Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Class, Gender, Race, and Hierarchy

[From a broader article about anarchism, domination, and inequality.]

Surprisingly, I have met and read the writings of numerous sociologists and anarchists that claim that one of these major forms of inequality—class, gender, and race—are the central or ultimate forms, trumping the others. Sometimes this prioritization is a subtle implication one senses by the words used, but in other instances people have come out and stated the supposed omnipresence of one form over others. While the character of these forms has changed overtime and are not the same in all places, it is improper to dismiss some inequality at the expense of others. Authors and activists tend to make interesting and good arguments, but the fact that these three forms of inequality are continuously argued over and on behalf of is a sign that they are all formidable and not “minor” in respect to others. Different, yes, but not more or less important. To rank the importance of one form is to begin the exclusion of others, regardless of the empirical validity of the original argument. Decades of recent sociological research, as well as the far longer experience of social movements rooted in struggle against these forms, illustrates just how complex and deep-rooted each form is in modern societies.

Care should be taken to not “essentialize” one group’s experience as the normative experience of all others. For example, the experience of all men is not that of “pure” dominators. Black men and working-class men are disadvantaged in certain aspects of their lives, thus differentiating them from upper-class White men. Considering the impact of all forms of domination illustrates the multiplicative effect of disadvantage upon people. Then, individual conditions of disadvantage unique to one’s own life may be considered. Sociology considers average patterns between human groups, and generalizes those experiences and positions of disadvantage or privilege. Even averages, though, ignore differences since not all people share the exact same characteristics and conditions of those in their group.

In the following, I apply the six propositions offered above, in light of the dynamics of class, gender, and race inequality. As such, I explore an anarchist interpretation of these three major forms of inequality of interest to sociologists. Like sociologists, I argue that these are irreducible forms that are influenced by each other, but are independent. Unlike sociologists, however, I emphasize how an analysis based on mere inequality between “haves” and “have nots” often misses the hierarchy and authority relationships inherent in each. Also, I think it is important to note the shortcomings in efforts to “equalize” income, wealth, or resources between groups, and how anarchists aim to eliminate the entire hierarchical mechanisms underpinning each form of inequality. I discuss class, gender, and race in alphabetical order.


Class inequality is premised upon the hierarchical institution of capitalism that allows an owner class to give orders to middle- and working-classes. Power is thus rooted in economic relations of exploitation. Sometimes capitalists do not give middle-class managers and professionals direct orders, and, due to socialization that causes them to identify with the owner classes, these middle-classes run society on behalf of capitalist interests. Capitalists do not have the unquestioned right to their inherited wealth, luxurious lifestyles, or inexpensive laborers to boss around. Class domination results in negative consequences for those in the lowest class strata, including exhaustion and alienation. Yet, it is not just the working classes who suffer under capitalism—although they clearly suffer most—since class domination also creates desperation, jealousy, property crimes, and other phenomena that adversely affect everyone in society.

While class societies are generally founded upon myths of class mobility, it is very debatable how much mobility actually exists, how regular such mobility is, and whether existent mobility improves the overall state of affairs for all in a society. Mobility is usually aided by various forms of capital (economic, social, or cultural). But, since capital is monopolized by those who are already at the top of the class hierarchy, the wealthy can transmit capital to their children and thereby recreate class hierarchy.

Debate about class mobility is largely a shell-game. Capitalism is premised upon having workers under the control of managers and owners. Whether these workers are in the same society, or live overseas, some group must be in a disadvantaged position, thus experiencing a lack of empowerment, efficacy, autonomy, and self-management. Tinkering with symptoms like class inequality without addressing capitalism is bound to be a still-born or failing endeavor. Consequently, efforts like improving mobility, forming business unions and collective bargaining units, social welfare programs administered by the state, or progressive taxation of the wealthy do not change the fundamental relationships in capitalism between upper-, middle-, and working-classes. Anarchists have been very forthright with their demand for working-class power, by any means necessary, especially as these efforts further the dismantling of capitalism. The labor movement has been the entity to most seriously and vigilantly challenge capitalism, particularly through the mass actions of workers and their allies, using a variety of tactics ranging from protest to strikes, and sabotage to factory seizures.

Ultimately, class inequality can only be eliminated by removing the hierarchical relationships between classes, not just creating maximum and minimum wage laws, or allowing workers and managers the chance to sit-down at a table to discuss grievances. Instead, workers need to control not only the means of production, but also the decision-making apparatus necessarily to work. This emphasis differentiates anarchists from social-democratic efforts to narrow wage differentials, state socialist systems that collectivize productive power and give control to bureaucrats or technicians, and unionists that seek greater say in the workplace without possessing ultimate ownership of their efforts.

