Burning Down the House – Identity politics and its discontents


In a previous Medium post entitled ‘The Egalitarians and the Meritocrats’ I wrote about the fracture on the American left as reflected by the respective candidacies for the Democratic nomination for President in 2016 – Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton – specifically the fundamental ideas underpinning/animating their respective coalitions and which, in the eyes of their supporters (and detractors,) the two candidates came to symbolise and personify.

Broadly speaking, I differentiated between the ‘Bernie Sanders wing of the party’ and the ‘Hillary Clinton wing’ by noting that supporters of the former generally posited socio-economic class as the great dividing line in American society whilst supporters of the latter – ‘identity liberals’ to borrow Mark Lilla’s phrasing – were more likely to focus upon race, gender and sexuality as the central fissures in American society.

My conclusion in that blog was to point out that these two political ‘tribes’ – one that I chose to dub ‘egalitarians’ and the other ‘meritocrats’ – needed to quit squabbling and reach a rapprochement in order to focus outwardly on their common enemy; Trump and the GOP. In essence, I concluded that in respect to their animating ideas about class and about race/gender, both were right but also, both were wrong.

A sizeable proportion of the feedback I received to my blog-post appeared to interpret my comments as implied support for a theory originally elucidated by African-American feminist Kimberley Crenshaw in 1989, which she termed ‘intersectionality.’ This was a mis-interpretation of my intent and I have taken the opportunity with this blog-post to attempt to correct that impression and to elaborate on some of the points I made in ‘The Egalitarians and the Meritocrats,’ specifically in relation to what has come to be described as ‘identity politics.’

What do we mean by ‘identity politics’ exactly? simplified greatly, it has come to be associated with the politics of recognition/representation of previously marginalised groups in society – whether that be on the basis of their ethnicity, sex, gender orientation, sexuality or otherwise – a politics of representation/recognition borne of what (some have argued) was a cultural revolution that swept the West after world war two, a cultural revolution associated with the progressive social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The civil rights movement in America, second wave feminism and the gay rights movement in particular.

So far, so good. What then is the problem? ‘Identity politics’ (as a term) is merely a proxy for the civil rights of previously marginalised groups, no? so why demur? Question: what does identity politics actually mean in practice currently? The stated goal of a previous generation of anti-racists, the civil rights movement lead by MLK, was *integration.* Further question: what were its proponents actually proposing previously marginalised groups integrate into?

My contention in this blog is that ‘identity politics’ has come to represent not the positive vision of integration as outlined by MLK in his more optimistic moments, but the negative fear that integration means integrating into a ‘burning house’ as expressed by MLK in his more pessimistic hours.

The original vision of the civil rights movement was to end segregation and apartheid. The goal was integration. How then have we got to a stage whereby the current generation of anti-racist activists have come to entertain the explicit promotion of the argument that de facto segregation/apartheid is actually *progressive*? that integration necessarily means ‘integrating into a burning house’?

The answer, in my opinion, lies in the particular idea of *privilege* which has been incorporated into the weltanschauung of progressive politics since the passing of MLK in 1968. Specifically (albeit not exclusively) the idea of ‘white skin privilege’ as adumbrated by the Jewish American Marxist writer Theodore W Allen in his multi-volume work ‘The Invention of the White Race’ and later elaborated upon by white American feminist writer Peggy McIntosh in her work ‘The Invisible Knapsack.’ An idea which leads to the following quasi-Marxian Manichean logic:

To be ‘white’ is thus to be seen as ‘privileged’ but it is not the only form of privilege recognised by the soi-disant ‘progressive’ left:

The theory of ‘intersectionality,’ as outlined by African-American feminist Kimberle Crenshaw, is an attempt to make sense of these interlocking aspects of ‘privilege’ and their corresponding axes of ‘oppression. It has proven to be a popular theory and arguably forms the bedrock to modern contemporary ‘progressive’ attempts to achieve ‘social justice.’

Simplified greatly, it is suffice to say that whilst a person of colour may experience racism and a female may experience sexism/misogyny, a female person of colour can experience both at the same time and these differing forms of oppression/discrimination *intersect.* Likewise for people who are gay, trans, disabled or a combination of the above. Implicit in the idea of intersectionality is the idea that it is not enough merely to tackle ‘white supremacy’ or the ‘patriarchy’ or ‘cis-heteronormativity,’ one must tackle all these putative oppressive power structures *at the same time* because they all exist in conjunction with one another.

