There's been several articles posted lately critical of identity politics from a class struggle perspective. This blog addresses some of the pitfalls of the class unity v identity politics debate.
I've been meaning to write something on this for a long time, but I've hesitated as class struggle critiques of identity politics are often clumsy and serve to gloss over very real oppressions and violence. This difficulty is probably why such critiques often open with arguments from identity, such as the opening line of 'Who is Oakland?': "This pamphlet – written collaboratively by a group of people of color, women, and queers." It's testament to the power of identity politics that even critiques of it require an identitarian disclaimer.
Of course, there's lots to be said for arguing from experience. The Oakland pamphlet is excellent, some of my favourite writing lately has been the work accounts on the Recomposition blog, and Liberté Locke's excellent piece went viral not too long ago too. But it often proves tricky to navigate between the politics of class unity on the one hand and the politics of identity on the other. So this blog is going to briefly focus on 4 sets of problems:
- The problems with identity politcs
- The problems of class unity
- The relationship of identity to action
- Class structure and subjectivity
The problems with identity politcs
This piece argues that "identity politics, as a political force, seeks inclusion into the ruling classes" - that is to say the creation of cross-class identities to demand that our rulers and bosses should reflect the identities of their constituents. This critique is further elaborated in the aforementioned Oakland piece, which argues that such a politics treats identity-based oppression as a matter of indivdual, interpersonal privileges, obscuring its structural elements. And in treating such cross-class identity groups as having shared interests, it proceeds by a politics of representation, with individuals incorporated into social structures speaking for 'the black community', 'the Muslim community' and so on.
In other words, identity-based oppressions are used as the moral claim to representation in and/or recogition by existing power structures, thus strenghtening the very structures that produce them. While there sound like some differences between the US and UK here, there are certainly strong similarities. While in the US activists from the 1960s liberation struggles are now to be found in the corridors of power 'speaking for' those they've left behind, in the UK the development of an insititutionalised multiculturalism has functioned similarly.
Since the struggles of the 1970s, the population has been parcelled up into identity-based, cross-class 'communities' which are then 'represented' by 'community leaders'. The effect of this move is to depoliticise these oppressions and to turn them into constituencies. However the Oakland piece also highlights the problems facing any critique of this liberal, representative politics:
"For too long there has been no alternative to this politics of privilege and cultural recognition, and so rejecting this liberal political framework has become synonymous with a refusal to seriously address racism, sexism, and homophobia in general."
This is a trap class struggle politics often falls into.
The problems of class unity
The basic problem with a politics of class unity is that the class is not united. The proletariat is positively striated in innumerable ways. There are hierarchies of income and social status. Divisions between citizens and shades of migrant through to the undocumented workers. The relatively securely employed through to precarious work and unemployment. There are divisions of language and culture which disrupt the circulation of struggles within workplaces and across borders. There are divisions of social power between roles, with some proles having disciplinary or supervisory functions. Prole-on-prole violence is endemic and structural - just look at the prevailance of intimate violence and rape.
Proles experience racism on a daily basis, from not just the state and police but customers, bosses and workmates... Civil rights are still striated by sexuality; witness the struggles over gay marriage (as much as libertarian communists might not care for the institution of marriage itself). Feminists in the Marxist tradition often draw attention to the division of labour, and particularly the division between production and reproduction, waged and domestic labour. Once reproductive, caring labour is included, women continue to do a significant majority of the world's work, and even when engaged in wage labour still do most of the domestic labour too.
A similar argument was the basis of Errico Malatesta's criticism of the apolitical syndicalism of Pierre Monatte in 1907, when he said that "there are therefore no classes, in the proper sense of the term, because there are no class interests. There exists competition and struggle within the working 'class', just as there does among the bourgeoisie." I would only partly agree with Malatesta (more on that in a moment), but it should be clear that simple appeals to class unity at best gloss over a whole range of hierarchies and divisions and at worst silence voices of less powerful sections of the class or become complicit in their oppression.
The relationship of identity to action
This is an enormous topic I can't do justice to here, so I'll follow a single thread. Take this quote from an old libcom piece:
"This is why we need a revolution. Firstly: of ideas. We need to stop believing in capitalism. We need to start seeing each other as equals and unite as workers, as a class, which has been successfully divided with racism, sexism and all sorts of stupid prejudices for centuries."
Here, we see an example of the problems raised above: the structural oppressions, hierarchies, power relations and violence just discussed is glossed as mere "stupid prejudices". Bad ideas. False consciousness. Identity politics thrives on the failure of class politics to address the lived experiences of the class, a politics of everyday life which speaks only to the everyday lives of a small minority. The criticism of privilege is of course answered with more appeals to unity - 'we're all workers!'. However, privilege theory is critiqued effectively in the Who is Oakland? piece, so I'll focus on the idealism.
