“The Left”, Capitalists and Identity Politics

I’m not entirely sure where to start on this one. I’ve got all the parts, but they are many, the order in which they should be arranged is largely dependent on what I’m responding to, and what I’m responding to seems muddled and riddled with contradiction. I’m pretty sure that after assembly, I’ll have bits left over ala post-Ikea nightmare.

Bringing the summary to the introduction, I’d say something along the lines that the left has been entered through sheer declaration, by folks who seem too at-ease with the profit motive, and too unfamiliar with history of arguments and political camps within the left.

I’m not entirely averse to profit myself I’ll confess, especially when the alternative is loss and potential subsequent malnourishment and homelessness. I’m not overly happy with the system, but I’ll comply with the economic coercion – I can’t deny being complicit in that respect.

This isn’t about ideological purity so much as it’s broadly about the nature and purpose of left-wing politics in light of newer ideological developments. I’m not so sure where I fall into the scheme of things myself anymore, although I do still cast a wide net when defining “The Left”. My definitions, while still showing some resemblance to the “New Left” of the 20th century, may also seem at least a little obscure. People may wish to exclude me from the Truest of True Lefts, and I’m not sure I’d have a problem with that. This isn’t a pissing competition.

Before I directly address what I’m actually responding to, as a form of confession and calibration, I’ll disclose a few potentially contentious assumptions, positions and attitudes relating to the topic in general. I can be dismissed up-front on that basis, if you so please.

This will be wordy. The funnier bits are towards the end.

***

A Few Assumptions About The Left

Technology: In some cases technology is essential to left-wing progress, while in other areas merely beneficial. There’s no point in simply changing people’s values if after such alteration, they still don’t have the material means to bring about subsequent social change. In other instances, people may have the means, but not the inclination to alter their values and practices, technology sometimes offering an lazy way to get things done; green electricity is easier for a lot of people to live with, than no electricity. I’m not about to stop blogging to go live in some candle-lit Luddite commune. Some folks would shit-can me out of the Left as a liberal-technocrat for this reasoning, if not the conclusion. Maybe they’re right.

The Market: Along the lines of a lot of the “New Left”, I’m a mixed-economy advocate. I don’t seek the absolute abolishment of the market in my lifetime. I don’t even see the mixed-economy as a political compromise – I see it as an improvement over the traditional socialist state-controlled means of production, albeit as a solution that may not always be optimal in the future. Swinging back the other way, again, I’m agnostic about the future possibility/practicality of abolishing of the market – it’s all a bit Star Trek to me, and at any rate, it’s something for future generations to decide upon without my ignorant input or intercession.

Late Capitalism: I can’t even get on board with Late Capitalism as an idea, other than as the idea of an era that can only ever be described after its passing. Serious devotees of the concept of Late Capitalism come across as fundamentalists to me, parsing the contradictions and catastrophes in capitalist economies into fateful signs of Revolution, all much the same way that devotees of Harold Camping would look for omens of The Rapture. Too often this comes bundled with fantasies about people being lined up against the wall and the like, which echos the kind of violent fantasy that has vengeance and hellfire awaiting unbelievers following the final return of Jesus – I really don’t like this kind of vindictiveness.

Even when people describe Late Capitalism more casually, without the secular Rapture and the lining-up of enemies before firing squads, it still comes across as unwarranted triumphalism flirting with disappointment. So un-restrained capitalism is dying, and you’re gloating about it? What happens if it doesn’t die? What happens if it’s always dysfunctional, but still long lived? What if it reaches a compromise that forestalls revolution permanently, while not substantially resolving oppressions? What then?

History as a Force: In much the same way that the belief in Late Capitalism is akin to belief in the Rapture, the idea of history as a force functions too much like a God hypothesis for my liking. If Late Capitalism heralds The Rapture, then History as a Force delivers the end-times, hellfire and damnation. ‘Nuff said. Well, almost. There’s this too.

