In this post I would like to address two issues, for the sake of space but I will post other parts of this anti-critique over the course of a week or two. Those themes are:
I. The opposition between working class and capitalist
II. The use of the category “working class identity politics”
When Jack suggested that dichotomies are helpful in mobilizing people and I agreed and offered, what I believed was a better opposition for mobilizing people (capitalists vs. workers). I thought that 1% vs. 99% was problematic for a variety of reasons, many of which Walker has conceded and thought that workers vs. capitalists is better. I never, however, advocated this as a means of actually grasping the society in which we live. This opposition, I would argue, is a good heuristic because it opens the door for a more fundamental understanding of our society in a way that income statistics—especially when viewed globally—do not. It certainly comes closer, again viewed globally, to the actual conditions of social life than 1::99. Critiques of the distribution of wealth, such as 1:99, do not actually grasp the problems of capitalism, as Marx noted in his graduate student days:
"An enforced increase of wages (disregarding all other difficulties, including the fact that it would only be by force, too, that such an increase, being an anomaly, could be maintained) would therefore be nothing but better payment for the slave, and would not win either for the worker or for labor their human status and dignity. Indeed, even the equality of wages, as demanded by Proudhon, only transforms the relationship of the present-day worker to his labor into the relationship of all men to labor. Society would then be conceived as an abstract capitalist."
For this reason, Marx believed that working class politics must focus on the productive process itself, on alienation itself, not its consequences. For Marx, working class politics, if addressed adequately, grasped the core of the capitalist dynamic in a way that, for example, nationalist or anarchist politics did not. For Marx, working class politics attempted to grasp the central social relationship of capitalism.
This blog often uses the term working class identity politics to characterize the entire history of the working class movement, which I think makes both working class and identity politics hollow categories.
Identity politics claims a certain ontological essence that pre-exists engagement with social structures and which needs to be recognized and granted its particular sphere and particular cultural import. The classic examples, the Black Panther Movement, Second Wave Feminism, Gay Liberation, all called for the overcoming of a form of discrimination on the basis of an identity that was believed to be prior, and thus more fundamental than, one’s position in relation to the productive apparatus of society.
Understood within the context that self-declared identity politics arose, identity politics were a counter unity to the unity of the Fordist “social contract.” While these “insurgent identities” understood themselves as radically other from the dominant Fordist concepts of cohesion, they were not. The important difference between, let’s say, Algerian insurgent identity politics and French nationalism was that the Algerians understood themselves as radically anti-racist and anti-imperialist, while the French assumed their racial superiority and the naturalness of their empire. These two sides of the Fordist identity politics coin were equal and opposite responses to Fordism. However, at this moment, in part due to the efforts of insurgent Fordist identity politics, though not entirely, Fordism as a regime of accumulation of capital that was actually in the midst of a collapse.
These critiques of Fordist collectivity from the standpoint of a different collectivity outlived their historical moment and survived into the post-Fordist world. They thus were attacked, as one might expect, as essentializing by the principle philosophical ideology of neoliberalism, post-structuralism.
In the post-Fordist world, new forms of identity politics arose and these were often mistaken as the same movements as their predecessors because they claim to represent the same identity and because often their members were similar, however, they were different in their object of critique. (In this way, the uses of Islam in Algerian revolutionaries’ self understanding is distinct from that of Iranians’ use of Islam, in that, at least during the war with the French, Algerians’ Islam could never be accepted as equal by the French State and so Algerians needed a state of their own in order to developadequately Fordist social forms. In Iran, on the other hand, the revolutionaries who ultimately triumphed believed that their Islamic essence was being corrupted by British-American-Jewish abstract domination. (Given the role of British Petroleum in Iran there was an element of truth to the claims of British and American domination, but the actual capacity to affect Iranian politics was far less than the clerical revolutionaries believed.) No longer was the problem one of exclusion from Fordist affluence. The problem became the insidious and abstract power of Americanization, the UN, homogenization, financial capital, the perceived power of Israel/Zionists/Jews, the power of secularism.
These identity politics ideologies attacked the way that abstract social forces attempted to homogenize and wipe out forms of particularity. This ranged from the silly and market driven French attempts to defend the particularity of their cheese and wine to the far more destructive if more mediated self understandings of northern Irish Catholics, Serbians, or Hutus. Identity politics makes a claim that a certain collective feature is before socialization and essential. Identity politics are, in practice, an ideology of consumption, of culture—what one eats, what one worships, one’s daily rituals, what one does for fun, etc. To the extent that since the 1970s working class identity has become a cultural claim about forms of consumption—wearing Dickies apparel, for example—working class politics became a form of identity politics and it is actually the right wing that has most appealed to this streak. (Think of Sarah Palin’s "Real Americans.")
However, to the extent that working class politics was about the character of the labor, the wage rates, the hours, the benefits, it was not identity politics. At the heart of these politics is a social relationship—one could stop being a worker at any moment—it is not a claim of ontological essence. Even the less incisive politics, such as wage struggles, nonetheless are concerned with a social relationship.
To claim that working class politics were always identity politics is to seriously misunderstand the character of 19th and 20th century labor history. Marx, after all, hitched his horse to working class politics because he saw them as getting the closest to the core of the logic of capitalist society, exactly because they pierced deeper than the other forms of critical politics in his day, such as Bakunin’s Pan-Slavism.
As long as we live in a capitalist world, we will live in a world of laborers selling their abstract labor time. Furthermore, as long as we live in a capitalist world and this condition of selling one’s labor time as a commodity, i.e. of alienation, prevails, working class politics will continue to have the potential to pierce the heart of the capitalist logic. There is always a dimension in which working class politics are not identity politics, quite the contrary; they are the politics of the universal. This relationship can be teased from contemporary labor struggles far more easily than it can in for example gay rights. Even environmentalism, which shares the sense of the universal with working class politics, nonetheless is an ideology that moralistically critiques consumption and does not address the question of alienation. Ultimately, as Marx, Marcuse (listen to his lecture from Ford Hall), and Postone (despite claims to the contrary) all argue, it is ultimately the responsibility of workers to liberate themselves from their alienation.