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Culture wars: what is identity politics?

For some, it’s a left-wing adoption of neoliberalism. For others, it’s authoritarian. But it’s really just about equality. Part two of four

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
12 December 2021, 12.01am
Surveillance capitalism, led by data giants such as Facebook, is taking the place of neoliberalism
Edward George / Alamy Stock Photo

The first time I met Rosemary Bechler, we sat on the grass of London’s Embankment, ate ice cream, and immediately understood each other. She was a former member of the Communist Party who had lost every hint of Stalinism, but none of her radicalism. The last time I spoke to Rosemary – one of openDemocracy’s founding figures and a key force throughout our 20 years until she died last month – we had a debate about identity politics.

“My generation of activists,” she said, “started their sessions with something which went from the planet right down to London N6. They had these grandiose analyses of the entire world, then it comes down to what you might do something about. And they were interested in the front line of class struggle.

“I think that leads to a totally different kind of politics than the one that identity politics, including of the Left, leads to.”

The term 'identity politics' was first coined by the Combahee River Collective, a group of Black lesbian socialist feminists in the US in the 1970s, who argued that, as Black lesbian women, their liberation would require overthrowing systems of power which oppress everyone. Therefore, they argued, "the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity".

In recent years, though, this meaning has been lost. The term ‘identity politics’ has become an insult, thrown around by people on both some of the Left and most of the Right. It always seemed to me that it was used to describe any version of liberation politics that the speaker didn’t like, the sort of flaccid phrase that can be bent to many uses but is too floppy to be picked up and closely inspected.

But for Rosemary, Black Lives Matter was “the front line of the class struggle”, as were the feminist movement that erupted after the death of Sarah Everard and trans rights activism. She supported almost all modern liberation movements, she told me, but not the “identity politics element of them”.

What she meant by identity politics was “the very basic, neoliberal premise that what you have to do in life is make yourself. And that you can make yourself. I’m talking about all the ‘do-it-yourself’ books [I think she meant ‘self-help’]. I’m talking about vast industries of consumerism, and choice. ‘Your choice is you.’ ‘What you eat is you.’ ‘The perfume you wear, everything is you’.”

Rosemary’s objection was a view of politics that, as she saw it, starts by asking ‘Who am I?’ rather than ‘Where is the world at?’

This definition pinned the idea to the wall and placed it within a firm taxonomy – one you can agree with. Or disagree with.

‘Pulling our society apart’

Strangely, there are echoes of this concern about individualism in a pamphlet of essays published by the Common Sense Group of Conservative MPs this summer. In his contribution, the group’s chair, John Hayes, argues that identity politics is a hyper-individualist outgrowth of what he calls the “Blair Paradigm” – somehow ignoring that Blair himself confessed to being the heir to Thatcher, and that “there’s no such thing as society” was her doctrine first of all.

“On the surface,” Hayes argues, “the progressives of New Labour and the new liberalism of identity politics have little in common. Blair at least believed he was working to build a better society, while ‘identity liberals’ have the explicit objective of pulling our society apart. Yet, Blair was unable to reconcile his social democratic belief in community with his liberal conviction in the primacy of the individual. Gradually progressives, despairing of the public, have turned their back on social democracy, instead embracing an uncompromising liberalism.”

At the bottom of this pile of turf, we can feel more slippery terms slithering through our fingers: ‘progressive’ and ‘liberal’.

Because, of course it’s true that there are parts of the broad progressive coalition who are overly individualist. In part because, inevitably, the dominant system of the past 40 years has shaped the manner and style of resistance to it. Generations who have been brought up knowing only the individualist world of neoliberalism will find themselves fighting that system with the tools they’ve been taught to use. We see this most obviously in environmental politics, where, for too long, individual and consumer action were promoted over citizens’ and workers’ movements for system change. But that trend has largely passed.

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Modern capitalist corporations can use the imagery of liberation politics to improve their own brands

It’s true that there are problems with accounts of racism, sexism, homophobia or transphobia that locate blame for oppression in racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic individuals rather than in social structures – just as there were with the consumerist politics of that Noughties environmentalism. In focussing blame on the individual, this kind of approach can alienate potential allies, without moving powerful organisations to actually deliver change. But in reality, most activists and movements work hard to channel blame up to institutions such as the police, corporations and governments – which is exactly why the likes of the Common Sense Group hate them so much.

