Why this class-conscious feminist probably won’t be calling herself a socialist much more

// 28 July 2013

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 By socialist I actually mean Marxist but I didn’t want to alienate people with my title, which says a lot eh?

Anyway, I actually find a lot of the Marxist theory I know to be spot on and to really speak to my experience of being working class. For example, I’ve worked as a life model. My hours of sitting naked in considerable discomfort produced artwork I couldn’t have bought with the wages I was paid for sitting there naked and uncomfortable. My labour literally produced an alien, inaccessible product to me. I currently work as a waitress and there is a clear conflict of interest between myself and the owners of the restaurant I work for: they want it to be as rammed as possible, I want quiet, easily manageable shifts. They want customers to drink as much as possible, I want quiet, easily manageable customers. They want me to go easy on the free olives, I want good tips.

But this conflicted relationship with my bosses is not the defining one of my life, as it’s meant to be in Marxist theory, and having to carry out alienated labour doesn’t oppress me in a more meaningful, far-reaching way than daily street harassment. Just because it looks like more of a system doesn’t mean it has a more systemic, inescapable, defining effect.

It’s important for men on the Left for working class oppression to be ‘special’, though, and for waged, alienated labour to be a defining dynamic in all working class lives, because from there you can proceed to the fallacy that the working class have more in common, more shared than conflicting interests.

But Working Class Men of the Left: it is not for you to tell me that I have more shared interest with you than with women of other classes or that my shared interest with, say, Kate Middleton, whose body is public property in a way no (cis) man will ever know, is less important than the interest I have in common with you. That’s just a way for you to deny the privileges which my oppression as a woman confers on you, like being viewed as more authoritative, capable and human than at least half the population, which must feel pretty good and work out alright for you in practice too.

Ironically, it is self interest which lies behind the declaration of working class shared interest trumping all else: it allows the Class Struggle to trump all else too.

The Class Struggle is constantly manipulated into being The Working Class Man’s Struggle as well, leading to a lot of self-serving internal contradictions. For example, nothing pisses me off more than the way men on the Left, Marxists in particular, talk about sex work.

Marxists are good at calling the choice between selling your labour and losing your livelihood what it is: no choice at all. Hence why Marxists often call wage labour wage slavery. But what does this mean when the labour to be sold is sex? The fact that you’ll lose your livelihood as a sex worker if you don’t do it surely has some bearing on how consensual such sex can be.

Marxist men like to deny that this is any worse than non-consensual coffee serving or whatever. But the idea of making someone have sex if they don’t really want to being a particularly bad, violating and oppressive thing to do is the wisdom behind rape being a crime in its own right, with its own name (it’s also something about which women know a lot more than most men). And yes, sex workers may want to have the sex they have for money, but in the face of the pressure which potential loss of livelihood puts on that consent, punters can surely never call it ‘uncoerced’. And what is coerced consent?

This doesn’t deny the agency of sex workers any more than Marxist theory ‘denies the agency’ of any worker. Which is why the agency I focus on is the punters’. Why defend their choice to have sex which they can’t be sure is 100% uncoercedly consensual?

I don’t distinguish between punters and porn consumers by the way, except in that punters can at least make some attempt to ensure the sex worker whose labour they enjoy is as fairly compensated as possible, whereas apparently no one pays for porn these days and certainly not directly to the actors – the people (hopefully) being paid for their sex.

This is the issue: I’m told (by men) that it’s exceptional for a man not to consume porn. So most Marxist men have an interest in opposing my (Marxist-feminist) analysis of sex work. In fairness, a lot of Marxist women oppose it too, though I wonder how much internalised prude-shaming plays a part in that: I’ve certainly had more than my fair share of it for being anti-porn (my ‘fair share’ being ‘none at all’).

I also wonder if Marxist men would feel differently if they were realistically likely to ever have to consider doing sex work. It doesn’t really matter though, as most aren’t.

And there, we have quite a conflict of interest between them and working class women.

