Mapping the New Left Roots of Identity Politics
Just when polite liberal (not to mention correct leftist) discourse ceased speaking of us as dykes, faggots, colored girls, or natives, we began speaking of ourselves this way.
Wendy Brown 1
The new rights that are being claimed today are the expression of differences whose importance is only now being asserted, and they are no longer rights that can be universalized.
Chantal Moufffe 2
If all social movements have genealogies, then the origins of identity politics is easier to trace than most. The movement to define the contemporary public self (or, to put it differently, the self in public) owes more to the emergence of the New Left than to any other political movement. While identity politics is not the only heir of the New Left, it is certainly one of the New Left's more politically endowed progeny, a significant beneficiary of the "Ban the Bomb" marches in late-1950s Britain and the Civil Rights, Black Power, and gay rights struggles in 1950s and 1960s America. Without the birth, successes, and failures of the New Left, identity politics as we knew it in the final decades of the twentieth century--and continue to understand it now--is an unimaginable project. Ideologically connected as they are, the link between the two movements is nevertheless laden with historical paradoxes.
This essay is an attempt to map the New Left origins of identity politics and to reflect, not only on the accomplishments of that movement, but [End Page 627] also on the ways in which the new social movements reinterpreted and appropriated the strategies of the New Left. While understood here as central to the process of explicating the historic--albeit paradoxical--role the "1956 movement" played in the formation of identity politics, the contributions of the New Left will also be read as an ideological formation against which the new social movements (implicitly) defined themselves: the New Left had to be rejected in order for gay, ethnic, and women's organizations to produce their public voices and visages. This ambivalent relationship to the New Left apart, the delineation of the history of identity politics simultaneously serves as a reminder of this social movement's tradition of struggle and stands as an argument for its continued relevance.
The British New Left was founded in 1956 out of the three famed crises that marked that year: the Suez crisis, Kruschev's denunciation of Stalin, and the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Such was the impact of "1956" that it inaugurated a reconceptualized notion of radicalism in Western Europe and the United States, 3 spawning a New Left movement that redefined politics through its challenge to and skepticism about the prevailing top-down communist orthodoxy--a mode of politics that had dominated Old Left praxis. There are significant differences between the development of the New Left in the United States and Britain: the American New Left was more racially diverse and more defined by the cultural and the students' struggles of the 1960s; the British New Left retained its links to formal political institutions such as the Labour Party for a longer period; it was less populist and more organized around its main intellectual organ, The New Left Review, a central mouthpiece which its American counterpart lacked. Despite these differences, the two movements nonetheless share the same fundamental genealogy.
By way of intellectual grounding, this essay draws more explicitly on the traditions of the British than the American New Left, owing more to the legacy of 1956 than the uprising of 1968. Needless to say, however, this examination of identity politics is also aware of the tremendous overlap between these two movements and the process by which they influenced, shaped, and informed each other. The American and the British New Lefts shared a commitment to the significance of culture as a transformative political practice, they recognized the shortcomings of the Old Left, and they understood how the postwar ideological landscape had changed the world. As importantly, both these instantiations of the New Left were deeply influenced by the radicalism of the Third World. In America, for instance, the Black Panthers drew heavily on the example of Kenya's Mau Mau and other revolutionary movements conducting anticolonial struggles. The British New Left, for all its (paradoxical) [End Page 628] shortcomings on race (as the constitutive element of post-colonialism), hinged so much upon Nasser's resistance to Britain, France, and Israel. For the purposes of this essay, interested as it is in providing a brief history of identity politics and in making an argument for its continued relevance, neither the distinctions between nor the similarities shared by these transatlantic New Lefts are explored in sufficient detail. 4 The sketch offered here is intended simply as a backdrop against which we can address the issues that emerge from these two New Lefts.
Impatient with the universalist predilections of the Old Left (most prominent among these being the conception of the "workers" as an unfractured political category), the 1956 movement rejected the singular and exclusionary tendencies of modernist subjectivity. Unlike its predecessor, which almost invariably adhered dogmatically to Communist Party policy, the New Left in both the United States and Britain was determinedly anti-Party bureaucracy and committed to renovating and democratizing the socialist project. Wary of the Old Left's proclivity for grand historical narratives (such as its belief in the inevitable marxist revolution led by the proletariat), the new one looked toward political accounts that were more deeply grounded in the activities of the working class; in this regard, the New Left paid special attention to, and was intent on recognizing and incorporating, the radical potentialities of popular culture, 5 a political terrain largely disregarded by Communist Party activists. As one political critic has remarked, "one of the prime objectives of social movements is to open up new 'spaces' in politics--to get issues and ideas, previously ignored, on the political agenda, and to win cultural and political acceptance of the methods used to propagate their message." 6 In Britain an unexpected part of that "agenda" included the rise of Cultural Studies as an academic discipline, first accommodated--with historical appropriateness--in the new "red brick" university in Birmingham. 7
Cultural Studies, an intellectual field that arose out of the work of scholars such as Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, E.P. Thompson, and Stuart Hall, provided a crucial response to the ideological and moral liquidation of the Old Left. Through the establishment of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at Birmingham (founded by Hoggart with Hall as his assistant), Cultural Studies 8 --often in the pages of its main print organ, The New Left Review--took the intellectual lead in mediating between the New Left and the new social movements that arose out of it; later, the discipline would negotiate between the movements (and their legacies) and identity politics. From its very earliest incarnation, no other intellectual project took the [End Page 629] critique of the New Left as seriously as Cultural Studies, so it is fitting that, some two decades later, the many and varied heirs of CCCS assumed a leading role in delineating identity politics.
Much like early Cultural Studies, especially in its CCCS formation, the New Left remained disturbingly unconcerned with the issue of gender, and it took a long time before the movement concerned itself with a critique of patriarchy. However, in both the United States and Britain the movement reimagined the class struggle and, spurred by the spectacular successes of American and European student movements in the 1960s, it created youth as a serious political category in a decade animated by the populism of anti-Establishment energies. Indeed, the New Left is inconceivable without the "cultural revolution" of the 1960s, without the Beatles or the Paris student revolt of 1968, without Jimi Hendrix or SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), without the riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago or Janis Joplin.
