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The politics of identity
SHARON SMITH argues that identity politics can’t liberate the oppressed
FIGHTING AGAINST oppression is an urgent issue in U.S. society today. Racism, sexism, and homophobia have all reached appalling levels—that seem only to rise with each passing year. White students in Jena hang nooses, and Black students end up in prison.1 Squads of Minutemen vigilantes patrol the Mexican border with impunity, for the sole purpose of terrorizing migrant communities.2 College campuses across the U.S. commemorate “Islamo-fascism awareness week” as if it were just another legitimate student activity.3 Fred Phelps and his Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church congregation regularly picket outside funerals of gay soldiers killed in Iraq, proclaiming that they belong in hell.4
To be sure, the problem extends way beyond the extremist fringe. Media pundits barely comment on the outrages described above, while mainstream discourse regularly heaps contempt on those attempting to fight against oppression—including young women organizing against date rape (which is assumed to be a figment of their feminism-charged imaginations) and immigrants demanding basic legal rights (as if they are out to steal jobs from native-born workers). If the “playing field is level,” as so many in the mainstream media assume, those who object must therefore be seeking an unfair advantage.
It is no wonder, therefore, that so many people who experience oppression feel so embattled in the current political climate. Only a movement aimed at fighting oppression in all its forms can challenge the victim-blaming ideology that prevails today. The pressing need for such a movement is acknowledged here. Indeed, this article is intended to address the issue of how to most effectively fight back, since different political strategies lead to quite different conclusions about the kind of movement that is needed to challenge oppression. The bulk of this article is a critique of the theory behind what is known in academic and left circles as “identity politics”—the idea that only those experiencing a particular form of oppression can either define it or fight against it—counterposing to it a Marxist analysis. My central premise is that Marxism provides the theoretical tools for ending oppression, while identity politics does not.
Personal identity versus the politics of identity
It is important to make a clear distinction between personal identity and identity politics, since the two are often used interchangeably. But there is a substantial difference between these two concepts.
Possessing a personal “identity,” or awareness of oneself as a member of an oppressed group—and the anger associated with that awareness—is a legitimate response to experiencing oppression. Racism is, of course, experienced on a very personal level—whether it takes the form of institutional discrimination (racist hiring practices, police brutality) or social interaction (racist jokes, violence from an acknowledged racist). Personal experience, furthermore, helps to shape one’s political awareness of oppression. It makes perfect sense that experiencing sexism on a personal level precedes most women’s political consciousness of sexism as a form of oppression that degrades all women.
Indeed, no white person can ever understand what it is like to experience racism. No straight person can understand what it is like to experience homophobia. And even among people who are oppressed by racism, every type of experience is different. A Black person and a Native American person, for example, experience racism differently—as does a person from Mexico versus a person from Puerto Rico. A gay man and a lesbian have quite different experiences.
At the same time, personal experience is quite separate from the realm of politics, which involves strategies to affect society as a whole. Personal identity only becomes political when it moves beyond the realm of life experience and becomes a strategy for fighting against oppression. Every set of politics is based upon a theory—in this case, an analysis of the root causes of oppression. So the analysis of oppression informs the politics of social movements against oppression.
There are clear differences in strategy between Marxism and the theory of identity politics, which will be examined below. It is first necessary, however, to make clear which facts are not in dispute. Both theories are in agreement that all oppression is based on genuine inequality. Men and women are not treated as equals in society. Whites and African Americans are not treated at all equally. Oppression is not a matter of perception, but of concrete, material reality.
Nor is there any doubt that struggles against oppression should be led by the oppressed themselves—women themselves can and will lead the struggle for women’s liberation. This has always been the case historically, from the struggle for women’s suffrage to the fight for abortion rights. The same dynamic is true of the struggle for Black liberation. Former slaves and other African Americans led the battle for Reconstruction aimed at transforming Southern plantation society in the decades following the Civil War. African Americans led the mass civil rights movement that finally struck down Southern segregation in the 1950s and 1960s.
During the late 1960s, the powerful civil rights movement inspired the rise of movements for women’s and gay liberation, while the struggle for Black Power emerged from the civil rights movement itself. All of these new movements were, in turn, inspired by the armed struggle of the North Vietnamese resistance against the forces of U.S. imperialism. The Gay Liberation Front (GLF) chose its name as a formal identification with the National Liberation Front (NLF)—the Vietnamese resistance.
