The Intersectional Conundrum and the Nation-State

Hannah Hoch, Roma (1925).
Han­nah Höch, Roma, 1925.

It is not an easy task to recon­struct suc­cinctly the main prob­lem­at­ics that have tra­versed Marx­ist fem­i­nism in the last 40 years, with­out risk­ing sim­pli­fi­ca­tions or seri­ous omis­sions, or with­out pro­duc­ing a mere sum­mary that avoids crit­i­cally engag­ing with the sub­jects that it raises. And yet, I believe Arruzza’s text “Remarks on Gen­der” accom­plishes the task very well: her recon­struc­tion of the key the­ses on the rela­tion­ship between patri­archy and cap­i­tal­ism pro­posed by dif­fer­ent cur­rents within social­ist and Marx­ist fem­i­nism from the 1970s onwards is not only lucid and infor­ma­tive, but also extremely clear and acces­si­ble. Fur­ther­more, her par­ti­san cri­tique of the dif­fer­ent posi­tions on the table, alongside an indi­ca­tion of the most promis­ing ques­tions for debate, give us – as fem­i­nists who locate our­selves in the Marx­ist tradition(s) – a great oppor­tu­nity to begin and/or deepen a much needed dis­cus­sion and exchange. A new gen­er­a­tion of Marx­ist fem­i­nists has emerged in the last years; it begins to ques­tion, re-artic­u­late, expand and crit­i­cise the the­o­riza­tions and dis­putes it has inherited from pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions.

I find myself mostly in agree­ment with the argu­ments put for­ward by Arruzza. I share her crit­i­cisms of the dual and triple sys­tem analy­ses and the the­o­ret­i­cal pref­er­ence for the “uni­tary the­ory” approach as well as social repro­duc­tion fem­i­nism. There are, how­ever, two ele­ments raised in her text that I feel require fur­ther inves­ti­ga­tion and reflec­tion. The first con­cerns the way Arruzza responds to the the­sis of the “indif­fer­ence of cap­i­tal­ism” to gen­dered and racial oppres­sion exem­pli­fied by Meiksins Wood. In spite of the many com­pelling points of cri­tique she raises, here I think Arruzza does not really over­come the prob­lems posed by Meiksins Wood’s approach. The sec­ond ele­ment that would deserve some treat­ment in the con­text of dis­cus­sions on class exploita­tion and gen­dered and racial oppres­sion is the  rela­tion­ship between Marx­ist fem­i­nism and inter­sec­tion­al­ity the­ory. The lat­ter is in fact the specter that haunts these dis­cus­sions, as I will argue through­out this text.

In what fol­lows I will try to explain in what ways I think that these two points require fur­ther exam­i­na­tion and to sketch a pro­posal for future research and dis­cus­sion that I believe can poten­tially enable us to over­come some of the pit­falls of Marx­ist fem­i­nism on the ter­rain of race and racism in par­tic­u­lar. I should say from the out­set that those that fol­low are not meant to be fully-fledged thoughts or con­clu­sive reflec­tions. They con­sti­tute only the ini­tial and still very pre­lim­i­nary stages of a work in pro­gress. I thus hope that this round-table dis­cus­sion will be the ini­tial agora for an exchange of ideas between schol­ars and activists who are strug­gling to find answers to these com­plex issues.

Log­i­cal Struc­ture and His­tory

Let me begin from the first point. The ques­tions about whether cap­i­tal­ism is struc­turally “indif­fer­ent” or not to gen­dered and racial oppres­sion and how we can under­stand the rela­tion­ship between these forms of oppres­sion and class exploita­tion are the most con­tro­ver­sial, but also the most chal­leng­ing from a Marx­ist fem­i­nist view­point. As Arruzza notes, the the­sis that cap­i­tal­ism does not require gen­dered oppres­sion and racial inequal­i­ties to oper­ate, but has instead forged an “oppor­tunis­tic” and instru­men­tal rela­tion­ship with them, has been sus­tained in a par­tic­u­larly clear way by Ellen Meiksins Wood. In her essay “Cap­i­tal­ism and Human Eman­ci­pa­tion,” Wood main­tains that:

If cap­i­tal derives advan­tages from racism or sex­ism, it is not because of any struc­tural ten­dency in cap­i­tal­ism toward racial inequal­ity or gen­der oppres­sion, but on the con­trary because they dis­guise the struc­tural real­i­ties of the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem and because they divide the work­ing class. At any rate, cap­i­tal­ist exploita­tion can in prin­ci­ple be con­ducted with­out any con­sid­er­a­tion for colour, race, creed, gen­der, any depen­dence upon extra-eco­nomic inequal­ity or dif­fer­ence; and more than that, the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ism has cre­ated ide­o­log­i­cal pres­sures against such inequal­i­ties and dif­fer­ences to a degree with no prece­dent in pre-cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties.1

Arruzza rightly notes that Wood’s argu­ment is unfor­tu­nately com­mon cur­rency amongst numer­ous Marx­ists who still main­tain a hier­ar­chy between prin­ci­pal exploita­tion (based on class) and sec­ondary oppres­sion (based on gen­der and race). Fur­ther, she notes that Wood’s focus upon, on the one hand, capitalism’s log­i­cal struc­ture as one indif­fer­ent to gen­der and racial oppres­sion, and, on the other hand, her recog­ni­tion that capitalism’s con­crete his­tory is one in which these forms of oppres­sion have con­tin­u­ously occurred, is con­fus­ing and unhelp­ful from a polit­i­cal point of view. Inso­far as cap­i­tal­ism always occurs in con­crete his­tor­i­cal forms – Arruzza argues – Wood’s treat­ment of cap­i­tal­ism as above all an ideal type in which “extra-eco­nomic” inequal­i­ties do not play any sub­stan­tial role does not explain why its unfold­ing has actu­ally never done with­out them.

