Intersectionality - A Basic Primer


The WSM’s politics are fundamentally intersectional. ‘Intersectionality’ is a fancy word for some rather basic ideas. You can think of it as ‘overlap-ism’ instead. There are three main points, 1) that each person needs to be seen as a whole, 2) that no power system exists in isolation, and 3) that all forms of oppression and exploitation should be uprooted at the same time.

The first point refers to the fact that real people aren’t cartoons. We are each complicated and multi-dimensional. For instance, a person is not just ‘working class’. They also have a gender. In general, life for a working class woman will be significantly different than for a working class man, not only because a woman is oppressed by sexism but because class itself is experienced differently.

This leads to the second point. Being precise, there is no such thing as ‘gender’ as a free floating thing. As a practical example, note how wealthy women can afford to travel to England for abortions but poor women often cannot. We can see here the effect of class and gender ‘intersecting’ or overlapping. Notice how this example shows both that gender is different depending on class, but also that class is different depending on gender (cis male workers won’t have this problem).

The third point says two things: that single issue politics don’t work, and that no struggle is the ‘most important’ or primary struggle. The most common case of single issue politics on the left is socialists stating that we must focus on the ‘class struggle’ because capitalism, which tramples on all working class people, is our real priority. The reality is that, as described above, class doesn’t exist in isolation, people aren’t one-dimensional. There is no cartoon worker. In practice, putting a priority on class at the expense of struggles against specific oppressions like patriarchy and racism means side-lining those oppressed people in favour of what is usually the straight, white, settled, cisgender, male citizen. Saying that capitalism is the ‘most important’ raises the question of ‘most important for whom?’.

Furthermore, the idea that capitalism can be overthrown without being part of a broader movement against oppression is false. For example, how are the working class to succeed if over half of them (women and non-binary people) are being repressed? All power systems are linked, or overlap.

Considering all of the above, it’s clear that waiting to overthrow these oppressions ‘after the Revolution’ won’t do. We must wear them away in the present.

The same goes for liberals who are in favour of an ‘intersectionality’ which doesn’t involve overthrowing capitalism. It is the flipside of the above. Capitalism functions to support and spread queerphobia, ableism, sexism, racism, etc.

The diagram above loosely illustrates this idea of power systems ‘intersecting’ by showing circles overlapping. Every real person has, for example, a nationality (or absence of), gender (or absence of), class, race, sexual orientation, and ability. These all come together, or intersect, to make up the whole person. Trying to eliminate one of these things from the picture will lead to inaccuracy.

One last idea is that the WSM makes a distinction between oppression and exploitation. Class both involves oppression (which we can refer to as ‘snobbery’), and exploitation (e.g. capitalists extracting profits from workers). This is as opposed to the liberal idea of ‘classism’.

Historically, what is known as intersectionality today was developed by black feminists in the 1960's/70's who did not feel part of the supposed 'sisterhood' which was, unfortunately, rife with problems of racism, and feminists generally who were marginalised by a macho left.