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Because and Despite of Identity Politics

Picking up where I left off with my last post [and after a long hiatus for me, I know, but the combination of the busiest time of year for me, a job application, and childcare has drained my mental resources], I think it is important to discuss the limitations of the political praxis connected to postmodern theory.  While it is important to demand a theoretical understanding of the emergence of postmodernism (including post-structuralism and post-colonialism), it is more important to understand the limitations of the political line resulting from this theory and thus why, inversely, a marxist-oriented political praxis is superior.  For as marxists, whenever we talk about the strengths and weaknesses of a theory this talk should not be abstract; it should have something to do with concrete practice, the project of human liberation.

The entire postmodern discourse, after all, was premised on the usurpation of marxism and the substitution of a totalizing communist discourse with a politics that was properly radical.  Marxism, we were told, was not only a failed experiment but thoroughly eurocentric: its concept of the revolutionary subject was infected by chauvinism, the fact that it spoke of universalism and science was far too embedded in the European Enlightenment to amount to anything properly radical––even though the "post" tradition itself has emerged from Nietzschean categories.  So the question becomes: does the set politics postmodernism wishes to substitute for the totalizing of marxism answer the questions raised by capitalist hegemony?  And by answer I mean possess the capability of a revolutionary overthrow of the so-called "end of history".

Although I could write a very long and involved essay about some very specifically philosophical limitations of postmodernism in regards to praxis (and have even done so in my dissertation), I'm not going to spend too much time discussing these problems here.  Suffice to say, the rejection of the productive subject and universalism permit no foundation for resistance; if there is no such thing as a productive subject that is being dehumanized, that is, then how can we speak of oppression?  (In order to answer this rhetorical question, I urge interested readers with a philosophical bent to read Jeff Noonan's Critical Humanism and the Politics of Difference.)  I could also speak of the idealist understanding of "power" the postmodern tradition promotes––an understanding that divorces power from economic and political foundations and makes it transhistorical, something that was not at all produced by humans but produces humans, and thus is akin to the notion of power/violence promoted by the arch anti-semite Eugene Duhring in the nineteenth century and adequately taken apart by Engels.  These are important philosophical interventions, true, but they would amount to tens of pages and are, anyhow, besides the point.

For the point is that the only politics that can be expressed by the postmodern tradition is a disunified politics, inexorably fragmented, that is incapable of responding to the fact of capitalist hegemony.  The fact that it promotes this disunity as a strength––by virtue of rejecting the unification that is only possible under the despised "totalization"––is something that should be treated as extremely dubious while, at the same time, recognized as a logical result of the way politics was practiced at the centres of capitalism until the advent of postmodernism.

And the politics resulting from postmodernism is what is often called "identity politics".  That is, if you come from an oppressed group then you will automatically be a political subject, regardless of your political line, and everyone from a position of privilege who speaks against you can be nothing more than a representative––consciously or unconsciously––of oppression.  A radical politics, then, will be expressed by those who simply adhere to these subjected positions, based on some sort of stand-point ethics, which will spontaneously unify in a non-totalizing manner.

In the previous post I spoke of postmodernism as being the penalty of the sins of revisionist marxism.  Now we can speak of identity politics as the penalty of the sins of chauvinist communism.  For we really do need to take identity politics seriously; it cannot be dismissed as if it emerged from a void as some ahistorical and quaint phenomenon.  After a history of the left being dominated by privilege––by white, male, straight, able-bodied, etc. organizers––it is understandable that the underprivileged who have been excluded from this discourse have rallied around postmodern identity politics and, in this rallying, unfortunately judged communism to be worthless.

Again we need to be clear that we are speaking of leftist praxis at the centres of capitalism; the vital anti-capitalist movements of the most oppressed at the global peripheries still gravitate towards communism.  The people's war in India, for example, has little interest in postmodernism… even less interest in the "identity politics" articulated at the centres of capitalism.  Even still, we cannot completely dismiss identity politics without accepting that it only exists because of the failure of the left, especially at the centres of capitalism, to produce movements that did not valorize white, male, straight, and able-bodied subjects.

