‘Marxism and Intersectionality: Race, Gender, Class and Sexuality under Contemporary Capitalism’ by Ashley J Bohrer,’Marx, Women, and Capitalist Social Reproduction: Marxist Feminist Essays’ by Martha E Gimenez reviewed by Jean-Pierre Reed

Reviewed by Jean-Pierre Reed

About the reviewer

Dr. Jean-Pierre Reed is Associate Professor of Sociology, Africana Studies, and Philosophy at …

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The two books at the centre of my analysis address the issues of academic specialization and professionalization, issues that are relevant for understanding scientific practice today. On the one hand, Amy Bohrer’s Marxism and Intersectionality: Race, Gender, Class and Sexuality under Contemporary Capitalism attempts rather successfully to overcome the chasm between two key critical modes of theorizing that are often stereotyped as being, if not incompatible, incongruous to each other. Why? Because of their presumed differentiated specializations: Marxism focuses exclusively on the economy while Intersectionality focuses only on identity.  On the other hand, Martha E. Gimenez’s Marx, Women, and Capitalist Social Reproduction: Marxist Feminist Essays, while insightful in many ways, does very little to bridge Marxism and the Feminisms that are not Marxist-Feminist; adding to, if not complicating, the existing pattern of specialty and professional retrenchment between them.

Marxism and Intersectionality sets out to demonstrate how Intersectionality and Marxism are not incompatible. Bohrer provides the reader with both a historical and conceptual account that allows one to begin to understand the connections between these two significant critical modes of theorizing. In so doing one can begin to see how both specialization and professionalization created a disconnection between them. On the historical point, Bohrer shows how the foremothers of Intersectionality were communist activists whose racialised lived experiences compelled them to rethink the ways in which oppression worked in society and, as such, develop a theoretical vocabulary that spoke to their lived realities.  This connection, Bohrer is quick to remind us, is no indication that Intersectionality derived from Marxism.  The “traditions of non-Marxist feminist women of colour, national liberation move­ments (whether or not they were anti-sexist), [and] Harlem Renaissance art and lit­erature” also played a role in its emergence (33). It is rather telling, however, that its influence is “consistently under-theorized,” especially given how nineteenth, and much of twentieth century black feminist thought –as found in the works of intellectual-activists Frances Beal, Claudia Jones, Deborah King, Beverly Lindsey, Maria Stewart, Louise Thompson, Sojourner Truth, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett– was grounded in the historical materialist perspective (33, 36-50). These intellectual-activist progenitors, among others, created the conceptual understructure from whence Intersectionality emerged. It is from them that we get the archetypical terms –double and triple jeopardy/oppression, superexploitation, racism-and-sexism, and triple exploitation– that function as the conceptual precursors to Intersectionality’s basic premises.  The latter conceptual precursors were not in any way equivalent to the ones that eventually embodied Intersectionality, not least of which because most stood for “additive interpretations” of oppression, but they did serve as the jumping-off place from which it emerged.  They prefigured what became the postulates of Intersectionality (91-99). Bohrer’s qualification on the equality of oppressions, a key fundamental postulate of Intersectionality, is significant; noting that they are instead equiprimordial, which is to say that they are not equal but rather “equally fundamental, equally deep-rooted, and equally anchoring of the contemporary world” (198-99). This allows for recognizing how, depending on the circumstances, an oppression might be more relevant compared to others. To illustrate this point she analyses Eric Garner’s murder by the NYPD where race, sexuality, and class, as axes of oppression, played a role in the unfortunate event. His murder speaks to her point on relevance: Race in this instance was more relevant as an equally constitutive axis of oppression, while sexuality and class were equally constitutive but not as relevant. How does one specifically determine what is more relevant in other instances? She is at pain to explain.

At some point in the late 20th century, Bohrer also notes, there is a clear divarication between the forebearers and (some of the) descendants of Intersectionality even though “the most prominent scholars” in the theoretical tradition –i.e., the Combahee River Collective, Patricia Hill Collins, Angela Davis, bell hooks, and Audre Lorde– are not part of this paradoxical outcome.  What happened and why?   “Marxism and capitalism” ceased to be “central nodes in the development not only of the precursor concepts, but of intersectionality itself” (72).  Significantly, the site under which Intersectionality continued to be crafted became much less so the street and much more the academic context, clear signs of professionalization and specialization. This meant the prototypical producer of the tradition changed. Such changes in context and producer were compounded by a process of “whitening intersectionality” (i.e., the occlusion of race in theoretical statements, 17, 107-08, 178) as well as “the politics of knowledge production” (i.e., the dulling of theoretical nuance, 93, 104) and “the politics of citation” (i.e., the appropriation of intersectional contributions, 22, 85, 108, 119, 177-80), key mechanisms typically associated with the professional life of many academics. To these latter mechanisms one can add the positivistic assumption in qualitative sociology (Burawoy 1998) and the fact that social science has remained White (Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva 2008). These latter trends in the social sciences, coupled with the mechanisms, have given integrity, stability, and durability to the chasm.

