Since I dissected Matthew Yglesias’ theory that we are all special snowflakes, new developments in the Narrative periodically generate a stream of new discussions of identity politics, and of new reactions to my piece in particular. One of these replies was particularly well-written; further, it contains a particularly clear outline of an important objection to my distinction between principles and identity as political motives.
As I considered my reply, I realized the dichotomy I had drawn between principles and identity was too abstract in some places, too equivocal in others, and so would confuse to readers who made certain reasonable assumptions. Therefore I asked my friend Charles for permission to reproduce his reply here.
I’ve broken my answers into little chunks:
- A-F tackle the general issue
- G-J are (loosely) about the different ways you can group political compromises together into an “ideology”
- K-S expand on F: when can social class function like tribal identity?
- L-P look at peasant rebellions: rebels may coalesce around a coherent identity, but “poor” isn’t enough
- Q-S are a warning about the dangers of trying to use class struggle to fight informal power
- T-X are about blacks: why can’t we all just get along?
- Y-Z offer a final look at the fundamental distinction
Appealing to Identity
I did read your piece by the way. They tend to be lengthy, but always a good read. I’ll give my thoughts in a kind of stream-of-consciousness ramble.
I agree with your thesis, and don’t really understand Yglesias’s. He says identity politics is everything, but also everyone has a ‘unique’ identity which would you would think would render it ineffectual, yet it’s something they need to keep doing? I’m sure I’d get it if I read his piece, but I’m not going to do that.
Identity politics and class struggle (the latter can be subsumed into the former, really) I think, cover basically every political movement I’m aware of. I define it as any political movement which has appeal primarily based on the lines of some sort of distinct identity. Usually something social or racial, but now I’m thinking if economic counts and I’m not entirely sure. I will say it does.
a. “Appealing to” and “making an appeal to” are two different things. For example, promising free public housing for the poor might appeal to a large number of people on the merits, but also attract disproportionate levels of black support because blacks are disproportionately poor and likely to believe they would benefit from the policy. Promising free public housing for poor blacks (or even just blacks) is not just likely to end up attracting black support; the promise is targeted to blacks.
b. Remember the point of the Parable of the Cake: even if the only thing that appeals to you about different politician’s promises is self-interest, that doesn’t mean supporting the most selfish proposal is profitable. In particular, the most self-interested proposals will only appeal to one person (you). Successful political leaders need to make an appeal to a discrete group of potential supporters who will find their proposal more appealing and more stable/realistic than alternative proposals. (So some appeals fail because they are unappealing, and some fail because everyone knows that everybody else expects them to fail.)
c. There are two ways to make (sustainable, stable, realistic) appeals to groups of potential supporters: suggest one possible compromise which has more “good points” than any of the other likely compromises, or name the specific group of people whose interests your proposal will serve. The former type are appeals to principle, the latter appeals to identity. (Again, we saw both types in the Parable of the Cake.)
d. It is possible for all politicians to only make appeals to principle, and all voters to support these principled appeals solely based on self-interest, yet nevertheless see the principled political platforms/alliances remain stable. It is also possible for all voters to support the appeal which speaks to their own philosophical principles only to discover that nearly all of their political allies belong to the same ethnic group.
e. Whether economic classes are a subset of possible political identities is an interesting question. The difficulty comes back to dynamics we have already seen in the Parable of the Cake. If social class has a strong social and cultural component, so that a “peasant” who becomes fabulously wealthy will still live in a peasant neighborhood, eat peasant food, and marry a nice peasant girl (and vice-versa for a poor “aristocrat”), then “screw the aristocrats, give everything to the peasants!” becomes a compelling political program that will attract a stable set of supporters.
f. The problem with defining economic classes (which I alluded to when I discussed class consciousness) is that if there is no rigid cutting-off point between a poor farmer and a rich farmer, it’s too easy to claim you will help “the poor farmers” and then later screw over some of your original supporters so you have more loot to give to everyone else. In that case, it’s much more stable to propose a political principle like tariffs on imported grain that will appeal more to poorer farmers, without making an appeal to a class.
