If there is a lesson to be gleaned from the wreckage of the 2016 presidential election, it is that the left needs to move beyond the narrow limits of identity politics and embrace a broad, class-based orientation of solidarity.
Hillary Clinton’s empty appeals to a corporate faux feminism failed to win over struggling working-class voters—including, ironically, at least 50 percent of white women who cast ballots for Donald Trump despite his repugnant history as a misogynist sexual predator. And brow-beating women and Bernie Sanders supporters (“Bernie Bros”) by claiming, as Madeline Albright did, that there is a “special place in hell” for sisters who did not fall in line behind Clinton, did not help matters.
Even Sanders seems to understand the dead-end that is identity politics. During a recent stop in Boston on his current book tour/post-election-pick-me-up rally, Sanders urged progressives to “move beyond identity politics.”
“It’s not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!'” Sanders told the audience. “No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.”
It is safe to say identity politics—along with Clintonian neoliberalism—died on Nov. 8. And I for one say good riddance.
But before explaining why I view the death of ID politics as a good thing, it is worth explaining what, exactly, is meant by “identity politics,” as there seems to be some confusion among leftists over the term itself.
Contrary to the argument put forward by Marcus H. Johnson in a recent story for The Establishment, identity politics are not the same thing as civil rights. Nor, for that matter, is Johnson’s oversimplified definition of identity politics as encompassing the “political interests of women, minorities and other marginalized groups in American politics,” completely accurate.
(Indeed, it is striking how poorly informed Johnson’s entire liberal article is, to the point where he lumps Sanders–a New Deal Democrat, essentially–into something called the “alt-left.”)
Rather, ID politics—which has its roots in academic postmodernism and, as such, is decidedly anti-Marxist in nature—suggests that not only do all members of an oppressed group share the same interests, but that only those members have a stake in ending that oppression. Identity politics argues, furthermore, that all whites benefit materially from racism and, as a result, have no interest in uniting in solidarity with black Americans to end racism—or sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.
(A more ultra-leftist strain of ID politics goes even further, suggesting that all whites are racist, or all men are sexist, simply by virtue of being white or male.)
To be certain, as a white male, I can only imagine the hardships of enduring racism or sexism on a daily basis. I can never fully understand the lived experience of a black person in this country with its long, savage history of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation.
But just because an individual does not personally experience a particular form of oppression does mean he or she has no interest in fighting to end that oppression. Indeed, the system of capitalism oppresses all workers in some fashion through exploitation, wage-theft, income inequality, and surplus labor extraction.
As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes in her recent book, From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation:
Solidarity is standing in unity with people even when you have not personally experienced their particular oppression[.] The reality is that as long as capitalism exists, material and ideological pressures push white workers to be racist and all workers to hold each other in general suspicion. But there are moments of struggle when the mutual interests of workers are laid bare, and when the suspicion is finally turned in the other direction—at the plutocrats who live well while the rest of us suffer.
For too long now, the left has defined itself by what Chris Hedges calls the “boutique activism” of identity politics, multiculturalism, and political correctness. While these well-intentioned trends no doubt have called much needed attention to the previously ignored histories and narratives of traditionally oppressed groups, they have come at the expense of structural critiques of the capitalist system that causes this oppression in the first place.
As a result, the left has become atomized, disoriented, and rendered all but ineffective. Where the left once stood firmly opposed to war, empire, and economic inequality, it now agonizes over who has more “privilege.” Multiculturalism has become an end in of itself.
As Hedges argues in his 2010 book, Death of the Liberal Class, “Making sure people of diverse races or sexual orientations appear on television shows or in advertisements merely widens the circle of new consumers. Multiculturalism is an appeal that pleads with the corporate power structure for inclusion.”
While the inclusion of more people of color, women, and gays in the corporate and political arena is certainly a welcome trend, the folly of multiculturalism is in viewing this diversity alone as a form of progress. The fact is, one can be gay, black, female, or trans and still be part of the bourgeoisie. Take figures like Caitlyn Jenner, Clarence Thomas, Oprah Winfrey, or warmonger “feminist,” Anne-Marie Slaughter, for example.
Consider, furthermore, that black Americans have lost ground in every economic category eight years after the election of the nation’s first African American president. This is because Barack Obama has done virtually nothing for the black working class. He promptly bailed out the “too big to fail” Wall Street banks, while leaving Main Street to further drown in debt, low-wage jobs, lay-offs, and home foreclosures.
Understand that in critiquing identity politics, I am in no way attempting to downplay the struggle of marginalized groups. Indeed, socialists are often accused of emphasizing the importance of class over race, gender or gender identity. (Curiously, liberal identitarians are rarely accused of the converse–ignoring or diminishing class.)
In fact, Marx himself correctly understood the complex interconnectedness of race and class. “In the United States of America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed as long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic,” Marx wrote in volume one of Capital. “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.”
Marx understood racism as an inseparable byproduct of capitalism. Bourgeois capitalists intentionally stoke divisions of racism, sexism, “ableism” and the like in order to keep members of the working class fighting among themselves rather than turning their ire toward the capitalist system itself and the wealthy elites who profit from it.
But the contemporary left is disconnected from a Marxist analysis of society rooted in class struggle. Sanders’ campaign did a lot to renew interest in socialism particularly among young people–even if his central message was ultimately undercut by his unwavering commitment to the capitalist Democratic Party.
But we still have a long way to go to create a robust, organized socialist movement to counteract both the shallow superficiality of identity politics and the newly emboldened racist right. The sooner the left jettisons this academic trend–as well as its torturous unwavering commitment to the Democratic Party–the better.
Are there groups that will endure greater threats and forms of oppression under the incoming Trump administration…? Without a doubt.
But rather than limiting our focus to only those particular groups (immigrants, women, Muslims) while sneering at those who seemingly may not face as direct or immediate danger, “This isn’t about you!”, our motto should be the old labor slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” And let’s not kid ourselves: All working-class Americans–black, white, gay, straight, female, male, trans, disabled–are going to get viciously screwed in the coming years.
Only when workers unite and fight can we hope to obtain our freedom. Now is the time for solidarity. Now is the time for socialism.