An Exploited, Dominated, and Oppressed Class?

By S. D’Arcy.

In the 19th century, European workers used to refer to themselves as an “oppressed class,” an expression that came to infuse the jargon of revolutionary socialists in that time and place. In the Communist Manifesto (1848), for instance, Marx and Engels analyzed what they called “the antagonism of oppressing and oppressed classes.”

But what did they mean by this term, “oppression”?

In the Manifesto itself, “oppression” (Unterdruckung) seems almost interchangeable with what Marx later, in Capital, came to call “domination” (Herrschaft), a term he borrowed from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. The Manifesto refers to the “slavish existence” of “oppressed classes.” Being “oppressed” is contrasted with “ruling,” so that the counterpart of the oppressed class is the “ruling class” (herrschenden Klasse). The classes referred to by Marx as “oppressed classes” (unterdrückter Klassen) were, in essence, those subjected to rule by others, “a few usurpers,” or what we now call “the 1%.” In his later work, however, Marx came increasingly to emphasize the theme of “exploitation” (Ausbeutung). The working class was an “exploited class,” as well as a dominated one.

Exploited, yes. But oppressed too?

Everyone calls Foxconn workers exploited. But are they oppressed as workers, too?

I think it would fair to say that, in Marx’s work, and in the jargon of 19th century European socialism more generally, “oppressed” meant roughly, exploited and dominated. Accordingly, women were described as “oppressed” because they were exploited and dominated, subjected (as Lenin put it) to a form of “domestic slavery.” Subaltern nations, too, were said to be oppressed, on the same basis: they were exploited and dominated by colonial and/or imperial powers.

But early in the 20th century (not long after the First World War), Marxism as a vital political tradition became increasingly a phenomenon of the Global South. Between the World Wars, revolutionary socialism went into decline in the North Atlantic countries (Western Europe, Canada, USA), just as the influence of revolutionary socialism grew in the “periphery” of global capitalism, in places like East Asia, Southeast Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, the Middle East, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and Central and South America. As the centre of gravity within Marxism shifted decisively toward the Global South, it was to be expected that its vocabulary would evolve. One of the ways it changed was that the concept of oppression was used less and less to refer to the working class, as the theme of exploitation came to the foreground of the marxist analysis of class, and the theme of oppression became more and more associated with the position of women, racialized groups, and especially oppressed nationalities.

At times, this contrast between class, as a form of exploitation, and gender, racial and national subordination, as forms of oppression, has been advanced as a clear point of contrast (rather than a subtle difference of emphasis). Some people, within Marxism, have suggested that workers are not “oppressed” as workers, but only as women, as people of colour, and so on, and that they are only “exploited” in their capacity as workers, not in these other dimensions. (Later, other groups were added to the ‘oppression’ side of this exploitation/oppression contrast: disabled people, the elderly, LGBTQ people, and others). Notably, the older, republicanism-inflected concept of “domination” seems to have mostly fallen out of the Left’s vocabulary, with the partial exception of anti-colonial contexts, where it still appears.

But, while we can perhaps understand how this contrast between exploited (but not oppressed) classes and oppressed (but not exploited) non-class ‘identities’ arose, we really should admit that it is founded on a mistake. The mistake seems twofold.

First, some of the groups on the oppression side seem clearly to be exploited. (Here I will confine myself to one example: women.) The fact that the domestic labour of women as women is exploited is well-established by social research (and common knowledge). This is clearly part and parcel of sexism, not just a manifestation of the generalized exploitation of workers by employers. So, locating women (as women) on the oppression side, supposedly in contrast to exploitation, leaving us to acknowledge them as exploited only in their capacity as female workers, seems wrong-headed and “ad hoc.” We know full well that the domestic labour of women, as women (and more precisely, as targets of sexism), is exploited. (The exploitation here is not capitalist exploitation in the narrow sense, i.e., surplus-value extraction by investor-capitalists. But it is an organized, institutionalized system of extraction of surplus labour for the reproduction of labour-power: that is, it is exploited by the capitalist system as a form of unpaid reproductive work.)

