In Defence of Identity Politics

wallfascistIdentity politics is under attack, and in some quarters the theory underpinning it is being blamed for the rise of the Right. But as we move from a period of global-casino capitalism to a period of patriotic capitalism – and in some places, fascism – it is more important than ever to discuss the systems of control that unite and divide oppressed groups. We must also acknowledge that in recent decades a purely class based politics has not created the conditions to defeat fascism nor properly to defend its targets.

This is my attempt, amidst increasingly defensive discussions on the Scottish Left, to lay out what I think intersectionality and identity politics are about, and how I think they matter. It is mainly an attempt to explain it to myself.

Here are three examples of systemic violence and control. They are not the only ones – they exclude for instance transphobia, homophobia and xenophobia – but they are three big ones that I will use as an example. All three produce a similar divide:

  • Capitalism produces oppression and privilege
  • Racism produces oppression and privilege
  • Patriarchy produces oppression and privilege

These three types of control are based on the identities of the people they divide. All three relate to and support each other and in our current society they are intrinsically interconnected. But they are not inherently dependent on each other for their existence.

We could live in a capitalist society that was not sexist

There have existed sexist and racist societies that were, to some degree, socialist or proto-socialist.

But in our society all three of these systems operate together to preserve the wealth and comfort of the few.

You experience a mix of oppression and privilege relating to these three systems of control. For instance, your experience of class privilege may protect you from some racial oppression, but it will never entirely shield you from it. Similarly, your experience of class oppression may significantly limit your racial privilege, but it does not entirely negate it. Conversely you may find yourself rarely spoken over or ignored, because you are a white male with an accent that signifies a middle class upbringing.

Intersectionality and identity politics are ways of understanding each other’s oppressions and privileges and fighting these systems of control together. The entire working class experiences oppression under capitalism. The majority of the working class also experience it under racism and/or patriarchy.

The left’s insistence for more than a century that class struggle was more important than any other oppression and that its destruction would lead to the destruction of these other systems of control alienated a majority of people. It was also a lie. It served to preserve structures of racism and patriarchy within our own movement. If we don’t acknowledge the privileges and oppressions that we enact, then we will not be able to destroy them.

We need to find ways to talk about these overlapping and inter-connected oppressions if we are going to defeat them. There have been recent suggestions in the media that discussions of identity-politics alienate a male white working class and help to lead them to fascism. These claims are at the same time a panicked response by a white, male, left comentariat that feels threatened; and also a serious and legitimate criticism. The language and politics of intersectionality feels alienating and patronising to many. It is too often understood by its detractors as a framework that seems to negate oppressions, rather than one that allows us to better stand together.

Irvine Welsh recently wrote that :‘If I was recruiting for the far right, I’d tell people crushed by neolib[eral] elites for 35 years, that being white & male made them privileged.’

His analysis seems to come from a place of feeling that white men are hurt or excluded by identity politics. He makes it clear that the language of identity politics is not being understood. That sometimes it can be perceived to talk over or speak for oppressed people, rather than help us work towards collective liberation. Whilst there is no equivalency between a white man being challenged on his privilege and a black man experiencing racist discrimination; our failure to communicate is allowing some people to feel that there is. What Welsh is really voicing here is a fear that the defeat of racism and sexism must necessarily hurt white men, must turn them against women and people of colour. What identity politics says instead is that all our liberations are inherently inter-twined, that we cannot achieve freedom separately.

We must not respond to this fear of identity politics by retreating to a macho leftism of the past, but instead we need to become better at discussing intersectionality and identities, and acting on our principles. In our actions and our conversations it can be made clear that intersectionality is no betrayal of any section of the working class: Intersectionality has always been an essential element of solidarity. These ideas were present when white workers in Scotland supported Joseph Knight’s case against slavery in 1778, when people across the country helped Jewish refugees of all classes in the 1930s, or when LGBT people supported the miners in 1984.

