Identity Politics, or Idpol, is popularly used to describe a political culture of alliances formed on the basis of a shared identity. These identities can be related to race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, or social background. In recent years, political mobilisation globally has been deeply influenced by identity politics, especially when it’s wedded with intersectionality.
An academic inquiry into the origins of identity politics proves it to be a cultural consequence of infiltration of post colonial and post modern thought into mainstream political discourse in a capitalist world order. Politics is essentially a reconfiguration of power in a way that maximises benefits for all participants of society. Politics is also defining what this power consists of. And the obvious conclusion we can draw from that is whoever owns power will decide what power looks like to other people. This is where intersectionality comes to play—taking away white, male, or heteronormative ideations of power and distributing the capacity to reorganise its meaning as well as its monopoly to the historically oppressed.
As simple and objectively politically correct as it sounds, Idpol has received criticism from both ends of the political spectrum for very different reasons. While the Right has grown increasingly insecure of Idpol’s attack on the status quo of the privileged, the Left has been critical of its bourgeoisie characteristic, which it considers counterrevolutionary.
To understand the criticism of idpol, it is important to understand the criticism of political correctness, a phenomenon closely linked to idpol. Political correctness, much like idpol and intersectionality, also emerged in a culturally postmodern and liberal order of the post-cold war era. Some scholars believe that political correctness developed over the course of the last few decades as a reaction to the appeasement politics that led to unchecked growth of fascism in Italy and Germany resulting in the Second World War.
In India, urban centers like Mumbai and Delhi have developed a strain of politics that some would argue is quite divorced from the realities of working class struggles. Political correctness in India expresses itself through a detachment from grassroots politics and a push towards an objective morality through language policing and social conformity. In an ideal world, there would be one set of morals that apply to everyone and fix systems like capitalism and patriarchy, but individual choices have almost no real impact on the larger picture. We’re then immediately confronted with two questions—is political correctness vain, and even if it is vain, should a person not aim for virtues that might benefit people other than him?
Scholars such as Zizek and Hobsbawm have tried answering these questions.
In an article, Zizek describes political correctness as a mixture of eternal self-guilt which makes one search for remainders of sexism or racism in oneself, as well as arrogance which expresses itself through constantly reprimanding and judging the guilty others. In this sense, political correctness in addition to being vain also essentially cloaks issues without absolving them. Rise of misogynistic men in the Indian left recently goes on to prove how policing language makes it easier for oppressors to navigate these spaces unchecked without confronting their capacity to be an oppressor. Even when they confront their privilege, it is more often than not another stunt of moral showcasing which is counterproductive to leftist praxis. Instead of these virtues benefiting the oppressed class, it helps the oppressor class present themselves as righteous without resolving any real issues.
Bourgeoisie Identitarianism vs Class Reductionism
A more insidious impact of these cultures is on revolutionary praxis that Marxists believe is rooted exclusively in class. They believe it’s incorrect to substitute a politics of differences based on postmodern thought with the politics of class struggle. The proletariat is not always white, heterosexual, male, and able bodied, but her oppression is rooted in society’s division on the basis of mode of production. This argument is popularly referred to as class reductionism by its opposition, who also suggest it’s a willful ignorance of the systems of oppression that impact people of different identities uniquely.
The working class Hindu will move to the Indian right because their primary identification is Hindu. In politics defined by increasingly polarized identities, the working class which might also be part of an oppressor-identity is bound to make that his primary definition of self and ego. Another argument is the proponents of identitarian politics have done nothing except inform us that identity based oppression exists and intersects with proletarian sentiment—something that the Marxist Left knew already existed. Idpol appeals most to petty-bourgeoisie in academia because it prevents an uncomfortable confrontation with their bourgeoisie status and economic autonomy, profoundly reforming activism for the left. One farmer’s experience with farming might be different than another’s based on cultural identities but what ultimately unites them is the capitalism that oppresses them collectively.
This is however not without fallacy and is sometimes closely aligned with crude Marxism. For example, without understanding the contribution of women, and impact of feminization on agriculture, how can we ever hope to tackle farmer’s issues? Should working class women then not organise on the basis of their sex which contributes another layer to their class-based oppression? Should lesbians then not aim for liberation from both working class and bourgeoisie class heterosexual oppressors? Should lower castes not strive for liberation from upper castes?
It then becomes urgent to mark a balance between the revolutionary Marxist cause and the identity politics cause. While on-ground organising on the basis of the former is usually prevalent in traditionally-left unions and parties, the neo, what is called, postmodern-left, organises on the basis of the latter. At risk of reverberating centrist sentiments, I believe the two need to wed without either one overpowering the other.
There’s a popular quote by Periyar that sums up the idea behind idpol quite efficiently—
“If a larger country oppresses a smaller country, I’ll stand with the smaller country. If the smaller country has a majoritarian religion that oppresses minority religions, I’ll stand with minority religions. If the minority religion has caste and one caste oppresses another caste, I’ll stand with the caste being oppressed. In the oppressed caste, if an employer oppresses his employee, I’ll stand with the employee. If the employee goes home and oppresses his wife, I’ll stand with that woman. Overall, oppression is my enemy.”
The end goal of left-idpol is liberation of the oppressed, much like the end goal of all leftist ideologies. The only difference thus is the method of dismantling this oppression. Perhaps the reason why idpol has gathered the criticism it has is because of its emphasis on an idealistic language and individualised action, instead of attacking systems of oppressions, which is antithetical to all leftist causes.
Also read: Men In Feminism: A Positive Vision For Feminist Politics
To correctly navigate identity politics, one must keep an important concept in mind—social capital. The mass appeal idpol has found in bourgeoisie circles is often rooted in the social capital that comes with identifying oneself as historically Othered. There is absolutely no debate that this social capital is very rightfully owed to the oppressed classes, but it has led to the rise of a unique phenomenon, especially in the hyper-online or Americanised left- invention of the Other. Another closely linked consequence is a bourgeoisie or an oppressor who feels left out of the social capital is then compelled to abandon all his privileges and focus only on the part of his identity that provides him with the said social capital. For example, Kamala Harris is a controversial figure in progressive circles but her identity as a woman of colour precedes her capacity to be an oppressor.
This is also why identity politics has given rise to a diverse set of oppressors but has failed to emancipate the oppressed. In addition to this, when exhibition of virtues done via language sets you apart from the guilty majority, you create an individual brand for yourself based in righteousness. Positive social capital that comes with being a part of this brand attracts more people towards it and eventually leads to its corporate marketability. Corporate brands globally realise that the consumer closely defines his sense of self with these causes, and try to act as an extension for the consumer to exhibit this to the world. The rapid rise of incidents such as ‘queer baiting’ in India, esepcially by one popular demin brand, in the last 5 years should prove to be an example of the same.
Even when Idpol is focused on acknowledgement of privilege, it essentially does nothing if one is not adamant on dismantling it. Hence, it is important to critically navigate identity politics, and at the same time avoiding an alliance with class reductionism.
Also read: In Defense Of Identity Politics: The Need For Bahujan Representation
The goal of any revolutionary movement should not be moral showcasing in the guise of inclusivity, but a total and radical abolishment of systems that render one as oppressed.
Featured Image Source: Feminism In India
I think Buddhist philosophy can play a big role in our political movements, in the light of all the issues brought out here. Primarily because it has the ability to tackle both structural intersectional oppression and questions of individual morality by allowing self introspection. To my limited knowledge, I don’t think it has received much attention in the political discourse, but Ambedkar himself was pivotal in bringing Buddhist philosphy to mainstream political ideas (He has a marvelous essay called Buddha or Karl Marx), and it remains under-explored.