Response to Peter Frase on identity politics

.
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?

a1bd69a243f8

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. Continue reading

Capitalism, Facebook, and the accommodation of difference

.
A cultural milestone has been reached. Or so it would seem.

Earlier this week Facebook introduced a new option that allows users to customize their gender identity. Up to this point, only two categories had been available — the traditional binary of male and female. Now there’s a total of 56 different gender identities to choose from. (Just to be clear, it’s not a free-for-all. While the total number of options has increased more than twentyfold, one can’t enter in just anything. More options may yet be added, but for the moment that’s all there is. For a full list, see the Denver Post’s article on the subject).

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am on the whole fairly unimpressed by intersectionality and identity politics, their dubious claims to “subversiveness” and radicalism, and so on. In my view, it’s nothing more than a form of postmodern theory combined with left-liberal micropolitics, mostly focused on social justice issues and matters of media representation. Overtures are occasionally made in the direction of a vague, deracinated “idea” of communism, and there is an assumed anticapitalist ethos amongst its adherents. The notion that intersectionality or identity politics necessarily leads one to adopt a revolutionary political position has never struck me as convincing, as most of its concrete demands (for recognition, formal equality, inclusion) seem to me perfectly compatible with bourgeois parliamentary democracy.

Setting aside my flippant, sometimes overly dismissive attitude toward these tendencies, I’m honestly curious: How do people feel about the new Facebook gender options? Especially those for whom gender serves to orient their politics. Does this wider range of available categories constitute an important cultural victory? What does Facebook’s apparent willingness to embrace gender diversity say about capitalism’s ongoing ability to adapt to and accommodate difference?

Initial responses have varied — from outrage to indifference, all the way up to exuberance. Aoife Emily Hart, a comp. lit. adjunct and scholar of trans* feminism and interculturality, is positively ecstatic. She writes:

I’m thrilled. Hooray. I’m willing to declare this a Battle of Endor sized victory.

My highest props to FB for introducing a more comprehensive — and, for the most part, culturally aware — set of gender referents besides and beyond the static binary. We move from subjugation to intersubjective multiplicities of self-empowerment.

Do we? I’m not so sure.

Gender bender

.
These questions are prompted by an astute observation made by a commenter who happened across one of my old posts. Nilofar Ansher — a writer, editor, and researcher from India who blogs over at Trail of Papercuts — wryly noted “Facebook’s recent ‘inclusive’ view of gender and sexual orientation categorization.” Fifty-six categories? Really? How did they arrive at this precise number? Why not fifty-seven? (It should be mentioned, though, before proceeding any further, that these newfangled categories have not yet been implemented across the board. My comrade, Angela Nagle from Ireland, reported a case of combined/uneven development. Lagging behind as usual, Europe is still trapped in the dark ages, with only two gender options to choose from as of yesterday night. Similarly my friend Pablo, a gay Argentinian immigrant to the US, told me that the Spanish-language version of Facebook hasn’t yet been updated along these lines). Continue reading

Ernst May, “City Building in the USSR” (1931)

Ernst May and collaborators, “The General Plan of Magnitogorsk — a settlement for 150,000 inhabitants attached to the Magnitogorsk industrial complex” (1931)

From Das Neue Rußland, vol. VIII-IX.  Berlin, 1931:

City Planning in Evolution

If there is any one area of endeavor in the USSR where the Revolution is still in full motion, then city building and dwelling construction must be considered first.  This is not surprising, for the replacement of a thousand-year-old social system by a new one is a process that will take more than just a dozen years to complete, or even to provide a clear and unequivocal direction.  Moreover, since the thorough reorganization of the the entire social life of the USSR, which covers on sixth of the land area of our globe, will vitally affect city development and housing everywhere, it follows that within the context of this general process of change it is at the present moment impossible to offer a panacea that would suddenly cure all the many ills accumulated over centuries and bring about immediate mature results.

Nevertheless, a number of theories have been advanced and are in hard competition with each other.  Some have been published abroad, and this in turn may have led to the impression that it is only these that represent the mainstream of Russian city planning.  Nothing could be more misleading!

So far there has been no firm commitment to one or the other system of city planning, and by all indications no such commitment should be forthcoming in the near future.  This does not mean that the field is dominated by a lack of planning or by arbitrariness.  The basic precepts of modern city planning, which in the past years have found wide acceptance in Europe, and which are now being implemented, have become the A to Z of planning in the USSR as well.  Clear separation of industry and residence, rational traffic design, the systematic organization of green areas, etc., are considered as valid a basis for healthy planning there as here; similarly, open-block planning is giving way to single-row building.

The Central Problem of the Socialist City

However, even though the general principles for the planning of Socialist cities have been established, the real problem is only beginning.  In other words, a city structure will have to be developed that in terms of its entire genesis as well as in terms of its internal articulation and structuring will be fundamentally different from the capitalist cities [189] in the rest of the world.  While our own cities in most cases owe their origin to commerce and the market place, with private ownership of land largely determining their form, the generating force behind the development of new cities in the Soviet Union is always and exclusively industrial economic production, regardless of whether in the form of industrial combines or agricultural collectives.  In contrast to prevailing practice in Europe, and with particular reference to trends in the USA, building densities in Soviet cities are not influenced by artificially inflated land values, as often happens in our case, but solely by the laws of social hygiene and economy.  In connection with this it should be pointed out most emphatically that the word ‘economy’ has taken on an entirely new meaning east of the Polish border.  Investments, which in a local sense may appear to be unprofitable, become convincingly [190] viable when seen from the vantage point of over all national planning by the state.

At this point I should like to point out most emphatically that among the innumerable misjudgments made abroad, none is more incorrect than that which assumes that work in the field of city planning and housing in the USSR is done without rhyme or reason, and that the ground has been cut out from under their feet.  The truth is that the economic and cultural reconstruction of all life in the USSR has no parallel in the history of mankind.  It is equally true that this reconstruction is being accomplished by a sober evaluation of all the realities, and it should be obvious to any observer that in each successive stage, matters recognized as desirable and ideal are being consciously subordinated to matters that are feasible and possible within the limitations of the present.  In the course of this discussion I shall return to this point on appropriate occasions.

Continue reading