Introducing: Intersectional Class Struggle by Michael Beyea Reagan
Featuring an excerpt from the first chapter.
Recently released in collaboration with the Institute for Anarchist Studies (IAS), Intersectional Class Struggle: Theory and Practice by Michael Beyea Reagan is a study on the diverse experiences of working-class people. He answers questions that come into play when we think about class:
What is class?
Why is it often connected to conflict and struggle?
What is the working class?
Why are class analysis and movements of the working class seeing a resurgence right now?
Reagan articulates that in light of Trump’s election and in the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the core problems of discussing class was the inability to easily define it. But the corrective that is offered and explored in depth is the concept of intersectionality, and the idea that social factors including race, class, gender, immigration, and disability colonialism must all be considered in how we analyze and understand class. This book presents concepts of racial capitalism, the experiences of farmworkers, factory workers, Black feminist thought, and how they apply to popular movements, as well as our ever-evolving understanding of class struggle.
It is not a coincidence that the freedom struggle for Black Americans has fueled other movements in the nineteenth century, such as labor, women’s liberation, and Indigenous sovereignty. Reagan points out that the concept of self-emancipation is often credited to white thinkers. While this is only one of the ways that white supremacy distorts society’s perspective on radical history, it also conveys that liberation movements seep into one another.
While Intersectional Class Struggle offers a thoughtful analysis and historical approach on intersectionality, the book serves as a tool for society — to restore a tradition of liberation and self-emancipation. Collectively, the working class consists of teachers, laborers, office workers, homemakers, parents, victims of systemic oppression, refugees, and migrants.
Together, the working class must create a better world free from exploitation and oppression.
Nobody will free us but ourselves.
An excerpt from Chapter 1 of Intersectional Class Struggle: “Experience”
“Like slaves.” That’s how Jessie de la Cruz remembers their time as an agricultural worker in California’s San Joaquin Valley in the early part of the twentieth century. “The farmers treated the horses and the cows . . . better than the farmworkers,” de la Cruz said. “At least they had shelter . . . but the farmworkers, we lived under the trees.”
Then, as now, agricultural workers faced difficult and dehumanizing conditions. Paid by the piece, the volume of crop they harvested, workers like de la Cruz moved at a frenzied pace to collect as much as possible. At a penny a pound, on a very good day, harvesting 200 pounds of cotton, a worker could hope to bring in $2.00. The piece-rate system “acted as a built-in speed-up mechanism” compelling workers to move faster and faster, despite cracked and bleeding hands, stooped backs with deep aches, blisters, sun stroke, dehydration, and other limits from one’s body. It was no accident that Central Valley farms were known as “factories in the field.” Farmworkers and their families, who often worked in the fields together, lived in labor camps that lacked “beds, ovens, toilets, showers and running water.” Belén Flores remembered, “We suffered a lot, working in the camps.”
Luis Lima, another farmworker and labor organizer, framed their conditions as part of the system of capitalism: “All of the companies that were here in the San Joaquin Valley were strong companies that were protected by Wall Street. Only the people in charge here and the landowners—these were the ones who had the power. And so we got nothing . . . You were a voluntary slave. Around here, we meant nothing to the ranchers.” “Voluntary slaves” or “like slaves”; the metaphor these workers used to define their own conditions, slavery, is commonly used by wage workers. Cotton has a long history with slavery, of course. It was the primary crop American slavery produced in the nineteenth century. But this was not nineteenth-century chattel slavery, this was something different, a new kind of labor, with new kinds of workers and new class relations. Capitalism and wages were producing new forms of exploitation, new classes, and new sites of struggle that were in some ways comparable to slavery.
The voices of de la Cruz, Flores, and Lima reflect a collective experience, a class consciousness, that is both specific to their circumstances and transcends their particular moment in the history of working-class struggle. Myriad factors all shaped their understanding of the class-structured society in which they struggled for dignity, recognition, and a better life. These factors included experiences of exploitation, racism, and violence on the job; ethnicity, immigration status, and labor militancy; the impact of transnational companies; and their own personal experiences, ideas, and aspirations. This intersection—of material factors made from social structures and working conditions, and cultural or ideological factors made from experiences and identities—is the foundation of class. With other voices, their class analysis shares a critique of capitalist labor regimes as a form of slavery and in some instances it has been the foundation of an emancipatory movement, part of a larger project of human emancipation from exploitation and oppression.
This chapter and the next explore the insights and consciousness of workers themselves as they came to understand modern capitalism and class society. The very first industrial workers in Britain and the United States developed a penetrating anti-capitalist movement that placed waged exploitation and property ownership at the heart of their critique. In the American context, industrial work regimes resembled slavery in the loss of control of our labor, so much so that wage labor was debated as a form of slavery in the early abolitionist press. Wages carried a twofold curse similar to the American slave system: a careful accounting to maximize the exploitation of laborers, and racism and racial divisions designed to make class solidarities more difficult. In fact, as the theorist Cedric Robinson points out, tensions between English and Irish workers made race a crucial part of class formation in every context; he argues that race is always co- formed with class. From its very foundation then, capitalism created racial processes of class formation.
In addition to race, women’s role as workers and members of the working class adds further complexity to the totality of class. Women were the first industrial labor force in the United States. Their double exploitation as women and workers led them to develop a form of class militancy, expressed in the identity of the “factory girl” that simultaneously challenged capitalism and patriarchy and created an early working-class feminism. Women excluded from the workforce were still part of the working class in the form of exploited “reproductive labor” that allowed profitable accumulation to continue; in fact, their unpaid labor greatly contributed to the profit-making process. They came to see capitalism and patriarchy as mutually reinforcing systems of control that needed to be struggled against holistically. Here capitalism and class emerge in the experiences and articulations of working-class women as co-formed with patriarchy and gender constructions.
It must be noted here, in these two chapters, that we analytically make distinctions between gender constructions of class versus ones based on race or property. But these divisions are abstractions meant to elucidate aspects of class and class formation for didactic purposes. Even though we start with English male workers, they are being “racialized” and gendered by the same material and cultural factors as are women, Black workers, and other workers of color. Therefore, racial formation for white male workers is just as much a phenomenon as it is for racialized “others,” as we’ll explore later in this book. Another factor we’ll explore later is the concept of social “totality,” that all these factors come together to make a complementary whole of capitalism, race, gender, and class, even though we separate them here for the purposes of explanation. This totality is reflected in people’s lived experiences, in which they commonly make these connections on their own in their critique of the totality of capitalism. It is difficult, however, to express this totality in writing without abstracting so that we can more easily explore the component parts.
Given this diversity, all these workers faced very different circumstances and developed their own particular, intersectional varieties of class consciousness. But they also encountered similar systems— capital—that gave elements of their experiences a shared core experience—class—despite their differences. One part of that shared experience was the institution of the wage. Workers came to see wages as fundamentally antithetical to human freedom. Held within the wage was a “permanent antagonism,” a conflict between workers’ wages and employers’ profits. At the root of this conflict was property. For employers who controlled property, its ownership did not come from a just division of work and responsibility but a relationship of power that kept workers from seeing the full return of their labor. Through wages and property, owners were able to extract profits, to the detriment of working people. This was a system somewhat like slavery in its compulsion of laborers who were not fully compensated for the wealth they created. As more people encountered capitalism and wages, the dissatisfaction with wages was developed into a systematic critique. It was not just wages and property that was injurious but the whole system of capitalism and its core supports in racism and patriarchy.