Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Michael Hardt on "Revolution and Identity Politics"

A couple of weeks ago I was able to catch a talk Michael Hardt gave in Chicago, which I found to be really interesting. I haven't spent a lot of time on any of his work (or "toni" Negri's either), save for a glance at Empire, but the talk didn't invoke a ton of previous work. It offered more of a provisional thesis-in-the-works, about the interrelations of different modes of oppression, butressed by a quick glace over recent work in critical race theory, feminism, queer theory and Marxism.

His thesis was this: All revolutionary projects must be involved with identity. Against the view that revolutionary politics died because of 'identity politics', Hardt wanted to argue that revolution is impossible without identity politics. Of course, 'identity politics' is a term inextricably bound up with a multitude of bad connotations. It's something of a buzzword (or at least, was, in the 90s) and I think Hardt invoked it in spite of its usual appropriations. What exactly does he have in mind?

Well, basically something like an intersectionality thesis about different modes of oppression or hierarchy, e.g. gender, class, race, etc. He prefaced this aspiration of this talk with remarks about the problems this attempt has encountered in progressive theory in the past. It's a difficult task, also one succeptible to subsumptions, reductions, appropriations and indifference from theorists with differing priorities. But the fact that this theoretical/political undertaking is difficult is not therefore to prove that it cannot (or should not) be accomplished. It’s still necessary to understand that one is treading on thin ice with here, however. All too often, subsequent movements are subordinated to their points of derivation/origin (e.g. the Women’s movement had origins in the labor movement, but this does not license the view that ‘all sexism would disappear with the overthrow of capitalism’).

For Hardt, the common link that all properly revolutionary politics share is a transformation of identity, or stronger, an abolition of identity. The danger is to misread the trajectory here as one of a certain humanism (i.e. the view that underneath, we’re all ‘human’, we are all the same, and race/gender/sexuality merely obscure our primordial oneness, thus we must abolish all difference). Against this tendency, Hardt’s project is more in line with the Marx of Capital who wanted to explode the presumption that capitalism was “just the free exchange of commodities” in order to expose the violence of class hierarchy. Another example could be the Critical Legal Studies movement which exposed the racist nature of “colorblind” law. But where does this leave Hardt’s thesis about abolishing identity?

The first example he gave was the case of class. Marxism aimed not at a ‘worker’s State’ or improved conditions for the worker as such, but the worker’s self-abolition qua worker. (Hardt suggested here that we look at the work of Italian Marxist Mario Tronti as an example). In revolutionary situations, the working-class aims at its own abolition, which is to say, the abolition of the material conditions which creates and sustains capitalist social relations (classes). Thus the task is not for a more equitable society than that in which we live, not for a better-fed and housed working class, but for the social order to cease to be founded on a mode of production in which wage labor and class exploitation are essential. The idea is to struggle against work, to seek liberation from work, to aim at the abolition of the subordinate identity which is itself inextricably linked to a set of social/economic conditions.

Under capitalism, property is a central feature of social organization. In a republic essentially defined by property, identity becomes lumped into property. This is not only relevant in the example of class. 2nd Wave feminism was extremely interested in women qua property, and many radical anti-racists have proposed critical examination of ‘whiteness as property’. People come to define and think of themselves in terms of property. In this way, the abolition of private property seems crucial to the task of revolutionary transformation. This is one example of a way in which the Communist impulse (not to be misread as Stalinism) of the 20th century is still a necessary (but not sufficient) ingredient to any revolutionary politics today.

In revolutionary feminist theory, the task is the abolition of the subordinate identity, to take in hand the conditions that produce gender and change them, to eliminate the social system that creates gender. Hardt mentioned Wendy Brown on this point. Feminism, on this view, isn’t a matter of recognition. It is not a call for representation or inclusion, but rather, a revolutionary appeal to liberate women from gender (as it is understood under conditions of hierarchy and domination). Likewise in revolutionary queer theory, the task is not one of identity recognition, but to demand a destabilization of the conditions of heteronormativity, to abolish the set of assumptions which designates non-heterosexuals as “Other”, deviant, subordinate, etc.

In Black radicalism, likewise we see this tendency. The struggle is to abolish racialized thought, to abolish race as a subordinate identity. In the words of some radical black theorists, to ‘liberate the man of color from himself’. Huey Newton and Malcolm X, to take two examples, both began early on as Black Nationalists calling for recognition, affirmation of blackness under conditions of systemic racism, etc. But by the end of the 60s, in later interviews, we see a move away from identity and nationalism to a kind of internationalism. This is likewise seen, somewhat, in the political shifts and progression of the Black Panthers.

