Mar 22, 2018

The Limits of Liberal Identity Politics

By Dan Husman /
The Limits of Liberal Identity Politics
Obama and Clinton: two icons of liberal identity politics in action.

Asad Haider ends the first part of his essay on the problems of liberal identity politics with a powerful accusation:

“Fredrik deBoer asks, ‘Does it matter to Resnikoff that the most acid critiques of identity politics I know of have come from writers of color?’ It is a question that keeps many whites awake at night. But for the rest of us the reasons are obvious. Because we have experienced racism from well-behaved and well-educated liberals as often as from the rednecks they despise; because we have never benefitted from the condescending and patronizing attitudes of white multiculturalists; because we recognize in the affluent liberal hatred of the white poor the same depraved social Darwinism that in less public moments is directed against us.” 

Haider’s target here is a recent piece by Ned Resnikoff that tries to equate leftist/socialist critiques of liberal identity politics with right wing White Nationalism; although it is not very clearly stated in Resnikoff’s piece, his argument is something like the idea that all critiques of liberal identity politics must be attempts to erase the experiences, voices, and knowledge of people of color (or, more broadly, anyone who is not white, male, straight, cis gender, etc.), therefore left critiques are equal to white supremacy. In other words, people on the left are a bunch of racist Brocialists.

Who cares? What is the leftist critique about, and why does it matter? Unless you’re already familiar with this debate, it can sound like meaningless terminological squabbling. But I think it matters a great deal, because liberal identity politics has a major limitation that will always frustrate attempts to fundamentally combat bigotry.

The limitation of liberal identity politics is that it treats oppression on the basis of identity — racism, sexism, homophobia — in isolation, disconnected from a systemic critique of economic oppression. As the (African American) critic of identity politics Adolph Reed Jr. puts it:

“We live under a regime now that is capable simultaneously of including black people and Latinos, even celebrating that inclusion as a fulfillment of democracy, while excluding poor people without a whimper of opposition. Of course, those most visible in the excluded class are disproportionately black and Latino, and that fact gives the lie to the celebration.

… this notion of democracy is inadequate, since it doesn’t begin to address the deep and deepening patterns of inequality and injustice embedded in the ostensibly ‘neutral’ dynamics of American capitalism. What A. Philip Randolph and others — even anticommunists like Roy Wilkins — understood in the 1940s is that what racism meant was that, so long as such dynamics persisted without challenge, black people and other similarly stigmatized populations would be clustered on the bad side of the distribution of costs and benefits. To extrapolate anachronistically to the present, they would have understood that the struggle against racial health disparities, for example, has no real chance of success apart from a struggle to eliminate for-profit health care.” 

Another critique, from Liza Featherstone:

“Liberal feminism assumes that ‘sexism’ can be fixed without deeper systemic change. Of course, some aspects of it can be — people can get more enlightened in their attitudes — but this approach misses the extent to which gender equality is perpetuated by our economic system.”

This is still pretty abstract, so let me offer a specific example. In the 2016 election, there were ballot measures to enact rent control in several Bay Area cities; I’m most familiar with Alameda’s Measure M1. Unscientifically, I’d say Alameda is about typically liberal for the Bay Area, which is to say very, very liberal. If you polled Alameda residents about their attitudes about race and gender, I’d posit that they’d be near the most progressive end of the scale in the country. However, such progressive attitudes exist uncomfortably alongside a long history of attempts to prevent the construction of multi-unit housing in the city, a policy and preference clearly intended to prevent low-income “others” from moving in. In the case of the 2016 election, M1 rent control failed 2/3rds to 1/3rd. Who will that defeat hurt most of all? Low income renters, who are disproportionately women and people of color. This is the paradox of liberal identity politics: progressive individual attitudes alongside a refusal to confront the systemic and material elements of racism and sexism.

The most serious consequence of liberal identity politics, then, is that it limits fights against bigotry to what can be contained within the bounds of our economic system. It has additional consequences for political mobilization and argument.

In terms of mobilization, the model of liberal identity politics is the language of “allyship.” In other words, it says: “I support you in your struggle.” The alternative to this is solidarity: “These struggles are linked, and we must struggle together”; that is, organizing across identities on the basis of shared interests.

In terms of argument, liberal identity politics quickly devolves into the realm of the personal: who is more or less privileged, who is more or less woke. An argument doesn’t need to be taken seriously if the speaker can be labeled as a member of a privileged group or insufficiently enlightened. Liberal identity politics thus devolves into a contest of personal wokeness without the hard and risky work of dismantling overlapping structures of oppression deeply tied to our economic and political systems. As a form of self-congratulation, liberal identity politics allows woke Whites to believe they have “heroically transcended … a state of corrupt decadence” without organizing and mobilizing against the system. ( Consequently, in its approach to mobilization and argument, liberal identity politics is anti-political.

Fighting economic oppression will not magically, automatically solve racism, sexism, or homophobia. But neither can those things be fought without a systematic critique of our economic system. These are not tasks of personal enlightenment, they are tasks of collective mobilization.

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