A Calculus for Political Priorities

The following are my own beliefs, but the structure of the argument was heavily influenced by “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” (1984)

Aided by a populism that unfortunately seems to think populism means white populism, the modern press makes a false distinction between “working class voters” and “minority voters,” as if the two were not intersectional. Similarly, the Left at times makes a false distinction between “women’s issues” and “minority issues” not recognizing that the minority women are the ones doubly subjugated and the ones most fervently harmed by any injustice. It is frustrating to learn that in 2015 a white man’s median hourly earning was $21 and and a white woman’s was $17. But it should be equally frustrating to us to learn that a white woman’s median hourly earning was $17 and an African American woman’s earning was $13 (and a Hispanic woman’s median earning was $12) — men in those groups, respectively, were $15 and $13. So to talk about the wage gap as solely a gender issue is quite misleading. In fact, the wage gap refocused as a race issue shows much more of a disparity. The real solution is to see economic equality as being fundamentally linked to BOTH race and gender, but to not reduce either of those issues to white/non-white or male/female dichotomies.

There is an urgent political necessity in this age to unite those who believe in radical equality. The keystone to building this alliance is the recognition of our common struggles without our commonalities unintentionally blinding us from individual issues and unique solutions. Both working white men and working black women suffer from a greedy, corrupt system that rewards the one percent. However, it is not true that the policies that will lift white men will necessarily also lift black women. Or, to put it more bluntly, a rise in the general welfare and prosperity of the working class may lift all workers, but white males very well might still find themselves at the top of the heap. Minorities who hear “we’ve all got problems, be patient” are reminded that the same words were said to Martin Luther King and W.E.B. Dubois. When leaders on the left talk about race as something that we need to get beyond, or something that isn’t important enough to have a position on, it can feel like The Atlanta Compromise all over again. In 1895, for the sake of improving life for all southerners black and white, Booker T. Washington said that it was best for African Americans if they did not make waves about their continued discrimination. That as long as certain baselines of education, due process, and charity money were provided to African Americans, it would be best for everyone if African Americans simply helped in the struggle to fix the nation as a whole.

The historical conclusion to this approach was that the white rich folk continued to be white rich folk and the poor black folk continued to be poor black folk (and even the poor white folk still had it much better than the average black person). “In all things purely social we can be as separate as the fingers,” Booker said, “yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” In other words, don’t make a fuss about disparity in social justice. To some people, this sounds uncomfortably similar to “In other words, one of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics.” It’s once again the line that mutual progress is all that is needed to raise all boats, and the historical evidence is that this trickle-down system simply does not work.

And so the only way to truly move forward in any real fundamental subversion to economic hegemony is to hold in our heads and our political priorities the messy truth that no one route is going to solve all the injustices, and it is ineffective and frankly wrong to ask the most subjugated members of society to see solving their issues as a side-effect of our priorities rather than the driving force of determining what our priorities should be.

A platform that determined political priorities based on those in the most need would begin by identifying and addressing the needs of undocumented female children of color and work FROM THERE. By the time we addressed all her needs, as a happy side-effect we will have addressed many of the ills that effect other people. But to point to the male white worker as the top priority is synonymous with saying we hate the 1%, but those in the top 90% are more important to help than those in the bottom 10%. Ninety-nine percent working against the top one percent is noble enough but ultimately just a continuation of the same hierarchy compared to the idea of the 99 percent working on behalf of the bottom 1 percent. That’s not to say many of the same ultimate ends won’t be important. Frank-Dodd and Net Neutrality do play roles in providing access to representation across the spectrum. But issues would be seen in a cohesive paradigm where the calculus of what to focus on is determined by those with the greatest need rather than those with the most vocal need. It would redraw the line from being a division between social liberalism and economic liberalism to being a unified continuum of what is most helpful to Her. The difference between this unity and other attempts at unity is that because it is based on the least of our society, it does not eject those in most in need for the sake of cohesion.

