Freedom is indivisible or it is nothing at all besides sloganeering and temporary, short-sighted, and short-lived advancement for a few. Freedom is indivisible, and either we are working for freedom or you are working for the sake of your self-interests and I am working for mine.
June Jordan (1992) had her eye set on an understanding of freedom that challenged social inequality as being neither natural, normal, nor inevitable. Instead, she believed that power relations of racism, class exploitation, sexism, and heterosexism were socially constructed outcomes of human agency and, as such, were amenable to change. For Jordan, the path toward a reenvisioned world where “freedom is indivisible” reflected aspirational political projects of the civil rights and Black Power movements, feminism, the antiwar movement, and the movement for gay and lesbian liberation. These social justice projects required a messy politics of taking the risks that enabled their participants to dream big dreams.
I often wonder what June Jordan would make of conceptions of social inequality, power, and politics within contemporary social theories. Heady terms such as freedom that were so central to the emancipatory projects of Jordan’s times seem relegated to the dustbin of ideas from the mid–twentieth century. In their place, we encounter understandings of the here and now as curiously “post” or “after” major developments. Postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, and postraciality all suggest that we inhabit a post–social movement era, one that may be “post” the possibility of freedom. Yet, as events of 2011 such as Arab Spring and the various Occupy movements remind us, social movements and the emancipatory politics they espouse can emerge overnight. Thus, this malaise of postemancipatory politics emanating from the academy may be more indicative of the mental state of Western scholars in ivory towers than that of people on the ground.
In this context, how might social theory speak more effectively to contemporary social phenomena in ways that address the realities of social inequalities, power, and politics? Two contemporary fields of study that seemingly eschew the backward-looking “posting” of contemporary social phenomena in favor of a forward-looking approach speak to this question. As knowledge projects, American pragmatism and intersectionality both aim to use their tools of analysis to grapple with contemporary social issues, and, as such, both might have implications for contemporary social theory.
Despite differences of longevity and contemporary intellectual focus, both discourses constitute works in progress that engage themes of social inequality, power, and politics. American pragmatism, a well-established field within American philosophy, is currently seeing a revitalized scholarly interest whereby “old” ideas from the classical pragmatism of the early twentieth century are made “new again.” As part of this process of self-reflexive revitalization, themes legitimated within the canon, such as pragmatism’s utility for rethinking democracy, increasingly constitute topics of serious investigation. Yet, despite this revitalization, themes of social inequality, power, and politics are not yet central to contemporary investigations, in part because they were not focal points of classical pragmatism. In contrast, social inequality, power, and politics have been primary concerns of intersectionality since its inception. Catalyzed by the social movement politics of the 1960s and 1970s, race/class/gender studies as a knowledge project became visible within U.S. higher education in the 1980s with the arrival of people of color, women, and similarly marginalized groups whose social power had historically limited their ability to legitimate knowledge. Since the 1990s, the term intersectionality has emerged as the umbrella term framing this emerging field of study.
Pragmatism and intersectionality potentially complement each other, in that each discourse speaks to gaps in the other. Pragmatism presents a provocative analysis of community that provides a useful framework for understanding the processes by which social structures are constructed, yet its neglect of power relations limits its own arguments. Intersectionality provides a distinctive analysis of social inequality, power, and politics, yet the relative newness of this field in the academy has produced provisional analyses of these themes. In all, in both discourses, using the pragmatist construct of community and infusing it with intersectionality’s ideas about social inequality, power, and politics might animate new avenues of investigation.