While stereotyped “othering” certainly pre-existed capitalism, in a society structured by the production of surplus-value, transhistorical forms of injustice are made historically-specific in being used to “naturalize” social inequality. In Adolph Reed, Jr.’s words, “ideologies of ascriptive difference help to stabilize a social order by legitimizing its hierarchies of wealth, power, and privilege, including its social division of labor, as the natural order of things.” Anti-capitalist struggle is, from this perspective, also feminist and anti-racist struggle, in that it aims to remove the conditions that undergird domination based on ascriptive hierarchy. A key perversion of the neoliberal era is to have not only separated broadly “identitarian” concerns from socialist ones but to have pitted them against one another, such that one can find well-meaning liberals chiding the “class reductionists” and defending with a tasty self-righteousness an “equality of opportunity exclusively within the terms of given patterns of capitalist class relations.”
To some, the answer is a return to pre-neoliberal era politics, when leftists saw racial, gender, and class oppression as inextricably tied together. But this route underestimates the insidiousness that identitarian thinking has accrued since the 60’s. “Identity politics”—that is, a politics centered on categories of identity—cannot simply be “re-opened” to class concerns because its central function today (as opposed to the 60’s) is to prevent us from thinking clearly about class. Note that one can make this statement while still remaining fully committed to the abolition of gender and racial oppression. Note also that any surprise elicited by this previous note evidences the general obviousness of the liberal assumption that being against identity politics makes one a racist, misogynist, etc.
The compulsive intersectionalizing of today’s nascent left is thus not a sign of class solidarity: it rather reflects a lingering adherence to false universals (like the primordialist white racism argument touted by liberals) and a lack of confidence in true universals (like the decommodification of social goods). No doubt there is a growing frustration with Ta-Nahesi Coates-style identitarianism, but the obviousness of the need for ever-vigiliant intersectional analysis typically goes unquestioned.
Take the seemingly innocuous phrase “socialist feminism.” Whatever good vibes are gained from the combination of these two words are bought at the expense of analytic clarity. Shulamith Firestone was, for instance, a socialist and a feminist, but she was also clear that these commitments involved different kinds of analysis and should not be conflated. Socialism and feminism can only be seen as complementary projects if they are first understood to be distinct. Mushing them together only leads to the most abstract of conclusions: for instance, that “socialist-feminist visions of leadership and of leadership development promote activists’ capacities for engagement in democratic decision-making and collectivity.”
What is the source of this compulsion to intersectionalize? Why do we need to end the sentence “Single-payer healthcare is for everyone” with “but it disproportionately affects people of color, single mothers, immigrants, etc.”? Why must this always also be about that, and everything be about everything all of the time?
According to the psychoanalyst Karl Abraham, it is common to see someone in the later stages of mourning turn their “libido to the outside world with an excess of eagerness. This change of attitude gives rise to many symptoms, all of them based on an increase in the person’s oral desires. This appetite is not confined to the taking of nourishment alone. The patient ‘devours’ everything that comes their way.” For Abraham, these are the characteristics of mania, the high side of the “circular insanity” of manic-depression.
Abraham describes here an accelerated “psychosexual metabolism”: ideas are taken in quickly, but they are just as quickly expelled from consciousness. The point is not to actually engage with any of the “fresh impressions” garnered through this “swift and agitated process,” but rather to demonstrate that one is capable of doing so in the first place. It is an attempt to prove resilience, that one has become sufficiently liberated from the lost object so as to interact “happily” once more with the external world. This interaction is not really an engagement with reality but rather “an orgy of a cannibalistic character.” The important thing is that everything is being devoured. Mania is thus actually quite harmful to the things that it metabolizes.
Typically mourners will overcome this temporary mania and emerge back into reality, but for the narcissists this mania of relentless object destruction is a permanent feature of their character. Everyone goes through manic moments, as life is loss, but mania for some is a whole lifestyle of devouring everything and processing nothing. The same can be said for compulsive intersectionality today: for most (hopefully), it is a waystation on the path to a more advanced political position. But others build a life around devouring without processing. Adolph Reed, Jr. calls this “posing as politics,” but it might better be labeled “reactive mania as politics.”
But this all begs the question: if, as Abraham and his analysand Melanie Klein both assert, the manic pretends, in denial, that one can act in the world perfectly well without the lost object, what, in the case of the compulsive intersectionalist, is being unsuccessfully mourned? Ike Balbus speaks in Mourning and Modernity of the need to “mourn the movement”: that is, to overcome “the recurrent pattern of nostalgia for and denigration of the Sixties on the Left,” which is “both a sign of and a defense against a profound political-cultural loss from which we have yet to recover.” Balbus contends that political depression follows from a failure to mourn the movement, and he primarily views the movement experientially, as a “Movement Mother” that provided and frustrated, but his analysis easily lends itself to the situation at hand.
Most of the manics today did not live through the 60s, having only experienced the brutality of neoliberal capitalism, but they do nonetheless suffer from the loss of the movement in another way: in terms of a lack of political possibility. More important than the experience of the 60’s is the fact that it was a time when the left was clear-thinking about the nature of economic exploitation and still to some degree had organic links to a working-class base. This political power is what is being unsuccessfully mourned today. Rather than confront the fact that the object is dead, that the left really has to start over in terms of both its internal development and external organizing, we anxiously make nods to every marginalized community with the hope that proceduralist intersectionality will somehow seep into reality by osmosis.
The left is thus committed to fighting for everything to the extent that it is in denial of the fact that it is currently in a position to win nothing, having been decimated by forty years of unregulated capitalism and isolated from the mass constituency it needs to effect change. A successful reconstitution requires moving the mourners past their temporary mania, thus freeing them of the influence of those with true circular insanity, who only want to add more manics to their ranks.
Aurora Borealis ate her own parents and has nothing to show for it but a vivid fantasy life.