In the last decade, we’ve seen significant progress made by social democratic parties in the US. The social-democratic politicians have brought class inequality to the forefront of political discussion. However, some left-wing commentators have thrown the class reductionist label at the broad array of policies associated with social democratic candidates, in particular policies such as free public higher education, a living wage, and the right to collective bargaining.
Why is class reductionism considered a problem?
Most arguments against class reductionism state that class reductionism ignores or downplays other forms of inequality. It ignores the reality that different forms of inequality are interconnected and reinforce each other. By only focusing on one, you risk continuing other types of inequality when you build a society that removed class-based inequality.
Some arguments even go as far as to say class reductionism can exacerbate racial inequality. For example, Anti-black racism could take on the character of antisemitism. Instead of predominantly being seen as inferior due to ‘thuggish’ culture by the alt-right, black people may be seen as conniving white-collar criminals who got their wealth by stealing it from white Americans. We don’t have to travel far to witness this form of antisemitism across the US and Europe.
There are also some more balanced arguments against class reductionism. The basis of these arguments is that class, or more generally economic circumstances, would be a reasonable explanation for political differences. But we can construct a more accurate model if the dynamics between race, gender, and class are included. The balanced arguments are the most plausible. They highlight the importance of looking at inequality through several different lenses. Focusing on reducing inequality in just one of the many inequalities in society today can be more harmful than helpful, whether that’s class (class reductionism), race (race reductionism) or gender (gender reductionism).
Class reductionism during the George Floyd protests
Class reductionism as a term gained a lot of popularity during the height of George Floyd protests. Both the Lower Manhattan Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the Philadelphia DSA invited self-proclaimed Marxist Adolph Reed to talk about COVID-19. He specifically argued that viewing COVID-19 through the lens of racial inequality is problematic and would lead to more division between the general public and ethnic minorities. Reed is also staunchly against the rise of identity politics in the US. He is an outward supporter of Bernie Sanders. He has been a strong advocate for the social democratic policies that the left is aiming to implement. His general beliefs seem to align with that of a class reductionist, even though he does not call himself as such.
Just before the talk starts, the George Floyd protests erupted across the US. The talk was then promptly cancelled. The Afro-Socialist Caucus put out a statement against the event. Many African Americans who were attending the event felt that the conversation was not prioritising the needs of the oppressed minority. During a pandemic that has disproportionately killed Black people and increased police violence against the Black community, it didn’t seem appropriate to ‘downplay’ racial inequality.
Can class reductionism be a good thing?
One of the biggest myths about class reductionism is that it argues that all non-class based equality movements, such as the anti-racist, feminist, or LGBTQ concerns, should be stopped favouring economic redistribution. In reality, most class reductionists do not take such a unitary stance. Instead, most class reductionists feel that solving class inequality can have broad benefits that we can achieve with other forms of equality.
Some arguments come from the stance that there’s no silver bullet solution to racism. However, an easy and efficient start could be pushing for economic equality to create more opportunities for those who are poor. Achieving economic equality should help those economically disadvantaged due to their race, and those who are economically disadvantaged for reasons other than their race. Therefore, a “class first” approach may lead to benefits to a larger portion of society across all races, instead of focusing on smaller populations within just one racial group.
The UK government's argument for class reductionism
The UK’s Education Select Committee recently released a report highlighting that poor white students in the UK have equal or worse outcomes as other poor non-white students. Just 23% of white British students eligible for free school meals – a proxy measure for deprivation – get a pass – in English and maths at 16, compared with 28% of all students on free school meals. In essence, the reports show that class is a more important determinant of academic outcomes. Within the same class, white students are achieving lower results.
Though it may not initially seem obvious, this is a class reductionist argument. Class is a significant determinant in educational outcomes, and a lot of the systematic racial inequality against ethnic minorities is class inequality as opposed to race. Rather carelessly, this report hypocritically argued against racially dividing education outcomes by highlighting that white students have negative outcomes compared to ethnic minorities. Putting aside this hypocrisy, the underlying argument that social outcomes are class-based rather than race-based is correct, at least according to the data analysed in this study.
There was a severe backlash to this report from left-wing media outlets. Most arguments highlighted that there are cultural differences to explain the underperformance of poor white students. Ironically, these sounded very similar to the ‘culture’ argument made by white conservatives to explain the underperformance of black students. This surprisingly ‘right-wing’ argument made by ‘left-wing’ publications could highlight the resurgence of the horseshoe theory of political spectrums.
Many publications also correctly stated that poor white students are not the lowest-achieving ethnic group within the working class group studied. Less conservative MPs on the committee even said:
In essence, this highlights that educational inequality is primarily a class issue, though there is irrefutable racial inequality within classes. Also, given that ethnic minorities are disproportionately lower and middle class, there is inevitably an overlap between racial and class inequality. However, improving class inequality can have substantial positive impacts across large swathes of the population. On the other hand, improving different types of inequality can help bring balance within classes but will ultimately only positively impact smaller segments of the population.
Nothing brings people together like a common enemy. Kindness, justice, and advocating for someone other than oneself are probably some of the most effective cures for most social and economic problems. The best way to soften the bias of the average white male line worker would be to see a black co-worker or a black member of an allied union standing firm in the picket line next to him. You would probably easily convince that person that anyone who works hard should be getting a living wage. On the other hand, alienate that same worker with name-calling, race-specific training, and the other schemes from the identity politics playbook; you’ll be able to convince that person to never vote for anyone who wants to help someone outside his racial group.
Ultimately, it’s evident that there is a significant divide based on class regarding most societal outcomes. The divide that exists amongst the ethnic groups within each class is still a problem. However, the much more substantial issue is the difference in attainment between the different classes. Though class reductionism can pull focus away from other forms of inequality, improving class inequality can substantially positively impact most groups in society. We should look at inequality as a “class first”, not a “class only” problem.