Identity and Reification: Thoughts on Karl Marx at the Big 200

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Let’s stop talking about shared experiences — which we often only pretend to share — and start talking about shared interests.

This month, Karl Marx turned 200. It’s been said that we shouldn’t pay too much attention to anniversaries, given that they have a tendency to embed moments that should be appreciated for their historic singularity in a pattern of repetition and sameness that necessarily drains them of meaning. Still, we have to take what opportunities we can get in our harried lives to be reminded of the things that matter. For that reason, we should not begrudge anyone their right to mark the Bearded One’s hitting the big two-zero-zero.But how should we celebrate? What birthday present would one buy the man?

If Marx were alive today, he’d have something to say about the “crisis” the left finds itself in, which, broadly speaking, has to do with our confusion — or certain persons’ confusions — over the meaning and role of “identity politics”. We can say that Marx would weigh in on this topic without giving ourselves too much credit because he was a dedicated organiser and passionate believer in mass movements who would have felt the duty to join any conceptual battle seen to be so important by so many people. What he’d say exactly, is, of course, pretty much the matter under dispute in this ongoing trauma of ours.

So that my terms will be clear, let’s repeat what will no doubt be familiar to many. In general, the “problem” of identity politics, for Marxists, is whether they are a “distraction” or an asset to/component of the “class struggle”. Any illustration of extremes should come with the caveat that extremists, for the most part, do not exist in pure form, and the idea of what we take an extremist to be is usually someone else’s ideological construction. There are very few people on the left who genuinely believe that class does not exist and that feminism only ever has anything to do with feminine identity, though no doubt one can find examples of people who do believe this. Likewise, most “class reductionists” will grant, at least for a moment, the existence of gendered and racialised forms of oppression. The problem is that people can admit a concept exists and even appear to accept that it might be important(at least to someone) while going on to demonstrate — in words or deeds, intentionally or otherwise — how little they really think of it.

The fact that most people fall somewhere on the continuum between class reductionism and identitarian reductionism does not mean that the continuum does not exist and does not have to be navigated carefully. With that in mind, let’s think about how this continuum has been dealt with by people interested in something more than just pitching their battle camp somewhere along it.

For many Marxists, including myself, the body of intellectual work heaped up by Marxist and some other feminisms over the years has been enough to settle the problem on a basic level: the term “intersectionality”, now widely used, puts us in a position(and nothing more) to cut the Gordian knot. Anyone not tending towards an extremism can tell you that all those forms of oppression described by scholars who work on culture and identity are real: racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and so on. Sometimes moving past a dispute is about resolving contradictions in such a way that a real consensus forms — but sometimes this isn’t possible without making a few categorical statements that need to be agreed on before moving forward. Because of this, the fact confronts us that not everyone broadly identified with the “left” can move forward from the aforementioned positions. As said, there are few genuine extremists. But in the above list, there may be some categories of oppression that a given person will accept and some that they won’t. This isn’t extremism per se, but it’s bad. An extremist would reject all the categories, but for me, even rejecting one is enough to drive consensus into the ditch. The evidence that these categories are valuable and that those positioned within them disadvantegously suffer significantly and in singular ways under patriarchal capitalism is just too strong. Furthermore, most of us are resigned to the fact that our organisations must be prepared to carry on without universal appeal to every human being on earth; we have to consider what has the broadest appeal. Given things today, we have more to lose by rejecting any one of these categories than by playing games with them.

But accepting the categories of oppression outlined by identity politics and cultural studies is not the same thing as forging them into a coherent materialist analysis of the world. Marxist thinkers like Jodi Dean have argued, for instance, that while such categories may exist and describe real problems, taking collective action to solve those problems is impossible as long as people identify, in general, more with those categories or a combination of them, as opposed to identifying with some “universal” historical subjectivity like that of “proletarian”. The categories of identity describe, but they do not prescribe; that is, they do not point towards a unified understanding of broad political tasks. They can, at best, offer fragmentary glimpses of our social formation and its repressive nature, which may inspire someone to learn more about the deeper causes of their particular experience of repression. But theorised this way, the assumption is still that an understanding of oppression in particular, from the vantage point of a particular identity, will or should lead to an understanding of oppression in general and from a general point of view — for instance, that of a proletarian. The trajectory is upward, away from the starting point.

