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Joan Acker’s Feminist Historical-Materialist Theory of Class

This assessment of Joan Acker’s Class Questions: Feminist Answers was written as a tribute to be included in a booklet as part of a March 8, 2012, celebration of her life and work at the University of Oregon. It has been slightly revised and expanded for publication here.

Marxism and feminism are usually seen as divorced from each other today, following the breakup of what Heidi Hartmann famously called their “unhappy marriage.”1 Yet, some theorists still show the influence of both. In my view, Joan Acker is both one of the leading analysts of gender and class associated with the second wave of feminism, and one of the great contributors to what has been called “feminist historical materialism.” In the latter respect, I would place her next to such important proponents of feminist standpoint theory as Nancy Hartsock, Dorothy Smith, and Sandra Harding. These thinkers, as Fredric Jameson has rightly said, represent the “most authentic” heirs of Lukács’s critical Marxist view articulating the proletarian standpoint—giving this dialectical insight added meaning by applying it to gender relations.2

It is noteworthy that Acker’s important theoretical work Class Questions: Feminist Answers appeared in 2006, one year before the onset of the Great Financial Crisis.3 This of course was no mere accident. Acker was deeply concerned about the waning of class analysis, particularly amongst feminist theorists. At the same time she recognized that class was becoming more important than ever, not only because of growing inequality but also growing instability in the capitalist economy. Thus in the beginning of her book she referred to the “bursting of the economic bubble of the late 1990s,” i.e., the 2000 stock market crash that brought an end to the New Economy bubble, as presaging a new era of class intensification and class struggle (1). Today in the wake of the bursting of the even bigger housing bubble, and the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement with its slogan of the 99%, Acker’s analysis can be viewed as prescient.

Class Questions: Feminist Answers provides a rich and insightful history of class analysis in the Marxian, Weberian, and feminist theory traditions, emphasizing the strengths and weaknesses of each. Acker’s treatment of the long debate over capitalism and patriarchy is particularly useful. In her view the only meaningful approach to class is one that is understood to be gendered and racialized. In this sense, she prefers “verbal forms, such as gendering, or adjectival forms, such as racialized, that better capture the sense of process and diversity” as opposed to the omnipresent noun, which all too often “reifies processes and practices” (5). And while class must (as Marxists have always insisted) be seen as related to relations of production and paid labor, it must also, she argues, be seen as encompassing relations of distribution and unpaid labor too.

This is less of a departure from classical Marxian theory than one might suppose. Marx employed the concept of class more flexibly than we commonly do today—referring to women as a class, i.e., as “slaves,” within the bourgeois family. “In private property of every type,” he wrote in Capital, “the slavery of the members of the family at least is always implicit since they are made use of and exploited by the head of the family.”4 Classical Marxist theory, as a great deal of scholarship in recent decades has shown, defined class primarily in terms of exploitation, i.e., how surplus product/surplus labor was appropriated from the direct producers. And just as classical Marxism applied this concept of class to pre-capitalist and pre-market relations, and hence to non-paid relationships, so the concept was always applicable to unpaid labor, which in Marxian terms is a relation of production. Slaves, as Marx (as opposed to Weber) insisted, constituted a class despite the fact that they were not wage workers and were regarded as property themselves.5

The uniqueness of Acker’s work comes out in her critique of “unreconstructed ‘class’” notions, particularly those that make race and gender invisible within the class conception (4–5). In exploring how class, race, and gender are “mutually constituted” she not only criticizes Marxian and Weberian conceptions, but also questions popular feminist and sociological treatments of class, race, and gender in terms of intersectionalities. It is not so much that these conceptions are wrong as they are too crude, trying to reduce class (and along with race and gender) to particular spatial or structural locations/intersections, rather than emphasizing class as a fluid social relation, involving diverse practices and processes, including its gendering and racialization. In this respect, her work draws inspiration from the introductory discussion on class in E.P. Thompson’s classic, The Making of the English Working Class—a work that had a profound effect on Acker and other feminist historical materialists, as did Thompson’s critique of structuralist Marxism.6 What Acker, then, is offering is a methodology that will allow us to look at class, gender, and race together in terms of their inter-relational historical formations (“makings”), with all of the dialectical complexities that this implies. Referring to Rose Brewer, she insists that, “race, class, and gender processes should be seen as simultaneous forces, and that theorizing must be historicized and contextualized” (36).

In a key statement of her general point of view, Acker writes:

Because [class] practices are gendered and racialized, there are probably considerable differences in any one grouping. This is a fluid notion of fragmented aggregates, with shifting boundaries and shifting practices, particularly during times of economic and employment restructuring, such as the beginning of the twenty-first century. Although I am committed to this notion of class as relations always in process, there are times when a shorthand way of indicating location can be very useful. Therefore, I will sometimes use the designations manual working class, service and clerical working class, middle class—a large and heterogeneous grouping—and capitalist class to designate very large aggregates with similar situations of access to and control over the means of provisioning. (68)

In all of her important theorizing of the gendering and racializing of class, Acker never loses sight of the questions raised by class itself, or the specific historical significance of class issues. Thus a central theme throughout her analysis is that while gender and race discrimination no longer have any direct, legitimate basis in developed capitalist societies, this is not true in the case of class; class exploitation and class discrimination are accepted as fully legitimate in a system that relies on these bases for its core process of capital accumulation. As she puts it: “Class-based inequalities in monetary reward and in control over resources, power, and authority, and the actions and routine practices that continually recreate them, are accepted as natural and necessary for the ongoing functioning of the socioeconomic system” (52–53).

