Thursday, June 12, 2014

C > I

Back in 2008 I wrote the following description of an exercise I took part in while I attended an immigrant rights coalition meetings-

The moderator, in all seriousness, had us draw a flower. Our flower needed at least four large petals, with a smaller petal drawn inside the outline of the larger one. We were then to label each petal. One should be race, one gender, one whether or not English is our mother tongue, and one marking our social class (which wasn't talked about much, if at all). If you are white, male, and speak English, then you were to fill in the outer layer of your flower petals. This means you are an 'exploiter' in these areas. If you are female, non-white, and learned a language besides English when you were young, then you were to fill in the inner layer of the petals. You are "exploited." 

I went on to make a basic point that should be obvious to any socialist, or anyone on the left for that matter. Succinctly put: while both are important, class ultimately trumps identity. The people who facilitated the meeting saw the post and confronted a friend of mine, who was much more active in the coalition than I, about it. Briefly put, they were activists looking to make a career out of that sort of thing and had no interest in challenging fundamental social relations that privileged local business owners they considered "allies" (nevermind those business owners had no problem paying immigrants poverty wages). He is an immigrant worker who, gasp, thought they actually might be trying to help him and had no illusions whatsoever in capitalism being anything other than what it was in his home country.

The recent bout of identity politics gone wild over a Jacobin piece reminded me of the above episode. I won't recap, as for some goddamned reason I spent a good couple hours staring at tweets and blog posts and facebook updates and smoke signals, and going over it again could ruin my brain, but Fredrik Deboer's excellent blog provides the context.

Just so I'm clear, let me say again identity issues are important. Extremely important. Some of the most important progressive advances in human history have involved issues of identity. In specific situations it's more important than class. (You aren't likely to be the victim of a hate crime because of your class.) But, if you want to not only change society but create a new one, you have to use a tool that can't be co-opted by the ruling class. This has been understood, in various degrees, by the radical left since the original Jacobins.

What's really troubling here, aside from the prose of this stubbornly awful sniveling, is the discussion that was and will be taking place. This isn't a nuanced discussion on the relationship between class and identity with people more or less on the same side, it's a new version of red-baiting. Call it red-baiting 2.0. These people are not interested at all in changing the status quo. On the contrary, they are interested in becoming a more integral part of the status quo, the smiling and accepting face of neoliberalism. I suppose it's not too surprising all villains aren't as cartoonish as the Koch brothers and Fox News, and it's certainly not news neoliberalism has a "left" wing, but I was a bit surprised at the overt and obvious intent to attack Jacobin (and the left in general). Even the pretense of a semi-serious discussion was missing. I will be surprised no longer.

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