Identity and its Discontentsby Adam Theron-Lee Rensch
Identity is a complicated thing. It is not, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, like simply hanging a label onto a person, though the contemporary discussion addressing identity—and identity politics, specifically—often imagines this to be the case.
“I am x,” where “x” is some predicate fundamental to how one moves through the world, provides on an immediate or personal level a grammar for expressing identity. The problem is that at a certain point the further addition of these predicates simply collapses into the singular “I” or “me,” and otherwise universal categories come together to form a more complex, contradictory identity. That is, no one is merely black or white, merely straight or queer. People are many things (this is what makes intersectionality possible), so identifying as primarily one means bracketing others to be a part of a broader community of people who identify similarly.
On its own, this is not an issue: we all, at certain points, identify in varying ways depending on our particular circumstances, important life experiences, etc. But the irony of liberal identity politics is that it typically fails to account for the contradictory ways different aspects of one’s identity involve competing political demands—a fact pointedly realized in the recent (and to many, surpris- ing) Latino support for Trump. If one assumes that the predicate “Latino” is the primary category for political motivation, it would be difficult to understand why some Latino voters would favor a bigot like Trump, unless of course one recognizes the obvious fact that some Latino voters (roughly 30%) have other beliefs or identities that might be more important than their ethnicity. The fundamental problem for identity politics is resolving these contradictions, or making sense of them within in its abstract logic. That it generally fails to do so is hardly surprising, for after all such abstract identities work very well in making arguments: it is easier to write about “white supremacy” if we assume that political motivations are primarily determined by racial identification, just as it is easier to dismiss appeals to identity if political motivations are determined primarily (or “in the last instance”) by class.
Given this, it is easy to see the entire left discourse surrounding class and identity as a kind of antinomy comprised of two antithetical positions: Jacobin, Bernie Bros, and the “dirtbag left” on one side, Ta-Nehisi Coates and liberal Clintonites on the other. This is of course to simplify the issue, but the broader opposition is real and charged with intense affect. Complacent liberals are nearly orgasmic in their self-righteous commitment to managerial rules dictating who says what and how, and the online call-out culture that lives on in a digital inferno is driven by powerful Schadenfreude. There is, similarly, something seductively cool about subverting these rules, joyously if not cathartically trolling liberals and their identity politics by ironically using words like “retard” or “gay” as proof you have a better understanding of what really matters. Both sides, however, embrace the same static concept of identity, and neither seems to want to ask if this might be part of the problem. In his new collection of essays, Class, Race, and Marxism, David Roediger addresses this problem by effectively rejecting the way it is framed.1 Prior to offering his own critique of the contemporary discourse surrounding identity, he tells the reader his book is one that “urges less dismissiveness toward opposing positions. It refuses to imagine that we achieve open debate by embracing positions advocating for the sidelining of the consideration of race or, as in the case of liberal multiculturalism, by neglecting questions of class.” This “third way” certainly sounds nice, if not intuitively reasonable. It is tough to demand unanimous agreement on issues that have such lengthy and divisive legacies, and any successful movement to combat systemic in- equality will include a level of disagreement bracketed for the sake of coalition strength. This is not to say the conversation should be shelved or glossed over, but ideally the ultimate aim—dismantling capitalist exploitation and other forms of oppression—ought to take priority.
Yet, it is too simplistic to relegate this debate to “mere” theory. If one’s understanding of race or class informs a strategy for action, then what once seemed like a conversation for academics is now a matter of tactical approach that will have consequences for the struggle for equality. More importantly, having the wrong understanding of race is not always matter of intellectual disagreement—for many, it is simply racist, and even the most radical approach to class will not make up for this. It is fitting that Roediger begins his overview of the contemporary debate by singling out Walter Benn Michaels, whose controversial critique of liberal identity politics has become the standard line for the anti-identity crowd. Michaels is extremely dismissive of liberal multiculturalism and, by his own account, has been targeted as a reactionary because of this. As he stated in an early interview with Jacobin, “I’ve been called a racist for twenty years.”
