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:
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?
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.