Fundamental Socialism: Class and Intersectionality 1-18-2018

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Stefanie: Hello, welcome everybody, we’re gonna get started. Welcome to DSA’s Socialist Fundamental Series. This is the third in the series; first we had Intro to Socialism, we had then Intro to Marxism, and now we have Class and Intersectionality. Clare’s going to present, and then we’ll open it up for discussion, so take it away Clare!


Clare: Thank you all for coming. Before we get started explaining these terms, I’d just like to see a show of hands, who here considers themselves to have grown up in a working class household? Got a couple. Who considers themselves to have grown up in a middle class household? Anyone here grew up in a bourgeois household? [laughing] A couple – thank you guys for coming! What about your current occupations? Anyone feel like their current occupation is in a different class than the one they grew up in? Hm, couple, alright.

So, first of all, why are these terms important for us to understand? Why did you show up today wondering about them? [talking about speaking volume] So before we get started explaining what they mean, I just wanted to ask why they’re important for us to understand. If anyone’s got ideas. Or if you have no idea and that’s why you’re here that’s fine too.

So, there’s a couple of different ways of talking about class, and Marxists talk about class in a very particular way that’s not necessarily what you’ll see in a lot of the rest of the media and mainstream newspapers. So sometimes you’ll see people talk about class as an identity; somewhere around 90% of Americans consider themselves middle class, so that’s not necessarily the most useful way of looking at it. You’ll also see in movies or commercials or a lot of times in political theater class – uses basically sort of like a culture like, this is the kind of trucks people drive or beer people drink or the way people dress or speak and that that’s the understand of class they use. This is also often of limited analytical utility. It works very, very well for political campaigns. A somewhat more objective measure of class is just a measure of how much wealth or income someone has, so people will divide that up, however many classes they want. We have a wealth and income classification table here that I stole out of a book, and a lot of economic analysis uses this because it’s numbers and you can measure it. Another way that you’ll hear class talked about is as an explanation of life chances, and this is stuff like what neighborhood you grew up in, and where you went to school, and what that means for what kind of work you’re going to end up doing.

But Marxists talk about [talking about slides] – So Marxist class theory is a little bit different. Marx identified class as your position within sort of an economic system. It’s your position relative to the means of production. There’s basically two classes here, we have the capitalists, who own everything, and workers, who have to sell their labor. It’s not really about whether someone’s a decent person or not, and the relationship between the two is antagonistic. If one side wins, the other side loses. The capitalist is looking to extract as much labor from the workers as they can, and pay them as little as they can, and workers are trying to get paid for the jobs they do. Can anyone think of some examples where this has been playing out in the news lately?

Comrade #1: I know Vox and the New York Times have been unionizing –

Clare: Yes.

Comrade #1: – met with heavy opposition from their kind of owners.  I don’t know that much about the situation as a non-member of either of them –

Clare: Yeah, yeah that –

Comrade #1: It certainly seems though some of these [background noise] print media places I would say are ready to cut people working solely from freelance from now on.

Clare: Yeah, there was a paper in New York that I think as soon as they unionized the owner just like pitched a fit and shut the whole thing down.

Audience members: Gothamist.

Clare: Yeah, so that’s a good one. The purpose of unions is to give labor more power so the owners pretty much always see this as a loss. The recent tax bill is also a good one.  Although if you haven’t been following everything that’s messed up about the tax bill I don’t necessarily want to go over all of it right now, but we can talk about it in discussion later if anyone’s interested in ranting about that.

So exploitation in Marxist terms – there’s a lot of terms that you’ll have heard but do not necessarily mean exactly the same thing in Marxist analysis that they do in regular conversation. Exploitation does not necessarily refer to poor working conditions. What it means is that workers can’t choose not to work, they don’t have anything to sell but their labor, so if they can’t get a job, then they can’t survive. Which means they are basically forced to take whatever job they can get. Employers need workers; they have to hire people to perform stuff, stuff that can’t be done by machines. These days we talk a lot about job creators, which basically conflates the need for work with actually doing it … I have opinions about that.  So exploitation basically means when the compensation that someone receives for the work they do is less than the value of what they produce, effectively the capitalist is stealing from the workers. In Marxist terms it’s called surplus value; it’s also known as profit.

