Marxist feminism as a critique of intersectionality

I just finished reading a fascinating critique of intersectionality by Eve Mitchell, which can be found here. I want to first go over her main argument, and then go into her proposed solution (Marxist feminism) and why I think a more Gramscian approach would be more useful.

Mitchell’s main point in the article is that intersectionality relies on identity politics, which is a bourgeois and individualistic approach to struggle that ignores the materiality underpinning gender and gender relations.

In order to understand “identity” and “intersectionality theory,” we must have an understanding of the movement of capital (meaning the total social relations of production in this current mode of production) that led to their development in the 1960s and 1970s in the US.

Under capitalism, new gender relations developed, including:

  • The development of the wage (theorized as a tool of coercion);
  • The separation of production and reproduction (reproduction meaning more than having babies – also housework, taking care of family, etc) – reproductive labour was generally “free” while productive labour received a wage. This has been theorized as the ‘patriarchy of the wage’ since women tended to be in the reproductive sector;
  • The contradictory development of the nuclear family – on the one hand, the nuclear family was strengthened through the gendered division of labour, while on the other hand it was weakened by the separation of men from women all day long while they were at work;
  • The development of identity and alienation – “Women and people of color experience something similar in the development of capital; a shift from engaging in certain types of labor to engaging in feminized, or racially relegated forms of labor. To put it another way, under capitalism, we are forced into a box: we are a bus driver, or a hair stylist, or a woman. These different forms of labor, or different expressions of our life-activity (the way in which we interact with the world around us) limit our ability to be multi-sided human beings.”

Eve Mitchell’s critique thus revolves around this concept of identity and the alienation that accompanies it. Mitchell rightly points out that intersectionality arose in the US as a response to the gendered and racialized division of labour:

To be black meant to be objectified, relegated into one form of labor: producing and reproducing blackness. Black Power was therefore the struggle against the alienation and one-sidedness of blackness, a struggle to liberate labor, releasing its multi-sidedness, unifying labor with its conscious will.

She argues that women organized in order to break free from the alienation of ‘womanhood.’

Since women’s use of their bodies is a unique form of alienated labor for women under capitalism, it is historically the site of struggle for liberation.

This came up against the tendency in second wave feminism (and first wave I would argue) to focus on reforming capitalism as a means of emancipation: ‘equal wages for equal work.’ Both of these approaches used identity politics as a means of challenging oppressive systems. In other words, women organized on the basis of womanhood.

This continued with the theory of intersectionality. It was assumed that shared experiences formed as a bond between different kinds of women – “some individuals or groups are differentiated from other individuals or groups based on their experiences. This can be cut along many different identity lines.” Moreover, being oppressed puts you in a privileged position within the struggle – similar to the idea of standpoint theory, which argues that marginalized people have a more ‘authentic’ view on social reality, since they see both the workings of power and the effects of it (on the marginalized). This means that only the marginalized can write about their own experiences.

Mitchell’s main critique is that intersectionality is unable to overcome identity politics, and is in essence a bourgeois ideology. Mitchell agrees that it is essential to identify as a woman, or as black, or as queer – but that is not enough. 

Identity politics argues, “I am a black man,” or “I am a woman,” without filling out the other side of the contradiction “…and I am a human.”

Identity politics assumes that the basis for struggle is an equal distribution of individualism. “This is a bourgeois ideology in that it replicates the alienated individual invented and defended by bourgeois theorists and scientists (and materially enforced) since capitalism’s birth.” In other words, the increased individualism that is a result of the crisis of capitalism manifests itself in identity politics – even by those who claim to be anti-capitalist. Mitchell claims that ” theories of an “interlocking matrix of oppressions,” simply create a list of naturalized identities, abstracted from their material and historical context.”