There is a place for the discussion of theory on the left. Theory in itself is not a problem. But theory without honest action is useless. Both our enemies and our allies know this.

If we are unable to accept and clearly see the distinct ways in which our diverse communities are oppressed, then we are unable to take part in each other’s liberation. And divided, we will surely lose.

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  1. ericb says:

    some interesting discussion of ‘identity’ on recent reith lectures.

  2. Kevin Williamson says:

    That woman and people of colour have additional layers of exploitation and domination to deal with isn’t really arguable.

    That political progress depends on white males declaring to themselves and the world that they are privileged often seems more like an exercise in pseudo religious confession than a call to political action and practical solidarity.

    Therein lies a problem. Sections of the left seems more concerned with nomenclature, definitions and labels than non-clicktivist action.

    But by all means have a go at sections of the white working class poor until they “check their privilege”. Meantime the forces of reaction, racism & misogyny grow stronger.

    On the other hand it may be the case that an understanding of relative privilege reveals itself and develops through the small acts of everyday solidarity, working with those who suffer greater than yourself, rather than labelling, theoretical lectures or social media pointy-fingered rants.

    1. Jennie says:

      I think you need to read the article again

      1. Kevin Williamson says:

        I read it and most of the ideas behind it I’d agree with too. But at the heart of it, as this quote illustrates, is well-intentioned naivity:

        “What identity politics says instead is that all our liberations are inherently inter-twined, that we cannot achieve freedom separately.”

        It’s not that that’s wrong, it’s pretty much on the button IMO, it’s just that not everyone who champions identity politics goes along with this in practice. It is a (generous) reading of identity politics. I’m sure there are as many versions of say feminism as there are of socialism. And as many clashes between the various factions. Identity politics can be used to unite and splinter the progressive left.

        Critiquing white males from the affluent classes is fair game IMO. They have a sense of entitlement that has access to all the channels of media, power and control. Problems arise when those from more affluent backgrounds start having a go at the privilege of white working class males. No matter how much it may be true in relative terms in the real world it just gets folks backs up when there needs to be more solidarity between everyone suffering at the hands of capitalism, patriarchy, and all the other hierarchies in society.

        1. Jo says:

          @ Kevin

          I liked your posts Kevin.

          As a female I very often find myself getting really angry at the radical feminists and their own sense of entitlement to be honest. While it is right to combat sexism it is also pretty awful to be seeing some of the radicals behaving as some men used to in almost demanding supremacy rather than equality. That gets backs up including the backs of many women.

          This might be off-topic but observing from the sidelines made me think very differently about some of the “moderate” female Labour MPs when the coup to bring down Corbyn was underway. In the centre of it all, waging the most vicious and underhand tactcs against Corbyn were Labour women MPs, playing out absurd scenarios, all live on BBC news, crying at will about “bullying” and insisting “I have no choice, I can’t take any more, I had to resign from the cabinet.” and looking so unconvincing it was cringe-worthy. These women, part of Labour which was, allegedly, the Party that most identified with gaining rights for all, were clearly willing to do just about anything to bring down their leader and even destroy their Party. One declared aggressively, “I won’t stab you in the back, I’ll stab you in the front!”

          Despite all these public outpourings, when people got angry, they ran to the media declaring that they were being threatened and bullied and that it was because they were women and now they were so afraid. We had phoney “mobs” set up outside one constituency office, an MP declaring she had to leave the Commons urgently because her office was “under attack”! (It was later established this was not true.) We had another claiming her office window had been put in. It wasn’t. A window of a stairwell in the building where her office is located was smashed. There was no evidence her office itself was the target. Another claimed her office at Westminster had been broken into. It wasn’t. She’d resigned her Shadow Cabinet post and so the Labour Party had the right to access the office she had once used in that post. An investigation by the speaker established there had been no break-in yet that woman MP had gone on to the BBC to make untrue claims about the break-in in order to smear Corbyn. As all these claims emerged the culprit was said to be Corbyn. That Corbyn must apologise for these acts. When Corbyn said he was not in any way involved and condemned bad behaviour they said that wasn’t good enough, it was still all his fault and he had to “do something”. The something they wanted, of course, was for him to resign and stand down from the leadership contest, the same one he’d won the year before. The lengths these women were willing to go in order to discredit their own leader and weaken their own Party as the official opposition shocked many. And the double dealing continues within Labour. Many of them, like Harman, Beckett, Cooper, Phillips, Malhotra are fond of declaring themselves “feminists”. Yet their actions against their own leader left many ordinary women out here feeling utterly ashamed of the lot of them.