This notwith­stand­ing, Arruzza con­tin­ues with a cri­tique that, in my view, lessens the force of her oth­er­wise com­pelling argu­ments. She writes that one of Wood’s mis­takes is the con­fu­sion between “what is func­tional to cap­i­tal­ism and what is a nec­es­sary con­se­quence of it.” Fur­ther, she main­tains that Wood’s prob­lem – like that of other Marx­ists – is to con­flate the log­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal level as if they could be used as inter­change­able argu­ments and meth­ods of analy­sis. For Arruzza, they should remain sep­a­rate and dis­tin­guish­able. Thus, she argues that while Wood might be right in con­tend­ing that gen­dered and racial inequal­i­ties are not nec­es­sary to the inner work­ings of cap­i­tal­ism – if we think of the lat­ter at a high level of abstrac­tion – this nonethe­less “does not prove that cap­i­tal­ism would not nec­es­sar­ily pro­duce, as a result of its con­crete func­tion­ing, the con­stant repro­duc­tion of gen­der oppres­sion, often under diverse forms.” Arruzza thus con­cludes that, given the dif­fi­culty of show­ing “at a high level of abstrac­tion that gen­der oppres­sion is essen­tial to the inner work­ings of cap­i­tal­ism,” we must instead “look for the answer at the level of con­crete his­tor­i­cal analy­sis, not at the level of a highly abstract analy­sis of cap­i­tal.” When we do that, she sug­gests, we see that the core of cap­i­tal­ism – i.e., the pro­duc­tion of sur­plus-value – can­not exist with­out socially repro­duc­tive labor, which has been his­tor­i­cally pre­dom­i­nantly female. The unity of repro­duc­tion and pro­duc­tion is thus the key to under­stand­ing con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ism as a com­plex total­ity that needs dom­i­na­tion and alien­ation as much as exploita­tion.

While I agree with the idea that we need to under­stand cap­i­tal­ism as a com­plex total­ity and as an his­tor­i­cal social pro­duc­tion rela­tion within which gen­dered and racial oppres­sion are con­stantly repro­duced as part and parcel of its func­tion­ing, I am both unclear about the dis­tinc­tion Arruzza makes between “what is func­tional to cap­i­tal­ism and what is a nec­es­sary con­se­quence of it” and I dis­agree with the idea that we must keep logic and his­tory sep­a­rate.

I would argue that by con­ced­ing that cap­i­tal­ism at a high level of abstrac­tion might not need gen­dered and racial oppres­sion in order to sur­vive, though it pro­duces them as its nec­es­sary and non-con­tin­gent con­se­quences, we fun­da­men­tally remain trapped within Wood’s rea­son­ing. In other words, if we argue that cap­i­tal­ism might not require gen­dered and racial oppres­sion as its pre­sup­po­si­tions at the log­i­cal struc­tural level, but rather as its nec­es­sary byprod­ucts at the his­tor­i­cal level, we still need to pose the ques­tions: why does cap­i­tal­ism do so? What is the inner logic of cap­i­tal­ism that requires gen­dered and racial oppres­sion to be con­tin­u­ously pro­duced and repro­duced by neces­sity – albeit in shift­ing forms? What is the mech­a­nism accord­ing to which cap­i­tal­ism causes gen­dered and racial oppres­sion? If we say that cap­i­tal­ism pro­duces oppres­sion by neces­sity, we are in fact still putting for­ward an argu­ment that requires expla­na­tion at the log­i­cal struc­tural level, and not only at the his­tor­i­cal level.

My sense is that this impasse is due to the binary think­ing accord­ing to which the log­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal lev­els are dis­tinct one from the other. Instead, I think we should rather com­pre­hend the rela­tion­ship between these lev­els in a dialec­ti­cal man­ner. To quote István Mészáros,

in any par­tic­u­lar type of humanity’s repro­duc­tive order, the social struc­ture is unthink­able with­out its prop­erly artic­u­lated his­tor­i­cal dimen­sion; and vice versa, there can be no real under­stand­ing of the his­tor­i­cal move­ment itself with­out grasp­ing at the same time the cor­re­spond­ing mate­rial struc­tural deter­mi­na­tions in their speci­ficity.2

In other words, we can’t sep­a­rate logic, or struc­ture, from his­tory because they are dialec­ti­cally related moments of our his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ist attempt to grasp and to change the his­tor­i­cally deter­mined struc­ture of the world in which we live. In this vein, I think we should not dis­place our rea­son­ing regard­ing the role of gen­dered and racial oppres­sion onto the his­tor­i­cal ter­rain alone, but try to artic­u­late an answer at the level of the struc­tural logic of cap­i­tal­ism as well.

I pro­pose that one poten­tially promis­ing way of ana­lyz­ing capitalism’s struc­tural need for gen­dered and racial oppres­sion while con­sid­er­ing its con­crete his­tor­i­cal dimen­sions is to look at capitalism’s logic of val­oriza­tion through the lenses of capital’s nec­es­sary polit­i­cal form: i.e., the nation-state.

But before I argue this point more thor­oughly let me briefly dis­cuss the sec­ond afore­men­tioned ele­ment which I regard as haunt­ing our dis­cus­sion: inter­sec­tion­al­ity the­ory.

