June 13, 2024

Identity Politics And Ressentiment, Part 1 (Camila Bassi)

“The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” – Karl Marx

“the late modern liberal subject quite literally seethes with ressentiment.” – Wendy Brown

The following is the first of a two-part series.


At the UK-based National Campaign Against Fees And Cuts (NCAFC) annual conference, held at the University of Birmingham Students’ Union on 23rd November 2013, I spoke on a panel titled “Privilege, intersectionality and fighting oppression.” In preparation for my talk, I had assumed no prior knowledge on the audience’s behalf so as to make my intervention as accessible as possible. My basic introduction of Marxism therein was to illustrate both its intersectionality, and its distinct perspective on exploitation and resistance.

One of the other panel speakers stated during the discussion that I had “made an assumption that everyone in the room was at the same level,” and that “the use of high convoluted language by people who are able to read theory” is a “privilege” and is therefore “oppressive” and “exclusionary.” She frustrated that in such discussions (about privilege and intersectionality?) people (in general?) “refuse to shut up about Marx.” She pushed an anti-intellectualism and an anti-Marxism which troubled me, since there was no reflection on such questions, simply indictments. Moreover, she appeared to be angry with me, and that puzzled me, because I had kept my contribution respectful of other positions. I wondered then, how emotionally healthy and politically useful is an anger that forestalls open thought and exchange?

On the 1st May 2014 (International Workers’ Day) I attended a session titled “Intersectionality: Checking Our Own Privilege” at the launch event of the Free University of Sheffield. The (African American) woman leading the session problematized an image used by the (white) organizers to advertise the event: an image that she described as black African children holding a free education poster. This was, she said, “an ignorant appropriation.” The (white) audience sat in an awkward moment of silence, looking concerned by their accidental but privileged appropriation of an image of the unprivileged. I (a British Indian) was one of the two non-white participants in the room; the other, of course, was the session leader. I spoke up, “while we must be sensitive to the temporal and spatial specificities, and therein the lived experiences, of such images, there is also something universal here.”

The session leader replied with incredulity, “what could you possibility think you had in common with the people in the image?” I suggested, “the universal struggle for free education, and also perhaps, the universal struggle for free health care, and the universal struggle for independent trade unions.” There was no reply, just another moment of awkward silence. At the end of the session, I left with the impression of a politics wherein no one can speak for anyone else, resulting in naval-gazing entanglement.

The academic repression I proceed to discuss in this chapter is that by a neoliberal wave of identity politics in the form of intersectionality and privilege theory. It is a repression of self by self, which precludes connection, bypasses freedom, and generates ressentiment. I explore a specific case study of the political deadlock between a current of radical feminists and a current of transgender and transsexual activists, both with wider sympathizers, which has played out on social media and across university campuses. I also offer a general theoretical and practical
call for dialogue between left-wing academics and students in the hope that we can, once again, collectively aspire for freedom.

Where did freedom go?

In States of Injury political scientist Wendy Brown (1995) observes that in the era of late modernity, as the bleak reality of a contorted Marxism is framed against the sunshine of liberalism, progressives have chosen to pursue a form of freedom which is based on state-managed economic justice and private liberties. Furthermore, as Brown argues, “‘freedom’ has shown itself to be easily appropriated in liberal regimes for the most cynical and unemancipatory political ends,” such that:

the dream of democracy – that humans might govern themselves by governing together – is difficult to discern in the proliferation of […] claims of rights, protections, regulations, and entitlements. (5)

Brown does not dispute the importance of rights, protections, regulations, and entitlements, but rather she asks, beyond this what is our dream of freedom? She defends the explanatory power of Marxism in seeing the question of freedom vis-à-vis social relations, which are “implicitly declared ‘unpolitical’ – that is, naturalized – in liberal discourse” (14). In other words, genuine freedom cannot be found in state (re)distribution. Here it is helpful to understand the important distinction Marx makes between ‘political emancipation’ and ‘human emancipation,’ which can be found in his essay On “The Jewish Question” (1843) that was part of a debate with the left Hegelian Bruno Bauer. Marx’s discussion is not per se a consideration of the Jewish condition but a critique of political emancipation in order to expose the relationship of political emancipation to human emancipation.

