Wednesday, November 30, 2011
If it is possible to have a cultural materialism, of the kind fashioned by Raymond Williams or Stuart Hall, is it also possible to have a materialist politics of identity? Is it even advisable to try? To answer the first question is to think through the meaning of Marx’s concept of the social formation as a unity in difference; to answer the second is to explicate Lenin’s thinking in saying that the person who waits for the ‘pure’ revolution will never live to see it.
In many respects, identity became an obsession in the UK over the last ten years. Were it not for the global economic crisis, we would be dealing mainly with the fall-out from New Labour’s crass attempt to pioneer various formats of ‘Britishness’ – from the sleek, neoliberal cosmopolitanism of ‘cool Britannia’ to the socially conservative, defensive nationalism of the ‘war on terror’. Within that garrisoned territory existed several sub-debates and struggles over Islam, immigration, gypsies and Travellers, ‘Englishness’ and the question of the Union, the north-south divide, and of course over whether the questions of LGBT and gender rights can ever be posed adequately within the framework of the nation (versus its ostensibly intolerant enemies).
Precisely how the left should conduct its operations within such a topography has been the subject of controversy. Much of the left is reproached with abandoning the ‘bread and butter’ of politics (jobs, welfare, housing) in favour of ‘identitarian’ concerns with Islamophobia, Gaza and so on. This criticism may well accept the importance of anti-imperialist and anti-racist politics, but argue that the priority given to these ‘identity’ issues that is the problem, representing both a shift in emphasis and in the locus of operation: from the workplace to the campus, from bread and butter to bruschetta and olive oil. Naturally, this trope is far from novel. Its pedigree has origins in the perplexed reaction to the ‘new social movements’ – those struggles oriented toward environmentalism, LGBT and women’s liberation, anti-racism and so on – by a variety of people on the social democratic and revolutionary left. Before exploring the consequences of this view, it’s worth saying that the argument is itself usually conducted within the very cultural and identitarian terrain that is seen as problematic. One of the better known advocates of the general perspective I’m describing is Owen Jones. (I better spare his blushes by explaining that I’m not attributing every particular of this view to him, merely the broad outlines.) His book, Chavs, is among other things a cultural counterblast against an emerging reactionary common sense that vilifies working class people. The ‘community politics’ that he sees the BNP exploiting, and argues that the Left should learn from, is formed by a politics of identity and a valorisation of the ‘local’. So, although this general style of argument introduces a division on the left between those who orient toward culture, and those who orient toward class, and although it is prefaced by a certain ‘economistic’ materialism, it necessarily occupies a decidedly culturalist problematic.
In response to the culturalisation of class, then, is it possible to counterpose a materialism of culture and identity? The grounds for a materialist approach to culture were outlined in Hall et al’s (Gramscian-Althusserian) Resistance Through Rituals:
“In modern societies, the most fundamental groups are the social classes, and the major cultural configurations will be, in a fundamental though often mediated way, ‘class cultures’. Relative to these cultural-class configurations, sub-cultures are sub-sets—smaller, more localised and differentiated structures, within one or other of the larger cultural networks. We must, first, see subcultures in terms of their relation to the wider class-cultural networks of which they form a distinctive part. When we examine this relationship between a sub-culture and the ‘culture’ of which it is a part, we call the latter the ‘parent’ culture. This must not be confused with the particular relationship between ‘youth’ and their ‘parents’, of which much will be said below. What we mean is that a sub-culture, though differing in important ways—in its ‘focal concerns’, its peculiar shapes and activities—from the culture from which it derives, will also share some things in common with that ‘parent’ culture. The bohemian sub-culture of the avant-garde which has arisen from time to time in the modern city, is both distinct from its ‘parent’ culture (the urban culture of the middle class intelligentsia) and yet also a