The various struggles of the 1960s provided the new social movements--groupings organized around single issues such as gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, issues all too frequently ignored in mainstream politics--with their fundamental ideological building blocks. The diversity of political activity in the 1960s demonstrated to its 1970s and 1980s successors how to mobilize marginalized constituencies, how to "politicize" culture, and how to deploy "difference" as an ideological tool in racially hegemonic societies. Having rejected the Old Left's narrow conception of politics, the New Left expanded it to include--and provide a precedent and a platform for--modes of oppositionality that would, in the 1980s, be construed as struggles over representation and identity.
If the New Left was born in the mid-1950s out of the eclipse of the Old Left, identity politics arose in the early 1980s out of the slow erosion of the New Left. With the New Left in decline in the late 1970s, the Reagan-Thatcher New Right of the 1980s was able to disarticulate the premises of the Welfare State and reorganize the ideological landscape in Britain and the United States. Consequently, political identities that had once been imagined, however incorrectly, as "fixed," showed themselves to be more fluid and transient. Minority constituencies could now conduct their struggle under the banner of race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. The same subject could campaign, in different moments, as a black citizen or a gay rights activist, a fracturing in and multiplicity of identity enabled in no small measure by the (hybridized) condition of postmodernity. As a result of the shifts in political, epistemological, and cultural hegemony, the new social movements' struggle for "new rights" and "difference" assumed unprecedented importance in the 1980s and, to a lesser extent, the 1990s. [End Page 630]
In this fin-de-siècle moment it is worth recalling that despite its shortcomings, the struggle for identity enabled an entirely new way of conducting oppositional politics for previously marginalized constituencies. Identity politics represents nothing so much as the achievement of minority public "voice," metaphorically speaking, an enfranchisement of black, female, gay, bisexual, and ethnic communities. The civic empowerment (to invoke Jürgen Habermas) of these groups was, despite decades and even centuries of struggle, difficult to imagine before the New Left made claims for specific kinds of public identities--and the public enfranchisement of those identities. In substantive ways, identity politics gave cultural articulation to the achievements of the Civil Rights, Black Power, Stonewall, students', and women's movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
For African Americans, for example, identity politics can retrospectively be read as the translation of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements' political gains into assertive cultural expression. The public confidence of a Muhammad Ali, the African-American boxer who boldly proclaimed "I'm so pretty," or a flamboyant Jimi Hendrix replaced the quiescence of their athletic or musical predecessors such as the 1930s and 1940s heavyweight champ Joe Louis or trumpeter Louis Armstrong. What Ali and Hendrix were claiming, the former much more than the latter, was the right to self-definition; the power to articulate the black self in public spaces, such as press conferences, stadiums, boxing rings, that were viewed as either "nonpolitical" or hostile to minority artists and athletes. More than any other African American, Ali transformed and politicized those spaces.
The struggle for self-definition mobilized many disenfranchised groups in the 1980s and 1990s. As the 1980s corollary of the 1960s' "cultural revolution," identity politics appropriated, redeployed, and laid public claim to the energies of that decade; this new social movement was at once heir to and recreator of culturally based political opposition that had characterized the anti-Establishment decade. However, whereas the 1960s are predominantly understood as a white movement (blinkered and invalid as that perception might be), identity politics can be characterized as a political movement sustained by minority agency: the determination to convert structural disenfranchisement into a means of claiming cultural and political power for historically marginalized groups.
It should not be forgotten, here at the beginning of the new millennium, how hard it has become to protect the political gains of the 1970s and 1980s. In the current historical climate, an era which many might dub the "post-identity politics" epoch, the backlash against marginalized constituencies is so widely sanctioned--both implicitly and [End Page 631] explicitly--as to be deemed fashionable. (Nowhere is this trend more evident than in the anti-P.C. movement, where the consciousness of women's, minority, and gay rights obtained during the struggle for identity is now routinely pilloried. At our historical juncture, there is no censure for being against "political correctness"; instead, it is the strawperson of contemporary right wing and conservative liberal discourse. There are few easier ways to score political points than to disavow or bash "P.C.-ness.") Unlike most oppositional movements, identity politics retains an efficaciousness because it has a history of resisting both the hegemonic impulses of the Left and the repressive tendencies of the Right.
The final section of this essay is an engagement with leftist opponents of identity politics, critics with whom I am sometimes in agreement. However, valid as the critiques of intellectuals such as Wendy Brown and Todd Gitlin might be, mine is a brief argument in favor of retaining identity politics--as understood in its 1980s formation--in a moment when it no longer appears to have the same ideological currency it had a decade or so ago. The intention here is not to dismiss the equally important inquiries that should be raised about a post-identity politics mode, nor is it an uncritical defense of the politics of identity. Rather, it is an attempt to retain what is valuable about identity politics while recognizing its limitations. Although they will only be cursorily addressed, because they are tangential to the critical focus of the essay, the following are a crucial set of questions: What succeeds, or has already succeeded, identity politics? What replaces a politics of difference? If the politics of identity was a response to the failures of the New Left, what happens when difference is absorbed (as has happened in significant ways) into and appropriated by mainstream liberal discourse? How can previously marginalized constituencies speak for themselves when their very political identities are subsumed by the dominant institutions, of which the media is arguably the most crucial? In other words, what happens when ethnic, racial, or sexual difference is no longer so different? Is it automatically denuded of political efficacy? In short, what role does identity politics have to play when identity has been so endemically--and thoroughly--politicized (as to be ideologically ineffective)? Instead of engaging these issues explicitly, the last section will show how identity politics can continue to be efficacious in at least two ways. First, it can provide a vocabulary for negotiating the lures of group identifications such as nationalism or ethnicity. Second, it can serve as a reminder of the particularities of marginalization that have all too frequently been subsumed by grand(er) narratives. [End Page 632]
Reconstructing A Left Politics
[T]his politics of appropriation, for so long exclusively the discursive preserve of the colonizer, has more recently been crucial to groups on the social margin, who have preferred, under certain circumstances, to struggle for recognition and legitimacy on established "metropolitan" political ground rather than run the risk of ghettoization . . .
