Identity politics got a bad name in recent years. This happened because the Democratic party abandoned its base of ordinary working people for Wall Street, and as it did so, made a big fuss about its progressive cred by appointing token women, Blacks, gay and trans people to various high perches. But not surprisingly, working people of all colors and genders concluded the Dems didn’t care about them anymore and either abandoned voting, or masochistically defected to the GOP, which meanwhile started having a field day treating Dem tokenism as proof of the Great Replacement in action.
So everyone got riled up about identity politics, while the one identity never mentioned, and possibly the most important, though assiduously elided in the public sphere, is class identity. Both political parties ignored working people’s economic concerns, to the delight of their mega-corporate donors. The public’s desire for single-payer health care, increased minimum wage, affordable higher education, decent infrastructure, an end to foreign military adventures and other such social benefits couldn’t be ditched fast enough by Dems and a GOP both utterly beholden to Big Money.
The role of identity politics in any sane attempt to fight back against the power of obscene wealth is discussed in Elite Capture, a new book by Olufemi Taiwo. It asks at the outset, what is identity politics? It is, according to Dominic Gustavo at the World Socialist Web Site and quoted by Taiwo, “an essential tool utilized 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 then 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 stamp out?”
Possibly it is both. But personally, I fail to perceive how this ideology menaces an established order that its identity-activists have unctuously and sedulously wooed. Worse, identity politics weakens worker solidarity, because it never mentions class. And class very much divides the population. There’s even a class war, being waged by a vast clan of financial titans against the rest of us hoi polio. Class consciousness usually leads to class war, but identity politics is a different animal, a chameleon happy on either side of the class divide, and quite noticeably eager to seduce the rulers of swankier realms. It pays to keep a watchful eye on this slippery ideology.
At the same time, however, one might leave the door open and say that identity politics could conceivably threaten the status quo. Conceivably. And it has certainly helped win critical rights, from the female vote to affirmative action to gay marriage and more. But in recent years, overall, in practice it rarely menaces the established order and, as far as anyone can tell, has been pretty much co-opted by our rulers. So overall, the World Socialist Web Site seems to hit closer to the truth. Identity politics splintered 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, Taiwo writes, “when elites run the show, the interests of the group get whittled down to what they have in common with those at the top, at best.” So feminists supporting Hillary Clinton might fret about glass ceilings, while female home health aides just worry about making the rent. When these two cohorts join in politics, the concerns of women high up on the career ladder dominate. “At worst,” Taiwo continues, “elites fight for their own narrow interests using the banner of group solidarity.” Again, to use the HRC example, at worst women might find their feminism pressed into support of, say, U.S. imperialism, toppling foreign governments that are too left-wing (Manuel Zelaya’s Honduran presidency) and advocating the murder of leaders disliked by their feminist icons in Washington – think Libya’s Gaddafi.
Or say a young progressive congresswoman like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez goes to Washington, having campaigned on Medicare For All and a Green New Deal. But well, there’s House speaker Nancy Pelosi, and the new congresswoman soon learns that it’s “my way or the highway” with centrist Dems. And so, before too long, she’s voting for billions of dollars for military aid to Ukraine, which also happens to enrich puissant defense contractors. And then maybe she yammers about freedom in Taiwan, as the military industrial complex expects her to do, while subsidized health care and the climate catastrophe slip ever further into the shadows. So what’s left? She stays passionate when it comes to bathrooms and the latest me-too tumult, but really, look at the priorities here. They seem to be that she can continue to flaunt her leftwing bona fides while ignoring other issues that just so happen to be life and death matters. And not just ignoring. In the case of Washington’s potentially globally lethal proxy war in Ukraine, she chooses the side of mass death over screaming for peace negotiations, which was, after all, the sort of thing she was elected for.
Thus goes subordination to the elites. But Taiwo’s new book, at times elliptical, highlights other oddities of identity politics. It makes clear that leftists spend far too much energy virtue signaling and not enough out there, organizing. This distracts from constructive politics. As Taiwo observes, when Flint, Michigan residents noticed that their water smelled and was yellowish brown, “in that moment what they needed was not for their oppression to be ‘celebrated,’ ‘centered’ or narrated in the newest academic parlance…What Flint residents really needed, above all, was to get the lead out of their water.” Celebrating and centering amount to deference politics. While they may have their time and place, clearly that’s not when there’s a crisis. Constructive politics, Taiwo argues, deals with the problem: it gets 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 with well-intentioned virtue signaling that it’s no wonder so little gets done. And that’s a problem. Because there are mammoth issues out in the world that people need to address, like, to repeat that which cannot be repeated enough, the class war, and why several billion ordinary people are losing that class war.
After all, ours is a world in which “1.6 billion people live in inadequate housing (slum conditions) and 100 million are unhoused, a full third of the human population does not have reliable drinking water.” Taiwo also cites an example from Africa, where “82 million Nigerians…live on less than a dollar a day.” These people’s carbon footprints are negligible. Yet they’re the ones climate change, caused by rich countries, will kill first – with famine due to drought, or drowning in floods, or expiring from heat stroke. The only way to change this is to organize, not to quarrel over pronouns.
So yes, continue with identity politics and virtue signal if you feel so compelled. But try to keep the outcomes of politics in mind. Of course currently raging right-wing persecution of trans people is horrible and should be opposed, and of course trans rights are human rights, but the right to an abortion is a woman’s right, as is a female prisoner’s right not to be raped by her trans-woman cellmate, and if we spend all our time fidgeting and hedging over such matters, whose truth is obvious, and fighting about them, we’re doing the enemy’s work for him. Because as I’ve heard labor leaders holler at union meetings – “The enemy is strong!” Carping at feminists for using the word “woman” just makes the enemy stronger. And so does pretending 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 ain’t in it!” And you ain’t in it for one main, rock-solid reason: you belong to the wrong class.