The Paradox of Identity Politics

Photo by Shardayyy | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Shardayyy | CC BY 2.0


A recent piece on Voices of the Revolution, ’The Siren Song of Identity Politics,’ properly attempts a critique of liberal identity politics, but rather than effectively addressing the issue, veers disastrously towards the basic operating assumptions of white supremacists. This is a shame; the question is a very important one. The Democratic Party has yet, after all, to properly account for the inability of their candidate to beat a troglodyte like Donald Trump.

Given the horror show that Trump’s ascendency to the Presidency has very quickly become, it would seem incumbent to prevent further repeats of same. This is truer again when we consider that his win was less a popular endorsement of his campaign than a loss for the Democrats, who banked — mistakenly as it turns out — on identity politics to get Clinton across the line.

In fact, fifty-three percent of white women voters in disagreed that Clinton’s gender was her main selling point, or more surprisingly that Trump’s ‘grab ‘em by the pussy’ misogyny and ringing endorsement of sexual assault wasn’t enough for him to be roundly rejected. If the possibility of having the first woman president or the markedly sociopathic tendencies of the successful candidate weren’t enough to decide the election, then a rethink is well nigh.

In the name of such, Frank Doyle argues that basic problem with modern liberalism lies in a paradox apparent in the dynamics between the “Black Lives Matter” movement and the “counter-cry,” ‘All Lives Matter.” This paradox, he claims, derives from the fact that ‘cultural attention is a zero-sum game, and that since ‘the news can only push so many stories,’ and ‘the public only has so much time to think about societal problems,’ the necessary result is that, ‘For one group to get more attention, another must get less.’

The upshot of this, says Doyle, is the resentment from whites that forms the basis of the “All Lives Matter” movement. ‘Why,’ he asks, ‘should a single demographic receive such focus when there are problems that affect everyone?’ While the government ‘must triage these problems,’ the fact appears to be that ‘no course of action here would do justice to all those involved.’

This being the case, he continues, we should focus not on who are affected by these issues, since this is ‘inherently divisive and a demonstrably losing proposition for the Democratic Party,’ but instead of turning ‘criminal justice reform into a “black people problem,”’ and ‘Midwestern job loss to automation and outsourcing into a “white people problem,” should rather ‘bring the focus back to the issues themselves.’

Progressives must return the public focus to the universal validity of progressive policies and principles, not to the inherently divisive issue of who gets the most out of them. We should prioritize based on the significance of the ideal in its own right, not on the count or demographic of those it affects . . . We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of this election. We cannot afford to alienate a massive demographic due to divisive rhetoric a second time.

This is a very odd stance to take towards the causes of Clinton’s election loss. Why does Doyle choose to focus on Black Lives Matter of all things, and not for example the close and long-standing ties between the Democratic candidate and Wall St? Trump rightly criticized Clinton for her ties to Wall St and was in fact able to capitalize heavily off it — his own egregious hypocrisy on that count notwithstanding.

Why for that matter did he not mention Clinton’s hawkish foreign policy record during the Obama years, which was nothing if not amenable to privileged elites — the fossil fuel and armament industries in particular? As Gary Leupp points out,

The “surge” in Afghanistan; the winding down of the Iraq occupation; the huge increase in drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan, killing hundreds of civilians and terrorizing whole regions; the total failure of the Obama administration to end U.S. client state Israel’s illegal settlements on the West Bank and indeed a general deterioration in high-level U.S.-Israeli relations; various U.S. interventions during the “Arab Spring;” the U.S./NATO assault on Libya that destroyed that modern state, etc.? Hillary was a key player in all these events. It’s all in her record, for all to see.

One might content that it was this record, one that made her indistinguishable from Bush-era neoconservatives — many of whom tellingly supported her candidature — that, coupled with her close ties to Wall St., accounts for her loss. Indeed, and as noted, fifty-three percent of white female votes agreed, voting for the short-fingered vulgarian.

Where Black Lives Matter fits into these issues is hard to gather; if anything, the problematizing of this movement as ‘divisive’ echoes the kinds of sentiments we can find at places like Breitbart, which insists that ‘nobody is claiming that black lives DON’T matter!’ (though they are, by silencing black voices with victim blaming, in the manner that Breitbart writers for one like to carry on with as a matter of course) and that, contrary to ‘garish example of Identity Politics run amuck,’ there ‘simply isn’t a pro-death, pro-murdering, or pro-killing black people movement anywhere on the political landscape’ (though there is, and they’re called the police). Factual objections are for the moment beside the point; what is the point are the features common to both arguments.

