Identity Politics and Essentialism
This essay appears in Post Colonial Anarchism: Essays on race, repression and culture in communities of color 1999-2004. Access the complete book here
Is anyone who has ever defined their political work through a social category historically associated with inferiority or submission in a particular culture “essentialist?” Do activists involved in ‘identity politics’ necessarily think of themselves as biologically or morally superior to straight, white men? Is social victimization something anarchists really need to be worried about? The answer to these questions could determine the future relationship that anarchism has to women, people of color, the LGBT community, immigrants and other groups of people who have lived in the shadows of unaccountable authority because of their real or perceived membership in a particular group.
In a Winter 2005 Anarchy: the Journal of Desire Armed article Lawrence Jarach raises these issues and responds in a way that invites anarchists to view essentialism as the inspiration of all identity driven political work and to reject calls for solidarity with movements that base their struggles on demands for justice for the victims of social domination. Instead, anarchists should focus on the ways that the victims are complicit in their own victimization by looking at how the recognition and identification with social classifications work to continue their own oppression. All this may seem like a slightly right of center interpretation of Michael Foucault but Jarach does more than simply point out the fluidity of power relations. When his claims “…the ideologies of innocence and victimization can quickly transform an identity based on the history of shared oppression into a posture of superiority” he is echoing a more right-wing analysis that is closer to figures like Dinesh D’ Souza, David Horowitz and Shelbe Steele.
An essentialist is someone who believes there are different human archetypes that correspond to a set of fixed attributes in the group that the archetype represents. Plato is generally considered the author of this wacky notion. On the left, Carol Gilligan’s 1982 book In a Different Voice is a modern example of such thinking. “Left” essentialism has generally been a minor tendency since the early seventies. By contrast social constructionism has been much more popular in feminist, queer and multiculturalist movements- the three theoretical complements to the contemporary identity movement.
Self-identification with a particular social class or category does not imply the belief that that class or category is static, eternal, superior, or organic. Our identities are fragmented, intersectional, and open to change. But oppositional identities are sometimes imposed from the outside- a privilege of power that some people and communities do not have the agency to resist. The reality is that in North America over the last 600 years, white, Christian, men have held power and privilege over and above others and they have often used that power and privilege to the determent of others. This doesn’t mean that people who recognize this fact with a period instead of a “but…” think they are superior to white, Christian, men (many of the people who recognize this fact are white, Christian, men) It simply means that we refuse to tell lies in order to build unity in the service of some ideology.
Jarach offers the concept of “counter essentialism.” “The counter-essentialist discourse of Identity Politics attempts to invert the historical categories of oppression into categories of celebration… Counter-essentialism supposedly proves that the victim is eternally innocent, so victims’ actions and reactions are forever beyond reproach; all good Christians know that suffering is ennobling. Oppression is never the result of anything the victim has actually done to the Oppressor, so whatever strategies of resistance the victim chooses are legitimate. Self-defense is its own justification.”
Under this view the female victim of domestic violence would be complicit in a discourse that perpetuates her own domination if her demands for justice went beyond an individual quest for recompense against the perpetrator. If she happened to figure out that 95% of all domestic violence victims are women and girls and concluded that there were systemic and cultural causes that made women and girls targets for abuse and men perpetrators of it, she’d be told by some post left anarchists that she’s embracing the inverse of an historical narrative that assumes female passivity and male domination. If she decided to take a step further and become active in the feminist movement to fight against violence against women she’d be labeled an essentialist by Jarach and would find few allies among the post left anarchists.
Once we recognize a pattern in victimization that corresponds to a social category that exists in reality– it effects the way people think, act, and perceive- then the question of who invented the categories becomes a topic ripe for a drunk PHD at an ethnic studies department holiday party. The priority becomes stopping the victimization. The ability to stop it and hold the victimizers accountable largely depends on the number of people who decide to stand up and demand it stop. Not just for themselves but for everyone who has been victimized due to the “outward markings” (Jarach’s phrase) that they share in common regardless of their biological meaning (or lack thereof). The physical attributes that are invested with negative meaning by people who create social hierarchies based on their existence become relevant to those who’ve been targeted for victimization for possessing these physical attributes because they’ve been targeted for victimization for possessing these physical attributes! In this climate pretending this discourse doesn’t exist just because you didn’t create it can get you killed. The first order of survival is the ability to recognize a present reality and adapt your behavior to meet its demands.
The unity of those who have suffered under oppression is the most powerful weapon in the fight to end that oppression. It’s great to have allies who will stand with your community when it’s under attack (as anarchists should do). But the first priority of resistance is raising the awareness of the people inside the community by sharing knowledge about the ways in which their efforts to live in dignity and self-determination are being denied and subverted and what they can do to fight back. To label activists who are dedicated to this important political education “essentialist” is absurd.
In the end the post left anarchist rejection of identity politics reveals a double standard in its concern about hierarchy. The anarchist rejects the state because it imposes political hierarchy. But getting rid of the state wouldn’t necessarily dramatically effect social hierarchy at all. (In fact, with the existence of corporate feudalism it could make it worse) The state may solidify social inequality but it’s not the author of it. Getting rid of social hierarchy will demand true solidarity with those who have born the brunt of injustice and repression. This is something Jarach and many of his post left anarchist friends are not willing to do.