The Lingering Past
Identity is not a simple phenomenon. The farther back in time we go in studying the question, the more limited the number of groups there are to study and the more simply those groups are organized in relation to their survival and sustainability. Whether people acted toward each other in a hierarchical way or as egalitarians, they did so with a division of labour appropriate to their situation, and the more numerous the contacts they had with other like groups, the more complex their social relations became, from families to tribes, nations and empires.
The difficulties in compatibility were sometimes insurmountable when the members of one group or alliance of groups realized “They are not like us,” and problems of unpredictability arose. A choice presented itself: whether to co-exist peacefully, dominate the others or, as some very small and rare groups have done to this day, blow their darts, so to speak, and disappear.
Identity politics in our time reflect causes that sometimes have lasted relatively unpoliticized for centuries and sometimes have arisen repeatedly, in waves of protest, each building on the previous surge. In some cases activists must act to change laws. In other cases they must try to influence a change in the whole culture to think differently about longstanding stereotypes of their very being. Feminism, black civil rights movements, Indigenous defenses of their spiritual/religious rights or rights relating to broken treaties, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, queer) movements, issues concerning abuse of the aged, and acknowledgement of disabled people’s abilities have caused a whirlwind of cultural transformations recently, not only in the West, but globally. For just one example, see Contested Intimacies: Sexuality, Gender and Law in Africa, a collection edited by Derrick Higginbotham and Victoria Collis-Buthelezi (Siber Ink, Claremont, South Africa, 2015).
Goals and Means
Lately there have been many objections in anti-capitalist circles to the amount of time given to identity politics online and in print, in comparison to the attention given to anti-capitalist politics, whose proponents believe will ultimately be more effective. They reason that now when capitalism has reached global proportions, when rival nation states engage in wars motivated largely by the desire to extract other states’ resources, when millions of human beings suffer hunger, thirst, disease and exposure to devastation and the danger of death, caught up as they are in coups d’état and regime changes, and when migration is a life-or-death gamble, engaging in identity politics seems like a self-indulgence compared with a global anti-capitalist struggle.
For a recent, popular book opposing identity politics, see Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, by Asad Haider (London, Verso Books, 2018).
Such critics ask, what about prioritizing the working poor, the unemployed, the needy, the homeless, instead of identity politics that are ephemeral and bound to be co-opted by capitalism’s profit-making diversions? The answer, I would say, rests in the profundity of identity grievances, the centuries that have passed without recognition of injustices visited upon those aggrieved, and the fact that their efforts are not failing, have not been co-opted, have indeed been transforming cultures world-wide. If aspects of their struggles change, it’s not because they go from one fad to another, as some people complain – it’s because their movements are flourishing, adding to earlier movements on which they build.
There is another issue as well, one concerning the hierarchy that some practitioners of class-based politics claim gives them pride of place over identity politics. An example from the 1930s illustrates the point. It is a moment described in George Padmore’s book published in 1937, Pan-Africanism or Communism.
Padmore and the novelist Richard Wright, who wrote the foreword to Pan-Africanism or Communism, were both at one time in their lives members of the Communist Party, with Padmore rather highly placed as head of the African Bureau of the Comintern in Germany. He broke with the Party in 1937, immediately after it refused to continue supporting Pan-African movement activities. The Pan-African anti-colonial struggles in Africa during World War II were already in progress, but Soviet Russia had recently changed allegiances from Germany and Japan to Britain and France, and wanted to assign Padmore elsewhere, postponing any anti-colonial activity. At this point Padmore resigned from the Party.
A similar issue, although fictional and on a smaller scale, is described by Ralph Ellison in his novel, Invisible Man. “The Brotherhood,” based on the Communist Party, ordered the main character in Ellison’s book to cease being the spokesman for it in Harlem. The “club” had other priorities and wanted to send him to a white neighbourhood, although he had been notably successful in Harlem. He promptly resigned.
Richard Wright, in his foreword to Padmore’s book, made a point that could be thought of today as a bit of identity politics, although Pan-Africanism was an international, somewhat interracial alliance between classes. Wright said:
“The Negro did not create the issue of colour, or race, or the condition in which he lives, but he has been moulded and influenced by them. The Negro’s fundamental loyalty is, therefore, to himself. His situation makes this inevitable.
