The steady decline of
Skimming over the report on the Left Unity conference blogger Richard Seymour just wrote up for The North Star, I was again saddened to see just how far he’s slid in the direction of intersectionality and identity politics these days. Yes, these subjects have been on my mind rather a lot lately. No matter, we’ll press on anyway.
Returning to Seymour’s article. Overall a pretty dry, matter-of-fact account. Though still able on occasion to summon up flashes of his former glory — that peculiar blend of verve, tenacity, and biting wit for which he was known — these were increasingly interspersed, used to punctuate dull platitudes and sterile tepidities. Want proof? Just listen to this morbid little anecdote:
[T]he signal sent by this conference is clear: the culture of the Left is changing and feminism [what Seymour means by this is unclear] is winning the argument. At one point as the vote tallies were announced, and as if to dramatise the urgent relevance of “intersectionality,” a man griped from the floor: “what about class politics?”
……A woman nearby rose in heroic fury, and demanded: “Who said that?”
……“Who said that!?”
……“What about class?” the luckless man reiterated, to jeers and a few desperate, scattered hand claps.
……“Right. I’m a woman, and I’m working class — how about that?” she snapped. Exuberant applause.
How edifying. Almost Aesopian in its didacticism. You can see the setup from the start. First there’s the stuffy, old-fashioned male dogmatist insisting on the centrality of class struggle. Then there’s the defiant, sturdy работница rising to challenge him. On what basis could he reasonably object? The mere fact of her existence seems to refute his concerns. Nevermind that this is a caricature, that class identity is no more legitimate as grounds for a politics than gender or any other identity.
It doesn’t end there, though. Wrapping the piece up, Seymour struggles to muster enough enthusiasm to bestow on Left Unity his supposedly reluctant, hard-won stamp of approval:
Left Unity does have some advantages. Its veterans have had the chance to learn from the errors of the past. It is not reliant on some great personality, nor is it an undemocratic lash-up of the extant far left. It puts the politics of women, LGBTQ, and black people front and centre. There appears to be no appetite for inscrutable dogma. And it seems to be genuinely prepared for the long haul: the slow, patient work of building its presence in communities, trade unions, and social movements. That gives us a chance, to put it no more strongly than that. And I don’t like admitting this. But I’m cautiously optimistic.
And to think that I actually believed “positive thinking” was on its way out.
What’s weird is that such sentiments could scarcely have been anticipated reading his writings from a few years ago. Of course, this hasn’t come completely out of the blue. Seymour has done much in the meantime to pave the way for this shift of view. Take his valiant effort to smuggle identity politics into Marxism through the back door, appealing to the vague authority of “cultural materialism” à la Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall. In a post from November 30, 2011 entitled “Cultural Materialism and Identity Politics,” Seymour thus rhetorically asked:
[I]s it…possible to have a materialist politics of identity? Is it even advisable to try? To answer the first question is to think through the meaning of Marx’s concept of the social formation as a unity in difference; to answer the second is to explicate Lenin’s thinking in saying that the person who waits for the “pure” revolution will never live to see it.
Lenin certainly didn’t have postmodern identity politics in mind when he penned that famous line. (If memory serves, he was writing about national autonomy). Still, let’s hold off on this criticism for now and see where Seymour is going with this. Predictably, he answers both questions posed at the outset in the affirmative. His argument, quoted here at length, runs as follows:
Where does “identity” fit into all this? It is common to address the subject in the terms of particularism, in contrast to the universalisms that form the basis for rival political projects such as socialism and liberalism. This would suggest that identity is bound to a specific culture or sub-culture, its political radius extending no wider than the boundaries of cultural form in which it is embedded. Even more scandalously from a certain perspective, the notion of identity seems to be bound to the bourgeois individual, the self-sufficient, self-sustaining Cartesian subject. Yet identity is a much more slippery concept than this would imply. It is not distinguished only by its affirmation of the culturally, or politically proximate, but also by the process of identification which involves the perception of, for example, shared interests. And interests are interesting things: they can be expansive, or narrow; inclusive, or aloof. Identity politics is a “politics of location,” certainly. But where one is situated in the social formation has consequences for how far one can see. I seem to recall from somewhere that it was Angela Davis who urged readers to imagine the capitalist system as a pyramid, with heterosexual white male capitalists at the top, and black, gay women prisoners at the bottom. Each struggle by those at the bottom would also lift those further up, such that the more subaltern one’s situation, the more potentially universal one’s interests are. The marxist understanding of the working class as the “universal class” hinges partially on this strategic insight.
