When Freedom > Privilege – Oppression: Rethinking Identity Politics, Left Unity, and the Sanders’ Revolution

How can an identity strategy – that seeks to reduce oppression by prioritizing freedom over privilege – better unify the state power winning politics of the Bernie Sanders’-aligned forces, social movements, and the independent left?

Exploring what might be gained and given up by the left, when Sanders’ anti-oligarch focused approach is engaged by this, and other identity unity-building strategies, may offer a pathway towards an answer.

  1. Countering Neoliberal Capitalists via an Identity Politics Strategy

The current political formation inspired by Bernie Sanders targets the oligarchs as the main identity to oppose.[1] Sanders frames this identity strategy in the following way:

It’s not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’ No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry… We need candidates — black, white and Latino and gay and male, we need all of that. But we need all of those candidates and officials to have the guts to stand up to the oligarchy. That is the fight of today.[2]

This quote and its conditional non-exclusionary ending, “that is the fight of today” (which doesn’t exclude this or other oppositional-identity emphases in the future) speaks of a Sanders’-aligned strategy and critique.[3] It is a critique of the capitalist-class collaborating, state and party power-elite’s exploitation of identity (freedom) politics. And it speaks of a social movement construction of neoliberal capitalist-empowering identitarian practices, that intersect with these elite’s politics.

As described by Cedric Johnson in an article entitled, “The Panthers Can’t Save Us Now,” the neoliberal power elite engage a compartmentalizing, pluralist, all strata accepting, discrete identities constructing strategy.[4] Capitalists are one of the strata that are equally accepted into a given, siloed identitarian construct (they are accepted for example, in the name of inclusion). Indicative of this strategy was Hillary Clinton’s response to Sanders’ critique of capitalism in their first head-to-head debate: as a claimed progressive, she said that contrary to Sanders, the unity she appeals to is for all people, capitalists included; she then portrayed capitalists as small and medium size business people populating the entire country, insinuating that Sanders would harm these many people (supposedly cleaving the singular unity of “the citizens”).[5]

In discussing ways that neoliberal strategies are empowered through social movement milieus, Johnson writes that,

Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrice Cullors gives a sense of this problem when she says that she will continue to work with black neoliberals because of their common racial affinity… Cullors is right when she asserts that political work involves building bonds of trust and a willingness to respect different opinions… [But she] mistakes the core basis of political life, however. Sustained political work is held together by shared historical interests, especially those that connect to our daily lives and felt needs, not sentimental “ties of blood”.[6]

Johnson notes that social movement activists help empower a capitalism, and capitalist inclusive identity politics by melding (a putative unity of in-common) political, historical, and cultural interests with identity. This “we are all one”, exclusivist identity-group making regimen speaks of another part of these practices, carried out in front stage, back stage processes. Applying this metaphor and framework to social justice and white-supremacist politics, a front stage interest that is often equated with the white identity, is maintaining white privilege[7]. A back stage interests-identity melded, yet unsettling expression regarding whiteness (in say a neo-Nazi, skin-head, Ku Klux Klan combine) would involve white working-class identifying, white supremacist advocating individuals (whose putative whites-of-all-strata, identity-uniting interests could be undercut by their ostensible capitalist-opposing, working-class interests, e.g., as per their opposition to crony-capitalists, banksters, globalists, too big to jail CEO’s); for identities said to be oppressed, in regard to people of color, one front stage interest would be to end racism.

Left Fragmentation and Capitalist Inclusive Identity Politics

When identity engaging activists, a) seek an ideological hegemony for a “we are all one” making – front-stage interests-identity meld, and, b) combine this with a pluralistic all-strata-accepted ethos (within a given identity), the unity formation in question will generally be open to left-power fragmenting, neoliberal power-advancing processes. Obama’s electoral strategy set up such left-adverse interventions: posed as unifying multitudes of social movement supporters, he employed his racial identity as a beacon of hope for a multi-racial all, while promising card check for unions and tax justice-reductions for all but the wealthy. The moment he took office, those commitments were shelved in favor of (previously back-staged) capitalist-class collaborationist regimens (keynoted by bailouts for too big to fail corporations).

Social movement activists help accomplish this marginalization process, when, for instance, anti-capitalist expressions are negatively sensed, or as in the Cullors’ reference[8] (above), when such participation is accepted in an exclusivist identity-oriented milieu. In this context, expressions against an internal stratum, in this case, capitalists, could be perceived as unity-breaking (in all but an anti-capitalist oriented identitarian grouping). It could for instance, alienate money giving from small business capitalists. Cedric Johnson notes some capitalist-advancing manifestations of such exclusivist regimens:

The Black Lives Matter slogan can and on occasion already has become a vehicle for entrepreneurial branding and courting philanthropic foundations. Similarly, it can express bourgeois interests (e.g., “Black Wealth Matters”) and education-privatization agendas just as easily as it can express working-class interests and the promotion of public education. [As to the former outcome, Johnson notes that] Ferguson activists Johnetta Elzie, DeRay McKesson, and Brittany Packnett have allied themselves with Teach for America, an education privatization group that supplies nonunion, low-wage, inexperienced teachers to urban school districts.[9]

