Identity Politics, Class Politics, Spiritual Politics: The Need For a More Universalist Vision

Collaborative Protest

What might the American Left accomplish if all our various identity groups came together in a powerful coalition? Here, activists from North Carolina sing together in protest of Republican lawmakers’ attacks on Medicaid, unemployment insurance, and education and voting rights in May 2013. Credit: AP Photo/ Gerry Broome.

The election and reelection of Barack Obama seemed to many to be a moment of redemption for America’s long history of slavery, segregation, and racism. And the powerful role that minority groups and women now play in elections seems to vindicate a dramatic turn by the Left in the past forty years toward a primary focus on identity politics, particularly highlighting the Left’s efforts to counter certain forms of oppression faced by women, African Americans, LGBTQ people, Latinos, Asian Americans, immigrants, and people with disabilities.

Yet progressives and liberals have not yet fully grappled with the limitations of narrowly conceived struggles against identity-based oppression. For example, if struggles against the gender wage gap are framed narrowly in terms of “equal pay for equal work,” such struggles are fundamentally unable to challenge the larger structure of capitalist domination that leaves millions of women and men unemployed, underemployed, or contending with multiple jobs that are still insufficient to pay for basic needs, not to mention the burdens of unwaged domestic work that continue to fall unevenly on women. Similarly, struggles against racism that are framed narrowly, such as efforts to end the employment discrimination that keeps people of color out of corporate, government, or media leadership positions, are insufficient to challenge the larger racist dynamics of mass incarceration and deportation that increasingly structure our society.

An overly narrow form of identity politics lacks the power to radically transform our society, in part because as more affluent or successful members of oppressed groups begin to achieve recognition of their rights in Western societies, they do not always identify with the needs of the most oppressed members of their own communities but instead sometimes take on the attitudes and orientations of the powerful.

To really transform our society and liberate ourselves from the capitalist ethos and transnational corporate rule that structure all of our lives, we need to listen harder and learn from those on the left who have found ways to combine identity politics with class politics and a call for a deep spiritual transformation of our society.

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