Identity Politics: the impasse, the debate, the thread.

Discussion in 'theory, philosophy & history' started by danny la rouge, Sep 20, 2017.

  1. danny la rouge

    danny la rouge Without music, life would be a mistake.

    It has been suggested that we need a thread specifically to discuss identity politics. In order for it to have a fighting chance of not collapsing into chaos as people talk past each other, I thought the OP needed a brief exposition of some of the basic issues as I see them. No doubt others will want to similarly outline what they see as the basics. This is not intended as exhaustive, and I have written elsewhere on the boards about my views. It is, however, intended as a starting point for discussion.

    In today’s ‘radical’ politics there is an assumption, sometimes stated, sometimes unstated, but either way underpinning much of the thinking one comes across, that identity and politics are a continuum. We can see this continuum as analogous to spacetime. We’ll call it identitypolitics. In this model, identity is politics and politics is identity. The one is but an aspect of the other. In this model, it is assumed that certain people will necessarily be drawn to ‘radicalism’ because of their identity, and that certain others will tend towards ‘reactionary politics’ because of theirs. This is essentialism.

    Furthermore, because of the pervasiveness of this model, it is now the widespread common sense that the only way to respect the struggles of marginalised people is through this model. In this now dominant common sense, identitypolitics is just a synonym for anti-racism, for feminism, for opposition to homophobia and transphobia and so on. Just as top down Multiculturalism is seen by so many as just a synonym for respecting diversity and inclusivity. And so, if one criticises identitypolitics, one is seen by many as opposing anti-racism, as opposing feminism, and so on, because identitypolitics has become seen as the only way of doing those things.

    In this thread I hope we can discuss yes whether identitypolitics is the only way of doing these things, and whether, in fact, it really does those things, but more importantly whether there are other, better, ways of doing them.

    And here we will hit another issue these debates often hit. There is a category error that invariably comes up. It is often assumed by identitypolitics practitioners that critics are arguing that “class is more important than race (or gender, or sexuality, or whatever)”. This is a misrepresentation that comes about because people have become so used to seeing identity as the basis for politics that they can only see competing identities, nothing else.

    If I say I am interested in class analysis, I am not putting forward some identitarian conception of class; I am talking about understanding social structures that prevent us from achieving social justice; social structures that prevent us, ultimately, from achieving self-government. I am not setting up “working class” (or, worse still, “white working class”) as an identity.

    “Differences of age and sex have no longer any distinctive social validity for the working class. All are instruments of labour, more or less expensive to use, according to their age and sex”. (Marx and Engels, the Communist Manifesto).​

    This is not saying that class is an identity and “more important” than “age or sex”; it is saying that capitalism has resulted in social structures that place us - all identities together - in a particular economic relationship. Age and sex (and we would now add race and sexuality and gender identity and so on) are a different thing to that economic relationship. Arguing which is “more important” is like arguing whether apples are more important than gravity. It’s not a discussion even worth having. It’s not a discussion any reasonable person is having.

    It is important to reiterate here that I’m not suggesting that class structure is a thing and identities aren’t; I’m suggesting they’re different things. Different sorts of things.

    Nor am I saying that identity is unimportant: identity is an essential part of what it is to be human. We cannot be without it. Nor am I saying the struggles I referred to above (the sight against bigotry and racism, against sexism and misogyny, against homophobia and transphobia, and so on) are unimportant. Far from it. Those struggles are vital, those causes are just, and they must be supported not diminished. And it should be pointed out that there is nothing that I gain from class struggle that doesn’t apply to everyone.

    The question I want to ask is the best way of going about fighting those oppressions, and whether identitypolitics is helpful or counterproductive.

    So how did we come to a point where identitypolitics has replaced structural analysis?

    This blogpost offers a worthwhile perspective:

    “Roots of this can be found in neoliberalism and its agenda of dissolving society into individuals and commodities. Of course, neoliberalism does not dissolve classes within production or the division of labour, but it dissolves the political potential of the working class through the individualisation of class. Which is why the left of today, in its inability to cope with the complete destruction of its historical counterpart through the 20th century, has decided to turn towards ideology and strategies of the far right, with its emphasis on the individual, its identity, ethnic romanticism and defence of culture and has replaced the class with it. The class interest of the working class is not what drives the left politics of today as the working class is viewed mainly as one of the ‘underdog’ identities.”