Such developments can advance capitalist wealth-building; this in turn, can enhance their means for “purchasing the political class.” Such political-money is often used to weaken left neoliberal-opposing politics and party building. What’s more, when a capitalist money-fed power elite, who claim the mantle of progressivism or inclusion, as well as capitalist inclusive, social movement identity-interests melding groups, ply such inclusive identity strategies (as Johnson indicates), Sanders and neoliberal-opposing projects can be stultified. Even without detailing how many resources and activists knowingly or unknowingly engage these forces instead of the Sanders’ mobilization, one might surmise how the latter would be diminished. It would be diminished because these (oft-times pre-dating) forces seek separate, and sometimes integrated engagement of activists, polities, politics, and ideologies (e.g., for freedom, against oppression, and for inclusion) that the Sanders revolution also builds upon and needs but does not yet adequately engage.[10]

  1. Working Through Strategic Identity Comparisons to Win State Power

These fragmenting conditions hint at challenges for left and social movement unity-building politics that seek to win majoritarian state power. In this respect, an initial strategy-developing question is: When it comes to winning majority votes in 50 states[11], what are the (electoral-engaging) strengths and weaknesses of Sanders’ single identity-opposing prioritization strategy, compared to social movement oriented, single-identity opposition-making strategies?[12]

A first point for comparative judgment-making is: the anti-oligarch prioritizing strategy can be appraised by examining who activists in capacious exclusivist-oriented identity mobilizations, generally constitute as a prioritized opposition. One relevant dimension for making comparative judgements would be the size of such groupings. As to prioritizing of an opposition group other than the oligarchs, such groups include for example, all men who oppress women; whites who are anywhere from racist to prejudiced vis-à-vis people of color, and/or all people who are institutionally, relationally, and by-privilege connected to white supremacy; or homophobic, trans-phobic, and other sex-gender bigoted polities. By comparison, Sanders’ opposition group is small; in post-Occupy terms, it could be called the 1%, and has been described more like .01%. Because the oligarchs are much smaller, there would be less people to unite against, and more people, ostensibly, to unite with, e.g., in an electoral focused coalition. This would likely create less large-scale divisions among the intended polities that need to be won over in the vote.

Considerations for Prioritizing One Oppositional Identity: Matters of Power and Place

As far as additional assessment points, the identity group of the oligarchs/ruling-class[13]/power-elite[14] have a tight set of political power descriptors and locations that identify individuals to oppose (e.g., elites close to and in state power positions, including people in the top economic strata, such as the politically active corporate power elite; the state power elite, including corporate-favoring elected officials and candidates; the major parties’ power elite; and the military/militarized-state-forces power-elites). This is also to observe that the 2016 presidential election revealed rafts of left and right identified voters who disdained this identity grouping.

By comparison, the opposition group of men who oppress women would include men identified across intersecting identity categories (e.g., race and class) and strata in each category. This dynamic implicates a large number of candidates to oppose (which is hinted at by the #MeToo movement and evidenced for example, by the resignation of office holders across liberal and conservative lines). The dispersed political location of such candidates moreover, implicates a strategy that in comparison to an anti-oligarch approach, would likely inspire large-numbers-catching targeting criteria; and this could lose majority votes (Trump could be seen as a noxious exemplar vis-à-vis the comparative efficacy of prioritizing this oppositional polity: a widely exposed sexist-predatory male, winning a majority of white women’s votes and the presidency).

The identity polity of open white supremacists suggests another candidate-opposition-making identity to prioritize. Like the oligarchs it is relatively small and has a tight set of identifying descriptors. This suggests that two criteria points might be met by targeting open bigots who ran for office, i.e., relative small group size and the issues to oppose them on. However, because of the aversion of most candidates to being explicit about any such identity, the state power-location criteria point, is a significant mitigating factor.

This comparative analysis suggests that except for the oligarch-opposing strategy, other single axis-oriented strategies would generate less majority voter-winning capabilities.

Multi-Oppression, State Power-Acquiring Anti-Oppressor Strategy

An alternative approach that pluralistically-equally prioritizes and opposes all oppressors would seem efficacious on the political formation-building side. It suggests a very large coalition by dint of combining activists from anti-racist, feminist, disability rights, indigenous communities, working-class, poor, anti-homophobic, anti-transphobic, anti-xenophobic, and anti-speciesist identity axes, to mention a few. This strategy however could cast too wide a pall over too many voters. To aptly engage this strategy, the plural-all-oppressions-respecting coalition(s) would likely combine many, and potentially unlimited oppressions to oppose (few candidates would likely avoid being cast as oppressors or privilege promulgators in one respect or another). The ironic development during the elections, in which the claimed representative of women, Clinton, received less votes of white women than Trump, indicates some problems in prioritizing this approach in a 50-state strategy (even if they accepted that Trump was a sexual predator, just in that oppression/identity axis alone, they believed that Trump’s position didn’t justify voting for someone of their ascribed identity type). Additional voter alienation is implicated if there was for example, extensive de-privileging work called for regarding not just candidates, but voters.[15]

