Feminism

Stay Classy

June 24th, 2014  |  Published in Feminism, Political Economy, Politics, Socialism

There’s a passage from Barabara Ehrenreich that I used to find very powerful.

The original radical . . . vision was of a society without hierarchies of any kind. This of course means equality among the races and the genders, but class is different: There can be no such thing as “equality among the classes.” The abolition of hierarchy demands not only racial and gender equality, but the abolition of class.

Many still find this formulation appealing, judging by the frequency with which I see similar sentiments expressed by my peers. And I still find it beguiling as well. But over the years I’ve come to see that it’s fundamentally wrong, and encourages a very misleading way of thinking about how class works.

Ehrenreich’s framework is common among those who decry “identity” politics, and insist on the unifying and universalizing qualities of class, as against race and gender, as a banner under which to rally the Left. Sam Gindin, in his generally excellent contribution to the most recent Jacobin, accuses “identity politics” of “parsing the working class into ever more fragmented subgroups”. He insists that identities “cannot combine into a new politics because their essence is their separateness. Something else is needed to bring them together in a broader, more integrated, and more coherent politics”, and “that ‘something’ is class.” He concludes that “class trumps, without underplaying, issues of identity.”

Walter Benn Michaels, tireless critic of liberal race and gender politics, uses similar language. For him, “battles over gender, race, and sexuality are battles against discrimination”. This makes them utterly incommensurable with struggles over class, which “has nothing whatsoever to do with discrimination; it has to do with exploitation.” Class is different, he says, because it is “a fundamentally unequal relation”. Thus, while anti-racism or feminism insist only on equality between races or genders, class struggle differs in its insistence on abolishing the class distinction.

This kind of rhetoric relies on a flimsy and inadequate reading not just of race and gender, but of class as well. In order to portray class as the unifying symbol, and all other identities as merely divisive, it must juxtapose categories at completely different levels of analysis. It simultaneously neglects the way in which race and gender are part of social systems and not just individual identities, while ignoring the way that class, too, functions at the level of identity politics.


Ehrenreich, Gindin, and Michaels seemingly have no vision of anti-racism or feminism beyond the horizon of liberal tolerance. The only endpoint they can see is “equality among the races and the genders”, which, as Gindin points out, implies that the “essence” of these groups “is their separateness”. But they are the ones essentializing separateness, ignoring a whole tradition of activists and writers for whom the goal is not merely equality but the abolition of both race and gender.

You’d never know from these discussions that anyone had ever troubled the gender binary. Among radical feminists, there has always been a current that sees the ultimate aim not as an equality between hypostatized essences, but as the elimination of the gender binary entirely.

In some versions, this can veer into calls for androgyny that have some uncomfortable Harrison Bergeron overtones. But one can just as easily follow the path of Silvia Federici, who calls it “absurd to assume that any form of gender specification must always, necessarily become a means of exploitation and we must live in a genderless world.” This suggests that her utopia is a world in which gender differences don’t disappear, they merely lose their function as categories of hierarchy and oppression. The performance of gender could then become more fluid, playful, and theatrical, following the models set down by queer and transgender cultures.

Likewise, radical understandings of race have viewed it as a social construct inseparable from the origins of capitalism, with “black” and “white” representing a dichotomy that must be overcome just as much as—or along with—the opposition between labor and capital. Barbara and Karen Fields demonstrate that racial categorizations are not pre-given, but must be painstakingly reproduced through a political and discursive practice of “racecraft”. “The social alchemy of racecraft”, they write, “transforms racism into race, disguising collective social practice as inborn individual traits, so it entrenches racism in a category to itself, setting it apart from inequality in other guises.”

In a much older work emerging from the Communist tradition, Ted Allen wrote of the “invention of the white race”, and insisted that the “race” was not a biological phenotype, nor merely even a “social construct”, but “a ruling class social control formation.” No wonder, then, that Allen’s research led followers like Noel Ignatiev to demand the “abolition of whiteness”.


If all this goes to show that there is far more to anti-racism and feminism than liberal diversity politics, the notion of “class” evoked by the writers cited above can be attacked from the other directiosn. 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.