The left uses racial identity politics to distract them, so they won’t worry about the rich so much. They could see them as a benevolent force of anti-racism, like Soros. The right uses racial identity politics (and social conservatism, I guess) to get white southerners to vote against their own (I would argue) economic interests. So racial identity politics is the most potent kind. Pure tribalism, appeal to basic human nature.
g. It is important to understand that American politics aren’t even remotely tribal yet. The trajectory is in place, we’re heading in that direction. I described it allegorically in the Parable of the Cake. But there are other countries where you can already observe pure tribal politics in The Current Year. This is the key point I would urge Charles to consider: pure tribalism is what you see in Kenya and Malaysia, where every tribe has a party and every party can count on the support of its entire tribe. If “identity” is your word for something that drives all politics everywhere, you need a new word to describe the key difference between countries like Kenya and Malaysia and ethnically homogenous democracies where party platforms are described in terms of the principles politicians will imply once they are in office (principles which, nonetheless, hold a varying appeal to different groups).
h. You fell for the “Red State, Blue State” meme! The reality is that in every state, prior to The Current Year at least, a poorer person was more likely to vote for the Dems and a richer person to vote for the GOP. However, people who are caught in the middle consider other factors as well, and in the poorer states these people are much more likely to vote GOP (thus they become Red States); in the richer states, to vote Dem (thus Blue). — I won’t go into the reasons for this at the moment, partly because I’m not sure whether it is still true after Trump’s populist surge; he did vastly better among working-class voters and vastly worse with the college-educated than previous GOP candidates, so I don’t know if the old state-level pattern still holds.
Identity politics will supersede ideology in every multi-ethnic society. (And across societies/ethnes, we can see the same holds true. Schisms are primarily ethnic, not theological.)
i. I agree with your more cautious hypothesis that all political movements will eventually revolve around identity politics, in multiethnic societies. But if it is true that identity will supersede ideology, that implies there is a before (where ideology still matters) and an after (pure tribalism); to reiterate point -g-, the difference between the former situation and the latter is exactly why we need to distinguish between identity and principle.
j. By the way, you could think of an ideology as a strategy for describing a political party’s platform to its supporters which makes it difficult for the party to retroactively favor some supporters over others after they win. This solves the stability problem large, self-interested alliances had in the Parable of the Cake. If an ideology also overlaps with its supporters’ principles, or encourages multiple factions to see their demands as logically inseparable, that’s good too: but its primary purpose is to describe a type of compromise that is stable in a particular way. (The alternative strategy is to describe the people the party intends to help, and creates stable coalitions wherever the population is divided into discrete groups.)
I’m not sure if class struggle exists wherever there’s inequality. (Everywhere.)
k. Charles is wise to be uncertain, because of the difficulty I pointed out in -e- and -f-. Inequality of wealth and of income are omnipresent and eternal. However, these inequalities usually involve a continuum of richer and poorer citizens, which no salient dividing line at any particular level of wealth or income. A political program like “Kill the Rich and give their toys to the Middle Class!” rapidly runs into problems when many people who consider themselves Middle Class realize many of their allies believe they are Rich — or will arrive at this belief when they need more toys to redistribute. Classes are not (necessarily) well-defined, so political proposals based on class-interests are unstable.
Seems like there’s always been peasant revolts, but they were never really successful until the rise of the bourgeois class to lead them.
l. Agricultural society requires peasants to obey rulers. When the peasants do rebel they lash out against the rich, but they are not the most rebellious where they are poorest. In fact, usually rebel peasants are following a local magistrate; and the magistrate’s rebellion usually targets his enemies from other regions.
m. In the last few centuries, successful peasant rebellions were often led by bourgeois or petit bourgeois radicals; they were rebelling against the central government and/or colonial rule (which amounts to the same thing, for most peasants).
n. When a peasant rebellion is an episode in a larger class struggle, inciting rebellion often amounts to no more than convincing peasants that no one will punish them if they break the law, inciting a period of anarchic violence. (This is the prototype of urban unrest as well; it is much more debilitating because early modern cities were so small, and concentrates so much of the neural-network of government in such a small area.)
o. A peculiar feature of the French Revolution is that the actual, historical French bourgeoisie owned most of its wealth outright (“fee simple”) whereas the nobility held many more “feudal rights”: i.e., tithes and fees owed by particular tenants to a particular lord with respect to particular economic activity. These rights did follow any universal pattern within France; they were individually recorded at each lord’s manorial seat, where they could be consulted if disputes arose.
p. I have taken us on this historical detour because in the French Revolution, while “Kill the Rich!” or even “Kill the Landowners!” would have been extremely dangerous political platforms for the bourgeoisie (the bourgeoisie included the wealthiest landowners in France), “Destroy the Feudal Chains!” targeted an enemy that was more well-defined as a class, and thus had potential as a stable political platform. — And indeed, feudalism was abolished, anarchy was fomented in the countryside, and the manorial archives went up in smoke (along with any record of the privileges of the bourgeoisie’s aristocratic rivals).