Is also true that modern capitalist corporations can use the imagery of liberation politics to improve their own brands. They tend to be rhetorically opposed to racism, sexism and homophobia, with their deep yearning to make everyone a consumer. To a hardline conservative, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg looks like a progressive and also an oppressor.

For these conservatives, it’s very helpful indeed to be able to show he is both. In the Common Sense Group’s pamphlet, James Sunderland MP and the Daily Express journalist David Maddox say so explicitly, claiming that “vast sums of money went from Facebook’s Mark Zuckenberg (sic) to pro-Democrat campaign groups and Black Lives Matter”.

In reality, Zuckerberg’s political funding has been sprinkled across establishment figures, going to both Republicans and Democrats – Chris Christie, Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan, Nancy Pelosi and Charles Schumer. None of it has gone to anybody who would normally be described as being from the progressive wing of the Democrats, nor, as far as I can make out, to Black Lives Matter – although, under pressure from workers at Facebook to denounce Donald Trump’s incitements to violence on their platform, the company did give $10m “to groups working on racial justice”.

To give the Common Sense Group credit, they’re right to say that social media are hugely important arenas for cultural battles. But not for the reasons they think.

Neoliberalism was the form of capitalism that came, chronologically, after colonialism, driving markets back into the public sectors of the former colonial powers, allowing capital to monetise and extract wealth from their soft underbellies. Surveillance capitalism, led by the data giants, is taking its place.

As academic and writer Shoshana Zuboff has argued, under surveillance capitalism, the new biggest companies on the planet make money from drilling markets into our souls. Facebook, Google and Amazon profit by turning each of us into an individual cell of their vast, multidimensional spreadsheets, and pinning us into these corners with endless streams of advertisements telling us who we are and what we need to buy to make us whole.

Identity is never an individual matter. It’s about how we relate to each other and make sense of society

As cultural politics lecturer Ben Little points out to me, it shouldn’t be any surprise that people respond to a breed of capitalism that exists to sell them new versions of their own identities by pushing back, by insisting that that’s not who they are, nor what it means to be who they are.

Data giants, Little says, want our identities to be hard, static and regimented, so we “align more neatly with commodities”. Anything that challenges this, he argues, “becomes a form of resistance not just to traditional forms of conservative hierarchy” but also to the very logic of modern capitalism.

Largely, this resistance isn’t done individually: it’s done through collective exploration and expression. Because while social media tries to profit by selling people versions of who they might be, it also creates opportunities for connections that allow people to discuss and discover other versions of themselves.

Ultimately, identity is never an individual matter. It’s always about how we relate to each other and make sense of society: if I was the only person I’d ever met, I wouldn’t see myself as having a race or a class or a gender. But it’s also about how we’re related to, and made by, society. The construction of how we see ourselves in the world is always an iterative process – Facebook imposes its algorithm and we build our own groups.

And this isn’t new. National identities were largely invented when capitalist printing presses convened communities in the 19th century. Social media allows people to gather from across the planet in their own communities. Gender roles were foisted on people by church, state and capital. More than ever, we are getting together and reinventing them. The class system was built to facilitate control, and racial hierarchies to justify empire, and people like the Common Sense Group feel a deep sense of moral panic when these identities are prodded, poked and pulled apart.

In a world where the market is trying to commodify how we each relate to society, it’s vital that people organise, fight back and insist on creating their own versions of themselves. And it’s also crucial that, in doing so, they tear down the social hierarchies of old, just as the Common Sense Group fears. But this is not because we should follow Margaret Thatcher’s denial of society. It’s because we need new kinds of community, in which we exist as equals.

In reality, if you talk to people involved in Black Lives Matter, or #MeToo, or the movement for trans rights, or Fridays for the Future, or any of the major progressive social movements of the day, a new and equal community is exactly what they are trying to build.

The battle over identity politics is a fight over different ways of seeing ourselves and our place.

One way is imposed from above and from the past. The other, struggling to emerge from below, offers hope for the future.

The alternatives to identity politics are identity authoritarianism or identity capitalism – allowing how we see ourselves and are seen to be shaped by money and power. And we’ve had too much of that. We need to start asserting ourselves.

Update, 15 December 2021: we have added a paragraph explaining the origin of the term 'identity politics' with the Combahee River Collective.

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