In an interview published today in Jacobin, David Harvey, a theorist of neoliberalism and one of my favorite vulgar Marxists, asks a controversial question:
“Here’s a proposition to think over. What if every dominant mode of production, with its particular political configuration, creates a mode of opposition as a mirror image to itself?
During the era of Fordist organization of the production process, the mirror image was a large centralized trade union movement and democratically centralist political parties.
The reorganization of the production process and turn to flexible accumulation during neoliberal times has produced a Left that is also, in many ways, its mirror: networking, decentralized, non-hierarchical.”
Harvey poses this as a provocation, one based on his analysis of the neoliberal organization of production but not explored at length in the interview. But what would such an exploration look like?
Rather than critique the horizontalist mode of organizing Harvey’s referring to, I think there’s another, related, sense in which the substance of politics on the broadly defined Left today mirrors neoliberalism. While Harvey’s focus is on the material organization of the political project of neoliberalism, the ideological current that follows from the organization of what Harvey calls the “new capitalist class” – the tech capitalists of Silicon Valley – also shapes this “mirror image.” After all, if the ruling ideas of every age are those of the ruling class, we should expect these ideas to influence the Left in a powerful way.
Driven by a decentralized entrepreneurialism that fetishizes the individual and the bootstrapping do-it-yourselfism of lean-in feminism, these ideas emphasize an assumed chain of individuals, identity, and language, with the latter two elements part of the self-expressive empowerment so central to project-based start-up culture.
How does this trickle-down to progressive politics? While some call the political current that constitutes the mirror image of these ideas “identity politics,” I prefer Carl Beijer’s phrase “liberal identitarianism.” A clunky mouthful to be sure, “liberal identitarianism” is helpful in its ability to differentiate this current from a left identitarianism.
As Beijer distinguishes the two, left identitarians have “maintained their commitment understanding power and oppression thoroughly by including class identity in their analysis, as all of the great identitarian scholars have always done – whereas liberals, by definition, neglect it.” In other words, while liberal identitarians may acknowledge class in the sense of individual wealth, they refuse the left analysis of oppressions as present to reinforce class exploitation. By taking class as one static element among many axes of oppression, rather than a relational process reinforced and perpetuated by oppression, liberal identitarians come to a fundamentally different definition of liberation. For liberal identitarians, gaining equal representation and voice within a class society is the – often unspoken – goal.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with this in theory: it does make for a less hostile environment for oppressed groups, offering breathing room at the symbolic level of society. While it’s true that these aims can’t achieve liberation as understood by the Left – the end of oppression and with it, exploitation – and instead, fit snugly into neoliberal ideologies of self-expression, that’s no reason for us to pay more than passing attention to these politics. But what follows from these ideas is a focus on who you are and what you say rather than what you do combined with a claiming of the mantle of progressivism, and this is where the problem lies for Left critics.
By placing language and identity as primary determinants of political standing, liberal identitarians open the door to cynical cooptation of our movements by elites. If identity and language are the central markers of one’s legitimacy, rather than organizational ties or policy positions, a person with the ‘right’ identity – say, a person of color and/or woman – can learn the magic words needed to gain entrance into the charmed circle of progressive politics and use her elevated position to further oppression.
And that’s exactly what we see. It’s why the RNC featured black men leading the crowd in “all lives matter” chants, emphasizing their Blackness throughout their speeches despite supporting policies that further the oppression of their fellow African-Americans. Their identities serve as a shield, enabling them to go further in their racism than their white counterparts.
It’s why Donald Trump, in his acceptance speech as the Republican Presidential nominee, claimed he’d look out for “the people of Ferguson,” even if his policy positions assure the opposite. As Beijer points out, Trump added a “Q” to his invocation of the LGBTQ community, one that wasn’t even in the draft remarks, going a step further than even Clinton in his incorporation of progressive political terminology to support reactionary policy, as in this case, where he insisted his Islamophobic policies are enacted “to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful ideology.”
If language is a key element of political practice, Trump at the moment of his enunciation of that “LGBTQ” is good. Which is patently absurd – one only needs to read the rest of the sentence to see this terminology is being mobilized to legitimize Islamophobia.
This is the basis of the left critique of a liberal identitarianism that implicitly imbues a homogeneity to identity groups. It’s a criticism of the “shut up and listen” approach to multi-racial or all-gender organizing. Left unspecified in this approach is which oppressed leadership ‘allies’ are to listen to, as the internal class division within oppressed groups is ignored in favor of a liberal essentialism that assumes everyone of X identity shares political views. In the case of black leadership in the anti-police brutality movement, should white people listen to David Clarke, the black sheriff who insists that the movement is “the enemy?” Or in my city, to the black clergy who organize pro-police rallies? If not, on what basis can we deny their standing?
The obvious answer is that what Clarke does – and what these clergy are doing – furthers the oppression of working class black people, whether or not they themselves happen to be black. This is the basis for rejecting their political legitimacy. Truthfully, only the most hardcore liberal identitarians would disagree with this, but it requires breaking with the logic of their analysis to condemn Clarke or these clergy. Similarly, a concern with what she does is our basis for rejecting Hillary Clinton as a feminist: she may be a woman, but what she does is oppress other, poorer, women, both at home and abroad. We can only reject Clarke, the clergy, or Clinton’s right to speak as members of the oppressed if we admit a primacy to what they do, not who they are or what they say.
We live in a world where, as R.L. Stephens puts it in a recent essay, “a Latino and an Asian-American crafted the Bush torture memos, which were then carried forward by the nation’s first Black president.” Diversity at the top doesn’t mean progress for us at the bottom – far from it. Trump mentioning Ferguson doesn’t make him any less of a white supremacist. Clinton claiming the mantle of feminism doesn’t make it true. When anyone claims political legitimacy, we should always respond with the question Stephens raises in his essay: What exactly is it that you do?