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identity-politics

Once upon a time, I considered myself a lefty. I was critical of the system, global economic power, and Western imperialism and imperial wars. I was also conscious and critical of socioeconomic and class issues. Overall, I was wary and critical of militarized global capitalism as an international system of power and exploitation that historically gives rise to a host of other issues and problems. To me, being “left-wing” implied some form of critique of the system and a desire to, on some level, transform or replace it [1].

Today, I have a far less clear notion of what it means to be left wing and I no longer employ the label. This is largely due to the left’s “transition” to identity politics, liberalism and hard-line political correctness.

The contemporary left or “new left” (or “fake left”, as many have come to see it) seems much more concerned, if not obsessed, with personal identity than economic and political, analysis and opposition. Everywhere I look, issues of gender, sexuality and (to a lesser extent) race seem to dominate the Left. Since the late 1960s and 1970s, the radical left, which had criticism of the system and class-consciousness as underlying characteristics, became increasingly concerned with an identity politics that is not amply couched in critical ideology or larger critical analyses of the global system of power. While identity issues may matter, being gay, a woman, transgender, or a racial minority does not, in and of itself, make one subversive or anti-systemic nor does it necessarily threaten the global system of power [2]. If anything, by diverting attention away from class and economic issues and struggles, identity politics may unwittingly reinforce the power of the system.

While sexually and racially marginalized people may deal with increased social bias, discrimination and or obstacles because of their “identity,” class and politico-economic power are the elephants in the room that the new left must not be afraid to address. Wealthy racial minorities or wealthy women, for instance, likely experience less bias and less social barriers than poor ones.  While they may differ from wealthy white males, they share something very important in common–their wealth and the social access and mobility it allows.  What this means is that, despite racial, gender and other differences, individuals have much in common–i.e., similar struggles or similar privileges based on wealth or lack there of–with people of a similar economic position. While identity politics divides people (into little camps and special interest groups), economic status and or economic plight (i.e., class) is the great “unifier” insofar as there is currently a global economic order or system that is collectively screwing the majority of the world’s people.

Seeking inclusion or wider representation within this system it is not necessarily an act of subversion or resistance. Belonging to a marginalized identity can be very subversive against social and religious norms but it is not, in and of itself, subversive against the politico-economic power structure. While many people are undeniably discriminated against based on race, gender and sexuality, an identity politics that is devoid of class-consciousness, class analysis and class struggle does not threaten or undermine the global system of power. As I previously stated, by shifting attention away from class and economic issues, identity politics may actually reinforce the power of the system.

In other words, identity politics does not directly threaten the system. One way to know what threatens the establishment is to examine what the establishment targets as an enemy. For instance, for my doctoral research, I examined what the Canadian state targets as enemy number one–that being terrorism–under its anti-terrorism laws. Strangely, why this legislation is suppose to be aimed at combating “terrorism,” what I found is that the laws seems to be targeting a very particular type of dissent. My in-depth, award-winning analysis of Canadian anti-terrorism shows that/how the laws are written in such a manner as to conflate anti-globalization or anti-capitalist/corporate dissent and protests with the very serious crime of terrorism. A major implication of these findings is the the Canadian state, much like other western states, is so threatened by dissent and resistance to global economic power that it legally considered it a form of terrorism.

By looking at the type of dissent or opposition the State targets and criminalizes we begin to get a picture of what type of is dissent is threatening to–and can therefore have an impact on–power. Nowhere in the hundreds of pages of legislation and official security documents that I examined did I see the words “women’s movement” or “gay/queer movement” or “black movement” movement or activism  explicitly mentioned as a threat to national security and conflated with  terrorism or terrorist violence.  This implies that identity-based types of dissent and political movements—i.e., identity politics—do not, on their own, threaten or undermine the western capitalist state and the global system of politico-economic power, of it which it is currently a component.

In other words, my research reveals what really threatens the power structure, and it ain’t identity politics! Thus, the research findings suggests that class and economic struggles or movements  (such as the anti-globalization or anti-capitalist movement), not identity-based ones, are the core issues at stake for confronting power and oppression and the ones that we should focus on more.  If the objective of the Left is (suppose to be) to challenge the oppressive power structure, then it may be useful to look at what types of dissent and resistance that power structure is actually afraid of—as my research does—and then embark on or focus on these forms of dissent and oppositional politics.

Notes

[1] At the same time, I was conscious and guilty of the contradictions of living, participating and working in a system I am critical of–I work to pay the bills, buy things and participate in consumerism, etc.

[3] I define subversion as criticism of or opposition to the politico-economic power structure and militarized global politico-economic power or simply, Empire.

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