This special issue responds to ongoing debates around what has been termed ‘identity politics’. We aim to intervene in what are make-or-break questions for the Left today. Specifically, we wish to provoke further interrogative but comradely conversation that works towards breaking-down the wedge between vulgar economism and vulgar culturalism. Critically, we maintain that just as all identity categories are spatially and temporally contingent – socially constructed, yet naturalised – so too is this current bifurcation between ‘class politics’ and ‘identity politics’. Ultimately, we call for an intellectual and organisational embracing of the complexity of identity as it figures in contemporary conditions; being a core organising-principle of capitalism as it functions today, a paradigm that Leftist struggle can be organised through and around – and yet all with a recognition of the necessity of historicising, and ultimately abolishing, these categories along with capitalism itself.
This paper draws on the cultural-materialist paradigm articulated by Raymond Williams to offer a radical historicisation of identity and identity-politics in capitalist societies. A keywords analysis reveals surprisingly that identity, as it is elaborated in the familiar categories of personal and social identity, is a relatively novel concept in Western thought, politics and culture. The claim is not the standard one that people’s ‘identities’ became more important and apparent in advanced capitalist societies, but that identity itself came to operate as a new and key mechanism for construing, shaping and narrating experiences of selfhood and grouphood in this period. From a cultural-materialist perspective, the emergence and evolution of this idea of identity can only be properly understood in relation to the social contexts of its use, namely, the new contexts of consumption of capitalist societies, and the development of new forms of group-based struggle from the 1960s. What the analysis shows is that it was the commercialisation and politicisation of older essentialist understandings of selfhood and grouphood in these contexts that has given rise to the concepts of personal and social identity as we know them today. By exploring the material conditions that have given rise to the contemporary powerful attachment to ‘identity’, this paper offers a new point of departure from which to pursue many issues of concern to critical theorists and radical activists today, including the conflict over identity politics in radical circles, the historical and social processes behind their development and at least partial co-option, and their relation to neoliberal political-economic formations today.
In recent years, there has been renewed interest in conceptualising the relationship between oppression and capitalism as well as intense debate over the precise nature of this relationship. No doubt spurred on by the financial crisis, it has become increasingly clear that capitalism, both historically and in the twenty-first century, has had particularly devastating effects for women and people of colour. Intersectionality, which emerged in the late twentieth century as a way of addressing the relationship between race, gender, sexuality and class, has critiqued orthodox Marxism for its inattention to the complex dynamics of various social locations; in turn Marxist thinkers in the twenty-first century have engaged with intersectionality, calling attention to the impoverished notion of class and capitalism on which it relies. As intersectionality constitutes perhaps the most common way that contemporary activists and theorists on the left conceive of identity politics, an analysis of intersectionality’s relationship to Marxism is absolutely crucial for historical materialists to understand and consider. This paper looks at the history of intersectionality’s and Marxism’s critiques of one another in order to ground a synthesis of the two frameworks. It argues that in the twenty-first century, we need a robust, Marxist analysis of capitalism, and that the only robust account of capitalism is one articulated intersectionally, one which treats class, race, gender and sexuality as fundamental to capitalist accumulation.
Critics of ‘identity politics’ tend to assume that any exploration of subjective experience is tantamount to an affirmation of liberal individualism. This essay attempts to counteract this assumption through an analysis of case histories and research publications by twentieth century psychoanalysts and psychologists. Such texts demonstrate the ways in which even the most ephemeral psychological experiences – dreams, fantasies, desires – are bound up with structural forms of oppression. Furthermore, these texts – through processes of abstraction, generalization and classification – indicate ways in which interiorities clash up against externally defined identity categories; oppression is lived but lived experience also exceeds and complicates identity.
In the coming months and years, the left faces a historic juncture. On the one hand, racist violence is on the rise across the West, and the political class seems intent on mobilising both overt and subtle racism. On the other hand, strategies of anti-racist organising, which have developed on both sides of the Atlantic, have reached a theoretical impasse. Now, more than ever, a serious project of historical and intellectual retrieval is necessary. This article interrogates the theoretical limitations of ‘anti-blackness’ as an analysis of racialised oppression. Through the thought of Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko, among others, this paper argues that theories of ‘anti-blackness’, specifically those rooted in Afro-pessimism, are predicated on a theoretical shift away from relational social theory to identitarian essentialism which obscures, rather than illuminates, the processes of racialisation which undergird racial oppression.
