Thursday, July 14, 2016

Return to sender

Someone has posted a thing on Medium.

No, it's not that one. That article deserves a far deeper look, and a survey of the responses to it. This is an an open letter on Identity Politics, To And From The Left. It appeared in my timeline no less than 10 minutes before I started writing this, and in those ten minutes everyone has already come to hate it. Let's examine why. You'll come back here once you've read the letter, right?

The problem with the letter isn't that it says anything untrue or unreasoned. I broadly agree with the demands it makes, because I agreed with them in 2013 when this exact sentiment had been the main discourse of online progressivism for over a year. The problem is that none of it is new.

Insufficient novelty isn't really a damning charge. A lot of things had to be said a lot of times before work was actually done on them. So instead, we should judge this open letter on how well it frames these known points of attention. This is where the entire enterprise falls apart.

To underscore the necessity of the demand for a more inclusive left, 'anecdotes' are given, ranging from recent and familiar harassment of feminist activists to Sylvia Rivera's experiences with trying to get the gay liberation movement to help transgender women in prison (it didn't go very well). Sylvia Rivera, strangely enough, is introduced as a 'queer leftist' and "one of the women who started the Stonewall Riot", but she is never actually identified as a trans woman herself. Perhaps to offset this strange erasure, the paragraph does a little dance at the end where it says "cisgender", just to really let you know it's serious about this intersectionality thing.

To get closer to why this letter is bad, we have to examine a point in the letter where the contours of its purpose become more obvious. While recounting stories of recent abuse in progressive circles, this anecdote is included:
One woman worked for seven months on loan modifications; she has been accused, over and over, of “throwing poor black people out of their homes” (she is, herself, a black woman); complete strangers have dug up documents pertaining to her former employer, posted them publicly, and spent hours browbeating her via social media.
As a call for intersectionality, this letter is not helped by including this as an example of the struggles of marginalized people in leftist spheres. Some people reading may be familiar with this person and her experience. They will know that, minus editorialising, the things talked about here actually happened. But some of you may take issue with how it is framed. The parties who initially floated the issue of the woman's (who's anonymity I, and hopefully you as well, will maintain) former career were leftist black women, as well as a large portion of the 'complete strangers' 'browbeating' her. In the letter, they are erased; and their concern that she found employment in a field that disproportionately forecloses loans on black people acceptable is turned into an anonymous smear directed at a black woman.

This situation is perhaps familiar to people who have read about or experienced the Clinton campaign's expert deployment of the "Bernie bro".
Critics of Clinton, the campaign assured, are disgruntled white men. Many young women - who as a homogeneous group at points in the 2016 American Democratic Party presidential primaries were polled as favouring Sanders over Clinton - often found themselves dismissed as "Bernie bros" when taking issue with Hillary Clinton. Eventually, anyone could be a Berniebro, including people of colour in nations which Hillary Clinton will bomb if elected (bizarrely even when they are pointing out that Bernie Sanders, if elected, would also do this).

This problem, the weaponization of what this letter would call "identity politics", has been much discussed in leftist circles as of late. Insufficiently careful elucidation of the problem can cause it to seem like things such as dismissing a white person's opinion on racism to also count as "weaponization", so we will go into it here. The weaponization of identity politics involves something which within the very logic of identity politics itself is violence: the erasure of marginalized peoples. By casting critics in the role of the establishment, stripping their identities from them so that they are a voice that you are allowed to ignore, one's own position can be defended.

Why can this happen?

A lot of the actual critique of 'identity politics' has rested on the fact that it atomizes the structure of oppression. Many draw parallels between this tendency and the metaphysics of neoliberalism, where there are only individuals and forces that enter into causal relations with these individuals. In both cases, there are forces which benefit some individuals at the direct expense of others (in liberalism, these are the forces of hereditary privilege and dogma, which in neoliberalism has strangely become personified by the state - despite the state having a form these earlier liberals considered vital for maintaining the absence of these forces). It logically follows from such a model that removing these forces would improve the lives of the oppressed.

A problem inherent to this classical mechanics model of oppression is that it has no ground. There is nothing upon which everything else rests, there are just a relation between a force and individual that we can speak of. While many world views are composed out of exactly this idea, it lends itself extremely poorly to a very material concern such as oppression. An explanation of capitalism along such lines would go "the government and industrialists conspire to keep your wages low", without explaining anything about the economic system from which that sentence receives its meaning.

The problem with models like this is that while they can be good introductions, much like classical mechanics is used as an introduction to physics, they do not and cannot provide a method for actually changing society. Society, after all, is not depicted in the model. We can notice manifestation of a particular form of oppression as individuals encounter them, but this doesn't tell us anything about how this state of affairs emerges or where it can best be attacked. The material causes of how the model behaves are never revealed.

Attempting to just insert white supremacy, which is not in and of itself a material thing, as the ground for this model does not answer the question. You can follow the logic that emerges from this to either a self-caused white supremacy, which sounds suspiciously white supremacist; or an infinite regress where each point in time where white people are in the position to enforce white supremacy must be explained by a previous one, which eventually ends us up in a time period where the concept of white people would not be invented for another dozen centuries (though sentiments that prefigure racism and the basis for white supremacy can be found as early as the ancient Greek notion that the climate in which darker people lived evaporated much of their blood, making them cowards).

