The anti-capitalist doesn’t want the rich to be less classist–they want an end to the rich altogether and with them all the systems they’ve put in place (racism, patriarchy, ableism, etc) to divide the poor against each other.
A response to Julia Serano’s essay, “Leftist Critiques of Identity Politics.”
A recent essay by Julia Serano purports to be a thorough response to “leftists who express opposition to ‘identity politics.'” I learned of the essay when requesting questions from people for an upcoming debate my co-editor at Gods&Radicals (Mirna Wabi-Sabi) and I intend to publish on the site to help clarify and potentially reconcile the rift between anti-capitalists and social justice ‘identity politics’ advocates.
I read Serano’s essay with some great disappointment. Because rather than finally presenting a full rebuttal of the leftist critiques of liberal identity politics, it instead does no such thing at all.
Amusingly, accompanying the essay is an image of a scarecrow with the text “a few straw man arguments were harmed in the making of this essay.” The author is correct. She did indeed use some “straw man arguments,” despite claiming to dismantle similar ‘straw man’ arguments leftist supposedly use.
So, this is a brief retort to some of her claims, as well as a deeper iteration of what Leftist critiques of identity politics actually are.
What’s a Leftist?
Before the first paragraph is even over, Serrano gives us a statement which shows either she is unfamiliar with leftist thought in general or willfully obfuscating differences in order to make her point. She says:
I will be using the term “leftist” here in a broad manner to refer to people whose political views generally fall to the left of mainstream Democrats in the U.S. (or analogous liberal parties in other countries), regardless of whether the individuals in question identify as progressive, socialist, communist, anarchist, green, or what have you.
Anarchists, Socialists, Communists, Greens (does she mean American Green party? The German Greens? Green anarchists? that’s unclear) would likely be amused to be lumped in with ‘progressives.’ Anarchists and Communists, for instance, both hold primarily oppositional views to what “Progressives” stand for. Progressivism, generally understood, advocates reform of political institutions; both Anarchists and Communists argue either for the abolition or collective seizure of political institutions by the lower classes (of every oppressed identity). So already, Serano’s idea of what “the left” constitutes is an amalgamation of multiple frameworks with little in common except they aren’t “Right-Wing.”
In the next paragraph, she continues her strange iteration of what leftists stand for by stating:
After all, leftists tend to be egalitarian, are opposed to hierarchies among people, and recognize that the injustices that plague our society are systemic and can only be remedied through activism (e.g., collective organizing, working to elicit change)
No communist or anarchist I know states that injustice can be remedied by “activism,” unless full-scale revolution, the seizure of the means of production, the emptying of the prisons, and the redistribution of land and wealth are what ‘activists’ do. While her definition does not accurately describe the communist and anarchist strategies for insurrection, they do however fully describe the “Progressive” activism of liberal political institutions such as large environmental non-profits (like Greenpeace or the Sierra Club), institutional anti-racist organisations (like the NAACP), and liberal/bourgeois gay rights groups (The Human Rights Campaign, or HRC).
So already in the first two paragraphs we come to understand that either Serano is intentionally conflating establishment-oriented “progressive politics” (as seen in a candidate such as Bernie Sanders) with anti-establishment and insurrectionist politics (Marxists, Anarchists), or she doesn’t know that there is a difference.
This conflation (or obscurantism, but let’s be charitable and call it conflation) fits exactly what we normally consider a ‘straw man’ tactic in an argument. Creating a false “Left” to respond to is certainly much easier than addressing actual leftist critiques of identity politics, but it does not advance dialogue or help reconcilation of these currents.
Helpfully, the author suggests that there is a false dichotomy in most discussions regarding identity politics and how the anti-capitalist left sees class. She is utterly correct, except that she again reduces the leftist stance to one of “EC” (economic class). Consider:
There are numerous forms of marginalization that exist in our society: racism, classism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, and so on. If you happen to be on the wrong side of any of these hierarchies, you will face many inequities and injustices. Notably, EC-centric criticisms of “identity politics” often rely on a very specific framing, one in which classism (i.e., marginalization based on economic class) is plucked out of that list, and pitted against all the rest (which are lumped together as “identity politics”).
But what is this “classism” to which Serano refers? As Sophia Burns pointed out in a comment regarding this essay,
We don’t oppose “classism” (whatever that means…is it discrimination on the basis of class origin? i don’t know that i’ve ever seen it actually defined). We oppose class, full stop.
After a half-hour of perusing articles on Everyday Feminism (that bastion of all things identity), I was able to come up with a definition of what classism is that seems to fit the way Julia Serano employs the term in the essay. Basically, by class-ism she appears to mean exactly what she says in the parenthesis: “marginalization based on economic class.”
