Guest Post: The Problem with the Left and its Identity Politics
A guest post by “Leopold Lawrence”.
At the start of this century and into the following decade, it is hard to imagine, indeed, even to ponder the possibilities of the mass revolt. Our times seem so distant from those of fifty and forty years ago, that we can now scarcely imagine how revolts of such scale were even possible and capable of almost overthrowing the regimes of their times. The disillusionments and disappointments that followed these revolts, the most spectacular being the May ’68 Revolts that took place in Paris, has since brought much of the radical, revolutionary Left into disrepute, unable to even mount an incisive cultural critique of our times. It would not be much to say that the Left has since ‘exhausted’ itself, repeating the dead old memes of identity politics and proletarian revolutions that can no longer capture the imagination of the masses that they so rely on. Workers are fed up with socialist parties that have routinely betrayed them in the name of a “Third Way”, a left-apologetic for the excesses of a global capitalism, a type of parasitic system that has managed to reach everywhere into our most personal of lives, especially since the advent of globalization and the fall of the Iron Curtain.
If the goal of leftism is to build a more ‘humane’ capitalism, then it has forfeited any radical critique it could have possibly mounted against global capitalism itself. To ‘humanize’ capitalism is simply to lay a colorful shroud over what is essentially, at its core, a most oppressive and alienating system of production/consumption that our ‘benefactors’ have invented. To ‘humanize’ something, that is at the bottom, inhumane, is to give a characteristic to a thing which does not belong to it, since what capitalism remains is essentially an inhumane soul. The humanization of capitalism only serves to distort and mask the reality of what capitalism really is underneath: a wolf in sheep’s skin.
Furthermore, the Leftist advocacy of identity politics has only enslaved us to particular identities rather than liberating us from them. Rather than allowing us to remake our own identities, leftist identity politics calls for us being ‘aware’ of how we are defined by external circumstances only to pigeon-hole us into an identity of victimhood that we should all be breaking out of, to break out of our externally imposed conditions of existence. Leftists want us to realize our potential as women, workers, students, etc, without realizing that these are the social roles that our society has determined that we are, that this is what we “truly are”. Although workers, women, students, indigenous peoples we may all be, but we are all precisely more than these and cannot by any proper means be defined by them nor reduced to these identities. These identities always remain something external to us, and thus in every single way, ‘inessential’ to us.
This does not mean, however, that we should not take on these struggles, but it does require us to recognize that neither of these struggles is more ‘essential’ than the other, and that the other particular struggles that we may take on cannot be reduced to a more ‘essential’ one. That is, “liberating” ourselves as workers, students, women, etc, will only ever amount to a partial liberation of our particular identities as students, women, workers, but never to a full liberation from those identities, which should be the goal of any genuine movement towards self-emancipation. In short, the problem with such identities is that they define us always by what we do rather than by what we are (what we ‘are’, however, remains essentially indefinable). To be a worker, a student, even a woman, is to take on a social role, defined by us and for us by what we do.
Here, I am in much agreement with Wolfi Landstreicher’s critique of identity as a social role: “Social roles are ways in which individuals are defined by the whole system of relationships that is society in order to reproduce society. They make individuals useful to society by making them predictable, by defining their activities in terms of the needs of society. Social roles are work — in the broad sense of activity that reproduces the production/consumption cycle.” Social roles thus always remain externally determined, what we do for a living is something we take up, not because we enjoy them (we don’t, for the most part), but are ways that reinforce and reaffirm our ‘place’ in a society of production/consumption that has determined for us what we are best able to do (through the questionable notion of “competence”/”merit”), even when we are in complete disagreement with its judgment.
We are, after all, not essentially producers nor consumers, but something more than what society has determined us to be. Thus, we ‘free spirits’ are never really students, workers, women, etc, for these are the things we do, our social function in society but not what we are. What we really are though, is an ‘indefinable self’, an irreducible self, a self that is differentiated from all else. But our social roles are never ‘essential’ to us, for these are roles that we take up and discard once they are no longer useful. Hence, I am not always a student, nor a worker, but beyond such identities. To take these identities as essential then, is not just an instance of ‘false consciousness’ but of willful self-deception and alienation from ourselves as ourselves for we forget to relate to ourselves as the self that is always differentiated from its attributes that it happens to possess, that is, those external attributes that are extrinsic to itself and thus removable from the self, i.e. the contingent.
