Privilege, Intersectionality, and the Class Struggle

Before reading this piece I highly recommend reading A Class Struggle Analysis of Privelege Theory from the woman’s caucus of the Anarchist Federation, as the discussions that led up to it being written and that have happened since informed this blog post. 

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I have recently been involved in several discussions that have got me thinking more deeply upon how the concepts of oppression/privilege and the those of intersectionality fit into a class struggle analysis of society. I have seen these terms being rejected out-0f-hand as part of an often well-founded rejection of wider identity politics. This usually comes down to the conception that notions of privilege and intersectionality provide a means to measure or chart one another in an “oppression olympics”, adding points here, taking away points there, then seeing who trumps who, then breaking us down into different points on an intersectional chart separated by our genders, sexualities, race or ethnicities, nationalities, abilities, etc. Rather than oppression being something external that is done to you and causes the material conditions by which you are oppressed it becomes something that used as self-description by the “in group” who inadvertently segregate themselves (and their identity)

In a liberal analysis this could, and does, occur all too often. More than once I’ve heard this referred to as tumblr politics, in reference to the shallow and reactionary views that find fertile soil in that particular blogging site.

In a class struggle analysis of privilege there is never any accounting undertaken and it is not our fault if we are part of a group that is systemically privileged or oppressed. Privilege is not something intrinsic to us, it is something done to us and something we have to struggle against in the same way we struggle against oppression. There is no accounting, we are just are in the position we are in.

In simple terms, when taken from a class struggle perspective, intersectionality helps to explain how these various privileges and oppressions come together for each person and show that while in one area we may share an experience of oppression with one another (say two people sharing the systemic oppression faced for being a different gender to that assigned to them by others), in another area we may be in a position where we are afforded some small privilege that the other person does not experience (say because one of those people is white & native to the dominant culture while the other is black & an asylum seeker).

Intersectionality does not try to chart or plot anything. It is simply an acknowledgement of the fact that we all experience privilege/oppression (or advantage/disadvantage if you prefer) differently. It does not try to relate one to another. The document from the AF Woman’s Caucus I link above is built as an expantion on part of the AF aims and principles where it states:

In order to be effective in our various struggles against oppression, both within society and within the working class, we at times need to organise independently as people who are oppressed according to gender, sexuality, ethnicity or ability. We do this as working class people, as cross-class movements hide real class differences and achieve little for us.”

Intersectionality and privilege are tools of thought that help us in this task by allowing us to have a better picture of how privilege/oppression divides us so we can build practical solidarity between different parts of the working classes who become conscious of their situation and take up the class struggle. This in turn will help people raise class conciousness across the board with specific fights against oppression/privilege being informed by those who are subjected to them. That is why, to my mind, these ideas are an important part of the class struggle.

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4 Responses to Privilege, Intersectionality, and the Class Struggle

  1. mhairi says:

    I like this…

    “Privilege is not something intrinsic to us, it is something done to us and something we have to struggle against in the same way we struggle against oppression. ”

    I think its also important to recognise that privilage and oppression ebbs and flows situationally, so oppression on one “axis” will be felt more keenly at some points, while oppression on another may come to the fore in different situations. As they are intersectional,your position within the matrix of oppression and the external narratives that surround it substantially influence that.

    The one thing that I’m not keen on in that Afed statement is that it appears to lump class in with the kyriarchy, I have a feeling that wasnt their intention, but reading it, there isnt the distinction made between kyriarchial positionality and economic positionality that I would have expected in something that sets itself up as a class struggle analysis. That muddying of the waters leads to the horrible “classism” beloved of tumblr politics, where economic relationships get submerged into the social class distinctions of whether you say “lunch” or “dinner” and being nice/tactful/excusing to poor(er) people

    Class is material; kyriarchy is ideological – one supports the other.

    Incidentally, I see what goes by the name of “classism” as a kind of strange form of racism, I cant quite put my finger on it, but it seems within that kind of cultural colonial ideology.

    • floaker says:

      It sounds as if you are describing is the old difference between social class and economic class (with classism being part of the purview of the former, while the woman’s caucus discussion document being referring to class in terms of the latter)?

      I also I’m a bit fuzzy on what you said here:

      “I think its also important to recognise that privilage and oppression ebbs and flows situationally, so oppression on one “axis” will be felt more keenly at some points, while oppression on another may come to the fore in different situations. As they are intersectional,your position within the matrix of oppression and the external narratives that surround it substantially influence that.”

      My take on this is that you may be confusing the personal experience one person has in a specific situation (which to my mind would be a liberal use of intersectionality that should be rejected in a class struggle analysis), compared to the big picture use of intersectionality to help understand class composition across society (which it is the ideal tool for and fits into a class struggle political outlook).

      • mhairi says:

        I think its a bit of both – a combination of structures and how these manifest at any particular time. In some situations, racialisation becomes more prominent, in some situations gendering, in others, other power structures can take over. It is experienced personally, and uniquely, but its built on more general structures which all intersect with one another.

        So what you have is the situation – which has itself a kyriarchial positionality; and the person meeting, and the oppression will be most strong at its collision. The default is the white cishet man, but in some situations elements of that can be mitigated.

        So take for example contrast a Black woman applying for a childcare job vs a labouring job. In the first it is more likely to be her racialisation which works to her disadvantage, in the second, her gendering.

        Yup, I am basically describing the contrast between social class vs economic class, but I felt that the Afed document confused the two unintentionally.

      • floaker says:

        “So take for example contrast a Black woman applying for a childcare job vs a labouring job. In the first it is more likely to be her racialisation which works to her disadvantage, in the second, her gendering.”

        But these are not relatives, they are part of the same structural material conditions the person is subjected to. Nothing changes in relation to the power structures that are oppressing or privileging that person. They remain static. You are falling into the trap of identity politics where you have an essential or innate reason for being part of an oppressed/privileged in-group, as opposed to it being something that is done to you.

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