By Chris Erl
There is a spectre haunting campus – the spectre of identity politics. All the powers of old McMaster have entered into an oligarchic alliance to exorcize this spectre: traditionalist, reactionary, and conservative politicians. All right, slight hyperbole – but that is one of my specialties.
As of late, conversations have picked up on campus concerning, in particular, the issue of feminism. Thanks to a growing number of venues in which these discussions can occur freely, such as the Feminist Alliance of McMaster, the Occupy movement and the MSU’s new Ad-Hoc Committee, the conversations that happened within are beginning to be heard in larger society – a massive credit to the strength and enthusiasm of the aforementioned group’s dedicated members.
Much can be said for the force of movements aligned with identity, which have helped reduce oppression in modernity. That being said, I wanted to highlight a gap in the conversation.
There is little discussion about the overarching oppression in society faced by all people, albeit in different ways. We live under an economic system that, by its very nature, exploits us. Capitalism was built and continues to operate on a system of exclusive property ownership, alienating workers from what they produce, and extracting considerably more labour from us than what would need to be done to survive.
Since our economic system prides itself on inequality (in Canada, the richest 10 per cent control just under 60 per cent of the wealth), distinctions amongst members of the lower classes become an important factor of social control in order to stave off revolution. “Well, I may be a poor man, but at least I’m not a poor woman.” “Well, I may be a poor woman, but at least I’m not a poor racialized woman.” “Well, I may be a poor racialized woman, but at least I’m not a poor, racialized trans* person,” and so on. So long as people believe themselves to be temporarily displaced millionaires or privileged in some way, revolt is thwarted for another day.
Distinctions between groups are an important marker of one’s success, but they also serve other purposes, such as keeping those of us in the bottom ninety percent fighting amongst ourselves rather than fighting those in power. Most basically, though, the system of oppression just exploits people at different levels, very notably paying women considerably less than men for the same kind of work.
A project to remedy the problems facing a particular group without any recognition of the larger system of oppression that weaves through individual distinctions is simply a well meaning, but misguided, liberal one. A female-identifying feminist who does not recognize that capitalism as an economic force benefits from their oppression and the oppression of their LGBT, racialized, disabled, indigenous, marginalized comrades, will not get very far in alleviating the problems facing those who identify as female.
Simply applauding when women, LGBT-identifying individuals or racialized people are in positions of power is not good enough. Margaret Thatcher was a woman and arguably did more to perpetuate exploitation than most modern British Prime Ministers. The Republican Party, one not known for its eagerness to challenge oppression, notably had Mia Love, a female Haitian-American, and Richard Tisei, an openly gay man, among their candidates in the recent congressional elections.
Imagine there is a fungus destroying trees in a forest. The blight is the same, but appears to impact different species of trees in different ways. To stop the harm being done to the forest, we cannot simply focus on getting rid of the fungus from only birch or only poplar trees. You could care for all the pine trees and ensure that the blight is removed from those trees you see, but if you do not address the infected leaves on the trees that are beside those you saved, they’ll become infected once more.
Do not let identity get in the way of fighting larger injustice. Recognize that solidarity means working together with marginalized groups to fight your collective oppression. Being a feminist without acknowledging that you live under an economic system weighted against you is a huge detriment to your cause.
Oppressed people of the world, unite! Don’t focus solely on your identity, work on getting rid of those chains.