So things like minimum wage laws and unions are very important for making income distribution a little bit fairer so that the capitalists don’t suck all the money out of the economy and crash everything, which is their goal and they do it periodically when they’re allowed to. But a fairer income distribution is not really considered sufficient because you will still end up making less – if you’re a worker you’ll still end earning less than the full value of what you make; if you don’t, the company has no reason to exist. Having to sell your labor means that you can’t determine the conditions under which you work. You can form a union to try and gain some bargaining power, but ultimately the people that own the company decide if it’s going to continue to exist at all or not. This unequal balance of power also means that workers will tend to lose any gains that they make in terms of wages and benefits. We’ve seen this a lot over the past 30 years or so with union busting, we’ve seen it with the rise of the gig economy. Any rules that you make for worker protections, the capitalists will try and find ways around. Not just because they’re terrible people but because that’s sort of how the system works; it incentivizes them to find ways around it.

So as I said 90% of Americans consider themselves the middle class and in Marxist terms the middle class is a little bit different, it’s a little bit smaller, it tends to correspond more to what would normally be called the upper-middle class, and it tends to mean workers like, you know, managerial workers, highly paid professional workers that have skills that are rare and in high demand. These workers are – they’re working class in that they’ve been hired by a company to do a job and they need that job in order to get by, but they tend to have a lot more power within the workplace than most other workers.  The thing that is middle in the middle class in Marxist analysis is that they’ve kind of got – it basically refers to people that have a little bit of power on both sides of this power dynamic. It’s not that they’re in the middle income distribution; they’re usually not.

The other sort of section of the middle class is petty capitalists: small business owners, people that control their own means of production, but their sphere of influence is limited. Again, there’s a big kind of propaganda push lately to kind of call everyone a small business owner, like all kinds of precarious and gig work and freelance work is getting told, “Congratulations, you are a small independent consultancy that sells this one person’s labor.” And that’s generally not what we’re talking about here; we’re talking about people that own a store or own some kind of material – if your startup required startup capital, you might be petty bourgeoisie.

So why do socialists care so much about class? Socialists believe that challenging capitalism is in workers’ self interest, that they would be better off in a system where they weren’t exploited and where they controlled their own workplace and they had access to the full value that they create. We believe that workers have the power to challenge capitalists; even though workers depend on companies for being able to have a job, the companies also need workers. So we believe that when workers stick together, and involve themselves in the class struggle, we can eventually take over our own workplaces, be our own bosses, and watch Monty Python all day.  Not really.

So there are a lot of differences within the working class that are based on other systems that exist in our society simultaneously, such as racism and sexism. These result in certain kinds of workers being funnelled into different fields, it tends to result in certain kinds of workers getting paid less than others, getting less media attention when something happens in their industry, and basically experiencing the oppressions of capitalism differently. Lately in the news a lot we’ve been hearing a lot about sexual harassment in the workplace. That’s highly gendered; it’s also – certain industries have higher rates of sexual harassment than others, so this is something that socialists would need to think of and to work through when we’re advocating for workers, that it’s not only stuff about pay, it’s also working conditions, and that these intersections between class and these other systems mean that we have to address these at the same time because they all affect working people.  

Not all workers may be equally interested in challenging capitalism; the people that are in the higher strata, professional managerial workers, may be more likely to benefit from the system, they may be more likely to identify with the owners of the company than with other workers that they supervise, but they still have structural commonalities with the rest of the working class. And there are a number of occupations that are currently in the process of being proletarianized, basically their unions are being busted, their worker protections are being stripped away, positions that used to be in-house are being made freelance or adjunct or something like that.  So these occupations might be more open to joining the working class struggle. Colleges are a big site for this right now since there’s been a move away from tenured faculty, which is a pretty solid position, towards leaning on adjuncts for everything, and adjuncts are very, very underpaid.

It’s important to look at all of these specifically and figure out how they tie together, because capitalists exploit these differences to keep workers divided. A big vein of this right now is “the immigrants are coming to take your jobs”, though immigrants are also workers, they’re also being exploited. So immigrant workers and non-immigrant workers ought to be realizing what they have in common and standing together, but instead we have a lot of fear-mongering and trying to get workers to blame other workers for their conditions.

This is sort of the conventional image of the working class that you see in a lot of media, a lot of movies, the op-ed page of the New York Times if you read it today, which you probably shouldn’t have. They devoted the entire page to letters from Trump supporters – I was like, why are you doing this to me? The reality looks a little bit more like this. White men are the least likely to be working class and the most likely to be bourgeois or middle class. Approximately 50% of white men are working class, 67% for white women, it’s higher for black men, and it’s the most high for black women. These numbers are a little bit old; it’s very hard to find more recent data that uses a Marxist analysis. You can find a lot of stuff that just breaks down what field people work in. But it’s unlikely this has really changed substantially since this book was written.