Another significant issue associated with the chasm is the stereotype of Marxism as economic reductionism, a cliché that functions as “a kind of Marxist bogeyman” and that cannot be equated in any significant way with the overall import of Marxism itself (Bohrer, 124).  Indeed, Bohrer notes there is such a thing as “queer, feminist, anti-racist, and anti-colonial Marxists [who] have taken the theoretical armature of Marxism and deployed it to stretch, expand, critique, and revise the funda­mental principles and limitations of both Marx’s own work and the Orthodox Story” (127). Among the many scholars in this more “complexed-and-nuanced” Marxisms Bohrer identifies for us one may count Kevin Anderson, Cinzia Arruzza, Amita Chatterjee, Glen Sean Coulthard, and Silvia Federici. While Bohrer does not always accept the import of their works, she does recognize the more elaborate, if intersectional, relationships they set out to come to terms with. The mantra of economic reductionism, however, gets in the way of recognizing that “a certain affinity [exists] between the best versions of both schools of thought” (20). To Bohrer, this is a lamentable consequence of internecine and unnecessary conflict that speaks to the issue of “academic politics.”

Bohrer concludes her book by calling attention to the affinities that exist between Marxism and Intersectionality. She notes that they share in common a dialectical approach to the interpretation of historical change; a commitment to challenge and move beyond oppressive (and exploitative) structures of power; and an interest in solidarity as the solution to the problematic of organized action.  On the last feature, Bohrer provides us with a significant qualification, which she hopes can help overcome tribalistic differences in academia and society.  She invokes the notion of a solidarity of difference; a solidarity that does not dismiss difference but is predicated on it because: one, not everyone’s standpoint is the same; two, human existence is defined by incommensurability (we are all unique despite our similarities and differences); and three, because solidarity must be based on unity of difference (and interest) not uniformity.

Marx, Women, and Capitalist Social Reproduction, a collection of previously published articles, is a significant book meant to remind contemporary readers of the importance of Marxist-Feminism, given how it has “lost ground to other feminist perspectives” (Gimenez, 32). In it Gimenez, a prominent figure in this particular variant of Feminist scholarship, re-articulates some of the key issues revolving around capitalist social reproduction, a perspective that aims to understand the reproduction of labour power in toto –i.e., in terms of its social, ideological, and physical dimensions– in light of the “determinant role of capital accumulation” and its impact on “access to the conditions of reproduction” whereby “the subordination of the reproduction of the working classes to the power, interests and reproduction of the capitalist class” is the central analytical point of departure for making sense of oppression, exploitation, and the possibilities for social change (298, 299). To invoke the determinant role of capital accumulation (and the production processes it implies) is not to discount the importance of capitalist social reproduction (and the many factors that come with this process). Capitalist social reproduction, for example, necessarily requires unwaged (domestic) labour if only because “it expands the goods and services available to the working class[es] beyond what it would be possible to purchase with wages” (74).  But capitalist social reproduction, she notes, always operates within specific historico-structural limits set by the capitalist mode of production.

Gimenez sets herself apart from other Marxist inspired feminist perspectives: Social reproduction theorists (SRTs) and materialist feminists. The former, she claims, treat the two dimensions of Marxist analysis, i.e., production and reproduction, as either equivalents or in an inverse relationship whereby reproduction has a determinant role on production. The latter, while they recognize the significance of historical materialism for a feminist understanding of reality, their excessive emphasis on culture, language, ideology, discourse, and the body –i.e., their excessive reliance on poststructuralism/postmodernism– undermines the importance of the mode of production as a central analytical node. She is also critical of liberal and radical Feminisms. The reformist and civil rights politics of liberal feminists, she correctly claims, do nothing to undermine the deepening and damaging hold of capitalism and the material limitations it imposes on society and the world at large. Their misguided, if not contradictory, views on pronatalism and the feminization of poverty add to this picture, if indirectly. Radical feminism’s exclusive focus on patriarchy does the same since patriarchy is not the only source of women’s oppression and exploitation.

