Sunday, April 8, 2012

Power, Privilege, and Marxism: A Follow Up

Following a number of critical responses (including my own) to her recent blog post about privilege and Trayvon Martin, Sherry Wolf reposted a Socialist Worker article by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor that she thinks addresses most of the concerns that have arisen. (That article can be found here.) I was also directed to another article criticizing privilege theory posted recently on Kasama.

I don't think it would be very fruitful to try to continue a point by point engagement with these articles, as they aren't directly engaging with all of the same questions as I am, and are mostly directed at non-Marxists rather than unorthodox Marxists such as myself. But I do want to follow up with a restatement and deeper explanation of some of the ideas from my last article, as well as directly address a few major points of disagreement.

What is power?

Talking through these issues in the terminology of privilege might be somewhat misleading. It's worthwhile to have a discussion about the terminology we use and why we ought to prefer some words to others, but before we can do that we have to be clear about what we're actually talking about. It seems to me that the real theoretical disagreement at stake here is about how power works.

At the risk of dramatically oversimplifying, I'll frame the question this way:  is power something that exists in the relations of the ruling class to everyone else based on our society's economic system, or something that exists in the relations of any person or group to any other person or group based on socially constructed categories of difference? For some Marxists like Sherry Wolf, it is the former; for some of the "post-modernists" and anarchists whose politics she criticizes, it is the latter. No doubt, almost anyone can recognize that to some extent power operates in both ways: no Marxist would deny that white workers can exercise some small amount of power against black people through something like the KKK, and very few non-Marxists would deny that capitalism exists and is responsible for certain kinds of structural power arrangements. But both of these hypothetical groups think that power is essentially one or the other, even if it is mildly complicated by other factors.

I think they're both wrong; I think power operates at both levels. Depending on the form of power in question, it may have its origin in one specific type of exercise of power: the modern notion of race, arguably, was created by the ruling class of colonial Virginia to allow themselves to continue execising power over everyone else. On the other hand, the institution of patriarchy has probably been around for as long as humans have settled into villages, and its origin cannot be explained simply by reference to an economic system like capitalism.

But the origins of a mode of power don't predict or explain the current manifestation of that mode of power. Race may have originated as an ideological tool of a colonial ruling class, but it has evolved into a vast and overwhelmingly complex cultural and economic apparatus of institutions, images, forms of language, patterns of behavior, and so on that allow power to be exercised along the axis of race at any place or time where human beings are present. The most significant exercises of power are going to come from those with the most power--the white male capitalist ruling class. But it's important to realize that members of the ruling class are participating in the capitalist system like everyone else, and they do not themselves constitute that system or have full or direct control over most of its operations.

What is white privilege?

Using the very simple model given above, I'll tentatively define white privilege as the exercise of power along the axis of race by a white person or group of white people. It doesn't have to be a conscious exercise of power, and usually it probably isn't. To put this somewhat differently: if race is a set of ideas and images and institutions and so on that allow for the oppression of some people based on their inclusion in a certain racial category, then privilege is the flip side of that oppression. People of color have a real experience of oppression; white people have a real experience of privilege.

That experience amounts to more than simply not experiencing oppression. It also amounts to more than a misleading psychological feeling of superiority. When Marxists say that racism in the working class is merely psychological, they make the same mistake that liberals make in defining racism as something that happens in people's minds as a simple matter of belief about other people. But race exists not just as a belief about inferiority or superiority, but as a vast network of ideas in our language, our culture's visual imagery, our bodily habits, our access to and roles within various institutions, and so on. An individual's psychological reaction to all this might take the form of prejudice against another group of people, but racism is not simply prejudice. It is the way that individuals manipulate this vast network of ideas and tools and behaviors to act out their socially assigned category of race.

Privilege theory allows us to think through the ways that white people--including white workers, and white women, and queer white people--do this. It allows us to begin to deconstruct this complicated system of privilege, thereby allowing for deeper understanding and more effective forms of collective action between white people and people of color. But privilege theory is not a comprehensive theory of race and liberation: it is merely the part of such a theory that analyzes the behavior of white people within systems of oppression. I am in agreement with all of the other Marxists in this debate that privilege theory without a systematic analysis (for us, Marxism) is insufficient, that privilege theory taken as a complete theory of liberation can and often does lead to paralysis, to depoliticization, to tokenizing of women and people of color. Where we disagree is the question of whether classical Marxism by itself provides a sufficient analysis of power and working class racism, or whether we need to expand its analysis to account for these phenomena in a more sufficient way.