III. Reducing Partisan Pluralist Identity-Left Divides                                                                

This analysis suggests the comparative state-power winning efficacy of Sanders identitarian strategy. It doesn’t indicate how polities oriented around anti-oppression identity politics that Sanders’ doesn’t similarly prioritize, could be more appreciably brought into the proclaimed revolution, and how that revolution could become part of the social movements[16]. Two strategic questions will frame an answer seeking process. The first is: To whom; by what ascribed identity; and how capaciously – might a left-inflecting, politically-directed sense of plural equality for all extend vis-à-vis each of the following political identity and unity making paradigms:

  • To everyone equally, by identity, as individuals (whether or not they are oppressed);
  • To everyone (e.g., all voters and/or all who seek common cause) by identity and as individuals, but the oligarchs/power-elite/ruling-class;
  • To everyone within single oppressed identity types/axes (i.e., within relatively exclusivist in-common interests-identity melds);
  • And/or (in theory) to everyone who simultaneously experiences oppression and privilege, in intersecting ways, but not (preponderantly, in practice) to those who are said to experience mainly privilege.

These paradigms have been analytically-strategically engaged throughout this piece. The first one is associable with horizontalist, participatory-democratic influenced politics such as Occupy Wall Street. The second is the Sanders’ paradigm. The third speaks of the single identity-oriented paradigms. And the fourth refers to a multi-oppression uniting, and/or Intersectional paradigm.

Political Pluralism: Partisan Pluralism

Pluralism in politics refers to people’s mutual if not formal recognition of laterally equally treated, substantive political differences. These are differences that are manifest between individuals and groups (by religious-beliefs, interest groups, ethnic groups, or party affiliations for instance). Pluralism upholds a principle that no group or individual, and no cause or policy, should be treated as any more or less important or prioritization worthy, before the pluralistically circumscribed decision-making body and process (e.g., in democratic processes).

As to the partisan qualities of these four paradigms, the notion that any group-asserted pluralism must be administrated indicates how they can be considered partisan. Even if administrators – or the political body as a whole – call their facilitation of plural decision-making processes neutral, non-partisan, no-sides-taking, or unbiased, vis-à-vis the running of them, those terms can be understood as partisan. On the one hand, the horizontalist inflecting “all individuals are laterally equal” pluralism, might find some of its advocates claiming non-partisanship (via the claim, for instance, that if every individual is always equal vis-à-vis their participatory-democratic decision-making voice, how could it be partisan and biased-against-them). On the other hand, all of these paradigms, horizontalism included, are no more or less administrated and steeped in disciplinary forms of cooperation/power. None are more or less committed to ensuring or preventing-the-corruption-of their chosen group, power-delegating/decision-making regimen. Ensuring/Administering their chosen regimen is in this sense, a partisan (e.g., enduringly biased) act. Consequently, this alternative view can render as unpersuasive a major ideological divider: none of these paradigms can persuasively claim to be any more or less partisan. As such, none would be persuasively able to claim exemption from (i.e., incommensurability with) being considered equal contenders as to which one or ones to prioritize in a 50-state strategy.

Integrating Pluralist Unity Paradigms: Adding Partisanship to an All-Respecting Pluralism

As to integrating the paradigms, the first one (that’s horizontalist) implicates maybe the broadest support and trust-building potential among voters and political coalitions. It asserts: no person identified by, and identifying as one identity, or by intersecting identities – whether viewed as oppressed or not – would be considered any more or less important or worthy of respect and equal decision-making voice/power/cooperation (ditto for their causes).

Not unlike horizontal partisan-pluralist politics, the Sanders’ campaign treated all participants, all people pursuing common cause, and all voters as pluralistically equal (unless proven otherwise, e.g., by dint of being a voter-candidate who is openly racist). They were framed this way, regardless of whether they were said to be oppressed or not. In contrast to the horizontalist pluralist paradigm however, Sanders’ horizontalism is also produced with explicit anti-horizontal priorities (manifest, e.g., in oligarch-negating ideologies and practices). This suggests that in relation to joining the Sanders revolution, horizontalist-prioritizing polities would likely have to acknowledge their approach as partisan and rethink their all-individuals-equalizing approach.

Exclusivist Identity Pluralism, Intersectionality, and Conciliation Possibilities

For the more exclusivist identity polities (the third unity-paradigm) partisan-plural respect/power is generally accorded equally to every person identified as, if not also identifying as oppressed within a single identity axis. Engaging Sanders’ 50-state anti-oligarch prioritizing strategy would be challenging for this milieu. One challenge would be to accept the subordination – rather than the prioritization, or in lieu of that, the equalization – of their prioritized identity regimen. Concomitantly, this strategy does not ask Sanders’-aligned polities to do the same.

The fourth partisan plural position is multi-identity engaging. It can also be articulated as an Intersectional approach.[17] While this paradigm can theoretically uphold the plural uniqueness of every person vis-à-vis how multiple identities, privileges, and oppressions intersect in one’s subjectivity and social relations, advocates tend to prioritize its politics around fighting oppression. The resistance to subordinating this unity-building regimen to the Sanders’ paradigm might be far-reaching. An all anti-oppression-uniting approach, compared to an exclusivist approach for instance, would insinuate a larger unity-inflecting coalition.[18] As such they would be called on to subsume this entire intersectional unity formation and framework to a candidate-opposing and issue-generating identity regimen that prioritizes opposing the oligarchs.

