Monday, January 2, 2017

disambiguating idpol

"Identity politics" can refer to two distinct things: issues relating to race, sex, &c.; and to the abandonment of material for symbolic concerns. Confusing these leads to bad politics.

Especially in left-liberal spaces, but also in left spaces as well, "identity politics" has come up as a subject of disputation without as much becoming an object of analysis. This is unfortunate, because I believe this is a paradigm case of a fake disagreement rather than a real one - or, at least, a real one that is being avoided to have a fake one. At best, I believe, the "identity politics are the problem" and "we cannot afford to abandon identity politics" are both affirming truths that are obvious on reflection, given what they explicitly or implicitly mean by "identity politics;" at worst, they proceed by elision into a motte-and-bailey switch to imply the falsity of the other obvious truth. If the former case is bad because it implies a lot of wasted words, the latter is especially bad, as it would commit us either to an economism that refuses to acknowledge and address real oppression other than class oppression[1], or to a liberalism that treats language use and top-level representation as a substitute for addressing those real oppressions. Neither has any place for the existence of movements like Black Lives Matter - or even such a mainstream fixture as the reproductive rights movement - and so I think the majority of both leftists and left-liberals would unhesitatingly reject both on reflection.

This failed discourse involves confusing the two "identity politics" in two ways. The first, shallow, way - one common to many failed discourses of this sort - is for one side to attack all X being Y, while the other defends some X being Y. It is simultaneously true that our politics should, say, correct bigotry, and also that a politics which offers nothing but the correction of bigotry is deeply impoverished.

The more interesting confusion is, I think, the connection of class with the material, and race, gender, &c. with the ideal. But these latter are, in contemporary America as elsewhere, real social relations organizing the real division of labor and authority - just as much as the real social relations of class produce felt identities that are often appealed to on purely symbolic lines that fail to affect their real basis. In other words, whether politics is about "identity" or not can be about the kind of social distinction that is addressed - class vs. other things - or it can be about whether these things are discussed at the level of interests or of symbolic respect, affiliations, &c. To illustrate with a crude schematic:

material ideal 
class card check politicians wearing hardhats 
sex  abortion rights  manspreading 
race  police brutality cultural appropriation 

Lest this division appear excessively dismissive towards the realm of the "ideal," four caveats.

First, things straddle the division in practice, and even if they did not, we can mistake one for the other. Derogatory epithets and bathroom access can appear superficially all about symbolism if you don't have the right - to use the "idpol" term - "lived experience," but if you do, in the right context using the wrong bathroom or hearing the wrong word can put you in justified fear of very concrete violence. (Since I not only demographically but personally tend towards deep cluelessness, I am really not in any position to pronounce any particular thing purely symbolic.)

Second, even if something were to only matter insofar as it hurts or elevates people's feelings, that's still a form of mattering. (Indeed, feelings are arguably the only thing that matters in the first-order sense, although of course we have instrumental reasons to care about a great many other things as well.) If someone says something hurts their feelings that's a prima facia reason not to do it, even when their explanation of why they dislike it confuses you. We can of course ask questions about countervailing reasons to go through with it anyway, and of what to prioritize, but: at this juncture, with almost everybody trying to perform a certain kind of insensitivity in response to perceived oversensitivity,[2] it perhaps actually has to be said that making people sad is bad, all else being equal.

Third, symbolic politics in the broad sense is an ordinary part of human interaction. We want to signal affiliation with those we want to ingratiate ourselves with, we want to see prestigious people symbolically affiliating themselves with us, and we trust people more when they show signs of such affiliation, and everything flows more smoothly when there is a baseline level of cultural simpatico. This is not an excuse for everything causally entangled with it - from the bad kinds of "identity politics" to exclusionary ethnocentrism - but it does mean that we ought be realistic about the inevitable communicative role that symbolism is going to play. Politicians are always going to wear hardhats, or study accents, or reference your favorite band, or whatever, and that's fine. The problems, again, arise when this substitutes for the material side of the equation.

Fourth, the constriction of the political to the symbolic, ideal realm (which was never total!) is not the result of individual bad choices by liberal politicians and intellectuals, but concomitant with the neoliberal transformation of the role of politics (which itself has deeper roots in the response to the last major crisis period of capitalism.) If the allocation of resources is to be legitimately performed by a combination of technocratic management and the free interplay of market forces, then politics will increasingly resemble shadow theatre about individual scandals, group prestige, and symbolic respect. Thus, as we seek to expand the sphere of politics, we should not operate on the assumption that the only thing standing in the way of our doing so is the bad consciousness of the political class.

[1] I hesitate to use the term "class reductionism" here because that itself invites another elision: between the claim that racial, sexual, etc oppression are causally traceable to class relations, and the claim that only those oppressive relations that exist or matter are those that directly show themselves as class. I am not in a position to say whether the first is true of false, only that, in addition to the second being false on its face, it is also false on its face that the first implies the second.

[2] You know, the  protesting-too-much "HAHAHA ARE YOU TRIGGERED YOU SPECIAL SNOWFLAKE, WANT A SAFE SPACE YOU BABY???" stuff? Yes, like many bad things, this came out of the right, but now I see it all on the time on the left, especially if it can be thrown back on its originators, or people associable in some way with the same.

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