Inter­sec­tion­al­ity The­ory

Since its coinage by Kim­berle Cren­shaw in her sem­i­nal 1989 arti­cle “Demar­gin­al­iz­ing the Inter­sec­tion of Race and Sex,”3 the con­cept of inter­sec­tion­al­ity and the the­o­ret­i­cal field it has opened up posed a seri­ous chal­lenge to fem­i­nist the­o­ries, Marx­ist and non-Marx­ist alike. In a nut­shell, inter­sec­tion­al­ity the­ory – if one can talk of a the­ory at all and not instead of a heuris­tic device – main­tains that each indi­vid­ual and group occu­pies a speci­fic social posi­tion within inter­lock­ing sys­tems of oppres­sion. For exam­ple, the dis­crim­i­na­tion expe­ri­enced by women of color in the US con­text should be under­stood as result­ing from their loca­tion at the junc­tion between gen­dered, racial and class based struc­tures of oppres­sion and exploita­tion.

Inter­sec­tion­al­ity has been described as “the most impor­tant the­o­ret­i­cal con­tri­bu­tion that women’s stud­ies, in con­junc­tion with related fields, has made so far.”4 By high­light­ing some fem­i­nist cur­rents’ sys­tem­atic over­look­ing of the dif­fer­ent life expe­ri­ences of racial­ized women when com­pared to those of white women as well as racial­ized men in West­ern soci­eties, and also by crit­i­ciz­ing Marx­ism – or at least cer­tain econ­o­mistic cur­rents within it – for con­sid­er­ing race and racism as “sec­ondary,” or “deriv­a­tive” forms of oppres­sion with respect to class exploita­tion, inter­sec­tion­al­ity has obliged schol­ars and activists to con­front the gen­dered dimen­sions of racism in unprece­dented ways. As Gail Lewis put it,

To cast inter­sec­tion­al­ity as such a pow­er­ful and cre­ative con­cept, the­ory, and ana­lytic is per­haps to bear wit­ness to the gen­er­a­tive capac­ity of the­ory mak­ing that comes from the mar­gins. It is to acknowl­edge that black women and other women of color pro­duce knowl­edge and that this knowl­edge can be applied to social and cul­tural research beyond the issues and processes deemed speci­fic to women racial­ized as minor­ity, that it can become part of a more gen­er­al­iz­able the­o­ret­i­cal, method­olog­i­cal, and con­cep­tual tool kit.5

Beside putting the expe­ri­ence of racial­ized women cen­ter stage, inter­sec­tion­al­ity has also under­lined an impor­tant method­olog­i­cal ques­tion: oppres­sion is not a mat­ter of a sin­gle issue only, nor of adding each sin­gle axis of oppres­sion one to the other. Instead, oppres­sion is an inter­sec­tional field and expe­ri­ence; it is the result of the inter­lock­ing between dif­fer­ent and yet con­nected ‘sys­tems’ of dom­i­na­tion.

More­over, inter­sec­tion­al­ity theory’s refusal to con­ceive of racial or gen­dered oppres­sions as sec­ondary, or deriv­a­tive in rela­tion to class – or even as mere ide­olo­gies as we still find the­o­rized by Marx­ist authors like Terry Eagle­ton and Martha Gimenez6 – and to think of them instead as “equal” axes of dom­i­na­tion in cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety has had the salu­tary effect of push­ing Marx­ist fem­i­nists to inter­ro­gate more deeply assump­tions and the­o­ret­i­cal bag­gage inherited from “econ­o­mistic” read­ings of class. Con­fronting intersectionality’s per­va­sive inter­ven­tion in fem­i­nist stud­ies as well as in many fields of the human­i­ties and the social sci­ences, I think sev­eral Marx­ist schol­ars feel increas­ingly com­pelled to ques­tion what kind of social rela­tion class is, as well as to exca­vate Marx’s writ­ings to find insights on the role played by race and gen­der within the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion.7

But above all, inter­sec­tion­al­ity the­ory speaks loudly to Marx­ists because it frames the prob­lem of race, gen­der and class as “dimen­sions” of a com­plex inte­grated total­ity. Inter­sec­tion­al­ity, in other words, “implic­itly” rejects the idea that cap­i­tal­ism is indif­fer­ent to gen­dered and racial oppres­sion and main­tains that all forms of oppres­sion and exploita­tion play an equally piv­otal role in shap­ing our unequal soci­eties.

Nev­er­the­less, the prob­lem with inter­sec­tion­al­ity the­ory lies pre­cisely in the fact that it falls short of deliv­er­ing what it promises. First, most accounts of inter­sec­tion­al­ity have lim­ited them­selves to describe instances of inter­sec­tions between dif­fer­ent axes of dom­i­na­tion, but with­out explain­ing how and why they occur in speci­fic forms, at cer­tain times and in deter­mined con­texts. Sec­ond, they have assumed the exis­tence of dif­fer­ent sys­tems, or axes of oppres­sion but with­out ques­tion­ing the con­fig­u­ra­tion, func­tion­ing, his­tor­i­cal dimen­sions and the very nature and exis­tence of these sys­tems them­selves (in this sense, sim­i­lar to triple sys­tem analy­ses that Arruzza rightly crit­i­cises). Third, inter­sec­tion­al­ity the­ory tends to think of oppres­sion as a spa­tial metaphor and as an indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ence, which I think runs the risk of reify­ing the sub­ject of oppres­sion and of not grasp­ing the move­ments, changes and tem­po­ral­i­ties of oppres­sion itself. Finally, inter­sec­tion­al­ity the­ory has mostly not prob­lema­tized cap­i­tal­ism as the soci­etal, his­tor­i­cal and polit­i­cal-eco­nomic order within which these inter­sec­tions take place.