    (Tzadik) “American Thought”: from theoretical barbarism to intellectual decadence

    So, for me, despite its origins in decent endeavour, identitypolitics is not now of the left. It is not socialist (even in the broadest sense). It is not an opposition to structures of oppression, because it doesn’t tackle those structures. But, further than that, it belongs alongside other reactionary and biological determinist viewpoints, because it uses biology to divide us, it apportions responsibility according to biology and identity, and in using the ideas of the reactionary right, ends up only serving the purposes of the ruling class.

    There are other points and arguments that I could have covered but have decided to leave for the forthcoming discussion.
    eskdave, Wilf, Duncan2 and 43 others like this.
  2. Idris2002

    Idris2002 Well, there goes the frying pan theory.

    I'm going to repeat a point I made on a more recent thread: much of what we call identity politics is not only a politics of identity, but one of brokerage, in which the leaders (self-appointed or otherwise) of this or that identity group become brokers who deliver the votes or political support of their identity group to this or that hegemon in the society of which they are a part.

    This is a specifically American thing, dating back to the days of mass politics and mass immigration in nineteenth and early twentieth century America - and not only has it failed to deliver for those oppressed by the American system, it's relevance to non-American situations is questionable at best. And with regard to DLR's point about ID politics not tackling the structures of oppression, well the brokerage of identities takes for granted the continued existence of those structures.
    TopCat, Das Uberdog, CNT36 and 30 others like this.
  3. littlebabyjesus

    littlebabyjesus one of Maxwell's demons

    I think that's a really good way of looking at it. I would suggest that the top-down multiculturalism of the UK is then an adaptation of that system of brokerage. So maybe it is relevant because it has been made relevant.
    muscovyduck and BigTom like this.
  4. bemused

    bemused Well-Known Member

    Do you think this explains the apparent stack ranking of identities in terms of oppression? Does it increase the power of that brokerage?
  5. Idris2002

    Idris2002 Well, there goes the frying pan theory.

    "The two rules of New York politics are "all Ireland must be free", and "Trieste belongs to Italy"". As someone once said - and went on to say that it was in that order because the Irish got to the Big Apple first.

    Turns out I read it first in Christopher Hitchens:

    [CTRL] Pak-Pac
  6. Borp

    Borp member

    The ultimate problem I have with identity politics is that the evidence doesn't stack up. Identity does not equal behaviour. That's just obvious from the evidence. People with all sorts of different identities have all sorts of different opinions.

    The evidence to me says we're individuals existing in various political structures.

    The solution for me is summed up as:
    Political equality, cultural freedom, economic co-operation. Liberty, equality, fraternity. How those three things interact is where the struggle is.
    muscovyduck likes this.
  7. DotCommunist

    DotCommunist slowtime

    my first thought on reading your post above was 'tammany hall'.

    this one I've noticed has crept unquestioned into papers/tv/news/commentators. If thats an identity attempted to be constructed top down to fit into that multicultural model who then do they imagine to be the brokers in the brokerage system? Thinking on it I imagine its believed to be ukip or a sufficiently racist tory party. And who is 'in'? I'm pretty sure those using it on the Daily Poilitics or whatever aren't counting polish people in are they, and why not? yeah its full of unasked assumptions imo.
  8. seventh bullet

    seventh bullet red mullet

    'Socially conservative white working class.'
  9. Brainaddict

    Brainaddict chief propagandist (provisional)

    It's worth recognising the good impulses behind it - there's an 'injury to one is an injury to all' thinking behind it that says we can't be free without everyone being free. And there's also been a realisation that political movements are often led by privileged people and this has inhibited their radicalism.

