What’s Wrong With Identity Politics (and Intersectionality Theory)? A Response to Mark Fisher’s “Exiting the Vampire Castle” (And Its Critics)

by Michael Rectenwald on December 2, 2013
First published in the North Star(no longer publishing)

Marxist and other “left” critics and opponents of identity politics are often mistaken for opponents of the identity groups that such politics aim to support and promote. Such critics can be easily mistaken as opponents of gay rights, LGBT rights, black and Latino equality, or the like. In their retorts to “Exiting the Vampire Castle,” several of Mark Fisher’s respondents voiced this conclusion about Fisher himself. Such mistake is often due, in no small part, to the ill-stated, incomplete and ad hominem character of the critiques themselves. Unfortunately, Fisher’s article is no exception in this regard.

Rather than carefully explaining the problems with identity politics from a Marxist (or other) perspective, Fisher snidely and blithely dismisses such politics and their proponents as hopelessly “petit bourgeois.” As such, not only does he open himself up to the tu quoque retort (you too are resorting to a politics of identity), he also falls victim to the counter argument that his attack on identity politics is explicable strictly in terms of his identity – as a privileged white Marxist male. I will discuss the circularity of such defenses of identity politics below. My point here is that such epithets as Fisher’s do little or nothing to analyze identity politics and clarify its shortcomings. Rather, Fisher tells us that identity politics pretends to deal with collectivities but instead works to individualize and condemn. We are told that identity politics operates through guilt and serves to incapacitate. We are told that identity politics is petit bourgeois. But we are never told why or how any of this is the case. I’m not referring, as so many critics of Fisher’s article have, to the article’s lack of examples. Instead, I’m pointing to the paucity of analysis.

Much better in this regard is a longer article by the feminist Marxist blogging at Unity and Struggle: “I Am a Woman and a Human: A Marxist-Feminist Critique of Intersectionality Theory.” Here, while some unfortunate lapses into a humanist essentialism are apparent, the author otherwise argues rather convincingly that identity groups, such as “straight white man,” “gay black man,” “lesbian black woman,” “trans* person, etc., are not natural categories into which people are born and sorted. Rather, they are relatively recent formations possible only under capitalism, equivalent to occupations with their own forms of alienation attendant upon the division of labor. As Marx wrote inThe German Ideology, “as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape.” Similarly, identity, like an occupation, is a trap, because it curtails human potential and bars workers from participation in the social totality as fully developing individuals. Identities are reified social categories from which we should emerge, not within which we should be compelled to remain.

The problem with identity politics, then, is that it is one-sided and undialectical. It treats identities as static entities, and its methods only serve to further reify those categories. It aims to liberate identity groups (or members thereof) qua identity groups (or individuals), rather than aiming to liberate them from identity itself. Identity politics fails not because it begins with various subaltern groups and aims at their liberation, but because it ends with them and thus cannot deliver their liberation. It makes identities and their equality with other “privileged” groups the basis of political activity, rather than making the overcoming of the alienated identity, for themselves and all identity groups, the goal. The abolition of the one-sidedness of identity – as worker, woman, man, or what have you – represents real human emancipation. Always failing this, identity politics settles for mere linguistic emancipation, which is offered (and policed so assiduously, as Fisher notes) by the defenders of the sanctuary of identity.

As I suggested above, the most common response to Fisher’s article has been that his position is explicable strictly in terms of his identity. No sooner does one make a critique of identity politics, than is one’s identity deemed the cause of said critique. It is as if identity explains the argument itself, and causes it. Once identity is deemed the actual causal factor of a statement, nothing that is said means what it says. Everything is explicable only in terms of identity, and the content of the statement becomes identity itself. Once set, identity is a trap from which no one escapes. Of course, such defenses are circular, reverting to that which I being critiqued to explain those doing the critiquing.

The Problem with Intersectionality Theory

Fisher never explicitly refers to intersectionality theory, but it lurks just beneath surface of his contempt in “Exiting the Vampire Castle.” Developed in the 1970s and ‘80s within feminism, intersectionality seeks to understand how power intersects identities along various axes, including those of race, gender, sexuality, or sexual preference, etc. It aims to locate the articulations of power as it traverses various subordinated peoples in different, multiple ways. Suggestive of a radical critique of patriarchy, capitalism, white supremacy and other forms of domination, it complicates any sense of gender, sex, class, or race as homogenous wholes. And it problematizes any hierarchy of one categorical determination over others. As such, it appears to serve as a method of analysis for opposing oppressions of all kinds. Intersectionality should, it seems, work to deepen our understanding of the composition of class society, and to add to the means for overcoming it.

But operating under the same schema as a more simplified identity politics, intersectionality theory serves to isolate multiple and seemingly endless identity standpoints, without sufficiently articulating them with each other, or the forms of domination. The upshot in political practice is a static pluralism of reified social categories, each vying for more-subaltern-than-thou status on a field of one-downsmanship. While it may be useful for sociologists attempting to describe groups and their struggles with power, as a political theory, it is useless, or worse. This is because, by ending with the identification and isolation of its various constituencies, it in fact serves to sever the connections that it supposedly sought to understand and strengthen. The practical upshot of intersectionality theory is the perpetual articulation of difference, resulting in fragmentation and the stagnation of political activity that Fisher bemoans.

Theory as Historical Practice

But theory like this, or any other, as the author of “I am a Woman” suggests, does not appear out of thin air. Rather, it is produced in relation to the social relations of production and the overall social relations themselves:

There was no revolution in the US in 1968. The advances of Black Power, women’s liberation, gay liberation, and the movements themselves, have been absorbed into capital. Since the 1970s, academia has had a stronghold on theory. A nonexistent class struggle leaves a vacuum of theoretical production and academic intellectuals have had nothing to draw on except for the identity politics of the past.