Inter­sec­tion­al­ity the­ory, in other words, poses the right ques­tions but has not yet pro­duced sat­is­fac­tory answers as to the prob­lem of why and how gen­der, race and class together are essen­tial to the pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion of inequal­i­ties under cap­i­tal­ism.

The Nation-State

How can we over­come the dou­ble impasse cre­ated by our dis­sat­is­fac­tion with both those Marx­ist read­ings that deem racial and gen­dered oppres­sion as unnec­es­sary from a struc­tural log­i­cal view­point to capitalism’s sur­vival and with inter­sec­tion­al­ity theory’s present lim­i­ta­tions to provide a solid the­o­ret­i­cal infra­struc­ture that chal­lenges such read­ings?

Before this impasse, Arruzza and other Marx­ist fem­i­nists have resorted to uni­tary the­ory, which argues that gen­dered and racial oppres­sion do not reflect the exis­tence of two autonomous sys­tems but “have become an inte­gral part of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety through a long his­tor­i­cal process that has dis­solved pre­ced­ing forms of social life.” Fur­ther­more, they have warned Marx­ists against fix­at­ing on cap­i­tal as a unit of pro­duc­tion only, but rather to see how social repro­duc­tion is essen­tial to cap­i­tal­ist func­tion­ing and to the pro­duc­tion of sur­plus-value itself. The unity between pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion, they main­tain, allows us to ana­lyze gen­dered and racial oppres­sion within cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties both as lega­cies from pre-cap­i­tal­ist social for­ma­tions that cap­i­tal­ism re-shapes in dif­fer­ent forms, and as nec­es­sary con­se­quences of cap­i­tal­ism itself.

While I agree with the under­ly­ing premises of uni­tary the­ory, and that social repro­duc­tion the­ory offers cru­cial resources for under­stand­ing gen­dered oppres­sion under cap­i­tal­ism, I also think that more work is needed to show if and in what ways social repro­duc­tion the­ory can account for racial oppres­sion. More­over, we need to clar­ify whether social repro­duc­tion the­ory enables us to explain not only the his­tor­i­cal dimen­sions of gen­dered and racial oppres­sion under cap­i­tal­ism, but also why they are nec­es­sary to the struc­ture of cap­i­tal­ism. In other words, we still need to explain why cap­i­tal­ism needs to oppress women and racial­ized peo­ple. That is, we need to com­bine our his­tor­i­cal under­stand­ing of cap­i­tal­ism as a soci­etal order that requires the con­stant repro­duc­tion of labor-power with an under­stand­ing of the log­i­cal struc­ture of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion as a process that both requires this work to be done by women (and per­haps racial­ized peo­ple too) and as a mech­a­nism that pre­sup­poses the sub­ju­ga­tion of women and the racial­iza­tion of cer­tain peo­ple in par­tic­u­lar.

As I wrote above, I cer­tainly do not claim to have answers to these very com­plex issues, whose rig­or­ous treat­ment would require not only the hard work of the con­cept, but also empir­i­cally and his­tor­i­cally grounded demon­stra­tions. How­ever, I would like to pro­pose ten­ta­tively that one pos­si­ble way of deal­ing with the dou­ble dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the Marx­ist the­sis of “indif­fer­ent cap­i­tal­ism” and with intersectionality’s lack of explana­tory power and, thus, one way of try­ing to pro­duce an account of the inter­sec­tion (and unity) of gen­dered and racial oppres­sion with class exploita­tion as nec­es­sary pre­sup­po­si­tions and not only con­se­quences of cap­i­tal­ism, is to look more closely at capital’s insep­a­ra­ble friend: the nation-state.

Cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion is not pos­si­ble with­out the nation-state as its polit­i­cal form, its frame­work and its nec­es­sary medi­a­tor. As Marx wrote in Vol­ume 3 of Cap­i­tal, the state is the “polit­i­cal form of the rela­tion of sov­er­eignty and depen­dence” which is inte­gral to the “speci­fic eco­nomic form, in which unpaid sur­plus-labor is pumped out of direct pro­duc­ers.”8

For instance, Marx analysed the cre­ation of the world-mar­ket itself as result­ing from the com­pe­ti­tion and uneven devel­op­ment between dif­fer­ent national cap­i­tals.9 For rea­sons of space, I can­not go into the enor­mous debate on the rela­tion between cap­i­tal and the state, which has engaged numer­ous Marx­ist schol­ars often from very dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives.10 To give an idea of why cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion requires the nation-state as its nec­es­sary frame­work and medi­a­tor I will briefly quote a pas­sage by Neil David­son, which has the ben­e­fit of being extremely clear and, in my view, right on the point. As David­son puts it:

The cap­i­tal­ist class in its con­stituent parts has a con­tin­u­ing need to retain ter­ri­to­rial home bases for their oper­a­tions. Why? Cap­i­tal­ism is based on com­pe­ti­tion, but cap­i­tal­ists want com­pe­ti­tion to take place on their terms; they do not want to suf­fer the con­se­quences if they lose. In one sense then, they want a state to ensure that they are pro­tected from these con­se­quences – in other words, they require from a state more than sim­ply pro­vid­ing an infra­struc­ture; they need it to ensure that effects of com­pe­ti­tion are expe­ri­enced as far as pos­si­ble by some­one else. A global state could not do this; indeed, in this respect it would be the same as hav­ing no state at all. For if every­one is pro­tected then no-one is: unre­stricted mar­ket rela­tions would pre­vail, with all the risks that entails. The state there­fore has to have lim­its, has to be able to dis­tin­guish between those who will receive its pro­tec­tion and those who will not.11

