Journal of Emancipation | Spanish

Oppression

Marxist Dictionary

Pressure, force or violence exercised to avoid the political expression of a collective subject.

Political nature of oppression

Oppression is a political fact. It is not individuals, but collective subjects who suffer oppression… however much such a situation in the end results in discrimination against the individuals who supposedly form the collective subject. Oppression implies using political power to prevent the organization and affirmation of a collective subject as such, that is, as a political subject.

Oppression cannot be exercised by just anyone, in fact only by those who have state tools at their disposal. Roma patriarchs, Catholic priests or sports club leaders can discriminate against young people or women in the decision-making of their organizations, but they cannot create laws or use the state apparatus – from the media to judges – against them. Their power in this society is communitarian or associative, not political, and it affects only those who have previously decided to accept it, not the social whole. The fact that a religion is against abortion or divorce and expels its members if they have an abortion or get a divorce is not in itself a concern. The concern is that they may change the laws to apply such bans on the social totality.

On the other hand, an individual can be discriminated against without the group to which he or she supposedly belongs suffering any oppression. Moreover, a huge group may suffer widespread discrimination -without the need for oppression. For example, employment statistics and job interview studies show that dominant values and aesthetics are reproduced over and over again in the form of mass and invisible discrimination. People with black curly hair, fat or ugly people, are systematically and repeatedly marginalized in any job selection process and even when trying to rent a house. This example, although banal, should make us wonder what conditions a social group must meet in order to be considered an oppressed political subject in bourgeois society.

Which social groups are oppressed?

It is obvious that the proletariat, like all exploited classes before it, is a necessarily oppressed class: exploitation could not be sustained otherwise. Everything in society denies this, starting with the very essence of capitalism which presents all reciprocal exchange, including that of labor power for wages, as an exchange between equal values, thus a “fair” exchange. Not to mention the democratic logic and the discourses on the nature of society and the state: everything concurs in denying the existence of exploitation, presenting its mechanisms as natural and avoiding the constitution of the working class as a political subject. Its own spontaneous organization, which appears in mass strikes, is considered a violation of coexistence and the same strike assemblies in the workplace, an attack on sacrosanct property.

On the other hand, we have the petty bourgeoisie. It is neither socially revolutionary -it can only offer variants of capitalism- nor is it exploited, on the contrary: it participates in exploitation when it does not exercise it directly. But it is undoubtedly oppressed: from anarcho-liberalism to stalinism, passing through Proudhon and popular nationalism, all its ideological creations tell us that, if it were up to it, the power of the state would be applied to counteract and even eliminate the overwhelming competition that big capital and its companies exert against it. But obviously, that’ s not what the capitalist state is for.

The oppression of the petty bourgeoisie, which the bourgeoisie through the state contains and subordinates to its own needs, makes it a tremendously active and restless class, especially in periods of crisis. It will then raise the struggle against the most diverse oppressions: that of the nation, that of women, that of racial or linguistic minorities… even that of Nature or animals as a way of partially confronting its own oppression (that is why they are called “partial struggles”). But in order to justify each of them, it has to build a political subject that the state would be preventing from expressing itself, from constituting itself and from determining itself. That is to say, it has to convince us that “the nation” or “the people”, “women”, or the “community” of race or language, form a homogeneous political subject with characteristic and different interests and its own historical horizon.

In the acceptance or not of the existence of such collective political subjects lies the difference between fighting against linguistic discrimination and being nationalist, between fighting against discrimination of women and being feminist, fighting against racism, etc.

Discrimination is not oppression

Accepting the idea that demographic profiles that suffer more or less systematic discrimination form political subjects implies denying that they are divided by antagonistic class interests. Because when these class antagonisms are asserted, the famous political subjects eagerly constructed by petty bourgeois ideologies are blown up.

How can it be in the interest of the workers to march under the popular banners to give a national state of their own to a petty bourgeoisie that complains of linguistic or cultural discrimination? Do bourgeois and working women have the same interest? Is it worthwhile to divide platforms and demands with fellow workers to support the petty bourgeois women’s desire to find equal space with their fellow petty bourgeois men on boards of directors, company boards and in top positions in the state? Attempts to build Frankensteinian political subjects out of pieces of different social classes fall apart at the first tremor of the antagonisms that pit them against each other.

Moreover, there is no lack of historical examples of oppressed classes building power from the generalization of discrimination. A regional petty bourgeoisie with national aspirations can exercise discrimination and generalize it if it has control over cultural and religious institutions… but it will be oppressed if the state does not allow it to advance its aspirations for statehood. Contemporary History is full of examples.

Who are the oppressed classes?

Although discrimination is widespread, the only materially oppressed political subjects are the various subaltern classes in capitalist society. And each one suffers class oppression in a very different way. Their interests are as different as they are contradictory to each other.

The call center operator, the migrant journeyman and the migrant worker living in a distant location may suffer discrimination in one case because they are women, in another because they are migrants, and in the last because they do not speak the language of their bosses and the politicians who claim to represent them. But the oppression they suffer is that of the proletariat. It is in their interest to confront exploitation, that is, for their class to act and assert itself politically. Their political interest does not lie in the female or migrant sectors of the petty bourgeoisie gaining a foothold in the state, nor in large-state nationalism being imposed on the pro-independence petty bourgeoisie.

The fact that the petty bourgeoisie fights to assert itself politically by trying to turn its factions into the head of interclassist political subjects does not turn these subjects into any solution or opportunity for the workers. On the contrary, their success depends first of all on the capacity of their narrative and practice to divide the workers into so many other inert masses ready to trail behind each of the petty-bourgeois factions they represent. In other words, every advance of the partial movements of the petty bourgeoisie is a setback for the necessarily unitary movement of our class.