Recently the meaning of the term ‘identity politics’ and to what it is supposed to be referring has been put into question. The question of how this ‘identity politics’ relates to the seemingly opposed ‘class politics’ has also been put, and indeed whether this is a false opposition. This appears to be the product of considerable term confusion and an attempt of several commentators to rewrite history. In what has become fashionable style for the Left, the term has been ‘debunked’ by some as being false because its force is reflective of the malevolent interests of certain white heterosexual male individuals who wish to claim Left-oriented politics for their own seemingly malicious and exclusionary ends. However, despite this ‘debunking’ claim, there is a history to this term that extends well beyond the meanings to which it has been said to be put by this apparently mean-spirited group of people. Identity politics relates, in fact, to a discrete form of organisation which emerged during the civil rights movement in the United States, in its late phases – a product of what is often called the ‘New Left’, and its ‘New Social Movements’. Groups such as Black Power and the Combahee River Collective organised on the basis of ‘common experiences’ and membership of particular group identities. This was not borne out of political strategy but a believed cultural necessity. The racial split between ‘black’ and ‘white’ identities in the US soon gave way to further racial splitting, and then division along lines of gender, sexuality, and the pacifist groups.
This is starkly different to how the labour movement, and indeed the civil rights movement was first organised. The civil rights movement began as an integrated collective before the splits to form specifically African-American organisations. So too did the labour movement. The Communist Party was instrumental in organising black workers, particularly in the South, against the tyranny of their exploitative bosses. The labour movement was not without fault, but it does not deserve the treatment some commentators (who probably know very little about its history, anyway) give it, making claims that it was inherently and unavoidably discriminatory. Despite vitriolic anti-Marxism from Western liberals, the Marxist-inspired international labour movement still has considerable force throughout South America and in parts of southern and western India where communist parties are held in high esteem. But in other parts of the world, as Kenan Malik describes in his book Strange Fruit, the turn to cultural essentialism mimics the nihilistic turn to racial essentialism that intellectuals made at the end of the nineteenth century. In both cases, emancipatory groups drifted to conservative explanations of inequality that naturalised oppressive systems and produced certain groups as ‘victims’. In the nineteenth century, racial theories and race pseudoscience explained inequality in terms of arcane atavisms. In the twentieth century, capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy seemed to prove insurmountable for the Left to transcend. As a response to exaggerated worry about left-wing racism, the concept of ‘culture’ was used to describe the incommensurability of different groups and their ways of apprehending the world, supposedly as a mode of leverage. But this move itself redeployed the language of race. Although ‘race’ became an outmoded term after the horrors of the Holocaust, its legacy lived on in this new incarnation of the concept of ‘culture’. Culture was now thought of in racial, and increasingly, generally ‘groupist’ terms.
It is here in this movement to identity politics that the powerful ideas of the Enlightenment – universalism, a belief in the emancipatory right of freedom for all human beings, the right to knowledge, toleration – were abandoned for radical particularism and a retreat to bordered identity groups. Identity politics was essentially an admission of defeat by certain sections of the Left which viewed Marxist class politics as a lost cause. Although the New Social Movements achieved exceptional advances for minority groups that had faced discrimination and abandonment in politics for a long time, recent developments in an even further conservative, relativist and anti-Marxist direction, as well as developments in global capitalism, have rendered it anachronistic. The idea that ‘culture’, or, put another way, tradition rooted in biological descent, determines the way we see things is related to the Romantic idea of the ‘inner voice’ – the soul’s interior that speaks to every individual or group. This idea was appropriated by reactionary and conservative thinkers before the liberal Left began to employ it for its own uses. ‘Culture’, in anthropology, used to be a thing that was made by human actors but now it is a marker of group identity (often a byword for ‘race’) that defines humans. In this sense, culture has been essentialised. Ironically, this essentialism comes at a time when it is most irrelevant. Immigration and globalisation has created newer still patchworks and hybrids out of those that already existed. The problem with identity politics in this respect is that it denies this capacity for culture to transform and insists on a framework of incommensurability of ‘different’ cultural groups.
