The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2018

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JUL-AUG 2018 Issue
Field Notes

The Aggressiveness of Vulnerability

Trump has been president for over a year now but the arguments over what led to his victory are far from settled. Many sought to explain the surprising results with an age-old idea about a part of America historically resistant to “progress.” The notion that the “white working-class” is responsible for Trump allowed pro-market fanatics like J. D. Vance to gain visibility through his attempt to re-instate the bankrupt American Dream, while also permitting liberals to feel justified in their (also age-old) contempt for the poor. Other commentators put structural issues of the voting system (such as the Electoral College and the popular vote) in the spotlight. A few tried to zero in on the Democratic Party itself, tacitly recognizing the possibility that its failure might have something to do with its own choices and policies. The most comical explanation of all, Russian interference, remains mind-numbingly popular within liberal outlets. But for a certain period, another approach was also captivating those eager to understand the “impossible presidency”. According to this view, Trump’s rise to power was significantly assisted by the emerging alt-Right (“alternative Right”) and its prolific online presence. Angela Nagle’s book, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right (Zero Books, 2017) was one of the first to attempt to contextualize this approach.

Nagle proposed a direct correlation between the electoral victory of Donald Trump and the ascendency of this new form of Right-wing politics, examined through the prism of its digital fingerprints. Directly challenging the enthusiasm that many on the Left attached to the expansion of the internet world in the 2010s, leading cyberutopians to herald it as a “new leaderless form of digital revolution,” Nagle claimed that there was nothing particularly progressive about this development. In a journey that took her readers from the 4chan discussion forums praising school shootings to the women-hating trolls that fueled Gamergate, Nagle noted that the formal absence of leaders, a fetishism of spontaneity, and the unquestioned embrace of “transgression” mesmerized Left-cyberutopians into ignoring the “philosophical, moral or conceptual content” of the cardinal actors and ideas behind this facade of online freedom. “No matter how networked, “transgressive,” social media savvy or non-hierarchical a movement may be,” wrote Nagle, “it is the content of its ideas that matter.” And this content represented, for Nagle, a fusion between the obscure world of online pranksters, Pepe-loving trolls and hateful nerds with white-supremacist figures and controversial alt-Right celebrities.

A key concept that can explain this consolidation of reaction is, according to Nagle, the concept of “transgression,” denoting pushing beyond the limits of societal norms and embracing a rebellious attitude towards established hierarchies, praised in the past as almost synonymous with radical and Left/progressive ideas and movements. Kill All Normies (KAN) argued that the strategy of transgression has been effectively recuperated by the alt-Right, acting as a unifying principle between the formerly marginalized milieus of online hackers and trolls and the (equally marginalized) extreme Right-wing scenes. Against this, Nagle advanced a rethinking of the concept itself. Rejecting the claim that transgressive attitudes have been beneficial to progressive/Left movements in the past, she argued that the association between transgression and the Left was in fact “superficial and historically accidental.” The recent appropriation of transgressive outlooks by the reactionary Right simply made public what was only latent. In this context, Nagle argued, transgression should be abandoned altogether.

Nagle developed her argument through an exposition of the online cultural wars that came to the fore in the years before the election. Using the baffling explosion of “Gamergate” (a euphemism for an extremely misogynistic online crusade) as an entry-point, she pointed at the emergence of an undercurrent which allowed for a connection between (mostly male) computer nerds and the new Right to flourish. Her short exposé of this vile story allows one to discern that, hidden behind an irrelevant grievance supposed to be about computer games, Gamergate revealed a number of developing anxieties: a loss of a sense of (male) entitlement, a perceived threat towards an existing (gaming) community by (women) “outsiders,” perhaps even a fear that the entrance of women into this job market indicated diminishing prospects for those nerds who saw themselves as more deserving candidates. In defining its anxieties however, this online community of isolated individuals also defined its enemies, which in the case of “Gamergate” meant those who stood in defense of the abused women. With a little help from its prospective fascist friends, this category of the “enemy” was conceptualized in such a way so as to include all “progressives,” feminists, liberals, or (as they became known) “social justice warriors” (SJW). The first step for a common ground between anti-social geeks and the alt-Right was set.

To its merit, KAN notices that the alt-Right is not composed of traditional Right-wing supporters. Seeing this new Right formation as a mere continuation of age-old conservatism, according to Nagle, does little to explain the bizarre alliance of early anonymous hackers, politically-incorrect pranksters, and outright racists, and/or misogynists. Traditional conservatives who still feel relatively comfortable justifying and sustaining established systems of structural discrimination (such as racism and anti-feminism 1 are hardly the natural allies of the transgressive humor of the online trolls, their pornographic aesthetics, or their embrace of offensive satire as a “weapon of critique.” Narcissistically defining the “average person in the street” as a mirror image of their own values, traditional Right-wingers continue to view “conservatism” as the defining characteristic of the majority of the population, a viewpoint categorically at odds with the attitudes of the online alt-Right and the transgressive piss-takes of dominant moral values by its online allies.

