Arguments about things that are described as identity politics, or intersectionality, seem to be more or less a constant on the contemporary left. These more-or-less constant debates are often characterised by unhelpful reductionism, messy use of terminology, arguments that assume bad faith on the other side, and generally seem set up to generate more heat than light. If I find the time and energy, I hope to write something soon in response to some recent not-very-good writing on the subject; but for the moment, I’d just like to welcome two articles that have appeared recently which are genuinely thoughtful and actually do justice to the complexity of their subjects.
Whiteness is not magic. It is also not a psychological disposition or a particular type of body. It is a material social relation, as material as that of class. It is absurd to try to determine in the abstract which of these relations is primary. It is instead necessary to study a very specific concrete history—the history of plantation slavery and the development of capitalism in the United States—to explain both kinds of social relation. Capitalism is a fundamental target of any emancipatory struggle not because of some kind of priority of the “economic” over the “cultural” (whatever these would mean as essential categories), but rather because in actual history, racism has been an integral component of capitalism.
Secondly, Eleanor Robertson’s article on intersectionality and its critics in Meanjin magazine (which at first I thought must be about six months old, but apparently Australians think it’s spring right now):
Regardless of its definitional vagueness and susceptibility to being co-opted by ruling-class elements, the enthusiasm with which intersectionality has been taken up by feminists suggests that it addresses itself to a real problem: the tendency in radical spaces to repeat forms of hierarchy and domination present in wider society. It also signposts the danger of imposing a predetermined form of universality—one based on the glorification of implicitly white, implicitly male industrial labour—onto a twenty-first-century proletariat that is extremely different in character.
It is hard to overstate the importance of this insight for anyone interested in building a mass movement against wage labour and capitalism in the present day. Many of the old tools, the old lines, the old certainties simply will not work any more, because they belong to a different era. The task at hand is to extend, deepen and radicalise people’s expressed dissatisfactions with life under capitalism in a way that shows the universal character of particularist grievances without falling into historical re-enactment. This requires listening carefully to what people are saying about their lives and experiences.
Crucially, we must understand that the content of identity politics in general and intersectionality in particular was not injected into radical movements from the outside. It is better viewed as a set of demands from inside, made by marginalised and ignored members of the working class at a time when the ‘traditional’ left was in the wilderness. What better time to conduct a proper internal audit than when you’re out of power? It is a profound strategic error to conflate all criticism of the left with the neoliberalism that was crushing it at the same time. This applies even if some of that criticism reflects the defeatist assumptions of neoliberal reformism, and even if it has been clumsily co-opted in the service of power. I think we are smart enough to sort out which bits are which.
Both are really good (in my opinion), and highly recommended. I don’t particularly have a conclusion to offer here, I just think you should read them and make up your own mind. Maybe write your own responses.