Identity politics and materialism, the practical differences

To my delight, The Case for Class has generated considerable discussion lately, so I thought I’d try and expand on it a little, in particular to make clearer some of the practical differences, since the discussion is a little abstract at the moment.

The first thing you must understand is that identity politics and class politics are not simply different areas of activism. Identity politics does not mean “politics done around womanhood, queerness, disability and the rights of people of colour”. Class politics does not mean “politics done around worker’s struggles”. Rather within both class politics and identity politics there are approaches to every modality of struggle. Class, queerness, anti-racism, feminism, disability activism, indigenous rights and even the environment are all areas where both materialists and supporters of intersectional-identity approaches have developed approaches, each known as a “praxis”. Thus while there’s nothing necessarily incoherent about suggesting a balance between identity and materialist approaches, suggesting we do so that we can keep doing activism in every area is the wrong reason for it.

Nor does the difference of approaches necessarily result in an emphasis on directly class related activism by materialists, or non-class by intersectionalists. For example, at various points in time and locations some materialists have suggested that womanhood or ethnicity is the key points of possible rupture for class society. The differences in praxis are mostly about approach, not subject matter.

This is perhaps best illustrated with an example. During the Vietnam War, a struggle between American and USSR imperialism, a common slogan was “we are all Vietnamese”. Now why would anyone say this, given that almost all saying it weren’t –literally speaking- Vietnamese? In my view and the view of the protestors, the very same structures and people that created and led the imperialist war in Vietnam –the state apparatus and capitalism- oppressed them. What mattered directly was not their commonality or difference in experience, but the commonality of their enemy. Further, since that enemy wished to divide them, and had created over centuries a structure of races and nations to do so, it would be foolish to accept division. In their view, it was in their interests to seek the destruction of racism and nationalism.

Yes, in the short term they benefited from the higher wages and greater security of living in an imperialist nation. In the long run only the ruling class benefited. Of course they were better off than the Vietnamese in so many ways, in a sense this was the point of the slogan, it was a way of saying- “we see through your attempts to bribe us into inaction”.

The key question then, and one that spills over into debates about, for example, the relative importance of micro-aggressions* mostly within the class versus society wide structural disparities, is whether the working class ultimately has unified political interests (at least for the most part, or on the whole), or whether it doesn’t. With some reservations I accept the claim that the working class has the capacity to form a historic bloc, with the interest and power to destroy both the bourgeoisie and itself as a class, and to negate all identities. Moreover, I believe that politics founded on class struggle has the best shot at advancing the interests of the oppressed immediately as well.

*Obviously I don’t endorse the view that micro-aggressions don’t matter, or shouldn’t be challenged. I know of no one on the left who does.


About timothyscriven

I study philosophy at Sydney University. In the grand scheme, I'm not very important.
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