Social Justice, Identity Politics, and the Liberal Fundamentalism Poisoning It
At a meeting for people of color to discuss racism in Berlin recently (the theme of this particular one was “Anger”), members talked about their experiences of racism, and how much they hate white people. When it came my turn to speak, i said “It’s only natural to hate those who directly oppress us. But if we consider that the same process as that of colonialism, of taking indigenous land, destroying indigenous cultures, exploiting, enslaving, and mass murdering indigenous people, unfolded in Europe itself a long time ago… If we take that into consideration, our ultimate enemy perhaps can not be so easily identified as White People in general, but power, hierarchy, and capitalism…”
At which point i was shut down by one of the moderators: “We can not have this line of thinking here. Because you are ‘tone-policing’ and telling us how to express our anger.” Thus no discussion on what i had said was allowed, and we moved immediately onto the next speaker, who told yet another story of a racist incidence and how much it angered them, just like every other participant, to rounds of applause.
This event and many others, on and offline, have sparked some thoughts regarding the current state of the social justice movements and identity politics.
1. Identity Politics is in its Infant Stages
It would be good for us to keep in mind that today many marginalized groups for the very first time in history have a language, and/or new vocabulary, to articulate their oppression. So of course in this relative beginning phase of the movement there will be a lot of pent up rage and injury coming to the surface, and thus a lot of knee-jerk reflexes. Some young ones can be over zealous, dogmatic, and judgmental. Their voices can be shrill, and sometimes become tragically exclusionary (which paradoxically hurts the movement itself); but understandably so: for the first time some victims of oppression have any voice at all.
The therapeutic level of discourse is necessary, and emotions are valid, because people are literally trying to SURVIVE just another day, coping with the extreme brutality of classism, sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, etc.
But therapy is part of the process, not the goal. CHANGE is the goal. Dismantling oppressive structures is the goal.
Therapy can not be confused with political consciousness. Unfocused anger can make some blind to both the experience of others, as well as the root causes of oppression. Being stuck on the level of raging from an individualist, emotionalist point of view prevents people from seeing the bigger picture, from seeing the underlying truth, which is that while these injustices are administered by specific dominant groups of people, they are not ultimately CAUSED by them, that they ultimately stem from a diseased system of economic relations.
2. Today’s Social Justice Movement Is Shaped by Liberalism
According to David Harvey, the 1960s protest movements largely demanded 2 things: individual freedoms and social justice. And what the deal made by neo-liberalism since the late 70s offered was a focus on individual freedoms at the expense of institutional readjustments toward social justice.
Thus, similar to people blaming themselves for poverty instead of structural economic inequities, the narrative of social justice became increasingly about personal injury and offense, rather than deeper analysis of the frameworks of power and its operations.
Neo-liberalism ushered in an era in which privatization further fortified the structures of economic domination. Neo-colonial shackles on former colonies in the form of debt appear unbreakable. Corporate theft and exploitation is well protected by a legal system designed by the owners of industry. Class divisions seem more unshakable than ever.
Under these circumstances, when people sense the total hopelessness for change on a systemic level, it is understandable that they focus instead, and only, on personal injury, individual infractions, and the therapeutic level of social justice, rather than systemic analysis which makes possible solidarity and authentic revolutionary consciousness.
Also related to this cultural shift was the move of American marketing from 50s uniform mass marketing to 60s and 70s demographic-specific marketing along ethnic and geographical lines, which increasingly isolated urban communities and constructed psychological walls around them (Nathan Sacket). As well as the self realization, self help, and New Age movement, which began to spread during the 60s and 70s, is a crystal clear condensation of this trend toward solipsism: placing the individual at the center of social narratives, entirely responsible for their own happiness and for the events which transpire around them.
(Another) thing with this PC stuff is its relation to the “linguistic turn” in academic leftism, poststructuralism /semiotics/ deconstruction. Obsessive focus on language as determinative, trying to identify and undo structures of power as played out through language. … My gut take is that leftists/progressives are trying to reinforce their hard-won but delicate enclave in the university system more through rhetorical maneuvers – moralistically micro-managing other people’s speech — than through re-examining their own assumptions and the failures of the “Revolutionary Project” …. the authoritarian impulse can take many different forms. — Jason Keehn
Further, external pressures and threats to personal safety, such as represented by a violently patriarchal racist state, causes minority groups to seize up, membership and borders to be more aggressively policed, identity to become more rigid, and creates isolation and atomization. All of this compromises possibilities for solidarity between various oppressed groups, taking us further and further away from the universal emancipation which we once believed in and championed.
3. A distinction Must be Made Between Authentic Left Identity Politics, and Fundamentalist Strains
A lot of (non-rightist) white people (for example) are having an extremely difficult time with identity politics because they feel that while every injustice is endlessly protested against, class is routinely ignored; and that poor working class white people are often labeled as not only “privileged”, but “sexist” and “racist”.
The problem here is not with the social justice movement or identity politics itself, but with liberal manifestations of it, which is based on literal interpretations of political correctness, and their execution with rigid severity. This kind of fundamentalist social justice focuses on calling-out individuals for inadvertently reproducing oppression, on berating and ostracizing them for using offensive words and having wrong opinions, rather than on the understanding and dismantling of oppressive structures which shapes beliefs and behavior.
