What Identity Politics Gets Wrong About Class

Class analysis is often trivialized by the mainstream of liberal politics

Whenever the importance of class is brought up to the liberal left, they’re reticent to embrace it as its own entity and would rather just emphasize its intersection with identity. In its most impassioned defenses, identity politics is a paradigm where political change is driven by identitarian struggle–to it, equality and justice will never be truly realized until all forms of discrimination against marginalized identities are quelled. For the Marxist left however, bigotry is a downstream effect of wealth disparities and symptomatic of ongoing class struggle–in this interpretation, dominant demographics are much less interested in casting out minorities as they are in preserving their current status.

There are elements of a cogent political analysis in both perspectives, but what often gets deafened by the dominance of liberal politics in the mainstream, is that identity politics is a fairly novel concept–semantically yes, it is as old as the human experience itself, but in its political implementation, it tracks the path of liberal democracy’s recent establishment. As is custom for the neoliberal status quo, it is in their best interest to disentangle the fight for equality away from their obligations to perform sound governance, and it has in turn mobilized the liberal left to ride anti-discrimination as the main vehicle in their march towards collective liberation, neglecting class altogether in the process.

To lay a bit of a historical foundation, the feminist movement was one of earliest precursors of what would soon become the guiding model for the mainstream left. After reaping the boons of enrollment in wartime efforts, a concerted push was made by proponents of traditional family values to have women reassume their erstwhile roles–it’s why the 50s and 60s resonate as an era of the American housewife whose sole purpose in life is to exercise subservience to her spouse. The reaction to that was the rise of a movement lamenting the walkback of much progress made, calling instead for women to make their entrance into public society permanent–if identity politics proponents would co-sign the movement’s anti-sexism credentials the loudest, it is class struggle that prompted them to mount up what was ultimately a successful cultural revolution.

It is rarely the case that the wealthy are the first to rebel against unjust authority–their very existence necessitates that the status quo’s sustenance is most-beneficial to their survival. Rather, when the downtrodden band together to express discontent at what dire straits ail them, that’s what tends to be the catalyst for change–the civil rights movement, as much as it is retroactively read as a fight for the recognition of a historically-oppressed identity, its goals were inextricably linked to the betterment of black people’s material conditions.

If class were to be treated as yet another subset of identity, it is very hard to make the case for it functioning in remotely the same way–marginalized communities seek recognition for struggles borne out of their own identities, but class is almost immutable in the way that it correlates political aspirations with status. Even if opinion-shapers like Andrew Sullivan, Peter Thiel and Candace Owens are all a different flavor of marginalized, their contributions to movement-conservatism are in direct aid of the group they are oppressed by (in this case, the American religious right). To imply that being part of a marginalized community automatically enjoins you in their crusade to no longer be, has so far been the sore thumb that sticks in an identity-focused view of struggle.

A common retorque is to posit outliers as “identity betrayers”, but why is it then the case that class betrayal is much less commonplace? The answer is fairly simple: Which that is not inherent to birth, can be quite easily undertaken, but wealth — and especially an upward growth of it — locks people out of switching classes lest they’re a billionaire willing to set their golden coffers on fire, or a poor person whose likeliest chance of ascending to the middle-class is for the sky to start raining green. Both outcomes are extremely unlikely, and it puts class in this weird position where despite its intangibility, it functions as a much sturdier system of social casting than skin complexion, genitals, gender identity or sexual orientation. If the circumstances are opportune for someone to finally accept who they are as trans for example, it is indisputably the case that the wealthy are in for an easier time–not least for the potential costs of transition, but also through being able to escape the clutches of an unaccepting social entourage with relative ease.

Much of this is chalked up to the way we talk about identity–in social justice terms, an identity’s demands for political change are collapsed into one monolith where aberrations are deemed of little peril to the theory’s saliency. But class analysis is immune to that by virtue of sticking to knowable and provable characteristics of whom it’s supposed to advocate for–if one’s laying out on the street with nowhere to sleep, charting out the administrative path towards housing them isn’t of much difficulty. Identity however, is ever-changing–what might’ve been reasonable to ratify yesterday, can suddenly become sacrilege overnight.

Having a political ideology constantly changing shape poses some obvious epistemic challenges–the electorate is in need of clear guidance on what to seek, and it’s unlikely their majority are the type to stay attuned to the cutting-edge of social justice on the internet. If that’s the implicit expectation, when so many are stuck working minimum-wage jobs with barely enough to put food on the table, it is unreasonable to demand of them constant alertness to what should and shouldn’t perturb their livelihoods based on ever-contradictory streams of liberal thought.

That’s ultimately the story of identity politics’ failure to blunt the momentum of rising far-right sentiment–by seeking to battle a relatively-static set of ideals with ones whose parameters are in constant flux, you doom your movement to failure by engaging only those willing to indulge its convoluted mode of delivery. Shy of that, Marxist politics offer an alternative by imbuing so much of our understanding about identitarian struggle with class consciousness–it is easier to make even the most skeptical aware of rampant wealth inequality than it is to turn them into sociology majors, and that’s what a successful model of popular-and-populist politics should rest upon.