Raise the Floor to Smash the Ceiling


Identity politics – at least on the left – has seen its day, writes Richard King.

There’s been a strong backlash in the last few days against the recent spate of articles suggesting that one of the reasons Hillary Clinton lost the election is that she relied too heavily on identity politics, ignoring the bigger economic picture in favour of an emphasis on diversity and rights.

Two fairly representative pieces were by Laura Penny, writing in the New Statesman, and Hadley Freeman, writing in The Guardian. Addressing themselves to the various commentators now arguing that identity politics has undermined the left’s ability to articulate answers to the major challenges facing the world today, both argue that this view is not only wrong but also predicated on a dismissive attitude towards women and minorities.

As Penny puts it: “commentators from all sides of the self-satisfied, chin-stroking debate school are blaming ‘identity politics’ for the disaster on our doorsteps. What they seem to mean by this is ‘politics that matter to people who aren’t white men in rural towns’.”

Now I can’t speak for the whole of the “self-satisfied, chin-stroking debate school”. But I did write an article in the wake of Trump’s victory suggesting that progressive-style identity politics was at least partly to blame for the left’s recent failures. And I do think it survives Freeman and Penny’s analyses, which seem to me to be fairly good examples of the kind of mentality I was criticising. At any rate, I feel the need to elucidate …

At one point in her article, Penny writes, “All politics are identity politics.” In one sense this is obviously true: all of us have an identity – one based on our class or our place of birth or our sex or our religion (or our lack of one) – and this will affect our politics, consciously or unconsciously. But the notion that, say, racial identity is deserving of a political response in some sense separate from broader issues of social and economic justice, which is what most people mean by identity politics, is something else entirely.

It’s clear from her piece that Penny regards the attack on progressive identity politics as itself a species of identity politics; it is an attack mounted on behalf of “white men in rural towns”, or, alternatively, people “who aren’t female, or queer, or brown, or from another country”.

Similarly, Freeman describes criticism of identity politics as “the primal scream of the straight white male”. But this, of course, is the very reductionism against which some of their targets were arguing.

Our particular degree of self-satisfaction aside, we take the view that the division of human beings on the grounds of race or sex or sexual preference is not a platform on which a transformative leftwing politics can be built.

US president-elect Donald Trump. (IMAGE: Matt Johnson, Flickr)
US president-elect Donald Trump. (IMAGE: Matt Johnson, Flickr)

The point is not that left politicians have failed to address the concerns of white men in rural towns, though clearly they have. The point is that, from a properly socialist perspective, the concerns of those people cannot be separated from the concerns of black women in cities.

That is not to say that black people don’t face discrimination and disadvantage in a way that no white person ever will, or can fully appreciate, or that women’s unpaid social labour is taken by power as no more than its due, or that white male heterosexuals like your humble servant shouldn’t check their privilege when they hold forth on such things; it’s not to say, in other words, that issues of race and sex and sexuality have no bearing on politics, or that they can be frictionlessly assimilated into some “bigger” picture.

It’s simply to say that any politics that treats these things in isolation and makes a virtue of “diversity” is a politics doomed to failure in the long run. It isn’t a question of downgrading one thing and emphasising the other. It’s a question of putting the two together in a way that makes sense to the expanding constituency of people left behind by capitalism.

The ease with which issues of identity and diversity are assimilated into mainstream politics is a sign of how ineffective they are when removed from this broader, material context. What is Clintonism, after all, if not neoliberal economics with a bit of progressive rights-speak thrown in?

In his recent polemic, Listen, Liberal, Thomas Frank lambasts the Democrats and Hillary Clinton in particular for their deep attachment to a view of the market as the entity through which women the world over can realise their liberation. He notes the many conferences arranged and run by the Clinton Foundation, conferences that assume a sort of naturally occurring solidarity between, say, a woman in poorest Mumbai – five kids with limbs like sticks, literally no pot to piss in – and, say, Melinda Gates.

The liberal fetish for meritocracy is the projection of this ideology and essentially no different from the rightwing belief that inequality and social injustice would evaporate like dew on the grass if only poor folk would bootstrap themselves and take out a microcredit loan.

It transfers risk and responsibility from a kleptocratic economic system to the individual, in the same way that it lays racial and gender disadvantage at the door of personal “tolerance”.

To say that Hillary Clinton didn’t channel this kind of politics in both the primaries and the election campaign is to rewrite history before the ink is even dry. The Democratic Convention in Philadelphia was a showcase for diversity, long on moving speeches from representatives of different groups and largely devoid of economic ideas that would make a material difference in Americans’ lives.

Freeman is right to claim that Clinton never said “I’m a woman, vote for me” (Bernie Sanders’ characterisation); but she did adopt the slogan “I’m with her”, plainly cast herself as the personification of marginal groups’ desires, and, when Sanders put forward his proposal for free tuition in public universities, attacked him for not caring enough about historically black colleges in the private sector.

Unsuccessful US Democrats presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. (IMAGE: Gage Skidmore, Flickr)
Unsuccessful US Democrats presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. (IMAGE: Gage Skidmore, Flickr)

At one point she even managed to insinuate that class struggle is some kind of white luxury. You’ll remember this bit of call and response, from a speech way back in February:

CLINTON: “Not everything is about an economic theory, right? If we broke up the big banks tomorrow – and I will, if they deserve it, if they pose a systemic risk, I will – would that end racism?”


CLINTON: “Would that end sexism?”


CLINTON: “Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community?”


CLINTON: “Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?”


CLINTON: “Would that solve our problem with voting rights, and Republicans who are trying to strip them away from people of colour, the elderly, and the young?”


Here, it is not Clinton’s critics but Clinton herself who is drawing a line between political economy and identity politics, as if Wall Street bankers had no responsibility for the disadvantage minorities face, either directly, through racist redlining, or generally, through their pursuit of profit and huge ingestion of public money in the wake of the 2008 crisis.

“If we broke up the big banks tomorrow – and I will,” says Clinton, “if they deserve it, if they pose a systemic risk …” But of course her whole identity shtick is designed precisely in order to mask the fact that she was the bankers’ choice (some people say Clinton was a bad candidate. I say you get what you pay for).

All this would be much easier to take if we could believe that Clinton is sincere. If Clinton really does think that racial and sexual disadvantage can be addressed without restructuring the economy then she’s guilty of nothing more than naivety. But most memories are long enough to remember the way she played the race card on Barack Obama in 2008, touting support from “hardworking Americans, white Americans” while accusing the current President of failing to build a broad enough base.

That she went into bat for Bill Clinton’s racist mass-incarceration policies in the 1990s makes her current posturing even more sickening. Black lives didn’t always matter to the ex next President of the United States.

As I wrote in my original piece (not very originally) the rise of Trump and Marine Le Pen and Pauline Hanson and their analogues represents, not the end of identity politics, but its return to its natural home – the right. Racism and xenophobia are intrinsic to a politics based upon borders, national greatness, patrie.

If the left intends to shrink this cancer it will have to offer a powerful alternative to the remarkably coherent platform adopted by its principal exponents – a platform in which economic sovereignty and nativist rhetoric come together under the rubric of anti-globalisation.

That will mean channelling its best traditions of wholesale social and economic change. It can begin by acknowledging that to smash the ceiling it is necessary to raise the floor.


I'm a journalist and author based in Fremantle and write for various rags and mags. I'm also the author of On Offence: The Politics of Indignation (Scribe). Visit me at http://bloodycrossroads.com/