The Identity Politics Glitch

“When neoliberals ask for “diversity”, or more opportunities for the disenfranchised to franchise themselves, what they want is to hand out “white masks” to people of colour as if it’s charity.”

From Mirna Wabi-Sabi


“The colonial world is a world divided into compartments. It is probably unnecessary to recall the existence of native quarters and European quarters, of schools for natives and schools for Europeans; in the same way we need not recall apartheid in South Africa. Yet, if we examine closely this system of compartments, we will at least be able to reveal the lines of force it implies. This approach to the colonial world, its ordering and its geographical layout will allow us to mark out the lines on which a decolonized society will be reorganized.”

Frantz Fanon [1]

Identity Politics is the concept that puts “Black” in Black Panther, “Gay” in Gay Pride, “Gender” in Gender Performativity, “Jewish” in Jewish Diaspora, “Women” in Women’s Rights, and, dare I say it for the Marxists out there, “Working” in Working-Class. If there is hierarchy, there is hegemony; and those who are not identified as members of the leading social group are subject to harsh authoritarian treatment. For the oppressed, an identity is a constant imposition, not something someone puts on when they feel like it, or perform occasionally. Black people can’t detach from their skin, being inside or outside of the closet is a struggle, the gender dichotomy is omnipresent, we live the Christian calendar and traditions everyday, toxic masculinity creeps at every corner, and back-breaking work barely makes ends meet (if there is work).

Organising under a shared identity can be liberating. Not feeling alone in the struggle, knowing that the problem is not you being a freak, and that together we can really make a difference for everyone. Not to mention the self-esteem boost of shared cultural practices, physical and emotional self-expression.

Recognising a shared identity means also recognising differences with others. Recognising differences isn’t necessarily separatist, it’s a unifying practice because we bond based on shared experience (as opposed to being-the-same), and we support each other in the intersections between different struggles. According to Frantz Fanon, these different categories have been put in place by colonial forces. Carefully observing them, analysing why they were put in place, by whom, and in what ways these categories manifest themselves now is quite essential for building a decolonized world.

Sounds beautiful, but of course nothing is that perfect. Some interpret this organisational style as “tribalism”, which is something that can be used to weaken a wider movement of resistance against capitalism by inciting conflict between so-called “tribes”. Colonisers exploited already existing tribal disputes, and today’s hegemony has inherited this practice towards social justice movements. However, to argue that tribalism is the problem in this case is a perpetuation of the colonial attitude that imposes Western values on non-Western people. The problem is not how indigenous people were organising themselves, but instead how they were exploited.

Today, being “officially” recognised as Native American requires a DNA test that proves the opposite of the “one-drop-rule”. Meaning, instead of the claim that one drop of “black blood” makes you black, one drop of “non-indigenous blood” makes Native Americans not Native. This is a type of racial violence that distorts and restricts indigenous heritage and existence. Furthermore, it reduces the acknowledgment of identity to the extent to which it’s convenient to the Government to acknowledge it, rather than actually respecting what indigenous identity means to indigenous people. DNA is not all that matters, and it doesn’t even distinguish between different tribes. Much of Native identity is about participation in a particular tribe and practices. It should be up to that tribe to grant nationhood to a member [2].

Governmental restrictions of people’s affirmation and expression of identity is what leads to the extinction of tribes, and a complete erasure of heritage. This contemporary practice is very much related to the colonial practice of forced Christian conversions and marriages in Brazil. Fanon would call that white masks, but I’ll bring that up again later in the article. For now we can call it a bloodless genocide, where numerous peoples were forced into extinction through Western assimilation.

When it comes to bloody genocide there is no stronger voice than that of Africans in the diaspora. Black identity isn’t alienating in the way white identity is, so let’s be careful to not tell people of colour that they “misunderstand the nature of race”. The Identitarian movement [3], which is lead by an Austrian man who wants to preserve white identity and fortress Europe, is in no way comparable with the Pan-Africanist movement [4], which aims to restore nationhood to Africans in the continent and in the diaspora. There is nothing racist about Pan-Africanists saying they don’t want white people directly involved in their organisations, it’s a fair strategy to combat white supremacy that should be respected and supported.

None of these identity based political movements have to interfere with the wider movement of resistance against capitalism. Saying that organising under a shared identity distracts from organising against the capitalist ruling class is like saying beehives and honey-making distract from pollination. It doesn’t, they complement each other, especially if we have an intersectional approach. What interferes is white people feeling entitled to show up at other people’s “hives” and start telling them what they are doing wrong and what they should be doing instead.

Another thing that interferes is awesome movements getting cooped by capitalist forces (like politicians and corporations). That’s why nowadays it’s apparently hard for people to separate Identity politics from Hilary Clinton, since she took this side of the debate against Bernie, who claimed the let’s-all-unite-against-capitalism argument [5]. But Hilary is no more representative of Identity Politics than Ivanka Trump is representative of Toni Morrison’s descriptions of female slave labor [6]. Just because one (mis)quotes the other doesn’t mean they are representative of each other, just as Urban Dictionary isn’t all there is to a term’s definition.

Identity politics doesn’t only mean practicing reverse social exclusion [7] and creating safe(er) spaces based on race, culture and gender [8], or a hypocritical reproduction of the discrimination we claim to be fighting against.

In a previous article [9] I discussed how colourblindness is not anti-racist, it’s in fact a careless exercise of (white) privilege, and how categorising others while remaining neutral is an essential strategy for the persistence of White Patriarchy. White people do what they want, when they want [10], and I object when white men tell people of colour and queers that their identity based communities makes them feel discriminated against. Masculinity and whiteness are also socially performed identities, but they are imposed on most of the world as an objective, neutral, and superior state of being. Listening to so-called-others helps one understand why these identity based communities are so important in facing such an incredibly hostile world.

Even Anzaldua [15], who rejected oppositional identity politics and idealized a post-racial world, acknowledged that she would “stop using labels. That’s what [she] want[s] to work towards. But until we come to that time, if you lay your body down and don’t declare certain facets of yourself, they get stepped on.”

That is not to say identity politics can’t be problematic. Some approach it superficially and end up throwing empty statements around that focus more on personal image than on genuine social change: when causes become trends. An example of this is how in the last 10 years, Zwarte Piet [11] has been more widely condemned in the Netherlands. While that in itself is positive, it can be a problem when Dutch people think that taking a stance against this tradition is an opportunity to earn a not-racist badge. It’s important to avoid interpreting certain things as the problem, but instead as symptoms of a much bigger problem. This way we ensure that Dutch Racism doesn’t manifest itself in other ways.

Another issue that rises from Identity Politics is the expectation of homogeneity. Kimberle Crenshaw thought us over 20 years ago [12] that when feminist circles attempt to homogenise womanhood and the experience of sexism, they erase the different forms of oppression women of colour experience, and consequently erasing black womanhood itself. Today we can say the same for TERF’s [13] and the erasure of the trans experience. This is why identity politics must be perceived as intrinsically connected to intersectionality.

Identity politics is not what brings those compartments Fanon speaks of into existence. We choose to look at them, take them, dismantle them, and from there we can build a new world. Non-Westerners mustn’t be the same as Westerners. In a white supremacist world, assimilation means whitification. The colonised has oppressor and oppressed within, a neurotic inferiority complex, and a survival instinct that leads to a horrible desire to adjust. This is fed and exploited. When neo-liberals ask for “diversity”, or more opportunities for the disenfranchised to franchise themselves, what they want is to hand out “white masks” [14] to people of colour as if it’s charity. What we should have is a world where we can exist without them.

So, what does this debate mean for the woke generation? A complete inability to get over ourselves and just get shit done.

