Identity politics has severed identity from agency, turning back the clock on the progressive gains made in the twentieth century’s post-war period. In a recently aired British TV documentary, veteran anti-racist campaigner Trevor Phillips argued that left-wing political activists need to re-think their approach to identity politics. Attempts to muzzle – rather than engage with – the arguments of outsider parties may be responsible for the rise of populist leaders like Farage and Trump. Phillips suggests that the left needs to learn to live with offense and to stop mistaking symbols with substance. He argues that liberalism and the fear of offending minorities are stifling legitimate debate in a way that has backfired.
SYMBOLS OVER SUBSTANCE
What Phillips calls ‘liberalism’ is actually little more than conservative social politics re-branded with liberal labels, images and semantics. Counter-Enlightenment conservatism has hijacked the moral prestige of liberal terminology and transferred it to an ultra-conservative social politics. The liberal value of tolerance for all views (irrespective of content) has been ditched in favour of PC gate-keeping. The young social justice warriors responsible have been duped into thinking they will be on the right side of history, when in reality they are on the right side of the political spectrum.
These faux liberals err in believing that Leftist liberation movements of the past were based on biological or cultural identity. As Mitchell Blatt has explained, “The problem is social-justice liberals view the world entirely through a prism of identity. To them, no one is an individual, but rather an amalgamation of stereotypes associated with their race, gender, or group.” The latest fashionable neologism, ‘intersectionality’, is yet another instance of pseudo-intellectual semantics being introduced to the political terrain without critical scrutiny. Intersectionality adds nothing new to identity politics, other than multiplying its force by encouraging individuals to see themselves (yet again) as possessors not of a single, but multiple, stereotypical group identities, seemingly to facilitate score-keeping on the victimhood charts.
POLITICAL IDEOLOGIES 101
Classic liberalism holds an ‘atomistic’ view of society as an aggregation of individuals. The Enlightenment championed a vision of human flourishing linked to personal autonomy and the belief in universal reason. The natural rights theories that emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries treated individuals as ‘ends in themselves’, each worthy of respect and dignity, and not merely ‘means’ to the ends of others. Consistent with that outlook, twentieth century liberals strived to establish conditions in which people could be free to pursue their own vision of the ‘good life’ (as each defines it) without state authorities or majority groups prescribing to them how they must live. Although the individual is sovereign over her own body and mind, each must respect the fact that every other individual enjoys an equal right to liberty, such that everyone is entitled to the widest possible liberty consistent with like liberty for all. A belief in the primacy of the individual is the characteristic theme of liberal ideology, even if it has developed in a variety of ways. Liberals advocate individuality not just for its own sake, but as a condition of social progress. In his 1859 essay On Liberty, J.S. Mill wrote:
“Where, not the person’s own character, but the traditions or customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individuals and social progress.”
Liberal democracy is above all concerned with protecting the freedom of individuals from the tyranny of the majority, and avoiding coercion in spheres of activity and thought which are the preserve of the private individual.
By contrast, traditional conservatives have rejected the ‘atomistic’ view of society as an aggregation of autonomous individuals in favour of a more ‘communitarian’ perspective. Conservatives do not primarily stress the individual’s rights but the bonds of duty and obligation that hold the ‘social fabric’ together. Conservatives have traditionally held a view of society known as ‘organicism’, stressing that societies are not human constructs based on reason and innovation, but are more like living organisms, in which the whole is more than the individual parts. An organic society is formed not by human ingenuity, but by natural necessity.
The organic metaphor has profound implications. If natural forces beyond human comprehension or control have shaped society’s arrangements and institutions, then its delicate ‘fabric’ should be conserved and adhered to by the individuals who live within its structures. Conservatives have traditionally believed that society is naturally hierarchical. They have seen various classes and groups in society as having specific roles. There are natural leaders and followers, and those who go out to work and those who stay home and raise children. Natural inequality of wealth and social position is justified because there is a corresponding inequality of social responsibility: those who have more liberty also have the responsibility to ‘protect’ the less autonomous. Authority is not only necessary but beneficial, because individual human beings need the security of knowing ‘where they stand’ and what is expected of them. In British conservatism, organicism is embodied in the traditionalist mantra of “faith, family and nation” as vital elements in the moral fabric of society.
MILLENNIALS EROSION of the POST-WAR LIBERAL CONSENSUS
The merging of biology and character so beloved of identity politicians was what the post-war liberal social justice movements opposed and sought liberation from. The reduction of a person’s character to a general or abstract ‘type’ to which they belonged (an identity group) is what every progressive left social critic – from Simone de Beauvoir to MLK to Michel Foucault – rejected or critiqued. Minorities were, to be sure, victims of injustice. But they were most harmed by the presupposition that their group identity mattered, while their individual moral or intellectual merits did not. Group identity was the prison that chained individuals forever to skin colour, biological sex or sexual orientation. Group identity was at the very root of their victimhood, not the thing that would liberate them. Sexists, racists and homophobes had disempowered members of these ostensible groups on the basis of the reductionist biologism that claims nature is destiny, or culture and social arrangements are fate – the inevitable outcome of natural selection.
