Lecture 2 (spring semester). Trans/national political economy: viewing inequality through an intersectional lens



  • How does trans/national inequality work through combinations of different categories?
  • Matrix of domination (Professor Hill Collins)
  • Transnational garment industry, intersectional exploitation, forms of intersectional resistance

Some key categories of intersection

Age, caste, class, disability, ethnicity, faith, nationality, “race”, sexuality

What is intersectionality?

  • Intersectionality is a way of understanding and analyzing the complexity in the world, in people, and in human experiences. The events and conditions of social and political life and the self can seldom be understood as shaped by one factor.
  • They are generally shaped by many factors in diverse and mutually influencing ways.
    • major axes of social divisions in a given society at a given time,
    • for example, race, class, gender, sexuality, dis/ability, and age operate not as discrete and mutually exclusive entities,
    • but build on each other and work together. Hill Collins and Bilge, (2016:4)

Analysing inequalities requires intersectionality?

..economic inequality does not fall equally on everyone. Rather than seeing people as a homogeneous, undifferentiated mass, intersectionality provides a framework for explaining how social divisions of race, gender, age, and citizenship status, among others, positions people differently in the world, especially in relation to global social inequality. Hill Collins and Bilge, (2016:15)

The place of class in intersectional analysis

.. when formulating class inequality one should have race and gender in view as well. Capital is intersectional. It always intersects with the bodies that produce the labor. Therefore, the accumulation of wealth is embedded in the racialised and engendered structures that embody it (Eisenstein, 2014, in Hill Collins and Bilge, 2016:16)

  • Using intersectionality as an analytic tool encourages us to move beyond seeing social inequality through race-only or class-only lenses. … of social inequality based on interactions among various categories. Hill Collins and Bilge, 2016:26
  • For Hill Collins (1997), Intersectionality works with a ‘working hypothesis’ of equivalence between oppressions’. For Nancy Fraser (1995) , however, the relative importance of different oppressions is historically contingent on the particular context and power relations. No aspect should be neglected, but one or more aspect may have particular importance in certain situations.

While focussing on key intersections such as gender and ‘race’, much of the scholarship employing an intersectional approach elides or neglects the category of class (Mann, 2012: 112). This is sometimes because of the way that Marxist intersectionalists reduce other aspects of oppression to the dimension of class, in line with the tendency of some traditional versions of Marxism towards an overdetermining economism and neglect of categories such as gender and ‘race’, or subordination of such dimensions as aspects of class  (Bohrer, 2018: 49-50; Giminez, 2001 ;Smith and Smith, 1983:122; Alcoff, 2011; Gedalof, 2013).

Bohrer argues (2018), however, that an intersectional marxist approach is necessary to the study of inequality and oppression because of the context of capitalism and the distinctive place of ‘class’ as a dimension . Bohrer (54) follows Gimenez in arguing that “class oppression is distinctive and necessitates a different kind of treatment, politically and theoretically, than race and gender”. This differential treatment

requires a wholesale analysis of capitalism as a system and a structure of material
relations of production and reproduction, accumulation and dispossession,
which has its roots in political economy and effects in the multifaceted
realms of culture, ideology and politics (Bohrer, 54).

For Bohrer (2018), capitalism is the ‘matrix of domination’ capitalism, in which slavery, colonialism, patriarchy, white supremacy, were forms of race, class, gender and sexuality inseparable oppressions that were historically concreted in and through one another. Within this Marxist-intersectional analysis, capitalism is the synthesis of class, race, gender, sexuality, colonisation and imperialism systems of dispossession. Thus class cannot be considered the master-term of capitalist accumulation and antagonism, but merely one of the dimensions of oppression.

Class retains its distinctive analytical and historical importance in the shift from feudal social relations to wage labour Marx (1876) analysed, but is augmented by gendered and raced and postcolonial analysis.

Silvia Federici (2004), Maria Mies (1986) and many other Marxist feminists have shown the structual reliance of capitalism on what they called ‘social reproduction’ – the unwaged labour of cooking, cleaning, subsistence farming, bearing and rearing children, and multiple modes of affective and care work. This labour, undertaken primarily by women, allows the capitalist to glean the benefits of reproductive labour necessary for the waged worker to enter the formal economy without payingfor it; Mies termed it “super exploitation” and Frederici analysed it is a form of ongoing “primitive exploitation” .

