Since this discussion of identity politics began in dialogue with the Leftists, I thought I’d let a real, living one on the blog to hash things out more thoroughly.
It tickles me, I must admit, to know that the BadCatholic has gone out of his way to draw up my favorite topic of discussion — political theology. And given that he’s also referenced one of my favorite “socialist rags”, it seems like I have to respond in some way.
If I’m going to take Marc Barnes seriously in his claim that identity politics is a new polytheism, it’s going to take some time to draw out what might be meant by “polytheism”. It cannot be the quaint polytheism of the neo-pagan. For the neo-pagan, there is no conflict among the gods. They interact harmoniously to maintain the natural order of the universe. This view of polytheism, applied to identity politics (which I will from here on refer to as “idpol” for economy’s sake) is precisely the lie maintained by the modern state: that all of our various “identity groups” exist harmoniously together. What does the reality of the new polytheism of idpol look like then? Rather than the “nice” polytheism of the Wiccan, Thelma devotee, et al, the polytheism of idpol is more akin to the brutal violence of the Homeric pantheon: sublimated by political action, but only just.
Indeed, this is a notion held within the philosophical tradition from which our political organization is derived. It is a peculiar take of the Hobbesian nightmare, the social vision of a war of all against all. No longer is it the bald individual interest of the members of the community whose innate violence must be held in suspense, but the little-leviathans of the “interest groups” or the “identities”.
The Peculiarity of the God of Israel
In the early stages of Abraham’s relationship with God, we see little difference between the God of Abraham and the gods of the neighboring peoples. Why else would Abraham not flinch at the notion of sacrificing his son, except that the sacrifice of the first born to Moloch was common to his contemporaries? However, even in the first two books of the Old Testament, there is something peculiar about the God of Israel.
In Exodus, the religion of the Israelites takes on its most full-throated distinction from the contemporary religions. Theirs is not a god of the already victorious. He is the God of a people who are enslaved. Not only, as Barnes pointed out, are His demands universally applicable, but He is also, bluntly, a political universalist. It is God who demands that His people don’t have a king — a single, dictatorial ruler — and it is the masses who make the demand for the king so vigorously that he eventually capitulates.
It is, as we know, the end of the people of Israel. Her kings are her undoing (Saul is wildly incapable; David is a minor exception to the rule; Solomon tries but he’s got problems with women; and from there on, the whole history of the rulers of Israel is a tragic soap-opera of military and political blunders, factional in-fighting, sexual misconduct and idolatry). Furthermore, it is established in biblical scholarship that throughout the Old Testament, God is Himself strangely identified with the people of Israel. All of this is to say, that the theology of the Jews is far more radical than even Barnes wants to admit. Not only is God demanding that the Israelites not worship other gods, like their neighbors do, He is also demanding that they live a completely different life than their neighbors. Not a nation with a god-king, but a people in an emancipatory collective.
The Spirit of Identity Politics
What then is the purpose of this new polytheism, of idpol itself? Idpol is a particular reaction to the disparity of power in society and the need to gather the forces of oppressed communities. This kind of organizing can be traced back at least as far as the classic and hysterically controversial text on community organizing, “Rules for Radicals”. Alinsky makes the point that one of the primary goals of an organizer is to create the sense of the identity of the oppressed community in opposition to those in power. In this, the community can have a source of strength and a –if you’ll forgive me– spiritual bedrock for the struggle which will be necessary to achieve its goals.
Here, it would seem that the new polytheism of idpol is attempting to achieve the aims of the Israelites in Egypt, to draw on their gods, to overtake the powers which constrain them and give them a nation unto themselves. The hope being, that these new gods will allow the oppressed to shake off their shackles. But in doing so, they do nothing but at best establish themselves as a nation like unto their oppressors and maintain the political structure which oppressed them in the first place. This mistakes the role of the god of the Israelites, that is, the God who is universal.
Israel is never meant to be a kingdom in Mesopotamia like all the others, but rather the light of God to the nations of the world. If the God of Israel simply wished to establish a kingdom like any other, then perhaps there would be no difference, but since the goal is the universal recognition of the One God by all mankind, there is something quite different going on. This is the real root of the emancipatory struggle, that the slave revolt, (which the story of Exodus is really nothing if not) is not satisfied with the establishment of itself as another nation to function just as its predecessors, but demands that the whole system of rule be thoroughly broken and disestablished. It is necessarily messianic in this sense, as well as fundamentally universal in character.
This presents, however, an interesting question. Certainly the identity of the Jewish people is fundamentally rooted in their God. And equally so, Alinsky is right to drive home the need to create a spiritual foundation for struggle. (Indeed, as Bookchin rightly pointed out, nationalism and the question of national liberation has been a thorny subject for the Left since the French revolution.) So, we are left with the concern of where to derive this revolutionary passion, the drive which pushes from the inside towards emancipation, if not identity. How do we have a fundamentally universal politics which is strong enough –in the ironically Nietzschean sense of the term– to overtake the brute inertia of the reigning ideology? Which does not rely on the idealism behind “race-realism” (as the Nazis say) or the impulse of the biblical Israelites to mimic their neighbors?
Whence cometh the most uncanny guest, the Holy Spirit?
The Communist Who Lives Below You