This is the very drafty text of my talk at HM London; apologies for typos. Thanks for your support in making my attendence possible. This HM was among my favorite--the showing put forward by marxist feminists and queer marxists was really astounding. This was presented as part of panel supported by HSPEN and Leftovers, and my co-panelists were Michelle O'Brien and Maya Gonzalez, and a highlight of my panel-presenting life so far:
Queer Workers, Social Reproduction and Left Strategy
Its a best of times worst of times moment for the socialist left in the USA and around the world, and without going into a state of the movement account, I want to say its one that I think has produced an environment for debate where its seem that real advancements can be made in marxism in general, marxist feminism and queer and trans marxism in particular and for their direct relevance to strategy. It feels to me finally like we are having a conversation with real stakes. I don’t like calling the sort of argument im making today “queer” or “trans” or even “feminist” marxism on one level because I feel these are simply elaborations of marxism made into useful tools of struggle, and want to get away from the sense that these questions are appropriately siloed from the center of the debate. It seems to me that we have really made progress on making this a reality here
One of the most vigorous debates has been about the theoretical and political approach that Marxist thinkers and organizers should take toward so-called “identity politics” in general but toward queer politics in specific. Broadly there are often assumed to be two camps, albeit with a range of nuances within them and some significant overlaps, and its a debate that i think begins to draw in and inflect many of the historical oppositions around questions of left strategy and is best addressed in that register ; Often the the class-only side of the debate often imagines as its enemy a “camp’” of the left that doesn’t exist, and which advocates for and concerns itself largely with matters of representation or calculations of privilege. In particular, as the Democratic Socialists of America beings to approach triple digits in terms of thousands of members, and as its strategy in practice is being developed, one of the questions that has most interested me and which strikes me as most urgent in overcoming this misdiagnoses,is the significance of gender/sex/sexuality for a renewed strategy for worker organizing.
A queer marxist feminist frame not only calls into question the divide between identity and class, but also undermines a historical opposition between shop floor organizing inside or to win unions unions and other strategies for worker and socialist organizing outside the workplace.
In part, the debate about identity vs class politics has crystallized in the publication of Asad Haider’s book Mistaken Identity, and a series of responses to it. The text points to the fruitlessness of a socialist “class politics” that poses itself against and in opposition to “identity politics” and calls for an “insurgent universalism;” its been covered a lot this weekend and so I wont say more specifically about the book except that this paper is in some ways a response to some of Haider’s critics who, on the right end of spectrum have called for an anti-particularist social democratic program modeled on Kautsky’s Erfut program and advanced with a strategy that simply ‘can’t do both” class politics and also any specifically anti racist, feminist or by implication any pro-trans activity. On the left end of this critique the same program is instead advanced through the “tactical” use of anti-racism and other direct confrontations with chauvinism in electoral and shop floor politics, and motivated as a “moral” responsibility rather than a strategic necessity.
The strategic necessity of organizing queer and trans workers and the political possibility of a deeper program implied by this is what I hope, here, to being to sketch out. Just as “identity” and “class” are a false dichotomy, so to, I think are the oppositions between workplace organizing, affinity group models and so-called community struggles. Probably electoral strategies too, here, should not be counterposed, but I think that’s going to have to be next years paper.
To take this up we need to engage engage another book that's been much celebrated this weekend, Kim Moody’s On New Terrain ; Elsewhere and soon, you will be able to read along essay i've written reflecting on the book and the rank and file strategy, but for this purpose i want to add to and elaborate on argument I've made there, in its queerest implications. In sum that piece argues that moody's updated analysis implies the importance of social reproduction theory for those now taking up the rank and file strategy today, and introduces the necessity of analyzing a second category of “chokepoint,” adding on to Moody’s focus on logistics, namely choke points of social reproduction. There I argue that the teacher strike wave demonstrates that “social reproduction choke points are now central to a new wave of struggle; workers who are paid to do the work of the daily remaking of the working class- in- itself play a crucial role in expanding and politicizing workplace struggles and raising universal class-wide demands precisely because workers in feminized reproductive sectors like education are by definition in daily contact with a deepening crisis of care that impacts the entire class. The periodization of recent history of class struggle and the model of its development that Moody maps is one that he presents as complementary to an Arrighian frame; I argue this precisely lends itself to incorporating and validating Beverly Silvers analysis of the role of social reproduction struggles and public sector strikes at the early stages of periods of class struggle over the last century. I then use Moody’s formulation of transitional organizations to help break down dichotomies between workplace organizing and other models of working class organizing, and to sketch out the questions that Moody raised in Jacobin concerning the undeveloped aspects of the rank and file strategy, most urgently, that of how it relates to socialist politics and organization.
