Lego Marx

What is the Left again?

Duplo Marxism

Here is one idea of what Marxism is about: There are two main classes — workers and capitalists — and they are in conflict. Proletarians have to sell their labor in order to survive, and the owners exploit that desperation for profit. When workers overcome their false consciousness, stop competing against each other, and organize, they will seize the means of production and operate society in their interest. Since their interest involves not being workers anymore (insofar as workers are defined by their exploitation), the working class’s self-expression means the abolition of the class system.

This is not a strawman. This is a good story, an important story, maybe one of the most important stories of all time. But it’s also very simple. Society is divided on a single split based on people’s relation to waged labor. It’s like the end of a Power Rangers episode: Two big forces smash against each other and with courage and class-consciousness, the workers will be strong enough to win. The story is clarifying and just as importantly it is true. But is it true enough?

In this story about society, we’re dealing with a couple large concepts. Two classes, one labor relation. It’s a world built of big blocks, of Duplos. Insofar as Bernie Sanders’s campaign has a Marxist foundation, it’s this kind of Duplo Marxism: the 1% and the 99%. This is, once again, for many intents and purposes, a good story. But the Sanders campaign ran into serious trouble when it viewed most anything outside this narrative as a distraction. His statements on forced childbearing weren’t strong enough, and the campaign basically threw up its hands when it came to white chauvinism. In a bad version of Duplo Marxist thinking, if any of these concerns stop someone from joining up, then these people suffer from false consciousness. They don’t know what’s good for them.

These days “false consciousness” sounds a little too last-century. Now Duplo Marxists use more specific descriptors: “neoliberalism” or “individualism” or “identity politics.” Sometimes they’re totally right: Liberals (and the corporations they own) oppose worker-owner conflict to racial conflict or gender conflict, as if only one can be true at a time. It’s a mystification, one that preys on people’s good intentions. If Bernie is for workers but Hillary is for women, then how is a nice progressive supposed to pick?

But other times it’s the Duplo Marxists who are doing the mystification. Society isn’t made up of Duplos, and there are social conflicts — class conflicts — that aren’t centered on the wage-labor relation. Duplo Marxists are occasionally near-sighted, prone to lash out at critics who want to add complexity.

Duplo Marxists occasionally use “intersectional” or “intersectionality” as an insult like “individualist.” I figure this is related to the idea that identity can be endlessly subdivided — If almost everyone is on the wrong side of some social conflict, then who will be left to fight on the right side of the class war?! Do we really have to keep fighting until the Earth is scorched and all that’s left is a righteous ragtag group of the world’s most oppressed quadruple minorities?

I think this whole scenario is mostly nonsense.

Cards on the table: I’m a Marxist. Hi. I believe taking on that label includes a certain amount of respect for the Duplo Marxist story, but that’s not how I learned Marxism or why I care so much about this dead German guy.

Marxism is not a philosophy or a theology, it’s — seriously, don’t laugh! — a science. It’s a science of history, a method of understanding the real relations between people over time. Biologists looks at individual organisms; Marxists look at classes, relations of exploitation. Duplo Marxists focus on one particular mode of exploitation — owners and wage workers — and that doesn’t necessarily make them bad. There’s nothing wrong with herpetologists, but there would be if they refused to acknowledge the existence of birds.

Contrary to what some Duplo Marxists think, the problem with their story isn’t accounting for individual outliers — “What about a Black textile heir who loves her job as a letter carrier?!” — because thankfully Marxism is not Torah study and its conclusions are not structured around exceptions. Class conflict doesn’t go one by one figuring out imaginary edge cases like a law student. As a science, Marxism proceeds by investigating real relations between people and testing its own concepts, categories, and explanations. There are a lot of terms in Marxism; he had a lot of good ideas, and there’s been even more debate about them. For the purposes of the rest of this piece, I’ll use “materialism” for this scientific method part.

