Capitalism is not just an economic order, it is a political order because class rule is always and everywhere about the exercise of power. As Marx and Engels pointed out in the Communist Manifesto, capitalism has not done away with oppression, “It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle.”
For Marx, class society is by nature oppressive: where there is a ruling class, there is an oppressed class beneath their heels. To ensure the rule of the 1% over the 99%, capitalism uses diverse forms of oppression to attack specific groups in order to divide and conquer. But as we’ve seen with refugee struggle and solidarity, the fight against oppression is central to challenging capitalism.
The creation of the working class
Capitalists did not gain their immense wealth as the result of the operation of the indifferent laws of the market. Such laws did not and do not exist: they gained their wealth by violently forcing workers to make their wealth and by stealing anything they could.
The first big capitalists used military force in order to enclose the commons—monopolising woods, lands, waters, and wastes previously held in common by the peasantry. Extreme violence was used to enforce this new monopoly, resulting in a massive internal migration into the cities, where, unfortunately only poverty and more violence awaited them. In Marx's words, these peasants “were turned en masse into beggars, robbers, vagabonds, partly from inclination, in most cases from stress of circumstances. Hence at the end of the 15th and during the whole of the 16th century, throughout Western Europe a bloody legislation against vagabondage.”
The first anti-vagabond laws prescribed “whipping and imprisonment for vagabonds. They (were) to be tied to the cart-tail and whipped until the blood stream from their bodies, then to swear an oath to ... ‘put themselves to labour.’ … For the second arrest for vagabondage the whipping (was) to be repeated and half the ear sliced off; but for the third relapse the offender (was) to be executed as a hardened criminal and enemy of the common weal.” A vagabond was anyone who was able bodied, unemployed, and homeless—meaning that these laws effectively punished the peasants for their own dispossession. This process turned the peasant population into what we now think of as the working class.
There are two major classes under capitalism: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, or the capitalists and the workers. While workers produce goods and services, the capitalist class take for themselves the vast majority of these goods and services. They are able to do this because they own the means of production. In a sense, the capitalist class owns the workers themselves. We can try to choose whom we work for, but we gotta work for somebody. So the working class can be thought of as pool of labour held in common by the whole capitalist class.
How the ruling class rules
We live in a world in which a tiny proportion of people rule over the vast majority: the 1% over the 99%. The position of the capitalist class depends upon their ability to successfully cultivate the conditions that allow them to rule. This, of course, involves reproducing exploitation and the immense accumulation of their private wealth—but it also involves strategies of repression, violence, ideological control, and social manipulation.
The working class as a whole, and each individual worker, needs to be beaten, moulded, coerced, and manipulated into staying in their place and accepting the control which our rulers exercise over society. For the ruling class, this involves an extremely complex social machinery: schools, churches, the media, the police, government institutions, the medical establishment, and commodity production itself. We are all of us subjected and more or less subjugated to this machinery from the moment we are born.
I want to emphasise that this “machinery” is not perfectly controlled by the ruling class, who in any case are not always as competent at ruling as you might believe. Not only because they very often buy their own ideology, but also because the institutions that they use to exercise their control are also sites of struggle. So for example, they may like for teachers to only teach to the test or to pass down acceptably white-washed history, but then teachers don't always agree. In the same vein, low-level government employees sometimes try to work the system for the benefit of the poor, or may simply look the other way for someone in need when they can get away with it. More systematically, there can be wide challenges to things like school dress coding for girls or to draconian immigration laws. Nevertheless, this is always an uphill battle.
In other words, oppression defines the position of the working class. Every worker no matter their sex, orientation, race, or abilities remains subject to the arbitrary power and authority of the ruling class. This becomes clear as soon as we enter into struggle: bosses fire workers for organizing a strike, or the police attack protesters. To paraphrase Rosa Luxemburg, it is when we move that we really feel our chains.
All that being said, clearly workers do not all experience the fact of being ruled over in the same way. While the ruling class might generally oppress the working class, it also reproduces specific forms of oppression—racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, disability oppression. Each form of oppression has its own history and dynamic and so also needs to be studied in their own right.
Still, if we continue to think of oppression as the way in which a class rules over others then this suggests that in order to begin to understand differences in oppression we need to begin from the strategic needs of the capitalist class as a ruling class. In other words, different forms of oppression have their root cause in the power of the capitalist class to shape society in order to maximize their strategic interests.