Andrew Ross 9
Between the ideological intensity of the "1960s," an epoch that effectively lasted until the middle of the following decade, and the conservative triumphalism of the 1980s, the New Left in Britain and the United States became a key (albeit by proxy) victim of the repeated electoral defeats of its political "allies." Always closely (if uneasily) associated with mainstream political organizations, the British Labour Party and the American Democratic Party, respectively, the New Left's decline coincided with the rise of the New Right. Acting with much the same political vigor on their different sides of the Atlantic, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan set about disarticulating the postwar Welfare State, that defender (with varying degrees of stoutness) of trade unions and the working class. Thatcher and Reagan proceeded to undo the pact among labor, government, and business which had been a feature of political life in Western Europe and the United States after 1945. In the 1980s, Andrew Ross argues, the postwar "movement of social democracy--the heyday of welfare capitalism--[was] eroded by the new right, its historic compromise between labor and capital broken up, if not dismantled, and thereby revealed as a social vision with only limited, and not universal, applications" (UA viii). The New Right was intent on reversing the gains achieved by "welfare capitalism" and in the process it targeted a working class that had benefited from the "movement of social democracy." In its first decades (the early 1950s to the late 1960s), the welfare state was a boon to the working class of Europe and the United States. The "historic compromise" improved healthcare and housing, it mandated that the state provide for the unemployed, it protected workers' rights, and--as discussed earlier--it increased educational opportunities for a working class that had borne the brunt of the Depression and the war which followed hard on its heels.
Products of the same historical metier, the welfare state and the New Left were both defined primarily by class. The former was broadly con-structed in response to prewar class inequities, tensions, and antagonisms; [End Page 633] the latter was shaped by a renovated socialism, an anti-Stalinist politics that believed in an ideologically reconfigured and newly mobile and empowered working class; it was, nevertheless, a class that the New Left believed would act as the "motor of historical change." Although it was influenced by and indebted to marxist thinking, the New Left was largely unencumbered by the orthodoxies of the Old Left; for post-1956 intellectuals and activists "class" was construed as a dialectical, flexible political construct. In part because leading intellectuals such as Raymond Williams and Raymond Hoggart, 10 prominent in the British New Left, had solid working class roots (in Wales and Yorkshire, respectively) and believed firmly in their "native" culture, the movement engaged seriously with the "history being made from below." But neither of these thinkers was uncritically attached to class as a static, strictly economic concept. Their paradigm was much more expansive. One of the key indicators that the New Left had run out of steam (to speak of its liquidation would be to overstate and oversimplify the case) occurred, as Chantal Mouffe puts it, when the Welfare State was no longer "able to mobilize those who should have [had] interests in defending its achievements" (RD 31). The working class, as Mouffe implies, had by and large proceeded to distance itself from the New Left's agenda, no longer seeing themselves reflected in or spoken for by its politics or its electoral strategies. The Labour and the Democratic parties clung to the movement's philosophy long after its working class constituents had silently renounced it by voting the "wrong" way.
Unlike the New Left's mainstream political allies, Reagan and Thatcher understood not only the fissures and fractures of the working class, but they grasped that more fundamental changes had taken and were taking place in the West. These New Right leaders were aware that in a postcolonial world, the working class of postindustrial America and postimperial Britain was not a single political entity, but was increasingly divided along lines of gender, sexual orientation, and race, given the growing presence of communities from the Caribbean, Africa, the Pacific Rim, and Asia in their societies. Reagan and Thatcher appealed to that segment of the working class that had long aspired, however silent or silenced, disguised or repressed those aspirations may have been, to be bourgeois--economically and socially speaking, that is. 11 The New Right leaders gave this segment of the working class a discourse, a mode of identification that was at once individualist (transcending narrow class strictures) and nationalist; through this strategy, having the "individual" identify with the "nation" meant that "class," as well as "race" and "gender" could be successfully bypassed--at the very least, these latter concepts could be ideologically relegated.
The working class conceptualized by the Welfare State and the New [End Page 634] Left had, through the process of diasporic migration and deindustrialization, been radically reorganized. Because of these developments, traditionally working class constituencies from English Midlands to the cities of Rustbelt America were devastated, rendering large sections of these communities unemployable for the next decade and beyond. The mainly white, largely male, unionized working class of 1958 was, for all intents and purposes, unrecognizable to its 1978 counterpart. (This is, of course, a generalized representation of that workforce. In this post-Empire Windrush moment, black workers--although they were seen only as gastarbeiters--were already providing the metropolis with their labor.) In its stead was a completely different political constituency: multiracial, composed of considerable numbers of women, and faced by a crisis in labor. This was a class for whom the benefits of the Welfare State were few--in fact, for many they were rapidly becoming a distant memory. For the metropolitan Left, the (historically adjusted) grand narrative of class struggle that had propelled their post-1956 movement had been rendered unrecognizable and politically inefficacious. The failures of the New Left induced what Stuart Hall, following Gramsci, dubbed a "crisis" for the Left; a series of "crises" that would require, as Hall indicated in the title of his work, a long and "hard road to renewal."
Correctly reading the ideological tenor of the times, recognizing that the economic and political crisis of the late Welfare State era was founded upon a profound sense of national uncertainty, the New Right successfully retreaded patriotism. (In this instance patriotism proved to be the first, but by no means always ineffective, refuge of neoconservative scoundrels.) Thatcher and Reagan capitalized on the New Left's ideological ineptitude with their own appeals to "Little Englandism" (as demonstrated in that Tory rallying cry "Put the 'Great' back into Great Britain" and in the historic victory over Argentina in the Falklands) and American patriotism (a tactic especially resonant in the wake of Carter's failure to free the American hostages in Iran during the 1979 Islamic Revolution, coming hard as it did on the heels of the defeat of Vietnam). With its accent on national (barely disguised as white, though not exclusively male) pride, the New Right played the old "us" versus "them" card--to considerable success. But, much more adroitly, always careful to modulate its rhetoric, Reagan and Thatcher were both successful at attracting a working class disgruntled with the New Left to its cause. The New Right addressed this historically "left" constituency in a way that comfortably--or, at least, inoffensively--reconciled workers' political identities with their realigned place in the nation's discourse. The New Right's success derived from its ability to address the working class and exploit the racial and gender fissures largely ignored by the New Left.
