In the coming era of Trump, we must BOTH defend the oppressed and targeted, AND continue the fight against wealth inequality, and expand the vision of socialism. Rather than thinking this is a simply task of merely affirming both sides — class vs. identity — we have to be realistic and understand that these priorities often end up in conflict with each other in practice. Identity and class are complementary issues, but in practice all issues compete for organizing resources. Rather than mechanically choosing one or the other, we have to understand the relationship between the two, and balance them in practice. Defending the oppressed and keeping a class focus are things we have to learn to balance, and balance them in the right way.
Not So Simple
We often think of identity and class as issues we merely synthesize, like two different lenses we just bring into focus together. We think of them as issues that we just have to take the correct belief or opinion on, and that’s it, we take the right stance on both, and we’re good. We support both the struggles of the oppressed and the class struggle, at least in terms of what we personally and verbally and ideologically agree with, and that’s it, right?
It couldn’t be further from being that simple.
When you synthesize two things, you merely affirm both of them and there is zero conflict, but in reality, we live in a material reality, which means any real-life activity requires resources, and those resources are limited, which means all activities must compete for those resources. This is especially, heinously the case under the limited budgets we work with as working people under the artificially-imposed scarcity of capitalism. So we cannot (always) synthesize class and identity. In material reality, they sometimes compete. So instead we must find ways to balance them.
What do we mean by limited resources?
Forms of Resource Scarcity in Activism/Organizing
Let’s say you’re a group that has a publication, say a website, or a magazine, or a newspaper. This might not apply to your little grassroots group, but there are definitely major respected groups that have these. All the socialist groups have their newspapers and sites. There’s the magazines like The Nation, Jacobin, etc.
These publications have to make editorial decisions about what they’re going to put in their publication, and what they’re going to leave out. You can only cram so much content in there. The attention span of the public is a limited resource. The more content you add, the smaller proportion of it people will read. The less you have, the higher proportion of it will get read.
In fact, the public’s attention span is such a scarce, tight resource that things like meeting time or speaking time are a source of competition. At a march or protest, how much time do we allow for speakers before protesters get antsy and start interrupting? Do we cater to the protesters and keep speaking time short, wouldn’t that be the polite thing to the majority? That’s a tradeoff to whatever coalitions you want to cater to, who probably also have a contradictory desire to have someone speak. How much of the speaking time goes to class issues, economic demands, and systemic change? How much speaking time goes to what is traditionally viewed as intersectional issues? How many different ones, which ones, how much time for each? How do you pick?
The most brutal question is what issue do you organize around? Often there are disputes of strategy: do you fight local battles in workplaces and apartment buildings, or do you fight for citywide and national legislation for, say, $15 minimum wage of universal healthcare? But then — how do you balance that with, say, escorting women from protesters at abortion clinics, or other demonstrations around other coalitions, like Black Lives Matter work? How do you pick these priorities?
There is competition over the topics groups and individuals educate themselves in — reading costs time and possibly money. How do you decide in advance which things are more important to know about? Knowledge is almost a self-biasing loop in a sense, insofar as the things you already know about will feel more important to you. Arguments over what is most important to know, without delving deep into the material, lack the deep evidence themselves, and are often based in superficial abstract argumentation, like this very blog post itself. (Whoa, meta.)
Forms of Balance
How do we balance these competing emphases? First, we must be conscious that balance is, itself, a concept, and a goal we may or may not be striving for. On the left this is often not even a concept. Often the concept is just “include everything,” with no concept that this “everything” has to fit within an extremely constrained reality of scarce time and resources. Also it’s often an extremely liberal “everything” that conceives of the world of politics as a laundry list of single issues and doesn’t understand the uniting power of placing class as a primary focus, and class is often forgotten as something to even mention in a rainbow of demographic-specific issues.
So what are the forms of balance?
Literal balance: you divide your resources. You spend some of your organizing resources in one coalition, and some in another. Or you focus organizing efforts on one, but make sure to attend the events of another as warm bodies/supporters. (This is actually a “balance between balance and imbalance,” lol.) You divide speaking time between several issues.
Imbalance for the sake of effectiveness: sink all your resources into one thing, but do it well.
Synthesis through imbalance toward the radical factor: choose the one option which embodies them all the best. In Hegelian/dialectic terms, this would be choosing the side in a conflict that resolves the contradiction. Choose the particularity which embodies the universal. In the conflict between the working class and the capitalists, the working class represent the universal, they represent the interests of all society. In the conflict between capitalism and socialism, socialism is the universal, as it resolves the crisis of civilization, fulfilling the vision of forward progress and preventing civilizational self-destruction.