  1. When Freedom > Privilege – Oppression

Possibly aiding the move of advocates of the other three paradigms towards Sanders is the strategic logic (suggested earlier) that the comparative merits for winning more nationwide state power may be compelling enough to generate significant shifts. The area that Sanders’ activists and polities would likely need to rethink and without which they may not be able to ideologically come closer to anti-oppression polities and vice versa, concerns freedom, privilege, and oppression in identity politics. This brings up the second strategic question: Can the notion of privilege in identity politics be conditionally subsumed by the notion of freedom, in the context of forging a 50-state, left-inflecting, plural all-individuals-equalizing, power-winning strategy?

A primary ideological dyad in left-inflecting milieus is the oppressor-oppressed relationship. It has been posed for example in relation to slavery (in the past) in the United States (vis-à-vis a master-slave relationship). As of late, an historically related anti-oppression-oriented pairing has been widely articulated (e.g., in educational and social justice milieus[19]). This pairing puts “the privileged” rather than just the oppressor, on the other side of the dyad counterposed to the oppressed. As such, the privileged party/identity is said to occupy a traceable, multi-institutional, but not necessarily conscious, beneficiary relationship to the oppressed party in the present, and to the oppressor, and the oppressors’ oppressive regimes and actions (including those long past).

The label of privilege, ascribed to particular identities, is often intended in social justice communities to compel the putatively privileged party, to engage in anywhere from mutually respectful learning and dialogue (on, e.g., understanding racism, justice, allying-roles, and identity difference) to accepting that they are inheritors of morally objectionable identity-related benefits in need of active rectification.[20] Rectifying processes have been applied through parity-seeking/power-rebalancing strategies to redress historically understood imbalances by identity. As to polarizing reactions to such politics: when these processes seek rectification in relation to people categorized in large identity groupings such as white males (as in early forms of affirmative action), the political reaction has included right-wing exploitation of targeted identity polities (which for purposes of contemporary left, 50-state power winning politics raises the issue of the efficacy of prioritizing small rather than large opposition identity groupings). This speaks of identity demonizing strategies that seek to divide the opposition against itself, e.g., “‘progressives’/liberals against white working class”; Trump fomented such power winning strategies pivoting around race and incessantly posing one group of opposition-targeted identity polities as parasitical of other polities’ reputed – earned rights, resources, and security.

In the context of a 50-state majoritarian politics in and beyond the Sanders’-related mobilizations the following leading questions and points could help to ameliorate polarizing voter resentments, scapegoating, and authoritarianism-fomenting[21] – left vote and unity diminishing – dynamics: How many people who claim to be oppressed, and want to end their oppression, want to end it, only to be labeled privileged – rather than free? How can plural-partisan equal respect/power be developed (e.g., among all seeking common cause whether or not they are said to be oppressed) if insinuations of disproportional benefits, or associations of unfairness or harm, are morally affixed to one identity-labeled polity (that’s said to be privileged) and not the other(s)?

In respect to voter and state power-acquiring base-broadening, the oppression/privilege relationship could be re-framed as an oppression/freedom and/or anti-oppression/freedom-seeking relationship. This could be done by prioritizing freedom over privilege in relation to understanding and working to end identity-focused oppression. In this context, would it not be more base-broadening in majority vote-seeking politics to develop a sense of common cause where people in polities, often posed as privileged – take the putative white working-class persons for example – instead acknowledge that they have freedoms that others should have (which, by extension, they could not similarly, in good common-faith, say the same regarding privilege, i.e., they have privileges that others with oppressed identity identifications should have: freedom from being disproportionately stopped, frisked, and killed by police; freedom from racial profiling for deportation)?

Expanding Freedom in Identity Politics and the Sanders’ Revolution

  • Would it not also be the case (e.g., for electoral base-broadening) that freedom as such could be seen as intersecting with relative equality for all (which might integrate “freedom from” possibilities inclusive of those just listed, with “freedom to” possibilities, e.g., freedom to take or reject any job due to comfortable-life-sustaining annual yearly income provided for all)?
  • Could such an anti-oppression politics (compared to an anti-privilege prioritized politics) open up possibilities (vis-à-vis base-broadening appeals) for “freedom within” (this implies a potential freedom or openness[22] between subjectively produced and socially-“externally” imposed identity-meanings that may feel of a whole/fixed – including, commercially-capitalistically bombarded[23] or oppressively imposed identity-meanings, and one’s ever-developing conditionally open/closing subjectivity/identity)?[24]
  • Couldn’t this freedom orientation, by comparison, offer a base-broadening populist ethos where, if one is not free, none are free (which might also apply across left and right to civil-liberties, freedom of speech and privacy, democratic access, etc.)?
  • Could it not also, comparatively, offer a partisan pluralist-unity-leading priority within the Sanders’ formation, for example, by acknowledging the relative autonomy, and honoring of anti-oppression, freedom-seeking identity politics and polities?

