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Marxism and Intersectionality: An Interview with Ashley Bohrer
GS: Why you choose to write this book?
AB: I wrote this book partially out of a sense of frustration with the current state of conversation about identity politics and anti-capitalism. I’m someone who moves pretty fluidly (in both an activist and an academic sense) between communities of Marxists and identity politics. While there is a lot of debate between them, I began to feel like there wasn’t much productive conversation between these genres, only merciless critique to tear the other down. I found this incredibly frustrating because for me, thinking about intersectionality has enhanced and deepened my commitment to a Marxist understanding of capitalism, and my anti-capitalism has only sharpened and clarified the necessity of understanding how differences constitute the world we live in, think in, and organise in. And I don’t think I’m alone in this – many of the people I organise with know that there are strengths and synergies between these ways of thinking. I wanted to write something that highlighted this aspect of intersectionality and Marxism, not only the acrimonious debate between them. I have always thought that it is our duty to read widely – and to find insights in multiple places. Perhaps this comes from my experience as an organiser – in order to run successful campaigns, we’re always picking pieces from multiple places, finding resources and unexpected allies to try to mobilise power and fight injustice. So while the book does talk a lot about the critiques between the Marxist and intersectional traditions, I wrote the book because I wanted us to move beyond what felt like a dead-end. How can we take what is insightful, powerful, mobilising, and true out of both of these traditions and pull that forward? How can engaging with both of these traditions reveal new insights for both our organising and our theorising?
I think also I wrote this book to give myself to interrogate some of my own beliefs and practices. Academics don’t always talk about this, but it is important to be open to changing your ideas in the course of research. Writing is one of those practices that gives us the opportunity to interrogate what we (both in the collective sense and in the authorial sense) believe and why. What have I been assuming to be true? What narratives have I received through conversations and conferences? What is the collective wisdom of my organising spaces or my academic networks and how in line am I with it? I approach writing as a kind of gift, as an offering or an opening to push myself to think further and harder, to press on my own assumptions, to force myself to justify my positions in ways that aren’t normally demanded by fifteen minute conference presentations or quick-decisions on organising.
Would you like to unpack the key arguments that underpin your study?
If I were to say it in the clearest terms I could, I would say, the book makes a very simple argument: a thorough analysis of capitalism requires insights and tools from both Marxist and intersectional traditions.
What is intersectionality? Is it compatible with Marxism? If yes, which are the implications of this dialectic for the study of the social realities?
Ha! I think that’s a loaded question. Some forms of Marxism are certainly compatible with some forms of intersectionality. Class reductionist Marxism isn’t compatible with intersectionality just as liberal reform-oriented intersectionality isn’t compatible with revolutionary social reproduction Marxism. Other versions of both Marxism and intersectionality are much closer together, perhaps even synthesise-able. I think we often talk about Marxism or intersectionality as if they are unified wholes. And while I do think there are certain precepts that characterise each, they are both heterogeneous fields and should be approached that way. That is what I mean when I argue that we should think about both Marxism and intersectionality as ‘traditions’ rather than as obvious ‘positions.’
Rather than asking the question if these frameworks are on the whole compatible, this book rather asks what helpful and important things we can think if we bring the best, strongest, most capacious versions of each together to re-define what capitalism means.
Can we avoid a non-reductionist reading of capitalism? What does this imply in theoretical and political terms?
So I think sometimes the conversation around capitalism, at least in theory spaces, suggests that our understanding of capitalism is best or strongest when it is reducible to the fewest factors or explainable by a single, univocal logic – a kind of Ockham’s razor argument. But the actual historical arrangement of capitalism isn’t like that – it’s vast, varied, and uneven. Capitalism is variable and changeable, it’s plastic and responsive to various conditions. I think sometimes when we attempt to whittle away all of that diversity and complexity in order to have the most ‘elegant’ theory or one most easily digested in a sound-bite, we lose many of the ways that capitalism is and has always been a differentiated system.
In that sense, I’m in favor of maximalist rather than minimalist approaches to thinking about capitalism – how can we keep as many factors, as many historical specificities, as many internal differences as possible? How can we think about the way that capitalism uses, mobilises, and also sometimes seeks to eliminate differences as part of what it is, what it does, and what we would need to fight it?
