Scatamburlo-D’Annibale, V. and Peter McLaren (2003) The Strategic Centrality of Class in the Politics of “Race” and “Difference” in Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies, 3(2): 148-175
[There is my general introduction to this piece here]
Recent left-wing discourses [post-marxism and other 'posts'-- what the authors call 'post-als'] describe the demise of critical metanarratives while ignoring the triumphant metanarrative of global capitalism - -which destroys communities and causes divisions as much as ever. For instance, 'almost half the world's population...are living on less than US $2 a day' (149). Meanwhile, leftists celebrate the '"decentring of capitalism", "the abandonment of revolutionary politics," and the "emphasis on language -- its priority over deeds, words or social forces"' (citing Wray 1998, page 149). Academics have further been drawn into abstract theorising instead of practical politics.
There is an echo here of E P Thompson's attack on scholastic marxist theory. As in the late Seventies, theory is now valued in terms of 'how it can be used to deconstruct or otherwise disrupt established meanings, signifying systems, and regimes of representation' (149). This has its value, but not if it means an accommodation with capital, especially if there seems to be no alternative.
Marxism has been rejected in terms of neglecting dimensions of oppression other than that of class. This is often a distortion, based on a simple notion of seeing marxism as economic determinism. Marxist politics have also been rejected. Instead, post-marxism appears to offer a better alternative, and, indeed has become widely accepted on the left.
The assumption with 'post' positions is that culture is now the major bases for oppression, especially forms of representation and their entanglements with power. This dimension is important, but we must not be 'blind to the economic' (150). The processes of class formation still needs be analysed, and the centrality of class relations restored.
'Post-al 'positions put the notion of difference at the heart of their analysis, in order to critique liberal notions of unified subjectivity, and analyse the creation of subjectivity within language and culture. This has often led to support for different kinds of identity politics, despite the problems [which include debates about whether something like ethnic identity is a social construct or some 'core' identity -- see file]. Often this is done by ignoring economic and other material dimensions. Class is denied as a major factor, usually by caricaturing marxist notions as economic determinist. It follows that culture looks at least relatively autonomous, and eventually autonomous. Difference can then be analysed and politicised without reference to the relations of production.
An adequate marxist analysis would also reject economic determinism in favour of later formulations such as those in the Grundrisse. In this formulation, 'cultural and/or discursive' matters can be accepted is important 'sites of contestation' (152), and for their role in helping oppressed groups to find a voice. Analyses such as those undertaken by Hall or Gilroy see otherness as part of a hegemonic articulation, while work on identity such as Butler's can show 'how race works to constitute racial subject through a reiterated discursive practice... [which involves]... naming and... shaming' (152).
However, it is still important to move beyond the discursive and cultural realms. It is necessary to understand the history of such cultural developments and their connection to class analysis. It is necessary to grasp the 'totalizing... power and function of capital' (153). In this sense, '"culture" is not the "other" of class but rather constitute part of a more comprehensive theorization of class relations' (153). Difference arises from social contradictions themselves stemming from domination and oppression in particular contexts. In this sense, separating class from culture is a misleading abstraction.
What is needed is to understand why particular differences become important in particular circumstances. In some circumstances, culture is treated as if it were separate and autonomous, hence analyses can take that for granted as an abstract [this is an example of the classic Marxian critique of the methods of political economy and abstract philosophy].
A politics of difference often means little more than a demand for inclusion 'into the metropolitan salons of bourgeois representation' (154). This is nothing more than a demand for access to the cultural market place, and did assumes that difference is based on some essential cultural qualities and not constructed. Excessive attention to difference simply 'averts our gaze from relations of production' (154). Celebrations of difference can also 'mesh quite nicely with contemporary corporate interests precisely because they revere lifestyle' (154). The dangers of such uncritical celebrations life in their advocates' inability to distinguish between good and bad differences -- why not celebrate different fascist parties for example? Class differences are not celebrated either. An empty liberal pluralism seems to inform the discussion.