Around the world, but very prominently in New Zealand, the turn away from class politics to identity politics as the principal organisational form of the Left occurred just as the social democratic compromise was undone and inequality began to rise again. Unlike class politics, which unites workers of all colours, genders, and sexualities to oppose capitalism, identity politics was not able to deal with this reconsolidation of power by the capitalist and new financial elite. Instead, its group-based initiatives could only win its disparate movements advances within the capitalist system. We are now seeing the deepening of class conflicts within those historically marginalised groups as a result of this process. Although it was never the case that all Māori, women, or queer people could claim a ‘common experience’, this assumption of identity politics has become even less realisable because of a rejection of it by many of the members its movements claim to represent. In New Zealand, the Iwi Leaders Group, the Gay Auckland Business Association, and corporate CEO feminists are exemplary of the edifices of elite power that have now been created as part of the increasing incorporation of identity politics by the state. The perception that identity politics is an ideology of the middle class and elite is confirmed by the vitriolic anti-Marxism that exudes from its mainstream representatives. Also, the celebration of ‘difference’ is no longer limited to the parties of the centre-left. The current National Government has seen gay marriage, Treaty of Waitangi claims, and platitudinous amendments to human rights legislation pass into law with majority support from its party’s MPs, at the same time the welfare state was further dismantled and inequality further increased. With the hijacking of centre-left parties around the world by right-wing factions, leading to an eradication of social democratic policy from their manifestos, the politics of difference was all that remained. This political gap between the centre-left and the centre-right has now been bridged. The centre-left’s affiliation to the working classes became symbolic at best, and that more than anything is responsible for their newfound irrelevance and supervenience by right-wing populists.
It is because of these factors that I argue that the distinction between ‘class politics’ and ‘identity politics’ often made by commentators is partly inaccurate. Instead, we should be clear that identity politics is in fact a kind of class politics – the politics of the middle-class and elite ‘Left’ that supports capitalism or at least accepts its inevitability. Left critics of identity politics worth their salt do not believe that discrimination along the ascriptive categories of nation, race, gender and sexuality is an unworthy issue – that is drivel made up by anti-Marxist identitarians themselves. When the group of critics I belong to talks about ‘identity politics’, we mean the capitalist politics of anti-solidarity and anti-unity that is relied on. Identity politics is thus essentially a contemporary continuation of the admission of failure of the Left’s original objectives. Often when practitioners of identity politics claim to be ‘intersectional,’ and insist that they are in fact inclusive of class in their framework, this rarely, if ever, goes beyond idle gesture. The articulation of class as just another group identity demonstrates a crude misunderstanding of class as a structural phenomenon with characteristics that race and sexuality clearly do not share. Capitalism is a material, economic system; racial and sexual ideology are borne out of ideological imaginaries that are affirmed through practices and discriminative acts. Identity politics often attributes to racism and xenophobia a kind of historical agency that it does not have. Marxism is often rejected on the basis that class unity is impossible because of racism and sexism, naturalising those forces among the working classes and fatalistically viewing them as unchangeable. Thus, it is trapped in a vicious circle. This is often why leading members of identity-based movements participate in the demonisation of the working class – see, for example, the latest derogatory tweets from professional antiracist Tim Wise, a man who has made thousands of dollars per speech about ‘white privilege’, about Rust Belt voters in the United States. This demonisation occurs because identity politics has disavowed or rejected as unworkable any ‘attitude adjustment’ options (due to the perceived ‘original sin’ inevitability of white racism) or anything that would empower the working classes and realise that unity.
Identity politics in the postmodern relativist, neoliberal world is completely compatible with that world’s configurational assumptions. Academic theories, such as privilege theory, idealist forms of critical race theory, and intersectionality, are now popular in tenets of social science. Privilege theory from its inception was a specifically anti-Marxist political framework; critical race theory and intersectionality were designed by African-American academics in the legal disciplines that likewise showed no commitment to class politics or economic transformation. Solidarity has been replaced by disparity between ‘groups’ as the method of programmising political action. Logically, then, it is absolutely fine for such practitioners if one percent of people still controlled ninety percent of the wealth around the world, if the one-percent elite met all the diversity targets. Yet despite, or perhaps because, of this theoretical anti-class hegemony in the academic and political world, and its incorporation into neoliberalism, those of liberal rather than conservative persuasions now insist on illiberal measures that curtail universal ideals, such as the freedom of speech and of the right to offend. This is because of the rise in cultural relativism and the recent anti-Establishment, populist surge on the Right which threatens to strip away that liberal relativist ascendancy. Originally part of the ‘liberal Left’, the emergence of identity politics’ fundamentally illiberal character has now protruded from what were thought to be progressive impulses. Because identity politics has done nothing to stem the neoliberal entrenchment of class divisions, and shows no sign of reversing the trend, it is now perceived as corrupt by the general public. This includes a considerable share of the members of marginalised groups that identity politics assumes it represents. A resistant, xenophobic politics of white racialised identity has now taken form for right-wing populists to harvest, using the same group-based nativist logic as the forms of identity politics adopted by the Left. The irrelevance of identity politics is brought into sharp relief when one considers recent tone-deaf public statements (such as Black Lives Matter founder Yusra Khogali labelling Justin Trudeau a ‘white supremacist’ for supporting immigrants vilified by Trump), or indeed the defending of sheltered political elites like Barack Obama from racism.