The image shows a book plate of a crow overlooking a cityscape, under the text “On a clear day you can probably see the class struggle from here”. Shared by Elaine Ashton under a Creative Commons licence.

Comments From You

Lisa Whelan // Posted 28 July 2013 at 10:25 pm

Genuinely summed up my opinions on everything here! It’s really difficult to sum up that opinion on sex work without coming across as anti-sex work, but you’ve managed it perfectly and I couldn’t agree more.

Kerplunk // Posted 29 July 2013 at 12:25 am

There has been much debate on whether feminists should be for or against sex work and pornography, so I am not going to address that aspect of this argument right now.

I live in the US, where class is rarely talked about by anyone, including those in the radical political left. But your distilling issues of class down to work as wage slavery, or workers’ relationship with bosses, seems to me to be very reductive, and inaccurate. Raising issues of class is a means of addressing the way the system is structured to allow only the few in positions of power and wealth to have control over the rest of us. Oppression is generated by the system, not by the individuals in that system who have relative (rather than absolute) privilege, and everyone, to differing degrees, is oppressed by that system, except for the few who hold all the cards. So, yes, class is very much the overarching issue that binds together those who are not in power and who experience oppression.

Everyone is not equally oppressed, of course. Some face much greater oppression because of their race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, religion, immigration status, and more.

Rhona // Posted 29 July 2013 at 7:26 am

I agree with all of this – and I think in addition it is important to note the pressure that women are under to join men in the class struggle (as it will benefit them too) and to put aside their own feminist struggle in favour of that. What it boils down to, then, is that women are guilt tripped into “looking past” their own problems for the “greater good”. Which of course means “making it better for the men”.

I’d mind this far less if, as you point out, those self-same men were not actively engaged in the oppression of women and their coercion into sex.

Elisa // Posted 29 July 2013 at 4:42 pm

Helloo! Thank you for your comments. Kerplunk, that’s pretty much what I’m arguing against: the idea that capitalism is a system (plot?) whereas patriarchy/ sexism is an accident (or by-product – I find the premiss of The Origin of the Family extremely reductive). Obviously women’s oppression is not the only issue treated this way in Marxist theory. Both sexism and racism, for example, were up and running and being institutionally (systemically) maintained before capitalism and before feudalism even. Not that this is about a ‘hierarchy of oppression’ but there is not ‘one anti-oppressive struggle to rule them all and in the Marxist theory bind them’. I find it hilarious (if it wasn’t so frustrating) how Marxist socialists always say class unites people across genders, races, sexual orientations, nations and religions, as though those things didn’t unite people across each other (and across class) too! And as Rhona points out and as I try to: women’s liberation will not necessarily arise out of class struggle (nor should it have to wait for that struggle): being a Marxist is no guarantee of not also being a sexist. A society in which workers owned the means of production and the economy was planned according to need, as opposed to for maximum profit generation as currently, would not *necessarily* be a society in which all genders (or races etc) were equal (nor should we have to wait for such a society before claiming gender and racial equality – though equality will never be complete until it is, well, complete, including class equality). I’m also tired of hearing things like “I need feminism because a women’s place is in the revolution”: the Left should not only care about women’s oppression for tactical reasons (like boosting numbers). I need an economic system oriented around human need, not profit, because even though in the global scale of things I’m doing alight out of the current system, it’s objectively wrong for workers in Bangladesh to have to choose between working in an unsafe building that will eventually kill them and losing their livelihood. You know? I don’t think other people’s liberation only matters in so far as it facilitates my liberation and I don’t presume to say that my oppression (as a woman) somehow explains all other forms of oppression.

Marxism is a useful body of theory as far as it goes, but that is only so far. It shouldn’t be treated as the Word of God or something and we shouldn’t have to contort realities such as as women’s oppression into fitting in to Marxist narratives. Marxism doesn’t explain everything and some of it is actually just bullshit.

