Several reasons for opening our eyes to the new/old politics of identity
Also published openDemocracy here.
I am amazed to discover the sheer volume of hand-wringing there is going on about our present political era of Trump, Brexit and the rise of the far right in Europe. It would seem that President-elect Trump has triggered mass hysteria about a threatening return to the fascist conditions that led to the second world war. But is this a fair assessment?
I only ask this question out of a frustration that seems to me to be part of bearing witness to the quandaries posed by the important Histories of Violence series , which reflects upon the many mass atrocities of the twentieth century in which a particular targeted population has been deemed to be ‘disposable’. Here, I am particularly reminded of Lewis Gordon’s contention that the political turmoil that we are experiencing has direct roots in certain readily identifiable historical precedents and is not the socio-cultural equivalent of the Higgs boson ( i.e. spontaneously popping into existence).
But what does Gordon mean?
Aimé Césaire gives us a clue in his Discourse on Colonialism when he writes:
People are surprised, they become indignant. They say: “How strange! But never mind – it’s Nazism, it will pass!” And they wait, and they hope; and they hide the truth from themselves, that it is barbarism, but the supreme barbarism, the crowning barbarism that sums up all the daily barbarisms; that it is Nazism, yes, but that before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples; that they have cultivated that Nazism, that they are responsible for it, and that before engulfing the whole of Western, Christian civilization in its reddened waters, it oozes, seeps, and trickles from every crack.
Césaire clearly lays out how our collective casual acceptance of the brutality of colonialism (“Nazism” applied to non-European peoples) has allowed us to turn a blind eye to the re-emergence of fascism or fascist tendecies within our era of demoguery. In their book, The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism, David Olusoga and Casper Erichsen even go as far as to show how the barbaric colonial practices of ethnic cleansing in South West Africa (modern Namibia) acted as a template for the formation of the Nazi Party.
Yet these dots are never routinely joined up in mainstream discourse. So, what we have is a version of history that becomes mere propaganda to uphold the status quo of systemic inequality. A version of history that is incomplete and is precisely what Gordon identifies as a History of Violence, where this wilful ideological (or symbolic) violence of erasure masks the historically violent genesis of our modern world system. The effect of this erasure manifests in the mainstream denigration of ‘identity politics’ where we are constantly told that race and gender (for example) are mere sideshows to the important intellectual labour of present day discourses such as neoliberalism, political and international relations theory.
Yet, ‘identity politics’ remains the keystone of our modern world system. Kwame Anthony Appiah, in his Reith lecture think piece, There is no such thing as western civilisation, adroitly sets out how the West constructed its identity where there is “a clear sense of Christian Europe – Christendom – defining itself through opposition”. Appiah continues to describe a Christendom whose identity was wrought through “[t]he natural contrast [that] was not between Islam and the west, but between Christendom and Dar al‑Islam, each of which regarded the other as infidels, defined by their unbelief.” However, Christendom and Dar al-Islam were above all, political projects about conflict over territories. In short, Christendom became a political (and cultural) identity that through a supposed translatio studii (transfer of learning) from Greece and Rome lost its separate and particular ‘identity’ and became the repository for a universal and central canon of knowledge. The key point here for me, is not as Appiah correctly identifies, that this knowledge is not a purely ‘western’ canon since it is a composite of Arab scholarship, but that this knowledge lost its status as an ‘identity’ amongst others and became the pre-eminent universal norm against which other identities are measured.
If we zoom forward to the Valladolid debate in 1550, we see that the political ‘identity’ of Christendom played a crucial part in determining the ‘humanity’ of the Amerindians that were encountered by the Spanish. The moral debate between Las Casas and Sepulveda sought to determine the human rights of the indigenous peoples essentially by assessing their potential for being converted to Catholicism. Las Casas gained a partial victory in arguing that the Amerindians had the right to be converted to Christianity and thus should be brought into (the political identity of) Christendom.