Does anyone have questions just on class before we get into intersectionality theory?

[… sidebar about microphones/sound]

Comrade #2: Why do you think it’s so hard to find literature that gives you accurate data as far as class goes?

Clare: I mean, the glib answer is that most people working at government labor offices are not Marxists. It’s much easier to just quantify “these people are in this field, they are making this amount of money, this amount of people work there”. Marxism has not really been in fashion for a while, especially with the government.

Comrade #2: So the stats in the previous slide were for ethnic race, right –

Clare: Yeah, race and gender. And class.

Comrade #2: So 87% of black women are working class.

Clare: Are in the working class, yes. And about 13% of them are – at least, as of 1997 – were in the middle class, or in the bourgeoisie. There’s like three black women in the bourgeoisie, in the high capitalist class. So yeah, it’s just an analytical system that’s not very popular with most governments, so it can be hard to find data.

Comrade #3: Do you know if – going back to that last slide, the stats on that – if there were further delineations of the levels and how those were broken up racially? Like were white men at the higher end of the working class spectrum?

Clare: Yeah – I don’t have the paper on me, but if you start looking at just data that is on income distribution, you can get a lot more. And yeah, white guys are generally on average better off than other groups. Obviously there’s a pretty white variety within white guys. Even among the very highest levels, folks like the Koch brothers and Warren Buffett, it’s mostly white guys, but that’s still only like twelve people.

Comrade #1: Would it be possible with – I know there’s a lot of Marxist breakdown of middle class in current analysis – but to take the current analysis and convert it or reverse engineer it to look at what actually look like under a Marxist analysis?

Clare: We could, and I’d start doing that and I’d run out of time.

Comrade #1: Just a thought, I was just curious.

Clare: That’s how that guy [Marx] did it – it only gets done every now and again. I would really be interested in seeing how – we talk a lot about how after the recession the middle class got hollowed out. And that’s usually a definition of “middle class” that means people with money and jobs – basically like people with jobs, people with a full-time job. I’m like, okay, well, most people with full-time jobs, they’re still just regular working-class jobs.

Comrade #4: How does Marxist statistics as far as the working class differ from census data? I’m just curious how vastly different that is.

Clare: I really don’t have the number-crunching ability to have a really solid answer for that. A lot of this stuff is done in academia by people who, this is their job to figure it out. I’m pretty much reading what ends up getting published, and I don’t have a lot of insight into their process for crunching their numbers in order to update them.

Dean: This might be for the discussion, but the Erik Olin Wright that you reference, he claims that Marxists need – to be a Marxist, you have a more nuanced understanding of what class is than just purely a relationship with the means of production. Do you think to attain Marxist analysis you have to abide by a really strict understanding of what class is under Marx, or can you be nuanced and Marxist?

Clare: I think it’s always better to have more data and to figure out more nuance in what’s going on. Our current phase of late capitalism has sliced and diced everything and made it very, very complicated. And I know some more modern Marxist analysts have, you know, 6 or 7 classes. But I think there’s value in still not losing sight of that original question of “who owns everything, and who has to go out and be dependent on somebody else for a job”. I’m really interested in the weird edge cases, especially with the rise of platform monopolies that are geared towards telling people they can be independent. Like you can have your own store on Etsy. Or like you can make your own art on Patreon, and then Patreon changes its fee structure, and it’ll like, screw over 80% of people there. So it’s like, okay, well, clearly you’re not as independent as we told you you were. So I think those things are very, very important questions; I also think that it’s useful to not lose sight of the basic analysis of “these are the two things we’re looking at, and we know that there are squishy bits in the middle”.

Comrade #5: To the question of who owns everything – people who have 401ks and index funds, we’re technically owners of these big corporations. Is that material in this kind of understanding of your worldview, or in terms of how it affects your actions? … you probably want to be a good Marxist.

Clare: This is what I said about we’ve made everything really, really complicated. So ultimately, when we’re looking at ownership, the reason we’re looking at it is because we’re looking at power. So if you have some small portion of your salary in a 401k, it’s for the purpose of eventually being able to retire on it. But we’d basically look at questions like, do you actually have enough money in it to live off of it? If you’ve got a savings account and you’re making 5 dollars a month in passive income, I don’t think that puts you necessarily – means you’re a capitalist now. Otherwise, everyone would be capitalists, and capitalism would be working out great for way more people than it is. But the idea is – “Can you live off of it?” and “Can you exert power over other people?” are sort of the core questions that we’re looking at.

