Class and Identity

Rosa Luxemburg

Debates between identitarians and socialists often break down around one central point of contention: identitarians believe that a movement for change must be inclusive towards all oppressed identities, and accuse socialists of “class reductionism,” which to them translates as “you only want to fight for your identity, which is defined by class.” This is wildly inaccurate, but not in the sense that the opposite is true; rather, it stems from a complete misunderstanding of socialist thought and history.

Identitarians, particularly those who believe in intersectionality, see the world as consisting of a complex set of overlapping systems of identity-based oppression, in which people experience different amounts of “privilege” according to how oppressed or un-oppressed their intersecting identities are. Class is usually ignored in these debates, which tend to focus on “race” and gender, but sometimes an effort is made to include it. The intersectionalist view of class, then, is that it is another form of social identity. Matt Bruenig very accurately sums up how this view of class simply can’t fit into the identitarian framework:

The fundamental problem with cramming poor people into the identitarian framework is that, unlike every other identity treated in that framework, justice for poor people requires their elimination. The appropriate remedy to racial oppression is not to make everyone white, nor is the appropriate remedy to gender oppression to make everyone male. But the appropriate remedy to the “oppression of the poor” (as identitarians describe it) is to make them no longer poor. Poorness is not an identity to be celebrated or lifted up; it is an identity to be done away with altogether. The oppression of poor people is that they are poor people. The same cannot be said for any other marginalized group.

- Matt Bruenig, Identitarianism’s class problem

Identitarians, then, usually aren’t actually concerned with class; they’re concerned with classism. Their objection is to the way snotty rich (or middle-class) people treat poor people, not to the system that produces these divisions in the first place, and – as with other forms of identity – their suggested solutions usually come down to a fairer integration into the capitalist system, or measures that will allow a small percentage of people (ideally artists, activists or academics) to achieve middle-class status.

Since identity politics, and therefore intersectionality theory, are a bourgeois politics, the possibilities for struggle are also bourgeois.  Identity politics reproduces the appearance of an alienated individual under capitalism and so struggle takes the form of equality among groups at best, or individualized forms of struggle at worst.

- Eve Mitchell, I am a Woman and a Human: A Marxist-Feminist Critique of Intersectionality Theory

In the identitarian view, class should be treated as no more or less important than any of the other forms of social identity. To elevate it beyond that disregards the other identities and is therefore racist, sexist, oppressive, reductionist, etc. But in the Marxist sense, class isn’t a social identity; class is a relationship to the means of production. It’s not just that the solution to the class problem is different; it’s that “class” describes an entirely different manner of thing. I can’t emphasize this enough: Marxism isn’t elevating one identity over another, because it never assumes that an economic function in capitalism is the same as a social or cultural identity. Nor is class a personal issue – it doesn’t matter whether the rich are nice or mean, whether the poor are saintly or beastly. It’s not about how one defines oneself or what is offensive and what isn’t. It’s about how production is organized. Who owns the factories? Who owns the land? Who owns the housing? How are resources distributed? How is this vast and impressive apparatus of workers, technology and knowledge employed?

Marxism examines the structure of our economic system and finds that the entire thing is geared towards creating profit for one very small class of people, while completely failing to represent the interests of the majority of people – the people who actually do all the work, but own none of the results. This isn’t because the people who profit from this system are lacking in awareness of their privilege, or because they are classist. It has absolutely nothing to do with them as individual people, their social identities or minority status. A disabled black female capitalist is exactly the same as an able-bodied white male capitalist in the function they serve in the system, which is also why electing people of a different social identity has never by itself made a political difference.

The relationship between class and identity as understood by socialists is also quite different from that of identity politics. Identity politics is built around ideology; that is to say, it sees the world as being primarily shaped by how we think about it. Socialism, on the other hand, argues that ideology exists to justify material conditions. Identity politics believes that slavery happened because of racism; socialism argues that racism was invented to justify slavery, but the real cause of slavery was – to put it bluntly – money¹.

Where identitarianism seeks to somehow unify the world’s often highly contradictory personal narratives of oppression into a coherent idea of social justice, Marxism looks at what makes the system itself tick, and finds that the vast majority of people have something very real in common: their position within the economy, i.e. their relationship to capital and the means of production. It’s around this that it seeks to rally people – not around moral or personal judgement, but around their objective common interests. Ideologies of social division, in the socialist view, mainly exist to keep people from realizing precisely those interests. Divide and conquer, as they say.

Socialism does not seek to unify people on the level of social, national or cultural identity; it is inherently internationalist and transcultural, because it operates on a completely different level. But that’s precisely why socialism is emancipatory by necessity: because to unite the working class means to unite people across the barriers of identity. The concept itself is inclusive, and cannot be realized without the inclusion of the majority of people, including people of all social identities. Nor does it exclude those who wish to see systemic change but belong to the upper classes; after all, it’s about reorienting the goals and methods of the system, not about personal moral judgement or the condemnation of people because of an accident of birth. Socialism does not posit some sort of economic equivalent of Original Sin that makes people unable to see beyond their own lives.

The latter point is particularly important since, as Ross Wolfe has convincingly argued, the origins of identity politics lie with a perversion of socialism itself:

Historically, identitarian ideology is a product of the failure of the Left. The various forms of identity politics associated with the “new social movements” coming out of the New Left during the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s (feminism, black nationalism, gay pride) were themselves a reaction, perhaps understandable, to the miserable failure of working-class identity politics associated with Stalinism coming out of the Old Left during the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s (socialist and mainstream labor movements). Working-class identity politics — admittedly avant la lettre — was based on a crude, reductionist understanding of politics that urged socialists and union organizers to stay vigilant and keep on the lookout for “alien class elements.” Any and every form of ideological deviation was thought to be traceable to a bourgeois or petit-bourgeois upbringing. One’s political position was thought to flow automatically and mechanically from one’s social position, i.e. from one’s background as a member of a given class within capitalist society.