This seminal debate about human rights and who deserved to be accorded them set the tone for future moral debates about the Transatlantic Slave trade. Interestingly, the possibility of being converted to Christianity did not seem to have a role in determining the ‘human’ rights of African chattel slaves, as their categorisation of ‘non being’ and ‘property’ founded our modern world system via imperialism and colonialism. In fact, Molefi Kete Asante, in his 2007 Slavery Remembrance Day memorial lecture reminds us that:
Marx, many years later would argue that it was not ideas or national personalities that ruled history but the economic conditions of human lives, and that all alienation is economic and social not spiritual or metaphysical. Since slaveholders owned enslaved people these people, who were not human in the sense of rights and aspirations, according to the whites, were simply means of production and capital accumulation. We could have been robots as far as the slaveholders were concerned.
So, we arrive at a notion of an economic system that is built on the “economic conditions of human lives” defined by their identities of “means of production and capital accumulation”. Such is the centrality of ‘identity’ that Asante reminds us that ‘whiteness’ became an economic construct of opposition in much the same way as Christendom did centuries before.
There are two implications of the chattelisation of Africans: (1) the invention of the white race, and (2) the commodification of the African. In the first instance, out of a heterogeneous group of Europeans who did not claim to be of the same race, and as Smedley understood, did not perceive themselves in a common way, there was invented, Allen argued, a new reality, “the white race” (Smedley, 1999; Allen, 1997). What the slavers knew that they had in common was that they were not black. So long as they could not find any African in their ancestry they could become a part of this new creation, a formation of white people who were a reaction to the blackness of the enslaved Africans. This was an all-class formation, a white person could emerge from any class and be considered more privileged than a black from any class, even if one observed that the black, for example, was a descendant of African royalty.
Here we have an economic system which birthed capitalism, and later neoliberalism that was founded on ‘identity’. The identity of ‘whiteness’ legitimised capital exploitation of chattel and the identity of ‘blackness’ (chattel) justified their economic exploitation.
In my latest book, The Polemics of C.L.R. James and Contemporary Black Activism, I explore James’ underlying argument that capitalism and its democracy are founded on a “racial contract” that at a structural level fixes certain groups of people under an unbreakable glass ceiling above which other groups of people reside.
James intimates that this contract, gains its legitimacy from a “racial formation” that, as Asante describes, uses certain moments of history as templates for forming racial “identities”. James also surmises how the contract is transmitted though “racial rule”, which for example, sees an uneven application of the law where full democratic freedoms are not universally accorded to everyone.
The point I make in the book is that this racial contract forms a template for social relations within a market economy. I argue how ‘whiteness’ becomes a drive for mastery and profit and how in the absence of ‘blackness’, the market will re-invent it in order to continue its drive for profit. For example, I explore how eastern European workers came to occupy the market identity (position) of ‘blackness’ in the UK’s EU Referendum debates, as they were used to contrast and therefore highlight the perception of a native Britishness comprising a mythical national purity.
Identity is the whole of politics
However, what brings me back to my original point of frustration is how the mainstream discourse about populism and its (worrying) rise amongst the working classes, erases the racial (and gendered) ‘identity’ formation of the working classes and the economic system at large. So, for example when eminent thinkers such as Chantal Mouffe in her The populist moment writes, “[w]e have seen an exponential increase in inequality not only affecting the working-class, but also a great part of the middle-class who have entered a process of pauperization and precarization”, there is no hint of a mention of the historical processes by which the working and middle-classes became racialised as having a white gendered identity within a market economy. It is as though the ‘classes’ have no racial or gendered identity and are neutral, universal components of the economic substructure.
Unanswered by Mouffe’s critique is the interaction between what constitutes the working and middle classes and their racial and gendered identities and exactly how they manifest this “exponential increase in inequality”. This form of symbolic erasure (Althusserian overdeterminants, notwithstanding) is precisely what Lewis Gordon refers to in his contribution to the Histories of Violence series.
Until we acknowledge that ‘Identity Politics’ are central and in fact are the whole of ‘Politics’ and capitalism per se, we will continue to ignore the situated-ness (i.e. the historical formation of identity and power) of a system that, as Mouffe correctly identifies, generates “an exponential increase in inequality”.
This is an important point because any form of political or civil resistance to this form of populism, will be rendered useless without a full knowledge of the (structural) ‘identities’ we fight against. As I said at the very start of this piece none of these issues of oppressive populism that Trump and others embody are anything new…