Identity Politics Is a Poor Substitute for Socialism

In No Politics but Class Politics, Walter Benn Michaels and Adolph Reed show how an identity politics that obscures class politics and ignores economic inequality only makes the many miseries around us worse.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress gather at Emancipation Hall and kneel as they take a moment of silence for George Floyd and other victims of racial injustice on June 8, 2020. (Caroline Brehman / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Two recent events have revealed different sides of the same problem with how the dominant media institutions and opinion makers in this country think about racial inequality.

On June 29, the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions in a pair of cases involving Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The decision, understandably, unleashed a firestorm of outrage and debate among progressives and liberals. Given the nature of the case, the conversation around the ruling was disproportionately centered on Ivy League institutions like Harvard.

A great gulf exists between the large amount of media attention devoted to the issue and the very small number of people of color it will ultimately impact. Lost in the discussion was the fact that the soaring costs of higher education means that only people of color from the most affluent backgrounds are in a position to be affected by this ruling. As Matt Bruenig and others have consistently pointed out, elite Ivy League institutions already implement de facto affirmative action for the rich. The project of making higher education free (or at least significantly more affordable) would do more to improve the educational opportunities and outcomes for students of color than simply shuffling around the very small number of spaces available at the top of the pyramid.

In the cultural sphere, a skirmish developed over the Disney remake of The Little Mermaid that was released in May 2023. The main character, Ariel, was played by black actress Halle Bailey. In what has become a predictable (and boring) scene, right-wing culture warriors decried the advancing woke takeover of our culture, while those on the Left defended the validity and importance of Disney’s casting choice.

While it is certainly true that the right-wing freak-out over the skin color of a Disney movie character is absurd, almost equally revealing is the amount of oxygen given to this issue by liberals. In an opinion piece for the Guardian, cultural journalist Tayo Bero went as far as to champion the insurgent quality of the movie.

“As a piece of American film history, The Little Mermaid has always been subversive — its release and success single-handedly helped save the Disney corporation from collapse, and it also offered fresh commentary on topics like gender fluidity and patriarchal society,” Bero writes. She goes on to assert that the presence of a black Ariel “is a continuation of that tradition, and audiences who don’t get it have clearly been missing the point all along.”

Between the idea that the rescue of a multibillion-dollar corporation such as Disney is subversive and the conflation of Hollywood marketing schemes with racial equality, it is clear that a thoroughly neoliberal version of social justice has been articulated here. How should the Left make sense of this moment?

No Politics but Class Politics has come right on time. Edited by Anton Jäger and Daniel Zamora, the book is a collection of essays by Adolph Reed Jr and Walter Benn Michaels that explore the class nature of the growing discourse centered around racial disparities and diversity. Spanning the last two decades and covering a diverse range of topics, from electoral politics and movement history to film and art, this collection offers a comprehensive analysis of the limits and contradictions of anti-racist politics.

In a way, this book is a product of the disorienting political period for the Left set in motion by the COVID-19 pandemic, the defeat of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, and the mass protests in response to the murder of George Floyd. Each of these events, which in different ways represented shocks to US politics, were infused with class dynamics that were primarily expressed in racial terms. As major corporations like Amazon donated millions of dollars to the Black Lives Matter movement and Democratic Party elites knelt in kente cloth, it was clear that the ruling class had moved to make the most of this peculiar moment of racial mania.

In the foreword, Jäger and Zamora aptly describe the current conjecture as one more sign of the “the slow disarticulation of the agenda of the civil rights movement from any commitment to reshaping the economic relations that produce inequality in the first place.” The essays that follow trace the ideological underpinnings of this steady retreat from contextualizing racial inequality within the broader political economy.

First and foremost, No Politics but Class Politics forces readers to confront and challenge commonsense understandings of what race really is. Reed’s 2013 essay “Marx, Race, and Neoliberalism” mounts a rigorous Marxist analysis of the development of racial ideologies and the work that they do. Importantly, emphasis is put on the emergence of race at a historically specific time under concrete social conditions and the ability of racial ideology to evolve as these conditions changed.

