There is a “historicist” school of thought that runs through Michel Foucault and Judith Butler (e.g., Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity) that has been subject to criticism both from the perspective of psychoanalysis as well as political science and sociology. The Foucault/Butler approach tends to misuse psychoanalysis, on a theoretical level, and also, on a political level, aligns closely with the conservative politically correct (PC) dogma of neoliberalism.
“Third complex of questions: Is sexual difference equatable with other categories of difference? Is one’s sexual identity constructed in the same way, does it operate on the same level, as one’s racial or class identity; or is sexual difference a different kind of difference from these others?”
Adolph Reed, Jr., “From Jenner to Dolezal: One Trans Good, the Other Not So Much,” Common Dreams (June 15, 2015)
“By far the most intellectually and politically interesting thing about the recent ‘exposé’ of Spokane, WA, NAACP activist Rachel Dolezal’s racial status is the conundrum it has posed for racial identitarians who are also committed to defense of transgender identity. *** Their contention is that one kind of claim to an identity at odds with culturally constructed understandings of the identity appropriate to one’s biology is okay but that the other is not – that it’s OK to feel like a woman when you don’t have the body of a woman and to act like (and even get yourself the body of) a woman but that it’s wrong to feel like a black person when you’re actually white and that acting like you’re black and doing your best to get yourself the body of a black person is just lying.
There is a guild-protective agenda underlying racial identitarians’ outrage . . . . *** they understand black racial classification as a form of capital. *** When all is said and done, the racial outrage is about protection of the boundaries of racial authenticity as the exclusive property of the guild of Racial Spokespersonship.
That is to say, as is ever clearer and ever more important to note, race politics is not an alternative to class politics; it is a class politics, the politics of the left-wing of neoliberalism. It is the expression and active agency of a political order and moral economy in which capitalist market forces are treated as unassailable nature. An integral element of that moral economy is displacement of the critique of the invidious outcomes produced by capitalist class power onto equally naturalized categories of ascriptive identity that sort us into groups supposedly defined by what we essentially are rather than what we do. As I have argued, following Walter [Benn] Michaels and others, within that moral economy a society in which 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources could be just, provided that roughly 12% of the 1% were black, 12% were Latino, 50% were women, and whatever the appropriate proportions were LGBT people. It would be tough to imagine a normative ideal that expresses more unambiguously the social position of people who consider themselves candidates for inclusion in, or at least significant staff positions in service to, the ruling class.”
“An Interview with Harvard Anthropology Professor John Comaroff—Part Two,” WSWS (May 4, 2023)
Ethnicity, Inc. is a very disturbing phenomenon because it combines the worst of faux progressivism, under the guise of righteous identity politics, with the commodity form. Once ethnically defined populations perceive themselves to share interests and have legitimate claims on the world by virtue of a shared primordial essence, their identity becomes self-validating and non-negotiable. Ethnicity is a historical creation, a product of specific material and political conditions, but it is invariably experienced as transcendent, above history, biogenetic.
“We have a right to profit from our identity.” This is often claimed as recompense for some real or imagined injury, some wrong, some deficit—exacerbated, typically, by a lack of due recognition. But here’s the thing. Ethnic groups in their originary form are what Max Weber referred to classically as status groups, groups founded on a broadly shared culture that, within them, subsumed internal class differences. But as identity—and the imagined cultural infrastructure in which it is ostensibly grounded—becomes commodified, those groups become class stratified internally, as well as exclusionary and exploitative.
How so? Because, as I said earlier, when ethnic groups become more like corporations, or at least can financialize their material and immaterial assets, their elites tend to monopolize those assets or distribute them unevenly, and those held to be marginal members are extruded. The more identity becomes a form of monopoly capital, the more ethnic groups replicate the class structures of the wider societies in which they are embedded.
So Ethnicity Inc. has produced more poor than rich people.