But, as Hardt points out, this task of abolishment of identity would not be easily undertaken nor would it be painless. On the contrary, there is a sense in which it would be both painful, monstrous and violent. You would have to “lose yourself in order to discover who you could become”. This losing of oneself would be a violent process, insofar as withdrawing from dominant institutions requires violence (this is constitutive of being dominant institutions). Revolution would require a kind of painful exodus. A concrete example of this that Hardt gave was to think of someone coming out to their parents. This is in a sense, an extremely painful task which requires a recognition of abolishment of who you thought you were and who your parents understood you to be. It’s not an easy task.

While I find much of this very interesting, it is extremely inchoate. It begs for a clearer account of identity, the relationship of structure to subject, and faces a host of potent objections. For instance, take Žižek’s position set out in the Parallax View: Class is revolutionary, but neither race nor gender fit this bill. Class aims at annihilating the Other (expropriation of the expropriator), of overcoming the role of worker, but race and class do not: they are only (for Žižek) calls for recognition. He’s not discounting them as necessary and progressive struggles for justice or saying they don’t matter; but rather, he’s saying that they aren’t revolutionary struggles. Is this right?

Hardt responded, first of all, by pointing out that his theory sees class as a species of identity politics. In this initial sense, at least, class is understood similarly to gender, sexuality, etc. Moreover, there are plenty of non-revolutionary versions of class identity politics, in fact, the vast majority of working-class politics fit this bill. So the actual lack of revolutionary movements in the case of gender, for example, cannot speak to an inherent lack of revolutionary potential within feminism as such. Furthermore, Hardt pointed out, we have a lot reasons to think otherwise that he pointed out in his talk. Nonetheless, something about Žižek’s criticism is still well taken: feminist (to take the example of gender) struggles don’t necessarily address race or class, and we find many examples that don’t. I don’t think Hardt aims here to defend reformist versions of feminism, perhaps with respect to those incarnations he and Žižek could agree. In contrast, Hardt wants to instead argue that there can be no revolutionary politics that is not already feminist. The crucial reply to Žižek is that class isn't (in actuality right now) necessarily revolutionary, in fact the opposite is almost always true. Non-revolutionary feminisms are no less indicative of a problem with feminism as such than are the myriad examples of non-revolutionary working-class movements a reflection on the revolutionary potential of class.

But is there something to the objection that his project reeks of humanist ‘colorblind’ baggage which seeks to abolish all difference? Hardt responded that there can be an abolition of gender with a proliferation of differences… when he talks about abolishing gender he is talking about abolishing hierarchy, not the social formation of identities that aren’t all the same. It’s not entirely clear how this would work. Parsing out the hierarchical and oppressive aspects from the ‘keepers’ is not so easy. Moreover, are we to define freedom and liberation in wholly negative terms, that is, in terms of negating what is?

Another question I had was the relation of identity to social structures (material conditions). This is lurking behind everything the talk seeks to accomplish. Hardt rejects dialectical understandings of the structure/subject relation, and argues for the implementation of concepts like “multitude” and “singularity”, but I don’t understand these attempts well enough to know how they gesture at solutions to this problem. Moreover, as someone inclined towards dialectical thought, I’m not convinced that the dialectic (especially as conceived in Adorno, for example) is untenable here.

Food for thought.


Arvilla said...

What a thought provoking post. Obviously there's much to discuss further here. Can you first explain a little more about your last paragraph? I'm not familiar with the concepts of "singularity" and "multitude," so I'm not sure what they're supposed to suggest about recognizing and grappling with material conditions or with overcoming dialectical understandings of subject/structure (I'm actually not sure which of the two you meant to link the concepts to).

With that as an aside, however, I have to say I think his re-envisioning of the identity politics vs. revolutionary politics, though it seems to be in its infant stages, is really, really refreshing. I'm not completely convinced exactly, and like you, want to do some critical engaging with it. But I really appreciate the ambition here. The subject is always rife with chances to disparage any number of movements, and it takes a pretty brave person to delve into it.