Much like a scientist —please stop laughing — I think the answer to problems with Marxism is more, better Marxism. One of the coolest things about materialism is that it offers an explanation of the way our understanding of social relations change over time with those relations. In Marx’s “Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy,” he writes that materialists have to bear in mind that they’re thinking through the perspective and with the terms of their particular society, which are (frequently one-sided, he adds) manifestations of that society’s class relations. The definite and specific relations in which we’re currently embedded are, Marx writes, “the universal light with which all the other colors are tinged and are modified through its particularity. It is a special ether which determines the specific gravity of everything that appears in it.” (If you think that could also describe patriarchy or white-supremacy, you’re not alone.)

This is something like the materialist version of the observer effect. Think about something like phrenology, a racist pseudoscience that appears at the end of the 18th century as a way to explain why it was okay for white people to exploit everyone else, which was already the actual social relation. Phrenologists then retroactively applied their insights all the way back to the start of mankind: The history of the world is the history of racial head sizes. Legitimate scientists and economists do it as well: Biologists don’t only study organisms that have been alive since the advent of biology, economists don’t only study production and consumption that have occurred since the definition of those categories. Like these disciplines but with its own perspective, materialism sees all human history as the history of class conflict. This is an oft-quoted line, but its implications are important. Materialism is a product of capitalist relations, but it is not just about capitalist relations.

The most important part of this observer effect point is not that we should remember that we are always getting something big wrong — though that is true, a feature of all science, and worth keeping in mind. The most important part is that we can’t be afraid to be more right. We can never think outside our social relations, but our social relations are always changing. People change the world, the “universal light” of our particular situation shifts, which enables people to change the world in new ways, and on and on.

Take, for example, the Haitian Revolution. In her book Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History, the materialist scholar Susan Buck-Morss describes how the Enlightenment values of the French Revolution created what we might call the right light conditions for the Haitian Revolution. “Liberté, égalité, fraternité!” meant something very different from the mouth of a slave in Port-au-Prince than a merchant in Paris. Our understanding of so-called “universal liberty” proceeds unevenly, and materialism acknowledges this historical fact. As Buck-Morss puts it, we need to recognize “not only the contingency of historical events, but also the indeterminacy of the historical categories by which we grasp them.” All of Marx’s analyses and categories are subject to the backward-facing judgment of history as it advances. To try and freeze his work in place is a serious disservice to the method. That’s not an act of fidelity, it’s an act of worship. The most faithful thing we can do for Marx is to fuck all his shit up. Rigorously.

To go beyond Duplo Marxism is to see that society isn’t just composed of two blocks, that the owner/wage-laborer relation is not the sole class division. Instead, each of those two blocks are composed of smaller blocks, not individuals, but other class relations. Lego Marxism can handle multiple variables, multiple class relations that are going on at the same time — intersecting even. You could take apart the big blocks and recompose them according to a different social division and still be doing important, useful materialism. There’s a sense among some Duplo Marxists that Lego Marxists are proceeding haphazardly by feeling, unscientifically, with not enough of Marx’s rigor. That is, I think, occasionally right. Mapping class relations is hard! And Marx was a genius. However, in a lot of cases, I think Duplo Marxists haven’t bothered to do the reading.

Women as Class

I’ve been thinking about the (silly) kids toys metaphor in this piece for a while, but what really inspired me was an essay from the late-70s by French women’s liberation theorist Christine Delphy called “A Materialist Feminism is possible.” The essay is a response to a criticism of her work by English sociologists Michele Barrett and Mary McIntosh, who had essentially argued a Duplo Marxist position — that Delphy’s figuring of women as an exploited class was a sacrilegious perversion of Marx. (It’s important to remember that this is a debate going on within the active Women’s Liberation Movement.) Delphy fired back, saying it was not she who was perverting Marx, but them.

Central among her critics’ errors, Delphy cites “a confusion between the materialist method, used for the first time by Marx, and the analysis of capitalism which he made using it; or rather the reduction of the first to the second.” This is the main Duplo vs. Lego Marxism conflict, and Delphy helps define the second side. She writes of the Duplo team, “Marxism is erected as the value of values and is seen as not only above the struggles but outside them. The ultimate perversion, and one moreover which is widespread, is that these people then come to judge real oppression, and even the very existence of oppression, according to whether or not it corresponds to ‘Marxism,’ and not Marxism according to whether or not it is pertinent to real oppression.” That’s not how it’s supposed to work.

