When ‘anti-essentialism’ isn’t

Critical understandings of essentialism have been a hallmark of feminist, queer, anti-racist and (some, non-Hegelian) Marxist theories and debates for a very long time. The association between radical, transformative politics and anti-essentialism has been important for some obvious reasons. Essentialism embeds hostility to change in its logical procedures: it imagines a pre-existing, hierarchical, unchanging and teleological universe.

Because essentialism so closely approximates ordinary language use, it takes some effort to see how it works, when it doesn’t, and why (for instance) defining something does not amount to essentialism. Because it’s not always explained well or (more so) carefully, it tends to float off as a buzzword that sounds off but does not deliver on intelligence.

There is a pattern of usage that I have seen over recent months, whose provenance it took me some time to understand, but whose purpose it seems to me is clear enough.

I’ll come to that in a moment, but first a very brief outline of what essentialism means.

Essentialism holds that an attribute (or highly delimited, reduced set of attributes) is what makes a discrete kind of thing what it is, fundamentally. But it is not simply the act of predication, typification or definition. It is an idealist or metaphysical theory of the validity of predication and classification that treats essence as primary or primordial. In its logical terms, the essence of a natural kind of thing is considered to be prior to its existence. Essentialism is a metaphysics about the invariant properties of discrete, (natural) kinds of things and the classes to which those things belong rather than, say, a materialist theory of variant properties and relations, or existentialism, or anti-foundationalism, complexity, pragmatism, conventionalism, nominalism, constructionism, and so on. Briefly put, unlike this latter series of theories of predication or definition, essentialism treats essence as a priori, intrinsic and invariant. Plato and Aristotle were both essentialists, in their own way. For Aristotle, essence is classification and teleology, pertains to natural kinds of things rather than artefacts. In Hegel’s phenomenology, essences are treated as objectively-existing transcendental concepts (much like Plato’s forms) which materialize more or less imperfectly (that is, dialectically) but nevertheless do so as the dialectical unfolding of essence. Dialectics is just there to hand-wave along the dichotomy between Ideas and Matter, not set it aside. There is of course an entire series of debates about the meaning and structure of essentialism, in logic, epistemology, philosophy and, not least, in political theory.

Still, the importance of essentialist reasoning in fascism should not be difficult to ascertain. It is, after all, a politics of national purity. And yet, the accusation of essentialism seems to be levied by some against anti-fascists. Of course, part of that is indicative of how terms get cynically spun around and instrumentalized by those who treat debates as a sophomoric game. But even then, that relies on most everyone having such a shallow understanding of terms that the game becomes possible.

In a Jacobin article on why the Left should reassess its commitment to open or no borders so as to be electorally competitive against Nazis, Volker Schmitz characterized opposition to such as “Left Essentialism.” That was the first time I’d seen the meaning of “anti-essentialism” converted into an argument against uncompromising anti-racism. In my response at the time, I had no explanation for why someone seemed incapable of understanding that racism, nationalism and especially fascism are essentialism, even less for why they imagined that a refusal to appeal to fascists could be characterized as such. I have seen that usage repeated since then. For instance, claims that “center[ing] marginalized identity … traffic[s] in essentialism.” No, it does the very opposite: in essentialism, if something is marginal it is inessential. The act of centering that which is marginal is a rudimentary anti-essentialist move.

So I tried to understand how these and other people had been encouraged to get it so twisted around. I had not read any of Vivek Chibber’s work before now. I had seen this event, where I assume Chibber was arguing that neither Trump nor Modi were fascists. If that was the position, I disagree. But rarely are these arguments conducted as debates about what fascism is and how it has changed. Instead, it is a contest over the implications of even using the term. For some time, the nationalist Left and some parts of the social democratic Left have eased themselves into ‘third position’ (Strasserite) politics, and in some cases Red-Brown (socialist-fascist) alliances a la Zizek (who has been on this trajectory for almost a decade).

Chibber’s project is the revival of the Enlightenment concept of universality (or “universal interests”), and his biggest target is postcolonial theory and subaltern studies. The argument is an overly-familiar one: subaltern studies and, by implication the “particularism” of ‘identity politics,’ have contributed to the destructive fragmentation of the Left’s claim to represent universal interests. To press his case, Chibber argues that this replicates the essentialism and Orientalism of colonialism.

However, even if this alludes to a problem of exoticism (and I have seen no sustained argument made along those lines), it is still remarkable that someone who adheres so closely to a universal-particular framing would have any problem with essentialism whatsoever. Without essentialism, it is simply not possible to arrange and hierarchically order the attributes of universal and particular–which is central to Chibber’s argument and his entire framework. Indeed, Chibber adheres to a conventional, Aristotelian essentialism. He says as much when he cites Nussbaum’s “Human Functioning and Social Justice: In Defense of Aristotelian Essentialism” in support of a “single objective need,” that of “physical well-being.” Having railed against reductionism and essentialism, he sets such concerns aside so as to defend the metaphysical index of “well-being” as a tenet of universality (Postcolonial Theory, 197). It is true that this is an Enlightenment project–it follows in the steps of the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Adam Smith, who centuries ago proposed to measure the wealth and prosperity of nations.

If anyone thinks Smithian economics and Aristotelian oikonomia are not some pre-Marxian, arch-essentialism I have a lovely bridge in Sydney to sell you.






4 thoughts on “When ‘anti-essentialism’ isn’t”

  1. By this definition, there’s no escape from essentialism in human affairs. But colloquially, the word refers to the postulation of essential groups of people — whether it’s the Fascist’s “races”, the Communist’s “classes”, the Militarist’s “nations”, or whatever — to subvert and deny essential concepts of what’s ethically or morally good.

  2. No, I explicitly distinguish between ordinary language uses, which can simply give rise to a set whose properties are not understood in essentialist terms (they may instead be understood in conventionalist, historical etc ways), and its idealist philosophical uses which give rise to essentialist (a priori, teleological, phenomenological etc) accounts of the properties of those sets and the entities that are said to be part of that set. There may be a discrepancy between concepts of ethical and moral good (or value) and essentialist accounts of sets, but in many cases concepts of ethical and moral value are derived from essentialist accounts of groups, such as ‘humanity,’ in that they posit an a priori (and transcendental) anthropological ideal from which concrete instances are judged to fall short, to have actualised, and so on.

    The issue is not the procedure of classification, but metaphysical procedures of classification which encode essences as the logical foundations for normative claims.


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