Check Your Privilege, Comrade: Identity Politics & The Left

Lee Jenkins November 21, 2013 3
Check Your Privilege, Comrade: Identity Politics & The Left

Can the Left have unity when everybody needs their own collectivised voice?

Identity politics is largely a result of how the organised labour came into being; a group (in this case industrial workers) was perceived to be suffering under a combination of exploitation, lack of opportunity and poor wages/conditions. As each individual worker was weak, but the collective potentially strong, the obvious solution seemed to be a pooling of political capital. This bloc could then bargain from a position of, if not parity, then at least less disadvantage.

But a necessary prerequisite to the forming of a bloc is surrendering some degree of personal sovereignty. For the purposes of the union, you exists as merely part of the collective, with any deviation or dissent a betrayal that would undermine the collective.

This can be seen in the language used by unions; united we stand divided we fall, the workers united will never be defeated, one out all out, in unity strength.
Individuality, therefore, plays into the hands of the enemy. Indeed, unions even went so far as to make up a word to describe disloyalty during a strike; scab.

It should be little surprise that the successful format used in lumping workers together was used to group other disadvantaged individuals together; picking a salient feature and making that their unifying banner. The natural results of a desire to ensure that every group, real or perceived has a voice is the catalyst for identity politics.

Women, homosexuals and ethnic minorities were the next three obvious candidates for collectivisation, and most would agree that was necessary and beneficial to these groups in particular, and as society ad a whole.

But has this created a monster? Or rather, once the identity genie is out of its bottle, how much mischief can it cause?

Should transexual and transgender individuals fall under the existing gay rights banner by putting a T on the end to make it LGBT? And what of the curious? The * on the end of LGBT* is for them, but do they deserve their own group? Undoubtedly they face many of the challenges and disadvantages that plain old homosexuals do, but they also get a unique chunk of their own too.

venn_no_1-bigAnd should transgender women (by which I mean those born male but who identify themselves as female) be admitted to feminist events and discussions? Transgender women will face many of the problems biological women face, but is that enough, or should they be confined to their own group, less they ruin, dilute or taint ‘proper’ feminism? Is this transphobia, and is it justified under certain circumstances if feminism is to avoid  losing focus?

And what of ethnic minority women? Few would argue that they don’t suffer greater discrimination than women or male ethnic minorities do alone, so do they need their own group, or should mainstream feminism devote time and energy to addressing their challenges first?

And if feminism as a movement decides to challenge the inherent male dominance prevalent in some minority cultures, is this a betrayal of cultural sensitivity and tolerance? By attacking deeply held minority customs and practice, would feminism be unwittingly doing the job of rich white men for them?

This last example touches on a fundamental dilemma for adherents of identity politics; if everybody deserves a voice, and those voices are best heard in groups, how do you manage an individual who over laps multiple groups, especially when their interests are contrary?

Another word was invented to at least try and square that circle. Dizzy from all the Venn diagrams, intersectionality was an attempt to bring order to the chaos. It’s a fascinating and worthy cause, but also huge. Here’s an excellent introduction.

Yet despite all the campaigns and lofty pledges of empowerment and diversity, why do the flag bearers of the Left tend to be comparatively well off white men? And does it matter if they’re rape joke making, womanising types like Russell Brand? Brocialism, anyone? Should minority issues be put on the back burner while the ‘real’ battle is fought? Does unity trump all else, or is a revolution without every minority injustice accounted for not really worthy of the term?

There’s no easy answer.
But as an able bodied white male class traitor, would I even be allowed to answer?


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  • I never have understood why people are so keen on collectivism. The idea that life is nothing more than a battle between competing special interests seems utterly futile and self-demeaning.

    Identity politics takes a very natural human tendency – the desire to associate with those of like mind – and recasts it such that instead of the group being an artefact of the individuals who comprise it, it becomes their raison d’être.

    So for example, my identities include Transwoman. For me that’s a handy way to sum up that I wasn’t born female but I self-identify as a woman, and that’s all I mean by it. Were I not in a longterm relationship it’d be a handy way to let potential partners decide if they wanted to be more than that, a choice which they’re perfectly well entitled to make for themselves.

    However in a world where identity politics is the focus this term is overloaded with ideas and rigid viewpoints that apparently I should adhere to or I’m a traitor to the cause of transgender rights.

    To start with, I should be a victim of discrimination. I don’t doubt that people do at times discriminate against me, as that’s another natural human tendency, but does that make me a victim? No. However victimhood is the great rallying cry of identity politics and of the Left in general, I might even go so far as to call it the romantic ideal of the liberal Left for the vigour with which they embrace it. But who benefits from labelling themselves a victim?

    Then there’s the assumption that I should be a Feminist, most likely at war with both a paternalistic society and Trans-Excluding Radical Feminists, which is a pejorative term for Feminists who think Transsexuals are basically men appropriating female bodies as a strange form of paternalistic imperialism.

    But yet again, that’s not me. I could be, if I thought it mattered whether some venom-spouting hag in Birkenstocks liked me or not, but it doesn’t. And let’s face it, spending time with people who don’t like me just to prove that I share their identity would mean less time for things I do enjoy.

    It’s also supposed to go without saying that I’m a supporter of the Left because that’s apparently in my self-interest. Note that that’s the Left’s view of my self-interest, based on collective identity and not what I actual want from life or my situational awareness of how best to achieve it.

    Needless to say I fail on that one as well. Damn these little grey cells for having a mind of their own…

    In essence identity politics is about labelling people and subsuming their talents and voices for the benefit of a left-wing collectivist agenda which has time-and-again been proven at best misguided and at worst downright inhuman.

    But as a Libertarian I would say that. Roll on the revolution when misfits like me can be reeducated in our designated identities to fulfil the diversity requirements of the New Jerusalem, liberated from doubt or self-awareness by our munificent and perfectly egalitarian leadership.

  • Antonio Negri

    In terms of an argument in response to the traditional left, check out the work of Laclau and Mouffe, particularly their book ‘Hegemony and Socialist Strategy’. The work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri would also be a good point to look at responses to these issues, particularly their work on Empire/Multitude. They see this ‘multitude’ of subjectivities within and between humanity as a positive thing that can help us build a better world. They and many others outright reject the attempts at homogeneity and labour centralism of past social movements.

    On feminist, LGBT and racial issues, there’s huge bodies of work in post-structuralist feminist, queer theory, and postcolonial thought. Judith Butler would be a good place to start with the first two, Undoing Gender is highly regards.

    In my experience of this site it is a lot more right wing than this article, so I’m not sure what the motivation behind it is, whether its merely putting forwards these questions or sees them as a challenge to the left. If the latter: these are problems the left has been grappling with for years. The influence of post-structuralism (think Foucault and co) and postmodernism on the left has been huge in recent decades. Largely since 1968.

    Anywhichway, good article. These are some very important questions.

  • racyrich

    What’s a priviledge? A narrow shelf supporting the cistern?