As to applying this framework to the anti-oligarch electoral-engaging strategy, if such partisan pluralistic freedom-over-privilege changes were made, what might it mean to deny the oligarchs this transformative “privilege”? Such a strategy could be based on the following logic: oligarchs have an obscene amount of privileges that subsume many other people’s freedom.

Sticks and Stones: Power, Words, and revolution

These leading questions evoke the appeal of a freedom-prioritizing identity strategy for broadening left, 50-state winning electoral politics. It is in this context that two skepticism-implying points seem relevant: Would such an anti-oppression-freedom strategy alienate many in the putatively greater freedom-benefiting polities, from what they would have otherwise been attracted to vis-à-vis Sanders, namely the anti-oligarch/social-democratic strategy and a “common cause and all-individuals respecting” pluralism? Concomitantly, the identity polities that this strategy also appeals to vis-à-vis base-building may say, it doesn’t matter if one woos Trump, liberal, or “Obama-turned-Trump” voters, by prioritizing the word freedom over privilege: because they are not fighting oppression in the field, such conditions will remain intolerable. These critiques have merit; they can also be shown to be more problematic than not.

Towards a Transformative Strategy

Cedric Johnson implicates a freedom-evoking, privilege-minimizing opportunity for addressing the second critique. He notes that,

In 2015, there were 1,138 people killed by police in the United States, and of that number 581 were white, 306 were black, 195 were Latino, 24 were Asian or Pacific Islander, 13 were Native American, and the race/ethnicity of the remaining 27 was unknown. Rather than prompting some version of “all lives matter” post-racialism, these facts should encourage greater discernment on the part of those who want to create just forms of public safety. The unemployed, the homeless, and those who work in the informal economy or live in areas where that economy is dominant are more likely to be regularly surveilled, harassed, and arrested. Black Lives Matter activists posit universal black injury where, in fact, the violence of the carceral state is experienced more broadly across the working class. What is to be gained from adhering to political slogans that exclude certain victims and truncate the potential popular base for progressive reforms.[25]

Johnson’s critique of the Black Lives Matter approach makes a comparative point that their single-identity prioritizing regimens “truncate” progressive coalitions’ potential to transform policing. His alternative appears to equally empower activists across identities in and beyond the working-class, e.g., regarding the homeless and the unemployed. And yet, if being privileged by identity was ascribed to some in such a coalition (as part of a larger organizational power-cooperation making regimen); and if polities linked to that ascription were treated as responsible for continuing the oppression (directly or indirectly) of people in the coalition (and in the larger society); and/or if being privileged as such was seen as something that people who identify or are identified, as oppressed, would forswear rather than aspire towards, not the least because it speaks of a subject position that continues the society-wide harming of people in their midst; an abiding challenge then becomes, how can the coalition produce a police-transforming identity freedom/parity-making politics that treats participants and identities in the way Johnson implies, i.e., as pluralistically equal? Johnson hints at but doesn’t address this challenge.

As relevant, if left and social movement fragmentation isn’t notably reduced, prospects seem dim for transforming policing. This is to also suggest that a key dynamic in left-inflecting systems-changing politics is winning state power. Questions that then also become strategically salient include: why did some voters move from supporting Sanders’ and/or Obama to Trump?[26] How can this be changed? What might this have to do with enduringly defeating neoliberal Democrats and reducing identity politics polarization vis-à-vis Trump, liberal, and abstaining voters?

Towards Empathy in Left/Right Vote-Winning Politics: Marginalizing Bigots via Freedom

When it comes to winning majority votes and more activists, the strategy of subsuming privilege to freedom offers people who might be labeled as privileged a more positive self (and Other) reflecting, common-cause building modus operandi. It can empower empathy such that what people who are widely identified as facing oppression demand, is no longer as dissimilar to what those said to already experience such freedoms have, i.e., freedom rather than privilege. It provides a way for the “once branded as privileged” polities to minimize or eliminate resentment by feeling more mutually respected in acknowledging – the freedoms they agree they have, and – those they believe they do not have (e.g., economic freedoms they might feel they don’t have; freedoms from racial targeting for deportation, they can acknowledge they do have).

This leads to the second challenge to broadening a 50-state strategy, regarding (e.g., less-left-leaning) voters/people who could perceive the added freedom-prioritizing strategy as alienating. A counter-point is that some of these voters would get its hate/division/resentment reducing elements (some might be helped along by Sanders “all individuals respecting”, social democratic, anti-oligarch politics).[27] Others, would keep to the right, because of bigoted or authoritarian-predilections, and/or because of politics such as anti-abortion commitments. This suggests a wedge strategy to win over some of the base from right-wing candidates (and move it towards Sanders – but also to Clinton-like neoliberal inclusion/identity-recruiting forces, if for example, an anti-oligarch position wasn’t prioritized). Overall, this strategy builds upon Sanders’ pluralist and oligarch-targeting mainstays, while engaging an identity freedom-strategy that, as examined here, would likely add more activists and voters to the effort than it would lose.

