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Analysis of Structural Oppression Requires a Concrete Understanding of Structure

The fact that oppression is structural is something that most left activists claim they believe and yet fail to demonstrate it in theory and practice.  We all pay lip service to the concept of structural oppression, especially when arguing with annoying liberals, but generally don't know what the hell we mean when we slyly tell our liberal and/or conservative enemies "but you just can't understand that racism [or sexism, or heterosexism, or etc.] is structural."  Well, apparently, neither can we.

The structure of capitalism, both as a mode of production and a global system, articulates every oppression according to its logic.  The clash between proletariat and bourgeoisie within the imperial modes of production, retaining elements of colonial and patriarchal oppression due to the way it developed, inscribes class struggle with institutionalized racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism.  The clash between central modes of production and exploited peripheries contributes to the structuring of oppression.  National oppressive structures, global oppressive structures: oppression is always structural and yet, despite our lip-service to this reality, we still tend to act as if it is based upon individual identity.

It is all too easy to focus on oppression as an individualistic phenomenon, especially when the most noxious and antiquated chauvinisms still appear to remind us that nineteenth century style racism/sexism has not disappeared.  Take the recent Psychology Today controversy where a typically reactionary "evolutionary psychologist" claimed to give "scientific proof" (as if positivist psychology could ever be considered scientific) that women of African descent were objectively less attractive than other women.  Evolutionary psychology is physiognomy reborn, a product of the nineteenth century mindset that produced phrenology and other bogus racial sciences, but we should still wonder why it continues to capture adherents.  It is easy to dismiss these adherents as fringe lunatics, as behind the times, but the truth is that they are nothing more than extreme examples, though manifesting as "scientists" who were born over a century out of date, of what the system structures as normative. "A racist in a culture of racism is therefore normal," writes Fanon: "He has achieved a perfect harmony of economic relations and ideology. […] A country that lives, draws its substance from the exploitation of other peoples, makes those peoples inferior.  Race prejudice applied to those peoples is normal." (Fanon, Towards The African Revolution, 40-41)

We still focus on these abhorrent examples as aberrant even as we speak of structural oppression: the rejection of historical materialism as antiquated leads to this failure to theoretically understand structural oppression––the post-modern paradigm does not lead to a theory that can properly comprehend structure or tell us where oppression originates.  Power is always nebulous, never issuing from concrete structures built by concrete and social subjects: economic and political origins are reified and the class struggle that produces the context from which structural oppression emerges is ignored.  And in this context, regardless of how much we speak of structural oppression, raving racists and sexists are still treated as extreme examples.

Going further, the failure to understand the structure of world capitalism, of global imperialism, leads to an impasse of critical leftist thinking.  Take this recent interview of the radical immigrant rights organization, No One Is Illegal (NOII), on SunTV.  Granted, the interviewer is noxious right-wing moron who isn't even capable of conducting a proper debate (SunTV is the Canadian equivalent of Fox News), but the No One Is Illegal representative cannot theorize the demands for migrant status beyond a very simplistic and limited understanding of status.  The very focus on legality/illegality, for example, side-steps the structure of global capitalism––the very structure that produces global and exploitation––because it cannot even address the fact that imperialism, as Mieville pointed out in Between Equal Rights, "is the rule of law."  People are illegal, but the entire discourse of legality and illegality is intensely wed to the structure of capitalism––global capitalism in the case of international migration.  But No One Is Illegal, regardless of any of its adherents' commitment to an understanding of structural oppression, lacks an overall analysis of imperialism: the organization's representative speaks to a discourse of status and legality; the deeper questions about who and what produces status and legality, the context of a vicious export of capital that generates international migration, is not the focus of the debate.

This failure to properly comprehend structural oppression, even amongst those who mobilize the term in debates, produces a general blindness in our theoretical discourse.  Take, for example, any attempt to argue an anticolonial politics in this social context of settler-colonial capitalism.  How many times have we listened to critics, after hearing our arguments for decolonization, tell us that we "do not speak for indigenous people"?  And how many times have we wasted our time dealing with this argument, defending our involvement in and support of indigenous struggles and attempting to conceptualize empirical instances where our wholesale support of decolonization would be justified by the struggles of indigenous peoples themselves?  The argument is better served by a real appeal to concrete structure: what should we care about the anecdotes of random colonized individuals––especially if these anecdotes come from people who support colonialism––when there is a historical analysis and argument regarding colonialism?  Supporting the wholesale self-determination of colonized peoples has already been defended and justified by revolution: this is why we have a rich decolonial vocabulary that gauges revolution, compradorism, culturalism, successes and failures.  The same goes for anti-capitalist struggles: I don't care if some imaginary group of exploited factory workers in the southern United States are anti-communist lovers of capitalism who want to be exploited––they're still on the wrong side of history and working against their own interests.