That is, being treated differently and being oppressed because you are poor. But I know of literally no leftist of the anarchist or communist variety who is fighting to get the poor de-marginalized. Rather, they (to paraphrase Sophia) “oppose class, full stop.”
Thus, Serano has again obscured the leftist position regarding capitalism and identity by reducing it and pasting it upon the progressive/reformist political narrative. While a progressive/pro-reform “leftist” may advocate for better treatment of the lower classes, Leftists don’t want the poor to be treated more fairly, they want an end to poverty itself. It’s that position which makes them anti-capitalist, because the unequal distribution of wealth, the lack of access to the ‘means of production’ (or really even the means of survival), are not caused by institutional problems that can be fixed, but by the institutions of private property, waged-labor, and all the racist institutions (police, prisons, etc.) which maintain them.
So, whilst claiming that there is a false dichotomy between Leftist economic critiques and identity politics, Serano creates a new one. This is seen even better when she ascribes many of the problems of the practice of identity politics to ‘single-issue activism.’
From an intersectional perspective, not only is EC-versus-IP a false dichotomy, but leftists who wish to jettison IP and focus solely on EC are clearly promoting a brand of single-issue activism. I’m sure that their agendas seem internally self-consistent from their very specific vantage point. But from the perspective of people who are marginalized in ways other than (or in addition to) EC, it’s glaringly obvious that focusing solely on EC will not do much if anything to reduce sexual assault on women, end racist police practices, allow people with disabilities to enter inaccessible buildings, or to prevent LGBTQ+ children from being bullied in school or subjected to conversion therapies (to name but a few issues).
This second sentence requires some significant dismantling, so I’ll requote it:
But from the perspective of people who are marginalized in ways other than (or in addition to) EC, it’s glaringly obvious that focusing solely on EC will not do much if anything to reduce sexual assault on women, end racist police practices, allow people with disabilities to enter inaccessible buildings, or to prevent LGBTQ+ children from being bullied in school or subjected to conversion therapies (to name but a few issues).
Parsing this out, she claims that a leftist critique that focuses on capitalism is unable to
- Reduce sexual assualt on women
- end racist police practices
- allow people with disabilities to enter inaccessible buildings
- prevent LGBTQ+ children from being bullied in school or subjected to conversion therapies.
Let’s take these apart. First, Marxist-Feminist Silvia Federici has written extensively on the relationship between sexual assault on women and capitalism. In fact, her book Caliban & The Witch is about specifically that, how in order to create the proletariat (“the waged classes”), capitalists needed to prevent women access to land, their own reproduction (the witch trials’ focus on the use of abortificants and other means of birth control), and specifically to set up men and women as competing forces within the poor to divide the working class. As Federici points out, sexual assualt was specifically one of the methods by which they did this, accomplished through stripping women of protections against rape (and in some cases legalizing rape) as a pressure-valve to relieve worker revolt against the owners.
And in her work, “Wages Against Housework,” Federici outlines precisely how capitalism not only encourages this subjugation (sexual or otherwise), but requires it:
We must admit that capital has been very successful in hiding our work. It has created a true masterpiece at the expense of women. By denying housework a wage and transforming it into an act of love, capital has killed many birds with one stone. First of all, it has got a hell of a lot of work almost for free, and it has made sure that women, far from struggling against it, would seek that work as the best thing in life (the magic words: “Yes, darling, you are a real woman”). At the same time, it has disciplined the male worker also, by making his woman dependent on his work and his wage, and trapped him in this discipline by giving him a servant after he himself has done so much serving at the factory or the office. In fact, our role as women is to be the unwaged but happy, and most of all loving, servants of the ‘working class’, i.e. those strata of the proletariat to which capital was forced to grant more social power. In the same way as god created Eve to give pleasure to Adam, so did capital create the housewife to service the male worker physically, emotionally and sexually – to raise his children, mend his socks, patch up his ego when it is crushed by the work and the social relations (which are relations of loneliness) that capital has reserved for him….
…And in this case too, the poorer the family the higher the enslavement of the woman, and not simply because of the monetary situation. In fact capital has a dual policy, one for the middle class and one for the proletarian family. It is no accident that we find the most unsophisticated machismo in the working class family: the more blows the man gets at work the more his wife must be trained to absorb them, the more he is allowed to recover his ego at her expense. You beat your wife and vent your rage against her when you are frustrated or overtired by your work or when you are defeated in a struggle (to go into a factory is itself a defeat). The more the man serves and is bossed around, the more he bosses around. A man’s home is his castle … and his wife has to learn to wait in silence when he is moody, to put him back together when he is broken down and swears at the world, to turn around in bed when he says ‘I’m too tired tonight,’ or when he goes so fast at lovemaking that, as one woman put it, he might as well make it with a mayonnaise jar.