“Identity politics” is usually treated as an unwelcome narrowing of horizons, a reduction of the political field to competing particularist fiefdoms — the identitarianisation of politics. But it is also possible to arrive at the same subject from the opposite direction — the politicisation of identity. The tendency of capitalism is to multiply the number of lines of antagonism. And if certain identities are goaded into being, or take on a politicised edge, because the system is attacking people then it is clear that “identity politics” is not a distraction, or an optional bonus. The fact is that “identities” have a material basis in the processes of capitalism. And just because they are constructed (from that material basis) doesn’t mean that they are simply voluntary responses to the life situation they arise in, which can be modified or dropped at will. Thus, it is not realistic to tell people — “you have the wrong identity; you should think of yourself as a worker instead.” To speak of capitalism is to speak of a system of unity in difference, a complex unity structured by antagonism. In any concrete capitalist formation, the forces that emerge to support oppositional and leftist struggles will usually be coming from some identity-position; and usually more than one identity-position, as the lines of antagonism intersect and the fields of politicisation overlap. As Judith Butler argued in her essay, “Merely Cultural,” the Left can respond to this in two ways. Either it can try to construct a unity which is based on the exclusions of what I might call, for convenience, a pre-1968 Left: a unity which suppresses or demotes gender, race, etc as being of secondary, derivative importance. But this will not work: the genie will not go back in the bottle, and all such efforts would result in would be a divided and more defeasible Left. Or it can try to construct a unity in difference, negotiating between identities, acknowledging them as starting points which give rise to certain forms of politicisation and which can potentially be the basis for accession to a universalist political project.
Note the figures whose authority Seymour invokes here: Angela Davis and Judith Butler. Earlier, he’d couched his argument in terms famously set forth by Marx and Lenin. Here he leans more on thought-figures culled from New Left and “post-political” Left perspectives. Davis’ Marxist credentials, it must be said, are considerably more impressive than Butler’s (or Seymour’s, for that matter). Still, since he doesn’t cite any source for the pyramid metaphor he attributes to Davis, however, it’s difficult to say how closely his retelling follows her own original formulation. All the same, just by going off of Seymour’s version one can still advance a couple criticisms.
First, let’s examine this assertion: “[T]he more subaltern one’s situation, the more potentially universal one’s interests are.” Assuming that Seymour takes “more subaltern” to mean “more oppressed” (he gives “black, gay women prisoners” as an example), we might wonder whether this was truly the rationale that led Marx to name the proletariat as the universal class of modern society. What about the lumpenproletariat? Certainly they are “more oppressed” than wage-laborers, even if by definition they are not “more exploited.” Marx and Engels, far from considering the lumpenproletariat a revolutionary force in society, even in potentia, referred to them disparagingly as “the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society, may, here and there, be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution; its conditions of life, however, prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.”
Not much of an endorsement, really. For Marx, the reason the proletariat was the “universal class” is because it is the only part of society necessary for the reproduction of capital. While wage labor and capital are indeed antithetical, they also invariably mediate one another. This does not mean that non-proletarian elements cannot take part in any revolution that would seek to overcome capital; they almost certainly would participate, even in crucial ways. But it does mean that the proletariat would lead such a revolution. It would be a democratic revolution, involving the whole “people,” but it would conduct its affairs under the aegis of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
So much for that. Regarding Judith Butler, the very fact that she is now held in such esteem on the Left is symptomatic of a broader development that’s taken place within politics over the last decade. Namely, it consists in the fact that Marxism has declared victory over its would-be usurpers — the (post-)ideological triumvirate of postmodernism, post-structuralism, and post-colonialism — only by capitulating to its so-called “radical” insights and demands.
