“the politicization of the social” and “politics of identity” in Omi and Winant, Cha. 6

by Sebastian Benthall

A confusing debate in my corner of the intellectual Internet is about (a) whether the progressive left has a coherent intellectual stance that can be articulated, (b) what to call this stance, (c) whether the right-wing critics of this stance have the intellectual credentials to refer to it and thereby land any kind of rhetorical punch. What may be true is that both “sides” reflect social movements more than they reflect coherent philosophies as such, and so trying to bridge between them intellectually is fruitless.

Happily, reading through Omi and Winant, which among other things outlines a history of what I think of as the progressive left, or the “social justice”, “identity politics” movement in the United States. They address this in their Chapter 6: “The Great Transformation”. They use “the Great Transformation” to refer to “racial upsurges” in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

They are, as far as I can tell, the only people who ever use “The Great Transformation” to refer to this period. I don’t think it is going to stick. They name it this because they see this period as a great victorious period for democracy in the United States. Omi and Winant refer to previous periods in the United States as “racial despotism”, meaning that the state was actively treating nonwhites as second class citizens and preventing them from engaging in democracy in a real way. “Racial democracy”, which would involve true integration across race lines, is an ideal future or political trajectory that was approached during the Great Transformation but not realized fully.

The story of the civil rights movements in the mid-20th century are textbook material and I won’t repeat Omi and Winant’s account, which is interesting for a lot of reasons. One reason why it is interesting is how explicitly influenced by Gramsci their analysis is. As the “despotic” elements of United States power structures fade, the racial order is maintained less by coercion and more by consent. A power disparity in social order maintained by consent is a hegemony, in Gramscian theory.

They explain the Great Transformation as being due to two factors. One was the decline of the ethnicity paradigm of race, which had perhaps naively assumed that racial conflicts could be resolved through assimilation and recognition of ethnic differences without addressing the politically entrenched mechanisms of racial stratification.

The other factor was the rise of new social movements characterized by, in alliance with second-wave feminism, the politicization of the social, whereby social identity and demographic categories were made part of the public political discourse, rather than something private. This is the birth of “politics of identity”, or “identity politics”, for short. These were the original social justice warriors. And they attained some real political victories.

The reason why these social movements are not exactly normalized today is that there was a conservative reaction to resist changes in the 70’s. The way Omi and Winant tell it, the “colorblind ideology” of the early 00’s was culmination of a kind of political truce between “racial despotism” and “racial democracy”–a “racial hegemony”. Gilman has called this “racial liberalism”.

So what does this mean for identity politics today? It means it has its roots in political activism which was once very radical. It really is influenced by Marxism, as these movements were. It means that its co-option by the right is not actually new, as “reverse racism” was one of the inventions of the groups that originally resisted the Civil Rights movement in the 70’s. What’s new is the crisis of hegemony, not the constituent political elements that were its polar extremes, which have been around for decades.

What it also means is that identity politics has been, from its start, a tool for political mobilization. It is not a philosophy of knowledge or about how to live the good life or a world view in a richer sense. It serves a particular instrumental purpose. Omi and Winant talk about the politics of identity is “attractive”, that it is a contagion. These are positive terms for them; they are impressed at how anti-racism spreads. These days I am often referred to Phillips’ report, “The Oxygen of Amplification”, which is about preventing the spread of extremist views by reducing the amount of reporting on them in ‘disgust’. It must be fair to point out that identity politics as a left-wing innovation were at one point an “extremist” view, and that proponents of that view do use media effectively to spread it. This is just how media-based organizing tactics work, now.

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