This position goes somewhat beyond the vulgarity of calling all identitarian categories falsifications, but it still puts Marxists like Jodi Dean in tension with non-Marxists like Sara Ahmed, who have challenged the whole notion of universality and framed the idea of a universal category of identity as being inherently repressive. This is why intersectionality as a concept, for all its usefulness, has begun to suffer a bit from overexposure. We’ve all heard the term, and we can all agree that Marxists do not have to be straightforwardly class-reductionist. But we see how simply accepting that identities exist does not necessarily mean we’ll be able to do anything useful with them; all we seem to be able to do is put ourselves right back where we started. This leaves everyone frustrated — Marxists feel like they’ve done everything they can to meet the identitarians halfway, and “identitarians”, to the extent that they actually exist, feel like Marxists are just trying to liquidate everyone into generality again, no doubt under one social group’s hegemony.

Hence the dilemma; the Gordian knot still holds. We are faced as Marxists with the legacy of a universal and universalising category — that of the proletariat as subject of history — which seems to be at odds with peoples’ passionately held convictions about their identities, which they simply will not see put on a subordinate level, even if the level is “only” methodologically and not morally lower. To resolve this problem, we have sought a way to say that all categories of identity are equally implicated in the socialist struggle. And yet, as Marxists, we cannot make the case that a historical materialist philosophy which proceeds from the standpoint of the proletariat(in Lukács’ terms) really treats the experience of work(being a worker) as the same as the experience of being black, transgendered or both. Blackness, for instance, cannot be reduced to a particularly miserable experience of work. When we speak of workers and women, we are talking about differences of kind, not of degree; this is not to oppose intersectionality but to recognise that things which may have some relation to each other do not necessarily need to be of the exact same type.

Stick with me now: it’s only by understanding what we’re talking about when we talk about a universal historical subject like the proletariat that we can make sense of the problem. We need to grasp that proletarian-ness is not of a kind with blackness or femininity; it is not just another category in the catalogue of identities, nor is it “like” those categories but somehow a more important version, nor is it simply all those categories “added up” to unity in a crude aping of maths the way some vulgarities would have it. We are dealing with different things. It is still possible to follow the trajectory outlined before — of, for instance, being a woman, understanding woman’s oppression, and then educating oneself about oppression in other senses so as to be able to see beyond ones’ own experiences. Such a process is essential to any feminism that is not a white supremacist feminism, for instance. But this process does not proceed linearly to class consciousness. One can go a long way down this road, adding more and more categories to ones’ grab bag of oppressions — one can even develop a critique of classism and a concern for workers’ rights — without ever grasping the unity of capitalist political economy.

The essential thing when hacking ones’ way through this jungle is understanding categories not as timeless or abstract but as living, moving things. It is impossible to develop a Marxist understanding of class — as opposed to a purely sociological or anthropological understanding — without understanding that classes do not only exist: they also have roles, tasks, and destinies. In a word, they have interests. The proletariat, because of its constantly being subjected to greater precarity in the capitalist pursuit of greater profits and productivity, has an inherent class interest in abolishing classes. The proletarians of any country, as a whole, simply by definition have more to gain from the abolition of class than the continuation of class society. The only exceptions are those rare individuals raised to the position of what Althusser called “museum pieces” — those raised above their class so as to sustain the illusion that anyone can become a millionaire with hard work and tenacity(PDF: page 37). Such blessed individuals do exist — but classes and the broad masses of individuals of which they are made up do not lose the unitary character of their interests by virtue of such exogenous exceptions. When we speak of the proletariat, we can speak scientifically of a particular thing they all have in common and an interest — even a viewpoint, if this interest is consciously recognised — that they all share.

This is precisely what we cannot speak of when we speak of categories of identity. It is precisely along these lines that supposedly well-meaning leftists and liberals from dominant social groups disappoint their erstwhile allies in subaltern groups. The film Get Out, for instance, was largely a story of how many white people, despite professed good intentions and liberal attitudes, still treat black individuals as if they were things and not people(one might say they reify them). Time and time again we see how the best anti-racist politics in the world liquidates itself when it treats disadvantaged people as nothing more than a homogenous mass of disadvantage. This is the source of the discomfort that some people who could fairly be called “of colour” feel when the phrase “people of colour” is deployed too enthusiastically by white “allies” who seem to be performing allyship more than anything else. In the wrong mouths, the phrase can sound homogenising. When white people use excessive deference to the “voices of POC” as a way of avoiding real discussion, the impression is given that all POC speak with one voice and therefore no debate is possible. Nothing is more frustrating than being told by people who claim to respect you that you represent your demographic in a way that other individuals do not represent theirs.