She is not the first person to make this critique of intersectionality. Judith Butler argues that the ‘etc.’ that often follows at the end of lists of social categories signals an “embarrassed admission of exhaustion” as well as an “illimitable process of signification.” Nina Yuval-Davis disagrees with Butler, arguing that such a critique is only valid within discourse of identity politics, whereas within intersectional research it is necessary to separate the “different analytical levels in which social divisions need to be examined…the ways different social divisions are constructed by, and intermeshed in, each other in specific historical conditions.” Yuval-Davis also questions the critique that the process of breaking down is illimitable by arguing that in specific situations, certain social divisions are more important than others. Moreover, relationships between positionings are central and not reducible to the same ontological level. Yuval-Davis’ call for focusing on the historical conditions that construct social divisions is perhaps one way of combining mainstream intersectionality with Mitchell’s call for a more class-based approach. I will come back to this later.

Mitchell’s solution to the problem she outlines is a form of Marxist feminism.

To be a “woman” under capitalism means something very specific; it is even more specific for women in the US in 2013; it is even more specific for black lesbians in the US in 2013; it is even more specific for individual women. But, in a universal sense, to be a “woman” means to produce and reproduce a set of social relations through our labor, or self-activity.

In essence, Mitchell is grounding identities within the labour process and material basis of production. Her critique is thus not that intersectionality is wrong, but that it is incomplete. She points out that gender relations are real and concrete – an indirect critique of more constructivist views that have tended to dominate intersectional feminist work, especially of the postmodern and poststructural kind. There is a materiality underpinning gender and gender relations, and this materiality is often ignored by intersectional feminists. 

Moreover, the individualization of the struggle that results from an intersectional approach that relies on identity politics takes away from the universality of the class struggle: “Identity politics reproduces the appearance of an alienated individual under capitalism and so struggle takes the form of equality among groups at best, or individualized forms of struggle at worse.” Reducing the struggle to “equal rights” or “equal representation” reinforces identity as a static category. While this is an important critique, I think the difficulty results from the near impossibility of researching identities in a fluid manner – something intersectional theorists are clearly struggling with, especially within an academy in which positivism still dominates.

I would perhaps suggest that a Gramscian approach to feminism may be even more useful than the Marxist variety she proposes. Yuval-Davis’ suggestion to locate the historical conditions that construct social divisions reminded me of the Gramscian tendency to centre historical processes in any analysis. The Gramscian assumption that production creates the material basis for all forms of social existence functions as a means of centering materiality. What is unique about Gramsci, however, was his insistence on looking at both materiality and ideas – “Ideas and materialism are always bound together, mutually reinforcing one another, and not reducible to one another.” In other words, understanding gender means unpacking the ways in which gender as an ideology resulting from the material forces of production produces and is produced by gender as a set of ideas that are constructed. This, by definition, requires a historical approach. Context is important, as is clear from his emphasis on historical specificity.

A Gramscian approach would also attempt to understand how hegemony “filters through” societal structures, including the economy, culture, gender, ethnicity, class and ideology. This kind of approach is already intersectional, in the sense that hegemony is an over-arching reality, based on specific material modes of production, that works through different social structures, of which gender is one. In a sense, then, Gramsci already spoke of understanding gender as more than simply womanhood or manhood, but rather as one societal structures among many.

A philosophy of praxis, common among Gramscians, also favours reflection that begins in experience – another similarity with intersectionality. Moreover, Gramsci’s concept of hegemony has long influenced feminists working on patriarchy and the ways in which consent (on the part of those marginalized by patriarchy) functions. Many feminists who have used the concept of hegemony do not see it as a form of class rule, however, which takes us back to Mitchell’s critique: the point is to locate feminist struggles within the broader class struggle. The conceptualization of hegemony could also provide a way for feminists to establish a counter-hegemony: “a popular mobilisation capable of highlighting the contradictory and exploitative nature of hegemonic ideas and arrangements, providing an alternative mode of organisation that is ethical and inclusive” (Beth Howieson).

