Culture Wars: Identity Politics and the Fight Against Surveillance Capitalism

Yves here. This post doesn’t present as crisp an argument as I would like, but it does make a useful point: that identity politics and neoliberalism go hand in hand because they reinforce individualism.

And in quite a few arenas, identifying with what formerly was an “out” group is career enhancing. A friend’s daughter, who was a buddying New York City playwright who did have a number of shows performed (and a discriminating, regular theatergoer saw a couple of them with me and gave a thumbs up), would have had an easier chance of getting her work produced had she presented herself as a lesbian (I think all it would have taken was having a girl beard). Instead she reluctantly went to Los Angeles to write TV shows, and I understand she is doing well there professionally.

By Adam Ramsay, openDemocracy’s main site editor, a member of the Scottish Green Party, a member of of Voices for Scotland board and advisory committees for the Economic Change Unit and the journal Soundings. Originally published at openDemocracy

The first time I met Rosemary Bechler, we sat on the grass of London’s Embankment, ate ice cream, and immediately understood each other. She was a former member of the Communist Party who had lost every hint of Stalinism, but none of her radicalism. The last time I spoke to Rosemary – one of openDemocracy’s founding figures and a key force throughout our 20 years until she died last month – we had a debate about identity politics.

“My generation of activists,” she said, “started their sessions with something which went from the planet right down to London N6. They had these grandiose analyses of the entire world, then it comes down to what you might do something about. And they were interested in the front line of class struggle.

“I think that leads to a totally different kind of politics than the one that identity politics, including of the Left, leads to.”

In recent years, the term ‘identity politics’ has become an insult, thrown around by people on both some of the Left and most of the Right. It always seemed to me that it was used to describe any version of liberation politics that the speaker didn’t like, the sort of flaccid phrase that can be bent to many uses but is too floppy to be picked up and closely inspected.

But for Rosemary, Black Lives Matter was “the front line of the class struggle”, as were the feminist movement that erupted after the death of Sarah Everard and trans rights activism. She supported almost all modern liberation movements, she told me, but not the “identity politics element of them”.

What she meant by identity politics was “the very basic, neoliberal premise that what you have to do in life is make yourself. And that you can make yourself. I’m talking about all the ‘do-it-yourself’ books [I think she meant ‘self-help’]. I’m talking about vast industries of consumerism, and choice. ‘Your choice is you.’ ‘What you eat is you.’ ‘The perfume you wear, everything is you’.”

Rosemary’s objection was a view of politics that, as she saw it, starts by asking ‘Who am I?’ rather than ‘Where is the world at?’

This definition pinned the idea to the wall and placed it within a firm taxonomy – one you can agree with. Or disagree with.

‘Pulling Our Society Apart’

Strangely, there are echoes of this concern about individualism in a pamphlet of essays published by the Common Sense Group of Conservative MPs this summer. In his contribution, the group’s chair, John Hayes, argues that identity politics is a hyper-individualist outgrowth of what he calls the “Blair Paradigm” – somehow ignoring that Blair himself confessed to being the heir to Thatcher, and that “there’s no such thing as society” was her doctrine first of all.

“On the surface,” Hayes argues, “the progressives of New Labour and the new liberalism of identity politics have little in common. Blair at least believed he was working to build a better society, while ‘identity liberals’ have the explicit objective of pulling our society apart. Yet, Blair was unable to reconcile his social democratic belief in community with his liberal conviction in the primacy of the individual. Gradually progressives, despairing of the public, have turned their back on social democracy, instead embracing an uncompromising liberalism.”

At the bottom of this pile of turf, we can feel more slippery terms slithering through our fingers: ‘progressive’ and ‘liberal’.

Because, of course it’s true that there are parts of the broad progressive coalition who are overly individualist. In part because, inevitably, the dominant system of the past 40 years has shaped the manner and style of resistance to it. Generations who have been brought up knowing only the individualist world of neoliberalism will find themselves fighting that system with the tools they’ve been taught to use. We see this most obviously in environmental politics, where, for too long, individual and consumer action were promoted over citizens’ and workers’ movements for system change. But that trend has largely passed.

It’s true that there are problems with accounts of racism, sexism, homophobia or transphobia that locate blame for oppression in racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic individuals rather than in social structures – just as there were with the consumerist politics of that Noughties environmentalism. In focussing blame on the individual, this kind of approach can alienate potential allies, without moving powerful organisations to actually deliver change. But in reality, most activists and movements work hard to channel blame up to institutions such as the police, corporations and governments – which is exactly why the likes of the Common Sense Group hate them so much.