Anti-capitalist critiques such as Federici’s offer a much more complex and encompassing solution to the question of the subjugation of women than anything currently offered by progressive identity politics. This is seen even more so in Serano’s second challenge, that of racist policing. The answer to how an anti-capitalist might deal with racist policing should be quite obvious: get rid of the police. From an anti-capitalist (especially anarchist and Autonomous Marxist framework), the police (who are set up as the defenders of capital, private property, and the state) are a non-negotiable enemy. Getting the police to kill fewer unarmed Black men can’t be accomplished by merely reforming the police, because it’s literally their job to discipline and punish the lower classes, as well as defend the interests of capital.
This of course runs contradictory to the position of the progressive “leftist” straw man Serano presents. Progressives don’t call for the end of the police (or capital itself) because they believe these institutions can be reformed. Anti-capitalist Leftists are under no such illusions.
The third challenge (that of disability access) ignores that disability is a category caused by capitalism. The dichotomy between ‘abled’ and ‘disabled’ is generated from the capitalist classification of people into good workers and not-good workers. An able-bodied person is easier to exploit for labor (more ‘productive’) in the eyes of the capitalist, and thus is both rewarded with higher wages and more access. The accommodations that a capitalist needs to make in order to exploit the labor of a disabled person are often not seen worth the investment (especially during times of high-unemployment when many abled-bodied people are available to be exploited), and it is only government regulations that have forced capitalists to make their products, buildings, and places of employment more accessible so that disabled people can be fully-exploited for their labor too.
Within a progressive “leftist” mindset, this is seen as liberation. From an anti-capitalist perspective, massive re-distribution of wealth, the end of the waged labor system altogether, and the equal sharing of resources is a better answer than begging corporations to hire more disabled people.
The fourth one begs much more space than I am interested in allotting for it in this essay, but as one of those LGBTQ+ kids who were bullied in school and also briefly manoevered into conversion therapy (with a counselor who later turned out to be sleeping with his clients, go figure), I would suggest the end of compulsory schooling (an anarchist position) would go a lot farther towards stopping school bullying (and school shootings, co-incidentally) than hate crime laws that only punish the perpetrator after the fact. But again, anti-capitalists have noted for decades that the division of labor implied in capitalist gender and sexual norms creates these tensions, especially via religious indoctrination (protestant Christianity) that acts as capital’s handmaiden.
Foucault, in particular, offers a much better resolution of the matter of queer oppression within capitalism than any of the progressive ‘gay rights’ organisations. Whilst progressive groups such as the HRC pushed for reform of marriage laws to create ‘equality,’ Leftist groups often oppose the state sanctioning (that is, state-control) over the sexual relations of people altogether. And the Marxist-Feminist critique (does Serano know such a thing exists?) insists that it is the demands of capital to reproduce a work-force and control the reproduction (sexual or otherwise) of workers that institutes these identity categories and then enlists other parts of the poor to enforce these (via bullying, shaming, exclusion and other forms of violence).
The next straw man Serano sets up is the following assertion:
Another common EC-centric justification for ditching IP goes something this: Women and minorities are disproportionately affected by poverty. Therefore, by focusing on (and hopefully someday ending) classism, we will be helping all of these groups.
I have come to refer to this specious line of reasoning as the “reverse trickle-down economics” argument, because it relies on the same “a rising tide lifts all boats” mentality. Sure, all boats may be lifted to some degree, but some boats will be lifted far higher than others! Specifically, people who *only* contend with economic issues will come out swimmingly in this scenario. But those of us who also deal with racism, sexism, ableism, etcetera, will still remain marginalized in that future world despite economic equality.
Again, since I have already noted that anti-capitalists aren’t about ending classism but ending class, it’s almost silly to address her argument head on. As I have already noted, her framing is obscurantist at best: women and minorities’ are not disproportionally ‘affected’ by poverty, they are disproportionally poor. Poverty isn’t a social ill, it’s a state of deprivation, one caused in modern Western Liberal (Capitalist) Democracies by the capitalists themselves.
Why are the descendents of African slaves poor in America? It’s because they have no access to wealth or the means to create it. Why do they have no access? Because capitalism reserves the vast majority of land and the means of production to the capitalists, who then only allow access to it via the wage system. And why do they have less access? Because the capitalists use race as one of the ways it decides who gets more access and who gets less.