In an old essay at Jacobin, I tried to unpack the dual meanings that “class” holds in the socialist imagination. Writers like Sam Gindin evoke “the working class” as the collective agent that can bring about universal liberation. But what does this term signify? Rather than trying to restate the point, I’ll just quote myself on the curious career of “the working class” in leftist rhetoric:

It did not simply mean class in the structural sense: workers who survive by selling their wage labor, confronting capitalists whose wealth comes from hiring that labor and producing for profit. The working class in that sense encompasses the vast majority even in the rich countries, but it has no sense of shared collective identity and hence is politically inert—it is a class “in itself” rather than “for itself,” to use the old Marxist jargon. Hardt, Negri, Virno, and other contemporary theorists of the “multitude” gesture at something like this all-encompassing version of the working class, but in their hands the category expresses a hope for a future politics more than it identifies a concrete and existing collective agent.

The working class as it existed in Old Left political discourse was a sociological category, and it often referred to a specific type of wage labor: the industrial proletariat, employed in large-scale factory work. Such workers were thought to be the leading edge of socialist politics not merely because they were exploited by capital, but because they occupied a specific environment that tended to forge a collective identity and to facilitate disruptive mass action: factories in which workers were employed for a long period of time, and where they were massed together each day performing similar, routinized work.

Today class in the second, sociological sense continues to appear in progressive rhetoric, but it has less economic specificity in deindustrialized economies dominated by precarious service sector work. Instead, it has largely 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. Academic centers exist to “increase awareness of and respect for working-class life and culture”. There are organizations devoted to battling the evil of “classism”. Class is conceived here not as Gindin’s broad, integrating force, but in precisely the differential terms he ascribes to race and gender. Classism is defined by the “Class Action” nonprofit, for example, as “differential treatment based on social class or perceived social class.”

One response to this, from the more traditional kind of class warrior, is to insist that this move is invalid, that class is different for the reasons Ehrenreich and Gindin give. But just because class is a structural relation doesn’t mean it isn’t also an identity. Class exists in its sociological sense, even if this is not identical with its status as an economic category. Classism is a real phenomenon, and it manifests itself even among those who are committed to class struggle in a more structural sense. It crops up every time a soi-disant leftist ridicules the tastes and mores of a rabble it perceives to be made up of fat, lazy, stupid rubes.

To say that combating classist attitudes is not a substitute for overthrowing class relations does not imply that such attitudes are irrelevant. To make an analogy with racism, my recent post argued that the anti-racist attitudes of individuals could still reproduce racist economic structures. Yet it would be a monstrous absurdity to claim, on that basis, that this absolves white people of the responsibility to try to be individually less racist. And so too, adjusting perceptions of those perceived as “working class” will not by itself abolish the capitalist exploitation of labor, but it is a necessary precondition for building a movement that can do so. To deny this is to insist that class remain at the level of abstract, academic theory rather than lived experience. It’s the equivalent of the white person who can talk a good game about the history of racism but claims not to “see race” in everyday life.


Ultimately, the partisans of crude “class first” politics want to have it both ways: they claim class as an identity superior to all others, but they do so on the basis of an abstract structural definition of class that nobody directly feels or experiences as their identity. Once class as a lived identity is understood in its particularity, it becomes subject to the same limitations and contradictions that beset race, gender, and all other oppressed identities in capitalism. If one is labeled woman, or black, it is impossible not to be aware of that fact; yet only in rare instances does this manifest in a self-conscious and collective politics of feminism or black liberation. Likewise, identifying with the culture of the working class is not a sufficient condition for a class politics.

One of the more insightful—though not self-aware—demonstrations of this was Mark Fisher’s recent denunciation of academic identity politics as a “vampire castle”. As an example of the invidious politics of identitarian division, he cites the case of British celebrity leftist Russell Brand. While noting that Brand is a famous millionaire, he nevertheless notes the way in which ostensible leftists criticized him in terms that can only be described as classist:

