A few theses about “identity politics” and its false oppositions


I see a lot of critiques and defences of “identity politics”. No doubt we will be seeing even more as the US Democratic Primary winds up.

It’s the sort of debate which is all about definitions. If identity politics is understood as “politics concerned with the struggles of oppressed minorities”, then the debate is pointless because the answer is obvious. Oppressed minorities will always struggle against their own oppression, and demand support from the working class and left as a whole as they should.

If instead “identity politics” is understood as referring to a family of phenomena primarily exhibited on social media- callout culture, total disinterest in economics and a focus on the interpersonal to such a degree as to obscure the role of the state and capital, then yes, identity politics has clearly gone beyond what is useful in many instances. Unfortunately though people will not agree on what those instances are.

This vagueness has allowed definitional questions to become a fixture of the debate over identity politics. Partisans of both sides start with a definition of “identity politics” most convenient to their argument, then expand their analysis to more general usages, often through rhetorical sleight of hand.

In the past when I’ve grappled with these debates I’ve tried to define “identity politics” as a first step. I no longer think this is useful or possible- “identity politics” is one of those inherently contested terms, vague and charged. Instead I want to put forward a few claims that, hopefully, bypass the debate if accepted.

1. There is real no separation between “identity” issues and “economic” issues

The point isn’t to argue about whether so called culture war issues of racism, sexism and so on, or so called economic issues are “more important” the point is to critique the notion that they are seperable.

Even prima facie it is clear that the right uses racism and sexism as a wedge to strengthen its position in the class struggle. At a deeper level of analysis, oppression is a load bearing pillar of class society (see: Selma James in Sex, Race and Class). This means the struggle against oppression is, consciously or otherwise, a struggle against a critical organ of capitalism, and thus a form of class struggle. Hence asking whether fighting oppression is more important or less important than the class struggle is not illuminating. It is like asking your mechanic to focus on fixing the car, not the engine.

This is the first mistake committed by many people on both sides of the debate. Both sides separate out the “cultural” from the “economic”- the oppression of minorities from the exploitation of workers, and then assign a value judgement about which one is more important- the only bit they differ on is the value judgement they make- the social ontology of separable “cultural” struggles distinct from the economic sphere is the same.

2. The whole working class loses out from oppression, and the whole working class gains from struggling against it- that gives us a basis to trust each other.

Oppression of every form is a keystone of capitalism, and so the whole working class win from the well executed struggle against racism, sexism and so on. Thus we must reject the view that the oppression of sections of the working class is irrelevant to the welfare of the rest of the working class. At least in the very long run, we’re all in this together since we’re all aligned against capitalism, and that provides a material basis for cooperation in demolishing oppression, insomuch as capitalism needs racist and patriarchal oppression to perpetuate itself.

Although a material basis for cooperation alone isn’t enough, it does give trust a chance to grow. Trust that we’re all ultimately working together- even if we stumble- is the basis for solidarity. Solidarity is the way out of the excesses of backbiting social politics that people are often complaining about when they talk about “identity politics”. On the other hand, thinking that oppression is overall good for parts of the working class leads to suspicion. Sure Sam might say that they are opposed to racism or sexism or whatever, but why should you believe Sam if you think that he wins out from systems of oppression? Failure to recognise shared interests leads to paranoid “Vampire castle” type social phenomena.

3. The concept of privilege is a flawed tool for understanding oppression

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Racism’s harshest and most direct effects by far are on people of colour, but ultimately it is used to drag down the entire working class of all races through divide and rule tactics. It is certainly true that under racism, white people have it better than people of colour- but this does not entail that things are better for working class whites under racism than they would be in a non-racist society. To say that someone has privilege due to a social arrangement (e.g. white supremacy) seems to imply that they are better off as a result of that social arrangement existing. Yet racism and sexism are essential to the continued existence of capitalism, and capitalism makes things worse for the entire working class, so it would seem to me that racism and sexism are not, in the long run, good for working class whites and men. Hence the category of privilege is a dubious way of understanding the real effects of racism and sexism for working class people. I think Ignatiev captured the illusory nature of white privilege for workers best when he said:

““To suggest that the acceptance of white-skin privilege is in the interests of white workers is equivalent to suggesting that swallowing the worm with the hook in it is in the interests of the fish”

So I would argue that, at least in an ultimate sense the concept of privilege is deeply misleading, not because (for example) white workers aren’t better off than workers of colour, but because it elides the possibility that racism in the long-run makes things worse for all workers. We need to convince the whole class that racism is fucking them over through divide and rule tactics- not that sections of it win from racism. As a side-note, from a practical point of view this has always bugged me about the concept of privilege- if you want people to dismantle racism or sexism, why on earth would you go around telling them they are better off because of it?

4. Don’t condemn activism, build connections

I’ve recently seen some material claiming that the left is doing “too much” of certain forms of anti-oppression activism. Not is this wrong, it’s totally useless. Condemning activism you don’t think is useful achieves nothing- people have the energy to do what they have the energy to do, and the vast amount of energy for opposing oppression out of people’s lives and experiences. Even if it would be a good thing if queer, anti-racist or anti-sexist activism were to be toned down (and it’s absolutely not!) wishing would not make it so. The only thing that lies down this road is pointless backbiting.

The alternative to wringing your hands and wishing that activists were engaging in “real” class struggle is to deepen the connections between anti-capitalism and trans rights. Forge connections between movements, and deepen the class content of different struggles, revealing their broader meaning against the backdrop of class struggle. The right want to use these issues to wedge the left- don’t let them. If anyone ever tells you that workers in hard hats don’t take kindly to that sort of thing, tell them about stories like the pink bans and the long history of workers sticking up for minority rights.

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