How, then, does Delphy derive the existence of a class conflict between men and women? The Duplo Marxist stereotype is that their critics proceed by way of their personal experience. As a woman, Delphy has gone through gender-based oppression, and Duplo Marxists think they’re expected to wave the white flag whenever anyone says “I am oppressed.” But that obviously isn’t the issue here; Delphy is arguing with women, about the condition of women, for women readers. Her appeal is not to sympathy or empathy, and certainly not to male guilt. She says — rightly, in my reading — that her critics haven’t engaged with her actual work at all.

Where to begin analyzing women as a class? Delphy starts with Duplo Marxism; according to what criteria are women divided between their two blocks? It’s a simple question, but the answers aren’t as easy. The sociology subfield of stratification studies had been forced to consider the class position of women before, and their methods interest Delphy. The French sociologist Alain Girard wrote about class homogamy in his 1964 book Choosing a Spouse — that is, the difference and similarity in spouse class position. But because women could not be meaningfully divided into classes according to their relation to wage-labor, Girard had to find a proxy measure. To analyze women’s movement in the class structure, he found it “preferable” to look at a woman’s father’s class position and compare it to her husband’s. Delphy is incredulous:

“Are we to understand that if a characteristic (in this case occupation) is not a good indicator of what we are seeking to measure (in this case a woman’s own social class position), we are justified in abandoning this dimension in order to keep the indicator, even if it means changing the population studied (i.e. studying the fathers instead of the women themselves)?”

She goes much further, looking at the actual conditions of women’s production and consumption. Since much of women’s work is unwaged, Delphy looks at the way other kinds of unwaged labor are measured. French national production metrics at the time counted “production for self-consumption;” if a farmer raised a pig and fed it to his family, the economists counted that as if he had gained the same amount of value as he would have had he sold the pig at market. But, Delphy observes, we don’t eat raw pig! Even when measuring unwaged work, the woman’s tasks of preparing, cooking, serving, and cleaning still go unaccounted. Her work is assumed, taken for granted. But by whom (which is to say, for whom) is she exploited?

Duplo Marxism, to its credit, has an answer, which Delphy acknowledges. In the Duplo model, women are exploited to reproduce wage-workers’ labor power at a discount. They are exploited by their husband’s bosses and by their children’s future bosses.

Delphy’s answer is more direct: Women are exploited by men. There is the capitalist mode of production and there is also a concurrent and interrelated “domestic” or “patriarchal” mode of production, which benefits men (as a class) and exploits women (as a class). She is also careful to note that there are some men exploited by the domestic mode as well, pointing out specifically 307,000 French men who work unwaged on family farms and in family businesses.

I’m belaboring Delphy’s work for a few reasons, including that a lot of the debates we’re having have been had before, and I think her writing is underrated on the Left. But I also want to stress the rigorous foundations of her critique. No one can confuse Delphy with a liberal, and her critics end up looking real silly questioning her fidelity to Marx. (His method also involved responding at length to his critics, many of whom would otherwise likely be lost to history.) Her work is an extremely important contribution to the development of Marxist analysis, and an application of materialism to a problem with existing materialist categories. Delphy is an excellent example of the solution “More, better Marxism.”

Appropriation and Cultural Appropriation

Duplo Marxism is not very flexible, and its proponents sometimes get defensive about that. How should we understand racial conflict? The main Duplo model is that capitalists are pitting workers against each other, and racist white workers suffer from false-consciousness, blaming Blacks and Mexicans for their exploitation instead of their bosses. But racial minorities cannot be said to have a distinct class relation within the capitalist mode of production. They are exploited as workers (at a higher rate than white people), and if they happen to be owners, then they are exploiters. Once again, this is not a strawman, nor is this kind of thinking useless. But it’s also not sufficiently sophisticated, and it can lead to serious interpretive problems.