The academic influences of identity politics, such as the New Left and postmodernism, are largely to blame for recent attacks on knowledge and truth in politics. Before the turn to identity politics, the Marxist critique of ideology was the prime Left method of criticising the capitalist media’s manipulation of information to suit particular agendas. This critique, later on, also took Freudian psychoanalytic and structural-linguistic forms. The purpose of this critique was to distinguish between the lies told by the media and the truth about the exploitation and immiseration suffered by people in capitalist society. It is now difficult to fight the anarchy of lies, disseminated daily by a vast array of spurious media outlets, cemented into the public consciousness by their audiences operating in disjointed information bubbles on the Internet and social media. This fight was compounded in difficulty upon the turn to identity politics. Postmodernism, as well as theories with some factional link to it (postcolonial theory and queer theory) has as an academic movement promoted an epistemic form of relativism. It is the argument that there are no truths or lies in the world, only ‘understandings’ that differ across discrete ‘cultures’ and societies. Everyone has their own individual ‘perspective’ or point of view from which to apprehend the world. In the words of Michel Foucault, each society is said to have its own “regime of truth”. Such a distorted epistemological view discards the possibility of commonality in struggle altogether, as well as a framework through which to critique, organise and unite on any basis. This idea that different groups have different understandings has also motored the divisive tendency of identity politics. It was what split the civil rights collective in America: the idea that different ‘groups’ had to organise autonomously on the basis of supposed ‘common experience’. This only fragments and divides social movements, never unifying them. It is also based on false consistencies that do not exist, and should expect to be challenged by unwilling members of those ‘groups’ who disagree with the way they are being represented.
Identity politics, and the recent turn around the world to right-wing populism, are linked in a confirmation feedback loop. The fatalistic practitioners of identity politics, unaware (or perhaps, in some cases, exploitative) of their own methodological flaws, despair and hand-wring at their inability to organise for transformative change, and project its failures onto the populace by demonising them. This, in turn, has led right-wing populists to totally write off identity politics as a project largely borne out of a university-educated liberal elite. The problem is, this claim today actually has considerable truth to it. Identity politics has indeed become incorporated by the professional-managerial elite and can no longer suffice as a radical Left strategy. Instead, identity politics, in response to right-wing populism, can only compound the fatalistic moralism even further. This is a downward spiral of doom that must be transcended. Firstly, it is no good of commentators to go around saying ‘identity politics’ is a mythological term invented by white men. Not only is this completely false (the term is used by early practitioners themselves such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, the inventor of ‘intersectionality’), it smacks of a desperate attempt to halt the conceptualisation of the real, desperate problems with this politics and its distorted academic influences. The opposing illiberal poles of identity politics and right-wing populism have led to extreme fragmentation of the world and an immersion in lies and mutual demonisation. Now, more than ever, we need to understand the world at the level of what Fredric Jameson calls the ‘totality’ or what sociologists would call the ‘social structure’. The identity moralism of the political and capitalist classes must be rejected for an inclusive class politics that seeks to end, not diversify, capitalist imperialism and patriarchy.
Alex Birchall is a researcher and postgraduate student in sociology. Born in Whangarei, his family hails from the north of New Zealand and Rotuma (Fiji). He is currently researching the limits of current housing policy in Auckland. Alex’s academic interests include: Marxism, the politics of racial ideology and nationalism, the philosophy of social science, the politics of globalisation, and the sociology of knowledge and education. His work has been published in New Zealand Sociology and sonic art journal Writing Around Sound. He identifies as a ‘left communist’ and a ‘critical Leninist’.