Why “identity politics” cannot change society

Marina Kontara

“Identity Politics” are a theory which is part of the “third wave” ⦏1⦎ of feminism. Although they were born during the “second wave” in the late 1970s, they developed mainly in the 1980s and 1990s – during a time when Marxist ideas were in significant retreat. 

Identity politics stem from the feminist and the human rights movements of the 1960s, and they flourished mainly in the Western world, in academic and middle-class settings. They generally fall within postmodernism ⦏2⦎ and overlap with ideas found in the current of social liberalism ⦏3⦎. It is a current that tries to analyse and provide answers to the issues of oppression of different social layers. 

The following consideration is central to this current: each individual defines themselves within the framework of a basic identity related to the oppression they experience. This oppression-based identity is dominant among the various qualities that characterise or make up the individual: woman, black, immigrant, disabled, etc. 

Thus, the individual understands the world and themselves through this prism, through the experiences they have – and it is in this way they understand the oppression they experience. This situation defines the individual and drives them to seek out people with similar experiences, to join with them and to strive together to improve their life. 

Are we our experiences?

Understanding the world through personal experience is of major importance for the Identity Politics theory; therefore, those who do not have similar experiences are excluded or marginalized from the given social group or collective space. 

For example, a woman can be a mother, a worker, a daughter, or a friend at the same time; but she primarily identifies with her quality as a woman, because it is through this quality that she experiences oppression. People who do not have this identity (they are not women) cannot understand these experiences and therefore can be in solidarity with efforts to improve women’s lives, but not equal members of the movement. 

At this point, “identity politics” meets “intersectionality”, according to which there are people who experience multiple oppressions, e.g. a black woman who is also a lesbian. These people potentially identify with more than one group/oppression. In this sense, there may be alliances between different identities, but one will never perceive the essence of the oppression experienced by the other, so these alliances will be circumstantial and cannot deepen.

These two theories, which are intertwined and related but not identical, also cross with the “privilege theory”, which suggests that those groups/individuals who do not experience any oppression of race, gender, etc., are privileged, and therefore unable to perceive oppression (since they have no such experiences). Based on this assumption, they are automatically placed with the opposing camp – or at least they cannot speak about the oppression experienced by other groups, they only have to listen. 

The white heterosexual male in general is therefore placed at the top of the pyramid, regardless of their origin, economic and employment status, etc. In this context, not being in danger of being murdered for leaving your partner qualifies for a “privilege” (instead of being regarded as a given fundamental human right).

Looking at the world through Western glasses

It is important to note that these theories were developed in the Western world, mainly in the US and Britain, so their perspective is basically Western-centric. 

The main objective of their supporters is to claim visibility and rights. In other words, the emphasis lies with the fact that oppressed groups (women, LGBTQI people, people of colour – POC, indigenous people, etc.) have for decades been considered and treated as inferior, and consequently, their differences, their problems, and even their culture were practically unknown to the rest of society – they were almost invisible

With the awakening of the identity they experience, in addition to claiming the rights they have been denied for years, they are also demanding to be “seen” by others, so that their existence, their circumstances, and the difficulties they experience, as well as their sub-cultures (e.g. gay community or African-American community with the social and cultural aspects that distinguish them), are acknowledged. 

At the same time, especially with regard to gender oppression, the use of language and pronouns that reflect the image and experience of the individual about themselves (e.g. they/them instead of he/she, using @ in all endings or the neutral gender for some languages etc.) emerges as a primary issue. 

Inclusive speech is of course necessary and should be applied, but it cannot be seen as a solution to the problem of oppression and discrimination. At the same time, it is problematic that people allied to the women’s movement are treated in a hostile or derogatory manner because they may not be familiar with such language.  This attitude sometimes results in the exhaustion of the struggle in the use of certain neologisms, in an attempt to reinterpret experiences, events and situations in the light of oppression (from the point of view of the oppressed), and mainly through the ideologies of identities. 

As important it is to use inclusive language, it is also important that language does not end up alienating people who could join the movement. However, if the language used in public meetings, texts with mass appeal, etc. is so specialised that it results in confusing part of the audience, it would actually fail in its main objective, which is to be a tool for change. 

On the other hand, it is quite problematic that they perceive class oppression as just another form of oppression next to gender/origin/religion/etc., instead of it being the basic oppression/exploitation that everyone suffers from. Often for example the expression “class privilege” replaces the reference to the capitalist class. 

