Class AND/OR Gender, Ethnicity Etc

By | November 26, 2015

In much of what I have written in formal academic publications or in blogs the focus has been on social class (as in the class/command dynamic that characterises financial capitalism and, for me, constitutes its chief generative mechanism). I have had much less to say about gender, ethnicity and so on. There is a rationale for this. Class is fundamental to capitalism in all its guises, whereas gender and ethnicity, although historically prior to class, are not.

Capitalist formations built many new roads, but it also retained and upgraded many a gender and ethnic pathway. In consequence capitalism formations seem intractably gendered and ‘racialized’, with sexism and racism still rampant. In fact to many commentators sexism and racism appear more salient in financial capitalism than ‘classism’: class as a social structure or relation no longer translates as easily or smoothly into class-consciousness and classism as it did even a generation ago (during postwar welfare capitalism).

I have been reading Andrew Sayer’s remarkable Why We Can’t Afford the Rich. He is eloquence personified. He highlights the continuing significance of sexism, racism (and disablism) and their contributions to ‘unfair inequalities’, based primarily on various forms of prejudice and discrimination. He expands:

‘while gender and race inequalities are produced primarily by sexism and racism, class differences would persist even if the upper and middle classes were nice and respectful to the working class. The unequal distribution of property and the unequal division of labour would be largely unaffected. Class prejudice is common, but it’s more a ‘response to’ economic inequalities than a cause of them. By contrast, the enduring of sexism and racism would have a major impact on gender and race inequalities’ (p.170).  

Sayer acknowledges that gender and ethnic inequalities can be the product of structural features. Groups can be trapped in poor neighbourhoods less by any prejudice against them than by their inability to afford better housing. Predominant among the ‘structural features’ that feed into gender and ethnic inequalities, however, are the unequal division of labour and inequalities in pay and property ownership.

Competitive forces will take advantage of any inequalities they can, for example in their pursuit of cheap labour. But capitalism does not need inequalities of gender and ethnicity: ‘there are plenty of other ways of making a profit’. What employers need are ‘workers’ (of whatever gender, ethnic group):

‘… and they do need control over the means of production. Capitalism is not dependent for its very existence on these other sources of inequality, but it does depend on controlling the means of production’ (p.170).

Sayer continues:

‘ this is why equal opportunity policies are usually quite good on gender, race, age, sexuality, religion and disability, but silent on economic class.’

‘Enlightened’ employers don’t even pretend to challenge ‘structural class differences’ (p.170). (No more, I might add, do most socio-epidemiologically inclined sociologists researching and writing on health inequalities!)

I draw this briefest of blogs to its conclusion with another quotation from Andrew Sayer. It rubs the point home:

‘Neoliberals – New Labour for example – can appear quite progressive about gender, race, sexuality, disability and condemn those who discriminate against people on these grounds. Unsurprisingly, the elephant in the room is economic inequalities or class differences. Though it never admits it, neoliberalism is a political-economic movement that seeks to legitimise widening economic inequalities and defend rentier interests above all others. Rentiers can live off others regardless of their gender, race, sexuality and so on’ (p.170)

Its horses for courses, naturally. My own settlement on relations of class (and command) has been fashioned by my sociological focus on economic and health inequalities in capitalism. But this should not be understood as a failure to recognise, or an attempt to downgrade, the likes of gender and ethnicity, whether understood as structures/relations or as sets of predispositions to dismiss or discriminate. Inequalities of gender, ethnicity, age, sexuality, disability and so on.

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