Not only is the state the nec­es­sary frame­work and medi­a­tor of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion in a global mar­ket­place, but also nation­al­ism is the “nec­es­sary ide­o­log­i­cal corol­lary of cap­i­tal­ism.”12

By putting for­ward the hypoth­e­sis that the val­oriza­tion of value, or cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion and cap­i­tal­ist repro­duc­tion, needs by neces­sity the nation-state as much as it requires for­mally free labor-power to exploit, we can begin fram­ing the prob­lem of the inter­sec­tion (and unity) between class exploita­tion and gen­dered and racial oppres­sion in new ways.

As post­colo­nial fem­i­nism in par­tic­u­lar has com­pellingly showed,13 the nation-state as capital’s chief polit­i­cal form is not think­able with­out the oppres­sion of women. This occurs in a twofold man­ner. On the one hand, the nation as the allegedly homoge­nous com­mu­nity, with a com­mon origin/destiny and kin­ship that is “attached” to the state, can only think of women as its sym­bolic mark­ers as well as cul­tural and bio­log­i­cal repro­duc­ers. This is true not only for eth­nic con­cep­tions of the nation as Kul­tur­na­tion and Volk­na­tion, but also in those cases in which the nation as such is the dri­ving force of lib­er­a­tion move­ments. Even when nation­al­ism has played the role of a lib­er­at­ing force, such as in the con­text of the decol­o­niza­tion, and the issue of women’s rights has accom­pa­nied that of national inde­pen­dence, the results for women have often been dis­ap­point­ing. After inde­pen­dence, women’s role has fre­quently been reaf­firmed as that of bio­log­i­cal repro­duc­ers of the (new, lib­er­ated) nation. For instance, despite their key role dur­ing the Alge­rian war of inde­pen­dence from France and in the National Lib­er­a­tion Front, at the end of the con­flict Alge­rian women did not gain the equal­ity and rights they had wished for. One of the rea­sons for this lim­i­ta­tion was, as Moghadam argues, that the strug­gle was one for “national lib­er­a­tion, not for social (class/gender) trans­for­ma­tion.“14 In other words, the nation – any nation – can­not do with­out exer­cis­ing its con­trol over women’s bod­ies and women’s child-rais­ing role, because the very future of the nation depends on them.

On the other hand, the state as the ter­ri­to­ri­al­iza­tion of cen­tral­ized polit­i­cal author­ity and admin­is­tra­tive machine guar­an­tee­ing and repro­duc­ing unequal class rela­tions is the prin­ci­pal “orga­nizer” of gen­der orders in a soci­ety. The state is not only the dis­penser of poli­cies that have over­time sys­tem­at­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged women and dis­crim­i­nated against racial­ized peo­ple in dif­fer­ent spheres of social life. It is above all the most impor­tant “medi­a­tor” of social repro­duc­tion as well as the “fab­ri­ca­tor” of racism as an insti­tu­tion.

In Cal­iban and the Witch, Sil­via Fed­erici shows how the con­sol­i­da­tion of cap­i­tal­ism in the 16th and 17th cen­tury in Europe required state inter­ven­tions to guar­an­tee the growth of the pop­u­la­tion; that is, a secure basin of labor-power for the grow­ing indus­tries. These inter­ven­tions included forms of pun­ish­ment for women who tried to main­tain some con­trol over pro­cre­ation. Fur­ther­more, the estab­lish­ment of the nuclear fam­ily as the cen­ter for the repro­duc­tion of the work-force took place under the aus­pices of the mod­ern nation-state at the time when cap­i­tal was con­sol­i­dat­ing its posi­tion as the dom­i­nant mode of pro­duc­tion across the West­ern World.

The Fac­tory Acts in the United King­dom in the 19th cen­tury that lim­ited the employ­ment of women and chil­dren in the fac­tory cre­ated for the first time the fig­ure of the full-time house­wife within the work­ing class fam­ily. Through­out the 19th cen­tury and espe­cially the 20th cen­tury, the cre­ation of the male bread­win­ner as the main income earner in the fam­ily was the pro­duct of state leg­is­la­tion meant to shape a dis­ci­plined work­force and above all to avoid cap­i­tal pay­ing the costs for the social repro­duc­tion of labor-power. In Europe in the 20th cen­tury up until the 1970s, the rel­e­ga­tion of social repro­duc­tion within the fam­ily, where women were to take on the bulk of domes­tic tasks for free, was pos­si­ble thanks to a num­ber of wel­fare state pro­vi­sions that allowed the mono-income fam­ily to sur­vive.

