The dead end of racial identity politics

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jk1921
The dead end of racial identity politics
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The discussion that follows was prompted by the article: The dead end of racial identity politics. The discussion was initiated by jk1921.
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jk1921
Provocative Piece

This is a very thought provoking piece. Much of which I agree with, I will take issue with a couple of things, however:

1.) I am not sure saying, as the introduction does, that identity politics had been growing recently paints a full picture. Certainly, identity politics flourished and grew over the last thirty years, corresponding to the retreat in class consciousness that resulted from the collapse of Stalinism and the lie that what collapsed was communism or socialism in some way, but identity politics has actually been under some considerable assault for the last couple of years (Adolph Reed, who the article's analysis follows closely, has been an outspoken critic, but so have others such as Walter Ben Michaels, Thomas Frank and even Zizek). This process reached something like a inflection point after Brexit and Trump's victory, with large sections of left of center poltical elements--everyone from official left functionaries to alternative opinion makers (Jacobin magazine) putting "identity politics" into question. Bernie Sanders himself famously denounced identity politics and there has been a strain of even liberal critics finding the blame for Clinton's defeat in the Democratic Party's capitulation to "identity politics" (See Mark Lilla's book: The Once and Future Liberal).

It is true that there has been something of a push back against these trends from the Democratic Party and liberal opinion establishment. The growth of a so-called "alt-left" has been denounced loudly and often since Trump's victory, with many blaming it in part for the Trump Presidency. This is a carryover from the 2016 Democratic Primary when Sanders' supporters were denounced as white male "Bernie Bros" who it was implied had little to say about the specific oppressions around race, gender, sexual orientation, immigrant status, etc. (when it wasn't being implied that Bernie's supporters were outright racists and sexists). There is even talk now about there being a "White Left"  with the likes of Richard Spencer pondering if there might be an opening for some kind of reconciliation with the "alt-right," as the logic of identity politics cannot but work to isolate this new element from other social movements around identity issues.  And even as Jacobin publishes articles critical of identity politics, its pages are also open to those complaining about new left intellectual trends like: "Anti-Antiracism" and "Marxist anti-Wokeness." Nevertheless, whatever the effect of this push back, identity politics actually seems to be on the defensive these days in intellectual circles, in part because of the Clinton defeat (the sense of some in the Democratic orbit that too much identity politics is electorally self-destructive), but also in part because of the rise of new social constituencies challenging the current order whose interests cannot be effectively articulated by identity politics in either its academic or activist form.

For the moment though, this new skepticism to identity politics has not really penetrated the Democratic Party in any effective way. Having sold itself in the early 2000s (Ruy Texiera and Jonathan Judis' book: The Emerging Democratic Majority [2004]) on the idea that demographic change would soon give it a virtually unassailable electoral majority, the Democratic Party has been pulled further and further into the identity politics swamp to the point where today it is not clear it could extricate itself from it if it wanted to. Witness the current impasse on immigration policy--the Democrats are now more or less the party of "open borders," their politics effectively pretends that anyone who wants to immigrate to the United States should be allowed to and they will never be deported. There are some divisions on whether criminal aliens should go and which offenses are worthy of deportation and which aren't, but for the most part, its not possible to be a Democrat today without taking an increasingly absolutist position on immigration. A position that is of course a total canard as no nation state can function with such a policy and Democrats in power have little intention of actually following it. Still, they are reduced to more and more blatantly absurd statements that only fuel the growth of another kind of identity politics on the right, where there is a fear campaign whipped up that Democrats are seeking demographic replacement of the unruly white working class with more compliant and virtuous immigrants. Of course, the Democrats increasingly brash language around immigration, summarized in a recent NY Times Oped by columnist David Brooks (not a Democrat per se, but a reliable spokesperson of the neo-liberal establishment) which compared the white working class to East Germans, portraying them as rent seeking lay abouts, devoid of innovative adaptability, seeking to live off government subsidies and abuse opioids, while painting immigrants as industrious, entrepreneurs who truly embody they American spirit, might actually lead one to conclude that is what they really desire!

So powerful is this centrifugal pull of identity politics in the Democratic Party that even Bernie Sanders, who probably in a moment of absent minded honesty called it out, is forced to cater to it. He too promised never to deport any law abiding undocumented immigrant, seemingly reversing his previous protectionist stance on immigration that saw him vote against comprehensive immigration reform in 2007, standing with trade union leaders to denounce a guest worker program that he compared to slave labor. But beyond, Sanders' own electoral coalition embodies all the contradictions around these issues: white workers from predominantly white fly over and rust belt states who are attracted to his economic populism and young educated millennials who like that part of what he stands for, but who are also generally committed to forms of identity politics that will inevitably put them into conflict with their coalition partners. How Sanders will manage to massage this contradiction, if he even can, is anyone's guess. He will most likely attempt to ignore it by pushing a big tent "democratic We" message, but how will he respond in the primary when he is savaged for his previously critical comments on identity politics and "cringeworthy" stance on immigration? And if he makes it through to the general, how will he respond to a Trump campaign ad that shows him promising never to deport a non-criminal illegal alien?

I think what is happening around these issues is a certain chaos in bourgeois thought more than a concerted trajectory in one direction or the other. There are now multiple points of contradiction throughout the ideological apparatus that the existing structures are finding it increasingly difficult to contain. While identity politics remains an important feature of the current moment, it no longer has free reign over the intellectual space, even if it has mostly captured the Democratic Party. I don't know if there is corollary process in other countries, although David Frum has described a process whereby the old left of center parties have essentially become the "parties of newcomers" and their claims against the state and the host society, citing the UK Labour Party as a prime example (maybe he said this before Corbyn?). In any event, it is clear that the old left-right paradigm is increasingly breaking down and it is not even clear anymore what side of the old ideological divide inherited from the French Revolution a given issue or position falls on at least half the time, i.e. the internecine debates about free speech, where it is easy for a Marxist to agree with some of the things that come out of the mouths of crypto-rightists like Jordan Peterson, just before he denounces Marxists for their attacks on free speech! Obviously, identity politics is a huge factor in all of this, but above all I think it reflects a more general break down in the intellectual capacity of a decomposing capitalist society, where even the achievements of the Enlightenment are increasingly called into question in the name of a radicalism that has no strategic bearing or direction, but which is more and more concerned with moral posturing and statement making, of being right in its own self-construction of the "truth," despite the practical consequences.

The article following Reed's work attempts to make a material analysis of these developments, seeing the rise in identity poltiics as a function of the needs of a new class of "racial brokerage agents"--which Reed sees as a function of neo-liberalism. There might be something to this analysis, but it is uncanny how if one were to only change a few words and points of emphasis one could hear the same critical sentiment expressed by the right wing on Fox News.

I'll do a Part Deux later with some thoughts about American "racial capitalism," which the article touches upon.

 

petey
walter benn michels

jk mentions Walter Benn Michels, whose The Trouble With Diversity i recommend strongly.