Shame and Identity Freedom Politics, Stage Left

Shame can be a moral motivator in unity-building (e.g., in anti-oppression expressions in gay pride and AIDS fighting activism); yet it can also constitute a unity degrading influence.[28] Expressions of pride and shame can “closely” arise in interests-identity melding politics in left-inflecting coalitions.[29] In that context they can be engaged through group decision-making processes that develop representational leadership positions, and attend to power and cooperation matters (and balances, i.e., by identity): indicative of such dynamics is the practice of progressive stack. This is a group-facilitation practice where a facilitator accords turn-taking-ordering priority in all meeting discussion sessions for example, to ascribed marginalized and oppressed voices/people by identity. These practices can engage group and political-psychological identity dynamics of parity, trust, and respect building, freedom-advancing unity-making, and shame.[30]

This complex of identity ensconced practices speaks of the personalizing and socializing of responsibilities of the privileged-ascribed party. It implies responsibility in relation to ongoing benefits attributed to them, e.g., gained via slavery, racism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. As to the shame that could be felt by the privileged-ascribed party, stage left, this speaks about acknowledging feelings of anything from subtle guilt, to personal disgrace, when admitting that one continues to be a part of the (multi-institutions-produced) oppression of others.

In this left coalition-building context, motivated, privileged-ascribed activists can be seen as working to end their shameful privilege. This activism could be seen by coalition members as embarking from a starting point where the privileged activist expresses feelings of being less than the ostensibly oppressed parties, in relation to experiencing privilege. The privileged party can be mutually understood as such, as embodying a group-desired alternative to feeling equal to, or better than those they putatively benefit from (these latter feelings might be said to be the way ascribed beneficiaries of oppression feel in the larger society[31]). Coalition members, from varying socially and subjectively constructed identity standpoints can consequently experience anti-privilege/anti-oppression activism constructively. They can experience it that is, as taking away from those ascribed and/or identifying as oppressed, some of the basis for feeling less than, and ashamed as such (one way of looking at this activism as ironic trust-building moves, is that they bring all coalition members into a more common psycho-social framework of shared, rather than just sharing, feelings, of being “less than”). It can also be experienced as transferring that basis of negative feelings to the privileged Other. And it can be sensed as letting go of, and/or struggling against these negative shame feelings. It can be sensed as such, not just by the activism of the oppressed-ascribed party but also via the privilege-ascribed party’s efforts to end shame by working to end oppression and their perceived privilege and shameful feelings about it.

When Freedom
> Oppression + Shame

These anti-oppression, shame-transferring strategies are intended to create parity in power relationships by identity; through such means moreover, the socio-economic and cultural playing field that is skewed in the larger society can be leveled in the coalition. The price has been steep however, for leveling the field this way, especially when extended to national voter winning processes (where they could be seen as expressing coalition activist’s anti-oppression-extending desire to enjoin large voter polities, e.g., all whites, to feel similarly poised in a “less than”, i.e., a cathartic-shame-release/freedom-for-the-oppressed seeking – psycho-social identity-standpoint). This is to observe that the coalition’s polarization of the privileged-ascribed party, is related to asserting a moral deficit of some in their midst, to the point that few people who are recognized or identify as oppressed would want to move into such positions of privilege; this is in part due to the prevailing meaning of privilege – in such power (re)balancing identity-anchored politics – where the privileged party, whether consciously or not, causes ongoing harm to the oppressed.[32]

To insinuate such negatives, divisions, and Othering onto people in the coalition; and to do this (e.g., for inspiring purposes) in an election, by extending it to large identity-labeled polities, enables the right to advantageously exploit the purported privileged, harm-doing identities (also enabling such leaders and base to push leftists against each other as Trump did by triangulating a neoliberal, working-class hostile Clinton, against a torn left, and posing these parties, via support for Clinton, as hostile to a “white working-class”). It can also make for a fragile (e.g., unresolved shame and hurt filled) basis to generate left state power engaging unity. Within a given coalition, this unity-building, shame-transferring framework, premised as it is on rectifying the harming of one grouping by another, can marginalize pluralistic equalized treatment for all individuals. It goes against a corollary part of this framework, and that is, according all, equal power-engaging standing as individuals, regardless of whether or not they are oppressed (whereas the former paradigm is very much about – if one is oppressed or not, and unequal as such). Therein lies the rub: creating identity parity on an all-individuals-are-equal basis, by subsuming privilege to freedom, cannot be fruitfully developed by disregarding oppression (privilege, freedom, and all prevalent identity issues). And yet that is what an all-individuals respecting partisan pluralism would seem to intend (if prioritizing oppression and the fight against it, is not understood as being able to coexist/intersect with a plural-all-individuals identity-conscious freedom strategy).

