For a better way than identity politics

Published online 13 August 2015.

First some concepts:

Identity politics is the idea that we can start from concepts of personal identity (known to the sociologists within us as social position) — I am rich, poor, white, Black, male, female, cishetero, LGBTQ and so on — and hold these concepts as the starting-point for a politics.

Politics is the idea that society operates through the exercise of power — a “political order” — and that this political order can have a number of dimensions — economic, associative, family and so on, based on the relationships between people — but its primary order is based on the state, which colonizes the land upon which people live.  Bob Jessop has a good definition of the state:

All forms of state rest upon the territorialization of state power.  The three key features of statehood are state territory, a state apparatus, and a state population.

The state, then, is an attempt by a power elite to impose power on a chunk of land.  As we live on the land, then, the state can be seen as a means of oppression as well as a means of “fixing the situation.”Privilege: insofar as identity politics is political, it’s about social position — that what makes being Black or white important (for instance) is the social position granted to specific groups.  Social position, however, is described in identity politics discourse as micro-level privilege.  Some people have privileges; others don’t.  White people have privileges that Black people don’t have, for instance.  Some of these privileges ought to apply to everyone — the privilege of not being accosted by police officers for spurious reasons, for instance.

We might step outside of identity politics to imagine that privileges could be useful in the hands of the wise, who would use them to create a world in which the possession of privilege was socially irrelevant, while at the same time said same privileges would be disaster in the hands of fools, who would work to make the problem of privilege worse.

But “privilege” as described in the above paragraph would be a political understanding of privilege, whereas the identity politics use of privilege is as a tool for shaming, to copy the shaming visited (so unfortunately) upon those who are denied meaningfully necessary privileges by political and social systems.  The comparison of identities under the conditions set by identity politics is not really going to produce very much solidarity in interactions between people of different “privilege” groups.  Maybe there are a few people (Tim Wise comes to mind) who think otherwise.

There are, then, points at which identity politics does not produce an organized politics at all, instead using political realities to reinforce division.  I speak from my identitarian perspective, you speak from yours, and the conversation goes nowhere.  Isn’t that really what happened in Seattle?

Social imaginary: the social imaginary is that part of society which is not represented by material objects, and which must be continually “imagined” (usually in repetitive, conformist fashion) by society’s members for it to exist at all.  Take for instance, the concept of law.  Law exists as courthouses, courts, police, lawyers, jails, prisons, legislators, and other such material objects.  But law also exists as interpretation — individuals make decisions about what counts as “breaking the law,” what counts as “legal remedy,” and so on.  It’s this part of law that is the social imaginary of law.

The social imaginary of identity politics begins, as suggested above, with the identities — the social positions — of the political participants.  The main mistake of the advocates of identity politics is to think that anything can be gained in terms of collective, trans-identity solidarity from starting from one’s social position under the conditions of identity politics.  If my “identity” — my social position — is different from yours, I don’t necessarily regard your identity as being of any consequence to me at all.  See, what matters to me (under the social imaginary of identity politics) is MY identity, not yours.

Moreover, telling me that “you don’t know what it’s like to be a _” is of no importance to me; even if I tried to understand what it’s like to be a ___, I would be doing it from MY identity perspective, NOT yours.

Liberal guilt: The proponents of identity politics are then obliged to fall back on those presumed aspects of identity which contain some kernel of solidarity within them.  What comes out, in this time and place at least, are appeals to liberal guilt, which only go so far.  Guilt isn’t much of a motivator; as Richard Seymour points out in reference to the disruption of the Social Security event in Seattle, “hardly anyone responds well to being attacked.”

Identity politics as an appeal to liberal guilt sees its just desserts in this piece:

The Dead End of Identity Politics.

The critique of identity politics discussed in this post is worth examination — especially those aspects of identity politics expression (Author “Douglas” elaborates one of them — you can read the link to see it) which fall under the heading of “there is nothing in this critique that one can use to organize or build community around; rather it is simply one more scold in an atmosphere full of them.”  The conclusion is also worth understanding:

But for the rest of us who reside in a reality-based world, where every social interaction is not tailored for your idiosyncratic indignations, we know that casting folks out for the tiniest of offenses will lead to a Left that will forever be marginalized and ineffective.

If it leads to any Left at all.  Also this excellent piece from Orchestrated Pulse reveals the ineffectiveness of the identity politics approach:

My Skinfolk Ain’t All Kinfolk: The Left’s Problem With Identity Politics

R.L. Stephens argues:

After having gathered to oppose organized White supremacy at the University of North Carolina, a group of organizers in Durham, North Carolina found that the Left’s emphasis on personal identity and allyship was a major reason why their efforts collapsed. They proposed that we adopt the practice of forming alliances rather than identifying allies.

Stephens’ suggestion of an alternative to a politics based on “personal identity and allyship” is elaborated in the quote below:

In an alliance, the two parties support each other while maintaining their own self-determination and autonomy, and are bound together not by the relationship of leader and follower but by a shared goal.

Stephens further suggests:

Since we know that oppression is systemic and multidimensional, then I’m going to have to step outside of personal experience and begin to develop political ideals and practices that actually antagonize those systems.

I don’t mean to be a bit of a scold, here, but what Stephens actually has to “step outside of” is social position — personal experience involves some sort of nascent ability in each human being to be a sociologist and thus to step outside of social position to be able to see what in society needs to be changed and how it can be done.  We’re human beings — we’re smart — we can figure it out.


Utopian dreaming is the idea that we can articulate a politics from a starting-point of dreaming about what sort of world we really want to see, rather than beginning from our social positions within a world in which we don’t really want to live.


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