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Intersectionality: Post-Marxism, Anti-Marxism, and Neoliberal Capitalism

Intersectionality chart. Source: Misty McPhetridge, BSSW

Intersectionality is all around us. The slogan and evident false dichotomy – my feminism is intersectional or it is bullshit – is used without reflection. It is used as a framework of analysis by university researchers and retains an explanatory resonance with activists. It is perhaps premature to predict its demise. However, what we can see is that intersectionality has become institutionalised. The London School of Economics Gender Studies Department claims it “pioneers intersectional, interdisciplinary and transnational teaching and research.” In a recent book, Jennifer C. Nash[1] maps out the process where Women’s Studies and Gender Studies programmes in US universities appropriated intersectionality and, in her view, took from it it’s political edge. It was no longer a tool of the Black feminist movement but a means by which (white) academics could claim to be inclusive in their research and publications. In the cutting words of Delia D. Aguilar, “the reformulations of intersectionality by feminists today merely reflect the corporatisation of the academy and its increasing subservience to a neoliberal global regime.”[2]

So perhaps it is too soon to predict the demise of intersectionality but it is certainly no longer what it was. The following short text will focus on one historical aspect of intersectionality – its similarity to the post-Marxism of Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau. It will also locate intersectionality within broader post-Marxist and anti-Marxist thought with the analysis of Delia D. Aguilar.

In 1985, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe published Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. This book is of interest here because the approach taken by Laclau and Mouffe closely resembles the approach advocated by Crenshaw and intersectionality.

Laclau and Mouffe’s project was to provide an alternative hegemonic discourse to bring about social change. In their view social change is not deterministic in that it is not inevitable. It is pluralistic and does not have a single privileged political actor such as the working class as this will not be sufficient to mobilise enough people to generate social change. Thirdly, it requires a discourse to articulate strategic goals and to frame power and inequality as oppression. Antagonism helps to bring about social change because it mobilises people, but the construction of social antagonism becomes a crucial problem. What is needed is a “story” to mobilise multiple social groups under one umbrella. It is the discourse of liberty and equality that frames this antagonism. Laclau and Mouffe identify successful social movements as those which construct a hegemonic discourse which is based on an established social inequality, and which has the ability to be agile and to move from social class to other areas of inequality. Social movements need to adapt to changing social realities. Social movements need to unite multiple social groups and not simply mobilise the working class. There is also a need to provide viable alternatives for the reconstruction of society, to sketch what an alternative society looks like. And lastly, there is a need for a recognition of equivalence of these multiple struggles.

There is a lot in the previous paragraph that shows the similarities with intersectionality, for example the idea that the working class does not have a primary role, the use of the term oppression rather than exploitation, the view that the “discourse” needs to be agile to adapt to changes in social reality and, importantly, the view that different struggles are equivalent. Laclau and Mouffe’s work predates Kimberle Crenshaw by four years and one wonders whether their influence was explicit in developing a post-Marxist analysis of the position of Black women.

Writing in 2018, Mouffe reiterates her rejection of “class essentialism” and the need to grasp the “multiplicity of struggles against different forms of domination” while redefining the socialist project in terms of a “radicalisation of democracy.” This project consists of what Mouffe calls a “chain of equivalence” articulating the demands of the working class with those of the new movements in order to construct a common will aiming at the creation of “expansive hegemony.” By reformulating the project of the left in terms of “radical and plural democracy… multiple struggles for emancipation are founded on the plurality of social agents and their struggles.”[3]

Easy then. But in the meantime, what’s happened to capitalism? Ellen Meiksins Wood was quick to respond to the work of Laclau and Mouffe in The Retreat from Class:  A New “True” Socialism (1986).[4] She maps out the trajectory from Althusserian Marxism to the post-structuralism of Laclau and Mouffe and points out some flaws in their plan. To begin with their understanding of capitalism and what Wood describes as a “breathtaking misreading of Marx,” it is enough for the moment to note that Laclau and Mouffe attribute to Marx the view that productive forces are “neutral” and their development is a “neutral” process, and that the proletariat is simply a reflection of this fundamentally technological process of development, as is the opposition between the bourgeoisie and proletariat (the action of class exploitation does not figure in this account at all). Even in the aphoristic shorthand of the Communist Manifesto it is clear that the development of productive forces is anything but “neutral,” determined as it is by the imperatives and contradictions of class. (In fact, is it not the first premise of historical materialism that material production is a social phenomenon?) It is therefore incomprehensible why the proposition that “the organisation of production cannot be separated from overall social relations” should be regarded as a fatal challenge to Marxism instead of as its ultimate justification.

In other words, Laclau and Mouffe have divorced politics from economics and claim there “are no such things as material interests but only discursively constructed ideas about them.” The working class are people who work rather than those who experience exploitation at the point of capitalist production. And so, in place of the “essentialist” working class, Laclau and Mouffe offer us, as with intersectionality, an indeterminate “plural subject,” a “popular” force, constituted by people with either multiple social identities or no such identities at all. And who constructs this discourse? They are ready to attribute a considerable role to intellectuals in constituting social subjects.