Anyone whose working-class credentials were not considered impeccable were expected to go through rituals of self-criticism or “autocritique” [from самокритика, a crucial shibboleth in the Stalinist vocabulary] confessing one’s incorrigible bourgeois intellectual habits in order to purify himself. Maoism radicalized this with application Third World and minority contexts. Indeed, much of the tedious discourse of “privilege-checking” derives from this [...]

- Ross Wolfe, “Identity” – the bane of the contemporary left

The catastrophic failure of the international Left in the face of Stalinism is a lesson in the dangers of identity politics – not only for advocates of intersectionality, but for all those who wish to cause meaningful changes to society, including socialists. It’s not possible to build a progressive movement around concepts of cultural or personal purity. No matter how oppressed one is, no matter what horrors one has experienced, genuine systemic change can only occur through an understanding of the objective issues that bind us together; only through the struggle to change the material conditions that produce ideologies of discrimination can we finally destroy those ideologies and create a society in which people can be free.

Either we’re fighting for everyone, or we’re fighting each other.

Footnotes:

  1. This is clearly a simplification for the purpose of explaining the principle. Note that by racism I mean the belief in biological races, not xenophobia in general, and by slavery I mean the African slave trade, which predates such theories. This was originally a bit clearer, before an edit removed some quotes that I felt were driving the article off course. The main point is that the root of slavery was financial interests, not hatred of black people.
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45 Comments

  1. Steven Brust

     /  January 26, 2014

    Well said all all around. “…not around moral or personal judgement, but around their objective common interests.” I’m just quoting it because it needs emphasizing. Common interests aren’t about how one might feel about another person or group; they’re determined by relationship to production, and relationship to production doesn’t care about anyone’s opinion.

  2. I see I get to start the slow clapping. That’s mighty fine.

  3. David Stewart Zink

     /  January 26, 2014

    Hi! This question isn’t really about identity politics (which I find annoying in its reductiveness. Hint: if you get to choose your parents in your next life, choose Will & Jada Smith ahead of me, and skin color be damned). I ramble a bit perhaps, leading to a question at the end. Also, it’s all Americo-centric for simplicity.

    I get confused when marxists obsess about owning the “means of production”. If there’s anything I understand about capitalists it is that they will let you own anything you want, except profit.

    I divide the world into three basic classes: the poor, who can work endlessly without meeting their basic needs; the rich, who don’t need to work (even when young and able-bodied) due to income from property; and the middle class in between. (Though with government subsidy we’re all supposed to become rich at 65.)

    What makes it most clear that there is a real class system is that rich people are not allowed to fail into poverty. Most rich people: we quickly see that artists and lottery winners can become “rich”, but they aren’t generally admitted to the rich class. But the people whose endless corruption drove the Enron scandals etc. are never fined for every penny that they have the way I or a poor person would be. So they lose a few mansions, so sad.

    As a writer, programmer, blogger, artist I have always owned my means of production even when I was dirt poor (I left welfare when I was 20). Until quite recently owning the means of production didn’t mean crap because I don’t also own the means of distribution and marketing.

    Much more importantly I wasn’t tied into the old-boys’ network. e.g. which software package Prudential Securities purchased to perform a simple desktop task was decided by nothing other than with whom the relevant vice president of PS played golf. Which novels appear on the NYT bestseller’s list has NOTHING to do with sales and is in fact decided before the books go on sale. So apparently I also don’t own the appropriate personal relationships.

    However in todays’ world production has become even more meaningless. Anyone can learn to tell stories for beer (e.g. hone their ability); learn to put those stories into text; type those stories into the library’s computers; and sell the finished ebooks on Amazon. Given the cost of production of a copy of an ebook is less than $.01, Amazon’s 30% take is still capitalist rape, but the 70% the author keeps can move poor people into the middle class, and has.

    There are similar situations with Etsy, ad-supported blogs, Craigslist (pick up free discards on craigslist, refurbish them, sell for money).

    What I see today is a sort of division between poor people who organize and restrain themselves and move out of poverty; the ones who just put in their hours and accept their lives (generally anesthetized by religion); and the ones who are sort of half-assed about labor; often try to supplement their income with burglary or drugs; start using drugs (meth, these days); and fail.

    It’s tempting to identify that third category with being raised in poverty, but in my experience (possibly just my neighborhood) it’s equally likely to be kids who grew up in upper middle class suburbs and declined into poverty. What really seems to unify them as a class is being raised in violent households.

    I’ve tried to read Das Kapital — but the combination of translation, nineteenth century non-fiction prose habits, and a system that seems reductionist in a way that reflected I think the eastern european situation much more than the american one even then — has led to my never finishing it, being happy with it. Even though I intuited one of its most important points when I was nine:

    “In the ideal future when every single product sold in the entire world is manufactured in a magical automated factory in North Dakota so that no one needs to do any work, how will anyone buy those products since they won’t have jobs or income?” — nine year old me, when I decided that capitalism must die.

    About fifty percent of Americans live in poverty (Romney gloats 47%) and only a tiny fraction of those work in traditional industrial occupations. But Marxists’ obsession with “production” — even if it’s only a term of art or jargon and actually refers to something unrelated to production when discussing poverty in the service industries etc, — essentially disappears the vast majority of impoverished Americans. You try to tell a waitress that her problem is that she doesn’t own the “means of production” of her waiting tables, you end up losing her attention before you’re finished talking circles around your poor initial choice of words.

