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 and Carnap on the Politics of Science

For unforeseen reasons, I have found myself reading extracts from the intellectual autobiography of Rudolf Carnap, a leading member of the Vienna Circle and of the logical positivists, an early 20th-century philosophical movement that rejected as strictly meaningless all statements that could not be reduced to empirical science or to pure logic.

I came across his brief statement of the ethical and political beliefs that he felt the whole group had shared:

“[A]ll deliberate action presupposes knowledge of the world, that the scientific method is the best method of acquiring knowledge and that therefore science must be regarded as one of the most valuable instruments for the improvement of life.

It was and still is my conviction that the great problems of the organization of economy and the organization of the world at the present time, in the era of industrialization, cannot possibly be solved by “the free interplay of forces”, but require rational planning. For the organization of economy this means socialism in some form; for the organization of the world it means a gradual development toward a world government.

However, neither socialism nor world government are regarded as absolute ends; they are only the organizational means which, according to our present knowledge, seem to give the best promise of leading to…a form of life in which the well-being and the development of the individual is valued most highly, not the power of the state.

…we shall recognize the dangers lying in the constant increase in the power of the state; this increase is necessary because the national states must fuse into larger units and the states must take over many functions of the economy. Therefore it will be of prime importance to take care that the civil liberties and the democratic institutions are not merely preserved but constantly developed and improved.”

There’s a lot to comment on here, but it especially struck me because it reminded me of Foucault’s ‘Discipline and Punish‘, which I’ve also been reading recently. Foucault describes a process by which, starting around the later 18th century, institutions and habits of ‘discipline’, which were intimately connected to science, have appeared, spread, and become all-pervasive.

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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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Why Do We Have Property Rights? Why Has Capitalism Been So Successful?

Via. Chris at Stumbling and Mumbling I came across a series of interlinked posts discussing property rights and their justifications or lack thereof (which I think were sparked by Chris’ posts about copyright).

Now I won’t rehearse everything I’ve argued on this subject, but I will offer a few observations.

Ian B., a commenter at Tim Worstall’s blog, claims the following:

“Animals (indluding humans) tend towards asserting property rights. My cat believes she owns the garden, and forcibly ejects other cats from it. It’s just something animals do…You’re free to choose which sort of society you want but, like my cat, I will personally prefer the property rights one.”

What’s interesting about this is it’s actually pretty much my view – and in sharp conflict with the way that both right-libertarians and many socialists talk.

For the latter, the key issue for understanding property is work, creation of goods. There are then different arguments about whether entrepreneurs or inheritors or capitalists ‘have the right’ to their wealth, or whether in fact the workers who collectively produce that wealth ‘have the right’ to it.

But what both myself and Ian suggest is that while these reflections may be true or false, they have nothing to do with the reality of property rights. That reality is instead a descendent of the territorial instinct – that is, of animals competing for power.

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Socialism and Feminism: Emasculating the Proletariat

Over the last few days I’ve been talking about why the apparently sound premises of the revolutionary equation (1. the proletariat has the capacity to revolutionise society, 2. the proletariat has an immediate motive to revolutionise society, 3. a proletarian revolution will bring about socialism) have not produced their conclusion.

The answer I had been working on was concerned that the motive mentioned in point 2., the resistance produced by the frustrations and antagonisms of capitalist society, might take the form not of a desire simply for more power (which would include power over one’s own circumstances, i.e. ‘freedom’) but specifically for the satisfactions of exerting power over others, what I have called ‘domination’. To the extent that this happens, it will conflict directly with point 3., since an equal society doesn’t offer much opportunity for even vicarious domination. The result is various forms of ‘deflection’ of rebelliousness into dead-ends.

But what I want to discuss now is why this problem might arise.

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Short-Circuiting the Revolution, Part 2 – why have we failed?

Every socialist and their dog has a pet exaplanation of what has held back the success of socialism. Into that mix I want to throw a couple of further thoughts.

The first is quite simple, namely that in some sense the development of revolutionary socialist beliefs and organisations between, let’s say, 1830 and 1930 was not actually for any reasons to do with socialist revolution, but a by-product of the recentness of capitalist revolution. Revolution – both immediate, sudden political conflict, and also the radical re-structuring of society over time – was in the air. Anything seemed possible. The old class system no longer appeared natural and inevitable, because in so many places it was fading away – but the new class system had not yet acquired the weight of tradition.

In the 20th century, though, it came to appear natural and inevitable. The transitional period, when changes were so great that no further change seemed impossible, passed and we settled back into a state of relative tunnel vision, with alternatives appearing increasingly implausible.

This is quite a simple explanation and I think it has a lot of validity. But obviously it leaves something out – there really were large groups of people believing in revolution, so what exactly went wrong? Perhaps the conditions weren’t yet ripe – but what, more exactly, does this mean? What was the effective variable?

So the second idea I want to suggest is what I talked about in yesterday’s post: the incentive which class struggle gives the proletariat to revolt, which is in general a question of power, may take the particular form of a desire for domination. This has the unfortunate consequence that the latent pressure for change cannot be satisfied by socialism, because of its non-hierarchical nature (even a traditionally-conceived, non-single-party, “workers’ state” is radically non-hierarchical and egalitarian by comparison with any model of capitalist political and industrial relations).

So what I want to do in this post is talk a bit more about this proposed explanation (quite likely not the complete one) and link it to the sad history of socialist defeat. Tomorrow I will try to ask what the cause of this problem might be and what might correct it.

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Short-Circuiting the Revolution

As I understand it, the orthodox communist belief in proletarian revolution comes from three major claims:

1) The proletariat has the capacity to revolutionise society, due mainly to its central place in economic production, and to its concentration in cities and large businesses (in contrast to the isolation of peasants or small artisans);

2) The proletariat has the motivation to revolutionise society, because capitalism necessarily frustrates its interests and locks it in a class struggle that it is constantly losing;

3) If and when the proletariat revolutionises society, the result will be socialism – a society without systematic class oppression, because insofar as someone’s economic role is proletarian, it doesn’t imply a subordinate person of another class (in the way that a lord’s role implies serfs, etc).

It’s a nice collection of theses, but clearly something is missing, or needs to be said more fully, because the supposed conclusion hasn’t been reached yet. Of course, perhaps we shouldn’t expect it to have been so soon, but it’s still striking that our closeness to it seems by many standards to have substantially declined.

What interests me is the possibility that one of these three points may be in conflict with another – in particular, that the motive mentioned in point 2. may conflict with the end postulated in point 3.

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