part of it (sharing with it a modernising outlook, standards of education, a privileged position vis-a-vis productive labour, and so on). … Sub-cultures must exhibit a distinctive enough shape and structure to make them identifiably different from their ‘parent’ culture. They must be focussed around certain activities, values, certain uses of material artefacts, territorial spaces etc. which significantly differentiate them from the wider culture. But, since they are subsets, there must also be significant things which bind and articulate them with the ‘parent’ culture. The famous Kray twins, for example, belonged both to a highly differentiated ‘criminal sub-culture’ in East London and to the ‘normal’ life and culture of the East End working class (of which indeed, the ‘criminal sub-culture’ has always been a clearly identifiable part). The behaviour of the Krays in terms of the criminal fraternity marks the differentiating axis of that subculture: the relation of the Krays to their mother, family, home and local pub is the binding, the articulating axis.” (pp 13-14)
Firmly domiciled within class formations, culture forms and divides them along multiple planes and down as many hierarchical vertices. Of course, it would be mistaken to see cultures as merely class-bound, either in their parent- or sub-cultural form. The practices that comprise a culture or subculture are often available to and accessed by members of more than one class. These practices, and the ‘maps of meaning’ that express the lived relationship of one class to its life situation may be appropriated and reconfigured by members of another for its own purposes, in what one might call ‘trench raiding’. The military analogy is chosen to convey the fact that such raiding crosses a line of antagonism and struggle, not of mere difference. This accounts for the resentment toward those crossing such lines – ‘hipsters’, for example. A greater degree of complexity arises where lines of difference become antagonistic in oppressive situations. Suppose you’re a white person who is considered to be ‘acting black’. In most cases, this would be a deeply weird suggestion. It is unworldly to think of a given set of cultural practices as being exclusively ‘black’. But for racists, ‘blackness’ is a pathology passing through the vectors of music and popular culture to white youths, who are then said to have become ‘black’. That is the basis for a certain folk racist explanation of the summer riots, memorably articulated by David Starkey. At the same time, from a different perspective, such ‘acting’ can be seen as a form of racist parody and condescension, or a simple theft in a cultural war - albeit perhaps not without buying into a certain cultural essentialism and the attendant idea that culture is something that can be policed. Whatever judgement we reach on those criticisms, however, what is important for the purposes of this argument is that we notice the line of antagonism and the ways in which this structures the processes of transmission and appropriation.
Where does ‘identity’ fit into all this? It is common to address the subject in the terms of particularism, in contrast to the universalisms that form the basis for rival political projects such as socialism and liberalism. This would suggest that identity is bound to a specific culture or sub-culture, its political radius extending no wider than the boundaries of cultural form in which it is embedded. Even more scandalously from a certain perspective, the notion of identity seems to be bound to the bourgeois individual, the self-sufficient, self-sustaining Cartesian subject. Yet identity is a much more slippery concept than this would imply. It is not distinguished only by its affirmation of the culturally, or politically proximate, but also by the process of identification which involves the perception of, for example, shared interests. And interests are interesting things: they can be expansive, or narrow; inclusive, or aloof. Identity politics is a ‘politics of location’, certainly. But where one is situated in the social formation has consequences for how far one can see. I seem to recall from somewhere that it was Angela Davis who urged readers to imagine the capitalist system as a pyramid, with heterosexual white male capitalists at the top, and black, gay women prisoners at the bottom. Each struggle by those at the bottom would also lift those further up, such that the more subaltern one’s situation, the more potentially universal one’s interests are. The marxist understanding of the working class as the ‘universal class’ hinges partially on this strategic insight.
