Breaking Free From Identity Politics
In order to understand identity politics, we must first get back to the roots of liberal ideology. “Liberalism” as a concept emerged around the same time as the French revolution and the enlightenment. It was a philosophical reaction to the concept of divine right, the idea that some people are just inherently superior and deserve to have the world handed to them on a platter because of who they were born (kings and shit). The response to that was, “No, you know what? All men are created equal. No one is better just because of who they are.” It is of course not surprising that this was a favorite philosophy of the bourgeoisie, who had land and money and power but no divine right, but that’s another story for another day.
However, because of the way the world works, accepting that all people are “born equal” presents some philosophical problems. Namely, why do some people end up with so much wealth and others don’t? Why are so few women in power in companies? And what’s up with all the black people in prison?
If people are truly born equal, but end up with different outcomes, there are (at least) two ways you can explain that away. One is a kind of socially conservative mindset that places all the blame on personal choices and responsibility. A “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” kind of mentality — if someone fails, it’s because they didn’t try hard enough, or they were lazy, or whatever the case may be.
The second option is to blame external factors preventing people from achieving the things they might want to. However, these external factors can’t be based on inherent differences that people are born with, because that would contradict the idea that “all men are created equal”. Enter the concept of identity. What identity refers to is the idea that there exist social constructs — race. gender, disability, etc. — that are not inherent features of a person, but rather arbitrary categories created by society in order to group people together. People who believe in identity politics can believe that society forces various identities onto people, or that people have (or should have) the right to “self-identify”, in order to belong to the group that they feel best represents them. For example, radical feminists (often called TERFs) believe that gender is an entirely social construct created to justify the patriarchy, whereas liberal feminists believe that gender is a form of personal identity and expression (stemming from the individual) that is nevertheless unfairly used as an excuse to oppress people.
A potential problem with liberal ideology is that very different people can get grouped under the same umbrella. For example, a poor Southern rural disabled straight white woman may not have much, if anything, in common with a wealthy Northern urban able-bodied gay black woman, but when it comes to gender they are treated as part of the same group. As a response to this problem, modern liberalism has attempted to ameliorate this with the concept of intersectionality, the idea that you can’t just consider gender but also need to consider race, class, etc. in everything you do. In practice, what this means is that the ideological considerations “required” in order to address any group of people become so broad and overreaching, including so many people with so many different experiences, needs, and values — some of which are inherently at odds with each other — that it becomes almost impossible to meaningfully discuss or remedy real-world problems.
Another potential problem is that very different problems can get grouped under the same umbrella as well. So for example, the reasons black women can’t find much makeup at the drug store (very small percent of the population, generally with less money) are very different from the reasons that a girl’s father flips out when she brings home a black man (lack of experience and a fear of “the other”, dog whistle racism by his preferred political party, etc.) And yet both of these things are just referred to as “racism”. Sure, if you go back far enough, some of these problems may have common causes — but some of them don’t. And often, the best way to remedy the makeup problem has nothing to do with the best way to remedy the father problem. But in social and academic circles, we hear people discussing “combatting racism” as though it were a unified goal unto itself. And even if you try to fix one targeted problem — the makeup one, let’s say — then you also have to concern yourself with intersectionality. What about Latinas? What about black women with sensitive skin? What about poor black women who can’t afford to pay more even though the company needs to charge more in order to recoup their costs? Etc. etc. The problems become so complicated and you have to be so careful that it becomes almost impossible to actually do anything.
So one of the alternatives to this mentality is what Marx called dialectical materialism, or “materialism” for short. This is the idea that people actually are born unequal, and live in unequal circumstances, not due to the identity they’re assigned (or choose), but rather due to material conditions. For instance, Lily struggles to find work not because she’s “disabled”, but rather because she can’t see. The solution to her problem might be to help her see, to find a job that doesn’t require sight, or to provide her with a living subsidy so she doesn’t need to worry about money, for example. What she needs, as a person, is very different from Kyle, who was born with low-functioning autism to a wealthy family and struggles with self-regulation and self-harm. Calling them both “disabled” and “working to end ableism in society” doesn’t actually do very much to solve their problems. What’s much more helpful is considering their individual material conditions and problems and forming solutions in response to that. Certainly you can still consider groups of people, but it’s important that these groups are based around material differences (“people who can’t see” or “people with darker skin than average” or “people with female reproductive organs”) rather than an arbitrary identity.