Class inequality not only involves unequal power relations between owners, management, and workers, but also union bureaucracy, government regulators, and all others who can intervene within the workplace. If politicians, party officials, specialists, or union officials are in the position to make decisions on behalf of workers, then workers cannot completely and directly control the things that matter greatly to the lived experience of class inequality. However, this does not foreclose the principal ways in which workers have traditionally used the labor movement to gain political and economic power in the past—through syndicalist unions democratically-run by all members. Anarcho-syndicalism has been the radical response to the problems of capitalism for working people seeking to express cross-industry solidarity, manage their own labor, and remain autonomous from both their [soon to be former] bosses and parasitic union leadership (Schmidt & van der Walt 2009).

Anarchists have also tended to reject any work done for the benefit of authority figures. Consequently, in a capitalist society, anarchists desire freedom from the necessity to “work”. The motivation to work in capitalist society is not for creativity, self-expression, or joy, but survival—people need money in order to buy food in order to live. Work is forced upon people and anarchists have often advocated “zero-work” beyond that immediately necessary to survive or that done for creative, community-building. In this zero-work conception of anarchism (expressed most eloquently by Bob Black’s The Abolition of Work), class mobility within the capitalist system is less desirable than autonomy from the entire class system. True worker self-management is achieved by being able to choose whether one labors or not, for whom, and how.


Inequalities between men and women predate class inequalities, as they are rooted in the millennia-old institution of patriarchy (literally: father rule). Power is derived from sexual relationships and gendered roles. Here, hierarchy is ordered in a way as to benefit men over women, elder men over younger men, and heteronormative performance over non-heterosexual behavior. Anarchists recognize that like all other forms of social domination, these arrangements are not biologically-determined, but created by unequal interactions between those with and without power in human societies. Many past societies have had more egalitarian social orders between sexes, illustrating that the present order can be changed by human initiative and struggle.

Gender is the socially-constructed characteristics attached to perceived biological sex that lead males to be socialized in a masculine fashion and females to be socialized in a feminine fashion. In Western, industrialized societies these forms of gender socialization help to exaggerate any meaningful biological differences (essentially in reproduction, size, etc.) and justify unequal behavioral patterns. It is perfectly possible for men to adopt so-called “feminine” characteristics and be compassionate, nurturing, and sociable. In fact, anarchists suggest that one way to improve the level of mutual aid, cooperation, and solidarity is to emphasize these traits over the competitive, aggressive, and dominating traits of masculinity. Men are clearly capable of such preferable behaviors, but are socialized to act in ways that perpetuate a variety of forms of domination. Other supposedly “masculine” characteristics like bravery or courage are appropriate for all people, and are not only held by men.

Beyond the gender inequality created by patriarchy, the very categories of female and male, feminine and masculine are socially-constructed. Patriarchy—along with heteronormativity—compel doctors and parents to force children into one sex or gender category of the other. Especially in the case of children with sex ambiguous characteristics, the drive is even more aggressive to clearly emphasize—through surgery or performance—one binary over the other. Patriarchy thus serves to subjugate transsexuals, transgender people, and even those with more “normative” attributes to standards that force individuals into predetermined acceptable behaviors and identities.

Domination results in negative consequences for women, such as a taken-for-grantedness, sexual abuse and rape, and objectification. But, gender domination also impacts men and the broader society, too, especially through widespread machismo and violence. Gender inequality manifests itself in numerous realms. Perhaps the most intimate domain is the family, where there are clearly gendered roles that hold women accountable for the majority of housework and child-rearing. Patriarchy also enables men to be in greater control over family resources and thus to make major strategic decisions independent of women’s input. Gender domination is a major factor within amorous relationships, witnessed by domestic battery, sexual assault, rape, and other forms of sexual manipulation and control that men wield over women—again due to their gendered socialization, greater resources, independence, and physical size. Men do not have an inherent right to unrestricted sexual access to woman, nor the right to free house-cleaners and babysitters.

Outside of the family and domestic sphere, gender inequality disadvantages women in the workplace as they are relegated to low-ranking jobs where they do “female-gendered” work that is less well-paid, creative, and under their own control. Culturally, women are regularly viewed as the sole figures responsible for child care. And, due to their “feminine” characteristics, women find themselves the subject of paternalism where men speak and act on their behalf.

