The Practice of Putting People in Boxes

The Washington Post never fails to disappoint in its penchant for publishing very poorly reasoned opinion pieces. Today it’s this piece by Hannah Selinger: “Perspective | I want to vote for a woman because she’s a woman.”

This obsession with identity makes people put dumb things down in writing. The establishment seeks ways to divide the population into cul-de-sacs of identity (that are supposed to intersect in some way). It’s all about disuniting the proletariat, obscuring class relations, and undermining working class consciousness. 

“Why can’t being a woman be an issue that guides us at the polls, when the political world has treated us unfavorably, limiting our reproductive rights, dismissing us in medicine, penalizing our careers when we choose to have families, providing us with no affordable options for child care and, generally, paying us less for the same work done by our male counterparts?” 

Perhaps because not all women agree with everything Selinger wrote. Why does this writer think all women share her politics? Or that only a proper woman would. She does know that there are men who are committed to everything she has written here. It is about the issues or what’s between our legs? What are we struggling for? 

“Part of this conflict lies with (mostly white) Republican women, 53 percent of whom voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Those women supported party politics over the ideology of womanhood — but maybe they shouldn’t have.” 

Or maybe they should have. Or at least maybe they should not have voted for Clinton and instead voted for someone like Jill Stein. Maybe many of these women have sons, are tired of endless wars, and didn’t want to vote for a warmonger. I know several women for whom this was a major issue. That’s not a legitimate concern? Maybe they didn’t define themselves in terms of a master status and voted instead on an issue important to them as people. 

Demographics make for shitty politics. It’s what the establishment does. 

There are competing ideologies of womanhood. Many women prefer traditional values. The writer has a set of values and attempts to turn them into the one and only “ideology of womanhood” by wrapping them in an alleged essential identity.

This is the problem with identity. It makes a person think she can speak for everybody who shares her gonads or skin color or whatever. It’s presumptuous. Exclusive. Alienating. Those who don’t get it are not merely wrong. They are betrayers. They are bad people.

A study came out the other day showing how the more sexist an abstract man is the less likely he was to vote for Warren or other female candidates. But I hasten to emphasize that the question concerns a woman running as a Democrat. What if it were a woman running as a Republican? 

But I wonder, does this relation run in the other direction? That is, are women more likely to support a woman running as a Democrat the more sexist they are towards men? Yeah, I know, sexism only runs in one direction. That’s a bunch of bullshit. I have sat in rooms and listened to women and their male allies (who virtue signal like mad) run men down. If they feel that it’s important for men to know what it feels like to be reduced to a personification of an abstract category, I have known what that feels like since I was a child. The point is that it is wrong, no? Then why do it? To be sure, it gathers power. But not to create equality. Besides, I don’t want to be part of a movement that runs people down on the basis of their gonads. I avoid those meetings if I can.

If identity is the reason to vote for a woman, then why not vote for a woman running as a Republican? Otherwise, don’t tell me I will never understand how important it is to little girls to see a woman president.

But let’s be honest. That’s not what is actually desired here. What is desired is a woman Democrat. It’s not even about enlightened politics. If that were true then the author would have voted for Stein. I bet she didn’t.

The argument boils down to a partisan appeal to “stay in your lane.” This is party ideology. The ideology of a bourgeois party. One that wages war constantly. One that operates on the politics of grievance. The identity angle is really about bringing people into the party of those terms. This was why the establishment selected Obama in 2008. These are exercises in hegemony.

When I hear progressives professing working class loyalties say, “This is our party,” I cringe. It’s not my party. Democrats don’t speak for me. Objectively, the party doesn’t speak for the working class. It speaks for the capitalist class.  

Why do people assume I am down with this? But they do. And they know I am a Marxist and a socialist! “Does this mean you are pro-Trump?”  

As the election season approaches (it’s already here!), I have been asked this question with increasing frequency. It’s as if we nobody has heard a damn thing we’ve said the whole time. Either one is a Democrat or one is a Republican.

You can’t hear other people when you live in a idea-proof box.

I can hear it now. “You can’t make this argument because you are a man.” Yet a lot women make this argument. Are they not really women? We see the same rhetoric with race. A black person doesn’t toe the progressive Democratic line and their blackness is suspect. They are an “Uncle Tom.” A gay man isn’t queer enough if he doesn’t accept the whole acronym (which he played no role in assembling). 

Folks are actually individuals, and individuals come with different opinions. If one’s opinion is selected on the basis of sex or race, then has it actually been reasoned through? Sex is a material relations in a very narrow way. Race is not a material relation at all. Stop practicing cerebral hygiene.

Who was it who said that, and I paraphrase, it is difficult to reason oneself out of a position he did not reason himself into? When you start questioning the politics of identity, the entire system starts to unwind. That’s why resistance to articulating the points of opposition is so stubborn, even aggressive. You aren’t supposed to think as a person. You have to say in your lane. This was decided for you. Free thought is a right wing value. 

While some may see the argument of Selinger’s piece as feminist (there are many feminist standpoints), this is not the feminism to which I subscribe. I very much desire to see the elimination of sexism in social life (same with racism). We increase our chances of making this a reality when we control the way society works. That will come through class struggle.

Capitalist relations have historically devalued women as a class because the system exploits the sexual division of labor. It’s not the first system to do this. But, if we organize in class terms, we might make it the last system to do this. 

Under exploitative relations genotype becomes exaggerated and warped. In a socialist society, the relations of production and reproduction are laid bare, use values are ascertainable and subject to democratic processes, the equality of individuals becomes obvious.

Capitalist conditions us to deny our animality. They alter the dynamics of family and intimacy. The phenomenology of this is that the problem lies in sex and its relations in-themselves, not in the way in which capitalism exploits sex for profit.

(There are other systems of sexual oppression, of course. And they can be worse than capitalism. Consider how Islam exploits sex for extreme male privilege. Then consider how progressives celebrate the hijab. Once again, we see how identity makes people believe dumb things.)

Crucially, the way capitalism exploits sex is differentiated across the class structure, and gender becomes variable across time and space, at once essential and arbitrary. This is why affluent cosmopolitan types focus on sex to the exclusion of class, and thus widen the gulf between people across the class structure, which in turn undermines class solidarity. 

Failure to recognize the dialectic makes for bad politics. Capitalist relations distort consciousness. It does no good to swallow the distortions and regurgitate them as identity politics. Diversity is no substitute for equality. Tokenism stands in place of justice.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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