Queer Politics and Change: You only need to look at the history of Cuba to see how queer folk can be thrown under the bus by revolutionaries. Too often in history, things like homosexuality has been viewed by left-wing agitators as bourgeois excess – a perspective bringing with it all the deprivations, violence and human rights abuses you’d expect to follow. That being said, queer activism (not queer qua queer) can be regressive, reactionary, and utterly capitalistic. You only need to look at the unpaid labour used by a number of popular clickbait sites sporting a leftish veneer; they earn a wad by establishing a marketable, commodified version of progressivism, all while queer writers and interns can expect to be left with nothing more than “exposure” and “experience” – things which do sweet fuck all to help vulnerable people counter the risks of homelessness, or any number of the other problems GLBTIQ folk are more likely to encounter. I’m gob-smacked every time a purported GLBTIQ activist on the one hand makes the entirely reasonable objection that too much emphasis is placed on the relatively cute issue of marriage equality, at the expense of issues like homelessness among gay and gender non-conforming youth – all before then going on to laud clickbait slave-drivers as Good Allies.

I don’t have a stake in it, but cripes, the contradiction seems pathological, and I’m not looking forward to a day when queer writers end up blowing the whistle on the editorial policies of outlets like The Huffington Post and Everyday Feminism – not because I don’t like whistle-blowers, and not because I hold high expectations of these media outlets (I don’t), but because if it happens, it’s going to be a fucking sad story to have to read.

Liberal versus Radical Critiques (of Gender and Sex Work): I’ve never really seen liberalism and radicalism as entirely distinct – probably because they’re not. While the camps who overtly identify as either can and often have become incredibly polarized, the history of the ideas don’t seem nearly as divorced. Resultantly, at least because it seems that way to me, you can expect that I have some potentially weird and impolitic views on gender and sex work that could alienate me from, well, everyone.

While I view gender identity as non-intrinsic, and not by itself a valid basis for welfare concerns, I view identity politics as generally being somewhat inevitable; people are going to have identities, so unless you live in a box, you’re going to run up against them at some point. Any comprehensive system of civics has to allow for this, but this doesn’t mean that identity is all their is, or that all identities need to be cared about or even tolerated. Steve who identifies as “Steve: Crusher of Fags” can get in the fucking sea.

I don’t have a problem calling sex work, “sex work”, which isn’t saying much because I don’t have a problem calling scabs “workers”, or slave-work, “work”. I find the idea that “sex work” is liberating, incredibly sad, and even if actually liberating for some (e.g. sheltered but horny ex-Baptists), that doesn’t negate its status an imposture for others (e.g. trafficked sex slaves). Remember when women who said they didn’t have a problem with harassment from Skeptic Bros, and that other women just needed to shut up, harden up, get some perspective, don’t feed the trolls, and so-on, were criticized for being dismissive of the concerns of women who did have a problem with harassment? A lot of the people I saw fight that particular fight – ostensibly in defense of friends, allies and otherwise useful people – have since abandoned this logic in order to dismiss women’s concerns about sex trafficking, on the grounds that such concerns are disparaging towards the sex workers who apparently feel perfectly fine. The sheer hypocrisy would be more galling if it weren’t so mind-numbingly muddle-headed.

Still, I don’t care so much if the state can superficially be described as analogous to a pimp, if the substantive result is that less women are raped, assaulted and trafficked, and I’m sceptical of whether or not it’s empirically true that the Nordic model actually achieves what it sets out to, at least not on a meaningful multilateral level. But I’m not going to fall into the dangerous and disingenuous practice of dismissing feminists as “sex negative” for their being concerned about the sex industry status quo. The status quo is an ethical ruin. The status quo is objectification, rape, assault, trafficking, addiction, engineered dependency, abduction, extortion, blackmail and all the affiliated evils of organized crime. If the Nordic model doesn’t in actual-fact work, it still doesn’t follow that there isn’t still a massive problem to be addressed, nor does it follow automatically that other solutions do work.

