Identity politics as the new capitalist cosmology
Why “the the capitalist herself?” What made you feminize the noun and not just say “capitalism?”
#1 - I think that cringe has evolved so quickly that it's even evolved into mostly a noun now. Within maybe 5 years, I feel like I went from hearing "that's cringe" (adjective) to "wow you did cringe" (verb). Anyway, I had thought seriously about how ideologies change "too quickly" but until I read this essay it didn't click for me how quickly words themselves change, and now I see it big time.
#2 - I think that capitalism has always had a problem with its own elites - sometimes the perfect educational conditions you create for them result in them actually seeing the truth. That "hazard" gave us, for example, revolutionary aristocrats such as Lenin and FDR. They were always the minority of the upper class, but needless to say, dangerous. In short, I think that a lot of the identitarian mindgames are part of the goal of distracting elites, just on the odd chance that some of those elites may become the next FDR or Lenin. I think that's the bigger goal, and the way that identitarianism fucks with our friends and comrades is more collateral damage than the main goal.
I really appreciate how clearly you explained the shift to identity politics: that now it’s not about what you do, but who you are. I’ve been reading your work for a while now and am extremely familiar with wokeism after spending years in a Californian city, but for some reason I’ve just never heard it stated so plainly. One thing that I’ve never felt comfortable with in leftist discussions is the complete demonization of the capitalists. And yet, I’ve never felt comfortable with the narrative that they too are just complicit in a larger system that is bigger than any one person. That feels true to me, and also a bit like an excuse, but the idea that there are evil capitalists out there and that taking them out will save the world also feels extremely naive (and more importantly, any world-saving plots predicated on revenge or even the demonization of one particular group will never, in my opinion, create a better world). So this was a helpful reminder for me that a materialist framework is entirely about what someone does, and there is a lot of healing and repair possible if people change what they are doing (either because they themselves change or because the system changes, or, most likely, because both changes happen). It doesn’t mean that no one is held accountable or punished or whatever, but it means that no one is tarnished with the perpetual sin of an identity. Someone isn’t a capitalist no matter what, they need to be doing a certain thing...I know this is all, frankly, extremely obvious, but so many of my conversations about capitalism have happened in wokeist spaces where “capitalist” becomes another slur/unchangeable identity. And as much as many leftists don’t want to hear me show concern for the “poor capitalists”, my true concern is the limitations of any worldview that paints someone as an evil, separate other (which is different than someone who is doing something that they need to be held accountable for). Then we are all monitoring ourselves for the “evil” of being a capitalist, hating ourselves for the ways we are complicit in the system (like, for example, having privately held land that excludes those without land). And of course, then (in my wokeist friend groups) we become corrupted with the permanent stain of “privilege” and are forever more the oppressor (unless, I suppose, our lives were to fall apart completely, then maybe we’d receive some compassion and victim status, likely depending on our other identities).
So to (sort of) summarize, it doesn’t do much for me when people turn “capitalist” into another oppressor label, but it definitely feels right to me to identity exploitative relationships and systems, and to insist that those doing the exploiting either stop or be held accountable. Clearly being “held accountable” is situational, as some people have more control over the degree to which they exploit others. For example, it feels a little silly to demonize Apple for using slave labor to produce iPhones but to excuse all consumers of iPhones because they “have no other choice” but to have a smartphone. Not saying this from a place of superiority...I’m typing this on a smartphone right now. And yet, it’s not like I think the smartphone producers should get a free pass on their labor practices. The bottom line is that it’s not that simple, and any time someone has an idea that “this group is the problem and I know what the solution is”, they’re almost certainly wrong, and paradoxically that doesn’t mean that we close our eyes and don’t talk about what wrong we see in the situation.
Anyway, this point is somewhat of a tangent from the real meat of your article. I really appreciate how well you outlined how identity politics are being used not just to make it impossible to critique capitalism on a national level, but slowly, on a global one. It goes so deep...I have friends deep in this religion and they are being brainwashed by the medical industry, by celebrity worship, by consumer culture...I’m amazed how much wokeism can capture. Now it is considered oppressive for me, a woman, to talk about the ways that photoshop and plastic surgery in famous people were psychologically damaging to grow up around. Now it is considered oppressive to criticize celebrity worship, or pharmaceuticals, or reality TV, or neoliberal news anchors. This is all very much secondary to the main exploitative capitalist relations, of course, but it just blows my mind how someone can call themselves a leftist and then get on my case if I say I don’t like Lady Gaga (because she is identified with the oppressed, I guess?). The dollar signs behind the brainwashing are off the charts (never mind that now everyone has a body that is “wrong” and needs to be fixed medically, whether aesthetically or with some kind of pill).