“There will be Negroes who will rush indignantly forward to decry what I have just said. The higher their position of trust in France, England, or America, the more vehemently they will deny what I am saying . . .”
Wright also points out that black nationalism is far older than International Communism by about a century. Wright was speaking of the first British descendants of enslaved persons to be returned and settled in Africa (in Sierra Leone) in 1787. After that experiment proved successful, Britain assumed, as Wright put it, “responsibility for its protection and administration.”
Capitalism and Decolonization – Work To Be Done
Pan-Africanism did not overturn capitalism in the world, but that was not its goal. It helped overturn every French, British, Belgian and Portuguese colony on the continent of Africa by the time of Zimbabwe’s independence in April, 1980, and inspired the decolonization of almost all the islands of the Caribbean by 1983, when St. Kitts and Nevis became independent, Anguilla choosing to remain under British rule.
Capitalism remains the economy of these countries, but Pan-Africanism helped effect the huge emancipation of the spirit for black people as well as sovereignty for their countries. As for economics, continued development of the decolonized nations has depended precariously on loans, extrication of their natural resources, the yokes of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, as well as the plunder by certain corrupt heads of state. Elimination of all those drawbacks is a task that remains, in Africa and globally.
However, what would Africa have been like in the 1980s if the fire that inspired Pan-Africanism had been doused in 1937? Likewise, where would the successes of feminists, black activists, lesbians, gay men, transgender women and men, and new wagers of identity politics be today without the advances of the 19th century? Today’s activists lead themselves because they see a viable path toward some (if not all) attainments of their goals – and in their own lifetimes. The reason why they don’t stand as an inspiration for many on the Left is precisely because they set their own goals, but as Wright said of black identity, their “situation” has made their own leadership, rather than a hierarchical form of leadership, inevitable. It is a freeing of bonds.
What identity politics needs is to widen its activity world-wide, with two, three, hundreds of practitioners abiding by their own self-definitions, running on different tracks, at different rates of speed, and using different tactics, but moving forward toward the same free, global society, and enjoying equal human rights.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
Strong opposition to such politics is spelled out in detail in Inventing the Future, Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. It was published in the U.K. in 2015, and updated in 2016. It is an erudite presentation of the authors’ vision of a world without work by human hands (and sometimes with work by artificial brains), with automation as the major means of production, where all people will be issued a universal basic income. A culture of beauty and creativity will be the work of those so inclined to fashion it, and leisure by the rest will be encouraged; work will be entirely voluntary, and the drudgery experienced now by workers world-wide will become a thing of the past.
The authors wish to transform the global-reaching, automated, roboticized, capitalist-driven society of today by utilizing technology’s own advances in automation to drive itself to a level at which most of the world’s workers will no longer be needed, and the distribution of a universal basic income will be the logical way to manage a world populated by surplus labourers.
What follows here is not a critique of Inventing the Future in its entirety, but of its treatment of identity politics, or “folk politics,” as the authors call it. They deem folk politics unsuited for the task of bringing about the postcapitalist stage they envision. The fact that activists practicing folk politics have not set the same goal for themselves as Srnicek and Williams have, or used the same tactics with which to wage politics, boils down to the same issue that divided Pan-Africanism and the Communists: namely, that it is not necessarily a class-based one of anti-capitalism versus capitalism. It could be both anti-capitalist and identity-based at the same time. For instance, George Padmore became a Socialist after leaving the Communist Party and at the same time vigorously pursued Pan-Africanism, but that is not what the authors of Inventing the Future have in mind as their idea of solidarity. For them the goal of an anti-capitalist world without work is primary, along with the tactics they describe to get there.
Folk politics, the authors argue, are poorly conceptualized, ineffective, outmoded and overwhelmed by the complexities of globalization that includes politics, economics and climate change. They break down what they see as the weaknesses of identity politics into: direct action, immediacy, distaste for leadership, and vertical (i.e., egalitarian) instead of hierarchical organization.
Folk politics are also accused of tending toward the immediacy that direct action provides: to protest a particular grievance, rather than favouring the elimination of whole institutions that embody those grievances, i.e., altering behaviour rather than structure. Folk politics cover a gamut from petitioning and marching to the tearing down, burning or dismantling of a building. These actions are spectacular but are criticized for being ephemeral, compared with making specific demands for changes in governmental or corporate practices.
