Unresolved questions about race, gender, and class

How does the capitalist division of labor produce race and gender?

A while back our friend Sycorax wrote a substantial essay on how capitalism creates patriarchy and white supremacy.  This essay is called “Race, Gender, or Class? The Eternal(ly) Annoying Question.”   I am posting some  discussion questions relating to this essay because I think Sycorax raises some issues that Black Orchid Collective, and the broader political tendency we are a part of, are working out in theory and practice.   While I briefly summarize some of Sycorax’s points below, I’d encourage everyone to read her article in full, since this summary does not do it justice, and her piece does a good job introducing and explaining the concepts I invoke below in  a clear and accessible way.

Sycorax poses the question that has lead to eternal(ly) annoying debates among revolutionaries: what is the relationship between patriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy?  By patriarchy I mean the system of oppression that takes power, status, and resources away from women and gender non-conforming folks and gives them to men.   Patriarchy polices people’s sexuality and gender identity, punishing anyone who does not conform to a rigid set of gender roles, dehumanizing anyone who does not act like a straight man or woman.   By white supremacy I mean the system of oppression that takes power, status, and resources away from people of color and gives them to white people; white supremacy is the system of institutionalized racism formed through centuries of colonialism, genocide, slavery, apartheid, segregation, and discrimination.   Capitalism is a lot harder to define, but it is the system in which rich people get their wealth by exploiting the labor of working people; in which production is for exchange on the market, not for meeting human needs; in which society is produced and reproduced as a vast accumulation of commodities instead of as a real human community.

Sycorax argues against traditional white male Marxists who say that class is the only relevant category of social analysis, who think that struggling against capitalism plain and simple is enough to overcome sexism and racism.   She highlights the need for a specifically feminist and anti-racist Marxism, a Marxism that prioritizes struggles against white supremacy and patriarchy, and prioritizes the self-activity and self-liberation of women, gender nonconforming folks, and people of color.

However,  Sycorax also parts ways with advocates of identity politics who separate struggles around gender and race from struggles against capitalism.  She shows how the very categories of gender and race –  and the systems of patriarchy and white supremacy that enforce them – are created by capitalism.

  Capitalism lives and grows by exploiting the labor of dispossessed , proletarian people worldwide, and to do this it has to set up a division of labor, assigning some jobs to certain groups, and other jobs to other groups.   These divisions are racialized and gendered.  For example, caring labor like nursing, teaching, and paid or unpaid domestic labor, has been assigned to women and women are socialized and encouraged to develop the skills necessary to do these tasks, and are not socialized and encouraged to develop the skills necessary to do other tasks like political debate, warfare, etc.   In many workforces, manual labor is done by people of color and more “skilled” or “white-collar” mental labor is done by white people.  Therefore, if we want to overthrow white supremacy and patriarchy, we need to overthrow the capitalist system which constantly produces and reproduces these divisions.

As the “who we are” section of our blog suggests, BOC is generally in agreement with these perspectives.  One of our members, Jomo, has developed similar analyses of the racialized and gendered division of labor in her article “Queer Liberation is Class Struggle” and on her blog Diary of a Disparaged CNA.  Though BOC has not yet written a definitive program addressing these questions, we are studying and discussing them constantly, in communication with like-minded comrades around the country, and  we are working toward developing a more definitive stance.  Unfortunately we haven’t gotten a chance to share much of our thinking on these questions on this blog.   I hope we can continue to flesh out our own stances in the comments section here , in dialogue with Sycorax’s piece.

While Sycorax’s piece lays out a clear case for many of the political stances we are currently taking in practice, I think the trajectory of her analysis also points  beyond this informal consensus, towards some unresolved questions that BOC, and the broader political tendency we are a part of,  are only just beginning to address.   I’m hoping that her piece can open up a discussion and debate around some of these questions too:

1) What relationship do race and gender have to commodity production and the law of value under capitalism?

2) Is the goal simply to abolish white supremacy and patriarchy or is the goal to abolish race, gender, and class entirely?

3) Relatedly, how soon can this process of abolition start?  Should we try to abolish these now inside our revolutionary  organizations?

Let me explain a little more what I mean by these questions, and let me show why I think they are significant.

When I read Scyorax’s piece it challenged some of the ways I’ve generally answered these questions in the past.   In particular, it prompted me to ask whether the patriarchal and white supremacist division of labor is simply a political control mechanism created to divide up and buy off sections of the working class, or whether it goes deeper, and is a product of the very fabric of the political economy of capitalism itself – the production of commodities  for exchange on the market.  Are white supremacy and patriarchy the gun turret on capitalism’s tank, or are they part of the engine of the tank itself?

This might seem like an abstract question but it has profound and immediate implications.  Basically, if patriarchy and white supremacy are simply political control mechanisms, then it seems that we could launch assaults on them as part of an overall struggle against capitalist state power; we might be able to overthrow them before or during the revolution as part of our attempts to undermine bourgeois rule.   If they are simply attempts to “buy off” white folks and men, then we could try to prevent them from buying off these groups by unifying through struggle around demands of the most oppressed.  (For a concrete historical example of this kind of strategy , check out the classic essay Black Worker White Worker, written by the Sojourner Truth Organization in the 70s when they were doing multi-racial organizing in factories.)