Instead, Nagle suggests that the ideas of thinkers such as Oswald Spengler or Pat Buchanan are better suited to explain the alt-Right. This particular tradition of thought had for many years tried unsuccessfully to create its own niche and to push the Right (and the Republican party) away from its historical accommodation with mainstream liberalism, mainly by fixating on issues that one was supposedly “not allowed to speak about.” Already in 1988, paleoconservative Paul Gottfried had claimed that “political differences between Right and Left have by now largely been reduced to disagreements over policies designed to achieve comparable moral goals.” By linking mainstream liberalism and political correctness to the conspiracy theory concerning the hegemony of “cultural Marxism,” certain key ideas of these forgotten but not extinct paleoconservatives appealed to both the alt-Right and the (already groomed) online trolls and hacker freaks. Instead of dismissing these internet figures for their transgressive outlook, the alt-Right was very much concerned with widening the perspective of the prankster-type, anti-PC online types, and, taking its cue straight from paleoconservative sensitivities, to infuse them with its version of contemporary nationalism/patriotism and a reaffirmation of a supposedly undermined “white” identity, a focus that clearly prioritizes “internal enemies.” To a certain extent, this approach fit quite well with Trump’s electoral promise to abandon global interventionism and concentrate instead on an internal “re-adjustment. 2 Identifying with the idea that “the decline of the West” is the result of the multiculturalist, liberal, politically correct and globalized values shared by the entire political establishment, the alt-Right resurrected a significant split that had plagued the US conservative Right since the 1960s, placing themselves at the top in the process. As a result, for Nagle and other commentators, the combination of the above sensitivities and the use of transgressive and anti-SJW attitudes and practices of the online world mobilized a significant amount of support for Trump which, in conjunction with the solid support of Republican voters, allowed him to win the presidency.

“There’s no such thing as a harmless joke” [The Moldy Peaches]

The question begs itself: if these characters and ideas came together during the “online culture wars,’ who stood at the other side of the trenches? Nagle’s answer to this question is one of the reasons why KAN has made “both ends of the identity politics spectrum feel aggrieved,” as Catherine Liu noted in the LA Review of Books. For one of the central arguments of the book that separates it from other texts on the topic is that the growing influence of the alt-Right and its online acolytes was to a large extent premised on their opposition to the liberal/Left’s understanding, promotion, and normalization of its version of identity politics.

This argument is perhaps single-handedly responsible for the viciously negative reactions that Nagle’s book has faced from the “progressive left,” or those parts of the left that have embraced identity politics. For those unfamiliar with the favored forms of “interaction” of the online identity camp, the amount of hate that the book has received might appear puzzling. There appears, at first sight, nothing particularly controversial in claiming that many alt-Right figures built their careers by ridiculing the excesses and irrationalities of so-called “social justice warriors.” But for those more aware of the toxicity of online culture, there is (unfortunately) nothing surprising about the identitarian reaction. In fact, Nagle’s book itself contains an expose of the online identitarian camp that can be used to predict, point-by-point, the reactions it generated.

What might be surprising, however, is to observe how parts of the radical Left/anarchist scene have fully embraced indistinguishable arguments, all the while claiming to be critical of identity politics. To bring this into focus, one only has to read the recent attack against Nagle by those who administer the libcom online archive (a website that claims to be influenced, among others, by Marx, Rosa Luxembourg, CLR James and the Situationists): after an initial blog post which “exposed” some examples of “plagiarism 3 or bad citations in the book, libcom eventually produced what, according to them, was a more “substantiated” critique. Hardly concealing that their reading of the book was performed using many filters of identitarian politics, libcom’s post “informed” its readers that Nagle’s book is “laughing at the alt-Right’s scapegoats,” that she has performed a “leftist laundering of sexual assault,” that she is transphobic and, essentially, a rape apologist.4 Were one to take the distorting mirror of her opponents seriously, this would surely make KAN one of the worst books written in the past few years. (Spoiler alert: It is not.)

