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Fr. 524

June 13, 2014

As with any approach to politics, one centering on the question of individual and identity carries with it considerable risks, some of which we have outlined elsewhere. Another has recently come to our attention via an article at Jacobin Magazine. Therein, the author, Sam Gindin, surveys some difficulties facing the contemporary socialist organizer and lays out several ways of confronting these difficulties. No. 7 concerns the way in which the question of identity has displaced that of class in the struggle against oppression.

“The making of the working class is inseparable from the historical interaction of race, gender, ethnicity, and class. The working class in the concrete always includes multiple differences and identities. But left politics has, unfortunately, often been destructively polarized in terms of identity versus class. Identity politics emerged in the 1970s, in part out of the failures of the Left to speak to and integrate specific oppressions into class politics (those of women and African Americans in particular). That this paralleled the rise of neoliberalism was no coincidence in that neoliberalism was made possible by the more general weakness of unions and the left. But while identity politics often added to and strengthened working-class politics, it also included a dangerous tendency to push the salience of class aside.”

The prevalence of identity over class has reduced the organizers’ efficacy in terms of broader progressive reforms. More specifically, this owes to the way in which identity distinguishes or particularizes citizens as opposed to bringing them together in virtue (or in spite) of their diverse backgrounds and upbringings. The result of cataloguing species of identity with an eye to organizing proves the splintering of society (or at least the working class) into isolated interest groups. Moreover, their isolated nature precludes their coming together into a broader movement.

“It was bitterly ironic that at the very moment the state mounted a comprehensive attack on working-class power, identity politics was parsing the working class into ever more fragmented subgroups. Though identities obviously matter very much, they cannot combine into a new politics because their essence is their separateness. Something else is needed to bring them together in a broader, more integrated, and more coherent politics, something beyond the particularistic concerns of both identities and unions. That ‘something’ is class.”

In a way, the approach that we have expounded up to this point would seem to exacerbate precisely this tendency within the public sphere and political society insofar as it calls for an articulation of identity prior and pursuant to the resolution of a matter of political debate or controversy. Pursued to the exclusion of other strategies, an identity-centered approach risks the dissolution of a wider political bond between citizens who would seek sweeping changes and reforms. This dissolution is all the more risky in view of the fact that this bond, in the form of solidarity, civility or civic friendship, cannot be enforced by codified policies or law. In short, an exclusively identity-based perspective runs the distinct risk of undermining itself by eliminating its own conditions of possibility in the form of a civility between citizens that allows them to broach issues candidly.

Gindin’s solution consists in subordinating the issue of identity to that of class. Yet it should be remarked that this subordination does not aim to eclipse or occlude the issue of identity. Rather it seeks to bring the various interests which underlie and prompt organization on the basis of identity in line with the more general interests for which organizers of all stripes agitate. More precisely, to effect meaningful change it is perhaps more effective to single out the objective economic conditions at the root of oppression, and organizers might more naturally approach this under the lens of “class”. The author gives an concrete example from the work of Walter Benn Michaels:

As a factual matter, the insecurity that, say, African-Americans confront is much higher than that of whites whether the measure is income, wealth, education, or access to health care. This fact can be used to mobilize African-Americans as a particularly oppressed group, but that tactic also risks limiting the problem politically to the roughly 10 percent of the US population that is African-American. Such a tactical focus is, at best, likely to create only limited reform or lead to affirmative action gains that benefit only the subset of the black population best prepared to ‘win’ in the marketplace. The alternative is to define racially coded inequality as part of a more general class inequality and mobilize the class as a whole around universal single-payer health care, free quality education, jobs with living wages, and liveable public pensions. Only the latter approach would seem to hold out the potential to build political capacity for substantive reform and such reforms would, given the nature of existing inequalities, disproportionately support the African-American working class.

By addressing far-reaching, objective economic conditions, the socialist organizing along the lines of class might attain a wider coalition or consensus, which in turn allows for more thoroughgoing reforms. Certainly, there are situations in which this coalition-based approach is to be greatly preferred to the piecemeal method at work in the articulation and transformation of identity, given its limitation to the interpersonal and local. Such a coalition would prove more workable and less unwieldy as we are concerned with more and more far-reaching consequences and swathes of society.

This concern lies at the heart of Gindin’s subordination of identity to class to which he lends more visible shape in the last paragraph of no. 7.

The challenge of class politics is how to bring differences together in ways that generate full respect and equality within the class — from pay equity and fighting workplace discrimination to reproductive rights, socializing family burdens like childcare, and establishing equal status for immigrants — so as to address the larger questions of full equality within society. It is in that sense that class trumps, without underplaying, issues of identity.

Clearly, for Gindin, the challenge is first to establish a working relationship and solidarity between the differences at the heart of identity-based approach with the aim of securing the conditions for more basic forms of equality within that class. Only then can wider questions of quality in society at large be brought to the fore. What is striking in this perspective is the extent to which it confirms conclusions that we have drawn elsewhere. An approach to self and society solely on the basis of identity or individual is flawed one. Although identity offers a certain measure of adjustment or rectification in case of dispute, it can also undermine the social bonds grounding the public sphere when taken to an extreme.

Hence the need for what we have elsewhere identified as “subject” as opposed to “individual”. Whereas individual hews more closely to what Gindin has above presented as identity, the juridical or legal relations implicit in the subject call for a broader consensus and solidarity amongst the different parties comprising society. If we have not previously elaborated this on the basis of “class”, it remains nonetheless possible to see certain common threads between class and subject, particularly in the securing of basic conditions for fulfilled life.

In the end, Gindin confirms what we have upheld in other places: that both class (“subject”) and identity (“individual”) are necessary when organizing a broader coalition on basic human fulfilments. If we perhaps disagree in the details as regards terminology (notably, class) and priority (for Gindin, class trumps identity; for us, these two seem reciprocal), the areas of agreement are enough to show that one path cannot be pursued to the exclusion of the other.

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