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Identity politics is a political style and ideology that focuses on the issues relevant to various groups defined by a wide variety of shared personal characteristics, including, but not limited to, race, religion, sex, gender, ethnicity, ideology, nationality, sexual orientation, gender expression, culture, shared history, medical conditions, and other of the many ways in which people differ from each other, and into which they may be classified or classify themselves.
What is identity politics?
The disease of identity, appeals to perceived shared commonalities, and disdain for similarly constituted groups seen as undesirable or aberrant, have likely been a feature of primate politics since before the emergence of Homo sapiens. It is not obvious from the broadest definition, but modern identity politics is often reputed (especially by the far right) to be a variant of Marxism. While it is true that Marxists have tended to support identity-politics campaigns to some extent, and that the rhetoric of identity-politics advocates often references Marxist tropes, in many ways Marxism and identity politics involve incompatible analyses. Some Marxist traditionalists explicitly denounce identity politics.
Identity politics is distinguishable from but similar to political nationalism. An ethnic (as opposed to economic) nationalist political movement asserts the unity of an ethnic identity and its entitlement to dominate a territory. Modern identity politics arises out of a claim that the universalist humanism - developed by Enlightenment social philosophy, espousing equality and human rights and embraced by Western democracies - is inadequate to actually achieve its stated goals. This is claimed to be due to a number of factors, including differing historical experiences, culture, and power relationships between groups that invariably lead to oppression, the systematic denial of rights leading to exploitation and misery of oppressed groups. Advocates of the concept of identity politics contend that this happens both deliberately and unintentionally, negating stated intentions towards the ideals of equality and human rights.
In addition to the imperative of seizing power, which may not be practical, identity politics seeks to establish relationships with existing power-structures that its advocates can manipulate to their benefit. The conditions of modern democracy guided by universalist ideals allowed various groups to create mutual associations to further their local interests and allowed them to become defined by these allegiances. Members of groups with allegiance based on personal characteristics often tend to view material, social, political, and spiritual shortfalls in their experiences as arising from their identity-group status. They look to the grand promises of universal equality and rights carved in the marble monuments, and wonder "when does that stuff get here?"
Leftists of a Marxist bent observed during the early 1960s that, while traditional Marxism posited the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, the then most vital left-wing movements revolved around matters of race (the civil rights movement) and, somewhat later, around sex or gender (see feminism). The New Left originated as a leftist revival that sought to swap in these and other subcultural concerns as substitutes for Marxist class-struggle.
The rise of a Neo-Marxist New Left of intellectuals and students
“”Marxism in this country had even been an eccentric and quixotic passion. One oppressed class after another had seemed finally to miss the point. The have-nots, it turned out, aspired mainly to having. The minorities seemed to promise more, but finally disappointed: it developed that they actually cared about the issues, that they tended to see the integration of the luncheonette and the seat in the front of the bus as real goals, and only rarely as ploys, counters in a larger game. They resisted that essential inductive leap from the immediate reform to the social ideal, and, just as disappointingly, they failed to perceive their common cause with other minorities, continued to exhibit a self-interest disconcerting in the extreme to organizers steeped in the rhetoric of "brotherhood".
The association of identity politics with the American left grew out of a confluence of circumstances in the 1960s. Marxist theory lost much of its attraction for young idealists after the Khrushchev revelations confirmed the worst suspicions about the Soviet Union under Stalin. The unprecedented prosperity of postwar America had led left-wing intellectuals such as Herbert Marcuse and C. Wright Mills to conclude that the Marxist model of class conflict was irrelevant to issues of social justice in America.
The social milieu of activists had changed from the working class base that was associated with the labor movement in the 1930s and 1940s. The civil rights movement was based in black churches, with support from white and black students and intellectuals. The movement against the Vietnam War and the military draft was associated with the universities and had a natural constituency of young men, while challenging the notion of military service being the ultimate mark of manliness. The AFL-CIO was seen as a Cold War establishment lapdog. The working class at large was seen as uneducated, apathetic, and backward thinking. They were written off as part of any immediate strategy for social change.