    One more comment about identity: I disagree that racism was invented to justify slavery or slavery was a result of racism; both positions are kind of limited in that so much racism existed without slavery and slavery without racism. It’s much more accurate to say that racism (ethnicism) is a natural trend in humans and that when it (randomly, almost) coincides with a class division the two factors reinforce each other; that it was when ethnicism and slavery coincided that both the slavery became more despotic and the ethnicism became more entrenched and polar. And it IS important to remember that ethnicism often survives the conditions that reinforced it and continues to have meaningful effects. In the US a factory worker with a million dollars and white skin might be able to buy the factory he works in. Too often a factory worker with ten million dollars and black skin could not.

    It’s too tempting, sometimes, to point out that Marxism is a bourgeois occupation, that in order to perform its bourgeois function of reinforcing the status quo it needs to be constantly off target in its critiques and to alienate the people who could potentially benefit from clear vision; and I think some of that does go on in Academia. But here’s the question I’ve been rambling towards:

    Is there a good introduction to modern Marxist thought that is founded upon the actual economics and class structure of 21st century America (or the West or the World) and completely eschews portraying conditions in terms of a simplistic nineteenth century post-serf factory economics? That at the same time acknowledges that there exist factors influencing behavior that are — or are effectively — independent of class? I.e. they don’t necessarily include, but at least allow for gender, race, psychology playing some role in human behavior?

  4. It would be nice if this wasn’t written in such a way as to accuse identitarians of being “wrong” and thus a road block in making the world better.

    Under circumstances where they aren’t dealing with racist misogynistic homophobes in their personal life on a daily basis, they might be an ally to you about class.

    But acting like their goals to improve the world is part of a zero sum game that is being lost because of their activism is not helpful and hurts everyone by creating friction where there should be synergy.

  5. However in todays’ world production has become even more meaningless. Anyone can learn to tell stories for beer (e.g. hone their ability); learn to put those stories into text; type those stories into the library’s computers; and sell the finished ebooks on Amazon. Given the cost of production of a copy of an ebook is less than $.01, Amazon’s 30% take is still capitalist rape, but the 70% the author keeps can move poor people into the middle class, and has.

    I think that it’s relatively simple to mistake what we, the internet-using art crowd, do for what the majority of people do. Production still defines how our entire civilization operates; it is still (and will always be) how civilization itself is created. From our clothing to our food to our means of transport to our electronics to… well, anything, all of it has to be produced, and how it is produced (both the method and the purpose) still defines how we relate to one another.

    (I’m reminded of Ben Davis’s recent argument that artists are by definition middle-class.)

    Is there a good introduction to modern Marxist thought that is founded upon the actual economics and class structure of 21st century America (or the West or the World) and completely eschews portraying conditions in terms of a simplistic nineteenth century post-serf factory economics?

    My personal recommendation is the work of David Harvey, which is lucid, accessible, and occasionally funny.

    Edited to add:

    One more comment about identity: I disagree that racism was invented to justify slavery or slavery was a result of racism; both positions are kind of limited in that so much racism existed without slavery and slavery without racism.

    While this deserves a longer discussion, I was referring specifically to racism as in the concept of biological race, which developed as a justification for the African slave trade (but does not predate the slave trade). I don’t mean xenophobia in general.

    Edited again to add:

    That at the same time acknowledges that there exist factors influencing behavior that are — or are effectively — independent of class? I.e. they don’t necessarily include, but at least allow for gender, race, psychology playing some role in human behavior?

    I think that’s a misinterpretation of Marxism. It’s just that individual human behaviour isn’t what this is about; it’s about the totality of the system, and as Steven Brust put it above, “relationship to production doesn’t care about anyone’s opinion.” In fact, isn’t that the freedom we’re fighting for – the freedom to be more than a cog in the system? I’m pretty sure Marx actually said something specifically to that effect. (Not that Marx is infallible or anything, but the idea’s always been there.)

  6. It would be nice if this wasn’t written in such a way as to accuse identitarians of being “wrong” and thus a road block in making the world better.

    a) I do think they are wrong – in their methods and analyses, if not in their overall goals.

    b) I think it would be nice if they didn’t accuse everyone who disagrees with them of being bigots and abusers. I don’t think they’re personally evil, just wrong. Perhaps it would be better if you told them not to mistake intellectual disagreement for a sign of immorality?

    Under circumstances where they aren’t dealing with racist misogynistic homophobes in their personal life on a daily basis, they might be an ally to you about class.

    I’m honestly sorry if this sounds mean or sarcastic, but have you read what I wrote? The whole point is that identitarianism’s understanding of class is completely incompatible with the Marxist understanding.

    But acting like their goals to improve the world is part of a zero sum game that is being lost because of their activism is not helpful and hurts everyone by creating friction where there should be synergy.

    I don’t think “improving the world” is that simple. Identity politics, in the process of creating a “better capitalism,” reinforce the very structures that make it impossible for people to fight for their common interests. As Michael Rectenwald put it:

    Developed in the 1970s and ‘80s within feminism, intersectionality seeks to understand how power intersects identities along various axes, including those of race, gender, sexuality, or sexual preference, etc. It aims to locate the articulations of power as it traverses various subordinated peoples in different, multiple ways. Suggestive of a radical critique of patriarchy, capitalism, white supremacy and other forms of domination, it complicates any sense of gender, sex, class, or race as homogenous wholes. And it problematizes any hierarchy of one categorical determination over others. As such, it appears to serve as a method of analysis for opposing oppressions of all kinds. Intersectionality should, it seems, work to deepen our understanding of the composition of class society, and to add to the means for overcoming it.

    But operating under the same schema as a more simplified identity politics, intersectionality theory serves to isolate multiple and seemingly endless identity standpoints, without sufficiently articulating them with each other, or the forms of domination. The upshot in political practice is a static pluralism of reified social categories, each vying for more-subaltern-than-thou status on a field of one-downsmanship. While it may be useful for sociologists attempting to describe groups and their struggles with power, as a political theory, it is useless, or worse. This is because, by ending with the identification and isolation of its various constituencies, it in fact serves to sever the connections that it supposedly sought to understand and strengthen. The practical upshot of intersectionality theory is the perpetual articulation of difference, resulting in fragmentation and the stagnation of political activity that Fisher bemoans.