This is the context that substituting freedom for privilege helps to transform. This transformation could empower ways for activists to assert that identities, beliefs, and conditions described as privilege-engaging, can be redrawn. These conditions can be reframed when activists preponderantly refrain from shame-engaging politics by emphasizing in-common interests and empathetic expressions based in commonly sought greater, lesser, and/or equal freedoms. Such a strategy could also mean that parity by identity would be pursued in the coalition(s) with a greater empathetic “freedom sharing base”. In this context identity differences that may currently seem inviolable (and fortified as such by oppression/privilege polarization-relations[33]) could instead be more eminently seen as political and mutable. As to how this might apply to identities that might be posed as essentially different, vis-à-vis for instance, racial profiling for deportation, multiple polities who appear untouched by identity profiling for deportation, could more empathetically understand that they are not free from state-based profiling (with the level of state surveillance/tracking today); rather they are profiled throughout governmental agencies in ways that they pass such reviews, with less incriminating notice. Just as they could be said to be freer as such, an empathetic identity freedom politics could also find them supporting and/or engaging the fight for just immigration and maximal human and labor rights in all countries; this in turn, relates to Johnson’s multi-identity unity politics of focusing on “shared historical interests”.

This strategy suggests the left politics that Cedric Johnson hints at, vis-à-vis an expanded common cause, plural-equalizing, freedom and difference respecting, multi-identity unity basis. Such expanding activism might more effectively extend its politics into majority winning 50-state power-seeking activism (e.g., to transform policing, through majority-won laws and policy). It follows from the earlier comparisons of which opposition identity to prioritize to win state power, that the most effective strategy today focuses on the oligarchs. This suggests linking the anti-oligarch strategy to freedom prioritizing strategies that do not place any large groupings in privilege labeled categories or oppositional, shame-insinuating identity positions.

Subsuming privilege to freedom is a big ask: the struggles this change engages are oft portrayed as life and death struggles for freedoms, steeped in morally-vivifying battles against oppressions that are also understood by some activists as the experience and more rightful province of some identities, not others[34]. That said, as a departing observation, a unity-seeking nostrum of a transformed identity freedom politics goes something like this: no one wants to start, travel as, or end up privileged in these ascribed identities and interrelations; starting out free, traveling free, fighting for freedom, and/or ending up free; how many people would not want that?


Sanders’ proclaimed political revolution features a neoliberal-identity politics drubbing, anti-oligarch, egalitarian-seeking, social democratic strategy, and a partisan all-individual/common-cause respecting pluralism. It showed a potential to mobilize millions and win democratic power in 50-states. It may be the case moreover, that prioritizing this one identity, as the opposition, presents an efficacious way of uniting more identity-oriented and left polities, ostracizing neoliberal Democrats, and attracting enough “lost” (e.g., ex-Obama/ex-Sanders), liberal, and abstaining voters to win majoritarian state power. This strategy also suggests the difficulties for succeeding, of party-building proposals that only prioritize one identity-supporting (as compared to identity-opposing) polity, such as “the working-class”. Without considering ways to move identity freedom politics away from voter-polarizing oppression-privilege regimens however, the political revolution aligned with Sanders as well as the social movements and the left today will likely remain unable to accomplish the 50-state power winning goal. Broadening the democratic formation and the vote winning support base, by adding an identity politics that emphasizes freedom rather than privilege can help realize that political power transforming potential.



[1]Charles Lenchner, “Is a National Progressive Broad Front Possible?” Paul Jay, The Real News Network, June 11, 2017.

[2] Brent Griffiths, “Sanders slams identity politics as Democrats figure out their future,” Politico, Nov. 21, 2016.

[3] Adolph Reed, “Splendors and Miseries of the Antiracist “Left“, Common Dreams, Nov. 6, 2016. Adam Johnson, “Cornel West & Chris Hedges: How the Black Elite Betrayed the Civil Rights Tradition,” AlterNet, Aug. 14, 2015.

[4] Cedric Johnson, “The Panthers Can’t Save Us Now,” Catalyst, Volume 1, No. 1, Spring 2017.

[5] Kent Hoover, “Capitalism vs. socialism? Yes, that was an issue in the Democratic presidential debate,” Washington Business Journal, Oct. 14, 2015.

[6] Cedric Johnson, “The Panthers Can’t Save Us Now,” Catalyst, Volume 1, No. 1, Spring 2017.

[7] which, as per some readings, is not consciously understood by all whites. See, e.g., Ijeoma Oluo, “Welcome To The Anti-Racism Movement — Here’s What You’ve Missed,” The Establishment, March 16, 2017.

[8] Patrice Marie Cullors-Brignac, “We Didn’t Start a Movement. We Started a Network,” Medium, Feb. 22, 2016.

[9] Johnson, Catalyst, Volume 1, No. 1, Spring 2017.

[10] Gloria Steinem’s critique of Sanders (“when you’re young, you’re thinking, where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie.”) insinuates such a strategy. She uses identity politics (e.g., by ostensibly shaming women) to influence progressives, feminists, etc., to work instead for Clinton. See, Jessica Contrera, “Gloria Steinem is apologizing for insulting female Bernie Sanders supporters,” Washington Post, Feb. 7, 2016; this is also to observe that Sanders eventually prioritized anti-racist issues (e.g., after receiving appreciable criticism), and did this while enduringly prioritizing an anti-oligarch strategy, see., e.g., The Editors, “What Did Bernie Do?Jacobin, Jan. 18, 2017.

[11] Bernie Sanders “Bernie Sanders on making Democrats a 50-state party,” Judy Woodruff, PBS NEWSHOUR, April 25, 2017; “Expanding Ballot Access in 2018,” Green Party US, accessed April 21, 2018.