Commenting on the “arrival of the identity entrepreneurs” at George Floyd Square in Minneapolis, August H. Nimtz, “Race Hustling at George Floyd Square: A Valuable Teaching Moment” MR Online (Aug. 13, 2021):
“That the only person who objected to our presence [displaying a political banner at George Floyd Square] was an aspiring entrepreneur is, I argue, telling. When I first noticed [a local potted plant store businessman] viewing the banner the expression on his faced looked like, ‘oh, that’s clever.’ But in hindsight it was a look of envy. We were, in his eyes, with our dot org contact information on the banner, interlopers into his market. The George Floyd Square businessman wanted to limit competition. *** [I]dentity is often used to promote particular interests for personal material gain. *** The particularism of identity politics, most consequentially, aids and abets the divide and rule strategy of capitalist ruling elites—a historical truth if ever there was one.”
Bernadette Grubner and Isabel Ortiz Interview Alenka Zupančič, “On Sex Without Identity: Feminist Politics and Sexual Difference” LARB (Oct. 7, 2019):
“sexuality is not, as is sometimes said, at the bottom of every other problem, but something that, in and of itself, constitutes a problem. A problem for every subject to grapple with, that every subject is divided by. It is a negative core of any identity, not its positive foundation.
“This is why there are no direct, immediate sexual identities. Even when one identifies with one’s anatomy, this is already an identification, there is nothing immediate about it. Sex involves much more than anatomy, even when it coincides with our anatomy. The popular opposition between genders as biological or else socially constructed is a false opposition: there is no ‘biological gender’ in the sense of identity, because identity is by definition never immediate, ‘biological’ in this sense. Biology, anatomy is obviously a factor; it is far from insignificant. But a sexed subject does not simply emerge out of this or that anatomy, but out of its symbolization, including its rejection. *** One always becomes what one is, and this is to be taken quite literally.
“To sum up, psychoanalytic theory conceives of sexuality as something which fundamentally disorients the human being, not as something which provides him or her with a solid identity. If the notion that sexuality is at the basis of identity has any meaning, it can only have it in this sense: it is at the basis of any identity because it uproots the subject from the immediacy of her being. And this uprooting, this non-immediacy, is the condition of any symbolic identity. In fact, we can use psychoanalysis in order to interrogate identity itself, both conceptually and as a meeting ground for social struggle.
“Society is not composed of man and women; it is split, and this split is repressed. This is not the same as to say that women are repressed. Women were, are, oppressed, but this is not the same as repression, in the psychoanalytical sense of Verdrängung, of the split inherent in the structuring and curving of social space. Without making this split of negativity part of the picture, significant shifts in the structure cannot really occur. This is what feminism is about; it is not primarily about neutralizing social differences, but about bringing them to light, and attempting to affect the very structuring of the social space. To do something to/with this divide, and not simply to try to climb to the right side of it.
“the Marxian point is that social space is divided in an antagonistic way: it is not simply composed of classes as positive entities, struggling between themselves, but involves a fundamental negativity or divide that structures the very space in which classes appear as different classes. For Marx, the proletariat is not simply one of the classes: as a class that has no class, it embodies the very point of social antagonism; it is the symptom of this social order. Not only does it have some kind of empirical consistency, but it is also located at the very point that reveals the structural inconsistency of an inequality that can be empirically apprehended.
“To put it more simply, the question on the table for every emancipatory struggle is: Do we think that we live in more or less the only possible world, that there are just some pockets of injustice and discrimination still left, and all we have to do is take care of them? Or do we think that these pockets are symptoms of some deeper problem, an asymmetry or antagonism that will not go away even if we manage to do something else?”
“Too Much of Not Enough: An Interview with Alenka Zupančič” LARB (March 9, 2018):
“Valorization of affectivity and feelings appears at the precise point when some problem — injustice, say — would demand a more radical systemic revision as to its causes and perpetuation. This would also involve naming — not only some people but also social and economic inequalities that we long stopped naming and questioning.
“Social valorization of affects basically means that we pay the plaintiff with her own money: oh, but your feelings are so precious, you are so precious! The more you feel, the more precious you are. This is a typical neoliberal maneuver, which transforms even our traumatic experiences into possible social capital. If we can capitalize on our affects, we will limit out protests to declarations of these affects — say, declarations of suffering — rather than becoming active agents of social change. I’m of course not saying that suffering shouldn’t be expressed and talked about, but that this should not ‘freeze’ the subject into the figure of the victim. The revolt should be precisely about refusing to be a victim, rejecting the position of the victim on all possible levels.