That approach can be valid following a class-based action, but not, for instance, in the case of the gay and lesbian riots against repeated police raids at the Stonewall Inn in New York in June 1969, or the current “Me Too” actions against sexual harassment and rape of women and men by highly-placed corporate executives under whom they have to work. In these cases there have been significant changes in corporate culture and police behaviour, not just regarding the local perpetrators of the acts in question but in the global consciousness-raising spread by media’s sensationalistic attention to the protests. In all of these cases, decisive changes in the culture followed. Businesses began dismantling a culture of disrespect toward women, men, and transgender employees, by way of specific policies against such behaviour.
Another aspect of direct-action identity politics that meets with disfavour by Srnicek and Williams is the preference for actions to be taken by the protestors in person, that is by the masses of people who have experienced the same particular abuse. The criticism is that it limits the size of the action. This does not take into consideration the psychological effect bestowed upon the participants themselves who until then had suffered shame because of their identity. Marching, carrying signs, chanting and internalizing their own actions project a new sense of self-worth and contribute to the replication of those acts in other locales, sometimes in other states and countries. The actions often lead, through media attention, to acknowledgement and apology for past behaviour by the abusers. Rather than being a weakness, these protests should be recognized as effectual and relevant.
In the practice of “folk politics,” reliance on group decision-making is essential for planning actions such as marching, chanting, issuing petitions, etc. This decision-making process is the opposite of a leadership model, where a well-meaning leader or leadership group might hold back information about items on an agenda for the sake of expediency, or might introduce new activities to the general membership without the full rationale for those activities. The information might be based on a scientific analysis discussed by the leadership, but the general membership might not be familiar with it. Leaders then decide among themselves what is to be done and rule out counter proposals with a minimum of discussion.
Inventing the Future presents a practical example of a leadership situation where a membership is expected to anticipate eagerly a world without work and do what it can to hasten and further technological advances that would bring about a world without workers. This is a prospect dreaded by workers, however, who see increasing unemployment ahead and fear their own future lack of security should a universal basic income not be forthcoming in a timely manner. The authors of Inventing the Future deal with this fear as if it were merely the result of indoctrination. The public must be weaned, they say, of its fear of massive surplus labour and must be encouraged to disrespect work rather than admire it. The desirability of such paths toward the utopian goal itself is not put up for discussion, whereas desirability would be high on the agenda of many a folk politics group. When it comes to the global distribution of a universal basic income, a widespread, democratic discussion and voting process would require the world’s full attention and input.
Inventing the Future also has something to say about the small-food movement (eating locally, with ecological mindfulness to reduce a community’s carbon footprint). This movement may be small and local, reminding one of folk politics, but it is not based on an identity rooted in one’s body at birth, or in ways that mark one on sight as vulnerable to prejudicial treatment. In their criticism of small-food tactics, the authors rightly point out that the transportation involved in attempts to reduce that group’s carbon footprint was a miscalculation and produced the opposite effect instead. However, that group’s localism isn’t comparable to that of folk politics. The latter uses cooperative means of production, with a plan to consume the produce locally. That requires far less consumption of energy than the “small is beautiful” example described and rejected, and should not be thought of as the same kind of politics as that of the folks.
Practice: Jackson, Mississippi and The Bronx, New York
Following are descriptions of two cooperatives, one a contemporary, identity-politics model, and the other a socialist model from the 1930s that is still in operation and could be adaptable to identity politics today. The first model is Cooperation Jackson, a network of 18 workers’ co-ops (17 black and one almost so), located contiguously alongside a stretch of the Mississippi River, on the western side of Jackson, the capital city of Mississippi state. The group’s economic model is the Jackson-Kush Plan, whose name is taken from Kush, on the River Nile. The workers’ co-ops are sharing- and solidarity-based, organized to share mutually Cooperation Jackson’s cash, exchanges and trade. As indicated above, they are black and white, but mostly black. One of their founders, Kali Akuno, states: “. . . [T]here is one aim that we have above all others, and that is to counter the escalating threat of disposability confronting the black working class,” a statement both of racial pride and economic resistance to poverty.
