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How oppression is rooted in the system

In the first of a series of columns on oppression, Isabel Ringrose argues sexism, racism and LGBT+ oppression haven’t always existed
Issue 2859
student activists marching against oppression

Anti-racist student activists marching against oppression in Glasgow

Oppression runs through our society, from access to health care, education and housing to discrimination at work and in interactions with each other.

It means millions of black and Asian people, women, LGBT+ folk and other oppressed people suffer systematic discrimination at the hands of the authorities, and are made to feel unsafe, isolated and inadequate in their daily lives. 

Precisely because it’s so entrenched in our society, it can feel like oppression is age-old or natural. But it’s rooted in the development of class society and capitalism, which have only existed for a fraction of human history. 

It might be hard to imagine a world before oppression—one where gender-variant behaviour was accepted, or people were not racialised based on their skin colour. But these worlds existed before the rise of class societies, which means oppression is neither natural nor permanent.

The system has a material interest—economic and ideological—in maintaining and encouraging oppression and relies on it to divide working class people. Socialists want to fight oppression not only because it benefits the ruling class, but also because it’s vile.

For many, oppression is a matter of life and death. Sexism means women can’t walk home safely at night. Homophobia and transphobia lead to hate crimes. 

Racism means black people are more likely to be killed by police. For oppressed people their lives are shaped by those experiences and that’s the first reason why it has to be extinguished. Humans and their ideas are shaped by how society is organised. 

The revolutionary Karl Marx wrote that the dominant ideas in society come from the ruling class. It means nobody is born racist or sexist—those ideas are learned.

It’s not true that those ideas accidentally float around in society and benefit everyone equally. The ruling class, from politicians to the state and media, need vile and bigoted ideas to suit their needs. If workers are divided, and see each other as the enemy, they’re less likely to look upwards to blame the real cause.

That’s why the Tories are so keen to attack transgender and non-binary people, and demonise refugees. They can pass the buck for their failings onto the most vulnerable.

Working class people have the ability to change society but we won’t be united in that fight if racist or sexist messages divide us. Marx identified that bosses deliberately stoke up points of division. During the early 1800s Marx argued that racist ideas made English workers think they shared a common interest with their English bosses, instead of with Irish workers.

“This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short by all the means at the disposal of the ruling class,” he wrote.

Oppression is still rife today because the society that relies on it still exists. Women face sexism in the form of sexual assault or gender pay gaps because with class society came the subjugation of women into the home. And the emergence of capitalism meant the ruling class relied on oppression to justify slavery.

It’s not true that oppression can flip on its head. Women can’t oppress men, for example. 

Working class men are exploited by the ruling class, but it’s also not true that they benefit from the oppression of other workers. The ruling class can also face oppression. Home secretary Suella Braverman will have experienced both racism and sexism. She will experience it differently, and as Tory home secretary, she both needs and benefits from that very same racism and sexism.

It’s necessary to challenge oppression, and not grade it as secondary in the fight against the capitalist system. A world where we are not divided or suffering has to be central to the fight for socialism.

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