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Identity Politics After Koch Libertarianism

One of the most important points that Nancy MacLean makes in her book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America is that the Koch-funded project of libertarian thinking is responsible for negative views people–on the right and the left–have about “identity politics.”  As I discuss in my last post, Buchanan–the Koch-supported Virginia-based economist–and his cadre aimed to cast doubt on efforts of ordinary Americans to seek redress of past injustices and inequalities by collective appeals to the government.  Instead of recognizing these efforts for what they were, they were framed as the efforts of special interests to put a chokehold on government. Buchanan and those he drew into his orbit used the language of defense of democracy to limit the extent to which the government and government officials could be made answerable to these collectivized efforts of unions, of coalitions of Black Americans, of government employees (government jobs being the avenue toward the middle class for Black Americans, particularly Black women because the government was explicitly barred from racial discrimination in hiring practices).  This effort to cast aspersions on identity politics was so successful it has extended to cynicism within liberal and leftist projects that find themselves wary that identitarian concerns compromise projects that aim for universal emancipation.

As I see it, there are two critiques of identity politics coming from the broad left.  Both are wary that identity politics privilege the role of the groups affected by those identities and so divide rather than unite.  The first critique denies the importance of these claims.  This position is captured by Mark Lilla.  Lilla is the professor at Columbia who thinks that the “fixation on diversity” and the “moral panic about racial, gender, and sexual identity” distort the liberal message and “prevented it from being a unifying force.”  Lilla is dismissive of the concerns altogether.  His unifying force is a “pragmatic” one that ignores the issues that affect the rest of us so that some people who might deign to care about these things–but not too vociferously–might get political power, which will then achieve the hoped for change.  Lilla ignores how Black Lives Matter has been central to bringing issues like police violence into mainstream discourse, and much of his complaint seems to stem from an unease with messy politics of the streets.

Beverly Gage rightly points out the limited scope of Lilla’s “identity politics,” as something largely associated with the left that ignores the extent to which the Republican Party engages in identity politics if that means appealing to people’s identities to get them to support certain positions.  This is part of the problem.  “Identity politics” is cast as the appeal of special groups for special protections.  But this formulation ignores the ways that corporations seek special protections under their own peculiar identity as “job makers,” that wealthy people seek such protections against estate taxes under their identity as, well, wealthy people, or that rich white people do not want to support public education for Black students or social safety supports for poor people.  The oft-repeated charge, “it’s just identity politics” has come to mean, those are just people clamoring for special attention not arguments being made for justice.  The critique of identity politics makes it something that only those special groups who are not our special groups do, while the policies that follow from the criticism enable identity politics of a certain sort to proceed under the guise of the equal position of all parties.

The other critique recognizes the reality of identity-based injustice, but argues for collective not identity-based resistance.  This is the critique of those like Jodi Dean that I discussed earlier this year.  Dean criticizes the splintering of political projects of emancipation where people are divided up around their own identity-based concerns.  But it seems important to limit what is meant by identity politics within this critique to refer to the splintering of emancipatory projects where individuals of certain situated identities are viewed as the only ones who should or can pursue justice for their situation.  That view of identity politics follows from the politically nihilistic view of the Koch-liberterians that in politics everyone is just out for their own selfish ends.  A reader might be tempted to see a symmetry between these two critiques of the divisiveness of identity politics.  But while the first functions to dismiss these concerns, the second champions a politics that is more collective than splintered in its approach to these identity-based injustices.

The concept of identity politics can be traced back to the organizing work of Black Feminists in the 1970s. As Mychal Denzel Smith recently wrote in his critique of Lilla’s account of identity politics, Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith and Chirlane McCray were among the Black women who formed the Combahee River Collective. The Collective wrote:

We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation is us. … This focusing on our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially the most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.

As Smith argues, the point is not at all what it becomes under the influence of the Koch-libertarians–the work of special interests, where each group only works for their own liberation.  Even while identity politics has pointed to the need to ask marginalized groups what they need rather than to repeat colonizing gestures by dictating the terms of their liberation to them, it has at moments allowed the libertarian view to infiltrate so that it means that only those of certain identities can contribute to the work of undoing historical injustices.  This interpretation is how Lilla interprets the Combahee River Collective’s notion of identity politics.  But this was not their view.  Rather, the Combahee River Collective understood their identity as Black women to be the nexus of all the oppressions at work in contemporary society.  They wrote:

If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.

Against the view that left liberatory politics has been divided by identity-based politics, civil rights projects have long worked collectively to support the needs of other groups in oppressed positions.  Contra Lilla and despite the Koch-libertarian best efforts to cast it so, identity politics on the left does not mean you take care of yourself, and I’ll take care of myself.  That’s the worst sort of political nihilism.  Identity politics based on claims made by groups whose identities have made them subject to historical injustices should not leave those groups to their devices as if it does not matter to the rest of us.  We should all be organizing to resist voter suppression efforts.  We should all be organizing to resist police violence.  We should all be organizing for universal healthcare.  We should all be organizing to ban asset-testing for food stamps.  We should all be organizing for protections for trans folks. It’s striking to me how the libertarian effort to transform the view of collective political efforts into special interests has resulted in negative views of identity politics on the left.  We shouldn’t let it because the Koch-libertarian view is wrong about what identity politics is.

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