VS // Posted 29 July 2013 at 7:32 pm

Thanks for putting up this article – it definitely packs a punch! As a left-wing man, I agree that I am not the victim of sexism, sexual objectification and sexual harassment in the way that women are – and so it would be a mistake for me to dismiss them completely. However, I find the ignoring of class issues by some feminists quite uncomfortable and as something that can divert people from what I see as the main issues.

Our capitalist society is based around the idea of wage-labour and the myth of freedom of contract. These exist _whether the people in the advantaged position are men or women_. The inequality of employer and employee will exist whether 0%, 50% or 100% of bosses are women. There seems to be a strange view (perhaps akin to the nursery rhyme that little girls are made of ‘sugar and spice and all things nice’!) that having more women in positions of power is good in itself _whatever their views are_. I don’t agree with this. To my mind, Thatcher was worse than her male Tory predecessor Ted Heath – as she caused more of a rise in unemployment, cracked down on unions more and privatised more than he did. Harriet Harman is reported as saying that if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters the financial crisis wouldn’t have happened. This is false. Women as well as men in big business have to act in a way to maximise profits.

What I suspect bothers us male leftists is the feminists who seem to think that men are the ‘enemy’ and not to make cross-gender alliances to fight for a more socialist society.

Elisa // Posted 29 July 2013 at 9:30 pm

‘I am not the victim of sexism, sexual objectification and sexual harassment in the way that women are – and so it would be a mistake for me to dismiss them completely’: It would be wrong for you to dismiss them at all.

‘what I see as the main issues’ are not necessarily the main issues and it’s particularly wrong to put a hierarchy on said ‘issues’ (by which I think you mean ‘forms of oppression’) and announce that yours come out on top.

The views you refer to in your second para haven’t come up here (nor has any feminist ‘ignored class issues’).

I think you illustrate very well with this comment the problem I was highlighting and why it is that many feminists may be wary of forming alliances to fight for a ‘more socialist society’, also known as what men see as the ‘main issues’.

What are ‘women’s issues’? Dessert? Just because they don’t directly affect you?

Yeah, no thanks, that’s a meal I’ll skip. Although increasingly that’s what I think male leftists want women to say: that way they can continue calling socialism their movement, the Working Man’s movement. Urgh.

VS // Posted 30 July 2013 at 7:37 am

Hi ! We’re clearly not going to agree, so this will probably be my last post, but I thought I would flag up a couple of things to clarify my views.

Over the last few decades, there has been a move towards greater neo-liberalism in society. The institutions of the welfare state have been chipped away at and privatisation and deregulation has taken place. These victories for capitalism have been compatible with genuine advances for women in the workplace and political life – as well as compatible with the declining social acceptability of racism, the increase in gay rights and so forth. This is why to some degree I see there as being a ‘hierarchy’ of issues as you phrase it. The economically unequal nature of society – following from the distribution of property/assets and the employer/employee relationship – is not affected by these advances on other equalities issues. It is perfectly compatible with capitalism to have a gender-mixed and racially-mixed elite. But the attainment of that elite does not help the people at the bottom.

It is the growth in economic inequality that concerns me and that is getting worse while advances are being made on other fronts. It doesn’t harm a business to have to have 40% women on its board – but it would ‘harm’ their financial interests to pay their workers more. And lots of those who are calling for more women in positions of power don’t seem to be commenting about growing inequality and the need to tackle unemployment and low-pay. And I think some of them don’t want to see the advantages that educated, middle-class women have over unskilled, working-class men who are unemployed or in casual work.

I acknowledge that your initial article does pack a punch and clearly it is because psychologically us men don’t like to all be classed as ‘advantaged’ because we don’t see ourselves as such. And I would argue that we aren’t all advantaged in the economic & social sphere. To use your analogy I would fundamentally disagree that I am advantaged over Kate Middleton in any significant way [bar the one you cited of being subject to media attention re her looks/post-pregnancy body etc].

Laura // Posted 30 July 2013 at 9:31 am

Hi VS:

It works both ways though. Yes, we could have gender equality for upper/middle class people under capitalism, but equally we could have gender inequality in a communist/socialist society. Working class men could still oppress women through violence, rape could still exist, women’s sexuality could still be controlled.

