In the wake of Jon Ossof’s loss to Karen Handel in Georgia’s sixth district, certain segments of the left have resurrected an old debate about the relationship between “Identity politics” and “class politics.” I find this debate tedious, but it keeps happening so I’ll engage it. First, a definition of terms: When I say “class politics” I mean the politics of those whose primary concern is the distribution of wealth and control of the means of production in society. By “identity politics,” I mean the politics of those whose primary concern is the treatment of minority groups in society. Of course, these can intersect, and a person’s focus can shift over the course of a lifetime, and being primarily focused on either or neither of these does not preclude someone having significant concern about one or both of them. From the identity politics side, the critique is often leveled that those who focus on class politics do so to the exclusion of the unique issues impacting marginalized minority groups. Class politics-focused people often criticize the folks they see as preoccupied with identity politics for failing to realize that their issues are ultimately reducible to class. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll make anti-racism the foil of class politics in this essay, primarily because this is the specific realm of identity politics whose history and concerns I am most informed about, and also, because I think there is a unique history between the two. There has been a prominent mass movement against racism in this country for longer and more consistently than there have been ones for gender and LGBT rights, therefore, the leftist critique of identity politics ends up primarily attacking “identity politics” as a model largely derived from anti-racist politics.
Alongside the basic critique of identity politics from the left stands others. Leftists criticize identity folks for being focused more on representation than the actual distribution of resources and power. Adolph Reed, a prominent Black leftist, and others have claimed that, from the perspective of anti-racism/sexism, a society where all the wealth is controlled by 1000 people out of a population of 300 million would be perfectly acceptable, so long as 130 of the 1000 are Black, 510 are women etc. From the perspective of gendered and racialized patterns of wealth distribution, yes, said society would be just, but one would be hard pressed to find a remotely intelligent anti-racist or anti-sexist that would call such a society just in a general sense. Of course, this is a reductio ad absurdum and neither Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of the flagship magazine of millennial socialism, Jacobin (Of which I am a once and probably future subscriber) nor Mr. Reed would seriously expect to hear this slogan from the platform at a Black Lives Matter rally. The reductio, in this case, goes both ways. I would argue, that for the “It’s all just class” crowd, a society in which non-White people are defined as means of production, i.e, slaves, would be just, so long as their commodified bodies were evenly distributed throughout society. Of course, such a scenario would be a parody of Marxism/socialism, just as the dystopia of racially representative extreme inequality would be a parody of anti-racism. Assuming that the bottom 99.99999….% of society don’t discriminate against each other, and the .00000001% brutalize and exploit them in a colorblind manner, there would be no need for anti-racism, and, even if there were, one would surely be justified in prioritizing the wresting of most of society’s wealth from the 1000 magnates over making sure that people that own nothing aren’t abusing each other. But, let us continue this thought experiment. Suppose that the wealth-less majority did discriminate against each other, and not only did they discriminate against each other, but, the White majority was hunting and eating the Black minority to supplement the meager sustenance handed down by their overlords. Surely again, the people who are being treated as poor men’s steaks would be justified in saying, as a basic condition of solidarity: Stop eating us. Of course, people with enough to eat aren’t going to resort to cannibalism, which means that there is an obvious connection to the extreme poverty experienced by the overwhelming majority of the population in common. But, all the same, it is not reasonable to expect people to ignore that they are being cannibalized in order to ally with their predators, especially with no actionable assurance that the people who had been cannibalizing them based not just on hunger, but on a marrow deep conviction that they are subhuman, would magically see them as equals should material circumstances change. I call the notion that all oppressions are reducible to capitalist chicanery and therefore need not be engaged on their own merits, Marxist essentialism. I think it arises from three of Marx’s ideas, the superstructure, bourgeois nationalism and Marxist teleology.