On reducing race to class.

Many Marxists seem not to understand the charges of class reductionism that are leveled against them. They defend themselves by pointing out how Marx supported independent action against racism, how they think of the struggle against racism as an integral part of the struggle against capitalism, and so on. The problem is that class reductionism can take many forms. When these thinkers find themselves faced with the charge of class reductionism, however, they can conceive of this only according to the most radical form of reductionism.

But nobody thinks that Sherry Wolf and others with her politics are so radically class reductionist that they believe analysis of race adds nothing to analysis of class or that we can sufficiently achieve liberation merely through class struggle without also struggling against race. There are, sadly, still some 'Marxists' who have politics as terrible as all that, but fortunately Sherry Wolf and her comrades are smarter, better informed, and more sophisticated thinkers than that.

But they still tend to fall into various forms of class reductionism. Specifically, they tend to conceive of race, gender, and sexual identity as forms of oppression arising from class oppression and which exist primarily or exclusively as ways of furthering class oppression. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, for example, says in her article that "under capitalism, wage slavery is the pivot around which all other inequalities and oppressions turn." If this doesn't mean that class oppression is more fundamental than other forms of oppression, that class oppression exists independently while other forms of oppression exist only contingently, then what the hell does it mean?

A few paragraphs later, the class reductionism becomes even more explicit: "while it is true that oppressions can reinforce and compound each other, they are born out of the material relations shaped by capitalism and the economic exploitation that is at the heart of capitalist society." So capitalism comes first, and other oppression comes later because of it. On this model, it is hard to explain the historical fact that patriarchy predates capitalism by thousands and thousands of years, as does oppression based on expressions of sexual identity (homosexuality as such may be a recent invention, but Romans and Greeks and earlier societies very clearly had other systems of categorizing sexual identity, and the development of these categories--such as the Roman cinaedus--seems to have had more to do with nationalist cultural concerns than with economic interests).

It is easier to make an argument for race as a product of capitalism (if you want to think of the economy of early colonial Virginia as capitalist, which I'm not sure you should). Race, it is said, was a deliberate invention of the colonial ruling class to divide the colonial working class. I agree with this story--sort of. It does seem to be true that the colonial ruling class produced the basic conception of race that would be used to justify slavery and other forms of exploitation, but it is not true that they invented this idea whole cloth, or that it has remained static since then.

The colonial elites took ideas that had been present in their culture for a very long time and tweaked them for their purposes. The word 'race' and its predecessors had been used for thousands of years; stereotypes and oppression based on skin color had been around for thousands of years; fairly complicated systems of social relationships based on supposed differences of 'race' or 'ethnicity' and other related categories had been constructed many times in many places over the course of Western history. The supposed inventors of race in Virginia merely acted on these ideas to develop a new conception of race that was specifically suited to their purpose, and white people have continued to do this ever since, which is why there is no consistency to the history of racist thought either within capitalism or before it.

This example seems incredibly instructive to me. The simple model that orthodox Marxists often adopt which posits ideology and culture as direct products of ruling class interests suddenly becomes a lot less simple when we realize that the ruling classes do not create new culture at all, but simply act on existing culture to shape it to their purposes. Capitalists have neither the degree of power nor the level of creativity required to do more than this. They have a powerful influence on the evolution of culture, but theirs is not the only influence. (It's also worth asking whether culture and power are really produced through the intentional acts of people acting in their self-interests, or whether they develop separately from the conscious acts of any human beings, but that is a question beyond the scope of this discussion.)

Perhaps the most significant form of class reductionism in Taylor's article emerges only when you read between the lines. It is eminently noteworthy that when discussing differences and relative advantages between white and non-white workers, Taylor only discusses economic differences of income and wealth.  If white workers would have yet more wealth by uniting with black workers, she argues, then they can't possible be said to benefit from racism. She concludes that racism in the working class must be merely a "psychological wage," the result of "false consciousness."

Well, if the only form of difference that you can conceive of is crass economic difference, it is not surprising that you can't understand privilege and that you tend to reduce other categories of oppression to economic--that is, class--oppression. It does not seem to have occurred to Taylor or Wolf that white workers might experience cultural privileges and advantages over non-white workers. In fact, culture doesn't seem to be a real thing for them at all: it is merely subjective, a "false" consciousness, whereas class is real and objective.

