How “Progressive” Is Identity Politics – Really? (Carl Raschke)

The language of identity has at long last come into its own as the a true lingua franca within the universe of progressivist political discourse, even though it is shot through with its own internal discrepancies, hypocrisies, and self-contradictions.  It has at the same time become the prevailing “social dialect” of the new transnational economic elites, as I have argued.

One of the most effective ways in which the language of identity has solidified its hegemony within the discourse is through a rhetorical process we might describe through a neologism –  hypodialectics.   Hypodialectics is the reduction of an intricate set of discrepant, yet dynamic and interconnected elements in a highly fluid situation to a seemingly fixed, irresolvable dichotomy .

One side of this dichotomy, however inherently false it might be, is tacitly – and sophistically – presented as the sole option.  The most famous illustration of “hypodialectics” is British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s famous defense during the 1980s of her neoliberal policies of privatizing government services with the slogan “there is no alternative.”  Thatcher argued that “free markets” were the sole means to achieving economic prosperity and social justice, contrasting such an approach with the state-supervised command economies of the Western democracies that had been the norm since the 1930s.

Thatcher, along with Ronald Reagan in America, played on the anxieties of the working and lower middle classes who had been besieged for the past decade by hyperinflation and commodity shortages resulting from the end of colonialism, the advent of floating currencies, and the massive debts accumulated by Western governments from the Cold War.

Today the mantra of “there is no alternative” is being leveraged in a more subtle way  by a new generation of what Nancy Fraser calls “progressive neoliberals”, who have created a similarly “hypodialectical”, albeit specious, dichotomy between national and “cosmopolitan” forms of political identification.

A broader term that is inclusive (without being simply synonymous with) of “hypodialectics” is the familiar phrase reductionism.   Reductionism is less a theoretical than a methodological term, in so far as it implies a kind of oversimplification whereby we take a complex description of a situation and attempt to boil it down to a single determinant.   For example, Freud’s famous, paleo-sexist quip that “anatomy is destiny” counts as a supreme example of such reductionism.

Reductionism is most commonly associated with scientific attempts over the centuries to “define” intricate systems in terms of their most obvious components.  It often invokes the qualifiers “merely”, “just” or “nothing more than.”  Hence such bromides as “human beings are merely intelligent apes,” religious belief is “just a form of wish fulfillment”, or “ethics is nothing more than emotions coded as commands”.  All the previous propositions have actually been attributed in some version to prominent philosophers or intellectuals.

Of course, reductionism also applies just as straightforwardly to the cognitive frames, or the habits of discourse, we employ on a daily basis.   Religious “fundamentalism” is an unmistakable example of reductionism in the sense that it decants the mystery and ambiguity of divine revelation as well as the hermeneutical undecidability of holy scripture itself into what its inventors called the “plain sense” of the text.  In that measure it is largely an all-too-convenient shortcut for making the not-so-obvious come across as quite obvious, or the nebulous seem far more crystalline than it really is.

Much of the current controversy over “identity politics” amounts to a tug-of-war among competing socio-political claims that are inherently reductionistic, even though they have each had their brief moment in the sun.  The genesis of the debate can be traced back more than half a century when it became apparent to the progressive left that the achievement of formal, legal equality through legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had barely scratched the surface in addressing de facto structures of exclusion and discrimination.

The Civil Rights Act, passed by the 88th Congress, had outlawed discrimination in housing, education, and the workplace on the basis of race, “color,” sex, religion, or national origin.  However, these typological distinctions, which were quite current and common sensical at the time, soon proved to be highly problematical.

For example, it was immediately evident that the budding movement to abolish state sodomy laws while granting legal protections to gays or lesbians could not be accomplished by citing persecution of “homosexuals,” as they were commonly called at the time, as “sex” discrimination.  In the late 1960s and throughout much of the following decade the prevailing progressive rhetoric defended what we now call LGBT conduct as a “lifestyle choice” or as a “sexual preference.”  Even though such a libertarian framing of the issue fitting very well with the new cultural ethos, it could easily be swatted down when it came to defining legal norms.

Thus the demand for legitimizing the LGBT position within a pluralistic and democratic political context rested on providing it certain measure of essentiality in the way that the 1964 had codified the rights of certain groups worthy of “equal protection” under the Fourteenth Amendment.  The notion of “gender,” therefore, as opposed to “sex”, gradually became the key discursive operator.

The outsize importance of the writings of Michel Foucault, which had been secured as part of the postmodern canon by the late 1980s, also had a significant impact on the formation of both identity theory and identity politics (where the former offered the theoretical heft for the popularization of the positions generated by the latter).

Foucault managed to enunciate for the first time in a sophisticated argot what New Left activists had been saying in much of the previous decade and what the Frankfurt School had already insinuated was the paradigmatic deficiency of orthodox Marxist theory – namely, that there are constitutive factors other than class that matter significantly when it comes to any taxonomy of oppression or viable strategies for emancipation.

