551. Conflict (XI)
In 1926, the painter Wyndham Lewis observed that the Anglo-Saxon world—the wider Western world—had been captured by “identity”; further, the day’s press stirred a constant “sex war” between men and women—another tier in the general identity war. The observations Lewis made almost 100 years ago are identical to those made by contemporary conservatives as regards “identity politics”. Today, identity politics is largely blamed on postmodernism and yet the trend, as Lewis shows, has been with us for a long time; whatever the French postmodernists were up to in the 1970s, “identity” has been an issue for a long time—as has, Lewis would be quick to add, the sentimental cults around children and negroes.
Lewis has a catholic take on “identity”; hence he speaks about how a man in America would become a “Midwestern Phi Kappa Alpha Methodist dentist from the Lost Generation.” For Lewis, the “identity racket” extends beyond today’s familiar categories—race and gender—and into professional associations, college fraternities, and so on. Lewis would be quick to see our generational conflict—the squabble between “Boomer”, “Zoomer”, and “Millennial”—as another franchise in the identity racket.
Doubtless Lewis would twist his brilliantined moustache and quip, “Generational war, sport? What-ho, another game for anglo-saxondom. There’s hardly a difference between a ‘teenager’ and an ‘adult’—you’re ready for the machine at 12. Boomers, you say? Well, those very same Boomers you disdain used to whine about their ‘square’ parents just the same. You have all fallen the ‘identity racket’. Classic case, chum. You should try my The Art of Being Ruled—a comprehensive account, barely needs an update.” So “identity politics” has been in place for at least a century. Lewis would say that the biggest identity politics racket, the big daddy racket, could be found in Marxism: the class war racket—the idea that your occupational category should somehow guide every decision you make. All the other rackets are sub-rackets from this big game; and most people today who think about LGBT+ et al. reach about the same conclusion: Marx invented the formula, but it has many paint jobs.
Lewis does not say how exactly the obsession with identity comes about. In part, it is down to clever intellectuals like Marx who see a chance to enhance their power through the manufacture of classes to fight each other; it is also commercial society, people need to be segmented in order to sell products. Paul Western: 38, M, dentist, post-graduate degree, Midwest, $180,000-$200,000—and then the algorithm tells you what men like that want to buy; and, at the same time, as the system categorises it also encourages people to identify with the categories used to sell them products; a cybernetic reinforcement system.
The precondition for the identity racket is democracy, particularly decadent democracy. When everyone has been broken down to an “equal” atomised unit the old need to place themselves in the world—fulfilled in an organic society by guilds, churches, patriarchal families, and peasant-squire relations—does not go away. The gap is filled by the identity racket, manufactured by intellectuals and businesses so as to provide an anchor for the atomised; and also, in a democracy, to furnish a narcissistic veneer for status competition between individuals.
Indeed, I once rented a room in a house with a man who instantly sneered at my Mac; and that was because he worked for the police IT unit, and he had been brainwashed into the “Mac vs. PC” racket—so for him whether you owned either computer was a total statement as far as values went, and meant he had to be antagonistic towards Mac owners. No pronouns involved, no Derrida in sight—yet it was still the identity racket. I doubt he would have killed me for it, but his in-out group preference was already in the Catholic-Protestant or Rangers-Celtic sector. So the identity racket is really the “democracy racket”; and in a decadent democracy the racket takes on peculiar and exotic forms.