Identity politics has had a bad reputation in recent years. This happened because the Democratic Party abandoned its ordinary working-class base for Wall Street and, in doing so, made a big fuss of its progressive credibility by nominating token women, blacks, gays and trans people to various high levels. But unsurprisingly, workers of all colors and genders concluded that the Democrats no longer cared about them and either gave up the vote or masochistically defected to the GOP, which meanwhile began to have a field day treating Dem tokenism as evidence of the Great Replacement in action.
So everyone has been riled up about identity politics, when the only identity ever mentioned, and perhaps the most important, though assiduously elided in the public sphere, is class identity. Both political parties ignored the economic concerns of working people, much to the delight of their mega-corporate donors. The public’s desire for single-payer health care, an increased minimum wage, affordable higher education, decent infrastructure, an end to overseas military adventures, and other social benefits of this type could not be let go quickly enough by the Dems and a GOP, both utterly beholden to Big Money.
The role of identity politics in any sensible attempt to combat the power of obscene wealth is discussed in Elite Capture, a new book by Olufemi Taiwo. He asks right away, what is identity politics? It is, according to Dominic Gustavo of the World Socialist Web Site and quoted by Taiwo, “an essential tool used by the bourgeoisie to maintain its class domination over the working class by keeping workers divided along racial and gender lines. Hard to argue with that. But alternatively, Taiwo asks, is identity politics “as embodied in critical race theory a dangerous ideology and threat to the established order that the powers that be aim to eradicate?”
It may be both. But personally, I do not see how this ideology threatens an established order that its identity activists have unctuously and assiduously courted. Worse, identity politics weakens labor solidarity, because it never mentions class. And the class divides the population very much. There is even a class war, waged by a vast clan of financial titans against the rest of us, hoi polio. Class consciousness usually leads to class warfare, but identity politics is a different animal, a happy chameleon on either side of the class divide, and quite obviously eager to woo the rulers of the more upscale kingdoms. It is worth keeping a watchful eye on this slippery ideology.
At the same time, however, one could leave the door open and say that identity politics could in theory threaten the status quo. In theory. And it certainly helped win essential rights, from women’s suffrage to affirmative action to same-sex marriage and more. But in recent years, on the whole, in practice, it rarely threatens the established order and, as far as anyone knows, has been pretty much co-opted by our leaders. So overall, the World Socialist Web Site seems to be getting closer to the truth. Identity politics has shattered the working class, and it’s hard to see how to undo the damage.
What does elite capture of identity politics mean in practice? Well, writes Taiwo, “when the elites run the show, the group’s interests narrow to what they have in common with those at the top, at best.” So feminists supporting Hillary Clinton might worry about glass ceilings, while home health aides only worry about paying the rent. When these two cohorts join politics, the concerns of women at the top of the career ladder dominate. “At worst,” Taiwo continues, “the elites fight for their own narrow interests using the banner of group solidarity.” Again, to use the example of the HRC, at worst, women could find their feminism pushed to support, say, US imperialism, to overthrow foreign governments that are too left-wing (the Honduran presidency of Manuel Zelaya) and to advocating the murder of leaders hated by their feminists. icons in Washington – think Gaddafi in Libya.
Or say a young progressive Congresswoman like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez heads to Washington, after campaigning on Medicare For All and a Green New Deal. But hey, there’s House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and the new congresswoman soon learns it’s “my way or the highway” with the centrist Democrats. And so, before too long, she is voting for billions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine, which also happens to enrich powerful defense contractors. And then maybe she was joking about freedom in Taiwan, as the military-industrial complex expects, while subsidized health care and climate catastrophe slip further and further into the shadows. So what’s left? She remains passionate when it comes to bathrooms and the latest uproar me too, but really, look at the priorities here. They seem to be that she can continue to display her leftist good faith while ignoring other issues that happen to be matters of life and death. And not just ignore. In the case of Washington’s potentially deadly global proxy war in Ukraine, she chose the side of mass death over crying out for peace negotiations, which was, after all, the kind of thing for which she was elected.
So goes the subordination to the elites. But Taiwo’s new, sometimes elliptical book highlights other quirks of identity politics. This clearly shows that leftists spend far too much energy signaling virtue and not enough there, organizing. This distracts from constructive politics. As Taiwo observes, when residents of Flint, Michigan noticed that their water smelled bad and was yellowish-brown, “At that time, what they needed wasn’t for their oppression to be ‘celebrated’. ‘, ‘centered’ or told in the latest academic parlance… What Flint residents really needed, above all else, was to get the lead out of their water. Celebrating and centering amounts to a policy of deference. Well that they can have their time and place, it is clear that this is not when there is a crisis.Constructive politics, argues Taiwo, deals with the problem: it takes the lead out of the water.
It’s ridiculous that this even needs to be spelled out. But so many leftists waste so much time on well-meaning signals of virtue that it’s no wonder so little is being done. And that’s a problem. Because there are gigantic problems in the world that people have to tackle, like, to repeat what cannot be repeated enough, class warfare, and why many billions of ordinary people are losing this class war .
After all, ours is a world in which “1.6 billion people live in inadequate housing (slum conditions) and 100 million are homeless, a full third of the human population does not have reliable drinking water “. Taiwo also cites an example in Africa, where “82 million Nigerians… live on less than a dollar a day”. The carbon footprint of these people is negligible. Yet it is they that climate change, caused by rich countries, will kill first – with starvation from drought, or drowning in floods, or expiring from heatstroke. The only way to change that is to organize, not argue over pronouns.
So yes, continue with identity politics and the virtue signal if you feel so compelled. But try to keep the results of the policy in mind. Of course, the persecution that is currently raging on the right of trans people is horrible and must be fought, and of course trans rights are human rights, but the right to abortion is a woman’s right, just like the a prisoner’s right not to be raped by her. trans-female cellmate, and if we spend all our time tossing and hesitating over such matters, the truth of which is self-evident, and fighting over them, we are doing the work of the enemy for him. Because, as I have heard union leaders shout at union meetings: “The enemy is strong! To denigrate feminists for using the word “woman” only strengthens the enemy. So does claiming that the first black president was anything other than a tool of the billionaire oligarchy. The elites have “a big [slightly diverse] club,” as comedian George Carlin said, “and you’re not there! And you’re not there for one main, rock-solid reason: you belong to the wrong class.