Saturday, 3 December 2016

The Politics of Identity

One of the early consequences of Donald Trump's election has been the questioning of the role of identity politics. Initially this foregrounded a longstanding theme of the left - that the Democratic establishment had promoted sectional rights to occlude discussion of economic power - but it was quickly hijacked by liberals who claimed that the real problem was that identity politics had created the seedbed for Trump's demagoguery, not least by legitimising the claims of the white working class to be an aggrieved minority. This wasn't an overnight conversion, but it did signal a change in tone from a critique of self-indulgence and other-worldliness to one of pernicious decay. It continues the liberal criticism of political correctness (echoing conservative tropes) that hit its stride after 2001, and which was bound up with the longstanding assault on the left's "intellectual cowardice" that liberal commentators like Jonathan Chait in the US and Nick Cohen in the UK have built a career on. What this has done is to marginalise the case of the left that identity politics is insufficient ("not good enough", as Bernie Sanders put it), replacing it with the quest for a new progressive super-identity that further relegates class. It also misdiagnoses the decay of democracy by a focus on actors rather than institutions.

This about-turn was crystallised in a much circulated opinion piece by Mark Lilla in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago. After paying lip-service to the beauty of diversity, Lilla insists that "the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end" because it "has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life". The piece is itself comically narcissistic in its use of personal anecdotes: "Recently I performed a little experiment during a sabbatical in France: For a full year I read only European publications, not American ones". It also makes daft historical claims, such as that "identity politics ... never wins elections" (the same liberals argued the opposite in respect of the Obama coalition), and that "the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan" (Lilla is a professor of humanities at Columbia but appears to be unaware of the Know Nothing Party of the 1850s - did he not see Scorsese's Gangs of New York?).

The piece ends with an epiphany as Lilla and a mixed ethnic group listen to a recording of Franklin D Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" speech from 1941. What he is summoning here is a common national identity that is above sectional interests. But just as FDR's four freedoms avoided any mention of economic power, Lilla omits to mention that Roosevelt's winning coalition depended on the racist Democratic party machine of the South. The corollary of this appeal is that some in society must forgo pursuing their sectional interests for the common good: "We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another. As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale".

Beyond the giveaway emphasis on decorum in that last sentence, what's striking about this rhetoric is that it isn't a million miles away from that of Trump himself ("Make America great again"), absent the gratuitous insults and rambling non sequitors. It is a patriotic appeal to Americanism that urges caution in the area of social reform and offers nothing in the realm of economics beyond civic sympathy. Though he cites the 1940s, it sounds more like the 1950s, which suggests that it may require the creation of a scapegoat to act as a binding agent. It doesn't take a genius to work out that this will probably be "Muslim terrorists". What's also noticeable is the palpable sense of release: that members of the liberal elite have managed to throw off the shackles and speak the truth, which echoes the same trope of repression and self-pity cultivated by the conservative elite since the 1960s. As Adam Johnson noted of Lilla and others, "Every one of the above pundits who is blaming identity politics and political correctness for Trump, it can’t be stressed enough, hated identity politics to begin with, and would have regardless of who won".

Even those liberals who have taken issue with Lilla from the position of "we need to do identity politics better" have tended to frame this conservative nostalgia as "left of centre" when it is anything but. Their objection tends to be pragmatic rather than principled - "There is no other way to do politics than to do identity politics", as Matt Yglesias puts it - and is clearly motivated by a desire to continue using this vector, along with economic liberalisation and technocracy, to constrain the sort of class-based politics that would offend rich donors. This instrumentalism finds an interesting echo on the right where identity has shown itself to be increasingly divorced from any normative values or strategic principles, hence evangelical Christians have embraced the profane Trump while GOP luminaries who once warned of The Donald's monarchical ambitions have raced to court in order to bend the knee. It appears everything is negotiable, which means that identity - in the eyes of liberals and conservatives alike - is a matter of style not of substance.