I want to further illustrate the wonkiness of the identity politics model by talking about kyriarchy; which, if you've never heard of it, means "everything-that's-bad-iarchy". The term encompasses the attempt by a white woman to reproduce Kimberlé Crenshaw's intersectionality theory, which was a product of currents in Black feminism. The woman, an academic, depicts a interdependent hierarchical structures in which every individual has a place. They all influence each other, and depending on which position is most privileged in a given context, all other relations (which you can think of as 'privileges') are experienced through that position. Such a model definitely answers questions people may have about how exactly they experience oppression.

The same problem emerges. Though this model can show how our society is one where the power lies predominantly with white, cisgender straight men, it cannot identify the why. The only why possible is that they have power. They do because they do. This makes the only solution removing them from power. But as the model tells us, this would be very hard to do as the people who are disadvantaged by the power of those they wish to remove.

'identity politics' of this kind can be inspiring and validating, revealing to you a structure behind the garbage in your life, and allies who experience roughly the same reality as you. But over the long term it is demoralising and disorienting. What is to be done? Is it our destiny to disappear into shelter societies, small enough to allow a concerted effort to root out forces of oppression?

The ambiguity and existential horror at the heart of the identity politics system allows for its use in delegitimizing critiques of the actual status quo. Because the status quo exists in civilization itself, it is completely invisible to a model that only speaks of individual human beings and the relations they experience. It is possible to make statements which parse as perfectly well-intended within the realm of identity politics, but which have the explicit purpose of defending one's 'turf'. After all, how exactly would you prove that what you are saying ISN'T skewed because of a privilege you have, when these privileges are the only axioms you are given? The only way to determine who comes out on top is the relative social capital of each party in a community.

This makes identity politics a dangerous weapon, easily used to shape discourse and attain power in a given space. Note that this assertion only holds in spaces where identity politics has currency, which does not include the overarching society these communities are part of. However, these are precisely the spaces that marginalised people make their home - sometimes their only home.

This is what the critique of identity politics generally entails. The language of the bad faith objections this is conflated with by the letter has long since evolved, and is mostly concerned with "cucks" and "sjws".

So why does the letter conflate them? Why does a letter so concerned about intersectionality bury all of the intersections that are inconvenient to them? Why does it take as given that an analysis of capitalism cannot uncover the sources of multifaceted oppression?

Much has been made of the signatories to the letter. Many have been noted to be hostile to marginalized people who believe that racism and capitalism are interdependent, or who state that simply placing more women in charge of things does not undo patriarchy. There are probably lots of articles that really go into this, so this one will not attempt to use these people to prove the letter must be flawed.

The PROBLEM with the letter, in the final account, is that it asks us to go on as we have. It shows us problems we specifically adopted identity politics to solve. It shows us that they are still there, but shames any critique of the tactics which have done nothing to alleviate them (while the examples in the letter are from a very broad left, in which identity politics cannot be said to be the rule of the land; the exact same problems pop up in those communities which pride themselves on being the most intersectional). It raises the spectre of the ascendant right, but will not come to grips with the fact that it is completely impotent in the face of this.

Identity politics has failed to provide the unity the letter calls for in the face of the return of fascism, nor can it properly UNDERSTAND fascism within its own context. Fascism happens because white people are worried about losing white privilege, right? Worse, fascists have turned to 'identity' as well, hiding fascist ideology in an 'appreciation' for 'white identity'. Worse still, to an uninformed public they can justify this by pointing to the "vilification" of the white person. "If everyone else gets to have Pride, why can't we?", they will ask. The only coherent answer you can give to this using identity politics is that they cannot because they have white privilege. While this is the CORRECT response, it will probably not be well-received by privately-owned media who have been suspiciously helpful in generating the critical mass of far-right activity in the past few decades.

I'm not sure what this letter believes The Left is. An association dedicated to making society Better? A sort of mechanic who points out and works to fix the flaws or cracks in the edifice of human civilization? But a strange sort of mechanic, who keeps working long past the point where patchwork has any effect on the creaking, groaning structure. A sci-fi dystopia sort of creature tinkering away at a failing space ship it cannot understand in any terms other than that some of it needs to be fixed.

This is not what The Left is. The Left does not exist as the collective mechanic of society, but as the collective architect of its future; as the collective invoker of previously non-existent possibilities. The Left is not meant to prevent the degeneration of society into fascism, but to create a society which does not degenerate into fascism. Doing this requires perspectives far beyond the personal. It requires dreams far bigger than "this, but without misogyny". But The Left does not ignore the 'smaller' goals identity politics points out for us. For it is exactly these individual aspirations - "I wish my child was safe in this world", "I wish my ideas were not ignored because of who I am", "I wish I had comfort at all" - that point towards and give meaning to the desire to build that better world.

I reject the course this letter would send The Left on. It sounds too similar to the arguments of the right-wing revolt in the British Labour Party, who argue that a platform of radical solutions of any kind will fail to resonate with a large enough section of the populace; which contravenes the purpose of the Labour Party (which is, according to them, to prevent the Conservative Party from being in power and making things worse). It invokes in all but name Horseshoe Theory, where the 'far ends' of the political spectrum are equivalent, and that we had best all gather somewhere closer to the middle.

This is not an open letter. But if you want one, consider this:

It no longer suffices to make this civilization better. We are a few decades away from living in a world which is altogether less suitable for human life. We struggle on national or local levels while international trade agreements encircle us and terraform our communities into markets and commodities.

If we are to survive, we will have to replace it. We will have to dare, as The Left has dared. Against fascism, we must again raise banners of hope. Windows into a different future, a future only possible if we unite in wanting to bring it about.

At any cost


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