[12] Framing this in relation to a winning 50-state strategy, suggests a few challenges: without getting some base-line agreement that winning and transforming U.S. state power is the imperative of the times, there is little to indicate how a fragmented left will get nearer to being on this same strategic and political page. Then there is the question of what the left would be “getting” in prioritizing winning state power in such a unity formation (and/or there’s the mercurial question: is there enough “time left” to avoid such a focus). These questions address the possibility that currently, even the mildest, e.g., egalitarian-establishing social-democratic reforms cannot endure without ongoing, massive unified mobilizations (or as per Sanders’ a political revolution) and state power-engaging, stage left.

[13] Sanders alternated between these monikers (while emphasizing the oligarchs); see, e.g., Scott Detrow, “Sanders’ Unity Tour With DNC Chair Exposes Rifts But Also Suggests Common Goals,” NPR, April 22, 2017.

[14] See, e.g., C. Wright Mills, “The Power Elite,” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956). Stanley Aronowitz, “A Mills Revival?”, Logos, 2.3, Summer 2003.

[15] Media coverage showed people in the predominantly white, Trump-supporting working and middle-class milieus, did not feel privileged: i.e., racially, economically, politically, and culturally. See, e.g., Nicholas Confessore, “For Whites Sensing Decline, Donald Trump Unleashes Words of Resistance,” The New York Times, July 13, 2016.

[16] See e.g., Terrell Jermaine Starr, “Bernie Sanders Is Not a Real Progressive,” The Root, Nov. 06, 2017.

[17] See, e.g., Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge, Intersectionality, (Malden, Mass.: Polity Press, 2016).

[18] “Largeness” as such, is the tip of the iceberg; Given its partisan, open-to-all-oppressions pluralism, how could coalition activists avoid finding and losing themselves among an unstoppable growing number of laterally-equalized and moated, anti-oppression fighting identity-group types and causes? If such organizationally exhausting, infinite regress were to be staunched how could it be done without cutting out pieces of its founding mutual-respect politics?

[19] Lizzie Crocker, “Do ‘White Privilege’ Surveys Really Help the Fight Against Racism?“, The Daily Beast, Oct. 13, 2016; Jennifer R. Holladay, On Racism and White Privilege. Teaching Tolerance, accessed Oct. 10, 2017.

[20] See for example, Darron T. Smith, Ph.D., “The Responsibility to End Racism,” Huffington Post, 19 April 2013; “Unlearning Racism: Tools for Action,” YWCA Southeast Wisconsin, downloaded Oct. 10, 2017.

[21] Henry A. Giroux, “Gangster capitalism and nostalgic authoritarianism in Trump’s America,” Salon, Dec. 3, 2017.

[22] Julian Vigo, “The Trap of (In)Visibility and the Erasure of Difference”, Counterpunch, Jan. 15, 2016.

[23] Henry A. Giroux, “How Disney Magic and the Corporate Media Shape Youth Identity,” Truthout, Aug. 21, 2011.

[24] Conversely, if privilege, rather than freedom, were prioritized, wouldn’t such psychic processing prompt reactionary unmooring/polarizing inclinations (vis-à-vis base-broadening), by some in the ostensibly privileged parties, because they would resent internalizing a comparatively shame, rather than pride inducing sense of identity?

[25] Johnson, Catalyst, Volume 1, No. 1, Spring 2017, italics added.

[26] Danielle Kurtzleben, “How Many Bernie Sanders Supporters Ultimately Voted For Trump,” NPR, 24 Aug. 2017; Geoffrey Skelley, “How Many Obama 2012 Trump 2016 Voters Were There?“, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, June 1, 2017.

[27] Portia Boulger discussed such an empathy-oriented strategy at the People’s Summit; Portia Boulger, “The Nina Turner Show: The Urban-Rural Divide with Portia Boulger,” Nina Turner, The Real News Network, July 13, 2017.

[28] Paul Hoggett, Politics, Identity and Emotion, (New York: Routledge, 2016).

[29] Lory Britt and David Heise, “From Shame to Pride in Identity Politics,” Conference paper, Self, Identity, and Social Movements, April 17-20, 1997; see also, Phoebe Maltz Bovy, The Perils of “Privilege” (New York: St. Martin’s Press: 2017); and Trent Eady, “Racism + shame = more racism,” Medium, Nov. 11, 2016;

[30] L.A. Kauffman, “The Theology of Consensus,” Jacobin, May 27, 2015; Jay Dubs, “The progressive stack is being applied to morality,” personality cafe, May 30, 2017; Kevin Gannon, “The Progressive Stack and Standing for Inclusive Teaching,” The Tattooed Professor, Oct. 20, 2017.

[31] And where an “equal to” feeling could mean denying the existence of identity-oppression.

[32] such harm is something that the demand for reparations for African-Americans is based upon and seeks to redress.

[33] See, e.g., Michael Eric Dyson, “Death in Black and White,” The New York Times, July 7, 2016.

[34] This raises a circular moral conundrum that became combustible via a question that skewed right in the elections: who really are the haves and the have-nots? The freedom over privilege strategy is meant to transcend this dilemma.


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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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