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The Identity Politics Red Herring


In the aftermath of the November 2016 elections the term “identity politics” has been thrown around repeatedly with many progressives suggesting that the Electoral College defeat of Clinton by Trump was the result of some sort of Democratic Party obsession with that concept.

I am not known as a defender of the Democratic Party, but in the post-November summations the whining about identity politics has become both misplaced and obnoxious.  Various pundits, in suggesting that the Democratic Party over emphasized so-called identity politics at the expense of some sort of pure class politics (meaning a politics focused exclusively on economic injustice) obscures the fact that there has been an on-going struggle within the Democratic Party—let alone the USA as a whole—to ensure that it is broadly representative.   Does anyone have to be reminded that the Democratic Party was the party of white supremacy?  The party of the so-called Solid South?  A party that had a very uneasy set of alliances that included those, like President Roosevelt and those like Senator Strom Thurmond?  The fight to make the Democratic Party a more representative institution was not a fight around advertising but was directly connected to the demands of historically excluded groups to be included, not as window dressing but as central players.  This entire history is being denied in the name of upholding some sort of supposedly pure fight for economic justice.

“Identity politics,” as a term, is being used as a way of describing a set of politics that challenges specific forms of oppression that exist within capitalism; forms of oppression that go beyond the boundaries of the economic.  The use of the term “identity” complicates matters because it is subjective, i.e., it assumes that certain struggles are driven by people or forces that have a specific distinctiveness that connects them with that issue.  Among other things this fails to take into account that various so-called identity struggles inevitably bring in allies who are not from that specific constituency.

What passes for identity politics should actually be understood as social justice struggles that aim for consistent democracy and become, as a result, component parts of the larger class struggle.  These are not battles around one’s identity.  This is not self-indulgent activity by people who, for whatever reason, do not recognize the importance of economics.  This is what has made problematic several of the statements by Senator Sanders both prior to and following the November 8th election.

Shortly after the Election, in response to a woman who asked about becoming a Latina Senator, Sanders offered a complex answer.  He acknowledged the need for more women elected officials and more elected officials of color.  But he said that he wanted to make sure that they were focused on the working class.  He ended by suggesting the need to move away from identity politics.

One can agree with Senator Sanders that it is critical to move beyond any sorts of politics that is simply about “faces” in high places.  And, when looking at the totality of the Senator’s remarks, there is important value.  But because of the lack of a consensus about the actual nature of so-called identity politics, Sanders proposal to move away from it is, at best, confusing.  Identity politics, at least the way that it has been used as a term since the Election, describes a politics that asserts the need for representation of historically marginalized and oppressed populations; and the representation of their issues.  In that sense, what we are discussing is social justice and not something that should even be described as “identity politics.”  It is more a politics of inclusion and for democracy rather than a politics of distinctiveness or uniqueness.

Capitalism is founded on classes and class struggle.  Class struggle takes place over the basic question of the control of the means of production, distribution and exchange and, more generally, the control over the social surplus.  But if someone stops there one misses actually existing capitalism.  Capitalist states do not exist as some sort of economic abstraction but are rooted in specific histories.  Those histories include multiple layers of oppression, some inherited from previous social formations (and modes of production), and others developed specifically within the context of emerging capitalism.  In both cases, however, these forms of oppression, e.g., patriarchy; racism, have become central features of the manner in which actually existing capitalism operates.

This understanding is essential since it helps us break with a common notion within the Left and progressive movements to see matters of racism and sexism/patriarchy/male supremacy, as the equivalent of add-ons to an otherwise stable capitalist system.  Metaphorically, racism and patriarchy have become for many progressives add-ons to a preexisting structure that can actually operate in the absence of these forms of oppression.

Let’s start with racism.  Racism was not an add-on to US capitalism.  From the English occupation of Ireland leading to the development of North American capitalism in the thirteen original colonies, racism emerged as a form of both oppression and social control essential for the growth and preservation of capitalism.  To suggest that racism is unnecessary for the operations of US capitalism—a notion that should have been dispelled on November 8, 2016 at the latest—is to suggest that a person can survive in the absence of lungs.  The absence of an appendix, yes.  The absence of a gall bladder, yes.  The absence of lungs, forget it.

