News, views and commentary with an anarchist twist

Just what do we mean by ‘identity politics’?

Dave A (the editor)

Preamble

A definition

The laden phrase “identity politics” has come to signify a wide range of political activity and theorizing founded in the shared experiences of injustice of members of certain social groups. Rather than organizing solely around belief systems, programmatic manifestos, or party affiliation, identity political formations typically aim to secure the political freedom of a specific constituency marginalized within its larger context. Members of that constituency assert or reclaim ways of understanding their distinctiveness that challenge dominant oppressive characterizations, with the goal of greater self-determination.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The term identity politics has become a bit of a lightning rod in the anarchist/radical movement, with some saying it should be a central part of what we do while others say it’s a distraction from class struggle. Looking back through some of the previous posts I’ve made on here, you could be forgiven for thinking that I’m firmly in the latter camp. It’s true that class struggle politics does inform a lot of my activity but I’m starting to seriously question what it is I’m supposed to be defining this against when it comes to political priorities. I’m coming to the conclusion that identity politics is used to describe such a wide range of issues that it’s becoming meaningless as a useful term. If anything, it’s become a bit of a slur for areas of political activity that some want to dismiss. Using the term as a slur basically ends up either shutting down a debate and/or polarising people to the point where it’s impossible to have any kind of useful discussion.

Our introduction to identity politics

My entry into dealing with identity politics came back in my days with the Independent Working Class Association (IWCA) when we were concerned about the way some local authorities would fund community groups on the basis of their perceived identity as opposed to serving the broader needs of the community. In brief, this is how the IWCA summed up their position:

Our position – which simply argues that to divide people along ethnic and religious lines through segregated housing, youth clubs and schools etc. runs contrary to the interests of the working class – is one which most people, black and white, would see as pure common sense. Yet much of the ‘educated’ middle class left seem incapable of grasping this obvious and simple concept.
Message to all liberals: ‘you’re in a hole – drop the shovel!’ – IWCA

Looking back it could be argued that while many of the points the IWCA made were valid, they did tend towards adopting an either/or approach. In the intervening years, I’ve hopefully developed a more nuanced understanding of how issues such as class, race and sex/gender overlap each other and how difficult it is to pull out one issue as a basis for a struggle without acknowledging how other issues influence it. Obviously, as I’m a class struggle anarchist, I see class as an underlying issue but I fully get why race and sex/gender intersects that in a lot of ways and why class struggle, anti-racism and anti-sex discrimination struggles have to go together. There’s a worthy lineage of activists who have seen how the these intersect and how it’s impossible to separate them out:

We don’t think you fight fire with fire best ; we think you fight fire with water best. We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism. We’ve stood up and said we’re not going to fight reactionary pigs and reactionary state’s attorneys like this and reactionary state’s attorneys like Hanrahan with any other reactions on our part. We’re going to fight their reactions with all of us people getting together and having an international proletarian revolution.
Fred Hampton – Wikiquote

Overlaps and intersections

I would like to think that in this piece I wrote in 2019 – The debate that won’t go away – I managed to acknowledge the usefulness of the theorising behind intersectionality and privilege theory, even if I’m not entirely happy with some of the academic sounding terminology used. When I first came into contact with the concept of identity politics, one of my initial concerns was the way it appeared to label people, put them into a box and patronise and/or demonise them as seen fit. In hindsight, that’s probably a fairly simplistic way of looking at things. What my understanding of intersectionality has done is make me realise that while oppressed groups will take the main element of their identity, say for example race, and then make that a highlight of their fightback, it’s generally done in a way that overlaps and intersects with other issues.

The various actions, many of which have been successful, undertaken by the United Voices of the World (UVW) union is a testament to this. UVW is the workplace fighting voice for a growing number of, at the moment, mainly BAME people in sectors such as cleaning, security, etc. Sectors which are often outsourced and some of which use a lot of female labour. The workers in UVW have to fight against being screwed over on the basis of class, race and in many cases, blatant sex discrimination. In a workplace fightback, while there are times when one factor, say for example being underpaid because you’re a woman, will obviously be at the forefront, it’s nigh on impossible to separate that from the other factors at play such as class and race. That’s not identity politics though, is it? It’s just a tactical decision based on an assessment of the forces lined up against you and working out the best way of defeating them.

