Forming alliances on the left can be difficult. Maintaining them can be even harder. As different factions come together, our job is to identify positions on which we can find a compromise, and those which are non-negotiable. Most leftists might be happy to find middle ground on issues like taxes or housing policy, for example, but issues like women’s reproductive rights are rightly non-negotiable.
Being a leftist means connecting with people. You can’t be a socialist without being sociable. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t still be vigilant about who you’re rubbing shoulders with—or who’s trying to rub shoulders with you. Recognising that not everyone with whom you share views is necessarily an ally or has your same interests at heart is crucial to forming a movement that ultimately uplifts and protects us all.
“Identity politics” has become a hot topic in discussions across the spectrum over the past decade. At its heart, it’s a philosophy that places individuals’ identities, and how their identity shapes and effects their lived experiences, at the centre of political discourse. It’s been at the forefront of pushes for greater representation of marginalised groups such as black people, queer people, people of color, trans people, and so on in our media.
It shouldn’t be hard for any progressive to recognise this as a good thing. However strongly some leftists insist upon a Marxist materialist approach to politics (emphasising that life is primarily improved by material changes to people’s lived experiences through better wages, job security, and access to decent housing), the social consequence of life under capitalism is that large groups of people, many of them black, queer, non-Western or otherwise socially disadvantaged, experience oppression and exclusion from the public sphere in ways that cannot be properly analysed or addressed by insistence upon class politics alone.
Put another way, our class analysis will always be short-sighted or incomplete if we fail to acknowledge how class is intrinsically linked to race, gender, sexuality and nationality under capitalism.
If we can recognise that the mechanisms that enforce class are largely compounded when applied to women, immigrants, people in the global south, and racial or sexual minorities, then we should be able to recognise that reversion to a rhetoric that glosses over those factors is bound to alienate others—and that alienation, within the socialist project, represents a failure that needs to be addressed.
Nonetheless, some on the left are suspicious of political projects that centralise identity alone. One reason for this is that, in the hands of disingenuous actors, identity can be (and has been, historically) co-opted by the dominant class (read: largely rich, white men) to offer cosmetic changes to power’s visual exterior whilst distracting from deeper causes of structural inequality.
Last year, lifelong CIA operative Gina Haspel was nominated for the position of Director of the CIA. During the early 2000s, Haspel worked as the chief of a “black site” in Thailand where prisoners were regularly subjected to brutal interrogation and torture techniques. Her role was the same as that of any other CIA employee—to reinforce and maintain US imperial power.
Following Haspel’s appointment, numerous news outlets ran with headlines describing Haspel as the CIA’s “first female director”, co-opting the language of feminist identity politics to emphasise the significance of her gender, the implication being that her appointment was a victory for feminism writ large.
But who benefits when feminism’s most elementary ideals are leveraged to uphold and inject “girl power” into an institution that, for decades, has worked to destabilise and oppress nations in in the global south, causing untold misery to their populations, large swathes of them who are women of colour? Of what use is the appointment of another “girl boss” to an executive position to women whose families have been kidnapped and taken black sites like the one overseen by Haspel, held for months, even years without charge, and subjected to brutal torture techniques?
When faced with situations like this, it’s easy to see the pitfalls in essentialist approaches to identity politics. To put it another way, if improving society for marginalised groups were purely about greater representation in positions of power, then the appointment of Ben Carson as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Trump administration could only be interpreted as a positive given his identity as a black man.
Similarly, in the UK, Having a South Asian muslim man like Sajid Javid in the position of Home Secretary can hardly be a cause for celebration if he then uses that position to further the racist “hostile environment” policies pioneered by his predecessor Theresa May, deporting black and brown British citizens, or attempting to strip muslim women such as Shamima Begum of their British citizenship as he did earlier this month.
