/ 15 June 2019

On identity and its discontents: What of the politics?

South Africa’s present moment calls for deeper conversation on identity.
South Africa’s present moment calls for deeper conversation on identity. (John McCann/M&G)


Eusebius McKaiser’s recent defence of identity politics (Let’s slay some myths about identity politics) raises a number of important questions for South African political discourse.

McKaiser believes that identity politics is an inevitable feature of South African political life because of the existence of discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality and a range of other factors. We have no disagreement on the insidious role that discrimination and oppression play in this country. We also have no time for those who wish to deny this. But we take issue with McKaiser’s leap from acknowledging the pervasiveness of these injustices to claiming that they necessitate a politics of identity.

To illustrate his point let us take race. One cannot help but be racialised in South Africa, because of our colonial and apartheid past. One is racialised in spite of one’s distaste for race-thinking. Society does this and there is, according to McKaiser, no escaping it. One is, to use McKaiser’s words, inextricably implicated in a racialised and racialising system. Fair enough.

But what of politics? How is one to actively fight against a system of racial, gender or other forms of injustice? What underpins these systems? Which political programmes can undermine these foundations? How do we mobilise people around such a programme? As people interested in advancing social justice we have a duty to answer these questions.

McKaiser’s definition of identity politics is limited. He states that identity politics are “political practices or theoretical analysis rooted in the experiences of injustice of people based on traits like gender, class, race and other markers, some biological ones and some social constructions”.

Yet it is clear that identity-based experiences do not lead necessarily to a politics based on identity. There are various factors — ideological and material — that influence the way in which people engage politically. For many — including many anti-racist scholars — the experience of racism actually informs their rejection of identity politics.

Many do not believe that “identity” provides a helpful framework for understanding what causes social injustices. By extension, if it does not help illuminate the source of injustice, it does not provide an appropriate path for political action.

An experience, no matter how widely shared it may be, does not a politics make. Politics lies in a collective response to systems of oppression and exploitation.

Adolph Reed has put this well in a recent work on the history of “black” politics in the United States. “There is no singular, transhistorical ‘Black Liberation Struggle’ or ‘Black Freedom Movement’, and there never has been. Black Americans have engaged in many different forms of political expression in many different domains, around many different issues, both those considered racial and not.”

The same logic holds true for South Africa’s liberation history, which is littered with attempts — theoretical and practical — to engage with and overcome various forms of oppression. Results have been varied.

Both Steve Biko and Chris Hani, two struggle icons, experienced the vicious racism of the apartheid regime and both died for their commitment to the struggle. Yet they did not share the same politics. It would be profoundly misleading, analytically and politically, to unify their perspectives under a generic rubric of “identity politics”. Biko’s Black Consciousness was simply not compatible with Hani’s Marxism.

McKaiser probably knows that what progressive critics of identity politics have in mind is not the broad, vacuous definition that he provides. Rather the issue is with the dominant modern form of identitarianism that embraces ethical, cultural, gender and racial relativism, is suspicious of universal values and approaches the world with an idealist theoretical lens. One can be eminently concerned with identity-based injustices while rejecting the conceptual, theoretical and political commitments of modern-day identitarianism.

McKaiser does not grant this possibility. Instead, with a subtle sleight of hand, he tells us that those who reject identity politics are privileged, mediocre or illiterate. This takes us down a path that sidesteps the substantive debate, the terms of which we attempt to outline here.

It is certainly true that people who hold privilege often adopt views about the world that protect their position in society. These views can take the form of whimsical delusions — such as the common refrain that fair reward for “hard work”, and not historical and present-day discrimination and exploitation, lies behind present-day inequalities.

Yet it is also true that someone who is “underprivileged” may reject the dogmas of identitarianism. To think otherwise would be to engage in a deterministic view of identity. The latter is not only demonstrably false, it also homogenises a diverse group of people and decides that their one shared characteristic (“race”, “gender”, “sexuality”, et cetera) is meant to reflect their views about the world. If race, for example, is socially constructed then this reduction of thought, ethics and politics to racial identity is one of the subtle ways in which it continues to be constructed today.

We should guard against this line of thinking for another reason, namely that it provides effective currency for the production of a narrow elite. Such a process works subtly in a system underpinned by structural inequality, as gains for individuals of an identity group in the elite sphere can be presented as a victory for a generic identity group. We see this in the politics of diversity, represented by “lean in” feminism — debunked by the recently book Feminism for the 99% by Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser — and in the growing corporatist culture of “black excellence” in South Africa today.

Being wary of such identity reductionism was once commonplace in progressive circles. Yet this is largely absent today, even while intersectionality is paraded as a theoretical and practical solution.

The problem, as William Shoki has pointed out in a recent piece for Africa is a Country (Back to class), is the way in which class is understood in liberal intersectionality theory. Class is seen here as another axis of discrimination and prejudice and not as a social relation derived from exploitative productive relations. The result is a politics that is concerned with ensuring the proper identity mix of the elite sphere; keeping social relations of exploitation intact while ensuring that boardrooms are identity representative.