Is also true that modern capitalist corporations can use the imagery of liberation politics to improve their own brands. They tend to be rhetorically opposed to racism, sexism and homophobia, with their deep yearning to make everyone a consumer. To a hardline conservative, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg looks like a progressive and also an oppressor.

For these conservatives, it’s very helpful indeed to be able to show he is both. In the Common Sense Group’s pamphlet, James Sunderland MP and the Daily Express journalist David Maddox say so explicitly, claiming that “vast sums of money went from Facebook’s Mark Zuckenberg (sic) to pro-Democrat campaign groups and Black Lives Matter”.

In reality, Zuckerberg’s political funding has been sprinkled across establishment figures, going to both Republicans and Democrats – Chris Christie, Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan, Nancy Pelosi and Charles Schumer. None of it has gone to anybody who would normally be described as being from the progressive wing of the Democrats, nor, as far as I can make out, to Black Lives Matter – although, under pressure from workers at Facebook to denounce Donald Trump’s incitements to violence on their platform, the company did give $10m “to groups working on racial justice”.

To give the Common Sense Group credit, they’re right to say that social media are hugely important arenas for cultural battles. But not for the reasons they think.

Neoliberalism was the form of capitalism that came, chronologically, after colonialism, driving markets back into the public sectors of the former colonial powers, allowing capital to monetise and extract wealth from their soft underbellies. Surveillance capitalism, led by the data giants, is taking its place.

As academic and writer Shoshana Zuboff has argued, under surveillance capitalism, the new biggest companies on the planet make money from drilling markets into our souls. Facebook, Google and Amazon profit by turning each of us into an individual cell of their vast, multidimensional spreadsheets, and pinning us into these corners with endless streams of advertisements telling us who we are and what we need to buy to make us whole.

As cultural politics lecturer Ben Little points out to me, it shouldn’t be any surprise that people respond to a breed of capitalism that exists to sell them new versions of their own identities by pushing back, by insisting that that’s not who they are, nor what it means to be who they are.

Data giants, Little says, want our identities to be hard, static and regimented, so we “align more neatly with commodities”. Anything that challenges this, he argues, “becomes a form of resistance not just to traditional forms of conservative hierarchy” but also to the very logic of modern capitalism.

Largely, this resistance isn’t done individually: it’s done through collective exploration and expression. Because while social media tries to profit by selling people versions of who they might be, it also creates opportunities for connections that allow people to discuss and discover other versions of themselves.

Ultimately, identity is never an individual matter. It’s always about how we relate to each other and make sense of society: if I was the only person I’d ever met, I wouldn’t see myself as having a race or a class or a gender. But it’s also about how we’re related to, and made by, society. The construction of how we see ourselves in the world is always an iterative process – Facebook imposes its algorithm and we build our own groups.

And this isn’t new. National identities were largely invented when capitalist printing presses convened communities in the 19th century. Social media allows people to gather from across the planet in their own communities. Gender roles were foisted on people by church, state and capital. More than ever, we are getting together and reinventing them. The class system was built to facilitate control, and racial hierarchies to justify empire, and people like the Common Sense Group feel a deep sense of moral panic when these identities are prodded, poked and pulled apart.

In a world where the market is trying to commodify how we each relate to society, it’s vital that people organise, fight back and insist on creating their own versions of themselves. And it’s also crucial that, in doing so, they tear down the social hierarchies of old, just as the Common Sense Group fears. But this is not because we should follow Margaret Thatcher’s denial of society. It’s because we need new kinds of community, in which we exist as equals.

In reality, if you talk to people involved in Black Lives Matter, or #MeToo, or the movement for trans rights, or Fridays for the Future, or any of the major progressive social movements of the day, a new and equal community is exactly what they are trying to build.

The battle over identity politics is a fight over different ways of seeing ourselves and our place.

One way is imposed from above and from the past. The other, struggling to emerge from below, offers hope for the future.

The alternatives to identity politics are identity authoritarianism or identity capitalism – allowing how we see ourselves and are seen to be shaped by money and power. And we’ve had too much of that. We need to start asserting ourselves.

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  1. Sound of the Suburbs

    Inequality exists on two axes:
    Y-axis – top to bottom
    X-axis – Across genders, races, etc …..
    The traditional Left work on the Y-axis and would be a problem when you want to increase Y-axis inequality.
    The Liberal Left work on the X-axis.
    You can increase Y-axis inequality while the liberal Left are busy on the X-axis.