As a student of Walter Benn Michaels, I am both familiar with and very sympathetic to his criticism of identity politics, which I think is important and insightful. Much of my own writing on identity and class has been influenced by conversations I’ve had with him and, not surprisingly, I have often taken a similar hard line against the political relevance of identity. At the same time, I have always felt ambivalent about the absoluteness of his argument, the persuasiveness of which lies in its simplicity: crudely summa- rized, the category of identity does nothing to challenge class inequality. It is entirely possible—here, Michaels often cites Gary Becker’s The Economics of Discrimination (1975)—to meet the demands of identity politics while leaving the problem of class inequality untouched. Indeed, as Becker’s book proves, multiculturalism allows capital to work more effectively: neoliberalism loves a diverse community of workers and consumers, because it means there is more opportunity for exploitation. Corporate CEOs and Wall Street bankers can appeal to some vague notion of cultural sensitivity by embracing identity politics while simultaneously exploiting the labor of those same communities and pushing for legislation that will ensure a lifetime of servitude.
But, as Roediger notes, while critiquing race relations may ignore class in some or even many instances it doesn’t ignore it in every instance. While I disagree with Roediger’s pejorative use of “conspiracy theory” to describe Michaels’s position (this seems as dismissive as the positions he wants to critique), he is nevertheless fair in his assessment that it “substitutes denun- ciation for patient attempts to define the terms of a coalition encouraging those oppressed in differing ways to come together and deepen the demands of all.” It is certainly true, in other words, that many liberal critiques of white supremacy do nothing to challenge class—mainstream Democratic policies prove this—but there are other ways to oppose racism. Roediger agrees with Michaels’s dismissal of liberal multiculturalism’s indifference to class, but argues that in dismissing anything that looks like liberal multiculturalism, Michaels also dismisses Marxist critiques quite different in nature. The six essays in Class, Race, and Marxism offer attempts at such critiques, articulating the ways in which race and class are not merely cooperative in capitalism but practically inseparable within the logic of its reproduction.
Roediger is both an obvious and curious mouthpiece for thinking about race and class. Called the “founder” of critical white studies, a label he himself refuses to embrace, his writings on race might easily be conflated with liberal critiques that ignore class. But like Michaels and Adolph Reed, Jr., who has rightfully noted that the appeal of labeling something racist is that it often does not “carry any political warrant beyond exhorting people not to be racist,”2 Roediger is openly critical of the “retreat from class.” But he is also, as he writes in the first essay of the book, critical of the “retreat from race,” which appears not only in arguments from the left but from the center and the right as well, made by people who propose “universal” programs to avoid mentioning race and “confine their tepid appeals for racial justice to the King holiday and black churches.” Roediger opens his essay on “The Retreat from Race and Class” with W.E.B. Du Bois’s famous claim that “the class struggle is colorless.” Ironically, Roediger notes, appeals to “colorless” politics have returned in the language of “civil rights initiatives” and “racial privacy acts,” which have “contributed mightily to attempts to recapture the moral high ground by those thinking that a society in which white family wealth is about ten times that of African-American family wealth could possibly be a colorblind one.”
Several things are worth noting here. First, this essay appeared in 2006, and thus does not mention Obama’s presidency and the “post-racial” discourse that followed. Nor does it mention the subsequent rejection of this post-racial discourse, particularly within the sphere of liberal social media. The internet’s influence on identity politics proved so strong it effectively forced Hillary Clinton in 2016 to pander to an entire online subculture by using words like “intersectional” as proof of her understanding of racial, gender, and sexual oppression. Today, it is much more difficult than it was in 2006 to say that America is colorblind. Second, and perhaps more importantly, is Roediger’s claim that white wealth is “about ten times that” of African-American wealth. That is, he seems to be saying that the problem isn’t the fact of wealth inequality, but rather that this wealth inequality isn’t distributed evenly across racial lines. Similar arguments have been made by liberals whose idea of social justice is simply having more corporate CEOs who are women and persons of color. But even a cursory reading of Roediger’s work reveals someone deeply committed to a Marxist critique of capitalism. In fact, Roediger advocates anything but “identity politics” of the liberal sort, as evidenced by a disagreement with Adolph Reed. Following Hurricane Katrina, Reed published an article in The Nation arguing that “race is a language through which American capitalism’s class contradictions are commonly expressed. Class will almost certainly turn out to be a better predictor than race of who was able to evacuate, who drowned, who was left to fester in the Superdome or on overpasses, who is stuck in shelters in Houston or Baton Rouge, or who is randomly dispersed to the four winds.”3 While the language of race has become a convenient lens through which to examine injustice, Reed argued, it is ultimately too vague to offer an effective critique: “a racial critique can lead nowhere except to demands for black participation in decision-making around reconstruction. But which black people? What plans? Reconstruction on what terms?”