Take the question of “cultural appropriation.” I’ve heard a lot of grumbling from Duplo Marxists about the idea of cultural appropriation and how it doesn’t fit into Marxism. If you copy someone’s hairstyle, how are you exploiting them? Where’s the labor? Where’s the surplus value? Again, the less rigorous of Duplo Marxists assume this is an emotional projection. Just because it makes you feel bad doesn’t mean it’s exploitation. But has the Duplo faction checked their Bible?

In Capital Vol. I’s section on “Machinery and Modern Industry,” Marx discusses the role of science in production:

“Science, generally speaking, costs the capitalist nothing, a fact that by no means hinders him from exploiting it. The science of others is as much annexed by capital as the labor of others … Although it is clear at the first glance that, by incorporating both stupendous physical forces, and the natural sciences, with the process of production, Modern Industry raises the productiveness of labor to an extraordinary degree, it is by no means equally clear, that this increased productive force is not, on the other hand, purchased by an increased expenditure of labor.”

How might we apply this idea of scientific appropriation to cultural appropriation? If a capitalist makes use of general scientific progress without paying for it, that is a kind of appropriation because they are profiting by someone else’s labor. No one has to be additionally harmed for it to be exploitation; in a zero-sum capitalist society, their gain is your loss. It also doesn’t matter that free sharing in this manner is a feature of science and all human invention and culture long before the beginning of capitalism. If I start a successful peanut butter company, I’m using machines and exploiting workers to profit, but I’m also profiting from the invention of peanut butter, for which I have to pay nothing.

In a viral school project video called “Don’t Cash Crop On My Cornrows,” Amandla Stenberg presents a strong and coherent narrative about how Black people (as a class) are exploited by white people (as a class) in the process of cultural production. When Katy Perry wears braids in a popular music video, both she (as a white worker) and the label (white owner) are profiting off Black culture and Black labor. Like a knockoff handbag, it costs the label a lot less to point at a picture of Sean Paul than to build a good aesthetic from scratch. But Sean Paul didn’t wake up looking like that; it took him work. And not just him.

The Fader magazine has done an excellent job drawing attention to the work and workers behind white cultural appropriation. I used Sean Paul as an example, because Fader recently published an interview with Yasmin Amira Davis, the hairstylist who did Paul’s signature braids and “helped define the visual identity of an era.” Davis tells the interviewer, “I do braids that are a lot of smaller than other people. I might take two days where someone else would take six hours. My work is different and you can tell.” No doubt Davis got paid as an in-demand celebrity stylist, but she did not get paid like someone whose unique labor helped define the visual identity of an era. Instead, other people got paid. Sean Paul got paid. Katy Perry got paid. Most of all, the labels got paid.

This kind of cultural appropriation is part of a larger mode of production called “Stealing from Black people and killing them.” It’s a mode that is deeply interrelated with capitalism, but it’s also distinct. Stealing here should not be confused with the robbery that is wage-labor, I mean literally murder someone and steal their land. This ongoing history is at the center of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s call for reparations for Black Americans. Coates uses the term “plunder,” which is better than theft because it evokes the violence and collective victimization. When white profiteers in the Carolinas were planting rice, they needed Black slaves not just to do the planting work, but also to show them how to plant rice. White workers could and did transcend their class status by kidnapping and enslaving Black people. The plunder of Black labor, Black culture, Black science, and Black people themselves is an enduring way that America makes things. That is not only the exploitation of wage-labor, that is something different.

More, Better Marx

At the end of her essay “The Main Enemy,” Christine Delphy suggests the implications of her conclusions for the Women’s Liberation Movement: “In the immediate future, the political alliances and strategy of the movement in relation to other groups, movements, or revolutionary parties should be based only on an unambiguous dedication on the part of the latter to the goals of the women’s movement. That is, on the basis of their clearly and officially expressed desire to destroy patriarchy and their actual participation in the revolutionary struggle for its destruction.” Why would that cause any problem with Marxists, Duplo or otherwise? If the end goal of Marxism is the abolition of class society in its entirety, wouldn’t they be all for the destruction of patriarchy?

