In the wake of last month’s shocking defeat, the Democratic Party, and the left more generally, is engaged in a new round of collective soul-searching into what went so devastatingly wrong. Some, like Mark Lilla in The New York Times, argue that American liberals have overly focused on racial, gender, and sexual identity, thus renouncing a more universal appeal. Others, like Nation columnist Laila Lalami (also writing for the Times), say the election cannot be explained without understanding whiteness itself as an identity politics. And many have made the case that pursuing economic justice is wholly compatible with other movements.
We asked four contributors to weigh in on this debate. Is the left too focused on “identity politics”—and what the hell does that term even mean? Their responses follow.
* * *
Walter Benn Michaels
A Universe of Exploitation
The defensible heart of identity politics is its commitment to opposing forms of discrimination like racism, sexism, and homophobia. I share that commitment. But opposing discrimination today has no more to do with a left politics than do equally powerful ethical commitments against, say, violence or dishonesty. Why? Because the core of a left politics is its critique of and resistance to capitalism—its commitment to decommodifying education, health care, and housing, and creating a more economically equal society. Neither hostility to discrimination nor the accompanying enthusiasm for diversity makes the slightest contribution to accomplishing any of those goals. Just the opposite, in fact. They function instead to provide inequality with a meritocratic justification: If everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed, there’s no injustice when some people fail.
This is why Adolph Reed and I have been arguing that identity politics is not an alternative to class politics but a form of it: It’s the politics of an upper class that has no problem with seeing people being left behind as long as they haven’t been left behind because of their race or sex. That’s why elite institutions like universities make an effort to recruit black people as well as white into the ruling class. They’re seeking to legitimate the class structure, not abolish it. Of course, if we’re going to accept a ruling class, one that’s open to people other than straight white men is preferable. But shouldn’t the left be more committed to doing something for the vast majority of people of all races, genders, and sexual orientations who will never belong to that class? We’ve never thought the fact that a few white people get to become rich was a victory for poor white people, so why should substituting in a few black people change the equation?
It’s not racism that creates the difference between classes; it’s capitalism. And it’s not anti-racism that can combat the difference; it’s socialism. We’re frequently told that black poverty is worse than white poverty—more isolating, more concentrated—and maybe that’s true. But why, politically, should it matter? You don’t build the left by figuring out which victim has been most victimized; you build it by organizing all the victims. When it comes to the value of universal health care, for example, we don’t need to worry for a second about whether the black descendants of slaves are worse off than the white descendants of coal miners. The goal is not to make sure that black people are no sicker than white people; it’s to make everybody healthy. That’s why they call it universal.