A focus on hegemony would also address the problem of identity politics. Perhaps it was put best by Margaret Ledwith, who pointed out that mini-narratives had displaced meta-narratives, which was in one sense positive, but in another served to ‘individualize’ struggles – precisely the critique Mitchell makes. Gramsci’s view of the state as including civil and political society is also useful for feminists, as he points out that the distinction between civil and political society is artificial. This is mirrored in the feminist claim that ‘the personal is political.’ Finally, a Gramscian approach would also serve as a response to critics of Marxism who claim that Marxists ignore gender and focus excessively on class. Gramsci’s approach tends to be much less economistic than Marx’s, and his focus on both materiality and ideas is a testament to this. Moreover, even when he speaks of ‘production’ it is meant in the broadest way possible: it includes the production and reproduction of knowledge and social relations, morals and institutions that are prerequisites to the production of physical goods (as has been expanded on by many neo-Gramscians, including Robert Cox).

Of course, it is important to note that Gramsci himself did not focus on gender, nor do most of the scholars who use this approach. Moreover, the Eurocentrism implicit in much of his work is problematic. Nevertheless, I think a feminist approach that combines Gramscian insights with postcolonial feminist ones could be an extremely useful way forward.

In conclusion, the limits of the identity politics that are present in the intersectionality approach can be addressed by adopting a Gramscian approach to feminism that on the one hand makes materiality and capital central, while on the other hand emphasizing the production of knowledge, social relations and morals and how these intersect with social structures such as gender.

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14 thoughts on “Marxist feminism as a critique of intersectionality

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  3. Thought-provoking post. A number of thoughts came to mind whilst reading it[1], but of course, i’d like to make a brief remark on the issue of ‘gender’.

    The theoretical analyses of ‘gender’ you discuss here are a great example of how, despite much talk about ‘unpacking’ things, there doesn’t seem to be much unpacking of the term ‘gender’ itself. What are its referents, what are its ‘signifieds’? When one talks of ‘gender’ being a societal structure, which one or more of the possible meanings of ‘gender’ i list in this post are being referred to? Or are the intended meanings something else altogether? Given that we (surely!) haven’t reached The End Of Knowledge about the human body, brain and mind, is it reasonable to definitively proclaim that all aspects of ‘gender’ come purely from social relations, and are never rooted in any biological processes? And if the assumption is made that all aspects of gender are social creations, why can we not say the same thing about sexual orientation / preference? Under this assumption, is not ‘gender’ being treated as many Marxists (e.g. Stalinists) have historically treated same-sex/gender sexual interaction, as a distortion of ‘natural’ humanity, a social evil created by capitalism / bourgeois society” etc. (cf. this Wikipedia article)? And specifically, how does the production and promotion of certain theories and ideologies about gender impact materially on the lives / lived experiences of not only cis women and men, but trans and genderqueer people?

    [1] For example, how left critiques of ‘individualism’ are so often oversimplistic and based in accepting state-capitalist propaganda at face value, rather than considering the possibility that it might be something with positive potential twisted into serving state-capitalist-ends. Should we reflexively declare the concept of ‘freedom’ inherently a bad thing because that’s what US imperialism claims it’s promoting?

    1. Sorry it took me so long to respond. Thanks for this comment, it really made me think through a lot!

      You make an excellent point – it is my own bias to rely on gender as stemming largely from social relations and not so much from biological processes but this of course should be qualified. The debate is complicated and definitely too long to detail in the post but I should have addressed it somewhat.

      Re. individualism I have not tried to determine whether it is positive or negative (before said manipulation for state-capitalist ends). My critique is directed at the universalising of individualism by feminism, a process which continues to hold back indigenous feminist movements in countries like Egypt. In this sense I define individualism the way these feminists have, and in this sense it is negative because it is constraining. Beyond this, I also do not see ‘individuals’ as purely individual in the liberal sense, and would argue that they are always produced and reproduced by multiple factors, although it varies from one society to another.

      I would argue the same for ‘freedom’ – does it have an inherent meaning in and of itself? Or does this always depend on context? Of course many postcolonial feminists would say they want freedom, but they mean something completely different from what Laura Bush means. But I think this is a different debate from the term individualistic. In many contexts, subjectivity relies on a combination of personhood and social relations, which contradicts the binary of individuality vs. collectivity, or the simplistic narrative of “should I do what I want or what others want.”

