Class Brought to Life

Class, race, and gender intersect on multiple levels — we know that. The challenge is to translate this into an emancipatory project.

(Kheel Center / Cornell University)

My fellow Jacobin editor Peter Frase wrote an impassioned piece recently calling for the Left to move beyond the “comforting. . . fable of class as the universal solvent that does away with all identity and leads directly to enlightenment.” In it, he calls out Barbara Ehrenreich, Sam Gindin, and Walter Benn Michaels as proponents of a “common” leftist sentiment that privileges a universalizing and unifying notion of class and rails against “identity” politics, thus ignoring or denying the importance of race and gender.

Frase says the arguments of people like Ehrenreich, Gindin, and Michaels rest on a “flimsy and inadequate reading” of race, class, and gender. He raises some important points that are worth fleshing out a bit more, but in order to do so it is necessary to first lay out his argument in brief.

Frase emphasizes that, contra Ehrenreich/Gindin/Michaels, there is much more to anti-racism and feminism than “liberal diversity politics.” He exhorts the Left to incorporate a more radical vision of abolishing race and gender into its emancipatory narratives and strategies, rather than stopping short at eliminating hierarchy or inequality.

Frase goes further to argue that the problems demonstrated by Ehrenreich/Gindin/Michaels don’t just stem from a stunted treatment of race and gender, but from a fundamental misunderstanding of class itself: “Ehrenreich et al. speak of class strictly as an abstract social structure, and race and gender solely as individual identities. Yet each exists in both dimensions.”

He argues that not only is class both a structure and an identity, but also that the idea of “the working class” in “leftist rhetoric” is curious and confused. He says “the working class” is an encompassing and vague category, and has historically referred more to a “class-in-itself” rather than a “class-for-itself.” According to Frase, Old Leftists ignore this and privilege a “sociological” understanding of class that substitutes a time- and place-specific industrial worker for the broader concept of the working class. Frase says that these once-powerful actors have been all but disappeared in today’s de-industrialized, post-Fordist world of service work and high finance.

While leftists cling to their dusty notions of class, Frase argues that “the working class” has lost its relevance, even as a sociological category, and has “been assimilated to the language of identity politics, treated as a set of cultural markers and practices that are correlated with having lower wages and fewer educational credentials.” Class today is an identity just like race and gender.

“Traditional class warriors” don’t like this and insist that the dominant treatment of class as an identity rather than a social structure is invalid, but Frase disagrees. He says the problem with “partisans of crude ‘class first’ politics” is that they’re obsessed with an “abstract structural definition of class that nobody directly feels or experiences as their identity.” Frase says the Left needs to open its eyes to the fact that class is a lived identity, and tells bourgeois classists on the Left to stop mocking overweight people who shop at Walmart.

More importantly, Frase argues that the Left needs to realize that just as class is not a universalizing structure, it is also not a universal identity — the working class is more than white men on a factory line. These “appeals to class degenerate into a kind of cultural populism, more comfortable visualizing the typical worker as a white coal miner rather than a black woman in an elementary school or behind a McDonald’s counter” and more comfortable fighting for higher wages rather than for abortion rights or against police brutality.

Inspiration for Frase’s piece comes from a wonderful 1997 article by Robin D.G. Kelley. The Kelley piece addressed a vocal contingent on the Left who decried “identity politics” as the source of the Left’s decline.

Liberals like Todd Gitlin and Michael Tomasky, and even Ralph Nader and Betty Friedan were all making noise in the late nineties about how an emphasis on race, gender, and sexuality was distracting and weakening the Left. Their vitriol spurred the emergence (or resurgence) of widespread debate and discussion on the Left about how the intersection of race, class, and gender shapes social relations of power.

Frase contends that we need to revisit this intersection, and I’m inclined to agree. Understanding how the intersection of race, class, gender (and ethnicity and sexuality) shapes and perpetuates social relations of power at the micro and macro level is a difficult task, not least because the material and ideological basis of existing configurations of power are always shifting in response to political, social, and economic pressures.

Thorny historical questions arise about the role of race, class, and gender in the reproduction of capitalism as a system and, distinctly, about their relationship to the capitalist mode of production. On a theoretical level, understanding how race, class, and gender interact to produce and reproduce the system is also difficult because, as Adolph Reed says, concepts like racism (and sexism) are extremely porous.

The Left’s ability to present a compelling account of power that captures this intersection hasn’t been a linear story of improvement, but compared with the tenor of discussion in the nineties, analyses of power have become significantly more nuanced and historically grounded.

