This is a meaty read folks, and much better when put in context of the original article that you should read here.  It will need a second and third reading, IMHO.


   “Identity politics flows logically from this broader censure of universalism. It is derived from the postmodern condition of fragmentation and decentring, according to postmodernists. At the level of description, this basic argument does have some force. Capitalism drives towards totalisation (as some postmodernists might put it) in its pursuit of unlimited capital growth, markets and resources. It unifies different societies and spheres of human endeavour by subsuming them under capital’s rule. Yet, it is quite clear that the major fluctuations of late capitalism—unemployment, the roller-coaster ride of global markets—are experienced by their victims as fragmenting and decentring. The destabilising effects of capitalism result from its central contradictions, and yet these contradictions impact on everyday lives in ways that seem incoherent. This appearance is most visible in the OECD countries where, not by coincidence, postmodernism has flourished. It is in the most developed zones of world capitalism that the penetration of all spheres of human life by capitalist social relations is at its greatest. However, fragmentation is not due to the dominance of the text, discourse or the Hyper-reality of postmodern life. There are other causes. While there is some validity in the description of contemporary life as seemingly volatile and disconnected, this condition should not be taken for granted. The underlying and complex reasons for it, and not just its surface effects, must be pursued.

However, identity politics is much more than just the experience of late capitalism’s instability. It is also a personal assertion of identity based on a condition of marginality. The assertion of identity is no longer part of political activity; it can constitute the entire arena of activity. Politics becomes a matter of “style” and a contest of competing and proliferating identities. This risks political impotence, if the sole emphasis is on difference at the expense of any principle of equality. Under those circumstances, identity politics becomes hostile to any idea of a universal basis for social justice and a revolutionary transformation of society. But not all identities are treated equally. The more traditional identity of class is disavowed. It has always been interpreted as a foundation for solidarity, rather than fragmentation. The “new” identities have emerged in such a way that they displace this traditional category, according to the postmodernists.23

The Marxist notion of class rests ultimately on a theory of exploitation that assumes that the social formation has an underlying logic or coherence. In contrast, identity politics assumes multiple bases of power that generate multiple forms of oppression. These are seen as the sites in which power is contested, but rarely in forms of alliance or with reference to a broader political vision. As the category of class is discarded, so also are forms of political organisation and the connections between struggles that it implies. Indeed, even many of the grassroots campaigns of social movements that combated marginality in the 1970s and 1980s become suspect for the broad fronts that they entered.

The institutional basis of marginalisation (racism, sexism, heterosexism) is neglected in this style of politics. Postmodern concerns with body, identity and difference displace the focus of theory, analysis and action from the institutional sites of power, such as the family, the state, work and school. All that remains, as a political orientation, is the mobilisation of identity in an ironic stance towards the institutions of power. The use of irony and a certain attitude to life is pitched as a gesture in itself towards power, one that avoids forming a counter-power. If this view has any value at all, some political judgment as to why one ironic posture is more potent or effective than any other would have to be exercised. But, it is not clear how postmodernists might do this, when the possible foundations of judgment debated by philosophers are themselves held in contempt.

The political corollary of postulating all identities as unstable and fragmented is dissipation of opposition to capitalism as a whole:

In a fragmented world composed of “decentred subjects”, where totalizing knowledges are impossible and undesirable …[w]hat better escape, in theory, from a confrontation with capitalism, the most totalizing system the world has ever known, than a rejection of totalizing knowledge? What greater obstacle, in practice, to anything more than the most local and particularistic resistances to the global, totalizing power of capitalism than the decentred and fragmented subject? What better excuse for submitting to the force majeure of capitalism than the conviction that its power, while pervasive, has no systemic origin, no unified logic, no identifiable social roots?24″

-Jeremy Smith