Historical materialist feminists operate of form of stretching of Marxist analysis, pointing to the intersection of gender and class oppression. As we will see throughout the course, a historical materialist perspective is stretched across other forms of intersection. Anne McClintock (1995) and Maria Lugones (2003), for example,  stretch Marxist analysis to include patriarchy, white supremacy, colonisation (both direct and indirect) and heterosexualism.

Core ideas for intersectional analysis

  • For Hill Collins and Bilge, Intersectionality involves a commitment to examining how Power contributes Social Inequality in all of its Interconnected Complexity, paying careful attention to Specific social contexts in order to work towards Social justice

Power is relational (about interconnectedness)

Within intersectional frameworks, there is no pure racism, sexism or class-discrimination. Rather, power relations of racism and sexism gain meaning in relation to one another.

Example: chattel slavery = classed, raced and gendered discrimination

Intersectional matrix of domination (4 domains of power)

  • Structural

The institutional, organizational level

  • Disciplinary

The level of social rewards and punishments

  • Cultural

Power transmitted through ideas and media

  • Interpersonal

Power plays out in the realm of everyday interaction among people

Particular Social Contexts

  • Paying attention to the specific historical, intellectual, locational (space, place), cultures and political contexts grounds intersectional analysis
  • For example, ideas of “race”, and their relationship to class, and gender different depending on how they are specifically situated. (Cohen and Kennedy)

The worldwide garment industry through an intersectional lens

A trans/ational industry?

  • Let’s have a look at the clothing label for our shirts/tops
  • What countries are they produced in
  • Let’s record them on the board here:
  • We should see an indicate range of garment producing countries, and maybe some countries feature in particular
  • What does that tell us about the garment industry?

Historical context: The trans/national “race to the bottom”

  • Late 17th C + England industrial revolution via cotton textile factories & their technological advances
  • Global supplier of cotton 1800’s to 1930s
  • Key to British wealth in this period
  • Rural-to-urban migration for factory work: women from the rural areas; children from the poor houses (5years +)Factory owners preferred women and children to men:
    • Cheaper
    • More docile (prepared to accept drudgery and severe fatigue)
  • Copying British technology, American industrial revolution developed rapidly; by late 1800s the world’s largest mills in New England
  • By early 1900s US surpassed Britain in cloth production, taking much of the US, European and (eventually) Chinese market
  • factories reliant on rural-to-urban young female migrants (often children)Americans also preferred “docile’ workers who would accept very poor working conditions (70 hr weeks, 12 hr days, heat, short meal breaks)Discipline included Church attendance; “moral purity”; a condition of employment
  • Production moved to southern states (the Piedmont area, South Carolina) where there was much greater use of child labour and weaker regulation (so greater productivity, cheaper wages, worse conditions)
  • late 1920s, more than half of Japan’s industrial workers employed in textiles, which comprised two-thirds of the country’s exports.
  • By the mid-1930s, Japan would have approximately 40 percent of the world’s exports of cotton goods. textiles
  • Japanese leadership in the industry was based on low labor costs and poor working condition
  • wages for cotton mill workers in Japan were 20 to 47 percent lower than wages in the United States and England (Rivoli, 101-2)
  • Workers were young women escaping a life of subsistence agriculture in the countryside,
  • Again, preferred for their docility, cheapness, endurance of harsh conditions + ‘‘ night work,’’ which doubled productivity; 3-5 year contractual arrangement not unlike indentured servitude; young women shared not only beds, but even pajamas in crowded boardinghouses;  confined by fences topped with bamboo spears and barbed wire; Food was scant, sanitation was poor, and disease was widespread. (Rivoli, 102)
  • By mid 1970’s the “Asian tigers” Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan dominated textile & apparel industries
  • Industries drive by cheap and “docile” rural to urban female labour
  • Wages for textile workers in these countries were about 7 percent of the level in the United States and perhaps 15 percent of the level in Japan. Rivoli, (p. 104).
  • Then from the 1990’s China has been dominant, while smaller countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, Romania have also established strengths
  • In China, also on the basis of rural-to-urban female migrant workers, and perhaps this will continue for longer (given the lare size of the cheap labour, and the state regulation restricting urban settlement (through the Hukou registration card system) Rivoli (109)

Historical political economy shifting regimes of garment industry

19th-century despotic regime:

 the factory overseer of the industrial revolution coerced labor from workers without any state intervention

= harshly exploitative working conditions not redressed by state regulation

20th-century hegemonic regime:

characterized by welfare policies and workplace protections.

