Identity Politics and Alliance Politics

Identity politics differentiates; it draws distinctions to reveal social oppression or, in Butler’s terminology, precaritization–occupying or being held in precarious position. Identity politics  emphasizes differences that have historically been suppressed in the interest of domination by the most powerful. We can look at a social movement with a particular identity attached to it (e.g., people with disabilities, the transgender community) as a communication system that is created by a distinction. The system must then continually reproduce that distinction. Otherwise, the system’s environment will erase the difference, and it will no longer be meaningful to speak of people with disabilities, the transgender community, or any other marginalized social group.

Here is an Google Books Ngram from 1980-2008 that shows that the term transgender community first arose the late 1980s.


Identity politics is subject to backlash, as shown, for example, in the violence against the transgender community. And we can theorize backlash as a system’s environment resisting the distinction. Every autopoietic system establishes its own environment when it establishes itself, because a system is really a system/environment difference.

For example, we can situate Trumpism in the environment (the outside) of progressive identity politics. The fact that Trump supporters take pleasure in or ignore Trump’s attacks on just about every marginalized or vulnerable social group–and the fact that he got elected–suggests that the these voters want to erase the distinctions set up by progressive social movements. Or they might actually want to take over the position of the oppressed, as they portray their own way of life or culture as under attack. These people portray themselves as the aggrieved party, or victims of contemporary society.

Butler advocates shifting from an identity politics to an alliance politics, where diverse groups come together on the basis of their shared precarity or insecurity. This would make it more difficult to be targeted, among other possible benefits.


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