Often it was not so much a natural feature of minority groups that was fixated upon so much as a reified theological or cultural belief about the natures of these peoples that had been transposed onto them by the dominant culture’s propaganda. Against group slurs, positive identity slogans like “Black is beautiful” or “Gay and proud” or “Born that way” were positive rejoinders to the reductionist biologism that had assigned personality or character traits to physiology. “Naturalising” the inferiority of some social classes absolved the human agents who kept minorities ‘where they belonged’ (whether in the kitchen, the closet or the prison) of accountability and blame.
The liberating solution to reductionist biologism was not simply to use the same logic of naturalistic generalisations but to flip them in the other direction, by saying that all women are superior, or that all black people are inherently “civilised” (whatever that means), or that all gay people are morally virtuous. Inversion only retains the dominant culture’s binary. Instead, progressive social movements subverted it: they stressed common human abilities like reasoning and reflection, and demanded to be seen primarily as individuals who could choose to ‘make something of themselves’ by means of their choices. Minorities did not expect their ‘groups’ to be idealised instead of demonised. All they wanted was that their members be released from the ‘group identity’ and treated as free moral agents who could take responsibility for their behaviour and whatever praise or blame their choices merited. Amartya Sen has observed that staunch communitarians take community identity to be paramount and predetermined, which implies that identities exist without any need for human volition, just “recognition”. In contrast, he argues that reasoning and scrutiny play a major role. Identities are not merely discovered so much as they are selected and prioritised by human agents. This is not denial of our ‘situated’ identities, but an acknowledgement of the need to decide, when conflicting loyalties arise, on the relative importance of the different identities.
From Free Individuals to Neo-Conformism
The liberal model of man that dominated the forty-year period from the end of WWII until the eighties pictured human nature as essentially adaptable and plastic – or free. Naturalistic explanations for human institutions and social arrangements had de-politicised the entire realm of socio-political relationships. Against this, the revolutionary liberals of the 1960’s maintained that unjust social arrangements were institutionally erected and sustained by powerful individuals and human choices. Jean Paul Sartre emphatically argued that humans are responsible for themselves, for what they do and what they become. As such, they are responsible for humanity and the future of humanity itself. He contrasted his existentialist view of man to the characters in the novels of Emile Zola, for whom, “the behaviour of [his] characters was caused by their heredity, or by the action of their environment upon them, or by determining factors, psychic or organic.” Sartre claimed that most people would be greatly comforted if these excuses were accepted as explanations for their behaviour. They would say, “You see, that is what we are like, no one can do anything about it.” Sartre thought we are in bad faith when we portray ourselves as passive creations of our race, our class, job, history, nation, family, heredity, childhood influences, subconscious drives. Existentialists had not claimed that cultural factors are unimportant or that we should blame the victims of systemic injustice. Rather, certain conditions ‘situate’ each of us and are the background against which we must act in the world. They define the conditions, political and personal, within which I exercise my freedom and define myself.
Feminist existentialist Simone de Beauvoir gave more weight than her male peers to the difficulty of breaking out of constraints like social status and cultural influences. She knew very well how an alienated sense of ‘self’ can come from the outside – from cultural expectations and roles – and then become so internalised as to seem inevitable. Despite this, she maintained her belief that we remain existentially free. Her own response to sexism was not to resign herself to the status of a passive ‘victim’ of environmental patriarchy. Rather, she wrote books and actively became the change she wanted to see in the world. She chose an unconventional lifestyle, neither marrying nor raising children, and instead had many lovers and wrote philosophy.
The existentialist revaluation of identity also played out in the exchanges between Sartre and Jean Genet, who was an ‘out’ homosexual. Genet had been an object of Sartre’s admiration and was even ‘canonised’ by Sartre in his novel “Saint Genet”, a biographical work in which Sartre praised the way in which one can take other people’s labels and decide what to do with them, transforming persecution or oppression into art or freedom. Sartre especially admired how Genet, through a series of reversals and creative manoeuvres, came to own his alienation and his outsider status as thief, vagrant, homosexual, and prostitute. While Genet always regarded his homosexuality as more like left-handedness or hair colour than as a voluntary response to his social environment, Sartre’s main point about Genet’s sexuality was that the man had never let others define the significance of his sexuality for him: he was his own man, not a ‘type’.