A key area where I think the ‘maximalist’ approach to capitalism is helpful is in thinking about oppression. I think in Marxist circles, we often get the argument that capitalism is (only) essentially about exploitation. In these approaches, oppression is simply something that makes you more vulnerable to exploitation – it’s a kind of exploitation-intensifier, or it’s a social narrative that is used in order to maintain exploitation. These are of course some of the ways that capitalism relates to oppression, but it’s certainly not all of them. Part of the question I am trying to ask in the book is – if we had a robust understanding of the multiple ways that exploitation and oppression connect and relate under capitalism, how would that enhance our understanding of capitalism, both historically and logically?
So, in the book, I argue that we should rethink capitalism as a system that is essentially, logically, and historically constituted through both exploitation and oppression. In the book, I do a bunch of close readings to show how, at base, most theorists reduce capitalism either to oppression or to exploitation.
But the way capitalism as a whole global system functions can’t be adequately captured by either exploitation or oppression alone. They work together to constitute the system. Of course capitalism could not function without the exploitation of labor, but capitalism would be easily overthrown without oppression. Let me give just one example of one of the many different kinds of relationships I trace in the book: think about access to institutions of social, political, and collective life. Part of the way capitalism reproduces itself is through narratives that some lives are disposable, that we are not lives worth living. Think about how education under capitalism is structured, how institutions of ideology production like media constantly function in order to try to discipline us into accepting the idea that we are nothing and deserve nothing. Think about how barriers to a truly democratic political system are enacted: literacy tests, felony convictions, refusing papers to migrants and refugees, the ways corporations influence political decisions – these are all significant ways capitalism operates and changes and none of them are adequately captured by ‘exploitation’ alone (though of course they involve exploitation). You can’t have a capitalist system in which exploited people know their worth. In this sense, capitalism is reproduced and secured not only through exploitation but also through oppression.
You argue in your study ‘that capitalism was and still is deeply complicit in the particular shape of multiple, interlocked oppressions, at the political, economic, social, and ideological levels’. Would you like to elaborate further on it?
We simply can’t understand the world we live in without an understanding of capitalism. One of the lessons I take from intersectionality is the multiple and discontinuous ways that gender, race, sexuality, ability, nationality, etc are fundamentally inter-constituted. They aren’t separate systems that cross at a particular place or in particular people. Gender is racialised and classed and shot through with expectations of normative ability. This is true for all identities and social positions; they get meaning through being constituted relationally, in a matrix.
As I highlight in the book, both Marxist and intersectional theorists are very clear that capitalism is also part of this story, both historically and in the contemporary world. We can’t understand race (in its gendered, sexualised, ability-laden senses) without understanding that the modern notion of race was invented in a capitalist world, that we all experience race in a capitalist world. There is no separating any of these categories from capitalism and there is no separating capitalism from race, gender, sexuality, ability or nationality.
What this means in a certain sense is that theorists of capitalism who are trying to tell you what capitalism is without explaining this very significant part of the story have completely covered over some of the most potent and important pieces of how capitalism operates logically and historically and therefore what it is.
From a practical standpoint, they have also sacrificed a significant amount of organising ground. It’s old hat organising wisdom to meet people where they are at. It’s easiest to connect with the large-scale operations of huge systems of power by being able to see how that connects to your specific situation and your specific life. We’re all living in and through identities, and it’s often on the basis of those identities that we make sense of the world. In some situations, starting with someone’s class-status might be the best inroad into thinking about capitalism as a system. Sometimes it’s not my salary that messes the most with my day, it’s that my boss keeps sending me dick picks. Or my documentation status. Or how I have to fight tooth and nail to get any form of accommodations for my disability, either at work or in the world more generally. Capitalism is happening in all of these instances, a capitalism that has been shaped by sexism, xenophobia, colonialism, and ableism. We need to be able to show this logic in its whole in order to be able to be responsive to people’s needs and to make sure that in our movements and in whatever we dream to replace the hell-scape we live in, we don’t end up reproducing it.
How you perceive the dialectic between theory and politics? How you position yourself in regards to this topic?
I’m both an activist and a theorist. I spend a lot of my time in movement spaces and doing movement work. Sometimes theory can help guide our choices of strategies and tactics in the moment; sometimes the most important insights for theory come from the streets. A lot of this book is a theoretical reflection on some of the problems and complications I encountered over the past decade in activist spaces – how to reconcile Marxist approaches with intersectional ones, how to think about oppression in an anti-capitalist way, how to think about solidarity across different social locations.
