In Defence of Identity Politics
Identity 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.