Returning to Class? – Eribon and ‘Identity Politics’ in the Time of Trump

Ben Trott

In the wake of the 2016 translation of sociologist Didier Eribon’s penetrating memoir, Returning to Reims into German, Ben Trott calls for a critical re-engagement with the intersections of sexuality, class, nation, and resistance.

Photo Miranda Smith

In the introduction to the English translation of his 1999 book, Réflexions sur la question gay, Didier Eribon describes his engagement with US queer studies – including the writings of Judith Butler, David Halperin, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick – as an attempt “not only to help these American works become better known in France, but moreover to import an entire field of discussion to where that field was absent and even unknown” (Eribon 2004, p.xix).[1][2]In 2016, Eribon’s 2009 book, Retour à Reims was translated into German. It has largely been received as if it too were an attempt to import another entire field of discussion – this time around class identity – to a place it has apparently seemed to many absent or even unknown.

Questions of class have not in fact been overlooked in Germany to nearly the extent that the book’s reception here would imply. A good deal of recent German sociology has approached class via a critical engagement with the work of Pierre Bourdieu, just as Eribon does himself. And there has been a significant amount of scholarship as well as media commentary and analysis exploring – in much greater detail than Eribon’s book does – some of the recent shifts in the make-up of the working class and the increasing precariousness of labour.[3] Nevertheless, Rückkehr nach Reims served as a central point of reference in efforts to understand the rise of Germany’s own far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) ahead of last September’s federal elections, as well as the rise of Donald Trump and related phenomena.

What has been left relatively neglected is Eribon’s account of the role of insult in the production of gay subjectivity…the ways in which our sense of self is often somewhat fragmented. The book describes, for instance, how processes of socialisation experienced in particular times – or indeed places – of one’s life can end up forming a permanent part of one’s personality.

The book itself is part memoir, part contribution to a critical theory of class and sexual identity, and part sociology of a shift in the allegiance of many working class voters away from the Parti communiste français (PCF) and towards the Front National (FN). As the sociologist Peter Birke (2017, p.1) has pointed out, however, the German-language reception of the book has focused almost exclusively on this last issue.[4]What has been left relatively neglected is Eribon’s account of the role of insult in the production of gay subjectivity, the “certain amount of mixing between classes” that is facilitated by urban gay life (and by cruising in particular) (p.229), and the ways in which our sense of self is often somewhat fragmented. The book describes, for instance, how processes of socialisation experienced in particular times – or indeed places – of one’s life can end up forming a permanent part of one’s personality; an aspect of your subjectivity that you carry with you wherever you go. He draws on Bourdieu’s account of the melancholia that can arise from a so-called “split habitus”, or “from belonging to two different worlds, worlds so far separated from each other that they seem irreconcilable, and yet which coexist in everything that you are” (p.18). This surely captures the ways in which many gays and lesbians, and doubtless many others too, often relate to the worlds they were raised in and have often sought, and failed, to entirely leave behind.

In terms of Eribon’s description of the shift in working class support towards the FN, he describes this as following a decline in discourses of classes and class relations by the left, including by the Parti socialiste during their time in government (having been elected with the backing of many former supporters of the PCF). He argues that these discourses were then replaced by talk of individual responsibility (and a rejection of ‘collectivism’), the supposed need to dismantle the welfare state, and to deregulate the economy (p.128-131). “But”, as Eribon points out, clearly, “making political discourse about ‘classes’ and class relations disappear, eliminating classes and class relations as cognitive and theoretical categories, does nothing to prevent those people who live under the objective conditions that the word ‘class’ was used to designate from feeling abandoned” (p.130).

The fact that the leaders of the FN did not themselves belong to the working class, or to “the most severely disadvantaged sectors” that they claimed to represent, did not prevent them from being able to present themselves as “the only party that seemed to care about them, the one in any case, that offered them a discourse that seemed intended to provide meaning to the experiences that made up their daily lives” (p.130-131). A very similar phenomenon – an elite mobilisation of anti-elite discourses – has accompanied the rise of Germany’s AfD, as well as the rise of Donald Trump, of course, and the success of the Brexit campaign (fronted by the likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson).

In the final pages of the book, Eribon speculates that, following its predominance in the 1960s and 70s, it was “probably” necessary for Marxism to have been “expunged as a hegemonic discourse on the left” in order for it to be able to think politically about “gendered, sexual, and racial forms of subjectivation, among others” (p.241). In other words, it was “probably” necessary for various “[m]ovements that came to be labelled ‘cultural’” to “find other avenues [than Marxism] for problematizing lived experience”, precisely because it had often cast all other struggles as “secondary” to the class struggle (p.241).

