“Human beings are by nature actors, who cannot become something until first they have pretended to be it. They are therefore not to be divided into the hypocritical and the sincere, but into the sane, who know they are acting, and the mad, who do not.” – Attributed to W.H. Auden
I have long argued that liberal identity politics, as it is commonly known in left/radical circles, tends towards conservatism in the long term. At the risk of creating the worst-ever slippery slope, let’s briefly trace this counter-intuitive trajectory.
Liberal identity politics can be traced back to the approach developed by strongly anti-capitalist groups like the Combahee River Collective, early pioneers of intersectionality back in the 70s. These politics wove their way through various struggles, gaining traction in relatively radical circles until, in around the mid-2000s, a strangely distorted, self-aggrandising caricature of this politics began to emerge in online spaces, in many ways reflecting the toxic dynamics of communication these kinds of spaces often cultivate [https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/peter-gelderloos-lines-in-sand].
This form of identity politics, which has rapidly become dominant, largely eschews class analysis and anti-capitalism and instead operates with an inherently (neo-)liberal understanding of subjectivity. Its focus is interpersonal treatment within existing structures, not revolutionary structural transformation (exemplified by its reduction of the idea of class society to the absurdity of ‘classism’), and its discourse is primarily moralistic: calling out bad behaviour and commanding self-critique in a manner most reminiscent of the worst excesses of Maoist purges.
As morality is an inherently normative discourse (as opposed to ethics), it creates a back door for various forms of essentialism and self-righteousness to creep in, in turn rendering identity politics the perfect tool with which politicians, lobby groups and so forth can manipulate what end up being, in essence, simply demographics. When they reach this point, identity politics are best considered centrist, reflected by the fact that they are so prominently leveraged in political campaigns, e.g. in Hillary Clinton’s election campaign or, more saliently, by Bell Pottinger during the zenith of the state capture years.
It should be clear by now where this is going. As history reminds us, essentialist moral discourses based on identity usually end up in conservatism. Proscriptive codes of conduct become increasingly popular, along with appeals to the state to enforce this conduct. Again, Maoism is a salient example here for anyone who knows their history.
None of this, of course, is to say that struggles along the lines of identity are not crucial. While identity is, in many cases, a kind of category error, ‘spectre’ or abstraction [https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/lupus-dragonowl-against-identity-politics] constructed and perpetuated by oppressive social structures, it is, like the idea of monetary value, an abstraction with real consequences and we should work to address those consequences at the same time as we seek to eradicate the spectres.
In doing so, however, it’s crucial for us to be aware of the dominant contemporary context within which discourses around identity, social inequality and power takes place: the internet and, specifically, social media. As numerous researchers have pointed out, and as should be intuitively clear to most people, our social interactions tend to conform to the underlying medium we make use of. On social media, a conversational context defined by overexposure (the whole world is potentially listening in to everything I say), the emoticonification of affect (which of these seven icons best describes how I feel about this situation?) and the aggregation of sentiment (will I be cancelled for saying this?), it’s easy to see, unless you’re a right-wing reactionary mistaking symptoms for causes, how the limitations of a short-form, publicly presented, text-driven medium devoid of the complexities of tone and nuance we’re used to in face-to-face communication can quickly lead to psychologically toxic outcomes.
Given the hegemony of social media in social life, it is unsurprising that people seeking peer acceptance, whether within a political circle, a fan group or just their own Instagram feed, will adapt their behaviour in performative ways, joining in circles of shame, aligning with dogmatically held positions without intellectually interrogating them or risking the injection of nuance or uncertainty into the conversation, and reducing their emotional range to the affective minimum of Like, Angry Face, Care.
Over the long term, this toxic dynamic nurtures a certain kind of behaviour that is easily leveraged by bad faith actors fuelled by a potent mix of cultural intelligence and ressentiment (that bitter, reactive, negative sentiment towards others best described by Nietzsche). These bad faith actors tend to be easy to spot: even the most unbearably morally certain, self-righteous wokescolds tend to nuance their views over time, once they’ve gained enough validation from their peer group or themselves to trust in their own intellectual abilities to navigate complex ethical and political situations. In most cases, this is simply called growing up. The bad faith crowd, on the other hand, many of whom are quite a bit older and, in a number of cases clearly deeply psychologically traumatised, tend more towards doubling down on hardline rhetoric with the counterintuitive result that, over time, they end up whittling down their social base to a small network of equally toxic supporters, waiting in the wings to eat them alive for cultural capital for the smallest transgression of the norm of the day.
For most of us, however, a funny thing happens: upon exiting what the late, great cultural theorist Mark Fisher, in a flawed but highly important essay, once called the Vampire’s Castle [https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/exiting-vampire-castle/], we realise that it wasn’t real – that social and political reality is far more complex than a Buzzfeed test, that our emotional states and interpersonal relations cannot be reduced to cartoon pictures, and that deciding how we feel about the world entails messy and ongoing ethical work, not hasty, unequivocal alignments with moral binaries.
It is from here, outside the castle walls, that we can perhaps also begin the process of disentangling ourselves from, or at least confronting the limitations of, a facile form of digital identity and technological addiction that has never been in our best interests. In the open air of the real world, the finite game has the possibility of becoming the infinite game, and we can begin to see each other.
Contributor: Aragorn Eloff
Aragorn Eloff is a long time-time anarchist with a keen interest in different forms of grassroots struggle, ecological activism and animal liberation.
He is also an independent researcher working at the intersection of radical politics and continental philosophy, with a focus on the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.
He currently works for New Frame, a progressive media non-profit, as a technology manager and occasional writer, and is the co-convener of the biannual South African Deleuze and Guattari Studies Conference. When he is not reading, writing or arguing with strangers on the internet, Aragorn can be found running long distances through natural landscapes.