No, that’s not what I’m saying. All forms of oppression are different, each special in their own way. Just like people are all special little snowflakes and so simultaneously all the same … Oppression is oppression.
Getting people out of poverty on the other hand has the beneficial effect of reducing the impact all forms of oppression have on them. Money buys the ability to avoid problems and more economically equal societies are more egalitarian.
There are no ways to state what sacrifices one can make while others around the table judge by outward appearance, pigeonhole as “white male oppressor” and make plain that tolerating your mere silent presence is their own sacrifice to solidarity.
Every social climber is acutely aware of that fact. And every time I sit quietly by and fail to raise poverty and class as an issue for fear of being accused of racism or sexism, I’m adopting a middle-class behaviour signifier and betraying where I came from.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t raise issues of class.
It’s possible I’m misreading you. Of course it’s a classic problem in Marxism to describe the relationship between the class system and other forms of oppression. But it’s also been a recurring problem that radical groups stumble over just this. On the one hand, I often feel I’ve got a responsibility to defend the Marxist tradition against accusations of reductionism, and on the other hand, I run into people arguing for reducing everything to class. (I’ve also noticed that the people arguing thusly often have crudely stereotyped notions of class.)
But see, I think this is what you’re missing… It depends on the conversation you’re trying to have at that table. if the conversation is about race or gender, then talking about class can be seen as derailing the conversation to shift it to something else.
I’m also not sure I fully agree here. Lifting people into the middle class does help, but it doesn’t eliminate racism and sexism. And sure, being rich can indeed ease the burden of being black or a woman in a racist or patriarchal society. But, for one thing, people are more likely to assume you got it by “bad” means… Plus, racism and sexism can have a negative impact on your life, even if you’re rich. You can be a rich black lady, driving along in your BMW, but if you get a racist cop, ready to shoot, your class status isn’t going to act as a bullet proof vest. Having a vast portfolio is not going to stop some dudes from sexually harassing a woman as she walks down the street or stop some underling from talking over her because he “knows better” and is hostile towards having a woman as a boss.
Hell, Kamau Bell got mistaken for a homeless dude while hanging out with his wife:
I’m going to guess he doesn’t have many money troubles, even if he’s not filthy rich. I doubt that would have happened if the dude had been white. Maybe I’m wrong, but I somehow doubt it.
As for a class discussion, I think it’s important, it matters, and I want to have more of this conversation. And we do. We have this conversation about poverty all over the boards when stories are posted to that effect. We need (as a society, I mean - not just here) to keep on talking about income inequality, the pernicious effects of poverty, stagnant wages as corporations reap even more insane profits, etc. I’m down with having that discussion, because I see the effects it has had on people in my own life over the years. But when the issue being discussed is the murder of young black men, harassment of women on line, or what have you, now is not the time to jump in and start talking about the wage gap, I think. I’m sorry if that makes you feel excluded from the conversation - I’d hope you’d want to work these issues out too, though.
There is however a tendency on this BBS to reflexively assume that a point is a derail if it comes from someone who appears white male. Conversations about being black or female often wander sufficiently that the implications become people problems rather than just about women or POC. And if they can’t wander sufficiently to take in all variables, then we have an echo chamber.
You seem to be implying an absolute position on my part? That wasn’t my intent at all.
I said “Getting people out of poverty on the other hand has the beneficial effect of reducing the impact all other forms of oppression have on them.” (my italics).
Of course class status doesn’t completely protect from racism or sexism in any culture. And the examples you highlight are real issues, I can’t deny that and nor would I wish to.
But racism and sexism are visible, they can be and are rightly attacked head on. The insidious effects of classism are hidden. Class signifiers are in speech patterns, accent, vocabulary choices, manners —and social climbing depends on an ability to talk about middle and upper class interests while comporting oneself appropriately on social occasions, swapping stories about who you know and where you went to school to create social capital and connection.
The oppressed party is damned by his own desire to fit in because to do otherwise is exposing his background and thus losing out on the chance to improve his prospects. And damned by the fact that his potential allies in oppression then see him successfully passing and stereotype him as oppressor. Or damned for showing his lower class signifiers and having the stereotype of racist and sexist poor white trash applied, to lose face in front of all. Catch 22.
I had to google Kamau Bell as I hadn’t heard of him. This tweet of his popped up:
“Funny how for some people MLK’s legacy of inclusion doesn’t include marrying outside your race. They don’t think his dream was that freaky.”
So I’m strongly inclined to like him.
And that does provide an example of what I mean. Middle class racists just don’t invite us to dinner parties and I’ve probably lost out on better job prospects and contacts as a result. That’s not pleasant, but it’s better than having your car keyed, dog shit through the letterbox or threats of violence. That’s how the same racism is expressed in more socio-economically disadvantaged circles (in the UK and NZ at least). I can use my income to ensure that we only suffer the former and that’s an improvement that not living in poverty brings about.