“The feminists seek equality in the framework of the existing class society, in no way do they attack the basis of this society. They fight for prerogatives for themselves, without challenging the existing prerogatives and privileges.”
Christopher William Wolter, “Against the Neoliberal Blackmail: Identity Fetishism and the Privatization of Affect”:
“If we pay close attention to contemporary debates within the frame of cultural identity politics we see that the quest for recognition almost universally means recognition from the very hegemonically powerful positions they rightly argue oppress them. In many cases, a short circuit occurs in which the recognition of the marginalized by the hegemonically powerful not only becomes more important than addressing the injustice as such, but indeed replaces structurally tackling that injustice as such. Victims of severe systematic violence and injustice are bribed into persuading the powerful to recognize their existence, to demand the hegemonic discourse speak of them in a particular way, or else, more often in sexual political struggles, to maintain a reverential attitude toward their experiences of injustice. What’s wrong with this? Nothing; unless this politics replaces a politics of actually changing the structural conditions which led to these injustices as such. Recognition of identity and individual experience is offered as a fetishistic disavowal in a maneuver to permanently forestall the possibility of a political act.
“Political Correctness is far from being too radical – it is rather precisely the mechanism today to avoid the radical change which is necessary.
“PCs function is predicated on the necessity that there be always an ‘other’, not here the marginalized individual whose rights are to be protected, but the ‘uneducated’ offender. The offender must be civilized, brought into the discourse and assigned their hierarchal place within it or else be ostracized. In this way the discourse thrives and propagates. The only way to ‘beat’ it, is to join it. It tolerates no outside except for the structurally necessary place of the not-yet educated, the under-educated, or that of the un-educatable offender.
“the primary result of identity politics today . . . is in order to maintain a privatization of political affect, which ultimately amounts to a neutralization of politics as such.”
“This is yet another case of what Robert Pfaller called ‘interpassivity’: I delegate the passive experience of a hurt sensitivity onto a naive other, thereby enacting the other’s infantilization. That is why we should ask ourselves if political correctness is really something that belongs to the Left—is it not a strategy of defense against radical Leftist demands, a way to neutralize antagonisms instead of openly confronting them? Many of the oppressed feel clearly how the PC strategy often just adds insult to injury: while oppression remains, they—the oppressed—now even have to be grateful for the way liberals try to protect them.”
The differentiation between left and right neoliberalism doesn’t really undermine the way it which it is deeply unified in its commitment to competitive markets and to the state’s role in maintaining competitive markets. For me the distinction is that ‘left neoliberals’ are people who don’t understand themselves as neoliberals. They think that their commitments to anti-racism, to anti-sexism, to anti-homophobia constitute a critique of neoliberalism. But if you look at the history of the idea of neoliberalism you can see fairly quickly that neoliberalism arises as a kind of commitment precisely to those things.
“One of the first major works of neoliberal economics by an American is [Gary] Becker’s [The] Economics of Discrimination, which is designed precisely to show that in competitive economies you can’t afford to discriminate. [Michel] Foucault sort of marks the beginning of neoliberalism in Europe with the horror at what the Nazi state did and the recognition that you can legitimize the state in a much more satisfactory manner by making it the guardian of competitive markets rather than the guardian of the German volk. And today’s orthodoxy is the idea that social justice consists above all in defense of property and the attack of discrimination. This is at the heart of neoliberalism and right-wing neoliberals understand this and left-wing neoliberals don’t.”
Joseph Kishore, “Perspectives for the Coming Revolution in America: Race, Class and the Fight for Socialism” (Dec. 2, 2019):
“An important document marking the repudiation by middle class groups of Marxism and an orientation to the working class is the statement of the so-called Combahee River Collective, a black lesbian feminist organization formed in 1974 led by Barbara Smith, Demita Frazier and Beverly Smith. The statement, published in April 1977, a year before the Bakke decision, claimed to be an extension of Marxist theory, but was in fact a direct repudiation of all its fundamental conceptions.
“To this day, the Combahee statement, which contains the first use of the term ‘identity politics,’ is regularly cited by organizations of the pseudo-left as a major turning point.”