Even now, when more and more women enter the paid labor force and do less social repro­duc­tive work (but only to be exploited in ways that have been described as increas­ingly fem­i­nized), social repro­duc­tion has not been social­ized through pub­lic state care pro­vi­sions, or paid by cap­i­tal, but increas­ingly com­mod­i­fied. The com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of social repro­duc­tion (elderly and child care, house­keep­ing etc.) is pos­si­ble thanks to so-called cash-for-care state mon­e­tary trans­fers, which push indi­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies to seek for care­tak­ers and house­keep­ers on the mar­ket. And, quite impor­tantly, migrant racial­ized women from post-social­ist coun­tries and the Global South con­sti­tute the lion’s share of the sup­ply of these care­tak­ers and house­keep­ers on the mar­ket. A cru­cial moment of inter­sec­tion (and unity) between gen­dered and racial inequal­i­ties takes place at this junc­ture then. In order to guar­an­tee the repro­duc­tion of the work force (which includes more and more women), the state uses pub­lic funds from tax­pay­ers (mostly exploited work­ers) to provide fam­i­lies with small bud­gets that allow them to employ racial­ized women as care and domes­tic work­ers in slave-like con­di­tions. This does not hap­pen by chance. The employ­ment of migrant women for socially repro­duc­tive work in fact allows the cap­i­tal­ist dri­ven nation-state both to main­tain tra­di­tional gen­der-roles in place and to repro­duce sex­ual and racial divi­sions of labor in soci­ety. The fact that it is racial­ized women who do socially repro­duc­tive work most often in infor­mal (ille­gal and undoc­u­mented) and very exploita­tive con­di­tions allows cap­i­tal to main­tain social repro­duc­tion on the edge between mar­ket and non-mar­ket rela­tions – and thus to guar­an­tee its repro­duc­tion at no costs for cap­i­tal – and it per­mits the nation-state to avoid pro­vid­ing pub­lic care facil­i­ties.

This now brings me to dis­cuss why the nation-state as capital’s chief polit­i­cal form is unthink­able not only with­out the oppres­sion of women, but also with­out the con­struc­tion and sub­ju­ga­tion of racial­ized peo­ple. Again, there is an immense lit­er­a­ture on the links between cap­i­tal, the nation-state and racism, which I could not even begin to dis­cuss ade­quately here.15 I will limit my com­ments instead to point­ing to one pas­sage from Marx’s let­ter to Sigfried Meyer which in my view helps us to see in what ways racial oppres­sion is a nec­es­sary pre­sup­po­si­tion of, or con­di­tion for, cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion when scru­ti­nized through the lenses of the nation-state. He wrote:

All indus­trial and com­mer­cial cen­ters in Eng­land now have a work­ing class divided into two hos­tile camps, Eng­lish pro­le­tar­i­ans and Irish pro­le­tar­i­ans. The ordi­nary Eng­lish worker hates the Irish worker as a com­peti­tor who forces down the stan­dard of life. In rela­tion to the Irish worker, he feels him­self to be a mem­ber of the rul­ing nation and, there­fore, makes him­self a tool of his aris­to­crats and cap­i­tal­ists against Ire­land, thus strength­en­ing their dom­i­na­tion over him­self. He har­bors reli­gious, social and national prej­u­dices against him. His atti­tude towards him is roughly that of the “poor whites” to the “nig­gers” in the for­mer slave states of the Amer­i­can Union. The Irish­man pays him back with inter­est in his own money. He sees in the Eng­lish worker both the accom­plice and the stu­pid tool of Eng­lish rule in Ire­land. This antag­o­nism is kept arti­fi­cially alive and inten­si­fied by the press, the pul­pit, the comic papers, in short by all the means at the dis­posal of the rul­ing class. This antag­o­nism is the secret of the Eng­lish work­ing class’s impo­tence, despite its orga­ni­za­tion. It is the secret of the main­te­nance of power by the cap­i­tal­ist class. And the lat­ter is fully aware of this.16

In this pas­sage Marx does a few impor­tant things. Firstly, he shows that nation­al­ism is an impor­tant source of racism (though he does not use the lat­ter con­cept). Racism takes the form of the antag­o­nism between work­ers of dif­fer­ent nation­al­i­ties, whereby the Eng­lish pro­le­tar­ian as a mem­ber of the rul­ing nation “har­bours reli­gious, social and national prej­u­dices against” the Irish pro­le­tar­ian as a mem­ber of the ruled nation. Sec­ondly, he shows that racism is con­structed and inten­si­fied by “all means at the dis­posal of the rul­ing class”; in other words, racism is a key ele­ment of the ide­o­log­i­cal state appa­ra­tuses. Racism is thus con­structed and nour­ished by the rul­ing nation-state in order to stig­ma­tize migrant mem­bers of the ruled-nations. Thirdly, Marx shows that racism, or the antag­o­nism between “native” and “migrant” work­ers, is the secret of cap­i­tal­ists’ power. It is its secret not only because such antag­o­nism pre­vents the work­ing class from unit­ing against its real enemy (i.e., the cap­i­tal­ist class), but also because the pres­ence of migrant work­ers who com­pete with native work­ers for wages allows cap­i­tal to have a reserve army of labor, which is what makes accu­mu­la­tion pos­si­ble.

Marx describes the reserve army of labor in Cap­i­tal Vol­ume 1 as “a mass of human mate­rial always ready for exploita­tion.”17 In Marx’s analy­sis, (a) the increase in the mag­ni­tude of social cap­i­tal, that is, the ensem­ble of indi­vid­ual cap­i­tals; (b) the enlarge­ment of the scale of pro­duc­tion and (c) the growth of the pro­duc­tiv­ity of an increas­ing num­ber of work­ers brought about by cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion, cre­ates a sit­u­a­tion in which the greater “attrac­tion of labor­ers by cap­i­tal is accom­pa­nied by their greater repul­sion.“18 These three inter­re­lated processes, for Marx, set the con­di­tions accord­ing to which the labor­ing pop­u­la­tion gives rise, “along with the accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal pro­duced by it, [also to] the means by which it itself is made rel­a­tively super­flu­ous, is turned into a rel­a­tive sur­plus pop­u­la­tion; and it does this to an always increas­ing extent.”19 Marx describes this as a “law of pop­u­la­tion,” which is pecu­liar to the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion just as other modes of pro­duc­tion have their own cor­re­spond­ing pop­u­la­tion laws.