The superstructure is Marx’s belief that all social and cultural institutions ultimately arise out of the structure of ownership of the means of production, the material organization of society. The reasoning goes, that since the ultimate determinant is material, if we can resolve these inequities in power and resources, all other oppressions, being ultimately built on this inequity, cannot help but fall. Bourgeois nationalism is the idea that the economically dominant classes use nationality, race, religion and all other forms of identification other than class, as a means of dividing proletarians from each other. Imagine a factory owner who starts a rumor that Jewish factory workers were seen urinating upon a crucifix, or that they the owners have to pay their laborers below a living wage to compete with immigrant laborers in another factory. Leftists would argue that this is the basic and primary root of the abuses heaped upon minorities. Finally, we have the teleology. Marx believed that history was driven by changes in the means of production. He believed that as the means of producing wealth changed, this created conflict with the dominant social classes who were still rooted in the old means. For instance, as industrial production became the dominant means of production in Europe, society continued to be controlled by a land-based feudal aristocracy. As the bourgeois grew and continued both to advocate for its own rights and expand the proportion of the population which was not under the direct control of aristocrats on their estates, a contradiction developed between who owned society and who ruled it; most fundamentally, between feudal institutions and the needs of the bourgeoisie. The resulting bourgeois revolutions led to the modern industrial society. Marx believed that the alienation of the worker in industrial society, the utter inhumanity of the conditions that prevailed in modern factories and the estrangement between the laborer and his production, would lead to a global revolution in which private ownership of the means of production would finally be abolished. Of course, that has not happened and we are moving from the industrial era in the West into a post-industrial era. I believe generally in what Marx argued and find his analysis of the relationship between workers and owners to be massively insightful. His teleology seems to have not come true, but, we can hardly fault a man for failing to see into the future, and we may yet see the workers of the world unite. I bring up Marx’s teleology because its lost promise, with the fall of revolutionary socialist movements (especially in the United States), is central to the current orientation contemporary socialists have to identity politics.
Those who believe in proletarian revolution find themselves in a similar position to followers of Jesus, who’d read the apostles, who’d heard from the mouth of their master Himself that He would return to establish His kingdom before all of His hearers were dead. How to continue such a movement when everyone that had ever heard your prophet preach has been dead for 100 years? Of course, Marx never made such a promise, to my knowledge. He did, however, seem to hold as the basic implication of his work that bourgeois capitalism was on its last legs and bound to fall. Almost 160 years after the great thinker assured us that the specter of communism was haunting Europe, bourgeois capitalism seems, paradoxically, to be heartening with age. From the late nineteenth century up to at least the 50s, the revolution seemed to be growing strong and able in its womb, ready for a single capitalist misstep to loose it upon the world. Russia, the land of the Tsars, fell beneath its sway, then China, another vast land of mystery. As the colonized broke loose their chains, their revolutionary leaders tended to be Marxist. In America, the rise of unions out of the pitched and often violent battles of the early 20th century, the hegemony of Marxist analysis in the social and cultural sciences, seemed clear signs of to whom the future would belong. But, the Cold War internationally and McCarthyism domestically gave the lie to this hale vision, and here we are in what Mark Lilla calls a “Libertarian Age,” one where big ideas, grand narratives and all teleologies which don’t portend the triumph of bourgeois capitalism in increasingly alienating forms forever and ever amen, seem to wither on the vine. I find this sequence of events as distressing as any jilted leftist, I think the collapse and subjugation of class politics reflects the decline of radical politics in general. I bring this up currently to argue that the pangs of defeat which this has understandably given rise to are at the root of the leftists attacks on “identity politics.”
At the same time that Marxism and its promise of a world beyond capitalism seem (And we hope only seem) to have been shoved violently into the waste heap of history; as a domestic corollary to the liberation of Black, brown and yellow people all over the world, the politics of survival as practiced by people who are hated, not because of their relationship to the means of production, but because of the ideologies around who they are, began to triumph spectacularly. While socialism and anti-racism had functioned concurrently and often in parallel throughout the early 20th century (Communist organizations and lawyers were integral to the defense of the Scottsboro boys, for instance), just as the one began to diminish, the other reached a crescendo and spawned other movements, such as the gay and women’s rights movements. I contend, that seeing such movements rise even as the once gleaming horizon of a socialized world seemed dimmest, created in political leftists a simmering resentment. Here seemed to be everything needed for a revolution, passion, purpose, organization and it was being employed against phenomena that every good Marxist “knows” to be simply the result of bourgeois diversionary tactics.