Class struggle would be fundamentally evil if, in fact, our society was ordered properly, but it isn’t. The people at the top are merchants, not nobles. So I like class struggle insofar as it stokes hatred against the ruling elite of the US.
q. It’s easy to sympathize with this position. Our enemies control the country; they have controlled it for quite some time; their entrenched financial, social, and institutional power is how they perpetuate their occupation of the government. It may seem like if we smashed all inequalities of wealth and influence, they would lose their source of their power and defeating them would be trivially easy.
r.One reason to distinguish between formal and informal power is that as you come to understand what informal power is, you understand why this hope is an illusion. Our enemies’ institutional power grants them, in effect, the power to define words, meanings, and values. They tell people who is at the top, what a ruling elite looks like, what kinds of class struggle and hatred are praiseworthy. If you work hard to build up working-class support for giving the government unprecedented power to smash all inequalities, don’t be surprised to discover your opponents get to decide what kinds of things count as inequalities!
(This illusion is one reason to read Mencius Moldbug and the neoreactionaries. I hesitate to recommend Moldbug to you, Charles, because he is long-winded, and you are a very serious reader! It’s no great burden to recommend him to someone who would just be watching television otherwise; or to a reader who is still clinging desperately to his remaining liberal pieties, and afraid to let go. I was in the latter category, once. If Moldbug were more direct, I would have been spooked and stopped reading.)
s. This is not primarily a point about identity and principle; it’s a point about the strategic value of draining away the moral authority of the left. In practice, however, each new attempt to grant the government additional powers to fight inequality illustrates the difficulty of building a stable political compromise around economic equality.
Just laying this out, to explain the background of the tweet you originally DM’d me over. (I deleted it because the char limit prevented me from saying RACIAL identity politics.)
Now, to address your piece more directly, I’m not convinced that it necessitates screwing another group over, although I think that’s usually how it is. I say this because I believe the black community was better off without civil rights. Really, they’re natural slaves like no other race. They belong at the bottom of society. To deny them that is to deny them their nature. They may not like the thought of it now, but they would be far happier for it. More faith and family. Less rampant materialism.
t. I don’t fundamentally disagree with this. There is much less zero-sum conflict between the group interests of whites and blacks in the U.S.A. than there would normally be between two distinct tribes living in society. Short of repatriating them, nearly any major social reforms that fixed black communities would improve white communities and vice-versa: because (to use your Aristotelian terminology) our blacks are servile by nature and the problems blacks cause, for each other and for everyone else, would be fixed by a master.
s. So I certainly think if we wanted to make a rhetorical pitch that our preferred policies serve black interests, there would be ample material. (The phrase “natural slave” need not appear, of course; there are more flattering ways to describe the situation.) There are other incidental overlaps; by coincidence, Latinos drive down wages for all American workers, but for blacks especially. But a much stronger rhetorical strategy is not to appeal to black interests at all. Repeat “The Dems are the real racists” and “Welfare destroys black families” all you like: even if all this is true, repeating it ad nauseam only confers moral authority on our enemies. You accept racism is the only true evil and helping blacks the path to redemption, and then they decide who deserves to be called racist. (Hint: you and your family!)
t. Plus there is another wrinkle; as I mentioned in the long discussion of the concept of servitude, a system of slavery may good for everyone in society (even the slaves) but it’s fairly rare that a slave is not better off free. The same trait that makes them naturally servile (lack of interest in mutually beneficial cooperation) makes it as unlikely they will show up to vote for their own re-enslavement as that they will show up for anything else.
u. Moreover, blacks are currently mostly subject only to the harmful consequences their servile natures have on other people. Throughout most of history the servile were hungry, cold, and sick; we make sure that blacks have free food, free housing, free medicine, and many other small luxuries besides. You mention civil rights, but were blacks better off without welfare? We can explain the virtue of industry and thrifty, but don’t expect them to vote against gibs. If you pamper natural slaves and then protect them from all the dangers of their condition (other than violent quarrels and careless promiscuity), you can’t expect them to prefer life as a slave.