Turning to Intersectionality and Race Gender Class (RCG), she recognizes that they are significant for making sense of the complexity of social reality, yet she finds them inadequate in some significant ways. One, and in much the same way Bohrer asserts at least in terms of misguided contemporary carriers of these traditions, they deny the importance of Marxism for Feminism.  In so doing, Gimenez conveys, they undermine the analytical significance of imperialism, contradictory class interests between women, differences in the material problems women encounter, contradictory gender interests within the working class, and “male control over the means of production, exchange, and the conditions of physical and social reproduction,” key factors for making sense of the oppression and exploitation of women, in particular working class women in both the Global North and Global South (44). Two, they are predicated on abstract categories –i.e., “family,” “men,” “race,” “women”, etc.– insofar as these categories are disconnected from the concrete conditioning reality of the capitalist mode of production.  Consider, for example, her position on women: “There are no abstract women, whose lives are shaped only or primarily by their gender; in the real world, women have a place in the class, socio-economic, racial and ethnic structures within capitalist social formations” (22). Three, they fail to recognize how class is more than “just another system of oppression,” more than an effect of stratification, and more than an identity (91).  The “logic of class relations, exploitation, and capital accumulation,” she notes, “is indifferent to the identity of capitalists and workers” (100).  Class is an expression of the larger socio-historical capitalist context within which class operates and all social life is given social significance. Is this type of focus on class/capital economic reductionism? Gimenez rejects this notion. She posits instead that her position “takes into account their historicity” and in so doing she provides a more relational, if not more accurate, understanding of social reality (100). To invoke race and/or gender, that is, is to invoke class and capitalism as systems of oppression.  They cannot, in much the same way Bohrer argues, be understood apart from each other.  Four, they have politically aligned with liberal feminism essentially becoming liberal projects. The “multi-culturalism” and “diversity” discourses that have emerged from these theoretical approaches, Gimenez argues, have meant silence on issues of capital. Such silence has normalized, if not failed to stimulate a challenge to, the capitalist status quo. While this is an astute, if not incorrect, observation, Gimenez fails to realize on this point that, discourse and theory are not the same, though they are sometimes linked. The liberal political discourses developed from theory are not the same as theory itself, and their crafters, as Bohrer shows, do not always operate in consonant ways with the original aims of theory. Gimenez’s discounting of Intersectionality and RGC, in the end, reveals her limiting understanding on these perspectives and speaks to a type of bracketing that adds to the existent chasm between Marxism and (some) Feminisms that she wishes for them to overcome.

Marxism and Intersectionality and Marx, Women, and Capitalist Social Reproduction are significant books. One cannot help being seduced by them in that they take one into the realm of intellectual debate but also blind dispute and disciplinary chauvinism/conflict. They call attention to the reality of material conditions and relations.  Bohrer does this by pointing out an epistemological break within Intersectionality. Gimenez does this in terms of an epistemological critique of feminist theorizing.  From her perspective, various feminist approaches, including those connected to the materialist critique of society, fail to adequately grasp the all-embracing (and limiting) impact of the mode of production and processes of capital accumulation on women’s lives, especially the lives of women in the Global South.

Such an emphasis on materialism is a call to mobilize different perspectives, to establish a dialog between them. To what end? The eradication of oppressions. A materialist emphasis, however, raises two important questions.  Must all gender scholars/feminist theorists contend, conceptually and otherwise, with capitalism as a social force? Is a socialist revolution the solution to all oppressions? The answer to the first question is no. But the fact capitalism has increasingly been bracketed in feminist (theoretical) positions is rather telling. The answer to the second question is not necessarily, although such a revolution should undoubtedly entail more control over the means of production and reproduction by women as Gimenez’s work suggests. It should also involve an understanding of capitalism as more than economics as Bohrer’s argument suggests. But perhaps a more provocative question might be, is an intersectional revolution the solution to all oppressions? Intersectional Marxist Silvia Federici’s proposition that capitalism is “an essentially sexist structure” is most certainly suggestive (Bohrer, 143).

22 April 2021

References

  • Bonilla-Silva, E. and Zuberi, T. (eds.) 2008 White Logic, White Methods: Racism and Methodology Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
  • Burawoy, M. 1998 The Extended Case Method Sociological Theory 16(1) 4-33.

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