Standing in opposition to the oppression of marginalised people? how could anyone but a cold-hearted ogre have a problem with that? Well, because the specific schema of intersectionality is flawed and self-defeating, let me explain. One of the significant problems with intersectionality is the fact that it leads to several *blind-spots,* not least of which is (what Joan Williams has referred as) *class cluelessness.* Intersectionality pays lips service to class but in reality it is minimised/obscured.

Consider, if you will, a 13 year old living on a council estate (government owned housing in the United Kingdom) in a mono-ethnic post-industrial town (Wigan) riven with drugs and unemployment in the North of England in a single-parent family raised by a retired, disabled dad who is living off a pension. Privileged? doesn’t sound like it does it? but according to an intersectionalist, yes, because the 13 year old was white, male, cis-gendered and hetero-sexual. If you have haven’t already guessed, that 13 year old (25 years ago) was me. Which begs the question: if your goal as a political movement is *equality* how can that possibly be achieved *without* consideration of social class? wont it just lead to a preoccupation with ensuring our elites are more diverse rather than actually tackling the roots of inequality?

The ascendancy of intersectionality within progressive thought/philosophy therefore poses a problem to any potential progressive political coalition. The proof, as it were, is in the pudding, increasingly it is the case that working-class whites are voting for right-wing parties rendering it less likely that left-wing parties will win power and have the opportunity to help the marginalised people intersectionality purports to speak for.

What we are seeing in places like the UK and the USA, where ideas like ‘white privilege’ are increasingly ascendant in progressive circles, is a gradual political realignment. The white working class (WWC) are increasingly voting for right-wing parties therefore making it harder and harder for left-wing parties to win power. No one could argue that this process *started* with the ascendancy of identity politics/intersectionality in progressive circles but one could certainly build a strong case that it has accelerated those trends and made it harder to reverse them.

It is certainly arguable that without a strong sense of class consciousness the goal of progressive politics has gradually shifted *from* equality and *to* diversity, not merely as a means to an end but as an end in of itself. To what extent does this shift in emphasis serve reactionary ends? (screen-shots taken from the digital version of ‘The Age of Acquiescence’ by Steve Fraser)

‘Progressive’ politics therefore presents the white working class with a double-bind. Vote for a left-wing party that believes you are already *privileged* – well, you have white skin don’t you? – or vote for a right-wing party who believe that you are poor because you deserve to be – we live in a ‘meritocracy’ dont we? – a hobson’s choice which might go some way to explaining the increasing popularity of right-wing populism across the western world. If you are white and working class: who exactly are your political tribunes? increasingly it has been demagogic/populist politicians who speak the language of class – the idea of a ‘metropolitan liberal elite’ closely mirrors the old Marxist enemy of the ‘bourgeoisie,’ literally a term which originally meant ‘city-dweller’ – but with racialised overtones. Class war politics but offering not economic sovereignty but cultural.

Progressive politics has embraced not only identity politics – the idea that your politics should flow from your ascriptive identity – but also multi-culturalism, the idea that in a multi-ethnic society our societal mix should resemble not a ‘melting pot’ but a ‘salad bowl.’ In other words: the idea that cultural diversity should be maximised and assimilation discouraged. This presents the WWC with a problem because they are told:

1. On the one hand to ‘celebrate diversity’ but also to be careful to ‘stay in their lane’

2. To ‘celebrate diversity’ but also to not ‘appropriate’ from other cultures

3. That ‘all politics is identity politics’ but also: if you strongly identify with Englishness we will regard you with suspicion.

The white working class, as a racialised conception of socio-economic class, is as much a product of state multi-culturalism as any diversity quota, one could argue. There is a tendency amongst certain progressives to deny that it actually exists, that it is a ‘dog-whistle racist category’ but it exists in the same sense that when a sculptor creates his work from a piece of marble he also leaves a piece of marble behind. The WWC are like this. ‘Communities’ are carved out of the great mass of people and the WWC are the piece left behind. Right-wing populists have taken the piece left behind and are currently trying to fashion something extremely ugly out of it.

Furthermore, from the point of view of the black and minority ethnic population this mix of identity politics and multi-culturalism encourages the view that integration means integrating into a ‘burning house.’ Whiteness doesnt just mean ‘privilege.’ In the manichean world-view of the self-styled ‘progressive’ it means something even more sinister. ‘Whiteness’ is evil, a pathology, a form of psychosis. Whiteness, in one sense, has replaced sex as the our original sin. Exempt in this case there is no hope for redemption there is merely the opportunity to self-flagellate. Integration means integrating into a burning house.