revolutionary party which is only formed from black women? Or within the workers party, does one set up a leadership cabal formed only of black lesbians? Or if not, a leadership cabal, should there at least be a caucus of black lesbians in order to offset the inevitable tendency of white male privilege? But again, should there not also be a caucus of gay Asians? And so on.
There is, of course, something almost satirically absurd about such a line of questioning. But such absurdity is a component part of intersectionality. There is an almost infinite number of potential intersections which can be posited and, without having recourse to class as an economic relation, it is impossible to posit how any of these identities of oppression can coherently relate to one another in terms of unified struggle. If an individual’s revolutionary potential is defined fundamentally by the number of oppressions which intersect around it, than the revolutionary struggle becomes polarised into a billion fragments, with each individual interest trying to stake its claim as being more authentically oppressed than the next; to do this often means decrying the ‘privilege’ of the people you are in competition with. This helps to create what is often a rather toxic climate for debate and political activity. For example, in 2016, the journalist Laurie Penny wrote a piece arguing that short hair on women provides a ‘political statement’ which is why the ‘patriarchy fears scissors’. Again one can’t help but detect a whiff of the absurd about the whole fearing scissors thing, although the more general point is a pertinent one; those appearances women cultivate which don’t fit into the patriarchal expectation of what a woman ‘should’ look like, can provide one way of challenging the conservative and patriarchal status quo.
But Penny’s rather mild musings about her sartorial snipping were met with rueful howls of indignation on the part of the Twitterati and social media more broadly. Penny was condemned for only concentrating on the type of cutting and style which related to her own hair type and tone, and of leaving out ‘women of colour’ whose differing hair texture, and therefore experiences of oppression, had, by Penny, been erased. In promoting ‘short hair’ Laurie Penny was thereby attacking the ‘Long hair with ragged ends’ which was the providence of black women, argued one Flavia Dzodan, a marketing expert from Holland.
Another twitter user decided to raise the bar and declaimed that all whites with long hair contribute ‘to the patriarchy and institutional racism against afro-haired ppl,’ The almost surreal tenor of such conclusions were arrived at through the same methodological apparatus: Penny, in terms of her identity as a white woman must inherently incline toward the politics of white privilege and such politics inexorably led to the racist disavowal of those with less privilege themselves – in this case women of colour. The whole surreal and sorry exchange ended with Penny desperately trying to beat a retreat, pleading exhaustion and overwork before eventually succumbing to some kind of panic attack. The whole thing was almost a parody of the worst absurdities of left wing politics, something a right-wing conservative ledger might have dreamed up as a way of satirising ‘political correctness gone mad’.
Penny, one feels, was unable to extricate herself from the situation, was unable to even flash up the utter ridiculousness of it all, partly because she herself had so thoroughly bought into the intersectional approach. On the morning following the election of Donald Trump, she tweeted ruefully, ‘I’ve had white liberal guilt before. Today is the first time I’ve actually been truly and horrified and ashamed to be white’. Again this shows intersectionality at its most handwringing and also its most vacuous; Penny is ‘guilty’ for the election of Trump not because she voted for him nor because she has promoted any of his policies or given ideological succour to his views – instead she is complicit simply by virtue of her identity as ‘white’. In what is admittedly a controversial and problematic book, Kill All Normies, Angela Nagle gives us a taste of how truly inhuman such intersectional self-righteousness can become. In 2016 it was reported in the news that a two-year-old child was snatched by an alligator in a zoo and killed. A twitter user with the handle ‘Brianne of Snarth’ thought such a tragedy provided the moral grounds to lay into the grieving father on account of his ‘white privilege’, writing that ‘I’m so finished with this white privilege lately that I am not even sad about a 2yo being eaten by a gator because his daddy ignored signs…You really think that there are no fucking consequences to anything.’
In 2013 Marxist cultural commentator Mark Fisher endeavoured to arrive at a diagnosis of the kind of politics which create such bitter, divisive and empty squabbling. He used the metaphor of ‘a vampires’ castle’ to better elaborate the nature of identity and intersectional politics. He characterised the ‘vampires’ castle’ as a place which ‘specialises in propagating guilt. It is driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd.’ Pithy but acute. Fisher would go further, however, arguing that the ‘vampires’ castle’ mobilizes ‘an ultimately liberal understanding of race and gender to obfuscate class…the founding move of the Vampires’ Castle is the dis-articulation of class from other categories.’ Now one might object, there are a number of intersectional theorists who place no small emphasis on class as part and parcel of their resistance to oppression.
But while this is true, the point is that in reducing class to one ‘identity’ among a constellation of others, we at the same time lose track of its essential element as a collective and structural relation to the means of production, and thus we lose the very universality which it contains within itself as a social power at the level of practical existence; that is a group which fuses all multifarious identities in the universality of capital reproduction and thus facilitates the ability to act in a unified manner to transform the character of society in its totality. Fisher draws attention to something similar; the ‘disarticulation’ of class results in the loss of the possibility of a structural and therefore truly radical critique of capitalism and instead a billion and one private, individualized and antagonistic identities are unleashed:
“The first law of the Vampires’ Castle is: individualise and privatise everything. While in theory it claims to be in favour of structural critique, in practice it never focuses on anything except individual behaviour…Remember: condemning individuals is always more important than paying attention to impersonal structures… The VC…pays lip service to ‘solidarity’ and ‘collectivity’, while always acting as if the individualist categories imposed by power really hold. Because they are petit-bourgeois to the core, the members of the Vampires’ Castle are intensely competitive, but this is repressed in the passive aggressive manner typical of the bourgeoisie. What holds them together is not solidarity, but mutual fear – the fear that they will be the next one to be outed, exposed, condemned.”