The argument is explicit: revolution begins with a change in ideas, with everyone ceasing to believe in capitalism and identifying as proletarians with no country and nothing to lose but their chains. This shift in identity summons into being revolutionary action to overthrow capitalism. Proletarian identity is held to be a prerequisite of proletarian struggle. I would suggest it's the other way around - class identity is a product of shared activity, and in particular the collective power experienced in struggle. Judith Butler writes that:
"The foundationalist reasoning of identity politics tends to assume that an identity must first be in place in order for political interest to be elaborated and, subsequently, political action to be taken. My argument is that there need not be a ‘doer behind the deed,’ but that the ‘doer’ is variably constructed in and through the deed."
While I have differences with Butler's account (which I won't get into here), it does highlight the similarity of argument between a naive class struggle position and identity politics. To resolve this we need to look at what's different about class.
Class structure and subjectivity
Class, I have argued before is best understood as a bipolar social relationship. At one pole, the proletariat, the dispossessed, at the other, capital, whose inhuman, vampire-like logic is exposed so meticulously by Marx. What we don't have here is people, subjects. We are talking simply of social structures and subject positions, i.e. social roles which can be occupied by people. And we also have a spectrum - not everyone is fully proletarianised or fully an agent of capital. It's possible to occupy multiple roles at the same time: a worker who is also a landlord for example.
For this reason and others, this kind of analysis isn't interested in classifying individuals, but in understanding the social field and the antagonisms within it.1 And so there's still no people. It's all stage and no actors. However, it's starting to show us what's different about class. Slavoj Zizek has written of...
"...the fundamental difference between feminist/anti-racist/anti-sexist etc. struggle and class struggle: in the first case, the goal is to translate antagonism into difference ("peaceful" coexistence of sexes, religions, ethnic groups), while the goal of the class struggle is precisely the opposite, i.e., to "aggravate" class difference into class antagonism. So what the series race-gender-class obfuscates is the different logic of the political space in the case of class."
It is precisely this antagonism which is lost from the kind of intersectional analyses which speak of "classism", reducing class to merely 'economic oppresssion'. Class is not an economic category but a social one. Class struggle is the struggle against being reduced to mere human resources and to assert our human needs. This has multpile dimensions. Economic struggles over wages, conditions and poverty are just one element of it. So is the imposition of work, the imposition of motherhood (think struggles over reproductive freedom), struggles against racism, patriarchy etc.
Judith Butler notes that this ubiquitous 'etc' signifies the irreducibility of identity to a pre-existing subject. Rather, she claims that the subject - the "I" (or by extension the "we") who has an identity - is created through the performance of its identity.
It could all get very abstract and academic here, so I'm going to gloss over some pretty huge theoretical issues. But recall Malatesta's claim that classes do not exist "in the proper sense of the term." Here we can employ Marx's distinction between the class-in-itself and the class-for-itself. The class-in-itself can be recast as a subject position: proletarian, dispossessed. All these proletarians necessarily share is their condition - and nothing else, no positive attributes (ages, genders, incomes, social status and so on).
But the actual subjects who make up this class do have such attributes, which contribute to multiple hierarchies, oppressions, divisions and identities, and these subjects are always much more than bare proletarians.2 However, while struggle requires some kind of collective identity, it doesn't need to start from the global proletariat! The 'us' could be as small as the workers in a team or department, the housewives in a street or black workers in one factory... to begin with.
The 'class-for-itself', class 'in the proper sense of the term' can be understood as a collective political subject that comes into existence through struggles. Numerous partial, provisional struggles can forge shared interests and transform identities.3 Think for example how 'middle class students' and striking electricians attempted to come together in London last year, or how in 1960 and 70s Italy feminist movements, student movements and factory-based struggles linked up to seriously threaten capital's rule.
This is not a question of seizing power, but of exercising it - collectively. Through class struggles, proletarian unity moves from a negative, abstract common condition to become a concrete political force against capital. Autonomist Marxism has called this process 'political class recomposition'. Insofar as this force fails to vanquish capital, it undergoes a corresponding process of decomposition as capital reimposes itself on the proletariat, and the fractures, hierarchies and striations of the class in itself return to characterise everyday life and struggles.
It would take a short book to do this argument justice, but hopefully I've sketched an outline of a class politics that neither glossses over identity-based oppressions nor lapses into identity politics itself. 'Workers of the world unite!' is a statement of intent, but that unity must reckon with the multiple hierarchies, striations, divisions and identities in the proletariat.
- 1This kind of bipolar analysis also allows analysis of processes of proletarianisation/embourgeoisement, commodification/decommodification, enclosure/making common, the division of family/market implied by the dominance of wage labour, the role of the state in creating these conditions and preventing them being torn apart, and many other matters besides. But these aren't our concern here.
- 2Where these individual subjects come from is one of the bracketed huge theoretical issues, and raises questions of structuralism vs post-structuralism, materiality and discourse, the meaning of subjectivity and agency... Gulp.
- 3There's nothing automatic about this, which is why radical movements have often actively fostered collective, class identities, which points to the importance of culture and discourse in constructing the shared identities which sustain material struggles. See: Music and the IWW: the creation of a working class counterculture