Mike Macnair, “Intersectionalism, the Highest Stage of Western Stalinism?,” Critique, 46:4, 541-558 (2018)
“Intersectionalism can be called the‘highest stage’ of western Stalinism because it carries the popular-frontist project to the point of erasing the significance of the ruling class as a class; it also becomes a justification not merely for party self-censor-ship, but for generalised censorship regimes in the names of ‘no platforming’, ‘safe spaces’, and so on; and it logically implies the actual liquidation of any independent workers’ or communist party into liberalism (as happened in Britain and Italy in the 1990s); so that by fully adopting intersectionalism, Stalinism disappears as such into a (more repressive) form of liberalism.
The problem with this approach is that it tends to preclude the possibility of solidarity. “
Craig Murray, “The Great Clutching at Pearls”:
“The splitting of the political left by identity politics has been the go-to weapon of the state for several decades now. *** A specific use of this tool has been the weaponisation of fake sexual allegations against any individual likely to be a threat to the state. *** Those in power know that the portion of the left who identify as feminist, which is almost all of us, are highly susceptible to support alleged victims due to the extreme difficulties of real victims in obtaining justice. This makes sexual allegations, no matter how fake, very effective in removing the support base of anti-establishment figures.”
“Intersectionality is the intersection of Cartesian categories. The IDPOL academic move is to declare them historically contingent. But historical contingency renders them indeterminate in the way they are put forward.
“While the academic theories that support IDPOL [identity politics] are often portrayed by right wing critics as ‘cultural Marxism,’ they are premised in the same Cartesian ontology that supports capitalism. Paradoxical in ways apparently not understood by proponents, identity is either essential, meaning Cartesian, or it is indeterminate.
“postmodernism served to de-politicize social theory, as if doing so had bearing on the distribution and use of power outside of the academy. Identity through this lens is a personal or group possession without identifying what ‘it,’ the basis of identity, is. Quite remarkably, the individuation that IDPOL takes from postmodernism follows quite closely the view from capitalism. In capitalist theory, materialist theories of human needs are totalitarian, while psychic wants are the path to self-realization.
“The subtext of all of the back-and-forth over IDPOL is that the political operatives for the establishment parties that are promoting it are cynical, lying, opportunistic, neoliberal sacks of shit who see it as a con, a scam, a dodge and an angle. PMC liberals are using it for emotional healing, as a cathartic release from the deep-suck of their lives and the existential misery of what they spend their time not doing. Analytical criticism serves a purpose by separating dubious motives from important issues.”
“Assuming for the moment that racism, sexism, etc. aren’t the product of capitalist social relations, five decades of neoliberalism haven’t solved them. Why this matters conceptually is that capitalist economics don’t ‘work,’ in the sense of producing the outcomes promised, unless people are motivated by economic self-interest. Racists and sexists are therefore either motivated by economic self-interest or the base assumption of capitalism is wrong. The question then is how does rational self-interest support racism and sexism?
“To approach the question from another direction, in labor markets the ability to buy underpriced labor due to racism and sexism represents an arbitrage opportunity, a no risk way to earn excess profits. If markets work as advertised, race and gender-based pay differences should be arbitraged away. The two possible interpretations of their continued existence are (1) they represent real differences in economic value or (2) markets don’t work as advertised. The first provides a ‘natural’ basis for racism and sexism. The latter means that neoliberalism has a flaw.
“This leaves establishment Democrats and their IDPOL supporters solving racism by either dumping capitalism or concluding that racism and sexism are legitimate market outcomes based on intrinsic characteristics tied to race and gender. Ironically, or not, the latter is the Democrat’s approach. Capitalism pays people what they are worth, goes the theory, therefore racial and gender disparities are based on differences in human capital. In other words, systemic racial disparities represent the correct ordering of the world. Because people are paid what they are worth, racism has no bearing on economic outcomes.
“This becomes theoretically incoherent when ‘systemic racism’ is raised. Systemic differences in economic outcomes by race and gender aren’t possible (in capitalist theory) for the reasons given. They are either based in ‘real’ differences reflected in race and gender— the racialist explanation, or they are market failures that call all of capitalist distribution into question. As with slavery, a market ‘distortion’ of this sort affects distribution more broadly. But more fundamentally, if capitalism doesn’t ‘work’ regarding race and gender, where does the confidence come from that it works anywhere? Social divisions exist along an infinite number of axes.”