The necessities of various labor regimes propelled the evolutions and uses of race, which has thus always rested on a political-economic foundation. The plantation slave economy, the post–Civil War sharecropping system, and the mass industrialization of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century all made pragmatic use of race ideology to justify and naturalize the economic and political positioning of the laboring masses at the given times in the way most beneficial to the ruling class. As Reed explains, “The innovations of race science . . . promised to assist employers’ needs for rational labor force management and were present in the foundation of the fields of industrial relations and industrial psychology.”

The gradual separation of race from class has led to a situation where many of those purportedly on the Left have (perhaps unknowingly) accepted an essentializing framework to think about race. Michaels explores this more deeply in his provocative “Autobiography of an Ex-White Man” by challenging the common dictum, touted by both liberals and leftists, that race is a social construction. While the race as social construction formulation appears to clearly challenge ideas of racial essentialism, it actually accepts them as its starting premise.

Through interrogating the phenomenon of “passing” for a certain race, the piece illuminates that, in order for the idea of passing to be sustained, there have to be essential characteristics about a given race that one can either choose to perform or not to perform. As Michaels explains, “The possibility of belonging to a race of people who don’t look like you produces the possibility of manifesting your racial identity in your actions — of acting white or black.” And in order to “act” black or white, one must buy into the idea of essential defining features of whiteness and blackness that can be imitated. Furthermore, the belief that one can imitate another race rests on the assumption that you are betraying your actual race; in other words, it still takes race seriously as a biological fact.

This insight becomes important when considering the “race and class” rhetoric that is popular among many on the Left. Attempts to define class as yet another identity fall on their face. Unlike race, one’s class is determined by what you do, not what you supposedly are. As Michaels explains, “The identity that is identical to action is not really an identity — it’s just the name of the action: worker, capitalist.”

This theme is further built upon by another piece included in the collection, Reed’s controversial “From Jenner to Dolezal: One Trans Good, the Other Not So Much.” Comparing the favorable reception to Caitlyn Jenner’s claim as a woman with the unfavorable reception to Rachel Dolezal’s claim as an African American, Reed asks, “Is the point supposed to be that Dolezal is lying when she says she identifies as black? Or is it that being black has nothing to do with how you identify?”

These questions strike at the heart of the contradictions inherent in the identitarian reactions to Rachel Dolezal. Those who deny the validity of Dolezal’s claim on the basis that there’s more to race than identity have waded into some dangerous territory. As Reed points out, this view reveals a belief in “a view of racial difference as biologically definitive in a way that’s even deeper than sexual difference.”

Reed’s point, of course, is not to champion Dolezal’s behavior. Rather, it is to expose the broader hypocrisy and commitment to essentialism that these discourses on identity are based upon. As usual, Reed is able to tease out the underlying class dynamics at work in the Dolezal episode, writing that the hostile reaction “is about protection of the boundaries of racial authenticity as the exclusive property of the guild of Racial Spokespersonship.”

No Politics but Class Politics drives home the point that the current brand of identity politics, with its centering of disparities as the ultimate measure of inequality, is not only a form of class politics but also a politics that aligns with and reinforces the basic tenets of neoliberalism.

Of course, the existence of racial disparities is a negative thing. However, the broader point is that one can eliminate racial disparities while still maintaining a fundamentally unequal economic system that relegates the majority of black people to miserable and precarious lives. As Michaels asks in the featured essay, titled “Identity Politics: A Zero-Sum Game,” “Which is a more progressive goal — a world in which only thirteen per cent of black people (instead of twenty-four per cent) live below the poverty line or a world in which none of them do?” Eliminating disparities alone cannot make society more equal; it will simply make society unequal in a different way.

The essays skillfully explore how this neoliberal version of social justice has gained hegemony in our major institutions. Discourse on education has become centered on creating racially proportionate opportunities for people to overcome poverty instead of eliminating poverty in the first place. Here is a clear-cut example of the difference between a class-based approach and one based on eliminating disparities. A class-based approach posits that the lower-paying jobs in our society, which also happen to be in the fastest growing sectors and disproportionately held by workers of color, should be made into high-quality, good-paying jobs. The identitarian approach instead focuses on how to make sure that these low-paying jobs are held by the proportionately correct number of white people.

The most comprehensive and far-reaching critique of disparities discourse comes in “Race, Class, Crisis: The Discourse of Racial Disparity and Its Analytical Discontents,” coauthored by Reed and Merlin Chowkwanyun. They unpack the persistent pathologies that underline most studies of racial disparities. One cannot deny the persistent racial disparities that exist in the realm of housing, education, employment, etc. However, it is the causal explanations and the policy agendas that flow from the framing of disparities that are problematic.