Marx acknowledges the “great […] real, practical” progress of political emancipation, that is, liberal rights and liberties (47). However, on its limits, he argues that whilst the capitalist state abolishes in its own way the distinctions of class, birth, profession, and education – by declaring them “to be unpolitical differences” – it allows them “to have an effect in their own manner” (45). What is inherent in political emancipation, Marx spells out, is a gap between human beings as – ideally – public members of a universal state or ‘citizens’, and – materially – private, egoistic members of civil society or ‘bourgeois’. As such, humankind leads a twofold existence: “a heavenly one and an earthy one” (46). Private rights are innately ‘bourgeois’ and the basis of the separation of human beings from one another:

Man [sic] was […] not freed from religion; he received freedom of religion. He was not freed from property; he received freedom of property. He was not freed from the egoism of trade; he received freedom to trade. (56)

Marx deplores the debasement of theory, art, history, nature, and human relations by religion, property, commodities, and commerce; he deplores the bartering of women, “[t]he species-relationship itself,” as “an object of commerce!” (60). This debasement, he contends, is the exile of human beings’ communal essence. Marx foresees human liberation as the eradication of the aforementioned gap, in other words, the freedom of human beings is contingent not merely on political emancipation but on human emancipation, which necessitates the abolition of capitalist social relations.

Returning to Brown’s States of Injury, she astutely remarks that the Right’s ability to capture a discourse of freedom for its own ends, alongside the tendency of progressive politics to abandon the socialist project on the basis of its supposed failure (apropos Stalinism), has led in academia to developments in philosophy and in feminist, postcolonial, and cultural theory [that] have eroded freedom’s ground. For many toiling in these domains, “freedom” has been swept onto the dust-heap of anachronistic, humanistic, androcentric, subject-centred, and “Western” shibboleths.” (18)

So while Marxism desires human emancipation from capitalism, Brown asks:

…to what extent do identity politics require a standard internal to existing society against which to pitch their claims, a standard that not only preserves capitalism from critique, but sustains the invisibility and inarticulatedness of class – not accidentally, but endemically? Could we have stumbled upon one reason why class is invariably named but rarely theorized or developed in the multiculturalist mantra “race, class, gender, sexuality”? (65)

Bringing forward Brown’s argument, it is worth considering the context for the present-day popularity of privilege theory and intersectionality.

Identity politics and self-subjugation

Privilege theorist pioneer Peggy McIntosh states:

what I believe is that everybody has a combination of unearned advantage and unearned disadvantage in life […]. We’re all put ahead and behind by the circumstances of our birth. […] In order to understand the way privilege works, you have to be able to see patterns and systems in social life, but you also have to care about individual experiences. I think one’s own individual experience is sacred. Testifying to it is very important […].

The basic premise of privilege theory is that wherever there is an oppressive structure – capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormativity, and so on – there is both an oppressed group of people and a privileged group of people (who, consciously or not, benefit from that structure). Interlaced with privilege theory is the notion of intersectionality: that we are all privileged by some structures of oppression and burdened by other structures of oppression, thus our privileges and our oppressions intersect.

At a macro level, race, gender, and class, for example, are seen as by Patricia Collins as “distinctive yet interlocking structures of oppression” (26), whereas “the notion of intersectionality describes micro level processes – namely, how each individual and group occupies a social position within interlocking structures of oppression” (74). Moreover, in a matrix of domination, “[e]ach individual derives varying amounts of penalty and privilege from the multiple systems of oppression which frame everyone’s lives” (230). By lacking full awareness of our privileges and their intersectionality, the reasoning goes, we are politically divided and weak, and whilst we cannot be held responsible for the structures of oppression that impart privilege upon us, we do have a choice in how we respond to our privilege, for instance, to our whiteness, our maleness, our straightness, our ableness, our cis-ness, etcetera.

The origins of privilege theory and intersectionality can be traced to the theoretical framework of identity politics in the 1980s and 1990s, which developed amid labour movement defeats and the expansion of the neoliberal project of free- market capitalism (including free trade, deregulation, privatisation, and austerity) during the Thatcher and Reagan years. In Britain specifically, the government policy of multiculturalism in the 1980s and 1990s (popular with leftist local councils) furthered the notion of discrete ‘ethnic’ identities from which gains could be made by
state accommodation.