v. Because blacks are so heavily dependent on various sorts of gibs, and because the main punishment our legal system has to offer is the economic consequences of a criminal record, blacks are also shockingly indifferent to imprisonment. It’s almost as though they were a hereditary ruling caste, beyond the reach of the law. A powerful incentive to be courteous to strangers is to avoid disputes that could escalate to the point where police become involved; aristocrats treat inferiors with supercilious haughtiness because they are above the law and have nothing to fear. Blacks know this and enjoy it; they are also proud to share in the vices of the rich. The media glorify black insolence and black incontinence as adroitly as any bard ever glorified a baron. Any attempt to cure black communities of their ills must first strip blacks of their pseudo-aristocratic status, which they would resist.
w. Beyond the pseudo-aristocracy of all kangz, there is the actual black elite: the Jacksons, the Sharptons, the Obamas, the Muhammads. In all tribal systems, the leaders of the tribe skim most of the cream off the top. (This is another feature of pure tribalism that is still underdeveloped in the U.S., but be patient! Eventually it gets to the point that followers have a genuine distrust for politicians who are insufficiently nepotistic, whom they see as disloyal and cold-hearted, rather than as honest or public-spirited.) Their only interest is in enormous set-asides for the black elite in federal contracts, university admissions, and corporate hiring; and of course, in making it illegal for whites to confuse black elites with their followers. Since they get to be the black elite by controlling the votes and voices of the black rabble, any discussion of the interests of “the black community” needs to distinguish between the general interests of all blacks, the narrow interests of the black elite, and what the black elite can persuade the black rabble is in their interests.
x. In conclusion! As people who have been given the peculiar psychological ability to consider groups of people in the abstract and genuinely care about their welfare, we may well conclude that immigration restriction, apartheid, and jackboots would truly be good for blacks. — As savvy extremists, we know its senseless to waste our breath talking about that conclusion, because that rhetorical strategy confers moral authority on our opponents, who will entirely ignore our conclusions when the time comes to judge what is good for blacks. — As savvy game theorists, we also know that an appeal to blacks, outlining their group interest in re-enslavement, is more or less pointless; we would have to make our case to the black leaders who have no such interest, we would have to strip away blacks’ quasi-feudal privileges for them to sense the benefits, and we would have to convince them to voluntarily work to further their own long-term interests! — On the whole, easier to dream about repatriation.
Implicit Identity and Self-Interest
I also wasn’t completely clear on the divide you put between principle and identity. Probably because I think of libertarianism as a form of soft identity politics, despite their aversion to it. They are not pro-white in principle, or practice, but the appeal is implicitly white. (Also implicitly autistic.) Maybe that’s a stretch. I can’t imagine any society that’s free of identity politics, not dominated by group interests.
But I think you summed up the problem and the basic evolution of it in the United States quite nicely.
y. It’s worth reading the original KMac paper on implicit group identity, if you haven’t already. Thanks in large part to the… eloquence of Richard Spencer, this concept has acquired memetic traction, but the line of argument MacDonald develops in the paper is what gives the meme teeth. (A tell for people who haven’t read the paper: “implicit last stand of white identity” instead of Spencer’s “last stand of implicit white identity”. I see the former so much I get mixed up myself.) To summarize: KMac says that when you deny a group the right to organize around group identity, any kind of activity that is disproportionately attractive to members of that group will attract recruits from the in-group who just want to be around their own kind, and will then acquire symbolic significance for the (suppressed) group exactly like an emblem of explicit group solidarity. — This is all to say that if a principle is implicitly white, by definition it is not an appeal addressed to whites.
z. Ask yourself: “For whom are my principles good?” Are all of your principles good for you? And in what sense? My principles are probably not especially good for me. Globalism has been good for me, and good for my family. I don’t want my children to grow up in a third-world country: I guess that’s a sort of self-interest, but only if we stretch the concept of “self-interest” beyond recognition. If I said I wanted unlimited immigration so that my children and grandchildren could have cheap servants, that would clearly be some sort of self-interest; but what if I want to end further immigration for the sake of social solidarity, honest government, and preventing civil war? What if I want my children to grow up in a homogenous, relatively-equal community? It’s difficult to describe the pursuit of goods like these as self-interested because you can’t prevent a civil war just for yourself; you need to prevent it for everyone. It’s also difficult to describe the difference between cheap servants and social solidarity in terms of self-interest: which of these “interests” is truly important and thus worthy of pursuit is ultimately a matter of principle. (The same could be said of choosing your children’s interests over your own.)