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"We Are The Left" vs. Identity Politics "Fascism"

Once in a while some truly terrible pieces of left anaylsis come along that confirm each other's intellectual vapidness: two articles that read as if they were written for each other by two frienemies on different sides of a poorly understood debate, justifying their respective analysis in their hermetically sealed echo chamber they believe is reality. When this happens the temptation is to believe in poetic fate or synchronicity: what a weird coincidence! This was my instinct when I read that self-important "We Are The Left" article around the same time that I read another eye-roll inducing Identity Politics is Shit article: they must have been written for each other, they both take the analysis of their opposite as the straw-person of their object of critique and in doing so become caricatures of themselves.

First, the article by "We Are The Left" that is entitled, with the same self-importance, "An Open Letter on Identity Politics To and From the Left." Well then, I thought as I read the title, let's see what faction of the left is addressing what other faction. I mean, I like reading polemics between left organizations and have an appreciation for this form having read oodles of exchanges between the anti-revisionist groups of yesteryear. But unlike these past polemics, leaving aside its stale analysis, this "open letter" was not signed by a leftist organization but a bunch of people, most of whom are part of the US liberal left establishment (many being Hillary Clinton supporters), and thus not a left organization doing leftish things; nor was the left they were attacking very clear––a vague group of people who complained about "identity politics", an incoherent left that didn't care about anti-oppression struggles, a parody left represented by those macho dogmato-marxist and/or anarchist groups that dismiss all struggles that aren't clearly class struggles. Sure these people exist, and sure they're worth critiquing, but the open letter read more like a description of claims made in the past thirty years, claims that the actual anti-capitalist left (and not supporters of the US Democratic Party) has been seriously grappling with in various ways for years.

Good Lord why is this bullshit already memed… #onlinepseudoleft

For anyone who has spent the past decade and a half involved in activism and organizing "We Are The Left's" vague critique reads like the work of tumblr activist who has recently discovered that multiple oppressions exist and has decided to provide angry and self-righteous advice in a manner that assumes nobody has thought of these things before. Hence the annoyance expressed on left twitter by activists and organizers, many who take the intervention of anti-oppression politics seriously and many who experience identity-based oppression, at this open letter. The common critical refrain could be summed up as: "I don't know what left you mean because the organizations in which I do my activism with include POCs, LGBTQ* folk, cis and trans women, and what's with this unsolicited advice that most of us have been thinking through for years?"

Moreover, if there is any evidence that a political line based on Identity Politics can fit quite comfortably with neo-liberal ideology, this article is a perfect example. While it opens with appeals to important moments in left history, anecdotal evidence that its righteous anger is correct, it assumes that these moments have not informed many of the critiques of the limitations of Identity Politics––limitations I have discussed before. Since its goal appears to be about crushing any dissent to the support of Hillary Clinton's Platform in some hope of a common front for liberal capitalism against the reaction that Trump represents, its use of these opening stories about the confrontation between anti-oppression politics and crude class politics are at best cynical and at worst dishonest: the people involved in some of these anecdotes (Shulamith Firestone, Sylvia Rivera) would likely have no interest in the political direction of this analysis.

Hence "We Are The Left" represents a point where the worst aspects of Identity Politics have cohered into a defense of the state of affairs. At a time when the question of party solidarity is returning to the consciousness of the first world left, when well-known popular intellectuals like Jodi Dean are stating that the concept of party solidarity is necessary in the face of the fragmentation produced by an over-fetishization of Identity Politics, this self-righteous "open letter" works hard to emphasize fragmentation and the rejection of any solidarity unless it be the solidarity of accepting the normative order of the state of affairs. When the authors call for leftists to "clean up their own house" they are saying that the left should be separated, atomized, and dispersed into separate movement "houses" rather than uniting. Unity of course should happen under the banner of a left liberal cause; that's the only solidarity that matters.

None of this is to say that some of the concerns this "open letter" highlights are not inaccurate; it is savvy at pointing out things that the left can agree with, reasserting what the Identity Politics intervention was useful in highlighting. The problem is that all of these claims that are non-controversial amongst most of the fighting left are treated as new, as roadblocks in the way of a politics that can only be realized under a unified neo-liberal banner. Advice and demands are proffered by signatories who, as a whole, would find the notion of "seizing the means of production" (as one twitter comrade joked, only to be asked by a "We Are The Left" supporter "why would you think that?") some kind of assault on the Identity Politics they believe they represent. The demands made by the "open letter" read like a list of complaints suddenly encountered by an internet Marxist who just discovered there's a bunch of fucked up shit out there and can't understand why there's people who are saying "let's find a way to organize together against this fucked up shit and maybe attack those people, even if some of them cynically use their identity to justify capitalism and imperialism, for being part of this fucked up shit."

In many ways "We Are The Left" represents the online SJW ethos that takes as its only content the appearance of Identity Politics while ignoring the deeper substance of anti-capitalist resistance. It repeats all of the great errors of Identity Politics: the aforementioned fetishization of fragmentation, the petty-b preachiness that deletes the experience of a proletarian whose exploitation is informed by oppression, the unwillingness to connect struggles in a solidarity against capitalism ("why would you think that?"), the conflation of critique with abuse (which undermines its whole ability to "call-out" others since this, by its own logic, would also be "abuse"), the annihilation of a coherent political line. Really it's not surprising: at the very point where significant portions of the left were trying to rise above the limitations of identity politics this "open letter" manifests to tell this left to step the fuck down and accept the state of affairs because to do otherwise would be oppressive. Identity Politics is complete: a leftish argot becomes the property of neo-liberals, solidarity against capitalism and imperialism is defused by a pseudo-left argument valorized by Identity Politics. Bravo!