  1. Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon (1965, p.36)
  2. Genetic “Markers”- Not a Valid Test of Native Identity. Blood quantum laws. And a video on the subject can be found here.
  3. The new-right hipsters.
  4. A Britannica definition of Pan-Africanism. Check also the Brazilian political organisation Reaja.
  5. Bernie Sanders still says class is more important than race. He is still wrong.
  6. Ivanka Criticised for quoting Toni Morrison.
  7. For instance calling people out, and banning public displays of cultural appropriation in specific spaces.
  8. For example organizing events, meetings and parties for Queers and PoC only.
  9. White Privilege in Dutch Anarchism.
  10. Joyce Galvão’s private commentary on Mallu Magalhães and cultural appropriation in Brazilian music.
  11. Zwarte Piet
  12. Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color, by Kimberle Crenshaw (Stanford Law Review, 1991).
  13. Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist.
  14. Black Skins White masks by Frantz Fanon.
  15. Gloria E. Anzaldúa was a scholar of Latina feminist phenomenology.

Mirna Wabi-Sabi


is co-editor of Gods&Radicals, and writes about decoloniality and anti-capitalism.

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Class and Identity: Against Both/And

Image credit: Lotta Femminista, via Viewpoint Magazine

I’m sitting in a punk bar in April with an out-of-town socialist. He gets passionate, telling me how disappointing he finds May Day rallies back home – how the local AFL-CIO plays it safe by stumping for Democrats, while other activists demonstrate about immigration, feminism, and “anything besides class.”

“Why can’t this one day be for workers?” he sighs.

A Jill Stein supporter protests Hillary Clinton during the DNC. Via Wikimedia Commons.

After Hillary Clinton’s failure in November, erstwhile Bernie supporters blamed Clinton’s “identity liberalism” for “abandoning the white working class.” In return, centrist Democrats repeated the accusations they’d made against Sanders during the primaries: supposedly, denouncing Wall Street is only another flavor of the white male reaction that uplifted Trump, and class-based politics means throwing away feminism and anti-racism for the sake of unity with “hillbillies.”

However, the revival of social democracy that Bernie helped catalyze didn’t slow. Often (though not exclusively) through the organizational vehicle of the Democratic Socialists of America and anchored by the audiences of Chapo Trap House and Jacobin, social democracy seems to be edging out “anarcho-liberalism” as the US protest scene’s default ideology.

As it’s grown, its proponents have rebutted the claim that class doesn’t mix with anti-racism and feminism. While criticizing the excesses of the Clintonite politics of representation and “identitarianism” in general, they’ve maintained that they actually oppose racism and sexism more effectively than centrists. After all, their case goes, “universal public goods” and “redistributive social-democratic programs” disproportionately benefit oppressed identity groups because their oppression leaves them poor, unemployed, and uninsured far more often than white straight men. Therefore, the best way to support women and people of color is to avoid divisive, class-effacing privilege analysis. Prioritizing economics doesn’t mean dropping anti-discrimination and anti-bigotry commitments. It’s simply a more effective strategy to pursue them. They agree with the centrists that those are non-negotiable moral imperatives, while disagreeing about how they best can be accomplished.

Overall, they both claim that US progressivism must pick one of their two competing orientations: liberal centrism or social democracy. Identity politics or universalism – which way forward?

Should workers have a holiday to themselves?

But there’s a flaw underlying the clashing-visions narrative. Both worldviews fundamentally misunderstand the nature of race, gender, class, and capitalism – and they do so in precisely the same way.

But in pre-capitalist society the work of each member of the community of serfs was seen to be directed to a purpose: either to the prosperity of the feudal lord or to our survival. To this extent the whole community of serfs was compelled to be co-operative in a unity of unfreedom that involved to the same degree women, children and men, which capitalism had to break. In this sense the unfree individual, the democracy of unfreedom entered into a crisis. The passage from serfdom to free labor power separated the male from the female proletarian and both of them from their children. The unfree patriarch was transformed into the “free” wage earner, and upon the contradictory experience of the sexes and the generations was built a more profound estrangement and therefore a more subversive relation.

Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James

Liberals say that opposing identity oppression means letting class politics go. Social democrats respond that they can walk and chew gum – class-based organizing can and should coexist with a strong anti-discrimination program.

But does either stance square with what race, gender, and privilege materially are?

Under capitalism, most people take part in the work that keeps society running and produces all goods and services. Sometimes that work is paid; sometimes it isn’t. In either case, though, it isn’t controlled by the people who do it. Rather, economic activity is governed by a ruling class of investors and business owners, called capitalists. They accumulate wealth by exploiting the paid and unpaid work carried out by everyone else: the working class, broadly defined. The capitalist class holds power by owning capital (productive property, the objects that workers use to produce goods and services).

The capitalist economy is enormously complex. It requires an elaborate, worldwide division of labor. The ruling class dictates the terms on which that happens. Further, the capitalists know that they don’t actually contribute to the work. Their role boils down to accumulating capital and keeping themselves in charge.

So, when dividing up labor, they hit two targets at once.

There’s nothing in human biology that makes people do extra housework and emotional labor when they’re perceived as women. There’s no law of botany that assigns farm work mostly to immigrants.

But the ruling class has figured out that it can associate different social categories with the expectation and/or requirement that their members will engage in certain types of work. When they do that, the working class itself begins to organically adapt to the capitalist division of labor. The gender role of womanhood, for instance, has unpaid gendered labor built into it. The capitalist class doesn’t send a memo to every individual woman each morning that reads, “Today we need you to clean the kitchen and comfort you boyfriend when he’s upset.” But on the ground, women, not men, are almost always the ones who do that type of work. How does that happen? Well, men have learned a social role that includes having that done for them, and women have learned one that includes doing it. Every time they re-enact those roles, they re-create them; the repeated experience of behaving the way others expect based on gender causes people to internalize those expectations, which then leads them to project them back onto others. The division of labor happens through identity categories, and it plays out in a way that keeps reinforcing them.

Of course, capitalists don’t rely on the working class to keep doing that entirely on its own. They actively intervene in daily life to keep the categories strong. While that does involve the mass media, religious doctrine, and the education system promoting stereotypes and unequal expectations, propaganda is only part of the story. Rather, the ruling class sustains and reinforces identity groups by treating some of them much worse than others. By punishing (legally or socially) those who cross category lines, it keeps the distinctions clear. Racial profiling by police helps keep certain neighborhoods white. When a church excommunicates gays, it ensures that its parishioners’ households are headed by men and produce lots of children.

Additionally, by granting cultural, legal, and material benefits to some identity groups but not others, the ruling class shores up its power. After all, when part of the working class does comparatively better as a result of the division of labor, it’s less likely to unite with the rest of the class to challenge the system overall. That’s how privilege works: it simultaneously emerges from and contributes to the capitalist division of labor, and does so in a way that pits privileged workers against the rest of their class.

That’s not incidental to capitalism, either. When it first emerged, the capital-owning class didn’t want self-sufficient peasant villages. As long as peasants had their land and worked it, they were unwilling to hire themselves out to other people’s businesses. But capitalists need people who own nothing, because such people have no choice but to work for them. So, in the early modern era, the emerging capitalist class created the current working class by enslaving Africans, committing genocide against Indigenous nations to steal their land’s raw materials, and privatizing the land that had once been the European peasant Commons. The categories of gender, race, and nation imposed by that process are the ancestors of today’s identity divisions. Unequal treatment both sustains them and makes them useful to the system.

Privilege is built into class.

Activists must understand the ways that the particular historical experiences of the United States wove race and class together that makes fighting white supremacy central to any revolutionary project. In other words, those who wish to fight against all forms of authoritarianism must understand one crucial fact of American politics—in America authority is colored white.

Roy San Filippo

Race and gender don’t hover out there in the aether, independent of economic reality. If something exists, it exists in the material world. Nothing within the class system is outside the class system. Economics is more than dollars and class is more than tax brackets. Patriarchy, white supremacy, and empire aren’t extraneous features of capitalism. They’re as fundamental to it as selling products on the market. They exist because every day, people make goods and services, keeping society alive according to the division of labor embodied by identity divisions. Combined with unequal treatment, that makes sure the division of labor will still be up and running the next day. Without such a division of labor and disparity of benefits, the working class would not be as productive as the ruling class needs it to be. Without privilege to undermine the basis for class unity, the capitalists would have a revolution on their hands.