Even though all workers might belong to the capitalist class in common, it doesn't follow that the capitalist class needs the same thing from all of us. Divisions in the population, then, in part reflect the attempts of our rulers to carve communities up in ways that serve a social division of labour that keeps the bosses on top. This involves, for example, producing skilled and unskilled labour in the particular proportion that capital requires or thinks it will require. It could also involve convenient biological divisions of labour—making the fact of having a uterus, for instance, sufficient condition for a special control and supervision over one's biological powers and desires.
Frequently, the result of such divisions is that certain sectors of society are particularly vulnerable. This makes them easy victims for things like budget cuts, the dumping of pollutants, or, in the case of the First Nations peoples, outright theft. Moreover, keeping the position of a particular segment of the population low also allows the ruling class to lower the ceiling for those segments of the population not picked out for similar levels of oppression. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, oppression allows the ruling class to divide us against each other in order to keep us from uniting against them.
For example, anti-migrant racism creates a pool of super-exploited labour that drives down wages and uses nationalism to divide the international working class. The purpose of anti-immigrant racism is not actually to keep all immigrants out. The West relies on the cheap labour it extracts from immigrants who are often too unsafe and insecure to demand decent wages, humane working conditions, or dignity. If they ever managed to completely stop illegal immigration, the effect would be disastrous for most western capitalisms. In other words, anti-immigrant racism is a tool by which the ruling class manages the labour force which is available to it. And it has historically been a very effective tool, simultaneously keeping immigrants down and binding other workers to their masters with nationalism.
To summarise, differences in oppression meet at least four strategic needs of the capitalist class. (1) It carves the population up into the components of a social division of labour that maintains the wealth and power of the capitalists, (2) it creates groups who are particularly vulnerable to the predations of the capitalist class, (3) it creates weak points in the strength of the working class as a whole from which the conditions of the rest of the class can be attacked, (4) and perhaps most importantly, it divides the working class against each other, further weakening our ability to confront the bosses as a unified class.
Oppression within the 99%
Clearly, though, the complicated system of oppressions that we are all born into is not exclusively enforced by the ruling class. If they were not able to recruit us as accomplices in our own oppression, this system would fail pretty quickly. There is a long and sordid history, for example, of racial exclusions from the trade unions. It is plain as day that workers can be and frequently are full of all kinds of bigotry. For example, workers are just as capable of slut-shaming women as bosses are. And not just male workers, women also absorb the gender order.
Part of the explanation for the fact that the victims of oppression can also be its enforcers is the immense ideological effort expended by the ruling class to convince us that the way the world currently works makes sense. But I also think that a lot of it has to do with the way in which we experience the results of capitalism's network of oppression.
Think about racism, for example. Basically all white people are invited to oppress people of colour. by means of favourable treatment at school, work, home, the media, etc. For example, getting hired over people of colour for the same job. Of course, there is also blow-back too. If you are white in a predominantly black community, for example, you have to deal with similar municipal neglect and over-policing, though not as severe. So at any given moment, our relationship to oppression is riddled with contradictions—as is our way of thinking it. Capitalism seeks to resolve those contradictions in ways that get us to more or less accept its system of oppression.
A visible struggle against oppression could present the possibility of a change in the balance of power that would resolve those contradictions in the opposite direction: in favour of solidarity. When it doesn't, competition usually succeeds in sneaking a contradiction between the immediate self-interest of individual workers and the interests of the class as a whole. The trick is that (typically) it is precisely in the pursuit of narrow self-interest that we bind ourselves to the rule of the capitalists most thoroughly. So, for example, white workers, simply by enjoying their status, can assume that the current racial order is good—without even noticing that there even is such a thing as a racial order. They can defend it, without even thinking of themselves as racist. But this racial order is part of the way capitalism rules all of us, so when we defend it we only bind ourselves more tightly to our own subjugation.
This is why we need to make a sharp distinction between the bigotry of our rulers and that of ordinary workers. When a capitalist behaves oppressively, she is enforcing a system which reproduces her power. When she behaves progressively she does so in contradiction to the needs of her class. She might, for example be a feminist, but there would be definite limit to her feminism. If the current gender order maintains the power of the ruling class then a feminism that thoroughly dismantled the gender order would also threaten her social position as a member of that class. The opposite is true for workers. When a worker behaves oppressively, he is supporting a power structure which ultimately subjugates him to the ruling class. This is why, even though every class suffers from oppression (even the ruling class), only the class which is ruled by means of that oppression can actually abolish it. Only the working class can end oppression.