Unlike the sociological ideas of class mobility, there is no real upward mobility for women in society, except as a result of the in-roads made by the liberal feminist movement. Also, unlike Marxian views of class revolution, overturning the gender hierarchy to establish women on top and men on the bottom does not produce a desirable outcome. Anarchists and feminists have been clear advocates of removing barriers between men and women, empowering women to exercise more self-determination, and removing the avenues by which men may dominate. To be clear, anarchists do not advocate merely eliminating male privileges, but expanding the realm of freedom to include female participation in those privileges. By doing so, the range of freedom does not merely increase, but also change character to include freedom that tolerates others, enables cooperation and solidarity, and reduces the potential for power over others. Pro-feminist men are important allies in the struggle for greater gender equality in so far as they defect from male privilege. But, equally important is the need for more women to openly embrace radical feminist consciousness, not only by witnessing their own subjugation to patriarchy and how inaction perpetuates it, but also the empowerment gained by assuming a feminist identity. However, feminism is not enough to end gender domination, especially if feminism is only liberal in character and premised upon women having equal representation in other hierarchical institutions like capitalism or the state. To exist within such institutions founded upon hierarchy and domination, women must usually adopt masculine traits of domination, competition, and aggression. A greater presence of women within hierarchies does not achieve true gender equality, nor liberation. Having a woman president or CEO does not change the fundamental nature of the hierarchical state or corporation.


Racial inequality results from the exercise of racially-determined power—in most modern societies this indicates a hierarchy based upon White supremacy. Race is understood to be the artificially-created categories based upon perceived (and supposed) biological differences between groups of people. These categories are actually socially-constructed and have little to do with genetics (despite popular belief). Consequently, “race” is a fluid idea and has more to do with prevailing arrangements of power than with any substantive differences. For example, in the United States, race has been legally-created to offer privileges (political, economic, and social) to some people and not others. The state—through legislation and court decisions—has created one group (“Whites”) as a superior group, benefiting from the best access to political power, property ownership, legal protection, social status, and so forth. At the same time, other groups—namely Native Americans and African slaves—were denied access to these resources, as were many incoming immigrant groups. Race is premised upon the hierarchical institution of White supremacy, which creates a strata of races, with Whites at the top. Yet, this arrangement is no more “god-given”, natural, or inevitable than class or gender hierarchies—as changing legal interpretations of racial categories has clearly shown (L√≥pez 1996).

While race describes artificially propped-up dimensions, it still has a real-world salience. Racial minorities, although not in any way inherently inferior, have received fewer privileges in all societies than have dominant races. Specifically, White supremacy results in negative consequences for individual racial minorities, including shame, targeted profiling, and fewer life chances.

The problems of White supremacy are considered by anarchists to be wider than just “racism” (prejudicial attitudes of superiority by dominant group members). Individual racists are—on the whole—rather insignificant in comparison to massive institutionalized racism. Therefore, a true analysis of racial inequality would have to include all the institutions that perpetuate racial inequality: housing markets, the “criminal justice system” (aka “deviance response processes”), law enforcement, exploitative corporations, government policies, etc. Even during modern times where supposed “civil rights” exist in law books, there is de facto racism and racial inequality rooted in centuries of past discriminatory practices. Racist ideologies perpetuate many of these practices and help to justify inequality as somehow the “natural” consequence of minority stupidity, laziness, or ineptitude. In actual fact, White supremacy is the villain that creates racial inequality.

Minority groups deserve racial autonomy from dominant groups, whether through increased collective power, broadened rights and freedoms, or through independence (in a cultural, spatial, or political sense). To the extent that conditions and experiences have improved for minorities, it has only been through the in-roads created by anti-racist and civil-rights movements (which include national liberation organizations). The individual mobility of a few individual minority group members is not heralded by anarchists as an end to White supremacy or racial inequality, but merely as evidence demonstrating the flexibility of capitalism and the state. In the end, collective struggle in movements is the true means of eliminating White supremacy, whether through race-conscious education and action or through racial disobedience or race riots.

Ultimately, these forms of inequality and domination could be expanded to other categories, such as ability, age, sexual orientation, and others. In countries outside of the United States, inequality may rest upon still other factors, such as religion, nationality or citizenship, language, indigenous status, region of residence, caste, or any of an increasingly wide array of factors. Regardless of the form of domination, how are we to understand and study the broader phenomenon in societies?

1 comment:

  1. @ZenMamaPolitic

    This is an excellent example of Sociological writing. I commented recently (on another Sociological site): 'Crunk Feminist Collective'; regarding a similar issue. This proposed the recent meeting between President Obama & Jan Brewer. I suggested that the true problem at the meeting involved, the intersections of: White Privilege with current unequal race/gender/class hierarchies. Since there were some 'unusually uneducated' postings on this site recently (this site obviously normally has conversations amongst Feminists- or at least those that understand Feminist idealism);I thought perhaps you could give your educated opinion on the site below, about this subject.

    The article is entitled: 'White Women’s Rage: 5 Thoughts on Why Jan Brewer Should Keep Her Fingers to Herself'.

    Link: http://bit.ly/wWH32b (Hope This Shows Up On Blogger)

    You should take a look. Great Post.