The material condition: a very important parameter

In light of the above, identity politics analyses society through the prism of oppression and rights abuse, but does not locate the causes in the exploitative system that creates discrimination. 

In reality, however, various forms of oppression coexist in society so that the system can reinforce exploitation and maximise capital’s profitability. The root of these oppressions lies in the “divide and rule” attitude promoted by the ruling class and the fact that the oppressed are in a weaker position to assert their rights. But identity politics does not link oppression with exploitation – which is the basis of the capitalist system. 

They, therefore, fail to seek solutions that are related to the material world and economic reality: they have claims related to visibility and rights, but they disconnect them from the material context, the material conditions – that is, from their economic dimension.

In the cases of femicide, for example, the causes are located exclusively in the perpetrators: the perpetrator is defined as the sole culprit because they are a misogynist (or a racist in cases of a racist crime), without looking for the social context in which the perpetrator was formed and acted. 

To say that people, however, commit crimes or abuse because of hatred, malice, bad personal characteristics or personal perceptions is an obvious tautology. The question is, what drives them to hate, what shapes those characteristics. If this question is not posed, there can be no answer that will lead to a solution.

People can be driven to crime by the despair arising when they lack material elements to make their lives bearable. People are also born and formed within a social and economic context that defines them. So, when we analyse the way they act, it is wrong to silence the context and detach the individual and the act from that context. 

All this does in no way suggest justifying the individuals who engage in such acts, nor does it mean that we do not call for the most severe punishments for their crimes. Our intention, however, is to say that in the case of a social phenomenon, it is imperative to seek the social causes that lead to it, because only then can it be eliminated.

In order to eliminate femicide and gender violence, it is not enough, for example, to have love, respect, recognition of the oppression of the other – which are obviously necessary elements for a healthy human relationship. It is also not enough to “educate men not to kill”- as some in the feminist movement advocate. We need to create a social and economic context in which women are not perceived as objects or property and in which men do not consider it reasonable to use their physical strength to impose themselves. This is not simply a matter of education. At the same time, decent material conditions are absolutely necessary. Expecting people who live in conditions of impoverishment and despair to respect the rights of others and to act among themselves in a “civilised” manner (in the sense of the word in today’s developed industrialised countries) is simply unrealistic. It is no coincidence that incidents of gender and domestic violence have increased dramatically in countries facing economic crises. 

Acknowledging the material causes that may lead some people to crime, as already mentioned, does not exonerate the criminal: on the contrary, this analysis is necessary in order to identify the real roots of the problem so as to find ways to prevent further crimes. 

At the same time, it is important to recognise the fact that gender or racial oppression is also perpetrated by working class people, which shows the complexity of class society and class consciousness. The working class is formed in a society full of stereotypes and discrimination and these are inevitably embedded in them. This means that, although as a class they are oppressed, working class individuals may well act as oppressors in their interpersonal relations. 

By highlighting the class dimension at the root of the problem and shedding light on these contradictions, we can deconstruct stereotypes, strengthen working class unity and contribute to the struggle to overthrow the capitalist system. This can only be achieved through the struggle of the working class and the popular strata despite their internal contradictions.  

Suggesting solutions that ignore the material basis of society

In view of all the above, a classical demand of the proponents of “identity” theories is a “diversity quota” – i.e. the designation of specific percentages of men and women, or white and POC, etc. to be elected/appointed to a representative body, or employed in a company, etc. 

When applying the quota method though, you are essentially accepting the given number of places to be shared –e.g. the number of jobs– and simply asking for some pieces to be assigned not to the “privileged” groups but to the oppressed ones. In this way, there will still be people who are excluded – not women and POC, for example, but others. There will still not be enough jobs, and still, there will be unstable working conditions and low wages, while unemployment and exploitation will not cease to exist. But the real question must be how to eliminate unemployment and how to have decent jobs for all. 

Demands like those advanced by the Identity Politics theory are the logical outcome of a theory placing the individual rather than the class at the centre – this is a dead end. It’s a theory that perceives society as a sum of individuals, among whom some are oppressed by others who oppress, and where the motive for oppression is skin colour or gender. 

These theories result in proposals aiming at “improvements” of the existing system, rather than overthrowing it – and this is why they are being incorporated by parts of the system. 

