Identity Politics, Class Politics, Spiritual Politics: How Do We Build World-Transforming Coalitions?
The election and reelection of Barack Obama seemed to many to be a moment of redemption for America’s long history of slavery, segregation, and racism. And the powerful role that minority groups and women now play in elections seems to vindicate a dramatic turn by the Left in the past forty years toward a primary focus on identity politics, particularly highlighting the Left’s efforts to counter certain forms of oppression faced by women, African Americans, LGBTQ people, Latinos, Asian Americans, immigrants, and people with disabilities.
Yet progressives and liberals have not yet fully grappled with the limitations of narrowly conceived struggles against identity-based oppression. For example, if struggles against the gender wage gap are framed narrowly in terms of “equal pay for equal work,” such struggles are fundamentally unable to challenge the larger structure of capitalist domination that leaves millions of women and men unemployed, underemployed, or contending with multiple jobs that are still in-sufficient to pay for basic needs, not to mention the burdens of unwaged domestic work that continue to fall unevenly on women. Similarly, struggles against racism that are framed narrowly, such as efforts to end the employment discrimination that keeps people of color out of corporate, government, or media leadership positions, are insufficient to challenge the larger racist dynamics of mass incarceration and deportation that increasingly structure our society.
An overly narrow form of identity politics lacks the power to radically transform our society, in part because as more affluent or successful members of oppressed groups begin to achieve recognition of their rights in Western societies, they do not always identify with the needs of the most oppressed members of their own communities but instead sometimes take on the attitudes and orientations of the powerful.
To really transform our society and liberate ourselves from the capitalist ethos and transnational corporate rule that structure all of our lives, we need to listen harder and learn from those on the left who have found ways to combine identity politics with class politics and a call for a deep spiritual transformation of our society. Scholars and activists—particularly those whose identities expose them simultaneously to multiple interlocking oppressions, such as queer and working-class women of color—have spoken and written in powerful ways over the last few decades about how oppressions intersect and how we cannot liberate ourselves from racism or sexism without also challenging the fundamental economic and class structure in which we live. This is a moment when the Left as a whole is grappling with the question of how to bring together identity politics, class politics, and spiritual politics, whether we’re working on a local, national, or global project. We need a vision and a discourse that speaks to our common humanity, even as we continue the multiple struggles to affirm and protect our many different identities.
Electing a Black president (or any electoral victory within the current system of money-dominated politics, for that matter) is not enough to significantly shift the interlocking forms of race and class oppression that shape our society. This should be clear from the way that President Obama, faced with the economic crisis of the past five years, has frequently given priority to the needs of Wall Street, the...