I’ll end this long comment here...just wanted to thank you again for your thought-provoking writing, and share some thoughts of my own.
Identity politics are a great tool for maintaining current power structures. They divide the workers, so that we’re so busy arguing about CRT that we can’t form an effective workers’ movement. They distract us from clamouring for a more equal division of political & economic power. And they make the ‘left’ (so far as it exists at all, which is doubtful) unelectable. (Witness J Corbyn in the UK.)
As such they’re the greatest trick predatory capitalists ever played. They’ve enabled the development & maintenance of an authoritarian, militarised, kleptocracy that exploits & devastates humans and the natural world. A kind of berserk, destructive, profit seeking machine.
I’m never sure, personally, whether individuals like Kendi are just useful morons for the kleptocrats, or knowingly corrupt & pushing an ideology they know perpetuates brutal & exploitative power relations, just for profit & fame. Increasingly though I’m leaning to the latter. Few people can be that stupid. I think they know - the most influential proponents, anyway. Not useful idiots; servants of the profit machine.
This is excellent, Rhyd — thanks. Looking forward to reading the book. This article arrived at the same time as this article by Yanis Varoufakis, which I think is an excellent 'companion piece' to yours in its deconstruction of capitalism: https://www.yanisvaroufakis.eu/2022/09/29/zombie-capitalism-is-unravelling-the-new-statesman/
COVID changed some things. It’s hard for me to nail down, given that I moved and changed careers right before the lockdowns, so some of what I see could be do to different regional culture, etc. But I do think the US has begun to move on from identity politics. They are still there, and likely will be for years. And some of the things they brought us are good- there is some point in questioning why all the leaders of a political group are white men, for example. But I think rising food prices, the anti-work movement, the end of Roe v Wade, the deaths of thousands, being treated like cattle to be vaccinated, and the isolation of COVID had reminded a lot of people about bigger issues. Survival/ prepper gear is out of stock in many places, as is seed, farm animals, and hobby farm machinery. Acreage is being bought up quickly. American culture has changed and I think left-adjacent people are now more concerned about the personal impact of politics than about pointless outrage. Conservatives are more worried about vaccine mandates than Antifa conspiracies. Left moderates are just patiently waiting for the lecture on why “uterus havers” is appropriate terminology to end instead of engaging. Basically I think you are right- the rulers aren’t going to stop peddling identity politics. But I think fewer people are buying. The US has hit a critical mass of what the Chinese call “lay flat and let it rot”. People stayed home for COVID and learned to make do with less money. Family and time became more important than that raise they were chasing. In this new culture, corporate culture (including identity politics) matters less. I don’t know if we’ll see a new framework emerge to explain why the world is the way it is and what to do about it. No more than polyamory was defeated and renounced. People just got bored with it and said “meh, fuck whomever you like”. I see that point approaching with identity politics were the proponents of idpol will be listened to and ignored.
Tangentially, I’ve got to admit I find something creepy in the campaign to move reproductive labor out of the family/ home and make it communal. It’s one of my few beefs with Silvia Federici.
1) I don’t believe the traditional housewife is alone. I am a SAHM and I am never alone. I have a deep feeling of community and kinship with my dairy animals and with the world around me. I really became a true feminist through being a farming housewife and realizing just how pointless 90% of males are (sorry dudes- I love my hubby and am hardly a man-hater but I had to realize that very few males in “the real world” of nature get past the stage of being tasty morsels for predators). There is a whole community in the garden, in the woods, and with the herd. Every space not full of inane human chatter is not solitary confinement.
2) Working “by myself” is not unpleasant or alienating. I find working with others and being expected to socialize to be more work than simply completing tasks. The assumption that the problem of reproductive labor is isolation is unproven. I would far more argue that the lack of appreciation (measured in wealth and security offered by the family/ society, not just in words) is the problem of reproductive labor. It is invisible and having it seen by other women who’s work is also invisible only does so much. Moreover, exemplary performance of reproductive labor is always seen as a luxury/ waste of time. A woman who carefully gardens whole foods to feed her family for years, who cooks and cleans and stores produce will be hit in the divorce proceedings with the estimated value of her contributions as compared to frozen pizza and not to heirloom organics.
