Identity Politics and Democratic Totalitarianism
If the totalitarian project is, in nuce, the absolute control and conformation of all in the name and on behalf of the State, as proclaimed by Mussolini and Gentile in The Fascist Doctrine, the democratic qualification of this regime outsources some of its determining power to other organized, and apparently independent, entities. The groups, churches, guilds, clubs, or associations within traditional societies shape and constraint their members, while paradoxically granting them the possibility for multiple agency. Such organized bodies both fulfill a mission of public control by socializing their affiliates and allow for the existence of peripolitical spaces, maybe even of acknowledged margins, be they minimal. Democratic totalitarianism tolerates the existence of organized entities inasmuch as they operate like relays for the same brand of complete control and conformation. This is what “the people” is being reduced to: the fractal repetition of a sameness enforcing one rule. The multiplicities of “other,” peripheral, spaces within the City itself turn out to be meaningless and empty, if they are fulfilling, at every level, an identical mission that is congruent with the standardization and surveillance of everyone. Identity politics is not a regime, it is a structured practice and modus operandi that has been wonderfully co-opted by the contemporary form of the (Americanized) society of control. It is the means to an end, that precisely coincides with the very end—and destruction—of the actually democratic postulate.
In the nineteen-seventies, the “politics of identity,” later becoming “identity politics,” was a collective form of action denouncing the tyranny of the majority: the official identity of the ideal citizen (as constructed and favored by institutions) was in fact hiding, diminishing, relegating, and subjugating minorities. The tacit advantage, in political terms, of the white, male, straight, upper-class national was undeniable (even though, remarkably, the class and citizenship issues were not always mentioned by activists). Opposing minority identities to the fiction of one, unique, identity that “just happened” to reproduce the usual underpinnings of social domination was not an unprecedented gesture, but it was a valuable strategy to attack phallocracy, colonialism, or racism. Now, where should we go from there? One option was, and still is, to conclude that any affirmation of political identity is, in principle, exclusionary. It may be the case that some identities are more immediately dangerous than others, depending on the power they grant themselves or have been vested in; but the voicing of a political sameness, in principle, serves the in-group to the expense of the others. This may be perceived as an act of reparation against a given situation of hegemony. And, when people endorse an “inferior” position they would not be normally assigned to (as in the common examples of what Jacques Rancière names subjectivation: “we’re all German Jews,” “we’re all undocumented workers”), they displace the limits of exclusion to such an extent that “identity” is no longer the question, but processes of identification are becoming the focus. However, none of this erases the fundamentally exclusionary dimension of asserting identity. There, if the goal is truly to combat inequality and challenge power, it is clear that, at best, the politics of identity will be a transitory task, a step toward something else. In 1977, the “black feminists” of the Combahee River Collective, who are widely credited with the propagation of the expression of “identity politics,” were also, and already, rejecting separatism, fractionalization and determinism.
Four decades later, and more than twenty years after the well-structured critiques of political correctness, the renewed, mainstream, technologically mediated, academically reinforced, and corporately sponsored, form of identity politics (with its dual emphasis on victimization and safety, as well as its rejection of “cultural appropriation”) does reveal its objective. The dominant American practice merely reshuffles the distribution of power, giving more to some and less to others, while keeping in place the other pillars of the old order. This only occurs by now forcing everybody to (re)claim an identity. The radical question from the sixties “where are you speaking from?” is now degraded into a “what are you?,” with all acceptable responses being already listed in a pop-up menu that is regularly updated in order to allow you to “personalize” the content of your self. Assuming multiple identities could look like an interesting transgression, though this is simply not enough, and especially when all the different traits coalesce into a kind of multifaceted–though factually unified–identity that is being added to the menu (e.g. the categories white cisgendered bisexual female or indigenous gender non-conforming male). Whereas some of those affirmations may carry a political weight ad hoc, they are also heavily participating in the political ostentation of identity that glues together the pieces of democratic totalitarianism.
