Jobs and gender (was: Gender, Race, and Publishing on the Left)

Wojtek Sokolowski sokol at
Fri Jun 19 08:34:32 PDT 1998

At 10:05 PM 6/18/98 -0500, Yoshie wrote:
>Fundamentally, without changing sexist attitudes, the only workers unions
>are always committed to protect--both in economically good times and bad
>times--would be white male workers, according to your own argument. Doesn't
>this point to the absolute importance of battling racism and sexism head on
>within unions?

I reply (to the above as well as your posting to the "left conservatism" thread):

I think the problem is a bit more complex than a simple attitude (or culture) vs. material interests dichotomy. To begin with, different material interests are often mutually contradictory. For example, the material interests of a male breadwinner often contradict the interests of a worker. As a male breadwinner, a person has the interest in getting the highest possible wage and that means excluding other workers from good jobs. As a worker, a person has the interest in getting the best possible working conditions (including wages), and that means solidarity with other workers vis a vis the management.

Solving those contradictions require some sort of 'cognitive lenses' or a set of values that can rank-order, that is, perceive certain interests as more salient or important than other interests. Therefore, sexism might be an ideology that dove-tails with the interests as a male breadwinner; that is, defines the role of a male as a family provider, and defines the family wage as the most salient material interest (with all the consequences of excluding women from the labour market). Socialism, by contrast, is an ideology that dove-tails with the intersts as worker, and defines the person as a worker, and makes worker solidarity vis a vis the management the most salient material interest.

There is, therefore, an elective affinity between different material interests and different ideologies. That elective affinity works both ways: a person my be receptive to ideologies that best suit what he/she perceives as most salient material interests and vice versa - he/she might perceive as most salient those material interests that are consistent with his/her ideology.

Of course, those perceptions are not carved in stone - they are usually subject to different social influences, such as life experience, 'stock knowledge' (i.e. commonly held values and beliefs), indoctrination (school, church, media, family), collective action participation (unions, strikes, social movements, civic associations, volunteering, even religious rituals), work experience, etc.

It follows that:

1. political divisions cannot be subsumed to simple dichotimies like conservative/progressive, left/right etc.; they are usually a function of various combination of ideological and material interests;

2. social change and mobilising people for that change usually involves much more than a simple change in attitudes; it requires changing the entire cognitive framework through which social/political values, ideologies, material intersts etc. are perceived; and

3. such changes in cognitive framework do not happen by itself, i.e. when a person suddently starts to see his/her "true" interests (cf. the false consciousness myth); these farmeworks are shaped by a person's entire life experiences - and it takes more than a simple revelation, indoctrination, or argumentation to change them; it is a process that requires perosnal experience, participation in collective action, peer pressure, indoctrination-argumentation etc.

So we cannot expect that the proverbial white blue collar worker will abandon his sexist/racist/homophobic attitudes overnight and embrace a different set of values, simply as a result of economic squeeze. It is a more complex process that requires a through underestand of various reasons why people adopt certain attitudes (rather than simply condemning them as incompatible with the 'proper' consciousness).

At the same time, however, cultural and religious ideologies and identities can be a complete diversion from real issues, if we focus exclusively on them, and forget their elective affinities to different material intersts. To give an example most people on this list would probably agree with, the 'family values' pitch is an example of such diversion, because it focuses exclusively on the 'values' and totally ignores different material interests those 'values' serve or disserve. I think the same can be said about certain varieties of other types of identity politics: Black, women, gay, blue collar etc.

To reiterate, it is not the id politics per se, but the id politics that obscures the material interests they serve and disserve that are diversive.



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