Episode 13: Identity Politics, with Marie Moran

Its become almost cliche to say that we are now somehow living in an age of identity politics. Controversies ostensibly belonging to that term seem to be piling up at a ferocious rate. Whether it be to do with toxic masculinity in online gaming communities, the tearing down of confederate statues in southern American states, the campaign access to transgender bathrooms, the failure of Hillary Clinton’s election campaign to recognize that gender is not a category that excludes the working class, or the right to freedom of speech of members of the so-called ‘intellectual dark web,’ it seems we’re just awash with this intense and rapidly proliferating series of disputes over how we regulate speech and symbolic acts, in the public sphere. Clearly, we do think these debates are important — after all, as any politically-active user on Twitter and Facebook will tell you — we can spend vast amounts of time in arguments about these issues. And we continue to engage in them, even tho they don’t seem to change anyone’s minds (and reports suggest they are actually not very good for our mental health!).

But how did we get here? What made us suddenly so aware of identity, and why do we feel the need to argue about it? Is there anything redeeming about identity politics, and how — or to what extent — should the left be engaging in it? To discuss these questions and more, our guest for this episode is Marie Moran. Marie is a lecturer in Equality Studies at the School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice, in UCD, in Dublin, and she has a piece in the latest issue of Historical Materialism, called ‘Identity and Identity Politics’. Based on some pretty compelling research, she lays out an argument in the piece that identity is actually a very new concept in the analysis of social life, and that we need to exercise much greater care in our approach to distinguishing what it is, and what isn’t.

As you’ll hear in the interview, Marie isn’t necessarily opposed to identity politics. Not by any means. But she does believe that we may have taken a wrong turn in our grasp of its political significance. Thus, while we might find it hard not to be put off by the toxicity of today’s “call out culture,” Moran would remind us that the Black Power Movements who first embraced the concept of identity in the 1960s, did not have an essentializing approach to it. That is, that they didn’t see their struggle to secure recognition for their groups in the public sphere as an end in itself (EDIT: Marie has since written me an email asking me to clarify that her position is that identity is “invariably” essentializing “and by definition does” essentialize. I hope the listener/reader will understand my point here, however, which is to follow Marie’s own argument that not all identity struggles are carried out for the sake of identity, only). So, this is going to be one of the big topics in the interview you’re about to hear — what it means to essentialize identity, and the linkages between today’s identity mania, and capitalism’s culture of self. Towards the end, we get into a good discussion of the similarities and differences between Marie’s approach to the topic, and those presented by Asad Haider in his new book, ‘Mistaken Identity’ (we posted on this, last week). There’s been a lot of controversy about the book online, but I think you’ll find Marie’s take to be pretty thoughtful.

On a final note, I just want to apologize for the poor audio quality in this interview — due to unforeseen circumstances, we ended up having to record this interview in Skype. I’ve done my best to clean it up, but you’ll definitely hear some echo on the line. Its a shame, but stick with us – this is a really fascinating interview. Maries is a very careful and precise scholar. And I think you’ll agree that she’s making an important contribution to this debate.

On Naschek, on Haider, and the “Zombie New Left”

Given the recent opprobrium over Melissa Naschek’s piece in Jacobin, and the fact that it certainly has a few errors, it would be foolish to make it the hill upon which one might want to make any kind of stand. (Certainly, the editors should have been able to spot the bizarre misreading of the pullout quote from Haider, about the “banal truism” — in the text, Haider is clearly replying to “identitarian liberals” who disavow class positionality altogether. He is explicitly saying we need to reserve a place in our critique for strategies of structural change. Whereas for Naschek, Haider here is somehow disavowing “class centrality”?). But the presence of errors doesn’t mean that the message is entirely off base — or, at least, that there might not be some sort of productive point to be gained from engaging with it.

To be upfront tho, unlike Naschek, I tend to think Haider’s politics are basically fine. I’ll offer some defense of that in a minute. But equally, I also have the feeling that if I could sit down with Naschek sometime, I might just be able to persuade her that there’s a lot in the book that she could work with, too. For me, a rough and ready ‘test’ for whether or not one is relying too hard on the category of identity is whether or not one can accept that identity per se is an insufficient basis upon which to erect either a critique of capitalism, or a strategic program. Borrowing from Hardt and Negri, identity might bequeath us emancipation, but only the defeat of capitalism can give us liberation. Identity in the end is a form of property, and like other forms of property, it can bind us and immobilize us in the development of our being. True human unfolding requires that we go beyond the need to ‘perform’ according to any kind of script, and that we have access to the material abundance necessary to make that possible.