Consent, rather than coercion, predominate…

since workers’ and capitalists’ interests are coordinated, providing a degree of worker autonomy that normalizes and obscures exploitation and dampens collective resistance. Plankey-Videla (introduction)

  • Under conditions of increased international competitiveness, Burawoy argues that capitalist firms will seek cheaper costs of production in new regions or countries.
  • Hegemonic despotism = “is the ‘rational’ tyranny of capital mobility over the collective worker. . . . The fear of being fired is replaced by the fear of capital flight, plant closure, transfer of operations, and plant disinvestment” (Burawoy, 1985, 150).
  • Capital’s hypermobility drives the “race to the bottom,” with falling wages and deteriorating working conditions.
  • Workers— who are generally not as mobile— are disciplined by an increasingly mobile employer that pits them in different locations against each other; this drives concession bargaining and undermines workers’ movements Plankey-Videla (introduction).

Garment industry built on intersectional and international exploitation

  • Built on exploitation on the basis of class, gender, age (children), location (rurality)
  • Vulnerable groups who may have little other viable alternatives, and may lack the power to resist exploitation
  • Arguably, this has been and remains the continued ideal wherever the “race to the bottom” has been won.

Let’s next have an intersectional look at one allegedly “docile” workforce in particular, drawing on Hill Collins and Bilge, Pietra Rivoli and Naila Kabeer’s 2002 chapter “Renegotiating Purdah: women workers’ labour market decisions in Dhaka”

An intersectional analysis of the transational garment industry, the Rana Plaza atrocity and resistance to labour exploitation

Rana Plaza fire & building collapse 2013

  • Rana Plaza located in Dhaka Bangladesh housed dozens of garment factories
  • The fire & building collapse caused the deaths of 1,129 workers, injuring another 2,500
  • Considered the deadliest garment industry incident
  • However, less deadly incidents are so common they often don’t make the news

Intersectional social context 2: political economy: place, space

The Rana Plaza collapse: significance of abysmal factory working conditions in Bangladesh and beyond

  • Neoliberal political economy of the garment industry
  • Intersectionality of disadvantage and exploitation
  • Relationality (interconnectedness) of resistance

Neoliberalism of global garment trade in Bangladesh

Garment industry = especially bad erosion of workers rights

Located in Bangladesh for cheap, abundant and seemingly obedient workers

Lax regulatory system: safety overlooked, low compliance with international labour standards

Consequentially: workers lack fair pay, job security, safety, and civil-political rights (ability to organise and protest)

Sociological questions: domains of power-relations in garment industry

Interpersonal domain

Which kinds of people become workers in the garment industry?

Disciplinary domain

How do managers, companies and states exploit and control workers?

Structural domain

What governs location of factories in particular countries?

Cultural domain

What are the social norms that send young women into factories?

What are the consumption cultures that neglect/normalize the conditions of work/production?

Intersectional analysis: multiply-disadvantaged workers

  • Highly feminised workforce
  • Use of child labor in some countries
  • Regime favours use of (rightless) undocumented migrant workers
  • Vulnerable to economic exploitation and physical and sexual abuse: poverty, illiteracy, gender, age, immigration status, “race”, caste, ethnicity
  • Lack of effective agency/rights in terms of labour conditions results in poor working conditions and low wages overdetermined by threat of factory relocation to cheaper more pliable workforce/location if this one becomes “less competitive” (hegemonic despotic regime)
  • Regime supported by consumer culture, desire for cheap and (newly) fashionable clothing in Western (+other) markets

Intersectional account of garment workers agency

Intersection axes of exploitation

  • So far we have focussed on accounts of how garment workers are/have been exploited in the axes of class, gender, age, location, migration status
  • We have found that the exploiters often value/d a combination of axes that resulted in greater vulnerability, powerlessness and therefore compliance with exploitation (the much desired “docile” work force)

Intersectional aspects of agency

Let’s have a look now at some of the ways that some garment workers might have exercised agency in their intersectional aspects

