Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 2, 2016

Deepening Contradictions: Identity Politics and Steelworkers

Filed under: Counterpunch,New Deal,racism,trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 3:36 pm


She argues that affirmative action divides the working class

Deepening Contradictions: Identity Politics and Steelworkers

It goes without saying, that as we fight to end all forms of discrimination, as we fight to bring more and more women into the political process, Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans – all of that is ENORMOUSLY important, and count me in as somebody who wants to see that happen. But it is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me.” That is not good enough. I have to know whether that Latina is going to stand up with the working class in this country and is going to take on big-money interests. And one of the struggles that we’re going to have…in the Democratic Party is it’s not good enough for me to say we have x number of African Americans over here, we have y number of Latinos, we have z number of women, we are a diverse party, a diverse nation. Not good enough!

As someone who had little use for Hillary Clinton or any Democrat for that matter, there was something a bit troubling about the “class trumping identity” plea since it reminded me of contradictions that have bedeviled the revolutionary movement from its inception. While the idea of uniting workers on the basis of their class interests and transcending ethnic, gender and other differences has enormous appeal at first blush, there are no easy ways to implement such an approach given the capitalist system’s innate tendency to create divisions in the working class in order to maintain its grip over the class as a whole.

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  1. I appreciate the time and effort that you put into writing this post. I am disheartened by the willingness of some people on the left to advocate for a working class politics that prioritizes the white working class over challenging the racism within it.

    Sanders promotes a romanticized vision of the New Deal, an economic program that would lift all boats while downplaying the racism that cuts across all classes of white people in American life. People of color know better, they know that they were forced to continue to live in segregation without equally sharing in its benefits. Sanders made this centerpiece of his campaign, and people of color responding accordingly, they voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton with the exception of those under 30.

    Perhaps, this appears to be a plausible political approach when you come from a state as overwhelmingly white as Vermont like Sanders does, but it is doomed to failure in the rest of the country. It fails to recognize that the working class is now one of color, and thus constitutes a political perspective as antiquated as the one that animated the Trump campaign.

    Your examination of the vacuity of the term “identity politics” is important in this regard. I’m surprised that Sanders wasn’t criticized for using it. “Identity politics” is a term that has been historically used by the right in the Republican and Democratic parties, as well as whites in academia and corporations, to malign efforts to integrate social and economic institutions so that people of color, women and LGBTI people can share in the exercise of power within them. Upon first reading Sanders’ remarks cited here, my first thought was that Reagan could have said the same thing in the 1980s, while implementing policies to the contrary. If Trump mellowed, he could, too.

    Along these lines, people of color have been sharply critical of Sanders’ expressed willingness to work with Trump on economic policies for the benefit of workers, and I doubt that they were pleased by the US Steelworkers union praise for Trump and Sanders for assisting in the preservation of some Carrier jobs in the US. It smacks of the kind of union politics that you rightly condemn here. If progressives and leftists that work within the electoral process pursue this approach, we can look forward to 8 years of Trump and a reversal of many of the civil rights gains of the last 50 years.

    Comment by Richard Estes — December 2, 2016 @ 6:51 pm

  2. I share Richard’s sentiments. More to the point, the use of the term “identity politics” is just a leftist version of the same racism inherent “political correctness” reflected among the rightists. Neither does anything but provide an excuse not to engage in what the working class has always been, a great mass potential for struggle and, hence, a great opportunity for the ruling classes to sow the division needed to keep themselves in power. Any socialist worthy of the term “revolutionary” should begin with this fundamental observation and realize what to do next; stand with the most oppressed, embrace each and every fight to build unity by engaging and embracing how the actual working class develops its historic struggle against capital.We will never “build unity” by denying the fact of our divisions foisted upon us and so willingly accepted by the more privileged among us; at each and every level or “section”.
    P.S.: I tried to comment on FB through Counterpunch, but simply had too much trouble searching for this article there. Either the search term of your title of singular terms resulted in the cacophony of articles denouncing “identity politics” that Louis’ articles so well demolishes.
    Sorry I couldn’t find a way to comment there.

    Comment by mtomas3 — December 2, 2016 @ 7:43 pm

  3. If the term “identity politics” is “racist”, isn’t the term “racist” a slap in the face to the national aspirations of the Sioux being tear gassed in the Dakotas, or the national aspirations of those of African descent living in the US?

    Comment by Adelson — December 3, 2016 @ 5:46 pm

  4. I don’t know why you have such a problem with Sanders formulation – he doesn’t dismiss the struggles of various groups in society but asserts the primacy of class politics. My understanding of the term ‘identity’ politics’ doesn’t seem to be the same as yours. To me it means asserting the primacy of, for example, the struggle of women for equality i.e. at the expense of the common cause working class women have with other working class people of whatever skin colour. In other words, it ends up with middle class women concerned about getting in the boardroom and to hell with the woman cleaner and her crappy wages and conditions. There is nothing inherently progressive about identity politics – that’s why capitalism can quite happily accept it, as long as the profits pile up and it doesn’t threaten their power and privileges – which it doesn’t. You tell me – are Hillary Clinton and her well-heeled women supporters oppressed by working class men? Are they hell.