Alternation: use different approaches at different moments in time.
And my preference: all of the above.
Juggling the Balances: Include Identity, Tilt Toward Class
So what kind of balance should we strike? I think we do need to strike a balance that includes both identity politics and class politics. However it should be a balance between balance and imbalance, tilted toward class. However, it should be a dynamic and changing imbalance with alternation depending on circumstances, depending on what is going on in the world.
As I’ve argued previously, we should tilt toward an emphasis on class politics. In the conflict between class politics and identity politics, class politics represents the universal, insofar as class politics actually represents and connects to oppressed groups better than identity politics does, whereas identity politics does a poor job connecting to either the working class or oppressed groups. So in this vein I am arguing that in the competition between class politics and identity politics, class politics is the radical factor that embodies the universal and resolves the contradiction. This is probably very hard for identity politics leftists to hear.
However I think we should emphasize that we are trying to strike a balance, not eradicate the presence of identity politics entirely, even if there are different forms of balance, and that both elements are stronger and more mutually-reinforcing if the balance is best-struck. And balances are something which require continual awareness, maintenance, and adjustment, whichever type you choose to strike.
However we must keep in mind that the best-struck balance is not the Left’s current balance all the way over toward identity politics. It may also hurt you to hear that the best balance is not even 50/50 (though actually it may be sometimes, and some of Sanders’ speeches occasionally came fairly close to this). Truth is, it may sometimes be something like 60/40, 70/30, or even 80/20 toward class politics. (I can feel the SJWs’ guts churning — strategic instead of moral thinking is so foreign to them.) And again, this is not for the sake of ignoring identity politics, but actually creating a well-functioning machine in which all the ratios are correct, in which all the parts are working best together, in which the mutual-reinforcement synergy is really vibrating. SOMETIMES A LOWER RATIO OF SOMETHING ACTUALLY CREATES A GREATER RESONANCE WHICH MAKES IT WORK BETTER. Sometimes that means less is more. Sometimes that means social justice will be a mention instead of a theme, or just a theme instead of a dominating theme.
The Right Balance for the Trump Era?
In this era of Trump attacking oppressed groups, the pressure is contradictory, demanding we intensify our focus in both directions at once. Obviously oppressed groups are under greater attack, so we have to rally to defend them, causing us to want to shift our focus away from the usual greater emphasis on class issues, which usually makes more sense, to a 50/50 balance between class and identity. But then, the root of Trump’s successful attacks on oppressed groups is the Recession of 2008/9, and the ensuing economic pain people are going through. This means we have to push socialism and economic issues even harder. So I argue, actually we have to be a dick and push against the pressure toward greater identity politics, we have to push socialism even harder, so we should be somewhere back in the realm of a 60/40 or 70/30 balance toward a class emphasis once the initial freakout over Trump’s victory subsides and we resume our forward march in affirming our own agenda as opposed to merely reacting to his.
It might seem like I’m ignoring reality, like I live in a bubble, by ignoring identity, by ignoring the wave of anecdotes of hate crimes or graffiti or harassment popping up in the wake of the Trump victory. Really I’m not ignoring them (sign the petition asking Trump to condemn them or let’s start defense organizations), I’m putting them in their proper context. Here’s the reality I’m not ignoring: people of every race, religion, and gender all have to go to work tomorrow, all have to pay rent, all have to worry about how much is in their bank accounts. I’m more in touch with that reality than all the liberals, all the politically correct language police, all the college kids. I am the fucking demiurge of your material, economic reality, saying, fuck you, you can’t ignore me. You have to deal with me. You have to deal with the working class. You have to deal with all those poor white racist rednecks who voted Trump. You’ve been ignoring them. They’re not bad people. They’re destitute. They’re in pain. They’re looking for answers. You’re supposed to be the Left. You’re supposed to give a shit. All you’ve done is insult them. They are the downtrodden and all you’ve done is look down your nose at them. Your revolution will fail until you grow up and learn how to include them. Your revolution will fail until you learn how to include me. Your revolution will fail until you learn how to think beyond your own identity and unite the working class. You will have to do this by working with people who don’t share your super-educated delicate assumptions about what is proper or problematic, and in fact you will have to tolerate a great deal of ignorance. Are you trying to start a cult of perfect believers, or are you trying to build a coalition that can change society? Get your head on straight. Learn how to patiently educate and persuade instead of making instant impatient demands, cutting people off, and labeling them bigots or reactionaries. To quote Catechism of a Revolutionist, “To weld this world into one single unconquerable and all-destructive force — this is our organization, our conspiracy, our task.“