Someone passed me a post written about Brand on Facebook. I don’t know the individual who wrote it, and I wouldn’t wish to name them. What’s important is that the post was symptomatic of a set of snobbish and condescending attitudes that it is apparently alright to exhibit while still classifying oneself as left wing. The whole tone was horrifyingly high-handed, as if they were a schoolteacher marking a child’s work, or a psychiatrist assessing a patient. Brand, apparently, is ‘clearly extremely unstable . . . one bad relationship or career knockback away from collapsing back into drug addiction or worse.’ Although the person claims that they ‘really quite like [Brand]‘, it perhaps never occurs to them that one of the reasons that Brand might be ‘unstable’ is just this sort of patronising faux-transcendent ‘assessment’ from the ‘left’ bourgeoisie. There’s also a shocking but revealing aside where the individual casually refers to Brand’s ‘patchy education [and] the often wince-inducing vocab slips characteristic of the auto-didact’ — which, this individual generously says, ‘I have no problem with at all’ — how very good of them! This isn’t some colonial bureaucrat writing about his attempts to teach some ‘natives’ the English language in the nineteenth century, or a Victorian schoolmaster at some private institution describing a scholarship boy, it’s a ‘leftist’ writing a few weeks ago.

Rather than see how he is engaging in his own brand of identity politics, Fisher bizarrely uses this episode to prop up the notion of class as something that transcends identity. Which it does, but no more so than race or gender. Patriarchy is more than sexism; white supremacy is more than individual racism. And all Fisher demonstrates with this anecdote is that capitalism is more than just working class identity.

And what of class as a structural relation of power, in all its Marxist glory as a central category of the capitalist mode of production? Marx himself had a more sophisticated appreciation of it than many of his epigones; he famously argued that “Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.” Class as an abstraction, as the extraction of labor time by capital, only manifests itself through concrete social forms—including gender, race, and what we call “class” in its cultural sense. A culture that’s more richly developed in the UK than it is in the United States, but that in the U.S. sometimes stands in for “the straight white male working class”, a useful marker for an exploited group that has no other markers of oppression to draw on.

But among intellectuals, appeals to class as the universal identity too often mask an attempt to universalize a particular identity, and exclude others. Appeals to class in the abstract neglect that the working class is always some particular working class, and it can be marked (the female worker, the black worker) or unmarked (the male worker, the white worker). Far too often, exhortations to reject “identity politics” in favor of “class” amount to an insistence that the unmarked worker be taken as the definitive example of the genre. Appeals to class thus 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. Higher wages can be a “class” issue but abortion or police brutality cannot, because the latter are too closely identified with the part of the working class that is marked by gender and race.

I prefer Robin D.G. Kelley’s rendering of the matter, in an essay on the white “neo-enlightenment” Left that is worth reading in full:

Class is lived through race and gender. There is no universal class identity, just as there is no universal racial or gender or sexual identity. The idea that race, gender, and sexuality are particular whereas class is universal not only presumes that class struggle is some sort of race and gender-neutral terrain but takes for granted that movements focused on race, gender, or sexuality necessarily undermine class unity and, by definition, cannot be emancipatory for the whole.

Class politics ultimately confronts the same dilemmas as radical race and gender politics, as I discuss in my review of Kathi Weeks. Emancipation of the working class means abolishing the class as such, and thus giving up the comforts of working class identity. That can sometimes seem like an impossible task. But it’s essential that we face it, rather than comforting ourselves with the fable of class as the universal solvent that does away with all identity and leads directly to enlightenment.

Jacobin/Verso Books Launch

March 11th, 2014  |  Published in Feminism, Shameless self-promotion, Work

It seems I’m in book-announcing mode this week. Today marks the release of three books from Jacobin magazine’s collaboration with Verso Books. The trio includes Benjamin Kunkel’s Utopia or Bust (slightly silly profile of Kunkel here), Micah Uetricht’s Strike For America (excerpt here), and Melissa Gira Grant’s Playing the Whore (excerpt here). I have my own contribution to this series planned for the future, but more on that later. For those in New York, the launch event is on Wednesday the 12th.

The books are all worth your time. But I want to especially highlight Melissa’s which I think is an incredibly important work. I’m proud that for some time now, Jacobin has been consistently putting forward an alternative to the dominant narratives about sex work. I may have been first to write there on these issues, but that was only opening the door to people far better versed in these issues than I, like Melissa and Laura Agustín.

Playing the Whore synthesizes a huge body of theory, research and activism by and for sex workers. But I hope it doesn’t get pigeonholed as being about sex, or about sex work, or about feminism, though it is about all those things. There’s a huge wealth of insight here about the meaning of contemporary labor, and the many complexities of trying to develop new identities that make class politics possible.

