Identity again

The old left and libertarian ex-left are looking for scapegoats for the rise of the alt-right, but we need to reclaim ‘identity’ as a new revolutionary keyword for the left today.

There are signs of hope, of a revival of the left and of new links between the left and other social movements. These are new feminist and anti-racist social movements such as LGBTQ+ and Black Lives Matter which employ innovative vocabularies for describing exploitation and oppression, vocabularies which challenge the left. This is a new left with a new constellation of revolutionary keywords grounding its work. But this ‘strange rebirth’ of radical politics is taking place against the background of a shift to the right in mainstream politics. It is taking place as a new ‘alt-right’ linked to explicitly fascist groups has seized centre-stage in the US, and, to an extent, in Europe. And so the old left and those who were once part of the left look for someone or something to blame; among the contenders is ‘identity’. It is not a strong contender, but a weak one, which makes it easier to set up and attack. That attack on identity from within the old left then becomes one of the anchor-points of the latest language game of the libertarians, a tendentious analysis of the alt-right which pins the blame for its success on the left, the identitarian left and feminists and other assorted troublemakers. This attempt to pin blame on identity is a diversion from the real problems we face.

The alt-right is rooted in new social media. This is the phenomenon we should be exploring, not the right of people to declare their identity in politics but the framing of so much political debate in terms of identity in new social media. In that sense, yes there is a problem, but it flows from the message that is drummed home by the kind of media many of us use to engage in politics. Here, the medium is the message. Political interventions are tied to, and framed by, promotion of oneself and ones likes and dislikes, by often inadvertent and pernicious advertisement for the self and our connections with others who post and comment in the same kind of way. Then, indeed, it looks like radical politics boils down to an accumulation and sharing of identities. This intensive personalisation of debate is not the same as the ‘identity politics’ that is obsessively worried away at by those seeking reasons for the failure of the left.

Where is the rampant ‘identity politics’ that is accused of being one of the root causes of the rise of the alt-right? Perhaps one place we might expect to find it would be in therapy, therapeutic discourse inside and outside the clinic. After all, one of the bugbears of the old left and the disenchanted ex-left is that identity politics involves touchy-feely therapeutic appeal to ‘safe spaces’ and so the closing down of robust debate. There is some truth in the claim that the personalisation of media today feeds a psychologisation of politics, including radical politics. But actually there has been a profound shift in psychoanalysis, one of the core psychotherapeutic approaches, away from shoring up identity to questioning it. In some cases psychoanalysts still aim to support ‘ego’ identity, and some old-style psychoanalysis grounds that identity in a strong stable family and corresponding suspicion of non-normative gender and sexuality. However, much psychoanalysis today deconstructs identity, enables people to question how they have become who they think they are, trapped inside a certain kind of self housed by a certain kind of body. This deconstructive shift in psychoanalytic work is part of a broader cultural shift. While there is undoubtedly pressure on people to speak of their identity, we actually hear people in the clinic and in new social movements loosening their ties with fixed identities.

In the field of Marxist politics too, a field from which much of the current moral panic about identity has emerged, there is actually increasing fluidity of identity, in the new social movements that many Marxists now participate in and in new feminisms and mobilisation around sexual politics. If we look at the way Stalinism crystallised Marxism as if it were a science and how it became a worldview of the Soviet bureaucracy and its acolytes in the West, then we do see a strong concern with identity. Stalinism was one early identitarian twist to Marxist politics, a politics that in the early years of the 1917 Russian Revolution was much more open and experimental. The first wave of feminism in the first flourishing of the revolution was also a revolution and transformation of the family, personal life and identity. The socialist feminist movements fifty years later in the 1960s and 1970s were as much concerned with transforming identity as asserting it, and a more recent ‘third-wave’ feminism explicitly distanced itself from essentialist identities which tie women to their assigned gender and sexuality. Queer theory and politics, for example, emphasises the ‘performative’ basis of what is usually referred to as identity. It was Stalinist reaction, and now reaction against this questioning of identity that are the problems, not identity as such.

Questioning of identity and the temporary tactical claiming of identity in order to be heard in politics, and to be heard in the left, is a popular motif in many contemporary feminist and anti-racist movements. It is questioning that is underwritten by an approach that is sometimes described as ‘strategic essentialism’. Take, for example, recent protests against the 1917 Balfour Declaration which laid the basis for the construction of the Israeli State and the dispossession of the Palestinians from their land. That Declaration was actively supported a century back by antisemites in Britain who were very keen on identity, keen to identify Jews who would be refused admission to Britain and would be encouraged to settle in Palestine. Again, identity linked to politics is not a new phenomenon. We chanted in the demonstrations ‘In our thousands, in our millions, we are all Palestinians’. This chant, which gathered together protesters that included Jewish supporters of Palestinians, was, you could say, a statement of identity, but this was identity formed for that moment, ‘performative’ we would say, strategic. The fixed identity politics that is subject of so much bitter complaint is a mirage. What happens on the ground is very different.

What happens on the ground, in the everyday struggles against exploitation and oppression that bring people with many different kinds of identity together is still very different from the personalised identity-based communication that makes up new social media. The problem is not identity, which is one of the keywords of a new revolutionary left as part of intersectional politics, but the very attachment to identity by those who attack it, those who seem intent on turning it from being a mirage into a virulent threat. In some ways it is a threat to strands of the old left. The subversive tactical claiming of identity was a threat to Stalinism, and it is a threat now to those on the left who hark back to their nostalgic image of good old days where the working class was the only progressive identity in town. Those good old days never existed except in the imagination and dogmatic political programmes of those who wanted to channel all of the diverse struggles into a single unitary proletarian struggle. Those who look back, those who are enraged by the multiplicity of identities that comprise the new social movements, are transfixed by their own fantasy of identity that they repeat and disavow. No wonder they are powerless in the face of the alt-right and desperately search for something to blame.

There is no one cause for our problems, and identity is the least of it. Along with Stalinism and an old left, there are those who have left the left altogether. The libertarian ex-left that was once so canny with an endless series of front organisations, adept at formatting themselves into multiple identities, have then viciously attacked their erstwhile comrades, part and parcel of their journey to the right. They attract a new generation that takes on good coin the framing of political events in the mainstream and new social media. These libertarian ex-leftists systematically disparage the left and feminists and new social movements, sometimes fixating on ‘identity’. And here is the poisonous problem. The alt-right builds on the failure of the left, as fascist movements have always done in the past, and it also surfs to power on the back of libertarian ex-left discourse. It is time for these ex-left libertarians to take some responsibility for this state of affairs, stop harnessing critiques of the alt-right to their own agenda, and cease their campaign against the left cloaked by disingenuous warnings about the dangers of ‘identity politics’.


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