The most obvious answer is Marxist men benefit from patriarchy. They — we, I should say — exploit women and would benefit from the continued exploitation of women. While ’70s Duplo Marxists blamed the perpetuation of patriarchy in the communist world on clinging remnants of capitalist ideology, Delphy didn’t buy it. Check your Marx, she said. If there was patriarchal ideology, then there had to be a basis for it in the relations of production.

There is, I believe, a related problem with contemporary Duplo Marxist politics. Think about it like this: Between the current state of working-class organization and when it will have developed to the point where it has the revolutionary capacity to defeat the capitalist class in combat for control over society, there is an intermediate point where the working class has the leverage to negotiate a livable compromise with the owners. After all, a revolution is a huge roll of the dice no matter what, and many people would definitely die and be forced to become killers. If it’s possible to compromise in a way that secures everyone a good enough baseline share of the social product, isn’t that preferable? Surely the owners too would rather compromise than play with their lives.

A couple consistent criticism of the Bernie Sanders “compromise with capital” campaign was that he couldn’t convince Black voters that he was going to do something to stop them being killed by the police or women voters that he was going to do something to stop them being forced to bear children. (How he compares to Hillary Clinton is not the point here.) Historically, when the working-class (that is, wage-laborers) has managed these kind of temporary compromises and reforms, it has led to increased exploitation elsewhere. As Peter Frase writes, citing the work of Elizabeth Hinton,

“While the Great Society was expanding access to things like income support and health care, a simultaneous ‘war on crime’ was subjecting the poor, and especially the black poor, to increased surveillance and state repression. Her analysis indicates that this was not an accidental juxtaposition, but part of a cohesive reconstruction of the relationship between the state and the working class.”

Frase keeps his analysis within a (complex, sophisticated) Duplo Marxist frame, but I think it would be more accurate (and simpler) to say the white ruling class and its state lackeys tweaked the volume levels on distinct (but interrelated) modes of exploitation. We can see a similar dynamic at play when it comes to American women’s housework: A decades-long decrease in their unwaged housework has been fully offset by an increase in waged work, including poorly paid domestic work that disproportionately falls on poorer Black and Brown women.

A compromise with capitalists might improve conditions for Black workers as workers while doing little to protect them as Black people. In an interview with the New York Times, Dallas resident Andre Stubblefield describes carrying his hard hat with him whenever he leaves his apartment, to discourage police from bothering (read: robbing, plundering, exploiting, killing) him. “I got to fake like I’m wearing my work stuff, so they won’t mess with me,” he says. That’s a shitty compromise.

If people are organizing against white supremacy and patriarchy, that shouldn’t worry Marxists. My god, that shouldn’t worry Marxists. They are organizing against class society, and their enemy is also your enemy. What Marxists should worry about is being good comrades in the ways that Delphy describes: A full, dependable, and active commitment to the end of class society. What that entails is sometimes difficult to figure out in its specifics, but in its specifics is exactly where we need to figure it out. Marx can help! More, better Marx. Lego Marx.

Coda: Communism?

It’s hard to picture what exactly Marxists are fighting for sometimes. Is it anarchy? Who takes out the trash? Is there money? National borders? Do Black people still live in worse neighborhoods than white people? Is there heterosexuality? Families? Individual kitchens? What happens to murderers if there’s no police? Does mom still serve herself last at dinner? Do children have to obey their parents? Do I get to keep my own toothbrush? What is communism?

Karl Marx does not hand down the dimensions for the Temple from on high; once again, this is not Torah study. The most quoted of his definitions of communism is probably “The real movement which abolishes the present state of things.” Communism is what we will call the actual destruction of class society when it happens. There’s an elegant truth to that sword-in-the-stone formulation — it’s something like “We’ll know it when we do it” — but he’s also being a coy pain in the ass. I like another version better, even if it leans hard on the poetry:

“It is the genuine resolution of the conflict between people and nature and between people and people — the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species. Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.”

The better we understand the riddle of history, the better our chances as we try to build the answer. Not in our heads, but in reality.

I think we’re getting closer.