As to your point about making revolution an entirely "negative" endeavor, of liberating a subject from her identity (or from the hierarchies associated with her identity?), by abolishing said identity/identity-hierarchy--what's so wrong with having a negative revolution, a revolution of destruction? I mean, I know our instinct is to think something is only good if it constructs something rather merely tearing something down, but if in fact it is these social processes of racialization and gendering, and heterosexualizing, and classing, which lead to hegemony, what's so wrong with simply eliminating them and not concerning ourselves with much of anything else?

I mean, I guess then we are tempted to get into some degree of utopianism, or visionary feminism, where we want to imagine what society could possibly look like without those structures. But what if we just didn't do it? What if we didn't try to envision it? I mean, if those structures were eliminated...would anything else need to be put in their place? If the processes in question are defined and eliminated with precision, this doesn't suggest we would necessarily wind up in anarchism, does it? I guess I just can't understand the obsession with positives. Revolutions of creation shouldn't be the goal. I mean, what is their value unless we know what we want to create, or there is actually anything which necessitates creation. What exactly, in any substantive rather than representative way, would be the problem with a solely negative conception of revolution?

Arvilla said...

Along the lines of that last thought, I'm still thinking about what Hardt considers to be a painful process...the destruction of an identity. He compares it to coming out of the closet, the admission that you not the straight person people assumed you were.

But if the significance or meaning of the straight identity were gone (which consists solely of signifying belonging to one spot on the hegemonic totem pole, or of resisting that spot on the totem pole, at least from the revolutionary perspective), would we really mourn its loss? If we reach a point where we shed heterosexism, what loss would it be to lose your heterosexual identity? So Hardt is suggesting that the very shedding of heterosexism, or the process which gives it power, is what would be painful. I guess my question to Hardt would be, to whom exactly would the loss of oppressive structures be painful?

I'm thinking about my relationship to my own womanhood for example. I embrace it and like it in a "girl power" kind of way. But I wouldn't give two fucks about being a woman or thinking it had some special power if I didn't think it also made me a part of a resistance effort within a patriarchal structure. So if that identity were to disappear, as long as the patriarchy disappeared with it, I'd celebrate. On the flip side, I can't imagine a guy seriously attached to his masculine identity if it weren't for the perceived privileges it brings him in a patriarchal society. The loss of power, he may mourn. But the identity itself? I just...I'm not buying it.

T said...

"I guess my question to Hardt would be, to whom exactly would the loss of oppressive structures be painful?"

I think you might underestimate how entrenched our sense of who we are is, and how much we have invested in it. I don't think he's saying the payoff (throwing off oppression) isn't worth it. He's advocating this kind of revolutionary transformation, after all. Nevertheless, he's saying the process won't be easy: if it were, we should be suspicious of its emancipatory potential.

Withdrawing from dominant institutions, like gender for instance, isn't so simple. Suppose you think of yourself as straight. Do you think it would be easy to suddenly, in the span of a few hours, abdicate that identity and re-conceive of yourself otherwise? Coming out to one's parents, friends, etc. can be an extremely violent process... many people understandably avoid it for their entire lives. That it is painful and violent is not therefore an argument against doing it, however. It is just to admit that wresting oneself free from dominant, determining institutions around which we conceive of ourselves and in relation to which our identities are formed, is a difficult process. It requires that lose ourselves... which is scary. What would be left if we did that, someone might think. It's no argument against doing it, but its an admission that the process is an arduous one.

Hardt joked in his talk that people would say to him "Hey, mike, you're not going to win any converts to the cause by telling people that".

About the 'multitude' and 'singularity' stuff...i really just dont know what that stuff is about. I haven't read Multitude or really any of Negri's stuff. That's not to judge its worth, I'm just saying I dont know.

I thought the talk was really interesting... and everything critical I posed is in a sympathetic spirit: I want this kind of attempt to work.

Arvilla said...

I hope I didn't give the impression that I wasn't asking sympathetic questions as well. The gap between revolutionary politics and identity politics has long been deeply unsettling to me, and hard's endeavor was really exciting for me to read about.

Anyway, I'm rethinking what I said about mourning the loss of identity...a lot...points taken.

T said...

I never thought for a moment you weren't sympathetic to the endeavor! I was only re-stating my own interest in seeing the project succeed. In fact, I posted mostly thinking that you would find this stuff really interesting.

I'm interested in thinking through it more, so hopefully this is just getting a thread of thought off the ground for us (and whomever else might be interested besides the pink-scare cadre).