    The idea is to keep the debate on the X-axis.
    Shall we start discussing the big problems on the Y-axis?
    No, I’ve changed my mind I like things just the way they are.

    1. Questa Nota

      There is a Swedish data scientist Rosling who has done fun and illustrative presentations about topics, countries and such over time. It would be interesting to see how his methods would address quadrants and scatter folks people groups around. Then add some volume or density element to show relative and absolute weights and trends over time.

  2. Michael Fiorillo

    As Adolph Reed says, a hashtag is not a movement, and entrpreneurs (a la Patrice Cullours, Nicole-Hannah Smith, DeRay McKesson, et. al.) are not political leaders.

  3. VT Digger

    I think we can all agree what’s most important is being able to customize our avatars in the coming MetaMatrix however we please. (for a small fee)

    Let’s call it the #MatrixRevolution??

  4. flora

    per wiki: “Balkanization is the fragmentation of a larger region or state into smaller regions or states, which may be hostile or uncooperative with one another. It is usually caused by differences of ethnicity, culture, and religion and some other factors such as past grievances. The term is pejorative;[1] when sponsored or encouraged by a sovereign third party, it has been used as an accusation against such third party nations. ”

    Identity politics has become the ruling economic neoliberalism’s (a third party) political method of dividing the country for its own benefit, imo. It emphasises our differences more than what we have in common. It is the opposite of the civil rights movement and the other movements of the excluded for full inclusion into the whole polity. What’s the old slogan? “The people, united, can never be defeated.” The current neoliberalists work to keep us divided. When I look at the staggering wealth gap in the US, which grown much worse in the last 2 years, it’s clear the neoliberals are succeeding. my 2 cents.

  5. David

    I’d suggest that the key here is the distinction between natural groupings of identity and artificial ones, because it’s this difference that liberalism has always disliked, and that neoliberalism (ie liberalism without the human face) seeks to exploit.

    Some natural groupings are objective, especially economic ones. So landlords, tenants, employees, shareholders etc. are all objective categories, and you can objectively move from one to the other, for example by buying property. Socialism developed out of the recognition that these groups have objectively different and often opposed interests. Others are volitional: trades unions are an example, like trade associations, but also social circles, scout troops and even families.You can join, leave, move, whatever, but it’s essentially a matter of choice.

    (Neo)liberal ideology has always disliked such volitional groupings, seeing them as relics of the past, and obstacles to the unfettered economic competition between autarchic individuals, which is the basic liberal paradigm. Liberals were always against trades unions, for example, as constraints on perfect competition, and saw (and still see) social groupings, organic communities, associations and even families as likely to cause people to behave in economically irrational fashion. But liberalism has always been identified with property ownership and wealth: how, then avoid ordinary people congregating together to protect their objective economic interests? The answer was to hitch a ride on the burgeoning IdPol movement, to replace real groupings with artificial ones, and to persuade people that those who were objectively your allies are in fact your enemies, and vice versa. It’s not an accident that the years of neoliberalism saw an attack not only on trades unions, but on voluntary associations of all kinds, organic communities, even families.

    As a member of a real group, you have objective economic interests, and groups you wish to be associated with, perhaps permanently. Your draw whatever strength you have from that. But as an ascribed member of an artificial group, you have effectively no strength any all. If you receive a card stamped with “black lesbian able-bodied overweight graduate,” you have, in practice, no natural allies and no way of forming them. And Id Pol tells you that you are the victim of repression by your chauffeur, who is a black, heterosexual able-bodied overweight non-graduate. Finally, it’s practically impossible for such groups to organise themselves: you can vote for a trades union leader, join a community and choose to be married. But the essentialist policies of IdPol don’t allow you to choose anything: you are the colour of your skin, and you will do what you’re told by the self-appointed leaders of your ascriptive group, who are, of course, the educated liberals who always take such positions.

    Thus, you have a fragmented society in which people cannot make use of, or even recognise, the natural groupings that are actual sources of strength. The dicing of society into successively smaller groups, and the deliberate confusion about things like gender, are perhaps the final ways in which society will indeed be reduced to the autarchic economic actors of liberal fantasy.

    1. jabalarky

      This is a very lucid comment, and offers some useful terminology.

