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Pete Buttigieg and the Folly of Identity Politics

Pete Buttigieg is positioning himself as an ally of queer liberation because he is the first openly gay man to run for president. However, down the road of identity politics lies only cooptation, not liberation. 

Sybil Davis

February 25, 2020
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Photo Illustration by Kristen Hazzard/The Daily Beast / Photo Getty

On the campaign trail, Pete Buttigieg can often be heard sharing his coming out story. An evocative speaker, he paints a beautiful picture of his life from when he was in the closet to eventually finding love in his partner, Chasten Buttigieg. Like others in the crowded Democratic primary race, Buttigieg is trying to be a first for this country — the first openly gay President. At other similar events, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, two women running to be the first female President of the United States, share their own stories of hardship they’ve faced as women in politics. While their stories are personal, their political strategies remain the same: to lean in on their respective identity groups to give their campaigns a boost. The strategy isn’t new. After all, it worked wonderfully for Barack Obama in 2008, catapulting him into the White House as the first Black President. Hillary Clinton did the same in 2016. Although she eventually lost to Donald Trump, the story of her loss became deeply personal for large groups of women across the country. Propelled by media narratives, the operative idea here is that, by electing a member of an oppressed group, you’re electing an ally to all oppressed groups who can effectively erase all oppression.

To see the logical fallacy of this argument, one only has to examine the platforms and records of these candidates. Kamala Harris, who dropped out in December 2019, had made a career out of oppressing the very identity group she leaned on. Warren has supported military budgets that have been used to bomb women and children in the Middle East. Klobuchar, similarly, has been a staunch supporter of American military intervention in Libya and Yemen. But the problem with this phenomenon is less about the failings of a handful of politicians, and more about identity politics as an organizational theory, which fails to recognize the vastly different material conditions and, therefore, interests of those who claim to represent them. It is not enough to have the next female, Black, queer, or disabled leader of the biggest capitalist country when capitalism and the state that props it up are at the heart of such oppressions.

The Roots of Identity Politics

The term, “identity politics” dates back to the 1977 manifesto of the Combahee River Collective (CRC). Founded in 1974, the CRC was a radical Black feminist organization formed as a response to the underrepresentation of Black women in the overwhelmingly white feminist movement and the overwhelmingly male Civil Rights Movement. The CRC was also an alternative to the National Black Feminist Organization, formed to create dialogue over racism within feminist organizations, arguing that simply identifying racism was politically insufficient as a plan of action. By describing the lived experience of black women as one of “interlocking systems of oppression,” they highlighted that the oppression of Black women couldn’t just be contained within the singular categories of sexism, racism, or of homophobia experienced by Black lesbians. It was, in reality, a result of the combination of all those identities. The women of the CRC fully recognized that Black liberation wasn’t one that could be achieved under capitalism and recognized the need to reorganize society based on the needs of the most oppressed. In their pamphlet, they say, “We are not convinced, however, that a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will guarantee our liberation.”

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The CRC coined the term “identity politics” to characterize these tensions. In their formulation, they provided an analysis that drew from the lived experiences of Black women. The material lives of black women — who were (and continue to be) disproportionately affected by poverty, violence, and lack of healthcare and, as a result, are overrepresented in the working class and poor — made them particularly distrustful of capitalism. By recognizing that there was no liberation under capitalism for Black people, and much less for Black women, the CRC proposed a program to transform Black women into political agents who could ensure not just their freedoms, but the freedoms for all people.

The Problem with Postmodernism

In the decades that have followed, however, the term “identity politics” has been bastardized and stripped of any class analysis. Now, identity politics reflects a shift away from materialism to postmodernism and represents little more than token representation.

Born out of the “disappointed revolutionary generation of 1968 and the incorporation of many of its members into the professional and managerial ‘new middle class,'” postmodern philosophy posits that there is no idea of “truth” and gives primacy to relativism. It emerges from a rejection of oppression and a mistaken interpretation of Marxist determinism (the belief that an economy has to pass through phases before achieving socialism), treating truth and reason as “myths” that are designed to uphold existing hierarchies.

While postmodernism recognizes materialism, it only considers it to be a part of, and secondary to, larger ideas like society and culture. Under capitalism, however, the oppressive character of “culture” is deeply tied to the material need to oppress communities.

