Identity Politics in Purgatory
Identity politics has had a lot of bad press lately. On the one hand, the dominant reflex of the Right (as well as significant portions of the Left) is to maintain and police an ideological ”identity-blind” standpoint by accusing anyone who speaks of the social hierarchies, segregations, and injuries of identity of having created them. The election of Barack Obama as U.S. president has only reinforced
claims that we have entered a ”postracial” era. Many on the radical Left, on the other hand, and more significantly for our purposes, critique identity politics for creating obstacles to revolution. The recognition and affirmation of identities—class, race, gender, sexuality, even at times religious identities—-can reveal social wounds, the argument goes, demand redress of social ills, and create weapons for revolt and emancipation, but cannot operate the social metamorphosis, especially the self-transformation, necessary for revolution.
And yet all revolutionary movements are grounded in identity. Here is the conundrum we face: revolutionary politics has to start from identity but cannot end there. The point is not to pose a division between identity politics and revolutionary politics but, on the contrary, to follow the parallel revolutionary streams of thought and practice within identity politics, which all, perhaps paradoxically, aim toward an abolition of identity. Revolutionary thought, in other words, should not shun identity politics but instead must work through it and learn from it.
It is inevitable that identity should become a primary vehicle for struggle within and against the republic o f property since identity itself is based on property and sovereignty. On a first level, the rule o f property is a means o f creating identity and maintaining h i erarchy. Property is so profoundly entangled with race, for example, not only because in many parts o f the world the history o f property rights is deeply embedded i n the sagas o f slave property but also because the rights to own and dispose o f property are racialized, both with and without the aid o f legalized schemes of segregation. Similarly, throughout the world male property privileges define female subordination, from notions of wife as property and the traffic in women to inheritance laws and more subtle forms of gendered property. On a second and more profound level, however, identity is property. Notions of the sovereign individual and possessive individualism, which constitute the seventeenth- and eighteenthcentury origins of bourgeois ideology, pose identity as property in a philosophical sense: ”Every man has a property” writes John Locke, ” of his own person.”‘ Identity also functions as property in material terms. Whiteness is property, for instance, Cheryl Harris explains, inasmuch as ”the law has accorded ‘holders’ o f whiteness the same
privileges and benefits accorded holders o f other types o f property.”2 Though not alienable, like most forms of property identity is title and possession that wields the powers of exclusion and hierarchy. Identity is a weapon of the republic of property, but one that can be turned against it.
In our reading of the revolutionary projects in each of the identity domains we find three common tasks. The first is to reveal the violence o f identity as property and thereby i n some sense reappropriate that identity. The ”primal scene” of African American identity i n this respect, for example, might be considered Aunt Hester’s scream: Frederick Douglass recounts in his autobiography how slave identity and blackness i n general are rooted for h im i n the terror of hearing his aunt’s cries as she is whipped by the master.3
Recognizing the fact of blackness, as W. E . B . D u Bois and Frantz Fanon also testify i n autobiographical accounts, is a discovery not just of difference but also and primarily of collective subordination and violence. A n d yet the violence o f identity is largely invisible, especially to those not subject to it, making it all the more difficult to contest. This is one meaning of D u Bois’s famous claim that a veil cordons off the subordinated from the view of dominant society. They are mysteriously hidden from sight, invisible, even when they are the ones who i n broad daylight clean the houses, care for the children, produce the goods, and i n general sustain the lives o f the dominant. A n initial task of insubordination, then, which is the most widespread form of identity politics today, requires attacking this invisibility, tearing down or rising above the veil, and revealing the
structures of hierarchy that run throughout society.
The struggle to make visible the violences of identity may be even more urgent today, in an era when the dominant discourse, especially in N o r t h America and Europe, proclaims race, gender, and class hierarchies to have been overcome. Yes, there were regrettable social hierarchies, the story goes, there was slavery and Jim Crow laws, there was a generalized subordination o f women under patriarchy, repression and genocide of native populations, the oppression of workers i n factories and sweatshops—but since all that is now past, society must be ”identity blind.” A black man in the White House is posed as the ultimate confirmation o f this discourse. The mandate of feminism, antiracist activism, worker struggles, and other identity politics are over, according to this view, and the social divisions of identity are only perpetuated by those who continue to speak of them. That is how those who promote consciousness of social inequalities along identity lines are cast as creating class, race, gender, and other identity divisions. And as a result we are increasingly facing paradoxical forms of ”color-blind” racism, ”genderblind” sexism, ”class-blind” class oppression, and so forth.4
Critical race scholars in the United States, for example, explain that by an ironic turn, a version o f the civil rights legal paradigm has been victorious in the sense that, i n the name of antiracism, today’s prevailing dominant legal discourse mandates ”race-blind” perspectives in legal thought and practice. This legal blindness to race, they argue, simply hides continuing racial hierarchies and makes them more difficult to confront with legal instruments.5 Liberal oligarchies throughout Latin America have since independence mobilized a similarly ”race-blind” ideology, attempting to Hispanicize the indigenous populations with the goal of eradicating the ”Indian”— through education, intermarriage, and migration (when not through physical annihilation)—such that the vestiges o f indigenous civilizations would be relegated to the museums and remain only as tourist curiosities. Such discourses of national integration have not, of course, eliminated or in most cases even lessened racial subordination but rather have only made the continuing colonization less visible and thus more difficult to combat.6 Market ideology, to give one more example, is ”class blind” i n the sense that it views each individual as a free and equal commodity owner who comes to market with goods to sell: proletarians with their labor-power and capitalists bearing money and property. But this market ideology masks the hierarchy and command involved in the labor process itself,
along with the ”economic” violence o f property and poverty and the ”extraeconomic” violence o f conquest, imperialism, exclusion, and the social control that creates and maintains class divisions. We are confident that readers are already quite familiar with these and parallel arguments in other identity domains, including hidden forms of sexual violence that women suffer, sometimes under the cover of marriage and the family, and the violence o f homophobia and heteronormativity.