But libcom’s reaction is, at the end of the day, indicative of a wider problem that extends far beyond Nagle’s book. It demonstrates a specific form of “argumentation,” uncannily common in the last few years, according to which the person under scrutiny is not simply wrong but presented as a veritable monster. 5 Stemming from an understanding of politics or social justice preoccupied with “bearing witness of suffering” (to use Adolph Reed, Jr’s phrase), today’s academics/activists have made victimhood and marginalization the central coordinates of our relation to the world—and, crucially, our opposition to it. In this context, political activism is nothing but a ritualized organization and management of trauma, guilt, and demands for recognition, a worldview principally defined through moralism. Placing moralism as the guiding principle has, however, some historically well documented consequences: not only is it soft on institutions and harsh on individuals, but it is forced by its own logic to see monsters everywhere, while those who expose them must be, accordingly, some sort of angels. Thus, like any community that defines its outlook in moral terms, the identitarian camp is vigilant on internal discipline. This approach has produced an interesting inversion: whereas accusations of racism, misogyny, etc., were traditionally directed towards the Left’s conservative enemies, they are now predominantly used internally. 6 With denunciation and shaming as its main weapons, those who attach themselves to such “politics” arrogantly unleash inquisition-style attacks with one predictable (and desired) outcome: not mere censorship (as some claim) but the veritable excommunication of transgressors with whom one should not even bother to engage.

How did this situation come about? The persistence of identitarian politics is, in any case, not only premised on the capitulation of spineless liberals who find offending marginalized groups more excruciating than, for example, abolishing the conditions that marginalize them. If anything, the strength and influence of identity politics comes from its expressed commitment to give voice to the voiceless, defend the victims of existing conditions of capitalist barbarity, speak out against the injustices of this wretched world. To properly contextualize them, and to allow for a more nuanced critical approach to their obvious dead-ends, one is forced to dive into their historical trajectory.

‘Twas in another lifetime

Even though identitarian sensibilities appear to reach the online world through academia (and, especially in the US, an overlapping form of activism), this was not always the case. In fact, the terminology and methodology of what is today known as identity-focused politics can be traced back to the political movements of the United States of the late 1960s and 1970s. And though many people might be aware of the general coordinates within which these movements expressed themselves (counter-cultural sensitivities mixed with an unambiguous form of Third-Worldist anti-imperialism), a more refined anatomy of the period’s radicalism might prove more helpful.

As Barbara and John Ehrenreich showed in their seminal 1977 text in Radical America,7the overwhelming composition of the New Left in the 60s and 70s United States came from members of the “professional/managerial class” (PMC), a social category in an uneasy balance between the capitalist class (to which it was antagonistic due to what it saw as its inherent irrationality, greed, and social irresponsibility) and the working class (to which it was also structurally antagonistic by virtue of the PMC’s role in the direct or indirect management of labor power). Aspiring to a set of specific jobs (urban planning, journalism, education, social work, anti-poverty initiatives, NGOs etc.), the professional/managerial class developed its radicalism in a dual way: on the one hand, it reflected the rejection of the predominant social, cultural and moral conservatism of the US society, while on the other hand it situated itself within the tradition of American liberalism and progressivism which co-existed historically with a certain scorn for the working class. As the Ehrenreichs observed:

PMC class consciousness, with its ambiguous mixture of elitism and anti-capitalist militance, continued to be a major theme of “‘the movement” throughout the sixties. Expressions of it can be found in the “New Left,” the anti-war movement, the ecology movement, the women’s-liberation movement—all of which defied “the system,” but often with a moralistic contempt for the working class.

This was, of course, not theorized as such. Rather, under the influence of thinkers such as Herbert Marcuse, the assertion was that the advent of consumer capitalism had effectively neutralized the proletariat as an agent of historical opposition to capital, the further implication being that this “historical vacuum left by the labor movement would have to be filled by students and their intellectual mentors.8 The outbreak of fierce class antagonisms at a global level in the same period did, to a certain extent, challenge these formulations and the Marcusean description of a docile proletariat, but since this particular disdain towards workers was (as Christopher Lasch has skillfully shown)9 grounded on a deeper historical tradition of American liberalism, its influence remained rather solid (albeit subterraneous) allowing it to resurface a few years later with significant assistance from the academic world.

In any case, the economic growth of the preceding period had led to a process of expansion and bureaucratization of professions that enlarged the PMC (a process at the time mistakenly seen as “proletarianization,”) providing a material framework for the main coordinates of its consciousness and aspirations. However, the simultaneous emergence of socially proletarian and politically Left-nationalist Black liberation movements caused a rupture. Direct contact with the aspirations of the Black movement shattered the self-confidence of many student and professional activists, urging them to reconsider their “entire life experience [as] a pale abstraction compared to this militance which came ‘‘from the streets’’,” a process that facilitated an ill-digested re-introduction of notions such as privilege.” One obvious result, according to the Ehrenreichs, was that “contacts between the white student Left and Black non-student groups (most notably the Black Panther Party) were characterized by arrogance on the latter side, near servility on the former.”