Examples such as these force us to acknowledge that a meaningful politic must necessarily comprise more than aesthetics and visibility; that a purely identity-based approach to structural societal reforms is incomplete. Our politics cannot be one purely led by representation alone. It requires a deep and considered understanding of the structural, material factors that dictate people’s lives and experiences, of which identity is a large and crucial, but not the sole factor.
Many criticised Barack Obama, for responding to the 2008 financial crisis by bailing out the same financial institutions whose predatory lending and reckless casino banking practices caused catastrophic damage to black and latino wealth. More recently, California senator Kamala Harris’ run to be the Democratic presidential candidate for the 2020 US elections has opened up a divide between liberal voters who view the prospect of having a black, female presidential candidate as inherently progressive, and progressives who are deeply skeptical of Harris’ career as a federal prosecutor.
Over time, the debate surrounding identity politics has exacerbated a split between two groups; those who are eager to see greater representation of minority and marginalised groups in political structures, and those who are suspicious that political institutions like the Democratic party are more likely to repackage their same old centrist political ideologies in black and brown faces rather than answer difficult questions about achieving substantive political change in their country. That the two positions are not mutually exclusive, with many occupying a grey area between the two, complicates the matter further.
In his 2013 essay, ‘Exiting the Vampire Castle’, Mark Fisher was critical of identity politics’ tendency to split the left into individualised factions, making it evermore difficult achieve collective solidarity. His fear was that a heavy focus on individualistic politic in any form would ultimately serve to reinforce traditional power structures, while we all became more atomised in our unique identities, each fighting for recognition by a ‘bourgeois big Other’.
Essentially, the ‘Vampire Castle’ is a structure fueled by guilt, shame and condemnation that produces evermore fractious groups and subgroups. As we fight for recognition of these increasingly-fractured identities under capitalism, we become less empowered to achieve the broad-based class consciousness that many leftists view as vital combating the very capitalist structures that produce systemic marginalisation and oppression.
Fisher was criticised for his essay, and perhaps rightly so. It’s not hard to see how his anxieties about Twitter outrages and condemnation of the transgressions of straight white men like Russell Brand—straight, white men like him (and me)—echoed the views expelled by more malignant forces in political discourse both then and now and their odious dismissals of “snowflakes”, “SJWs” and “oppression olympics”.
At heart, however, it seems Fisher was genuinely concerned that a culture of condemnation and banishment (or what many of us now call ‘Cancel Culture’) would be doomed to work in the favour of the wealthy, powerful, and the right-wing, who are much less picky when it comes to choosing their allies. This distinction between the left and the right bears underscoring. We might envy the ease with which Christian fundamentalists, neo-nazis, white supremacists, fiscal conservatives and nationalists alike align behind particular causes, but our principles render such opportunistic alliances rightly detestable.
White nationalist and supremacist thought has gained increasing purchase in mainstream American and European politics. The left is in agreement that an effective and compelling response is urgent, but they are divided about how that should be achieved. That Donald Trump’s election was fueled by racism and sexism, and Britain’s decision to leave the EU by racism and xenophobia, is undeniable. There have also been attempts to address the deeper material concerns that might have drawn voters to these positions, but deployment of clumsy and evasive phrases like “economic anxiety” to describe white people experiencing job insecurity, financial instability and so on, failed to acknowledge the possibility that racists and “economically anxious” white people are hardly mutually-exclusive groups.
There are valid arguments to support the idea that reducing the election of Donald Trump or the UK’s decision to leave the EU purely identitarian factors is simplistic. Growing inequality between the wealthy and the working class on both sides of the Atlantic indicates that neither Barack Obama’s Wall Street-friendly cool guy neoliberal economics nor the Conservative government’s tight-belt “bad medicine” austerity economics did a great deal to improve the material circumstances of working and middle class voters. The fact that these two political projects were scarcely as ideologically opposed as their packaging suggests only supports the idea that a more substantive, material analysis is needed.
