Identity is How Capitalism Intends to Perpetuate Itself
Identity politics as the new capitalist cosmology
I’ve seen a few people suggest we’ve reached some sort of pinnacle or “peak” of “woke” politics. Before even talking about this, we need to clear up what’s even meant by “woke” and “wokeness.” It’s a slippery term, so slippery that I’ve become convinced it’s no longer useful for describing anything.
Words lose their original contexts as part of a natural process of meaning drift. Before the internet, it usually took decades for this to happen.1 Now, however, a word can take on a completely different meaning in the space of only a few years. A very recent example of this is the verb “cringe,” which has just become an adjective (“that’s so cringe”) while those of us who don’t use social media weren’t looking.
“Woke” means everything and nothing at all, depending on whom you speak to. Since the people “woke” refers to no longer use it to describe themselves (they once did, for a short period before Trump), there’s a good argument to be made that it’s a useless term. On the other hand, just as the word “queer” was once a slur (and for older gay and lesbians it still is) and then later became an ideological principle (and a verb, to whit: “We need to queer mathematics,” a phrase I still don’t understand), it’s quite possible we’ll see “woke” become the preferred label.
Social justice identitarianism and social justice identity politics are much more accurate labels. Plenty might argue with these terms too, especially the “identitarian” part because of its association with right-wing movements. But what else do you call a politics that attempts to organize groups around their racial, sexual, and other identities against groups with other identities except “identitarian?”
The more important part of those terms is anyway the first part, “social justice.” The various movements called “woke” differ from traditional leftist movements in their focus on the social rather than the economic: making changes in the way humans relate to each other to affect justice rather than changing underlying material conditions and class relations. That is, fighting racism, sexism, transphobia, able-ism, and all the other “systems of oppression” rather than capitalism or as a means of transforming capitalism into something nicer.
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So, back to the question. Have we reached “peak woke?” That is, are we at a point where the apparent expansion of these ideologies will start to decline and then even reverse?
I don’t think so. I tend to agree more with the conservative writer John Gray that social justice identity politics is functioning as a “successor” ideology to neoconservativism, and with black Marxist Adolph Reed that it’s the core moral constellation of neoliberalism. Though coming from apparently different political traditions, they—and quite a few others—are essentially arguing the same thing: identity is how capitalism intends to perpetuate itself.
This is really a change in cosmology. Identity relations are replacing class relations as the dominant field of political struggle, which means we’re replacing functional and material relations with social characteristics. Formerly it was the capitalists against the working class, and everyone knew that these were functional positions (one owned, the other labored) rather than eternal or inherent characteristics. There was nothing inherent or intrinsic about the capitalist herself which made her the enemy, it was what she did and how she colluded with others to make sure she could keep doing it. There was nothing inherent or intrinsic to the working class that made them good or evil, but rather only a functional relationship of being exploited for their labor and the material state of having no access to land or the “means of production.”
Within this newer cosmology, it’s because a person is cis-, or able-bodied, or male, or white that they are oppressive. None of these are functional relationships, but rather identity markers that point to something “inherent” about the oppressor. There’s also nothing functional about being black, or female, or trans, or disabled: they, too, are all identity markers pointing to an “inherent” victimization by the oppressors.
In other words, in the older cosmology, a worker is exploited by a capitalist. In this successor cosmology, the black disabled trans woman is oppressed by the white cis heterosexual able-bodied man. Before, it was because of what a person did that injustice arose. Now, it is because of who a person is.
This arrangement suits capitalism quite well, because it cannot challenge the exploitation of workers by the owning class. In fact, within it a capitalist can even claim to be oppressed and victimized by the people she exploits if she has more oppressed identity markers (black, trans, disabled, etc) than the people whose labor increases her wealth.
It’s really an ideal situation for the capitalists. That’s why so many corporations, banks, and neoliberal politicians have readily adopted the language of identity and at least the aesthetic of diversity and equity in their hiring practices, management styles, and political platforms. They have every reason to be happy with this cosmological shift, since they still get to keep property relations intact as long as they offer more expression to identity concerns.
What I think some of those who suggested we had reached a “peak” of this newer ideology were observing was that there seems to be a sudden awareness of this trajectory by many more on the left. Especially as the US government and corporations start to adopt identity discourse more openly (for example, in that notorious CIA recruitment video and similar ones by the US army), identity politics seemed to be neutered of its anti-state and anti-capitalist pretensions.
Recognition that something was shifting has led to halfhearted attempts to attribute government and capitalist adoptions of identity discourse as “recuperation” or “elite capture.” The theory here is that the capitalist class was adopting social justice identitarianism as a way to make its ideas impotent, to neuter its revolutionary core. This is Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s argument in Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (and Everything Else). Despite quite a lot of early publicity and gushing reviews, Táíwò’s thesis has fallen as flat in the public realm as it does in the book.
