Identity Politics, Class Struggle, and Power

I realised today why I’m uncomfortable with the term ‘identity politics’.

This usually gets counterposed to ‘class struggle’, at least in the intellectual circles I tend to frequent. But elsewhere it can be contrasted with whatever more ‘serious’ or ‘pragmatic’ politics the speaker prefers. For those who’ve not come across it, it sort of lumps together sexual, racial, disability, cultural, etc. issues – politics which problematise the oppression of certain people on the grounds of their ‘identity’.

I dislike the term because I think it serves to disguise the way that all politics is about ‘identity’: all politics is about people deciding to act in certain ways, and the way that people make those decisions, about what they want and what motivates them, has to be understood in terms of how they conceive of themselves.

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Foucault, Humanitarianism and the Will-to-Power

This is the first post that’s coming out of my attempt to read ‘Discipline and Punish‘ by Michel Foucault. I want to start with the broadest idea of the book: an analysis of how our attitudes to and methods of punishment have changed in the emergence of modern society.

Foucault’s story is like this: in the previous ideology of punishment, the criminal appeared as something outside of and opposed to the social body – that social body being identified with the body of the king. The function of punishment was to reaffirm the superiority of the sovereign body over the criminal’s body by destroying it; the more complete the destruction, the more effective. Hence criminals taken out in public, tortured, dismembered, and finally executed.

In the currently ascendant ideology of punishment, the criminal appeared as always still a part of the social body, but a malfunctioning and diseased part (partly because the social body was now the nation and the people, not the sovereign). So now the function of punishment is to restore it to health – to strengthen and clean society.

Some key consequences of this new approach to punishment: that rather than seeking excess (after all, to rip off someone’s flesh with pincers, and kill them, and then string out their guts, is pretty excessive) it had to seek balance between two opposed imperatives. On the one hand, to attack and harm (after all, that’s what punishment is), but on the other, to respect and preserve the criminal (for they must eventually be returned to society in ‘mended’ form).

Secondly, knowledge of the criminal now becomes vital – detailed understanding so that they can be changed both inside and outside. This again tells against ‘excess’ and ‘violence’, because they might disrupt the collection of systematic data. The prison thus appears as the paradigm of punishment it preserves a symbolic ‘something’ about the prisoner that is not violated (they can keep their bodily integrity as long as they follow the regulations) and because its regimented, drawn-out nature allows for the collection of detailed information, the detailed composition of schedules and regulations, and the endeavour of trying to ‘fix’ the defective human being.

That’s how Foucault presents matters – and in many respects this account is not too different from the conventional liberal story. As society became more ‘civilised’, its efforts at punishment shifted away from being motivated by base motives of vengeance and cruelty, and came to embrace ‘humanitarian’ punishment that respected the ‘rights’ and ‘dignity’ of the criminal, along with seeking to ‘understand’ them so as to ‘rehabilitate’ them.

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Tea-Party Protesters: What is Freedom?

So a few days ago there was a huge march in the USA by people who are opposed to something – it may be socialised healthcare, it may be the bailouts, it may be the democrats, it maybe ‘big government’, and it definitely seems to involve Obama.

It’s an intriguing phenomenon, and I thought I might devote a few words to it. After all, at least two things seem to suggest, at first glance, a kinship between me and them: some manner of ‘opposition to government per se’, and some manner of fondness for tea.

On the first point, consider an account of the march here (found via Sociological Images): what is particularly of note is this:

“I would say that the spine of this protest is not any well considered opposition to health care, but to taxes, and to the idea of government itself…one theme that seems to be emerging…is that there is no difference between Obama and George W. Bush…When they protest big government,” they are not Republicans, or even conservatives in the conventional sense of the word. They are defenders of personal liberty against a one party state linked to a secret global system, a state that floods a nation of good white working people with illegal immigrants and freeloading welfare cheats”

Now, of course this can be overstated – a commenter says, correctly, “These people aren’t anarchists” – before going on, bafflingly, to say “and we should be thankful for that. Then they’d be really dangerous.” ‘Really dangerous’ here presumably means something like ‘having a smaller history of violence against civilian persons than almost any other political grouping, and far less than most of the tendencies that were manifested at the march’.

But anyway. Anarchists are already bedevilled by the need to differentiate themselves from anarcho-capitalists, who also use the same term, ‘freedom’, in what amounts to a very different way. To understand how people who I would likely disagree with on pretty much all particular points of politics can raise what seem like formally similar cries requires, I think, unpacking what psychologically terms like ‘freedom’ mean to different people.

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The Other Children and the Oedipus Conflict: who’s the daddy now?

It occurred to me recently that the ‘father’ role in the Oedipus conflict, which was never intrinsically bound to actual fathers, may no longer even coincide with it very much in practice. It may be that, as in so many other areas, the mass society, the media, the public, the peer group, has taken over from specific family roles – or rather, has started to play those roles more directly, rather than indirectly through the mediation of those family roles.