Some more traditional Marxists saw hope that the student/intellectual based movements for peace, racial equality, and later, gender equality, could have a catalytic effect for mobilizing broader support from the working class. Cultural and class biases, and the rise of high-visibility fringe ideologies within those movements, instead led to their estrangement and mutual distrust.
Civil rights and black power...
While the civil rights movement inspired a wave of idealism and hope that America was moving toward fulfilling its founding creed, and had major accomplishments in the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the experiences of its activists led to a growing bitterness. The issues impeding the well-being of blacks across America were nebulous and complex when compared to the legally codified discrimination and vicious racist terrorism of the deep south.
Two competing strategies emerged for the betterment of blacks throughout America; the black nationalism espoused by Malcolm X, and a strategy focused on building cross-racial coalitions that addressed broader issues facing the less-enfranchised sectors of the urban working class as a whole. The former gained popularity among embittered veterans of the civil rights movement such as Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, among more than a few raving maniacs like Louis Farrakhan, and among white leftists seeking edgy radical credentials. The latter was favored by Martin Luther King, labor organizers, and the more traditional, labor-oriented segments of the left. King was implementing that strategy in Memphis when he was killed.
The urban race riots of 1965—1968 polarized those who saw them as a humanitarian, moral, and political disaster and those who saw them as a political opportunity. H. Rap Brown's slogan of "Burn, baby, burn!" was an extreme expression of the response of the emerging black power movement. The spring of 1968 saw the release of the Kerner Commission report on the urban race riots of 1965-1967 and the assassination of Martin Luther King, which served to reinforce the idea of an irreconcilable racial divide and feed the despair that there could ever be a transformative social movement that crossed racial lines.
The stage was set for the New Left to shift from the idealistic, principled inclusiveness of the civil rights movement to the bitter, cynical, nihilistic parochialism of the black power movement. That led the New Left to overlook some important realities — that there was in fact, a burgeoning black middle class making gains in education, income, and political influence during the 1960s into the 1970s; that the race riots were largely among less educated blacks unable to capitalize on the new opportunities for more educated blacks; that the riots occurred in areas where black political power was ascendant; and that the black power movement was not gaining the allegiance among blacks that the civil rights movement had. The base of the black power movement continued to be black students and intellectuals, with support from white New Leftists.
....and the rise of gender issues
The 1960s activism fostered the rise of the feminist movement in two ways: it brought large numbers of politically aware women in contact with each other while the machismo-sodden style that the New Left was borrowing from the black power movement in the late 1960s was alienating women.
The identity-based outlook of the black power movement also provided the model for gender-based identity politics that grew out of the New Left. Once the military draft for men ended, it became much easier for women to see their gender as a fundamental condition of oppression.
More recently, gay activists angered by the tepid support of gay issues among blacks and Hispanics proclaimed, "Gay is the new black." And as Black Panther Party founder Huey Newton wrote, in retrospect, regarding homosexuality:
We have not said much about the homosexual at all, but we must relate to the homosexual movement because it is a real thing. And I know through reading, and through my life experience and observations that homosexuals are not given freedom and liberty by anyone in the society. They might be the most oppresed people in the society.
Viva la Raza!
The translation of that slogan, "Long live the Race!," and the name of its originator, La Raza Unida (United Race) Party, should be self-explanatory as examples of identity politics ideology.
Formalization of identity politics
The groundswell of political activism in the 1960s left many of those who participated attempting to digest their experiences and lend coherence to their ideas. They were faced with many ad hoc and often conflicting analyses that they were left to sort out. One endeavor was to find philosophical underpinnings that validated experiences people had while organized on the basis of identity groups, and would validate identity as an on-going primary concern. Social constructionism and conflict theory would follow more specific theories centered on race and gender as part of that endeavor.
A key document in the formalization of identity politics as an ideology was the Combahee River Collective Statement, a manifesto published in 1977 by a collective of African-American lesbian feminists who met in Boston between 1974 and 1980. It made the term "identity politics" central to its mission:
This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else's oppression. In the case of Black women this is a particularly repugnant, dangerous, threatening, and therefore revolutionary concept because it is obvious from looking at all the political movements that have preceded us that anyone is more worthy of liberation than ourselves. We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.
