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Beyond Identity Politics

In my last blog I made a passing comment about how embracing identity politics had been one of two big errors committed by left and progressive movements. There is a big debate right now between groups arguing that identity politics is more important than ever and those arguing that it has been a mistake. Because of this, and because of the large potential for misunderstanding here, I want to expand on and clarify my own views on this. I’ll say this upfront: I am less sure about the role of identity politics than I am about the causes and consequences of inequality in how we got here. There is considerable room for contestation about this and there are important points to be heard on both side of this debate. But debate we must, and it should be done openly and honestly. Its importance to where we have been, where we are, and where we are heading makes this essential. What follows, then, however inadequate, are my two cents…

In my last years in London I was having a drink with a former colleague who was from an Indian family. I made the observation to him that a lot of Indians were Conservative party supporters. He agreed that this was the case (he himself was not), and asked me why I thought that was. The reason I gave was that as marginalised groups attain a level of acceptance and success they tend to become conservative. Because their new-found security is tenuous, the best strategy to protect themselves is to redirect attention to other vulnerable groups. It is, metaphorically, to close the door behind them, or to kick away the ladder. I suggested in that conversation that in a generation or two we’d see gay people and other groups voting for right-wing parties for the same reason.

In a society where issue politics are fragmented, where the perception is that there is a limited space for them to be resolved and that group claims are competing claims, this strategy of turning to the right makes sense. Such is the logic of scarcity, rational self-interest, and the zero-sum game. This is what makes it identity politics, where politics is understood as collective judgements in the presence of scarcity. What we end up with is Hobbes’s war of all against all.

I want to try now to outline why I think identity politics has played into the hands of the right, and now the far-right, and how the perception of a zero-sum game is false. If I can, I’ll say a little about what I think needs to be done.

Identity politics can boast of many real and important successes. The lives of many African Americans is better for it. Women in many countries have more and better opportunities than in former ages. People of all kinds can now marry in many places. These gains are at best partial and, as I will argue, insecure. But whatever the extent of these gains, they have come at a cost.

First, and most importantly in our current context, the practice of identity politics has accustomed people to think about politics in terms of membership, of groups that they are in and – critically – groups that they are not in. Progressivism has transitioned from a single, majoritarian working class politics (not to be romanticised, of course) into a fragmented and divisive identity politics, losing its unifying characteristic. By their nature, identity groups are numerical minorities (with the possible exception of women). This has left progressivism without a coherent majority.

Second, specific policies like preferential hiring have reinforced the perception of zero-sum politics, that a gain for some group entails a loss for others (even when the actual problems these other groups face are in fact rooted in unrelated causes). (To be clear, I support policies like preferential hiring for many reasons, but as a policy it cannot exist in isolation without further policies that protect the security of other vulnerable groups. This is for another day…)

Together, these problems are mutually reinforcing, leaving the constituents of modern progressivism divided and, under the assumption of zero-sum politics, mutually antagonistic. This renders the real gains both fragile and vulnerable to the politics of the right.

It is a standard strategy of the right, and a defining feature of the far right, to divide people into groups and set them against each other. Divide and conquer is a tactic with ancient pedigree, and history tells us of its remarkable successes. It has been deployed throughout the neoliberal age: us versus them, workers versus parasites, rich versus poor, immigrants versus citizens versus refugees, black versus white, black versus Latino, East versus West, religious group versus religious group, old versus young, and thanks to the magic of the market, worker versus worker.

This is how the practice of identity politics has played into the hands of the right (and now the far right). It has left a fractionalised polity while conveniently leaving the right with a number of self-identifying discrete groups that can be set against each other. Each group can be marginalised, peeled off (or worse yet, bought out) and everyone ultimately loses.

It has even led to paradoxical results. Over the last year I’ve had many conversations where someone would say something like “Trump is wrong on group x and group y, but I really admire his stance on group z”, where the person was in fact a member of group x or y. While Trump’s scattershot strategy of attacking so many disparate groups appears random and clumsy, it is not so hard, I think, to see how this strategy worked and was so successful for him: it is well noted, for instance, how many white women voted for him, despite his obvious misogyny. So long as people feel passionately opposed to one or more of his targets it matters less to them that they were another of his targets. Their need for a target for their outrage combines with a false sense of membership to vote against their own group. In effect, identity politics have divided, and the Trumps of the world have conquered. What we are left with is the danger warned of in Martin Niemöller’s immortal poem.

One might (plausibly) object that, where the far right identifies groups in order to marginalise them, progressives have identified groups to help them. This is true, to a point. But it is not my point. I don’t question the motivations of identity politics, nor the serious issues they embody. My point is that these groups have fundamental important commonalities that have been lost through the practice of identity politics.

At one level, identity groups represent different problems and claims. Their historic sources differ, and the ways to address the problems may also differ. However, at a deeper level they share a common basic foundation: they have much more in common than they are different. Each group represents opposition to bullying, injustice, narrowness. Once we recognise this fundamental commonality, the illusion of zero-sum politics dissolves and the strategy of kicking away the ladder appears for what it is: a self-destructive act.

The point is this: these are not separate issues – they are the same issue. Rather than be for one cause or another, we must be against bullying, against injustice, against narrowness, for this is what unites the perpetrators of each of these issues. If progressive politics is going to survive the next few years it needs a different approach, one that can celebrate difference, but is grounded in our commonality. Yes, we need to respect and understand the specificity of individual causes: we need to push for justice for African Americans, for indigenous groups, for gender equality, for LGBT rights, and for all the other causes. But we cannot achieve justice for any group in isolation exclusively. We must do it together and do it broadly. We must fight for, and with, each other, not against each other. We need to be clear they these are not competing claims where a win for some causes necessitates a loss for others. The growingly numerous Trumps of the world will only be defeated when disparate groups recognise their underlying shared cause, and where these Trumps are presented with a unified opposition. We must move beyond identity politics into a fuller, more potent, humanist politics. This will require that we not only change the way we think about each other but also the way that we think about politics.

I am deeply conscious that as I write these words millions of people around the world are marching in protests for women’s rights following the inauguration of now President Trump. I am also thinking about the protests of the Black Lives Matter movement. So, given what I’ve said above, do I oppose these actions? Am I one of those All Lives Matters guys? Do I want to retort that women matter as much as men? Absolutely not, on all counts. First, these movements involve many people who are not part of the identity group named. This is encouraging. It is still important that groups like this exist, that they raise consciousness of important parts of the broader picture. Single issue activism can act as an anchor around which a broader movement can form. In many respects the civil rights movement had this characteristic (and Martin Luther King understood this need for broad based coalitions that stretch beyond the initial issue). Perhaps the women’s rights protests have that potential. My hope is that these movements will converge and become something new, something that can break the cycle of division. Only by doing so can we begin to hope.

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