My acquaintance in the punk bar, however, didn’t view gender and race as indispensable ingredients of the class system. He wasn’t a bigot, and he supported anti-racism and feminism on moral grounds. Even so, his understanding didn’t root them in the everyday, material life of capitalism. He knew that women workers and immigrant workers are workers, no less than their white male counterparts. But, he still operated with the implicit assumption that capitalism, in general, tries to make workers as interchangeable as possible.

After all, the logic goes, doesn’t capitalism tend to de-skill specialized trades over time in order to drive down those jobs’ wages? In a parallel manner, liberal centrists argue that the market punishes racism and sexism – isn’t it in a company’s self-interest to always hire and promote the most qualified candidate, whatever their identity?

Apart from the skilled trades, the only jobs in which individual qualifications make a substantial difference are professional and white-collar work. Now, it’s true in principle that a less-diverse and less-qualified administrative workforce operates less effectively than one that rewards talent, rather than whiteness and maleness. But a big-box retailer doesn’t need a stocker to have an unusual talent for stacking boxes. The nature of the work is such that most any worker can do it as well as another. For most jobs, unique individual qualifications don’t really make much difference.

As more and more jobs get de-skilled, employers lose the incentive to hire based on applicants’ distinctive qualifications. Over time, specialist knowledge declines as a factor in assigning work. Patriarchy, white supremacy, and imperialism don’t. Maintaining those divisions of labor allows companies to exploit non-white, non-Western, and non-male workers at extra-high rates. That then creates downward pressure on privileged workers’ pay. De-skilling doesn’t make the working class less differentiated. It makes it more so.

And every corporation knows that whatever it loses by discriminating against qualified administrators, it makes up a thousandfold by keeping the overall division of labor intact.

Capitalism is a totalizing social system. It’s not just fiscal. Race, nation, and gender are among its components. Without them, it could not function. Had it not imposed them, it would not have been able to come into being. But social democrats and liberals don’t quite grasp that. Instead, they view gender, class, and race as more-or-less independent “vectors of oppression” that might inflect each other when they intersect, but still don’t reduce to any shared underlying cause.

And so, liberals and social democrats end up holding in common the view that class, in principle, is ultimately raceless and genderless. They agree that capitalism and privilege exist, but that opposing one doesn’t require opposing the other. They differ on only one point: social democrats say “both/and” to identity and class, while liberals say “either/or.”

Neither view is adequate. Their shared assumption isn’t true.

White supremacy is a system that grants those defined as “white” special privileges in American society, such as preferred access to the best schools, neighborhoods, jobs, and health care; greater advantages in accumulating wealth; a lesser likelihood of imprisonment; and better treatment by the police and the criminal justice system. In exchange for these privileges, whites agree to police the rest of the population through such means as slavery and segregation in the past and through formally “colorblind” policies and practices today that still serve to maintain white advantage. White supremacy, then, unites one section of the working class with the ruling class against the rest of the working class. This cross-class alliance represents the principle obstacle, strategically speaking, to revolution in the United States. Given the United States’ imperial power, this alliance has global implications.

The central task of a new organization should be to break up this unholy alliance between the ruling class and the white working class by attacking the system of white privilege and the subordination of people of color.

Ruckus Collective

But what difference does this make on the ground? Doesn’t good socialist practice still mean pro-worker economics plus anti-racist, feminist social politics? Whether or not it’s all a unitary system, what is concretely at stake?

If race, gender, and empire are inherent to capitalism, the meaning of “good socialist practice” starts to shift.

If a socialist revolution is to happen, the working class must unite. If the class is to unite, revolutionaries must challenge the material and cultural basis of its disunity. So, every political project the Left undertakes needs to specifically challenge privilege within the working class, not sweep it under the rug to avoid “divisiveness.” If your organizing doesn’t meet that standard, you’re not building class unity. You’re tearing it down. There is no raceless and genderless class politics because there is no raceless and genderless class. So, trying to compartmentalize anti-privilege and anti-capitalist work is implicitly chauvinistic (except when it’s explicitly so!). The Left must reject all politics that doesn’t break down intra-class privilege, even when it comes from “our side.”

The social-democratic revival waxes nostalgic for the postwar welfare state, calling for “universal social goods” with anti-discrimination laws tacked on. Its proponents posit a revival of Scandinavian-style social programs as a bulwark against the populist Right and a viable “long game” anti-capitalist strategy. But welfare nostalgia doesn’t naturally lead towards revolutionary socialism. Due to its backwards-looking frame of reference, it fits more intuitively with welfare chauvinism: the tactic used by far-right leaders, from Marine Le Pen to Richard Spencer, of promising to restore not only the social-democratic redistribution, but also the much harsher identity hierarchies of the pre-70s years. And in practice, even avowedly left-wing social democrats are not immune to welfare-chauvinist temptations. Jeremy Corbyn and Sahra Wagenknecht‘s stated anti-racism hasn’t kept them from demanding immigration restrictions.  Angela Nagle‘s claimed feminism doesn’t stop her from scapegoating trans people for the sins of online call-out culture.

The social-democratic “both/and” doesn’t work. Why should it? It attempts to sidestep the question of privilege within the class, not attack it. Opposing privilege as a matter of class-neutral morality rather than working-class strategy leans, over time, towards chauvinism.

For the consequences of the ending of white supremacy, which can only be ended by mobilizing and raising the consciousness of the entire working class, would extend far beyond the point of spreading out the misery more equitably. The result of such a struggle would be a working class that was class conscious, highly organized, experienced and militant – in short, united – and ready to confront the ruling class as a solid block. The ending of white supremacy does not pose the slightest peril to the real interests of the white workers; it definitely poses a peril to their fancied interests, their counterfeit interest, their white-skin privileges.

Ted Allen and Noel Ignatin (Noel Ignatiev)

Does this mean radicals should take a two-stage approach: anti-discrimination now, socialism later?

Both privileged and specially-oppressed parts of the working class have two sets of interests: long-term and short-term. For non-privileged workers, there’s a long-term interest in abolishing capitalism and a short-term interest in eliminating privilege. Privilege is part of capitalism and specially-oppressed workers stand to benefit straightforwardly from getting rid of the system and all of its parts. Privileged workers, though, are in a bind. They share other workers’ long-term interest in ending capitalism. But in the short term, privilege makes their lives better. So, their long-term and short-term interests contradict each other; they share the former with their entire class, but the latter keeps them from recognizing it. Strategically, the trick is to organize privileged workers around their long-term interests – even though that means opposing their own short-term interests.

Liberal anti-discrimination, however, doesn’t do that. It doesn’t want to. There’s a reason it focuses on academia, middle-class professions, and the coverage of media stars with oppressed backgrounds. That flows naturally from its class basis. It aims to remove the barriers that keep middle-class and upper-class members of oppressed identity groups from enjoying full middle/upper-class success. However, that success consists of exploiting working-class people, including those who share their identities.

Privilege and class aren’t separate. The Left’s work against them can’t afford to be, either.

If May Day is about immigrants and feminism, doesn’t that mean it’s about workers?

Image Credit: Q-Patrol of Seattle

So how should the Left proceed?

If the unitary view of class and privilege rejects liberal anti-discrimination, it also leads away from standard welfare-statist anti-austerity. Should leftists oppose austerity? They shouldn’t support it, since its implementation (like the welfare state’s before it) is done in a way that strengthens capitalist rule (including by shoring up privilege). But the Left’s goal can’t be a return to the postwar “golden years.” Revolutionaries can’t afford nostalgia.

Rather, directly tackling the basis of class rule (including privilege) can best happen outside the framework of state services and legislation. You can conceptualize it through an anarchist, Marxist, municipalist, or whatever other lens, but in the end, only the dual power strategy‘s institution-building approach allows radicals to confront the capitalist class while challenging the division of labor it imposes.

What does that look like in practice?

