At the moment, I’m trying to work out what I currently think about stuff that gets called “identity politics”, and, perhaps more interestingly, about arguments made by people criticising stuff that they call identity politics, because the whole subject feels like one of those debates that never really stops going on. Hopefully, if I can assemble these thoughts into something approaching a coherent argument, I’ll write something more substantial on the subject soon, but in the meantime, here’s a few thoughts on Angela Nagle’s “The Scourge of Self-Flagellating Politics”, which I’ve seen posted around a fair bit over the last week or so.
“The Scourge…” is a pretty strong article overall. It backs its case up with actual citations, which is always a plus, and it would seem hard to argue that the tendencies she’s attacking provide anything particularly valuable. But it’s noticeable how weak the conclusion is compared to the rest of the article – how far short it is of what I would read as the logic of the argument being made.
The central image of Nagle’s article, at least in my reading of it, is that of Malcolm X, first telling a young white woman that there’s nothing she can do to help, and then coming to regret his earlier harshness as “his political thought [became] more sophisticated and nuanced, as he thought through the question of how to fight racism without reproducing a crude nationalism.” Fair enough, the question of how we react to forms of oppression that are based around identities without just endlessly reproducing and reconfirming those same identities is an interesting one, and if the tendencies Nagle identifies are nowhere near up to the task, it’d be good to see a sketch of a more adequate strategy.
But here’s the thing: instead of providing any hints at what the alternative to a self-destructive politics of guilt would look like, Nagle just concludes by serving up a moral-psychological assessment of the motives that might secretly be driving the individuals who engage in such politics, suggesting that deep down, they’re really insincere in their self-loathing.
A neat irony, this: the sub-heading of the piece (which I suppose may well be the work of a sub-editor somewhere, but whatever) is “When politics becomes about tallying sins, it ceases to accomplish meaningful change”, and yet, just at the point where we might expect Nagle to start talking about how we can accomplish meaningful change, she chooses to start examining the moral character of her opponents; in other words, to tally up their sins.
Although I’m not particularly familiar with Nagle’s ideological background, and reading the piece leaves me no wiser about her favoured strategy than I was before, I would guess that the alternative she’d propose would be something informed by Marxism: that is to say, by something that refuses the liberal focus on individuals considered as individuals, and favours a broader analysis that tries to attempt a materialist reading of social forces.
From this kind of perspective – from any perspective more concerned with understanding the world in order to change it than with classifying individuals as righteous or unworthy – the question of what secretly motivates people in their hearts is pretty much a side-issue most of the time. If, for instance, the electoral strategy of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition is a useless strategy, then it’s equally useless whether we think members of TUSC are really sincere and committed to the perspective of advancing the class struggle by losing their deposits or whether they’re just in it for the glamour and fame that comes with being on the local council; if focusing huge amounts of attention on the internal structures of Momentum is not a particularly productive way to spend your time, then the reasons for this focus are pretty irrelevant to that assessment; and if it’s true that not much is achieved by white people making sweeping generalisations about “white people”, then this point is equally true regardless of whether said people are just making said generalisations as a way of promoting their personal brand or whether they really properly mean it.
Crucially, this point – the supposed insincerity of the self-flagellating liberals – which is presented as the very conclusion of Nagle’s argument, is one that’s hardly likely to win over the unconverted. If someone who is genuinely, seriously committed to public performances of white guilt encounters this piece, then upon reaching the conclusion they can just examine their conscience, see that the motives Nagle ascribes to them do not match up with the thoughts that they really do hold in their hearts, and then dismiss the whole argument on the basis that the conclusion doesn’t stand up.
As I hope is clear, I don’t think the politics Nagle attacks are of much use in themselves. But if I really was committed to this mode of self-flagellation, and keen to defend it, then the weakness of “The Scourge’s…” presentation would provide me with an easy way to get a snide blow in, along the lines of “at least what I’m doing is a way of working to undermine white privilege and white supremacy. What alternative method of attacking these systems does Nagle offer? Nothing. Therefore, we can conclude that she doesn’t really care about struggles against racism, and everything she says can safely be ignored on that basis.”
Of course, the structure of one individual article doesn’t really matter that much, and is pretty trivial in the grand scheme of things. But an article like “The Scourge…” doesn’t stand alone, but takes its place as a contribution to the genre of pieces critiquing certain kinds of anti-oppression politics. Some of these pieces are written by people who genuinely are passionate about tackling these forms of oppression, and are keen to see ineffective strategies torn down so better ones can take their place, while others are written by people who have some degree of hostility to the cause being discussed (a hopefully uncontroversial example would be feminism’s “TERF wars” – if trans-exclusionary feminists critique particular things that trans activists say or do, it’s not because they see particular strategies as ineffective and in need of improvement, but because they have a fundamental opposition to the cause being advanced).
What is certain is that some people who’re invested in the politics being attacked will tend to read all criticism of their politics as coming from the latter camp; and the only way to distinguish between someone who opposes a particular kind of anti-racism (or feminism or whatever), because they believe in a better, more effective method, and someone who does it because they’re actually hostile to anti-racism, is by examining the alternative they suggest. When people write these kinds of polemics without bothering to propose a worked-out alternative – and Nagle is far from alone in doing this –, then this presents a fairly obvious problem. It’s worth adding that when I say “a worked-out alternative”, I mean “an alternative approach to the problem that the politics being critiqued aims to address”; suggesting an alternative along the lines of “stop caring about this thing that you care about and start caring about this other thing instead” is not particularly likely to win people over.
Closing note: I try to avoid being a hypocrite as best as I can, and I realise that the rough argument of this piece (“just telling people to stop doing things isn’t helpful”) could be taken as contradictory (“stop telling people to stop doing things”, more or less). I don’t think this is what I’ve done, I think this is an attempt to propose a constructive alternative for how these kinds of pieces could be written better, but I’m open to criticism. An arguably more serious contradiction is that I say Nagle’s missing the point for focusing on people’s motivations, and then go on to talk about people’s motivations for writing these kinds of articles; again, maybe I’m just being a hypocrite here, but I think that what I’m trying to do (attempting to establish the difference between people who criticise a movement in order to improve it and people who criticise a movement out of hostility in it, in order to prevent the former from being misread as the latter), is quite different from what I read Nagle’s article as doing (suggesting that people are being insincere in order to get a “gotcha!” moment for its own sake).