Some time ago, I argued how some dismissals of identity politics were themselves an even worse form of identity politics where the identity of the proletariat was automatically treated as white and male.  And so we need to recognize that most attacks on identity politics are driven by the same identitarian bullshit… So that, maybe, what we now call "identity politics" cohered in response to an already existant identity politics where the proletarian was already veiled in a specific identity.  My thoughts on this issue stand… again, the penalty of the sins of chauvinist communism.

So despite the problems I have with so-called "identity politics" and postmodernism, I am somewhat grateful for its intervention.  Those who complain that Luxemburg or Kollontai didn't require "safe spaces" are the same people who don't realize that one hundred Luxemburgs and Kollontais could have existed if such spaces existed.  Those who complain that focus on some "identitarian oppression" are also those who don't realize that their understanding of the proletariat is also identitarian.  And so this postmodern period of identity politics can and should make us question the way movements were build decades ago.  Rather than accepting it or dismissing it altogether, however, we should thank it for its intervention, step beyond the stale politics it promotes, and renew our "totalizing project" both  because and despite of its complaints.

Because of…

We need a unified movement that is capable of breaking away from the unrecognized identity politics of excepting a certain type of (unionized and white) worker as being the proletariat.  Postmodern identity politics might have given us the realization of such a worker but it has not given us the politics of apprehending such a worker as the "hard core" of the proletariat since it also resists totalization.  Indeed, those who champion identity politics spend a lot of time speaking of the structure of oppression but, in the end, they are utterly incapable of explaining the root meaning of structural oppression.  Only marxism, which delves into the material foundations of a given mode of production, can provide us with this insight.  Postmodernism only speaks of the surface reality and, due to its concern with the surface, refuses to grapple with deep material structures––this would be scientific and totalizing, after all.

Despite of…

In order to overcome capitalism we need a unified movement, springing from the kernel of the hard core of the proletariat, that is dedicated to revolution.  A movement fractured down innumerable identity lines is incapable of responding to capitalist hegemony––it can only result in an ineffectual movementism.  The point is to develop a movement based on a shared political line rather than splintered identity concerns and totalization, the supposed sin according to postmodernism, where these concerns finally intersect based on a proper understanding of class is where such a movement can emerge.  Capitalism will not fall based on innumerable "unique raindrops" or marbles scattered upon multiple trajectories: just as the bourgeoisie was united as a class against tributary feudalism, the proletariat (but understood in the above sense) must be united against capitalism.

But what does the praxis of postmodernism provide?  Only fragmentation.  One speaks from their subjected position and this speaking is supposedly radical––but how do we gauge the distance between opposed subject positions at that horizon where stand-point ethics becomes confused?  Does a white trans woman's experience trump the experience of a queer woman of colour?  Do we simply count up the oppressions all the while ignoring the political line?  The point is to unify these oppressions under a political line, totalizing them into a counter-hegemonic unity… and this is where marxism again takes over from postmodernism.


  1. Greetings,

    In reading your post, I wondered if it was really the particularism and fragmentation of identity politics that was bothering you, or if maybe it was its liberalism that really go to you.

    The Black liberation movement and the women's liberation movement in the capitalist core, and the national liberation struggles of the peripheries in the 20th century were sometimes extremely particularist in their outlook and practice, but the best minds of those movements (Fanon, Cabral) were always oriented towards how their particular struggle related to the universal struggle for human liberation in general. But they were by no means liberal.

    As you pointed out in your post, the seemingly commonsensical universalism of the white straight male worker in the countries of the capitalist core as a subject actually was a false universalism that identified a particular identity (that white worker) with the human race in general. ...

    So, what I'm batting around here, and to get back to your post, is this: universalism, and the totality, are not pre-existing categories that we can adopt and promote. They come into being only in the iterative practice of our work and reflection on that work.