Q-Patrol in Seattle, WA claims that gentrification in the gay district is behind the past several years’ sharply-rising hate violence. The influx of wealthy software engineers drives up rent and displaces LGBTQ people (replacing them with sometimes-homophobic tech yuppies). Consequently, the neighborhood’s ability to function as a safe haven declines. Losing that “critical mass” of LGBTQ people makes the area more attractive to straight college students looking for nightlife. So, with more drunk, conservative straight people in the district, increased hate violence isn’t exactly a surprise.

Gay business owners, though, have called for more police in the area to quell attacks. But a greater police presence actually accelerates the process. The people most targeted by homophobic and transphobic assaults are often people of color, unhoused people, and/or sex workers. The police themselves harass and sometimes attack members of those groups. Meanwhile, their ambient presence emboldens the same well-off bigots who are behind the violence in the first place.

Q-Patrol’s solution is a community safety patrol, preventing and intervening in attacks while monitoring the police, Copwatch-style. Q-Patrol therefore resists gentrification (which threatens all working-class people in the area, LGBTQ or straight) by displacing an ostensible function of the police (protecting the community). The institution-building strategy hinges on this kind of function displacement. Capitalist institutions organize different aspects of life in ways that reinforce privilege and the division of labor. If leftists build counter-institutions, people can use them organize those same parts of life in ways that don’t do that.

Because its basic work is preventing hate violence and its roots are directly in the LGBTQ community, Q-Patrol directly challenges straight privilege. However, it does so in a way that simultaneously furthers the interests of the neighborhood’s entire working class, straights included. There’s no “both/and”-ism – it doesn’t artificially pin anti-discrimination onto supposedly raceless and gender-free “class issues.” Instead, its work intrinsically and organically does both at once.

That’s the approach the Left needs. The conflict between social democracy and “identity politics” is a red herring. They share a worldview in which privilege and class exist independently of each other. Because of that, both end up supporting capitalism and privilege, since materially, they are the same system. Neither liberals nor social democrats, though, are interested in attacking that system as the coherent, integrated whole that it actually is. Revolutionaries can’t afford that limited perspective. If May Day isn’t about women and immigrants, then it’s not about class.

The Left must confront the class system itself, challenging the ruling class and its division of labor. Radicals shouldn’t fight one limb of the system in a way that strengthens another. Autonomous working-class politics, based on the dual power strategy of institution-building, has a chance of breaking out of that trap.

Welfare nostalgia doesn’t.

Sophia Burns is a communist and polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her work on Patreon:

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Why Suffer for Social Justice?


Outside a Catholic confessional in Lourdes. Wikimedia Commons.

Last month, a town near me saw its first May Day rally in decades. Because “working class” means more than “blue-collar white men,” the organizers invited me to talk about disability and other speakers to address white supremacy, climate justice, and patriarchy.

My speech observed that the paid work of formally-employed workers and the unpaid work of unemployed workers (housework, childcare, social and emotional support, etc) depend on each other. Society can’t run with just one of them. They’re like a nail and a hammer: without both, you can’t build a thing. Disabled and abled workers are both part of that reciprocal process, including disabled people who will never have access to paid work. But under capitalism, the ruling business-ownership class controls the economy, government, and culture. So, no one but them has meaningful social power, even though society only exists because of our collective labor (paid and unpaid). Therefore, we share an interest in doing away with the current system. Sticking up for each of us is in the enlightened self-interest of all of us. We don’t need moralistic notions of allyship – we need to fight for each other, together, because otherwise only the ruling class wins.

Before May 1, the organizers needed a speaker bio. I didn’t hesitate to talk about my political work, but I agonized about whether to mention that I’m autistic. I didn’t believe that simply being disabled qualified me to speak. I thought that my knowledge of the issues and on-the-ground political practice did. However, I intended to say that disabled and abled workers ultimately have exactly the same interests and that neither has meaningful social power. So, I finally did disclose my disability. After all, I was criticizing the basic assumption of most social justice disability politics: that all abled people benefit from the oppression of disabled people and, therefore, are complicit in it. If I hadn’t announced my autism, I could have exposed the event to accusations of booking an abled Marxist to “ablesplain.”

As it happened, my speech was well-received. The crowd wasn’t the typical activist scene; nearly everyone there was from either the AFL-CIO, the Industrial Workers of the World, or a local, independent farmworkers union. However, based on past experience, a less unusual “anti-oppression” crowd (say, college student activists) would likely not have been so receptive. In situations like that, I’ve noticed three typical responses:

  1. The audience ignores the content and responds as though it had been the standard social justice position.
  2. The audience attacks the speaker as not actually part of the oppressed groups they’re part of and chalks up their disagreement to privilege.
  3. The audience reflexively defers to the critique on the basis of the speaker’s identity – and instead of actually engaging with the substance, confesses their own privilege while changing neither their ideas nor their practice.

You may notice a pattern there. While those committed to allyship-model politics may talk about taking marginalized voices seriously, in practice there’s not much room for anyone, regardless of identity, to dispute their basic political assumptions.

The credibility they grant ostensibly on the basis of identity actually depends on political agreement. They might say “disabled people are telling us to check our privilege and understand our complicity in ableism,” but disabled people who don’t say that tend to get brushed over or called out.

Now, that in itself isn’t necessarily a problem. Defending opinions one agrees with and attacking other views is just part of what it means to take ideas seriously – it’s legitimate and necessary for any sort of politics. But why, then, frame it in terms of who is talking rather than what they’re saying? It’s empirically untrue that all members of a given identity group have basically the same politics. Why does social justice talk as though they do?

Old History, Alexander Jakesch. A woman expresses her pain for a small audience. Wikimedia Commons.

Disclosing my autism gave some cover to the rally’s organizers. But, I could have gone further.

Broadly speaking, social justice says that being disabled should be the main qualification to talk about disability. Even so, I could have boosted my credibility further by claiming additional marginalized identities. For instance, “autistic person” carries less intersectional weight than “autistic nonbinary trans woman.” For the subculture, more marginality means more right to speak – at least on the surface.

But for social justice, there’s more to identity than just the identities people have. “Autistic nonbinary trans woman” might give my words more intersectional force than “autistic,” but “autistic nonbinary trans woman who has survived rape and abuse” carries me substantially further. That ought to sound pretty strange – after all, having been raped isn’t an identity. Every identity group has some members who have been raped. It’s an experience, not an attribute.

Identity and privilege, though, tend to get framed almost exclusively in terms of “lived experience.” For instance, non-men are often assumed to understand patriarchy in ways men simply can’t because of their fundamentally different lived experiences. The line between what you are and what you’ve been through starts to melt away. But why should that be? What puts “being a woman,” or “being disabled,” in the same category as “having been abused by a partner?” What’s the common thread between a specific act of violence and an identity that’s there throughout your entire social existence?

Perhaps the social justice subculture doesn’t actually care about identity. It cares about suffering.

After all, it’s not the neutral features of my autism that would qualify me to speak about disability (such as flapping my hands when I’m happy or rocking back and forth when I sit). It’s my experience of ableism, of alienation and discrimination – in other words, not my identity, but my pain. And if I don’t put on a good enough show, I might lose the right to talk in the first place.

“Oh, baby, don’t you have a story? Of abjection, ruin, despair?  Did you lose a child?  A lover? Were you not raped?  Beaten?  Oppressed? How could you possibly go through all that and not confess, confess, confess?  How can we possibly think of you as real if you don’t confess?  No tragic dramas?  Make them up! But, always: Confess and Reveal.”

Yasmin Nair

In the US, like the rest of the world, most people are in the (paid and unpaid) working class. The social justice subculture, though, is different.

It’s rooted in cultural studies classrooms, student clubs, Facebook cliques, Democrat-in-practice “non-partisan” nonprofits, and the recent graduates that fill out the scene. While working-class people can be found as individual participants, it’s the professional-managerial class that holds (sub)cultural hegemony: its ideas, interests, and preferences dictate the entire community’s priorities and beliefs. And like the rest of the professional-managerial class, the “anti-oppression community” is richer, whiter, and more privileged in general than the working class.