In the end, Acker holds out the hope of a Polanyian “double movement” in response to neoliberalism, i.e., the promise of a counter revolt from below, emanating from peoples who are subject to multiple, overlapping forms of exploitation. “Global corporate capital,” she writes, “seems to be in control at the moment, but changes toward radically restructuring gendered and racialized class practices, and reversing the race to the bottom in living and working conditions, could come as more and more people confront the realities that global market capitalism has brought affluence to perhaps the top 20 percent of the world’s population, anxiety and insecurity to others who are still consuming and surviving, but deep poverty and desperation to the rest” (183–85).

If this seems slightly dated today, only six years later, it is only because the general situation is so much more desperate in the period of stagnation and rising unemployment and poverty that has followed the bursting of the housing bubble. Now we readily talk of the conflict between the 99% and the 1%.

If I have one criticism—or questioning—of Acker’s analysis, it is that in one particular way she deemphasizes the role of class. This is because class too needs its adjectival form. We need to recognize that gender is increasingly “classed,” as reflected in the feminization of poverty even while the conditions of many women improve; and likewise race is “classed.” Class should be seen as a process that also modifies race and gender relations.

Still, Acker’s criticism of the way in which many Marxian thinkers have employed the concept of class is a welcome one today. Although Acker does not generally describe herself today as a Marxist, and indeed sees herself a critic of that perspective (or at least its more structuralist versions), her work might well be accepted by today’s Marxists as an important advance not so much on but of Marxian theory, representing a further synthesis, and helping to further its critical-revolutionary potential. There is no contradiction between Acker’s deep feminist critique, and the fact that she can be regarded as part of the broad historical-materialist tradition. Indeed, she demonstrates that each is a requirement of the other.

In all of Acker’s work one sees an attempt to envision new strategies of radical change. Hence, she has been a leader in the struggle for comparable worth, a devastating critic of the role that the welfare system has played in disciplining women as well as the poor, and a penetrating analyst of the gendering of organizations. For her the problem with the New Left was not that it was too revolutionary but that it was not revolutionary enough. As she wrote in Monthly Review in December 2001: “The daunting reality facing radical and socialist feminist visions was, and is, not only that we have no gender and race egalitarian alternative to capitalism, but that the interweaving of gender and race with the economic, political, and social relations of capitalism is much more complicated and pervasive than we had imagined. To fundamentally change the situation of women, almost everything else must change.”7

Selected Further Reading

  • Acker, Joan. “Class, Gender, and the Relations of Distribution,” Signs 13, no. 3 (Spring 1988): 473–97.
  • _____.Class Questions: Feminist Answers (Lanham, MD: Roman and Littlefield, 2006).
  • _____.“My Life as a Feminist Sociologist; or Getting the Man Out of My Head,” in Barbara Laslett and Barrie Thorne, eds., Feminist Sociology (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 28–47.
  • _____.“Women and Social Stratification: A Case of Intellectual Sexism,” American Journal of Sociology 78, no. 4 (January 1973): 174–83.
  • Harding, Sandra G., ed, The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader (New York: Routledge, 2004).
  • _____. Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).
  • Hartsock, Nancy C.M., Money, Sex, and Power: Toward a Feminist Historical Materialism (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1983).
  • _____. Feminist Standpoint Theory Revisited and Other Essays (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998).
  • Hennessy, Rosemary and Chrys Ingraham, eds., Materialist Feminism (New York: Routledge, 1997).
  • Scott, Joan W., “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” The American Historical Review 91, no. 5 (December 1986): 1053–75.
  • Smith, Dorothy E., The Everyday World as Problematic (Boston: Northwestern University Press, 1987).
  • Vogel, Lise. Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1983).

Notes

  1. Heidi Hartmann, “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism,” in Lydia Sargent, ed., Women and Revolution (Boston: South End Press, 1981), 1–41.
  2. Fredric Jameson, “History and Class Consciousness as an ‘Unfinished Project,’” Rethinking Marxism 1, no. 1 (1988): 64.
  3. Joan Acker, Class Questions: Feminist Answers (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2006).
  4. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 1083. In his work on suicide we find Marx commenting on the “unbearable slavery” to which women are confined by law and “social conditions” in bourgeois society. See Karl Marx, Marx on Suicide (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1999), 57–58.
  5. On the classical Marxian conception of class in relation to exploitation (and the contrast to Weber) see especially G.M.E. de Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (London: Duckworth, 1981), 42–55, 88–91. Ralph Miliband pointed out that the emphasis on exploitation in Marx’s theory of class was entirely consistent with a wider understanding of a class system of domination, since it could be argued that “exploitation…has always been the main purpose of domination.” Nevertheless, it is important not to reduce domination in general to exploitation or class. “Patriarchy, for instance, as one form of domination, provides other advantages to its beneficiaries than the exploitation of surplus labour.” Miliband, “Class Analysis,” in Anthony Giddens and Jonathon Turner, eds., Social Theory Today (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), 327–28.
  6. Joan Acker, “Class, Gender, and the Relations of Distribution,” Signs 13, no. 3 (Spring 1988): 478; E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage, 1963), 9.
  7. Joan Acker, “Different Strategies are Necessary Now,” Monthly Review 53, no. 5 (December 2001): 46–49.
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