IDENTITY POLITICS IS THE LEFT’S FRANKENSTEIN MONSTER. Created to do one thing, it does quite another. Created to promote an eager embrace of socialism and it’s bedrock promise of universal inclusion, identity politics only diminishes the possibility of gaining either.
An obsession with identity politics distracts us. It draws our attention away from the larger task of exposing and combating the root evils and failures of capitalism.
It courts division, with the collateral suggestion that the trials of a certain few are ranked higher than those of the many—or, at least are deserving of more immediate action.
Plus, in a supreme irony of ironies, it creates even more exclusion, by encouraging the idea of a sacred individuality that must be acknowledged as paramount and—wait for it—exclusive.
(“You can’t understand X because you are white”; “You can’t understand Y because you’re not a woman”; “You can’t speak about Z because you’re not queer”).
The poet Philip Larkin captured the inherent selfishness of this outlook when he wrote: “Your life is the harder course, I can see. On the other hand, mine is happening to me.”
Once identity politics gains momentum, it inevitably subdivides, giving rise to ever-proliferating group identities demanding recognition. All thought of living together in solidarity, united by our humanity, dims. Everyone wants to be considered a “special case.” Difference is jealously guarded as a marker of significance.
Facebook now lists more than fifty gender designations from which users can choose, from genderqueer to intersex to pangender.
The result can be a zero-sum competition over which group is the least privileged, an “Oppression Olympics” often fragmenting us and setting us against ourselves.
The great unintended “sauce for the goose” consequence here is that this parsing of special groupings gives “whites” an opening to also claim victimhood. Something the “progressive” left only encourages with relentless berating, shaming and bullying.
At its core a “left politics” rests on an unsparing critique of, and resistance to, capitalism. Neither hostility to discrimination, nor the accompanying enthusiasm for diversity, makes the slightest contribution to accomplishing either goal.
Class is as class does
Identity politics is, in reality, a form of class politics: It’s the politics of a class that easily accepts people being left behind; but, becomes outraged if they are left behind because of their race, religion, sex or gender identification.
Making a few white people rich was never a victory for poor white people, so why should including a few women, indigenous or Muslim people change the equation?
We don’t need a more complicated understanding of identity—of race, sex, and “intersectionality”. What we need is a more profound understanding of exploitation.
We don’t need “recognition,” but redistribution; not “identity” but material equality; not “race,” but class.
You don’t build the left by figuring out which victim has been most victimized; you build it by organizing all the victims
Carla Murphy in her essay “Beyond the Distraction” in the Nation magazine characterizes “identity politics” as a “cultural squabble” among white academics, donors, media and managers. She writes: “I’ve heard this cultural squabble every year since I was a black kid at prep school...It imagines people of color as problems for white people to solve. I am profoundly uninterested in legitimizing such a discussion.”
Organize and then organize some more
The right question, then, is not whether or not to abandon identity politics. The right question is the same as it always is: how to organize to win a world where issues of identity and class are unimportant, because they are unknown.
Toni Morrison wrote: “the very serious function of racism…is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work.”
We just have to keep doing our work. There is no short cut. It will take old-fashioned face-to-face organizing and roll up your sleeves effort: to recognize and record the class struggle that envelopes us all, to inspire action to name and confront it and to accept that achieving common interest, not pursuit of some abstract absolute of purity of purpose, will be enough to carry us home.
It will also be something we can all happily identify with.
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