It is historically paradoxical that the New Left was for so long blinded [End Page 635] to the black presence in the metropolis and for so long prepared to relegate--if not explicitly silence--the struggle for women's and gay rights. After all, the movement was produced out of a profound moment of postcolonial resistance (Nasser's refusal to capitulate, as the leader of a sovereign North African state, to the dictates of Britain, France, and Israel) and a distaste for repressive silences (Kruschev's public acknowledgment of Stalin's gulags, which was hardly a revelation to the European Left). Appropriate, then, that these largely ignored constituencies who had contributed so vigorously and variously to the New Left should benefit most from its slow collapse. To compound the irony, it is only because these communities had been (however minimally) empowered by the New Left that they were able to redefine themselves and spawn a movement such as identity politics. Out of the history, disjunctures, and the ideological constestations within the New Left emerged not only a profound black, female, and gay wariness of class as an organizational instrument, but the fracturing of that political category into distinct constituencies; these disjunctures enabled a series of new resistance strategies. The energies of the New Left, culturally innovative and ideologically flexible as they were in the 1960s and 1970s, served as a template for the women's movement, gay rights, and for the coalitions constructed by racial minorities in Britain and the United States. If the repressions, violences, and failings of the postwar patriarchal fathers provided the impetus for the creation of the New Left, it was the gay sons, the feminist daughters (and their mothers), and the barely-acknowledged blacks who led the breakaway from the movement. Groups once presumed to be only problematically part of the working class now took up positions at a distance from it. Blacks, gays, women, and greens insisted upon their difference from not only the hegemonic class of the New Left leadership, but also from the unfissured working class.
The Labour Party's chief failure was its inability to transform the Welfare State, to adapt its 1950s-60s formation to the demands of changing socioeconomic and ideological conditions of the late 1970s, and thereby give adequate (or articulate) voice to the new political constituencies that had arisen out of its final two decades. The New Left was disavowed, rather than outrightly rejected, by those who had constituted it but were never recognized as central to its functioning. As a movement, identity politics empowered where the New Left had only (barely) acknowledged, often condescendingly so. Unable to mobilize around class, demoralized and intensely affected by the successive Tory and GOP victories, ethnic and gay communities and environmental groups recognized the need to borrow a leaf from the New Left strategy book: reduce, popularize, "specialize," and localize the scope of the [End Page 636] political movements. The "struggle" was never abandoned; it was simply refashioned by the "new social movements" for women's and minority rights through their unexpected "liberation" from the New Left stranglehold on radical politics. Constructed as the historic retooling of the New Left, identity politics can be read less as the rejection of that struggle for freedom from oppression, exploitation, and degradation than as re-articulation of that ideological agenda. Instead of the New Left conducting this struggle under the banner and direction of "class," identity politics demonstrated the fractured, contradictory nature of that project. It is precisely because the New Left did not address the tensions at its core that it was superceded by a younger, more fluid, and mobile manifestation of itself. Identity politics marks the splitting of the New Left into its constituent parts rather than the invalidation of the post-1956 movement.
Division is as Good as It Gets for Minority Communities
"And the difference is all the difference there is."
Toni Morrison 12
One of the signal accomplishments of the New Left, and a key reason for its subsequent (slow) dissolution, was its capacity to house within it a number of distinct constituencies and include in its ranks a number of agendas, not all of them commensurate with each other or even potentially cohesive. Marxist (and anticommunist) in its formation, the movement prioritized and organized itself around the politics of "class"--often, as the previous section suggested, at the expense of other struggles for public self-representation. Steeped in its radical history, the New Left appeared unaware of the ways in which it was preventing--either explicitly or implicitly--its varied constituents from establishing their own political traditions. Women, blacks, and gays wanted to create a history that would be independent of, but not necessarily antagonistic to (though ideological tensions were certainly possible), the movement itself.
Pivotal to the process of marking themselves as autonomous political constituencies was the issue of self-definition. In this regard, both the New Left and the New Right were, in their different ways, equally--and sometimes willfully--blind to the need of minority constituencies to speak their own public presences. As Susan Bickford argues in her feminist defense of identity politics, both the Left and the Right [End Page 637] restricted women's--or gays' or black communities'--capacity to define their own political profile or trajectory: "identities imposed upon us do not necessarily neatly mesh with what we want to reclaim." 13 Self-definition, the power to name, is crucial to minority constituencies because it enables them to express not only who they are but precisely what it is they "want to reclaim"; or to claim for the very first time. As much as anything, self-definition is a struggle for and about a history--a past and a present that has been misrepresented, silenced, muted, mutilated, or even obliterated, a past that has to be reclaimed and reconstituted in the present.
From its New Left origin to the present, the struggle for identity has often turned on the capacity of marginalized groups to set their own political agenda, simultaneously acknowledge, reject, and reinscribe the disjuncture between the "identities imposed" and those desired--those deemed more representative of these various green or feminist selves. By allowing them to disarticulate--or, at the very least, challenge--the "public" understanding of who they were, identity politics enabled minority groups to replace those perceptions with--and to address it in--their own language; identity politics allowed marginal communities to experiment with discourses that might more appropriately name them, to reject naming as a rite/right of repression. Identity politics enabled the re-creation of minority histories in a public sphere that had long been hostile or indifferent to narratives of that self and community.