In the case of racisms perpetrated by websites like Breitbart, for example, the problematizing of Black Lives Matter serves to blame minorities for wanting to be visible; trying to approach police violence as ‘an issue that affects everybody’ in the name of not succumbing to the shortcomings of identity politics is to neglect the fact (1) that extra-judicial killings occur disproportionately against nonwhites, and (2) the color line upon which class hierarchies have been constructed historically — a fact that tends to be true incidentally anywhere around the world where Europeans have set foot. To look to whitewash history in the name of electoral success is to blame Black Lives Matter for acknowledging that racial divisions exist by labelling them as ‘divisive’ for speaking up, and thus to try to oppose racism by adopting it.

Not only is this not an effective strategy for people who identify as progressive over the longer term, it also fails to address the problem of identity politics and the part it plays in the failures of the left to form an effective counter-power to Trump’s feral corporatism. Perhaps even more paradoxically, it tend to invoke the kinds of actually-existing identity politics that are a characteristic feature of white supremacism; it is the crowning heights of hypocrisy for racists and white supremacists to carry on about the perils of identity politics when it comes to acknowledging various forms of social and economic privilege, and to then base an entire ideology — indeed, their entire identity — on their status as whites.

In fact, a truly bizarre and arguably telling feature of identity politics as it appears on the left are the shared commonalities in terms of basic assumptions and subjective dynamics with identity politics as a feature of white supremacism. In white supremacism, white identity is the starting point for assumptions of relative merit — the opinions and beliefs of whites are of inherently greater value simply because of their identity. Furthermore, they don’t need facts or proofs to support their ideological claims because their identity is their argument, one that conveniently enough requires no further evidencing or substantiation.

Thanks to these facets of white supremacist identity politics, is no more possible to demand supporting evidence from white supremacists than it is to express doubt in, contradict, question or challenge their guiding assumptions without being identified with the enemy. In this sense of course, white supremacism is probably one of the least demanding ideologies on the planet, requiring nothing more than our circumstances of birth (which those of us who are white clearly had no say in) to justify feelings of worth and merit that again as a characteristic feature require no investment in terms of time, energy or effort to earn.

Identity politics on the left operate much the same way. Actual political arguments will acknowledge the intersectional relationship between various hierarchies of privilege-based injustice and oppression, noting at the root of these a predatory and generally sociopathic gaze that sees workers, women, the flora and fauna and even the Earth itself as simple objects who exist solely to be used and abused as the predator sees fit and whose sole value resides in their exploitability for profit. Identity politics invoked in the name of such arguments suggests that, because I belong to one of the categories objectified and targeted for exploitation, that I have the right to invoke the same kinds of attitudes and relations that oppress me for the sake of stealing a few crumbs from the table of coercion.

Such attitudes are patently visible in such areas as the Leninist strategy of vanguardism, which as a matter of definition tries to resolve ideological controversies and other disagreements by asserting a particular kind of identity — in this instance, that of the working class, or of those who appoint themselves to speak in their name at least. I represent the working class, says Leninist vanguardism, therefore as a matter of definition you can’t contradict me without being against the working class.

This attitude, the one based on the logic that says ‘if you think for yourself the enemies of the working class win,’ is no different from the point of view of its blame-shifting and victim-blaming mechanics than the attitude of white supremacists that, ‘if you think for yourself, the enemies of the white race win.’ While the purported evil is different — each of these positions ironically enough referring in fact to the other — they are otherwise perfectly alike. More to the point, they serve the same function, which is to compel obedience to the ideological dictates of the particular form of identity politics (and, naturally, the person invoking them). If you don’t shut your mouth and do as you’re told, you’re evil.

Historical examples illustrate this dynamic well enough. In 1934 the head of the Leningrad Soviet, Sergei Kirov, was assassinated in Moscow by what historians tend to agree were likely agents of the GPU, the state secret police and forerunners of the KGB. Stalin immediately set on this highly convenient assassination of his closest political rival and used it as the basis for a panic driven by the state media about a ‘fifth column’ of counter-revolutionary, reactionary Trotskyist terrorists who were trying to overthrow the glorious socialist utopia he had bequeathed to the Russian people and restore Tsarism and capitalism.

