Identity Politics vs. Identity Office Politics

In real life, identity is a structuring principle of human experience, which is by definition neither good or bad. For individuals, it can be constraining or life-enriching — or more likely, some mixture of both. For groups, identity can be the starting point for a broader engagement with the world, an alibi to turn inward, or even a spur to active hostility. Whether its effects appear to be positive or negative in any particular case, though, it is not something we can do without — especially on the political level, which by definition requires the creation or mobilization of an identity group toward some end. Every politics is in that sense an identity politics, even on the Marxist model, which requires the members of the working class to identify with their world-historical role as the proletariat.

Everybody who thinks seriously about identity and politics knows that this is the case. The Combahee River Collective knew that it’s the case, and presumably even Slavoj Žižek knows it’s the case. Why, then, do people so frequently denounce identity politics as a blind alley, a distraction, a cynical ploy, etc., etc.? I would suggest that it’s because there are actually two things that go by the name of “identity politics.” The first, which I have described, we could call “real-world identity politics.” The second, which people mostly hate, would best be designated as “identity office politics” — i.e., how identity functions in neoliberal institutional settings, most notably universities and corporations.

Obviously corporations and universities are different — if decreasingly so — but broadly speaking they share a certain neoliberal ethos, which I would summarize in two points. First, these institutions are irreducibly individualistic. Ideally, from their perspective, individuals would relate to the institution solely as individuals, without forming autonomous groups not authorized by the institution. Second, these institutions legitimize themselves by claiming to dispense rewards (pay, recognition, promotion) and punishments (disciplinary action, firing) upon individuals based solely on their own individual actions and merits.

Within such settings, it is difficult to see how something like a group identity (other than identification with the institution or a defined subunit thereof) would function. Yet social and political pressures to do justice to identity have only grown throughout the neoliberal era, amid increased awareness of forms of injustice that are systemic — i.e., irreducibly non-individualistic. How can the neoliberal institution translate this demand into its own terms? First, it defines identity as primarily an individual trait. An individual is this or that identity. Identity belongs to the individual, rather than the individual belonging to the group. Second, it tends to treat this identity-trait as the grounds for some kind of differential treatment — positive, in this case, to make up for the negative differential treatment of the identity group.

A historical group grievance is thus leveraged as an individual asset within the terms of the institution’s reward-and-punishment system. To make up for the fact that members of your group have faced systemic discrimination, you individually get a leg up, officially or unofficially. Of course, that leg up is often illusory or carries with it so much extra work (like serving on all the diversity committees, doing extra mentoring, etc.) as to negate the benefit. Indeed, the very systemic problems that the individual identity assets are supposed to resolve have definitely not gone away, even within those institutional settings themselves. That is most fundamentally because of the mismatch between the systemic injustice and the individual solution. And on a practical level, the individuals who benefit from the individual solution are, almost by definition, not the individuals most affected by the historical disadvantage — those most disadvantaged never have the opportunity to enter the institution and compete for its rewards in the first place. In fact, the recipients of identitarian advantages often have more than enough other advantages to compete successfully in any case. (This is the dynamic that Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò characterizes as “elite capture.”)

The neoliberal institution does not and cannot care about this mismatch. From their individualistic perspective, systemic problems simply cannot register as such. If anything, neoliberal institutions need systemic inequalities to continue. To the extent that neoliberal institutions exist to generate hierarchy, the more “sorting” goes on (whatever the basis) prior to the time individuals present themselves to the institution, the easier the institution’s job is. All the neoliberal institution cares about is satisfying the external demand for “levelling the playing field” for its identity-burdened participants, thus indemnifying it from legal action.

The shift from real identity politics to neoliberal identity office politics is therefore a shift from a complex lived reality to a counter in a game, which exists primarily to avoid lawsuits. It should go without saying that the latter is not a path to social justice. To that extent, the leftist critics of what is commonly called “identity politics” are right, because the individualistic and competitive presuppositions of neoliberal identity office politics can never produce the kind of solidarity and emergent collective identity a successful leftist movement would require.

But why would anyone ever get the idea that anyone thought that DEI-webinar-style identity management would produce liberation? There are two factors at work here. The first is simply the fact that most individuals spend a great deal of time in neoliberal institutions, and identity office politics seem to be the only lever to address identity-based injustices in that context. The institutions shape our behavior, which in turn shapes us — this is in large part why institutional reform is so urgently important. The second is the role of social media platforms, which expand the individualistic and competitive presuppositions of neoliberal institutions into every social interaction. In place of the relatively defined competition of the institution, social media engulfs us in an amorphous and endless competition in which we are all judge, jury, and HR coordinator. This grassroots form of neoliberal managerialism promotes ever more exaggerated claims of identitarian disadvantages (to be leveraged into individual discursive advantage) and ever more elaborate codes of conduct to govern interactions with people who claim a certain identity (as in the ever-lingering possibility that the most innocuous utterance could be declared somehow “problematic” and worthy of punishment).

The effects of social media identity office politics — objectively a somewhat sad, niche hobby — are then amplified in the mainstream media, which trumpets the dangers of “wokeness” to populations that are normally not granted the ability to leverage group grievance into individual advantage: namely, white people, especially white straight men. Paradoxically, this absence of grievance becomes the greatest grievance of all, as neoliberal identity office politics threatens to devalue the social capital once associated with whiteness. We can see this logic in the media stunts surrounding so-called “critical race theory,” which aim to protect oppressed white children from being burdened with generational guilt, etc., etc. Presumably one day Florida’s colleges and universities will offer special scholarships for white students who can prove they had a “woke” teacher — bringing the entire project of neoliberal office politics full circle by staging a bail-out for the now-toxic asset of white identity.

There is no solution to be found in the milieu of neoliberal office politics, no “right” way to implement it. The goal should be to abolish the individualistic, competitive neoliberal institutional form and find a new way to live together that can allow us to explore and enjoy our identities in a more authentic and organic way, unmediated by HR offices and mandatory trainings.

3 thoughts on “Identity Politics vs. Identity Office Politics

  1. Good old Karl Marx observed long ago that the bourgeoisie views the world through ideological blinders which it does not recognize as such – because these are intrinsic to its standpoint as the ruling class. Bourgeois ideology is simply the “identity politics” of the propertied.

    I don’t believe we’ve really moved beyond this. What people denounce as “identity politics” is simply that which they recognize as other people’s ideological blinders; of course, they never admit that they have blinders of their own.

    Neoliberal “identity office politics” is easy to recognize as ideological because no class truly wants to claim this politics as its own; it is, rather, the product of intense negotiation between classes, resulting from decades of bitter struggle on the part of minorities and the disadvantaged. The ruling class has been forced to make some acknowledgement of injustices it long ignored, but it’s never going to freely adopt the actual standpoint of the oppressed. “Identity office politics” is therefore an unwanted child of the struggle, and it’s hard to say whether the rulers or the oppressed hate it more.

Comments are closed.