Another component to Cooperation Jackson is its book published in 2017, Jackson Rising, The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi, by Kali Akuno and Ajamu Nangwaya – Cooperation Jackson. (The authors’ names are proudly adapted from African names.)
The co-op members’ economic plan was developed between 2004 and 2010, and is described in their book as a system of common resources, common income, collective ownership and collective decision-making. They will work with any groups that have similar interests, to share and to adapt the plan to the group’s own size and location, etc., with the intention of spreading such co-ops across the Southern United States and beyond, internationally as well. (For videos see http://navigatingthestorm.blogspot.com.) Cooperation Jackson readily offers detailed information about its members plus the complex development of their agricultural production and commercial ventures that are in progress and growing. Their actions are driven by a belief in transparency and a desire to make their work useful for replication by others.
At the turn of the century (1900s), the Bronx borough of New York City experienced an influx of migrants whose only available housing was in a neighborhood of poorly maintained, overcrowded tenements with overpriced, rising rents. A majority of those living there were Jewish workers from the nearby sweatshops, who began to join unions in order to better their lives. One of these unions was the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, whose members at the end of World War II joined the union’s president and the director of their credit union in establishing a non-profit co-op that eventually grew to consist of six buildings in a landscaped setting that, remarkably, over time, provided their tenants with a series of enhancements paid for collectively by an initial lump-sum investment ($500 per tenant in 1927), plus combined rent monies. The buildings were large, so they were able collectively to invest in a food co-op, pharmacy, kosher butcher, tailor, barbershop, shoe-repair shop, and tea room. This was just the beginning. They also catered to their own intellectual and artistic interests with a library, workshops and an auditorium.
The co-op was run democratically, without discrimination. One of the first non-Jewish tenants was a group of black socialist neighbours. The co-op was open to all people, not just union members. It had an elected Board of Directors, and a House Committee of all the tenants, who conducted all the day-to-day operations.
After 92 years their co-op is still in operation and is keeping to the collective principles with which it started, providing loans from its assets to help needy tenants in hard times, such as the Great Depression of 1929, and World War II. All those loans in the early days were eventually repaid. During its development, the co-op took advantage of New York City and other government loans provided to organizations like theirs to enhance the city. As each tenant was an owner and as collective decision-makers, they enjoyed full advantage of access to information about their earnings and expenses. All financial matters were an open book. (For detailed information about them, including an enjoyable gallery: https://www.amalgamated-bronx.coop/jcac/)
The story of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union is a socialist one, and not one of identity politics, but it shares with Cooperation Jackson (and all the wagers of so-called “folk politics” described above) mutual good will and a sense of true egalitarianism that is sorely lacking in the competitive, duplicitous, manipulative, global capitalist economy that drives the cultures of our time. We need just the opposite of what, internationally, we have now. We need cooperation, truth-telling, radical honesty and compassion in our political relations, whatever combination of politics we choose to wage. We need those for the enhancement of our personal lives as well.
Kali Akuno, in the book Jackson Rising, describes Cooperation Jackson as not ideologically neutral but not monolithic either. He characterizes it as a blend of anarchy, socialism and liberation theology, with “all the bumps and bruises to prove it.” Its success (rather than a failure of false harmony) is no doubt due to its honesty, transparency and persistence to arrive in the end at workable group decisions through many trials and errors while working in smaller, experimental organizations created by it in the past.
An Open Book, A Way of Life
In regard to success, it takes courage to confront a stranger, thinking that he, she or an evolving person is “not like” you, then move past that strangeness and mutually share who you both are and how you both got to where you are. It is a first step to people power, which involves self-understanding, mutual understanding and complex decisions – accords arrived at with bruises and all. A switching of a hegemonic place with one’s opponent will get you nowhere. What does move you forward is a process of truth-telling and mutual enlightenment, having come to the knowledge of how allies relate properly to one another.
Change is surely needed in our culture, which is riddled with manipulation and lies. In advertising, these are so prevalent that instead of recognizing in them the contempt they display toward us, we internalize that contempt as if it came to us as a matter of course and was something provided for our entertainment while our money is hypnotized out of our hands.
We need to connect our truth, our identity and our social relations to our politics, not as a tactic but as a way of life. Otherwise, we shall remain caught in a continual spiral of war, devastation, disease and death.
The people deserve, and can create, something better than that.