Cultural materialism and identity politics

December 2nd, 2011

Published on the blog Lenin’s Tomb, by lenin, 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) … //

… 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.

Link: You pay his wages – he advocates your murder, on the blog Through The Scary Door, December 1, 2011.

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