Who the hell are you? No, really, who are you? Do you define yourself by the way you dress, by the music you listen to, by the color of your skin or your nationality? Do you identify by the flag that waves over your head, or by the ideologies you hold dear? What, makes YOU, you?
This is a question that is pretty human. It’s at the center of all that is human. Religion and philosophy, usually intertwined have long aimed to answer that question. Nowadays, we hear a lot about identity politics.
I probably lost half my readers there, but if you’re game, please bear with me. I am not, I promise you, about to go on a rant of #alllivesmatter or something like that. Hear me out.
Identity is a real issue. But it’s not the main issue, and I am about to tell you why.
You hear a LOT about this word about the left, and from the left. Leftists are “idealistic”. Marxists are against idealism, and so on. But what does it mean in an ideological, or philosophical sense? It means that you think that ideas cause material change. A materialist is one who thinks that material conditions cause change. It really is that simple. So to Marx, the cause of revolution is not that someone, somewhere, stood up and spontaneously, apropos of nothing, had the idea of a republic and also of cutting off the king’s head, but that the, say, French Revolution was the result of material forces. The ancien regime had lost it’s material basis for existing and was thus overthrown by the people it no longer could control, and who were quite fed up with the exploiting and wasteful aristocracy anyway. It wasn’t apropos of nothing, it was a long time coming. That is the big difference between idealism and materialism. Idealism says “this is how everything works in the universe and eventually ideas pop out” while materialism says that cause and effect in the material world are of, shockingly, material origin.
So what does this mean for identity politics? The alt-right loves to harp on identity politics, but the truth is that they too, are lovers of identity. They, and the liberal left share that narcissistic need for self validation that comes with identity politics. But in slightly different ways. The petty bourgeois liberal idpol people are obsessed with vague oppression they cannot articulate. The right as well, but theirs is an ethnic reactionary kind of idpol that puts their own ethnic group at the center in a clownish kind of masturbatory love of vaguely defined ethnic and national groups for no other reason that one’s self is a member of it.
The liberal left idpol is centered around identity as oppression. People can choose their identities. “I am a demihemipanromantic asexual genderqueer nonbinary woman with a penis.” Things like that. They claim for example, that gender is sex, not directly, but indirectly. They claim that the word WOMAN means “anyone who identifies as a woman”. And they think that oppression is just people being mean. But that isn’t what oppression is. Oppression is material. To be sure, queer men and women face enormous oppression from homophobia, but not like they used to. At least not in the developed first world the West inhabits. But WHY do they face oppression? Is it just because of IDENTITY, or because people are just mean? No, that is not the way the world has ever worked. Ever. They are oppressed, and have been oppressed because of the fact that the existence of gay men and women, and their refusal to follow the gender binary (gender, not sex) challenged the prevailing ideology of liberal capitalism, with its need of nuclear families. Nuclear families were needed by capitalism for stability in producing and reproducing viable workers for the benefit of the capitalist class. However, capitalism has evolved into late late capitalism and increasingly the nuclear family is going the way of the dodo for most of the industrialized world. At least in the way it used to exist. And so gays and lesbians are no longer outside or a challenge to the system and therefore the big corporations just love to wrap them in their arms and pretend like there was nothing ever wrong in society with being gay.
Women aren’t oppressed because they’re feminine, or because they wear dresses and skirts. That has never been the source of their oppression. Their oppression was never their identity as human beings, their personalities or their visages. It was the very nature of their female bodies that was the reason of oppression. Women were, and indeed still are oppressed because of material reasons. They are needed to produce the next generation. One man can impregnate many, but one woman can only produce about one child every year. Reproductively speaking, women are more valuable than men. But not just childbirth. The woman is needed to take care of the baby, from birth to school age and beyond. The mother washes, cleans, clothes and feeds her family. This is not just because these are things she loves doing, they are things she is required to do. To not do them is to fall out of society, to not do them is to be considered a waste of a life, to be thrown aside. This is the historical material oppression of women.
Black people aren’t oppressed because they identify as Black. They are oppressed because of a long history of using their bodies as the underclass low wage or no wage labor in much of the world. From Africa to the Americas, they have been systematically enslaved and colonized. They have been, as a class of people, disenfranchised, and only recently have things started to improve slightly. From the dawn of the USA, they were that country’s labor force. It built the White House. It planted the crops. It made America very very rich.
Women, black, gay, these aren’t just “identities”. Identity is nothing more than make-believe if not backed up by material reality. Identity is a deeply held understanding of the reality of your existence, and can’t be taken off or put on. You can’t take on the identity of a woman if you are not a woman. You can play dress up, but wearing a cool cap and coat doesn’t make one a captain of a boat. You can’t take on the identity of Black, because it’s a lived material reality. You can wear a gun and a star, but that doesn’t make you a sheriff.
The left needs to come to grips with identity politics. It needs to understand that instead of fighting over labels, who can wear whatever hair dress, and if you’re queer or gay, that we fight the system of oppression that is killing millions of people the world around. We need to unite against racism, homophobia and sexism and unite as a working class against capitalism and fascism.
First and foremost we should unite on class. Workers of the world, UNITE!