In this context, Hillary Clinton was calling for the women’s vote because she is a woman; the current US Vice President, Kamala Harris, is being praised because she is a woman of immigrant origin; and some were happy about the election of Obama, as a Person Of Colour. Those people failed to see that these political figures, when in positions of power, do not ultimately improve the living conditions of the oppressed groups from which they come from; they served instead the interests of the capitalists who put them in those positions of power. It is very telling that under the Obama presidency, there was an increase in murders of African Americans by police officers and the first Black Lives Matter movement broke out.

The demand for visibility

It is a fact that oppressed groups have been for centuries pushed to the margins of society and the oppression they experienced was not openly discussed, sometimes not even by the victims themselves. It is certainly true that in recent years and under the pressure of the movements that have developed, oppressed groups such as LGBTQI people, POC or migrants have come more to the fore and the injustice they suffer has become more widely understood. 

Increased visibility is clearly necessary; the rest of society needs to look at oppressed groups, know and understand them. But is this enough? 

Visibility has increased, not because the fabric of society is radically changing, but because the system has to some extent incorporated Identity Politics, certainly under the movements’ pressure, and is responding in a way that is not threatening to the ruling class: oppressed identities are recognised, but not granted the only freedom that could radically change their lives, the economic one. 

Oppressed groups have broken stereotypes and gained some visibility and rights but their economic exploitation and oppression will continue. Thus, visibility did not bring better wages, nor did it improve the living conditions of other oppressed people on a material level. And of course, it did not change the structure of the system. At the same time, the rights that have been granted or gained, precisely because they are limited, are constantly vulnerable to attack by the right-wing parts of the system that lurk and strike. 

In other words, the effect of identity politics is to replace class analysis, making visible the oppressed identities, offering them recognition, but without putting forward any economic plan to combat the inequality resulting from exploitative relations. In any case, at the core of this politics lies individualism and the idea that society is changed by opinions, not by the overthrow of those who hold and manage political and economic power (as Marxism explains). 

We must nevertheless acknowledge that the demand for visibility has contributed to the development of great movements, such as Black Lives Matter or the women’s and transgender people’s movements in Latin America. The BLM movement got a big boost as a reaction to the killings of African Americans and POC by American police officers and this became associated, in Black or Latino circles, with the demand for visibility, in a sense like: “Look at us, we are the United States too, not just the white people”. In this way they claimed their space and demanded for their voices to be heard. 

If movements are confined to this narrow level though, they will never seek to overthrow the system and, as a result, they will never be able to achieve the elimination of the oppression. 

In other words, these movements have indeed contributed to the rapid radicalisation of broad social layers, especially young people, but they have a certain limit when it comes to results. 

Class society – the root of all oppressions

Identity politics downplays the class nature of society and instead considers gender or origin or skin colour or religion as the dominant fields of oppression. How can all these be true at the same time? Because something different may apply to each person, depending on their experience. 

And in this sense, they also perceive class as one other discrimination, defining it in the narrow context of the wage difference. Some are subjected to gender oppression, some to racial oppression and some to wage/class oppression. 

Still others do not suffer class oppression –the capitalists– but may suffer gender oppression. 

Treating the class element as an oppression like any other is the source of a fundamental error of analysis that leads to fundamental political errors: the thousands of Bangladeshi women workers dying for a dollar’s wages are treated in the same way as Britney Spears and the (admittedly tragic) injustice she has suffered.

A white male victim of a workplace accident is seen as less oppressed (because he is a man) than a woman victim of body shaming. Or even, the struggle to secure the right to abortion is of course hugely important, but it stops half way if it is not linked to demands that change women’s social/working conditions overall, or the state of the health care system. 

Another problematic element is that the starting point of identity politics is the individual, which makes it divisive and not unifying. 

It is something we see, whether in the exclusion of individuals from assemblies, for example because they are male or white, or in the refusal to support actions by collectives that are considered “irrelevant”, or even in the logic of “we speak, you listen”.

This is a sensitive point though. Groups that have been oppressed for centuries, e.g. women or POC, do need to be heard. It is true that white men take up a lot of space (and speaking time at professional or political meetings for example) very easily and need to “make room” for others. But that doesn’t mean they need to “shut up and listen”. It is also useful for oppressed groups to listen to e.g. white men’s perspective – it is also necessary for white men to learn to take up less space. Arguably, after all, white men are also victims of the stereotypes created by patriarchy. 

Above all, however, unity in action is necessary. And the common ground that unites us all is the exploitation we all experience in the workplace and by extension in society. 