To paint with a massively simplified brush: Leftists attack “identity politics” because they are jealous of its practical success. I find this jealousy misguided and counterproductive because it puts them in a position of fighting some of their natural allies. Leftists recognize workers on both sides of every racial, gender and sexual divide as their natural demographic, this is right and necessary. But, in failing to recognize the legitimate issues which divide these demographics outside of their common identity as workers, leftists abrogate a key realm of analysis in favor of empty haranguing. The worst part of this haranguing is that it tends to rhyme with the repression of minorities. I rarely see leftists taking the time to directly address the question of why White workers have largely come to see their fate as separate from that of workers of color, so much so, that they vote against policies that would benefit them both. There is certainly an element of bourgeois nationalism at play. Cross-racial movements have regularly been splintered by calls to White racial solidarity, though of course, seldom in so many words (At least in recent decades). That White workers are persuaded to vote against their interests as workers, however, does not mean that they do so without profit. In his classic work “Black Reconstruction,” W.E.B. Du Bois refers to an “Invisible wage” paid by the White Southern planter class to their proletarized racial brethren. Under Jim Crow, a White man might be just as wretched as any Black sharecropper, but, as a White man, he was entitled to walk into the front door of any establishment he pleased, when he could afford to take his family to the theater, they sat where they pleased, not crowded together into the balcony. He was entitled to shake any White man’s hand, look him square in the eye, call him mister and expect the same in return. If his daughter was sexually violated by a White man, she could reasonably expect the protection of the courts, if she was outraged by a Black man, the same he could expect to be lynched in brutally spectacular fashion in order to assure Whites of all classes that they shared unchecked power over the bodies of their colored inferiors. Corollary to this, White men could treat Black women’s bodies like a communal trough in which any White man could rut freely, and expect his social betters and fellow White men to lift nary a finger as they partook elbow to elbow. That there is no dollar value to be placed on the benefits accruing to White skin makes them no less a resource.
Marx’s classes are not simple binaries, he saw a distinction between the poor in factories and the poor that walked the streets picking rags and pimping, he saw distinctions among shopkeepers, factory owners and captains of finance. The superstructure implies that not all resources are directly financial. If social life and culture can rise out of the means of production, it follows that cultural and social capital can too. Ideologies arise to justify the prevailing order, if they can do so for ownership and distribution, they must also do so for the social and cultural structures arising from these foundational material structures. Put simply, Black and White workers have distinct relationships to the means of ideological production. Most White men don’t own media companies or publishing houses, but, as White men, the terms of their acquiescence to the status quo have a different color than those of non-Whites and non-males. Imagine a factory owner that pays a certain portion of the proletarian population to protect his factory from the majority. In truth, he is hardly sharing ownership with them, but, neither are they in precisely the same position as the people clamoring at the door. Neither of them owns the means of production, but it does not follow from this that their relationship to it is the same and that we can fail to address this in seeking to socialize the factory. Imagine these guards are afforded a plethora of social privileges as the price of their loyalty. True, they are trading the glories of a socialized world for the pottage given them by the owner, but, this pottage is not an illusion and they can be expected to protect it stringently, especially if in doing so they secure these blessings for their own children. Suppose the socialist stumbles upon the factory I have imagined above, and finds people preaching raucously in the streets against the privileges afforded this guarding class. He might attack these street preachers for focusing on the means by which they and the guards are divided instead of on their common relationship to the owner. The preachers may reply that: 1. The privileges may be a pragmatic outcome of the owner’s need to maintain control, but they are real, and simply eradicating them would make their lives better because the privileges are the fruit of their own suffering. (Suppose the guards are entitled to pillage the homes of non-guards). 2. The guards stand in front of the owner’s’ door and so must be addressed first. 3. The guards have hated the regular workers from time immemorial and resist violently all attempts at common cause. 4. If the socialist proposes to have them ally with the guards to storm the owner’s mansion without first forcing the guards to abjure their privileges and share their guns, who is to say that given the chance the guards will not simply socialize the fruits of revolution among themselves and go back to oppressing the regular workers? Why would they not, if they could, take ownership of the means of production and keep their privileged relationship to the regular workers?