“The identity politics of the 60s and 70s conflates a particular moment, or a determinant point, in the relations of capitalism with the potential universal.
“For supporters of identity politics (despite claiming otherwise), womanhood, a form of appearance within society, is reduced to a natural, static ‘identity.’ Social relations such as ‘womanhood,’ or simply gender, become static objects, or ‘institutions.’ Society is therefore organized into individuals, or sociological groups with natural characteristics. Therefore, the only possibility for struggle under identity politics is based on equal distribution or individualism . . . . This is a bourgeois ideology in that it replicates the alienated individual invented and defended by bourgeois theorists and scientists (and materially enforced) since capitalism’s birth.
“Taking a cue from [Frantz] Fanon, our method must argue: I am a woman and a human. We must recognize the particular in conversation with the totality . . . .
“It is important to note that identity politics and intersectionality theorists are not wrong but they are incomplete. Patriarchal and racialized social relations are material, concrete and real.
[One] example is groups and individuals who argue that all movements should be completely subordinate to queer people of color leadership, regardless of how reactionary their politics are. Again, while intersectionality theorists have rightly identified an objective problem, these divisions and antagonisms within the class must be address[ed] materially through struggle. Simply reducing this struggle to mere quantity, equality of distribution, or ‘representation,’ reinforces identity as a static, naturalized category.”
“[I]s [the] choice between social constructivism [i.e., that male and female sexual identities are socially constructed and/or even performatively enacted] and New Age obscurantism [i.e., underlying, deeply anchored archetypical identities such as ‘men are from Mars, women are from Venus’] really all embracing? *** For Lacan, sexual difference is not a firm set of ‘static’ symbolic oppositions and inclusions or exclusions (heterosexual normativity that relegates homosexuality and other ‘perversions’ to some secondary role), but the name of a deadlock, of a trauma, of an open question, of something that resists every attempt at its symbolization. Every translation of sexual difference into a set of symbolic opposition(s) is doomed to fail, and it is this very ‘impossibility’ that opens up the terrain of the hegemonic struggle for what ‘sexual difference’ will mean. The reassertion of sexual difference in Lacanian psychoanalysis is thus not a return to biology but a way to stress that what we call ‘sexual difference’ is first and above all the name for a certain fundamental deadlock inherent in the symbolic order.”
“Although many things that Foucault attributes to the Freudian views on sexuality are simply wrong, the main front of the irreconcilable dispute is not simply sexuality, but the (never mentioned) concept of the unconscious. For [Sigmund] Freud the two are of course inseparably related . . . .
“The theory of the superego is not a psychologization of the social power structure, but a reminder that the social power structure can already be fully operative at the level of the ‘individual psyche’. ‘Civilization, therefore, obtains mastery over the individual (. . . ) by setting up an agency within him to watch over [his dangerous desires], like a garrison in a conquered city.’
“if the present (configuration) is contingent, it is not because it is ‘open to the future’, but because it is open to its own inconsistency (or not). ‘Unconscious’ is what names and conceptualizes this inconsistency in the present (as it is famously ‘timeless’ according to Freud).”
Cinzia Arruzza, “Remarks on Gender” Viewpoint Magazine (Sept. 2, 2014):
“For a brief period, from the 1970s to the mid-1980s, the question of the structural relationship between patriarchy and capitalism was the subject of a heated debate among theorists and partisans of a materialist current of thought as well as Marxist-feminists. The fundamental questions which were posed revolved around two axes: 1) is patriarchy an autonomous system in relation to capitalism? 2) is it correct to use the term ‘patriarchy’ to designate gender oppression and inequality?
“Although it produced very interesting work, this debate gradually became more and more unfashionable. This occurred in tandem with the retreat of critiques of capitalism, while other currents of feminist thought asserted themselves. These new modes of thought often did not go beyond the liberal horizon of the times – they sometimes essentialized relations between men and women and de-historicized gender, or they avoided questions of capitalism and class – but at the same time, they developed useful concepts for the deconstruction of gender (such as queer theory in the 1990s).