You may not be particularly advantaged over Kate Middleton, but you are most definitely advantaged over women of your class. You’re not comparing like for like when you talk about educated middle-class women vs. unskilled working-class men. Many feminists are much more interested in fighting on the issues that affect working class women, but it’s privileged middle class feminists who want to help middle-class women achieve equality with their male peers that receive media attention, for obvious reasons.

I agree we need to join up all fights against oppression, but, as Elisa said, many anti-capitalist women are going to struggle to work with anti-capitalist men who view fighting patriarchy and sexism (and racism, homophobia, disablism, transphobia etc.) as secondary to fighting capitalism. These other oppressions won’t magically disappear come the revolution.

Kerplunk // Posted 30 July 2013 at 10:15 am

Elisa, thank you for your reply. Just to clarify: I’m not a Marxist. If I had to align myself with a political philosophy, it would be anarchism, though I don’t embrace it fully. I’m not defending Marxist orthodoxy.

What I believe is that inequality — that is, an imbalance of power — is at the core of oppression, and that it is this inequality that also drives the oppression of specific segments of society. Those who have power benefit from marginalizing particular groups. That is where the common struggle lies, in my view: in the fight against the vast power that rests in the hands of the few. Unequal power is, by design, built into the system (which is not a plot — I’m not exactly sure what you mean by that).

I agree that Marxists and anarchists and many others in the left can be, and certainly are in some instances, sexist, racist, homophobic, and more, and that creating an egalitarian society (if that were possible!) would not erase those attitudes. But I think that those attitudes are embedded in the way that society is structured (and not by accident), and it’s that broader structure that needs to be examined and challenged.

Elisa // Posted 30 July 2013 at 5:05 pm

An I’m saying that sexism IS a structure (often called patriarchy).

Elisa // Posted 30 July 2013 at 5:18 pm

‘creating an egalitarian society (if that were possible!) would not erase [sexism, racism, homophobia, etc]’.

A sexist, racist, homophobic society would not be egalitarian.

Kerplunk // Posted 31 July 2013 at 2:26 am

Sexism is a structure within the broader structure of inequality and injustice. Treating each -ism as if it were a distinct phenomenon and not a piece of an unequal and oppressive society is inaccurate, and not particularly useful in addressing the -isms that I think we agree all need to be addressed and overturned.

Of course a racist, sexist, etc. society would not be egalitarian. But when you insert [sexism, racism, homophobia, etc] instead of what I wrote, which was “attitudes,” you change the meaning of my words. There are attitudes that people have absorbed from our oppressive society, and those are toxic as well, but not to the degree of the system as a whole, which actively perpetuates the oppression of different groups, in a systemic way, and is successful because of the power it is able to exert.

The fight is not against individuals who hold reprehensible views, it’s the source of those attitudes that needs to be confronted. For instance, George Zimmerman was not a racist in a vacuum: he took on the racist beliefs that were put in place in society for the benefit of the power structure.

Elisa // Posted 31 July 2013 at 1:15 pm

I’m really making a very simple point: much as working class women have common cause with working class men, we also have common cause with women of other classes. At the same time, we do, definitely, have conflicting interests with those women. In much the same way, though, we have conflicting interests with working class men. Our common cause with working class men is not more important than our common cause with all women, nor are our conflicting interests with working class men insignificant. It certainly is not the place of working class men to tell us that they are insignificant.

Points I was *not* making are that women’s oppression is more important or significant than class oppression, nor that various types of oppression are separable. They certainly aid and abet each other. However, women’s oppression (or any other form of systemic oppression) is not a mere by-product of capitalism and class oppression. It is a system in its own right that supports and is supported by capitalism (and white supremacy and disablism).

That really is what I was saying, along with expressing frustration at being told otherwise by (working class/ Marxist/ Left wing) men. Men just can’t tell me how my oppression as a woman works.

I’m going to leave it there.

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