    But there are a few more problematic assumptions that I see behind it all;
    1. That you know how 'oppressed' someone is by their stated identity (even worse, it sometimes comes down to their visible identity)
    2. That the most oppressed person in the room knows the most about fighting oppression
    3. That focussing on the specific oppressions is the core of liberatory thinking. This implicitly contains a rather liberal negative view of freedom and offers no positive vision of what a different world might look like.
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  10. ska invita

    ska invita back on the other side

    Thats one perspective, no doubt with a massive chunk of truth in it.
    There is another dynamic though I think...a lot of institutions, including those of the left which focus on class oppression, seem to have a 'blind spot' around issues of racism, patriarchy, gender not to mention hierarchy. One of the reasons this has all come about is that those institutions are being increasingly challenged on that behaviour...that process of attempting to bring justice to unjust institutions does throw up a lot of awkward questions - awkward in the sense that they're not easily resolvable and can bring up more subtle inequalities.

    yes theres less focus on taking on the bigger structural roots of inequality (as in the quote above), but these struggles within smaller institutions aren't meaningless/pointless I don't think
    (similar/better post above from brainaddict as i wrote it)
    Last edited: Sep 20, 2017
  11. danny la rouge

    danny la rouge Without music, life would be a mistake.

    Indeed; I've brought that up myself in the past. It's part of what I meant when I said identitypolitics arose from honest endeavour.
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  12. chilango

    chilango Neither Westminster nor Brussels....

    I have a FB friend who seems to be beginning to get into radical politics, activism etc. They've very quickly started sharing and posting ID politics type stuff, coming from the female, BAME bits of their identity but not their privately educated, boarding school and posh uni bits.

    Doesn't prove anything, but illustrates an issue that I'm sure others have encountered in this approach.
  13. ska invita

    ska invita back on the other side

    at what point does it stop being honest, and is it possible to clearly define whats is "acceptable" or not? Brainaddicts post draws some lines
    Theres nothing to make it mutually exclusive to class struggle/analysis, but maybe in practice it too often is
    Last edited: Sep 20, 2017
    Miss-Shelf likes this.
  14. Miss-Shelf

    Miss-Shelf I've looked at life from both sides now

    The current focus on identity politics discussion (outside of urban I mean) is very enlightening in throwing light on the structural inequalities in instructions mentioned by ska above
    friendofdorothy likes this.
  15. Idris2002

    Idris2002 Well, there goes the frying pan theory.

    I was going to respond that the American model of broker politics can't be transferred to non-American contexts, but then I thought. . . the professionalisation of (for example) British politics produces a professionalised political class (or shicht or stratum) who can occupy a position in the wider political system that takes the form of brokers.

    Oh, and before we chuck the baby out with the bathwater, I'd also argue that things like this are part of the rise of idpol as well:

    The White Paper, 1969

    "Presenting the White Paper in 1969, Chrétien and Trudeau proposed to deal with Indigenous issues definitively. The paper saw policies that pertained to First Nations were exclusionary and discriminatory, as they did not apply to Canadians in general. Trudeau and Chrétien’s White Paper proposed to eliminate “Indian” as a distinct legal status – therefore making First Nations “equal” to other Canadians. They also proposed to dismantle the Department of Indian Affairs within five years, repeal the Indian Act, and eradicate all treaties between First Nations and Canada. The White Paper would convert reserve lands to private property owned by the band or its members, transfer all responsibility for services to provincial governments, appoint a commissioner to settle all land claims and provide funds for economic development. At the same time, Chrétien and Trudeau saw the White Paper as a way of eliminating the rising cost of administering Indian Affairs and treaty responsibilities.

    The backlash to the 1969 White Paper was monumental. Major opposition emerged from several organizations, including the National Indian Brotherhood and its provincial chapters. Many felt the document overlooked concerns raised during consultations and appeared to be a final attempt to assimilate Indigenous peoples into the Canadian population."

    Such assimilation would have been next door to extinction - and the form "the politics of identity" took in this case was an assertion of the right of Indians and their identities to exist. Which is not something I'd argue against.
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  16. littlebabyjesus

    littlebabyjesus one of Maxwell's demons

    Yep. I think often there is confusion about the nature of classes (I mean here not just economic or social class, but any defining group, so including race, gender, sexuality, etc) and what class analysis tells you. Class analysis tells you that certain classes in society fare better than others. But when you then have an individual who fits into that class in front of you, all your analysis gives you is probabilities as to their situation. And chilango's post above makes a good point - how does a person's underprivileged status as part of one class interact with their privileged status as part of another? I think it's tempting to downplay the latter in our own self-assessments.
    Brainaddict likes this.
  17. LynnDoyleCooper

    LynnDoyleCooper Up against the wall motherfucker.

