I usually really enjoy reading lowendtheory’s posts, but this one was a convoluted mess that didn’t, ultimately, make anything clearer for me except L.E.T.’s own assumptions.
(And I’m sorry, lowendtheory, if you don’t like being called L.E.T. or you have another preferred pseudonym - I don’t know what it is! I’ll edit the post if you let me know.)
I really hate to tell someone to go and do some study before hearing what I have to say, especially since the anon who asked the question was insecure about their own credentials to be asking about it, but in this instance, I think this conversation doesn’t make sense without some background knowledge about the assumptions behind these terms.
L.E.T. is basically arguing against a small-l liberal understanding of class, and, in a vague way, pointing to a different understanding based on materialist/Marxist political economy. So to get why I’m criticising it, you probably need to understand a few things about Marxist political economic theory (to keep it simple, I’m just going to call it materialist).
To, uh, put it briefly, a materialist understanding of class is based on how systems of economic production, distribution and exchange of resources produces groups with specific relationships to and roles in those processes. Capitalism is the economic system of production, distribution and exchange that produces classes of owners and workers (generally speaking). Production, distribution and exchange tend to concentrate resources in the hands of owners, at the expense of workers i.e. workers produce things that get distributed away from them and into the hands of owners. This is what Marx calls exploitation, which in Marxist political economic theory is a precise and technical term, it doesn’t just mean “ripping someone off” - exploitation is the result of the relationship between workers to the way the economy functions. Exploitation is the engine of capitalism. The way production, distribution and exchange happen under capitalism reproduces classes over time and intergenerationally.
And there have been stacks of people who’ve reworked this in different ways that I won’t even begin to start explaining.
A liberal understanding of oppression, domination, and exploitation is based on ‘discrimination’. Liberal thinking limits discrimination to the intentions and actions of individuals. Sometimes liberal thinking is more generous and criticises how those intentions and actions create institutions, or are shared and passed on over time.
Classism as a concept is often understood this way, and I basically agree with L.E.T.’s criticisms of that understanding. I’ve indicated before why I have problems with it.
But L.E.T. casts liberal and materialist understandings of class as the only two options for understanding the concept (or at least the only two worth talking about when discussing the value of the term “classism”). And in this account of the connotations of ‘classism,’ he compares it to racism and sexism:
It gets used, typically, as one term in a list of other ones that describe intersecting axes of power and dynamics of oppression—i.e. racism, sexism, classism. But terms like “________ism,” when used to highlight social dynamics of oppression, tend to approach oppression in a way that makes it explainable on the basis of discrimination.
racism becomes the model for explaining other forms of oppression
I.e. according to L.E.T.’s criticism, racism is a bad model for explaining other forms of oppression because racism & sexism = discrimination, and class oppression does not.
The problem with this is that neither of these things are true.
Racism & sexism = discrimination only according to a liberal understanding of those concepts.
L.E.T.’s unstated assumption here is that there are no other understandings - or at least none relevant to this conversation.
But actually, there are many other understandings, including materialist ideas about what makes up racism and sexism. L.E.T.’s post gets convoluted because it starts to talk about these, but then stops:
But not having a job and needing one to survive, or having a job that underpays you, or not being able to get sick or injured without going into life-altering debt, or having to take work that puts you at the risk of life-altering sickness or injury in order to survive, or having a job and then being relied upon/expected every day to go home and cook, clean, and/or care for people in ways that aren’t even recognized or valued as work, or bearing and/or raising children and having the work, skill, attention, and care involved in those processes dismissed or erased, or having the kind of job that forces you to have two other jobs to scrape by, or having to take out tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans in order to go to school and just maybe get a job, etc., etc.: these are not exactly, not quite, and certainly not fully explainable by recourse to discrimination. They are absolutely the outcomes of various kinds of discrimination and histories of other kinds of discrimination, domination, relations of force, no doubt.
poverty is and has been racialized and (often) feminized, and the ways in which domestic work is and has been racialized and feminized. They mark ways in which capitalism both uses and generates various forms of social discrimination, in order to further extract value from them. And that form of value extraction is a form of exploitation that is structural in nature; that is, it doesn’t operate primarily by way of discrimination, but rather by and through inequality
The problem with classism I’m trying to highlight here, then, is that the way it gets used is too modeled on certain assumptions about racism to allow certain kinds of inequality and exploitation to become visible, even as those forms of inequality of exploitation are fundamentally inseparable from racism and sexism.