But it is also the case that women and African Americans were not alone in fighting against their oppression—thousands of men took part in the women’s movement in the 1960s, and many thousands of whites actively supported the civil rights movement. The gay liberation movement was the first of its kind—erupting in the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969, when New York City police raided a gay bar and touched off a riot among gays that lasted for three days. Although the gay movement won little support in its early stages, movement leaders soon convinced the Black Panther Party to formally endorse gay rights. In 1970, Black Panther leader Huey Newton announced his solidarity with the gay movement: “homosexuals are not given freedom and liberty by anyone in this society. Maybe they might be the most oppressed people in the society,”5
Who’s the real enemy?
As the experience of the 1960s shows, it is not necessary to personally experience a form of oppression to become committed to opposing it. Yet the central premise of the theory of identity politics is based on precisely the opposite conclusion: Only those who actually experience a particular form of oppression are capable of fighting against it. Everyone else is considered to be part of the problem and cannot become part of the solution by joining the fight against oppression. The underlying assumption is that all men benefit from women’s oppression, all straight people benefit from the oppression of the LGBT6 community, and all whites benefit from racism.
The flip side of this assumption, of course, is the idea that each group that faces a particular form of oppression—racism, sexism, or homophobia—is united in its interest in ending it. The theory of identity politics locates the root of oppression not with a capitalist power structure but with a “white male power structure.” The existence of a white male power structure seems like basic common sense since, with rare exceptions, white men hold the reigns of the biggest corporations and the highest government posts.
That is true, but it only tells half the story. It would be highly inaccurate to assume that all oppressed people are powerless in U.S. society today. Since the movements of the 1960s and 1970s, a significant number of women, gays, Blacks, and other racially oppressed minorities have managed to climb up the corporate and political ladder and become absorbed into various power structures. These individuals have achieved a fair amount of power in their own right. In the upcoming 2008 presidential election, the two Democratic Party frontrunners are a woman (Hillary Rodham Clinton) and an African American (Barack Obama). The speaker of the House of Representatives is a woman, Nancy Pelosi. The U.S. secretary of state is a Black woman, Condoleezza Rice. One of the most powerful politicians in Washington is openly gay Congressman Barney Frank.
Whose interests have these women, gays, and African Americans represented once they have achieved some power within the system? The answer is fairly plain to see—not necessarily by believing their rhetoric, but by judging their actions. Rather than fighting against the racist, sexist, and homophobic policies of the system, they become part of enforcing them.
For example, when the city of San Francisco began handing out same-sex marriage licenses in 2005, did openly gay Barney Frank embrace it as a step forward for civil rights? On the contrary, Frank called a press conference to attack gay marriage as “divisive.”7
Has Senator Barack Obama rushed forward to defend the six Black youths victimized by racists in Jena, Louisiana? The candidate did not make an appearance at the historic civil rights protest in Jena on September 20, 2007.8 Yet Obama has devoted ample time on his recent speaking circuit to exhort Black men to become better fathers, as he did in June 2005 addressing Black worshippers at Chicago’s Christ Universal Temple: “There are a lot of folks, a lot of brothers, walking around, and they look like men…they might even have sired a child…. But it’s not clear to me that they’re full-grown men.”9 If a white politician had delivered a similar lecture, it would have immediately—and accurately—been denounced as utterly racist.
Nor does Condoleezza Rice hesitate to perform her duty as she wanders the globe in her role as U.S. imperialism’s key international enforcer—traveling to the Middle East, for example, to enforce Israel’s racist apartheid policies against its occupied Palestinian population. Iranian people will be no better off if and when the U.S. decides to bomb them if Clinton or Obama occupy the White House than Iraqi people were when the Bush administration decided to invade their country.
What all of these examples show is that there is no such thing as a common, fundamental interest shared by all people who face the same form of oppression. Oppression isn’t caused by the race, gender, or sexuality of particular individuals who run the system, but is generated by the very system itself—no matter who’s running it. It goes without saying that we must confront incidents of sexism, racism, and homophobia whenever they occur. But that alone is not going to change the racist, sexist, and homophobic character that dominates the entire system.