          These same women, these bullied women, had nothing to say about Owen Smith’s wish to “smash Theresa May back on her heels!”

          Throughout my working life and as a member of a TU during that time I worked with colleagues at all times from all groups whether female, male, white, black or whatever. I didn’t do labels. For me that old adage, “Unity is strength”, still applies in life no matter which Party or ordinary group you’re talking about. Labels create divisions and lead to some groups thinking they are more entitled than others to be the priority. I can’t be doing with it. We have so much PC rubbish now and so many labels no wonder so many people just can’t be bothered.

          1. Louise Michel says:

            Jo,

            Your picture of the ridiculous Labour in-fighting and attempts to bring down Corbyn seems accurate. However, I think it also exposes one of the problems Henry Bell is addressing – none of these centrist women are in any sense radical feminists. They have modified the aims of feminism to fit their own (Blairite) agendas. Let’s not forget that the 8th of March started off not as ‘International Women’s Day’ but ‘International Working Women’s Day’. It’s such watering-down of radical movements and their intents that leads to nonsense like the idea the Margaret Thatcher was a feminist. The problem with identity politics is that is has been adapted by capitalism to fit into the bogus idea of meritocracy: the idea that having more women and black people in the boardroom solves sexism and racism. In fact the idea that the success of an individual is a measure of equality is wrong and highly damaging. Identity politics cannot be divorced from the class politics it is part of and grew from.

            Henry Bell gives a few examples of ‘intersectionality’ in his closing paragraph. In fact intersectionality goes much deeper than that. Most great working-class movements have been pluralistic, accepting of the different needs of subsections among them and hence of the value of their identities. This is true of the anarchist and socialist movements and revolutions of the nineteenth century; of the Russian revolution and its Marxist inspiration, which initially valued reconfiguring gender relations as much as class relations; through the 20th Century, where the European would-be revolutions of the 1960s were inspired and abetted by anti-colonial revolutions and right up to present times, where we have seen Christians in Tahrir square protecting praying Muslims and vice-versa.

            These trends tend to be obscure by states – notably in Russia where the Stalinist authorities quickly reverted to relatively conservative social attitudes – and by history. It is really important to remember that the white male working class is also oppressed by patriarchy, both directly in the pressure to conform to social roles and in a secondary sense, by virtue of the fact that rich white males manipulate sexism (and racism) to consolidate their power, which includes power over poor white males. Identity politics are not an add-on to class politics, they are inseparable from them. The anarchist idea of the ‘affinity group’ is useful here – a group of people within the class struggle who can work together in effective ways because of a shared affinity, which could be a particular experience of identity-based oppression. Rather than this group having privileged status, it has particular insights which can help target and plan against sources of oppression.

            Solidarity means an injury to one is an injury to all. Yes, let’s reject identity politics when they are to liberation what Tony Blair is to socialism. But if we don’t embrace their real potential, the class struggle will never succeed.

  3. Crubag says:

    I don’t think its a new thing that smaller groups respond to electoral failure by deciding that their analysis and message weren’t pure enough, and if only they get those right the rest will follow.

    The great strength of the Tories was to agree to differ, and when they got stuck in an ideological cul de sac as under Howard they suffered.