Wood’s understanding of Marxist economics shows Laclau and Mouffe have misinterpreted some of its most basic premises. However, the claim that they have divorced politics from economics is a common criticism of contemporary intersectionality which has replaced social class with, at best, status or in some cases wealth. Social relations under capitalism have been erased and indeed intersectionality has gone further than Laclau and Mouffe and has managed to make capitalism disappear.

Now that economics and politics are separated and the working class under capitalism is simply one among many discourses, what about the goal of Laclau and Mouffe – radical democracy? Wood reminds us that liberal-democratic discourse – however progressive it may be in some respects and however much subordinate classes may have appropriated and even helped to create it by means of their own struggles – serves the class interests of capital by denying the relations of subordination on which capitalist power rests, and by delimiting the sphere in which popular power may operate. In other words, democracy, under capitalism, remains capitalist democracy. Thus, socialist demands are not simply moments “internal to the democratic revolution,” they are constituted by class conflict within the context of a capitalist economic system. Wood is dismissive of Laclau and Mouffe: “This is not an analysis of contemporary society and the conditions of its transformation,” she says, “it is little more than a verbal conjuring trick.” In the final analysis, the theoretical and political touchstone for the New “True” Socialism is not socialism at all, but electoral victory.

It is useful at this stage to note the criticisms we could make of the Laclau and Mouffe project – it separates economics from politics, instead looking for hegemonic discourse or a unifying narrative, it claims the end of the working class as an historical subject, and instead of the transformative revolutionary demand for an end to capitalism and the overthrow of the state it substitutes a reformist programme of “radical democracy.”

Intersectionality shows clear links with Laclau and Mouffe’s project. Recently Marxist feminists such as Delia D. Aguilar and Martha E. Gimenez have criticised intersectionality for the type of politics it leads to. Aguilar points to the early period of intersectionality in the 1980s and 1990s, when Marxism retained its purchase amongst feminists, as a conscious attempt to repudiate Marxism by a willful misreading of Marxism as economic or class determinism. Gimenez[5] takes issue with the identity politics which leads from the framework provided by intersectionality. It “takes the status quo for granted,” she writes, “it can teach people to understand their experience in intersectional terms while at the same time strengthening the capitalist status quo because […] it reinforces an understanding that excludes the effect of class location.” In other words, it is a descriptive tool which serves to reinforce identity politics. She cites Carbin and Edenheim (2013) who state that “intersectional feminism […] has come to signal a liberal consensus-based project that ignores capitalism as an oppressive structure.” In other words, “identity politics, which cannot be totally separated from intersectionality, can only lead to legal, political, and ideological changes that leave the structure of exploitation and domination untouched. That critical inquiries and praxes informed by intersectionality do not and cannot change the capitalist status quo might be a key underlying condition for its [intersectionality’s] phenomenal success.”

Intersectionality is clearly dominant in the academy and so it is premature to write its obituary. However, its similarities to the post-Marxist work of Laclau and Mouffe, namely the disappearance of the working class and capitalist exploitation, leave one wondering about the weaknesses and limitations of this approach to feminist politics. Feminists have more than the simplistic choice between intersectionality and bullshit. There are other paths we can take.

The purpose of this article has been twofold: to locate the concept of intersectionality in the post-structural, post-Marxist framework stemming from Laclau and Mouffe and to outline some of the largely Marxist feminist criticism of the concept. But, back in the real world of political mobilisation as well as in many parts of academia, intesectionality holds sway. From personal experience in LGBT circles, for example, I have been told that it was “impossible” to criticise intersectionality while I was called a TERF and a crypto-fascist for trying to do so. This sort of passionate adherence to intersectionality as a political praxis will not disappear overnight. Marxist activists need to understand what is there about this discourse that makes it so powerful. This, I find, is particularly the case in some contexts where there is a reluctance to speak of the working class or the labour movement. But, as Nancy Fraser has noted recently:

Of the left hopes to revive the working class as a leading force within a new counter hegemonic bloc, we will have to envision that class in a new way – intersectionally, if you will – as not restricted to the white, straight, male, majority-ethnicity, manufacturing and mining workers, but as encompassing all of these other occupations – paid and unpaid -and as massively encompassing immigrants, women and people of color.

Nancy Fraser, The Old is Dying and the New Cannot be Born (2019)[6]

Whither class? Let’s envision it in a new way but with capitalism at its centre.

This text is republished with the author’s permission from Intersekcionalita – sborník textů z online feministické konference, published by SdruŽeny with the support of RosaLuxemburgStiftung; and is based on the author’s lecture “Intersectionality: What It Is and What It Isn’t?” held at the feminist conference organized by SdruŽeny in May 2021.

[1] Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality (2019)

[2] Delia D. Aguilar, ‘Intersectionality’, in Shahrzad Mojab (ed), Marxism and Feminism (2015) p203

[3] Chantal Mouffe, Towards a Left Populism (2018).

[4] Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Retreat from Class: A New ‘True’ Socialism (1986).

[5] Martha E. Gimenez, Marx, Women and Social Reproduction. Marxist Feminist Essays (2018).

[6] See also, Rodrigo Nunes, Neither Vertical nor Horizontal: A theory of political organisation (2021)

Diana Young lives in Prague and works as a teacher of History and Politics at a local secondary school. She has been active on the left for more than forty years and is a member of the CLARA Collective. She has a PhD in Politics and has published articles on a range of aspects of history and politics.