The same formula occurs for every other oppressed group within Western Capitalist democracies. Race, gender, sexuality, ability, and all the other things identity politics fights again are all methods of dividing access to wealth amongst the poor. It’s for this reason that the Black Panthers (Marxists, incidentally), Malcolm X (also a Marxist), and at the very end (just before his assassination), Martin Luther King Jr. railed against capitalism, situating it as the enemy of Black liberation.
To further prove that Serano’s straw man of the Left is American progressivism and not anti-capitalist Anarchism or Marxism, consider the following statement she makes:
Do you believe that we would be better off if there were fewer millionaires, and more poor and working class people, serving in Congress instead? Most leftists would enthusiastically answer “yes” to this; I know I would.
Most of the leftists I know want Congress burned to the ground and control of our political and economic lives returned to local communities and collectives. So again she has painted establishment/reformist politics as “the Left” and purposefully excluded insurrectionist, anti-capitalist movements.
And I could write multiple essays in response to Serano’s assertions that anti-capitalists reject or misunderstand privilege and diversity inclusion. But I’d rather let an anti-capitalist trans woman of color respond here. In her essay “The Elusive TWOC,” Alyssah Pariah addresses this very question more succinctly than I ever could:
I, TWOC in the flesh, do not feel the pangs of interpersonal bias or microaggressions. I’ve endured immense abuse and trauma in my past. What facilitated my healing and resilience was a materialist analysis of the world that relocated my anxiety from individuals to institutions. Namely our economic system, capitalism, and its necessity to perpetuate poverty stricken conditions and perceived scarcity that give rise any number of antagonisms I’m faced with…
,,,Focusing our ire on people who receive privilege instead of people who dole it out is a losing strategy for ending oppression. This idea flows from post-structuralist academic theory that sees collective struggle against domination as largely misguided; That locates interpersonal interactions as primary sites for transformation. Smells like rugged individualism to me. Tumblr has taken this heady theory, and parsed it out for disaffected users to reblog. How convenient for people in power. I imagine Goldman Sachs loves this garbage.
I highly suggest the entire essay.
The next two sections can really be taken together, as they both present straw man arguments about what Leftist/anti-capitalist critiques regarding identity politics comprise. Serano’s “leftist” argues:
Accusations that IP is inherently “narcissistic” and “divisive” have become quite prevalent among EC-centric leftists lately.
Because while EC-centric leftists are constantly obsessing over our supposed obsession with identity, they somehow manage to completely ignore the second word in “identity politics”: politics.
For me, few red flags are redder than when I hear an EC-centric leftist describe the activism that they’re involved in as “collectivist,” and IP activism as “individualist.”
Now, it would be incredibly easy to engage in the same façile dismissal of these accusations that id-pol folks often employ when a leftist critic of the employment of identity politics brings up abuses. And to her credit, Serano does allow that indeed sometimes people do use identity politics in unproductive ways. So rather than dismiss these, let’s address what seems to be the underlying tension here.
Another trans woman who has criticized identity politics from the left, Sophia Burns, has repeatedly iterated in her essays at Gods&Radicals how identity fails to be a useful field for organizing collective action. But she does not argue that identity is ‘divisive’ or ‘narcisstic’: rather, she argues that identity-based organising excludes the very enemy which causes the ‘divisiveness’ in the first place. From her essay, “Class & Identity: Against Both/And”
Race and gender don’t hover out there in the aether, independent of economic reality. If something exists, it exists in the material world. Nothing within the class system is outside the class system. Economics is more than dollars and class is more than tax brackets. Patriarchy, white supremacy, and empire aren’t extraneous features of capitalism. They’re as fundamental to it as selling products on the market. They exist because every day, people make goods and services, keeping society alive according to the division of labor embodied by identity divisions. Combined with unequal treatment, that makes sure the division of labor will still be up and running the next day. Without such a division of labor and disparity of benefits, the working class would not be as productive as the ruling class needs it to be. Without privilege to undermine the basis for class unity, the capitalists would have a revolution on their hands.
The “collectivist” nature of the sort of Leftist organizing that Serano derides would be better described as “intersectional,” because an anti-capitalist (particularly one employing a Marxist framework) recognises that capitalist exploitation is the one thing which intersects with every single one of these identity-based oppression, a point which brings us to the crux of the rift between “progressive” identity politics and anti-capitalist insurrectionism.
Fortunately, the last two sections of Serano’s essay provide a perfect opportunity to discuss this.