Does Haider pass that test? To me, I think he does. Consider for example how Haider poses humanity as “a multitude of people irreducible to any single description” without any “default” common interest. Now, insofar as this claim might be interpreted to suggest the absence of an empirical basis for class politics, we might be alarmed to read that line. But when was class ever about the existence of an extra-historical common interest? For Marx himself, the whole point of the concept of the proletariat was to figure out how it might finally be abolished. Similarly, for Haider, anticapitalist politics is a contingent proposition, rooted in a democratic self-composition of the multitude, founded in whatever common interests it can muster, here and now, as it seeks to become something else entirely.

Does race belong as a necessary category in the struggle against capitalism? Ellen Woods was surely correct in claiming that “capitalism is conceivable without racial divisions.” But in Haider’s mind, race has been central to the composition of American capitalism. It didn’t necessarily start out that way (Haider here discusses the work of Barbara Fields), but in the seventeenth century it became useful for the ruling class to divide their slaves along racial lines. And this set in motion a whole series of historical developments, many of which we are living with still today.

Its not my place to recapitulate the entirety of Haider’s argument. But there’s sufficient grounds in the above already to demonstrate that one of Naschek’s key claims may be overblown — namely, the idea that Haider reduces anticapitalist politics to a “numbers game” of connecting “movements of movements,” and striving endlessly for a “requisite number of signatories.” Now, critically, I would have no problem using Naschek’s accusation against, say, Laclau and Mouffe. So convinced are they of the merits of radical populism, the word capitalism seems to sit in their mouths like an unswallowable frog. If Haider’s was indeed one of those kinds of arguments, Naschek would be quite right in calling him out for his refusal to impute “any common objective interests of workers.” But I don’t see any evidence that Haider is advocating ‘that’ kind of hegemony. Of course, an interesting debate can be had, from this launch point, on the role of the mass party, and the extent to which it can and should be embedded in the movements (see Hardt and Negri’s Assembly, as just one take on this). This is a rich and useful debate. But the point right now, I think, is that Naschek is shoving a square peg in a round hole suggesting that somehow these concerns are incompatible with those of Haider’s book.

Which leads perhaps to the thing that I think Naschek gets right. There is an awful lot of leftist politics today that does succumb to the radical pluralistic style that Laclau and Mouffe exemplify. Naschek is thus correct when she declares “identity politics and class politics understand capitalist power structures in distinct ways and therefore lead to distinct political strategies.” Of course! And we could even amplify this point, turning to scholars like Marie Moran and Martijn Konings, who demonstrate concretely (albeit via different arguments) the linkages between contemporary “identity speak” and the sickness of capitalism’s culture of self. But equally, as Moran and people like Roger Lancaster will quickly point out, we shouldn’t jump to too many conclusions on the basis of that observation, in isolation: many of the movements to which the term “identity politics” is regularly ascribed aren’t in fact identity movements at all! To the contrary, their demands have often been articulated less in terms of a desire for recognition, and more frequently in the pursuit of material resources. Identity for them has been a means to an end, and nothing more. That’s a really important point!

Naschek ends, claiming that “we can’t do both.” I might agree, but we need to be careful what we mean. Yes, there would seem to be an abundance of examples to attest to her claim that the “do both” strategy can paralyze the left, if by “do both” we are referring to the cynical mode of identity-for-its-own-sake politics that seems to inspire any number of contemporary phenomena, from campus safe spaces to Hillary Clinton’s claim that breaking up the big banks won’t solve racism to, well, pick your own DeRay Mckesson Tweet. These surely are examples of the pursuit of “identity-based particularism” that has self-evidently come at the “expense of class-based universalism.” Personally, however, I struggle to read any of those examples in “do both” terms. A real “do both” strategy would do what it says on the tin: recognize that the ‘emancipation’ question has its own proper place, alongside that of liberation.

Naschek will agree with me, I am certain, if I say that fulfillment of the promise of emancipation is impossible, so long as anti-capitalist liberation awaits. When she says the goal isn’t “synthesis” of the “best of” identity politics, and the “best of” universalist anti-capitalism, as if they should both have the same strategic priority, she is quite correct. But that is not to suggest that identity struggles are necessarily any less of a moral priority. So, to our above agreement, I would request the addition of another: callout culture will likely continue to have a place, even in our most ideal socialist utopia. To be sure, the movements we need cannot be built unless our organizations can demonstrate the capacity to offer “a real possibility” to change people’s lives for the better, and there is certainly such a thing as “the zombie new left.” But even if those two issues could be satisfactorily addressed, human beings are so diverse in their ambitions and aesthetic commitments, its hard to imagine that material equality could finally close the need for a supplemental politics based on something like identity.

UPDATE: Haider has today published a response to Naschek.