Does attention to matters of race, gender and sexuality distract from “real” politics? - Exclusive

Does attention to matters of race, gender and sexuality distract from “real” politics?

Critics of identity politics argue that close attention to matters of race, gender, and sexuality distracts from “real” politics, by which they typically mean the struggle between labor and capital over the distribution of material resources. But that view of politics assumes that class identity is an objective fact – a sociological datum or index to be read off a chart. In fact, class identity can be known only through its embodiment in words and deeds. It is just as subjective or “performative” as, say, gender has come to be understood in queer theory.  

Allow me, then, to defend identity politics by challenging the three assumptions that its critics make. First, they take for granted that any departure from the universalism of the Enlightenment is a threat to the idea of equality and to human rights as well. Second, they believe that identity politics are essentialist: social roles are assigned according to social origins, foreclosing the achievement of a chosen individuality.

Lastly, they assume that class position comes first, because, at least under capitalism, it includes and describes a greater proportion of social life. This enables people to make common cause across lines of race, ethnicity, gender, and nationality.

I make no argument on behalf of the linguistic protocols now shaping the cultures of companies, universities, and schools in the United States and elsewhere. To my mind, the policing of language, “cancel culture,” and similar pathologies are vestigial extremes of the kind that flourish when new ideas about individuality and new ways of conducting politics are being invented.

Both the individual and his relation to the state were redefined by the advent of market societies. Toward the end of that transition, in the late eighteenth century, the Enlightenment’s “man of reason” was no longer understood as a product of virtuous citizenship, or of religion. That person, instead, was the product of natural rights that he embodied as a human being, and which, in theory, he could assert in civil society apart from and even against the state.

I use the male pronoun advisedly. The “man of reason” who emerged from the Enlightenment as the standard of individuality and the representative of humanity was not a woman, and he was not from Africa (or indigenous to any other continent colonized by European states between 1400 and 1800).

These “natural” exclusions held until the twentieth century, when movements for socialism, women’s suffrage, civil rights, and decolonization broadened the scope of equality and extended the reach of liberty. The more inclusive concept of humanity (and thus democracy) that these movements embodied had to overcome the opposition of liberals (with their defense of modern possessive individualism as epitomized by the self-made man) and reactionaries alike.

So much for the Enlightenment’s universalism. As leaders of African-American and Pan-African movements in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries understood, their constituencies weren’t interested in conforming to the norms of white European culture. Racial solidarity wasn’t merely imposed on them by circumstances of birth, by the natural sciences, or by apartheid regimes; it was something they could choose as a means to the liberation of their people. In the US, at any rate, it enabled the articulation of the “black aesthetic,” which, since the 1890s, has animated American cultural innovation by drawing, crossing, erasing, and reinscribing the color line.

Likewise for the essentialism that purportedly regulates identity. Here, too, the identifications that seem so scandalous to liberals and reactionaries alike – for example, the riotous variety of gender roles and designations now available to young people – are determined by choice, not by circumstances of birth, the natural sciences, or inherited social orders and moral regimes. And the new choices on hand are largely a function of the changes we associate with the coming of post-industrial society. 

How so? Until the 1920s, the relentless drive for profit under capitalism meant more and more waking hours were spent in wage labor devoted to the production of necessary goods like food, clothing, and shelter. Since then, socially necessary labor – the hours it takes to reproduce the material groundwork of civilization as we know it – has shrunk dramatically. In today’s advanced economies, services far outstrip manufacturing as a source of employment, discretionary consumer spending drives GDP growth, and profits sit idly in corporate coffers because they are not needed for investment in fixed capital that would increase productivity and output in goods production. 

As a result, the social salience and cultural significance of the class position produced by the capital-labor relation has receded. Many people, especially young people, have less reason to identify themselves with their occupation, and more reasons to seek an identity and purpose beyond, or in addition to, what the workplace affords them.

Meanwhile, the natural sciences have opened up medical means of embracing subject positions that are unbound by sexual origins. With the first such scientific breakthrough – the birth control pill – imagining female identities untethered from motherhood became routine, rather than a radical departure from social convention.

And so the ontological priority of class in the political thinking of both the left and the right can be justified only by insisting on the definition of human nature specific to the Marxist tradition and the Protestant Ethic, which posit labor as the “essence of Man.” In any case, like the other assumptions that inform the critique of identity politics, this one is not workable in imagining the future, for the simple reason that it ignores the past.

One might object that “subject positions” are merely symbolic goods which corporations and policymakers can peddle in place of substantive, distributive justice. But the legitimation of subject positions once deemed “unnatural” – a process carried out mainly by civil-rights movements and statutes – has had measurable, material effects. Here, too, how we imagine the future must not ignore the past.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024.

James Livingston

Professor Emeritus of History at Rutgers University, is the author of six books, including Origins of the Federal Reserve System: Money, Class, and Corporate Capitalism, 1890-1913 (Cornell University Press, 1986), and the forthcoming The Intellectual Earthquake: How Pragmatism Changed the World, 1898-2008 (University of Chicago Press).

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