There’s a reason why identity politics no longer sounds anything like Civil Rights-era social justice (and why we’ll have to fight to win it back)
Political and social analysis, from Peter Gaffney
As a culture accustomed to thinking of history as a series of unexpected crises, it is not surprising that the recent Pepsi ad featuring market-friendly images of protest culture already looks so small in the rear-view mirror. It was a scandal, it was an embarrassment, it was a trifle, and now it’s over. But things in hindsight are always closer than they seem, and the underlying logic of what was otherwise a rather obvious and predictable advertising gamble is bound to creep up on us again and again out of some half-lived half-forgotten past that we usually strive (sometimes quite willfully) to ignore. It isn’t hard, of course, to see the similarity between the Pepsi ad and Coca-Cola’s 1971 “Hilltop” ad, or even Lucky Strikes’ 1928 “torches of freedom,” a PR stunt that consisted in a women’s suffrage march designed to win people over to the idea of women smoking (not voting).
The very structure of market-driven liberal democracy immediately implies a situation in which the production of capital as an end in itself must repeatedly impersonate the public sphere, to walk our walk, use our language, and – more and more often – speak truth to power as a pretext for speaking power to the truth.
During the primaries, for example, when Hillary Clinton invoked the concept of intersectionality, it compelled Kimberlé Crenshaw to tweet : “But what does she mean by it?” One follower tweeted back a straightforward gloss (“understanding the intersections, and not only about identity”), another criticized Sanders (“ask why Bernie doesn’t talk about systemic racism in addition to economic inequality”), and several others understood Crenshaw’s question as throwing subtle shade on Clinton’s motivations (“It’s where the interests of Wall Street and ethnic & minority groups intersect with her political ambitions”; “Probably some variation of the horrible Clintonian triangulation policy”). The original tweet also shows a photo of Clinton and a caption linked to an article by Clare Foran for The Atlantic that comments on the way politicians are helping to bring popular recognition to Crenshaw’s work. Mixed blessings, Foran observes, since this kind of attention “brings the concept further into the political mainstream” but with “risk of it becoming a meaningless buzzword.” (Crenshaw’s own working through of the concept can be found here).
It is telling that one year later this densely meaningful social media exchange so accurately conveys all the difficulties and confusions that make up the struggle on the American left, between those who would like to see identity politics as the core strategic and moral prerogative of the Democratic Party moving forward and those who believe the DNC can only mount a credible resistance to the all-too-pervasive logic of neoliberalism by divesting from the finance market and their corporate allies. In this way, Crenshaw’s tweet and the comments that follow condense not only the terms of the struggle but the fantastically poststructuralist formula according to which each side is trying to engage the other: that is, in the murky interstitial territory between identity politics and electoral reform where, logically speaking, no ideological battlefield can exist.
What might help to sort out these difficulties – to establish at least a coherent battlefield – is a new line of inquiry that brackets the express meaning and aims of identity politics in order to shed light on its history as a discursive system subject to a vicissitude of contingencies, appropriations, power plays and reversals. This is the kind of work that Michel Foucault (and Nietzsche before him) called genealogy, an approach to the study of history based on the notion that “truth or being do not lie at the root of what we know and what we are, but the exteriority of accidents” (1). Working through the “exteriority of accidents” in the case of identity politics would offer an important key for breaking through the frustrating impasse of a discussion that has so often misconstrued our differences on the left in terms of a conflict of values. My aim is not to work through these differences here but to suggest a framework in which to understand them; to justify, if nothing else, the principle of a new line of inquiry, while pointing out some of the dangers we face by failing to shed light on the forces that circulate in the shadowy exterior of all our efforts to make sense of the current political climate (not just Pepsi ads).
Looking at discourse from the outside
It did not escape Foucault that the very concept of genealogy he writes about in his article “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” which is based on Nietzsche’s use of the term in The Genealogy of Morals, is manifestly subject to appropriation. By interpreting it himself, Foucault is rendering transparent the very mechanisms of appropriation he wishes to explain in the article. The purpose of this gesture becomes evident when we consider the problematic context in which Foucault began his project on the history of ideas: a time when Nietzsche was still closely associated with the rise of German nationalism, in part because the most widely read and respected interpreter of his ideas was Martin Heidegger (a member of the Nazi Party from 1933 to the end of the war).