“In order to be both clear and concise on this point, I will try to summarize the most interesting theses on these matters that have been suggested until now. In the following remarks, I will analyze and question these different theses separately. To uphold a degree of intellectual honesty and to avoid any misunderstandings, I stress that my reconstruction of different points of view is not impartial. My own view is found in the third thesis below.
“First Thesis: ‘Dual or Triple Systems Theory.’ We can put the original version of this thesis in the following terms: Gender and sexual relations constitute an autonomous system which combines with capitalism and reshapes class relations, while being at the same time modified by capitalism in a process of reciprocal interaction. The most up-to-date version of this theory includes racial relations, also considered as a system of autonomous social relations interconnected with gender and class relations.
“Within materialist feminist circles, these reflections are usually associated with the notion that gender and racial relations are systems of oppression as much as relations of exploitation. In general, these theses have an understanding of class relations as defined solely in economic terms. It is only via the interaction with patriarchy and the system of racial domination that they acquire an extra-economic character as well. A variation of this thesis is to see gender relations as a system of ideological and cultural relations derived from older modes of production and social formations, independent of capitalism. These older relations then interact with capitalist social relations, giving the latter their gendered dimension.
“Second Thesis: ‘Indifferent Capitalism.’ Gender oppression and inequality are the remnants of previous social formations and modes of production, when patriarchy directly organized production and determined a strict sexual division of labor. Capitalism is itself indifferent to gender relations and can overcome them to such a degree that patriarchy as a system has been dissolved in the advanced capitalist countries, while family relations have been restructured in quite radical ways. In sum, capitalism has an essentially opportunistic relation with gender inequality: it utilizes what it finds to be beneficial in existing gender relations, and destroys what becomes an obstacle. This view is articulated in various versions. Some claim that within capitalism women have benefited from a degree of emancipation unknown in other kinds of society, and this would demonstrate that capitalism as such is not a structural obstacle to women’s liberation. Others maintain that we should carefully distinguish between the logical and historical levels: logically, capitalism does not specifically need gender inequality, and could get rid of it; historically, things are not so simple.
“Third Thesis: The ‘Unitary Thesis.’ According to this theory, in capitalist countries, a patriarchal system that is autonomous from capitalism no longer exists. Patriarchal relations continue to exist, but without being part of a separate system. To deny that patriarchy is an autonomous system under capitalism is not to deny that gender oppression really exists, permeating both social and interpersonal relations. In other words, this thesis does not reduce every aspect of oppression to simply a mechanistic or direct consequence of capitalism, nor does it seek to offer an explanation solely in economic terms.
“In short, unitary theory is not reductionist or economistic, and it does not underestimate the centrality of gender oppression. Proponents of the ‘unitary theory’ disagree with the idea that today patriarchy would be a system of rules and mechanisms that autonomously reproduce themselves. At the same time, they insist on the need to consider capitalism not as a set of purely economic laws, but rather as a complex and articulated social order, an order that at its core consists of relations of exploitation, domination, and alienation.
“From this point of view, the task today is to understand how the dynamic of capital accumulation continues to produce, reproduce, transform, and renew hierarchical and oppressive relations, without expressing these mechanisms in strictly economic or automatic terms.”
Much of the commentary quoted above can be fairly said to be critiques and rejections of what Arruza calls “Dual or Triple Systems Theory” in relation to class and gender (and race). Though another recurring source of criticism is the refusal or misapplication of the unconscious to matters of human psycho-social life.
What IS Sex? (2017)
Ethnicity, Inc. (2009)
Işık Barış Fidaner, “The Conflict About Sex”
Sex and the Failed Absolute and “The Fall That Makes Us Like God, Part I” and “Transgender Dogma Is Naive and Incompatible with Freud” and “For-show Female Empowerment & Gender Fluidity Are Simply the Latest Instruments of Corporate Capitalism” and “AOC and Her Boyfriend’s Leg” and “Sign a Contract Before Sex? Political Correctness Could Destroy Passion” and “The Moebius Strip of Sexual Contracts” and “Sex and ’68: Liberal Movement Revolutionized ‘Sexuality’ But at What Cost?” and Quote About Butler and “Woman is One of the Names-of-the-Father, or How Not to Misread Lacan’s Formulas of Sexuation” and The Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Women and Causality and “Wokeness Is Here To Stay”