3) Control- women in many cultures have had the home as a place of her power. It was her right to deny entrance to the man, or to refuse him food from the storehouses. Moving that locus of power out of the home into industrial food processing is a huge factor driving the degradation of women for centuries. Even to put it under community control puts it halfway under the control of men- who are unlikely to contribute half of the work even with the best intentions. It also puts it under the control of women as a collective and leaves no base of power for the individual woman. And to be realistic, women can be a problem just as much as men. Female genital mutilation is often performed and passed down through women’s societies and women’s culture, for one example. And touching on my previous point, where reproductive labor is controlled collectively, quality control becomes hard to establish. Perhaps some families like to eat cheap food and spend more on clothes, while other wear hand-me-downs and eat organic. Collective control makes diversity hard in that sense. And also, at risk of parodying myself, it is ableist as fuck. It assumes that food allergies are not a problem and/ or perhaps that those who have them will spend extra time preparing their own food while the normies can just eat. Or that everyone is forced to eat hypoallergenic mush. My point is not that collective cooking is evil and ableist (I really don’t mind bringing a gluten free dish to the party). My point is that a diversity of styles of reproductive labor has good points ranging from personal preferences to people who are going to go into anaphylaxis because someone used the a knife that touched peanut butter to cut their bread. It may seem a petty complaint (and I know it is compared to racism or sexism or whatever) but it is othering enough to be the person snacking on potato chips and not eating the host’s food because I can’t be sure if it will hurt me or not. To have a whole society where say, the infrastructure for home cooking were not standard in the home would be scary. And humans being human, someone would likely resent those with allergies if they were given access to dedicated kitchen space. So, yeah, tangential and petty but I’m just trying to shed some light on how even a simple, awesome thing like a communIty kitchen turning out awesome food could create as many problems as it solves. It’s petty but so much is petty. The best numbers I’ve been able to find out the number of celiacs in the US at twice the number of trans people. I admit to feeling extremely petty over the fact that this, that, and the other thing is “transphobic” because it might, in some small way, inconvenience or upset a trans person yet no one gives a flying fuck about being inclusive of people who have dietary restrictions. We’re all supposed to state our pronouns lest it be uncomfortable to make a request for pronouns that would not have been a first guess. But arguing for community kitchens very unlikely to be able to turn out safe (let alone palatable) food for those with allergies is completely inclusive. I promise I’m usually not this petty but goddamn it this is one that burns.
I'm pretty skeptical about these arguments that Social Justice is just some co-option of "revolutionary potential" or of "ending capitalism" (LOL!), mostly bc these things are permanent fantasies of the young and dreamy-eyed, really a sort of post-God messiah that scruffy young socialists have been waiting to appear for maybe 2 centuries by now.
But my main critique involves something the political materialists seem blind to, as if they're chatting in a dark corner with a conjoined twin but don't notice the second attached sibling. Yes, Mammon is the great American god, the globalist god who gazes down upon us all, but here at start of the 21st century and the end of Western Civ there is one other god left standing: The Self.
The Self is who we look for every time we stare into those black mirrors called iPhones, the Self is what we parade on social media, journalists want to editorialize so they can insert their Self into every story, our bosses and their HR commissars want you to Bring Your Self to work (my Self, my whole self, and nothing but my Self...), and of course our children are encouraged to swap sexes so they can find their One True Authentic Self™.
And Soc Justice/Identity politics is a natural outgrowth of the Self. Even in its rituals, you must first acknowledge your Self: "speaking as a...". And it conflates politics with the Self, so that any challenge is interpreted as a personal attack and your opponents become not just wrong, but evil; also, anything and everything (esp if you have a high Soc Just score) can be a radical political statement. Remember the founding slogan of the New Left: "The Personal is Political".
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Audre Lorde
"Even today, I have a personal errand, I need to redo my nails. And I’ve decided that I’m going to use my new manicure as almost like a personal act of reclamation for me and my story.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Social Justice is the reigning ideology of our time not because of some capitalist plot to (once again!) foil those otherwise materialist masses; it succeeds because it lets everyone pretend to care about saving the planet, saving "Democracy", while singing a passionate aria about what they love the most: their Self.
My observations from where I work (a school) and I believe the national trends, it is girls fleeing femaleness by a very large margin over boys going female. Is the Patriarchy having the last word? That it is truly better to be a man than a woman? An unconscious misogyny?
I’m totally with you on your enjoyment of inclusivity and relationship in your so called solo endeavors at home. It’s a big world when you’re paying attention to the non human one. And the rest of the pros and cons realistically framed as well.