    And as I pointed out at the end of the article, that’s also a real danger to socialists – it’s easy to fall into this kind of fetishization of the working class as a cultural force.

  7. I may come back later when I have more time, but for now, I wanted to say three things:

    1. This otherwise fine post could use a bit more about race, because race is tricky. Where you use ethnicity, I use tribe, because race before 1680 (when the first white people show up in North America’s historical record and the concept had to be explained to people in Britain) was more like a marker that might indicate one’s tribe. History needed the African slave trade to create racism as a truly distinct thing from tribalism.

    2. The traditional take on freelancers is that they own the means of production, but the situation is so very different today than it was when Marx wrote that I don’t like that. I think freelancers are ronin, as dependent on capitalists as ronin were on lords. And I use freelancer in the broadest sense–when I publish something through Amazon, I do not own the means of production. Amazon does, and they take their cut.

    3. I often wish reds weren’t so obsessed with half-translated terminology. Try telling a waitress she would be better off if she owned part of the restaurant. I doubt you’d get much argument.

  8. Oops. I thought the previous comment would be threaded to David Stewart Zink’s. He’s the “you” I was addressing.

  9. Whoops, sorry. Threading is currently disabled.

  10. I often wish reds weren’t so obsessed with half-translated terminology. Try telling a waitress she would be better off if she owned part of the restaurant. I doubt you’d get much argument.

    I’m in complete agreement there. I do think there are a lot of situations where it would be better to use less academic language. It can useful when talking about theory, though.

  11. Jonas, I hate threading, so that’s cool. The email notice I got said I was making a reply. Technology doesn’t always talk to itself.

    I crossposted with your link to the argument that artists are middle class. I don’t disagree, but I’m kinda sorry that petit-bourgeois is so hard to translate well into English. It has the advantage of suggesting that the people in-between are still dependent on the people above them.

  12. “It can useful when talking about theory, though.” Very true. See my complaint about using “middle class” in place of petit-bourgeois. I keep trying to find a simple way to express that in English, like “small traders”, but it’s just tricky.

  13. Petit-bourgeois is indeed a very useful expression, though easily enough fetishized. It’s generally tricky to talk about these things using the terms that have been developed, given how much they’ve come to be associated with a horrible sort of Cliché Communism.

  14. “Cliché Communism” Nice phrase!

  15. Adam, I’ve been thinking about what you said, and it really bothers me. I’m not angry, but this phenomenon keeps repeating and it really frustrates me. Why is it that when I specifically argue that intellectual disagreement is *not* a sign of personal moral flaws, I’m told off for not being friendly enough, but an entire ideology that rests on describing anyone who disagrees with its interpretation of reality as a bigot is acceptable? Why am I, the one insisting on keeping personal issues out of this, the one talking about error instead of sin, the one who ought to be reprimanded for not being inclusive enough?

    I honestly do not understand this reaction.

  16. Steven Brust

     /  January 27, 2014

    Jonas: I’m going to try to step carefully here, because I don’t want to increase rather than decrease any personal animosity that might be hanging around the borders of this discussion. But let me try to answer you.

    You have discussed identity politics from a class standpoint, from an historical standpoint, and from a scientific standpoint. But looking at it from an individual rather than a social perspective, what drives identity politics is subjective idealism. What I mean specifically is that those who follow it base themselves (in general) on individual feelings. It is built around how people feel; therefore, to oppose it (as you and I do), is to appear to be invalidating those feelings.

    It is very difficult to hear, “the way you are going about responding to your feelings and personal experiences is wrong and counterproductive” without hearing, “your feelings and personal experience don’t matter.”

    The rejection of objectivity in understanding social events creates a condition that almost requires a hostile reaction to discussion of the condition.

  17. Jonathon Wisnoski

     /  January 27, 2014

    What exactly (do you)/(does it) mean: “owning the means of production”
    “relationship to the means of production”

    In socialism, doesn’t the government own the means of production?
    And in most socialisms aren’t wages limited, but if everyone owns parts of factories and businesses, how do wages even make sense. Would they not get profit sharing instead, if they owned the means of production?

    I follow Anarchistic theory far more diligently. And while I obviously do not understand the exact specifications of what socialism is trying to accomplish, anarchy seems to have a pretty decent solution, both for itself and I think for socialistic ideals. Instead of shifting who owns what, it just makes the obvious claim that all ownership, by anyone, is theft. To me, that seems like a far better way of distributing (not the wealth [since that implies ownership], but) the fruits of everyone’s labour and the natural resources to those who need them.

    And I really wanted to share this article, because it is really great: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/19/opinion/sunday/for-the-love-of-money.html
    Have you read it?
    I think it perfectly demonstrates some thoughts you have expressed before and now. Exploring some areas relevant to class identity and particularly privilege. By telling the story of a privileged rich wall street aristocrat.

  18. Jonas, I want to make it clear (and I think you realize) that all I’m accusing you (in particular) of is being (as you said) “not friendly” enough.

    And the reason I would say that is because I believe that BOTH class and identity are important, and the solution is to deal with both, not just one or the other.

    I’ll admit right here that I’m new to this, so I don’t have a lot of logic to throw out, but here is some brief quotes from: http://tannerlectures.utah.edu/_documents/a-to-z/f/Fraser98.pdf that I think give a (hopefully) understandable example of what I’m talking about.

