In many debates about leftist political strategy, the various forms of oppression tend to be mapped out onto the opposition between class and an indefinite string of “identity”-based categories. The latter are often castigated by traditional Marxists as divisive, and attempts to show how various forms of “identity”-based oppression overlap and reinforce each other (intersectionality) are taken as furthering the division by proliferating new identities rather than creating grounds for solidarity. In short, the “identity”-based categories are a Hegelian “bad infinite” that endlessly distracts us from the truly decisive struggle over class oppression.
What I want to do in this post is to displace the debate by reframing forms of oppression in a different way. I don’t claim to have exhausted the field, nor to be original, but I hope the categories I list here can prove to be a useful heuristic device.
Subordination — treating someone as being of a lower status, allowing them to be commanded and controlled
Exclusion — denying someone’s right to protection and belonging
Extraction — appropriating someone’s resources for one’s own use
Exploitation — rewarding someone with less than the value of their contribution to the social product
All of these categories admit of degrees. For instance, one can be marginalized — partially but not fully excluded. One can be subordinate while also commanding one’s own subordinates, as in a social hierarchy. And one can be exploited in more or less destructive ways — for instance, we’re likely to be more worried about a sweatshop worker than a millionaire professional athlete, even though the latter is being exploited in the technical sense.
They also admit of overlap. Every work relationship involves some aspect of exploitation and subordination, for instance, and the exploitation of migrant workers is intensified by their exclusion from mainstream society. Extraction can lead to effective exclusion, through the intermediary of the bad credit rating.
The “class-first” position is an argument that, under capitalism, exploitation is the most important form of oppression. It is the nodal point at which oppression as a whole can be brought down. Once it is eliminated, other forms of oppression will collapse automatically. Meanwhile, attempting to solve other forms of oppression is futile and distracting — at worst, it plays into the hands of the oppressor, who deploys the other forms of oppression in order to divide and conquer the exploited class.
There is a case to be made that under the conditions Marx observed, the “exploitation-first” strategy made sense. While all these forms of oppression had existed from time immemorial, what was new about capitalism was its massive and systematic deployment of exploitation. From this perspective, struggles over other forms of oppression looked like a more marginal and rearguard action, a way of missing the point.
Yet I would argue that systematic exploitation was not the only novel feature of the emerging modern world order. It also invented a new form of subordination and exclusion, namely, the concept of race. This concept enabled the development of a form of radical and absolute exploitation, but it is far from clear that race-based chattel slavery for life was primarily, much less exclusively, “about” exploitation as such. One could argue that the “natural development” of capitalism eliminated slavery — though even this is simplistic, because capitalism happily relied on slavery as an integral part of its operations for centuries — but it obviously did not eliminate the subordination and exclusion of blacks in America. From another angle, that argument ignores the importance and success of activism centered directly on the situation of blacks.
All this is to suggest that the class-first solution may even have been simplistic in the conditions under which it is developed. One can argue that Marx of course knew this all along, but then one cannot simultaneously use Marx as an authority for the reductive class-first solution — a two-step that is all too typical in these debates.
What about our present situation? Certainly exploitation has accelerated in recent decades, but even if we focus solely on “workers” in the abstract, it’s far from obvious that exploitation is the nodal problem that will undo the rest. Workers face new forms of extraction (financialization, proliferation of debt) and exclusion (unemployment). Perhaps less remarked is the degree of humiliating subordination that occurs in many workplaces, often with no clear economic (exploitative) rationale. We assume that bosses want to control workers out of economic efficiency, but it’s clear that bosses often want control as an end in itself as well.
Before anyone says, “Aha! Workers are at the nodal point after all, since they suffer all four forms of oppression!” — the exercise could be repeated for every oppressed group. The balance among the four factors will be different in each case, but it’s difficult to imagine a situation in which a single one would occur alone.
To me, this is an argument in favor of a robust intersectional analysis, not as a proliferation of ever-new identity categories, but as a grounds for solidarity. It is also an argument against the kind of class-first argument that reduces other struggles to an epiphenomenon or puts them on the back-burner with a vague promise that they will be solved automatically — an approach that introduces oppressive subordination into the movement itself.