The neo-fascist moment of neoliberalism has proven to be extremely destructive for the working class of the world. Pervasive mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic by right-wing governments throughout the globe has proven to be extremely costly in terms of the number of lives lost to the infection. However, this political urgency of removing neo-fascist leaders from power has not translated into a deeper re-thinking of the strategies and tactics hitherto used by social justice movements.
Instead of critically reflecting on the rise of the Right, they have been busy denouncing the impact of their policies. While the latter is absolutely necessary, the absence of sustained thinking on the various reasons behind the re-emergence of neo-fascist-populist ideas will not allow one to move beyond moral outrage and angry reactions. Thus, what we need is honest introspection on how the various deficiencies of progressive politics played a role in propelling the Right to power.
The extension of the neoliberal logic of hyper-individualization into the spheres of social and cultural exchange has shaped the trajectory of progressive politics. In general, the marketization of the public sphere has eroded the bases of collective solidarity in two ways. First, it has personalized the causes of suffering into individual trauma, which can be self-managed. Second, it has relentlessly regurgitated the supposed importance of a unique, authentic, individual identity, thus weakening the foundations for the formation of shared experience. These neoliberal transformations have exerted influence on the recent directions of identity politics, accepted by many movements as a legitimate form of counter-hegemonic assertion.
Identity politics, like the neoliberal discourse of authenticity, has adopted a position which states that only those who have experienced an injustice can understand and thus act effectively upon it. This overly subjectivist theory of knowledge - labeled as “epistemology of provenance” - mimics the ideology of private property and of competition in bourgeois society. If the direct experience of oppression is the primary or the only condition for one to develop an insight into oppression and how to fight it, then the implication is that the insight into oppression as a form of cultural wealth is the monopoly of a few as if it is their private property.
Another consequence of the subjectivist theory of knowledge is that it perpetuates the individualist fallacy that oppressive social relationships can be reformed by particular subjects without the broader agreement of others who, together, constitute the social relations within which the injustices are embedded. This, again, closely corresponds to neoliberal concepts, namely the undue stress on personal efforts rather than collective struggle.
The atomistic tendencies engendered by identity politics’ espousal of an epistemology of provenance get exacerbated when it is complemented with the theory of “intersectionality”. While it is true that a multiplicity of identities are simultaneously acting on an individual, intersectionality’s depiction of identities as descriptive categories leads to the absence of an active interpretation of oppression. This gives rise to the framing of identities as freely floating in an undefined atmosphere of interpersonal relations.
Ascriptive identities (like race, gender, or sexual orientation) shift from being understood as, to use Stuart Hall’s formulation, modalities through which class is “lived” to attributes of individuals that attach to them. It becomes part of their “portfolio”, categorizing individuals on the basis of what they are rather than what they do. Thus, identity operates as a commodity, whereby the historical specificity of specific identities through and alongside a capitalist mode of production is mystified.
Insofar that intersectional theorists observe no meaningful links between different identities, there only exist many perspectives on oppression, all of which are partial perspectives (e.g. a gender perspective, a race perspective, etc.), and they are all competing, but there is no common ground among them. This situation leads to mere diversification within contemporary power structures as the only conceivable goal. The response to this intra-subaltern impasse has been confused. Ajay Gudavarthy and Nissim Mannathukkaren, while emphasizing that “progressive politics has to move towards affinity and an idea of shared spaces rather than focus on mere claims of essentialised identity”, fail to outline the basis on which this solidarity can be crafted.
Class: A Concrete Universal
According to identity politics, the cause of discrimination is rooted in the very identity of these groups and their difference from the discriminating group. The rectification of discriminatory attitudes involves the reaffirmation of the identity category, which is necessarily self-reproducing rather than transformative. This is Nancy Fraser’s case when she looks at “affirmative” redistributive remedies, arguing that the repeated surface re-allocations they involve have the effect not only of reinforcing the identity category but of generating resentment towards it; and Wendy Brown’s more general philosophical case when she argues that identity politics are a form of “wounded attachment”, which must reproduce and maintain the forms of suffering they oppose in order to continue to exist.
Contemporary identity politics is non-transformative in another dimension. The idea of simple “discrimination” presupposes a liberal understanding of civil and human equivalence as the desired norm, leading to the framing of oppression as a failure of the liberal creed. Liberalism, taken in its late 19th century American usage to mean the inclusion of all groups in a given social whole (workers, women, people of color, etc), does not guarantee equality, as a lack of equality is presupposed by a capitalist system for which inequality is constitutive. Hence, by asking to correct not inequality but differential inequality, identity politics does not end up abolishing inequality. Winning equivalence, identity politics universalizes inequality by distributing it more evenly among all without difference.
As we have seen, the struggle for recognition has turned into an arms race, in which cultural identities deploy the language of minority rights in their defense. The inflation of recognition as a political category has also led the displacement of material injustices, and the reification of reductionist identities, which could become increasingly insular. These factionalist cracks in subaltern politics can be plastered with the help of socialist politics which comprehends the centrality of class. However, this understanding should not be interpreted as degrading the significance of identities. As Martha Gimenez explains, “To argue…that class is fundamental is not to ‘reduce’ gender or racial oppression to class, but to acknowledge that the underlying basic and ‘nameless’ power at the root of what happens in social interactions grounded in ‘intersectionality’ is class power.”
When a class-based politics is practiced, the entire capitalist system becomes the excluded exterior of the subalterns’ discourse. By identifying a discourse in relation to its exteriority, the internal differences of that discourse are negated and it thereby, enters into a “logic of equivalence”. Logic of equivalence constricts the internal differences within a discourse and instead, describes its identity through a relation of exteriorization. But the construction of equivalential chains is not a smooth process. According to Ernesto Laclau, in a discourse trying to redefine itself according to an equivalential chain, “each difference expresses itself as difference; on the other hand, each of them cancels itself as such by entering into a relation of equivalence with all the other differences of the system.” This means that the parts of that discourse are constitutively split and are afflicted by an inherent ambiguity.
The Marxist model of class politics utilizes these productive tensions to generate a vibrant praxis of solidarity. It emphasizes the commonality of the subalterns’ enemies and then the particularity of their own interests and differences. In other words, it recognizes difference while stressing the concrete universality of class, based on the subject’s relationship to the means of production. Concrete universality, unlike the abstract universality of modern liberalism, with its human and civil rights that are so often little more than formulaic to those at the bottom of society, is rooted in social life, yet points beyond the sheer facticity of a complex reality. It is this dialectical feature of concrete universality that allows it to mold identity politics in a radical direction. The identitarian experience provides a point of entry to a potentially radical politics, but such potential will only be realized if its subjects move beyond that unfiltered immediacy to challenge the systems of oppression that generate the inequalities shaping not only their lives, but those of others too.
Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His articles have been published in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and several countries of Latin America.