This post won’t make very much sense unless you read Exiting the Vampire Castle by Mark Fisher.
Preemptively: I like Mark Fisher’s post. However, I think it’s legacy has been kinda weird.
Starting with the places where I think I agree with Fisher: There are basically two tendencies of identitty politics.
There’s a basically legitimate tendency that says “race and gender are ‘real’ in that society sees them and they are necessary for completely describing what society is doing.”
To be specific about what this means — well, there’s two things! For one thing, race might be a pretty good proxy for the actual factors needed to describe what society is up to. There’s a racial wealth gap and a gender pay gap, and those don’t appear to go away completely if you control for other factors.
That doesn’t mean the gaps are essentially caused by race or gender, but it means that with current social science it is not possible to eliminate race and gender from the explanation.
There’s a second thing that it means — because the agents we’re talking about are humans, it’s likely the actual concepts of race and gender have something to do with society’s decisions. Someone might have a problem with black people — not “people who are likely to have lower wealth for historical reasons.”
In other words, there are cases where you can’t reduce “race” out of an explanation — because the events you’re describing involved real people who were using “race” as a concept.
For the purpose of this article, I’m taking the stance that “race” and “gender” are concepts that can be relevant in an explanation of social events and calling it “identity politics, type one.”
Note that having this view doesn’t automatically opt you into conspiracy theories like “Donald Trump is a member of the KKK.” It also doesn’t automatically imply that leftist groups should be segregated by race or gender, or that they should contain a pecking order based on level of privilege. The entire question of “representation” is irrelevant to “identity politics, type one.”
Your main line of critique can still be class-based under identity politics, type one — this is because the question of whether “race” can be part of a valid explanation is completely different from whether it is part of a valid explanation.
There’s a second tendency, which Fisher is concerned about, which I’m calling “identity politics, type two.” It doesn’t correspond to a specific viewpoint — it’s kind of a nest of related viewpoints. The gist is that all of those things that aren’t implicitly part of identity politics, type one? Those are more or less part of identity politics, type two.
Based on that, its mission statement might be “You can’t personally object to using concepts like race and gender, even if you try, because you’re doomed to reproduce systems that oppress people.”
I’ve rarely seen anyone say this out loud, which is a pity because I this thesis has some historical evidence behind it — but even if it does, it needs some defending. Aside from that, if it’s your main party line in practice, you’re saying “this tendency isn’t perfect, so don’t even try.” One of Fisher’s strong contentions is that when people start talking like that and thinking like that, they end up opposing productive leftist activity.
There’s something to that, I think. If you only want to support minority-led leftist groups then you can’t work with most leftists, because white people are advantaged in a lot of idpol-type-one ways that pertain to starting groups, organizing them, getting money. Is that unjust? Clearly. But unfortunately, while “attention” is a finite resource and some deserving causes get less attention than they deserve, any allocation of attention (and money) is better than no attention and no money.
This means that idpol-type-two is not a practical stance if you want to make friends politically.
The fascinating thing to me is that Fisher’s critique — which mostly targets idpol-type-two behavior — has been heavily coopted by centrists on social media, especially Democrats. There also appears to be a tacit agreement between Democrats and idpol-advocates-type-two.
For instance, in 2020, NBC invented a call for greater female/nonwhite representation in the White House, marketed Kamala and Warren as an answer for that, then had them both concede and pitch their support to an old white ghoul. Democratic socialists were receptive to this (some supported Warren) but abandoned her when she got rid of class-based policy and, seeing no realistic course of action to support democratic socialism in the presidency, grudgingly coalesced behind Biden.
At the same time, Biden abandoned all his class-oriented promises and made idpol-flavored appeals instead. (“If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.”) He did this despite his record: mass incarceration through the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, and increased minimum sentences for crack cocaine relative to powder cocaine through the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. In other words, he sponsored laws more likely to affect lower-class people and more likely to be visibly enforced against black people.
On the other hand — idpol-type-one believers who point out the class-based decision-making behind the scenes are accused (by centrists) of idpol-type-two behavior because they invoke the concepts of race and gender, but also accused (by idpol-advocates-type-two) of centrism because they invoke the concept of class. For instance, the Warren campaign accused Sanders of gender chauvinism while NBC tarred Sanders as a racist. Meanwhile center Democrats have deftly avoided the “critical race theory” challenge by claiming not to believe in it, but gesturing towards the class-interested faction of the party and acting as if those guys do.
To me, it seems to me like a lot of people read Fisher’s article — or the mealymouthed, centrist-oriented paraphrases later made in venues like The Atlantic and The New York Times — and added it to their list of ways to silence leftists whose critique is uncomfortable to them. Of course the Democrats are going to embrace idpol-type-two — it’s easy and satisfying, it makes you lose to Republicans, and you can do it completely without engaging with class. All you need to do is find a rich white oligarch and have that guy find a black dude who’s willing to say “yeah I agree with that guy” for money or power.
And don’t get me started on queer-washing. Don’t get me wrong; I love a good pride flag. But I hate capitalism more.
I run into a lot of leftists who want to ditch identity politics altogether because of the terrible state of idpol-type-two critique. Frankly, I don’t blame them for it, as long as they don’t use it as a license to be racist.