Its critics call it ‘feminism-as-crime-control’, or ‘Governance Feminism’, diagnosing it as a pernicious form of identity politics. Its advocates call it taking sexual violence seriously – by which they mean wielding the power of the state to ‘punish perpetrators’ and ‘protect vulnerable women’. Both sides agree that this approach follows from the radical feminist analysis of sexual violence most strikingly formulated by Catharine MacKinnon. The aim of this paper is to rethink the Governance Feminism debate by questioning this common presupposition. It asks whether taking MacKinnon’s analysis of sexual violence seriously might, in fact, itself give us reason to be critical of political strategies that embrace the punitive state. By raising this question, this paper aims to persuade radical feminists to listen to critics of carceral politics rather than dismissing them as rape apologists, and critics of carceral politics to listen to radical feminists rather than dismissing them as state apologists.
This paper explores contemporary Jewish identity-formation and the centrality of official Holocaust memory and Zionism – understood as the ongoing settler-colonial project aiming at the formation and maintenance of a Jewish-exclusivist state in Palestine – to this process. It argues that identity politics within the Jewish community are based on an understanding of identity, which assumes it to be static and individual. In doing so, this political approach reproduces the essentialisation of Jewish communities under the banner of Zionism and official state history. The paper aims to show how this process of identification between Judaism, official Holocaust memory and Zionism has been a state-led process, rooted in the historical development of antisemitism and European colonialism. In order to do so, it builds on a critique of classical Marxist analyses of the Jewish question. It finally proposes a more fluid approach to identity, which understands it as socially constructed, contested, and subject to political contestation.
This contribution offers some observations with regard to political identities in a popular movement largely based in the shantytowns of Durban, South Africa. It seeks to examine, via more than a decade of immersion and research, one instance of how popular organisation and mobilisation has been mediated through shifting political identities. It argues that if discourse professionals on the left are to become effective actors it will be necessary to take popular political identities a lot more seriously, and to enable mutually transformative engagement between theory and actually-existing forms of popular striving and struggle.
The last several decades have produced a slew of important studies by Marxists of the logic of capital, as well as numerous explorations by postcolonial theorists of the narratives that structure racial and ethnic discrimination. Far too often, however, these two currents have assumed different or even opposed trajectories, making it all the harder to transcend one-sided class-reductionist analyses and equally one-sided affirmations of identity that bypass or ignore class. In light of the new reality produced by the deepening crisis of neoliberalism and the looming disintegration of the political order that has defined global capitalism since the end of the Cold War, the time has come to revisit theoretical approaches that can help delineate the integrality of race, class and capitalism.
Taking Mina Loy’s articulation of femininity in her poem ‘One O’Clock at Night’ as a point of departure, I examine a false dichotomy facing contemporary feminism: should we identify with or reject the gender imposed upon us? In conjunction with a materialist analysis which posits women as a class, this paper argues that Loy’s discussion of gender could provide a useful framework with which to critique the ‘soft abolitionist’ approach trending today; a largely online movement which assumes that the individual can permanently sever themselves from the confines of gender and construct an autonomous political subjectivity from this shared (and often openly traumatised) ‘non-identity’. This paper discusses criticisms by trans theorists of the notion that liberation can be located from within gender, and explore ways in which the identification-versus-rejection question has been engaged with in historical feminisms. This includes Monique Wittig’s partial rejection of the term ‘woman’, and a strand of 1970s radical feminism termed (by its critics) ‘the anti-woman line’. In its conclusion, this paper looks to the present – using the feminist-activist group Sisters Uncut as a case study. It asks whether a dialectical praxis, looking to the conversations around ‘identity’ had within historical feminist movements, could inject contemporary feminisms and struggles with a politics of solidarity or political subjecthood, cutting through debates based on narrow understandings of identity and non-identity.
Discussions of ‘cultural appropriation’ in popular culture suffer from an inherited politics of authenticity and ownership originating in a liberal legal–ethical framework. Using Raymond Williams’s and Stuart Hall’s cultural theory, this paper pinpoints the place at which cultural-appropriation discourse goes wrong – an essentialist and anti-historical notion of colonial encounters. We can overcome these limits through Marxist cultural and historical analysis. Outrage about colonial violence which most often roots appropriation discourse is better understood within the context of an account of the transition to capitalism beginning with the Low Countries and its eastern colonies. Furthermore, the Marxist idea of the cosmopolitan cultures of both capital and labour offers a productive path for the history of culture rooted in the same colonial encounter.
This article explores a central paradox of contemporary identity-politics: why do we look for recognition from the very institutions we reject as oppressive? The article puts forward the case that neoliberalism’s continued assault on the bases for collectivity has led to a suspicion that ‘the collective’ as an essentialising concept. The assault on the collective coupled with the neoliberal imperative to create an ‘authentic’ self has led to trauma and victimhood becoming the only bases on which people can unite. This manifests discursively and theoretically in the primary trope of contemporary activism: ‘intersectionality’. Mobilising around this analytical concept has led to an analysis of oppression that, even as it claims to be systemic, is totally dematerialised and relentlessly individualised. Instead of building collective power, we are left with a politics of individual demand coming from a coalition of dispersed subject-positions.