      1. > You make an excellent point – it is my own bias to rely on gender as
        > stemming largely from social relations and not so much from
        > biological processes but this of course should be qualified. The
        > debate is complicated and definitely too long to detail in the post
        > but I should have addressed it somewhat.

        Thank you. 🙂 i’d also like to re-emphasise that my concerns in this regard – i.e. how about gender tends to be discussed in feminism and academia – is not just about the social/biological mix, but about how the term ‘gender’, without further qualification, with can refer to (a) sense of gender, (b) gender identity, (c) gender roles, and (d) gender presentation (and perhaps other things besides), and that it’s highly problematic to be discussing ‘gender’ without clarifying which one or more of these things are being referred to. Because when, for example, someone says “Oh gender is identity + roles”, it supports those who say to trans women “You only think you’re a woman because you feel you can’t simultaneously be a man and also do ‘feminine’ work like nursing”.

        > Re. individualism I have not tried to determine whether it is
        > positive or negative (before said manipulation for state-capitalist
        > ends). My critique is directed at the universalising of
        > individualism by feminism, a process which continues to hold back
        > indigenous feminist movements in countries like Egypt. In this sense
        > I define individualism the way these feminists have, and in this
        > sense it is negative because it is constraining.

        *nod* Fair enough.

        > Beyond this, I also do not see ‘individuals’ as purely individual in
        > the liberal sense, and would argue that they are always produced and
        > reproduced by multiple factors, although it varies from one society
        > to another.

        To a large extent i agree. However, i do have significant reservations, which i discuss below.

        > I would argue the same for ‘freedom’ – does it have an inherent
        > meaning in and of itself? Or does this always depend on context? Of
        > course many postcolonial feminists would say they want freedom, but
        > they mean something completely different from what Laura Bush
        > means.

        i agree. To me, ‘freedom’ /doesn’t/ have an inherent meaning in and of itself. But to me, neither does ‘individualism’, and that was the point i wanted to make: that i see a lot of left / ‘progressive’ critiques of individualism which take the meaning of ‘individualism’ as ‘obvious’ or ‘given’. The reality, however, is that there are left-individualist traditions (e.g. the work of Benjamin Tucker) in which the term ‘individualism’ has non-identical content to that being used in such critiques. So just as i feel people shouldn’t analyse ‘gender’ without defining what they mean by that (as per above), neither should ‘individualism’ be critiqued without specifying exactly what is being meant by the term, because otherwise i feel i can’t meaningfully analyse the critique.

        > But I think this is a different debate from the term
        > individualistic. In many contexts, subjectivity relies on a
        > combination of personhood and social relations, which contradicts
        > the binary of individuality vs. collectivity, or the simplistic
        > narrative of “should I do what I want or what others want.”

        Well, my fundamental concerns here are:

        (a) We can point to an ‘individual’, a person, who can be directly and measurably injured through their interactions with the world. We cannot do the same for ‘society’ or ‘community’ or ‘the state’. There is a /much/ broader consensus as to what constitutes direct injury to a person (certainly for physical injuries; probably less so for psychological injuries) than there is as to what constitutes direct injury to e.g. ‘society’. And the notion that we /can/ meaningfully talk of such injuries is the basis for (what i feel are reactionary) notions such as e.g. “injury to religious sentiments”.

        (b) Given this, are there deontological limits to others’ wants being imposed on an individual person? Are there (to use this term) ‘inalienable rights’ of an individual which /no-one/, whether ‘community’, ‘society’, ‘the business’, ‘the state’ can override? For example: can a community force a certain gender identity on me, regardless of my own sense of gender, via institutionalisation or incarceration if i don’t comply? i feel they should have no power to do so. In that sense, i am an ‘individualist’ – i believe there are at least some matters on which i am ‘sovereign’, regardless of whatever anyone else feels or thinks.