“(Social justice) fundamentalists take a moral stance rather than a political or social one. People who transgress their codes of language and behavior are thought of and treated as “bad” people, almost as sinners, rather than uneducated, having antagonistic class interests, or simply making a mistake. It is a black and white approach that allows the accuser to make public demonstrations of moral superiority.” — Shaun Woods
In contrast, authentic revolutionary consciousness sees the bigger and underlying picture of these conflicts, and focuses on empathy, especially between comrades, and first and foremost seeks class solidarity. The legitimate leftist social justice movement does not disproportionately police language, and do not castigate and exclude individuals for minor trespasses against political correctness or merely for being wrong. Authentic revolutionary consciousness is built on inclusion, conversation, education, and solidarity across identitarian lines.
Class is indeed the fundamental injustice on which all others, such as sexism and racism, are built. The commodification of our relationships to each other is the central disease from which every single social ill stems. (In a nutshell: sexism is rooted in the ownership of women since the advent of private property, and their institutionalized objectification). Racism as we know it today was a direct result of colonialism, invented to justify economic exploitation: “Slavery was not born of racism — rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” — Eric Williams)
This of course does not mean that we can afford to disregard the branches of oppression to only focus on its root, for the toll in human life taken by the extreme injustices distributed along these ancillary lines is very, very real. Intersectionality is crucial, and we must work to protect the most vulnerable groups from oppression.
But the problem is that liberalism habitually refuses to recognize the basic fact that material conditions give rise to social reality, and disavows the unequal distribution of wealth as the root of all injustice. The problem is that oppression is always systemic and structural, and are not rooted in individuals who are merely its instrument.
The central systemic crime of private property and capitalism is what liberals will do anything, go to any length, to deny, while paying lip service to “justice”, “progress”, and “change”. Thus identity politics conducted within the myopia of liberalism, based on its false assumptions, major analytical deficiencies, and privileged biases, can only be dangerously divisive at a time when unity and mutual support between various ethnic, gender, etc. groups is of crucial importance.
“Liberal identity politics is a toxic, pathological theater of horizontal hostility, power-mongering and sub-cultural rites of inclusion and exclusion performed between alienated subjects who have so completely internalized neoliberal forms of thinking and being that they cannot think outside of the framework of moral absolutes, individual affronts and interpersonal transgressions. It is about as politically nuanced and effective as a set of emoticons and in many ways tends towards the emoticon as its functional minimum. I find it deeply unsettling that so many millennials seem to have adopted this as their primary form of political praxis and I think it’s vital to explore the underlying reasons if we want to be effective in smashing all the shitty things (patriarchy, white supremacy, etc., but also capitalism and the state, two things that appear less and less — within liberal Id Pol analysis).” — Aragorn Eloff
And, to paraphrase Deleuze and Guattari, “struggle on the level of axioms is not unimportant, but these are the index of another coexistent combat. Let’s encounter each other in our excess and overflowing.”
4. Let Us Not Repeat History
Being a student of history, I can not help but notice many parallels and similarities between those leftist zealots who ruined past revolutions, turning authentic emancipatory movements into oppressive authoritarian cults, and today’s liberal id pol fundamentalists and petty leftist bureaucrats:
- virtue signaling
- reduction of politics to moralizing
- focus on language and petty details
- demonization based on minor differences
- focus on individuals rather than structures
- literal interpretation of liberatory doctrine
- using doctrine as another weapon of privilege
- witch hunt mentality
- horizontal hostility
- exclusionary tactics
- drawing of rigid sectarian lines
- policing of group borders
- power grab
- ego trips
The fanatical piousness of todays’ sanctimonious left, which often behaves like those behind government desks, exactly reminds me of the horrific stories i heard as a child in China about the 1960s Cultural Revolution. People were routinely humiliated and tortured for things such as wearing a European style scarf, having a vinyl recording of Mozart, or studying Einstein, because reproducing and involvement with “imperialist culture” made them “enemies of the revolution”. Both of my parents spent years in re-education camps for exactly such offenses.
And let us not forget that the phrase “Political Correctness” was used during the Stalinist purges.
We are in the Trump era, where an asshole like Milo can get so extremely popular with university students. Where millions of disenfranchised, discontented youths are cynically turning to the right. The left has largely failed to reach large segments of the population who are also angered the status quo, and the new generation of id politicians seem to adamantly deny that there is any room for improvement in how social justice is conducted.
In today’s world of mounting tensions and rising stakes, it is even more important that we do not fight oppression only on an inter-personal “call-out” level, but encompass broad historical and social perspectives. It is crucial that we do not allow liberal fundamentalism to destroy solidarity between various groups, and be united by a larger picture in our collective struggle toward liberation.
Further Reading, a 24 year old piece written before the term PC has been routinely used by the right to blugeon progressive movements, but still has more than enough valuable and relevant info with regard to today: Laughter Is Bourgeoiis: The Roots Of Political Correctness, by Larry. Grambone
Leo Zhao is a dj, art director, and journalist living in Berlin