The rhetorical separation between working class issues and “identity politics” is a classic case of Othering, and it is not surprising that it is mostly white men who see the distinction as useful. There is a fundamental ethnocentrism to calling identity issues transient or not-applicable, because it implies that there is a default stable identity which has no issues and that other groups issues are a deficit. The truth is of course that every individual has multiple identities — the inner perception, the intended expression, the expression as perceived by others, the other’s interpretation — and all of these have influence on how an individual experiences power dynamics, including economic opportunities and consequences.

Similarly, there is a strong ethnocentrism located in any text that either 1. doesn’t divide the working class at all or 2. divides the working class between workers and “non-white workers.” When the working class is spoken of without regard to race and gender differences, the speaker is either refusing to acknowledge that these problems do not hit all genders and ethnicities equally or he is subtly removing whole groups from the “working class” label. He embarks here on a rhetorical elision which equivocates between a group he has invented for the sake of argument and the real material subjects. The discourse is as follows.

1. I know every worker is different, but there are some general things that would help a lot of workers
2. Those things are X, Y, and Z.
3. Therefore X,Y, and Z should be our priorities. Other things should wait or are only secondary targets.

The result here is the speaker has acknowledged diversity but refuses to engage with it, choosing to side with a (largely imaginary) homogeneous majority over a system based on greatest need.

Such discourse seems almost obsessed with finding one solution, a sort of Theory of Everything for economic justice, inevitably leading to speaking of large swathes of people in broad terms — rather than uncovering the specific issues of the most marginalized groups and remembering that real revolution is a leveling of the privileged, not a hand to the slightly-less privileged at the expense of the even more less privileged.

Rather than reducing reform to broad economic priorities that are by definition non-local, true revolutionary priorities should begin at the hyper-local level and seek to address the conditions on the ground. Separation of goals into social or economic trains should not even exist as this level. Rather, the worker and those subjugated to the worker (his/her family) should be examined on a case by case basis. As we examine the issues of specific individuals, we may find commonalities in what they need to achieve success. Some of these may traditionally fit in the field of economic policy, some in the field of social policy, but it is just as likely that neither name would end up being particularly useful when it came to simply finding solutions to inequality.

As we very slowly worked outward from individuals, we could then begin to group them together based on the commonalities of what it would take to solve their problems. We would find very quickly that if we were serious about not excluding everyone, we would be faced not with one or two but a multitude of small groups. Perhaps fundamental principles would lie underneath many of these groups, but unity about the cause of a problem does not guarantee unity in the expression of the problem or the expression of how to solve the problem.  To the extent we can, we should hold all these groups in equal measure.  When we cannot, the group we prioritize should be the one with the most urgent and extreme need.

This is not the kind of talking that plays well on a national stage. Politicians are tasked with consolidating the problems of 300 million people into 30 second soundbites and one line on a bumper sticker. It’s no wonder that the people who win campaigns are those with the catchiest slogans (I like Ike, Morning in America, Yes We Can, MAGA). But winning races is a cynical exercise in which what works and what is true is not always the same. For those of us interested in how to upend society for the sake of the oppressed, we should be attracted to those systems which refuse to downplay diversity. A person drowning and a person falling out of a plane would both like to see their feet planted safely on dry ground, but throwing them parachutes is only going to accomplish that for one of them.

The enemy here is imagination. When we hear a term, we picture an imaginary subject, and then we respond to that term with that mental creation in mind. What we should do is resist the lie that we can ever understand a term like “the American worker,” and instead insist that we form ever more specific understandings of who are the real material subjects we are talking about. Many of us hear a term like “worker” and immediately have our fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters or ourselves in mind. But we need to expand that. Rather than one, we need to work on drawing 300 million concentric circles radiating out from individual to familial to local, regional, state-wide and international networks of power and exploitation. Practically, of course it is impossible to do this, which is why we generalize. But if we cannot treat all 300 million people equally, is it truly progressive of us to focus on the circles that look most like us or are closest to us genetically? And if we focus on the circles of most need, we must make sure we really do it by examining the local power-networks and what would take those exploitative agents down rather than overlaying them with our own predetermined fixes. It’s a problem-based approach that keeps real existing individuals in the forefront of the conversation and forces us to recognize the intersectionality that is common in reality but too often lacking in discourse.


Sites referenced or consulted during writing:

Racial, gender wage gaps persist in U.S. despite some progress