In the aftermath of the November 2016 elections the term “identity politics” has been thrown around repeatedly with many progressives suggesting that the Electoral College defeat of Clinton by Trump was the result of some sort of Democratic Party obsession with that concept.
I am not known as a defender of the Democratic Party, but in the post-November summations the whining about identity politics has become both misplaced and obnoxious. Various pundits, in suggesting that the Democratic Party over emphasized so-called identity politics at the expense of some sort of pure class politics (meaning a politics focused exclusively on economic injustice) obscures the fact that there has been an on-going struggle within the Democratic Party—let alone the USA as a whole—to ensure that it is broadly representative. Does anyone have to be reminded that the Democratic Party was the party of white supremacy? The party of the so-called Solid South? A party that had a very uneasy set of alliances that included those, like President Roosevelt and those like Senator Strom Thurmond? The fight to make the Democratic Party a more representative institution was not a fight around advertising but was directly connected to the demands of historically excluded groups to be included, not as window dressing but as central players. This entire history is being denied in the name of upholding some sort of supposedly pure fight for economic justice.
“Identity politics,” as a term, is being used as a way of describing a set of politics that challenges specific forms of oppression that exist within capitalism; forms of oppression that go beyond the boundaries of the economic. The use of the term “identity” complicates matters because it is subjective, i.e., it assumes that certain struggles are driven by people or forces that have a specific distinctiveness that connects them with that issue. Among other things this fails to take into account that various so-called identity struggles inevitably bring in allies who are not from that specific constituency.
What passes for identity politics should actually be understood as social justice struggles that aim for consistent democracy and become, as a result, component parts of the larger class struggle. These are not battles around one’s identity. This is not self-indulgent activity by people who, for whatever reason, do not recognize the importance of economics. This is what has made problematic several of the statements by Senator Sanders both prior to and following the November 8th election.
Shortly after the Election, in response to a woman who asked about becoming a Latina Senator, Sanders offered a complex answer. He acknowledged the need for more women elected officials and more elected officials of color. But he said that he wanted to make sure that they were focused on the working class. He ended by suggesting the need to move away from identity politics.
One can agree with Senator Sanders that it is critical to move beyond any sorts of politics that is simply about “faces” in high places. And, when looking at the totality of the Senator’s remarks, there is important value. But because of the lack of a consensus about the actual nature of so-called identity politics, Sanders proposal to move away from it is, at best, confusing. Identity politics, at least the way that it has been used as a term since the Election, describes a politics that asserts the need for representation of historically marginalized and oppressed populations; and the representation of their issues. In that sense, what we are discussing is social justice and not something that should even be described as “identity politics.” It is more a politics of inclusion and for democracy rather than a politics of distinctiveness or uniqueness.
Capitalism is founded on classes and class struggle. Class struggle takes place over the basic question of the control of the means of production, distribution and exchange and, more generally, the control over the social surplus. But if someone stops there one misses actually existing capitalism. Capitalist states do not exist as some sort of economic abstraction but are rooted in specific histories. Those histories include multiple layers of oppression, some inherited from previous social formations (and modes of production), and others developed specifically within the context of emerging capitalism. In both cases, however, these forms of oppression, e.g., patriarchy; racism, have become central features of the manner in which actually existing capitalism operates.
This understanding is essential since it helps us break with a common notion within the Left and progressive movements to see matters of racism and sexism/patriarchy/male supremacy, as the equivalent of add-ons to an otherwise stable capitalist system. Metaphorically, racism and patriarchy have become for many progressives add-ons to a preexisting structure that can actually operate in the absence of these forms of oppression.
Let’s start with racism. Racism was not an add-on to US capitalism. From the English occupation of Ireland leading to the development of North American capitalism in the thirteen original colonies, racism emerged as a form of both oppression and social control essential for the growth and preservation of capitalism. To suggest that racism is unnecessary for the operations of US capitalism—a notion that should have been dispelled on November 8, 2016 at the latest—is to suggest that a person can survive in the absence of lungs. The absence of an appendix, yes. The absence of…