The para­dox of the cre­ation of the sur­plus labor­ing pop­u­la­tion under the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion is that while it is “a nec­es­sary pro­duct of accu­mu­la­tion,” this sur­plus pop­u­la­tion is also the lever of such accu­mu­la­tion; namely, it is that which “forms a dis­pos­able indus­trial reserve army, that belongs to cap­i­tal quite as absolutely as if the lat­ter had bred it at its own cost.”20 The reserve army of labor is not con­sti­tuted only of migrant work­ers. How­ever, Marx well under­stood that cap­i­tal­ists ben­e­fit greatly from a migrant, non-native dis­pos­able work­force in par­tic­u­lar, because it per­mits them to main­tain the work­ing class divided along arti­fi­cially cre­ated national lines of sep­a­ra­tion. The state, on the other hand, makes sure the migrant work­force remains avail­able and dis­pos­able for cap­i­tal by deny­ing migrant work­ers cit­i­zen­ship rights and thus keep­ing them in a state of polit­i­cal and eco­nomic fragility. We can thus see in what ways racism, just like gen­dered oppres­sion, is not only pro­duced and repro­duced by cap­i­tal through the medi­a­tion of the nation-state, but is also an essen­tial premise for the log­i­cal struc­ture of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion.

Con­clud­ing Remarks

My hypoth­e­sis that the nation-state could be the lens through which we can try to see the neces­sity of gen­dered and racial oppres­sion, alongside class exploita­tion, as pre­con­di­tions and not only con­se­quences of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion cer­tainly would need to be tested through hard con­cep­tual, the­o­ret­i­cal and empir­i­cal-his­tor­i­cal work. Such work would also need to con­sider the many medi­a­tions at the ide­o­log­i­cal, sym­bolic, psy­cho­log­i­cal and polit­i­cal level that bridge gen­der and race to cap­i­tal and the nation-state, as well as to clar­ify the dialec­tic between the log­i­cal struc­ture and his­tory of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion. Fur­ther­more, we should clar­ify what is the ade­quate level of abstrac­tion at which we can ana­lyze the log­i­cal struc­ture of cap­i­tal; whether it is exclu­sively the micro­eco­nomic level in which we con­sider cap­i­tal as a rela­tion­ship between for­mally free and equal indi­vid­u­als, or also the macro­eco­nomic level in which we con­sider the spheres of cir­cu­la­tion, con­sump­tion and repro­duc­tion more fully.

Arruzza’s impor­tant cri­tique of dual and triple sys­tem analy­sis and of the “indif­fer­ent cap­i­tal­ism” the­sis for their lack of coher­ence regard­ing the expli­ca­tion of gen­der, race and class oppres­sion and exploita­tion as key con­stituents of cap­i­tal­ism pushes us to think through these com­plex­i­ties and to strive to find answers that not only can improve our under­stand­ing of oppres­sion and exploita­tion but that also can help us to find ways to put an end to them.

The research lead­ing to these results has received fund­ing from the Peo­ple Pro­gramme (Marie Curie Actions) of the Euro­pean Union’s Sev­enth Frame­work Pro­gramme (FP7/2007-2013) under REA grant agree­ment n° 300616. The con­tents of this doc­u­ment are the sole respon­si­bil­ity of the author, and can under no cir­cum­stances be regarded as reflect­ing the posi­tion of the Euro­pean Union.

This arti­cle is part of a dossier enti­tled Gen­der and Cap­i­tal­ism: Debat­ing Cinzia Arruzza’s “Remarks on Gen­der.”

  1. Ellen Meiksins Wood, “Cap­i­tal­ism and Human Eman­ci­pa­tion,” New Left Review I/167 (1988), 6. 

  2. István Mészáros, “The Dialec­tic of Struc­ture and His­tory: An Intro­duc­tion,” Monthly Review, Vol. 63.1 (2011). 

  3. Kim­berlé Cren­shaw, “Demar­gin­al­iz­ing the Inter­sec­tion of Race and Sex: A Black Fem­i­nist Cri­tique of Antidis­crim­i­na­tion Doc­trine, Fem­i­nist The­ory and Antiracist Pol­i­tics,” Chicago Legal Forum, spe­cial issue: “Fem­i­nism in the Law: The­ory, Prac­tice and Crit­i­cism” (1989), pp. 139-167. Although of course the prob­lem­atic related to inter­sec­tion­al­ity does not begin with Crenshaw’s sem­i­nal inter­ven­tion. For instance, one should trace it back at least to Sojourner Truth’s famous speech “Ain’t I A Woman.” 

  4. Leslie McCall, “The Com­plex­ity of Inter­sec­tion­al­ity,” Signs: Jour­nal of Women in Cul­ture and Soci­ety, Vol. 30.3 (2005), 1771-1800, 1771. 

  5. Gail Lewis, “Unsafe Travel: Expe­ri­enc­ing Inter­sec­tion­al­ity and Fem­i­nist Dis­place­ments,” Signs: Jour­nal of Women in Cul­ture and Soci­ety, Vol. 38.4 (2013), 869-892, 871. 

