Monday, January 09, 2006

Upping the Anti, Identity Politics, etc.

I feel guilty.

It has been almost three weeks since i received my box of Upping the Anti – the Toronto journal of radical theory and action, put out by comrades from Autonomy and Solidarity – and still nothing on this blog about it…


…the problem is that the journal is actually really good. Lots of interesting interviews and “panel discussions,” and some good articles to boot - it feels like it deserves a thorough review, and as with any such daunting task the easiest way to approach it is procrastination.

Nevertheless, one can’t procrastinate for ever, and it really is a good journal… so why don’t we just begin at the beginning?

The editorial to UTA #1 explains that “Upping the Anti refers to our interest in engaging with three interwoven tendencies which have come to define much of the politics of today’s radical left in Canada: anti-capitalism, anti-oppression, and anti-imperialism.”

Developing this theme, the editorial to UTA #2 attempts to grapple specifically with what “anti-oppression” politics mean (we are told that the next issues will deal with anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism). Swimming against the current, UTA affirms the centrality of class but refuses to reject identity politics out of hand. Their analysis is pretty close to my own on this question – namely, that “anti-oppression politics” developed out of (but not against) the left, as a way of supporting and understanding people’s resistance to oppression beyond the edges of the obvious class struggle.

As their editorial puts it:

As activists, we are often initially radicalized through our inductions into “identities” of class, gender, race, sexuality, or culture. These identities emerged out of specific struggles against different forms and instances of oppression: from struggles against segregation, racism, and colonialism, to feminist struggles for reproductive rights and against male violence and to queer struggles against sexual repression and the gender binary. They also emerged out of a critique of the limitations and silences, both in terms of political strategy and organizational practice, of “malestream” socialist politics.

As these various struggles developed they came face to face with the failures of the “old left” to adequately conceptualize relations of oppression in capitalist society, and the failure of mass movements to address their own internal dynamics of domination and unequal power relations. In the first case, these new social movements came up against a class reductionist Marxism which often treated class itself as an undeclared identity for white, Western and male workers. Although there existed some marginalized Marxist groups and theorists who continued to analyze class as a relation and process of social formation, for the most part Marxism seemed unable to offer a liberatory alternative to either Western capitalism or Soviet Stalinism. While Marxist movements continued to be influential during the 1960s, identity politics and activism emerged both within and outside of Marxist circles as a way to address patterns of oppression that were too often ignored or dismissed.

I might quibble that this actually underplays the degree to which “anti-oppression politics” developed organically within the left, and exaggerates the hegemony of so-called “class reductionism” (at the risk of turning it into a strawman)... but recognizing that in our quite snippety activist culture even internal developments are often expressed as being antagonistic to what came before (ah, the romance of the S-M dialectic), i think the above account is more correct than incorrect.

Of course, “anti-oppression politics” eventually took the form of “identity politics,” which contained both radical and reactionary tendencies. Today most on the left would agree that the reactionary tendencies won out, but i believe that this was largely due to external factors.

Here’s how i see it: “anti-oppression politics” (if that’s what we’re calling it today) have been a constant aspect of revolutionary left-wing politics since gawd knows when, but what is called “identity politics” only crystallized in the 1980s – the very decade when a cycle of revolt culminated in defeat. The 1980s were the first decade after the wave of anti-colonial revolutions had been put in check. The 1980s were the decade that the Soviet Union was defeated – and while “the other superpower” had not been communist, its death nevertheless represented a right-wing victory. Throughout the world, the 1980s were a decade where the working class met with one setback after another. In the 1980s the last remnants of the revolutionary movements of the 60s and 70s were pretty much mopped up.

Which of these factors were causes and which were effects can be debated, but it should be clear to all that for us the decade of Reagan and Thatcher was a decade of defeat.

This defeat was felt lastly and leastly in the privileged world of academia and related “activist circles.” It was here that what are now being called “anti-oppression struggles” crystallized into “identity politics.” In an age of defeat and located in these atypical milieux, it is easy to see why these “identity politics” often became moralistic, manipulative and demagogic. They were reflecting the perspective and culture of the university students and professional activists who developed them. But this fact should not be used to discount the liberatory perspective in which they were rooted…

(This process occurred alongside the triumph of “post-modernism,” and while i am no expert of the arcane debates that surround the latter, i smell a lot of parallels.)

As UTA quite excellently puts it:

in many cases, identity based “anti-oppression” politics have failed to develop a clear perspective on capitalism. The totality of class relations is often reduced to a “classist” attitude held by the rich or middle class and capitalism is generally thought of as an abstract, amorphous “thing” whose worst excesses are opposed on moral grounds. Within this rhetoric, “class” itself becomes simply one thread woven into a multi patched fabric of competing identities.

While social relations must not be reduced to political economy, class must be understood as a pervasive set of historically specific social relations of property, production, and social power that implicate everyone, and through which all of our oppressions are lived.

I am reminded of how political prisoner Bill Dunne underlines the need for “the incorporation into political consciousness of issues whose material significance is not yet understood.” Which i take as meaning that just because we do not yet see how they may factor into the class struggle, we can be sure that every fight against oppression includes a class dimension, and can and should be incorporated into the fight for a classless (and Stateless) society.

This is why i appreciate UTA’s willingness to engage with anti-oppression politics, because i consider the latter to be wholly part of the struggle against capitalism and imperialism. I know that even those comrades who most vehemently hate “identity politics,” will often agree that women’s issues, queer liberation and the like are all very important, but somehow “different from” other issues like fatphobia or ageism or ableism. I would argue that what may separate these categories is simply the success or failure of past struggles to reveal – as Dunne would put it – the “material significance” of these questions. And as we are all such pragmatic people, you gotta admit that sometimes this “revelation” has simply come in the form of seeing how many people can get so pissed off and so militant around such “secondary” questions.

More and his later, i promise…

For more information on Upping The Anti #1 and #2, you can check out the page i have up on my Kersplebedeb site.

Copies of Upping The Anti are available for $11.00 each postage included – you can email me at or just click on the icon below to order via PayPal.
Please get in touch for information about wholesale prices.

$10.00 + $1.00 postage!

$10.00 + $1.00 postage!

Categories: , , , , , ,

No comments:

Post a Comment