On Understanding Identity Politics and Exploitation

The concept of identity politics was originally coined in 1977 by the Combahee River Collective, a group of black lesbian socialist feminists who recognized the need for their own autonomous politics as they confronted racism in the women’s movement, sexism in the black liberation movement, exploitation and class reductionism. Centering how economic, gender, and racial oppression materialized simultaneously in their lives was the key to their emancipatory politics. But their political work didn’t end there. The women of Combahee advocated for building coalitions in solidarity with other progressive groups in order to eradicate all oppression, while foregrounding their own. But identity politics is something we tend to see others doing while failing to recognize that we are doing it ourselves. And because we tend to miss the breadth of its scope and reach, we fail to see not only how central it is to the trouble with our politics but also how it might be overcome.

All the social issues you may have heard of in the past several years – same-sex marriage, police shootings of unarmed black men, trans people in bathrooms, the fluidity of gender, discussions about rape culture, campus battles about safe spaces and trigger warnings – are typically the kinds of issues people mean when they refer to identity politics. Identity politics is an ideology that convinces people to band together in society and agree to a common project. There is now concern identity politics is hampering empathy and communication. Identity politics seeks to unite groups of traditionally-powerless people who share common characteristics – such as race and gender – into aggrieved collectives. The source of grievance is oppression by powerful groups in society, often associated with the white race and male gender. Identity politics highlights the social inequities that reflect this oppression.

Mark Lilla recognized that identity politics has become a tag of derision for a large slice of the population, and that their scorn has been particularly targeted toward college students at some of the country’s most selective schools. From Princeton to Oberlin, undergraduates have protested to change the names of buildings, disinvite disfavored speakers, and redistribute more funds toward their cherished causes and favored departments. These demands are also threaded with a common language; phrases like “safe spaces,” “microaggressions,” and “structural racism” are often invoked when administrators weigh the tradeoffs between free speech and censorship. By focusing so much on issues of identity, the argument goes, Democrats and liberals surrendered all of these issues to Trump, letting him tap into an economically populist message that drew in enough of white rural and working-class America to seal his 2016 victory. Bernie Sanders was correct to focus on economic issues.

The students’ demands and occasionally obnoxious actions are not the story in themselves, but merely the outlines of a more developed ideology. It is one that reflects a particular attitude toward identity that deserves to be taken seriously, even if it is ultimately dismissed. Safe spaces are premised on the idea that marginalized groups are safest, at least in some respects, among their own. Concerns about microaggressions flow from a belief that a minority’s identity is constantly under attack. The phrase “structural racism” captures the idea that racism is embedded in the foundations of American society. On the other hand, some people, particularly on the left and a few on the right (including Steve Bannon) argue that identity politics have served as a distraction from issues they view as more important and politically palatable – the growing income gap between the rich and everyone else, the shipping of jobs overseas, and the abuse and corruption in America’s financial system.1

Right-wing populists falsely identify their particular program with universal values and human interests – by telling “the people” that after years of neglect by “the elite,” their interests are going to be recognized. While it is true that there is a hard racist core to contemporary right-wing populist movements, they have won because they appeal – beyond the ruling-class interests that they serve – to marginalized and dis-empowered elements of the working class. Populists turn to identity politics, and in the process, become a new elite. But as Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde observes, populists, the self-appointed vox populi (voice of all the people), are intolerant and will attack those with a different view, claiming such as person represents “special interests,” and is therefore part of what they consider to be the elite. The result: The end-of-history assumption that liberal democracy was the final point of progress has been disrupted as religious and other identities stubbornly persist, and continue to drive events.

Francis Fukuyama notes that polarization is the result of identity politics, which is undermining democracy. For the most part, economic issues defined twentieth-century politics. On the left, politics is centered on workers, trade unions, social welfare programs, and redistributive policies. The right, by contrast, was primarily interested in reducing the size of government and promoting the private sector. Politics today, however, is defined less by economic or ideological concerns than by questions of identity. The right, meanwhile, has redefined its core mission as the patriotic protection of traditional national identity, which is often explicitly connected to race, ethnicity, or religion. The Internet is responsible for the global rise of identity politics. Fukuyama and friends claim it is necessary to end Big Tech’s information monopoly to save democracy. The giant Internet platforms not only hold so much power, they wield so much control over political communication.