Identity politics thus represents not only the marginal subject speaking back, but a more engaging philosophical project: the oppressed not only resisting but also negotiating the limitations of its agency. Identification, the ways in which minority constituencies are positioned by the dominant public, is seldom voluntary. (By the same token, however, neither is it totally enforced from without. Identity is, as it were, "mutually" constituted, a complex, frequently unequal negotiation between the inside and the outside, between oppressed constituency and the dominant power bloc; identity formation is, as it were, the product of syncretic overlappings and disjunctures.) To deploy Hannah Arendt's maxim "negatively," "One can only resist in terms of the identity that is under attack." In order to resist how oppressed constituencies are treated by the dominant grouping ("who" they are to the ruling bloc), they simultaneously have to understand how they are perceived as a collectivity and how they have to inhabit that hegemonically imposed identity. Arguing in an Arendtian fashion, Bickford claims that the "coherence of the group identity itself . . . rests on marginalization. In other words, politicized identity has an ontological investment in its own subjection" (AA 114). "Subjection" here should not be equated with oppression but with the marginalized performing the public transcript [End Page 638] of who they are so that they can challenge the dominant perception of them. They have to be "ontologically" aware of (or "invested in") their public subjectivities in order to respond to them. Before these minority groups can publicly be who they think they are or as they see themselves outside of the hegemonic public sphere, they have to be conscious of how the ruling bloc has publicly constructed them. In "front of the veil," as W.E.B. DuBois might have it, 14 minorities have to fulfill the dominant's group perception of them even as they challenge, denounce, or ridicule it "behind" that self-same veil. Blacks or gays have to recognize that stereotypes have not only cachet but also enduring public resonance; dominant representations of minority communities sustain themselves in spite--and sometimes because--of the public challenges to their sociopolitical validity and currency.
Oppressed groups consistently confront the resilience and the power of their marginalization, unable to alter dominant representations of themselves. These communities have to negotiate ways in which negative public perception reinforces their compromised capacity to effect the world, to change how they are understood and received; their "disenfranchised" status derives, it would appear, completely from their ontological existence as racialized, sexualized, and gendered subjects. As a response to this diminution of agency, identity politics transformed essential(ist) profiles into radically politicized ones; the movement empowered oppressed constituencies to resist their public representations rather than simply experience them as, to phrase it awkwardly, pejorative dominant appellations. Minority constituencies, as this explication makes clear, experience their "group identity" as a complicated phenomenon because it is "implicated in power in multiple ways--ways that both perpetuate inequality and provide the means to resist--and group identity is therefore relevant to who we are as citizens" (AA 124). The hegemonic imposition of "group identity" is so unrelenting that it might, precisely because of its intensity, implicitly mark the limitations of this mode of political struggle. In other words, because of the difficulty of public self-definition, identity politics is always likely to be focused on the struggle to articulate the minority experience in the dominant public sphere; identity politics will be primarily, if not exclusively, about the right to self-definition. As a political strategy and a mode of oppositionality, identity politics has a stable, if not fixed, "identity."
In its most confrontational mode, identity politics is a rejection of interpellation and an insistence upon public re-identification; it represents the political effort to increase minority agency, to challenge and reconfigure the ways in which the dominant group positions and "sees" (publicly understands) its marginal constituents. Identity politics marks the politicization of otherwise essentialized and (often) all-too-easily [End Page 639] co-optable modes of self or group representation. The "native" or the "dyke" in Wendy Brown's critique of liberal discourse comes to stand for both something more and less than its pejorative intention: it is evacuated of its dominant meaning and reinscribed from within, remade into an identity with a new public resonance. Because "faggot" or "nigger" or "dougla" (as the black-Indian hybrid subject is designated in the Caribbean) is so openly claimed, its meaning, application, and reception is unsettled and power is relocated. This rhetorical and political maneuver allows for the transformation of the pejorative into a dialectic: it enables the interplay between derogation and affirmation, between oppression and resistance, the aggressive or sly reinscription of the marginal transcript in the dominant sphere. As the pervasive use of the term "nigger" in hip-hop culture demonstrates, those who have been historically "injured," to borrow Brown's term, have wrested the authority for themselves: they now police the use of the historically pejorative, determining who can use it, where it can be applied, and, most importantly, who is prevented from invoking it. Because of identity politics, the power to name and rename the marginal self also includes the power to censor or curtail. As the widespread popularity and consumption of hip-hop culture in white suburbia demonstrates, the claiming and rewriting of the pejorative, that which has now been rendered taboo, transforms it into the desirable. 15 (The biggest consumers of hip-hop culture, white kids cannot--generally speaking--use the term "nigger"--or "nigga"--as a designation for their black counterparts. At best, they can employ the term self-consciously, aware of the liberties they are taking and the temporary license they are being granted. White youth know that they are being culturally policed by their black counterparts and by the culture as a whole. This does not mean, of course, that the pejorative articulation is censored in whites-only spaces, behind that "other" veil. The publicly unutterable is not privately silenced or policed as vigorously.)
Because it represented the creation of several new political subjects (and polities, in truth), identity politics facilitated the "proliferation of localisms." 16 Grounding itself in the specificity of local conditions, identity politics recognized and spoke to the particular site of power's origin and enunciation. Instead of a single attack on the hegemonic grouping, identity politics narrowed the point of contact, reduced the arena of conflict, and particularized the demands. The enunciation of difference is, as Brown makes clear in her discussion of the new social movements (projects to which she does not always subscribe), the point of this struggle: "Refusing to be neutralized, to render differences inconsequential, to be depoliticized as 'lifestyles,' 'diversity,' or 'persons like any other,' we have reformulated our historical exclusion as a matter [End Page 640] of historically produced and politically rich alterity" (SI 53, emphasis original). Insisting on "difference," the particular effect of "alterity" here was that the specific struggle replaced the general one--this contestation was represented as black or gay communities battling against racism or homophobia. By privileging a new conception of the racial, gendered, ethnic, or sexual self (a public persona distinct from that established by the generalized class conflict), this struggle for public representation produced and claimed a new identity through "specific" political opposition. Through specificity, the new social movements not only contested power, they also contextualized it: the particular experience of power as a disenfranchising force was brought squarely, undilutedly, into public view; the struggle of a single oppressed minority was the only political focus. The contestation for women's or environmental rights was not compromised, overshadowed, complicated, or overwritten by other battles. Epigrammatically phrased, "The Struggle" was transmuted into "the struggles," the local replaced the global, the individuality of modernity was ameliorated and postmodernity utilized for its capacity to deploy difference as a political strategy. The singular "I" of modernity was not abandoned but rearticulated as the incorporative "we" of postmodernity--the individual subject was reclaimed and represented so that he or she was able to give expression to his or her several "selves" or the black, gay, or transexual self; the subject was individualized but also utilized so as to signify beyond him or herself.