Class inequality and oppression
The entire element of social class is missing from the theory of identity politics. The same analysis that assumes Barack Obama shares a fundamental interest with all African Americans in ending racism also places all straight white men in the enemy camp, whatever their social class. Yet, the class divide has rarely been more obvious than in the United States today, where income and class inequality is higher than at any time since 1929, immediately before the onset of the Great Depression.10 It is plain to see that the rich obtain their enormous wealth at the expense of those who work for them to produce their profits, a process known as exploitation in Marxist parlance.
Class inequality is not a side issue, but rather the main byproduct of exploitation, the driving force of the capitalist system. Class inequality is currently worsening by the minute, as the economy edges its way toward a deep recession. Yet the theory of identity politics barely acknowledges the importance of class inequality, which is usually reduced to a label known as “classism”—a problem of snobbery, or personal attitude. This, again, should be confronted when it occurs, but such confrontations do not change the system that relies upon class exploitation.
In contrast to the inconsistencies and contradictions of identity politics, a class analysis bases itself on materialism—a concrete and objective measure of systemic benefits derived from racism, sexism, and homophobia. In short, the ruling class has an objective interest in upholding the capitalist system, which is based upon both oppression and exploitation, while the working class has an objective interest in overthrowing it. For the special oppression of women, Blacks, Latinos, other racially oppressed populations, and the LGBT community actually serves to increase the level of exploitation and oppression of the working class as a whole.
The ruling class has always relied upon a “divide and conquer” strategy to maintain its rule, aimed at keeping all the exploited and oppressed fighting against each other instead of uniting and fighting against their real enemy. At the most basic material level, no one group of workers ever benefits from particular forms of oppression. The historic role of racism in the U.S. provides perhaps the clearest example. The prevailing view is that if Black workers get a smaller piece of the pie, then white workers get a bigger piece of it. In fact, the opposite is true. In the South, where racism and segregation have traditionally been the strongest, white workers have historically earned lower wages than Black workers in the North.11 The same dynamic holds true for men and women workers. When lower paid women workers enter an occupation, such as clerical work, in large numbers the wages in that occupation tend to fall. The dynamic is straightforward: Whenever capitalists can force a higher paid group of workers to compete with a lower paid group, wages tend to drop. The same dynamic also holds for the global capitalist system. When U.S. capitalists force their workers into competition with workers in the poorest countries, U.S. workers’ wages do not rise; they fall. And that is precisely why U.S. workers’ wages have been falling in recent years. The only beneficiaries are capitalists, who earn bigger profits, while ensuring the survival of the rule of the profit system.
It is also important to recognize that all working-class people suffer from some forms of oppression. Workers pay much higher proportions of their incomes in taxes than rich people and have far less leisure time; working-class schools are underfunded and overcrowded, poorer neighborhoods are more run-down, and the streets have more potholes. Perhaps most significantly, prevailing ideology regards workers as generally too stupid to run society—assuming this is better left to the “experts,” dooming the vast majority of workers to a lifetime of alienated labor.
So oppression is something that even most white male workers suffer to some degree. If one were to compare the self-confidence of the vast majority of white male workers to that of the arrogant Hillary Clinton or Condoleezza Rice, it would be clear that something more than personal politics is a determining factor in oppression. The problem is systemic.
The point here is not at all to trivialize racism, sexism, or homophobia—but to understand that the entire working class faces oppression and has an objective interest in ending it.
To be sure, workers don’t always realize this. Male workers can behave in an utterly sexist manner; white workers—male and female—can embrace racism; and straight workers—Black, white, and Latino—can be completely homophobic. But such behaviors are subjective—they vary from individual to individual and, unlike objective interests that remain the same, subjective factors change according to changing circumstances.
Most important among these is the Marxist concept of “false consciousness.” The definition of false consciousness is straightforward: whenever workers accept ruling-class ideologies, including racism, sexism, and homophobia, they are acting against their own class interests—precisely because these ideas keep workers fighting against each other. False consciousness is not unique to white, male workers.
One of the most obvious examples of false consciousness has occurred in recent years, as large numbers of African Americans oppose immigrant rights using many of the same xenophobic arguments as anti-immigrant racists. Similarly, many Puerto Rican people exhibit prejudice against Mexican people (which is racist). Many women call each other “sluts” (which is sexist). These are all examples of false consciousness.