The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.
A universal assumption is that certain identity groups that are alleged to be historically oppressed are granted automatic moral worth and sympathy as a result. Who is chosen as the most deserving will of course, depend on your perspective. For example, black women may face discrimination within their own racial group while they are out-achieving their male racial cohorts in education and the professions, and while they have greater access than males to government-funded services and experience a lower rate of homelessness. The endeavor to resolve those contradictions, and the idea of "interlocking" systems of oppression, led to the presentation of the concept of intersectionality by the black feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989. Crenshaw, along with other legal scholars including Derrick Bell and Mari Matsuda, were leaders in formulating critical race theory, advocating race-specific rather than Constitutional approaches to matters of law and policy. Critical legal studies provide much of the underpinnings for ethnic studies and gender studies courses in universities. The entire approach has been criticized for placing ideology and narrative above rigorous consideration of factual evidence.
Influence on American institutions and culture
The tenets of identity politics became popular among student activists in the late 1960s and 1970s, who advocated for policies and curricula favoring identity politics in academia. Identity politics became a growth industry in academia and other institutions. Many of the students who favored identity politics went on to careers in law, social policy, social services, media, teaching, higher education, and nonprofit advocacy groups, all of which became platforms for influence. The influence of identity politics has accordingly been magnified by professional authority, coupled with some shrewd political alliances. In that sense, the power of identity politics is based less on broad-based popularity than it is on its popularity with an educated, influential professional class of policy and opinion makers. In the experience of many, 'diversity' is mostly the subject of decrees handed down from bureaucrats superfluous and incompetent in an organization's primary mission.
The power base of identity politics advocates has led to criticism that the milieu advocating for "progressive" social policy is an elite class focused on narrow parochial or career interests with an unwillingness to consider broader issues and a propensity for unintended consequences from what they advocate. For example, questioning a policy intended to combat a racial or gender disparity is often dismissed as "racism" or "sexism," even though there may be significant organizational, constitutional, legal, or economic issues with the policy being questioned. The frequent use of the courts and bureaucratic imperatives, and more recently such tactics as "de-platforming" on college campuses, to further identity-based causes has been criticized as authoritarian and anti-democratic.
Leftist versions of identity politics are often perceived, especially but not exclusively in the United States, as purely academic movements of an educated elite. Its concerns about imagery and representation, on whose "voices are being heard", is seen as at best alien and irrelevant, and at worst deliberately offensive, by many working and lower class people who do not share its concerns about 'diversity'. A large constituency of socially disadvantaged whites, led to believe that globalization is the cause of their hardships (rather than the massively uneven distribution of wealth, the gutted wellfare state, and mistreatment by Congress) finds the oversimplified concept of 'white privilege' hard to swallow, and conclude — incorrectly, but for understandable reasons — that identity political doctrines are a major cause of their community's losses in jobs and status. Per usual, when socioeconomics are made to take the backseat, the establishment is happy.
Mass media and the entertainment industry frequently promote identity-based themes and go to great lengths to show ethnic and gender diversity, although a large part of that has as much to do with demographic targeting for advertisers as it does with ideology. They are, after all, corporate enterprises for manufacturing consent, to borrow Noam Chomsky's phrase, shepherding people towards points of view that are non-threatening to entrenched interest in the status quo. If that job can be aided by having a "progressive" veneer, so much the better. The gulf remains between mass media imagery and relevance to people's lives. Beyonce with her troupe of Pantherettes at the Super Bowl (blonde Lemonade posturing "blackness" with her nappy-haired, darker-skinned props) were at best a placebo for race relations. The corporate media and the NFL can congratulate themselves for being daring while the masses get more and more disaffected in the face of social deterioration. This is the Hollywood version of 'liberalism', with celebrities proclaiming their concern for the 'downtrodden' and raking in fabulous sums making irritatingly "transgressive" popular culture while scolding the rest of us about global warming or wearing fur. It provides a highly visible and symbolic object of Republican populist outrage, which in its own version of identity politics portrays its minions as the true Americans, subjected to repeated insult by the alien philosophies of a snobbish and privileged elite.