I submit that culture is real, that in many ways it is more real than economic position. Economic oppression creates all kinds of terrible problems for oppressed people, but it is not in economic prosperity that people find their real happiness and passion for life. The things that we all value the most--love, friendship, shared cultural practices like art or sports, the social world in general--are all cultural realities. It follows that the ideas and materials of culture are a vital space where privilege might be found. Access to culture, the relative valuing of different kinds of culture, the habits and behaviors induced by culture: all of these things produce real differences that give real privileges to white people and other people whose identities are socially--culturally--constructed into categories of superiority.

All of this is to say: the history of oppression is extremely complicated, and it is both arrogant and inaccurate to say that all forms of oppression arise from the realities of capitalism. Racism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and other forms of oppression both predate capitalism and have a real continuing existence that goes beyond their relationship with capitalism, however important that relationship may be. The independent realities of various forms of oppression are important to understand if we hope to effectively work against that oppression. Let's be honest: for the better part of a century, if not for all of American history, the American left has on the whole done a bad job of acting against all forms of oppression, and given that fact it seems that we all ought to be humble and recognize that our various orthodoxies probably have a lot to learn from other traditions.

On reducing individuals to categories

To me, the most poignant criticism of privilege analysis is the inherent danger it has of reducing people to their categories and the expectations that accompany those categories. Not only does this tendency deny people (both people who experience oppression and people who experience privilege) the space to exist as individuals and to shape their own identities, but it can lead people to overemphasize difference (whether real or imagined) to the point of derailing possibilities for solidarity and collective action.

I don't think this tendency follows necessarily from privilege analysis, but it certainly can and often does follow in actual practice. I won't lie: I struggle with the psychological tendency to think of a person as "a black woman" or "a white dude" instead of as Susan or Jeff, who are complicated individuals not reducible to their socially assigned categories. The problem is, these tendencies exist whether or not we have an analysis of privilege. These categories exist in our world and all people in our world think about other people through the lens of race and gender and other categories, to mostly harmful effect. Anyone who says something like "my mom taught me not to see race" is full of shit; what they really mean is that their mom taught them to never explicitly acknowledge the existence of race.

I think the only solution is to try very hard to continue struggling with this difficult project. Denying the reality of difference is not a solution to the problem of oppression based on difference. I follow Audre Lorde in arguing that is absolutely essential to think about our differences and their implications, but to do so without dehumanizing people or reducing them to categories of difference. I also agree with Lorde that difference is not something that will ever go away, and that our project is not to end difference but to transform it from something that oppresses and divides us to something that we love about each other and find great joy in. A difficult project, but as worthy a project as I can imagine.


What we need is a theory of power and oppression that accounts for both the nature of capitalist class power and oppression and the related but independent nature of patriarchy, racism, heteronormativity, and other forms of oppression. We need a theory that understands culture as well as economics, that explains how power operates between individuals having a conversation, or political activists having a meeting, or groups of workers who find themselves in conflict, as well as between the ruling class and everyone else. We need a theory that allows us to see each other as individuals rather than categories, but which also allows us to understand how categories of race and gender and so on are operative on our identities. We need to be able to struggle collectively while also combating the forms of privilege that are expressed within those struggles.

Classical Marxism gets something essentially right in its analysis of capitalism, and is therefore an excellent starting place for part of this equation. But classical Marxism cannot perform all of the functions that I have just asked it to perform. To develop a theory that does all of these things, we need to borrow heavily from more recent forms of Marxism, as well as from non-Marxist theories which might get certain things very wrong while making important contributions in other areas. This project cannot get off the ground if we believe that our tradition already has satisfactory answers to all of the important questions, and doesn't need to be significantly expanded or rethought.


  1. Again, very clarifying. I think you've gotten to the heart of the issue with the debate around power.

    Also, while the phrasing in Taylor's article suggests that all oppressions came from capitalism, it's worth noting that the body of theory the ISO promotes doesn't actually argue for this (absurd) idea, and fully recognizes the longevity of patriarchy. It was a sloppy phrasing, to be sure, but it's not actually what folks argue.

  2. Thanks for trying to address this.
    I'm not sure we need a "theory" to accomodate all this stuff--seems that intelligent people who are sensitive to notions of privilege and anti-oppression can figure this stuff out just using common sense.
    What's needed is for people who are way too into postmodernism and who sometimes don't think before they speak to actually be self-critical when they say absurd things. When challenged on the logic of their point, they shouldnt respond with the knee-jerk accusations of racism or misogyny, simply because their personal identity is too invested in the "theory" that they have spent their lives absorbing. That is what simply needs to happen.