Part of its failure certainly comes from its early enthusiasm from the very class of people at whose feet he lays the blame for this shift, the “elites.” Two such “elites” (Professional-Managerial Class) whose work has helped demonize class analysis as “populist” and “racist,” Jason Stanley and Ibram X. Kendi, even contributed “advance praise” to the book.
Táíwò attempts to reconcile the missing class element in intersectional / social justice identity politics by suggesting that every identity group has elites who tend to dominate or “capture” the group’s identity concerns. While the “real” problem for Táíwò is white “racial capitalism,” elites within the oppressed groups tend to stifle actual resistance to it because they fail to include less elite people in the conversation (or “room,” as he repeatedly calls it). Black, trans, and other oppressed groups could have not only social but also economic justice too, if only the elites let some of the poorer members of those groups also speak. In the end, Táíwò insists identity politics can eventually end capitalism, provided the elites (including, he admits, himself) start acting like a more inclusive vanguard rather than just soaking up all the attention for themselves.
Other attempts to argue more intensely that identity politics is the only way forward have also been released, such as another title from the same publisher called Fractured: Race, Class, Gender and the Hatred of Identity Politics by Michael Richmond and Alex Charnley. Their argument is really an expansion of Táíwò’s with the added feature of defining all leftist critiques of identity as “conservative pivot.” In particular, the authors are obsessively critical of black Marxist Adolph Reed and the editorial direction of Jacobin for even accepting there might be such a thing as “neoliberalism.” For them, even any leftist who accents the “wrong” syllable of Antifa (as “Anteefa”) has been manipulated by white supremacists.
The core of their political program sounds as un-actionable as that of Táíwò’s conclusion, except with some extra family abolition and misunderstood Walter Benjamin for flavor:
“The measure of a new society will depend on challenging racial and gendered divisions of labour, but also a working-class ‘community’ model that does not depend on the family for social reproduction, and state policing to secure it. These are key sites of struggle, for communities of care and for the means of reproduction in a social context of widespread and differentiated crises of precarity and social isolation punctuated by bursts of ‘Revolutionary Time’.”
Both books betray the sense that there’s some degree of recognition that identity politics is becoming less and less tenable because of its adoption by the state and the capitalists. While Fractured gives scant mention of this, the authors’ focus on earlier race-based struggles reveals an attempt to wrest it back from the neoliberals they claim do not actually exist. Elite Capture, on the other hand, more honestly admits the current state (and statist uses) of identity politics, while still insisting the problem isn’t capitalism, it’s “racial capitalism.”
There are worried defenses appearing elsewhere, of course. The intense and panicked attempts to narrate all criticism of “gender” as fascist (as Judith Butler did last year in the Guardian) points to a growing recognition of a natural limit in its ideological spread. The unacknowledged problem there, however, is that without state power and mass re-education (through media propaganda and schooling), it would be impossible to convince the entire world that there is no material aspect of sexual difference. Opposition to “gender” (or really, Butler’s idea of declarative/performative gender) and opposition to neoliberalism seems to fuse in people’s minds because it’s the neoliberal states themselves (particularly the United States and United Kingdom) which produced this new framework.
This last point is crucial, because it gives us an idea of how identity is functioning as the new imperialist cosmology. European colonialism didn’t just spread pre- and early capitalist property relations to the rest of the world, but it also spread a particular Christian cosmology. There was only one god, rather than the thousands upon thousands of gods the conquered people knew. Humans stood outside of nature and in linear time, rather than as part of nature and within animist conceptions of time. By converting the colonial subjects to this newer cosmology, European capitalists were able to re-create the world that created them, over and over again in each new place.
What is happening now is the same thing: identity politics allows Anglo-American neoliberalism to recreate itself throughout the rest of the world. The problem everywhere becomes racism and anti-genderism, not capitalism, meaning that the solution everywhere becomes identity politics, not anti-capitalist revolt. As such, the core theorists of identity politics become like the early church fathers or the Reformation figures, providing the sacred cosmology for imperialist conquest.
I think the sudden rush to defend identity politics against leftist critiques is thus a sign not that we have reached some peak, but rather that many more are starting to sense where this is actually heading. It’s becoming harder to pretend it ever had any real revolutionary potential, but those who believe it does or did will inevitably try to rally the last remaining faithful to its fallen flag.
We’ll see many more such defenses, I think, but they’ll eventually be drowned out by the capitalists saying the very same thing.
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For example, “gender” and “sex” became synonyms for each other in English only after several decades of repeated replacements in literature and conversation, and only as the word “sex” itself started to refer more to the act of sex rather than the divisions of sex.