While this is no doubt true of many Marxist traditions, it is clear that – even in the 60s and 70s – it was certainly always possible to combine a Marxian approach with an attention to gendered, sexual and racialised forms of subjectivation. This much is clear from the work of some of those associated with the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University (e.g. Hall et al. 1978), the writings of those involved with the Wages for Housework Campaign in the 1970s (e.g. Federici 2012 [1975] and Dalla Costa and James 1975 [1971]), as well as in many of the texts produced by Angela Davis (e.g. 1977 [1971]), Selma James (e.g. 2012 [1974]) and others who have examined the relationships between gender, race, and class. [5][6][7][8]In Black Marxism, Cedric J Robinson (2000 [1983]) also details the encounter between Marxism and Black radicalism in the work of people like C L R James, dating back further still.[9] And since at least the 1990s, scholars working in the field of ‘queer of colour critique’ have often drawn on the Marxian tradition along with post-structuralist and intersectional feminist approaches.[10][11]

The arrival of Rückkehr nach Reims in Germany was timely in that it coincided with many asking whether the rise of the AfD, Brexit, and the election of Trump could be explained by a neglect of ‘the working class’ in favour of ‘cultural issues’, or issues of ‘identity’. (The implicit presumption often being that ‘the working class’ is white and, largely, male; constituencies that have indeed disproportionately voted for the AfD, Brexit, and Trump.) And yet it seems to me that if something called ‘identity politics’ is to blame, it is not in terms of feminist, queer and anti-racist politics having become too dominant on the left. Instead, it is down to a failure in the forms of identity politics that had often been successfully deployed by earlier workers’ movements to speak to the contemporary realities of labour.

The left’s current task…is to refuse attention to questions of class or to those of ‘culture/identity’ as a disjunctive choice, and to propose and promote political forms that are capable of galvanising labour in its contemporary heterogeneity.

This failure to produce a labour-oriented ‘identity politics’ certainly isn’t about the lack of an ontologising approach to labour, one that affirms its dignity and value. Such an approach too easily obscures the ways that what we understand as ‘labour’ (or as productive human activity) is shaped by the determinate social conditions in which it is performed – and the fact that these conditions can be contested. Rather, it is about recognising that the rise of the right has coincided with a failure of the left to produce and propose a common political project among all those whose labour is exploited by capital, and in ways that allow us to recognise one another as exploited in this way. As Eribon points out, “[t]he working class changes. It doesn’t stay identical to itself” (p.89). The make-up of the working class in Germany, the US, Britain and elsewhere has never been as homogenous as has sometimes been assumed. But in the decades that have followed the 1960s and 70s, it has become more clearly composed than ever of many whose gendered, sexual, and racialised subjection locates them in subordinate social positions – in turn also often allowing for their greater economic exploitation.[12][13] The left’s current task, then, is to refuse attention to questions of class or to those of ‘culture/identity’ as a disjunctive choice, and to propose and promote political forms that are capable of galvanising labour in its contemporary heterogeneity.

After all, as Eribon writes: “If it is in the nature of our being that we are situated at the intersection of several collective determinations, and therefore of several ‘identities,’ of several forms of subjectivation, why should it be necessary to set up one of them rather than another as the central political preoccupation…? If we are shaped as political subjects by discourses and by theories, should it not be incumbent upon us to construct discourses and theories that allow us not to neglect this or that aspect, not to exclude any form of oppression, any register of domination, any form of inferiorization, any form of shame that is linked to some kind of practice of insult from the range of what is considered political, or from what should be actively addressed?” (p.242).

References and Footnotes

  1. Eribon, Didier (2004) Insult and the Making of the Gay Self (Trans. Michael Lucey) Duke University Press
  2. Eribon, Didier (2013) Returning to Reims (Trans. Michael Lucey) Semiotext<e>
  3. Castel, Rober and Dörre, Klaus (Eds.) (2009) Prekarität, Absteig, Ausgrenzung: Die soziale Frage am Beginn des 21. Jahrhunderts Campus Verlag, Frankfurt.
  4. Birke, Peter (2017) ‘Abheben und Verschwinden: Die Debatte zu Eribons Rückkehr nach Reims’, in: Sozial.Geschichte Online, Issue 21
  5. Dalla Costa, Mariarosa and James, Selma (1975 [1971]) ‘Women and the Subversion of Community’, in: The Power of Women and the Subversion of Community, Falling Wall Press, Bristol
  6. Davis, Angela (1977 [1971]) ‘Women and Oppression in Capitalism: Dialectics of Oppression and Liberation’, in: Parsons, Howard L. and Somerville, John (Eds.) (1977) Marxism, Revolution, and Peace, B. R. Grüner B. V., Amsterdam, p.139-171
  7. Federici, Silvia (2012 [1975]) ‘Wages Against Housework’, in: Federici, Silvia (2012) Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle, PM Press, Oakland, CA pp.15-22
  8. James, Selma (2012 [1974]) ‘Sex, Race, and Class’, in: Sex, Race and Class: The Perspective of Winning: A Selection of Writings, 1952 – 2011 PM Press, Oakland, CA pp.92-101
  9. Robinson, Cedric J. (2000 [1983]) Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill
  10. Ferguson, Roderick A. (2004) ‘Introduction: Queer of Color Critique, Historical Materialism, and Canonical Sociology’, in: Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis pp.1-29
  11. Muñoz, José Esteban (1999) Disidentification: Queer of Color and the Performance of Politics, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis
  12. On the relative precarity of LGBT and queer people in particular, and their disproportionate representation in low-waged sectors, see Hollibaugh and Weiss (2015).
  13. Hollibaugh, Amber and Weiss, Margot (2015) ‘Queer Precarity and the Myth of Gay Affluence’, in: New Labor Forum Vol. 24, No. 3, City University New York, pp.18-27