Foucault thus transformed the distinctive Marxist constructs of power and domination that had been appropriate for analysis of industrial society into one that shared its form, but not the substance, with a rhetoric that better suited the new “post-industrial,” media-saturated, neo-capitalist (or what would later be dubbed “neoliberal”) order of things.

Foucault made his methodology plain in a talk given in May 1973 at the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro with a title translated as “Truth and Juridical Forms.”

How have domains of knowledge been formed on the basis of social practices? Let me explain the point at issue. There is a tendency that we may call, a bit ironically, “academic Marxism,” which consists of trying to determine the way in which economic conditions of existence may be reflected and expressed in the consciousness of men. It seems to me that this form of analysis, traditional in university Marxism in France, exhibits a very serious defect— basically, that of assuming that the human subject, the subject of knowledge, and forms of knowledge themselves are somehow given beforehand and definitively, and that economic, social, and political conditions of existence are merely laid or imprinted on this definitely given subject. (1-2)

In effect, Foucault fatefully transmuted the standard psychological theory of personal identity, which had already gained a certain political cachet in the writings of eminent academic psychiatrist  Kenneth Keniston about youthful radicalism, alienation, and revolt, into a conceptual model that re-interpreted what Jacques Lacan had called “subjectivation” as a social process.  Foucault’s took this innovation one more step further when in 1975 when he refined the notion of “subject-formation” as one of  the production of “bodies,” as one of  “a new mode of investment which presents itself no longer in the form of control by repression but that of control by stimulation.” (57)

In keeping with the cultural revolution of the Sixties and Seventies, the notion of identity, henceforth, gradually became instrumentalized and even “eroticized” as what Kate Millett in 1969 named “sexual politics.”  Second-wave feminism, born about this time as a counterstrike to uncritical assertions of masculine primacy in the new praxis of sexual liberation, served as the main torchbearer.

But the theory of identity continued to hold sway, largely because of the tremendous prestige and influence of the social sciences, especially within the Anglophone world.  Although Foucault’s post-structuralist cultural hermeneutic was not just distinctly un-Marxist, but also decidedly anti-identitarian, his rhetoric of “power/knowledge” came to be rapidly fused in the activist political sphere with the new and refined versions of  identity theory that had now migrated from psychotherapy to social psychology.

Known as “social identity theory” and first advanced by the Polish psychologist Henri Tajfel in the late 1970s, this novel approach concentrated on the internal dynamics of random human groups in precluding, including, and excluding those who might be perceived as different.  Such an “ingroup vs. outgroup” prototype of perceptual self-selection merged with the Foucaultian principle that political power is ultimately derived from more opaque patterns of interpersonal and cross-communal domination, which in turn are taken for granted by privileged social actors while resisted psychologically by those who happen to be “oppressed” by the existing set of arrangements.

Of course, Foucault’s kinetic model of social subjectivation easily fell victim to the very reductionistic tendencies that even Tajfel had discerned as an inherent tendency within group identification itself.  Georg Lukács’ in an earlier generation had anticipated this trend, especially in progressivist thinking itself, with his theory of “reification,” including the realization that even emancipatory strategies and slogans could be commodified and “reduced” to hollow ideological abstractions that served the elites rather than those for whom the latter claimed to be speaking.

The issue has recently been raised by Briahana Gray, senior political editor for The Intercept, in her polemic against what she calls the “race reductionists”, who have incrementally succeeded in monopolizing the discourse of identity politics over the past several years.  Gray, who is  African-American herself, writes that “according to an increasingly popular narrative among the center-left, a dispiriting plurality of progressives are ‘class reductionists’ — people who believe that economic equality is a cure-all for societal ills, and who, as a result, would neglect policy prescriptions which seek to remedy identity-based disparities.”

Gray summarizes “race reductionism” as follows: “If a policy doesn’t resolve racism ‘first,’ it’s at worst, racist and at best, not worth pursuing.”  She argues vigorously, albeit indirectly, that such a reductionism, which along with the “gendering” emphasis of so-called “intersectionality” theory, fits well with the Foucaultian bias toward bodies and sexual practices, the historic preoccupation of entrenched economic elites.

In an article published in 2017 Gray notes that “race reductionism” promotes “a false identity of interest between poor and wealthy whites that early American elites cultivated for their own self-interest,” and which its proponents characterize as “unshakable”.  She offers the tart, counterintuitive quip that “it’s the ‘progressive deplorables’ in our midst who are the real problem — at least from an electoral perspective.”

As Lukács’ and his kindred over the years have made clear, capitalism ever since the French Revolution has proven itself to be brilliant about “reifying”, i.e., commodifying and weaponizing, emancipatory ideals in the interest of the la classe nouvellement dominante.  The present is no exception.

Marx’s equation of the “ruling ideas” of an epoch with the “ideas of the ruling class” have simply found their latest expression in the fixation of progressives on identity politics, raising the ultimate question of how “progressive” these ideas truly are.

Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion.   He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society.  Recent books include Postmodern Theology: A Biopic (Cascade Books, 2017)Critical Theology: An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis (IVP Academic, 2016)Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012).  He is also Consulting Editor for The New Polis.

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