Social media makes everything worse
The basic business model of social media networks is to commodify the users' attention, in order to compile lists of their interests to deliver their attention up to advertisers. This includes data about their race, sexualities, and lifestyles, as well as information about their social class, incomes, and hobbies. People's presentation of themselves is a carefully curated version of their actual lives. They want to be liked, and to seek the approval of like minded people on the Internet: life as performance art. The basic payoff it offers is applause, in an economy of 'likes' and 'retweets'. The algorithms serve up material that is similar to the material you have liked or shared. They figure this is what you want, and seek to keep you continually engaged. The nature of your motives for liking or sharing are irrelevant; material that draws a reaction because it makes you angry as material you find pleasing or encouraging. Getting an emotional connection is what counts.
Adding politics to this toxic mixture of alienation and fragentation increases tribalism and cocooning. It also diverts and distracts its users and their energy and attention from the sort of political activity that actually makes a difference: the dog-work of electing candidates and changing policy. Much easier to post your praise, or more often, outrage against whatever, for the applause of people who share the same opinions. Worse, it blurs the distinction between expressing an opinion and taking effective action. And expressing an opinion, or applauding one, eventually seems enough.
Politics as performative, gestural show for the purpose of seeking applause turns into a war over tribal symbols. The basic impulse is to 'tag' public space with the symbols of your gang and to tear down the tags of your opponents. One side wants to festoon public buildings with Ten Commandments monuments and the slogan 'In God We Trust'. Another wants to tear down monuments celebrating the Confederacy.[notes 1] We have shown that our hearts are in the right place versus the colonialism of our ancestors by returning this statue to a Nigerian prince. Internet outrages are an endless series of attitude checks like this. The stakes can be something this small: all the algorithms see is whether you shared it. Approval or indignation as a motive is not relevant, except as ways of sorting the messages to people the algorithm thinks are inclined to agree. Statements that receive loud approval or extreme indignation have their signals boosted.
The people who own the networks get a payoff. The recorded sequence of your likes, shares, and retweets enable them to compile a thorough and generally accurate profile of your class, income, sexualities, and all other information that relates to your demographic profile, including your political and social opinions. This enables various vested interests to precisely target people by political tendency and target propaganda specific audiences. The Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the allegations of Russian social media tinkering with elections, are mere hints of the possibilities. And the capitalist class generally gets a payoff. People have limited time, attention, and capacity for caring. The more moral earnestness and zeal that can be siphoned into warfare over gang symbols on social media, the less will be available for actual political organizing devoted to things that might actually make a difference to the bottom line.
Identity politics as a vehicle for oppression
“”Politicized identity thus enunciates itself, makes claims for itself, only by entrenching, restating, dramatizing, and inscribing its pain in politics; it can hold out no future — for itself or others — that triumphs over this pain.
Many of the identities addressed by the more radical identity politicians are social constructions, a fact that makes the harder forms of social constructionism appeal to persons whose political views are shaped by it.
Karl Marx famously advocated that workers should "seize the means of production". In other words, a revolutionary proletariat must — according to Marx — seize control over the physical assets of the capitalist class, violently if need be. While the problems inherent in this (considerably antiquated) approach are apparent, identity politics — by contrast — swaps in such things as racial or sexual groups, substituting conflict theory for class struggle, and as such moves the focus of leftist activism from the distribution of wealth to the hegemony of competing identities and ideas. As such, "strong" identity politics could be described as the shoehorning of race, sex, and other social identities into roles better understood in terms of socio-economic class. The resulting steering away of the conversation, away from issues of economic power and towards issues of cultural power, makes the establishment happy.
Unsurprisingly, this approach does not sit easily with wide portions of the working left. Indeed, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains:
Since its 1970s vogue, identity politics as a mode of organizing and set of political philosophical positions has undergone numerous attacks by those motivated to point to its flaws, whether by its pragmatic exclusions or more programmatically. For many leftist commentators, in particular, identity politics is something of a bête noire, representing the capitulation to cultural criticism in place of analysis of the material roots of oppression.
