Dear Florian, Brian & Co
Thanks for excellent postings on the future of the left. This is precisely the discussion I was looking for. However I think identitarianism is quite easy to define. It is simply a series of sub-categories that deny any superior category that ties them together. Laclau and Mouffe defined it quite clearly in the 1980s with their hegemony theory. What they heralded though as the route out of the hellhole of the grand narrative(s) and admitted would be a competition between subcultural sub-identities (the identities that fight over who should be seen and heard in identity politics, who is the biggest current victim) I believe was a terrible mistake. Let's use some Freud, Kristeva and Girard here to understand why I'm so strongly opposed to Laclau and Mouffe.
A tribe or a nation is lead by a grand narrative of where it comes from and where it is heading. This is the priestly or shamanic storytelling of where and when the tribe has to move/adapt to change. The vague goal is some kind of utopian vision (the journey being more important than the goal etc), the past is retold as to cherish the wisdom of the elderly and the energy of the young so as to keep the whole tribe/nation on the move and adaptable to change without patricides or matricides (costly revolutions or bloody coups) being necessary. Any other identities are then sub-identities to this overarching collective superidentity (tribe, nation, religion, party, state etc).
The loyalty toward the superidentity is achieved either through what Kristeva calls the authentic phallus (the fetish that lifts the collective upward) or through the false phallus (the abject that unifies the superidentity through hatred) to complement the mamilla that secures everyday survival. Often cited examples are Moses and the Promised Land for a fetish and Hitler and the Jew for an abject. With three main disastrous fake-phallic projects to deal with in the west (Hitler, Stalin and Colonialism) it is no wonder that The West had to go through an iron bath of critical analysis to deal with all three simultaneously from the 1940s forward.
But in doing so, the baby (grand narratives) was thrown out with the bathwater which made us all terribly sensitive toward a return to the very roots of these three fake phalluses and then naively started building a forth one. I'm not kidding, but Identitarianism is as Rousseuian as the previous three (Steven Pinker describes the dilemma beautifully in "The Blank Slate"). Postmodernism became its own grand narrative as an anti-narrative and that is why Identitarianism is what it is and why it is so dangerous. It does not even see its own blind spot (you need Hegel to do that, we must stop bad-mouthing Hegel).
The Identity Left denied the possibility of vision and its own capacity for adulthood (the journey to The Promised Land is of course the journey from childhood to adulthood), eternally infantilized itself, and did so by sloppily adding an abject to unify all its various self-victimization cults, namely around The White Heterosexual Male. It was consequently only a matter of time before The White Heterosexual Male stood up and made himself the victim and there you have the equally Rousseauian Extreme Right, Trumpism etc. At least the Extreme Right in Europe, Florian, is distinctly male and working class, in Sweden all Sweden Democrats are former Social Democrats for example. And what are the middle classes if not second generation working class anyway?
Now we are stuck with the Charlottesvilles of the world and the only way out is a new utopian vision. The Right has its own clumsy version of this vision and it is its tech heroes Elon Musk and his vain trip to Mars, biohacking, transhumanism and the lot. Libertarian tax-free utopias devoid of nation-state attachments. And they can't even make Facebook a customer-friendly experience. Enough said. Silicon Valley ideology is not even individualistic, it is outright autistic. We can surely do better than that. Now if the Left could recognize that we, again, have to try to build a grand narrative proper to unite The Left through empowerment and not entitlement, remove ourselves from the grand tits of welfare-states and consumer societies, then we must be able to beat the shit out of the right's utterly mediocre visions of banal self-improvements, sexbots, space travel and whatever nonsense next they come up with.
What can man and machine really do together? What can biological and machine intelligence achieve together? Why is the tribe way stronger than the dividual? This is The Left I want to be part of. Identitarianism has no place in it, because identities are fine as sub-categories of tribe and class. But they are not the top of the hierarchy. Because is they remain so, we are heading straight for the disaster. Identitarianism must go. Or at least it is not part of "The Left" that I want to be part of. There Vision, Narrative and Empowerment are everything. And Marx beats Nietzsche through a return to the tribe. Marx believed in the potential of the proletariat. He was right. Who are the cultural engineers that based on open source build our tomorrow today? They are the new proletariat. How do we unleash their power?
Brian is of course absolutely right about ecology. But ecology is dystopian in itself. So what is the Hegelian turn when ecology becomes utopian? Its collectively technologically achieved reversal? Personally I'm investing in a tech start-up that locks in carbon in smart and cheap new ways. With the very same people that I build a tantric whorehouse with in Holland. That's my activism. What is yours? Can we inspire each other? And a last word concerning class versus sub-identity: My native South Africa is heading toward a class war or a race war. A class war is exactly what South Africa needs, a race war would be disastrous. Need I say more? You get the picture.
The problem with all debates of "identity politics" is that there is no clear definition of it, not even by Mark Lilla who popularized the term in 2016. (Lilla, by the way, doesn't even speak of or for the "left", but of two types of "liberalism", one that he supports and one that he rejects.) "Identity politics" is a textbook strawman argument which any decent analytic philosopher should be able to tear into pieces with propositional logic. What's more, the term has become a reactionary meme now that political movements, such as "Aufstehen" in Germany, are being founded on the premise of reinvigorating the left by ridding it from "identity politics". This is where the strawman becomes a red herring.
All this is mostly based on the fiction that the working class defected to the extreme right after established left-wing politics no longer represented it. It's a fiction because, at least in Europe, research has clearly shown that most voters for the extreme right come from the middle class and vote for these parties because of shared core values (in short, an understanding of the rule of law as law and order, and an understanding of democracy as the execution of the will of the people who represent the majority population), not policies.
If Lilla and others were more consequential, they would have to historically denounce the political left as "identity politics" as such. One could call the French Revolution "identity politics" of the bourgeois (versus the aristocracy), the 19th century workers' movement "identity politics" of the working class (which an old-school Jacobin might have rejected precisely on the grounds that the republic had declared everyone to be equal), the feminist movement "identity politics" of women, the black civil rights movement "identity politics" of African Americans, the gay pride movement "identity politics" of queers etc.etc.. In the end, those who deplore "identity politics" express a nostalgia for a simple, binary past that never existed. Worse, they patronize groups of people to which they neither belong, nor are in touch with.
Maybe there could be a more precise notion of "identity politics" in the sense of political choices purely made on the basis of one's group identity instead of one's political interests. Examples could include trade union members who voted for Clinton, Blair and Schröder in the 1990s out of token loyality to "their" party, or the blind support of openly destructive and malicious politics on the basis of ethnic loyality in areas with ethnic conflicts. In my hometown Rotterdam, for example, a right-wing populist party has been the strongest political force for one and a half decade simply on the basis of white ethnic voter loyalty (in a city whose majority population is now non-white), never mind the fact that this party is chasing its own voters out of the city by aggressively gentrifying traditional neighborhoods. Did Lilla and his epigones ever call this "identity politics"?