The Poverty of ‘Identity’

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It is hard to overstate the impact of identity politics. The “new culture wars”, have engulfed social media and university campuses and the anti-globalisation tide continues to rise. Left and right have seen the development of hard-line identitarian wings, whilst the themes of intersectionality, community, and nationality have entered mainstream politics.

Identitarianism is a rejection of universalism, individualism, and liberalism. Who you are and what your background is are at least as important as what you say and do. Opposition to free speech and “Western values” has proliferated on the left, whilst nativism and protectionism have become credible on the right.

Left-identitarianism evolved from minority rights activism, third wave feminism, and post-colonial theory. All of these movements were reactions to the apparent failures of ‘neutral’ ideologies, such as liberalism and socialism, to properly recognise, respond to, and counter hierarchies and injustices that were not merely legal or economic.

Left-identitarianism has since become a cohesive and integrated ideology based around‘intersectionality’. This emphasises the way that systems of oppression overlap, interplay, and reinforce one another. So, for instance, a heterosexual black cis-woman, will not merely experience racism and misogyny, but will experience specific types of discrimination against black women. Simultaneously, her straight and cis privilege are not overridden. Importantly, her experience of oppression cannot be fully understood or articulated from an external perspective.

Right-identitarianism has two separate roots. First, traditionalist conservatism, and more radical right wing thought, has been resuscitated. Whether due to ideology, fear of terrorism and global conflict, or anger over the dislocation caused by the economic and technological changes of globalisation, insular and isolationist nationalism has been resurrected. This can be seen in the rise of far-right political parties across Europe, the Brexit vote (in part), cultural tension with Islam (especially in France), and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

The second is the birth of the ‘alternative right’. At first glance, this is simply a younger, Internet savvy generation of right-wing nationalists. However, the alt-right is considerably more radical and idiosyncratic. It is better understood as the intersectional left’s shadow.

Where the return of common-or-garden nationalism is a reaction against globalisation, the alt-right is a reaction against the political correctness and censorship advanced by intersectionalists. Unlike conservatives, the alt-right are decidedly not concerned with traditional values, respecting received wisdom, or most social conservative issues. This is reflected in the Trump campaign. Whilst Trump is ‘socially conservative’ on immigration, he has flip-flopped on abortion (due to a lack of conviction and interest) and has little enthusiasm for the drug war or evangelical Christianity.

Equally, unlike conservatives and the new European far right, the alt-right happily frames their nativism in racial, not just cultural, terms. The far right in Europe, exemplified byMarine Le Pen, has taken great pains to detach itself from its fascist history and present a respectable image. The alt-right, in contrast, openly extols ‘white nationalism’.

The alt-right exists to be everything the politically correct intersectional left is not, operating in the same framework as an inverted reflection. Where left-identitarians rail against hierarchy and oppression, the alt-right embraces elitism and the ‘strong man’ figure of Trump. Where left-identitarians champion the downtrodden against the spectre of the white-hetero-cis-able-male, the alt-right celebrates, and demands sympathy for, the white-hetero-cis-able-male. Where political correctness seeks to stifle free speech and promote neo-puritan conformity, the alt-right seeks to be as anarchic, shocking, “triggering”, and, offensive as possible.

So, not only is the alt-right the monster to the intersectionalist Frankenstein, the two ideologies feed off of, and validate, one another. The alt-right is the patriarchal, masculinist, insecure bigot of intersectional fiction made flesh. Likewise, if it were not for dictatorial campus censoristas, the alt-right would be little more than an adolescent Ku Klux Klan.

As it is, the alt-right are right to object to the illiberal aspects of political correctness, and are right to criticise the intersectionalist narrative. Regardless of what is statistically true about racial, sexual, and cultural inequalities and oppression, it is a mistake to develop a political language that prioritises structure to the point of the exclusion of the particular. In English, refusing to label a racially motivated attack on a white person by people of colour as ‘racist’, because racism can only be structural, is absurd and unhelpful. It certainly does absolutely nothing to combat injustices faced by people of colour.

On the flip side, intersectionality actually comes close to being right, and is in many ways a positive step in left-wing thought. It is absolutely right to emphasise that one-dimensional class-based analysis is, at best, a blunt and clumsy tool. It is also right to emphasise that identity and oppression is complex and cannot be simplified or de-contextualised.

However, intersectionality fails by not going far enough. In the same way that you cannot be reduced to a single identity, no collective identities, no matter how nuanced, can ever capture the experiences, natures, and interests of the individuals it purports to represent. Analysing in terms of class, sex, gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, disability, and every other structural consideration can never produce an accurate picture of any individual, or properly capture interpersonal relationships and power. It is true that experiences cannot ever be fully understood from a third person perspective, but this is not solely or even primarily due to racial, sexual, or gender dynamics.

This does not mean individuals exist detached from context. In fact, the point is the opposite. The individual is embedded in such a complicated web of influences, feedback, information, networks, and power dynamics that no serious attempt to understand every constitutive input can be made. Collectivising and categorising cannot capture the irreducible complexity of every individual’s idiosyncratic context. As such, intersectional analysis, like any collectivist theory, is doomed to failure. Robust liberalism is necessary for respecting deep individual differences and for handling uncertainty and complexity.

Right-identitarianism faces a similar problem. In the case of fringe elements of the alt-right, it is sadly necessary to mention that “race realism” has been thoroughly debunked. Most nationalists, though, have a more sophisticated criticism of liberal universalism: they care more about their own nation for the same reason that they care more about their own family and themselves. Importantly, they need not begrudge other nations for feeling the same way and need not entertain any supremacist ideas.

Preferential relationships of this kind cannot be seriously criticised and it is a mistake for liberals to attack opponents of open borders, free trade, international institutions, and multiculturalism for being selfish or (necessarily) bigoted. However, whilst individuals may automatically have ties with and connections to specific others, there is absolutely no reason to prioritise those connections within a nation over those that cross national and state boundaries. The nation has no special status above any other network of loyalty and mutual benefit.

Identitarianism is a product of insecurity and arbitrariness. It may provide comfort through identification with an in-group and dissociation from an out-group. But, if you want to achieve anything more than that, identity politics is a dead-end leading only to division, resentment, spite, groupthink, conformity, and alienation from much of humanity.

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mm

Blogger, activist and former philosophy student at The University of Edinburgh

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