Roediger’s response resists the idea that talking about race—analyzing racism or examining racialized forms of injustice—is necessarily ineffective or too broad to offer meaningful criticism. He points to the writing of Mike Davis, who highlights the racial disparities in the rebuilding of New Orleans, specifically the neglect of the “uninhabitable” Ninth Ward: no one called for the abandonment of Lakeview, a wealthy white community, and this fact can hardly be explained without understanding the “continuing color line.” As Roediger notes, “elites, including the Black political elite in New Orleans, have played on, and indeed created, Black/Latino tensions during the rebuilding process,” but this does not mean that highly racialized injustice tells us nothing about the working class more broadly. Rejecting what he calls the “either/or position” of Reed while nevertheless quoting what he finds valuable in his writing, Roediger argues that “poor, mostly Black, New Orleanians suffer from a plight that is a ‘more extreme version of the precarious position of millions of Americans today, as more and more lose health care, bankruptcy protection, secure employment, affordable housing, civil liberties, and access to education.’ To combat such misery will require race and class analysis, as well as anti-racist and anti-capitalist organization.” This, in brief, is the argument Roediger reiterates throughout the book: just as turning away from class to focus on race will not get you any closer to solving the problem of class inequality, turning away from race to focus solely on class will not address systemic forms of racism.
Many in the anti-identity crowd are suspicious of such delicate maneuvers, and for good reason. To ask “why can’t we address both” often means, prac- tically speaking, the continued dismissal of class, or at least the promotion of only a vulgar understanding of how class operates. By this logic, one might be tempted to ask: If liberals already have a handle on issues of race, why not “correct” this and focus solely on class, which is by far the most neglected category in American politics, even after Bernie Sanders and the increased popularity of the DSA? It is Roediger’s understanding of the logic of capitalism, specifically its early development and use of race to divide the workforce and thus weaken class solidarity, that makes his argument for thinking race and class together worth examining. Indeed, the problem with liberal critiques of racism is precisely that they aren’t “classed” enough, and are thus typically shallow and incomplete. As a result, they don’t have a firm grasp of how racism continues to reproduce itself as though it were an innate feature of human nature.
While all six essays in Class, Race, and Marxism are worth reading, the strongest are the final three, two of which focus on the management of slavery and its relationship to the reproduction of capitalism. For obvious reasons, slavery is the historical institution many point to as proof that “class can’t explain everything,” which is a reasonable but ultimately incomplete assumption. Slavery was indeed first and foremost an economic practice—a fact that Barbara Fields highlights in Racecraft:
Probably a majority of American historians think of slavery in the United States as primarily a system of race relations—as though the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice, and tobacco. One historian has gone so far as to call slavery “the ultimate segregator.” He does not ask why Europeans seeking the “ultimate” method of segregating Africans would go to the trouble and expense of transporting them across the ocean for that purpose, when they could have achieved the same end so much more simply by leaving the Africans in Africa.4
What follows from this, however, should not be: “therefore, race does not matter.” Merely because slavery was a practice for the production of wealth does not mean class analysis is sufficient to grasp the totality of this historical moment. Class is indispensable to any historical analysis of slavery, but it also indisputable that race was used to justify this institution. Examining the racial (and gender) components of slavery not only adds to a better historical understanding of slavery as an institution, it also helps us understand how attitudes toward race could later be repurposed after slavery disappeared and wage-labor became the primary economic relation.
This is the ultimate trajectory of Roediger’s argument in the essays dealing with slave management, using the somewhat maligned concept of intersec- tionality to highlight the ways race and gender were foundational to the reproduction of the economy. Later treatment of workers by the managerial class is best understood as an appropriation of the slave management skills promoted throughout the planter class. There is “no doubt that developing managerial ideology was a central concern of many planters,” Roediger writes, noting that “the literature on the management of slaves foregrounded the reproduction of slaves” (102-3). Slaves were considered property, not persons, so the reproduction of slaves was simply the reproduction of means of production. Not surprisingly, the literature on the management of slaves reads as though it were a guide to managing any other sort of necessary tool for capital: land, machinery, etc. What this produced, practically speaking, was an insidious and paternalistic form of white supremacy. “The surest and best method of managing negroes,” planter J.W. Pitts wrote, “is to love them,” which is to say just as “we love our horse … he will become gentle, docile, and obedient.” Discussion of reproduction also takes a literal, which is to say biological, turn when it comes to the management of female slaves. “African women,” Roediger notes, “were seen to be a ‘natural fit’ for both roles” of reproductive labor and agricultural production, and “from 1810 forward women’s reproductive labor probably produced more value than was realized through production.” Here, the function of gender and race constructs is inseparable from the discussion of capital—its logic requires them, not contingently but necessarily. Without the literal labor of biological reproduction provided by African-American women, slavery would have very quickly collapsed as a practice. It simply wouldn’t have been sustainable.