Rather than lay out the further details of that argument here, I'm going to add to it by explaining the role I think queer workers place in this strategic elaboration. It’s not enough to say that logistical and productive choke points and social reproductive ones are each necessary and not on their own sufficient to express the power and breadth of any potential class-for-itself politics, a third element of strategy is, I think crucial to its full development. Rather than stretch the chokepoint image to far, I think it’s simpler to say that socialists and communists must recognize and engage the uneven development of class consciousness with recognition that its unevenness is rooted in experiences that are particular, but which at once both foreshadow and make possible the development of a class consciousness that goes beyond a politics of bread and butter, but to one of bread and roses. Roses here, signifying a humane and “insurgent’ response to and recognition of the deeper and universal alienations of working class exploitation; the length of the work week as a perpetual site of struggle , the experience of direct violent repression by the state and the family, the embodied humiliations and and alienations of working class subjectivity that are particularly crystallized in the experience of queer workers.
This is not distinct from what we’ve seen developing concretely in terms of the connection between feminist activity and workplace organizing, rather its an intensification of this dynamic ; from strikes of thousands of workers at hotels and in the fast food industry sparked by the metoo movement against sexual harassment as a modality of labor control, to the recent google walkouts against sexusn and racism at work, to the developing and generative interaction between teacher-wildcatters in West Virginia with anti-Kavanaugh and organizing and the grassroots struggle in the state against an abortion ban.
Queer and trans workers have the potential to intensify this connection between workplace organizing and class consciousness, and between shop floor struggles social movements and class demands. To understand how the first task is to locate queer people in the labor market and movement through a concerted effort of worker inquiry; investigation will no doubt uncover unexpected and surprising connections. But even before that work is complete, I want to hypothesize that queer and trans workers represent a dynamic and specific sliver of the class, one that is vastly overrepresented in the work of paid social reproduction, particularly in the material organization of its expression as intellectual labor that we can maybe elaborate collectively. but also forge a link between this and the dynamism of the precarious and flexible family as a capitalist institution, while as a group we present a politicized network that bridges each of the three nodes of strategic catalyzation. ‘Here maybe queers can demonstrate the role that “Affinity groups” can actually play in a broader left strategy or instead be considered as a kind of vanguard- in-itself, one of several, but representing that potential as an actually existing social force, a basis of militant minority organizing, across and between workplace and community, produced by and arrayed against sexual violence, reproductive authoritarianism and the coercions of the family as forces that limit and damage working class people as and which present barriers to the actualization of class politics.
In health care, in particular, queers have historically played the role of politicizing health care access as class politics and of making political and organizational linkages between patients, providers and researchers, organizing to advance research agendas and test protocols formulated by working class people through our lived experience. The classic example is that, of course, of ACT-UP, using direct action to demand care for HIV positive and AIDS affected people; now trans health care can be seen as playing a similar and potentially politicized role. The particular role of queer people in making health care access into class politics over the last 40 years is especially important to highlight, given that healthcare is often precisely raised as the archetypal Erfurt -style universal” demand for the class-reductionist left. From that perspective, illustrated by its advocates in the figure of tragically closeted civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, queer and trans people (as well as disabled people or immigrants or any other category of people whose needs can be seen as particular or identity based) represent and obstacle to the imagined negotiation with the ruling class for adoption of the reform, an extra expense or a distracting “culture wars” set piece that disrupts and divides. But from an organizing and class struggle perspective, queers represent a reservoir of movement history, strategy and experienced cadre for the health care struggle. And at the level of consciousness, the demand by trans people for care raises the possibility of health care and all social reproductive struggle as a politics that refuses to separate self-fashioning from survival or to surrender to a one-size-fits, all profit driven standard of what constitutes bare minimum necessity. The lived experience of a small group of people recalls and exemplifies that original demand, central to the socialist or communist vision; that “to each according to her need” entails a recognition of different individual and particular needs, and that the distinction between need and desire is as much an artificial product of capitalist logic as that division between politics and economy and of public and private.
Further queer and trans existence and class formation plays a crucial role in the development of the ongoing global feminist wave as a working class project. While any given category of “identity” has its quislings and avatars of bourgeois representation, the lived reality of queer people brings to the fore gender as relational and political process rather than a seemingly transparent and natural one. We make plain the absurdity of say Jordan Petersen’s lobster based naturalistic fallacy, but also the feminist version of this sort of thing that insists on a biologically reductive sex class as contra a Marxist politics of social class and class as war.
Our lives and experiences insert indeterminacy, both in the sense of compelling feminism to reckon with the possibility of actually existing nonbinary forms of gender made liveable through a combination of self assertion and forms of community recognition and solidarity AND by proposing even binary genders as changeable across time. Queer people make visible in the world the crucial marxian analytic move, that what appears is often enough the opposite of what is.
