"Whereas identity politics, as theorized four decades ago, aimed to liberate the oppressed and to oppose American capitalism, its main form today is more invested in changing the direction of domination and in multiplying restrictions. It is the social order of the day, its rhetoric ubiquitous in the neurotic centers of the American economy (universities, the media, the tech sector).
Under this regime, identities, once affirmed, are indisputable. If I say, “As an x, I think. . . ,” I am no longer voicing an opinion that can be evaluated or critiqued within a shared space of discourse; I am merely saying what I am. If you disagree with me, you may trace everything I say back to my identity before availing yourself of corresponding counterarguments: you say a because you are an x, but I am a y and I therefore believe in b. Such identities, I insist, are not emancipatory, neither at the psychological nor at the political level. We all should have the right to evade identification, individually and collectively. What’s more, identity politics as now practiced does not put an end to racism, sexism, or other sorts of exclusion or exploitation. Ready-made identities imprison us in stereotyped narratives of trauma. In short, identity determinism has become an additional layer of oppression, one that fails to address the problems it clumsily articulates.
The driving force behind the new rise of identity determinism is trivial: social media. Our willing accommodation of the flattening logic that makes complex social life tractable to computer algorithms, the constant mental reshaping to which we subject ourselves through instant communication and individualized mass media, and the profitability of selling data generated by internet users have all contributed to the success of identity politics. Rigid, constantly reenacted identities have become a new law of the market, one whose grip extends offline. The most powerful digital platforms are made for monologues or rants that elicit mechanical expressions of approval or disapproval. This type of electronic elocution is fundamentally self-centered, but the I seeking to grab attention must connect to a we in order to survive and thrive. This we is formed of the crudest commonalities, and it is, so to speak, automatic: sustained by knee-jerk reactions, memes, and viral behaviors driven by the basest stimuli. These responses are personal in the way one “personalizes” a phone or a computer, by selecting one of the few options that engineers have allowed you. The most powerful instrument of social prescription is in the hands of every soliloquist who posts on Facebook or Twitter a demand for silencing some other we. The ability for each mechanized soul to exert a miniature tyranny is daunting enough online. Offline, it has undermined institutions and given us President Donald Trump. More and more, the political realm transcribes social media’s logic of identity. This goes for the white supremacy at the core of Trumpism as well as for the identity-based clientelism of mainstream Democrats.
With their official emphasis on open-ended scholarly discussion, universities should offer a counterpoint. But American academia tends to align itself with the business world, and corporations cater to the perceived needs of their customers. In colleges, such accommodations may begin with the exclusion of dissenting voices under the pretext of protecting certain identity groups—such as by passing over works that run counter to their supposed interests. The next step is to prevent dialogue in the classroom by forbidding students to talk (this is the traditional, magisterial approach) or avoiding all conflicts and contradictions among participants, thereby confusing a college seminar with an AA meeting. (The move toward online instruction during the pandemic has encouraged professorial monologues, since the technology isn’t conducive to spontaneous discussion.) The last stage involves censoring the name of censorship.
It should be obvious that identity determinism is by no means a prerogative of the left, for two main reasons. First, a truly leftist position cannot subordinate the goal of collective and individual emancipation to the unconditional affirmation of a set commonality. The identities on offer often resemble varieties of what Marxists used to call “alienation,” in which individuals internalize premade representations of themselves that limit their freedom. Second, many pleas for the protection and promotion of harmed identities now emanate from the right. The two camps may be opposed on policy, but, more and more, they agree that identities should anchor politics. In her book Uncivil Agreement, the political scientist Lilliana Mason argues that Democrat and Republican are no longer ideological positions but rather identities. This is hardly democratic progress. Coupled with ubiquitous surveillance, heightened censorship, digital conformism, and educational failure, the monomania of political identity leaves the people powerless by making cooperation impossible. In such a regime, the shredding of the social fabric is inevitable.
It is worth noting that the manifesto signed in 1977 by the Combahee River Collective—the text that launched the initial theory and practice of identity politics—warned against both “separatism” and “fractionalization.” This year, Barbara Smith, one of the members of the collective, reflected on her early years of activism, saying: “We absolutely did not mean that we would work with people who were only identical to ourselves. We did not mean that.” She added that, in this respect, the way identity politics has “been used in the last couple of decades is very different than what we intended.” (https://harpers.org/archive/2020/09/nonconforming/)