So when we treat categories of identity as being universal, we do those who identify with these categories a disservice. And when we try to put such categories on or near the same level as a category like proletarian, we are, intentionally or not, making the claim that all categories possess access — indirectly or otherwise — to the universality of proletarian-ness. It is not our task to show how being black and oppressed is really just a fragment of being proletarian and oppressed: down that way lies madness. Black people the world over do not possess a unified destiny or a unified set of concrete historical and political interests, nor do women, gay men, trans women, or the bearers of any other such categories.

This is not to say that identitarian categories are timeless and fixed, without being subject to historical change the way the proletariat has been in its process of being created and eventually abolished. We are all familiar with the arguments for categories like gender and sexuality as being socially constructed and not fixed; therefore we have to see these categories as being “in motion” as well. And since the category of wage worker is also a historic category — one with a beginning and an end — we likewise call it a social construct. The phrase “social construction” has been so widely abused that confusion here is almost inevitable, but we can overcome this confusion. We must overcome it because it lies at the root of the broader confusion about the supposedly shared characteristics of the proletarian and identitarian categories. What we are trying to avoid here is reification — the tendency to see categories as eternal and ahistorical, even or especially implicitly.

The role of proletarian is, of course, only intelligible in relation to a specific set of social relations — capitalist relations — which convert every abstract, potential category they touch into an actual, living category. As Marx said, again and again, land, machinery and other resources are not capital unless they bear a real relationship to exploitation and commodity production. So it is with the commodity of labour. But while constructed, the proletarian is not socially constructed in the same way as, for instance, the woman, even if historical materialism has plenty to say about the social construction of women. De Beauvoir, in her magnum opus The Second Sex, made clear her departure from Engels along precisely these grounds: while she remained within the historical materialist and Marxist framework, she broke with Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State by underlining how workers necessarily had an interest in abolishing work, while women did not necessarily have an interest in abolishing femininity. This logic can apply in every identitarian case: blackness may be constructed, but black people do not necessarily have to seek the destruction of everything — music, food, whatever else it may be — that has historically helped them construct that identity. These fragments are materials that can be worked up for different people in different ways. Part of a progressive struggle for freedom in the sphere of identity is knowing what we want to throw away and what we don’t, but a struggle for freedom in the realm of class is, by its nature, a struggle to abolish everything we know of class relations. (This is why the society of the future, for instance, will have as much to do with the “socialist realist” art of glorifying proletarians as today’s society does with poetic epics of the rural, pre-modern countryside.)

To be a proletarian is to be a worker, and to stand in a particular relationship to the economic system. In this sense, no one is just a proletarian — everyone has an identity that places them in relation to the culture as well, and this cultural relationship also bears on the economic system in various ways. But we cannot say that it is possible to construct meaningful emancipatory politics by trying to convince people that they should see blackness as the key to militancy, or as a linear step along a fixed path towards proletarian self-consciousness.

To be clear: what we need is to stop asking people to think of political struggle in terms of a rank ordering of identities or of some kind of identitarian calculus in which all social particularities add up arithmetically to proletarian generality. When we reflect on anti-racist struggle, we reflect on one element of the progressive struggle which must necessarily be allied to the class struggle. But class struggle operates on its own strict logic, and by comparing the relative value of different struggles we undermine all of them.

The goal in all this theoretical contortionism is to provide an answer to the question: who, exactly, is responsible for social change? How will social movements for change be constituted? If there is to be a mass party or movement, it will have to be able to define itself — it will have to be able to say what characteristics a member will have, other than the vaguest possible intuition that society needs to change and a momentary impulsive desire to jump on bandwagons.

Occupy Wall Street demonstrated this more completely than I ever could: post-mortem criticism tends to have highlighted its failure to “define its aims” — what this sort of criticsm fails to recognise is the logical impossibility of such a movement forming concrete aims. This has nothing to do with the particular kinds of people who supposedly participated in it — lurid visions of drug addict idealists and other social rejects — and everything to do with the fact that those who made it up possessed no common characteristics whatsoever.