Whenever the levels of racism, sexism, and homophobia rise, the working class as a whole loses out. Workers do not unite to fight back, and living standards drop. Conversely, when workers move into struggle against the system in large numbers, false consciousness is challenged by the need for class unity, and class-consciousness rises—affecting mass consciousness as a whole. This process was demonstrated at the highest point of class struggle in the 1930s and again at the height of the movements of the 1960s. And it will be demonstrated again with the next rise in mass struggle.
As Marx argued in theCommunist Manifesto, “This organization of proletarians into a class, and consequently into a political party, is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves. But it ever rises up again, stronger, firmer, mightier.”12 Put differently, Marx distinguished between the working class “in itself,” which holds objective—but unrealized—revolutionary potential, and a working class “for itself,” which acts in its own class interests. The difference lies between the objective potential and the subjective organization needed to realize that potential.
Politics in a void
But identity politics does not acknowledge the potential for mass consciousness to change. For this reason, the theory of identity politics can only be accepted at the highest level of abstraction. Ernesto LaClau and Chantal Mouffe, the originators of identity politics, do not seem the least bit concerned with any practical application of the theory laid out in their book, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. LaClau and Mouffe emerged from the postmodern wing of academia that flourished in the 1980s, proposing a set of theories aiming to prove that society exists not as a unified and coherent social and economic system, but rather in a range of subjective relationships.
LaClau and Mouffe posit their theory as a step forward from Marxism. In reality, their theory is not post-Marxist at all. It is anti-Marxist. These two academics set out to prove that Marx was wrong about the revolutionary potential of the working class—that is, its objective interest in and power to transform the system. This antagonism to Marx makes sense, because if Marx is right—if the working class is capable of building a united movement against all forms of exploitation and oppression—then their theory goes out the window.
There are two key components to LaClau and Mouffe’s theory, both of which become problematic the moment the theory is put into practice. The first component is their definition of oppression. In contrast to Marx—who defined oppression and exploitation as objective and therefore unchanging, but consciousness as subjective and therefore ever-changing—LaClau and Mouffe regard oppression itself as entirely subjective.
This is a fundamental, not semantic, difference. Since oppression is an entirely subjective matter, according to LaClau and Mouffe, anyone who believes that they are oppressed is therefore oppressed. At its worst, that would include a white male who feels he has been discriminated against when his application is turned down for a law school that practices affirmative action. Conversely, even the most clear-cut instances of systematic brutality are not necessarily oppression. LaClau and Mouffe argue that even serfdom and slavery do not necessarily represent relationships of oppression, unless the serfs or the slaves themselves “articulate” that oppression.13
LaClau and Mouffe describe society as made up of a whole range of autonomous, free-floating antagonisms and oppressions, none more important than any other—each is a separate sphere of “struggle.”14 But this concept falls apart once it is removed from the world of abstraction and applied to the real world. Separate struggles do not neatly correspond to separate forms of oppression. Forms of oppressions overlap, so that many people are both Black and female, or both lesbian and Latino. If every struggle must be fought separately, this can only lead to greater and greater fragmentation and eventually to disintegration, even within groups organized around a single form of oppression. A Black lesbian, for example, faces an obvious dilemma: If all men are enemies of women, all whites are enemies of Blacks, and all straights are enemies of gays, then allies must be precious few. In the real world, choices have to be made.
If LaClau and Mouffe are correct, and the main divisions in society exist between those who face a particular form of oppression and those who don’t, then the likelihood of ever actually ending oppression is just about nil. At its heart, the politics of identity is extremely pessimistic, implying not just a rejection of the potential to build a broad united movement against all forms of exploitation and oppression, but also a very deep pessimism about the possibility for building solidarity even among people who face different forms of oppression.
The only organizational strategy identity politics offers is for different groups of oppressed people to each fight their own separate battles against their own separate enemies.
The second key problem with LaClau and Mouffe flows from the concept of autonomy that is so central to their theory. Most importantly from a theoretical standpoint, Laclau and Mouffe go to great lengths to refute the Marxist analysis of the state, or the government. Marxist theory is based upon an understanding that the government is not a neutral body, but serves to represent the interests of the class in power—which in the case of capitalism is the capitalist class. This should not be too hard to imagine in the era of George W. Bush, when the capitalist class has brazenly flaunted its wealth and power.