@FoolishOwl said " …you have to make it absolutely clear that you’re willing to make sacrifices for the sake of a united struggle, or no one can trust you."
I can lay white class struggle at the altar of solidarity if there’s to be a robust discussion of poverty — and classism is acknowledged as an issue alongside racism and sexism. I can do that because I see that attacking poverty isn’t a betrayal of where I came from and it benefits everyone (except the rich, but with them).
But if I do that, then when we look at the world or the UK or NZ (bit better here) or the USA or Australia who can deny that this isn’t a problem that we all face? Who will avoid derailing that conversation by saying “but women have it worse” or "people of colour are most affected? Those things are true enough for their part, but class also has a large effect and trust me I can outmatch most (note the lack of absolute, I didn’t say all), blow for blow, in a “who had the least privileged start” playoff (and notice the past tense). We’d be back to the beginning once more when that happens … And being poor will still suck.
The best approach I think is to make obvious that “class” is completely arbitrary. A given person can classify any given thing or person in basically innumerable ways. To subjectivize it: What classes and classifications do you think are relevant? It is crucial to unload the term and its associated practices from any sort of baggage which brings any (typically economic) ideology with it. To make a class of person say something about the person themselves. For instance: the class of 100 meter dash runners, painters, nutritionists, calculus experts, etc. Rather than depersonalizing people by attributing the kind of “class” which only says something about some other person’s or group’s systems in the world. These uses only say something about their place in a system imposed by others. Such as people with X number of dollars, or Yankee White clearance.
Many seem to resist this approach, but it comes down to recognizing people as having agency instead of living as subjects under the control of others. And it avoids the troublesome Eurocentrism which tends to be often assumed when people are automatically evaluated as having/needing a place within this kind of economic ideology. This has the effect of empowering people and de-mystifying the notion that some untouchable people with lots of beans have any sort of super-powers which others do not. Even in liberal circles, people seem to be tempted to work from the assumption that “All people matter, but some still matter more than others.” And how people choose to frame this in terms of class seems to say a lot about how such distinctions can be made, and what assumptions are implicit in them. A lot of well-meaning discussion seems to center around getting people to assimilate and join the same exploitive economic systems they are working to overcome in the first place.
Do you mean freely as in unconditionally or freely as in openly and honestly? It’s a word with ambiguity in this context.
I offer alliance openly and honestly, but the only condition is that I’m not silenced or stereotyped merely for my race and gender.
But my thesis is that all activism based on opposition to named -isms always has the side effect of alienating or disenfranchising some other group,. If there is to be solidarity among the oppressed, only action against poverty has the ability to unite as it benefits all (with the one welcome exception)…
There are different conversations to be had under the umbrella of oppression.
Finding the language of solidarity without exculpating a particular form of oppression is often fraught with danger. We are often called upon to be more specific in our language game, lest we fall into the trap of being exclusive in our considerations of oppression.
There is so much comparative lessening of the plight of some groups as a way to undermine the importance of their struggle, that when a participant introduces broad conceptions, it is, within particular contexts, incumbent upon those from traditionally less oppressed groups to de-mark their statements in couched and detailed language.
Which I thought you did do. And within the context of the original conversation, the boundaries would seem to have allowed for the level of specificity which you chose.
However, the environment here has been, in the past, so cluttered with sophistry that I think the common reaction will always be to demand that extra specificity, which from a genuine actor’s pov can seem like an attempt to undermine their own, impartial stance.
In this instance I see the problem as stemming from the language game. Not the principles espoused.
You don’t have agency if you’re wandering around in a fog where nothing and no one has a name. You don’t have agency if you don’t realize what the structures are of oppression and exploitation, of how you’re being manipulated and used. You don’t have agency if you see yourself only as an atomized individual, and don’t understand how you’re related to others, and don’t have a way to communicate about shared problems and plan collective responses.
It’s a mistake to be so afraid of the cognitive limitations implied in a system of symbols, that you forget the utility of that system of symbols. I’m reminded of a complaint I once read, about a newspaper article describing someone as “trapped in a wheelchair”, that it failed to recognize that a wheelchair is actually liberating. We’re tool users.
I don’t know what you’re getting at there. I wasn’t making a case for not communicating, not classifying, not symbolizing, nor atomization. Quite the opposite. Agency is deciding and negotiating how we are related, instead of being told or leaving it to chance.
What I was saying tends to be an obstacle is people assuming defaults of class in absolute terms, rather than using these symbols to classify things according to their own criteria. Classification can be a powerful tool, but only when people use it instead of inheriting the results of its application from others. It’s a matter of communication by each having a say and being willing to interpret, rather than lazily assuming that we automatically mean the same thing.
If people decide to classify others based upon their use of tokens particular to a specific social game, and refuse to consider others, then it forces peoples frame of reference to work in terms of that game. Which is a rather ineffective way to avoid being exploited by it.