It is tempting to see Foucault here in the role of the good historian who means to save Nietzsche from his “bad interpreters,” and who means for that reason to draw our attention to some redeeming congenital truth buried deep in the original text. But doesn’t this show us instead how a discourse can be circulated without any guarantees on who will use it, how it will be used, or what concrete political reality it will be instrumental in bringing about?
This is how Foucault understands Nietzsche’s concept of Entstehung, which he translates as l’émergence – or alternately as les points de surgissement (the moments, stages or positions of arising) –, by which a discourse always appears anew in the hands of historically contingent forces:
Rules are empty in themselves, violent and unfinalized; they are impersonal and can be bent to any purpose. The successes of history belong to those who are capable of seizing the rules, to replace those who had used them, to disguise themselves so as to pervert them, invert their meaning, and redirect them against those who had initially imposed them; controlling this complex mechanism, they will make it function so as to overcome the rulers through their own rules. (p. 151)
It is in this way, for example, that the ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre, a French Marxist existentialist, were taken up once more by Frantz Fanon, an Afro-Caribbean theorist of colonial race politics, and finally redeployed to concrete political ends by Ali Shariati, ideologue of Red Shi’ism and the Iranian Revolution. Ironically, one of Shariati’s ends was to defeat a competing form of leftism in Iran that had previously played a large part in the revolution and that styled itself after Western Marxism. But these designs against Iran’s revolutionary left, in yet another twist of fate, were all but overlooked by Western intellectuals who came to embrace the overthrow of the Shah and formation of the new Islamic Republic under Ayatollah Khomeini as a model for the struggle against imperialism (including Foucault himself).
No doubt, examples like these will give us reason to point out how important it is to distinguish between the good and bad interpretation; to recuperate the original purpose and meaning of Sartre’s ideas in order to show how they were distorted with each new iteration; to unmask the false prophet that lurks behind every radical ideologue. Or else, with growing suspicion for all big ideas, we will turn to the hard currency of fact, to the identity of the speaker if necessary, as a strategy for securing the authenticity of every instance of speech. But if we learned anything in the last election cycle, it’s the futility of any strategy which causes the forces that circulate on the outside of discourse to disappear only by virtue of an attitude that draws our perspective drastically inward, meanwhile pushing the horizons ever farther away. Rather than shoring up the privileges of a sovereign subject enunciating from the illusory center of the field of signification, I would recommend that we actively seek what lies just outside that field, at the perimeters of discourse – “not the anticipatory power of meaning,” as Foucault suggests, “but the hazardous play of dominations” (p. 148).
Bending the rules to a new purpose
It might help then to clarify some of the distinct ways the discourse of identity politics has appeared during the recent election cycle and post-election discussion in America, referring variously to a moral prerogative on the part of DNC leadership to represent the underrepresented, a strategy for winning elections, and a set of ideological tools for making sense of the way poverty, violence, and disenfranchisement are connected to matters of identity, in a way that transcends the mere condition of economic hardship or disadvantage. I would further emphasize the need to distinguish between the two common ways in which identity matters: as a deliberate and often courageous act of self-identification, and conversely as the creation and maintenance of a social class or subculture as function of a dominant discourse on race, gender, etc. that aims in this way to render it vulnerable to exploitation.
This gives us a pretty good array of intrinsic and extrinsic characteristics. One could point out, for example, that the prerogative to represent the underrepresented – to elect America’s first woman to the office of president – is intrinsic to the discourse of identity politics, because it emerges simultaneously with the meaning and purpose of that discourse. This is not the case with the notion that identity politics can be used as a strategy for winning elections, since it opens the way to purposes – contingent historical forces – that need not coincide with any moral prerogative whatsoever. Obviously, the prerogative of running a woman candidate in the general election immediately implies the one of winning. I am speaking here of a different scenario, in which identity politics has emerged on the national stage in the manner of a kind of Entstehung: which is to say, not by virtue of its own internal necessity (though such a necessity surely persists in the emergence) but instead as a set of impersonal rules bent to a wholly new and unrelated purpose.