A smaller part of the movement responded to this predicament by accelerating their confrontational attitude towards an unavoidable dead-end: the critique of the university was transformed into a critique of students themselves and the desire to avoid complicity with “the system” generated a brief period of self-destructive extremism (the most notable example being the Weather Underground), a type of political activity firmly based on guilt and self-flagellation. Apart from such short-fused rebellion, however, the largest part of those that had been influenced by the movement chose to “democratize” their “privileges,” i.e. to use their skills and education in order to advance “the radical cause.” The consequences, according to the Ehrenreichs, were telling:

Radical doctors wanted not only to free their profession from the grip of the “medical-industrial” complex, but to demystify medicine. Radical lawyers would open up the law books and make elementary legal skills available to the people. Radical psychiatrists would lead the assault on psychiatric mythology and show that any sensitive community person could easily replace them. Radical teachers would expose the capitalist functions of education. And so on. Credentialing barriers would tumble. The rule of the experts would be abolished—by the young experts.

This reconfiguration of activism quickly exposed some practical limitations. Not only were aspiring professionals in the Black community unwilling to accept the “demystification” of the jobs they were (for the first time) attaining, but the onset of the economic crisis of the 1970s and its subsequent recession and unemployment hike undermined the various committees, organizations, and welfare groups that the activists had created. The gradual commodification and corporatization of professions that had so far remained outside the immediate interest of profit-making apparatuses (such as higher education, medical work and social work) radically transformed the material basis upon which the former radicals had based their “march through the institutions, ” accentuating the competitive pressures amongst those forced to sell their labor.

The neoliberal/monetarist response to the struggles and crisis of the 70s favored a harsh recession as a disciplining mechanism. Government spending cuts directly distorted the possibilities of a large section of the PMC (social work, education, care professions), while other jobs that had enjoyed some autonomy through self-employment (e.g. doctors or lawyers), and which had produced their own “radical caucuses,” were increasingly transformed from private practices into waged positions for corporations (i.e. employers). The actual proletarianization of PMC jobs led many to seek refuge in academia, where such processes were, at least initially, less rapid. Coinciding with the significant effort (heavily funded by powerful institutions such as the Ford Foundation) to normalize formerly radical aspirations by institutionalizing them and thus re-directing their focus by making them dependent on continued funding, many elements of PMC radicalism were “mainstreamed” and neutralized through “disciplinary differentiation and career-oriented choices. 10

Divorced from the collective aspirations that had somehow still empowered the previous social movements, the academic environment proved to be the ideal place for the blossoming of identitarian concerns premised on a focus on marginalization (instead of the centrality of the working class) and individual agency. But academics were not alone responsible for producing what is now understood as identity politics. The transitional conditions that characterized the late 70s had already affected political formations which were looking for ways to combine the experience of the previous movements with new considerations. It was in this framework that a small group of black lesbian radicals (the Combahee River Collective) produced a manifesto that would inadvertently prove central to the development of identitarian endeavors.

The primacy of identity

Rejecting the prevalent notion that a victorious socialist revolution would automatically do away with structural injustices such as racism or sexism, the Combahee River Collective sought to conceptualize the ways through which compounded discriminations could be overcome outside the framework of crude class reductionism (what others have described as vulgar Marxism). The resulting text provided, with some historical irony, critical weapons to both sides of the debate: while identitarians have focused on the Collective’s emphasis on the blind-spots of class-reductionist politics, anti-identitarians have tried to rescue the text by pointing at its equally present class perspective. But it was a specific assertion within the text that gave it (again inadvertently) its historical value, one that had nothing to do with either the recognition of co-existing discriminations (supporters of today’s identity politics are wrong in assuming some originality here) 11 nor with the adoption of a wider socialist agenda. In this passage, the Collective claimed that “the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.”

Here, somewhat hidden behind a justified rejection of self-sacrifice, lies the battle-cry of contemporary identitarian politics: that one’s identity is the source of one’s radicalism and/or political viewpoint. It is quite evident, and historically accurate, that for the Combahee River Collective the notion of “identity” was not confined to questions of race, gender, or sexual preference, but included that of “worker”, “socialist,” and “revolutionary”. But the very use of the term “identity” in this case was indicative, as it implied a parting of ways with the traditional workers’ movement (for which being working-class did not, in any discernible way, indicate an “identity” in the present use of the concept) and an alignment with a contemporaneous reconfiguration of the concept of “identity” which, as Marie Moran nicely shows in the latest issue of Historical Materialism, had moved the essentializing modes of understanding [of the concept of identity] into the spotlight.”

