Identity Politics' Limits and Limitations

We welcome as a Liberator contributor, Dr. Michel Valentin, President of Alliance Fran├žaise de Missoula and Associate Professor of French at the University Of Montana.

Identity Politics’ Limits and Limitations: In America, differences between people have been elevated to such a point that the truth transcending individual’s interests has nearly vanished, resulting in the replacement of the common good by special interest groups, rampant lobbyism and individualism (“me first policies.”), and the privatization of everything. Obsession for oneself (identity and image) replaced historical consciousness, de facto depoliticizing citizens into individuals and consumers. No longer universalist (“internationalist”), our interests are individualist at worst, provincial at best. Believing that people are rewarded according to merit Americans lost class consciousness, as if the implacable division between haves/have-nots had disappeared or its perseverance “natural.” Now, our concerns extend only to the limits of our lawn: “I” perceive my neighbor as the positive or negative boundary to my identity/enjoyment or safety. Therefore, the grass next door is either, the same as mine, greener, or weird. This attitude breeds at best acceptance (“you are one of us”), or jealousy, and at worst hatred (rejection), or hostile indifference. This is why 40 million poor do not count in our politics and that a community rally protesting a homeless man’s murder was organized, only after upset citizens called upon Missoula’s identity politics groups.

Replacing class and constituting a defense against disintegration (alienation) or aggression, identity politics represent the special interests of individuals whose rationale for associating is the exclusive definition of their subjectivity via a private form of enjoyment (hobby, club, sport) or being (sexual, racial or religious). Consequently, we see ourselves more as serialized categories of individuals than class-divided citizens: White/Black/Hispanic/Catholic/Baptist/handicapped/biking/skiing/golfing/anti-Semitic/anti-antiSemitic/chessplaying/hetero/gay/vegan/pizza-loving Americans, etc. Each category looks at his/her navel and competes for the same pool of protections or privileges. This is why we mobilize only if our identity is attacked. Gays come out for gay issues/lectures/parades or movies. Jews mobilize against anti-Semitism. Provided the victim is white, middle-class and female, feminists unite against violence. If not invasive species, wild-lifers defend animals’ rights. The “identity-family,” replacing the community as central social unit, has become a “defensive ghetto” (hence The Sopranos’ success).

Why all this? It is because identity politics and consumerism re-enforce each other. Although capitalism “doesn’t care” as long as we work, consume and run into debt, it “capitalizes” all life, forcing the same economic mold on everybody (oppression), and disintegrating solidarity, exacerbates narcissism, individual greed and fantasy. Its implacable logic arouses identities’ irrational reactions, inciting antagonisms (competitive race between races/sexes), increasing bigotry and hate-crimes. More important is the (seemingly) paradoxical fact that the paradigms of the liberal discourse correspond to those fueling the wild expansion of capitalism. The “pluralist” issues of race, gender, sexuality …, underpinning the liberal (bourgeois) discourse with its emphasis on difference, multiplicity, self-affirmation, etc., are the very cultural forms through which capitalism metastasizes itself and invades everything. Identity politics are not emancipatory for society. The “pounds of flesh,” a madly deregulated, global capital exacts from us (or puts on us as antidotes!) are. They unite us beyond any fluctuations of identity. Haves/have-nots differences zap the body-politic of homosexuals or whites/non-whites more than tensions between heteros and homos… Easily misappropriated, identity politics are restrictive (repressively tolerant) at best, dangerous at worst. To distract Germans away from class-exploitation issues and gain power, Nazi propaganda used identity politics negatively, insidiously substituting race for class, inflaming the “Aryan” working-class against the Jews.

Obviously, we can’t suspend identity since class is also experienced through race, gender, religious or sexual orientation. But, we must rethink difference/otherness (multiculturalism/diversity) in terms of class, exploitation and economic inequality, i.e., reinvent universalism. To solve our enormous problems (outsourcing, sweatshops, child labor, financial speculation’s dictatorship over the economy, global warming, lack of universal health care and transcendental socio-political vision…) and address the contradictions fracturing our global world, we must jettison sectarianism.

Everything falling from our lonely hands becomes a substance automatically dispersed in empty self-reflexivity. This is the pathetic price our postmodern culture will continue to pay for its individualism and egocentrism, unless, we, exploited of the world, unite beyond our disciplines, boundaries, proprieties and properties!

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