The 401ks and getting regular people getting to put parts of their income into the stock market was part of a whole mass investment project in the 20th century that was a little bit after Marx’s time, and trying to figure that out really confuses the heck out of me. So I think a good rubric is just, like, can you live off this passive income or not? If you can’t, and you have to get a job, you are probably a worker of some kind.


Clare: So, intersectionality theory is something that has made its way out of the academy and into a lot of mainstream social justice discourse, and in the course of doing that it’s gotten very confused. The concept of intersectionality was developed in 1989, I believe, by a sociologist named Kimberlé Crenshaw, who was doing research into employment discrimination against black women, specifically. So her definition – one of the shorter definitions I can find – was,

Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or an LGBT problem there. Many times, a framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.

So the metaphor of intersectionality she uses is of, you know, the intersection of multiple different roads, where each road is a particular system or axis of power. So we’ve talked about the road that is class, with the rich people at one end and working stiffs at the other. Intersectionality helps us look at what happens to people who are part of multiple marginalized groups, and the things that happen to them specifically. Race is a big one, gender’s a big one class is a big one, disability, age and generation – all of these are things that can change the kinds of experiences that people have.

Into the complicated stuff: why is intersectionality important for socialists?

A complete analysis of capitalism has to include the roles of unpaid and unfree labor in the creation and distribution of wealth. So this includes things that are traditionally considered women’s work that happen outside the workplace, such as, you know, housework, childcare, childbearing – creating new little workers for the system and raising them. [Audience laughs.] That’s basically what it is! Everyone’s like, well, it’s natural, so we don’t need to pay you for it. So that kind of unpaid labor, and then what happens when that unpaid labor becomes paid, and the fact that it’s seen as natural for women gets used as an excuse to pay people less for it. So these are the kinds of things that we need to look at in order to have a complete analysis of capitalism.

Another thing we need to look at is the role of unfree labor. The United States was founded as a slave society, and this has had far reaching impact on how our economy was built, how the wealth of the United States was created, and the legacies of that are still with us today. Including the rise of mass incarceration – which in addition to everything else wrong with it – there’s a financial incentive to grow that system because incarcerated people can be made to work for less than minimum wage and sometimes for no wages at all. So these are things that will affect the formally free labor market and that we need to look at in order to understand how it works.

We also need to understand that capitalism is a global system, and so in order to understand that we have to account for the role of imperialism and colonialism, both in settler countries – think of the the United States and Australia – and in countries in the Global South. Both historically and today we’re still interfering in other countries in order to make them run their economies the way we want them to run their economies.

Comrade #6: What do you mean by the “Global South”?

Clare: The Global South is basically what is often called developing countries. A lot of leftists just don’t like the term “developing countries” because it makes it sound like they’re being left to develop on their own, whereas what’s really happening is that bigger countries just keep messing with them and there are financial incentives for big wealthy countries to make sure that the markets and resources of these smaller countries are exploitable for our businesses. Governments interfere with other countries for the benefit of private businesses all the time, and that’s a really important thing to understand.

Another reason that intersectionality is important is a lot of mainstream social justice initiatives tend to lack a class and material analysis. A lot of big nonprofits are hamstrung and limited in the work that they can do by their dependence on wealthy donors. This is not solely limited to identity-based items. I know a person that works at a company that is doing a green initiative; but they wanted to go fossil fuel free, and the company is blocking that because there are people that they get money from that don’t want them to do that. So one thing that socialists can contribute to these other initiatives is to basically follow the money and to point out when that class analysis is lacking.

More on why it’s important: because different systems of oppression exist simultaneously, people experience them simultaneously and the experiences they have under them cannot always be easily separated. Socialism has a theoretical model where capitalism is the basis of everything we do in society and the rest of it grows out of that, but then it’s all of this at the same time, and people don’t feel like when things happen to them under capitalism that they can easily separate out what was sexism and what was racism and what was class oppression.

The only way to overcome divisions within the working class is by acknowledging and addressing people’s different experiences. We have to work through the different experiences people have and figure out how they’re related so that we can stand for and help people based on what it is that they actually need, even if one person’s experience under capitalism is different than someone else’s.