I’ll quote this section at length:
Another complaint that I’ve encountered is the notion that EC activists are working to move beyond identities whereas IP activists are “reinforcing identities.” While working on Excluded, I began referring to this type of argument structure (which often arises in leftist/activist settings) as the “reinforcing trope”; I explain why such arguments are generally awful and inane via that link (and references therein). In a nutshell, the “reinforcing trope” is almost always used to blame marginalized/minority groups for any oppression that they and/or others face, rather than the holding the dominant/majority group accountable.
In addition to that more general point, it is unclear to me how EC activism supposedly “transcends” identities while IP activism “reinforces” them. You don’t have to look very hard to find feminists and LGBTQ+ activists making the case that we should completely do away with gender and sexual identities/categories altogether. Analogous arguments about transcending identities/categories have also been made in other IP movements. Personally, I find such arguments to be somewhat misplaced. After all, identities are not inherently oppressive. For instance, I might identify as a guitarist, or a cat person, or a biologist. Those words, like most identities, simply describe aspects of my person. Like all language, identities and categories exist so that we can describe the world and communicate information.
Serano again sets up a false argument about what many anti-capitalists who critique identity politics assert. She calls this”Re-inforcement,” an interesting choice of words. I would myself describe this process as both “Reproduction”: and “Reification” instead.
The leftist argument that identity-based politics reproduce and reify identity categories can be simply understood when we remember that each of these identities were first created by the powerful to oppress people. The best example of this is the racial categorization of people into Black and white, both legal categories instituted by slave-holding colonial powers to distribute rights and protections to one class (whites) while ensuring another class (Blacks, formerly negro, African, etc.) did not have access to those rights and protections. Another obvious place this happened was in homosexuality vs. heterosexuality, where a class of people who committed “sodomy” were created by again juridical processes excluding one and ensuring rights to the other.
I’m a ‘gay’ man: that is, I have sex with men and therefore am ascribed the identity class of “gay.” But it is only because an entire history of (capitalist) laws in the United States outlawed the sort of sexual behaviour that I enjoy that “gay” has any meaning at all. Thus, to insist that “gay” is an identity I should embrace is to tell me that the government was correct in deciding I am different than people who like to put their penises in vaginas instead and therefore that is an accurate identity I should reproduce (but beg for more rights from the government so my life is better).
Claiming gay identity reproduces the idea that there is a sort of person just like me, that we are a class of people with shared interests and behaviors. Identity politics asserts that I should accept and embrace this classification (and I’m internally homophobic if I don’t!). As such, it re-creates and reifies (makes real ,or “re-inforces” in Serano’s terms) that oppression category. I personally reject that gay says anything at all about me, and I can show quite simply that I have very, very little in common with other gays.
And there’s the thing: why should the sort of sex I like to have define me politically?
The last part of the above quote from Serano shows how very obscurantist this discussion of identity has become, because even few people who support the identity politics framework would argue that “guitarist” and “biologist” are identities in the same way that Black or Queer are identities. This is a rhetorical fudge, and a very dishonest one.
And towards the question of dishonesty, the final section is where we see that Serano’s essay either really lacks genuine understanding of the arguments of her opponents or is being deeply dishonest.
There is one more common assertion that needs to be put to rest: the notion that EC is radical/revolutionary whereas IP is merely liberal. While “left” and “liberal” are often used interchangeably in mainstream political discourses, within leftist/activist settings the word “liberal” generally refers to actions or positions that merely tweak or reform the existing system, rather than enact substantive change. While this distinction is clearly germane in certain contexts, it must also be said that “liberal” is sometimes used as a pejorative to undermine a person’s politics or commitment to the movement, even if the charge is not warranted. I discuss such abuses of the term in Excluded, although I’m sure that most leftists/activists reading this are already familiar with this tactic.
Given this, it is unsurprising that some EC-centric leftists paint IP activism as inherently liberal. Of course, one can always find single-issue IP activists who engage in liberal practices — such as advocating for their own inclusion in society, but not pushing for more fundamental changes — but that certainly does not apply to all of us. Many intersectional IP activists like myself want to see whole-scale change and the elimination of all forms of marginalization (including classism), so accusations that we are “liberal” seem entirely misplaced, and deliberately designed to dismiss us.
Furthermore, I reject the presumption that IP-related actions and positions cannot be radical or revolutionary. For instance, if a non-binary trans person insists that you refer to them with gender-neutral pronouns, or if someone with a disability insists that your event be accessible to them, you could mock their demands as being individualist, or frivolous, or ridiculous if you want (although I’d strongly disagree). But be honest with yourself: Any disdain or derision you might feel toward those demands doesn’t stem from the fact that you view them as itty-bitty liberal reforms that don’t go far enough; rather, it’s because they strike you as too radical.