When the movement for Black Lives emerged in the context of the struggle against police lynchings and other forms of brutality, this was not about identity or identity politics.  It was not as if African American youth awoke one morning and decided that because of their blackness that they needed to undertake this struggle and that this struggle was, for the sake of argument, more important than a struggle for jobs or around income inequality.  The movement for Black Lives undertook a struggle against white supremacist/racist oppression and in favor of the notion of consistent democracy.  It was and is challenging a basic foundation of the US capitalist system; a foundation that ensures that through the preservation of a racist differential in treatment between so-called whites and so-called people of color, the elite can guarantee that they have a standing ‘army’ of people—white people—who believe that the system operates in their interests.  The movement for Black Lives also energized other segments of the population that saw in the battles around police lynchings and abuse, a democratic struggle with which they must be in solidarity if they are at all serious about transforming the USA.

When Puerto Ricans have risen up to challenge the austerity that is being imposed on their island nation that is not identity politics.  It represents a set of politics that is against national oppression and colonialism.  It is a set of politics that challenges the relationship of Puerto Rico to the United States.  This is not a subjective judgement by Puerto Ricans but is, instead, a reflection of a reality that they face that is resulting in the massive depopulation of the island in the face of the current crisis.

The fight over the future of Planned Parenthood is not a struggle resting on the identity of women.  It is a struggle over patriarchy/male supremacy and democracy.  It is a struggle over the basic question of who control’s a woman’s body.  The fight around Planned Parenthood is part of a larger struggle that certainly predates the emergence of capitalism, but it is a battle around an oppression that has been incorporated into the manner in which actually existing capitalism functions.  This is a fight to expand the bounds of democracy and the ability of people to govern their own futures.

One can even return to the example of the Latina who asked the question of Senator Sanders about becoming the first Latina Senator.  In a country that provoked a war with Mexico in order to seize the northern third-to-half of the country; that imposed Jim Crow-like conditions of racial segregation on the absorbed population of Mexicanos and Native Americans; a country that continues to present Latinos—unless they are from Cuba—as an omnipresent threat to the future of the USA, the rise of a Latina Senator has profound significance.  Certainly someone with right-wing politics would not be helpful.  But in the context of a gathering of Sanders supporters, while it is essential that the political content of any candidate is emphasized, we do not need Sanders offering a caveat about the dangers of so-called identity politics particularly if he is not going to clarify precisely what he means in using that term.

There is an unfortunate belief among many progressives that class politics is about economics in a narrow sense.  Thus, a demand against Wall Street and its elite is considered class politics.  A Chicano demand in the Southwest for land redistribution or the protection of long held Chicano land rights is frequently described as identity politics, or worse.  As a result you have some progressives who seek some sort of pure, race neutral alleged class politics that supposedly will unite the dispossessed against the elite and will not confuse them with dirty matters such as race and gender.  In the late 19th century this approach was in evidence in the Populist movement.  In the early 20th century this was manifested in the Socialist Party.  In more recent times it has been characteristic of the work of many of those who hail from the legacy of the iconic Saul Alinsky.  And it was certainly in evidence during much of Sanders campaign for the Presidency.

A progressive or radical class politics—that is, a politics rooted among workers—actually has more to do with who is on the side of the oppressed.  The USA has a significant history where white workers have been more than willing to battle employers, but then would turn against workers of color.  An infamous case in point was that of the International Seamen’s Union (late 1800s – mid1930s), led by Andrew Furuseth, that was rhetorically radical but vehemently anti-Asian.  The fact that a politician, union or some other individual or institution raises the clarion call of economic justice does not, ipso facto, mean that they are embracing progressive class politics.  They may just as easily be engaged with right-wing populist politics.

Class politics is about power and an opposition to all forms of oppression.  In that sense genuine progressive class politics is the strongest advocate for democracy and against inequality, marginalization and oppression.  It does not treat ostensibly non-economic forms of oppression as somehow secondary.  Nor does it dissect those other forms of oppression in order to identify the pure economic essence in order to glorify that.

Progressive and radical class politics, then, is about building the sort of bloc that can undertake social transformation.  To the extent that there is an ‘identity’ it is an identity as the oppressed; the people; the dispossessed.  The specific oppressions, be they racial, national, gender, religious, do not evaporate or become absorbed but rather contribute to the emergence of a broader identity for the bloc that seeks to change the world.