The big pragmatic one is that it’s important to learn from the mistakes of earlier movements and commit to not leaving anyone behind. History is littered with movements where certain people burned out and left because their concerns were not being taken seriously.

Alright, so this is sort of a brief recap of terms we’ve gone over. Socialism is a political project that takes class as its primary lense for analyzing relations of power and takes the economic system as the foundational form of oppression for any particular society. Democratic socialism presumes that class oppression needs to be tackled through democratic means, through mass bottom-up organizing, and with democratic ends in mind.

Intersectional democratic socialism basically says that in order to do that we need to tackle class oppression in concert with other kinds of oppression such as sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia because they’re all related. They all feed into each other, they reinforce each other, and they can’t be easily separated out. So they all kind of have to be understood as one big matrix.

I wanted to leave y’all with something a little bit actionable, as they say, because there’s a lot of information here to understand how all of the different forms of oppression in society work together, and most of us don’t have time to commit ourselves to doing that full-time. Basic things to keep in mind going forward when you’re in an organizing space or just when you’re running into people that are of different demographics than yourselves.

One of the big ones is to listen to other people’s experiences. They may be very different from yours, and you can always leave analysis and theory [for] a bit little later and just listen genuinely to what people are telling you about the way that they experience life in this whole matrix of power structures.

Assuming good faith is another one that sounds a little trite, but can be difficult since most of our political discourse in this country is completely dominated by bad faith. It’s very important, especially if you’re within a particular group within an organization, to realize that for most of the time if someone is coming to you with a complaint, a way that they say they’re feeling excluded, something you’ve forgotten, they are trying to tell you how to organize with them better.

Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable is basically just a way of saying there’s not really any shortcuts to doing the hard, long work of coalition-building and realizing that whatever experiences you’ve had that have politicized you… For a lot of folks in DSA, we’re a very young organization – we have a lot of young people – and for a lot of it, it was this experience of entering the workforce after the Great Recession, and so that’s something that politicized a lot of us. And other people may have been politicized by things that happened to them that you were completely unaware of, and it can be very uncomfortable to realize that there was all this stuff going on that you just had no idea about, or that you might have done something that made it worse and harmed people. And it’s important to just get comfortable with realizing how little you know.

One thing you want to train yourself to be able to do eventually is to notice when analysis seems flat, or when somebody is missing. This can be a little trickier, but with time, you’ll be able to notice like, “Okay, we’re talking about reproductive justice, and we’re talking about it like everyone who needs abortion care is a young girl in college who doesn’t already have kids.” Not all women are young girls in college who don’t already have kids; something must be missing here. And if you can train yourself to notice when an analysis is flat, then you can start going forward to say, “Okay, what’s going on here?”

Try to resist the urge to decide there’s only one real issue to a situation; it’s often much more complicated than that. If you ever find yourself saying, you know, “Oh, this isn’t about racism, I think it’s about sexism”, or “This isn’t about sexism, I think it’s about class,” just… just don’t. [Audience laughs.] Like, stop and make sure that you really have a full reason why this is the case, and not just that you want there to only be one cause. A lot of things have multiple causes.

Another one is just to be aware of what you’re asking from others in terms of educating you, in terms of reliving traumatic things that they’ve been through. There’s pretty much no better way to learn about what other people go through than to have them talk to you about it, but if someone’s trusted you with telling you about something awful that’s happened to them at work, try and be sensitive to how much personal information you’re asking them to divulge, how much you’re asking them to defend their own experiences. It can be very, very exhausting trying to educate other people about stuff that was personally difficult for you.

And the last one is – you know, there’s a lot of information; we don’t actually have to be an expert for all of it in order to show solidarity. You can still show up for people even if you don’t have a really good grasp of their issues, as long as you step back and let them lead and let them tell you what to do.

If you do want something to read to start with, the Combahee River Collective Statement is a… It’s pretty short, it’s maybe 5 or 6 pages long, it’s available for free online, and it was a statement written in the 1970s by a group of black feminist lesbian Marxists that met right here in Boston. So there’s a little bit of local history, to start researching them. And it’s pretty readable, unlike some of the things that were written in the 19th century, so I would suggest googling that if you want to start with a primary document on intersectionality theory from the perspective of some socialists.

That’s the end of the presentation, and so I’m just leaving us with a quote from Emma Lazarus that I think sums up the importance of solidarity, and the importance of making sure that we include everyone and don’t leave anyone’s concerns behind in socialist organizing.

Until we all are free, we are none of us free.


  • Emma Lazarus



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