Garment workers motivations for and valuing of migration and work

  • Liberation from patriarchal norms/renegotiating gender relations
  • Self-development including education, leisure
  • Challenging urban/rural discriminatory culture
  • Greater income, ability to support family and self

Examples of agency in choice to/valuing of garment work

For Chinese garment workers and their “sisters in time”, factory work has provided:

  • a step up the economic ladder and an escape from the physical and mental drudgery of the farm;
  • a first taste of autonomy and self-determination,;
  • a set of choices made possible by a paycheck, however small; including
  • a choice to escape boredom, escape a betrothal or a domineering father, … the chance to choose their own clothing (Rivoli, 2015:112)

Bangladeshi  women choosing to work in the garment factories gained:

  • A step up the economic ladder for selves and family
  • degrees of autonomy, self-determination, self-development
  • Redressing patriarchal gender imbalance at home/in society while negotiating cultural/gender norms in transformed conditions (where some men cannot support families) Kabeer, N. (2002)

Constrained choices

  • The specific context is important: some garment workers might be regarded as being forced or coerced into factory work (by capitalist, gendered, religious oppressions) while others exercise some degree of freedom of choice
  • Decision making may involve a combination of all three (force, coercion, freedom)

Karl Marx’s (1852) idea suggests a mix of freedom and constraint:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Karl Marx 1852

Bounded Rationality

When individuals make decisions, they do not do so under optimum conditions that allow them to be completely rational and able to fully weigh all the possible risks and rewards surrounding their decision and choice.

Constraints might include, for example:

  • time constraints;
  • a lack of information or misinformation about certain options; peer pressure;
  • lack of access to alternatives ….[people] make what may appear to them to be the best decision or choice given their circumstances at the time. Consequently, their decision making is bounded—constrained or restricted—by their social, physical, and situational contexts, and their perceptions of those contexts. The individual assessments of the costs, risks, and benefits involved are subjective, which is why … different women in the same circumstances might make different decisions Chin, K. (2012:63)

Docility” and resistance

  • The term “docile” actually disguises forceful relations
  • Pinkey-Videla describes the industrial revolution factories as exercising despotic power; this might be true also of the more recent and current Japanese, Chinese, US factories Rivoli discusses
  • Rivoli’s and Kabeer’s examples show that apparently “docile” workers were actually engaged in resistance against, for example, structural or cultural aspects of discrimination or exploitation, and/or expressing agency in terms of positive choices for selves/families

Resistance at Moctezuma garment factory 1

Plankey-Videla’s Questions

The women garment workers at Moctezuma knew that strike action was likely to result in loss of “race to bottom”, and therefore unemployment and poverty. Striking was not in their economic best interests?

So, why did they decide to strike?

What does this tell us, if anything, about an intersectional analysis?

(Plankey-Videla, 2012:396)

Political-economic context for strike decision

  • declining wages and benefits, management breach of their social pact with workers (sackings, low wages against previous agreement)
  • an oppressive feeling of continual supervision from coworkers and managers
  • threats of capital mobility to cheaper countries, media’s portrayal of globalization as a race to the bottom
  • increased opportunities to migrate to the United States, l
  • local democratization, and heightened awareness of collective resistance—
  • However, workers aware that the firm paid above-average wages and provided extensive benefits, which allowed them to fulfill their family responsibilities.
  • Motherist culture at factory, recognising women’s family responsibilities = consent (hegemonic despotic regime)They changed the rules to grant team members special permits to miss work to care for sick children or attend school and, in the process, built a collective identity as working mothers.They developed self-management teams in line with the motherist culture, developing leadership roles for (and antagonisms amongst) the women workersEnhanced autonomy of self-managed teams promoted solidarity rooted in women’s collective identity as mothers
  • Even single mothers who were the main or sole provider for their families saw their work as fulfilling the dutiful mother role. Thus women’s identities as primarily mothers meant most were loath to protest deteriorating work conditions because voicing their discontent could cost them their jobs.
  • Managers lamented the lost productivity from time given for family duties but supported the motherist culture because it achieved sufficient “docility” (compliance)
  • In line with Mexican traditions that exalted the values of motherhood = manufactured consent Plankey-Videla (2012:450-477)).