A similar trajectory can be traced with many of the concepts that have become fashionable with the advent of identitarian politics. For example, the notion of “white privilege” was actually developed by leftists Noel Ignatiev and T.W. Allen in an attempt to overcome racialized divisions and promote the unity of the working class and not, as it is understood today, as an anchored feature that can only be shamefully acknowledged and perhaps, through a rigorous process of moralistic self-flagellation, allow its bearers to transform themselves into “allies” of the non-privileged. It was not, in its inception, a notion that proclaimed the impossibility of common interests (and therefore struggles). Similarly, the notion of “safe spaces” was developed by (both) radical psychologists seeking to deal with post-traumatic disorders of Vietnam war veterans and/or gay and lesbian activists concerned with creating environments free of persecution and discrimination. But the encounter of these concepts with new material conditions premised on the retreat of radical social movements, the dissolution of proletarian communities and the proliferation of (neoliberal) individualism, reformulated their meanings, eventually divorcing their content from class or radical collective aspirations.

There was, however, a catch. Contrary to many critiques of identity politics, that see them as a type of false-consciousness which, by undermining universalist/class projects, essentially works for capital, their emergence in fact registered the fact that the traditional universalist/class aspirations had a significant blind spot in relation to discriminations that were structured around pseudo-biological “differences” (for women or the non-white population, for example). What is more, the class-reductionist position which subsumed all injustices and social grievances to the moment when the class struggle could successfully force its demands on capital, was drastically undermined by the fact that the expansionary and redistributive characteristics of the Keynesian era largely excluded those marginalized groups.

For this reason, when the strategy of achieving equality through assimilation (denying, that is, the existence of “differences” within a universalist, democratic, rights-for-all project) was confronted with the contradiction that economic growth was confined to specific categories, these very struggles underwent a reconfiguration. (Especially in the US, this could be seen as the transitional moment from the ‘civil rights’ movement’ to the various ‘liberation’ movements.) Rejecting the project of assimilating different groups into the pool of undifferentiated equality, identity politics advanced the idea that marginalized groups could (and should) achieve equal status not despite their differences but because of them.

In this context, “identity” proved to be the ideal formulation through which to express these concerns. As Moran notes, this specific term not only denied the naturalistic grounds upon which discrimination was based, but could also incorporate the concept of “individual autonomy,” therefore balancing out the tensions that the transitional phase between universalist/collective aspirations and individualism produced.12 The term identity, in other words, allowed for a reconceptualization of group marginalization away from its negative form, produced by capital’s needs, towards a positively understood endorsement of group belonging that was based on pride and dignity.

The negation of identity

The connection between present-day identity politics and their historical trajectory, however, is still incomplete. How would the mere recognition of continued discrimination and marginalization against specific groups transform itself into today’s moral crusades and irrational exacerbations? In an interesting expression of dialectics, the notion of identity (symbolic of an essentializing characteristic of cultural or psychological significance) came under attack as soon as it was formulated, an attack popularly noted as a “crisis of identity.” And it was through the very process of defending identity from various threats that the content of the term was re-formulated to acquire the characteristics immediately recognizable today.

On a theoretical/academic level, identity politics were attacked for their tendency towards “essentialism” by adepts of “social constructivism,” as well as by intersectional theory. However, as Moran has rightly noted, neither of these critiques operated outside the framework of identity itself. For the social-constructivists, the issue was not to question the concept of identity but to properly conceptualize its production. Framed within a similar logic, the concept of intersectionality aimed to address the lack of legal recognition of discrimination against different, co-existing identities. It is unsurprising that legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw’s foundational text on intersectionality contains no reference to the question of class, since this was irrelevant to Crenshaw’s aims: class is not a discrimination (demanding legal redress) but a fundamental characteristic of capitalism.

On an objective level, the advance of globalized capital, with its expansion of social inequality, had enhanced the competition between workers. But this increased competition did not take place in a historical vacuum. Rather, it was shaped by existing social relations and the understandings that accompany them. For this reason, in an era where identity had become the central locus for understanding social life, and capitalist globalization purported to do away with these very understandings, the resistance to capitalist restructuring took the form of reaffirming identitarian groupings. What was missed in this process was the fact that the very placement of identity on this pedestal meant that when these resistances to globalization were undermined by the brutal force of capital accumulation, the end result (intensified competition amongst those at the receiving end of restructuring) came also to be expressed through the same identitarian forms.

Take note when hiring

The inability to mobilize effective obstacles to capitalist globalization and its subsequent neoliberal restructuring rendered the retreat to moralism quite attractive. Combined with a methodological inability to root out the individualism that identity politics advance, the heightened competition produced by rising inequality could now be mystified and presented as a “justified” struggle against anti-social behavior.13 In this context, the often-critiqued “Olympics of oppression” that characterize contemporary identitarian controversies do not represent a simple theoretical fallacy, but correspond perfectly to the structural necessity of acquiring leverage against these competitive pressures. A fresh look at some recent identitarian controversies under this light illustrates the point.

