bell hooks (1952-2021) was a powerful writer, speaker and teacher whose ideas influenced much of the global left. She was a prolific writer and wrote about race, gender, sexuality, relationships, class and education among many other topics. Born into a working class family in Appalachia, she gained an education at Stanford and lived much of her life as a radical intellectual. Her pen name, bell hooks, is in lowercase deliberately as a way of deprioritising her personality through experimental writing style. Much of hooks' work details her views on racist and patriarchal oppression, taking a race or gender centered perspective in her analysis. In Where we Stand: Class Matters hook takes a class centered perspective. This focus on class is sorely needed in America because, as hooks points out, it is not as “sexy or cute” as the issues of racism and patriarchy. The result is a look into her own experience with class and an analysis of the moral degradation in America that results from its class domination.
The first few chapters detail hooks' experience with class. Her working class upbringing, her entry into the bourgeois world of university education and her experience trying to stay connected to her upbringing as a middle class intellectual. She uses her life as an example to develop the concepts she uses later in the book. Hooks points a finger at the can of worms at the heart of American society, its issues with class division. Throughout the book she analyses the mental toll that money and class can have on people. From the ingrained shame of poverty backed up by class prejudice to the financial stress of upwardly mobile working class people, hooks looks into the psychological problems caused by our class society.
Hooks also explores how the feminist and black power movements were divided along class lines and co-opted by the bourgeois elements of the civil rights movement. She states that the divide in the movement was not just due to “uncle toms” but was a natural development from contradictory class interests. She lays out how liberal feminism superseded the radical movement and became a movement of professional women seeking proper positions in the capitalist system.
Hooks also casts hope for a cross racial class alliance. Due to the trend towards more integrated working class neighbourhoods in America, there is a greater chance of spontaneous solidarity. Mixed neighbourhoods create a situation where people can cross boundaries and learn from each other’s experiences, an interaction that is disincentivised in segregated neighbourhoods. I believe that hooks' theory is vindicated when looking at the broad participation in the George Floyd uprisings. Cross-racial class alliances are the way forward to avoid the betrayals of the civil rights campaigns of the 60’s and 70’s.
There are parts of the book that I disagree with. hooks is a postmodernist, democratic socialist while I am a class struggle anarchist. While I have a great deal of admiration for hooks and find her work educational, we have different ideas about how to usher in a socialist society and what said society would look like. She seems to be advocating a reformist position that encourages a revaluation of poor people in our society and states that people with wealth should give generously to poor people. While I am sure that it wouldn’t hurt for the wealthy to be more charitable, I don’t think that this will lead to the empowerment of the poor. For starters, similar programs for families overseas have only eased the symptoms of neo-imperialism. Quite often these charitable acts mask the exploitative system of global capital. The only way for the working poor to take a hold of their destiny is through their struggle against the ruling classes. I can see where hooks is coming from as she is a middle class academic who wants to help the working class. She also advocates for greater state resources to clamp down on drug cartels. I am against this as it would most likely mean a more militarised police force terrorising poor neighbourhoods. One cannot separate the state and police from the racism and capitalism they protect.
All in all Where we Stand is a great book that delves into the effects of capitalism on the human psyche. hooks' exploration into her own life keeps the text human in a way that most books that deal with class don’t. Her advocacy of cross-racial class alliance is great even though I may disagree with some practical applications. This book is a brilliant reminder of the need to think about class when we talk about intersectional oppression.