  6. In The Illu­sions of Post­mod­ernism Terry Eagle­ton argues that: “Social class tends to crop up in post­mod­ern the­ory as one item in the trip­tych of class, race and gen­der, a for­mula which has rapidly assumed for the left the kind of author­ity which the Holy Trin­ity occa­sion­ally exerts for the right. The logic of this triple link­age is surely obvi­ous: racism is a bad thing, and so is sex­ism, and so there­fore is some­thing called ‘clas­sism.’ ‘Clas­sism,’ on this anal­ogy would seem to be the sin of stereo­typ­ing peo­ple in terms of social class.” See Terry Eagle­ton, The Illu­sions of Post­mod­ernism (Lon­don: Wiley-Black­well, 1996, 56-57. Not­ing Eagleton’s inter­ven­tion, Martha Gimenez wrote: “To refer to class as ‘clas­sism’ is, from the stand­point of Marx­ist the­ory, ‘a deeply mis­lead­ing for­mu­la­tion’ because class is not sim­ply another ide­ol­ogy legit­i­mat­ing oppres­sion; it denotes exploita­tive rela­tions between peo­ple medi­ated by their rela­tions to the means of pro­duc­tion.” See Martha Gimenez “Marx­ism and Class, Gen­der and Race: Rethink­ing The Tril­ogy,” Race, Gen­der & Class, Vol. 8.2 (2001), 23-33. 

  7. An increas­ing num­ber of Marx­ist schol­ars in the last years have dis­cussed inter­sec­tion­al­ity in more or less crit­i­cal ways. See Kevin Ander­son, “Karl Marx and Inter­sec­tion­al­ity,” Logos, Vol. 14.1 (2015); Susan Fer­gu­son, “Cana­dian Con­tri­bu­tions to Social Repro­duc­tion Fem­i­nism, Race and Embod­ied Labor,” Race, Gen­der & Class, Vol­ume 15.1-2 (2008), 42-57; Abi­gail Bakan, “Marx­ism, Inter­sec­tion­al­ity and Indige­nous Fem­i­nism,” Paper pre­sented at the His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism Annual Con­fer­ence, Lon­don, 2013; Himani Ban­nerji, Think­ing Through: Essays on Fem­i­nism, Marx­ism and Anti-racism (Berke­ley: Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 1995). 

  8. Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume 3, in Marx and Engels Col­lected Works, Vol­ume 37 (Lon­don: Lawrence and Wishart, 1976), 778. 

  9. For a dis­cus­sion of this point see Mas­si­m­il­iano Tomba, Marx’s Tem­po­ral­i­ties, trans. Peter D. Thomas and Sara R. Far­ris (Lei­den: Brill, 2013). 

  10. Bob Jes­sop, “Glob­al­iza­tion and the National State,” in Par­a­digm Lost: State The­ory Recon­sid­ered, eds. Stan­ley Aronow­itz and Peter Brat­sis (Min­neapolis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press, 2002), 185-220; Chris O’Kane,  “State Vio­lence, State Con­trol: Marx­ist State The­ory and the Cri­tique of Polit­i­cal Econ­omy,” View­point Mag­a­zine, Issue 4, 2014. 

  11. Neil David­son, 2008, “Nation­al­ism and Neolib­er­al­ism,” Vari­ant, No. 32 (Sum­mer 2008). 

  12. Ibid. 

  13. Anne McClin­tock, “‘No Longer in a Future Heaven’: Gen­der, Race, and Nation­al­ism,” in Dan­ger­ous Liaisons: Gen­der, Nation, and Post­colo­nial Per­spec­tives, eds. Anne McClin­tock, Aamir Mufti, and Ella Shobat (Min­neapolis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press, 1997), 89-122. For an overview of dif­fer­ent inter­pre­ta­tions of the theme of women and the nation, see Kumari Jayawar­dena,  Fem­i­nism and Nation­al­ism in the Third World (Lon­don: Zed­Books, 1986); Nira Yuval-Davis, Gen­der and Nation, (Lon­don: Sage, 1997); Between Woman and Nation: Nation­alisms, eds. Caren Kaplan, Norma Alar­con, and Minno Moallem (Durham: Duke Uni­ver­sity Press, 1999. 

  14. Valen­tine Moghadam “Intro­duc­tion,” Gen­der and National Iden­tity, ed. Valen­tine Moghadam (Lon­don: Pal­grave Macmil­lan, 1994), 12. 

  15. David R. Roedi­ger, The Wages of White­ness: Race and the Mak­ing of the Amer­i­can Work­ing Class (Lon­don: Verso, 1999); Sat­nam Virdee, Racism, Class and the Racial­ized Out­sider (Bas­ingstoke: Pal­grave, 2014). 

  16. Karl Marx, “Let­ter to Sigfrid Meyer and Karl Vogt,” Marx and Engels Col­lected Works, Vol­ume 43 (Lon­don: Lawrence & Wishart, 1976), 475. My empha­sis. 

  17. Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume I, in Marx and Engels Col­lected Works, Vol­ume 35 (Lon­don: Lawrence & Wishart, 1976), 626. 

  18. Ibid., 625. 

  19. Ibid. 

  20. Ibid., 626. 

Author of the article

is an Assistant Professor in the Sociology department at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is International Book Review Editor for Critical Sociology, Corresponding Editor for Historical Materialism, and the author of Max Weber's Theory of Personality: Individuation, Politics, and Orientalism in the Sociology Religion.