First: what precisely is the “substantive change” that Serano suggests a progressive wants but a liberal does not? No progressive I’ve yet encountered argues for the abolishment of prisons and the police, the dismantling of the United States, the end of capitalism and private property, full redistribution of wealth to the descendents of slaves and the full return of all land in North America to indigenous peoples. Those are, however, many of the anti-capitalist, Marxist, and anarchist positions. So in the light of that, her statement that one might actually think using preferred pronouns is “too radical” is a bit…well, silly.
Serano rightly understands that there is a difference between liberalism and leftism, but shifts the ‘overton window’ to completely exclude the insurrectionist drive of Leftism. If there were indeed no Leftist advocating for such things, than certainly demanding access for disabled people could be painted as revolutionary. But by literally writing-out those of us who think disabled people should not just have access to groups but to the full means of production outside of the wage-system, Serano is able to do exactly what she states at the end she wouldn’t do: a “reverse Nagle.”
And on the point of Angela Nagle, she admits she doesn’t actually understand the primary thrust of her book Kill All Normies. She says:
All of which brings us to Angela Nagle. Her 2017 book Kill All Normies garnered lots of attention within EC-centric leftist circles, where it was lauded for its lambasting of IP activism. I will not be critiquing Nagle’s entire book here, as most of it focuses on the rise of the alt-right — that is not my area of expertise, and unlike some people, I know better than to position myself as an authority on matters that I am not particularly knowledgeable about. But I do know a lot about IP activism, and with regards to that subject, Nagel’s book is an absolute joke.
In my own review of Nagle’s book (and yes, the alt-right and fascism is one my areas of expertise), I pointed out that she builds a compelling case that the rise of identity politics on both the “left” and the “right” grew out of the same alembic of internet forums and developed in tandem with each other. Serano’s dismissal of the primary thesis of Angela Nagle’s book, therefore, suggests again she does not understand one of the core crititiques of identity politics from the Left.
When Richard Spencer called the Alt-Right “identity politics for white people,” he was not claiming anything that surprised leftist critics of identity politics, especially those of us who have also studied the Alt-Right, European New Right, and other identitarian groups. They share with the brand of identity politics Serano praises a refication of race and gender and an insistence that race is something to be organised around. While the alt-right argues for a rather grotesque conclusion and those who use the identity politics framework are fighting for an ‘end of oppression,’ the foundational theories are the same.
What Serano ignores in Nagle’s highly-researched book is that identity politics has actually facilitated the rise of fascist identitarianism through its extreme and unhinged excesses, and this process has been intensified on account of social media. And while Serano is quick to assert Tumblr is not where academic identity politics theory is proclaimed, its relationship to how identity politics is enacted in practice is indisputable. Most people don’t learn about identity politics from the universities or radical work-shops. First exposure often comes through social media, and were the internet not a significant drive in the creation of identity politics, sites like Everyday Feminism and The Establishment would have no readers.
It is likely that this response to Serano’s essay will not actually change much, any more than her essay itself will change anything. Marxists and anarchists are just as likely to read her essay as a bad-faith attempt to reduce all their criticisms to straw men, while those who find identity politics as sacred are likely to see this essay as just being another ‘white male’ attempt to oppress people.
Serano should definitely get some praise for the undertaking, however. It’s a long essay (and I’ve now read it over 10 times to write this response). And more so, it’s one of the very few attempts by anyone espousing identity politics to attempt to take leftist critiques seriously. And I am thus realising that my essay is probably one of the few to actually attempt to respond point-by-point to those who see identity as politically useful.
Throughout this essay I suggested Serano either did not understand these critiques or willfully misread them. Perhaps it is neither. Perhaps instead it is like insurrectionist Leftists and progressives are speaking two entirely different languages and living in two worlds. From a Marxist perspective, class intersects every identity and binds them together under the exploitation of the capitalists. The poor white man and the poor Black woman are both subjects to capital, both exploited by the same people, and can only stop their own oppression by banding together against the rich and its weapon, the state. The anti-capitalist doesn’t want the rich to be less classist–they want an end to the rich altogether and with them all the systems they’ve put in place (racism, patriarchy, ableism, etc) to divide the poor against each other.
To some degree, I think this is also the position of many people who claim identity is useful. Unfortunately, both the insurrectionist Left and the ‘social justice’ Left (i didn’t put it in quotes this time) are constantly at war. What might happen if one day they both turned against the rich together?