However, categories of difference can be ideological. In particular, different kinds of identity are 'central to the exploitative production/reproduction dialectic of capital' (155), especially those differences stressing race and gender. It is clear that 'people of colour' find themselves in the most exploited groups: as with women, these groups 'provide capital with its superexploited labour pools -- a phenomenon that is on the rise all over the world' (156). [The concept of superexploitation presumably refers to the need to exploit people even more than would be required on the basis of the production of surplus value alone? It is a way of generating super profits, characteristic of monopoly capital? There may also be a political issue -- that some groups need to be exploited even more than would be required to make them conform to capitalist economic forms? I am most familiar with this argument when it is applied to women -- women need to be superexploited in order to produce free domestic labour as well as paid wage labour. I'm not sure I grasped the point in connection with 'race': it may be necessary to superexploit black people in order to pursue a specific strategy of 'neo-colonialism'?].
Class is not just another dimension of difference. It is necessarily related to capitalism, not just a 'subject position', but the source of value itself [lots to discuss here of course]. It is universal, and the only one which will require revolutionary change to abolish it. Other categories have their importance -- gender is perhaps the most long-standing form of oppression, while racial identity can be the most immediate existentially, as in brutally racist societies -- but class relations are fundamental to the whole capitalist system, including the state. It is also one of the more recent and therefore most open to doubt -- 'a world without class is preeminently imaginable -- indeed, such was the human world for the great majority of our species' time on earth' (quoting Kovel, page 157). For marxists, ending class is a prior necessity to ending all other forms of oppression.
Recent marxist analysis has focused on the relations between class and other forms of division. All social constructs gain their force from the reproduction of capitalism. These social forms 'constitute the ways in which oppression is lived/experienced within a class-based system' (158), and they help to reproduce it. Class is thus central to exploitative relations of all kinds.
Personal experiences, and the categories they generate, are valid, but should not be seen as completely self-explanatory. They must be transcended and traced back to a social and historical context. Many recent perspectives fail to explain how particular kinds of different have emerged -- in particular, '"race" is not an adequate explanatory category on its own' (159), and focusing on it can obscure 'the actual structure of power and privilege' (159).
'Race' is not a scientific category anyway, although it persists in popular discourses and even in 'mainstream social sciences' (160). Gilroy is right to renounce it, even though it may weaken historical movements for liberation based on 'race struggles' (160). Instead, race needs to be seen as a construct rooted in underlying structures of power, especially those found in capitalist modes of production and their ideological elements. In this way, specific forms of racism will become more apparent. Race cannot be subsumed into class, but racism is only explicable with the development of capitalism -- for example, 'Capitalism [once] relied on slave labour and needed an ideological legitimation' (161). Contemporary race-relations are still best understood as arising from the dynamics of capitalism, and challenging racism must therefore involve challenging capitalism. This would be much more threatening than a politics based on difference alone. Class differences have sharpened, deepened and become fundamental in recent years: it makes even more sense to see capitalism as 'an overarching totality... more universal, more ruthless and more deadly' (163)
The connections can also be seen if we realise that 'the vast majority of the working class consists of women and people of colour' (quoting Foster, page 162). It does not make sense to ignore the class dimension in their experiences and struggles. Indeed, 'a good deal of post-marxist critique is subtly racist (not to mention essentialist) in so far as it implies that "people of colour" could not possibly be concerned with issues beyond those related to their racial, ethnic, cultural "difference"' (163). It also assumes that 'working class' means 'white'. Radicals may be posturing based on discourses of difference which simply reflect academic politics and a disinterest in economic exploitation outside. As Marx said about the young Hegelians, their battle seems to be about phrases and counterphrases, reflecting their own class positions, while capitalism itself remains uncriticised. Really radical positions have been marginalised by the academic left who celebrate differences while capitalism increasingly imposes a universality.
Marxism should be revived if 'the triumph of globalised capitalism and its political bedfellow, neo-liberalism' are to be challenged (165). Inequalities of wealth and power exceed those in Marx's day. Exploitation and oppression need to be understood in modern context, applying marxism rather than rejecting it, and proceeding on both theoretical and a more politically engaged basis. It is common experience of exploitation rather than apparent differences that needs investigation. Of course, the struggles of black people against racism must not be ignored, but it should be traced to class relations.
Notions of class may seem outdated, but those found in post-marxist analyses are even more so -- '"experience of multiple oppressions no longer requires multiple theories of oppression because corporations multiply oppress (Starr, 2000)' (167). A common enemy is emerging on a global basis, as seen in globalised protest movements. A new socialist struggle is required.
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