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Black Lives Matter activists, including Marissa Johnson (holding microphone), prevent Bernie Sanders from speaking at Westlake Park in Seattle on August 8, 2015. (Wikimedia Commons)

It's Not Racism vs. Anti-Racism; It's Capitalism vs. Socialism

Why instead of a more complicated understanding of identity, we need a more profound understanding of exploitation

Walter Benn Michaels

 by The Nation

The following is the author's contribution to a forum by The Nation on the question of 'identity politics' in the wake of this year's election. Read the complete forum here.

The defensible heart of identity politics is its commitment to opposing forms of discrimination like racism, sexism, and homophobia. I share that commitment. But opposing discrimination today has no more to do with a left politics than do equally powerful ethical commitments against, say, violence or dishonesty. Why? Because the core of a left politics is its critique of and resistance to capitalism—its commitment to decommodifying education, health care, and housing, and creating a more economically equal society. Neither hostility to discrimination nor the accompanying enthusiasm for diversity makes the slightest contribution to accomplishing any of those goals. Just the opposite, in fact. They function instead to provide inequality with a meritocratic justification: If everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed, there’s no injustice when some people fail.

"You don’t build a left by arguing over who has been most victimized; you build it by organizing all the victims."

This is why Adolph Reed and I have been arguing that identity politics is not an alternative to class politics but a form of it: It’s the politics of an upper class that has no problem with seeing people being left behind as long as they haven’t been left behind because of their race or sex. That’s why elite institutions like universities make an effort to recruit black people as well as white into the ruling class. They’re seeking to legitimate the class structure, not abolish it. Of course, if we’re going to accept a ruling class, one that’s open to people other than straight white men is preferable. But shouldn’t the left be more committed to doing something for the vast majority of people of all races, genders, and sexual orientations who will never belong to that class? We’ve never thought the fact that a few white people get to become rich was a victory for poor white people, so why should substituting in a few black people change the equation?

It’s not racism that creates the difference between classes; it’s capitalism. And it’s not anti-racism that can combat the difference; it’s socialism. We’re frequently told that black poverty is worse than white poverty—more isolating, more concentrated—and maybe that’s true. But why, politically, should it matter? You don’t build the left by figuring out which victim has been most victimized; you build it by organizing all the victims. When it comes to the value of universal health care, for example, we don’t need to worry for a second about whether the black descendants of slaves are worse off than the white descendants of coal miners. The goal is not to make sure that black people are no sicker than white people; it’s to make everybody healthy. That’s why they call it universal.

You don’t build a left by arguing over who has been most victimized; you build it by organizing all the victims.

Discrimination is neoliberalism’s theory of inequality. Even poor whites have started to buy it—a large number appear to think anti-white bias is their real problem! Obviously, they’re wrong, but when, as Barbara and Karen Fields point out, the language of victimization has become so impoverished that it consists of nothing but discrimination, you go with what you’ve got. A new left politics will need to change that. Instead of a more complicated understanding of identity—of race, sex, and intersectionality (that opiate of the professional managerial class)—we need a more profound understanding of exploitation.


© 2017 The Nation

Walter Benn Michaels

Walter Benn Michaels is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality (2006),  which has just appeared in a tenth anniversary edition, and, most recently, of The Beauty of a Social Problem: Photography, Autonomy, Economy (2015).

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