Crucially, the book reorients discussion of sex work in the direction of class politics more generally, and away from dehumanized narratives of victimization or the overwrought feelings of would-be middle class saviors. As Grant says toward the end of the book: “There’s one critical function sex worker identity must still perform: It gives shape to the demand that sex workers are as defined by their work as they are by their sexuality; it de-eroticizes the public perception of the sex worker, not despite sex but to force recognition of sex workers outside of a sexual transaction”.

Rather than attempt my own clumsy summary, I’ll just tease you with more of Grant’s own words. Here are some of the lines that stood out to me from each of her ten chapters, which I hope will encourage others to pick up the book and delve into the rich context that motivates them.

  • “The Police”: “Rather than couching crackdowns on sex work as fighting crime, now some feminists appeal to the police to pursue stings against the sex trade in the name of gender equality. We can’t arrest our way to feminist utopia, but that has not stopped influential women’s rights organizations from demanding that we try.”

  • “The Prostitute”: “since the middle of the seventies, ‘prostitution’ has slowly begun to give way to ‘sex work.’ It’s this transition from a state of being to a form of labor that must be understood if we’re to understand the demands that sex work is work . . . the designation of sex work is the invention of the people who perform it.”

  • “The Work”: “All that is intentionally discreet about sex work . . . are strategies for managing legal risk and social exclusion and shouldn’t be understood as deceptive any more than the discretion and boundaries a therapist or priest may maintain. But this necessary discretion warps under the weight of anti-sex work stigmas and policing.”

  • “The Debate”: “Is this the real fear then: not that more people are becoming prostitutes but that the conventional ways we’d distinguish a prostitute from a nonprostitute woman are no longer as functional?”

  • “The Industry”: “To insist that sex workers only deserve rights at work if they have fun, if they love it, if they feel empowered by it is exactly backward. It’s a demand that ensures they never will.”

  • “The Peephole”: “Surveillance is a way of knowing sex workers that unites the opportunity for voyeurism with the monitoring and data collection performed by law enforcement, by social service providers, or by researchers.”

  • “The Stigma”: “Naming whore stigma offers us a way through it: to value difference, to develop solidarity between women in and out of the sex trade. . . . Whore stigma makes central the racial and class hierarchy reinforced in the dividing of women into the pure and the impure, the clean and the unclean, the white and virgin and all the others.”

  • “The Other Women”: “Sex work informs their analysis of sexualization not because sex workers’ lives are important but because sex work makes women who don’t do it feel things they prefer not to feel. It is the whore stigma exercised and upheld by other women.”

  • “The Saviors”: “For those working in the antiprostitution rescue industry, sex workers are limited to performing as stock characters in a story they are not otherwise a part of, in the pity porn which the ‘expert’ journalists, filmmakers, and NGO staff will produce, profit from, and build their power on.”

  • “The Movement”: “Without its student liberation movement, its black liberation movement, its women’s liberation movement, and its gay liberation movement I can’t imagine San Francisco birthing a prostitutes’ rights movement from a houseboat docked Sausalito.”

The Problem With (Sex) Work

March 27th, 2012  |  Published in Feminism, Politics, Work

As I said in an earlier post, my essay in the forthcoming Jacobin is structured around a review of political theorist Kathi Weeks’ new book The Problem With Work. It’s a timely and interesting book that effectively ties together a number of my preoccupations: the critique of wage labor, the deconstruction of the work ethic, the demand for shorter hours, universal basic income, the politics of the non-reformist reform. More than most other writers on these topics, however, Weeks connects all of these issues to feminism.

One of the benefits of making this link, which I wasn’t able to cover in my essay, is that it gives you the analytical tools to understand sex work correctly. I’m continually enervated and depressed by the way Leftists will unthinkingly throw around stuff like this:

Or, to take another example, there was the incident where some right-wing nut called Elizabeth Warren a “socialist whore” a few months ago. People whose politics I respect mostly treated that phrase as a bit of laughable word salad. But I’ve actually known a few socialist whores in my life, and they’re good comrades! And as I noted recently, the right-wing connection between the threat of socialism and the threat of loose sexual morality is not an arbitrary one.

