Identity politics is in contemporary activist culture, particularly on campuses, including this one, the dominant ideology and organising strategy, and has been for quite some time. This has in many ways hindered the struggles against oppression more than it has aided them.
In a nutshell, identity politics proposes that the focus of activism and politics should be in the representation of perspectives from marginalised groups, that is, women, people of colour, queer people, people with disabilities, amongst many others. In organising around identities, people who suffer from a particular oppression lead the struggle against that oppression, are given priority of voice, and determine the direction of the movement.
In this way, identity politics has been invaluable, and indeed, necessary to activism and the left, which has historically replicated and continues to replicate the structural problems of society at large. Identity politics forced into these spaces marginalised voices that had previously been silenced or ignored, allowing for movements to be informed by more diverse perspectives, to incorporate more equitable structures and decision-making processes, and to orient themselves towards autonomous self-determination. It is not this representative thrust that we seek to disassemble.
However, the point at which identity politics does begin to stifle activism and political movements emerges when people have already internally reformed their organisations or social circles to be more accommodating of marginalised voices. Beyond this point, identity politics falls impotent, offering little in the way of vision or discourse for mass scale resistance against systemic oppression.
Inherently inward-looking, identity politics as an ideology does not seek to change the world, only the circumstances surrounding the individual. No matter how hard we work to create safe spaces, it can never be the end goal; safe spaces must be used as radical environments to organise movements to liberate the world, or else they become pockets of safety and stasis in a fundamentally unsafe and volatile world.
This intense gaze exerted by identity politics upon the individual ultimately obscures attempts to see society as a whole and to fight structural problems collectively. The phrase “no one is free until we are all free” is repeated like a broken record in progressive rhetoric, but this does not diminish its truth. Liberation does not come piecemeal; it will not be achieved by certain marginalised groups before others, or certain individuals before others. The cultural logic of free market economics, or that of late capitalism, has seeped into every facet of our lives, but we must not allow it to infiltrate our politics. There is no room for competition in emancipation.
We contend that the insularity and myopia of identity politics today is a symptom of neoliberalism; that the rise of both ideologies in the past half century is inextricably linked. Following Thatcher and Reagan’s lead, Hawke and Keating openly embraced neoliberal policies that, when permitted to proliferate in so-called Western ‘liberal democracy,’ had disastrous effects for marginalised peoples and the left. It saw the corporatisation of public assets, devastating cuts to welfare, and perhaps most insidiously, the advancement of an ideology centred on individualism and personal material accumulation that was historically substantiated by the perceived failure of socialism in action (as heralded by the collapse of the Soviet Union, etc.). Thus, any system which prioritises the scrutiny or policing of individual behaviour before that of a critique of overarching sociopolitical structures and mechanisms will only serve to uphold the status quo of the existing neoliberal paradigm.
Foucault’s theory of ‘docile bodies’ can also be applied to the hyperfocus placed on the individual that exemplifies identity politics in praxis. The toxicity of call out culture is not a new proposition, but it is important to conceive of the policing of individual behaviours that identity politics demands as another apparatus of control, not merely as an unpleasant side effect of participation in activist movements. Foucault posited that docile bodies, as the ideal subject in the modern age to be “used, transformed and improved,” were rendered as such via modes of discipline, that is, an implicit and persistent protocol of domination.
Unlike brute force or violence, discipline is a constructive (as opposed to a destructive) force in that it does not seek to break down bodies, but rather to maintain their integrity in such a fashion that best enables the propagation of the disciplining machine. It succeeds by ensuring the repressive power is internalised within the body being disciplined. In the case of identity politics, this means the individual internalises the inward-looking gaze of identity politics and turns it back upon themselves and others in an infinite feedback loop, culminating in a triumph of repressive and coercive power.
To reiterate our previous point, this is yet another example of the ways in which identity politics mirrors the machinations of neoliberalism, which has thrived most notably because it exercises generative power, one that does not simply oppress individuals in a unidirectional power relation but rather reproduces within individuals the desires and functions of the ideology.
Academic Andrea Smith has written at length about the performativity of various aspects of identity politics, but beyond this, we must recognise the harm in neoliberal ideology, geared always towards the individual, that finds its expression in identity politics. Whilst we do not deny the importance of holding each other and our communities accountable, we should not be afraid to question any system which enforces a strict code of behaviour or thought through the utilisation of controlling apparatuses that look all too similar to those dispensed by our oppressors.
Furthermore, we argue that identity politics is almost solely concerned with identity, not politics. It neglects engagement with politics and instead concerns itself with defining and coalescing around the parameters of the ethnic and racial groups to which people can belong. This is harmful not only because it furthers the essentialisation of racial and ethnic constructions, but also because it effectively contributes to the ‘divide and conquer’ schema implemented by imperialist powers to formulate and disseminate myths promoting a normative and homogeneous nationhood.
Another supposed aim of identity politics is to promote intersectionality. However, intersectionality isn’t a word that belongs to identity politics – if anything, it is a word betrayed by identity politics. Many people who profess to believe in identity politics use it as a framework to show how intersecting identities of oppression lead to worsening oppression; this is a given. Intersectionality should instead be used as a foundation for a common struggle, and the basis for this common struggle should be in class.
By ignoring class struggle as a fundamental aspect of racial liberation, we can give in to the belief that ‘working class’ means poor white man and nothing more, even though globally we see that people of colour and women make up the large bulk of the working population, even in majority white countries. We see over and over many of the social and labour struggles of our time led by people of colour and women. Race and gender aren’t delinked from class, capital, and labour – they are products of it. Would the myth of race exist if it weren’t for the drive for capital to colonise continents, enslave entire nations, pillage the wealth of people who looked different?
Class is not just an economic abstract compared to the deeply felt phenomena of racial identity. They are connected. As Selma James points out in “Sex, Race, and Class”: “Culture is how you feel on Monday morning at eight when you clock in, wishing it was Friday, wishing your life away. Culture is the speed of the line or the weight and smell of dirty hospital sheets, and you meanwhile thinking what to make for tea that night. Culture is making the tea while your man watches the news on the telly.”
When we constantly use our energy to fight ignorant white people, we submit to a belief that our struggle is against them for survival in a world that currently favours them, when in fact, our struggle is against the wealthy and powerful who withhold from all of us, white and non-white. The privilege of poor whites is relative and not absolute compared to poor people of colour.
In a world where we are constantly and viciously segregated, compartmentalised and reduced to the sum of our labels, let us not hold up these labels like shields because as Audre Lorde once wrote, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Let us celebrate diversity, but keep ever present in mind the shared burden we all carry under capitalism. Let us abandon the language of our oppressors, and seek meaning in a new, inclusive language of common struggle because only in unity, will we be free.