‘Identity politics’ is usually treated as an unwelcome narrowing of horizons, a reduction of the political field to competing particularist fiefdoms – in a word, the identitarianisation of politics. But it is also possible to arrive at the same subject from the opposite direction – the politicisation of identity. The tendency of capitalism is to multiply the number of lines of antagonism. And if certain identities are goaded into being, or take on a politicised edge, because the system is attacking people then it is clear that ‘identity politics’ is not a distraction, or an optional bonus. The fact is that ‘identities’ have a material basis in the processes of capitalism. And just because they are constructed (from that material basis) doesn’t mean that they are simply voluntary responses to the life situation they arise in, which can be modified or dropped at will. Thus, it is not realistic to tell people – “you have the wrong identity; you should think of yourself as a worker instead”. To speak of capitalism is to speak of a system of unity in difference, a complex unity structured by antagonism. In any concrete capitalist formation, the forces that emerge to support oppositional and leftist struggles will usually be coming from some identity-position; and usually more than one identity-position, as the lines of antagonism intersect and the fields of politicisation overlap. As Judith Butler argued in her essay, ‘Merely Cultural’, the Left can respond to this in two ways. Either it can try to construct a unity which is based on the exclusions of what I might call, for convenience, a pre-1968 Left: a unity which suppresses or demotes gender, race, etc as being of secondary, derivative importance. But this will not work: the genie will not go back in the bottle, and all such efforts would result in would be a divided and more defeasible Left. Or it can try to construct a unity in difference, negotiating between identities, acknowledging them as starting points which give rise to certain forms of politicisation and which can potentially be the basis for accession to a universalist political project.
Of course, the objection to this might be to remind me of what I only just said (or quoted) a few paragraphs ago: the fundamental division in any society is class (ie, not gender, not race, not religion, etc). And if that is the dominant antagonism, then it must follow that class struggles have a strategic priority over other struggles. It is morally satisfying, but stupid, to pretend that all identities – class, race, gender, religion, etc. – are equivalent. This means that some must be ‘of secondary, derivative importance’. But such an objection, were it offered, would be prestidigitation. First of all, it inserts the essentialist approach that it seems to argue for in its precepts. To say that a form of oppression is derivative of a more fundamental class antagonism is to fall back on that animating illusion, the ‘expressive totality’ in which all the phenomena of a social formation are collapsible into its essence. Secondly, more importantly, we recognise explanatory hierarchies, and thus strategic hierarchies. From the perspective of socialist organisation, some identities are pernicious; some are indifferent; and some possess valuable resources. That’s a hierarchy. But what is at issue, and what is being illegitimately conflated with the above, is the claim that the injustices of oppression are not ‘bread and butter’ as it were; ie somehow less ‘material’, or less ‘fundamental’ than class injustices. Because they are seen as not partaking of the same processes of material life, as not contributing to the reproduction of productive relations, then their resolution can be seen as extraneous to class struggle, as desirable but ultimately not part of the material base in which real politics is conducted.
This is a tendency, to put it no more strongly than that, which we can see creep back into certain left (mainly social democratic) discourses. It is one whose logic, which many of its advocates will resist due to their better nature, tends toward a racially and sexually ‘cleansed’ class struggle, in effect a narrow struggle of straight white men in the imperialist core over their living conditions – ie, not a class struggle in any recognisable sense. It would be a rather parochial form of identity politics. Not only is this rebarbative on its own terms, but it’s actually useless to the people it would seem intended to help, the ‘white [straight, male] working class’. In the concrete struggles arising against cuts in the UK today, quite often the starting point is some form of political identity that isn’t simply ‘socialist’ or ‘liberal’. Those signifiers may designate a wider political-strategic divide that forms the terrain in which political identities work. But quite often, people will join a protest “as a student”, “as a trade unionist”, “as a black woman”, “as the mother of a jailed rioter”, and so on. Their political identities will reflect sectional interests, cultural formations, particular experiences of oppression, etc. But these are, as I say, starting points. And a creative, politically intelligent response to identity politics has to begin, to some extent, where the forces on our side begin.
A materialist politics of identity is one that recognises the corporeality of identities, their involvement in the metabolic interactions between humanity and its environment. Acknowledging that they are part of a lived, material process yields the further acknowledgment of their durability but also of the versatile ways in which they can be operationalized. It means treating identities as forces to be cooperated with, negotiated with, argued with, learned from, and ultimately (one hopes) fused into a universalist project, that being a revolutionary assault on capitalism.