On ‘identity politics’

For a good few years now, ‘the left’ has been repeatedly returning to arguments about ‘identity politics’ – whether it’s a proper concern for left political debate and struggle, whether it’s compatible with an analysis of class, whether it’s a distraction, or liberal, or ‘sour-faced’ etc etc. But it seems like these conversations often assume that everybody know what we’re talking about when we talk about ‘identity politics’. I don’t think that’s the case – or, better, I think that often critiques or dismissals of ‘identity politics’ are doing two quite different things, although sometimes they’re both happening at the same time and are not easy to disentangle from one another.

Sometimes critiques of identity politics are just the boring Marxist assertion that class comes first and everything else is a distraction (usually combined with some degree of contempt for people of colour, women, queer people etc). And sometimes they are an attempt to distinguish between the liberal politics which demands the inclusion of a wider range of identities within the existing order (so the institution of marriage is fine, it just needs to be extended to same sex couples; liberal democracy is fine, it just needs to be extended to women or black people) and the radical politics which says that the exclusion of particular identities from the existing order offers an insight into the ways in which the existing order is totally fucked and needs to be overthrown.

Žižek, for example, does both of these things, but because he doesn’t engage with radical forms of ‘identity politics’ the impact of his argument on his readers seems to be mostly to encourage the assumption that it’s just not important to think about racism, the gendered construction of class, etc. Which perhaps suggests a useful way of distinguishing between helpful critiques of identity politics and unhelpful ones: is this just a way of saying that concerns about racism, sexuality, colonialism etc. aren’t important, or is it a critique of liberal demands for inclusion which leave the existing system basically intact (although, as Amaryah points out, sometimes identity politics in this mode are not about liberalism so much as survival pending revolution)? If the latter, then where is the radical analysis of the structuring roles that white supremacy, heteropatriarchy and so on and so on play in the existing order of things so that we can’t fully address them without a properly revolutionary politics?

10 thoughts on “On ‘identity politics’

  1. From what l understand of Zizkek’s position, he is not dismissive tout court of identity politics, albeit this gets lost when he goes out of his way to troll. Specifically on white privilege, he draws attention to the fact that white guilt is used to de-subjectify others and is a form of inverse racism.

    He also critical of, as he sees it, of the th he spurious appropriation of identity politics by individuals that are not based on symbolic ‘norms’ but rather as a strategy to support narcissism. This is where l find him problematic and reactionary, as l think that there is tendency for him sweep aside, of what can be progressive identity politics by minorities, and treate it as collateral damage of the violence necessary to erect ‘universal’ norms.

  2. Every instance I’ve come across of Žižek referring to “identity politics” specifically – as opposed to more general discussions of things that might fall into that category – has fallen within the patterns I’ve outlined above, but if you can point me to places where more interesting things are going on I’d be interested to see them.

  3. See chapter “From the cultural Wars to Class Struggle… and Back” in Against the Double Blackmail, class struggle is the form in which various contents get played out… gender/race becomes sites of interest to the extent that they put on stage disavowed grounds of class struggle. Solidarity (‘symbolic pact’) becomes possible to the extent that global capitalism is seen as the ‘true’ enemy (the antagonism as ‘the Real’), identity politics can be used in support of solidarity (recognize the primacy of class struggle) or that of supporting the status quo (abstract identity politics from class struggle).

    Leaving aside whether we agree with the overdetermination of class struggle in this configuration, I think he has some nice lines of critique which are worth following up on. Adam has a nice alternative to the overdetermination of class struggle in considering race/gender as being “baked in” from the start, and not in terms of gender/race being ‘displaced representatives’ of class struggle. This perhaps can be further nuanced by reference to Derrida’s deconstruction of Hegel, the link between immediate = partial = imaginary and mediate = universal = symbolic, can be provocatively turned on its head. I am trying to work through what that might look like.

  4. Yeah, I think that’s part of the problem with Žižek though (cf https://itself.wordpress.com/2016/05/23/zizek-trouble/) – he can only think about racism as something that functions at the level of fantasy, as an ideological displacement of class struggle, which just doesn’t make sense even on his own terms where, e.g., he recognises the importance of global disparities in the constitution of class globally.

  5. Ah, ok! So I guess I just mean: if people reject ‘identity politics’, maybe a useful indicator of whether they’re doing it in the good way or the bad way is whether or not they’re offering a better analysis of the role of racism and heteropatriarchy play in the existing order of things. Because if they’re not doing that it seems like a good indicator that they just don’t want to think about racism and heteropatriarchy at all.

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