Class and identity crisis

Mike Naylor has written a succinct response to Mark Fisher’s “Vampires’ Castle” article. Though I’ve already more or less said my piece on the matter, Naylor’s narrow focus on the issue of class in Fisher provides a convenient excuse for me to flesh out some ideas about its social, political, and cultural dimensions. I’ve been meaning to write something up on it for a while now. But before we embark on that divagation, let’s first attend a few things Naylor writes in critiquing Fisher. Toward the end, he avers:

We should reject Fisher’s call to ignore oppression, as if our lack of thinking about them makes them go away.

Certainly, ignoring oppression won’t make it go away. But compulsively talking about and splitting hairs about oppression isn’t necessarily a way of thinking about them. More often than not it’s an unthinking procedure ritualistically invoked, which gives the false appearance of probity and depth while in fact it remaining at an extremely superficial level of abstraction. If anything, the obsessive focus on all the particular ways one is oppressed obscures more than it clarifies the universal unfreedom of modern society: namely, that which is entailed by capital’s continued dominance over the process of production. Though intersectionality claims to finally address the actual complexity of life under the capitalist social formation in all its empirical messiness — casting light on the manifold, multiform imbalances and power dynamics — in truth it only further confounds the situation. Even the language used in trying to grasp these different aspects of oppression bespeaks an abiding confusion over how they all fit together. All the talk of “intersecting,” “overlapping,” and “interlocking” “networks,” “systems,” and “modalities” of “discrimination,” “subjugation,” and “interpellation” (concepts pilfered from the coffers of the Theory Industry these last thirty years) is simply a safeguard that ensures identity politicians won’t be surprised by new forms of oppression that await discovery or invention.

(On this note, some perceptively quipped: “Isn’t ‘intersectionality’ just another name for what we used to call [the Freudian and Althusserian concept of] ‘overdetermination’?” They’re right, you know.)

By relying so heavily on flimsy neologisms like these, identity politics is thereby allowed to neglect and even studiously avoid confrontation with the overarching totality of social relations under capitalism. Apparent heterogeneity here masks underlying homogeneity. Seemingly centrifugal tendencies toward dispersal and diffusion veil capital’s propensity toward concentration and centralization. Rather than reveal the true magnitude of this historic impasse, the ongoing crisis of bourgeois society, identity politics seizes upon the accidence and minutiae of everyday experience and anoints these as crucial sites of “struggle.” Every perceived slight, asymmetry, or indiscretion, no matter how minor, is exaggerated and thereby elevated to a matter of life and death. The fear is that without scrupulous attention to detail, revolutionary politics will end up reproducing the very forms of oppression they ostensibly seek to overcome. However convincing this oft-repeated argument might seem at first blush, it should be remembered that means and ends are not always identical when it comes to politics. Far from taking problems such as racism, sexism, and homophobia seriously, moreover, the Left seems to subscribe to the naïve belief that structural forms of social oppression can be corrected simply by codifying and bureaucratizing the way that people talk about them.

The points Naylor makes in criticizing of Fisher’s idea of class are well taken. Cultural markers such as accent or inflection, habits of dress or behavior associated with a given social stratum can hardly be considered constitutive features of class. These vary too much over time and space to have any enduring value as indicators of one’s socioeconomic standing or origin. At most, they can be considered a loose set of criteria or ensemble of expectations that stereotype different groups of individuals throughout society. It would make no sense to either exalt or abase someone on the basis of such qualities. Members of the working class should do not deserve to be demonized as “chavs,” but neither should they be condescendingly valorized as somehow more “authentic” on account of their unpretentious, slangy speech or charmingly direct mannerisms. Continue reading