Capitalism lives on its ability to maintain a steady stream of cheap, waged labor — one that it sustains through the oppression of class, racial and gender minorities the world over. Whether through the exploitation of Black people through history, or through the exploitation of undocumented immigrant labor now, capitalists have long benefited by dividing the working class to drive down wages and used race, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexuality to foster prejudice and division. In times when workers’ unity and collective action is weak, workers are also forced to compete among themselves for better pay and opportunities that can alleviate their conditions, leading to some workers using these divisions to advance their own interests. 

Today, minority and oppressed groups are discriminated against irrespective of their class reality because capitalist expansion has exacerbated, normalized, and codified this discrimation, making oppression a part of the cultural hegemony. In other words, capitalism relies upon the oppression of marginalized groups. The ruling classes use their influence to manipulate the culture of society to establish an oppressive status quo that is treated as natural and inevitable, and create the necessary conditions for their sustenance. 

Discrimination, therefore, is not just a matter of character; it’s a result of the material interests of the ruling classes. To erase such an analysis is to strip away the real intent of the ruling classes and reduce oppression to only a moral barrier that can be overcome without threatening capitalism itself.  

Such is the case of identity politics in the postmodern era, which becomes dissociated from the material relationships between people and society. Instead, it places importance on individual successes and identity performance. In this new era, as Asad Haider writes in Mistaken Identity, “the framework of identity reduces politics to who you are as an individual and gaining recognition as an individual, rather than your membership in a collectivity and the collective struggle against an oppressive social structure.” Success of some members of oppressed groups under capitalism becomes akin to the liberation of all people. The belief is that, by “breaking the glass ceiling” and rising in ranks of capitalism, members of minority groups can use their influence to alleviate the suffering of others like them. What’s missing is how the ability to rise in those ranks and, more importantly, maintaining it requires exploiting members of the same groups they’re supposed to emancipate.

This trick has worked magnificently. While the radicalism in the streets during the 60s was successful in winning key equal rights laws, it died down over the following decades as key leaders of these movements made alliances with the bourgeoisie or were given token leadership positions in the offices of capital. While “equal rights” is law, systemic discrimination and violence remain facts of life for oppressed communities.

The proponents of identity politics promote the idea that simply diversifying the highest offices of imperial powers will alleviate oppression and can successfully challenge and bring down capitalism. As was the case with the first Black president, electing the first gay president or the first female president will bring no respite for the oppressed because, as leaders in capitalism, it is against their material interests to do so.

Dangers of Identity Politics Today

As Nancy Fraser writes, in the decades that followed the CRC, there was an unprecedented growth of progressive neoliberalism — an alliance between the increasing financialization of the economy and the new social movements that stressed on diversity. In this era, Fraser importantly points out, “the progressive-neoliberal program for a just status order did not aim to abolish social hierarchy but to ‘diversify’ it, ‘empowering’ ‘talented’ women, people of color, and sexual minorities to rise to the top.” 

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Take, for example, the election of Barack Obama. Many, including some of the left, rallied around Obama’s 2008 candidacy both because of his rhetoric of “change” and because of the symbolic significance of his campaign. After he was elected, America was labelled “post-racial” because a Black man was finally president. Rooted in identity politics, it was widely believed that Obama, as a Black man, would understand and could then ease the oppression of Black and other minority communities.

Nothing, however, could have been further from the truth. Under Obama, the U.S. expanded the drone program — which almost exclusively targets people of color in the Middle East — and deported more immigrants than under any other president up to that point. Anger within the Black community at home grew under the Obama presidency, with the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement. In the face of this public outcry against systemic racism within the state, Obama was relatively inert. He made emotional speeches about Trayvon Martin and held some roundtable discussions in the White House about “criminal justice reform,” but did nothing to attack the carceral state. Young Black men continued to be far, far more likely to be killed by the police, and Obama opposed reparations. This is not (just) because of some grand moral failing on the part of Obama, but because as the President of the United States, he had to oversee the most racist entity in the world: U.S. imperialist capitalism. Without attacking that entity — something he was unwilling to do — there is no way to combat the institutional racism present in the United States.

The contradictions of identity politics can be seen in the U.S. and the world over. In the Democratic primaries, Buttigieg, as the first openly gay candidate, is increasing in popularity among the party’s liberal wing. However, anyone who believes that Buttigieg would commit himself, if he became president, to defending the rights of LGBTQ+ people is deluding themselves. Buttigieg will not combat capitalism — because he is committed to capitalism, as his willingness to get in bed with corporate donors already shows — and without combating capitalism, there is no way to resolve the oppression of LGBTQ+ people, or racism, or sexism, or any other form of specialized oppression.