Individuals and corporations can become rich by relying on market power, price discrimination, and other forms of exploitation. But that does not mean they have made any contribution to the wealth of society. On the contrary, such behavior often leaves everyone else worse off overall. Economists refer to these wealth snatchers, who seek to grab a larger share of the economic pie than they create, as rent-seekers. The term originated from land rents: those who received them did so not as a result of their own efforts, but simply as a consequence of ownership, often inherited. With the help of new technologies, they can – and do – engage in mass discrimination, such that prices are set not by the market (finding the single price that equates demand and supply), but by algorithmic determinations of the maximum each customer is willing to pay.

And, because the burden of exploitation tends to weigh most heavily on those at the bottom of the economic pyramid, by reducing inequality one would strengthen the fabric of American society. Through progressive-capitalist reforms, it is possible to restore economic dynamism and ensure equality and opportunity for all. The top priority should be to curb exploitation and focus on wealth creation, and this can best – or only – be done by people working together, especially through government. Bernie Sanders understood the challenge of identity politics. In 2016 Sanders argued that while fighting to advance the rights of African-Americans, women, LGBT individuals, immigrants, and other marginalized groups, that those fights cannot be won without advancing the material interests of the working class, because “our rights and economic lives are intertwined.” The Democratic movers and shakers did not hear him warn of the need for economic populism in tandem with identity politics.

Facebook notes, “By monitoring posts, pictures, interactions, and Internet activity, Facebook can work out when young people feel ‘stressed,’ ‘defeated,’ ‘overwhelmed,’ ‘anxious,’ ‘nervous,’ ‘stupid,’ ‘silly,’ ‘useless,’ and a ‘failure’” – in short, the moments when they are “most vulnerable to a specific configuration of advertising cues and nudges.” Moreover, surveillance capitalism – defined as the unilateral claiming of private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data – has now moved from the virtual world into the physical one as our phones, apps, and networked devices in the “internet of things” report back to the data companies where we are and what we are doing. This economic logic has now spread beyond the tech companies to new surveillance-based ecosystems in virtually every economic sector, from insurance to automobiles to health, education, finance, to every product described as “smart” and every service described as “personalized.”

The companies, Shoshana Zuboff writes, want to “nudge, tune, herd, manipulate, and modify behavior in specific directions by executing actions as subtle as inserting a specific phrase into your Facebook news feed, timing the appearance of a BUY button on your phone, or shutting down your car engine when an insurance payment is late.” If unregulated, the new technology has an awesome potential for a new social regime, operated in the interests of the dominant companies. Behavioral advertising may seem harmless, and some people may even like getting “personalized” ads. But it has rich possibilities for exploitation. Your news feed is being altered by changes in a platform’s algorithm; the tech giants driving it are more interested in exploiting you than serving you.2

In today’s identity version, the epic struggle between capitalist and proletariat has been replaced by a new struggle between oppressed and oppressor. Remember John Stuart Mill claimed there should be opportunities for individual fulfillment for all members of society. It is not racism that creates differences between classes; it is neoliberal capitalism. On Roemer’s analysis, capitalist exploitation is essentially a form of social parasitism. One group (the capitalists) are made better off by the existence of a second group (workers), but that second group is made worse off by the existence of the first. Precisely because Roemer’s account is focused on “macro” issues pertaining to the distribution of property in society, it has little to say about “micro” issues regarding how individuals treat each other within the framework created by that distribution. We must debate both issues. Instead of a more complicated understanding of identity (race, sex), we need a more profound understanding of exploitation.

1 German Lopez. (27 Aug 2017) The battle over identity politics, explained. https://www.vox.com/identities/2016/12/2/13718770/identity-politics

2 Paul Starr (2 Oct 2019) How Neoliberal Policy Shaped the Internet – and What to Do About It Now. https://prospect.org/power/how-neoliberal-policy-shaped-internet-surveillance-monopoly/

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