This is why I find it extremely strange that those leftists who reject historical materialist theory, who tend to adopt a crude post-modern and anarchist eclecticism, still speak of "structural oppression" as if they have any understanding of concrete structure.  These also tend to be the people who become upset whenever someone speaks of "false consciousness"––but if they actually believed in structural oppression then they would have to admit that there can be false consciousness.  For if the structure makes certain types of oppression normative then clearly our default consciousness is an acceptance of these oppressions.  In a colonial context colonialism is normative and both the colonizer and colonized begin by accepting this as status quo.  And in a capitalist context it is "common sense" to accept, for example, the ideology that failure and success is based on how hard we work.

These days I'm under the impression that many people who speak of "structural oppression" actually do not fully understand what they mean by structure or oppression considering that they cannot give a concrete analysis of a concrete situation of structure: they have no historical materialist understanding of capitalism or imperialism, and reject these sorts of understandings as part of their politics.  If one cannot explain and/or define the structure to which they are opposed, then one cannot even begin to speak of structural oppression.


  1. Really good piece, Josh.

    I think you hit the nail on the head about folks who have no historical or conjunctural analysis of structural oppression(s)..those who don't see law as a social relation. Its somewhat like reformists who think regulation can create socialism, that neoliberalism and austerity are "crazy" (an argument that even on its own terms is impossible, as the conditions of possibility for social democracy the way some imagine it simply don't exist in the neoliberal period).. I find it interesting sometimes, the more outlandish the rhetoric and pose, the more liberal the politics. Like Michael Moore's populism about arresting bankers...And so it goes...

  2. Wait, wait... are you telling me regulation *can't* create socialism??? Hahaha!

    Yeah: although it's not an absolute and scientific claim, there is something to be said about people with the most radical-seeming rhetoric who are pursuing liberal politics.

  3. I think the only thing you are missing is an analysis of different forms of structure that cannot be reduced to capitalist structures (although capitalism is imbricated within them, as they are within capitalism).

    I am especially thinking of Beauvoir's analysis of sex/gender as a structure of oppression that long predates capitalism.

  4. Fair enough, though I think pre-capitalist contradictions are restructured by capitalism and become, as the Maoist feminist analysis has always held, contradictions that obstruct the base. To understand the structure of capitalism as also containing lingering ideologies that influence its structure - and that mode of production is not abstractly pure as Marx's analysis (though necessary because of its need to be scientific) seemed to evince - is part of the point. That is why, like Butch Lee, I hold that race and gender are class in drag.

  5. This is rather a good piece but I would add some simple points that I think are necessary in relation to this discussion.

    First - any discussion of "false consciousness" needs to admit there is a necessary problematic in relation to its utility in Marxist understanding of class struggle and relationships. Engels' use of the term is distinguished between consciousness which extends from ideology as opposed to materialist understanding of historical relations. But I find largely the main objection of people opposed to more or less the vast vulgarization of this concept (particularly of Trotskyist organizations) is that this term is offered as explanation of various structural relations that are phenomenon of the social relations to the mode of production and state power that are not the "fundamental contradiction" of capital v. labor. A good example of this is the line that white and black workers have "common interest" in fighting white supremacy, that the white supremacist ideology amongst white workers has no material basis and only divides the working class and furthers exploitation...

    Further, even though understanding from a historical materialist approach how Engels' is using this concept, I indeed find it still problematic to think of consciousness (which is already allowing for a lingering Hegelianism) in relation to "interests" which are in the end teleologically presumed. One can't also lose mind that even what is based in obfuscation of ideology can still have a basis in material interests - the whole history of exclusionary communitarian politics shows that via White Supremacist Settler-Colonialism, Zionism, National Socialism, etc.

