REBLOG: Notes On Emancipatory Identity and Agency (2012)

   We cannot substitute a mere collection of identities for the saturated generic identity of the working class. I think we have to find the political determination that integrates the identities, the principles of which are beyond identity. The great difficulty is to do that without something like the working class. Without something that was a connection between particularity and universality, because that’s what the working class was. The particularity of the working class was its location in a singular place; the working class was generic. The solution of the problem for Marxism was the human group which is not really an identity, which is beyond identity. 

   We have to do the same thing, but probably without that sort of solution. We cannot say that today this group is the generic group and that the emancipation of this group is also the emancipation of us all. – Alain Badiou, Interview with Diana George

Identities are nothing but ideological coherence maps of resemblances. – C. Derick Varn, “Some Inchoate Thoughts on The Formation of Identity:


(This posting was written sometime in 2012 and posted on the now extinct “Symptomatic Redness” blog. I might approach it differently today, but the general thrust still rings true.)

The struggle for freedom and justice in our world is still necessary, despite centuries of modern democracy. Political domination and economic exploitation still hold sway over the vast majority of humanity, with their ecological degradation pushing the entire planet towards catastrophe. In such a situation, the question to be asked is still how can a revolutionary movement be constructed to avert the impending catastrophe? And, moreover, be able to transform the impasse of the present into a fulfillment of the authentic needs and desires of all beings?

Marxism, which Badiou references above, proposed that the industrial proletariat of early industrial capitalism would coalesce over time under revolutionary leadership to finally emancipate humanity. This hopeful vision came to a disastrous impasse in the emergence of Stalinism and the Cold War. Its most visible success, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, is all but buried beneath the rubble of the Berlin Wall.

However, perhaps credit must yet be given to Marx for thinking quite concretely about just how emancipation would progress and which social agents in particular would lead this forward motion of history. His anointing of the “industrial worker” was hardly an obvious choice in his era, but this idea has electrified millions over the past century and a half. There is a compelling logic to this choice, in that the workers still have their hands on the real wealth of the planet in a more direct manner than their capitalist employers. It is still quite conceivable that if only the workers of the world would become conscious of their strategic location within the economic engines of capitalism, and for even just a short time unite wholeheartedly with one another against the rule of capitalism, the shock to the system still seems a glorious possibility.

And yet, today we are easily skeptical of such a revolutionary moment occurring. Every revolution has degenerated back into a new system of domination and exploitation, as the weapons and sanctions of the ruling classes routinely recuperate all resistance. The faith that Marx had in revolutionary leadership now seems quite misplaced and his confidence in working-class militancy a naive wish.

Is there a new emancipatory subject to discovered/constructed, as Badiou proposes? Does his hope of finding the “political determination that integrates the identities” merit anything comparable to the faith of proletarian revolution? The explorations that I’ve been carrying out on my political philosophy blog, “Radical Progress” have addressed this question in an attempt to get past the impasse of the death of Marxism. That said, the main absence I see in the contemporary situation is the lack of unity and intersubjective solidarity within the working-class, or their possible successors to the mantle of revolutionary agency.

Badiou speaks of that which “integrates the identities” and this certainly connects to my conception of how identities work, they are not exhaustive concepts, but rather aspects of a variety of social determinations. Being a worker does not negate whether one is also a woman or a person of African descent, to name two of the most common alternative subject identities in current radical theories. We are all identified with multiple characteristics of the social orders within which we live and move and lose our being. The Marxian hope was never that the workers as workers would revolt against capital, but that they would come to know that they were fraternal humans who could reject the alienated existence in which they lived and, fight for something different.

And yet, today, despite an array of identity politics, most of us don’t seem to have any clue how to come together to fight for emancipation. When we do create an assembly, it dissolves into disorder as we each assert our individuality, perhaps for the first time, to the detriment of finding a way forward to a united goal. This is the tragedy of the Occupy Wall Street general assembly, that even as OWS felt as if it was the dawning of a magnetic and energizing movement, it predictably fell back into the clutches of egoic disconnection that frustrates yet again the possibility of uniting the radicals against the 1%.

It will likely offend many radicals to assert the fact, but the most successful attempt at the sort of intersubjective unification envisioned by Marx in history is religion. The Roman Catholic church alone claims millions of adherents, dwarfing virtually all other identity groups, including Marxism. In fact, to the degree that the historic function of religion was that it sanctioned the social order of its host society, it was perhaps a massive error for the Marxists to believe that they could unite humanity without religion’s practices. Apart from Jesus, Buddha, or Muhammad, only Marx himself has ever commanded that sort of mass appeal. The slim chance that Marxism may yet return to its privileged position as the central ideology of the revolutionary left however seems unlikely, the world has truly changed in so many ways that we have to press beyond the conception of a proletarian revolution towards a new integration of identities.

In the face of global warming, ocean acidification, and mass species extinctions, perhaps the most integrative identity we can claim today is that of “earthling.” The late Murray Bookchin proposed that Marxism be replaced by an anarchist and communalist philosophy of “Social Ecology.” The logic behind this seems compelling until we consider the possibility that this identity of ecological beings is barely more tied to a radical vision than is “humanity” in general. A radical agency that emerges from within the struggle for emancipation cannot be identical with an identity that encompasses both the oppressed and the oppressor.

Perhaps we do not need a revolutionary subject as Marx and, apparently, Badiou believe. Perhaps, the revolutionary possibility isn’t predicated on a single antagonism such as economics or politics and the identities that they construct. While I do believe in creating a unified intersubjective organization that will take aim at the death-systems that threaten our very existence, the experience of Occupy Wall Street coming just a year before the 2012 presidential election has elevated my awareness that mass radical mobilizations do not behave in a linear manner. There is no single subject position that is privileged as the revolutionary agent. The complex character of society diffuses and coalesces human actions into unpredictable configurations.


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