But people give this primacy by assuming it to be the class system, this internalization cannot be helpful. Doesn’t acknowledging it as merely a class system help people to understand where it is imposed from, and frame appropriate responses to it? When people assume it to be a pervasive force of nature rather than a technology wielded by specific people, they are generally less likely to be aware that they have choices, choices they might be making automatically as a result of having been socialized into somebody elses system. Framing all large social frameworks passively seems to naturalize them and place responsibility elsewhere.
Every action is a choice to be negotiated. Even any impositions by others, no matter what degree of totality seem to be implicit, involve choices which people should be consciously aware of rather than taking them for granted. The entire underlying mechanism of oppression is that of subverting people’s survival instincts and railroading them into scenarios where they actually believe they have no choices to make.
Besides, consumer culture is wasteful enough that I’d say we aren’t lacking in “material”.
But relatively few people perceive the class system as “the class system”. Unnamed, it appears as a “pervasive force of nature”. Putting a name to it is part of the process of recognizing it as a historic development, structures and relationships that can be changed through collective effort. An understanding of the class system is not internalized, and the class system, and class structure, is obscured, not revealed, by mainstream discourse.
In particular, while it’s not that rare for journalists to refer to “class”, they almost always use it as a term for income levels, and almost never talk about it in the Marxist sense, which is fundamentally about structural roles in the process of production. It’s misleading to describe “middle income” as “middle class” – most “middle income” people are wage earners, i.e., working class. But it’s not just a semantic quibble. Middle class is a structural role, in which one is an intermediate between the ruling and working classes.
Speaking of the middle class, this reminds me of the problems I’ve had in the past with identity politics as a political strategy – problems I had with it when dealing with student activists, specifically (my experience in the 90s). To be clear, the time is long past when a college degree assured one of a position in the middle class, so college students aren’t necessarily middle class. But, one way to establish oneself as middle class is to establish oneself as the representative for a group of clients. This is often pointed out as a shortcoming of the structure of labor unions, and less often, of left organizations. So some of the rhetoric I’d hear from student advocates of identity politics is that they, as college students and members of minority groups, were the natural leaders of their respective communities – i.e., they saw any questioning of identity politics as a threat to their rightful roles as middle class politcians, by means of depriving them of their role as representation of working class minorities. It was excruciatingly difficult to disentangle this middle class ambition with valid criticisms of the behaviors of other activists. The part I didn’t fully appreciate at the time was that the left activists, outside identity politics, were often maneuvering for middle class status – they were just less likely to admit it openly, or to themselves.
What I think is different in the current moment is that it’s increasingly easy for people who have no expectations of achieving middle class status to participate in debates about race, gender, sexuality, etc., and of course class. Social media is cheap and easy to access in developed areas.
I agree that being clear on the semantics is crucial. But these implied structures are also where I broke from Marxism as well as capitalism as both being essentially mired in an industrial-age, Eurocentric model of society. With the lefts focus on superficial aspects of multiculturalism, it has been surprising to me the unwillingness to engage in discussions of recognizing or implementing social structures which realize economics and politics of other paradigms. This I think is the diversity which really matters, and makes far more of a difference as to how people live than what they look like.
My experience of identity politics, also at University, is that it’s a middle class behaviour signifier. While I would have preferred to tackle poverty, it was socially more acceptable to talk race and gender. Pointing out the disenfranchisement of white poor in those conversations was to be sexist and racist, even though it is a valid class issue. Better to be quiet and not talk about it, because mere identification marks one out as other. And at the the time I didn’t have the insight to realise that was what I was doing. Which I thought was your point? If not, please expand?
My take is merely that humans are all equal in value, we just differ in abilities and outward attributes. Using the outward attributes to pre-judge and determine treatment is fundamentally unfair. Poverty is a hideous place to be and is the only issue that can unite the fragmented left wing of politics, because all other causes risk disenfranchising other groups or being seen to do so. If we aren’t tackling poverty, we’re just arguing over the distribution of the scraps left by the super rich.
That’s where I’m coming from, no more or less. If you can agree with those points we’re on side. Everything else is small print.
But how do we agree as to who is impoverished or super-rich? Most problematic I think is using the same symbols that exploitive people provide and use to maintain that exploitation. There need to be more accurate ways to discuss these structures. Even at times when I have been genuinely starving, I have never felt “impoverished”, because I don’t believe in property, the whole framework of possessing things. My focus was upon my abilities, what I offer for myself and others. Likewise, the supposedly rich don’t “have” anything either, any more than anybody else does. Like it or not, possessing things is a belief system. The only thing I have been impoverished of is involvement, and unfortunately this is more as a result of ineffectiveness of my immediate social relationships than any distant, abstract, outside factors. Because most people are trained only to inhabit social structure, not create it. This can be seen as a “class” distinction, but I think it is more accurately a functional one.