    From the distributive perspective, gender is currently a basic organizing principle of the economic structure of capitalist society. On the one hand, it structures the fundamental division between paid “productive” labor and unpaid “reproductive” and domestic labor, assigning women primary responsibility for the latter. On the other hand, gender also structures the division within paid labor between high-paid, male-dominated manufacturing and professional occupations and lower-paid, female-dominated “pink collar” and domestic service occupations. The result is an economic structure that generates gender-specific forms of distributive injustice, including exploitation, economic marginalization, and deprivation. Here gender appears as an economic differentiation endowed with certain classlike characteristics. When viewed under this aspect, gender injustice appears as a species of distributive injustice that cries out for redistributive redress. Much like class, gender justice requires transforming the political economy so as to eliminate its gender structuring. Eliminating gender-specific exploitation and deprivation requires abolishing the gender division of labor -both the gendered division between paid and unpaid labor and the gender division within paid labor. The logic of the remedy is akin to the logic with respect to class: it is to put gender out of business as such. If gender were nothing but an economic differ- entiation, in sum, justice would require its abolition. That, however, is only half the story. In fact, gender is not only an economic differentiation, but a status differentiation as well. As such, it also encompasses elements that are more like sexuality than class and that bring it squarely within the problematic of recognition. Gender codes pervasive cultural patterns of interpretation and evaluation, which are central to the status order as a whole. As a result, not just women, but all low-status groups, risk being feminized, and thereby demeaned. Thus, a major feature of gender injustice is androcentrism:the authoritative construction of norms that privilege traits associated with masculinity and the pervasive devalution and disparagement of things coded as “feminine,” paradigmatically -but not only – women. These androcentricnorms do not operate only at the level of cultural attitudes, moreover. Rather, they are institutionalized, both formally and informally. Androcentricnorms skew entitlements and delimit understandings of personhood in, for example, marital, divorce, and custody law; the practice of medicine and psychotherapy; reproductive policy; legal constructions of rape, battery, and self-defense; immigration, naturalization, and asylum policy; popular culture representations ; and everyday social practices and patterns of interaction. As a result, women suffer gender- specific status injuries. Denied the full rights and protections of citizenship, they endure sexual assault and domestic violence ; the absence of reproductive autonomy; trivializing, objectifying, and demeaning stereotypical depictions in the media; harassment and disparagement in everyday life; and exclusion or marginalization in public spheres and deliberative bodies. These harms are injustices of recognition. They are relatively independent of political economy and are not merely “superstructural.” Thus, they cannot be remedied by redistribution alone but require additional independent remedies of recognition. Here gender appears as a status differentiation endowed with sexuality like characteristics. When viewed under this aspect, gender injustice appears as a species of misrecognition that cries out for redress via recognition. Much like heterosexism, overcoming androcentrism and sexism requires changing the institutionalized cultural norms, and thus their institutionalized practical consequences, that privilege masculinity and deny equal respect to women. The logic of the remedy is akin to the logic with respect to sexuality: it is to decenter androcentricnorms and to revalue a devalued gender -whether by according positive recognition to a devalued group distinctiveness or by deconstructingthe binary opposition between masculinity and femininity.17
    Gender, in sum, is a bivalent mode of collectivity. It contains both an economic face that brings it within the ambit of redistribution and a cultural face that brings it simultaneously within the ambit of recognition. It is an open question whether the two faces are of equal weight. But redressing gender injustice, in any case, requires changing both the economic structure and the status order of contemporary capitalist society.

    So like I joked to you on Twitter when I linked this a while back "Why not both?"

  19. Jonas, I want to make it clear (and I think you realize) that all I’m accusing you (in particular) of is being (as you said) “not friendly” enough.

    Yes, but why? I have made no statements about the personal value of others. I’ve not been aggressive or angry. I’ve simply asserted, with arguments, that a certain theory is wrong.

    Identitarians, on the other hand, routinely dismiss everyone who disagrees with them as a bigot; they do this to each other, as well, causing an endless series of feuds to erupt. They use terms like “manarchist” and “brocialist” to imply that those who think oppression has a root cause other than culture are in fact being driven by their gender and their inherent desire to oppress women. They dismiss centuries’ worth of writing not with arguments, but on the basis of personal identity. (And when the person in question is a woman, by denying her agency.)

    So explain to me why I’m the one who is being unfriendly.

    As for gender, socialism has always been dedicated to abolishing the gendered structure of society and the economy. See the writings of Marx, Lenin, or Rosa Luxemburg, whose image is at the top of this article. The difference is that socialists see this structure as rising out of economics, and don’t subscribe to the idea that the gender gap means a “privilege” for men – since lower wages for one group always undermine every other group’s ability to bargain with capital. The latter is backed up by statistics from centuries ago to today – the more certain groups are discriminated against, the more everyone else suffers as well. As Martin Luther King put it, we all go up together or we all go down together.

    Why not both? Because they’re opposite things. You can attempt to fix injustice via socialism or via identity politics, but their theoretical as well as practical foundations are completely different. I hope you’ve read my article closely enough to notice that I’m not arguing that goals of social equality are irrelevant; I’m arguing they cannot be accomplished via identity politics. Since I believe that change must mean bringing people together by overcoming the borders between us, I cannot support an ideology that – though claiming to do the opposite – in fact reinforces those borders to the point of essentialism.

    A re-reading of my article may remind you that I also argued that identity politics find their origins in Stalinism, and that socialists must be careful not to start fetishizing the working class as an identity.

  20. David Stewart Zink

     /  January 27, 2014

    [ And at this point I kind of wish that comments were threaded as I am replying to Jonas's reply to my original comment, and don't mean to imply that I've read absolutely everything in between (though I did try ;) ]

    Jonas, I doubt it’s willful, but you both illustrate and ignore my point.

    Production is an activity that happens in Asia. Nobody in the United States is actually forced (though they may choose sentimentally) to work in Production (edit: except slaves of course, but we traditionally disappear that, and they don’t produce much).

    Production is 16% of US jobs but only 11% of GDP, so maybe we’re still doing too much.