The problem with arguing that gender and race are products of discrimination, and not inequality or exploitation, is that they’re part of things that are easier to change than capitalism, and so they’re not as important as fighting class or capitalism. Which is a position many white, male socialists, Marxists, anarchists, radicals, unionists, etc. happily take.
But really this kind of thinking only makes sense if you have a historical view of capitalism, but an ahistorical view of racism and sexism. I.e. if you think of capitalism as a social and economic structure that has come about through history, but racism and sexism are forms of oppression or discrimination that result from peoples’ intentions and specific institutions they’ve built. If you imagine that, unlike capitalism, racism and sexism don’t reproduce themselves through production, distribution and exchange, that there’s no ‘engine’ in the social structure that reproduces racism and sexism over time like exploitation does class.
But race, just as much as class, is historical, and is bound up with the development of capitalism as a social and economic system, which is something Marx completely failed to talk about & theorise (and was, in fact a totally racist shit, cos he thought colonialism would eventually lead to colonised people resisting capitalism).
Capitalism has always required imperialism, which has always been about racial domination and exploitation of populations. Racial domination has always been about extracting a surplus. Industrial capitalism has always relied on sub-economies in peripheral regions - slavery and plantation economies, domestic economies in households, imperialist agriculture - and outright genocide. There has never been capitalism without these things, and arguably, never can be.
Likewise, there have been so many people who’ve theorised about how non-commodified labour (i.e. domestic work, i.e. ‘women’s work’) is also exploited under capitalism, and also critical to its reproduction, and how this has changed from societies before capitalism developed.
Not to mention intersectionality, a framework developed by working class Black women in the USA, which has always been about class. IMO, intersectionality really grounds how specific experiences are based on historical & structural forms of exploitation and domination by focusing on the lived experiences of women of colour and also the macro economic and social structures that frame their social position. With an intersectional understanding you can think of different types of labour that are all shaped by material structures of class, race, gender, sexuality, ability, and other axes of domination at the same time.
And intersectionality really problematises the singular notion of class-without-race-or-gender; intersectionality makes it difficult to even think about class without also bringing in the histories of how race, gender and other forms of domination also shape class, and vice versa. Deep intersectional thinking really brings out how all formations of class also involve race, gender, sexuality, disability, age, because these things are part of how the social system functions just as much as class is.
And my eyelids are drooping, so I can’t hunt for specific examples and I’ll have to leave it there. But the neo-Marxists get into this a bit (not a whole lot), and there’s some really good anthropological/development theory work that looks at how sexuality, race, gender & class all happen around transformations going on in really specific situations.
sorry i am not an academic, but what is wrong with the term classism? I am kind of ignorant.
(Made rebloggable by request)
Why apologize? I would say, on the flip, that it’s a problem if terminological/analytical questions are seen as strictly academic concerns. Anyway, here’s a quickly written response that I’ll probably regret later: I don’t believe that there’s anything inherently wrong with the term “classism” at all, and I think it’s often used with intentions I share. My reservations stem from the way it gets used. I think when many folks use the word classism it’s because they want to gesture to the fact that poor and working class people are oppressed. It gets used, typically, as one term in a list of other ones that describe intersecting axes of power and dynamics of oppression—i.e. racism, sexism, classism. But terms like “________ism,” when used to highlight social dynamics of oppression, tend to approach oppression in a way that makes it explainable on the basis of discrimination. The problem with making class oppression explainable by way of discrimination is that, as a group, poor and working class people aren’t poor and working class because they’re discriminated against.
You can stop discriminating against poor people, that is, without changing the fact that we live in a society in which a very small collective have a whole lot more wealth than the great majority of others. Hell, if you want to get creative, you can even send a couple high-SAT-testing poor people to college so that they can mobilize toward the middle class and thereby make a system that makes so many people so poor have the appearance of fairness, even benevolence. So for folks concerned about inequality, the analyses of discrimination that are necessary for anti-racism and anti-sexism to make sense, don’t quite draw the same blood when we’re thinking about class, as what makes people poor and working class has somewhat more directly to do with the distribution of wealth and the division of labor. Let me make that statement so that I can complicate it below.