Moving on to intersectionality, then, we arrive at a short piece he wrote back in March on “The Point of Intersection.” This mini-article has, predictably, become popular amongst young ISOers and ex-SWPers eager to proffer proof that Cliffism can accommodate hip new ideas. Again, as with identity politics and the “subaltern,” Seymour framed his approach in terms of Gramsci. “The concept of ‘intersectionality’ is a way of posing a problem, not an ultimate theoretical solution,” he wrote. “And the problem it poses is, I think, a specific instance of the global problem addressed by Gramsci: that of achieving effective political unity among the oppressed.”
Ultimately, the theoretical justification Seymour provided for adopting intersectionality concerns epistemology. He explained that
like some of the most radical theory, the concept of “intersectionality” poses a profound epistemological challenge, a challenge to ways of knowing. If the feminist challenge to traditional forms of knowledge seeks to expose and counter its androcentric biases, intersectional feminism finds a plethora of other biases (class, ethnocentric, heterosexist, etc) converging on and intersecting with them. It’s not just a question of how a perceived “privilege” or set of privileges might bind one to the system, to its hierarchies and violence, but more profoundly of how one’s location in the social structure enables one to see, or prevents one from seeing.
Like any good Adornian — to say nothing of my piety toward Dietzgen or Sohn-Rethel — I am against epistemology (same goes for ontology). Whether structuralist or phenomenological, or some gross hybrid form thereof, attempts to translate “ways of knowing” into actionable or practicable politics tends to favor some form of crude determinism. Seymour cites all the right intersectional theorists along the way, like any good survey: Kimberle Crenshaw, bell hooks, and Patricia Hill Collins each receive passing nods.
A travel back in time
Forget all this. Let’s leave it behind. Time to travel back in time, less than a decade ago now but seemingly so far away.
Though it’s probably difficult by now to remember, here’s Seymour in one of his more perceptive moments back in 2004. An editorial decision in The Guardian irked him. They’d published the latest communiqué from Bin Laden in English translation:
If The Guardian wanted to send some of its reactionary opponents into a furore, it couldn’t have done much better than putting Osama Bin Laden’s latest speech in their comment pages. Apparently, Mark Steel was too much of a nutter for them, but this guy’s alright. Can we expect The Al Qaeda Reader next year? A hefty book of collected articles and speeches on the lies of the Zionist-Christian Crusaders and their morally degenerate lifestyles? Maybe a couple of fitness videos featuring Osama and his acolytes doing leg stretches while reciting the Prophets?
I suppose I’m asking the wrong question — what I should ask is why has a bumpkin billionaire with a few nuts loose and a monomaniac fixation with the Great Satan and its Zionist imp got the ears of anyone at all?
Wanna know the kicker? Someone did put out an Al Quaeda Reader the next year. Verso published Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden in 2005. Ironic that The Guardian would get so much flak from Seymour considering he’s now one of Verso’s posterboys. Anyway, let’s not get off track. Though Seymour remained within “the narrow horizon of bourgeois right,” here’s from the rest of his article titled “Jihad Chic”:
It was the vacancy of the international Left which allowed these piratical fuckwits [jihadists] to gain a foothold, first in the Middle East, then elsewhere. The dynamic is almost an exact replica of the process which saw the resurgence of the European far right. The mainstream left and right colluding in a sort of depoliticisation through the Nineties, the demonstrably baleful aspects of capitalism becoming even more obscene, the political process even more moribund than ever, centre-left governments concealing their failure behind a façade of identity politics, PC radicalism, and a multicultural discourse that is not only useless, but actually beneficial for the far right. Multiculturalism, promoting the politics of “difference” rather than universal human rights, can produce strange ideological effects.
How well Richard Seymour wrote nine years ago!