    I think that it’s relatively simple to mistake what we, the internet-using art crowd, do for what the majority of people do.

    It’s not clear that even a majority of people worldwide work in production, but it’s very clear that only a tiny fraction of Americans do.

    What I specifically want is an economics that works in the USA. Or, How are Capitalists screwing internet-using artists?

  21. I think you’re using too literal an understanding of “production.”

    As for a US-based theory, well, we live in a global economy; there are only global solutions. Everything is tied up with everything else.

  22. David Stewart Zink

     /  January 27, 2014

    You think internet-using artists are not part of production, so no I’m being no more literal than you are. I also guess that tax collectors, traffic cops, and real estate agents aren’t part of production, maybe I’m wrong about that. Plumbers? Auto-detailers? So many questions.

    If marxism and marxist solutions can only function at the level of the whole world at once, then I encourage you to establish global dominion so you can fix the world, but I’m going to continue to look for an economics which — because it can be applied — can be said to exist for some reason besides itself.

  23. You think internet-using artists are not part of production, so no I’m being no more literal than you are. I also guess that tax collectors, traffic cops, and real estate agents aren’t part of production, maybe I’m wrong about that. Plumbers? Auto-detailers? So many questions.

    I’d recommend David Harvey’s The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism as a good place to read up about the modern issues with production, distribution and profit.

    If marxism and marxist solutions can only function at the level of the whole world at once, then I encourage you to establish global dominion so you can fix the world, but I’m going to continue to look for an economics which — because it can be applied — can be said to exist for some reason besides itself.

    Well, they have to start somewhere, but the project has always been internationalist. You can’t just fix the problems of a global economic system in one country – no country in the world is self-sufficient and cut off from its neighbours.

  24. David Stewart Zink

     /  January 27, 2014

    In my humble opinion it is just better marketing to fix problems at home and then be a beacon of light to the world, rather than arguing that nothing gets better until everyone is cured all at once.

    I mean, maybe you’re saying that the United States is already better and it’s time to improve other parts of the world to our level, I get that.

    The problem with global solutions is that they are more distant in time than more limited solutions, but the suffering of people is immediate. A successful plan leads through incremental improvement at all scales until global perfection is achieved.

  25. As I said, you have to start somewhere. But if the project isn’t ultimately internationalist in its goals, you end up either with “just making things a little better” (i.e. changing nothing about the fundamental problems of capitalism) or with Stalin’s “socialism in one country” – the latter ironically closely related to the origin of identity politics.

    The system is global. The threats to humanity are global. Yes, we’ll have to start on a local level, but if we don’t embrace a global perspective, we *cannot fix* the source of our problems.

  26. David Stewart Zink

     /  January 27, 2014

    So if we’re going to start on a local level, then you and I are back in the same place: please help me to an economics that is in tune with US reality, not one structured around production we don’t have.

    [ Am currently checking out Harvey's enigma, on the cheap tho since I am "unemployed" ]

  27. Sorry, I don’t think that economic reality changes according to what is useful to us. Nor do I think that starting locally must mean starting with a limited perspective or analysis.

    (But again, I think you misunderstand the socialist use of “the means of production.” Which I suppose is the danger in using such established but no longer well-known terminology.)

  28. Jonathon Wisnoski

     /  January 27, 2014

    “Well, they have to start somewhere, but the project has always been internationalist. You can’t just fix the problems of a global economic system in one country – no country in the world is self-sufficient and cut off from its neighbours.”

    Isn’t that sort of imperialistic?
    “Since North Korea traded some grain for Uranium 50 years ago we have the right to invade them and completely overhaul their government and economic system”

    “Poorness is not an identity to be celebrated or lifted up; it is an identity to be done away with altogether. The oppression of poor people is that they are poor people. The same cannot be said for any other marginalized group.”

    I am not sure how it worked 5 years ago, but that sounds a lot like how feminism treats identities today. Across the board, in my experience (today), feminism does not lift up and celebrate gender in anyway shape or form, it looks to eliminate it. “gender is a social construct”, “Heterosexuality is a social construct [normally followed with an argument of why everyone should be a lesbian]“, Everything is a social construct. I have never even heard Feminism praise and raise up what it is to be a woman, they sort of look down on that sort of gendered behaviour.

  29. David Stewart Zink

     /  January 27, 2014

    ooh, did “means of production” sometime stop meaning “factories, tools, materials”? Capital that is neither labor nor money? Because that would make me very confused.

    And yes, I think I’ve been saying that outdated terminology is an issue. Changing old words to match new meanings is much less desirable than finding appropriate new words.

  30. David Stewart Zink

     /  January 27, 2014

    By tarring that tribe whose members find value in Identity Politics — “identitarians” — as people who “routinely dismiss everyone who disagrees with them as a bigot”, you are of course making a profoundly bigoted statement — a pejorative generalization. Why expect love in return?

    It’s possible that there are those in your comment section who find value in Identity but not in unfounded accusations of bigotry.

    Perhaps Marxist thought has always been inherently bigoted in its nature, in that it reduces each individual to a representative of their putative class. How strictly the individual Marxists hews to this line is up to them, I suppose. But if I recall correctly I am but an instance of the toiling intelligentsia, ineluctably a lackey of the capitalist.

  31. DSZ, I just left a comment elsewhere saying I wish identitarians would adopt a name for themselves that we might use, because I completely agree with Malcolm X that we should treat everyone with respect. But in the absence of a name, we have to use the best that’s available.

  32. Jonathon Wisnoski

     /  January 27, 2014

    @Will Shetterly: But if this comment thread shows us anything, terminology is best if it is understandable by everyone in isolation (without having to first read 20 books to correctly understand the term). In this vein I propose we do away with the term “identitarian” for the more understandable one, that I thinks strikes at the heart of the matter, and just call them “bigots”.