When marginalized people suffer in public for a social justice audience, not everyone watching is very privileged. However, as a rule the allies far outnumber the self-advocates (hence the preoccupation with allyship and privilege over liberation and strategy in the first place). So, when the subculture proclaims the pain of the oppressed, the point isn’t to “amplify and normalize marginalized voices.” It’s a performance with a very particular purpose. The social justice subculture exploits oppressed people’s pain to prove to its members that their politics are moral.

On May Day, why did I resent having to foreground my disability? I wasn’t ashamed of being autistic. I just hated the thought of being a prop. I don’t want the subculture to use my suffering as Exhibit A to prove how right their beliefs are (especially since I think many of their beliefs aren’t right at all).

“We do not advocate exhorting white workers on an individual basis to give up their privileged status. What we do advocate is promoting vigorous struggle with the ruling class with equality at the forefront and to articulate the lessons of these struggles.”

David Ranney

Don’t take social justice at its word.

It has no desire to radically transform anything. When it slanders class-based politics as intrinsically white, straight, cis, abled, and male, it isn’t telling the truth.

There’s another agenda in play. The professional-managerial class doesn’t want to lose control of progressive politics. We will have to force it to, because otherwise the working class will keep losing. Working-class power is the soul of any Left worth the name. But the social justice subculture doesn’t want revolution – it wants self-congratulation. Paradoxically, that goal is served by its fixation on suffering, privilege, and personal complicity in larger social systems. When “anti-oppression” activists self-flagellate, they create a nearly Protestant sense of collective morality. You want grace? Admit your sin. You want validation? Admit your complicity, your privilege.

Thankfully, their underlying beliefs aren’t true. The ability to change society comes from the latent power of the people who create society (and everything in it): the working class, paid and unpaid. We can only free ourselves by getting rid of the ruling class. Now, for anyone who wants working-class unity, privilege isn’t a useless idea. In fact, it’s vital. Male, white, abled, and otherwise-privileged members of our class are materially less exploited than other workers. They receive tangible and intangible benefits that set them apart from the rest of the class. Working-class unity doesn’t just drop out of nowhere. It has to be knit together, thread by thread, struggle by struggle. Unless fighting privilege and class-based organizing happen through and alongside each other, we will defeat neither capitalism nor privilege. Privilege is part of the class system. It doesn’t float around somewhere in the ether; nothing under capitalism is outside capitalism. Revolutionaries who ignore it can only fail. In a white supremacist and deeply patriarchal society like the US, cultural and material privilege does more to destroy working-class unity than anything else, and avoiding the issue doesn’t make class-based organizing easier. It makes it impossible.

However, the social justice subculture has no useful role in that work. It doesn’t actually break down privilege within the working class. That would mean helping privileged workers understand that opposing their privilege is not self-sacrifice but enlightened self-interest, and proving it through the experience of class struggle. But the subculture prefers to dismiss (or even attack) the working class, while acting as though privilege is a law of nature instead of something we can abolish. The trope that “working class” is a euphemism for “white men who think they’re not privileged” is not honest analysis. It’s psychological projection – the social justice milieu is irredeemably by and for the professional-managerial class, which is disproportionately white and male. We should reject it as such.

You don’t get justice with the politics of guilt. You get it with the politics of solidarity. Freedom doesn’t come from shame. It comes from treating an injury to one as an injury to all (because for the working class, it objectively is).

Do you want social change? Don’t look to the social justice subculture. If, like most of us, you’re a worker (paid or unpaid), help build your class’s power instead.

How else do you think you’ll get free?

Sophia Burns is a communist and devotional polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her at Patreon.

The Great Ventriloquism Act of 2016

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

Original Photo Daniel Hanton


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.


  1.  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.
  2.  Butler J. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories of Subjection. Stanford: Stanford University Press; 1997. p. 83-105.
  3.  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.
  4.  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.
  5.  Ibid. p. 117.

Peter Gaffney

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.

The World Without Forms

I said to a friend, we see the darkness, and some go in.
It is the Abyss.
We have to find out what is there, to find out if there is meaning. And we see only the abyss. And some go mad. And some never return. And some—
And some, I said, come back wielding light against that darkness. Seeing nothing, we bring back fire, we light lamps, candles, torches. We hold light that isn’t ours, as how else would any else see?

Terror often greets the far-off glances on the faces of those who return from the Abyss. The lone wanderers who walked boldly into the darkness past the boundary of fire- or street-light, the mad poet, the uncouth heretic, the unshowered witch: their reckless journeys are not celebrated when they return.

Like the ones who ‘walk away from Omelas,’ they did not know to where they were going, only somewhere not-here, not the streets full of opulent wealth and the joyous cries of liberation made possible by a founding horror. But unlike in Le Guin’s story, the city is the world, and there is nowhere else to go except back to those same streets, their eyes no longer glinting with the shallow laughter of civilization but nevertheless lit with fire.

It is their own fire, and it is a fire others are right to fear. It is a fire that can reforge the world.

I am what some might call an Egoist. I can also be described as a Nihilist, a mystic, an esotericist, a witch, a Pagan, an Anarchist, and also a Marxist. None of these labels actually mean anything–they are only useful when attempting to speak as the locals speak, to use the prescribed language of Capitol/Capital, treating ‘words that stay’’ with the same fetishism which Marx ascribes to commodity-cum-currency.

It is generally easier to list what I reject (for those of you checking-off boxes on mental clipboards) than it is to begin the litany of what I embrace. Few have the time: there are stories that must be told for each thing before they can be understood, and such narration seems mere obfuscation to those for whom reductionism and essentialism (as endemic to the American ‘left’ as it is to the ‘right’) are unconscious requirements to get at the ‘truth.’

I will tell you what I do not like. I do not like racism or racialism; I do not like gender or genderism. I do not like property or propriety, nor do I Iike borders and what they define. Also, Capitalism and Liberal Democracy and Empire are my least favorite things in the world, along with their shadow, Fascism.

Here, though, I should remind you: “Fascism” means nothing at all. It is a word invoked by people overcome with a strong urge to shore up the ruins of Empire by recourse to even more tenuous concepts with even less material basis: Tradition, Race, Gender, Morals, the Nation. Though the words are mere sounds we make with our throats or symbols printed with ink or displayed on screens, they each serve to outline vaguely (and by their vagueness gain more power) ideas which nevertheless have great power in the realm of the human social.

Max Stirner called these ideas ‘spooks.’ Others would call these ‘constructs.’ I prefer to name them spectres or Egregores. They are also the mythic, and it’s the realm of the mythic I understand best, which is also the realm the Fascists are trying to take from us.

Spooks That Kill

Carl Jung gave a speech in 1936 in which he suggested a “Wotanic spirit” had begun to inhabit the National Socialists, as if the people had become possessed by a god:

Perhaps we may sum up this general phenomenon as Ergriffenheit — a state of being seized or possessed. The term postulates not only an Ergriffener (one who is seized) but, also, an Ergreifer (one who seizes). Wotan is an Ergreifer of men, and, unless one wishes to deify Hitler– which has indeed actually happened — he is really the only explanation.

Jung invokes his theory of gods as pre- and un-conscious archetypal drives to defend his thesis, but like much of the rest of Jung’s work, it’s always unclear whether he believed there was not really a god there. But Jung does not quite mean what we generally think of as a god. Wotan is a “buried drive” within the Germanic people, one which essentially haunts the ‘race’ until it becomes manifest.

“Because the behaviour of a race takes on its specific character from its underlying images, we can speak of an archetype “Wotan.” As an autonomous psychic factor, Wotan produces effects in the collective life of a people and thereby reveals his own nature….It is only from time to time that individuals fall under the irresistible influence of this unconscious factor.”

Jung’s racial essentialism here is tragic and prefigures the biological and genetic essentialism which now dominates Western thought. However, the concept of a mass possession by an unconscious form fits incredibly well with what we know of Nationalism.