Second, the picture painted by the oppression/exploitation duality is mistaken because it depicts workers as exploited but not oppressed as workers. But the subordination of workers  as workers does not only happen at the level of exploitation. Crucially, there are also aspects of oppression in general that bear on “relations to self” (e.g., self-confidence, self-esteem, self-respect, self-knowledge). These positive relations to self are blocked or eroded by class oppression, in a way that directly parallels the processes of oppression imposed on women, racialized groups and colonized peoples. Consider some examples (a very partial list):

  • the erasure of working-class history from the history that is widely taught and celebrated;
  • the systematic disparagement of working-class culture and forms of life;
  • the invisibility of working-class people in high-profile discussions of public affairs;
  • the consistent mis-attribution of workers’ achievements to their bosses (e.g., “Steve Jobs invented the iphone and ipad,” “Starbucks makes good coffee,” etc.);
  • the misrepresentation of workers as passive beneficiaries rather than leading agents of progressive social and legal change;
  • the diminished credibility accorded to working-class speech; and so on.

This system of oppressive practices and institutions encourages workers to internalize a negative understanding of who they are, always threatening to undermine their self-confidence and self-esteem, and other positive relations to self. (Of course, workers obviously resist these pressures, too, and push back against them in many ways.) This process has been extensively analyzed in connection with other forms of oppression, including colonialism (see Frantz Fanon, Howard Adams and many others), sexism (see Simone de Beauvoir, Sandra Bartky, and many others), and racism (WEB DuBois, ML King, Malcolm X, Bernard Boxill, and many others). The way in which subordination is instituted and reproduced, and resistance is discouraged and undermined, by the internalization of such demeaning and disempowering understandings of subordinate groups, is quite well-understood. That it operates on the working class is not a new insight. One famous and influential book, The Hidden Injuries of Class, has given detailed attention to the point. But we should admit that, given that we understand how crucial this process is to oppression and how distinct it is from exploitation, that these insights seem effectively to refute the simple picture of the oppressed non-class identity-groups in contrast to exploited classes.

Perhaps we can better see how these notions of domination, exploitation and oppression relate to one another if we set out simple and clear definitions, consistent with standard usage.

Exploitation: the systematic diversion of the proceeds of the knowledge, creativity and effort of human labour to enrich a propertied elite, so that “the labour of the many [becomes] the wealth of the few” (Marx, 1871).

Domination: the usurpation of agency and autonomy, in private or public affairs, so that the life-activity [Lebenspraxis] of subordinates is subjected to the dictates of ‘masters’ or ‘rulers.’

Oppression: the imposition of systematic disadvantage on members of a social group (or ‘identity’), such as a gender, race, class, etc., generating a pattern of unfavorable ratios of benefits to burdens, and impaired opportunities to establish and maintain positive relations-to-self.

Applied to class, it is clear that all three concepts are relevant to describing the position of working-class people. Workers, in a capitalist society, are exploited (because their labour is diverted to investor-profiteering); they are dominated (because at work the boss dictates what they do and how, and in public affairs the employers’ state dictates to them and usurps their autonomy); and they are oppressed (because they assume far more burdens and derive far fewer benefits than the ruling class, and they are encouraged to internalize the demeaning and dis-empowering understanding of their competences and achievements that infuses the dominant ideology).

Does this shift, away from a ‘dualist’ oppression/exploitation picture, have any important political implications? I remain unsure. But at least it might foster an alertness to the complex and multidimensional character of ‘the injuries of class.’ Perhaps, too, it might encourage a greater wariness of the impulse to forget that the very fact of class itself is a grave injury and injustice, something to be abolished at the earliest opportunity: “When the proletariat is victorious, it by no means becomes the absolute side of society, for it is victorious only by abolishing itself and its opposite,” the ruling class (Marx and Engels, The Holy Family).

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