However, if the patriarchal and white supremacist division of labor is part of the very fabric of commodity production itself, then waging a unified struggle against patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism would require overthrowing commodity production itself.   Under capitalism, workers produce goods and services in separated workplaces and homes and the only way we interact with each other is when the commodities we make exchange on the market;  this alienation from each other means that not we, but market forces, decide how our labor will be divided up and organized… the very presence of a market in the first place leads to a division of labor and hence to patriarchy and white supremacy.  It is not simply something imposed by the ruling class through cops, courts, schools, prisons, etc.

   If this is true, then it would mean  that to smash white supremacy and patriarchy, we’d have to smash not only the state but also  the market; it would mean we’d have to cease measuring value based on how much socially necessary labor time goes into producing commodities, the way it is measured in commodity exchange relations today, since that process of valorization, or giving value to things,  ends up  valuing the labor of some workers over others.

If this is true, then  true feminism and true anti-racism would mean starting a process of creating communism: producing goods and services to meet collective human needs, instead of producing commodities for exchange on the market.   To put this in more technical terms, if race and gender are part of the fabric of a system based on exchange value, or the “law of value” then we need to break this law of value and begin a process of communization.

To take it a step further: as Sycorax and other comrades have argued,  if race and gender are an integral part of the capitalist division of labor, then abolishing capitalism would mean abolishing race and gender themselves, not simply abolishing racism and sexism.   If I am interpreting her correctly, Sycorax basically asks what race and gender would even mean anymore if the division of labor that creates them were overthrown.

This of course raises a whole other set of questions:

1)  What about the idea put forward by transgender activists, that the goal is to create multiple genders, to fight for the right of every individual to define and perform his/her/their/ze/hir/etc. own gender identity?  In other words, is the goal to create multiple – hundreds, thousands, or more – new genders? Or is the goal to abolish gender altogether?  What would it actually look like to abolish gender?  Would we all become androgynous?  Would we become genderqueer?  Are these the same thing, or not?

2) Is abolishing race the same as abolishing gender?  Race and gender are both social constructions – they are not “natural”, they are historically created in order to oppress people, but they do build off of actual bodily experiences like skin color, hormones, our relationships to biological reproduction, etc.   Does the social construction of race and gender  build off of our bodily experiences in the same way, or is there a difference between how this happens with race and how this happens with gender?  Is this relevant in terms of how desirable, or possible, it would be to abolish these social constructions?

3)  If abolishing white supremacy and patriarchy require a process of communization, how soon can this communization process start?  What would be necessary to make it happen?  How fast could it happen?  If you err too much on one side of this question you end up basically setting up a stage theory, saying “we can’t overcome the racist and sexist division of labor until communism starts, and communism can’t start until well after the revolution, so oppressed people will just have to wait.”   This is  the old-left paradigm that many activists today are rebelling against; we are tired of being told to wait.  Black Power and feminism started because oppressed people got tired of waiting.   But if you err too much on the other side, you end up saying “occupy everything, demand nothing – we are simply going to create communism now, in whatever small pocket of social life we  are attempting to control, whether that’s a building we’re occupying, or a social / cultural scene we’re cultivating.”  This can degenerate into lifestyle politics – the attempt to build the new society within an isolated commune, instead of overthrowing the entire system that creates these oppressions in the first place.   My sense is that Sycorax, Black Orchid members, and many of our comrades and friends around the country would reject both of these pitfalls.   But if we reject both of these pitfalls, what is the third option we’re putting forward?

4)  Almost all of us would agree that overtly patriarchal and racist divisions of labor should have no place in our groups –  it’s unacceptable if women of color are making all the coffee and white men are giving all the speeches.   But  how exactly do we challenge these historical divisions of labor, and how fast should we expect to challenge them?  What standard should we set for ourselves?  For example, is it realistic to expect that gender and race as categories should begin to break down in our organizations,  or is this not possible without an overall revolution in society at large?  In other words, even if there is a generally equal division of activist labor within a group, is there still a realistic likelihood that women, people of color, and gender nonconforming folks might experience alienation and oppression in their political activity because the group exists in a broader society and that broader society will continue to exert pressures on the social relations inside our groups, until it is overthrown?

Should the goal of our groups be to further refine the social relations between group members, prefiguring the eventual abolition of race and gender?  Or should our goal simply be to create groups that can support the development of strong, highly skilled, and highly competitive working class women, gender-non-conforming folks, people of color, and queer militants to challenge the historic dominance of Leftist politics by white, straight men?   Are these goals compatible or are they mutually irreconcilable?

I know these are a lot of questions, and we can’t tackle all of them at once, but I hope this post will at least get us thinking about, and possibly debating, these issues.  Thanks to Sycorax for writing a piece that brings all of these crucial issues to the forefront.  It is this kind of discussion that will help us build healthy multi-gender and multi-racial groups and movements that could prove dangerous to the system.


