Gender equality, combating racism, environmental preservation and everything else related to human evolution and emancipation is part of the repertoire of progressive parties and movements, such as unions and the student movement. These are guidelines that improve over time according to the priorities that the historical moment demands. Thus, special secretariats and parallel organizations live together and complement the central struggle against exploitation and for the dignity of the worker.
In recent years, however, social activism based on specific identity traits seems to distance itself and, more than that, to want to overlap the axis around which the traditional left rests: the class struggle. Today, the identity agenda prohibits political debate and its sectarian and conceptual discourse moves away from popular dialogue.
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This phenomenon that seems to have arisen from movements like the Occupy Wall Street, O me too it’s the Black Lives Matter, comes from long before. The seeds of this purely identity militancy germinated in the Post War period, developed in the American and European movements of the 1960s and were consolidated with the end of the Cold War.
In the article “Market morals: when human rights cover neoliberal economics”, columnist Graham Holton comments on how liberal economics has appropriated the modern conception of human rights, which is at the root of this civil and individualist activism. Commenting on the book “The Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism”, published in 2019 by Jessica Whyte’s Verso Books (not translated into Portuguese), he states that “neoliberal thinkers used human rights to challenge socialism, social democracy and state planning”.
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Holton points to the beginning of the Cold War, in 1947, as a milestone and says that even at that time the USSR denounced the hypocrisy of the USA that supported a discourse based on human rights as the “moral language of the competitive market”, but maintained it in its territory, racial segregation in the South (apartheid was on the rise), the lack of women’s rights, the numerous invasions of foreign countries and the poor conditions offered to workers and indigenous peoples. Adding to the hypocrisy of this supposedly humanitarian discourse is the fact that the US was the only country in the world to make use of the atomic bomb, dropping it on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945.
In the 1960s, at the height of the Vietnam War, the struggle for civil rights, peace movements and student movements gave the outline of a “new left”. For journalist José Carlos Ruy that context was the harbinger of the neoliberalism that would come in the following decades. He quotes Eric Hobsbawn as saying that “the world was tacitly assumed to consist of several billion human beings defined by the pursuit of individual desire” (Hobsbawn: 1995). As an example of the new left, Ruy addresses the trajectory of activist Jerry Rubin. A former student leader, Rubin led some of the first protests against the Vietnam War and was the founder of Youth International Party (International Youth Party). “Less than two decades later, he became a successful capitalist, an Apple Computers investor and the individualist yuppie theorist of the 1980s.
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With the end of the Cold War in the 1990s and the apparent hegemony of neoliberalism, Americans imposed their ideology as a universal truth. This ideology based on individualism, alienation and depoliticization began to bombard the common citizen on a daily basis and this reverberated sharply in Brazil.
Simultaneously, the market economy increased unemployment and triggered a process of precariousness in labor relations, accelerating the disarticulation among workers. The phenomenon of outsourcing became widespread as State protection diminished and workers were increasingly oppressed by financial insecurity and the threat of unemployment.
With the working class strategically split, progressive sectors, especially the middle class, began to lose prominence among the working class and to give more and more space to segmented activism, often based on the search for a supposed individual essence sold by the new capitalism. They started to acquire a more liberal character, which in appearance expresses itself as individual freedom, but in essence also brings the sense of the free market.
In the article “The false dichotomy between identity agendas and economics”, political scientist Tatiana Vargas Maia states that “the new political agenda that emerges in the 21st century, focused on ethnic-racial and gender issues, pulverizes political and social issues into identity agendas partial and specific”. She points out that the criticism that this debate arouses is that “the focus on the identity agenda, especially by leftist parties and social movements, causes a fragmentation of the political field, which leads to a paradoxical weakening of this field.” And he counters these criticisms saying that “the distinction between economy and identity is a popular binary that simplifies and falsifies the discussion about contemporary citizenship” and that identity movements are “some of the most effervescent and democratic political movements in recent decades, such as the black movement and the feminist movement, which have been oxygenating Brazilian politics and society in an interesting and necessary way”.
But the criticism that must be made to purely identity activism is not just that it pulverizes political and social issues and fragments the progressive field.
The problems run deeper and are more about content than form. To sum up, we can raise that, in the first place, this discourse, which is considered to be more evolved than a mere “popular binarism”, distances itself from the reality of the working people, trapped in urgencies such as employment, income and survival.
Second, as stated by Graham Holton, the ideal of society designed by liberalism in the post-war and imposed as a beacon and truth by the Americans, is commonly used to attack regimes outside capitalism, especially socialist countries like Cuba and China. This is clear from an excerpt from Thomas L. Friedman’s article “Will the War on China Replace the War on Terror?”, which puts liberal American values as “universal values”. The excerpt reads: “There is no doubt that the best way for the United States to counterbalance China is to do what the Asian power hates most: confront it with a broad transnational coalition based on shared universal values such as the rule of law , free trade, human rights and basic accounting standards”.
Thirdly, the concept of identity devoid of a class base denies the fact that the traditional left has always proposed to deal with any issue that concerns human evolution and social evolution, such as gender and racial issues, as well as environmental issues. . But it does so from the idea of overcoming capitalist exploitation.
And fourthly, the identity agenda commonly points to aesthetic solutions rather than facing the roots of problems.
The rebound effect this has had is frightening. It is notorious that in the 2016 American elections, workers affected by the 2008 crisis made it possible for the right-wing businessman Donald Trump to win. The same line of reasoning can apply to the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil in 2018, remembering that the ticket that confronted him was strongly influenced by the identity agenda.
In 2020, even with his defeat, Trump won an expressive vote between blacks and Latinos. In the article “Non-white vote in Trump reveals an identity trap”, journalist Maria Cristina Fernandes shows that Trump’s antisocial profile did not prevent him from having, in relation to the 2016 election, a proportionally greater vote among Latinos, blacks and Asians. It was the best non-white Republican vote in 60 years,” even after the worldwide commotion caused by the death of George Floyd and all the vigor of Black Lives Matter.
This shows that identity is more receptive among the middle class in urban centers, with greater consumption power, but it keeps people away who end up finding acceptance in simple-minded politicians who sell easy solutions like Trump and Bolsonaro.
Dissociating the class struggle from social activism makes the militants not identify themselves as workers, creating a barrier between a select militancy that sees itself as “vanguard” and the people.
But to be avant-garde and revolutionary, the left must be critical of this liberal discourse and be careful with the tenuous boundaries between it and the so-called identity agendas. It must consider the oppressed people and the working class. Do not divide this people between women, blacks, indigenous people, homosexuals, etc. Racial, environmental and gender issues are only revolutionary when approached from the root of historical inequalities and injustices. This is a more complex path and one that meets with great resistance, since it shakes social structures. But it’s what differentiates the progressive left from the liberal right.
*Carolina Maria Ruy is a journalist and coordinator of the Union Memory Center.
**This is an opinion piece. The author’s vision does not necessarily express the newspaper’s editorial line Brazil in fact.
Edition: Vivian Virissimo