Identitarianism and the Working Class

People have been passing around this piece from Mark Fisher, which is about a lot of things, one of which is who gets to speak (or identify) as the poor working class. In particular, Russel Brand apparently has a lower working class background, but now is a millionaire due to his comedy, which raises the question whether his working class background actually affords him the relevant identity qualification.

I’ve written before about identitarianism’s class problem. As a conceptual matter, class is not like every other identity because the proper leftist goal is actually to end class differences. This distinction means a great deal because the entire politics of how to deal with class are therefore dramatically different than, say, race. We are not trying to get equal respect and equal representation and equal power for poor people. We are trying to eliminate poor people altogether.

But in the meantime, there is a prefigurative political question of what to do with class. That is, since there are class differences, how do the internal politics of who gets what power, what say, and what influence in political organizing play out with regard to class? You can’t rightly replicate in your organization’s prefigurative politics what you want to see in society as a whole since you can’t really eliminate class differences in your organization until you’ve eliminated it in society as a whole. So you are actually forced in the prefigurative sphere to do something different with class than you want to do in the social sphere, which again is a phenomenon that is unique to class.

In practice, this problem doesn’t present itself that often if ever. This is precisely because the spheres that all of this theorizing takes place in are, by their very nature, closed off to actual poor working class people. In the academy where these things are developing, you have well-off and highly-educated people of basically all identities (though certainly more of some identities than others). But, by definition, these folks are not poor, lowly-educated working class people. They are in the academy. They are also so rarely from that background that we actually have a federal welfare program that aims to help fix that somewhat. I know about it because I enrolled in it, but did not actually matriculate into graduate school.

Naturally then, you see the descriptor of the platonic oppressor evolve from “men” when rich white second-wave feminists get going in the middle of the last century, to “white men” as the race critique from womanists comes in, to “straight white men” as the sexuality critique comes in, to “cis straight white men” as the gender identity critique comes in most recently. Class is swirling around in the tradition, often in long lists of identities, but it’s on the margin. Should the default tag ever evolve to include “rich” or “high socioeconomic status” in it, we will know we have arrived.

But there are strong structural barriers against that coming about. One of the distinct issues of being poor working class is that you are almost always not highly educated (incidentally, this is one of the reasons I find the highly-educated left’s obsession with college so myopic). Barriers to education exist for all oppressed groups of course. Nonetheless you can and do have highly-educated academic theorizers of any identity, but by definition, not any of poor working class identity. That is, unless you actually allow people to claim that identity because of their past. But, as Russel Brand shows, leftists are not willing to do that when it’s important that they be able to close off such identification.

This is not a totally abstract point. The fact is that I have such a poor working class background, but am now also highly educated (though not yet rich). When I write about class issues (which is most of what I write about), I rarely if ever claim my personal experience as authority on any of my points. I prefer to stick to the data, which I think is a better method to capture the plight of tens of millions of people.

When I am writing opinions that popular left commenters like, retweets and big ups abound, with nobody even bothering to care what my identity is. Yet when I write something they don’t like — e.g. my criticism of higher education accessibility assumptions — my authority to speak on issues of poor people does sometimes get called into question.

In this most recent case, Sarah Kendzior came at me on twitter asking me if I speak to any poor people and saying that the problem with the piece is that I don’t speak to poor people (see tweets here). Now, as an initial matter, I don’t know what insight poor working class people have on the class composition of universities 40 years ago, aggregate national net college pricing trends, or any of the other data points that actually move my post. But beyond that, I actually do speak to poor working class people all the time because they’re my family and I am, if I still count, one myself.

Even after pointing this out though, Kendzior persisted, panning my post, not on the merits, but on it being insufficiently informed by the voices of poor people (which the post is not about anyways). Could you ever imagine any similar harassment for any other identity? Is there any world where I could, for instance, harangue Kendzior for not speaking to enough women before she wrote some piece on women’s issues? Could you even imagine? There is no way.

Which is exactly my point. Class identity is not taken seriously or treated with the same respect or as having the same authority as other identities. It floats around in identitarian analysis, but its import has not actually been internalized within the actually-existing practitioners of its prescriptions. This is because class is marginalized in this tradition. Poor working class people don’t participate in the tradition, have not had any real effect on the literature in the tradition, and are still not actually respected in the tradition, even when the theory as written says they should be.

I can see how the Russel Brand story will end up playing out for me as well. As I get advanced degrees and ideally a job that puts me occupationally out of the poor working class, any claim I do have to that identity (which is already not respected in any case) will fade year by year until it is just discarded altogether by those who might not like what I have to say about poor people and their issues. This sort of treatment creates the double-bind that ensures a permanent erasure of poor working class voices. If you grow up in the identity and remain in it, your access to any of these discussions is extremely limited. If you grow up in the identity and become educated enough to access these discussions, you no longer get to claim the identity.

Identitarianism has a class problem. That’s fine. It does great work still in other areas. But it has real limitations that we should all admit.