Michel Foucault focused on the social mythology of heteronormativity, and critiqued the Freudian form of cultural determinism. He was ambivalent about gay essentialism, and therefore never commented explicitly on the causes of same-sex desires.
Even Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophy of non-violent resistance was fed by his reading of Sartre, Heidegger and the German–American existentialist theologian Paul Tillich. Bayard Rustin, one of King’s key political strategists and a chief organiser of the March on Washington (mostly unknown because of his homosexuality), argued that the African-American community was threatened by the appeal of identity politics, particularly the rise of “black power”. He thought this position repeated the political and moral errors of previous black nationalists, while alienating the white allies needed by the African-American community. Rustin argued:
The relevant question, moreover, is not whether a politician is black or white, but what forces he represents. Manhattan has had a succession of Negro borough presidents, and yet the schools are increasingly segregated. . . . .
What I am saying is that if a black politician is elected because he is black and is deemed to be entitled to a “slice of the pie,” he will behave in one way; if he is elected by a constituency pressing for social reform, he will, whether he is white or black, behave in another way.”
Rustin thought that proponents of “black power” imagined themselves to be leading the Negro people along the same path that past immigrant groups (Irish, Italians, Jews) had travelled to achieve political power, by sticking together along the lines of group identity. But, says Ruston, the reality was that it was though alliances with other groups whether in party politics or unions, that these groups acquired sufficient power to have a voice in American society. “They certainly did not make isolation their primary tactic.”
Since the mid-nineties, the broad liberal consensus on the primacy of the individual has been eroded both by the deterministic assumptions of sociobiology and a therapeutic culture of ‘victimhood’ in which all human behaviour is read through the lenses of childhood trauma or social victimisation. Dr. Ruth Hubbard of Harvard University forewarned in 1993 that the incipient shift from nurture to nature was part of a conservative backlash against the gains of the civil rights and women’s movements. The nurture model had shown that the inferior social status of women and African Americans was a product of institutionalised racism and sexism, not of ‘natural’ inferiority or ‘innate differences’. She urged her readers to go beyond “defining [women as a whole] as victims of male power and dominance,” and pushes for women everywhere to show independence and individuality while learning to accept and embrace the biology that’s continuously used by men to undermine them. While it was important to recognise that ‘inferiority’ was a product of socialisation and not nature, the cultural determinism implicit in perpetual ‘victimhood’ was also too reductionist and implied determinism. Like Hubbard, Trevor Phillips has disparaged the idea that under-achievement or failure amongst people of colour must stem solely from unequal treatment by the dominant society. He claims that this “patronising guff” implies that all those who come from minority groups “have no agency other than that allowed by whites. People of colour, for example, become puppets of others’ prejudices, with no capability of managing or improving their own lives.”
The Guilt-Shame Dynamic
Like conservative communitarianism, identity politics pictures individuals as ‘embedded’ in a particular cultural, social or ideological context. Multiculturalism emphasises how culture shapes the values, norms and assumptions through which an individual forms his identity and his worldview. Encouraged by these new cultural models, individuals nowadays tend to see themselves primarily as products of biological bigotry who have inherited ‘baggage’ from others (whether family or cultural forces) that will eternally define their place in society as victims, and therefore entitle them to special consideration without any need to prove the merits of their views. Guilt-tripping those who disagree with them will suffice in place of mustering a better argument. All whites, all men and all non-Muslims are guilty of racism, sexism and Islamophobia, respectively, until proven innocent.
So potent is the guilt-shame dynamic for securing political privilege that it invites the invention of new biological minorities. Race (identity) and religion (ideology) are routinely conflated, making valid criticisms of religious doctrines or symbols a crime tantamount to “hate speech”. Gender has been redefined as biology, despite the fact that liberal feminists and queer activists had viewed gender as a social construct. Overnight, the Trans movement re-defined gender as an intrinsic and heritable part of the human psyche (biology). ‘Trans kids’ have male or female brains and what distinguishes one from the other is somehow not a product of cultural conditioning. Apparently, social progressives who had deconstructed gender were just wrong: men really are form Mars and women from Venus. Consequently, valid criticisms of the clinical ‘transgender’ model (that arguably pathologises homosexual children) are unanimously dismissed as “Transphobic”.
Young social justice warriors virtue-signal their bans on offensive words in the belief that they are noble defenders of ‘minorities’ even as they subject them to new horrors. We are witnessing a full-scale re-branding of conservatism that has bent and twisted the political spectrum beyond all recognition. The result is a political culture in which the religious right’s ultra-conservative spokespersons enjoy exclusive immunity from criticism, socially constructed ideas and concepts are again being reified as biology, and would-be liberal critics of these regressive cultural shifts are shut down. We should not be surprised if far right voices and parties have filled the void produced by this situation.