Ehrenreich, Gindin, and Michaels all approach the intersection of race, class, and gender differently and each have strong opinions about how to understand structures of power and make the world a better place. However, the ease with which Frase chucks them into the “crude,” “class first,” down-with-identity camp — presumably to join the likes of people like Gitlin and Tomasky — is baffling.

I don’t agree with everything Walter Benn Michaels has to say, particularly on questions of intersectionality, but Frase’s presentation of his analysis of race and class is an oversimplification. Barbara Ehrenreich was a vocal critic of Gitlin’s and Nader’s dismissals of identity, and wrote a withering review of Tomasky’s book-rant Left for Dead for the Progressive in 1996.

The article that Frase quotes as evidence of Ehrenreich’s “class bias” was a rumination on how growing income inequality in the late 1990s was negatively impacting the ability of women to achieve the goals of feminism — not a call for the abolition of gender or race to be sure, but hardly a shout-down of identity politics.

Similarly, Frase’s reading of Sam Gindin’s piece in the latest issue of Jacobin to paint him as a dogmatic Old Leftist who denies the importance of race and gender in our emancipatory projects is misleading. Gindin prefaces his discussion about building a class movement by saying “the making of the working class is inseparable from the historical interaction of race, gender, ethnicity, and class.”

His argument is, as it has always been, that we must “develop a social force” capable of taking on the “formidable power and resiliency of capitalism.” To radically challenge the contradictions of capitalism, this social force must unite as a class-for-itself (as capital is so good at doing) by drawing together individuals, and their multi-faceted identities, in solidarity.

Beyond his charge that Ehrenreich, Gindin, and Michaels don’t like identity politics, Frase says they also don’t understand class and capitalism, as demonstrated by their focus on the structural aspects of class — namely, that a defining feature of capitalism is the built-in conflict between those who invest private capital to make their livelihood, and those who must support themselves by selling their ability to work for a wage.

Frase says Ehrenreich et. al. don’t understand that class is also part of our identity, our lived experience. But I can’t think of a single person on the Left who denies that class is part of our lived experience.

Anyone who grows up poor feels class acutely in their day-to-day interactions. Choosing to focus on the structural effects of class on life chances doesn’t mean denying that class is also a part of our multi-faceted identity or that capitalism affects us all in different ways.

Frase goes further to say that even when people on the Left do acknowledge class as a part of identity, they pigeonhole that identity into a white, male worker. Frase argues that we should also consider people of color and women as part of the working class. This is another point we can all agree on. I give my students Ehrenreich’s Global Woman — a book about nannies, maids, and sex workers from countries like the Phillippines and Thailand — to teach them how race, class, and gender intersect with global processes at both a micro and macro level to shape relations of power both in the US and globally.

But Frase is trying to say something more definitive about the interplay of identity and structure. He’s arguing that we can’t abolish class at a structural level if we don’t focus more on identity. It is this part of Frase’s argument that is most problematic in the present political moment.

The dominant neoliberal consensus today is that class, race, and gender are just issues of identity. The hegemonic narrative claims that race, class, and gender are no longer defining imperatives at all. None of them are structural forces worth bemoaning. None of them have the power to determine our life chances if we don’t want them to.

In fact, it is the invisibility of the structural dimensions of class, race, and gender that defines current social relations of power.

The role of our identities in shaping our lives has taken center stage and has been de-linked from structural forces. It is only at the level of identity that race, class, and gender are visible and politicized. Identity has become everyone’s own personal construction project, to be molded, shaped, and adapted to the vagaries of the market, independent of the structural imperatives of capitalism. We’re told if we work hard we can be anything we want to be, that if we all just treat each other better and become more tolerant we can solve poverty and inequality.

Frase understands that race and gender act on a structural level. He says that like class, “race and gender are part of social systems and not just individual identities,” but instead of moving to examine the structural aspects of race and gender, and how these intersect with structures of class power and privilege, he chooses to focus on class as a facet of identity.

Examining identity is not in itself a problem, but in a discussion of how the Left can develop strategies to challenge the imperatives of capitalism — and the capitalist mode of production — Frase’s focus on identity ends up reproducing and reinforcing dominant narratives of neoliberalism.

Class, race, and gender intersect on both a micro and macro level. We know this. The challenge for the Left is to translate this knowledge into emancipatory projects that straddle this intersection — like a basic minimum income, free higher education and childcare, and single-payer health care.

A project like a basic minimum income benefits all working people, while giving people of color, who are disproportionately poor, much needed support and breathing room. The same applies to projects like quality, free childcare and universal pre-K — all women and men would benefit, but especially single mothers.

Projects that address the structural aspects of class, race, and gender build solidarity and improve people’s lives in a radical way. In doing so, they open up a space to build the social force necessary to challenge capitalism at both the systemic level and at the level of production.