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.
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.