Identity politics and its variants developed during a moment when the Marxist critique of capitalism had lost a degree of credibility due to the fiascos of the Soviet Union, China, and elsewhere. Labor movements had given way to the New Left movements that attracted students and others toward liberal variants of political activism. Housed in the academy, theory became abstracted from social relations and the social totality. In a field of free play, divorced from working class politics, it focused on various kinds of putative determinations, including those of language, rationality, identity, “power” (vaguely conceived), and other “prison houses,” as Frederic Jameson referred to the categories of poststructuralist containment. Identity politics marked the limits of postmodern political engagement.

But, identity politics has not since “been absorbed into capital,” as suggested in the quote above. As forms of alienated labor, capitalist relations have always determined them. They have been the products of capitalism from the outset. By treating such categories as ends in themselves, therefore, a politics based on identities necessarily leads down the blind alley of reification. That is, such politics, even when “successful,” necessarily ends at the limits of identity itself. The problem is, while theoretically, we might all wake up tomorrow to changed identities, or to changed conditions for our identities, we would still be exploited under capitalism. Running the circuits of capital from production through consumption, identity can only lead us back to the office, the factory, or the streets, allowing at best our coalescence around particular consumer cultures.

Why is Identity Politics Individualistic?

Finally, as I mentioned above, Fisher claimed that while promising a politics of collectivities, identity politics is actually individualistic. One might wonder how he arrives at such a statement, especially since he merely asserts it rather than arguing it. He could have argued that because identity politics and intersectionality focus on difference and its articulations, the divisions are potentially endless, but necessarily extend to differences not only between groups, but also between individuals. One’s “display” of the characteristics becomes a requirement for the politics of identity. Identity politics requires identification, which requires signaling of individual membership by virtue of particular characteristics.

The understanding and appreciation of individual difference is surely not a liability in itself, by any stretch. Nor does understanding and appreciation necessarily entail an individualistic ideological and political agenda. But because identity is the object rather than merely the starting point, the ends rather than only the means of collectivity, identity politics continually devolves into the articulation of the requirements for group membership, and thus, to the individual. This individualism extends to those whose “privilege” differentiates them from the identity groups in question. That is, each encounter with the group involves the articulation of the characteristics of the group, and the evaluation of all comers on the basis of such characteristics. Whether or not this involves the imputation of guilt to non-members is a question of particular circumstances, and likewise, cannot be generalized without qualification.

But identity politics does involve a linguistic policing around various identity formations, not only to determine eligibility for membership, but as importantly, to guard against the ill treatment of said group and its members as representatives thereof. Of course, any political movement on the left worthy of support will defend those subject to various forms of discrimination and abuse. But in the case of identity politics, the defense is of the group and its individual members as such, as particular identities, for the maintenance and continuation of said identities, and not for their liberation from the liabilities that all identities necessarily entail. Thus, identity politics is exclusionary and divisive, continually falling back on difference in order to establish group identity and cohesion.

One might say that the individualism of identity politics merely represents an extension of reification – that is, the extension of the logic of difference and containment to the level of the individual.

What Should Marxists Learn from Identity Politics?

Ironically, socialism itself is culpable for the existence and prevalence of identity politics today. Not only did Stalinism (with the help of McCarthyism in the U.S.) undermine the prospects of socialist politics in the West, but also, as Ross Wolfe argues in The Charnel House, the identity politics that arose in the 1960s, ‘70s and ’80s developed in reaction to the identity politics of actually-existing socialism itself:

The various forms of identity politics associated with the “new social movements” coming out of the New Left during the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s (feminism, black nationalism, gay pride) were themselves a reaction, perhaps understandable, to the miserable failure of working-class identity politics associated with Stalinism coming out of the Old Left during the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s (socialist and mainstream labor movements). Working-class identity politics — admittedly avant la lettre — was based on a crude, reductionist understanding of politics that urged socialists and union organizers to stay vigilant and keep on the lookout for “alien class elements.” Any and every form of ideological deviation was thought to be traceable to a bourgeois or petit-bourgeois upbringing. One’s political position was thought to flow automatically and mechanically from one’s social position, i.e. from one’s background as a member of a given class within capitalist society. Anyone whose working-class credentials were not considered impeccable was expected to go through rituals of self-criticism or “autocritique” [from самокритика, a crucial shibboleth in the Stalinist vocabulary] confessing one’s incorrigible bourgeois intellectual habits in order to purify himself. Maoism radicalized this with application Third World and minority contexts.

As we see, the policing of identity borders and the categorical reification of identity formations are not new with contemporary incarnations of identity politics. Where contemporary Marxists are the critics of identity politics, then, the tu quoque retort really does apply.

Therefore, Marxists disgusted with identity politics should take the lessons of their critique back to the heart of Marxism itself. They really should examine their own house first. I refer here to the kind of policing of the category of “working class” that marked the Old Left and that, with exceptions, continues to mark Marxist politics at present. Are students “working class?” Are graduate teaching assistants “workers?” Are academic Marxists “workers” – or even real “Marxists?” Can a petit bourgeois intellectual really understand the working class? These questions reflect the identity politics that subsists in many Marxist milieus.

The extirpation of such identity policing within Marxism itself is much more important politically than the battle with the identitarian left. As Ross Wolfe writes, “It shouldn’t matter who people supposedly ‘are.’ All that should matter is the kind of transformation they hope to effect in the world.”