Again, this is important not only for understanding the injustice of slavery, but of capitalism generally. For while the wage-labor relation differs from that of the master-slave relation, what Roediger calls “the managers of capital” (by which he simply means the managerial class) appropriated these attitudes for disciplining. Such gendered and racialized divisions of labor have been crucial for capital to generate profit and reproduce itself beyond slavery and settler colonialism. As Roediger writes in an essay co-authored with Elizabeth Esch, managers “were never outside of the U.S. racial system. Further, the degree to which management understood itself as possessing scientific knowledge links it to, rather than distinguishes it from, the organization of work under slavery” (117). Race, they argue, “shaped the managerial personality, which functioned in the workplace as the daily representative of capital” (118). The managerial system that drove capitalism shared a logic with the managerial system under slavery that saw different “races” as being best suited for dif- ferent tasks, thus allowing for what Roedinger and Esch call the “production of difference” that divided the labor force into competing segments. While capital does provide the possibility of class-consciousness among workers, it simultaneously fractures the working class through such racial division to maximize profit—this is one way to drive down wages. Thus, Roediger and Esch note, “While racial competition functioned as one important moment and motive in linking management and race, the ideas of a hierarchically understood process of ‘racial development’ undergirded slavery, settler expansion, and industrial capitalist growth” alike.
The final essay of the book—perhaps the most relevant to our contemporary moment—finds Roediger reflecting critically on the concept of “solidarity” in the aftermath of Ferguson and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Examining the etymology of the word, he finds its earliest use in Roman law, and specifically “the enforcement of in solido obligations of debtors in common to each be responsible, if held to account, for an entire debt.” To be “in solidarity,” in this sense, was hardly a radical gesture. Later uses, while employed as we understand it today, were similarly complicated by the fact that “solidarity” across racial or gender lines inadvertently excluded certain communities—and indeed, was only possible on the basis of this exclusion. In one pointed example, he examines cartography that subversively advocated a global worker solidarity while relying upon highly racialized stereotypes, revealing just how complicated a concept like “solidarity” is at accounting for difference. It is very easy, Roediger argues, to claim solidarity with the plight of other communities, but such claims need to be reflected upon critically to understand what solidarity really means.
In this light, Roediger’s book couldn’t have appeared at a more timely mo- ment: as President Trump continues to embrace a white supremacist ideology and the liberal media equivocate on the morality of anti-fascist resistance, the question of solidarity is fundamental. What it means to be in solidarity with oppressed communities, those with which you identify and those with which you don’t, requires a more productive debate concerning race and class than the one we usually have. Too often this discussion is left to the authority of those otherwise protected from the effects of both racial and class violence. As intellectuals compete for the satisfaction of being right the reactionary “alt-right” continues to feel emboldened in its own embrace of identity politics. Our military continues its routine show of force in other countries, just recently slaughtering over one hundred children in Syria, and our police force continues its support for a violent carceral state that disproportionately victimizes persons of color. Roediger’s book, brief as it is, offers one way of examining the racial and economic injustices at the core of such atrocities.
- David Roediger, Class, Race, and Marxism (London, Verso, 2017).
- Adolph Reed, Jr. “The Real Divide,” Progressive, 69 (November, 2005).
- Adoph Reed Jr. “Class-ifying the Hurricane,” The Nation, 281 (October 3, 2005).
- Barbara Fields and Karen E. Fields. Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (London: Verso, 2012), 117
ContributorAdam Theron-Lee Rensch
ADAM THERON-LEE RENSCH is a writer and musician based in Chicago. Currently, he is an English PhD student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is finishing his first novel, A Beginner's Guide to Learning How to Die.