Consider the World Trade Center attacks in 2001 in the United States. After the attacks, people experienced (and were diagnosed with) trauma from watching the explosions on television, so much so that some (including otherwise sane and clear-thinking friends of mine) for a little while believed they had either actually been present at the event or had a close friend or family member within the destroyed towers. Worse, many otherwise virulently anti-war people suddenly regained national ‘pride,’ literally waving flags with such civic devotion that one would have thought their life depended upon it.

Devotion to the Nation after such traumatic events often takes on both a religious quality (similar to that of evangelical Christians) while displaying symptoms of mass hysteria. The Nation appears to haunt the actions of the individuals, manifesting and reifying itself as if by possession or seizing.

What Jung noticed regarding the possession of the German people by “Wotan” is this same process. And while one need not believe it was Wotan who possessed his people (I do not—I’ve asked him myself), Jung’s assertion that a mythic force can operate on the psyche is hardly a unique idea. The same function was described by Max Stirner as ‘spooks,’ ideological and philosophical forms which exert influence when they are unconsciously accepted as really-existing.

Spook, Spectre, Egregore

Jung’s theory of archetypes—as well as Stirner’s theory on Spooks, may have been influenced by an occult theory regarding near-deific spirits known as egregores. An egregore (greek for ‘watcher’) is a spirit composed of the memories, knowledge, personality, and intentions of a group, which either arises organically from the activities and interactions of the group or is constructed willfully by the group.

Egregores could be called ‘group minds,’ though they exist autonomously (like Jung’s archetypal Wotan) and maintain the cohesion, survival, and collective identity of a group beyond the individual goals of each member. Unlike an archetype, an egregore does not spring from the unconscious/pre-conscious mind, but rather the myriad actions and interactions of those within in. Unlike a god, an egregore is not something one worships or necessarily invokes. They can be constructed, but after their construction the apparent life they take on is much more complex than what they were constructed to be.

A more accurate explanation may be to say that they are real-ised; brought from the realm of infinite possibility, the world without forms, into the more finite realm of social existence. Yet another theory is that they become inhabited after-the-fact by pre-existing spirits, similar to the way many animistic cultures build shrines as houses that benevolent spirits (or fairies, etc.) will want to move into.

Like Jung’s ‘Wotan’ and Stirner’s Spook (and to some degree Derrida’s ‘Spectre’), the Egregore describes the apparent realness of a thing despite its disconnection from the material world. There is no ‘there’ there, and yet it functions always as if there was, manifesting itself in the actions of those who live within its realm of influence or meaning. And it thus acts also as if it were a god, making demands upon its followers who constantly (and often unconsciously) manifest its existence.

This same process has been described by other means by post-colonialist theorists. Dipesh Chakrabarty, particularly, proposes in his introduction to Provincializing Europe that it is precisely European exceptionalism that prevents us from seeing how those of us in Liberal Democratic societies still “inhabit these forms even as we classify ourselves as modern or secular.” Similarly, Frantz Fanon and James Baldwin speak to the way that belief in whiteness and its psychological manifestations seem to inhabit those who, in Baldwin’s words, “believe they are white.”

One need not necessarily accept a supernatural explanation for the way the mythic manifests as-if it is real in order to comprehend this idea. Benedict Anderson’s formulation of the Nation as an ‘imagined community’ also points to the same mythic and Egregoric functioning. For him, the Nation is a modern constructed form creating an indefensible (yet fully-manifest) sense of (false) horizontal kinship with complete strangers, as Anderson says, making “it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people not so much to kill as willing die for such limited imaginings.”

America exists; yet we cannot point merely to the constitution of the United States, nor to its government and institutions, soldiers and politicians and police, and say: this is America. America exists within the psyche of Americans, constantly reproduced through self-description and unconscious acceptance of its goals, desires, and inevitability. America is an egregore, a god-form, inhabiting the psyche of its individual constituents, like Jung’s Wotan: “…an autonomous psychic factor, …produc[ing] effects in the collective life of a people…”

The Fascists Know What We Prefer To Forget

Race, Gender, and all other ‘identity’ categories function this same way. Gays imagine themselves part of a ‘gay community,’ yet there is no such thing, only an imagined kinship with people who just happen to like sex with people who have the same genitals as themselves. A horrific attack on people who call themselves gay (such as the Pulse massacre in Orlando) thus manifests in individual gays elsewhere (as was the case for myself and many of my gay friends) as an attack on us as well.

We see this egregoric manifestation even stronger in whiteness. Whiteness has no material basis, yet it does not need one to manifest through the social interactions of humans. Whiteness ‘possesses’ the white person, and appears to inhabit their interactions with people possessed by other egregoric racial categories (Black, etc.) regardless of their oppositional nature. In fact, the conflict and tension between egregores only further refines and entrenches their influence and power.

Neither the conservative Right nor most of the liberal or radical Left challenge these egregores. Instead, they strengthen and re-invest these egregores with power by insisting they are real and meaningful fields of social struggle (regardless of their final goals). We see this most tragically on the Left, which generally accepts the constructed nature of identities, yet also insists identity is a valid (if not foundational) field of political struggle.

Consider the problem of Gender. Most Leftists accept Judith Butler’s proposition that gender is performative, not essential or biological (likewise the Egoist position). Yet, particularly on the “Social Justice” Left, essentialism and a fear of straying too far from Liberal Democratic forms creates a contradictory position, seen particularly in the arguments around trans women. On the one hand, Leftists insist woman is a constructed category, yet then assert that trans women are women. That is, woman is constructed, but in order to liberate another constructed category, trans women (as category) are absolutely (essentially) part of a woman (as category), making both again essentialist, Similarly, maleness is a category that the Left generally seeks to make irrelevant, but then the Left reduces men to an essential category in which every man essentially causes exploitation, violence, and oppression (“#YESALLMEN”).

Even if it were only the Left attempting to define the boundaries of these egregoric categories, we would find ourselves in an interminable deadlock. Unfortunately, there is a much stronger and less self-conscious current which already understands the great power these egregores have over the actions of humans.

A brief glance at the Nazi project is probably sufficient for us to grasp how Fascism not only is more comfortable with the egregoric nature of these concepts, but also understands how best to manipulate them. Nazi theorists (social, occult, legal, scientific, etc.) cobbled together a new mythic reality for Germany quite quickly. Tibetan and Hindu spirituality, Nordic and Germanic folklore, and general occult studies as well as previously oppositional and antagonist political, social, and scientific forms all became part of the egregore of Nazism, seizing the mythic imagination of a (likewise mythic) Nation.

Consider: before the Nazis, the Aryan race was a mere fringe scientific theory. During the Nazi ascension, the Aryan race was a thing, alive, ‘self-evident.’ So, too, Germany itself: suddenly a nation created only three decades before arose fully-formed with an ancient history as if it had always been there.

Did the Nazi theorists actually believe their own mythic creation? Or were they consciously creating something new? It’s impossible to know. The same question could be asked of Lenin and Stalin: did they really believe in the existence of the Worker?

Or more controversially regarding the identity politics of the Left: gays did not exist as a category in the 1800’s, nor did trans people. When the political category/egregoric identity of ‘gay’ and ‘trans’ arose, suddenly they were self-evident, alive, meaningful, and strangest of all: ‘true.’ Did those who constructed gayness and trans identity know they were making something up? How many who embrace these identities (unless they’ve really read Foucault) even realize that they do not stretch back into prehistory, let alone before the 20th century?

The point here is not to unravel the nightmare of Left identity politics, only to show how Leftists unconsciously do the same thing that Fascists consciously do. Leftists construct identities and egregores without any reference to the material world, yet then quickly accept them as if they have always existed, just as a Nationalist embraces the Nation and a White Supremacist embraces the White Race.

Leftism (and anti-fascism) as it currently exists is thus insufficient for combating the mythic power of Fascism until we acknowledge how much of this mythic, egregoric power we’ve not only ceded to Fascists, but then clumsily mimic.

