When are identities political?

Morgan Godfery has a great post up at The Ruminator about the Auckland housing/Chinese surnames story. His last paragraph inspired me to start jotting down notes for this post on the bus home:

The irony here is that almost a year ago a handful of Labour MPs, Twyford included, were complaining about how their party lost the election because it was focused on identity. These same MPs are now pandering to issues of identity. Singling out ethnic Chinese, in a blatant attempt to court what David Shearer once called the white blokes’ vote, is the worst form of identity politics.

In the same way Morgan asks “When are numbers racist?” I’m going to springboard off that paragraph into another question: When are identities political?

As Morgan points out, there are no cries of “that’s just identity politics” when we’re singling out specific ethnicities for criticism. But stumble into any mainstream leftwing discussion and say “the casualisation of work disproportionately harms women” and the objections will be immediate and very loud.

The key difference, perhaps, is that one situation involves naming the other and categorising their otherness as part of a problem which needs to be fixed. One involves naming yourself and demanding that your problems be accepted as real and important.

That means identity isn’t the real problem. Self-identity is. Taking on the labels which capitalist society has forced upon us – its primary way of replicating its own values and dispossession of the majority – and saying “Yes I am, yet you will treat me with dignity anyway.” It means not being a passive object, exploited for the benefit of capital. It means demanding the right to be a subject – a person not just worthy of fair and equal treatment, but whose interests capital must serve.

This is why identity politics is a bad thing to people who have benefited from the power imbalances which fuel capitalism. When anti-feminists declare that men are “losing their rights”, they kind of have a point: increasing gender equality does mean men lose the right to abuse their wives and lose the right to automatically get custody and lose the right to get paid more for doing the same job without anyone questioning it.

Along any of the “identity” lines where capitalism fences off a group of people and says “your labour and your lives are worth less than other workers'”, rebalancing the scales will involve a relative loss of power and privilege for the group who were “fortunate” enough to be valued just that little bit more.

The irony is that those privileged groups will then complain that it’s the less-valued groups’ labour which is driving down their wages and conditions (see the far-too-common, “women’s lib caused wages to drop” argument any time the gender pay gap gets raised). We all see the sense in the old parable about the rich man, the working-class man and the unemployed man sharing a pie; the rich man eats nine slices, gives the working-class man one, and says “look out, that unemployed guy’s trying to steal your pie.” Yet we stumble when the scenario isn’t about white men at the pub; when it’s women, or migrants, or young workers who are painted as the enemy.

When we fully appreciate that sexism, racism, and xenophobia are alternate sides of the same (apparently multidimensional) coin as class oppression, we can easily accept that identity politics isn’t separate from the leftwing struggle, much less an unwelcome distraction. It’s part and parcel of the same struggle.

That’s why it’s so infuriating to be told, effectively, and persistently, to wait until after the revolution. Overthrowing racism is part of the revolution. Smashing patriarchy is part of the revolution. Disrupting the gender binary is part of the revolution.

The difficulty doesn’t lie in reconciling social justice with economic justice. It lies in the resistance of those of us, who have benefited from wealth or whiteness or maleness, against challenging the systems which benefit us. And, for those of us on the left, the resistance against acknowledging that we aren’t without sin. We aren’t cured of a lifetime of sexist or racist indoctrination just because the lightbulb of class consciousness came on at some point.

This isn’t a dig at anyone. I myself have benefited from my race, from having a gender identity and sexual orientation which are “normal”, from the kind of education that means I’m quite comfortable beginning a sentence with “I myself.” I have learned, but I’m not perfect.

In the same way an alcoholic will always be an alcoholic, and it can be downright dangerous to think you’re “cured”, people raised under patriarchal, white-supremacist capitalism will always be touched by the values of patriarchal, white-supremacist capitalism. We can’t assume we’re “cured” just because we changed the language we use to describe people we don’t like, or totally hired a woman this one time because she really was the best candidate. That way lies complacency and the absolute certainty of screwing up.

So we need to think really hard before we start pointing the finger at “other” identity groups, and we need to stop treating “identity politics” as competition to “important issues”. If there is a struggle of the oppressed against the powerful, being on the side of the oppressed is what being leftwing means to me.

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