    The more I think about this the more correct it seems. Maybe if we wanted to differentiate between them and the classic bigot we could call them the “left-ish bigot”. What else are they, but the bigots of the left-ish parties (socialist leaning, American Democrat). Take some 1700s Mein Kump inspiring hierarchy of the races, sexes, excetera; Turn it upside-down and you have an identitarian guidebook.

  33. By tarring that tribe whose members find value in Identity Politics — “identitarians” — as people who “routinely dismiss everyone who disagrees with them as a bigot”, you are of course making a profoundly bigoted statement — a pejorative generalization.

    I’m sorry, but that’s silly. I’m not talking about individuals, but about a specific political movement, and I’m arguing that these tactics are the logical and observable result of that movement; in fact, there’s an entire terminology within this movement solely dedicated to silencing its opponents with personal slander. Is accusing nationalists of placing the interests of their nation before those of others also bigoted?

    If you think that’s inaccurate, well, good for you. I don’t think it is, and I think that it’s easy to see that every intersectionality-based group is constantly at war with itself and every other part of the left. And it’s also easy to see the origins of that problem in Stalinism and Maoism, as described in the quote by Ross Wolfe, and that this has been a problem on the Left for a long time.

  34. Isn’t that sort of imperialistic?

    No, not really. I’m talking about global revolution from below, not imposed from above.

    I am not sure how it worked 5 years ago, but that sounds a lot like how feminism treats identities today. Across the board, in my experience (today), feminism does not lift up and celebrate gender in anyway shape or form, it looks to eliminate it. “gender is a social construct”, “Heterosexuality is a social construct [normally followed with an argument of why everyone should be a lesbian]“, Everything is a social construct.

    Actually, that’s what feminism used to be like, before identity politics became fashionable, and it’s what socialist feminism is sometimes still like. And I’m all for that. Let’s completely abolish the concept of gender.

  35. David Stewart Zink

     /  January 27, 2014

    Let’s rewind this whole damn discussion.

    Is it true that “identitarians believe that a movement for change must be inclusive towards all oppressed identities”?

    Or is it true that “Identitarian is a term used to refer to a European New Right movement and its sympathizers. It holds the preservation and development of ethnic and cultural identity as its central ideological principle, and criticises the state of the contemporary West.”

    I think it makes a difference.

  36. Regarding abolishing gender, what Jonas said.

    Jonathon Wisnoski, identitarians are bigots, but bigotry is too broad a term for discussing them–it’s like saying Vox Day and Stormfront are racists. They’re very different kinds of racists. If you’d be more comfortable referring to identitarian bigots rather than identitarians, fine, but that seems like extra typing to me.

    David Stewart Zink, languages often double-up on meanings, so context matters. If “identitarian” is good enough in this context for Adolph Reed Jr., it’s good enough for me.

  37. Jonathon Wisnoski

     /  January 27, 2014

    No, not really. I’m talking about global revolution from below, not imposed from above.

    I get that it would manifest itself differently because of this, but is it still not imperialism? The belief that your philosophy/way of living is superior in every way shape and form for all social and geographical locations, and for all creeds and peoples. And the belief that that gives you the right to go out and try to impose that way of life through either violent or non-violent means on everyone, and in doing so, you will elevate these peoples. Sounds like imperialism to me.

    And maybe you do not believe in violent conversion. Except maybe you make an exception for fascists, but then if you are RIGHT in a absolute sense, maybe everyone who disagrees with you is a fascist.

  38. Steven Brust

     /  January 27, 2014

    ” Sounds like imperialism to me.”

    This is incredibly offensive. Imperialism is not about imposing beliefs and lifestyle and philosophy; it is about mass murder, it is about driving people out of their homes, it is about impoverishing millions. And it is not driven by beliefs in the superiority of one’s way of life, it is driven by the need of capitalism to expand, by the need to secure resources and markets, by profit.

    The belief that equality and the end of oppression are goals that all people should strive for has nothing in common with imperialism, and to claim it does is to trivialize the human suffering imperialism causes.

  39. David Stewart Zink

     /  January 27, 2014

    Will, it’s just that I was confused about the terminology, I think I have it nailed down now:

    *) Identitarianism from Adorno refers to the identification of different things (e.g. the interests of labor and capitalist classes under neoliberalism). We’re not talking about this.

    1) Identitarianism is an umbrella term for ethnic supremacy/separatist/power movements (from skin-heads to the Black Panthers). And such are obviously bigots.

    2) Identitarianism in the modern european left usage (& your Reed) seems to be a thin veil drawn over (1) but proclaiming “separate but equal works, really! Hey, we’re not bigots!”. And such are obviously bigots. Their dreamworld of a homeland for every european ethnicity within the greater european homeland valorizes ethnic identity over the much more important (in modern Europe) identities of gender, sexuality, and football club. (Every individual gets their own homeland works for me, tho)

    btw, will, the people of bloc-identitaire and generation-identitaire are definitely labeling themselves “identitarians” so either they are whom you meant, or we really do need a better word.

    3) Because they are the “Identity Politics” people I interact with too often (all day), because of the phrasing “a movement for change must be inclusive towards all oppressed identities” excluded (1) in my mind, and because I was unfamiliar with (2), I mistook the initial usage of “Identitarianism” to refer to those who argue in favor of and deplore the existence of white & male privilege, etc., but reject “separate but equal” solutions, arguing (every time I’ve seen them in person) for the abolition of gender as a mental category.

    So, my bad.

    Though I do feel like others have mistook with me because I cannot otherwise interpret various parts of this debate.

    In any case, characterizing anyone who disagrees with them as “bigot” may be a popular rhetorical tactic in all three groups, but I never heard that it was a condition of membership. For some people it seems rarely applied except when the disagreement is about the fundamental defining principles.

    In fascist American politics anyone who slips from the narrowest interpretation of right-wing dogma is a “socialist”, so perhaps a similar algorithm is at work.