The violence and hierarchy of identity are not, of course, merely a matter of consciousness (or bigotry and prejudice); rather, like other forms of property, identity maintains hierarchy primarily through social structures and institutions. The initial positive task of identity politics in the various domains is thus to combat blindness and make visible the brutally real but too often hidden mechanisms and regimes of social subordination, segmentation, and exclusion that operate along identity lines. Making visible the subordinations of identity as property implies, i n a certain sense, reappropriating identity. This first task of identity politics might thus be placed in the position that the expropriation of the expropriators fills in traditional communist discourse.
Too often, however, identity politics begins and ends with this first task, sometimes combining it with pallid declarations of pride and affirmation. Identity projects for revealing social violence and hierarchy run aground when they become wedded to injury, creating, Wendy Brown claims, a group investment in maintaining the injured status with an attitude of ressentiment. Identity is regarded as a possession, we might say, and is defended as property. What is most significantly missing from such identity politics, as Brown insists, is the drive for freedom that should be their basis.7 Some of the most exciting recent scholarship i n feminist theory and black studies, in fact, argues for a return to the discourse of freedom, which used to animate the center of feminism and black radicalism. Fred Moten, for instance, conceives blackness as not (or not only) the mark of subjection and subordination but a position of power and agency. The ”performative essence of blackness” is the resistance to enslavement
or, more generally, the quest for freedom.” Moten is to a certain extent echoing D u Bois’s frequent reference to the powers of emancipation as one of the special gifts of black folk and Cedric Robinson’s claims that freedom and power are central to the entire tradition of black radicalism.9 Linda Zerilli, in parallel fashion, attempts to reclaim feminism as a practice of freedom, thus returning to some powerful currents of early second wave feminism. A freedom-centered feminism, i n Zerilli’s view, is concerned not so much with knowing (and revealing, for example, the ways in which women are socially subordinated) but rather with doing—”with transforming, world-building, beginning anew.”10 The tradition of revolutionary Marxism, to consider one more parallel example, presents proletarian identity as a weapon against capital and a motor of class struggle, not only by revealing the violence and suffering of the working class but also by constructing a figure of workers’ power capable of striking back at capital and gaining freedom from it. The second task o f identity politics, then, is to proceed from indignation to rebellion against the structures of domination using the subordinated identity as a weapon i n the quest for freedom—thus filling the traditional role o f the conquest of state power.
This second task of identity politics, the struggle for freedom, works against the risk o f attachment to injury and focus on victimization but does not guarantee that the process will not become fixed on identity and grind to a halt. When freedom is configured as the emancipation of an existing subject, identity ceases to be a war machine and becomes a form of sovereignty. Identity as property,
however rebellious, can always be accommodated within the ruling structures o f the republic o f property. One version o f identity politics that brings the process to a halt in this way, which was particularly widespread in the 1990s, poses it
as a project of recognition, often guided by the logic of Hegelian dialectics. The struggle for recognition in the work of some of its most prominent proponents, such as Charles Taylor and Axel Honneth, aims at the expression of existing identities, the affirmation of their authenticity, and ultimately the construction of a multicultural framework of mutual respect and tolerance for all identity expressions.
By substituting morality for politics in this way, recognition reduces the quest for freedom to a project of expression and tolerance. Here Marx’s critique o f Hegel’s dialectic is once again useful: it merely affirms what exists rather than creating the new. Identity thus ceases to be a means and becomes an end.11
Another version of identity politics that brings the process to a halt in this way is characterized by nationalism, understood in a rather broad way as the effort to render identity sovereign. Black nationalism in the United States, for example, which takes inspiration from the anticolonial struggles and their goals of national liberation, is seldom configured in territorial terms but is aimed rather at the sovereignty of the racial identity, which implies separation and self-determination, controlling the economy o f the community, policing the community, and so forth. It is easy to think of certain streams of feminist politics that are characterized similarly by gender nationalism, or gay and lesbian politics by gay and lesbian nationalisms, and there is a long and complex history o f worker politics that takes the form of worker nationalism. The metaphor of nation, in each of the cases, refers to the relative separation of the community from the society as a whole and suggests the construction of a sovereign people. All these nationalisms, in contrast to the multiculturalist struggles for recognition, are combative formations that constantly rebel against structures of subordination. Such nationalisms do, however, end up reinforcing the fixity of identity. Every nationalism is a disciplinary formation that enforces obedience to the rules of identity, policing the behavior o f members of the community and their separation from others. For reasons like these, some of the most revolutionary advocates of Black Nationalism, such as Malcolm X and Huey Newton, eventually move away from nationalist positions, as we will see shortly. The key to carrying through the first two tasks of identity toward a revolutionary politics is to make sure that rendering violence and subordination visible, rebelling against them, and struggling for freedom do not merely come back to identity and stop there. To become revolutionary, the politics of identity has to find a means to keep moving forward. The terminological distinction between emancipation and liberation is crucial here: whereas emancipation strives for the freedom of identity, the freedom to be who you really are, liberation aims at the freedom of self-determination and self-transformation, the freedom to determine what you can become. Politics fixed on identity immobilizes the production of subjectivity; liberation instead requires engaging and taking control of the production of subjectivity, keeping it moving forward.