And from 1998, marketization began in the higher education sector with the introduction of tuition fees (see The Dearing Report, 1997). By the late 1980s and 1990s, second-wave feminism had given way to third-wave feminism – whose theory was very much influenced by academic postmodernism and identity politics. Third-wave feminists Kimberlé Crenshaw (1991) and Patricia Hill Collins (1990) developed the concept of intersectionality in the early 1990s. Both also drew on earlier second-wave feminist discussions by black feminists in the United States.

In 1977, the Boston-based black lesbian feminist Combahee River Collective advanced the concept of ‘simultaneity’, and stressed the importance of personal identity: “We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.”

The elephant in the room vis-à-vis the identity politics of intersectionality and privilege theory is Marxism. Collins dismisses the “radical [Marxist] left” as saying: “If only people of colour and women could see their true class interests […] class solidarity would eliminate racism and sexism.” (287) There can be no denying an element of truth to this claim. What’s more, dominant sections of the revolutionary Marxist Left have a damning record of pandering to racism, sexism, and homophobia for organizational gain .

But abandoning altogether the explanatory power of Marxism leaves us short on the question of how to achieve social change. Intersectionality applies a generalized cultural and economic understanding of class alongside other registers of oppression such as gender and sexuality. I question what might be lost in its implicit re-definition of class, qua classism, when thinking through the nature of oppression and exploitation, and the means of resistance; class, after all, is not primarily a structure of oppression but a systematic relation of exploitation.

Given also that racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, for instance, are individually distinct forms of oppression with individually distinct relationships to capitalism, which include specific and universal features, the danger with intersectionality lies in it sliding into a conceptual collapse through its kaleidoscopic, intersecting structures of oppression, and in it nullifying universality while in pursuit of specificity. In privilege theory, people tend to talk about “white supremacy: rather than “racism”, but the former carries no explanatory power over the latter: white supremacy falls short in being able to analyse and politically respond to anti-Irish racism, anti-gypsy racism, and anti-Semitism, for example. And the emphasis on personal testimony (remember, as McIntosh states, “one’s individual experience is sacred”) overrides the possibility for any universal truths. The net effect is ‘no way out’ vis-à-vis resistance.

Marx makes plain in On “The Jewish Question” that the route to real freedom lies in social relations not rights alone. Brown’s astute point on the lack of theorizing of class in the multiculturalist mantra resonates especially well in the present-day privilege theory and intersectionality mantra. Is it not time to name and call out once more what is, in reality, the relinquishment of the dream of freedom as humans governing themselves by governing together?

Present-day identity politics is based on unchanging status – as privilege theorist Michael Kimmel asserts, “[o]ne can no more renounce privilege than one can stop breathing” (xxv) – rather than a dynamic understanding of human consciousness through human history. Society is viewed as a seesaw: you are up there because I am down here, and you are up there because you weigh me down. It is a personalized dual camp distortion of social relations, ‘me versus you’ (with various intersectional combinations), that breeds resentment and is devoid of class politics. Ultimately, freedom has become dangerously lost in the contradiction of identity politics.

As Brown (1995) observes: “politicized identities generated out of liberal, disciplinary societies, insofar as they are premised on exclusion from a universal ideal, require that ideal, as well as their exclusion from it, for their own continuing existence as identities.” (65) She develops Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment to explain how the desired impulse of politicized identity to “inscribe in the law and other political registers its historical and present pain” forecloses “an imagined future of power to make itself” (66). What one has instead of freedom then is the production of ressentiment:

Ressentiment in this context is a triple achievement: it produces an affect (rage, righteousness) that overwhelms the hurt; it produces a culprit responsible for the hurt; and it produces a site of revenge to displace the hurt (a place to inflict hurt as the sufferer has been hurt). (68)

We are left with an effort to anaesthetize and to externalize what is unendurable. I turn now to this chapter’s case study: a toxic war between a current of radical feminists and a current of trans activists, both of which with wider layer of sympathizers. This is a war that has played out on social media and across university campuses, and which has impeded connection, circumvented freedom, and bred ressentiment.

Camila Bassi is Senior Lecturer in Geography at Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom. She is the author of numerous articles on geographies of “race”, ethnicity and sexuality, critical geographies, and Marxist geographies. Original citation: Bassi, C (2017) “On Identity Politics, Ressentiment, and the Evacuation of Human Emancipation.” In Nocella, A J and Juergensmeyer, E (eds.) Fighting Academic Repression and Neoliberal Education, Peter Lang Publishing.

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