The World Without Forms

An essay by Alexander Reid Ross recently warned against the danger of “Post-Left,’ Egoist, mythic, and anti-civilizational thought. What these “potential intersections” with Fascism all have in common, however, is a rejection of the egregoric spooks over which the Left and Fascists are currently warring. Also, they all have at least an apparent understanding of the mechanisms by which the egregoric functions, and they each assert the freedom of the individual over these forms as a primary goal.

Ross’s essay suggests that these positions seem close to the border past which all is fascist. That apparent proximity, though, is not what he suspects it to be. Rather, the extreme distance of most Leftism from the mythic–and its long complicity with Liberal Democratic secular exceptionalism–makes these non- and anti-fascist positions seem ‘close’ to Fascism.

Leftism—especially American anti-fascism—has been so lost in the world of identities and forms that it has forgotten that they are only merely that: forms. Thus, any who reject the world of forms, or create new ones, will be seen as immediately suspect.

Were the current forms (Liberal Democracy, Capitalism, the Nation, Gender, Race, etc.) worth keeping around, then this error would not be so catastrophic. Some are certainly anti-fascist only because it threatens Liberal Democracy, and perhaps it is no longer true to say that Leftism (at least in its American iterations) is anti-imperialist or anti-capitalist any longer, regardless of how much it claims otherwise.

If, however, we are anti-fascists because we are also pro-something else, something besides the current egregoric forms which lead only to exploitation, oppression, and the destruction of the earth, then we must stop looking away from the mythic power we have ceded to the Fascists.

We can see how we’ve done this by looking at one of the symptoms that anti-fascists use to diagnose whether someone is a Fascist: the Black Sun. Though proximity doesn’t prove causation, this is generally a good rule of thumb. However, little to no attention is ever given to why Fascists invoke the Black Sun.

The secret of the Black Sun is actually quite simple, and it’s one that Fascists do not own. Stare at the sun in the sky and something odd happens. It appears first to turn deep red, and then goes black and starts to spin as your retina burns. It also sears itself as an after-image, lingers there for hours (if not days), and creates the perception that there is actually nothing behind the sun. It appears to go flat as it moves, revealing a deep Abyss as if all light, and all reality is merely a black hole.

I do not suggest every white boy and girl who puts an image of the Black Sun as their iPhone background has experienced the same mystical transformation that medieval alchemists name nigredo; nor do I assert that it is an Abyssal truth limited to mystical traditions or European-derived thought (the Sufis and many animist traditions describe a similar experience). Still, it should intrigue us that in at least one Fascist strain, a rite exists which inducts the initiate into the nihilist/spiritual world without forms.

From that world, through such an initiation, it is easy to transcend societal restraints and enter into the pre-formal realm of perception. Outside the constraints of socially-constructed identity and morality, any new thought is possible and any new form is acceptable specifically because ‘possible’ and ‘acceptable’ no longer apply. More so, the experience strengthens the will of the initiate: the vision was survived, the mind intact.

Those who’ve studied and felt the inebriating mix of mythic power and indomitable will evinced by fascists like Jack Donovan and the Wolves of Vinland will understand my meaning here. Donovan has been able to create an intoxicating, egregoric, mythic conception of the world, cobbling together fragments of the past with terrifyingly violent new ideologies which are pristine in their coherence. There is raw, seductive, violent power here that functions on the ‘primal’ (pre-conscious, libidinal) level against which anti-fascists have no other defense except no-platforming.

Reclaiming What We’ve Thrown Away

If I here seem full of praise for something so horrifying, it is not because I am, but because you may have become so separated from your own mythic power that you’ve forgotten you can do this too, towards a more affirming and fair world rather one of hierarchy and hatred.

I suspect we shun this power for two reasons. First, anyone returning from the Abyss with such mythic visions, transcending the egregores by which the rest of us are ruled, will always be initially marked as a heretic or an outcast. Only when we find others who have seen the same things or who find meaning in these new dreams can such mystics find acceptance. The other reason? We’ve so long ago ceded to others our power to make the world that we are more happy to leave such delvings to the Fascists than realize we are complicit in our own enchainment.

The ‘world without forms,’ where we can again reclaim our power, is what Stirner and the Egoists embrace. It is also what Bataille sought, as did his close friend, the Jewish mystic Walter Benjamin. From that world we see both the infinite possibility of human liberation and the infinite delusions under which we have for too long struggled. It is also where we can learn how to be Walter Benjamin’s “real state of emergency” which will eventually make Fascism untenable.

The Nation is a false thing that only has power because we give it power. Gender, race, class, religion, morals—even the self itself—are all constructs. Civilization is a spook, one to which we are always subject because we believe there is such a thing as civilization, because other people believe there is such a thing as civilization, and because all of us fail to remember that civilization is just an idea in our heads that causes us to cohere around it and give it more power. Thus, the Fascist who warns that civilization is under threat from Islam, or trans people, or Cultural Marxism—as well as the Liberal-Leftist who warns that civilization is under threat from Fascism—are both still merely fighting for control over the egregore of Civilization.

Any anti-fascism which seeks to break not only the power of the Fascists but also the power of the forms the Fascists wish to control must refuse to accept the forms themselves.

Race, Gender, the Nation, Civilization–these are not our forms, they are forms which enchain us, they do not exist in the world we wish to build, and we must stop pretending otherwise. Instead, we must make new forms while always conscious that they are only just forms, forms we can change at will because it is our will which births them.

We must also refuse to cede the mythic—and the embrace of the self—to the Fascists. The ‘post-leftists’ and the Egoists and those who’ve read Bataille, and also those who’ve read Baldwin or Fanon or Chakrabarty, and especially all those who would dare walk past the forest’s edge in darkness and find there new truths, regardless the consequences—it is to them where we must look for the rituals which will free us all. It is them, and nothing else, who can finally exorcise Fascism’s spectre from our world.

Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd Wildermuth is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He co-edited, along with Lia Hunter, the most recent issue of A Beautiful Resistance, “Left Sacred.

He can be supported on Patreon, and is currently in Rennes, France, where he is very happy.

Get the latest copy of A Beautiful Resistance here.

What Is the Left Without Identity Politics?

This question was asked in an article written amongst the glut of Leftists attempting to find a reason why Hillary lost the election. This glut is rife with finger pointing, denial, and beating around the bush. It got me thinking of my own answer to the question, apart from the obvious reason, that she is as fake as any politician but not good enough of an actor to hide it.

First we’d have to ask the question, “What is the Left”? And honestly, outside of looking up an encyclopedia or dictionary definition, I don’t know anymore. I could try to define it by describing what it does instead of what it is, but what does the Left do? As a whole, it does nothing, because there is no monolithic “LEFT”, there is just a blanket identifier used for the convenience of the non-Left.

identity-pullWhat is the Left without Identity Politics? One should ask instead, “What is the Left without solidarity?” The answer is, “nothing”. If the word “Left” is just a category that describes disparate groups, a word used for the convenience of others, then the Left is identity politics, and without identity politics, it is nothing.
Identity politics is the memetic virus that has ripped the Left to pieces and left it a husk of a word, writhing with the independent organisms trapped in said husk; they are not powerful enough to break out of that husk nor are they powerful enough to devour their siblings and assume control of the body.

How has Identity Politics kept the Left from opposing Capitalism?

To understand why a Left which is at its core a collection of Identity Politics groups can not oppose Capitalism, we have to look at Capitalism. The Capitalism of the 21st century is not the Capitalism that Karl Marx wrote of. There are two major developments that have happened since Marx wrote Das Kapital that have evolved Capitalism into a form more fit to do what it does best: generate cash, use that cash to convert material into more of itself. The Capitalism of the 21st century is the “grey goo” of economics, whereas the Capitalism of Marx’s day was the Star Trek “Borg” of economics. The old Capitalism wants to convert you, but is too clumsy, repulsive, and slow moving to be threatening unless you encounter a lot of it at once. The new Capitalism, even in small amounts, can be deadly if you get it on you!