Similarly, if identity is brought into play by virtue of a prerogative that is reclaimed through the act of self-identification, it is only because it has already been invoked as the function of a dominant discourse that generates identity-based categories with the purpose of satisfying various systemic demands for a subaltern. In its passage from dominant discourse to the act of self-identification, identity becomes the object of reappropriation, or what Judith Butler – quoting Foucault – calls “reverse discourse,” a gesture that consists in freely appropriating the signifying mechanism that was designed to disempower you (2). In the 2016 election, with both major party candidates organizing their campaigns explicitly around the politics of identity, this gesture played a particularly visible role, seeming to make up the book ends of nearly every news cycle.
Candidates could hardly land a jab on their opponents before the move was parried by the equally newsworthy reverse discourse of their opposing constituents. Not surprisingly, it was women who found themselves at the center of this struggle to dominate the discursive field, self-identifying variously as “Bernie bros,” “deplorables,” or “nasty women” – at which point the gesture began to acquire a kind of surplus meaning, signifying if not détente exactly then perhaps a battle in which every side can reasonably claim total victory.
If the structure of reverse discourse even at its most authentic already suggested the imminent ideological bind of “All Lives Matter,” if we were bound to reach this impasse the moment identity politics emerged as an effective strategy on the national stage, perhaps it is because every instance of discourse, as it comes free from one set of historically contingent forces and passes into the hands of another, inevitably shows its obverse side. At these moments, we catch a glimpse of the impersonal, even mechanical aspect of the prohibitions and privileges from which the discourse derives its power to circulate as an autonomous form, actively structuring our social and political life. Isn’t it precisely this stark apprehension of discourse stripped of its moral veil – a tool like any other – that lies at the root of all our latest crises: the dangerous permissiveness of Trump’s campaign rhetoric, the unchecked circulation of leaked emails and fake news, a return of the repressed outside of discourse that now threatens to engulf our embattled will to truth? Except that the driving force behind this new “post-truth” political climate is not some precipitous disconnect between the thing and its referent, but our own stubborn determination to seek out the truth where there is nothing more at stake than the will to power.
Foucault warned us of this situation: “discourse is not simply that which translates struggles or systems of domination, but is the thing for which and by which there is struggle, discourse is the power which is to be seized” (3). To address these new dangers, we should be prepared to entertain questions not only about the way identity politics translates the struggle for social justice, but also about the struggle that is taking place at the perimeter of this relatively new locus of discursive power: the rise of Third Way politics, for example, and the project of neoliberalism that produced it. Of course, it is understandable that any new line of inquiry that looks at identity politics from its contested “outside” will be met with arguments about the danger of undermining the efforts of scholars, advocates, and institutions that make up its “inside,” diverting precious intellectual energy and support from a job that was thankless enough to begin with, and never more at risk. Even more broadly, this kind of critique may be met with objections that if Third Way politics – or the market as such – has taken an interest in the strategic utility of identity, this does not preclude conventional notions of coalition-building. In other words, we should not rush to consider all contingent interests with suspicion at a time when they might offer the left some strategic advantage in a culture war against an increasingly radicalized right.
But perhaps the problem is more complicated than this. Kimberlé Crenshaw and others on the frontlines of the struggle against the continuing rollback of civil rights are often at pains to improve the framework through which the discourse represents the problem, so as to better address acute issues of police brutality and other forms of violence against those who find themselves unable to speak for themselves (even by means of identity-based discourse in its present state). These scholars and advocates are doing the vital work of evolving and strengthening the discourse, actively bringing it to bear on the complexity of real life problems as they arise, and thereby giving it immediacy and traction. We can imagine how politicians willing to bring the work of Crenshaw and others to the national stage play a strategic role in supporting their efforts by expanding the visibility and currency of their ideas in the public sphere.
But this is where it gets complicated. By the same token that intellectual and social labor increases the legitimacy of the discourse from the inside, by the same token that it renews the power of the discourse to transform the public imagination, it also raises the value of the discourse as “the thing for which and by which there is struggle,” which is to say, “the power which is to be seized.”
Social justice in the image of the market
We can easily imagine, for example, how the exigencies of electoral politics – the perennial demand for strategies that will help Third Way Democrats win elections – puts undue burden on these ideological resources, even when the relationship is synergistic. As Foran suggests in the case of Crenshaw’s work, recognition in the political mainstream comes at the risk of losing original purpose and meaning: the expansion of the concept of intersectionality, for instance, to the point where it means nothing at all.