About mamos206

Mamos is my pen name. My writings can be found at these sites, along with the thoughts of friends I collaborate with: https://blackorchidcollective.wordpress.com http://creativitynotcontrol.wordpress.com http://overthrowingilluminati.wordpress.com
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7 Responses to Unresolved questions about race, gender, and class

  1. Catherine Rhodes says:

    The question of equality of work has been debated for some time. Today it still exists, a women working at the same job as a man is almost always paid less. The value of work as a commodity needs to be addressed in the context of a noncapitalistic society. How do we value work? This is why I have started to manufacture my own goods to sell and to give to others who cannot afford to purchase the commodity. In a way those who choose to purchase the commodity are helping to provide for those who cannot. Of course I just about break even, but I have fun and enjoy the work.

  2. Native Gunz says:

    I’ll be real; I don’t want to erase race r gender. I want to erase SEXISM & Racial injustice. I don’t want to get rid of gender I think the way it was worded was not in a way I disagree with. If other ppl wanna eradicate gender or race or whatever let em but they can’t expect that everybody or even most ppl will and I don’t think its always sexist to have gender identity or always racist to have recognition of race. There will NEVER be a day when I can look at a white man or woman and say wee’re the same I’m sorry it just aint gonna happen, at least not in the extent many want to

  3. Native Gunz says:

    & as for acting a certain way as this thread put it on acting like a straight man or women. , I mean 1st of all how do you act straight in the 1st place? But I mean, while I wouldn’t bash somebody because they don’t act like me, that doesn’t mean I don’t have a label to go with it. Its not the labels that are bad its when you get the labels and its a negative thing that’s what should be the focus. When they start to call you inferior. Now I got nothing against gay men but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think gay men (Specifically gay white men) act a certain way. Because yes to a degree unfortunately stereotypes have some truth to them. I don’t know any straight male who would listen to Lady Gaga. I’m knocking those who do, I’m just saying let’s be honest I mean I’m a people watcher so observe how ppl are I’m not saying any one life style Superior I’m simply saying that the notion of how you act & how a group acts, sometimes that’s true. Like when ppl say there is no way to “Act black” I say bullshit. Yes, some ppl have racist ideas of what acting black is but not everybody has the same standard of the ignorant slang black stereotype to me Malcolm X acted black. Dr King did not. Because Malcolm X was willing to stand up for the black man. I think the ppl who say “There’s no way to act black or act white I’m an individual” are trying o excuse their own self hatred, so in other words ppl that say that are usually toms trying to justify being a tom and BELIEVE me a true tom DOES try to justify it

  4. Uncle Aunty says:

    I do no have a worthwhile comment right this moment, but I think this recent piece on Recomposition ties into this discussion well.

    “Swept Under The Rug and Left for Dead; How, According to the Boss, Swearing is Worse than Harassment”


  5. rgb says:

    ok! i tried to post something yesterday and it got deleted by accident. let me try again.

    while i agree that capitalism has seized upon white supremacy and patriarchy in order to flourish, and that categories of gender and race have evolved under a capitalist structure, i do not agree that abolishing the state or the market will be enough to dismantle racism, sexism, or tribalism.

    patriarchy and racism exist in societies that do not use a commodity market. within any society, there is a strong cultural apparatus that supports its economic and political system. the categorical boundaries of gender and race are heavily, and very often violently, policed by those closest to us — our family, peers, teachers, coworkers, religious leaders, etc. capitalism relies on our own strict attachment to these categories and social roles in order to successfully exploit division.

    how do we work through racism, sexism, cisexism, and heterosexism on an individual level? how do we confront these systems of oppression within cultural and religious institutions that will likely survive the end of capitalism? if we want to smash the institutional forms of patriarchy and white supremacy that have been cultivated and exploited under capitalism, then we need to learn how to expel prejudice and internalized hatred from the hearts and minds of our comrades and loved ones. if we are not extremely careful, then we will inevitably reproduce sexist and racist patterns within our movement.

    this is why i see the importance of cultural work and spiritual practice. we need to cultivate a loving, forgiving movement that centers the experiences of those who are most marginalized. we need to learn how to fight racism and sexism not only within revolutionary organizations, but within the other spaces we inhabit. i personally would benefit from ongoing support and discussions around dealing with and confronting the flagrant racism, sexism, transphobia, and homophobia that i face every day at work.

    i also think we need to develop spiritual thought and practice that align with the value system we want to see in the new society.

  6. Ahiga Kotori says:

    New society is irrelevant to me. I’m living in the here and now. I don’t give a damn about the future or some post Capitalist society mainly because we’re closer to a revolution than we’ll ever be to the aftermath of one. I am not the man to build the “new society” so all I care about is getting revolution rolling to even THINK of a post Capitalist society is a pipe dream 4 me knowing damn well I most likely won’t survive to see it or contribute to it

  7. Pingback: Insurgent Notes | The Radicalization of Decolonize/Occupy Seattle (Guest Article)

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