Bigotry and prejudice in all its forms, far from being some ethereal spirit brought to life by Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, has had purchase among the West’s majority-white populations for centuries. Widening inequality and disenfranchisement as a result of the austerity politics of post-2008 merely created a condition for those ideas to take purchase as mainstream political thought. Put another way, even the identity politics of straight, white male chauvinism is made manifest by material conditions.
From this point, there has been a rise in rejections of liberal identity politics (or “idpol”) from groups on the left who view it as insufficient in establishing an effective critique and response to right-wing populism. Many of these groups proffer compelling critiques of how feminism, anti-racism, pro-LGBTQ and pro-immigrant rhetoric is currently being co-opted by politicians, corporations and mainstream media outlets in a way that does little to challenge the political status quo. The issue, however, is when criticism of “idpol” becomes not a means to creating a more robust and comprehensive ideology offering solutions to people’s material circumstances, but an ends in and of itself.
In certain (more “extremely online”) left-wing corners of the internet, criticism of “idpol” is transforming from a means to a political end to a mudslinging match against any form of identitarian analysis. In the process, their ostensibly left-wing communities have attracted attention and praise from right-wingers who relish in any opportunity to shout down marginalised groups. And sadly, it appears that some of the the leftists involved aren’t willing or able to reckon with the possibility that the people cheering them on are less interested in formulating alternative progressive strategies than simply ridiculing “SJWs”.
It’s not just internet posters who are prey to this. For several years, Fox News host Tucker Carlson has built a personal brand as the face of white nationalism in American media, deploying dog-whistle terms about declining white birth rates, Western civilisation and campus PC culture to indoctrinate his viewers with crypto-fascist talking points.
In recent months, however, he has has also taken vocal stances on ostensibly progressive issues such as tax avoidance and corporate greed, inviting left-wing guests onto his show to grant his positions a veneer of balance and objectivity. As mentioned before, leftists should be careful about who they’re choosing to break bread with. Numerous leftists, most notably Glenn Greenwald, have been guests on Carlson’s show, seemingly unaware that their input is always carefully policed so as to stay within the boundaries of acceptable discussion. In light of Dutch historian Rutger Bregman’s recent clash with the Fox News host that resulted in his interview being pulled from broadcast, any leftist guest on Carlson’s show who ends up being broadcast should ask themselves how hard they just got played.
Incidents like this demonstrate the problem with anti-idpol thought that is as essentialist as the ideology it seeks to combat. On the one hand, leftist writers, thinkers and commentators of many backgrounds are critical when identity politics is used by disingenuous actors to further particular agendas. But the bottom line is this: While it is valid to have critical, objective discussions about identitarianism and politics, the moment these criticisms are put forward in such a way that they are open to exploitation by the very forces the left seeks to combat, something has gone wrong.
That there are instances where race, gender or sexual orientation have been used in ways to distort political discourse does not mean that when someone raises issues particular to their race, gender or sexual orientation, they should be dismissed out of hand as engaging in “idpol”. The very same thing that critics of identity politics claim to be in favour of—a more nuanced approach to political discourse that uplifts all groups together rather than dividing us into warring factions seeking validation from the ‘big bourgeois Other’—is the same thing that is needed when critiquing essentialist arguments. When establishment political organisations deploy black and brown faces to promote policies and ideas likely to harm marginalised people, whatever their particular identity, healthy and measured critiques are valid.
But when shrieks of “identity politics” are deployed to silence black, brown and queer people who take issue with broad, ‘colourblind’, class-purist approaches to political strategy, or to avoid valid discussions about visibility of marginalised people within our movements, something has gone wrong. A politic dedicated to class over all other societal factors is just as reductive as one that eschews all others over identity.
Any sincere leftist who finds their arguments being cheered on by the very same people they claim to oppose, and who doesn’t then take pause to reflect that perhaps their words and ideas have failed them, should ask themselves what their idea of solidarity truly means. The moment your enemies are telling you you’ve done a good job, it’s probably time to log off and go read a book.