The thing which most consistently serves to blast open the field of the possible under capitalism is in fact the struggles of the oppressed and exploited. We saw something like this in relation to the refugee crisis. For years and years and years, the ruling classes have relied on anti-immigrant racism. Immigrants have been used as a convenient scapegoat to redirect anger over the increasingly stretched state the social safety net. In point of fact, if a tiny fraction of the resources currently spent on the wars that help create refugees in the first place were redirected towards welfare we'd all be better off—but the ruling class has more to gain by war then socialized healthcare.
But the initial response of the ruling class to the current crisis shows that they do not always know which way the wind is blowing. They bullishly insisted on sticking to their disgusting immigration policies with only the most minor changes here and there. The result has been that they have severely undermined their moral legitimacy.
Why is it that a tried and tested tactic has suddenly come with such high political costs? The first and most important factor is the resistance of the refugees themselves. To quote English socialist, Jonathan Neale's observations: “For the first time ever, refugees from outside Europe are moving together, collectively, in masses, coming to the borders and effectively giving governments the choice of shooting down thousands or letting them through. Until now it was always frightened small groups in the dark, or in the immigration lines. Now in Greece, Macedonia, Hungary, Czech, and Germany, a terrible beauty is born. This is not the work of any one organization—it has emerged organically. But this is also the spirit of the Syrian people going global—the spirit that has fought Assad's cruelty at such great cost for four long years. And there are Iraqis and Afghans on the roads and in the trains with them. The people who have been invaded and bombed and shot are on the move. Respect to them, and awe.”
The enormity of their struggle—not merely their suffering, but their massive attempt to do something about it—has also forced us to confront our own common sense about migration. The tens of thousands of people who have demonstrated for refugee rights, the many more who have donated or signed petitions, the brave people who have actually snuck refugees past border guards are having to ask a serious but extremely basic question: are our rulers correct when they say that we cannot take these refugees in?
If we cannot accept that claim, we also cannot accept the argument that taking in refugees necessarily means allowing healthcare, public education, and other government programs from sinking further into disarray. It means we cannot accept that poverty and unemployment is merely the result of too many people. If we admit that the claim of these refugees – that they are human – is correct, then there is also cause to re-examine the belligerence of the imperialist nations who have displaced so many millions of humans by stoking up the flames of war and reaction. If we admit that they must be let in, then we must question the policy of Fortress Europe and Fortress Canada that has doomed thousands to death at sea.
It is clear that the initial response of most ordinary sympathetic people has been based on morality. It is simply the decent thing to do. The fact that it exists is a wonderful testament to the failure of the ruling class to completely inculcate us in their vile and hateful ideology. Their harsh border policies, their controls on immigration are a racist attempt to find a scapegoat for living standards they have cut while ruling class wealth continues to reach historic peaks. And while some people have responded to this situation by turning to fascism and clinging all the more to nationalist myths, many people have begun to look for left wing alternatives.
From #blacklivesmatter to OXI in Greece, from the rise of Bernie Sanders to anti-fascist demonstrations in Germany, more and more people are calling the ruling class on their bullshit. In North America, as well as in much of the developed world, this has its roots in the crisis of neo-liberalism. The ruling class has attempted to make workers pay for this crisis, and immigrants, disabled people, women, people of colour, trans people—people who historically have been the most vulnerable, the people whose place in society has been the beachhead for every ruling class offensive—were once again marked out to feel the brunt of the ruling class' violence, austerity, and neglect. But in many cases, these same historically vulnerable communities have been leading the fight back. In North America today, oppression has been the breaking point of ruling class hegemony.
These challenges to oppression are a vital part in exposing capitalism as a total system of rule and the power of the capitalist class at the heart of it. This is why Lenin argued that a revolutionary had to be “tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation”
When the violence and exploitation of the system is challenged in this way a better world becomes imaginable and allows us to redefine how our own interests, needs, and desires. In this case, what is right and moral is also what is necessary. The fight for a better world needs migrants, it needs queers, it needs blacks, it needs women—and it needs to defeat those who defend the order of the ruling class. It needs to break the chains of oppression that allows the capitalists to set one part of the working class against the other. That is why an opposition to every kind of oppression is so important to the struggle for working class self-emancipation. Not only is such a politics is possible: it is already being built.
Join the conference Marxism in the 21st century: a better world is possible, February 21 at Langara College, Vancouver