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Fr. 726

July 17, 2016

Undoubtedly, there is a case to be made for greater inclusion of individual and identity within political discourse as these stand as integral elements of not just political justification but justification more broadly. Yet, without strict definition, greater emphasis on appeals to individual and identity may open the way to greater fragmentation in the body politic by way of identity politics. More precisely, what risk does a grammar of identity run by courting individual and identity?

A (relatively) recent Ben Norton post brought together a number of writings from Adolph Reed, a noted political scientist and race theorist, for whom identity politics represents an offshoot of neoliberalism. As illustration, Norton directs the reader’s attention to an article from last summer. Therein, Reed maintains:

[Identity] politics is not an alternative to class politics; it is a class politics, the politics of the left-wing of neoliberalism. It is the expression and active agency of a political order and moral economy in which capitalist market forces are treated as unassailable nature. An integral element of that moral economy is displacement of the critique of the invidious outcomes produced by capitalist class power onto equally naturalized categories of ascriptive identity that sort us into groups supposedly defined by what we essentially are rather than what we do.

In other words, identity politics, as a coherent political movement, operates within a neoliberal theory of political economy in that it concedes, from the beginning, that market forces belong to and make up the social landscape. More simply, market forces are what they are, and there can be no changing them at a fundamental level. Hence, identity politics can have no other recourse than to demand greater representation of its “naturalized categories of ascriptive identity” within a neoliberal political economy.

Take, by way of example, an audience which clamors for greater representation of a specific ethnicity within a given media. In so doing, that audience grants the justice of the media format and the market conditions which enable it but maintains the injustice of its handling of the categories of ascriptive identity. Yet the market conditions which enable the functioning of the media format are, plausibly, the same conditions underpinning the initial lack of representation and the perceived subsequent injustice. In attacking the lack of representation but not the economic conditions which enable it, identity politics practitioners address the surface-level injustice while leaving the underlying injustice intact.

For this reason, if critique moves, as per Reed’s vision of identity politics, from class to naturalized categories of identity alone, there follows an implicit endorsement of the system in which those categories are operative. Identity politics is then complicit with capitalism. So are this movement’s practitioners by extension.

This point is not, however, a new one, even for Reed. Norton calls attention to this fact in linking the first article to a 2009 essay on “antiracism”. Insofar as Norton sees a certain proximity between antiracism and identity politics, conceived broadly, he allows that Reed’s criticisms count just as much for identity politics as for antiracism. Reed writes:

Antiracism is a favorite concept on the American left these days. Of course, all good sorts want to be against racism, but what does the word mean exactly? The contemporary discourse of “antiracism” [and identity politics overall] is focused much more on taxonomy than politics. It emphasizes the name by which we should call some strains of inequality—whether they should be broadly recognized as evidence of “racism”— over specifying the mechanisms that produce them or even the steps that can be taken to combat them. And, no, neither “overcoming racism” nor “rejecting whiteness” qualifies as such a step any more than does waiting for the “revolution” or urging God’s heavenly intervention.

This passage does considerable work in drawing out the conclusions that follows when we accept “naturalized categories of ascriptive identity that sort us into groups supposedly defined by what we essentially are rather than what we do”. By turning our attention to questions of taxonomy rather than organizing, emphasis shifts from the conditions enabling a perceived aggression to the precision of the name which we affix to that aggression. Put somewhat differently, it is more important for others to take notice of the manner in which their actions ruffle the individual’s sense of identity and, thus, to acknowledge their prejudices, than to organize politically to take on the economic conditions which give rise thereto.

Therefore, at its most basic, identity politics consists in a catalyst to individual attention but lacks the resources necessary to articulate a vision for broad-based political organizing. In deflecting attention from social conditions to individual experience, identity politics removes the conditions of its own fulfillment. Reed suggests something of the sort when he opines:

Whether or not one considers those goals correct or appropriate, [civil rights goals] were clear and strategic in a way that “antiracism” [identity politics] simply is not. Sure, those earlier struggles relied on a discourse of racial justice, but their targets were concrete and strategic […] Ironically, as the basis for a politics, antiracism [identity politics] seems to reflect, several generations downstream, the victory of the postwar psychologists in depoliticizing the critique of racial injustice by shifting its focus from the social structures that generate and reproduce racial inequality to an ultimately individual, and ahistorical, domain of “prejudice” or “intolerance.”

The ultimately individual precludes from engagement with the properly political, and identity politics achieves its aims only in perpetuating the conditions which provide the sociopolitical background to the perceived justice of those aims in the first place.


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