Yesterday I posted a brief exchange between Michael Rectenwald and myself about the pernicious effects of “identity politics” on the contemporary Left. Today I’d like to spell out two different uses of the term “identitarian” as a term of critique on the Left.
“Identitarian” ideology under Fordism
The first form of thought identified as “identitarian” here comes from Adorno. In his late magnum opus Negative Dialectics (1966), Adorno seeks to critique ideological representations of society that minimize or suppress real antagonisms and unresolved antinomies that historically persist. Adorno approaches this problem from the highest level of abstraction in modern (Western) philosophy, the split between subject and object. He takes issue with philosophies that contend that objects can be perfectly comprehended by the concepts of an apperceptive, epistemic subject. Though this seems to place Adorno at a further remove from Hegel’s speculative idealism and closer, as some have maintained, to Kant’s transcendental epistemology — in which the thing-in-itself, the original source of all a subject’s intuitions, remains forever unknowable — the non-identity of concept and object is not a permanent natural condition, but a potentially transient social condition. For Adorno, continued division, disharmony, and disequilibrium in cognition are constitutive of a society in which capitalism has not yet been overcome. Identitarian thinking, which obscures these uneven realities, belongs to a conceit symptomatic of the tendency to deny social conflict:
Nonidentity is the secret telos of identification. It is the part that can be salvaged; the mistake in traditional thinking is that identity is taken for the goal. The force that shatters the appearance of identity is the force of thinking: the use of “it is” undermines the form of that appearance, which remains inalienable just the same. Dialectically, cognition of nonidentity lies also in the fact that this very cognition identifies — that it identifies to a greater extent, and in other ways, than identitarian thinking. This cognition seeks to say what something is, while identitarian thinking says what something comes under, what it exemplifies or represents, and what, accordingly, it is not itself. The more relentlessly our identitarian thinking besets its object, the farther will it take us from the identity of the object. Under its critique, identity does not vanish but undergoes a qualitative change. Elements of affinity — of the object itself to the thought of it — come to live in identity.
To define identity as the correspondence of the thing-in-itself to its concept is hubris; but the ideal of identity must not simply be discarded. Living in the rebuke that the thing is not identical with the concept is the concept’s longing to become identical with the thing. This is how the sense of nonidentity contains identity. The supposition of identity is indeed the ideological element of pure thought, all the way down to formal logic; but hidden in it is also the truth moment of ideology, the pledge that there should be no contradiction, no antagonism. (Negative Dialectics, pg. 149)
Put differently, “identitarian” ideology for Adorno occurs wherever apparent homogeneity masks underlying heterogeneity. This can be elucidated with reference to the historical problem he was addressing. Following the end of World War II, with the defeat of Nazism and the onset of the Cold War, a kind of consolidation was achieved between Keynesian economic policies in North America drifting leftward and social-democratic economic policies in Europe drifting rightward. With the Fordist state’s periodic intervention to “correct” the market’s inherent volatility, by manipulating interest rates, controlling currency, and the creation of large bureaucratic welfare agencies through deficit spending, it appeared that the massive class conflict of earlier periods of capitalism had finally been resolved. Labor appeared to have been largely integrated into the new postwar constellation through collective bargaining and the emergence of big unions to match big business and big government. Continue reading