    It is curious to see a successful FPTP broad church party like Labour start to purify itself.

  4. Birdperson says:

    “intersectionality is no betrayal of any section of the working class: Intersectionality has always been an essential element of solidarity. These ideas were present when white workers in Scotland supported Joseph Knight’s case against slavery in 1778, when people across the country helped Jewish refugees of all classes in the 1930s, or when LGBT people supported the miners in 1984.” Is there more recent examples if this? Genuinely interested. It seems that there has been huge rise on intersectionality in recent years that make these examples outdated and much less relatable.

    1. Nightman says:

      Palestinians via Skype helping BLM protesters in Fergusson to deal with ‘crowd dispersal’ techniques. Veterans going to help at the NODAPL standoff. The LGBT Unity group in Glasgow. Are three examples that spring to mind.

      1. Birdperson says:

        Those examples are not specific to white working class people which is the issue I quoted.

  5. Frank says:

    For me, socialists and traditional leftists emphasised class on the grounds that the working class was identified by Marx as the historical agent of socialism. Yet, the working class failed to live up to it’s ‘historical role’ and Marx turned out to spectacularly wrong. In this context many leftists turned to ‘identity politics’ in search for another agent of social transformation. Yet, the problem with identity politics (from a transformative perspective), is that the rights agenda of feminists, anti racists and LGBT campaigners can be absorbed by neoliberalisation. From this perspective, most of the major advances for minority groups have been achieved under neoliberal conditions something which is completely unacknowledged by activist left.

    1. Louise Michel says:

      Frank, part of the problem here is that the neoliberal agenda dominates the media. Yes, it’s true that gay rights have advanced under advanced capitalism in a way that could never have happened in Nazi Germany. But the problem is that the mainstream perception is that this happened ‘naturally’ due to the virtues of the ‘equality of opportunity’ dogma. The reality is that queer people fought and died for their right to exist before, during and after the Stonewall riots, just as the eight-hour working day was not a natural development of capitalist working conditions but a concession granted by employers after decades if not centuries of struggle. While you are right that identity politics can be absorbed by neoliberalisation, as indeed class struggle can be (think about punk chic, Che Guevara posters and the idea that May 1968 was a student fling rather than a general strike of 9 million people) they have not been transcended. Class war is alive and well.

      1. Frank says:

        I’m not convinced by the gay people ‘fought and died’ narrative. Yes, gay people fought for equal rights, I’m not denying that: however, generally speaking transformational change happened in the West without revolution or violence. For example, I’m not aware of gay people ‘dying’ in large numbers for equal rights in any advanced capitalist or neoliberal economy. My wider point is that the age of revolution has passed and that neoliberalisation has ushered in a new era of the individual which has included amongst other things new rights for LGBT and other previously ‘oppressed’ peoples.

    2. Pilrig says:

      Such as the Race Relations Act and decriminalisation of homosexuality ? Those like the permissive society took place during the second Wilson government. He was a neoliberal ?

      1. Louise Michel says:

        Pilrig not sure if that was addressed to me, but if you like we can scratch neoliberal from this debate and replace it with ‘advanced capitalism’.

        1. Frank says:

          Good point. The term neoliberalism is not that helpful if I’m being honest and is often the subject of some really careless usage. I read somewhere that the first wave of neoliberals who met at Mont Pelerin in the 1940s used the terms positive liberalism and economic liberalism and even left wing liberalism. Advanced capitalism is good however and addresses the earlier point about Wilson.

          1. Louise Michel says:

            Thanks Frank, care over usage is important. Not convinced that the ‘age of revolutions’ is over – revolutions have been a part of human history since just after the invention of farming. Gay people have died just for trying to exist for a long time. As for fighting, this is a good place to start:

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stonewall_riots

            I don’t think it’s so much that the modern era has ‘ushered in’ LGBT rights and other gains so much as incorporating and manipulating them as a means to maintaining other forms of status quo.

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