Intersectionality vs dominant identity politics*

Shorter JQ: Although the idea of intersectionality emerged on the left as a solution to problems involving class and identity politics, it turns out to the be the natural response to the rise of dominant identity politics on the right.

As I see it, intersectionality combines a recognition that people are oppressed both through the economic structures of capitalism and as members of various subordinate groups with a rejection of both:

  • “essentialist” identity politics, based on the claim that some particular aspect of identity (gender, race, sexuality, disability etc) should trump all others; and
  • “working class” politics, presented as a politics of universal liberation, but reduced by the failure of revolutionary Marxism to another kind of identity politics (I took this formulation from Don Arthur on Twitter. I had something to say about class and Marxism a while back)

The point about intersectionality is that there many kinds of oppression and injustice, and they interact in complex, more than additive, ways. The resulting political strategy for the left is not so much that of a “rainbow coalition” of distinct identity groups but a kaleidoscope in which different facets come to the fore at different times and places.

Now think about dominant/default identity politics (I’ll use the US/Australian version, but other versions can be obtained just by changing the dominant identity). The key idea, is that well-off, white, Christian men are being oppressed by virtue of challenges to their natural position of dominance, and rejection of their natural expectation of deference.

The central claim is also addressed to white Christian women, particularly married women, who are assumed to identify their interests with those of their families.

Looked at this way, the claims of dominant/default identity politics are the exact opposite of those underlying intersectionality. The more someone deviates from the “typical” American/Australian, the more they are seen as benefiting unfairly from social welfare systems, anti-discrimination policy and so on.

The right (along with much of the centrist commentariat,least until recently) at mostly fails to understand its relationship with intersectionality, in two ways.

First, they mostly don’t recognise their own politics as identity politics, though this is changing. This recognition is welcome for overt white supremacists, but more problematic for those who want to retain the illusion that their movement is based on broad ideological principles.

Second, they miss the point of intersectionality completely, seeing it as just old-style identity politics on steroids. That’s unsurprising, since they never paid much attention to disputes within the left over class and identity politics, and have used “identity politics” as a rhetorical cudgel.

How will all this develop? As white Christians become a minority, the implied political strategy is a combination of political mobilization for rightwing whites and voter suppression for everyone else. If this succeeds, we’ll be well on the path to dictatorship. If it fails, the right will need to expand the notion of acceptable identity, a path proposed, and then abandoned, after their 2012 election defeat.

  • As usual from me, amateur analysis, probably unoriginal and possibly wrong. Feel free to point this out in comments.

11 thoughts on “Intersectionality vs dominant identity politics*

  1. This analysis seems to apply equally well to international relations.

    Thus, “[t]he more someone deviates from the “typical” [Western values], the more they are seen as benefiting unfairly from social welfare systems, anti-discrimination policy and so on”.

    So the Americans have been complaining about China benefiting unfairly from global practice on trade and investment. The Australian PM thinks it is illegitimate that China claims it is a developing country.

  2. I’m well used to this from the reaction of second wave feminists to the development of intersectionality in feminism and the resulting third wave. The nice white christian women of feminism were vigorously unhappy with all the poor brown women claiming *their* label. Part of the fun now is identifying modern arguments by right-wing figures and linking them to the origins of that argument.

    Seeing some one like Pence make an argument straight out of the “womyn born womyn” radical lesbian feminist playbook is weird, but their reaction to being told so is often priceless. “big hairy trans-male bikes must be forced to use the women’s toilets”, for example…

  3. Marvellous set of comments and great update on something that has been percolating its way through the public consciousness, often with bad results, for some time.
    I won’t comment on whether or not i think it a little wry or tongue in cheek, but it is a beaut read on a strange NY eve.

  4. A person could call a political system which does not allow delusional people a say in setting politcal policy a dictatorship. But I think that the word dictatorship is deragatory. A much better more accurate word is a shepardship.
    Where would a shepard take us. Well at this point the only option is to a cemetary. A real shepard will take us on the most scenic path to the cemetary with the best views of the countryside. Our graves will be dug when we get their. We will not have to dig our own graves.
    To end up anywhere else at this point is going to take the occurance of events that could not possibly be forseen let alone expected by anyone.

  5. The report below is just appalling. It fits in well with the conclusions drawn in the article above.
    And to think that West Virginia succeeded from the Confederacy to become its own state. A state that played a very big role in the fight to unionize workers should not be a state rampant with alt rechts emotions.
    https://www.huffpost.com/entry/west-virginia-government-employees-fired-after-investigation-into-nazi-salute_n_5e0a3e1fe4b0843d360a6779?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cu

  6. The OP gets it pretty much right.

    On the point raised by Don Arthur’s Tweet, I think that the identarian version of class politics was always there. The eclipse of the more universalist, Marxist-based form of class politics since the 1980s has allowed the identarian version to become more dominant and less often subject to critique from within a class politics paradigm.

  7. I really wish both Foucault and Tony Crosland were alive to make sense of modern identity politics (Of course, with due account of their white male privilege).

  8. A somewhat odd choice of topic while Australia burns. Sometimes it pays to say something even if you can’t be original.

    I wish you Aussies a cooler New Year – but you won’t get it.

  9. I’ve just put up a long article on particulate deaths, and done a lot of tweeting, but I can’t think about fires all the time. It’s just too depressing.

  10. While I agree with most of what the post says, I don’t think the rightwing parties need to resort to voter suppression and dictatorship to maintain their political power and relevance. Both intersectionality of the left and dominant identity politics of the right has their advantages and disadvantages. In my opinion, the multi-dimensional politics of the left has a main disadvantage that during times of poor economic conditions, voters focus more on economics narratives than everything else. This is when the rightwing parties plays into the voters mindsets by having a simple economics narratives, playing as victims and blaming economic troubles on others, run fear campaigns about opponents economic policies, and they have so far won elections after elections in UK, US, Australia and also many parts of EU (yes I know they may or may not win the most votes, but its seats that’s important, and seat based system vs vote count system is a completely different topic of discussion).

    If this is true, then for the left to win it would be difficult since the world economy is not looking to lift up in the 2020-30 decade. A single dimensional grassroots campaigns of labour rights, fighting for lower and middle class economic farewell may be more effective than a campaign that is a combination of everything.

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