Queer marxist feminism in context marks and must insist at once on the particular liberation of individuals and that that liberation cannot reliably be embodied or represented by individual women movin’ on up in the world; when “feminist” women become bosses, they too are transformed across the span of a life and into something essentially different, antifeminist in fact if not in superficial form. Instead our indeterminacy opens the possibility that core feminist demands; bodily autonomy, and freedom from the regulating violence of the gendered ordering of paid work and family life never only apply to one gender, and that they are not separate or to the side of class but constitute how class is lived, for everyone.
This sketch of an argument has very specific implications with respect to left strategies for resisting the right; this perspective is necessary for a class politics in general and a socialist or communist politics in particular that can go beyond the failures of the liberal approach to feminism and queer politics which emphasizes “diversity,” “inclusion” and “tolerance,” precisely because it raises the possibility of resistance to liberal cross-class cooptation, insists on and because it distinguishes itself from reductionist invocations of “class.”
Crucially a queer Marxist lens also highlights how reductive engagements with class necessarily mirror and replicate liberal “identity” politics, engaging class as container or stand in for other (unmarked) identities: whiteness, hetersexual cisgender masculinity, nationalist identities, and are rooted in demography rather than in any transformative building of a class for itself through class politics as a practice of solidarity and organization in and beyond the workplace.
Reading this through moody highlights the material reason for this similarity: just as liberal feminism and lgbt politics to NGOs, through moody the attachment of this class reductionist politics to bureaucratic layers of the labor movement is made plain.
The most significant revision then to Moody’s conception has to be a rethinking of his understanding of the role and root of transitional organizations;.
Part of the explicit goal of these transitional organizations for moody is to develop and cohere a minority of unionists who are not only militant, but political; transitional organizations build concrete solidarity across unions and sectors but also across the divides of race, nation, gender, sexuality and other divisions within the working class that are expressed as occupational and sectoral divides and reinforced by chauvinist policies, attitudes and harassment at the hands of the boss. The assumption here, it's been noted, often by critics, is that there is a stagist logic to radicalizing the working class, and particularly workers in its most organized and often most militant sectors who can also be among the more conservative sections of the class; rather than viewing working class as always already radicalized and for-itself, and merely held back or restrained by false or conservative leadership. The rank and file strategy assumes that development of consciousness--from trade union to class, and perhaps from class consciousness to a socialist one-- as the project of socialists through the process of building concrete solidarity within overlapping layers of organization.
With this horizon in mind, The Rank and File Strategy lays out why the minority and then- shrinking sector of the already (still?) unionized workforce is a crucial arena for socialist intervention both on practical and political grounds in ways remain quite convincing for any young socialist today who seeks both to commit themselves to a life of organizing and wishes to sustain themselves as a an activist and militant without working on the basis of charitable grants or government funding, and who might wish to organize from and toward their own truly held beliefs rather than primarily as a paid staffer beholden to the agenda of their employer, whether union, NGO or government service provider. The piece is particularly sharp on the question of the necessity of workplace action to the achievement of even basic reforms, let alone the advancement toward or achievement of socialism. In the context of the community-heavy and particularistic 1990s that inspired it, it was a little-made and crucial point.
It must especially be pointed out these days that the Rank and File Strategy does not assert--in fact explicitly denies--that the workplace is the only or the most important source of workers consciousness, and its this recognition that drives its vision of “social movement unionism.” A lengthy section of the piece roots the weakness of the USA workers movement precisely in the history of African slavery and indigenous genocide in building a working class historically divided against itself and often more mobilized in an explicitly political way around its own internal divisions than against capital. The piece saves space for a special interlude on the role of the union bureaucracy as both a repository of some of the most backward historical forms of worker consciousness and as a brake on militancy in moments of upsurge or even simply of militant fightback, on its specific role as an engine of anti-communism, meant broadly as a purging of all leftists and radicals from the labor movement. The piece attempts to synthesize both a non-sectarian assertion of the crucial role of socialists in, if not activating, in potentiating rank and file rebellion when the conditions become ripe, and elucidates a compelling set of historical examples that underlie both the urgency of this and some of the recurring obstacles to the full development of a conscious and active class-for-itself, not only rearguard action by the bureaucracy, anti communism, racism and other chauvinisms, but also sectarianism among socialists brodaly committed to the strategy.
Queer and trans workers today represent one concrete way of reframing this transitional organizations away from a coalition model based either on identity or nominally against it and organized through bureaucratic alliances, and instead propose and suggeststransitional forms that organize the transition to a communist horizon along class lines rather than around them.