Intersectionality and Economics

Postcolonial and intersectional theories, the dominant tendencies in student movements, suffer from an absence of economic analysis.

Fees Must Fall protesters. Image: Nicholas Rawhani.

Intersectionality is all the rage in social movements. I am a former student at the University of Cape Town and the movement informed by intersectionality that I have observed most keenly has been the #RhodesMustFall movement there. As a result of my interest in economics, I have been wondering the ways in which what has emerged at South African universities relates to demands for economic redress and development more broadly. I hadn’t found a clear link until recently.

That there is a lack of clarity between the student movement and questions of economic transformation, is because the dominant ideological frameworks in the emergent movements — postcolonial theory and theory around intersectionality — tend to suffer from the absence of an economic analysis. (Sociologist Vivek Chibber’s work on the limitations of postcolonial theory in explaining the evolution of the Global South and his more recent critical commentary on the use of the language of intersectionality in the US presidential election speaks to this.)

Two recent developments have challenged my views. Firstly, I recently heard Feminist/Marxist economist Nancy Folbre (she is based at the University of Massachusetts, Armherst) outline her forthcoming work on “The Political Economy of Patriarchal Systems,” which seeks to push intersectionality into political economy and challenge the binary that only class relates to economic interests while gender, race, citizenship and sexuality (among others) relate merely to issues of identity.

Folbre’s work attempts to put forward a relationship between intersectionality and economic analysis, beyond looking merely at the traditional economic domain of production and exchange. It does this principally with reference to the notion of “dynamic intersectionality” and the idea that “different identities may become more salient as different opportunities for collective action to emerge.” While there is a lot more work to be done in sketching out under what terms identity relates to economic interests, the skeletal outline of “dynamic intersectionality” seemed to me to hold the prospect for an exciting positive account of a formalized representation of intersecting inequalities.

The second is the emergence of the Decolonise UCT Economics movement in South Africa, which excites me in its ambition. It is an antidote to the suffering I endured through four years of economics at UCT. Ideas like “trade unions are to blame for South Africa’s high unemployment rate” or “education is the only solution to the country’s status as the most unequal country in the world” – are all unquestioned dogmas among professors there.

An intersectional economic theory, rooted in, but also moving beyond, the traditions of radical political economy might precisely be the development left students need to pursue in countering the role of orthodox economics in perpetuating the continuing social crises that are the lived experience of South Africans (or even here in the United States where I am currently based) of different oppressions.

For me, an intersectional political-economic theory has great potential to provide a working basis for social movements that draw strength from powerful alliances of oppressed groups. This can be seen in the US presidential primaries, where we can speculate that had Bernie Sanders contested Hillary Clinton’s appropriation of the language of intersectionality to her own cynical ends, Sanders may have stood a better chance at speaking to Black and Latino voters.

In the South African context, the potential for a student-worker alliance that speaks to the intersections between worker exploitation and the issues that students have taken as their central causes (fees, racism, the continuation of colonial culture, rape culture) represents to me one of the best prospects for a united front, that up to now has not been utilized productively. In other words, it would be exciting to see what could be built on the back of the tremendous achievements of movements like #RhodesMustFall alongside university workers in winning concessions like the scrapping of outsourcing, against the backdrop of years of neo-liberalization at the university.

The ambivalence of students to participate in regressive, opportunistic movements like the #ZumaMustFall campaign suggests strong and principled analytical capacity. (#ZumaMustFall emerged soon after South Africa’s sudden currency depreciation, bringing about public uproar from mainly white South Africans, who took to the streets, with their poodles and slogan marked yoga mats, to protest their trips to Europe becoming more expensive.) This mirrors in some senses (perhaps through a shared critique or general skepticism of those who wish to venerate the South African constitution as the basis for all efforts at realizing progressive change) the interventions of more principled members of the union movement (see here). It would be exciting if these forces could be united in the aim of more consistent public left opposition to social crises of national importance.

Economics has an important role in the analysis of the contemporary national and global order, it thus holds an important role in questions of ideological orientation and strategy for social movements. An intersectional economic theory holds the prospect of informing the development of a more complete analysis and strategy for social movements that speak to broad coalitions of oppressed groups interested in furthering progressive agendas. That such a theory doesn’t seem to exist damages the coherence of both, movements that seek guidance from an analysis emphasizing a ‘class first’ approach, and those that pursue a ‘race first’ approach (either explicitly or implicitly). These tensions are clear from recent public debates about reparations for slavery in the US (see here and here).

Another way of making this point is that an intersectional economic theory cannot be truly intersectional without successfully challenging the false binary, discussed above, that seems to be the main aim of Folbre’s forthcoming work. Further, developing such a theory ought to be a central goal of progressives interested in dismantling multiple oppressions and would be a valuable addition to the exciting social movements that have emerged recently. With this in mind, I hope movements like Decolonize UCT Economics will move forward in centrally pushing for a revised curriculum with a bigger place for radical political economy. It will only be through a better informed public debate that the aforementioned tensions can be resolved, and if done successfully, it will be to the benefit of meaningful progress in realizing truly emancipatory political projects.

Further Reading

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At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.