What this points to is the gradual evolution of identity from biological destiny to a question of culture, or even a consumption preference (Rachel Dolezal may by a figure of ridicule, but the media fascination with her metamorphosis is as telling as their obsession with diets). While some of this is simply a way of legitimising bigotry through hypocritical appeals to tolerance, for example accusing Muslims of being misogynists or homophobes, it has the consequence of suggesting that identity is a matter of choice. In this regard, the political utility of Islam (compared to other religions) owes a lot to its framing in terms of choice. "Strict" Muslims are deemed to have consciously rejected integration, hence wearing a veil is interpreted as a provocation. Converts to Islam are regarded as vulnerable and possibly deluded, which partly reflects the secular belief that any strong religious feeling, beyond some commercialised "spirituality", is tantamount to membership of a cult. The trope of "radicalisation" suggests a perversion of individuation and socialisation and thus another kind of failure of choice.

The opportunity (and ability) to chose one's identity was once the preserve of a small minority of outsiders, from mythic heroes to mountebanks. Though the industrial revolution and emigration changed the material circumstances of many over the course of the nineteenth century, this was accompanied by a determination to preserve cultural identity as a social stabiliser, which remained the norm up until the late 1940s (in the UK, the NHS was the last great "reform" in this lineage). The post-war era saw identity become more fluid under the impact of social mobility and increased consumption (which fed the advance of civil rights in the US), but this was nothing compared to the acceleration after 1980, not just because settled communities were fragmented by deindustrialisation but because the new imperative of human capital encouraged wholesale reinvention of the self. Racial bigotry hasn't disappeared, but the modern resentments delineated by Brexit and Trump owe more to optional identity (cities vs small towns, graduates vs non-graduates, cosmopolitans vs localists) than they do to ethnicity. In fact, the current "nativist" turn shows how race is in decline as an organising principle as first-generation Asian immigrants vote to leave the EU in protest at Polish migrants and Latinos vote for Trump in the hope of economic prosperity.

The frothing of the alt-right does not herald a revival of "scientific racism" any more than it does "sacred monarchy", which is why Republican grandees have found it easy to drop their supposedly principled objections at the first whiff of power. Conservative elites routinely absorb new entrants who buy into the club rules (well hello, Kate Middleton), giving the lie to the idea that they are firm believers in genetic destiny. They make a fetish of inheritance and nobility, but this is largely an ideological justification for the preservation of wealth and privilege. What the liberal turn against identity politics in the US suggests is a similar instrumentality. Having created a market in which multiple identities compete for institutional influence through the Democratic Party, the intention now appears to be to create a bland national identity that is capacious enough to accommodate all those interests that will be alienated by Trumpism in action. In other words, this is a strategy of neutrality that hopes to profit from Trump's divisiveness and executive incompetence.

The danger with this approach is that conservatives are no slouches when it comes to crafting a national identity, and divide and rule can prosper if it makes the beneficiaries even more fearful of loss. It is also ahistorical to imagine that a progressive national identity can be forged without a commitment to state intervention (i.e. protection from the market), particularly in the areas of the economy and welfare. For all the iniquities of Jim Crow, FDR's broad coalition in the 1930s and 40s was popular because it offered both tangible opportunity and realistic hope to most sections of society, not because it was patriotic or deified "freedom". A similar broad coalition today would require liberals to accept that the white working class is neither irredeemably racist nor stupid, that economic management should prioritise production and productivity (i.e. wages) over financialisation, and that identity politics only becomes divisive when it is turned into a competition for privilege. The ready dismissal of women and minorities by privileged white liberal males, on top of their prior dismissal of the working class en masse, suggests that this isn't about to happen.


  1. The 'liberals' are so scared that they are firing off volleys in all directions. One of the prime examples is the Labour right, who delight in accusing Corbyn and his supporters of being bigoted anti-semites, claim that we need to consider limits on immigration in order to appease the 'white working-class', and whose only economic policy is to stay in the European single market at any cost.

  2. .. and incoherence is the name of the day, having listened to David Steel, speaking with Caroline Lucas on the wonderful idea of a "Progressive Alliance", dismissing Corbyn Labour as being beyond the pale, whose policies are arguably less left-wing that the Greens.

    But then any alliance with the Greens is only a tactical means to power, as they provide no direct electoral threat, while Labour do.