Over at An und fur Sich, Marika Rose has an interesting post up on some of the difficulties with the left’s criticism of identity politics. She writes:
Sometimes critiques of identity politics are just the boring Marxist assertion that class comes first and everything else is a distraction (usually combined with some degree of contempt for people of colour, women, queer people etc). And sometimes they are an attempt to distinguish between the liberal politics which demands the inclusion of a wider range of identities within the existing order (so the institution of marriage is fine, it just needs to be extended to same sex couples; liberal democracy is fine, it just needs to be extended to women or black people) and the radical politics which says that the exclusion of particular identities from the existing order offers an insight into the ways in which the existing order is totally fucked and needs to be overthrown.
Expanding on the point of his final sentence about the difference between liberal politics and radical politics, perhaps it can be said that a central problem with liberal politics is that it unfolds almost entirely at the level of the symbolic and agents. Liberal politics overwhelmingly sees issues like racism at the level of problems of belief and affectivity. Belief falls into the category of the symbolic, whereas affectivity falls into the category of the phenomenological agent. The problem, says the liberal, is racists and the problem with racists is that they have mistaken representations of whatever group happens to be the object of their hatred. Based on these premises, the liberal proposal is a sort of pedagogy of belief that corrects these false representations and that enacts laws to mitigate the negative effects of these beliefs. The idea resembles something like cognitive behavioral therapy or a certain version of Stoicism. The idea is that emotions or affects are based on beliefs or the symbolic, so if we correct those beliefs we’ll bring about the erasure of these sad passions or affects.
It is, of course, true that a significant dimension of issues such as racism is symbolic and affective in character. There is no doubt here. The problem is that it is not simply agents or collectives that are racist (individual racism and white privilege), it’s that material environments are themselves racist. Infrastructure and the natural world are themselves racist. What I have in mind here is Judith Butler’s thesis of the differential exposure to precarity of marginalized groups in her recent work Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly or Stacey Alaimo’s concept of trans-corporeality in works like Bodily Natures. For the oppressed, it is material environments that are themselves toxic. Material environments directly target the body and afford and constrain the possibilities of life, action, and affect for people who live in these worlds. This can above all be seen in the case of Flint, Michigan where the polluted water directly assaults the body. The population of this town is disproportionately poor and composed of vulnerable minorities. Indeed, perhaps minority itself should be defined as a sort of hyper-vulnerability. No doubt it was racist policy and belief (again the symbolic) that contributed to the production of this material environment, but it is not enough to merely target the beliefs and policies. Addressing the material environment itself is also a front in the fight against something like racism.
And herein lies the problem with liberalism. Liberalism too often remains at the level of the symbolic alone, at the level of beliefs and policies, ignoring the material dimension in which people dwell. We could say that it suffers from abstraction. And here we need not look far for the reason behind this abstraction. Liberalism entertains the fantasy of a harmony between capitalism and cultural politics, which compels it to discern all struggles of the oppressed and unequal purely at the level of abstract rights and equality, ignoring the way in which inequality and oppression are built into the very fabric of the material world itself at the level of infrastructures, technologies, labor, and destruction of the natural environment in capitalism’s unquenchable pursuit of capital. It’s fantasy is that cultural inequality can be addressed purely at the level of the symbolic without hindering capitalism’s pursuit of capital in any way. By contrast, the radical politics that Rose alludes to sees all of these struggles as symptoms of the overarching horizon of life under capitalism in the anthropocene. Absolute emancipation cannot simply be symbolic, it can’t merely be a matter of recognizing and tolerating others, it can’t merely be a matter of possessing abstract rights. Absolute emancipation must also be material emancipation and the opportunity to live in an embodied world that is not toxic.