McKaiser is at least alert to the importance of class analysis, but we are concerned that a sharp division between matters of class and matters of identity persists in his piece.

This is clear in McKaiser’s treatment of Marxism. There are certainly many good reasons to criticise Marx and his followers. The vanguardism and totalitarian politics that defined 20th century Marxist regimes deserves to be rejected. A centrally planned economy also proved to be a disastrous economic model and any socialist politics in the present must acknowledge this and begin with a fresh approach. Marxists have made theoretical and practical missteps in the past. Yet McKaiser’s characterisation of Marxism as a “class reductionism” is simply not serious.

One might ask McKaiser to name and cite the relevant class-reductionist Marxists that have so irked him. This may be tough to do for a philosophy that has inspired anticolonial liberation movements in the Global South from India, to South Africa, to China, to Mozambique. Marxism has also been at the forefront of antiracist politics. It found a home in the Black Panther movement in the US and the ANC, the Unity Movement and other anti-apartheid groups in South Africa.

Indeed, when critics have argued that Marxism has insufficiently taken account of identity or cultural oppression, they did so largely from within. These critics maintained, correctly, that a proper materialist account of capitalism must be embedded in social reality, reality that has cultural and psychological baggage. Fighting against the oppressive qualities of the latter can also be conceived as integral, but not reducible, to anticapitalist politics.

These internal extensions of Marxist theory were launched by Lenin and Trotsky — one forgets that the Russian Revolution occurred in an undeveloped economy and was carried out by a people who were also victims of racial chauvinism. They were enriched by the likes of Rosa Luxemburg, CLR James, Amílcar Cabral, Robyn Kelley, Claudia Jones and even Frantz Fanon.

The South African Communist Party’s “colonialism of a special type” thesis was an attempt to understand the cultural, racial and economic forces that determined the nature of apartheid and colonial South Africa. The theory has had its fair share of critics, both Marxist and otherwise, but a case cannot be made that it ignored non-economic factors.

Indeed, in Harold Wolpe’s view, the theory was overly reliant on the latter at the expense of centring capitalism in its analysis of South African society. In cases where critics did not come from within the Marxist tradition, but rather anarchism and/or syndicalism, there remained a commitment to the same political project.

It is only recently, since the defeat of left-wing political movements in the late 20th century, that concern for cultural and identity facets of oppression have been articulated outside (and in opposition to) an active materialist critique of capitalism. This has occurred since the cultural turn and the postcolonial and decolonial churches it inspired.

Beyond his failure to grapple with these particular legacies, McKaiser also claims that the pushback against “identity politics” stems from “a refusal to give up privileges”. Yet in doing so, he engages in the “erasure” that “identity politics” is supposedly concerned with fighting. The rich, well-substantiated rejections of identity politics coming from people he would classify as “black” are conspicuously missing from his commentary.

One example would be Kwesi Tsri’s critique of the continued use of “black” when speaking about Africans. Tsri, in an argument not too dissimilar to that developed by Neville Alexander in the South African context, believes that racialised language contributes to a culture of racism and advises that we label each other using other nonracial idioms.

Tsri, and other “black” critics of identity politics, remain potential victims of racial stereotyping and profiling when entering a shop. They do not need to be lectured about this. Their rejection of modern racial identity politics — which insists on reproducing racial categories and race-thinking as a means to fight racism — is another matter entirely. One would think it better to engage with their ideas, instead of claiming that they are somehow blind to their own experiences.

In closing his three theses on identity politics McKaiser seems to remember that critics of “identity politics” are not merely personifications of a Helen Zille twitter thread. Yet, much like his preceding attacks on such people, his engagement with “academic” critics remains shallow.

He accuses academic dissenters of not reading and listening to others and bemoans their apparent disciplinary narrowness. This is not the first time McKaiser has made such a claim, yet it remains a dishonest form of engagement.

There are a number of authors from across a variety of disciplines who have engaged explicitly, yet critically, with modern forms of identity politics. Sharon Smith, in her in-depth work on the history of identity politics, goes to great lengths to engage with a variety of intellectual traditions while being true to a Marxist framework. Vivek Chibber in his Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital painstakingly tears apart the dominant perspectives in subaltern studies and postcolonial theory that emerged after the cultural turn. Kwame Anthony Appiah, Karen and Barbara Fields, Adolph Reed, Gerard Maré, Zimitri Erasmus, Asad Haider and countless other critics have engaged with “identity politics” and have found it to be wanting.

South Africa’s present moment calls for deeper conversation on identity. Unfortunately, although McKaiser is right to call out those who wish to ignore the continued reality of identity-based oppressions in our society, he has mischaracterised the reasons people may reject identity politics. More egregious is the fact that McKaiser’s inane definition of the latter forecloses on the opportunity for actual political conversation. The result is that the space for imagining alternative political and economic futures is shut down as we remain in vapid cycle of moral exhortation. The realities of oppression demand that we do better.

Rekang Jankie is media liaison officer at the Alternative Information and Development Centre and Michael Nassen Smith is the deputy director of the Institute for African Alternatives. They write in their personal capacity