Marxists, both orthodox and revisionist, and socialists—especially those who came of age during the rise of the New Left in western countries—have often interpreted the perceived ascendancy of identity politics as representing the end of radical materialist critique (see discussions in Farred 2000 and McNay 2008: 126–161). Identity politics, for these critics, is both factionalizing and depoliticizing, drawing attention away from the ravages of late capitalism toward superstructural cultural accommodations that leave economic structures unchanged.
For example, while allowing that both recognition and redistribution have a place in contemporary politics, Nancy Fraser laments the supremacy of perspectives that take injustice to inhere in “cultural” constructions of identity that the people to whom they are attributed want to reject. Such recognition models, she argues, require remedies that “valorize the group's ‘groupness’ by recognizing its specificity”, thus reifying identities that themselves are products of oppressive structures. By contrast, injustices of distribution require redistributive remedies that aim “to put the group out of business as a group” (Fraser 1997: 19).
While a basic concern for issues of representation and social influence is perfectly necessary to all walks of liberal progressivism, more radical identity politicians have a track record of offering absurdly oversimplified interpretations of society — judging, for example, the mix of skin colors of models and actors that appear in advertisements as an important civil rights issue, and views the integration of advertising materials as a significant civil rights victory, rather than as mere tokenism.
Its chief political victories resemble this; "speech codes" and other new forms of etiquette are some of its more conspicuous successes. In essence, identity politics is constantly generating new forms of etiquette. But, since the function of etiquette is to perform social status and rank, and all etiquettes create an underclass of the rude and uncouth, identity politics constantly undermines the egalitarianism it aspires to in theory, and as such tends to exaggerate class resentments the more rigorously its new etiquettes are enforced.
Social constructionism invites us to believe that we can change the world by using different words. As such, building on its postmodernist tendencies, identity politics as an academic exercise generates a great deal of jargon. This obscurantist approach comes at a price, however — deconstructionists have been criticized for constructing elaborate systems of such jargon which seems indistinguishably like a device for wrapping empty ideas in the appearance of sophistication.
- Cultural Marxism
- Frankfurt School
- Political correctness
- Social justice
- Men's rights activism — identity politics for antifeminists
- Alt-right — identity politics for white supremacists
- Democratic Progressive Party
- Elliott, Carl (2014). "You Are What You Are Afflicted By: Pathology, Authenticity and Identity". A Philosophical Disease: Bioethics, Culture, and Identity. Reflective Bioethics. New York: Routledge. ISBN 9781317828020. Retrieved 15 May 2022.
- Brown, Wendy. 1995. States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- George Novack, writing as "William F. Warde", "Who Will Change the World? The New left and the Views of C. Wright Mills" International Socialist Review, New York, Volume 22, No. 3, pp. 67-79. (1961).
- "The Women's Movement, New York Times, July 30, 1972
- Wm. O'Neill, Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960's (Quadrangle, 1971).
- Ernesto B. Vigil, (1999). The Crusade for Justice: Chicano Militancy and the Government's War on Dissent. University of Wisconsin Press. p. 54. ISBN 0-299-16224-9.
- Where Was Martin Luther King Headed?, Saving Communities.
- Michael Joseph Gross, Gay is the New Black?, The Advocate, Nov. 16, 2008
- Combahee River Collective Statement
- Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, ch. 1
- It's not that the US is the last industrialized nation in the world that still lacks universal healthcare or anything. No, it's the blasted Mexicans!
- See, e.g., Jamie Peck, Hate the Pepsi ad, but love the Heineken one? You've been duped. The Guardian, May 1, 2017.
- See generally, Jia Tolentino, "The I in Internet", in Trick Mirror, (2019, Random House; ISBN 0525510540).
- Das Kapital, vol. I, Ch. 32
- Cite error: Invalid
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- Petersen A., Lupton D., "The Healthy Citizen", in The New Public Health – Discourses, Knowledges, Strategies, London, SAGE, 1996