Because of its ability to negotiate between individual desires and public demands for political redress, identity politics garnered a singular attention from both the (oppressive) state and its institutional apparatus because it successfully--often confrontationally--articulates who marginal communities think they are and how they are related to--or distanced from--power. This movement is, as Bickford understands, a response to the ideological authority of the state: "Prevailing relations of power allow institutions and individuals to define less powerful groups--through cultural images, bureaucratic practices, economic arrangements--in order to control, constrain, condemn or isolate them" (AA 119). Through identity politics these "less powerful groups" at once recognize and resist the historical "constraints" placed upon them. The process of making public the oppressed self is complicated, however, because it rests as much upon the rejection of the pejorative identity as it does upon embracing some version of it.
This act of "assuming" the derogatory position is made not with the intention of reifying the identity, but rather, as Brown points out, of utilizing it as a transformative signifier. By "accepting" terms such as "natives" and "faggots," minority communities reconstruct them as (potentially) empowering designations. Marginalized groups are [End Page 641] discriminated against because they are "dykes" or "colored girls." Embracing the pejorative reveals the transparently racist, misogynistic, and homophobic functionings of power. Oppression is, through the strategy of taking on the publicly demeaning identity, politically and historically specified, placed in (a) context, and epistemologically accounted for. Power cannot disguise its machinations; identity politics does nothing so well as reveal a society's conscious--and unconscious--prejudices and discriminatory tendencies. Identity politics, and the very need to conduct the struggles surrounding minority constituencies, shows clearly what a society is; or, more to the point, what it is not.
There is, however, a keen paradox in this scenario, one about which identity politics has been insufficiently critical. The movement has implicitly drawn attention to, but has not emphasized often, the fact that minority groups absolutely need a culturally recognizable, politically visible (and viable), and ideologically resonant identity while dominant groups do not. The ruling bloc does not need to publicly distinguish itself: it is already socially distinct because it is in power. This constituency, which can be metonymically but not exhaustively understood as heterosexual white males, does not need to make claims for itself: it can achieve its economic, political, and social ends by virtue of its domination--its control of institutions of government, commerce, higher learning, health, and so on. The irony here is, of course, that the most powerful group is the one with the clearest profile but is the least animated about its condition. In the struggle over identity, the dominant group wants to be "anonymous" and politically amorphous: except in its defensive mode (the anti-P.C. mantra, "unmitigated attacks on white males by blacks, gays, women, and so forth") this is not a debate in which the ruling constituency wants to participate. Because it is in power, it can usually choose its moment of intervention or the form of its response; unlike groups trying to improve their condition, it does not have to be vigilant. The dominant bloc can be discriminatory about its public pronouncements because it does not have to be overly concerned with the mode or issue of self-representation. There is, moreover, no need for "public" accountability by the dominant bloc.
Power is, of course, nothing so much as a political luxury here. It can select its moment or form or style of response; it can insulate itself from the debate about identity; this is a constituency that can be culturally ironized, aesthetically mocked or parodied without concern for its political location or security; the dominant do not suffer from what Ian Balfour, in another context, has named "social insecurity." 17 The "lack" of an identity (which is not really a lack but an abundance), which is the most desirable form of self-representation, is the most confident articulation of the public self: to not have to identity yourself is to know that [End Page 642] you are in power. ("Unconsciousness" about identity is commensurate with the relative excess of power.) Every minority identity has to define itself against this unspoken but normativized expression of social, economic, and political authority. This is the identity that every other constituency is fighting against, trying to wrest some power from, the very identity that has to be radically amended--which is to say, its power must be diminished, its social control lessened, its political authority decreased--if the gay or green or black struggle is to register any significant achievement. It is a simple equation: white, heterosexual male power has to be subtracted from if any other groups are to acquire any; power has to be reallocated and racially, ethnically, and sexually redistributed.
By challenging the "cultural images" and "economic practices," minority groups demonstrate how they conceive of the possibilities the hegemonic grouping makes available to them. More importantly, however, they examine how it might be possible to expand or redefine that space. The "prevailing relations of power" not only reveal to marginalized constituencies how they are expected and allowed to act, but also how they must conduct the struggle to represent themselves. Their lack of power shows how their self-representation is received, understood, politically processed, and ideologically positioned by the dominant public. This is, as Ross explains, what is entailed in the "struggle for recognition and legitimacy," what is required to conduct that struggle on "metropolitan political grounds," a terrain that may be geographically familiar but ideologically and psychically hostile. For these constituencies, the metropolis or the homophobic and misogynistic public sphere is inhabited with discomfiture: it is a place of residence but it is not necessarily "home." A space that more closely resembles what Homi Bhabha has dubbed the "unhomely," it is only familiarity with the ideological terms and political terrain of the metropolis that enables those who have been disenfranchised by the state to resist and reform the ways in which power affects the lives of the marginalized. It is thus their very "ghettoization" that empowers them--gives them the ideological weaponry--to contest the functioning of the liberal state. Axiomatically phrased, minorities are "ghettoized" because they are disempowered, and they are disempowered because they are compelled to live in the society's political (and physical) ghettoes.