But when we look at the aforelinked article "Identity Politics is Killing Solidarity and Fuelling Fascism" by Jerry Barnett the analysis of "We Are The Left" kind of makes sense if you imagine that this Barnett article is the only critique of Identity Politics that they've read. Simultaneously, Barnett's shitty article only makes sense if the "We Are The Left" article was the only thing he read. As faithful readers of this blog will be aware I believe that Identity Politics is a problematic that needs to be overstepped by any worthwhile leftist movement, that it leads only to a fragmented movementism, but at the same time I believe that many of the critiques of its problems emerge from a position of bad faith. Barnett's article is yet another bad faith critique.

Barnett really hates Identity Politics; he thinks it's a "puss-filled boil." What he cannot grasp, because he is enamoured with is own identity politics (that is, [white] workerism), is that everything he denounces as Identity Politics was part of the strongest aspects of the left solidarity he wishes to preserve. What his analysis produces is a warped version of leftist history that, in its excitement to perserve a pure and non-identity based left, courts the very fascism he ascribes to his straw-person enemy.

Barnett begins his polemic by referencing a vague "time" when the "British left owned terms like Unity and Solidarity." He imagines that this left was thoroughly unified against "the obscenity of poverty" and hopes to prove that Identity Politics detracts from this unification. The problem, however, is that this unity exists only in his mind. If he bothered to do a proper social investigation and examine the Marxist struggles of the 1970s and 1980s he would realize that his imaginary unity was challenged by the vicissitudes of the UK New Communist Movement. The most important NCM group in the UK in that period of supposed beautiful unity was the Revolutionary Communist League of Britain that would eventually claim that Eurocentrism was the biggest obstacle to communist solidarity and produce the position manuscript Eurocentrism and the Communist Movement (authored by Robert Biel and recently updated and republished by Kersplebedeb). Hence the very "Identity Politics" that Barnett despises was already in existence, part of the most radical aspects of the UK Marxist left, and for good reason. The argument was that broad solidarity could not be accomplished if the left movement continued to be racist, that there could be no solidarity without recognition of the Eurocentric ravages of imperialism.

But for Barnett there can be no critique of oppression that challenges his economistic understanding of class struggle; he thinks such challenges are fascist because, in their differentials, they undermine solidarity. The problem, though, is that fascism is in itself a racial solidarity and is valorized by the refusal to recognize the struggles of the identities it hopes to erase. The over-valorization of the white worker, the deletion of a proletarian that is determined by other oppressions, leads to the basis of fascism. Barnett throws the word "fascist" about because of his fear that Identity Politics will galvanize an anti-white cultural nationalism (which might indeed be a kind of fascism) while at the same time valorizing everything the most minor Identity Politics challenges about real world fascism: that it is the workers in imperialist countries whose cultural nationalism will most likely be the basis of a reactionary right populism, the concrete basis of every fascism that has hitherto existed. That is, it is not Black Lives Matter that is in danger of courting fascism because it lacks the ruling class endorsement to transform whatever real or imagined cultural nationalism it mobilizes into literal fascism; it will be the representatives of an All Lives Matter politics––meaning White Lives Matter––that will form the germ of a possible fascism because this identity coding of class intersects with the ruling class ideology at the centres of capitalism. White supremacy is a real thing; class is always dressed in multiple sites of oppression; to think otherwise is a denial of reality.

(As an aside it is worth noting that Barnett lacks a working definition of "fascism". This concept becomes as meaningless as "the left" was for the previous article.)

Barnett's article, with its weird claims about Martin Luther King Jr., is indeed a grand denial of this reality so as to reaffirm a White Lives Matter politics. Hell, he even misunderstands Owen Jones' walk-out as some kind of "Me Generation" bullshit when it was anything but. For an author interested in highlighting the importance of working class solidarity this call-out of Jones was not only weird but resembled the worst ravages of Identity Politics practice. Jones who has spent years writing about the demonization of the working class and attempting to theorize a solidarity is suddenly guilty, because he disrespects a very imperialist articulation of a violent event, is suddenly the enemy. Barnett becomes in this instance the purist practitioner of Identity Politics, but a white and cis male Identity Politics who really wants everything to be all about MEEEE! All Lives Matter, he proclaims, citing a left that never existed. What is Barnett's "old left" anyway? He has already deleted the intervention of the New Communist Movement… Is he also planning to delete the work of this "old left" on gender and the national question? Truly he is precisely the kind of leftist that "We Are The Left" assumes is normative.

If the "We Are The Left" only makes sense if its object of critique is Barnett's ahistorical complaint about Identity Politics, then Barnett's complaint similarly makes sense if its understanding of Identity Politics is taken only from "We Are The Left". These analyses complete each other, together describing a warped version of leftist reality; they are both and equally rightist interpretations of reality and need to be treated as such. Whereas the Identity Politics "open letter" seeks to valorize a fragmented movementism that will necessarily solidify under a neo-liberal politics, Barnett's article courts real world fascism by pretending that all challenges to white supremacy are "fascist" because a unprincipled solidarity is necessary. They confirm each other's warped analysis.