Anyone who’s at the sharp end of a struggle where class, race and sex overlap and intersect with each other isn’t going to consciously start using terms such as identity politics to describe what they’re trying to achieve. I’m coming to the conclusion that counter-posing class politics against issues such as race and sex/gender is setting up an unhelpful and ultimately divisive, false dichotomy.

It’s the more liberal, middle class elements who would be the ones wanting to focus on either race or sex/gender while at the same time, playing down or disregarding the class element of any struggle. The reason being that middle class activists do not want to talk about class politics, even when they overlap with other struggles. Acknowledging the existence of class struggle politics would force them to admit to and confront the considerable advantages they enjoy over us mere plebs. The problem is that when they strip class politics away from struggles that overlap with issues such as race, sex/gender, etc., it undermines the structural analysis that informs the strategy and tactics needed to win them. This is precisely why we have to keep these elements well away from our struggles as their flawed understanding and the desire, implicit and explicit, to maintain their advantages will sabotage what we’re striving to achieve.

The damage done by forty years of neo-liberalism

Forty years of neo-liberalism and the consequent weakening and destruction of the institutions such as the unions that were there to give the working class a voice has taken it’s toll on notions of collectivity and solidarity. There’s no denying that society has become more fragmented and atomised as a consequence of this. That was the intention – to smash any sense of collectivity and to replace it with an enhanced sense of individualism. That has manifested itself in a change in character of political activity with a shift in emphasis from material analysis and collective struggle to more of a focus on individual identity and rights. There’s also no denying that in such a society, people feel they have no option but to come up with more individualised/tailored solutions to their problems. Solutions that more often than not will fail because there’s no collective strength behind them. That is when the kind of politics that does focus on individual identity, expression and rights with little in the way of a context to sit in becomes a real problem. They end up becoming just another aspect of a dysfunctional, consumer focused, neo-liberal society.

At this point, I would like to say that while there’s a trend towards this which explains why notions of collective struggle that may have been a feature of early forms if identity politics seem to have been replaced by a more individualist outlook, it’s by no means a universal trend. New forms of collective struggle are emerging, some of which were outlined earlier in the points I made about the United Voices of the World union.

All of us are who we are and consequently, have an identity or identities. While there are many aspects of who we are that can be changed through struggle, preferably collective, there are others that are immutable. The point is that even the immutable aspects of who we are shouldn’t keep us in one place or confine us to a pigeonhole where we can be patronised or demonised as seen fit. The problem is that in an individualised, increasingly atomised society, this is precisely what happens. When ‘identity politics’ is used by some to put us in separate boxes without offering any real hope of liberation, then what it has become needs to be challenged. Which is why I’m floating the idea that we should drop the term and use terminology that has a more precise relationship to what we’re actually dealing with.

Just what do we mean by ‘identity politics’?

It’s worth looking at a few examples of what many would describe as identity politics to illustrate how vague the term is and to argue for the use of more precise terminology to describe what we’re dealing with.

Firstly, let’s take this transcript of a speech by Pragna Patel from Southall Black Sisters – SBS’ ‘Bradford connection’ and the politics of simultaneous resistance: lessons for contemporary feminism – which among the many issues touched upon, dealt with the resistance of BAME youth in the early 1980s to sustained racist attacks on their communities. A resistance which was effectively a broad based secular, militant alliance of youths angry at the situation they faced. So militant and angry, they caused some degree of consternation among the powers that be. In Bradford, the Council of Mosques, which was in part a creation of the local authority, was invited to represent the local Muslim ‘community’ in a bid to try and defuse the growing level of tensions on the streets. In other cities, it was the Federation for Sikh Organisations and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad who were invited to become the voice for all people of their respective religions.