Rebecca Tuvel, an untenured assistant professor, published an article in a highly-acclaimed, peer-reviewed feminist philosophy journal. In it, she made the theoretical argument that if one (rightly) accepts and supports transgender struggles for equality and recognition, it is potentially and philosophically valid to see transracial issues in a similar methodological way. The reaction to her article was mind-numbing, accusing Tuvel of transphobia, stupidity and “epistemic violence.” Quite indicatively, however, an often voiced ‘threat’ against Tuvel was that she should never get tenure and that her career should be ruined unless she retracts and publicly apologizes. Little did it matter that both Tuvel and her critics were obviously on the same “side” on issues of gender. Her audacious mistake was to attempt to extrapolate ‘trans’ concepts from gender to race, a suggestion that threatened to split the contemporary anti-racist academic/activist world in the same way that transgender issues split academic feminism some years back. Essentially, behind the excuse that Tuvel made use of a selective bibliography which ignored (or “silenced”) trans/PoC scholars, lay the naked truth of petty managers of a niche market forced to act swiftly in order to pre-empt any potential competition that might have undermined their positions and constituencies.

On a similar note, a remarkable controversy erupted when artist Dana Schutz presented a painting at the New York Whitney Biennial referencing a famous photograph of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old viciously murdered by racist scum in 1955. In an open letter posted on Facebook, an aspiring young artist from the UK, Hannah Black, declared her indignation, calling for the removal and destruction of the painting. The argument of the young artist was structured along the lines that “non-black people must accept that they will never embody and cannot understand” what black suffering entails and should not, for that reason, be allowed to make any use of black struggles or tragedies within their own work.

If Tuvel was accused of “erasing” those subalterns whom her identitarian colleagues consider to be the only legitimate sources of knowledge, Schutz was guilty of over-using the same subjects for her own advancement through “cultural appropriation.14 This seemingly contradictory attack can be observed more clearly when one considers the field of literature where we have, perhaps, the most irrational expression of identitarian ideology. Here it has been demanded both that authors should not "appropriate" or "assume" voices that originate from "cultures" or social categories different from their own (to avoid the charge of “cultural appropriation”) and that they should ‘plug in’ representatives of a variety of groups on the basis of strict diversity requirements, lest they be accused of ‘erasing’ some outcast identity. As Lionel Shriver recently noted, this demand is nothing sort of paralysing; it is literally tantamount to abolishing fiction writing, a vocation that is ‘disrespectful’ and ‘appropriative’ by nature. Should this approach come to dominate the literature realm, Shriver predicts, the result would be the replacement of fiction by auto-biographical memoirs and the subsequent poverty that such a transformation would lead to. (Naturally, in our dreadful times, Shriver’s talk was immediately attacked by a young aspiring novelist, who accused her of being a racial supremacist who wants to normalize imperialist rule.)

What is indicative from these reactions is not simply the (already noted) moral outrage they seek to generate by using charged characterizations against their opponents. What seems to be a developing pattern is the fact that many of these controversies are ignited by people who seek to defend (or to advance) their personal careers and aspirations, using the vehicle of identity-based moralism to force their targets (and anyone who might consider defending them) into capitulation. In the name of social justice or some self-proclaimed “radical” cause meant to defend outcasts, identity-based sensitivities are at the same time providing competitive advantages to those who utilize them, while pre-emptively forbidding any criticism –who wants to defend a monster anyway?

Sentenced to twenty years of boredom

At a certain level, the inherent contradictions projected by identity politics are too obviously self-defeating to merit the type of concern that is often expressed against them. Assigning an absolutist aura of certainty to the fragmented and contradictory world of personal lived experience; arbitrarily granting people a certain hegemony of analysis and understanding just because they proclaim themselves as representatives of ascriptive communities; transforming the undeniable importance of lived experience as one source of knowledge into an unjustified fetishism of direct experience as the only source of knowledge; treating any disagreement as an unforgivable moral transgression; all these are theoretical constructions that seem ill-equipped to dominate social and political interactions for very long. If nothing else, they are bound to collapse under their own weight, as the same tools can be used against those who defend them. There is, at the end of the day, no individual (let alone group) that could possibly avoid “crossing the line” of the constantly updated requirements of identitarian “faux-pas.” To the extent that one’s identity has become indistinguishable from one’s lived experience, however, any type of critique of said identity will continue to be viewed as an existential threat. With the added weapon of moralism that forbids any deviation under the fear of aligning oneself with despicable positions and individuals, it seems that the moment when this whole project will become inoperable is not close.