The only way to transcend "ghettoization" is to foreground it as an unjust condition, to insist upon--and explain--its history, the consequences attendant to that sociopolitical location, and the persistence--not residues--of historic injustices such as racism, homophobia, and misogyny. To cast Brown trenchantly, it is to conduct a politics of offense: the marginalized strategically embrace their own oppression, deliberately [End Page 643] claiming the pejorative names--"dykes, faggots, colored girls, or natives"--and then simultaneously transforming them into markers of alienation and liberation. By emphatically announcing itself as the space and experience of the "other," the ghetto draws attention to the various oppressions to which its inhabitants are subjected. Announcing themselves as "dykes" or "natives" enables marginal constituencies to confront the dominant culture with the history of its own offensive language--and the history that girds and supports those articulations.
Through this gesture, language is both publicly located in ideology--or, more specifically, language is transfigured as history--and it is unmoored from that history: the dominated make the pejorative their own, what was once used to subjugate is now used to "disenfranchise" the dominant group ("dyke" or "nigger" becomes a term available only to gays or blacks). The power to describe the marginalized self in historically negative terms is wrested from the oppressor, enacting a liberation that is discursively "thick" and ironic--why would you want to reclaim "faggot" or "colored girl"?
At this level, the struggle for identity now adopts a politics of embarrassment: it publicly reveals the bad faith and the hypocrisy of the liberal state. Because it has failed its constituents on its own terms (liberty, fraternity, equality has turned out to be a myth), the liberal state can be, in certain strategic instances (we might think here of the Civil Rights, women's, and Stonewall movements), shamed into legislatively redressing the history of its injustices. Publicly reminded of and embarrassed by its inability or refusal to deliver on its basic ideological premises, the liberal state can be made to confront the consequences of its racist or homophobic or misogynistic or class-based inequities.
How may we speak of transcending identity politics . . . ? . . . we know very little about what might be achieved by moving beyond the politics of identity.
Todd Gitlin 18
For a plethora of reasons, a range of Left critics, from Todd Gitlin to Wendy Brown, have argued for the termination of identity politics. Rooted in the "universalist" politics of the 1960s when the Left was a more coherent, structured organizational entity (his "Organizing Across Boundaries" is an essay firmly grounded in that moment), Gitlin implicitly advocates a return to that mode of activism--in part, it could [End Page 644] be argued, because he is tremendously uncertain about what might emerge, or fail to emerge, on the far side of identity politics. Gitlin's reticence is understandable because the intellectual and activist waters are uncharted in that unknown, "post-identity politics," domain. But is a return to the known desirable, especially to those constituencies so marginalized by the "1960s" mode of politics?
Gitlin and Brown share nothing so much as their critique of the "splintering" of the Left effected by the strategies and demands (and, the accomplishments, we might say) of identity politics. According to Brown, identity politics is "premised on exclusion" (SI 70). This is a political tendency that not only highlights and seeks to redress the plight of the "excluded" but also precludes the possibilities for making common cause with groups not affected in the same way. The historic "injury," as Brown puts it, "ethnicizes" (SI 74) politics and prevents a more general critique of the state or the oppressive constituency. (The very fact that such a historic "injury" has not yet healed after so long--racism, misogyny, xenophobia, these are not new phenomena--suggests that the only way to alleviate the "pain" is for the injured community to take matters into its own hands. The "injured" are historically compelled to, if I might invoke a Biblical reference here, heal themselves--in part because their "injury" is neither sufficiently well understood by other constituencies nor important enough for it to demand immediate redress.)
However interesting Brown's position is, she is also overstating the case. Identity politics, as the work of Mouffe, Hall, and Ernesto Laclau 19 demonstrates, effectively constituted new kinds of political alliances, however temporary they may have been. Single-issue movements may have been the order of the identity politics day, but it was not without a recognition of the need to unite with allies when the moment was appropriate. 20 Gay, women's, and ethnic organizations simply insisted upon the retention of their primary identity; they refused to be subsumed by larger social structures because of past experiences. In fact, in the postcolonial metropolis, the alliances black people made with other single-issue movements was often not only a matter of strategy but a question of political survival. With a scarcity of resources, minority black constituencies had to make links with groups with whom they shared, broadly speaking, ideological common ground. Embedded in the work of these critics is the desire for a return to an earlier, more incorporative, less specific, more generalized form of politics.
The critique of identity politics should be read as symptomatic of a philosophical bind: the dialectic between the specificity of single-issue movements and the grand narratives that have historically sustained Left politics. It is in this regard that Kenneth Surin's injunction, in his [End Page 645] discussion about the efficacy of "diaspora" as a construct (that resonates with many of the same overtones as identity politics), is especially instructive. Aware of the term's limitations, Surin argues for taking the long view: "The invention of something different to put in place of the system of representations that has governed thinking about ethnicity, race, clan, nation, sovereignty, and patrimony . . . will have to be a vast, collective undertaking, perhaps extending over several generations." 21
Ethnicity, clan, and nation are organizing social constructs that are not going to recede into the historical distance. They retain a singular political currency, providing a nodal point around which identities cohere, articulate themselves, and make their impact publicly. Identity politics has offered an efficacious way in which to engage, understand, mobilize, and even disarticulate these "systems of representations." The rhetorical and symbolic appeal of this nationalist mode will not be easily displaced or replaced; since the birth of the modern nation in nineteenth-century Europe we have seen how the clan or the ethnic community easily transmutes into the nation; ethnic identity is all too frequently mobilized to articulate and reinforce nationalist discourse. As events in Burundi, Rwanda, and Bosnia reminds us all too often on our "bloody" television screens, the ideological links among individual, clan, ethnic community, and nation will have to addressed--in some cases with greater urgency than others. Even in this moment of rampant transnationalism, the nation retains an ambivalent saliency: while the nation-state seems to be simply be a bureaucratic vehicle in the service of multinational corporations, it is also the most vital and strategic sociopolitical construct. Without the nation-state, multinationals cannot do business--they cannot function, certainly not efficiently. The patriotic individualism of the Reagan-Thatcher axis, the xenophobia of the clan, and the violent aptitudes of the ethnic community are all simultaneously empowered and disarticulated by the unique predicament of post-industrial nationalism; the individualist patriot wants to both actualize and exceed the nation; the clan and the ethnic community want the nation to be powerful and wealthy but such prosperity contains within it the specter of the nation being at once glorified and superceded by the multinationals? In this scenario, the nation, the very crucible of all these identities, becomes potentially inter-nationally indistinct, lost in the machinations of global capital.
