(Note: I no longer agree with some of the central claims of this piece and am hoping to write a new piece some time in the near future. Particularly, I think the idiosyncratic way I use the term “class” here is both confusing and ontologically suspect. That said, I think the general critique of idealism here remains useful.)
This piece aims to critique a particular representation of social justice (which sometimes even calls itself anarchism) prevalent in online political discussion spaces, with a particular focus on tumbr social justice blogs. Centrally, I will contrast ‘privilege’ and ‘class’ as objects of political struggle, and discuss the limitations of identity politics and call instead for a revolutionary praxis that is conscious of identity-based oppression but enables us to move beyond identification.
This piece is incomplete and unsatisfactory, and I welcome criticism.
I. Class, oppression, metaphysics
Class is commonly understood as a system of categorization of individuals on a socio-economic basis – e.g. the three class model (lower, middle and upper class) or proletariat and bourgeoisie – but here we understand class as occurring in between individuals and groups. Class is a set of social relations that position the subject relative to power. Class has both an objective and subjective component: objective material forces create the basis for the subjective experience of class. Our definition of class is not a narrow economistic one, but includes patriarchy, racism, heteronormativity, etc. and understands particular oppressions as inter-related and mutually supporting.
It follows immediately that privilege – the experience of being empowered relative to another – is an aspect of class but not the whole picture. Privilege often presents itself as a social fact without any apparent material cause, as if racial privilege, for example, is created by racist ideas, which simply appeared out of the ether. (In truth, race-thinking has historical roots in colonialist strategic thinking, which required the creation of races both as an ideological justification for colonialism and as a way of managing recalcitrant populations in colonised areas.)
II. Check your liberalism privilege
When separated from class as an object of analysis, the focus on privilege lends itself to a form of liberal idealism and moralism. Awareness-raising becomes the central form of political intervention as though, once we make everyone aware of their privilege and get them to act according to a particular set of moral standards, then privilege will disappear. Thus political struggle becomes political correctness.
Once class is reduced to privilege, then privilege is further reduced to a list of privileges – specific ways in which the privileged group are treated differently, such as men being allowed to have pubic hair etc. – which are endlessly cataloged. Thus, particular manifestations of class are made to appear to be constitutive of class itself. Capitalism, a real material phenomenon with concomitant processes of biopolitical control, is replaced by ‘kyriarchy’, the union of all master-slave relations, presented with no apparent underlying cause.
This is not a dismissal of kyriarchy or intersectionality as such, but rather a critique of an idealist conception of intersectionality which mystifies the material basis of oppression. Without intersectionality, the class struggle becomes identified with the concerns of white cisgendered heterosexual men, but conversely, without class struggle, intersectionality becomes critique without transformative potential. Concretely, awareness of privilege is of central importance if we are to prevent the replication of gender/racial hierarchies within the struggle, but awareness of privilege alone offers little in terms of possibilities for transformative direct action, or, put another way, awareness of ones own privilege is substituted for the kinds of actions that could pose a threat to systems of oppression.
III. Identities, identification, legitimacy
The tumblr social justice community adopt a kind of incoherent synthesis of queer theory, post-structuralist feminism, and liberal rights discourse and identity-politics, constructed, Chinese Whispers style from half-understood fragments of theory abstracted from their metaphysical framework. The postmodernist framework of queer theory entails a radical critique of essentialism and a rejection of fixed and stable identities. To try and reconcile it with the thoroughly modernist framework of identity-politics produces absurdities.
Genderqueer, for example, is not a gender identity, but an approach to performing gender: a radical attack on essentialist conceptions of gender which, through the body, exposes the performativity of gender and thereby undermines the ideological and semantic basis of heteropatriarchy. To claim to be genderqueer and to be oppressed on the basis of being genderqueer is to miss entirely the point of what you’re supposed to be doing: that gender is something you do, not something you are. The very act of defining oneself as genderqueer is to replicate the process of definition which reifies binary gender in the first place.
But that is precisely what tumblr genderqueers do. Genderqueer is claimed first as an identity and secondarily as a basis to make demands for recognition and protection, with performativity playing at best a supporting role, turning attack into defence. Worse, this becomes a basis for appropriating the language and laying claim to the legitimacy of trans* struggles by people who are, in the final analysis, thoroughly cisgendered.
Worse still are the entirely artificial identities and spurious associated oppressions – e.g. transethnics (white people who decide that they really belong to another race, usually one strongly associated with anime production), otherkin (non-humans trapped in human bodies), multiples (bodies supposedly containing multiple identities who ought to be recognised as real and autonomous individuals, an idea which would mean that people with real and serious mental illnesses would be denied treatment) – conjured ex nihlo by those wishing to feel special on the internet.
While these made-up oppressions are dismissed by the more sensible elements of the community„ the basis on which they do so is often theoretically inconsistent. A politics which is built entirely around the right of individuals to define themselves subjectively, with no material or historical basis in the real world, has no real basis for defending against parodies of itself. To dismiss otherkin on the basis that they appropriate trans* stuggles, for example, while obviously correct, within this context amounts to an a priori assumption that trans* struggles are legitimate and otherkin aren’t. It is only by returning to materialism (and to class) that we find a basis for doing so. Trans* struggles have a material and historical reality (real processes by which gender is imposed upon their bodies), which flows ultimately from the particular historical development of capitalism as a gendered power structure, which cannot be said of kids who think they’re dragons.
IV. Against identity
Identity is a cage. That is to say: identity, being, is the antithesis of spontaneity, doing. Identities are alien categories imposed upon us by biopolitical processes of identification, with which are constantly in conflict. Capital needs us to be certain things at certain times and in certain places in order to effectively police and manage us. The revolutionary subject, then, is one without identity. They act authentically in their situation, inhabiting their history without being constrained by it, acting against identity-based oppression in order to open up new possibilities and new experiences, rather than to reify the same categories of cold capitalist managerial logic. Ultimately, freedom means a world beyond identity, beyond capitalism, built on the basis of human solidarity, with a diversity of experiences and ways of living. This means that, while we struggle based on who we are, or who we are made to be (and thus autonomous identity-based organising is sometimes the most effective form of resistance) there is only one revolutionary class and one world to take.