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Identity as a Project

An article was posted to LibCom recently

It is a decent analysis of Identity Politics, but like most, it misses what I think are some rather important points about Identity. I talk about some of this in my essay “Identity is Impossible,” but it is worth re-stating. The first thing to understand about Identity, in general, is that it is impossible. There isn’t just an occasional identity crisis impacting a society or an individual. Identity itself is built on a crisis that is fundamental to existence, to the ontological nature of consciousness. Since we are not things, we cannot ever identify completely with things… including conceptual things. So identities are always in crisis and they are constantly a territory of conflict.

When we talk about Identity in the way that this article does, we not only ignore the impossibility of identity, we also talk about identification as if it is a passive thing we have happen to us with no recourse. But that isn’t the case and it is crucial to any advancement on questions of Identity to understand that this isn’t the case. We are also active agents in the ongoing reconstruction of identities. We have the capability of defining what we want our identities to be. We have the ability to constitute them, consciously, intentionally, and enter into identity conflicts willfully. What is needed is a constitution of identities that permit our differentiations from each other, but also include strong tolerances for each other’s differences. Not tolerances without limits. Not tolerances of various supremecist identities. But well-formed tolerances based on concrete relations and joint projects of mutual benefit.

Of particular note here is that some identities are dominated by hegemonic forces: by religious authorities, by nationalist movements and political ideologues, by civic institutions, by psychiatric organizations and so on. The more that individuals can participate in the ever-reconstituting of the identities they accept, the more that some of the problems outlined in this article can be mitigated.

As anarchists, this should be obvious to us; but I’m afraid we often think of identity as something that merely happens to us. We often fall into all of the same trappings. We think of identities as fixed, homogeneous objects that we have no power to influence. We think that identities are anti-individualistic because we assume that individuals don’t participate in the reconstruction of identities on an ongoing basis. We conclude that one must be either individualistic or collectivistic on questions of Identity because of these false premises. And because of all of this, we allow our potential power to be diminished.

Additionally as an anarchist, the author’s various notions about the State in this text warrant some response. It isn’t enough to demand the separation of Church from State, nor to expect people to assimilate into these individualistic ideas of citizenship that come out of Secular Humanism. Emphasis on assimilate, by the way. Humanity is not just a collectivity of individuals deluded by cultural distinctions into believing that they are truly different from one another even though we are really all the same. Furthermore, the Nation State, even those based on a supposed Civic Nationalism, can not solve these problems with assimilationist agendas that historically, silently promote consumerist notions of identity to replace those inconvenient racial and religious identities of past empires and ethno-nationalist states.

Unfortunately for Liberals and authoritarian Leftists, this critique of Identity also includes a critique of peoplehood, which means that the basis for the State is thrown into question. If liberal, democratic states are to be based on the consent of the governed and to be an expression of the people (as in, “We the People”), this becomes problematic if there is no such thing a stable people to be governed, nor in whose name the State governs. This is something anarchists have long understood, but something that authoritarians of all sorts can’t accept. That without fixing the concept of the people, the State has no Right according to liberal understandings. It thus rules undemocratically, through representations of peoples that can only ever be in conflict about their identities as peoples, who are always negotiating the meaning of their peoplehood. So it is therefor up to peoples themselves, and the individuals deciding what it means to even participate in that peoplehood, to constitute their lifeways and relations with others – – not states.

Anyway, all of that business about the State is a discussion for another time… and one that I surely will have.