This is hardly a worst case scenario. We can imagine other relationships in which there is no synergy, relationships that are purely opportunistic because they arise from a situation in which the ideological resources of a discourse have become too valuable, too strategically important to be left in the hands of those who create them. Nor is it difficult to imagine (like Rhon Manigault-Bryant in her open letter to white liberal feminists) how the misuse of identity politics for political gain has significantly compromised the intellectual labor of thinkers and activists like Crenshaw, or directly aggravated the acute social issues their work was originally created to address.
This kind of relationship best exemplifies the crisis we are in now – and not only on the left. The rise of both liberal and conservative social politics in their present state coincides historically with the end of the Cold War and realignment of both major parties behind the project of recreating American social and political life in the image of the market. There are several compelling accounts of this project, notably Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, and Maurizio Lazzarato’s Governing by Debt. Both of these are based in large part on the definition of neoliberalism offered by Foucault in The Birth of Biopolitics, a project that “does not ask the state what freedom it will leave to the economy, but asks the economy how its freedom can have a state-creating function and role” (4). As mechanisms of representation (both electoral and discursive) are systematically replaced by those of the market, the project of neoliberalism directly precipitates a new kind of crisis. “What is at issue is whether a market economy can in fact serve as the principle, form, and model for a state which, because of its defects, is mistrusted by everyone on both the right and the left, for one reason or another” (5).
This new kind of crisis, the crisis of market-driven liberal democracy, has nothing to do with the old political rivalries. If anything, it coincides with a gradual loss of autonomous government to the means and ends of the market, arriving finally at a point where it is not capable of giving authentic expression to political rivalries of any kind. As stewards of the neoliberal project, politicians at the “radical center” have been compelled to make up for this loss– to re-establish trust on both the right and the left by offering various new forms of opposition, among which the politics of identity stands out (at least for now) as the most effective. There are undoubtedly many reasons for this, not to mention longstanding historical factors simultaneously at work in systemic sexism, racism, etc. But in the current context, and as pure discursive strategy, the sole purpose of the new politics of identity is to provide disenfranchised constituents in each party with a reason to continue aligning their political will along party lines, even as their elected representatives align more and more decisively with each other on the principle of economics as an end in itself.
In this way, with no opportunity to address the crisis directly, the electorate ends up radicalizing along an ideological axis on which all positions left, right, and center are amenable to the interests of the market. Third Way social liberalism squares off with its conservative counterpart- the Southern Strategy, the Moral Majority, the Evangelical right, etc. in an escalating feedback loop, all the more dangerous because the forces that keep it in motion are able to reap ever greater profits from every social and economic crisis it precipitates.
The first step in escaping this vicious cycle, especially in light of last year’s shake-up of conventional left/right orthodoxy, is to reject the discourse of both parties equally: to step out of the superficial and mutually antagonistic stance in which Democratic and Republican Party leadership hope to exhaust our collective political will, in order to directly engage one another across party lines in a more substantive discussion about the way we’d like our elected representatives to address the long list of crises created by global capitalism. To be sure, there are bound to be many proposals on which we fundamentally disagree. But putting an end to America’s culture wars – a PR spectacle that increasingly relies on real violence to achieve verisimilitude –, is not likely to be one of them.
- Foucault M. Nietzsche, Genealogy, History. In: Bouchard DF, editor. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Ithaca (NY): Cornell University Press; 1977. p. 146. All in-text page references refer to this article.
- Butler J. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories of Subjection. Stanford: Stanford University Press; 1997. p. 83-105.
- Foucault M. The Order of Discourse. In: Young R, editor. Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul; 1981. p. 52-53.
- Foucault M. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France. Burchell G, translator; Senellart M, editor. New York: Palgrave MacMillan; 2008. p. 95.
- Ibid. p. 117.
My editorials on American politics have appeared in Salon and Counterpunch, and I am editor and co-author of The Force of the Virtual: Deleuze, Science and Philosophy (2010, University of Minnesota Press); Assistant Professor (philosophy, visual culture and the public sphere) in the Liberal Arts Faculty at The Curtis Institute of Music; adjunct professor (by appointment) in the Cinema Studies Program at University of Pennsylvania; former Visiting Assistant Professor at Haverford College and Andrew W. Mellon Regional Fellow in the Humanities at University of Pennsylvania, 2009-2010. I am currently working as a freelance writer while on sabbatical in Czech Republic.