Nonetheless, it remains quite disappointing that, while many of the critiques of identitarian ideology that originate in the so-called materialist left (or, more appropriately, the social-democratic left) have produced useful breakdowns of the blind alleys of identity politics, they seem unable to escape the tendency to do so by resuscitating a number of leftist banalities that ultimately undermine that critique itself. Quite often, these very critiques unwittingly bolster some of the concerns that generated identitarian positions in the first place, especially when promoting crude class reductionism as a legitimate response. Thus, despite his brilliant essays on the problems of identity politics and modern anti-racism, Adolph Reed does not hesitate to express a puzzling loyalty to the US Democratic Party, to the extent of urging people to vote for Hillary Clinton (!) in the last round. Similarly, Angela Nagle sees nothing wrong with supporting the politics of Bernie Sanders or (what is perhaps worse) Jeremy Corbyn, betraying an unjustified faith and enthusiasm like that of the people who wet their pants about Syriza or Podemos a few years ago, only to be embarrassed by the easily predicted capitulations that followed.

Similar to Keynesian economists, whose attempt to legitimize their current proposals requires one to assume that the last forty years did not take place, today’s leftist opponents of identity politics argue as if the high moments of proletarian subversion in the late '60s and '70s did not consist of a clear rejection of Left social-democratic political parties, trade unions (and their structural obligation to disempower their members in order to strengthen their own power), and/or Leninist notions of the necessity of an intellectual vanguard to infuse consciousness into a working class forever incapable of realizing its actual interests.

For many of today’s leftists inspired by Jacobin or the DSA, it appears enough to struggle for a reversal of the neoliberal/monetarist policies which undermined class antagonism, to return to a “golden age” of mass parties, strong unions, and progressive parliamentary representation. What is glaringly missing from these analyses, however, is the significant contribution of leftist parties, trade unions, and enlightened intellectuals to producing this defeat, by undermining initiatives that could not be translated into votes, by insisting on "social peace" and "stability" at the expense of radical activities and wildcat strikes, by finding imaginative ways to maintain their intellectual self-importance in the face of class defeats. Even when the social-democratic left is forced to admit such undeniable historical facts, the most common explanation (“corrupt leaderships”) is so unashamedly self-serving that it hardly merits a response. Absurdly committed to repeating all the mistakes that marked the limits of the workers’ movement of the past, today’s social-democratic left functions under the assumption that “this time around it will be different,” while at the same time championing some of the most unattractive features of the history of the left.

As determined by material conditions as their identitarian adversaries, the social-democratic left shows an understanding of class struggle that is not only ahistorical but also demonstrates a groundless attachment to a type of administrative expertise and the vanguardist role of intellectuals that was produced by the development of capital itself. The constant talk about the necessity of “leadership” (a feature that immediately estranges radicals in Europe but seems entirely unquestioned in the US) is, for example, remarkably revealing: it is quite clear that the only people who would see some positive value in “leadership” are precisely those who imagine themselves as leaders; one would hardly argue so intensely for the chance to be told what to do by others. But even when the problematic concept of leadership is missing, the vision of the social-democratic left is still deficient.

These considerations inevitably end up filtering the ways through which the social-democratic left views identity politics, too. For example, if Nagle is partially correct in her desire to reject the fetishism of transgression for transgression’s sake, her call to abandon it completely seems strangely oblivious of the profound richness that one can find in its many historical applications. Her stance acquires its meaning, however, when one considers that Nagle identifies with a historical tradition of the left which was already hostile to transgression, long before alt-Right trolls recuperated it. One is thus tempted to pose the following question: if, for the purposes of defining radical social transformation, the criterion for using or abandoning certain practices relates to the possibility of them being utilized by your enemies, Nagle’s embrace of trade-unionism or mass-based social democratic parties appears, to say the least, profoundly contradictory. No matter how this is framed, proletarian subversion has walked much further on the steps of transgression than on the debilitating visions of a left immersed within the framework of capital. At the end of the day, isn’t conformity the opposite of transgression?

Positing the ‘universalism’ of class as envisioned by the social-democratic left against the particularism of identity lays a theoretical minefield, as this opposition crystallizes two different moments of social experience as if they both operated outside of historical context. If, for the sake of argument, one accepts that the social-democratic left prioritizes the moment of conflict between classes, whereas identity politics emphasize the antagonisms within classes, both seem oblivious to the interconnectedness between them, or else, the incompleteness of each position. And though it might be easier to point out that contemporary identity politics glaringly ignore how various discriminations acquire their dynamic precisely by mirroring the violence of the prevalent mode of production, it is by now equally clear that the purported “universalism” of the traditional workers’s movement was (to say the least) a rather abstract and selectively defined term.