This is a real danger in viewing oppressed groups as a monolith. By giving crumbs to some members of these groups, capitalism has formulated them into multi-class groups, wherein the material conditions, and therefore the material interests, vary vastly among their ranks. The lives and motivations of Roy Cohn or Peter Thiel or Milo Yiannopoulos, all gay men who helped Donald Trump get where he is, therefore, are very different from that of the vast numbers of trans* youth who experience homelessness.

The systematic corporatization of queer liberation, as has been the case with other liberation movements, refocuses the demands away from liberation towards representation, gay marriage, and other marginal demands. While these demands are not unimportant — and some, such as ensuring gender confirmation medical treatment, are potentially life-saving — they cannot be mistaken for the final goal. When the basic democratic demands of a movement become the total demands of the movement, it is easy for politicians to position themselves as allies in order to gain support. Such a politics allows for candidates like Joe Biden, who has a long history of opposing LGTBQ+ rights, to posture as an ally and go to Stonewall by offering late apologies and support to basic demands. 

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Opportunists within oppressed groups have long exploited their identities to gain in the ranks of capitalism. Minority capitalists like Jay-Z exploit the working class — many of whom are Black — to enrich themselves and sell it as “representation.” But we don’t care for another Black or queer or female capitalist who’ll exploit us while they pretend to be our friend. We want the end of the capitalist system altogether.

None of Us are Free until All of Us are Free

There is no single person who can be elected, made a CEO, enriched, or placed in any other form of capitalist “representation” in order to singularly liberate all oppressed peoples. Such a liberation is only possible through the organization of the working class. In multi-class minority groups, the bourgeoisie with their unlimited means will constantly monopolize the conversation to further their material interests. While marches like the Women’s March or candidacies like Buttigieg’s and Warren’s can rally high numbers, they are severely limited in their ability to bring forth any material change because of their programs are in line with the interests of capital and are thus subservient to the ruling classes. On the contrary, a diverse working class coalition representing the most oppressed within its ranks can strike at the heart of all oppression and bring it crashing down. As Marx writes in the Communist Manifesto, “the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons — the modern working class — the proletarians.”

Today, capitalism is sustained by a global proletariat. Unlike the lies peddled by the ruling classes that are meant to divide us, the working class isn’t just made of straight white men, but is Black, brown, trans*, queer, disabled, female, and international. Racism, sexism, xenophobia, etc. are tools of the ruling classes to divide the working class and keep it weak. A diverse, organized working class must take up the fights of specialized oppression.

Such alliances are not a pipe dream. In MadyGraf, a factory in Argentina, workers went on strike to protect a trans co-worker who was being denied her rights by management. They put forth clear, uncompromising demands for LGBTQ+ rights, challenged capitalist production, and won. But, fighting against trans prejudice also strengthened the unity of the workforce and prepared the workers for the fight against the mass layoffs that came three years later — one that they won by taking over the factory.

To gain real victories under capitalism, we have to strike similarly at the heart of capital. Take for example the recent Fuck the Police protests in New York City. These protests were organized in response to increased police presence and their targeting of racial minorities in the subway.. Imagine if, in addition to militant activists, there was also an organized group of transit workers who could have gone on strike until the movements’ demands were met. Today, in France and in Chile, activists have joined with the working class to do exactly that and are organizing mass strikes that are challenging capital and winning many of the movements’ demands.

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We should not be fighting and settling for crumbs. The fight for the liberation of all oppressed groups is one that is deeply linked to the fight against capitalism. One cannot occur without the other. By fighting for the rights of the most oppressed, the working class can draw deep conclusions not just about their collective power, but also about how capitalism thrives on dividing and isolating them. Such fights act as schools of war for the coming revolution and directly challenge the foundations of capitalism. 

Token representatives like Buttigieg, or Warren, or even Obama are not our allies in the fight for queer liberation, or women’s liberation, or Black liberation. As leaders of the world imperialist project, their goals, irrespective of their intent, are diametrically opposite of the interests of the most oppressed within their communities. We cannot fall into the trap of identity politics and start supporting members of the ruling class just because they are a member of this or that oppressed group. Only a diverse, organized, and militant working class can bring about the world that we want. 

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Sybil Davis

Sybil is a trans activist, artist, and education worker in New York City.

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