From the Trans Rights Movement to the rise of the ‘White Right’, identity has become a powerful force in modern politics.
The shift away from broad based party politics to a more tribal system divided along lines of race, gender and sexual orientation is generally described as the rise of Identity Politics.
Peter Franklin has also labeled the phenomenon as “Cultural Marxism” – a merger of Marxist economic theory with postmodernist philosophy. The former contests control over the means of production (i.e. industry, agriculture, etc) in order to overturn hierarchies of class; while the latter contests control over the means of social construction (language, identity etc) in order to overturn hierarchies of privilege and power.
Cultural Marxists are those who believe that from the beginning of time, everything from language to morality has been constructed by and for, a tiny elite (white men). Society has internalised the structural misogyny and racism embedded in these historical institutions to the point that they see it as ‘normal.’
Given this inequality, many members of marginalised groups say that identity politics is not a choice. History has shoehorned women and minorities into an oppressive and violent social system which was designed to exclude and oppress them. The expansion of gender pronouns, fight for equal pay and emergence of identity based politics is about reclaiming and redistributing social power in a more equitable way.
Most people would accept that it is perfectly legitimate for groups to organise under one banner to fight imbalances of power. However Jonathan Haidt argues that it depends what type of identity politics is adopted. There are two main strands, the first is commonality identity politics. During the 1960’s, civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King fought racial injustice by appealing to the common humanity of all people. ‘I have a dream’ was underpinned by the idea that humanity is one family and that Blacks were being excluded and denied equal dignity.
The second version is common enemy identity politics. This is the idea of uniting groups based on a belief that there is one group that is the root of all evil. Haidt suggests this is a dangerous strain of identity politics which has become more potent in recent years, as rather than using group identity to absorb marginalised groups into a common whole, it uses group identity to pit society’s groups against each other.
What’s clear is the rise of identity politics is not inherently malign. And it would be a mistake to think the solution to easing social tensions lies in surgically removing identity from the heart of politics. Instead we should work to ensure society’s groups can communicate with one another and air their disagreements within an overarching framework that cultivates a commitment to the common whole rather than a hostility to a common enemy.