I was talking recently to an old friend and former editor at the late, lamented $pread Magazine, and she noted that many sex worker rights activists have little experience even interacting with the traditional Left, so reluctant are most leftists to come anywhere near their issues. She also lamented the unfortunate state of the debate over sex work, which tends to be reduced to two equally inadequate positions: a patriarchal moralizing that treats sex work as a uniquely awful form of exploitation in which women can only ever be regarded as victims, and a panglossian libertarianism that revels in sex work as a source of independence and self-expression while glossing over its less glamorous aspects.

The first perspective produces legislative atrocities like the proposed New York City bill that would have penalized taxi drivers for transporting prostitutes. The second perspective can neglect the coercive and violent parts of the sex industry, which are real even if they tend to be misrepresented as the entirety of sex work. But the real problem with a lot of the more exuberant pro-sex work arguments and their anti-sex work counterparts is a bit more subtle: the issue with sex work is not the sex, it’s the work. As Canadian writer and sex worker Sarah M. puts it in an article at the rabble.ca website:

[T]o call sex work degrading, as if that’s news, is to deny that all jobs are degrading . . . Conversely, that these jobs are degrading doesn’t automatically make sex work empowering. It just makes it unexceptional. “Jobs” are degrading because capitalism is degrading, because waged work is degrading. . . . Sex workers don’t want to make prostitution “a job like any other.” It’s already our job. As long as welfare and minimum wage work, which are neither consistent nor sustainable, are the only other options, we will continue to do sex work — legally or illegally, in the open or hidden, safely or in dangerous places, depending on the other factors that determine how we do our work. Because work is about money.

The basic problem that afflicts many pro- and anti-sex work arguments is that they take for granted the desirability and legitimacy of wage labor in general. They are caught up in an ideology that says that work is supposed to be a source of meaning and dignity in life. They are therefore committed to either stigmatizing sex work as an illegitimate and particularly dehumanizing kind of work (if they oppose it) or endorsing it as being just as dignified and fulfilling as any other job (if they support it). Weeks sums this up perfectly in this passage from The Problem With Work:

Feminist analyses of sex work offer an illustrative example of the limitations of certain efforts to claim the title of work when that also involves making use of the legitimacy conferred by its dominant ethic. Introduced originally as a way to intervene in the feminist sex wars, the label “sex work” sought to alter the terms of feminist debate about sexual labor (Leigh 1997). For example, as a replacement for the label “prostitution,” the category helps to shift the terms of discussion from the dilemmas posed by a social problem to questions of economic practice; rather than a character flaw that produces a moral crisis, sex work is reconceived as an employment option that can generate income and provide opportunity. Within the terms of the feminist debate about prostitution, for example, the vocabulary has been particularly important as a way to counter the aggressive sexual moralizing of some in the prohibitionist camp, as well as their disavowal of sex workers’ agency and insistent reliance on the language and logics of victimization. The other side, however, has produced some comparably problematic representations of work as a site of voluntary choice and of the employment contract as a model of equitable exchange and individual agency. More relevant to our topic here, it is important to recognize how much of the rhetorical utility of the label “sex work” stems from its association with conventional work values. For those involved in sex worker advocacy, the term can serve not only as a way to foreground the economic dimensions of such labor practices, but as a way to insist on their essential worth, dignity, and legitimacy, as—in the formulation of one advocacy group—”service work that should be respected and protected” (quoted in Jenness 1993, 67). I do not mean to deny the vital importance of these efforts, only to point out that they often tend to echo uncritically the traditional work-ethic discourse. Thus the prostitutes’ rights group COYOTE (“Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics”) may succeed in calling off one of our old tired ethics, but in the process of doing so, taps into and reproduces another. The approach usefully demoralizes the debates about the nature, value, and legitimacy of sex for wages in one way, but it often does so by problematically remoralizing it in another; it shifts the discussion from one moral terrain to another, from that of a suspect sexual practice to that of a respectable employment relation.

