I’m not a huge fan of identity politics. My reasons are the common ones: they’re unnecessarily divisive, and they tend to ignore practicality. I’m not against the idea of identity politics; every identity has a right to celebrate themselves in an empowering fashion, but when that mental process is expanded to the grander scale of actual politics is when things fall apart. Luckily, I found a brilliant video that disagrees with me, and it puts forward the best case for identity politics I’ve ever seen:

Here’s a summary for those who opt out of watching this almost 12 minute video:

Identity politics is based on arbitrary distinctions between two groups, and those distinctions don’t necessarily even need to be defined all that well. Politics on the whole, as defined by Carl Schmitt, is the distribution of power along those hazy boundaries. Consider the One-Drop rule that governed the ‘blackness’ of individuals during the 20th century: insane nonsense, but still firmly embedded in the cultural psyche and accepted by the whole as a means of dividing power. To quote, “True political conflict isn’t about facts – it’s about the fight against other identities, however arbitrarily we might point them out.”

Politics therefore isn’t about policies, government programs, or their austere lack, but about “who is allowed to have power over themselves, and who is not.” The arguments over any other issue is what Olly, the presenter, calls, “management disagreements.” Those who focus on these management disagreements as the basis for their political identity are less zealous than those who adhere to Politics as defined by Schmitt. The zealotry behind a dogmatic identity can literally kill while milquetoast liberalism could never achieve such an extreme. Because of this, a government that runs on the ideologically weaker managerial proceduralism platform will be dangerously vulnerable against any group fueled by identity-based fanaticism that is big enough to threaten it. This means that anyone who doesn’t take into account power and identity when they are discussing politics will be doomed to lose every time.

Olly then goes on to say that when one considers the identity politics of the Left and compares it to those on the Right, there is a crucial distinction to make because they are not mirror images of one another. In this Us vs. Them mentality, the opposition to the Left is less rigid than the opposition to the Right. For example, when the Left defines itself as against the rich, a rich person could simply redistribute their wealth and they would be accepted by the Left, whereas gay people, transgendered people, Muslims, etc. who are the dichotomous Other to the Right, cannot change who they are because their identity is not a choice. He concludes by saying that the centrists who focus on liberal democracy and forget, or purposefully ignore, the role that power and identity inherently play within politics are essentially condoning the violence that those two factors play in every day lives.

Like I said: good stuff. I myself have written about the perilous implications of a possibly universal Us vs. Them mentality, and given that that would encompass politics as well, then Schmitt’s Identity Politics are truly the only type that need to be addressed. However, if that’s the case, then Olly’s argument fails on one critical point. Consider Vladimir Lenin. Or Mao Zedong. Or Pol Pot. These were identity politicians on the Left who engineered a violent, inflexible attack against their identity-based opposites: the bourgeoisie. There was no talk about allowing the rich into the loving warmth of their Leftist ideology. There were massacres. The same could be said for Malcolm X who did not want white people to end their racist ways, he simply wanted them gone in a black-people-only utopia. The Left can be just as ideologically vicious as the Right when they are inflamed by their identity-based righteousness. If politics is only Identity Politics, and both sides at their extremes work only to eliminate their opposites, then ultimately we’re just fucked.

In a glimmer of hope, let’s consider this excellent Al Jazeera article that has a similar theme to Olly’s lovely video. It mentions a similar distinction between the populism on the Right and the populism on the Left, but uses an example of Bernie Sanders demonstrating left-wing populism by wishing to break up the big banks as the contrast to the Right’s anti-pluralism. Olly hints at this as well when he says that the rich and powerful can give up their oppressive ways to become a friend of the Left. It is not the identity that is at issue in these examples, but the practices of those who possess that identity. In order for Schmitt’s Politics to have a happy ending, the Other needs the capacity to change.

It could be argued that this is simple: give up racism, or sexism, or homophobia, and people will be welcomed into that loving embrace of the Left I was fantasizing about earlier, but unfortunately this is too simplistic. Consider the arguments of Anne Bishop, who declares that everyone possessing oppressor traits (straight, white, male, able-bodied, etc.) will always be oppressors because regardless of their deeds, they will always benefit from the privileges that those identity markers bestow upon them. In addition, they will have grown up under conditions that reinforce their superiority, and undermining that conditioning is an infinite process that can never successfully be accomplished. Bishop claims that the person who believes that they have finally rid themselves of their oppressor qualities becomes more oppressive for holding these impossible beliefs. What Bishop is essentially saying is that the dichotomous Other of the Left cannot shed their incompatible identity any more than the Other of the Right. Are we just fucked then?

Since identity is inescapable from either side, then we must look elsewhere for solutions. The key lies in the example I used from the Al Jazeera article where Sanders wants to break up the big banks. Breaking up the big banks has absolutely nothing to do with identity. In fact, it is closer to what Olly might call a management proposal. This management proposal, however, is the mechanism for change that would allow the rich to absolve themselves of their oppressive identity to something more acceptable to the Left. Or consider the Black Lives Matter campaign demanding an end to the shooting of black men by police. This is Schmittian Politics because so long as police are trained to use deadly force, and crimes are still committed by black people, even if racism is taken out of the equation, this will always produce the use of deadly force against black people. It is an impossible demand for change. Further evidence is the call to defund the NYPD and expel the police department from Pride Parades; clear indications of inflexible dogmatism. This isn’t allowing capacity for change, it’s demanding the elimination of police from within the Leftist fold: an explicit Us vs. Them mentality. Instead of an overarching ban on police, or calls to defund and therefore ultimately abolish the institution of policing, why not look at mechanisms for change? In the UK (save Northern Ireland), cops do not carry firearms, and if this system were imported into the United States, it would certainly eliminate the police killings of black men. While I am by no means saying this is the panacea for the shootings of black men by police, and other, better solutions are certainly available, it is one example of a mechanism for change that does not call for vindictive polarization.

If we are to accept the implications of Schmittian Politics, then the passionate zeal that drives us must be directed against the management disagreements that Olly insists are not involved in that type of Politics at all. Creating a Them out of an identity marker, no matter which direction it is coming from, will only ever be destructive. My initial critique was right: we must avoid divisiveness and focus on practical, real-world solutions. Identity must be dismissed in favour of these mechanisms for change, as they are the only way to bridge the friend and enemy divide. I mean sure, maybe that is an impossible request, and we are hardwired to pursue an Other based on arbitrary identity markers. If that’s the case, then, as I’ve been saying, we’d just be fucked.