Identity Politics

LeoCasey at LeoCasey at
Wed Aug 9 23:03:06 MDT 1995

This list is positively schizophrenic at times: the computer screen
alternates between serious discussion of an issue and smug announcements that
there is nothing to discuss, the simple truth already having been discovered.

It was my pleasure to read today's postings from Valerie, Gerry, John W.,
Jon, Adam and Rakesh on the issue of identity politics,  because even when I
find myself in disagreement with one or the other on a point, I find an
intellectual seriousness and engagement in their comments that allows us all
to learn from one another. I can't pretend to discuss all of the issues each
of them raise, but let me pick up on a few points of particular interest.

The dirty secret of the category "identity politics" is, I believe, the
ultimate insight that class identities, like all other forms of identity, are
not a pre-given reflection of economic relations, but a discursive
construction. It bears repeating, if only because some still refuse to grasp
it, that does not mean that these identities are phantasmic creations of
language with no bearing to "real" social relations. Instead, the form of
social relations is necessarily discursive. Those who created the category of
"identity politics" and posed it in opposition to "class politics" did so
precisely because they want to deny this common ground of all identity.

Yet if we look at some of the more interesting labor history of the last
decade, from Gareth Stedman Jones, John Sewell and Joan W. Scott to Jacques
Ranciere, Vctoria Hattam and Christopher Tomlins what we find is increasing
emphasis on and understanding of the discursive nature of the 'worker'
identity. Starting from and deepening E. P. Thompson's insight that a working
class is "made", these students of working class history have examined the
different ways in which a worker subject came into being. It is interesting
that those who attack the notion that a worker identity is a discursive
construction raise the banner of history in the abstract yet ignore the
actual work of historians which might challenge their preconceptions.

To examine the question from a different vantage point, let us move to John
W.'s question as to whether or not class identity is somehow more objective
or material than other forms of identity. Let me pose the question in the
converse: What is less objective or material about the experiences of sexist
oppression, from rape and sexual harassment to disparate pay and job
discrimination? What is less objective or material about the experiences of
racist oppression, from street violence to de facto segregation?
Moreover, in facing the reality that so many Americans chose to identify
themselves as middle class when they would seem to us to fit into poor and
working class categories, exactly how does it help us to conclude that they
have false consciousness? Does it not make much sense to try to understand
the discursive source and power of that identity? Certainly, numerous
generations of Marxists intsructing them on their "false consciousness"
hasn't taken us very far.

One of the insights of the work on the social construction of female gender
and the social construction of homsexuality was the realization that
masculinity and heterosexuality were also socially constructed. It may very
well be that the category of worker is the last refuge of essentialism.

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