Subverting Motherist culture

Workers’ framed the strike as a defense of the most vulnerable workers— single mothers.

They used beliefs around motherhood to challenge the firm’s authority as benevolent patriarch.

While still identifying as mothers, they increasingly interpreted their interests as also class-based and antithetical to management’s interests. Plankey-Videla(481-514)

Transforming identities: mothers and workers who deserved jobs with dignity and living wages

Work became more than a way to support one’s family; it transformed into a source of newfound independence, authority, self-esteem, and meaning

So: intersectionally understood: the strike

= Contests over the value of female gender and working class

+ it also led to the striking garments workers’

alliances with actors resisting other axes of exploitation including broader class and political issues

Interconnected (g/local) resistance 1

Responding to the Rana Plaza atrocity also gave rise to g/local political action against bad factory conditions

Hill Collins & Bilge, (2016:1999)argue that global anti-sweatshop movements  draw on the intersectional analysis of garment industry exploitation and collaborate through global coalitions of workers right and Western consumer activists, using social media; Rana plaza led to an agreement among global and Bagladeshi unions for better working conditions and wages

  • Global anti-sweatshop movement faces intersectional complexity: it includes groups with different identities, interests and priorities
  • Intersectionality poses the questions of the kinds of analysis and political practice that might enable sufficient solidarity to serve the divergent interests of groups marked by different axes of inequality and aspects of power-relations
  • For Professor Hill Collins and Bilge, this points back to the structural over-determination of global capitalism, ideologies and policies of neoliberalism, and their configurations of social divisions and hierarchies based on class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, “race”, faith, disability, nation and location
  • Global anti-sweatshop movement faces intersectional complexity: it includes groups with different identities, interests and priorities
  • Intersectionality poses the questions of the kinds of analysis and political practice that might enable sufficient solidarity to serve the divergent interests of groups marked by different axes of inequality and aspects of power-relations
  • For Professor Hill Collins and Bilge, this points back to the structural over-determination of global capitalism, ideologies and policies of neoliberalism, and their configurations of social divisions and hierarchies based on class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, “race”, faith, disability, nation and location

Intersectional Sociological Resistance

  • Resistance within any specific matrix of domination – particularly the hegemonic and interpersonal structures – can occur when individuals pursue self-determining possibilities.
  • Individuals can: • interrogate themselves to understand their predicament, including how their actions oppress others
  • • deconstruct and deny the dominant values that define some people as inferior and less worthy than others
  • • reconstruct knowledge in dialogue with others embroiled in the same •
  • reflect on shared personal experiences and moral responsibilities towards both the self and others whom the same or different kinds of inequality oppress. Cohen and Kennedy (2012:167).


Bohrer, A. (2018), “Intersectionality and Marxism: A Critical Historiography”, Historical Materialism, 26/2, 46-74.

Cohen, R. and Kennedy, P (2013), “Race, ethnicity, and Intersectionality”, Chapter 9, Global Sociology, Palgrave Macmillan.

Federici, Silvia 2004, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive
Accumulation, New York: Autonomedia.

Hill Collins, P. and Bilge, S. (2016), Intersectionality, Polity.

Kabeer, N. (2002), “Renegotiating Purdah: women workers’ labour market decisions in Dhaka”, chp. 4, in The Power to Choose: Bangladeshi Women and Labour Market Decisions in London and Dhaka, London, Verso

Lugones, Maria (2003), Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes: Theorizing Coalition against Multiple Oppressions, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Marx, Karl 1967 [1876], Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, edited by Friedrich
Engels, New York: International Publishers.

McClintock, Anne (1995), Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial
Contest, New York: Routledge.

Mies, Maria (1986), Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the
International Division of Labour, First Edition, London: Zed Books.

Plankey-Videla, (2012), Introduction “We Are in this Dance Together”, in We Are in This Dance Together: Gender, Power, and Globalization at a Mexican Garment Firm, Rutgers University Press.

Rivoli, P. (2012), The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade. Wiley. Chapters Six, Seven.

Author: shabbycheek

Lecturer and researcher in intersectional cultural studies, historical sociology, American and migration studies. Working in China on America, British, Australian and Chinese social justice issues using Feminist materialist, post-Marxist (Gramscian), Critical Race Studies and post-colonial perspectives.

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