A Critique of Anti-Assimilation, Part I

By Operaista
Reposted from Glittertariat

AKA "Why I hate the term 'classism'"; "Why I hate inverted hierarchies" will be Part II

A really big, important concept in radical queer thought and struggle is Anti-Assimilation, which, at its most basic, is "we don't want to elevate our position in the social order by becoming as much like the straights as possible"; clearly, there are a wide variety of possible positions that could be described as anti-assimilationist by that decision - from the communist position of "abolish the present state of things, the revolution is communization" to a very reformist view that just seeks to allow all genders, sexualities, expressions, etc, to be put on an equal footing. Between these two very different poles lie most people who would describe themselves as anti-assimilationist; in fact, I bet many who read this would point out that the very limited, reformist view of anti-assimilationism is not held by many who would use the term (which is true).

I feel that a lot of radical queers (and even anarcho-queer tendencies) tend to fall somewhere in the middle; there is the realization that things other than heteronormativity need to be abolished, but, there is a serious lack of class struggle content that stems from a poor understanding of very basic concepts we use when we speak of class struggle. The root misunderstanding is not getting what class is, which is a social relation, in particular, the relationship to the means of production.

At the most basic, we have the proletariat (the working class) that has no access to the means of making/acquiring the necessities of life, and thus must sell their labor power (go to work each day) so they can acquire said necessities, and we have the bourgeoisie (capitalists), who own the means of production, and buy the labor power of proletarians so that the labor is used to transform commodities into other commodities; they sell the commodities, and out of that, pay their workers some of the value of their labor and keep the rest of it. We call this last bit exploitation, as the capitalists take surplus (in the sense that the worker can survive to the next day on the value they are paid in wages) labor value from the workers. Sure, we can talk about stratifications in classes, petite vs. grande bourgeoisie, etc., but that's really not important to the very basic understanding we're going for here.

Okay, as time goes on, I'll try not to repeat the prior paragraph too often in this blog, but it's pretty central to the critique of the concept of "classism" and, if you come from an anti-oppression/social justice background, nothing like the definition of class you've seen over and over. That definition revolves around sociological factors: amount of education, type of work done, cultural cues, etc; often times we'll see the small business owner and the office worker both placed in a "middle class" and "working class" as code for working poor. While stratifications within classes are meaningful and worth talking about, particularly those in the working class - they're not the core of what class is about. By ignoring the relationship to the means of production, the sociological model of class naturalizes the capitalist organization of society.

The deployment of a sociological definition of class lets one talk about classism, the idea that class is nothing but systemic prejudices where there are a hierarchy of classes going on, each one privileged over the ones below it and oppressed by the ones beneath; and that class is reducible to something much like race or gender or sexuality, making it one more thing to try and undo oppression in, rather than abolish.

Thus, we have a fundamental misunderstanding of what class is leading to a massive strategic error in what to do about it. A strategic error that has us set aside the central goal of the communist movement: the working class, through its self-directed struggle, as a class stepping outside of capital and destroying it. We replace this with the much less inspiring goal of getting one social stratification to be nicer than another.

The more important effect of this, for purposes of this discussion, is that now class can be "safely" ignored for most or all of the time, or reduced to some anti-oppression speak. This allows us to construct an anti-assimilationist politic that doesn't include whether mass organizations are mainly serving bourgeois interests or proletarian interests. For instance, two short critiques of the classic assimilationist LGBT organization, HRC.

First, the "classism" critique:

"HRC seems to really only represent the interests of white upper middle class gender normative cis lesbians and gays. I think it's classist that even when they talk about the economic benefits of marriage, they assume either partner actually has health insurance. They don't seem to present any options for queer youth who have difficult times in their families of origins and now have to resist the military being presented to them as a way out. As an organization, HRC is pretty classist."

Now, a more class struggle critique:

"HRC is clearly an organization that represents bourgeois interests. Their agenda comes from the top down, and they don't offer opportunities for working class queers to participate in decision making processes - just raise funds and market a brand. While marriage presents real economic benefits to some working class queers, the way HRC has made all queer struggle about marriage, and channeled that struggle into electoral and legal campaigns, where it is controlled by politicians and big law firms, has sapped a lot of the energy to struggle from a lot of working class queer communities, and taken away from attempts to gain survival and moderate term needs of working class queers: access to health care, strong self-organization of the working class to help protect ourselves from homophobia and transphobia in our workplaces and neighborhoods, networks of mutual support, and so on."

In Part II, we'll talk about how inverted hierarchies arise in anti-assimilationist politics, and how anti-assimilation often has no idea what it is struggling against.