        In any case, i would say that the statement “an individual is a combination of internal+external interactions+experiences” (which i very much agree with!) is orthogonal to discussions/debates about what ‘individualism’ actually means.

  4. Yo, this is dope!

    Your critique is a very serious and thoughtful engagement with this piece and a fair presentation of the argument. Guess I’m used to a ruthless Left that makes a polemic of everything. We need more serious textual and disciplined dialogue to take place between militants.

    I also really like that you inveigh Gramsci in your critique. I think there is a lot we can take from Gramsci that is useful toward these conversations. I don’t know if you are a militant/organizer/revolutionary–and I’m writing as one and not as an academic–but it is the work of Gramsci, Marx, Luxemburg, Dunayevskaya, Fanon, Biko, etc. that for me represent the distillation of mass activity into revolutionary theory toward liberation. Without a social praxis or PRACTICAL-critical activity, a practice that is self-critical these debates become absorbed by the mental and manual division of labor that is the very basis of our struggle to begin with.

    I am part of a small propaganda circle of Marxist organizers in the US called Unity and Struggle with Eve Mitchell. We collaborated in the past on some questions that come here as well as in my response below that you should feel free to skim sometime. It specifically makes a defense of Marxist-feminism against the base/superstructure argument used by some Marxists to say rigidly separate women’s reproductive health from women’s reproductive labor. The link is here: http://unityandstruggle.org/2013/03/11/for-herself/

    You make some interesting points around the centrality of the production of knowledge. I think this is critical, particularly for the above reference about the mental and manual division of labor. For Marx, the separation of thinking from acting was absolutely required for the development of bourgeois social relations. It is this, not the distribution of wealth or private ownership that was the starting point.

    So it is good that Gramsci is being introduced here. But I want to say some things about the way you juxtapose Gramsci and Marx as well as better contexualize Gramsci as a way of helping to both bolster your argument but also counter where I think it is limited.

    For one, Gramsci was a Marxist. But he was a Marxist of a certain historical period in European history. Gramsci like most early 20th century Marxists came out of the left split in International Social Democracy and the formation of the Communist Party of Italy in 1921. He like the rest broke with the political and some of the theoretical foundations of social democracy, particularly their nationalism and their reformist parliamentary practice. However, there was not a categorical break with Kautskyism, particularly the theory that socialism and the workers movement are separate and that revolutionary ideas come from theorists that are injected into the movement from outside. For Kautsky, party was subject, proletariat was object. This carried over into the International Communist movement.

    You may know, being the fan of Gramsci that you are, that he attempted a rupture with the base/superstructure thesis of social democracy, what they all (social dems, communists, and Gramci alike) thought came from Marx. The base was said to be the material structure of capitalism and superstructure the political activity and ideas of people. Gramsci, accepting this as Marx’s thesis (it was really distilled into theory by Engels and Kautsky), argued similarly to you, that ideology and not just “economics” is also a determinant of social relations activity. Gramsci uses the Church as way to support his argument, that the material basis for religion was long overthrown but persists in the ideas of the working class.

    Unfortunately, this wasn’t a real rupture with the base/superstructure or the object/subject split of Kautsky, though it was an honest attempt to make sense of the powerful force of ideas. It wasn’t a break because it still maintained a duality between the object, “economics” and the subject, again, a party that would wage a war of position or ideas for the allegiance of the class in the lead up to the war of maneuver or struggle for state power. Rather the object/subject is an internal contradiction of the working class, not external to it Furthermore, the Church STILL has a material basis not only as the financial and political power of the Vatican, but by the very nature of capitalist society where human beings appear as abstract individuals rather than as part of a social totality. This base/superstructure and object/subject duality wasn’t actually what Marx argued in the one time he used those categories (the Preface).

