Thursday, December 1, 2011

class is not identity

Richard Seymour makes a valiant effort to define a sensible form of identity politics in LENIN'S TOMB: Cultural materialism and identity politics, but he doesn't succeed for me.

In the comments, Evildoer claims, "Socialism is also identity politics. When Marx described the process as moving from a class "in itself" to a class "for itself", isn't that exactly "the politicization of identity"?"

I replied:
Socialism is not identity politics. Identity politics describe the world in terms of being: people are male or female, black or white, Californian or Welsh, Coke drinkers or Pepsi drinkers. Socialism describes the world in terms of doing: the capitalist class controls the world's wealth; the working class works to survive. That many people do not recognize their role under capitalism has nothing to do with identity. It only has to do with ignorance that is promoted by the ruling class.

Identity politics see the world in fixed terms: race and gender cannot be changed, and their concept of class is feudal, so birth is very important to what you are. But socialists see the world in mutable terms, tribal rather than racial.

Mind you, this view of capitalism is not unique to socialism. Many capitalists recognize that under capitalism, what matters is your relationship to capital. Which is why socialists and capitalists see Obama as being true to his class, but identitarians see him as a traitor to his race.


  1. Socialism describes the world in terms of being: people are labour or capitalist class, beer drinkers or wine drinkers. Critical race and other activist theories describe the world in terms of doing: the colonial nations control the world's resources, the colonized work to survive. That many people do not recognize their role under colonialism has nothing to do with class. It only has to do with ignorance that is promoted by the colonizers.

    Socialism sees the world in fixed terms: their concept of class is tribal. Critical race and other activist theories challenge the fixed terms of the colonizers by, in part, deconstructing the colonial structures in order to create multiple concepts of intersecting identities that can be utilized in a range of subversive and revolutionary practices.

    "Identity politics" is one very small and often critiqued theoretical perspective that has perhaps served its use at the time it was developed--but is not the end-all of all the academic and activist work that you condemn without knowing enough even to get it right.

    But then your major purpose isn't really acting to change anything--its mostly using "class" as a banner under which to engage in racist and sexist rhetoric against a few people who apparently trumped you so badly that you cannot let it go.

  2. Brave Anonymous, nice try, but even your nouns disagree with you: "labour" does not exist where people do not labor. "Tribal" is mutable, not fixed: people can be adopted into tribes (something ignorant identitarians get upset about--see antiracists hating "Dances With Wolves" who apparently don't know about the many white people who joined American Indian tribes.

    Can you name any colonized people who don't know they've been colonized? Or is that more rhetoric?

    As for my sexist racism, *shrug*. Argue with the feminist sf wiki or Ellen Kushner or any of the people who have praised my work because it's not sexist or racist.

    I'm actually grateful to the identitarians who mobbed me, just as I'm grateful that I fell deeply into debt: otherwise, I never would've studied socialism or identity theory.

  3. Evildoer's response to my comment at Leninology, complaining that I'd only offered a slogan and should read Judith Butler and Malcolm X, inspired this reply:

    To identitarians, disagreement may look like slogans. When you mention "the criticism of identity politics often leads to the fetish of a white, male, Christian, heteronormative, working class in the core imperial countries", I hear unsupported rhetoric.

    Haven't read Judith Butler. Wikipedia says she's a white person who has spent her life as an academic at ruling class schools. I might like her writing or I might not.

    I've read a great deal of Malcolm X. He rejected identitarianism in the last year of his life. That's much of the reason I love him. A few quotes:

    "We must approach the problem as humans first, and whatever else we are second."

    "I believe in recognizing every human being as a human being, neither white, black, brown nor red. When you are dealing with humanity as one family, there's no question of integration or intermarriage. It's just one human being marrying another human being, or one human being living around and with another human being."

    Regarding the "little blonde co-ed" incident, he later said, "Well, I've lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument. . . . I guess a man's entitled to make a fool of himself if he's ready to pay the cost. It cost me twelve years."

    And two days before he was killed: "It is a time for martyrs now, and if I am to be one, it will be for the cause of brotherhood. That's the only thing that can save this country."