This is precisely where brutalized minorities find themselves when faced with mostly, but not exclusively, White socialists who try to convince us that identity politics, relegated to their proper, hidden place, will find their reason for being swiftly expurgated on the eve of socialist revolution. We are to silence grievances which are as close to us as the issue of bourgeois hegemony is to all workers, in order to secure some kind of alliance with people whose basic identity predisposes them to abuse us. The history of the meager victories won for the American worker bears this suspicion out. For much of the early 20th century, unions, including many which would go on to coalesce into the ur-union, the AFL-CIO, actively excluded Black members. (I don’t want to deny the excellent work of other unions like CIO which was much more integrated than AFL, or of such socialist groups as the Civil RIghts Congress, alluded to above re the Scottsboro case, both tendencies are present in American socialism, my purpose here is to promote one while strangling the other.) Factory owners in the north would often bring in Black workers to help break strikes in racially segregated shops. While no one loves a scab, why should we have expected Black workers to give up a chance at gainful employment on behalf of White laborers, when those potential comrades had never breathed a word about the exclusion of Black workers from many of the choicest industrial jobs? In fact, White workers even organized strikes to avoid having to share the assembly line with Blacks. As child labor laws were crafted, they included a key exemption for farm work at a time when Americans overall were making a massive transition out of the fields. Black sharecroppers in the South were a notable exception, and while White children working on family farms were the ostensible focus of this exception, such children were working for their parents who had more incentive than the state ever could to protect their health and well being, and what is more, they labored for what would be their inheritance. In contrast, Black children that worked in the cotton fields labored mostly for White landlords who saw them as expendable and cared nothing for their futures, or if they even had one. Social security largely excluded farm workers and domestics, again, overwhelmingly Black. Welfare as initially conceived and executed systematically excluded Black women, so much so, that civil rights activists had to fight to make it racially equitable. Shortly after this door was thrown open, welfare became associated with the Black poor and their supposed laziness and vice. Child labor laws, social security and welfare benefits were all victories for the worker, though they were certainly a far cry from a socialized economy, and they were crafted so as to make sure Blacks benefitted as little as could be managed. That workers as a whole can succeed while Blacks shiver at the open windows is a historical fact too obvious to be denied, we are therefore wholly and cruelly justified in our skepticism.
In response to this it will be argued: Sure the most needful Blacks were systematically excluded, but, for Blacks that could get jobs in factories, or that could jump the hurdles to welfare, there can be no doubting that they were better off than before. I would respond, that if this is the highest quality of solidarity the non-Black left can offer, we’re better off keeping our own counsel.
I cannot support the notion that my struggle for equality must be curtailed or turned into a secondary commitment in order to create a revolution. It is essential that the radical left recognize that in order to bridge the racial divide within the working class, it must build the bridge from both sides of the chasm. It must be courageous enough to ask why, even though the Democratic party serves all of its mass constituencies poorly, the White working class does not simply choose the lesser evil, as racial minorities and other marginalized groups routinely do, and instead has increasingly sworn allegiance to the greater evil. It is significant that Whites massively supported a candidate who offered no promise of raising the living wage, over one that at least promised to raise it to $12 (that we have reason to doubt her sincerity, notwithstanding.) The support minorities give to the Democratic party is not arbitrary or rooted in a love of superficial representation, it is rooted in the real social and political goods we have received. Outside of racial dog whistling, working class Whites qua members of the working class receive significant goods as well, yet they seem willing to ignore them in favor of a culture of White supremacist grievance.
This is the identity politicking which the radical left should attack, but they seem chronically unwilling to do so. If the radical left continues to focus on the relatively easy task of attacking marginalized groups that focus on their marginalization, instead of developing the courage and political imagination required to get White workers to stop being agents of White supremacy, they cannot be surprised when they continue to be regarded with suspicion and painted broadly as “Bernie Bros.” None of this is to say that the mainstream Democratic party is perfect even on issues of “identity.” The radical left correctly points out that mainstream progressives tend to focus on tokenism and superficial representation while largely ignoring the structural issues faced by marginalized groups, especially the racially marginalized. The winning response is not to attack the desire, but to exceed the superficial in fulfilling the substance of those desires. The battle for representation is based in the assumption that decent people that share one’s experiences will be more effective in substantively engaging your issues. The Obama administration has shown how easy it is for liberal plutocrats to buy a Black face to serve their interests. It does not, however, follow from this that the desire for representation was illegitimate. It is perfectly reasonable to not want to be spoken for by White men forever, it is perfectly reasonable to want what White men take for granted, the opportunity to support candidates that share your background. It is not as though this is not something which radical left politics can provide, it is not as though the issues specific to life as a non-White person in a White supremacist society are somehow beyond the capacity of radical leftists to engage on their own terms. I call for a detente, insofar as there are warriors for the rights of minorities that uncritically support capitalism, they, of course, should either be brought around to reality or denied positions of leadership, and I do not deny the existence of such people. I focus on leftists because of my sympathy with them, and because I want them to undertake the real work of freeing White workers from White supremacist conditioning while reaching a sincere and honest hand to those who always catch a disproportionate share of the ample hell capitalism dishes out. This task is well within the left’s capacity, it simply has to develop a will and imagination commensurate with the building of a new world.
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