The Left never seriously challenged what was effectively, the destruction of secular, street based youth movements and their replacement by religious leaders who had been given carte blanche to represent the Muslim, Sikh or Hindu ‘communities’. So what was essentially a youth movement with a class basis was replaced by voices claiming to speak for people solely on the basis of their religion which was then woven into their identity to take precedence over class.

That for us is the really pernicious aspect of what some would again see as just ‘identity politics’ but which we see as the creation and imposition of an identity based on religion and also one which required the destruction of any broader class based alliances in order to thrive. This is situation where a more precise use of terminology is needed to help us fully understand what’s going on in order to be able to help any efforts that may arise to overthrow it and rebuild broader, class based alliances.

Then there’s this piece from the online publication, gal-dem, as another example: Fuck your gender norms: how Western colonisation brought unwanted binaries to Igbo culture – Chidera Ihejirika – 19th February, 2020. There are those who simply on seeing it was published in gal-dem would instantly dismiss it outright as identity politics. On reading it, there are those who would simply see it as another piece on gender roles and identity and not put it into a broader context. Both of these are lazy and inexact ways of describing a piece that I read as a combination of some astute, nuanced anthropological observations on sex/gender roles and an anti-colonialist analysis that’s still urgently needed. For me, one of the key points in the piece was the way British colonialism imposed their concept of sex/gender roles on the Igbo people, totally disregarding how the approach of the Igbo was, while not ideal, a practical and workable solution to the situations they had to deal with.

Moving on, there’s the complex and emotive issue of gender identity and trans activist politics. One which I’ve tried to stay away from to avoid getting sucked into toxic and divisive rows. Despite this and my reservations about a number of aspects of trans activism, there are some points that need to be made. Some commentators such as Deirdre O’Neill see trans activism as the most obvious example of an individualist form of identity politics: Class, Identity Politics and Transgender Ideology – Medium – August 25, 2018. (CW – we recognise that some people may feel the content of this piece is transphobic) The argument is that being trans is not determined by your class. However, it could be argued that being middle class and knowing how to work and access the system to try to resolve gender identity issues or if that doesn’t provide a resolution, making the process of transition easier does introduce a class aspect to the issue. Because of this and the increased issues and problems working class trans people face in trying to negotiate the system, others will argue that it’s a class issue: Transphobia is a class issue – Anarchasteminist – libcom.org – December 25, 2017.

The argument that trans and class issues do in fact overlap at some points is a reasonably convincing one, and contrary to what I may have thought even just a year ago, I wouldn’t want to dismiss this outright as pure ‘individualist identity politics – a more nuanced understanding is needed. So yes, as this is where gender identity and class politics can overlap, lazily slapping the label of identity politics on this then dismissing the complex issues at stake out of hand ultimately helps no-one and only reinforces the toxic divisions that are dogging our movement.

Conclusion

I’ve dealt with three very different examples of what people think they mean by ‘identity politics’. So different that to be honest, the term loses any real meaning and becomes a label that can be slapped on a debate in a bid to avoid discussion of contentious and often, complicated issues. Also, as mentioned earlier, it has been used and abused to set up divisive, false dichotomies that help none of us as activists.

Reading through this makes me realise that I’m probably starting to argue against some of the somewhat bold and ill thought through things I was saying about ‘identity politics’ around a year ago. Since then, I’ve started to ask myself the question, what does ‘identity politics’ actually mean? The conclusion I’m starting to come to is that it’s an amorphous term that means whatever people want it to mean to suit their agenda. If I’m being really honest, I’ll admit that in the past, I’ve lazily used the term ‘identity politics’ to avoid the hard work of understanding and discussing complex issues.

So to conclude, is it time to ditch the term ‘identity politics’ and to start using more precise terminology that accurately describes whatever set of issues we’re dealing with at any given point, and allows for an understanding of how they overlap and intersect with each other? I think it is albeit I recognise that a lot of hard work is required to develop more accurate means of describing what we’re dealing with. Work that will involve a bit more in the way of give and take and a willingness to understand where other people are coming from than seems to have been the case in recent years.

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