All too often, the proposed remedies to the existence of disparities tend to emphasize various schemes of individual wealth-building. As Reed and Chowkwanyun point out, “Such stratagems represent détente with rather than commitment to changing capitalist class relations, including those that contribute to intra- and inter-racial disparities in the first place.” Research on disparities often give causal power to auxiliary dynamics or outcomes as opposed to tracing racial disparities to fundamental economic issues such as employment, public services, land use, etc.

There are few scholars, if any, with a more penetrating analysis and critique of contemporary black politics than Adolph Reed Jr. Readers will get a glimpse of this in essays such as “From Black Power to Black Establishment.” Tracing the devolution of Black Power from its radical-seeming beginnings to its disappointing fate as just another expression of ethnic-interest-group establishment politics, Reed concludes that the movement “was always a concept in search of its object.”

Reed consistently decries the crystallization of black political aspirations around ill-defined goals like “community control” instead of concrete policy initiatives that would lift the material living standards of black working people. Such campaigns around issues like fair employment, eliminating the poll tax, and improved public education were common during the civil rights movement, from roughly the 1930s to the 1960s. While the lore of black history tends to focus on the radical edges of Black Power such as the Black Panther Party, this essay concludes that Black Power rhetoric “also resonated with the self-image and aspirations of an emergent stratum of black professional and managerial functionaries, administrators, and officials.”

While it’s clear throughout the book that Reed and Michaels are deeply committed to a materialist account of race and racism rather than a cultural one, the book does offer some of their ruminations on the cultural sphere. Both writers are able to draw out how and why so much of our culture has been thoroughly imbued with neoliberal ideology and themes. Perhaps more importantly, Reed in particular emphasizes the folly of attempting to use the capitalist culture industry to advance the Left’s ideas and values. If anything, this project simply serves as a demonstration of neoliberalism’s victory, as Reed explains in his essay “Django Unchained, or, The Help”: “Nothing could indicate more strikingly the extent of neoliberal ideological hegemony than the idea that the mass culture industry and its representational practices constitute a meaningful terrain for struggle to advance egalitarian interests.”

Reed goes on to advance a devastating critique of the movies Django Unchained and The Help, arguing that their dominant message is one of individual success and atonement, coupled with completely ahistorical depictions of slavery and Jim Crow. Meanwhile, Michaels, in “Chris Killip and LaToya Ruby Frazier,” contemplates the value and meaning of artistic depictions of deindustrialized working-class communities.

The book also features four interviews, more like discussions, between Reed, Michaels, Jäger, and Zamora. These interviews are fascinating and in some ways essential for tying all the themes outlined in the essays together. In this section, one gets a glimpse at how aspects of the authors’ biographies have impacted their critiques of anti-racism and all forms of essentialism. Reed’s reflections on his political journey encompassing Black Power student activism, new urban black electoral regimes, academia, and Labor Party building are rich with insights and lessons from an entire life devoted to working-class politics. Their personalities shine through in these discussions through countless witticisms and quips that will leave readers laughing and thinking at the same time.

No Politics but Class Politics is blunt, biting, and provocative. It has to be. It is increasingly clear that what is known today as “anti-racism” — with its accompanying displacement of political-economic questions to the realms of psychologistic babble, cultural navel-gazing, and disparities discourse — fits comfortably within the agenda of black elites and the broader ruling class. As the historic assault on the working-class grinds on, identitarian discourse can only counter with ever-more hollow calls for a slight racial reshuffling in the distribution of neoliberalism’s disastrous outcomes. Capital has, and will continue to, use and shape these demands in order to diversify corporate boardrooms, legislative halls of power, and elite educational institutions while eviscerating the living standards of the working-class majority of all races.

It’s time to get serious about what a pro–working class agenda is and is not. No Politics but Class Politics cuts through the noise and will help serious organizers and intellectuals make sense of how we can tackle racial inequality in the twenty-first century. As Michaels states in the essay “What Matters,” “The increased inequalities of neoliberalism were not caused by racism and sexism and won’t be cured by — they aren’t even addressed by — anti-racism or anti-sexism.” The sooner we learn this, the better for rebuilding a true working-class movement in this country.