May we all live to see that day.
9 thoughts on “A Leftist Critique of Julia Serano’s “Leftist Critiques of Identity Politics””
It’s hard for me to imagine how capitalism ‘put in place’ ableism, (or sexism for that matter). In hunter-gatherer societies babies with congenital disabilities were killed or abandoned and this practice continued right through most agrarian societies in one form or another into the 18th century London (the practice of ‘exposing’ babies). And at the same time, there is no other kind of society in history that would have contemplated expensive systems to allow people with disability to live autonomously, to have children with the support of the state etc. On the other hand, there is no other system in history that has threatened viability of the biosphere- and those two facts are not unconnected. So your opening gambit, which is some kind of blank slate denial of any kind of human nature (operating in tandem with very specific historically/societally specific ‘second natures) – seems wildly off base – quaintly anachronistic even. If only sticking it to the (rich white) man would solve all these problems and usher in a state of inner and outer peace – then we’d be …hmmm Gods, or dead or anything but human beings living in middle earth.
There is lots of evidence to the contrary regarding the killing of disabled children, including a recent study on a human who was born with a congenital defect but their tribe helped them live to at least 40.
Hmmm…one rare example quite possibly in a present structured by post-Enlightenment norms. The overwhelming weight of evidence for Paleolithic, neolithic and early modern societies and also pre-Columbian cultures of north and south america – is that infanticide was routine – and it still is in India and China (skewing the gender balance in society). And this is not to mention masses of archaeological evidence from ancient cultures in Egypt and the middle east (Carthage, Syria) – with child sacrifices to our pagan gods …often first born…sometimes to secure a good harvest or whatever…but almost certainly a way also of dealing with the reality that subsistence agrarian societies have enormous problems in caring for any significantly disabled individuals. Laying every problem at the door of ‘capitalism’ obscures a series of very real wicked dilemmas. Think even of the notion of individual rights and the sanctity of an individual personality. This is invoked implicitly in your list or -isms and groups against which capitalism orchestrates structural oppressions. But it only makes sense – is literally only really comprehensible in a world in which individuals have been disembedded (Polanyi) from the place/community-bound holistic patterns of life and consciousness associated with livelihood (rather than ‘economy’); and in which the complex occupational structure, division of labour, and processes of individualization (Weber)…or what Elias calls the ‘society of individuals’ ….make individuals traumatically aware of their uniqueness and separation from community…let alone ecology; a world of rationalised disenchantment (Weber) – all described beautifully by Morris Berman (esp in his Wandering God). You can’t really cherry pick pre-capitalist social structures, bronze age rituals and modern patterns of individuation. If the agenda is for a society that is small and beautiful….then one would have to acknowledge the such a society would not be liberal (lower case). You might well have a society in which sexual activity for instance was more disinhibited, but probably also less central to identity and lifestyle. In the absence of complex state-market societies, it seems unlikely that identity-role differentiation associated with contemporary LGBTQ politics would continue (this is surely a product of late capitalism and an unparalleled degree of urbanisation)… Probably – a more manual society without the state and market…would see some reconsolidation of sex roles and the institution of marriage around reproduction … So, whilst there is a good case that global capitalism is unsustainable and may well crash and burn in our lifetimes, it seems wildly optimistic to think of anti-capitalism as some kind of intersectional cure-all.
Re: Pat Mosely’s formulation: ‘If we follow the political pattern of other -isms and define ableism as prejudice (for instance, what you describe at a family level in human history) + institutional power, it seems clear to me that our contemporary ideas of who is disabled and how disabled people should be policed and segregated are related to the emergence of capitalism, and its eclipse of the state ‘ – this is a little topsy turvy. Of course contemporary patterns of discrimination pertain to contemporary society which is capitalist. How could it be otherwise? And presumably Paleolithic patterns of infanticide and abandonment relate to the imperatives of band society. But the clear implication of this commentary is that capitalist-modernity is uniquely bad and its destruction will herald an unprecedented possibility for better arrangements. Whereas the evidence is that, terrible shortcomings not withstanding, on many of these issues capitalist modernity is uniquely better (if not ‘good’) when compared with any historical precedent.
re: Noah’s ‘You present yourself as wanting sweeping, radical change. But telling black women that liberating white men will save them isn’t radical. It’s an old song’ I agree with Rhys on this one. One way to guarantee that a shitty outcome for everyone is to work with a discourse that makes mutual identification across racial/ethnic divisions almost impossible. Activists and academics apart, if your opening gambit is – as a white man you suck, you’re tainted by the sins of fathers’ and you have to work to even come to the table as an ‘ally’, most people will react by saying something like ‘i’m a good person. My family were good people. You appear to understand yourself as my enemy. Since you are hostile and are telling me to go fuck myself, I guess I will internalise your label (white man) and simply reverse the valence’. The moral is that you can’t do ethno-politics without everyone doing ethnopolitics. Fairness has nothing to do with it and psychology everything.
