photo by SG

Friday, April 10, 2009

Towards a Critique of Actually-Existing Identity Politics, Parts 1&2

In the last few months, I've been in Mexico, working with the left and anarchist movements here and there when I get the chance. While doing this, I've come to realize that the Mexican and U.S. radical movements are extremely different, not just the work that they do and how they see themselves, but the internal culture and theory that promotes day-to-day functioning of organs of struggle. One giant difference in the internal cultures is the role of identity politics. I have become attentive to the way in which identity politics functions, or rather doesn't, in the Mexican movement. Yet somehow, despite the apparent lack in many situations of identity politics, the movement continues to have very high levels of participation and leadership by marginalized groups, some (women and queer folks) more than others (indigenous folks), in a culture considered both internally and externally to be quite "machista" and sexist. So how did this happen?

I'm going to set out in the next couple of weeks to write an account, rambling and undoubtedly full of occasional errors, of how identity politics functions in the United States anticapitalist movement and the ways in which it, at times, derails our work. I do not predict this project will be popular nor do I predict that I will change anyone's mind one way or another. More than anything, I want to set down in writing my thoughts on how identity politics work can hurt our organizing. Corresponding with friends, I have recently heard about several different problems created or exacerbated by identity politics in the movements I'm involved in at home. I am not interested in banishing identity politics or stop talking about oppression within movements, but rather showing how they function and ways that they at times hurt us, in order to build a more inclusive and successful revolutionary movement. I am not arguing against the use or function of identity politics as a whole, but instead pointing out particular uses or incarnations of identity politics with which I see problems.

1. Where I'm At

At the outset, I feel I should state several "proclamations of the faith." One of the first problems that one challenges dogma, as I believe I am about to do, is that one gets discredited for one's faith and I do not want that to be what turns people off from this project. Obviously, if the reader sees beliefs that they do not share, this may make the rest of this project irrelevant to them.
  • I believe that we need to make a revolutionary change to form anarchist socialist societies, immediately and globally, and will do what I can to help that revolution in any way.
  • I believe that to make those societies a reality, we need to struggle not just against an economic system, but a wide range of oppressions.
  • I believe that fighting prejudice inside movements is almost or as important as struggling against oppressors.
  • I believe in the right of free speech and open, respectful critique within the movement.
  • I believe that the anarchist movement should strive to make strategic decisions based on empirical facts, not common sense or habit
  • I recognize that I come from a specific background that gives me, in the United States, a series of privileges based on my race, gender, and sexual identity. I do not believe that disqualifies me from having a voice in the conversation about identity.
  • I believe in the right and importance of my comrades who do come from oppressed communities to assert their control over their lives and to defeat intra-, inter-, and extra-movement oppression.
  • I reject claims that logic is completely culturally conditioned.
That last bit is a whole other story and debate already taken up by people far smarter than myself. But what it means here is that I reject the "hard postmodernist" position that logic, science, and rationality in general are equally as valid as any number of irrational schemes. I don't plan on arguing that position here, but briefly, my defense of this rejection is that to embrace this "hard" position is to embrace a worldview of extreme theoretical eclecticism and nihilism, to accept a world that is fundamentally unknowable, even in its smallest mechanisms. Which is something I refuse to do and which I believe is fundamentally irreconcilable with the project of human liberation.

A final warning before I proceed with my actual critiques: I am familiar with identity politics almost exclusively through its use in the circles I have been involved in, ranging from affinity groups to national and international anticapitalist organizations. I am only slightly familiar with the vast body of theory regarding identity and politics, through a few classes in Black Studies and Women's Studies that I have taken in college. Hence the name of this project. I will likely not be quoting a lot of theoretical texts, but may use pamphlets and zines that discuss questions of identity politics within the movement. I will mostly be referring to the general zeitgeist of the logic and practices of identity politics because that is what actually forms our practice, not something that a scholar wrote about identity politics. What matters to me is what we do, not what we think we do.

2. Defining Identity Politics

One problem with identity politics and their use in radical circles is that we have unclear and conflicting definitions of what the term and associated ones mean. The idea of identity politics comes from a variety of different radical and bourgeois traditions and from a variety of different times periods and social contexts. I will only be talking about identity politics in the U.S. setting, because those of the ones I am familiar with.

A few terms we define to start with:

  • Identity refers to the way that one sees oneself or the way that one is seen in society, and the various cultural and social beliefs, practices, and relationships that develop because of the interactions between and within identity.
  • Politics refers to the interactions between people with varying degrees of power in society.
  • Identity politics then refers to the interactions between people with varying degrees of power as seen the through the lens of identity. Taken to a practical level, it has come to mean the promotion of certain identities which are disadvantaged in relations of power, through the use of both internal and external activism.
  • Anti-oppression politics is a similar term which I would argue is a subset of identity politics. It is used almost exclusively by radicals and I think probably represents a particular incarnation of identity politics that is uniquely radical. Anti-oppression politics posits that identity politics, as popularly conceived, does not connect the dots and that rather than individual identity groups struggling against dominant ones, that identities and struggles intersect and that intersection produces unique social locations and hardships, as well as possibilities for struggle. I will use basically use the term interchangeably in this essay, as it is not bourgeois identity politics that I am discussing, but radical ones.
  • Feminism is 1. a theory and practice that takes up the fight against patriarchy with the ultimate goal of liberating people of all genders from oppression and 2. a theoretical critique which deconstructs and analyzes the way identity is used.
Already it becomes clear that identity politics can mean a wide range of practices at a wide range of levels. In my discussion of identity politics, I will be focusing on their function and use at the intra-movement level. Mostly, this is because I have not participated broadly in identity political movements that are focused externally, that is to say, those that struggle against oppressors outside of the movement (capitalists, governments, religions, etc). So my critique will be focused on these practices, which function within the movement and whose goal is to struggle against oppression and prejudice that is exhibited within the movement.


Nate said...

I think your distinction toward the end between projects aimed at targets outside the movement vs intra-movement politics is incredibly important. I'll also say that for me this is part of why I've never been drawn to any of anti-oppression politics I've encountered in my life as in my encounters with it the actual practice is entirely intra-movement. I say this despite great sympathy for what I've read about struggles within and against gender hierarchy within SNCC and other movement entities.

I'd be particularly interested in seeing how anti-oppression politics can work in building mass organizations in relatively heterogeneous settings. I've often heard it opined that anti-oppression intra-movement/intra-organizational politics are necessary for movement/organizational growth. (I know you didn't say that) I think that's probably false (the sectors of the US working class that are becoming union members the fastest are women of color, not because the labor movement is free of racism or sexism, nor is it led by women or people of color), and a bad argument for ending oppression.

Anyhow, hope you're well. When do you get back to the Cities?

Nate said...

Sorry to post twice, I wasn't clear. By "anti-oppression politics" I meant intra-movement practices around anti-oppression trainings and so on. I'm really big in favor of identity based groups and struggles that engage in politics beyond intra-movement stuff. Abig part of why I am who I am today is from doing Take Back The Night stuff in the 90s with some amazing women who were able to make me check a lot of bad baggage without simply telling me to fuck off and quit being part of TBTN; I'd say both of all that had an anti-oppression analysis. Part of what made me able to hear the criticisms of my comrades and made them so powerful was that I was being checked on my behavior around sex and gender in a sex and gender based group/movement.