    Instead he saw social relations and social activity as a concrete totality. “Base” or economics is abstract and purely ideal when separated from this totality and for Marx, the truth is the whole. Toward the conclusion of your essay you contrast capital on one side to social relations on the other. However, Marx saw capital itself as a social relation. Political economy, social democracy and Stalinism treated capital and economics as an object and while it does take objectified form in money, credit, money capital, and means of production, it actually conceals a social relation, a relation between workers whose combined social labor time gives it its value. The objectified form of value then dominates and determines its makers rather than the makers determining it. Capital appears to move on its own having an inherent value. But this appearance is not just ideological although it is reflected in the heads of people. This appearance of self-movement and inherent value is actually concrete and material in the value-form or when one commodity is exchanged for another. Two unlike things are equated and seem to relate to each other, but this conceals the reality that what makes them alike is that they are products of human labor. But we think that is just the way things are. We think we are isolated individuals because in bourgeois society we exist as individuals who live and work in isolated, private spheres meanwhile behind our backs exists a social metabolism and equilibrium that mediates this individual activity.

    Marx was not a vulgar materialist, rather he represented a synthesis of idealism and materialism. He saw the inherent unity of ideas and activity only he started on the footed of activity. He did this for the very reason Gramsci contrasts good/common sense with praxis. Because what people think of themselves does not tell us really about who they are. The world doesn’t just happen to human beings, they experience it, they change it (labor), and they experience their own objectified labor in the world, not just as objects for consumption but as part of the material conditions of labor itself. Labor for Marx is just another way of saying “human activity” which doesn’t stop when people are painting, or developing categories of knowledge, making music, or having sex.

    Gramsci did however make some very critical developments toward grappling with the dynamic and contradiction of consciousness. His categories of good and common sense, his posing of individuals’ formal or professed politics against their sometimes revolutionary activity, etc. Of course, to me, his writings on workers councils, his distinction between wage earner and producer, his insight into forms of workers organization as the social basis to leap into the new society can’t be missed and unfortunately is missed in the academy that wants to divest Gramsci of the revolutionary kernel of his thinking just like they do to many Marxist thinkers that become the new vogue (see C.L.R. James). They fetishize his writings on ideas and culture at the expense of his ideas on workers organization and struggle.

    Gramsci also silenced the opposition of Trotskyists and the Communist Left to the encroaching grip of the Stalin model of party organization that emphasized the centralism side of democratic centralism at the expense of its democracy. And after his death, the party he helped build was responsible for containing the very struggles that wanted to overturn the existing order. He definitely fucked up. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t make fundamental contributions to Marxism and liberation.

    Anyhow, this is writing is great. Bringing in Gramsci is super critical. I think it just needs to be more firmly rooted in Marx’s categories (not Marxist–lol) and likewise with Gramsci, he has to be situated within the Marxist tradition not only formally but also actually. Gramsci’s Kautskyianism has to be confronted and overcome as way to strengthen the Marxist method, the way his writings on consciousness and workers organization has done. And since you’re into Italian thinkers, Bordiga completely destroys Gramsci and questions of revolutionary organization. However, Gramsci is pretty unmatched on workers self-activity and organization. In Unity and Struggle we read the two as a debate and are aiming to make a partial synthesis of them into the methodology of Marx.

    Tyler Zee.

    1. Sorry it took so long to respond! Thank you for the thought-provoking comment.

      You are right to position Gramsci as a Marxist and to point out that Gramsci did not break with the base/superstructure conceptualisation. I still need to do more work on placing Gramsci within Marx’s work to clarify how and where he moved away from him as well as how he reproduced the same ideas. It’s interesting that Marx is often portrayed as economistic and as reducing the complexity of social life to economism even though I would argue it is usually certain strands of Marxism that tend to do that. As you rightly point out, Marx did focus on more than simply the relations of production and I should have made it clear in the post I was referring to Marxism not Marx’s work.

      It’s interesting you bring up the fact that Gramsci’s work if now fetishized to fit into academia, and I really couldn’t agree more. His work (as well as the work by some neo-Gramscians, although not many) on the subaltern classes is often ignored at the expense of his work on hegemony, even though hegemony can’t be understood without his work on the workers and the subaltern classes in general.

      Other than that, I completely agree with what you said and I’m glad you took the time to post this, I learned a lot!

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