The label class reductionist is one that is often thrown at materialists. Those of us, broadly speaking, in the materialist camp do ourselves no favours, we emphasise relations of production when speaking on the reality of [South African] society. We emphasise material conditions when speaking on racism, sometimes to the detriment of unpacking the psychic impact of racism. Our solutions to these myriads of social problems are often conceptually tied to narrow technical questions about the nature of production, redistribution, increasing labour’s bargaining power and so on. And justifiably so, these are important problems in society that need to be resolved.
Yet when speaking to and on the oppressed masses these palliatives often seem insufficient. Particularly when juxtaposed with Blackist conceptions of South African society that appeal to base emotions. The strategy seems flawed yet we continue to pursue it, the question that remains is why do we do this and how do escape it’s shortcomings?
To understand why so-called class reductionist’s are wedded to the notion of changes to the economic system as being vehicles for social change it is important to understand how we/they understand the nature of social change. The general understanding held by materialists can be encapsulated by Bakunin’s invocation of Proudhon when he wrote: “the ideal … is but a flower, whose root lies in the material conditions of existence. Yes, the whole history of humanity, intellectual and moral, political and social, is but a reflection of its economic history“. This general proposition is broadly consistent with the outline Marx and Engels offer in the German Ideology. In the paper they argue that man’s beliefs, social practices etc emerge within man’s material existence. This means ideas do not create themselves,they do not appear out of thin air but are produced by the world they emerge from. It is important to note that they may take a life of their own, but they are not of their own making.
These branches of materialism are of the view that the material forces in a society are what give shape to its social relations. The function of this understanding is not to deny the salience of social relations. In fact it is the opposite, in stressing the relationship between the social and the material we make 2 key points.
Firstly, we are able to stress that no social phenomena emerges in vacuum. “That which precedes it, gives it its general shape” might perhaps be a useful axiom to use when conceptualising this relationship. Ideology, social norms and the beliefs we generally hold are thus inextricably linked to the conditions under which they emerge. As an intellectual activity this highly valuable as we are able to then develop a holistic understanding of social phenomena and instead of viewing them as narrow siloed developments we are able to locate them historically through the processes that produce and reproduce them. This has resulted in some amazing research and insights on race and gender, as well as the history of other identity based oppressions. This is not to argue that to be a materialist means that one readily possesses the answers to some of these pertinent social questions. Rather it is to argue that, assuming perfect information, a materialist analysis can offer us the ability to engage in this terrain. It can elucidate areas that might otherwise remain blind spots in our thinking. As a result a materialist might err when engaging with social phenomena, yet this is a product of the materialist being insufficiently materialist, rather than a flaw with the materialism itself.
Secondly, strategies for escaping the vagaries of our society emerge from this materialist understanding of the world. Understanding how people produce and reproduce their society helps us identify areas of intervention within the structure. It helps us locate the sources of exploitation and oppression, and subsequently allows us avenues for change. However the mere ability to identify these possibilities is meaningless if not widely communicated and engaged with by a diverse set of actors. The ability to spread understanding of the nature and source of exploitation enriches the praxis of those engaged in immediate struggles. The intellectual labour required by materialism should not be an excuse for a bourgeois indulgence that limits its time to bookstores and coffee shops. It must be orientated towards affecting positive change at some level. After all the philosophers have merely interpreted the world our task is to change it.
A way forward: Solidarity in the Face of Race and Class based Exploitation and Oppression.
There are of course other forms of “reductionism”, they often times operate on the basis of identity, be it race, gender and/or sexuality. The tensions that exist between these seemingly competing ways of understanding the world at times limit our political opportunities in these highly fractured times. After all, if our understanding of the world is so different how can we work together? This question is important yet I believe downplays the commonalities that exist between these different groupings. We all rightfully agree that all humans should have a decent quality of life, that they should be offered the opportunities to shelter themselves, clothe themselves and feed themselves. We agree that the current distribution of resources is unjust and needs to be fundamentally altered. We generally accept an egalitarian social order as the ideal. This shared understanding of the rampant inequalities that exist in South African society as well as what the good society could look like form the basis for collaboration.
This observation allows comrades of different ideological standing to support the struggles of organisations/movements like Abahlali baseMjondolo, Ndifuna Ukwazi, Reclaim the City, Social Justice Coalition and many others. The distinctions between race reductionists, gender reductionists and class reductionists do not preclude us from agreeing with the principles of increasing access to land, having a more equitable education system and so on and so forth. These agreements offer an ideological and concrete basis for collaboration.
The attainment of utopia may not be on the cards as of yet, but that does not prevent us from attempting to effect change where we can on the basis of solidarity and comradeship. Failing that we will be left with nothing but our slogans and the useless belief that our unique perspective is the most correct. The past teaches us that fractures among progressives have often coincided with rises in reactionary forces, it is our duty to prevent that rise.
By Kgosi Morena, a Cape Town based writer. The opinions expressed in this piece are not those of TPC, IFAA or their respective partners.
A Note on Intersectionality.
Those who hold special regard to intersectionality might perhaps feel that their view of the world is yet again being maligned in a discussion on social phenomena. After all they have given us the great insight that can be summed up as “oppression is multifaceted and we must account for it”. Yet it is the open ended-ness of this observation that holds intersectionality back. For all intersectionality does is to tell the individual “this problem affects people differently”.
It does not tell us how the problem emerges, it does not tell us how the problem is sustained, most importantly it does not tell us how the problem may be resolved. Most importantly it does not offer us any sense of possibilities on what can be done. It means the “framework” is open to co-option by those with less than progressive aims. It provides vehicles for corporatist agenda’s that view changes in the demographic composition of the elite as a radical departure from the status quo.
If I were to be unkind I would argue that all it tells us is to consider the plight of black women in general and black-queer-trans-differently-abled-gender-non-binary-femme-people in particular. Having done this it washes its hands and occasionally yells out “the revolution will be intersectional or it will be bullshit”. We thus thank the intersectionalists for the catchphrase and ask that we be allowed to carry on with actual theorising. They can rejoin us at the point of revolution and thus fulfill their historic mission.