An analogy that I have often used is that based on the work of Tecumseh, the great Shawnee leader from the early 19th century.  Tecumseh concluded that there was a moment underway in which the western spread of white settlers could be stopped, or at least blunted.  At the same time he realized that this could not be done by any individual tribe or, for that matter, by a loose alliance of tribes.  What was necessary was the construction of, in effect, a Native American nation-state that could act in concert against the settlers.  This did not mean that the Shawnee or the Cherokee, for instance, would disappear, nor would their cultures evaporate.  But the construction of a bloc to defeat the settlers would necessitate a different and overarching way for the Native Americans to look at themselves and to look at the outside world.

In this sense, the challenge at the moment is not clarifying or reclaiming “identity politics” as a term.  The challenge is actually two-fold.  The first is to recognize that the struggles that much of the mainstream—and many progressives—condescendingly or innocently put under the banner of “identity politics” are struggles for social justice.  They are interconnected with battles for economic justice but they are not somehow less important.  In order to understand US capitalism, one must appreciate the nature of these battles against multiple oppressions and the manner in which they intersect or are interlinked, even with the acknowledgement that the economy underlies any assessment of the capitalist system as a whole.  To borrow from the late French Marxist Louis Althusser, the situation is overdetermined.

The second challenge is to realize that in the current moment, the attack on what is termed “identity politics” arises precisely from those who wish to diminish the centrality of struggles for social justice.  It is those who believe that there is some sort of race-neutral progressive populism that can unite us all who fail to understand the profound lessons of US history.  The struggle is not linear; it never has been.  The struggles against economic injustice frequently overlap with various struggles for social justice.  If we want to win, then a strategy must be constructed that recognizes that the system is multidimensional and cannot be challenged on one front alone.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a talk show host, writer and activist.  Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and at www.billfletcherjr.com.

3 Comments

  1. Chris Reed January 14, 2017 12:29 pm 

    Wva. is 95% white and consistently scores at the bottom
    of states by socioeconomic measures. At the same time, my neighborhood has been afflicted by white flight and
    general absolute benign neglect by the powers that be.
    The Lilly-white school district in South Hills works overtime to protect their priviledge. These same residents will stick an Obama sign in their yard but will also work overtime to fight equitable school redistricting tooth and nail.
    There are rural counties here where there is nary a person of color. Trump did especially well in the long suffering southern coalfields, even in McDowell, the Blackest of counties. Of course it should go without saying that the Party of Nixon’s Southern Strategy has nothing to offer these folks, but similarly, voting for the party that spawned the DLC simarly has nothing to offer.

    • avatar
      Paul D January 16, 2017 3:35 am 

      At about 9 percent, the black proportion of McDowell county residents still well below the US average (12.6%).

      The problems with McDowell County is simply that once the coal was mined out (no, it wasn’t the EPA or the “War ob Coal, then owing to its to its terrain and remote location, there really is not much reason to locate economic activity there. It cannot even be farmed. So a greater effort was needed in simply providing relocation assistance.

  2. avatar
    Paul D January 12, 2017 11:30 pm 

    Thank-you Mr. Fletcher.

    “Identity politics” as I understand the term mostly refers to a postmodernism-influenced philosophy discussed in cloistered academic spaces. Like most jargon-laden postmodernist stuff, It’s proponents seem to be incapable or explaining it or its importance to lay-persons (unlike, say, a physicist can do with even quantum mechanics). So, it is not important to day-to-day pursuit of social justice at best, and self-important academic gibberish at worst.

    But this is not the “identity politics” used in current post-election discussions. Instead, it is being used to simply mean anti-racist/anti-sexist activity with the preferred alternative being a class-reductionism that seems to deny the existence of racism at all among the working class – particularly a denial of the the institutions of white privilege. They claim that “identity politics” is used by the capitalists to “divide the working class by race so we quarrel and fight among ourselves.” The people expressing this viewpoint are invariably white and usually male. But who is responsible for the day-to-day “dividing” going on here? By “dividing” don’t they mean racial discrimination in hiring, housing, policing – the major portion of the discriminators being working class themselves? They talk as if the racism is equally shared by black and white. In this sense the denunciation of “identity politics” sounds more to me like the usual code-language for “why don’t those black people quit their complaining and find a job.”

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