This was of course a complete myth, but one that Stalin used as the basis for a campaign of terror within the Russian Communist Party we remember as the Great Purge, culminating in the inquisitorial circus of the Moscow Show Trials two years later. It was also one he used to cement his identity as the great leader of communism, on the basis of a quite explicit policy of conflating opposition to his tyranny with attacks on notions of social justice per se.

In a further twist of irony, the great Stalinist bugbear Leon Trotsky invoked the same policy in crushing the revolt of Kronstadt sailors against burgeoning totalitarianism of the kind that lead eventually to Stalinism in 1921, smearing them as agents of the Tsar to reassert his own identity as a prominent member of the legitimate vanguard of the working class — even as he was shooting them ‘like partridges,’ as he phrased it at the time. This assertion of identity politics was again based on the assumption that criticism of policy and attacks on person were one and the same, and performed the same blame-shifting function.

Social democracy (and capitalist democracy more generally) does of course not tolerate quite so openly totalitarian behavior, though it likewise insists on an identity that must be obeyed irrespective of the facts. Despite having succumbed almost entirely to the autocratic and absolutist strains of neoliberalism, tested in the social laboratory of Pinochet’s Chile under conditions of US-backed state terrorism, defenders of politics as usual within the context of a two-party corporate duopoly often tend reflexively to defend the process — appealing to anything up to and including the idea that having progressive politics is ‘divisive’ and must be played down to ensure the triumph of progressive politics.

It would appear then that the authoritarian strains within the left are responsible for its proclivity for identity politics, being part of its generally unprocessed historical baggage, and give rise to its propensity to reproduce the conditions those who identify as left claim to oppose. It gives people on the left an all-too-alluring way to dispense with the onerous task of actually having to argue their politics with the unenlightened masses, who not entirely without fault see them as arrogant elitists who have better things to do than deal in facts with the uneducated.

In reducing the actual effectiveness of the left in turning it into the haughty distain for the masses it claims to be against, identity politics on the left encourages a ghettoizing effect, which in turn feeds further contempt for the masses in the generally destructive manner of a feedback loop. The negativity of this feedback loop in turn engenders a permanent attitude of antagonism generally, which encourages in turn the ‘Oppression Olympics’ routine, or that associated with the will to compete to be the most victimised and oppressed — not because doing actually does anything whatsoever to help in terms of overcoming victimisation and oppression, but because of the kudos to be gained within marginalized and ghettoized activists scenes where meaningful action is difficult at the best of times, and which the left makes more difficult for itself by virtue of its own general dysfunctionality. It is hardly a recipe for unity or constructive internal dialogue — a fact that appears to be borne out by the rampant, nay characteristic fracturing of the left very broadly, much less to say not a small part of the atrocious and incredibly selfish and destructive behavior that some carry on with.

At this stage, the dysfunctionality borne of identity politics within the left seems to reach its zenith. Without hope of meaningful change, the primary source of value for anyone attaching themselves to activist politics is for the kudos and social brownie points to be gained from being politically ‘right on,’ even if the work of activism itself is little more than alienated roles of permanent protest or the even drearier and alienated work of trying to convince the voting public to believe in the system as it fails them for consecutive decades on end. In this context, the level of victimization we experience becomes the source of our status within progressive political scenes, at which point it becomes incumbent to ensure that it exists permanently. Without being an exploited and oppressed worker, for example, we’re all just, you know, exploited and oppressed.

As against everything described above, is the possibility for those of us of the left to engage constructively with each other and with the people around us. If means determine outcomes, as they do, then it should come a little surprised that the means that much of the left employs tends to result in the reproduction of much or all of what it professes to oppose. The continuing failure of the left to meet the offensive from the right, now manifest in the electoral triumph of the short-fingered vulgarian as well as the rise and rise of former marginal figures such as Marine Le Pen in France, is in no small part a failure to reflect on and treat its own history critically. It is also a failure to understand the opposition, which is reflected in the unwillingness of many on the left either to study the right or to engage with them, even if they are generally smug, arrogant, hateful, ignorant, toxic, obnoxious and generally unpleasant. But then again, all too often, so are we.

Ben Debney is the author of The Oldest Trick in the Book: Panic-Driven Scapegoating in History and Recurring Patterns of Persecution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).