[This fragment is available in an audio version.]
Like many geeks, I hoard a few dozen domain names, and currently they include the .com/.org/.net triple for “classreductionist”. “Class Reductionist” is considered an insult by many progressives and as far as I know, there’s no organized faction claiming the label. And while I wouldn’t either, I’m pretty sure I’d support the key policy goals that a hypothetical Class Reductionist would.
Definitions and argumentations · Let’s start with the Urban Dictionary’s: “The idea in some leftist circles that all oppression based on gender, sex, race, etc. is just a byproduct of class struggle, and that once class disparity is solved, all those issues will vanish.”
Salon goes deeper in Asad Haider’s How calling someone a “class reductionist” became a lefty insult. Specifically, it calls out the DSA Philadelphia Chapter statement on the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police. The DSA presented a very class-centric position: That the murder was a consequence of class oppression and that socialists such as the DSA were thus uniquely qualified to address the problem.
You don’t have to be a Political Science Ph.D to notice that Floyd’s murder was a racist act that can only be understood in a racism-aware framework, and that omitting that dimension is clueless.
On the other hand, ignoring the class dimension of oppression in general, racism in particular, and George Floyd’s murder in particular particular, would also be clueless. Mr Floyd was a man with a bunch of problems, but one of the biggest was that he was broke.
Dive deeper · Anyhow, I’m not going to get too far into theory arguments because, as I argue below, I don’t think they make much difference in which political policies we ought to support. But it’s an interesting conversation, so here’s a short reading list that I think is both educational and fascinating.
The Myth of Class Reductionism is by Adolph Reed. Professor Reed seems to be upstream from a lot of this debate, and goes so far as to question the value of much “antiracism” in practice. I’m not always 100% convinced, but the man is eloquent and erudite.
The Marxist Who Antagonizes Liberals and the Left, in the New Yorker, covers Prof. Reed and his ideas and history and writings pretty thoroughly. Once again, I’m not a disciple, but his line of argument is never not stimulating.
In the NYTimes, check out A Black Marxist Scholar Wanted to Talk About Race. It Ignited a Fury. It’s about what the title says: How Prof. Reed’s ideas led to a hideous melt-down when the NYC DSA branch invited him to give a speech. Opponents accused him of being “reactionary, class reductionist and at best, tone deaf”; the event was canceled. Both sides of the debate are interesting.
That Salon piece by Asad Haider that I linked above. Once it gets past the Floyd episode, it digs pretty deep into all the stuff in this list; I found it nuanced and eye-opening.
Intersectionality · What schools of thought are in opposition to Class Reductionism? The three I hear mentioned are “Identity Politics”, “Postmodernism”, and “Intersectionality”. I never understood what the first meant and anyhow it’s just a right-wing culture-warrior battle-cry now. “Postmodernism”… I mean, in 2023, who cares.
Intersectionality, though, is one of the more interesting new-ish things in progressive thought; it’s simple enough and seems self-evidently true. Oppression isn’t one-dimensional, but operates along axes including race and gender and age and disability, and not always in simple ways.
Let me put it another way: Traditional patriarchial thinking is built around the notion of the default “standard” person, who is a straight white heterosexual neurotypical fully-abled cis male. To the extent that any person varies from “standard”, they are disadvantaged and likely oppressed.
And another way: A Black trans woman with a disability is likely to have an extremely difficult life, at no fault of her own.
Intersectionality issues a challenge: It’s neither ethical nor effective to try to solve just one of these problems, because they combine in complicated ways. It’s a school of thought that causes eye-rolling on the right and is held at a distance by some old-school leftists. Which puzzles me because it seems so self-evidently empirically true.
And yet… in the first paragraph above, I said friendly things about the policies a “class reductionist” might advance. How so?
It’s about the money · Let’s return to that Black trans woman with a disability I mentioned above. The forces which affect her are complex, but one of the results is highly predictable: She’s probably broke, possibly to the point of food or shelter insecurity. Life (and intersectionality) are complex, but money is, relatively speaking, simple. As a society, there’s plenty of it to go around but it’s distributed stupidly, unjustly, and inefficiently. And it’s getting worse.
In Vancouver, the insanely rich city where I live, Teslas and Lamborghinis are common as dirt, but our Food Banks are facing skyrocketing demand, and there’s a constant struggle to feed the kids who come to school hungry.