What many people find, however, if you try to shift your thinking about the world in the direction of materialism, is that it is very hard to do. Liberal ideology has very deep and embedded roots in our minds, down to our very core, and even those who wholeheartedly believe in materialism often find it very difficult to completely disavow many fundamental elements of identity politics.
Why is that the case? It’s because liberalism — and the identity politics that it nurtures — is not simply a system of understanding the world. It is also the primary lens through which we understand ourselves. Identity politics is the natural outgrowth of the desperate need in people to gain or preserve their own sense of self, which they conflate with a social identity. It is, at its core, an attempt at self-preservation.
Liberalism has stripped people of their identity in two ways. One, by replacing religion and feudal society (where you are born into a particular identity) with individualism (where you must claim it to have it). Two, by stealing the fruits of our labor, which humans naturally perceive as an extension of our identity, and then selling them back to us. Thus, we are born as nothing, and must acquire identity somehow in order to be able to ascertain who we are.
Over time, capitalism has succeeded in commodifying not only the produced extensions of identity, but identities themselves. This is discussed in Kate Wagner’s article “Our homes don’t need formal spaces", where she explains that we don’t only buy McMansions with useless formal dining and living areas in order to impress others, who rarely see them. We primarily buy them in order to tell a story to ourselves about who we are. This is apparent in so much of what we buy today — a yoga mat, a craft beer, a pair of sneakers, organic groceries. Much of these things are never even seen by anyone else, and yet we buy them because they allow us to tell a story about ourselves to ourselves — we are purchasing our identity in the manner of the Catholic indulgences of old.
Another way to acquire an identity is to “do works”, which primarily consists casting judgment on others and repenting for our sins in the form of virtue signalling, thought policing, etc. In order to acquire and maintain your identity as “feminist”, for instance, you have to claim it continually through your actions and words, because it’s always at risk of being stripped away — not least because its meaning and rules keep changing. And if you believe that you ARE “fatness”, for instance — that the social construct of obesity not only applies to you but in no small part defines you — then you become not only responsible for your own experiences, needs, and desires, but those of the “fatness” identity as a whole, and by extension all other humans who instantiate that identity. So if someone is hurt or angry because they got yelled at out of a car window, you MUST be hurt and angry as well — and express that publicly — or else you are at risk of losing that part of your identity, of being “separated from yourself”.
This is, of course, an enormous burden, to carry the experiences and needs of so many people on your shoulders, and to be terrified of the potential self-splitting that might occur if we ever set down this load. It’s even a burden for the victims of lived abuse or oppression as well, because they are not allowed to simply have their own feelings and responses, but are psychologically accountable for sharing and crowdsourcing those reactions. This leads to the phenomenon, for example, of some women who have been raped feeling guilty for not feeling traumatized about it because they (and others) view it as a betrayal of their “woman” identity, their “feminist” identity, and their (newly acquired) “rape victim” identity, all of which demand the crowdsourced reaction of a particular sort of psychological trauma.
This burden exists, by the way, not only for Tumblr-browsing, “I’m With Her” reformist liberals. It’s also true of MRAs, race realists, and doomsday preppers. Even TYT members who wear Converse and stick anti-imperialist buttons on their messenger bags. They’ve all purchased or worked to signal their identities, to themselves and to others. Nearly all of us engage in some form of identity politics, because it’s almost impossible not to in the modern era.
So what happens if we choose to shrug off this load? If we are neither born into an identity, as in previous eras, nor do we choose to adopt and claim social constructs as our identity through consumption and “good works”, then we are faced with a very real and terrifying void, a self-concept that is empty and unknown. Where we go from there is another question altogether, one which I hope to write about at some point. The first step, however, is to deconstruct your assumptions and ask yourself, “Who am I, if not my social identities?”