      Our membership in what you call artificial groups is, as you say, what allows us to be isolated from one another. It’s also another way in which capitalism is capable of incorporating our rebellious instincts (or precorporating them, as Mark Fisher would have it). By this I mean that being part of one of these artificial groups not only leaves us isolated from our would-be peers, it also means we become yet another demographic which can be marketed to. Rather than looking to our peers for support and validation, we will create and reinforce our new ultra-specific identity with the right combination of tattoos, T-shirts, coffee mugs, etc., products that the market will be only too happy to supply.

  6. Susan the other

    I’ve had the uneasy feeling that identity politics was organized by neoliberals like Hillary and her ilk to undermine both democracy and national sovereignty. The former majority – the whites – are now a minority and the ascendancy of everybody else is like a rising tide. That very large group of “everybody else” is problematic for oligarchs – so “identity politics” is a ruse to fragment them and distract them. And hypnotize them with obnoxious, pandering advertisements. And if enough people proclaim their identify politics and join forces for neodiversity it undermines the politics of the whole, of human rights and civil rights and labor rights. So the neoliberals are playing hardball – they are paving the way to maintain their schemes of private global financialization using sovereign money and authority but without coherent interference from the rabble. It really is quintessential Hillary.


    I’ve noticed that the “floppiness” of the idpol label he describes applies to the narrative surrounding the related subject of critical race theory. A lot of fierce debate and accusations but very little in establishing what exactly the term means. Which is convenient for the dog whistling of reactionaries; much as “Make America Great Again” left it up to the listener to decide when America was great and what made it great, critiques of idpol and CRT from the right leave it up to the listener as to what’s “too far” in terms of the way race/ethnicity relations, current and historical, are presented.

    Of course, this cuts the other way as well. If anyone who has a critique of the idpol narrative is painted as bigoted, then a false equivalence between liberation movements and neoliberal tokenism and language policing can be established by the liberals.

    1. Christopher Horne

      Divide and conquer- it’s not so hard to understand. After every dissolution
      of an established order (such as the French Revolution) the ‘winners’
      are usually not the masses who have created the overturning of society,
      but a much smaller group that is disciplined and prepared to take charge
      of the disorganized situation. Largely through the venomous advertising efforts of the mass media, we have reached such a state. The clever trick
      of the Democratic party in avoiding their traditional role of ‘defenders of
      the Common Man’ in favor of protecting the Republicans left flank from
      Socialism et al and gathering the free manna from Heaven offered by
      the autocracy (money, power, freedom from consequences) by turning
      all of us into hyphenated and isolated ‘individuals’ has largely collapsed
      under its own weight. The interregnum has come, sped up by the
      pandemic, environmental change, and the rise of new demographics.
      The old paradigms have simply worn themselves out in the face of
      new conditions. Are there any new, more viable ideas? The game of musical chairs goes on, but the new music is unfamiliar. The timing of
      the Elites is unsettled by the new rhythms, who still insist Society is a waltz,
      so ignore the Samba. Clearly, organization of the change will be key to
      moving forwards, but deliberate dis-organization has been overdone.
      Hoist to their own petard. Trump’s vision of chaos (with himself in charge)
      is one solution. Are there others?

  8. Hayek's Heelbiter

    Re the initial anecdote re the woman playwright.
    Her experience is also true in that other outpost of Anglosphere neoliberalism.
    I could never understand why the BFI (British Film Institute) and BFF (British Film Fund) receive millions of pounds, much of it from taxpayers, to make movies that are absolute rubbish and that no one outside of few niches want to watch.
    A lot of the forgettable fluff they churn out can be attributed to the fact that the commissioners (commissars?) are from the self-licking Oxbridge machine.
    But then I applied for a grant.
    It was a long checklist. All questions were about my ethnicity, whether I was LBGTRQ, how I identified myself, the nature of my disabilities, etc. Absolutely nothing about whether your project was groundbreaking, intriguing, a film that people would love to see. But if you ticked all the boxes on the questionnaire, your film had a strong chance of getting your film made.
    Admittedly, minority groups are highly underrepresented in films at large, but the way to reach people is to make movies with strong plots, strong themes, strong characters who are minority members.
    And especially to populate entry level roles with underrepresented groups, which is where creatives meet the people who will form your future network.

  9. KLG

    “What she meant by identity politics was ‘the very basic, neoliberal premise that what you have to do in life is make yourself.'”

    Precisely! Wendy Brown covers this very well and very accessibly in Undoing the Demos (2015). Time to re-read.

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