    In terms of thinking forward "contradictions" and structures which aren't the abstracted process of capital and dynamic of class relations, I've found Louis Althusser's work on materialist dialectics in relation to historical materialism vastly important...Overdetermined Contradiction, Decentered Structure, Structure in Dominance, Determination in the Last Instance, etc. very helpful. It seems to me a useful and important theoretical elaboration of explaining a Maoist politics.

  6. Thanks for these points...

    I wasn't addressing the problematic of false consciousness here, though I have done so elsewhwere, but it definitely dovetails with the discussions. Generally speaking I agree that there is a crude understanding of false consciousness, mapped out in the reasons you suggest.

    I do not necessarily find Althusser's work the best way to think through contradictions, however, because I do believe that there are "interests" that, while not teleological in a crude sense, are based on historically (and therefore class) encountered needs. Althusser's structuralism, which is useful for so much I agree, often tends to take the exact opposite position as the petty bourgeois humanism he's trying to reject, which lends to a failure to often understand consciousness... But this is a long standing philosophical quibble I've had, and has led to long debates with another one of my comrades!

    Also, you are quite about the "common interest" line that is touted in discussions of how racism "divides the working class"... I think this is a poor understanding of oppression, which is why I like attempts like Sakai's use of the labour theory of value to explain the epistemic foundation of this racism.

  7. Wasn't precise above: when I wrote "exact opposite position as the petty bourgeois humanism", I meant that he seems to swing to the opposite undialectical extreme of positivism. (And this is why I feel that Amin's critique of Althusser's theory of "overdetermination" in *Spectres of Capitalism*, which comes from a maoist-inspired perspective, very useful in this regard.)

  8. JMP-
    my point is not that capitalism doesn't change other structures, but that the other structures do not become capitalist social relationships (ie, not having read the piece you cite, I can't really comment on "class in drag" but I shudder at the reductionist underpinnings). I have yet to find a non-reductionist Marxist account of how rape (or domestic abuse or other forms of male/female relations that cannot be seen as commodity relationships) can be understood properly. Why can't we hold different contradictions to be primary in their own right? Obviously, some structures of male/female relations are exploitative, but that does not mean that all aspects of these structures are, and I think the challenge of feminism to marxism is not which theory can reduce everything to either class or sex\gender, but how can we understand the ensemble of social relations as encompassing both class and sex\gender.

    and racism would be another axis to hold in tension as well.

    To hold these theories in tension would mean understanding how they are inter-related with each other, but not by reducing them, but by seeing where they converge and where they diverge as well, both theoretically and historically.

  9. I don't think we're in complete disagreement, but I do think that capitalism does incorporate pre-capitalist structures in a way that they are still pre-capitalist (in origin and content) but also become part of the way that class is articulated. This comes from Mao's theory in "On Contradiction" where he speaks of how pre-capitalist ideologies linger to obstruct the base of a mode of production so they are at once pre-capitalist *and* capitalist.

    Butch Lee's notion of class/race/nationality/sexuality being class in drag is an attempt to understand the development of these contradictions in a concrete and materialist manner. And yes this perhaps makes her a class "reductionist" (though often I think this is a term thrown around) but it does not make her a class essentialist, which is the main problem. And it is interesting to note that Lee's analysis, when it was written in the early 90s, garned the acclaim of bell hooks who said it was the only analysis of class/race/gender that actually explained how they intersected.

    There is a reason that these other oppressions, while retaining aspects that are still pre-capitalist, are at the same time retained as the very structure of actually existing capitalism. As Fanon wrote in Wretched, "you're rich because you're white and you're white because you're rich" in a colonial context... this is not to say that racism does not possess a separate pre-capitalist (but just before pre-capitalist since modern racism, as differentiated from banal ethnocentrism, emerged during the colonial period that built world capitalism) dimension, but that it is also clothing worn by class relationships.

    My problem, however, has always been the understanding of class as some essentialized category outside of race and gender, and by clinging to an understanding of oppression that does not explain how they are now structured by capitalism we end up unconsciously acting as if "the working class" is predominantly white and male. It isn't, as I'm sure you'd agree.

    Different contradictions cannot be primary in their own right if you mean outside of the social reality that is the mode of production in which we live, but I think they can become principle contradictions that cloak the universal contradiction of class and thus are about class - but class understood in a deeper and non-platonic manner. I wrote about this in some of my previous entries...

    In any case, I think we might be saying the same thing but are using different sets of terminology.


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