    How is it more useful than what has existed for centuries in the radical left?

    One of my personal bugbears with some people that shout the praises of ID politics is that they often totally neglect the fact that these things have been analyzed and acted upon for many years, whereas they talk like it's all a new thing they and their lot have discovered.
  18. Pickman's model

    Pickman's model Starry Wisdom

  19. chilango

    chilango Neither Westminster nor Brussels....

    I'm wondering whether there's an important distinction between experience and identity.
  20. Idris2002

    Idris2002 Well, there goes the frying pan theory.

    The latter is constructed out of the former, surely?

    And another thing . . .

    It was common in the north of Ireland (and may well be still, for all I know) for people to say "you can't eat a flag", meaning that economic issues couldn't be solved by the particular form the politics of identity took in that particular little patch of heaven.

    To which someone responded, "yes, you can't eat a flag - which is why you don't want to have one shoved down your throat".
  21. chilango

    chilango Neither Westminster nor Brussels....

    I'm interested in the process of experience becoming identity and the implications of that.
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  22. redsquirrel

    redsquirrel This Machine Kills Progressives

    Yes, this interests me too particularly in the light on recent threads.

    To me it illustrates part of the political problem I have with ID politics. Individual experience becoming the basis for identity - there becomes no such thing as society

    EDIT: Posted by butchers on a different thread but worth repeating here IMO

    Last edited: Sep 20, 2017
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  23. TruXta

    TruXta tired

    Experience is hardly ever not social though.
  24. Red Cat

    Red Cat Well-Known Member

    No, it's not, but it is sometimes conceived as such, and that is part of the problem.
    danny la rouge likes this.
  25. redsquirrel

    redsquirrel This Machine Kills Progressives

    What Red Cat (and BA in the post above) said - this is my experience, something that you can't appreciate - an atomised understanding of experience.
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  26. danny la rouge

    danny la rouge Without music, life would be a mistake.

    I agree, Brainaddict's post was very good, and goes some way towards answering at what point it stops being "honest" (my word, and perhaps not the best choice).

    As I've said in other threads, pointing out that left politics was ignoring or downplaying important issues was a valid and worthwhile point, but identity has ultimately been the source of reactionary politics:

    It's been around now in "radical" politics for decades, and while its "successes" have led to diversity in the managerial class, these successes have not filtered down, and have been outweighed by the fact that a focus on identity has led to main-streaming of reactionary ideas about biology and identity.

    See, for example, Asad Haider: “we will have to rethink an anti-racist strategy that has served mostly to diversify the professional-managerial class”. Logging Out - Viewpoint Magazine
  27. ska invita

    ska invita back on the other side

    When society Others you it becomes a more natural step for those experiences to become part of an identity. Its forced on you to some degree, negatively so, so the next step in overcoming that is to wear it with pride. Thats my experience anyhow.
    Duncan2, MochaSoul, Mab and 7 others like this.
  28. TruXta

    TruXta tired

    Sure, I don't want to deny that that is happpening. But I think it's worth keeping in mind that many, perhaps most identities are explicitly social, whether that's age, gender, race, religion and so on.

    So, when redsquirrel wrote "Individual experience becoming the basis for identity - there becomes no such thing as society" I see that as slightly muddled way of thinking about it. If experience is by nature social, then it stands to reason that identity as a product of experience is inherently social too, whether or not people always realise that. Even at the most atomised level of individuality - say that of a consumer - that's still something you hold in common with pretty much everyone else.

    Not sure where I'm going with this :D probably up my own arse
  29. Pickman's model

    Pickman's model Starry Wisdom

    The things that divide and not the things that unite...
  30. bimble

    bimble noisy but small

    In my experience a lot of this stuff gets handed to people by their parents / families (or whatever immediate influential others) when they're small children, and I imagine that's really common for people growing up in some way apart from the mainstream dominant culture - be that children of immigrants or in an ethnic minority at a predominantly white /christian school or whatever. I think its a mistake to frame this so much as individual choice, a sort of voluntary consumerist type thing.

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