The two developments I speak, that have made Capitalism leaner and meaner, are psychologically targeted advertising (via the focus group), and of course, the internet. The former, the brainchild of a nephew of Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays, has been a bane to humanity for over a hundred years now; the latter, a tool which by itself is neither bane nor boon, until its user turns it to beneficial or nefarious purpose

Sex sells… what?

“We must shift America from a needs- to a desires-culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. […] Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”

~ Paul Mazur, Harvard Business Review 1927

There is a fantastic documentary that I wish the whole world would watch, but I’ll settle for the readers of this article (watch it!). Wikipedia summarizes the documentary very well:

“The documentary explores the various ways that governments and corporations have utilized Freud’s theories. Freud and his nephew Edward Bernays, who was the first to use psychological techniques in public relations, are discussed in part one; His daughter Anna Freud, a pioneer of child psychology, is mentioned in part two. Wilhelm Reich, an opponent of Freud’s theories, is discussed in part three. Along these lines, The Century of the Self asks deeper questions about the roots and methods of consumerism and commodification and their implications. It also questions the modern way people see themselves, the attitudes to fashion, and superficiality. […] In part four the main subjects are Philip Gould, a political strategist, and Matthew Freud, a PR consultant and the great-grandson of Sigmund Freud. In the 1990s, they were instrumental to bringing the Democratic Party in the US and New Labour in the United Kingdom back into power through use of the focus group, originally invented by psychoanalysts employed by US corporations to allow consumers to express their feelings and needs, just as patients do in psychotherapy.”

What follow then is my own rough timeline for the development of psychological methods for use in advertising (Capitalism) and social engineering (the State) based on this documentary:

1919 to 1945 –

Edward Bernays opens public relations consulting office. Publishes first book 4 years later, in 1923. Edward Bernays methods spread, being used to make World Wars more palatable, cigarettes fashionable for women and Calvin Coolidge palatable as a person. Capitalism at this point is still mostly the slow moving, lumbering beast of Marx’s day.

1950 to 1968 –

Anna Freud, Sigmund’s daughter, specialized in child psychoanalysis, particularly the ability of the ego to be trained. Psychoanalysis now during this period dominates the culture of the West, its cultural expression the suburb. People who fall out of the area of what is acceptable by social engineers psychoanalysts are drugged up, institutionalized, electrocuted, or all three. Capitalism seemingly reigns supreme. All threats within are eliminated or inert. This is the apotheosis of classical Capitalism. It is not to last.

1968 to 1990 –

The inevitable reaction to the era of the gilded cage comes, like a freight train out of control. The baby-boomers, the products of the suburban gilded cage, seek to break free. But from what? And how? Without knowing the answer to these questions, the era of the “Hippie” is an era of confused spirituality, encounter groups, and, yes, identity politics. As many break out of and away from the single “normal” identity created for them by the psychoanalyst, new identities are created. This is a devastating but temporary blow to Capitalism. Originally minority groups used identity politics to form coalitions with majority groups, to rightly ensure that their own concerns and needs were heard and met. But with so many people looking to fill the void of identity created by a rejection of the psychoanalysts “healthy” identity, identity politics would not long remain simply a tool of minority civil rights activists. How did Capitalism survive the age of radical individuality?

1990 to Present…

Capitalists have no common belief, ethos, or political program outside of making money and growing the business. As a collective gestalt, this translates economically to grey goo. Gather material and energy, make copies. Capitalism only suppresses or destroys what gets in the way of this. It nurtures and spreads what helps this. How then did Capitalism survive the age of radical individuality, itself the reaction to capitalist consumerism and stifling cultural blandness? It is actually very simple.

identity-pullCapitalism changed its shape; it changed itself, and absorbed what threatened it. Like the eponymous blob from the movie, it absorbed what it came into contact with and got bigger and stronger. As manufacturing became cheaper and more sophisticated, and other technologies more advanced, screaming toward post-scarcity, Capitalism’s need for everyone to fit into a certain mold, and to think they needed a narrow range of certain things, became obsolete. So to, did the politicians who were still of the notion that they needed to appeal to a person’s rational intellect. The early 1990’s saw the birth of the internet, and with it, the niche market. At this same time, the focus group came to politics.

The focus group, for the uninitiated, is technically very simple. You gather a group of people. You give them a product to look at, inspect, touch, etc. Or a commercial to watch, if you’re thorough you show them many things that have to do with the product you have in mind to sell, as well as the product. Then, quite simply, you ask them how they feel about it. Then you ask them why they feel that way, and so on. A single focus group tells you little, many focus groups, done over time, give you a very deep look into the collective subconscious, a look that Capitalists have been taking for almost 100 years.

tinsh7sx58y-tiko-giorgadzeHow do you market to a large group of people that feel they need to be individuals (some need this so bad they will seek it at any cost)? The answer is you appeal to this need, you sell them on individuality. It works, it works depressingly well. For about 50 years, amid the use of sex to sell alcohol, masculinity to sell cigarettes and cars, the promise of individuality to sell anything and everything has come to the fore. The psychological and spiritual fallout of this is that the burning need for individuality, fostered by the Capitalist, is so finely targeted and so expertly set aflame, first by television, then by the much more efficient means of mass communication of the internet, that even a glut of consumerism cannot fill the hole left in the consumer’s soul. The internet, the morally neutral tool available to so many, can bring people together for mass protest and resistance, and equally it can bring hollow souls together to writhe in their own desperate need.

The identity of identity politics

Contemporary technology makes niche consumerism the most profitable business model. One hundred years of experience in appealing to subconscious desires has made the Capitalist advertiser a very well adapted predator, the consumer, a very well trained consumer. The consumer does not just consume, the consumer does not just internalize the psychology of the consumer. The consumer exists in a culture of consumption; there is no internalization of the consumer psychological mindset because the consumer has never had any other mindset. There is no culture outside of consumer culture, there hasn’t been for some time.

For this reason, participating in any culture with sincerity is at once an act of liberation and rebellion. Small wonder then that the individuals who attempt to participate in culture get shouted down and told they are immoral. But who is telling them this?

identity-pullThere was once a weirdo, who used to wander in the desert and tell people he was the son of god, who asked a rhetorical question in answer to the question, “Are you the devil?” That question was, “How can Satan cast out Satan?” Identity politics cannot resist Capitalism because it is a product of Capitalism. The reason identity politics will never and can never defeat or counter Capitalism is because identity politics is the latest, most virulent, most irresistible form of Capitalist consumer culture.

Those I knew who participated in a culture, instead of merely consuming it, were always glad to share their culture with me, and were glad to see their culture growing and interesting others. They were honored that I wanted to learn, and I was always grateful they were eager to teach. Culture is something we share with each other. It is given and taken freely. It may have a clear center, but is always fuzzy around the borders. Cultures mix where people mix, again, because culture is shared.

That is, until Capitalism got into the culture game. Now you have to “earn” the right to participate, or you have to be “native” to that culture, or it is appropriation. These are the demands and words of the fascist and capitalist. No mixing! You must pay to play! Consumer culture is now consuming culture, and the psychology of Identity Politics bears this out.

Suddenly the failing of the “Left”, and its identity politics, to counter The Donald is brought into sharp definition. Identity Politics is the culture of Capitalism. The Donald himself rode a wave of identity politics to the White House; it just wasn’t the identity politics of the Left. It was however Capitalist consumer culture, both on the Left and on the Right.

The Left couldn’t counter the rise of The Donald because Capitalism does not fight itself, it only helps itself.


A Discordian for 20 years, Patacelcus finally got comfortable when the 21st century “started getting weird”. When not casting sigils, taking part in Tibetan Buddhist rituals, or studying the unfortunate but sometimes amusing stories of the dead, he’s been known to wander the hidden ways of the city, communing with all of the hidden spirits one can find in a city. As Patacelcus sees it, we’re all already free; after completing the arduous task of waking up to that we can then proceed, like a doctor treating a patient, to try to rouse others from the bitter and frightening nightmares of Archism. He laughs at Samsara’s shadow-play in lovely California, in the company of his wife, two cats, and 2 birds.

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