But Laclau and Mouffe insist that the state is neutral and autonomous. Even the different branches of government are autonomous from each other. Apparently, the Senate and the House of Representatives have no real relationship, and the White House is similarly autonomous. If that is the case, then the stranglehold of neoconservatives and the Christian Right over U.S. politics since 9/11 must have been a figment of liberals’ imaginations.
Thus, there is a serious flaw in this logic. Oppression is built into the capitalist system itself, and the state is one of the key ways in which oppression is enforced—through laws that discriminate and the police who serve and protect some people while harassing and brutalizing other groups of people.
But the theory of autonomy leads to another theoretical problem as well: every separate struggle warrants equal importance, no matter how many people are involved on either side, and whether or not demands are being made against the state or other institutions. Indeed, LaClau and Mouffe carry this logic a critical step further, noting that “struggle” need not involve more than one person. It can simply denote a matter of achieving “increasingly affirmed individualism.”15 The personal struggle in this process substitutes for political struggle, leaving the system that maintains and enforces oppression intact.
Like LaClau and Mouffe, theorists who advocate the most extreme forms of identity politics do not actually aim to build a movement, large or small. They prefer small groups of the enlightened few, who remain content in their superiority to the “ignorant masses.” Marxism offers a way forward for those interested in ending oppression in the real world. As Marx remarked of his generation of smug academics, “The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”16
Marxism and oppression
The caricature that often passes for a critique of Marxism today assumes that a united working-class movement of all the oppressed and exploited requires subordinating the fight against oppression to the fight against exploitation. But this caricature has been proven wrong historically. Both exploitation and oppression are rooted in capitalism. Exploitation is the method by which the ruling class robs workers of the wealth they produce; various forms of oppression play a primary role in maintaining the rule of a tiny minority over the vast majority. In each case, the enemy is one and the same.
As the Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin, put it, the Marxist vision of revolution is a “festival of the oppressed and exploited.” But he also added: “Working class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected.”17
The argument here is straightforward: The lessons of building a united movement against capitalism train workers to act in solidarity with all those who are oppressed and exploited by capitalism. The battle for class-consciousness is a battle over ideas, but it is one that must be fought out in the context of struggle, not the musings of self-important academics.
Sharon Smith is author of Subterranean Fire: A History of Working Class Radicalism in the United States (Haymarket Books, 2006) and “Mistaken Identity: or can identity politics liberate the oppressed?”. She has a biweekly column in Socialist Worker that also appears on Counterpunch.
1 See Howard Witt, “Louisiana teen guilty in school beating case,” Chicago Tribune, June 29, 2007.
2 See, for example, Judy Keen, “Calls to get tough on illegals grow; Residents far from border seek controls,” USA Today, April 19, 2006.
3 Barbara Ehrenreich, “It’s Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week!” Thenation.com, October 22, 2007, http://www.thenation.com/doc/20071105/ehrenreich.
4 Brendan Bernhard, “Preaching a gospel of hate,” New York Sun, December 4, 2007.
5 Quoted in Barry D. Adams, The Rise of a Gay and Lesbian Movement (Boston: Twayne, 1987), 80.
6 Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.
7 “Rep. Frank opposes gay marriage effort,” CNN.com, February 19, 2004.
8 “Jesse Jackson: Obama needs to bring more attention to Jena 6,” CNN.com, September 19, 2007.
9 Liam Ford, “Obama’s church sermon to black dads: Grow up,” Chicago Tribune, June 20, 2005.
10 Aviva Aron-Dine, “EW in in 2005data show income concentration jumped again in 2005: Income Share of Top 1% At Highest Level Since 1929,” Center on Budget and Policiy Priorities, October 24, 2007. Available online at http://www.cbpp.org/3-29-07inc.htm.
11 See Victor Perlo, Economics of Racism U.S.A.: The Roots of Black Inequality (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 168.
12 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto (New York: International Publishers, 1948), 18.
13 Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso Press, 1985), 153–54.
14 Ibid., 178.
15 Ibid., 164.
16 Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” Marx/Engels Selected Works, Volume One, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969) 13–15, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/theses.htm.
17 V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 5(Moscow: International Publishers, 1961), 412.