These ambivalences apart (or perhaps because of them), however, the continuing power of the self as metonym for the nation reminds us that this is an expression of identity that is not going to be evacuated or diminished in the foreseeable future. In relation to the nation or its splintered, "diminutized" articulations, identity politics will always provide a political tool, an epistemological, theoretical, and cultural means [End Page 646] with which to respond to the dangers and attractions of nationalism--wherever it manifests itself, in the Asian subcontinent or the European metropolis. In this regard identity politics is guaranteed, if not lifetime employment, then certainly a long period of political labor. It should be kept in a good state of repair, even when it is a mode of politics that is more residual than dominant--as Raymond Williams might theoretically have it. Identity politics is an important marker of what the New Left did not do even when it should have taken up the key issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation. Identity politics has critically appraised grand narratives and found them not only wanting but also prone to silencing significant discourses and important oppositional constituencies. If the process of achieving political change is going to be a long one, as Surin argues, then the focus should not be--as Gitlin suggests--on what succeeds identity politics. It should rather be on how the next wave of political action can continue to make identity politics usable. Discarding not only a term but also a mode of politics ought to involve serious reflection, especially in the case of identity politics, a movement that has empowered more than it has disenfranchised, delineated even as it has (necessarily) fractured, and given political voice to political constituencies all too easily silenced by dominant blocs on both the New Left and the New Right.
Grant Farred is Assistant Professor in the literature program at Duke University. He is editor of Rethinking C.L.R. James (1996) and author of Midfielder's Moment: Coloured Literature and Culture in Contemporary South Africa (1999) and What's My Name? Organic and Vernacular Intellectuals (forthcoming 2002).
* For V., with thanks and affection. I would like to thank Ian Balfour for his careful readings of this essay. I am also grateful to Brinda Menta and Tess Chakkalakal for their suggestions.
1. Wendy Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton, 1995), p. 53; hereafter cited in text as SI.
2. Chantal Mouffe, "Radical Democracy: Modern or Postmodern?" tr. Paul Holdengraber, in Universal Abandon? The Politics of Postmodernism, ed. Andrew Ross (Minneapolis, 1998), p. 36; hereafter cited in text as RD.
3. For a history of the British New Left, see Dennis Dworkin, Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain: History, the New Left, and the Origins of Cultural Studies (Durham, N.C., 1997), Lin Chun, The British New Left (Edinburgh, 1993), and Michael Kenny, The First New Left: British Intellectuals After Stalin (London, 1995).
4. For a cultural history of the American New Left, see Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York, 1987), and James Miller, Democracy is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago (New York, 1987).
5. In his work on the 1930s cultural movements, The Cultural Front, Michael Denning makes a persuasive argument for the ways in which popular culture was central to the Old Left in the United States. The Cultural Front offers a substantive challenge to readings of the New Left as more culturally attuned than the Old Left, especially in its US instantiation (Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century [New York, 1996]).
6. Paul Byrne, Social Movements in Britain (New York, 1997), p. 27.
7. The "new" universities, constructed in cities such as Birmingham and Nottingham, were the product of the welfare state's plan to extend higher education to all classes of Britons. During this movement, a new field such as Cultural Studies could find institutional space, if not easy acceptance. Cultural Studies owes its institutional origins to the welfare state, which, in the midst of a postwar economic boom, compelled several European states to democratize their educational systems. In Britain this rise of the "red brick" universities served as an antidote to the centuries of Oxbridge elitism which had systematically excluded most of the working class.
8. See Stuart Hall's essay, "The Emergence of Cultural Studies and the Crisis of the Humanities," October, 53 (1990), 11-23.
9. Andrew Ross, "Introduction," in Universal Abandon? The Politics of Postmodernism, p. xi; hereafter cited in text as UA.
10. See Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy (New York, 1970), Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, 1780-1950 (New York, 1983), and E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York, 1963), three texts which were central to establishing the intellectual tradition of the New Left and founding works in the field of Cultural Studies. This intellectual formation, both the works and the authors, also provided the platform for the movement's primary journal, The New Left Review.
11. For the most incisive explanation of the phenomenon, see Stuart Hall, The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left (London, 1988).
12. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (London, 1979), p. 84.
13. Susan Bickford, "Anti-Anti Identity Politics: Feminism, Democracy, and the Complexities of Citizenship," Hypatia, 12.4 (1997), 120; hereafter cited in text as AA.
14. Here I am invoking DuBois's concept of the "veil" as outlined in The Souls of Black Folk, in which he describes the ways in which oppressed constituencies perform differently when they are in dominant public spaces or in their own private spaces. W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York, 1990), pp. 137-49.
15. See, in this regard, Cornel West's work on a phenomenon he has labeled the "African-Americanization of American Culture," especially as explored in Race Matters (Boston, 1993).
16. Vincent B. Leitch, "Costly Compensations: Postmodern Fashions, Politics, Identity," Modern Fiction Studies, 42.1 (1996), 121.
17. Ian Balfour coined this term for a forthcoming special issue of Alphabet City (Toronto, 2000).
18. Todd Gitlin, "Organizing Across Boundaries: Beyond Identity Politics" Dissent, 44.4 (Fall 1997), 38-41.
19. See Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London, 1985), an especially useful delineation of this mode of politics.
20. See Hall's work on the cooperation between various constituencies via the Greater London Council in The Hard Road to Renewal. Women's movements, black groups, and civic organizations were all intent on opposing Thatcherism. They recognized that their various agendas had to be temporarily postponed in order to combat the Tories' encroachment on the public sphere in the capital.
21. Kenneth Surin, "Afterthoughts on the Diaspora," South Atlantic Quarterly, 98.5 (1999), 314.