    (I couldn’t help remarking the quick transition from “they characterize everyone who disagrees as bigots” to “they are all bigots”.)

  40. Jonathon Wisnoski

     /  January 27, 2014

    This is incredibly offensive. Imperialism is not about imposing beliefs and lifestyle and philosophy; it is about mass murder, it is about driving people out of their homes, it is about impoverishing millions. And it is not driven by beliefs in the superiority of one’s way of life, it is driven by the need of capitalism to expand, by the need to secure resources and markets, by profit.

    I think you are confusing the results of Imperialism as Imperialism itself. As well as confusing some of the minor reasons for as the major reasons for.

    Yes, absolutely Capitalism is intrinsically Imperialistic. But WTH was The Soviet Union other than Imperialistic. Absolutely, Imperialism is rooted in expanding your wealth and power, but that much destruction and death never happens without a strong “moral” incentive.
    “We need to go into these backwards countries and modernise and bring the freedom of Capitalism.”
    “We must overthrow the oppressive religious dictatorship of Tibet to bring the prosperity of modern chinese communism.”

    People are not inherently evil. They do great evil while trying to do good. Emperors do not laugh maniacally in their dark underground lairs when planning genocide. They perpetrate genocide while trying to make the world a better place. Yes profit and power are key parts of blinding them, but they are not their main reasons, their main courses of thinking.

  41. David Stewart Zink

     /  January 27, 2014

    Mr. Brust, you too might be being a bit forward —

    (Capital) needs to expand its influence and region of exploitation in order to maintain its precious rate of return, and it does so however works best in particular conditions.

    Sometimes that’s mass-murder, sometimes it’s mass enslavement, sometimes it’s mass enrollment into the proletariat (wage-enslavement, if you prefer).

    Additional improvement on the rate of return comes from economies of scale created by hegemonized culture (the budweiser effect); cycled of course with faux differentiation masquerading as cultural capital (the Sam Adams effect).

    “Imperialism” is pretty often used to describe both the physical conquest of (mostly) bygone eras and the cultural conquest that has (mostly) superseded it.

    Even impoverishment in any absolute sense is fairly outdated as a strategy; the motion of capital is created by relative wealth, but there is a level of impoverishment where the poverty itself creates too much friction and returns diminish. Hence Bill Gates. The GOP/DEM divide in the US is about the best balance between increasing profit from impoverishment and reducing the expense of policing that.

    That said, obviously it might not also be true that all cultural Hegemony is necessarily a form of Imperialism — but it is certainly not uncommon to see it that way, and one could perhaps be suspicious.

    There is a fairly fat thread of Dogma in Marxist thought, I think, relating to how we are to value a person’s labor or their personal perception of value in spirituality, etc. As such there is definitely a cultural hegemony in the making: The US wants everyone to be exactly Christian. Good Marxists have little choice but to want everyone to not be Christian (though if there is a modern Marxist approved revision of Christianity I’d love to hear of it).

    Ultimately the Marxist urge to be in charge everywhere and for all peoples to subscribe to certain important beliefs and values together can be seen as a form of Imperialism. Whether or not the long heralded revolution actually involves blood in the streets (mass murder) or not killing anyone but merely forcing them to accept the changes (mass enslavement, but we will call it ‘freedom’, won’t we?). Perhaps not a form of Imperialism we need to resist, but still: what if it turned out that Marxism wasn’t an exactly correct belief system?

  42. David Stewart Zink, “two countries divided by a common language” applies when talking about identitarianism. I’m with the people who would like a better term so’s not to confuse it with the European version, but no one has an improvement and the identitarians in the US sense won’t offer one of their own.

    And if you think the US wants everyone to be Christian, you’ve been paying much too much attention to the radical right. They have money, so they shouldn’t be ignored, but they’re a small movement. Our First Amendment stays strong. It’s amusing that you made that claim on the same day our military said that beards and turbans are okay for soldiers whose faiths call for them. Diversity is winning here, just as capitalism is.

    Jonathon Wisnoski, did the flow of wealth go from states allied with the USSR back to the USSR? If not, I wouldn’t call it imperialistic. The US fits easier in the model because the economic interest is easy to find.

    And if you don’t think Tibet’s slaveocracy was oppressive, you could start your research here: http://www.michaelparenti.org/Tibet.html

  43. Jonathon Wisnoski

     /  January 28, 2014

    what if it turned out that Marxism wasn’t an exactly correct belief system?

    First off, btw I have almost no idea what you are talking about for your entire post. Completely over my head.

    But to my main point, I tend to take a more nihilistic approach. You don’t have to make any mistakes or even be Wrong, to be wrong. There is not such a thing as being Right, it is simply impossible. You can only be right subjectively, in a small number of cases.

  44. what if it turned out that Marxism wasn’t an exactly correct belief system?

    Then it could be adapted. That’s the whole point: applying scientific principles to the economy with the goal of creating a better society. Not utopia, just something more humane than what we’ve got, in which the great achievements of human thought can be put to use for everyone.

  45. I’m going to close this discussion now, and see about addressing some of the points raised in future posts. Otherwise I will spend hours looking for references for comments that only a handful of people will ever see.

    Meanwhile, I recommend the work of David Harvey as a good introduction to Marxist analyses of the present situation, and a variety of links about identity politics:

    Exiting the Vampire Castle
    The limits of anti-racism
    What’s Wrong With Identity Politics (and Intersectionality Theory)?
    Class and Identity Crisis
    First as tragedy, then as farce…then as low-budget bondage porn and related posts about Richard Seymour
    criticizing identitarianism from the left: a beginner’s reading list
    I am a Woman and a Human: A Marxist-Feminist Critique of Intersectionality Theory

    The blog Social Justice Warriors: Do Not Engage contains many more articles on related subjects.