    The fragmented quality of the identity-based social movements is due to the fragmented quality of the social relationships that they are a part of. In this, if in nothing else, post-structuralist accounts adequately grasp social reality. The 'mass society' of the mid-twentieth century no longer exists. In its place we have... well, what do we have here? Postmodernity whatever that means?

    But within this mess, it seems to me, it is still possible for people and groups who organize around a certain set of identities to determine that for their particular struggles to be successful they are going to need to work towards the fundamental re-ordering of society as a whole. And that they cannot under their own power do it alone and so must make common cause with other people and groups struggling against other (related) oppressions and exploitation. This last is not self-evident, but can be learned in the course of struggle.

    Like you said about the hegemony of the bourgeoisie. Liberalism only became a thing in the institutional framework of the Enlightenment. OUR science (there I said it!) must take root in a different soil. What is to be OUR institutional framework? The universities? The non-profits and NGOs? The union bureaucracies? The agencies of the state? No? Then where?

    "Radical Democracy" quote unquote? Maybe. Movementism? I hope not. Is it still movementism if there is coordination within the movement and between its parts? Or is the decisive question for you who (and what) is in command?

    Pretty sketchy here, just food for thought.

    Marq Dyeth

    1. These are good points but they are somewhat tangental to what I was discussing here. What I think is philosophically problematic with identity politics is not "particularism" because I feel that the universal aspects of marxism need to be particularized and even have been discovered through particular struggles [your comment about coming to these insights through particularization is apt in this regard]. The fragmentation that resists all universalization is what is the problem with identity politics, the praxis of postmodernism which, as noted, is also resistant to universal categories.

      You're precisely correct that this is connected to liberalism, but I feel it is often somewhat inaccurate to characterize identity politics (and thus also postmodern theory) as liberalism because it is also critical of liberalism and has set itself up, in many cases, against liberalism… The only problem is that it leads to liberalism in practice.

      Your last questions are the most pertinent, obviously. [And, btw, I laughed out loud at your mention of science.] I would argue that it is not movementism if it is a movement that is coordinated… Then the question becomes what politics are in command, what is this movement that is organized and militant: a revolutionary party with a mass line is precisely what is required in order to set up a counter-hegemony that can hopefully become properly hegemonic.

  2. genius yo, cant believe dis was written back in 2012 lol i had no clue anyone else harbored even remotely deadass similar beliefs as me. we gotta move beyond this shit bruh, past tha reign of postmodern discourse n tha cancer that is modern identity politics. my only beef rly is ur reliance on tha term "capitalism" lol like i know u drawin from marx (lmao i personally have drawn more from foucault, go figure) but id argue tha dominant global economic arrangement is more accurately conceived of as hypercapitalism, in that a. its never been truly capitalist (which is impossible n unsustainable btw lol) n b. it operates more as a kind of cartoonish parody of what capitalism/its main proponents claim it to be.
    one last thang, wat bout tha fact dat identity politics is itself a tool/weapon of hypercapitalist social control?
    love n peace !!

    1. Define "truly capitalist". I don't see why you think that the term "capitalism" is outdated because of "hypercapitalism"… There are capitalist modes of production because capitalism is something at its core: a mode of production based on the generation of surplus value and overproduction. If it is "hypercapitalist" then it is still capitalist, and it is hard to see how the logic has transformed: that which is hypercapitalist is already explained in Marx's Capital which claims that, well, capitalism will always tend towards a "hyper" arrangement, precisely because of surplus value and overproduction. And yes capitalism is unsustainable, but why you think it is impossible, when this is the reality, is very odd. As for what the main proponents claim capitalism is, that is just ideology––which was the point of Marx's analysis in the first place: to separate what ruling class ideology says capitalism is (which is just a myth, and as useful as what monarchists said feudalism is/was), and what it actually is in a materialist sense. The point is to talk about these things scientifically.

      As for identity politics being a "tool/weapon" of social control, I prefer the more scientific term of "ideology" [ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class], and I believe I have talked about this in some other entries on this blog as well.


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