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 a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She works on sociological and political theory, ‘race’/racism and feminism, migration and gender, with a particular focus on migrant women and their role within social reproduction. She is the author of , with a particular focus on migrant women and their role within social reproduction. She is the author of Max Weber's Theory of Personality. Individuation, Politics and Orientalism in the Sociology of Religion (Haymarket, 2015), and In the Name of Women's Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism (Duke University Press, forthcoming in April 2017).