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Fr. 727

July 18, 2016

If identity politics is complicit in the capitalist and neoliberal social economy, there remains the question of what, if anything, is to be done about it. Furthermore, insofar as certain strands of identity-focused politics fall outside the purview of the notion of identity politics here under consideration, it would be wise to leave some room for maneuver with regards to those more innocuous strands.

Norton himself takes care to make a point of this kind when he notes of Reed’s remarks:

This should not by any means be interpreted as a blanket condemnation of anti-racism, feminism, or other movements for social equality. Rather, it should be construed as a condemnation of a politics that is centered on social constructs like race or gender, rather than on material conditions. White supremacy, patriarchy, cisheteronormativity, ableism, and more should specifically be seen as what they are: the social relations that are created by a white supremacist, patriarchal, cisheteronormative, ableist system of production—that is to say created by capitalism. Race and gender must be analyzed in a true intersectional manner, as inextricably linked to the material (i.e., economic) conditions of which they are constituted.

In short, remain viable those forms of identity-focused politics taking aim at the material conditions which enable unjust social relations. Rather than buy into and double down on the social relations created, these strands target concrete actions to be taken with regards to socioeconomic conditions and thereby resist integration into the neoliberal economic apparatus. So long as we admit that material conditions determine social relations and justice takes those material conditions for its object, any politics which stops at the level of social relations cannot be concerned with justice. In a word, without thoroughgoing change in the material conditions, there can be no thoroughgoing change in the social relations produced.

To bring his exposition to a close, Norton finishes by citing a 2013 Reed article in which the author maintains the need to return to Marxist perspectives as the most appropriate manner of getting at the class issues underlying the unjust social relations in questions. Reed writes:

A Marxist perspective can be most helpful for understanding race and racism insofar as it perceives capitalism dialectically, as a social totality that includes modes of production, relations of production, and the pragmatically evolving ensemble of institutions and ideologies that lubricate and propel its reproduction […] A historical materialist perspective should stress that “race”—which includes “racism,” as one is unthinkable without the other—is a historically specific ideology that emerged, took shape, and has evolved as a constitutive element within a definite set of social relations anchored to a particular system of production.

Besides bringing home the familiar point that social constructs at issue in identity politics derive from historical material conditions, Reed’s “closing” remarks underscore just how dialectical Marxist method may afford the best way of getting at capitalism as a productive system of institutions, social relations and norms. Any theory which falls short of such a dialectical view will necessarily, on Reed’s count, lack the scope of vision necessary to confront the conditions giving rise to unjust social relations. Fixating on social constructs without unpacking their context and connotations will more than likely fall short of the goals that a theory otherwise sets itself to correct unjust social relations.

If, for Reed and Norton, a complete theory will take the form of an “anti-racist marxism and feminist marxism (and anti-racist feminist marxism), not identity politics”, we must see whether there do not exist alternatives or permutations of such positions and how our own approach fits therein.

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