Pretending that sex work is actually all hunky-dory isn’t going to solve a fucking thing, other than the PR issues faced by Johns, brothels and pimps. And god, watching wealthy “feminists” who’ve never been economically coerced into anything in their lives, not just adopt pole dancing, but the attitude that they’re “honoring” sex workers of yore with their performances – that’s just patently absurd. You wouldn’t “honor” a native American like that, buy donning a feather bonnet for Halloween.

Now, colour me a mansplaining whorephobe, if you will. I surrender on that front; white flag; no contest.

***

After Such A Long Rant, What The Fuck Is All This About?

So yes, I identify as being of the left. Does this actually make me of the left? No. Self-identification is insufficient, even if what is sufficient is unclear. Even if you adopt the provisional charity of taking people at face value for certain purposes, identity is still insufficient when it comes to the matter of the actual fact. It’s one thing to unquestioningly accept a person’s identity for the purposes of naming their coffee, and another proposition to accept it for the purposes of banking.  And how many racist whitebros on the Internet have identified as “non-racist” as if it mattered? In – suff – i – cient.

According to the criteria of a number of the old left, I’m not of the left at all. I’m not even going to contest that. I’m not sure I can honestly reject their criteria. Wanting to and identifying don’t even enter into it.

Now I’ve focused on my own perspective far too much already, and there’s been a lot of words typed only for their importance to be downplayed, except that downplaying personal perspective and identity as demarcation criteria is to quite some extent, the point. This brings me to what I’m responding to.

Apropos of nothing, a bunch of personalities of an at-least vaguely social-justice flavour, have recently released an open letter identifying themselves as “The Left”. Not “leftish”, not “left-wing” nor “of The Left”; we’re talking capital-T, capital-L, “The Left”. And they’re making demands!

These aren’t simply personalities who’ve collaborated with the market because they have no choice here either. We’re talking about people who’ve embraced it and to varying extents, thrived. I’m not at all happy – fucking livid, actually – with the abuse and threats thrown at Brianna Wu, but c’mon, adding a treatment of social issues to private-sector commercial game design is left-wing? The objection my incredulity is based upon doesn’t make Brianna Wu an evil person, nor Giant Spacekat a Bad Thing, it’s just that it’s all a bit hard to swallow having a commercial game designer, and others of a similarly capitalist background, asserting themselves as if they could ever actually self-appoint anything tantamount to delegate status among the left. It’d be incredibly fucking bold just for unelected trade unionists to do that, but representatives of business?

I mean, my own leftism is up for questioning, but this?

There are a hundred names on that list, and the ones who stand out at a glance to me are people who’ve I’ve seen treated poorly by Internet knuckle-draggers, and who’ve at least earned a modicum of respect from me on account of standing up to said knuckle-draggers. Only, this current act of supreme bumbledom is really wearing that wafer of respect down an incredibly thin slice.

As Meghan Murphy points out, scathingly, it’s quite a galling proposition for the left to be told it needs to include capitalists for when the revolution comes. The left will need them for that push up the hill, apparently. What self-importance. (My own concerns about Late Capitalism, History as a Force and violent ideations come into play here – revolution may not come at a discreet moment, and please, leave the fantasist analogies about charging up hills to re-enactment societies, thanks.)

Beyond the less-than-astute appropriation of Firestone’s rhetoric which Murphy also acidly notes – rhetoric taken from a movement with a basic premise inimical to the project of the authors of the open letter – the project falls apart at the first demand.

***

Identity

“1) We call upon progressives to acknowledge that all politics are identity politics.”

Aside from failing to even clearly define the terms of the demand, the demand is followed with further declarations likely to induce a “huh?” from the open letter’s intended audience; the rest of the left.