In taking up our social roles as our ‘essential’ identities, we become the replaceable cogs in the machine that, once worn out (as we eventually do, from “burn-out”), another cog, similar to us, will take our place. We are not then, unique nor differentiated in our social roles, but the same; a homogenized mass of bodies, quantifiable and measurable and always only useful as a ‘function’ in a scheme beyond ourselves. Thus, in this broad social scheme, I relate to another as a ‘colleague’, ‘boss’, ‘employer’, ‘bureaucrat’, etc, but never as freely determined individuals, never as ‘themselves ’. This remains closed to me and not simply because of matters of ‘professionalism’. For example, even people who relate to each other outside of work cannot break outside of their roles that they carry over from work: “Oh yeah, Bill today lost the paper-work and got demoted!” But the ‘other’ as ‘other’ is still distant, something inaccessible and certainly not in a direct manner. Thus, it is no surprise that we remain alienated from each other in such circumstances!
The Self Beyond Determination
So to take on one particular struggle to the detriment of another, is to miss the mark completely. Instead, we will have to choose our struggles carefully and towards those which sparks our most immediate interest. In other words, to limit ourselves to these contingent identities (that are not even, most of the time, of our own making) is to limit the possibilities of breaking beyond these externally imposed identities and to take on a self-identity that finds its nature as an “undetermined indeterminacy”. By an ‘undetermined indeterminacy’, we mean an identity that, due to its own initially undetermined nature, is open to its own constant remaking, an identity that both creates and recreates itself in a constant process of becoming something ‘other’ than itself while remaining itself indeterminably; a self that cannot be picked out.
At the same time, this identity is also “indeterminate” because it can never be fully defined as what it essentially is since there is always something about it that escapes full definition and thus, determination. It remains indeterminate at all times, since to state what it essentially is would be to define it and thus to ‘limit’ its possibilities of being something else/other; it would then be reducible to another attribute that it happens to have rather than being something more and above all of its attributes. As such, to state what the self essentially is would be to really say what it is not, since what it really is is always something else, something other than what we said it is. Thus the self always escapes full definition since no definition could possibly fit the self into a specific category of being since the self remains prior to all modes of being, indeed it is the grounds in which all modes of being is possible. After all, before you are a Man, an American, a Christian, etc, (and all other contingent personal attributes), before all of this, ‘ýou are you’ and remain you even if those other attributes are taken away from you.
To put it simply, this self-identity that is beyond all identities is neither essential (in the sense of it being ‘fixed’), nor externally determined by circumstances and other factors beyond our control (as in something given or handed down to us by others), but always remains self-determined, a self that creates and recreates itself. It is not a ‘fixed essence’ in that it remains constantly the same no matter what, but always redefines itself and thus escapes definition since to define it means to ‘fix’ it into a particular place/attribute that it happens to occupy or a character that it happens to possess, rather than allowing for its free development beyond all place and attribute. At most, our words can only point to it but can never grasp its full essence since its essence is essentially always changing, always becoming something ‘other’.
This indeterminacy allow this self-identity to escape not just all attempts to define it, but allows for its own contingent defining and redefining through its free self-development, as it makes and remakes itself in a constant process of becoming. Thus, I find many parallels here with Stirner’s “Unique One” which takes on all the characteristics of an undetermined indeterminacy: “This indeterminacy only seems to be achieved in the unique, because it is given as the specific unique being, because when it is grasped as a concept, i.e., as an expression, it appears as a completely empty and undetermined name, and thus refers to a content outside of or beyond the concept. If one fixes it as a concept— and the opponents do this — one must attempt to give it a definition and will thus inevitably come upon something different from what was meant.”
Further, as Stirner explains: “The unique, however, has no content; it is indeterminacy in itself; only through you does it acquire content and determination. There is no conceptual development of the unique, one cannot build a philosophical system with it as a “principle,” the way one can with being, with thought, with the I.” From this, all self-determination becomes possible from the undetermined indeterminacy of self-identity.
What do you think? Comments?