April 2017        

In defence of identity politics

David Hartery

One of the seemingly constant debates on the modern left is between those concerned with what is termed “class first” politics and those concerned with what is termed “identity politics.” Such a split risks both alienating a new generation of left activists and also dooming an older generation of activists to having their contributions forgotten or condemned.
     The first issue with the “class first” designation is one of category. Does “class first” mean that we should ignore the contribution of the generations of female, LGBT, non-white or non-European Marxists who have provided this movement with so much, both in theory and action? No, and of course that seems absurd. But it does point out the false dichotomy that exists. Just as we must understand imperialism through a complementary class lens, we must also understand identity politics through that prism.
     Take Bolivarianism. Is that an identity politics? I suppose the argument could be made. But the crux of Bolivarianism is an alignment of South American identity against imperial forces. It is grounded, both in theory and in history, as a counterpoint to imperial hegemony. That rigorous grounding in material reality is what is valuable about the movement. As such, we can imagine identity politics as a dialectic. This is what can save us from idealism.
     And that is the point that must always be kept in mind. Class is a locus of oppression, and perhaps the defining one, but it is only one of many interlocking loci of oppression. That should not seem controversial to any Marxist. The Black American singer Paul Robeson said in 1957: “In the Soviet Union I felt like a person for the first time.” Cuban socialism, and South American socialism more generally, has a great history of supporting indigenous and black rights. And, after a troubled history on the issue, Havana’s CENESEX stresses the acceptance of sexual diversity, far in excess of what supposedly liberal post-Marriage Equality Ireland teaches its population.
     These achievements all come from one place; we must bear in mind where those loci of oppression flow from: capitalism.
     We can accept that things like gender or race are social constructs, but in order to look at that construction materially we must look at the material forces that have led to those identities forming as they have done.
     Racism, in its current cultural manifestation, has a particular ideological and material origin. Codified in the Enlightenment by the European bourgeoisie, it provided the intellectual and popular cover for the slave trade (and the subsequent ability of the capitalist class to draw from a massive pool of slave labour), as well as wider discrimination and imperial plunder. We only have to look at how reactionary forces use racism to justify their illegal and immoral actions in the Middle East today to see how imperialism ably employs discrimination for its ends.
     Sexism—as well as the wider policing of sexual politics—draws from a need to subordinate women into reproductive and non-waged labour. Instrumentalising people into productive units, to provide care and then a new generation of labourers, was the driving moral force behind the systems of control that were instituted by religious and cultural leaders in the service of capital. Any deviation from these prescribed social roles was punished—by incarceration, sterilisation, or exile.
     However, opposition to these issues is not unusual for any Marxist. So where does this split come from?
     Well, it comes from a decided non-materialism among certain people who claim “identity politics.” The Democratic Party in the United States is a particular offender for this. Typified by the kind of “lean-in” feminism espoused by Sheryl Sandberg, it’s a mistake to look at this form of activism as “leftism” at all. It is merely a continuation of a tradition of bourgeois feminism, and not any new departure for the “new left.”
     While social-democratic forces might increasingly be using the vernacular and clothing of leftism so as to appear “radical,” their approach to analysis belies their liberal-social democratic tendencies. These forces mistake tokenistic and purely identitarian wins for progress and have no rigorous grounding in material reality. For such people, ensuring that all private prisons had female CEOs would be a victory. Such idealism is anathema to any left struggle.
     So, then, power, and class power, must be integral to any left critique of identity. But this is not incompatible with “intersectionality,” as the left “identity politics” is more commonly known.
     Through analysing power we can easily understand how identitarian concerns fit within the wider Marxist ideology. Take the transgender community, for example. Trans people suffer from much higher rates of poverty and suicide than non-trans people. This is clearly a class issue: the internalised rules of social control, used to segment and order society in the interests of capital, discipline this community in a way that is harmful and often lethal.
     The struggles of the Black community in America are well known to everyone. People like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr knew that struggle could not be divorced from the anti-poverty struggle. Again, any emancipation for people of colour in the United States must go in tandem with increased popular control of the economy. It is a class issue.
     In Ireland, reproductive rights and control over their body are particularly denied to poor people and asylum-seekers. They cannot travel to obtain access to abortion, because of financial or legal barriers. This is a class issue.
     Women are paid less for the same work and do not get recognition, or wages, for the vast amounts of labour they are condemned to when reduced to their social role of “care-giver” in the home. This is a class issue.
     The same is true of so many marginalised and oppressed communities and “identities.” Intersectionality, when properly formulated, shows that we must understand our class’s relationship with capital, but we must also understand other individuals’ interaction with capital—and the society that has been deformed by that capital.
     “Identities” may be socially constructed, but their performance is tinged with a particular character because of their position within the material forces that operate on all of us.
     Should socialism be achieved, the logic driving such identity construction would disappear overnight, but it is not guaranteed that the identities or prejudices would. It is important, therefore, to include the struggle against them in any left struggle.

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