Response to Peter Frase on identity politics

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Jacobin
has published a short reflection by Peter Frase on identity politics, with the humorous title
“Stay Classy.” Unfortunately, the title is probably the best thing about it. The rest of it is a bit slapdash, haphazardly whipped together. Especially the bit on “racecraft,” which seems both tacked on and untrue to  Barbara and Karen Fields’ argument in their book of the same name. Generally I think Frase is the brains of the bunch over at Jacobin, and still recommend his “Four Futures” essay to anyone interested in the journal. But this piece — as well as his earlier article on the 2011 protests in Wisconsin, “An Imagined Community,” in which he claimed “all politics are identity politics” — I find far weaker.

Anyway, I read this article when it appeared on  Frase’s blog. Here’s what I wrote there, with a few slight alterations:

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The emphasis on “identity” is misleading.

Marx stressed the significance of the proletariat as the “universal class” of bourgeois society because of its decisive position within the capitalist mode of production. Not because workers are the most downtrodden or marginalized members of society, but because they are uniquely placed to overturn the present social order. Immiseration notwithstanding, lumpenproletarians (the so-called “lazy lazzaroni” of  the “classes dangereuses“), the unemployable reserve army of labor, and those still involved in peasant labor have it far worse than those who manage to find waged or salaried jobs under capitalism. So if oppression doesn’t index political potential, what does? What makes the working class so special?

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Once again, it’s not that the working class is inherently radical or progressive. History has shown again and again that workers are susceptible to the influence of reactionary ideologies, and quite often act in ways that seem to go against their best interest. Proletarian parties and political movements have repeatedly erred in assuming that the laboring masses would eventually come around to socialism, only to see their expectations dashed at the final moment. All the same, the proletariat remains the sole hope that capitalism might someday be overcome. If workers aren’t natural-born revolutionaries, though — if they don’t automatically organize around socialist principles — what could possibly justify this continued belief?

Though it risks sounding redundant, we would do well to remind ourselves that the fundamental structuring principle of the capitalist social formation is capital. Capital is a social relationship in which a given magnitude of value, itself comprised of finished products embodying dead labor, must augment itself through the process of production, by coming into contact with living labor that valorizes it further. It is thus necessarily mediated at every level by wage-labor, on which its fructification relies. For this reason, it is dependent on a class of laborers — a social group determined by its relation to the means of production.

Gender and race certainly contribute to the overall dynamic of capitalist society, especially insofar as they affect individuals’ ability to enter and advance through the workforce (and thus their ability to strike, their independent purchasing power, etc.). Each forms a structure of ascriptive hierarchy, in which more or less arbitrary (and often superficial) characteristics determine status. There are real historic reasons behind these persistent forms of inequality, but neither is  positioned to transform society at its root. Only through their participation in the sphere of production do they acquire social and political agency, as the constitutive antithesis of capital. In abolishing capital, the proletariat abolishes its own class basis, and paves the way for a classless society.

Socialists in the past recognized that the self-emancipation of the proletariat — an act in which both male and female proletarians, white and non-white workers, must take part — would bring about the emancipation of all humanity. As the Socialist Party of Great Britain’s founding charter, from 1904, clearly states that

[A]s in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, [its] emancipation…will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

I don’t see why this requires any addition. Precisely this universalism, “without distinction of race or sex,” is lacking in today’s politics of difference.

3 thoughts on “Response to Peter Frase on identity politics

  1. I think what’s interesting here is you’re accepting the same comparison of race/gender as fundamentally a different arrangement than that of class. If one is ultimately only concerned with the development of political economy, then the assertion that gender and race cannot transform society at its root may hold.

    However, this is a position that is only maintained by neglecting to fully develop what gender and race look like as forms intrinsic to identity. It is not enough to say the present world exists only in the fundamental structure of capital. Indeed, a number of studies focused on the development of linguistics, of cultural studies, and a plethora of other fields address that race and gender, although socially constructed identities, still maintain unique perspectives rooted in those identities.

    In a similar sense, the construction of the “proletariat” as universal is a mirage. The specifics of lower-class workers in cultural regards share similar characteristics, to be sure. But they do not operate according to the same abstraction that the “class first” philosophy often espouses. I think Frase goes a little far in terms of whether working class culture is discernible, but I do think this is a valuable piece in regards to the question of whether there is a principal root of struggle.

    Nice response, overall.

    • Thanks for your comment.

      I think you misunderstand the thrust of my critique. Race and gender function differently than class — differently with respect to each other, too — in terms of the way they structure experience, leading groups and individuals to “identify” in various ways. What I’m trying to move away from is identity as such.

      Against politics that start from some positive node of identification, I’d like to counterpose a politics based on a determinate social relationship. So rather than affirm one’s race, gender, sexual orientation, or even class (I am white, I am male, I am heterosexual, I am working-class), I’d prefer to establish — one which arose historically, but exists nevertheless. This relationship is a negative one, a relationship of non-identity, namely with capital.

  2. Pingback: The missing category of totality | The Charnel-House

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