For a brief moment, Occupy laid claim to the whole of society. One of the few things from that movement which has lasted — the phrase “we are the 99%” — attests to this. During its high point, it could reasonably claim to represent a coalition whose social base was that broad. It did not, obviously, command the attention of every member of every social group it claimed to represent, but it did have, within it, substantial representation of all those social groups: black, white, able-bodied and otherwise, gay, veterans, middle class, homeless, etc. From within, this near-universality was seen as strength: the humanistic desire to be a movement for “everyone” and to speak to a romantic ideal of the “nation” and “the people” dominated. This, incidentally, was precisely where things went wrong. Before the camps were cleared and activists swept up by the apparatus of state repression, things had already frayed beyond the point of no return. Proto-Black Lives Matter activists — those who one could find years later on the front lines of BLM — were already raising concerns in Occupy assemblies about the limits of this universalism. I will never forget how uncomfortable discussion could become when some black activist asked a question that drew attention to the lack of common ground between their community and those of middle-class white people more concerned with the Federal Reserve Bank than police brutality, and how the dominance of such privileged groups could be seen reflected in the decisions of such assemblies.

It is in the search for an answer to this question — the question of what, exactly, different repressed groups have in common — that we become Marxists. But in saying they bear certain kinds of experiences of oppression and exploitation in common, to a greater or lesser extent, we are not moving all that much closer to a sense of their common interest. Identity politics, to the extent that it exists, subsists on notions of experience. What made Rachel Dolezal a liar about her race was more than the literal fact of her skin colour — critical race theorists have long made it clear that racial distinctions on the basis of precise gradiations in melanin are the very definition of a social construct. It was her co-option of the black experience and her refusal to accept that she had not truly undergone it that marked her out for infamy. Identity is, in this respect, experience-identity. This is precisely what proletarian subjectivity is not. While aspects of proletarian-ness involve the “experience” of exploitation, and it is, in the strictest sense, a form of identity, it is, most of all, a category of interest. The most important thing about being a proletarian — the key to class consciousness, in other words — is the class interest of the proletariat, the position of this group in relation to the historic task of abolishing itself and creating a classless society. The degree to which social identities “intersect” with the proletarian subject halts at precisely this point. This does not mean there is no relation; it simply means the relation does not conquer all limits to the point of unintelligibility, but takes place within definite terms.

All too often, Marxists frame proletarian subjectivity as being analogous to the subjectivity of race or gender, but on a higher level. Even at our most intersectional, we ask people to substitute proletarian “identity” for other forms of identity or to put the proletarian category at the top of their categorical hierarchy. This is exactly what we do when we say that a mass socialist movement will never develop until people start “identifying” as proletarians rather than as black, white or brown.

It is time to stop pretending that proletarian subjectivity is something you identify with. Even if Marxists of this stripe mean something different than what I have described, the way the word “identity” has evolved means that we necessarily invoke a certain kind of categorisation when we use it. Raising class consciousness is, of course, to an extent a process of getting people who think of themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” as to think of themselves as workers in an exploitative class system. But this is using identity more as a metaphor than anything else, and we should beware of metaphors: we are in fact asking people to do something far more complicated than the ticking of an extra box on the proverbial census form. Proletarian subjectivity illustrates much about our relationship to the world, but, unlike identity, it is a wholly negative, oppressive category, one which we seek to destroy, even as we use the category to make sense of our position and take stock of our collective strength. With De Beauvoir, we should understand that “identity” as we have defined it — racially, sexually, etc — is not something the workers’ movement straightforwardly seeks to abolish, even if it is subject to distortion under patriarchal capitalism, and even if the socialist society of the future might seek to create spaces in which it can be fundamentally reshaped for human benefit.

We need to realise that if we are, in fact, going to create a mass movement with a clear categorical definition of who comprises it and what characteristics they have in common, we need to stop talking about shared experiences and start talking about shared interests. White people and black people, as racial categories, can only ever have things in common on a very broad level — this is because the very people who comprise these categories do not, themselves, have anything substantial in the way of common, universal interests or standpoints based on those interests. Human life can only reveal itself in its totality, and human destiny can only reveal itself as singular if we recognise the one basis on which any human being regardless of race, colour, sexual orientation, gender or the lack thereof can find truly common ground: the basis of proletarian subjectivity. It is this subjectivity and no other that has a task, a teleology: that of abolishing class and bringing an end to the thousand-year-war of all against all.

With that, let’s finish the leftovers of Marx’s two-hundredth birthday cake which we cut a few days ago. Here’s to another century, Old Prometheus.