Where oppression comes from

October 9, 2009

Oppression is built into the social fabric of the societies in which we live--and therefore needs to be explicitly and openly challenged.

EVERYWHERE WE turn, we find evidence of a society where people are mistreated based on various physical, sexual (or sexual preference), linguistic, age and national characteristics.

An exonerated Black man in Chicago, who had spent 15 years in prison, goes to a car dealership, puts $20,000 down for a car and is given the runaround by employees, who claim to lose his application. After the man sees the application on a desk and raises a complaint, the police are called in, and they Taser and arrest him.

An 11-year-old boy in Springfield, Mass., hangs himself with an extension cord after being bullied all year by his school peers for acting "feminine."

A restaurant manager in Silver Springs, Md., explaining that his restaurant is a "family establishment," asks two lesbian women to leave after they hug each other.

An immigrant mother from Oaxaca has her newborn taken away from her by a judge in Pascagoula, Miss., because she cannot speak English, and this makes her "unfit."

The advertisements for a new film includes the phrase, "Deaf girls never hear you coming"--making a joke out of both rape and hearing impairment.

Thousands of examples such as these--some milder, some much worse--could be listed.

People experience many of these things as individual acts of discrimination or violence. While it is certainly true that individuals can be and are the bearers of racist, sexist, xenophobic or homophobic ideas and behavior, all of these oppressions are systemic--that is, legally, institutionally or in some other systematic form, they are part of the fabric of the societies in which we live.

Take the question of racial oppression in the United States. Indians and African Americans--and to a somewhat lesser extent, Latinos--suffer higher rates of unemployment, lower pay, worse housing, and greater rates of police harassment, arrest and incarceration than their white counterparts.

Women are still relegated to lower-paying jobs, face sexual harassment and rape, and are expected to work both inside and outside the home. And increasingly in the U.S., they are faced with restrictions on their right to control their own reproductive health. Sexist imagery and commentary that denigrate women are more and more a part of the mainstream.

Though, in general, the level of acceptance in society toward LGBT people has increased over the past few decades, they still face systematic legal and social discrimination, as well as violence and police brutality. A 2005 Amnesty International report "documented serious patterns of police misconduct and brutality aimed at LGBT people, including abuses that amount to torture and ill treatment" in the U.S.

WHILE SOME activists and academics in the past might have been tempted to argue that these different forms of oppression have no connection to one another, the argument is hard to maintain in the face of the recent activity of the "tea baggers." For these hard-core conservatives, bashing gays, scapegoating Blacks and immigrants, opposing a woman's right to choose, and opposing social spending are all part of an interwoven tapestry of hate.

Marxists also argue that these oppressions are interwoven into a single tapestry--the tapestry of capitalism.

Capitalism needs oppression. The Industrial Workers of the World used to have a saying that if all the workers of the world spit at the same time, the tiny capitalist class would drown.

In order to prevent such a scenario, the working class is split apart and set against itself, by means of race, sex, nationality, sexual preference and so on. Without these divisions, capitalism could not survive. At the moments they are overcome, capitalism is threatened.

The origins and specific features of each form of oppression is different, but they are all tied together by their utility to the system. This is not to say that capitalism invented oppression. But capitalism has taken older forms, and reshaped and remolded them to its own needs, as well as creating new ones. Divide-and-rule no doubt predates capitalism, but capitalism perfected it.

The British deliberately fostered enmity between Hindus and Muslims as a means of maintaining their rule in India. "I am sorry to hear of the increasing friction between Hindus and Mohameddans," wrote a British official to Lord Elgin in 1897. "One hardly knows what to wish for; unity of ideas and action would be very dangerous politically. Divergence of ideas and collision are administratively troublesome. Of the two the latter is the least risky."

Karl Marx wrote of how in Britain itself, the capitalist class stoked the fires of hatred between English and poorly paid Irish workers, the English worker being encouraged to see the Irish worker as a "competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and so turns himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists of his country against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself."

Marx compares the attitude of the English worker to the Irish worker to that of poor whites in the South to the former Black slaves:

This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And that class is fully aware of it.

The U.S. 19th century robber baron Jay Gould was more blunt, stating, "I can get one half of the working class to kill the other half."

THE OPPRESSION of women and LGBT people has a different source, but one that is no less linked to the survival of capitalism. Capitalism depends upon the "private" family, on women's roles as housewives and mothers for its survival. As author Sharon Smith wrote:

Privatized reproduction within the nuclear family consists of bearing and raising the next generation of workers for capitalism, and of preparing present-day workers to reproduce their labor each day. This function of the family has become essential to the existence of capitalism, as a cheap means of maintaining the labor force.

Capitalism creates a contradictory situation for women. On the one hand, the mass entry of women into the paid labor force creates the conditions in which they can become aware of their own power and begin to struggle for their own liberation. On the other hand, capitalism's dependence on the private family means that women face a double burden of wage work and housework.

That same contradiction brought about by the rise of industrial capitalism explains both the creation of a gay identity and the oppression of LBGT people. On the one hand, the rise of wage labor and growth of cities created conditions in which people with different sexual preferences could find ways to link up outside the traditional family setting.

On the other hand, capitalism's continued dependence on the family for cheaply raising the next generation of workers has been buttressed by an ideology that emphasizes heterosexuality and stigmatizes other forms of sexuality.

So long as capitalism depends on the family, it will be almost impossible to completely eliminate the oppression of LBGT people. Capitalism both undermines the nuclear family by drawing its members into the workforce and weakening the economic ties that once held families together, and reinforces it ideologically because it depends on it.

While certain things--like schooling and, to a certain extent, day care--have taken away some of the functions formerly assigned to the family, capitalism still depends on it to raise the next generation of workers. "While capitalism has knocked the material foundations away from family life," writes John D'Emilio, "lesbians, gay men and heterosexual feminists have become the scapegoats for the social instability of the system."

The point is this. If capitalism depends for its survival on these oppressions, then the struggle against them must be linked to each other--and to a fight against capitalism itself.

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