The second-order critique of identity politics

How a strange theoretical assumption has infected class analysis of identitarian rhetoric.

Over the past several years I’ve watched with persistent frustration as a new kind of stupidity has infected the already ridiculous discourse on class and identity. Since these conversations often proceed in extremely bad faith, or among inarticulate antagonists, however, it’s been pretty difficult to put my finger on what exactly is going on.

Here’s what it looks like on its face: self-proclaimed class warriors who constantly say all kinds of reactionary things about identity. Typically right populists, Post Left Republicans, and other supposedly independent concern trolls. They position themselves against liberals who dismiss class as a form of oppression, of course; but they also position themselves against socialists who merely insist that there are vectors of oppression in addition to class. Even those who maintain that class is the primary field of political struggle, and who have been vilified for their criticism of various points of identity politics. These socialists, we are told, are actually squishes who are just triangulating between identity politics and class.

It’s easy to get stuck in that framing and try to argue that this alleged triangulation is nuanced and reasonable, while the consistency and principle of the Post Left is unreasonable and extreme — but that’s not what is really going on here.

The second-order theory

To see exactly how the reactionary position works, let’s contrast it with another one: “class first” politics, defined as a politics that always prioritizes class struggle. Some readers (especially liberals) may see these positions as similar, but their logic is quite different.

First, the similarity: imagine a scenario where struggles on class and identity are seemingly in conflict. Here’s a familiar one: imagine that a male socialist is running for office against a liberal woman. In this case, all things being equal, you would expect both the reactionary position and the class-first position to back the male socialist — the latter because class-first positions always prioritize class struggle over identitarian issues like representation.

Now, let’s imagine a slightly different situation: a man and a woman, both socialists, running against each other.

All things being equal, the class-first position dictates no preference here. But if I were a gambler, I would bet that the reactionary still backs the male socialist. And here’s the rationale we would get: any affirmation of identity politics now, even one that seems beneficial or inconsequential, will legitimize future scenarios where identity takes priority over class. Want to say that putting a woman in office is important when Gloria La Riva runs? Then don’t be surprised when that same argument is adopted by Hillary 2024.

In other words, the reactionary position insists that any affirmation of identity politics will have second-order consequences that are antagonistic to class struggle, even if the first order-consequences are not. This is quite different from the class-first position, and from other socialists positions, which do not dictate some dogmatic theory about whether “affirming” identity politics in one situation will necessarily “legitimize” it in another.

Let’s consider another scenario that actually happened: the problem of antisemitism against Bernie Sanders. From a socialist perspective, Sanders was obviously the preferred nominee in the Democratic primary. And in fact, this was long the preferred outcome among reactionaries as well. It follows, then, that people who wanted him to win should have supported things that made it more likely and opposed things that made it less likely.

But that’s not what actually happened! Because when liberals began wielding antisemitic rhetoric against Sanders during the primaries, reactionaries argued that his supporters should not draw attention to this. And once you untangled their rhetoric, the argument was straightforward: even if calling his opponents antisemites managed to help Sanders win, “legitimizing” that rhetoric would inevitably become a problem for socialists down the road, because it would (somehow) teach people that class struggle is less important than identity politics.

A lot of the confusion about the reactionary position, in my view, comes from their persistent failure to distinguish first-order consequences from second-order consequences. “Preferring the socialist woman to a socialist man on feminist grounds may not itself be at odds with class struggle, but it will eventually have effects that become a problem for class struggle” would be a much clearer statement of their argument — but it just doesn’t have the same rhetorical punch as “preferring the socialist woman to a socialist man on feminist grounds is a betrayal of class struggle.” So they say the latter, and socialists are left to wonder how voting for a socialist is actually a problem.

The problem with SOCIP

Personally I have never found the second-order critique of identity politics (SOCIP) to be very persuasive. From my own experience, it’s pretty easy to think of situations where (say) I decided that putting a socialist in office was more important than gaining more representation for this-or-that identity, or where (say) I was able to see through some spurious accusation of bigotry against a socialist. Thinking that there are political issues where identity is important did not prevent me from taking the correct position in situations where identity is being wielded against class. There was no logical contradiction. There was no magical intellectual block in my mind that somehow obstructed my commitment to class struggle. Voting for Gloria La Riva in 2020, and thinking that it would have been a victory for women if she won, does not in any way tempt me to vote for a liberal woman in 2024.

So why does anyone buy into SOCIP in the first place? A lot of different reasons:

  • It provides a simple and easy rule for navigating political problems that are otherwise difficult to work through. If for example you find out about a socialist being criticized for using bigoted slurs, SOCIP does not even require you to find out seemingly important specifics like “did he actually do this?” or “has this criticism actually alienated him from socialism?” Since SOCIP tells us that any affirmation of identity politics will inevitably legitimize its priority over class, you can just skip all of these factual questions and matters of judgment and take it as a law of nature that scolding this guy is going to create real problems for class struggle down the road. This kind of intellectual shortcut is extremely seductive for people who find thinking through complex political controversies uncomfortable or difficult.

  • It advances a condescending view of the masses as easily-duped idiots that has always been popular among intellectual elitists. If for example I say “I oppose racist police violence, though we must bear in mind that police violence also disproportionately impacts all poor people,” SOCIP tells us that the public is just too stupid to parse the logic of this statement, and that they will inevitably understand it as an argument against the importance of class. In this way, the simplicity of SOCIP’s absolute rejection of identity politics is pragmatic: it is a way of accommodating the simple-minded masses who are easily confused by ideas about class and identity that are too complicated for their pea-brains to handle.

  • It exercises the liberal impulse to avoid situational judgment by applying rules that achieve “neutrality” through their sheer rigidity. Here, the virtue of SOCIP’s rule — that we should always reject identity as an important political consideration — is the way that it lets us disclaim responsibility for any particular injustice it creates by appealing to the greater good of fidelity to the rule. The logic here is identical to what we encounter with most liberal discourse rules. For example, the liberal rule of “identitarian deference” tells us that we should always defer to the judgment of people who belong to oppressed groups; the rationale is that even if this leads to bad outcomes on occasion, the greater good of respecting and empowering the oppressed in this way justifies rigid fidelity to the rule. In both cases, SOCIP and identitarian deference try to feed the messy world of politics into a supposedly neutral, rationalistic conflict-resolution machine of rules and procedures.

  • Finally, of course, SOCIP just-so-happens to provide a handy class-related rationalization for anyone whose primary commitment is to inegalitarian politics. As I have noted elsewhere, this is extremely convenient if you want to channel class-consciousness back into a bourgeois Republican agenda, or if you are a media careerist looking for an uncompetitive niche market that might eventually give you access to the right-wing dark money machine.

In any case, the disagreement between socialists and reactionaries who wield class rhetoric has nothing to do with who is being “principled” and “consistent” in their commitment to class and who is not. What it really involves is a kind of theoretical dispute over how talk about identity in some situations affects the way we think about identity in others. SOCIP insists that if you ever express a preference for identity egalitarianism, this will inevitably confuse1 everyone into preferring it over class struggle when the two seem to be in conflict. This is not a socialist position, a Marxist position, a materialist position, or even a particularly logical position, but insofar as reactionary rhetoric on class and identity has any theoretical basis at all, SOCIP is where it’s at.

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If you want to see this premise in action, a simple rule of thumb: look for reactionaries who use variations on the word “mystify”. It’s become an extraordinary popular term among the Post Left in particular because of its melodramatic and academic connotations, but in practice the term “mystification” almost always just means “a process whereby everyone becomes confused into opposing class struggle, even if the logic of the situation does not dictate that they should be.”