Fisher himself entered the debate relatively late and with some reluctance. As he explains:
“Earlier this year, there were some high-profile twitterstorms in which particular left-identifying figures were ‘called out’ and condemned. What these figures had said was sometimes objectionable; but nevertheless, the way in which they were personally vilified and hounded left a horrible residue: the stench of bad conscience and witch-hunting moralism. The reason I didn’t speak out on any of these incidents, I’m ashamed to say, was fear. The bullies were in another part of the playground. I didn’t want to attract their attention to me.”
And yet, attract their attention he did. According to Nagle, Fisher experienced a ‘deluge of personal and vindictive mass abuse…for years afterwards’, though one notes the situation eased in 2017, following Fisher’s suicide, when some of the most vocal proponents of ‘stigmatization’ and ‘ex-communication’ suddenly discovered much of value in Fisher’s work, endeavouring to subtly and not-so-subtly hitch themselves to the posthumous bandwagon. But where does such vitriol come from in the first place? Is it simply motivated by a pious, puritan sense of justice? The desire to get other leftists to reflect on their own propensity to perpetrate prejudice? To an extent, I think that is certainly a factor and an important one. But I also believe that the sheer level of viciousness and personalisation that Fisher helped draw attention to is symptomatic of a profound powerlessness. For decades, on a global scale, class has been in retreat. Years of neoliberalism have been coordinated and enforced in and through the destruction of the power of the unions, forcible deindustrialisation, the freezing of wages and the decimation of labour. The number of revolutionary organisations on the far left has seen to proliferate and yet the vast majority of them are tiny, numbering only a few hundred members, locked into bitter sectarian strife with one another.
The rise of powerlessness
Perhaps because the possibility of a radical and wide working class revolutionary movement which could fundamentally challenge and supersede the capitalist social order seems so remote, so distant, so out of reach – it is therefore more feasible and attractive to engage in internecine flame wars with interests as tiny and as fragmented as your own; for it is only within this strange, embittered rarefied milieu which has come to demark a radical left very much lost in space – it is only here where you can hope to manifest any sort of presence at all. Such entrenched sectarianism, of course, is a phenomenon which infects the far left more broadly, it goes far beyond the remit of intersectionality. But at the same time the rise of intersectionality is in some way coextensive with the rise of powerlessness which comes from the retreat of broad class movements on a global scale; intersectionality is part and parcel of the way in which the universal tenor of class struggle manifested at the level of ideology has stalled and fragmented, collapsing back into a myriad of individual, privatized identities which trail onward ad-infinitum like the refractions in a broken mirror.
The aspect of universalism which stretches from Plato to Marx, the legacy of classical Greek philosophy and enlightenment thought – it is this that has increasingly been swamped out by the intersectionalists and their advocates. In 2017 London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies campaigned to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum and one of the ways in which they proposed to do this was to teach more thinkers of Asian and African origins in place of the ‘dead white males’ who had culturally dominated the syllabus up and to that point. White philosophers should be taught only ‘if required’ and their work only studied from a ‘critical standpoint’. The right wing press had a field day with this, omitting the qualification the students had made; i.e. that white philosophers could still be taught, but only ‘if required’. For my part, I am sympathetic to the highly reasonable assertion on the students’ part that philosophers outside the ‘European’ tradition don’t receive the attention they should.
But what is problematic about the students’ argument is the suggestion or implication that philosophers like Plato, for instance, somehow belong to the politics of white privilege and that African and Asian students would do better by in some way disavowing them in favour of African or Asian philosophers. The antagonism is, for all intents and purposes, an artificial one. Plato’s philosophy crystallised a profound sense of universality through the philosophical conception of the Forms, the transcendental, eternal and perfect archetypes on which all material world objects are based. But the idea of Forms as an infinite substance was inherited from the Pythagoreans who had claimed that a series of transcendental numbers were the infinite substance. Pythagoras himself had learnt much of his mathematics from the Milesian philosopher Thales, but Thales, in turn, absorbed much of his mathematical knowledge from Egypt. In other words, Plato’s ontology has, among other things, African roots. The attempt to contain the thought of a Plato or of Shakespeare in a ‘white’ box impermeable to the stream of broader class interests and antagonisms, international developments, historical idiosyncrasies – the strange, circuitous flows of a world history and culture which are perpetually bubbling over into new waters; such an endeavour will always be a dogmatic and clumsy exercise in futility – albeit one which masquerades as socially progressive and politically aloof.
For the idea that a Plato or a Shakespeare, alongside a Sesshū or an Averroes, are not the collective and lauded property of universal humanity, but instead only represent the sectional interests of the ethnicity or group from which they might have arisen – means at the same time to miss the point that the greatness of their art or philosophy lies precisely in the fact that it is able to, in some way and at some level, transcend the particulars of their specific context and their immediate background. Great philosophy and great art contains within itself the germ of the future, of human life which has somehow absorbed the multifarious gains of the past, and has managed to weave them into the texture of a future personality which is richer, more multi-faceted and more universal in its remit. I may not have grown up in a poverty-stricken section of Harlem, like the late-great poet, radical and rapper Tupac Shakur but the universality and beauty of his music speaks to my life, and I am dammed if it doesn’t belong to me as much as anyone. For I have made it part of myself, my own politics and art. And, by the way, one of many great influences on Tupac’s poetry was a dead white male…one William Shakespeare in fact. The great Marxist philosopher and historian C.L.R James was asked whether Shakespeare, Rembrandt and Beethoven should matter to Caribbean people. His response, as eloquent as ever, was tinged with a simple sadness. ‘Shakespeare, Rembrandt and Beethoven should matter to all people living in the world today,’ he said, and ‘the Caribbean people are people’. It is this sense of universality, both humanist and historical, that we must try to find our way back toward.
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