But I think often when we post the theory-politics question, we have a very restrictive notion of what each of these means. Theory doesn’t just mean books on abstract topics written by people with PhDs. Activists, engaged, as they inevitably are, in processes of reading, thinking, reflecting and dreaming are doing theory all of the time, just as so-called ‘theorists’ are also engaged in political activity all of the time, even when they are not doing so in traditionally ‘organised’ political venues. Theory is a praxis, thinking is a kind of doing. I think I’m less interested in the traditional theory-politics divide and more interested in asking the question: how is what you are doing and thinking contributing to liberation?
I think this question is more interesting and more honest. And ultimately, I think it is the more urgent question to ask. There are certainly people doing a lot of ‘politics’ whose ultimate fidelity isn’t to liberation. And there are tons of people writing ‘radical’ theory, pontificating about domination, whose work isn’t actually helping people get free. So I think for me, the question isn’t about whether one is doing theory work or political work, but no matter where one’s skills and training set them up, how are you being useful in the struggle? How do you judge that? What criteria do you use to determine whether your current project (political or theoretical) is just your own pet obsession or whether it is part of getting us all free? I think the movement would be stronger and links between activists and academics could be closer and less alienating on the whole if these were our anchoring questions rather assumptions about our activities.
You clarify that you proceed in a ‘guerrilla reading’ of the texts that you examine. Could you explain us what does this imply in political and epistemological terms?
I think there is great value in figuring out what various authors have said, especially when because of racism and heterosexism, their words have not been taken seriously or read closely. A lot of what I highlight in terms of intersectionality is ways that this tradition has been deliberately misread by (white) Marxists in order to dismiss it. And I think there is a pretty pernicious politics of knowledge happening when we can find the time to read every grocery list a white male Marxist ever made, but dismiss an entire tradition of women of color theorising on nothing more than a cursory glance. I can’t tell you how often in Marxist spaces someone wants to reduce all of intersectionality to an argument that Kimberlé Crenshaw made in her first attempt to articulate the concept. That article was written in the year I was born. And it’s far from the only thing Crenshaw has written over her long career, and in any case, Crenshaw doesn’t have a monopoly on intersectionality; there are many versions, disagreements, and divergences within the field and so, so many people who take the concept to different places than Crenshaw. So, first, I think it is important to say that when we are approaching a body of knowledge that was created by oppressed people and that speaks about their oppression, we have a duty to read carefully and to understand what authors say and mean. It is a form of epistemic violence to refuse to engage in good faith under these circumstances.
With all of that being said, there are also places we need to think beyond the texts as they are written or intended. I think we do have an obligation to engage in good faith with texts, but that doesn’t mean at all that we are confined to the letter of what others have thought or said. When I use the term ‘guerilla reading’, I use it to mean sometimes reading texts beyond themselves, trying to find places where something is said implicitly or by implication. How and where can we mine texts, expose their presuppositions, find what is useful and powerful in them, and how might we need to take texts beyond themselves in order, sometimes, to make good on their nascent insights? I have never been satisfied, even as sometime with a PhD in philosophy, that all good thinking is simply explicative – that is, going back over and over the same texts to try to find what it ‘really’ said or what the author ‘really’ meant, as if that were the only important thing, as if, if we finally got to the bottom of what Marx or Crenshaw or Cedric Robinson actually meant or thought, as if that would solve all of our problems, philosophically or practically. It’s a worthy project, it can be a helpful project, and sometimes, as I already said, we do it too little. But not every question we have can be solved by consulting the bible of what has already been written. Sometimes we need to push texts farther, and one way of doing that is by reading the text against itself in order to expose fissures and complications and new directions for thinking, what I and others have called ‘guerrilla reading.’
You also reflect on the question of solidarity. Which are your thoughts on this term both as analytical concept and as a political reality?
True solidarity is life. There’s no other way, I don’t think, to orient ourselves to the struggle and to each other. There’s something really beautiful about solidarity, about the ways that millions of people work together and for each other, not on the basis of personal connection or individual acquaintance, but out of clarity and conviction that we all deserve a better world. We’re doing this interview in the midst of the Covid crisis and the mutual aid work I and so many other have been participating in, I think, has brought a whole new group of folks into understanding that feeling.