For those who forget the essential dynamics of the Oedipus conflict, the idea is pretty much this: the child’s father holds a position of power that inspires both resentment and the fear that requires that resentment to be suppressed. The conflict between resentment/rebelliousness and fear/submissiveness is resolved, in male children, by the child coming to identify with the father, a sort of ‘social contract’ whereby the child makes peace with paternal authority and in exchange is permitted access to the social world that the father possesses.

Crucially, the power that’s involved is not just brute strength but the social power of access to the shared cultural world – the mingled power-knowledge of knowing how things are done, what things are appropriate, what is admirable and what is contemptible, how to be respected, what’s cricket and what’s not cricket, etc. It is in sense personhood itself, recognised as such by others. This is why there’s so much talk of ‘castration’: in an explicitly sexist society, having a penis is recognised-by-society-as equivalent to being a real person, which is as much as to say that having a penis is being-recognised-by-society-as-a-real-person. Which is what the father has and what the child must preserve and develop.

So that’s Oedipus. The thing is, this analysis was written about a century ago and a lot has changed. For a start, sexism is much less explicit now. For another thing, familial authority has weakened a lot.

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On Being Middle-Class

By almost any measure, I’m painfully middle class. I don’t just mean in terms of economic or social facts (occupation, family, manners, education, etc.) but also, and more interestingly, in terms of temperament: the way I approach things, including political issues, is marked by a mentality that I think has a certain association with ‘the middle classes’ – in particular by being, as I will discuss, non-judgmental, individualistic, and ‘xenophilic’.

Now, the relationship between the middle classes and the left is one that’s often brought up, but regarding which sober analysis is often obscured by a dialogue of accusation and defense – both outside the left, which is castigated as a whole for being supposedly full of ‘idealistic’ and ‘naïve’ middle-class intellectuals and ‘champagne socialists’, and within the left, where one group denounces another for its ‘middle-class’ orientation/membership/methodology (also sometimes called ‘petit-bourgeois’) and counter-poses the genuine working class nature that the left is supposed to have. What exactly is involved in middle-classness politically is sometimes unclear.

This is not a post about my guilt, privilege, or anything like that. What I’m going to try to do is cash out more precisely the respects in which I recognise myself as conforming to a certain ‘type’ of the middle-class lefty, and what implications this has.

This ‘type’ is of course one which is  neither shared by all of the middle classes, all of the left, or all of the middle-class left, nor exclusive to them. There may well be other middle-class ‘types’, including some quite opposed to this one, but it seemed an interesting and worthwhile topic to consider nonetheless.

Note also, these are not positions or beliefs, but features of temperament – which will be one influence among others in deciding between positions.

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Psycho-Politics: what are the laws of motion of power-gratification?

I  often talk here about power, motivations and pleasures surrounding power, and the role they play in the psycho-politics of patriarchy, capitalism, and other such forces of oppression. I sometimes get a desire to try and systematise this, or a feeling that there’s the potential here for something similar to economics in its rigour (which is of course not all that rigorous). As a gesture in that direction, I started thinking about what sort of ‘laws of motion’ might be involved in such a ‘mechanics of power’.

A few sprang to my mind, but I’d be very interested in hearing thoughts or suggestions in comments. So I pose the question: if power is the subject of politics, and if the psychology of power is therefore the key political part of psychology, what could be the ‘axioms’, ‘theorems’, and ‘hypotheses’ of this study?

(of course I haven’t defined exactly what I mean by ‘power’, because it might be complex and potentially it’s more interesting to see how others define it)

So my thoughts were:

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Veganism and a Bit of Political Autobiography

Today I thought I’d say a bit about veganism. Sangoma

I’ve been vegan for about many years now. I was coming to the end of a long day of casting and reading the bones, and having asked them “does string theory bring anything new to the question of scientific realism vs. instrumentalism?” and “is it true that the deconstruction is inextricable not only from the text, but from the self?”, I asked, on a whim, “should I stop eating meat?” and got the clearest and least directionless answer for a while – “yes”.

So naturally I stopped. I was still living at home at the time, and my parents were a little anxious, but I reassured them: “don’t worry, I’m just going to be vegetarian, not vegan or anything.” Then, two weeks later, it occurred to me that maybe I should do a bone-reading on that, so I asked the bones “should I stop eating animal products in general?” and got an equally clear “yes”. So that was that.

At the time I was fairly apolitical. I had a certain interest in politics, but every question seemed so obscure, and to have two or more equally emotive teams emphasising their emphasis emphatically. Whenever I tried to get the answers to political questions out of the bones, they were consistently directionless. Veganism was therefore probably the first strong ‘position’ I held, the first ‘political identity’ I took on.

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