Politics is the ordering of social order. It ensues that, beyond local preferences and particular systems of domination, politics, as such, is about granting functions and assigning places. A well-ordered distribution of this kind relies on fixed points and loci. Then, politics has always been concerned with identities, with both the delimitation of sameness and the production of identicals. Identity politics does not, in any way, disturbs the ordering of order. By suddenly and infinitely expanding the number of identities (all of them being structurally dependent on primordial exclusions), by ruling out the existence of a beyond to identities, by repeating over and over again that politics is based on the concept and experience of identity, by ratifying the social ordering it pretends to contest in adopting predetermined categories (such as “white male” or “black female”), current “identity politics” shows itself to be the crude picture of a total control over the organization of society. What tyrants and absolute rulers had always dreamed of is accomplished: every body is getting an identity (or an identity set) that presumably defines and contains it, and the order of order is not only warranted by a principal source of power but also constantly reaffirmed by the members of the neighborhood watch community called the City, and by the communicational devices we unceasingly use. Moreover, since “identity” is, on one hand, represented as a sine qua non of human existence, and, on the other hand, described as being political through and through, there is no escape and even the discontent vis-à-vis the political is being translated into a wound or a trauma, caused by domination though curable through social engineering. I have shown in my 2016 The Refusal of Politics that a victory of the 20th century had been to politicize the non-political, consolidating varied forms of totalitarianism. Identity politics is adapted to a society where citizens-consumers produce themselves by finding their place in a technologically defined space, whose rules of distributions and possible loci are algorithmically determined. The false objectivity of the algorithm (that has been invented, under certain conditions, by social and economical human agents) finds its counterpart in the subjective affection, fallaciously tied to a political victimization that is categorically programmed. Happiness and sadness can only be the set attributes of identities or the outcome of our interaction with screens and phones (or lack thereof).
Trumpism is another form of identity politics. Is it logically arguable to reject “redneck pride?” Were we considering identifications—and not identities—, one could advance that the historical formation of categories confers differing meanings to similar statements. But the identity politician, who seeks to explain what one says by what (s/he says) one is, does not deal with processes which could, in their own turn, generate affirmations that no longer adhere to pre-determined assignments. Therefore, within the horizon of identity politics 2.0, the only admissible critique of “redneck pride” is to consider that certain identities are better (morally superior, historically more deserving) than others. But this response quickly creates a wound, a trauma, a stigma among the creatures living at the bottom of the “basket of deplorables,” and a, new, suffering identity is brandished that reclaims a supplementary inversion of domination—and seizes power. The irony is that Donald J. Trump was elected in asserting a white trash identity he could not realistically be assigned to. This incidentally illustrates that subjectivation, performative affirmation, or political identification with a marginalized group (here the remnants of the working class) are no panacea, and that we should better rethink the role of the non-identical within the political, while additionally looking for the breaches in the City’s edifice.
There, it may be useful to add this remark: neither the celebration nor the critique of identity politics should be seen as the derivative consequences of the very concept of identity. The principle of identity (usually formalized as p=p) may be ungrounded, or, at least, provincial and dispensable, as both deconstruction and non-standard or non-commutative logical sets have hinted at. Within analytic philosophy, the sorites paradox concurrently, though differently, question the validity of logical identities. But whatever our position could be on these problems, and even if we were to repudiate non-classical approaches, there would remain that, outside of the formalized, the identity and the equality of objects do not have to be… the same. In particular, drawing from mathematical equations the “proof” for political identities would be no more than the naive retelling of Spartan tyranny, where equality among free citizens was conflated with the promotion of sameness (the Lacedaemonians were called hoi homoioi, the same ones). Despite his longstanding influence, Plato’s taste for both mathematics and Spartan despotism should not fool us here.
More generally, there is just no warranty that, from the existence of logical, ontological, metaphysical or even psychological identity, one could ever deduce the need for, or the validity of, any political identity. Nonetheless, if, according to theoretical procedures that are wholly to be found, such a derivation were to be conceded—be it for the argument’s sake–, then the identity of any one would either have to be immediately diffracted into a more or less coherent group of sub-identities (thereby revoking in doubt the central determination that is routinely assumed by the activists of the same), or be equated with the individual itself as the identity of all potential identities (which would run contrary to the social claims for collective reparation or rights), or be essentialized, straightforwardly or obliquely (“transgender” becoming, for instance, only a secondary, and ultimately accessory, attribute of blackness for a male-to-female African American). None of those cop-out “solutions,” already based on unwarranted inferences, are intellectually satisfying. This conundrum partially justifies the success of seemingly pragmatic paralogisms, where identity appears to be subsumed under performance, with the latter being in fact tacitly conditioned by elements of the “given” that are never exactly spelled out. At the end of it all, however, it is patent that no theory could ever justify or prove the validity of political identities as they are understood in contemporary activism. This is to be expected, as identity politics is nothing more than a phraseology, or a reified, conventional, contradictory ensemble of readymade statements, whose ultimate value lies in its non-dialogic efficacy in seizing power, ensuring censorship, and assigning punishment.