    Comment by Doug — December 4, 2016 @ 4:58 pm

  5. Identity politics, properly understood as liberal and progressive evasions of class politics such as characterized the Obama campaigns (and record) and the Clinton campaigns against Sanders and Trump, is to be condemned as the bane of a class politics that takes structural racism/sexism, etc. seriously. It is a horrible problem in academia. In the Dem primary, the worst sort of IP was used in labelling Bernie and the “Berniebros” as racist/sexist. While affirmative action has its place in reform efforts, the fact that it became the centerpiece of liberalism/progressivism came to reveal the tepid reformism, amidst the neoliberal onslaught, of the Democratic Party. The Congressional Black Caucus being Exhibit A. My impression of Stein when reading her Jacobin piece a few weeks ago is that she was countering and correcting the Clintonian effort to tar Sanders with the brush of New Deal racism, as if the Clintonites give a crap about FDR’s record on race. Perhaps I have to go back and read it in light of this piece above, but I’m surprised to find an argument for IP, affirmative action, and reparations that doesn’t recognize the essentially reformist nature of these approaches, a la Ta-Nehisi Coates.

    Comment by David Green — December 6, 2016 @ 3:50 am

  6. Yes, very reformist when Blacks form caucuses to demand their rights in factories where the boss and racist bureaucrats are determined to keep them mopping toilets.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 6, 2016 @ 3:54 am

  7. Yes, I get it, I’m well aware of union-based racism and its consequences. I will have to re-read the Stein interview to see if she was actually minimizing that. But the point, again, is that the Clintonites disingenuously accused Sanders of New Deal-style racism. That’s just ridiculous, and you know it.

    Comment by David Green — December 6, 2016 @ 3:54 pm

  8. “Identity politics, properly understood as liberal and progressive evasions of class politics such as characterized the Obama campaigns (and record) and the Clinton campaigns against Sanders and Trump, is to be condemned as the bane of a class politics that takes structural racism/sexism, etc. seriously.”

    I understand that Clinton slandered Sanders, but he is using the term “identity politics” for a reason. Sanders is attempting to reassure white working class voters that they will retain their prominence even as their numbers within the working class dwindle. It is a toxic term that alienates POC across all classes, including the working class. It is a rhetorical form of left Reaganism.

    Sanders is not a New Deal racist, but no one, other than Clintonistas, is saying that he is. Rather, the problem is that POC believed during the campaign, rightly so, I think, that Sanders was naïve about the extent to which the benefits of the New Deal were reserved for whites. As a consequence, they, including many in the working class over the age of 30, voted for HRC instead. It was an understandable decision even if I would have done differently.

    If Sanders and Stein want to create a successful progressive movement, they should dedicate their time and energy towards resisting the right’s ongoing effort to disenfranchise POC and poor people around the country instead of complaining about “identity politics”. Because, if the right succeeds, it will become much more difficult, if not impossible, to mobilize a radical, working class electoral alternative regardless of the outcome of the “identity politics” debate.

    Comment by Richard Estes — December 6, 2016 @ 6:54 pm

  9. Richard, you think that Sanders “attempted to reassure white voters that they would retain their prominence”? I can’t imagine what the evidence is for this. Look, you and Louis are flying by the seats of your pants. Judith Stein speaks well for herself and with historical authoritativeness, and I would commend her interview at Jacobin to readers’ attention: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/06/white-working-class-new-deal-racism-reagan-democrats/

    Bernie had problems with blacks, for sure. As far as I can tell, the legacy of the New Deal had nothing to do with it, other than its crass and perverse exploitation by IP liberals supporting HRC.

    Comment by David Green — December 7, 2016 @ 2:57 am

  10. I read a comment on Juan Cole recently that I found disturbing. The comment was that there are almost no blacks in the political or military elite of Cuba. That got me thinking further about the problem of racism. I made a comment myself recently that I have come to the conclusion that it is lots of decisions by individual white people that are holding blacks in the United States back even more than any institutional rules that disadvantage blacks. So I got to thinking more about why it is that a white employeer would favor a white person over a black person. I had made some comments about this before. I would like to add something that perhaps everyone knows but I do not see it talked about. That is when hiring a black man or woman to be ones direct subordinate one is placing oneself in a manner of speaking on the front lines in the war against racism. Would not fear be a factor in discouraging whites from hiring blacks when they beleive that any adverse action taken against a black subordinate is going to have to pass a smell test of color blindness? Not only that but a white employeer who would hire blacks would have to have enough confidence in himself to know that he or she would not even accidently do something to trigger an equal opporturnity complaint let alone do something like that diliberately. These problems that are difficult to address. but do need addressing, are a reason that I support repatriations for African Americans. If African Americans had a greater net wealth they would be in a position in which they would not be as dependent on the whims of white employers to find a reasonable place in the American economy. Yet even pushing through a program of repaitriations is full of politcal pitfalls.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — March 24, 2017 @ 10:31 am

  11. Fighting The Good Fight on All Fronts…..The Good Fight was a disappointment to me, not because the stories suck, but because I expected to see a program about a black lawyers working at a black law firm. Instead 80% of the story is about white lawyers and a white secretary working at a black law firm. Ok I can understand that a network is not a social movement. It is an institution designed to make money. But in this case it is possible to do both. The show has hopefully got people in the door. Now it can start to up the story content about the black characters a little bit each week. It can maybe even bring in Jessica Pearson and Jeff Malone for some guest appearences. I wish the writers the best of luck in keeping the story suspenceful and decreasing the role of the white actresses.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — March 27, 2017 @ 8:56 pm

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