Rhyd is right, murdering disabled people isn’t a given across all societies. And while I would say ableism existed before capitalism, capitalism has codified an exporting it to an extent we didn’t see before industrialization.
Actually I see a lot of parallels with capitalism’s use of sexism as a pressure release valve. Caregiver abuse of disabled people is rife–there’s a disability day of morning every March where you can learn about disabled people shot, dismember, poisoned, stabbed, set on fire, starved, gassed, drowned, and otherwise tortured to death by their caregivers. Those caregivers are overwhelmingly women. Capitalism has found a fantastic synergy in its ableism and misogyny by making the access and literal support of disabled people women’s labor, but I think this also gives those women and men a release valve for violence on a more disposable population.
If we follow the political pattern of other -isms and define ableism as prejudice (for instance, what you describe at a family level in human history) + institutional power, it seems clear to me that our contemporary ideas of who is disabled and how disabled people should be policed and segregated are related to the emergence of capitalism, and its eclipse of the state.
Try imagining it this way: all the disabled kids who get to grow up now are growing up in a world where the state regulates whether they are actually disabled and how much they must work to survive as a result. If we don’t meet the state’s standards to receive welfare, we must work in a landscape designed without accessibility worked into the way spaces, time, transportation, uniforms, etc. are budgeted. Particularly in the States, disability has historically been tied to perceived ability to work. A good place to see this is in the history of how immigrants to the States were examined (and turned away) for perceived physical or intellectual differences.
“The poor white man and the poor Black woman are both subjects to capital, both exploited by the same people, and can only stop their own oppression by banding together against the rich and its weapon, the state.”
Every person who owned a slave was not rich. Every man who abuses his wife isn’t rich. When you say that only class oppression is real oppression, that means that anyone who talks about other kinds of oppression is hurting the cause. suddenly all these marginalized people are traitors to the revolution because they talk about how they’re oppressed in the wrong way.
You present yourself as wanting sweeping, radical change. But telling black women that liberating white men will save them isn’t radical. It’s an old song.
You just engaged in the same reductionism that Serano does.
First of all, read Federici’s quote in the essay about the relationship between poverty and domestic abuse (because apparently you did not).
Also, similar to what often happens when engaging true-believers in identity politics, you made a claim that my position is that marginalized people are traitors. Re-read this essay, or do a quick search for the word traitor. You’ll find i did no such thing, but of course that’s why you (and Serano) rely on straw men.
Your final statement is yet again another false extension. At no point do I or other anti-capitalists assert Black women must liberate white men. Rather, that if white men and Black women (and every other group idpol activists claim to be trying to liberate) were to fight together, the capitalists would not stand a chance/
“The third challenge (that of disability access) ignores that disability is a category caused by capitalism. The dichotomy between ‘abled’ and ‘disabled’ is generated from the capitalist classification of people into good workers and not-good workers. An able-bodied person is easier to exploit for labor (more ‘productive’) in the eyes of the capitalist, and thus is both rewarded with higher wages and more access.”
This is something I am working on in another essay. I wonder how much of this is about sustaining the category “able-bodied” (worker) more than a discreteness between abled and disabled. For instance, I am unsure if I believe anyone is actually able-bodied. From my perspective it seems we are all disabled (some just haven’t gotten there yet). Capitalism benefits from teaching a set of workers that they aren’t, and as a result, they owe society the production of capital.
We aren’t all disabled because disability is socially constructed, and not necessarily connected to impairment. Low-vision and paralysis are both impairments; eyeglasses and wheelchairs are both assistive tech. But if you need glasses you’re not disabled, whereas if you use a chair you’re suddenly, magically disabled. The distinctions are largely arbitrary–unless you look at which impairments present a barrier to capitalist production and which don’t. Eyeglasses are unobtrusive and widespread enough removing glasses-wearers from the workforce would be extremely detrimental, but wheelchair access requires restructuring buildings–making things neurologically accessible requires restructuring society.
So there’s a tangible difference in how people move through the world based on whether or not they are ‘disabled.’ 60% of developmentally disabled boys, and 90% of girls are sexually abused. That has no logical connection to developmental disability except that we’re coded as disposable and treated as such.