And then, here’s the paper that led to me writing this long-gestating piece. It’s Effects Of The 2021 Expanded Child Tax Credit On Adults’ Mental Health: A Quasi-Experimental Study in Health Affairs by Batra, Jackson, and Harnad, all from UCSF’s Social Policies for Health Equity Research Program research team. Here’s most of the abstract:
The US Congress temporarily expanded the Child Tax Credit (CTC) during the COVID-19 pandemic to provide economic assistance for families with children. Although formerly the CTC provided $2,000 per child for mostly middle-income parents, during July–December 2021 it provided up to $3,600 per child. Eligibility criteria were also expanded to reach more economically disadvantaged families … we examined the effects of the expanded CTC on mental health and related outcomes among low-income adults with children, and by racial and ethnic subgroup. We found fewer depressive and anxiety symptoms among low-income adults. Adults of Black, Hispanic, and other racial and ethnic backgrounds demonstrated greater reductions in anxiety symptoms compared to non-Hispanic White adults with children …
We mustn’t stop working hard to disentangle and remediate the messy intersectional vectors of oppression. But while we do that, something along the lines of a Unversal Basic Income routes around that mess and — yes, granted — focuses on treating oppression’s symptoms. But… why not?
I’d go further. I’d put the goal of getting money flowing to the oppressed at the front of the queue. It’s a policy that has the virtue of being simple and easy to understand and easy to explain and, based on the evidence from a variety of Universal-Basic-Income studies, has results that are beneficial and not very hard to measure.
It will of course require a ferocious political struggle against the moneyed patriarchal interests for whom current society is ticking along just fine, ignoring of course the hungry kids coming to school and the people being killed by police over crimes which range from petty to nonexistent.
Time to get on board with that struggle!
But racism! · Anyone who makes these kinds of arguments is at risk of being accused of looking away from the glaringly obvious racism which seems to inhabit the white-hot center of the intersectional tangle of oppression. Especially when that “anyone” is someone like me, a “standard” human per the criteria listed above, possibly blinded by my own whiteness.
I don’t have anything cheerful to say. I try to be antiracist, a good ally, but I don’t think I’m good at it. And I don’t think we’re going to break racism’s back in this generation or the next. I’ve come to believe that humanity, as a species, has a hard-wired predisposition for tribal behavior, for hating (and given the chance, casually killing) the people who live over there and speak with that accent and eat that meat and worship that god.
My prediction is that if our civilization survives another couple of centuries we’ll do better. But we’ll still need a strong early-education focus to bend young minds away from tribalism and toward intercultural harmony. Antiracism will never end.
And, apologizing in advance for negativity, I think it’s not just me who’s bad at antiracism; we as a society generally suck at it. I speak as a veteran of years of involvement in corporate DEI programs and donations to worthy charitable causes and signing the right petitions.
We have in my lifetime developed an increasingly accurate perception of the pervasiveness of bigotry, but done a miserable job of alleviating it. I’m optimistic that we’ll get better at it — one lifespan is a pretty short time to develop approaches and tools. But I am in no way inclined to put other urgent measures on hold while we work it out.
Given the above, it seems both ethical and urgent to focus right now on doing our best to make sure that everyone can count on being fed, clothed, and sheltered.
Among other things, the oppressed people should have a leadership role in fighting oppression, and that’s just not going to happen if they’re putting all their effort into making the rent and feeding their kids.
Marxism? · You can’t really take this kind of angle without acknowledging that you’re talking about class, which means you’re a Marxist, right? And indeed, Marxists, from pedantic academics to hard-ass tankies, are at one in explaining how class transcends issues of race and gender, and that fighting for the working class implies attacking multiple other vectors of oppression. And they have a point.
So I can get along with the Marxist take as long as prioritizing anti-poverty doesn’t mean you think you’re automatically antiracist or can postpone addressing the other flavors of oppression. And thinking about social problems through the lens of class seems like a powerfully useful tool for understanding the social problems we’re trying to fix.
What am I then? · I wish there were a convenient label to describe the perceptions that I’ve described here. Which is to say, I’m unlikely to deploy a “classreductionist.org” Web site any time soon.
I think of slogans like “Prioritize Poverty” and “Send Money Now”.
But for the moment, I don’t know what domain name I should buy. Maybe I’m a Smarshian? A Reedite?
What I really believe is “Send money. Start now.” But that’s a lousy label.