The radical mysticism of identitarian reductionism

A sect of liberalism seems to reject any influence of the material economy on human behavior.

The roles that class and identity play in determining history and human behavior have long been in controversy on the liberal-left, but particularly since 2016 this discourse has taken on a fairly rigid framing. On one hand, we encounter the sordid figure of the “class reductionist”: a hardline dogmatic radical who insists that everything must be explained with reference to the material economy. (The more accurate phrase, given how it is used, would be “material reductionist,” but the phrase “class reductionist” has evidently stuck.) On the other hand, meanwhile, we have the humble “intersectionalist”: the sophisticated, nuanced speaker who sees in our politics the influence of the material economy, but also of other forces of oppression, like racism and sexism.

It isn’t difficult to understand why this frame became so entrenched. During her run for president, Hillary Clinton’s effort to position herself as an intersectionalist who admitted a role for the material economy and identity in our politics — while insisting that Sanders only acknowledged the former — let her pose as intellectually holistic and pragmatic, while vilifying Sanders as blinkered and simple-minded. And this framing has been useful ever since for the liberals who dominate our discourse and who want to delegitimize socialists in precisely the same way.

The main problem with this rhetoric is that class reductionism, so conceived, does not actually exist as a significant or influential tendency. A less remarked upon problem, however, is that the converse is not true. Among a certain genre of reactive, semi-erudite liberal, hostility towards the strawman of the class-reductionist has plainly prompted a bizarre overcorrection: an embrace of identitarian reductionism, which denies that the material economy plays a role in our politics at all.

A good illustration of this tendency emerged yesterday. Consider this tweet by liberal pundit Jill Filipovic:

Jacobin, quite explicitly, is taking the “intersectional” position, insisting that economic forces can only explain incel subculture “in part”. But even this partial role for the material economy is a bridge too far for Filipovic, who dismisses the intersectional position in principle. Implicitly, the only permissible sort of explanation here is one that relies exclusively on vectors of oppression related to identity. Without explanation, Filipovic will even admit a role for racism in incel subculture before she concedes that perhaps economic forces could be relevant as well.

For a more persistent illustration of this tendency, consider how liberal pundits often talk about Trump’s victory in 2016. Vox’s Zack Beauchamp insists that there is “little evidence that economic stress had anything to do with it” (emphasis added). The Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham declares that it’s “not about economic anxiety.” There is a certain motte-and-bailey at work here — if you press these pundits on these statements, they’ll eventually retreat to far more modest positions like “economic forces swung some votes, but they were not the most important factor” — but the polemic role of this kind of rhetoric is straightforward. Liberal pundits take hardline, absolutist stances against any role for the material economy in our politics, popularizing empty ridicule of “economic anxiety,” and this evolves into a widespread popular analytical bias against any consideration of such factors in our politics.

It is hard to overstate how historically and ideologically bizarre — how breathtaking in its counterintuition and metaphysical ambition — this doctrine of identitarian reductionism actually is. This is not just the usual identitarian claim that there are causal forces in our politics that cannot, ultimately, be traced back to the material economy. This is a second declaration: that somehow, the material economy is not also playing a role in our politics. At all. The fear, misery, and bitterness of poverty; the anxiety over one’s precarious standing in the so-called middle class; the insular luxury and jealous ambition of wealth; the concentration of wealth, the evaporation of jobs, and so on — none of this, evidently, plays any role whatsoever in the emergence of demographic tribalism, in interpersonal attitudes, in voting behavior, and so on.

This is obviously not the socialist position, but it is not even an ordinary capitalist position. From Adam Smith to Rand Paul to Elizabeth Warren, liberals have always admitted a role for economic “incentives” in shaping human behavior and political outcomes. “It’s the economy, stupid” was considered a central insight of Democratic politics for more than two decades. On the contrary, the sort of ontology one would have to construct to rationalize an absolute analytical bias against material causality seems to have little precedent outside of certain genres of religious mysticism.

As noted, I think that identitarian reductionism is probably best understood as a historical consequence of Clinton 2016’s campaign messaging: it is what happens when liberal pundits with massive corporate platforms popularize hardline, hyperbolic criticism of “class reductionists” out of rhetorical convenience. This is not, in other words, some inevitable expression of liberal ideology — it’s even weirder than that. And regardless, we’re going to be living with it for a long time.