Marx already described how a moment of crisis induces a cut-throat competition among capitalists who, when forced to share losses instead of profits, “[try] to reduce their own share to a minimum and shove it off upon another.15 The same mechanism however applies to workers who also attempt to employ all means to avoid paying for the crisis of capital. In the absence of collective struggles, this tendency towards cut-throat competition also includes locking out your competitors from the labor market. Echoing previous historical examples, the contemporary predicament shows that this process can take either national forms (anti-migrant) or localized ones (misogyny and racism), if not both at once. But placing one’s hopes for overcoming these structural pressures on those who have embraced, a form of welfare redistribution that depends on closed borders and an unshakable belief in (national) economic growth identical with capitalist prosperity sounds, if nothing else, naïve beyond recall. Needless to add, the academic/activist defense of what are essentially niche markets in proper corporate fashion or moralistic solutions to non-moral problems are no less inadequate to the task. Identity politics have, in any case, aptly demonstrated that they remain forever trapped within a particularism that is by definition hostile to producing common ground between struggles. But the so-called universalism that the social-democratic left promotes as an antidote remains unjustifiably indifferent to its own shortcomings and historical trajectory. Perhaps worst of all, it consistently misunderstands the attractiveness of identitarian ideology, reducing it to a simple case of “false consciousness.” The problem is, and always was, that there is no such thing.


  1. Nagle does not identify 4chan-type online misogyny “as the politics of conservatism and patriarchy reproducing itself anachronistically in new media” or “old style sexism.” As she argued in a March 2016 article in The Baffler, How, exactly, does ‘hegemonic masculinity’ accurately sum up a scene explicitly identifying as beta male? And can ‘traditional ideas about gender’ really be bursting forth from an Internet culture that also features gender-bending pornography, discussions about bisexual curiosity, and a male My Little Pony fandom? What’s more, can a retreat from the traditional authority of the nuclear family into an extended adolescence of videogames, porn, and pranks really be described as patriarchal?”
  2. A process that, in the US as much as anywhere else, promises economic growth and prosperity by exploiting to the maximum the internal (racialized, gendered and/or xenophobic) divisions within the working class.
  3. The irony of claiming to be influenced by the Situationist International while at the same time accusing someone of plagiarism would be merely embarrassing if it wasn’t sad.
  4. 5 Problems with Kill All Normies”,
  5. It is quite clear that for the libcom crew and their online supporters, it is simply inconceivable that Nagle was lazy in her citations or that Zero Books preferred to publish quickly rather than bother with editing. In fact, she is not even granted the opportunity of holding political positions that one can disagree with. No. In libcom’s view, Nagle’s “plagiarism” or bad citations are conclusively indicative of the fact that she is an extreme-right sympathizer, that she hates transgendered people and that she makes fun of rape victims.
  6. A bad faith reading of this argument would translate it as denying the possibility of discriminatory attitudes within the Left. That is, of course, absurd. Denying the Left any immunity towards such attitudes is not the same as agreeing to a reconfiguration of political activity as moral cleansing.
  7. Barbara and John Ehrenreich, The New Left: A Case Study in Professional-Managerial Class Radicalism, Radical America, 1977.
  8. Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Retreat from Class: A New ‘True’ Socialism, Verso 1986, p. 15
  9. Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics, W.W. Norton & Company, 1991
  10. Susan Watkins’s latest contribution to the New Left Review contains a brilliant illustration of these processes. See “Which Feminisms?”, NLR February 2018, esp. pp. 24-29.
  11. In 1949, for example, US Communist Party member Claudia Jones wrote: "Negro women—as workers, as Negroes, and as women –are the most oppressed strata of the whole population."
  12. Marie Moran, Identity and Capitalism, Sage publications, 2015
  13. An often-overlooked element of identitarian politics is the way they appropriate techniques that come straight out of corporate management, by creating and defining niche markets, working towards monopolies (symbolic or not), struggling to pre-empt competition. This is especially obvious in the academic labor market. Despite the fact that,as a labor market, the biggest threats it faces concern the precarious working conditions imposed by the increased use of part-time, low-waged adjunct positions (hailed as “rationalization through corporatization”), the dominance of identitarian sensitivities end up reinforcing precarity by urging young scholars to curtail their views or censor disagreements in order to avoid risking their unstable positions.
  14. Of all the theoretical concepts utilized in contemporary identitarian politics, none is more moronic than that of “cultural appropriation”. Stirring up “controversies” around dreadlocks, food or clothes must surely be an expression of the most advanced form of decomposition, but it is worth noting that the term enforces a homogenous viewing of cultures and their supposed representatives (ascriptive communities), while it is also founded on an incredibly problematic definition of an already problematic concept: property.
  15. Karl Marx, Capital Vol. III, Penguin, 1977, page 361.


Pavlos Roufos

lives and writes in Berlin. His book, A Happy Future is a Thing of the Past, was published this year by Reaktion.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2018

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