"Classism” or Cop Out?

Under the stable guidance of liberals like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Kamala Harris, and their ilk, terms originally meant to describe and understand systems of oppression have become essentially meaningless. Analysis of what “classism” is has become saturated with individualism and atomistic obfuscation of the material relations that define class oppression. “Racism” is no longer about the systemic disempowerment of those socialized as people of color by racial capitalism; people socialized as women by patriarchal capitalism; etc., but a catchall term for lack of “diversity and inclusion” within corporations which exploit the Global South.

This differs dramatically from the historical materialist analysis that Marxists undertake—which understands all forms of systemic oppression as necessarily undergirded (NOT subsumed) by class; which analyzes current phenomena as legacies of historical class contradictions and struggles. Unlike liberals, Marxists understand that capitalism (and all the political structures which envelop us) would not exist without racism, ableism, patriarchy, classism, colonialism, imperialism, etc.—as these are all intertwining forms of oppression absolutely integral to the maintenance and perpetuation of capitalism. Moreover, classism from a Marxist perspective is the systemic oppression and marginalization of working class and poor people as a result of racial, settler-colonial, patriarchal global capitalism—not telling someone with who claims to be socialist to read more books about socialism.

Behind disingenuous claims of speaking for the interests of poor and disabled peoples, liberals and their partners, the social chauvinists, essentialize poverty into a necessarily intellectually impoverished existence; as one not privy to the agency or critical consciousness the bourgeoisie are assumed to naturally possess. Classism is no longer about addressing the material oppression or exploitation that workers globally face, but instead about…people online calling others out for intellectual laziness?

This distortion of what classism is and what fighting it necessitates is a classic mode of the neoliberal and postmodernist appropriation of revolutionary critique. In this context, class is no longer about material conditions—nor historical context—but rather a scapegoat for liberals and social chauvinists looking for a way to escape scrutiny.

The most prime and recent example of this is resident social chauvinist and rose emoji enthusiast Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s interview with noted socialist publication Vogue. The policy platform of this self described socialist’s political party? Anti-Trump, pro-imperialism. Much of the article is fluff about Ocasio-Cortez; there is a noticeably unearned self-congratulatory tone throughout the article that is quite nauseating, and casual references to neocolonial projects in the “developing world”. What demands the most attention, however, is the following quote:

I think it’s real bougie to grow up with a defined political ideology. You need to have college­-educated parents for that, with a political lexicon. My mother doesn’t even have an English lexicon! When people say I’m not Socialist enough, I find that very classist. It’s like, ‘What—I didn’t read enough books for you, buddy?’

The irony in this quote is painful. This, after all, is coming from a woman who graduated with degrees in international relations and economics from one of the most prestigious private universities in the country and interned for multiple high level public officials; who references reading Martin Luther King Jr. instead of Marx…whilst skipping over the part where Martin Luther King Jr. was himself a communist and strong anti-imperialist.

Behind the cutesy rose emoji social media packaging—under all the media blitz of this “hashtag trendy millennial”—exists Ocasio-Cortez and liberals’ utter disdain for working class, poor people. This is quite clear from her characterization of understanding political ideology as a purely “bougie” endeavor, erasing the great and complex works of working class people everywhere—from Mao Zedong, Ding Ling, Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, to Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Kwame Nkrumah. Ocasio-Cortez characterizes reading books as a purely bourgeois endeavor; the implication being that poor people are either too stupid or incapable of reading—when in reality, books have been a major source of liberation and empowerment for countless poor and working class people.

I would know—I spent my childhood in a tiny apartment in Starkville, Mississippi. I devoured books because they were the only escape I had from the suffocating racism and impoverishment in my community. I was able to understand myself and the world around me through reading, and derived joy from discovering and understanding new concepts at my local library—hardly a “bougie” endeavor. In his autobiography, Malcolm X wrote: “The ability to read awoke inside of me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.” This quote directly refers to X’s stint in prison, during which he taught himself to read and write by way of a dictionary. Reading, writing, and revolutionary praxes have long been the ways through which poor and marginalized peoples liberated themselves from oppressive systems. Ocasio-Cortez is either willfully ignorant of that history, or purposefully obfuscating that reality to escape criticism. Either way, her quote is disgusting.

What is perhaps even more troubling is Ocasio-Cortez’s characterization of a political lexicon as a purely bourgeois possession—this not only dehumanizes and erases the great works of so many poor and working class revolutionaries around the world, but essentializes poor and working class people as too stupid to develop political lexicons. In the quote is also the implication that speaking english is a prerequisite for developing a coherent political ideology—I mean, just how chauvinistic and disgusting can you get? Was the Chinese Revolution not one driven by a coherent and powerful political lexicon, lead by the Chinese working class? What about the Algerian Revolution? The Cuban Revolution? The Russian Revolution? Serious question: has this highly educated chauvinist ever read one single page of history?

Additionally, the implication that a defined political ideology is something that must be learned during childhood from college educated parents is not only just blatantly false, but erases the very real agency of working class revolutionaries globally. It cannot be emphasized enough, how dehumanizing and utterly chauvinistic it is to assume that a political lexicon is purely something for formally educated people—as if working class and poor people are intellectually incapable of developing any sort of coherent ideology or political consciousness.

The worst part of this quote is the transparency of it—through carelessly labelling all the working class people who criticize her as “classist”, Ocasio-Cortez effectively escapes scrutiny for her own ideological and moral impoverishment. To be quite honest, I am not surprised—this is the same person who emphasized her support for the settler-colonial state of Israel, after all, and declared herself as “not that kind of Socialist”; the same person who effortlessly quoted Infinite Jest yet dubbed socialist ideology (an ideology she supposedly aligns with) as “bougie”. What I am, however, is tired. If you’re going to be an imperialist liberal chauvinist, at least do it with pride. Stop pretending to be something you’re quite obviously not—the only person you’re fooling is yourself.