From a brief exchange
The following is taken from a recent exchange that took place on Facebook between Michael Rectenwald and myself, and constitutes a reflection on the baleful effect of “identity politics” on contemporary left-wing movements. In a subsequent post, I’ll further specify what “identity” means in this context, because the term “identitarian” as used by Michael, me, and for example Adolph Reed is not identical to the term “identitarian” as used by Theodor Adorno. Both uses are valid, I will contend, but they address different problems.
Identity is the bane of the contemporary Left. Should the forces of revolution rise up tomorrow, “leftists” will spot-check them, making sure they are comprised of the “right” identity groups. If they are not properly composed, the Left will call off the revolution, suggesting that more “marginalized” people need to be involved in the leadership, in speaking roles, and so on. It wouldn’t matter that the revolution would’ve benefited everyone, made life bearable and indeed even exhilarating for the entirety of the marginalized, inclusive of all the working class, the overwhelming majority of the social order.
Nothing impresses the Left unless all of the proper identitarian symbolics are observed and lip-service is paid. The Left today does not offer universal human emancipation. All it offers is tokenism, and merely linguistic emancipation for token groups. Anything that promises more — the Left will check, stop-and-frisk, and put an end to.
Historically, identitarian ideology is a product of the failure of the Left. The various forms of identity politics associated with the “new social movements” coming out of the New Left during the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s (feminism, black nationalism, gay pride) were themselves a reaction, perhaps understandable, to the miserable failure of working-class identity politics associated with Stalinism coming out of the Old Left during the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s (socialist and mainstream labor movements). Working-class identity politics — admittedly avant la lettre — was based on a crude, reductionist understanding of politics that urged socialists and union organizers to stay vigilant and keep on the lookout for “alien class elements.” Any and every form of ideological deviation was thought to be traceable to a bourgeois or petit-bourgeois upbringing. One’s political position was thought to flow automatically and mechanically from one’s social position, i.e. from one’s background as a member of a given class within capitalist society.
Anyone whose working-class credentials were not considered impeccable were expected to go through rituals of self-criticism or “autocritique” [from самокритика, a crucial shibboleth in the Stalinist vocabulary] confessing one’s incorrigible bourgeois intellectual habits in order to purify himself. Maoism radicalized this with application Third World and minority contexts. Indeed, much of the tedious discourse of “privilege-checking” derives from this, as one commenter pointed out in response to a post on Kathy Miriam’s blog:
I see [identity politics’] origins in confrontational New Left styles of the late ’60s through the early ’70s (when lots of feminists were reading Mao’s little red book, believe it or not). These consisted in an accusatory calling-out of any person whose individual acts were thought to be based in structures of systemic oppression, even if only potentially. There was no sense of proportion — it was all or nothing, totally Manichaean, polarized into either “good” or “bad.” Breast-beating was required. Confession, as well (Maoism again). Lots of guilt and fear behind the attacks, too.
When identity politics emerged as part of the constellation of the “post-political” Left in the 1990s and 2000s, however, it did so in a more academic and institutionalized form. The “new social movements” had more or less ground to a halt, and so the center of political gravity shifted from the streets into the classroom (where it was even less effective). There was more jargon; the word “privilege” was on everyone’s lips. Of course, this is unsurprising: the New Left had entered the very institutions it once protested, as either professional academics or full-time activists.
The takeaway from all this should be the following:
Contrary to the assumptions of identity politics, many members of the working class will for various ideological reasons oppose a proletarian revolution that would emancipate them. Many women would oppose a revolution that would put an end to conditions of domestic servitude and the gendered division of labor. Many ethnic minorities (blacks, latinos, etc.) will oppose a revolution that would abolish all distinctions based on race. By that same score, moreover, many non-workers, men, and even whites will fight — seemingly against their own interest — for just such an emancipation.
It shouldn’t matter who people supposedly “are.” All that should matter is the kind of transformation they hope to effect in the world.