But I think sometimes when use the term solidarity, we actually mean a kind of saviorism. I see this a lot when people are talking about differences in social power: ‘I’m not queer/trans/POC/undocumented/incarcerated/etc, but I stand in solidarity with them.’ In that sense, people use it sometimes to mean they have politics that are not reducible to the oppressions they experience. Now, of course, I think we need to be showing up for folks across identities, social locations, and experiences. But I think what this understanding of solidarity misses is the ways that we are all affected by systems of domination. We are all created in and through those systems, and we are all worse off because they exist.
Let’s take white supremacy for instance. I’m a white Ashkenazi Jew, I inhabit and hold white-skin privilege and all that entails. Even though I am on a life-long journey of unlearning and opposing white supremacy, growing up in a white supremacist world has effects so foundational as to be nearly imperceptible to me. This is what it means, in a certain sense, to believe in a materialist account of the world – the organisation of the world shapes and makes us, even against our desires (and of course, it even makes and shapes our desires). Being made in and through a white supremacist world, no matter how committed I may be to undoing and unlearning it, still means that I have been damaged by white supremacy. Fanon, for example, was very clear about this: benefitting from systems of exploitation and oppression, being made in and through those systems, degrades our humanity. So when I think about undoing white supremacy, I am not committed to that fight only on behalf of others. I am not outside this fight or this system. I am also a part of it.
When we think about the project of topping domination, we have to understand that capitalism, white supremacy, heterosexism, ableism, etc all harm even those who are ‘privileged’ by them. White supremacy certainly accrues benefits, privileges, social and physical mobility, etc to white people, just as these other logics do. But being made in a world that is forged through structures that teach us, at every turn, that some lives are valuable and some are worthless, effects us all. This is, in my mind, the crucial difference between liberal and revolutionary approaches to liberation. Liberals want inclusion into the system; they want proletarians to be ‘just like’ capitalists or women to be ‘just like’ men. Liberal philosophies keep in tact the ruling ideas of what we should be. Revolutionaries know that even those who have the most advantages in the current system are wrong. They are the product of the wrong world. We do not want parity with them; we want something totally different. We want a world that has never been seen.
That’s why when people take the approach that ‘I’m not X, I’m in solidarity’, I cringe a little, because it suggests that those who have privileges or have accrued social power do not see themselves as part of what needs to be transformed. And I think, at its base, solidarity names the way that by coming together against domination, we change our communities, ourselves, and the world. So when I think about solidarity, I use it to mark this recognition of a relationship. Now, we need to be very clear: solidarity does not mean sameness. I’m absolutely not saying that white supremacy or anything else affects all of us in the same way. This would be absurd. There are wildly different consequences for being a white person under white supremacy and being a person of color. I’m obviously not in the same position under white supremacy as people of color (who are not all in the same position in relationship to each other). As the neo-Nazis like to remind us more and more, as an Ashkenazi Jew, I’m not even in the same position under white supremacy as other white people. But what solidarity can name is understanding that there is a logic (white supremacy) that touches all of us – the neo-Nazi, myself, people of color, etc. When I struggle against white supremacy along side others in that fight and against the neo-Nazi, we are engaged in this fight from inside it, even if we are inside it from different positions and places. But in this case, solidarity marks a connection (but not a sameness); it names the recognition that, across many kinds of social locations, systems of domination connect us and only through mobilising and detourning those connections can we topple that system.
Optimism of the will or pessimism of the intellect?
Both! It is the organiser’s creed: we have to act as if the world is radically change-able in every moment, as if revolution might be incipient in every breath. At the same time, we cannot afford a baseless optimism that treats the revolution as inevitable. Revolutionary movements often betray themselves precisely at the point where they underestimate just how deep oppression and exploitation run.
We need both the ruthless criticism of everything existing (including ourselves) and unfaltering, almost messianic, belief that we can and will build a new world our of the ashes of the old.
Ashley J. Bohrer is an academic, activist, and public intellectual. She is the author of Marxism and Intersectionality: Race, Gender, Class and Sexuality under Contemporary Capitalism. She is assistant professor at the University of Notre Dame and previously held a postdoctoral position at Hamilton College. Her research in the fields of philosophy, critical race studies, decolonial theory, intersectional feminism, and Marxism explores the intersections of capitalism, colonialism, racism and hetero/sexism. As an activist, she is affiliated with various feminist, anti-racist and anti-capitalist grassroots collectives.