I’m in favor of legalizing all forms of sex work for adults—not because I think it’s necessarily such great work, but because I think being a legal worker is better than being an illegal worker. The sex work “abolitionist” position makes about as much sense to me as reacting to Foxconn by calling on China to ban factory work. But perhaps it’s the troublesome “remoralizing” of work that Weeks identifies which is at the root of the uneasiness that pro-sex worker positions provoke in some Leftists. A lot of left-wing critiques of sex work, particularly in private conversations, strike me as the bad conscience of reflexively upholding the work ethic, rather than a coherent account of sex work in particular.

Not only does sex work destabilize the work ideology, it also conflicts with a bourgeois ideal of private, monogamous sexuality that also remains widespread on the left. If you want to oppose sex work without opposing work in general, you’re forced to fall back on some normative claim about what counts as normal, natural sexual relationships. This is closely related to the tendency to fall back on a naturalized conception of “the family” as the subject of society and politics, as in one of my least favorite names for a progressive political party ever, the “Working Families Party”.

Laura Agustin has an interesting discussion of the status of sex work in an essay for The Commoner. She notes that much discussion of contemporary sex work assumes that the most natural form of sexual relation is one that is mediated only by love or passion rather than by money or any other form of instrumentality. She then observes that no sexual relationship is ever so simple, and that the imbrication of sex with money and exchange has a long history. This is hardly foreign to American culture, as anyone who’s familiar with “The Millionaire Matchmaker” is aware. But Agustin observes that “[i]n societies where matchmaking and different sorts of arranged marriages and dowries are conventional, the link between payment and sex has been overt and normalised, while campaigners against both sex tourism and foreign-bride agencies are offended precisely because they see a money-exchange entering into what they believe should be ‘ pure’ relationships.” Against those who would lament the corruption of such “pure relationships”, she says that:

I see no postmodern crisis here. Some believe that the developed West was moving in a good direction after the Second World War, towards happier families and juster societies, and that neoliberalism is destroying that. But historical research shows that before the bourgeoisie’s advancement to the centre of European societies, with the concomitant focus on nuclear families and a particular version of moral respectability, loose, flexible arrangements vis-à-vis sex, family and sexuality were common in both upper and working-class cultures (Agustín 2004). In the long run it may turn out that 200 years of bourgeois ‘family values’ were a blip on the screen in human history.

She goes on to say:

For some critics, the possession of money by clients gives them absolute power over workers and therefore means that equality is impossible. This attitude toward money is odd, given that we live in times when it is acceptable to pay for child and elderly care, for rape, alcohol and suicide counselling and for many other forms of consolation and caring. Those services are considered compatible with money but when it is exchanged for sex money is treated as a totally negative, contaminating force—this commodification uniquely terrible. Money is a fetish here despite the obvious fact that no body part is actually sold off in the commercial sex exchange.

While I agree that no good can come of treating the commodification of sex as though it’s qualitatively different from the commodification of other aspects of human relations, I can’t be quite so sanguine on the implications of commodification in general. I am, after all, on record expressing my doubts about the indefinite expansion of both wage labor and commodification. However, the problem I would identify does not have to do with the exchange of money itself, but with the power relations within which it is embedded. I’m inclined to return once again to Erik Olin Wright’s concept of “capitalism between consenting adults”, which he invokes as part of his case for a Universal Basic Income:

When Marx analyzed the process of “proletarianization of labor” he emphasized the “double separation” of “free wage labor”: workers were separated from the means of production, and by virtue of this were separated from the means of subsistence. The conjoining of these two separations is what forced workers to sell their labor power on a labor market in order to obtain subsistence. In this sense, proletarianized labor is fundamentally unfree. Unconditional, universal basic income breaks this identity of separations: workers remain separated from the means of production (these are still owned by capitalists), but they are no longer separated from the means of subsistence (this is provided through the redistributive basic income grant). The decision to work for a wage, therefore, becomes much more voluntary. Capitalism between consenting adults is much less objectionable than capitalism between employers and workers with little choice but to work for wages. By increasing the capacity of workers to refuse employment, basic income generates a much more egalitarian distribution of real freedom than ordinary capitalism.

It’s undeniably true that many sex workers, if they had access to another source of income, would either leave the sex industry or demand better conditions for themselves. But the same could be said of supermarket checkers or factory workers. And that, ultimately, is the only argument against sex work that I think holds up: it’s work, and work is often terrible.