A friend brought up a question regarding solidarity and identity politics, and it was a good one, one I’m inspired to see being asked more and more by leftists of all colors, genders, and sexuality.
The question is this: does identity politics get in the way of solidarity? Are they opposed to each other or even mutually exclusive?
The answer depends of course on what sort of identity politics we’re talking about.
Privilege as first iterated by W.E. B. Du Bois was a concept created to explain why lower class whites often did not act in solidarity with lower class Black workers. Unlike how it is seen now, however, the idea was that it could be resolved by class consciousness: showing the poor whites they had more in common with poor black people than they did with their white bosses.
Privilege now is seen as an “original sin” that cannot be resolved. If you are born with white skin in an abled-male body and only have heterosexual sex, you are seen as automatically guilty of oppression towards everyone else. By complete accident of birth, through no choice of your own, you are the victimiser and never the victim.
The original concept was created in order to find a way to create solidarity among all lower class people. The concept as it stands now in practice prevents the possibility of full solidarity, because it takes the blame away from the capitalist system and puts it all upon accident of birth.
The results of this shift have been catastrophic. The far right increasingly gains power because it says to the white person, “you’re not evil; in fact, you’re superior.” This of course will always appeal to poor white people who are told by identity politics, “you are evil by virtue of being white/male etc.”
The key to fixing this problem is re-injecting class into identity politics (despite how this will get even Black female Marxists accused of being “class reductionists”) and removing the monotheist concepts of original sin and determinism from identity. Materially, a poor white cis-het (etc) person has much more in common with a poor Black trans (etc) person. That poor white person has nothing in common (except race) with his boss, in the same way that the poor Black person has nothing in common with a rich Black person except race.
So ultimately, solidarity requires people to see their material conditions as more important as a basis of solidarity than race. A poor white “trailer trash” person must be convinced that they have a natural solidarity with a poor Black person living in “the ghetto,” and also the other way around. This isn’t as hard as we imagine it to be: both are much more likely to be thrown in jail for property crimes than a middle class Black professor or a middle class white tech worker, let alone a CEO of a corporation (be that Jeff Bezos or Oprah Winfrey).
Unfortunately, focusing on class relations and material conditions needs to apply to all racial affinities in order to work. To get white people to stop favoring race as a basis of solidarity, it doesn’t work to tell them that all other racial categories are viable for solidarity except theirs. Otherwise, the allure of fascism stands as a resolution of hypocrisy: the white supremacist can truthfully say, “if others are allowed to favor their own race, whites should be allowed, too.”
Or as put by a Black theorist in a speech given as part of a Black Lives Matter event,
“Identity politics, intersectionality, and social privilege discourse comprise the most sophisticated sector of this police apparatus. We have all seen that this talk of white privilege, identity politics, what people call intersectionality—all it does is re-inforce the racial lines that we’re trying to overcome. If it had any use before, the uprising has superseded it at this point.”
That is, actual solidarity comes from shared struggle against the capitalist state (the police being the primary enforcers of capitalist property relations) rather than theoretical talk of esoteric forces and capitalist categories such as race. Worse, the insistence of modern social justice identitarians to insist on these categories only further reproduces “the racial lines that we’re trying to overcome.”
Of course all of this stands as heresy to the way identity politics currently works in the United States, and probably won’t change any time soon. Thus there will be little solidarity, with the poor increasingly fracturing into racial categories that see each other as the “enemy” while the rich above them continue to exploit everyone without fear of a class consciousness arising to threaten their power.
However, the fact that many more people are beginning to ask such questions suggests that perhaps this might change. As the identity politics model shows itself not only increasingly unworkable but deeply counter-productive to the goals of the people it supposedly purports to help, maybe a new-old kind of solidarity will arise again.