Oppression and rights violation: tools of exploitative relations 

Marxist analysis recognises the problem with the oppression of democratic and individual rights that exists under capitalism and explains it not as an independent problem, but as a situation structurally linked to the exploitative system based on the capitalist relations of production. 

People are multiply oppressed, and the working class is consciously divided by the ruling class in order to allow the capitalists to exploit them economically and make profits at their expense. Consequently, Marxism fights oppression together with exploitation, indeed it sees oppression through the prism of exploitation. It locates the problem in the relations of production and finds that other oppressions are superimposed on the relations of production.

Beyond the analysis, however, we understand the necessity of unity at the level of action. Workers, regardless of gender, skin colour, race, religion or body type, are all victims of capitalist exploitation. Everyone’s rights are being violated. Certain social groups are also subjected to other forms of oppression, such as sexism or racism, and these must of course be highlighted. These groups must be given space to be heard, and their oppression must be a field of specific struggle. But it is necessary to highlight the areas in which all oppressed working-class groups come together and unite their demands in the struggle to create a just society. 

The struggle against oppression is intertwined with the struggle against exploitation, so the struggle for democratic rights is linked to the struggle for the improvement of living conditions at an overall level – both nationally and internationally. 

As Lenin rightly wrote, 

“oppressions will not disappear immediately, even after the overthrow of capitalism, because the element of social concepts, rooted in the minds and souls of people, is important and deep”. 

In conclusion, we have a great struggle ahead of us, so it is important to fight it in the best possible way.


Notes:
⦏1⦎ First wave: The first wave of feminism refers to the struggles of women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which focused largely on the legislative establishment of women’s rights, with a central demand for voting rights. Supporters of the movement were called suffragettes (from the French word suffrage meaning the right to vote).
Second wave: The term second wave was coined by Marsha Lear making reference to the feminist movement that emerged in North America and Europe in the late 1960s. The core of the movement grew out of interest in reproductive issues, opposition to patriarchal society, and the frustration of white heterosexual middle-class women without careers who were “trapped” in family life. The aim of second-wave feminism was to defend women against domestic and sexual violence and had a major impact on gender identity. The characteristics of second-wave feminism are that it challenged traditional political ideas by linking issues of reproduction to issues of production and the personal to the political, thus playing a role in changing the political thought of the time.
Third wave: Third-wave feminism emerged in the 1990s and challenged second-wave conceptions of women’s gender, as, according to critics, second-wave feminism mainly emphasized middle- or upper-class white women. One of the main concerns of third-wave feminists is respect for women’s bodies.
⦏2⦎ Postmodernism is not a coherent ideology or philosophy – after all, it denies the need for coherence. Rather, it is a set of concepts that relativises, “colours” and tends to absorb the ideological currents of our time. The British Marxist Terry Eagleton gives the following definition: “Postmodernism is a style of thought which is suspicious of classical notions of truth, reason, identity, and objectivity, of the idea of universal progress or emancipation, of single frameworks, grand narratives or ultimate grounds of explanation. Against these Enlightenment norms, it sees the world as contingent, ungrounded, diverse, unstable, indeterminate, a set of disunified cultures or interpretations which breed a degree of skepticism about the objectivity of truth, history, and norms, the giveness of natures and the coherence of identities.”
This way of thinking, it goes without saying, has a direct impact on the class struggle in contemporary capitalism. At its core is the devaluation of a comprehensive view of history and society and, consequently, the denial of any grand and long-term project for human liberation. Foucault formulates it as follows: “In fact we know from experience that the claim to escape from the system of contemporary reality so as to produce the overall programs of another society, of another way of thinking, another culture, another vision of the world, has led only to the return of the most dangerous traditions. I prefer the very specific transformations that have proved to be possible in the last twenty years in a certain number of areas that concern our ways of being and thinking, relations to authority, relations between the sexes, the way in which we perceive insanity or illness; I prefer even these partial transformations that have been made in the correlation of historical analysis and the practical attitude, to the programs for a new man that the worst political systems have repeated throughout the twentieth century.”
⦏3⦎ Social liberalism or left liberalism is the political belief that economic liberalism should include social justice, and the corresponding political space. Social liberalism seeks to balance individual freedom and social justice through mild state intervention in society and the economy. Social justice in social liberalism seeks to encompass both the principles of social equality and solidarity and individual rights.
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