Evidence of the allegedly identarian nature of politics is loosely detailed through a roll-call of obviously bad things;

“That sexism and racism exist cannot seriously be in doubt for any progressive person in the year 2016. Everyone has an identity; every identity is political, whether because it is marginalized or because it benefits from the marginalization of others. It is not “enlightening” or fresh or radical to ignore identity-based oppressions, or minimize them, or demand marginalized people stop talking about them. Oppression is not a “debate” or a “discussion.” It’s a fact.”

Look, I’ve already ceded that identity is a thing, that with other premises can constitute the basis of a social justice concern, and that this kind of conflict is inevitable. If some faction wants to ban books authored by marginalized groups, purely on the basis that the identity of these marginalized group members are gaining expression, then you’ve probably got a good case for a social justice campaign. There are obviously other examples. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m not sure the left – the actual left being addressed – have a problem realizing this.

However… People’s interests don’t always entail identity to a substantive degree, or at all. People are so much more than identities, and framing the discussion as being about the marginalization of identities, rather than the marginalization of people who happen to have identities that may or may not be involved in the marginalization, is something to be incredibly wary of. Some people are simply marginalized for having wombs – their sex – gender identity never coming into it. Some people are oppressed or simply exterminated because of their locale of birth, irrespective of whether or not they actually identify with that locale.

Back to that first demand though. Even the basic logic is invalid, by affirming the consequent – while all identities may be political, it doesn’t follow that all politics must therefore be identity-based or involve identity. All cats are mammals; Fido the dog is a mammal; Fido the dog is a cat? Bad logic right there.

This is also to say nothing of an implicit, yet glaring contradiction; if all politics are identity politics, then why use the phrase “identity-based oppressions”? To distinguish these oppressions from the non-identity-based oppressions that supposedly don’t even exist?

But the real fuck-up in terms of silly-arguments in this case, its magnum bogus, is this implication that rejecting identity politics is tantamount to rejecting the existence of the problems of racism, of misogyny and of the whole fucking mixed-bag o’ evil. I mean really, literally, what we have here is a bunch of people with a substantial representation of capitalist interest, who seem to think they need to write an open letter to the left of all people, to inform that very left that oppression is a fact.

What do they think the left has been focused on up until now? Organizing bathroom snorkeling trips? Yelling poetry at rocks? Trying to beat custard at chess?

It’s as much of a concession as I can make to observe that yes, some right-wing trolls, pundits and know-nothings have thrown the term “identity politics” around in the motivated defense of racism and sexism and everything else nasty under the sun, and that not all terms thusly appropriated by the right can be salvaged. But “identity politics” has been a term in left-wing critique for much longer than I’ve been on the planet, and it’s not clear that despite ample talent in this area, the right have debased it beyond repair.

And “identity politics” is only one in a long list of terms used by the left to critique the itself from within, that’s then been appropriated by the right to be thrown around with thoughtless abandon, triumph and perversion. It’s been happening observably in real-time over the last year or so with the right-wing appropriation of the term “regressive left” – a term originally meant to be used against actual relativists, enablers and authoritarians – the own-goal contingent of the left – not against the feminists and mere critics that chauvinists have recently used the term to flog.

***

The authors of the open letter purport to be critiquing the left from within themselves, so they may wish to reconsider these kinds of issues with a little more seriousness, and a lot less self-importance. What if their own language was co-opted and semantically mutated by the right, before being re-purposed as a stick to beat the left with? What if this was already happening via capitalists in the new media?

And how many years will it be before another hundred people calling themselves “The Left” come along to demand that the left cease, desist and acquiesce to a grab-bag of demands, because self-regard, myopia, and a poor grasp of political history and logic, leads this bright one-hundred to over-emphasize the observation that right-wingers can use the same words as older generations of leftists? Call me a fool, but I think it’d be a good habit, that if instead of taking the right’s use of these terms at face value, and blithely acting as if lefties mean the same thing, some folks just familiarized themselves with a bit of left-wing political history. This way they may even manage to not fuck up their Firestone references too.

~ Bruce

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