There’s a caricature in politics that people on the left have to be sympathetic to the aims of liberal identity politics and that they must rebuke anyone who disagrees as far right and in some cases, as I myself have experienced, a fascist. This is a caricature not in line with my own perspective as a self-described socialist. The defamation aimed at those who don’t support the aims of these so-called ‘wokes’ is not only a gross misuse of language, but it also misses the point. My aims, and the aims of many who subscribe to the notions of liberal identity politics, are very much aligned. We both want justice of a racial, gender and sexual nature. We both want society to be free from discrimination. I know this because me and my partner have regular (though sometimes fraught) conversations about our views on such matters. The division lies in the desirable practices and strategy in achieving such aims, the wider social repercussions of such practices, as well as whom is considered the victim of historical discrimination.
Francis Fukuyama has taken much criticism for his proclamation of the ‘end of history’ back in the 1990s, but his recent book Identity contends with the notions relating to identity politics both of the right and the liberal left. He contends that the modern world’s understanding of identity is resting on three pillars:
“The first is thymos, a universal aspect of human personality that craves recognition. The second is the distinction between the inner and the outer self, and the raising of the moral valuation of the inner self over outer society. …The third is an evolving concept of dignity, in which recognition is due not just to a narrow class of people, but to everyone.” (Fukuyama, 2018)
In essence, we all crave recognition, we all have an inner self and an outer self which is subject to social norms and requirements, and we all desire dignity so that we are all recognised equally. Such notions brought about during the enlightenment have led to great advances: equal pay at work, equal votes, gay marriage, recognition of gender transitions between male and female. These are all great achievements undoubtedly. However, there is a dark side to this politics (as there is with almost all political entities) as Fukuyama suggests:
“Modern liberal societies are heirs to the moral confusion left by the disappearance of a shared religious horizon” from which a new society has sprung where “dignity seems to be centred on the individuals’ ability to make moral choices” (Fukuyama, 2018). Religion, love it or loath it, was the cornerstone of social organisation, alongside the nation state, for centuries. This was whisked away in favour of a new approach to society in which autonomy of the individual is paramount. What this has created, though not inevitably, is a rampant individualism which is consuming society from within:
“When a stable, shared moral horizon disappears and is replaced by a cacophony of competing value systems, the vast majority of people do not rejoice at their newfound freedom of choice. Rather, they feel an intense insecurity and alienation because they do not know who their true self is. This crisis of identity leads in the opposite direction from expressive individualism, to the search for a common identity that will rebind the individuals to a social group and reestablish a clear moral horizon” (Fukuyama, 2018).
Such is the nature of the contemporary culture war and the competing social groups, identities and ‘moral horizons’. In essence, within society there are multiple competing mini societies which are centred around one’s notion of their true self. Such a state of affairs is destructive both in a political and a social sense. It is a political philosophy which divides people based upon their un-changeable characteristics – for example gender – and pits them against a majority – in the contemporary case, men – who are privileged and oppressive. This is not in the spirit of those early progressives who wanted to do away with these arbitrary characteristics and instead contend with one’s character. As such, my aversion to identity politics comes from three places.
Firstly, as a political strategy it is rather useless; it seeks to divide rather than unite and such a strategy is a nightmare for creating coalitions of people. Take the example of trans and women’s rights. If you take side of trans activists then you sacrifice women’s activists; the same vice versa. Politically it isn’t a smart strategy.
Secondly, I don’t want to be viewed as a white, man. I don’t want to be seen as oppressive (because I’m not). I don’t want to view others as women, black or gay. So far as I’m concerned such features are, in most senses, redundant. I want to be friends with people, talk with people and live in a society on the basis of mutuality, respect and the content of one’s character. To deny me the ability to stand for parliament as a man, through all women’s shortlists, is sexism just as it was 100 years ago when women were prevented from standing for parliament. This tit for tat, positive discrimination agenda is not progressive; it’s wrong and it entrenches discrimination, division, and social antagonisms.
Finally, the competition for a supreme identity inevitably leads to bad things. The break down of society in the face of rampant individuals is deeply problematic. Not least because it erodes the single unifying feature of what is a deeply diverse society. It is this competition for a supreme identity that partially forged the clamour for Hitler’s supreme Arian race, for Daesh’s (ISIS) Salafi Jihadism and for China’s ideological identity which has led to Uyghur ‘re-education camps’.
It is hard to forge a common society based upon the diverse nature of the people around us but forge it we must. The social fabric, and in turn the political state, is proven by history to be the best model by which people are organised. It’s worth noting that this is not an argument in favour of organising society around religious apparatus again. This not something which the Marxist within me craves. However, the social values taught by religion were central organising features of society up until very recently. We must design our own social tenets. These social tenets need not say that people’s individualism should be stifled. On the contrary, such a social model must embrace the uniqueness of each person and establish a common identity based on community, shared customs, and respect. The alternative is an un-common, un-shared identity of competing moralities which seek to assert their own organising principles as supreme, inevitably leading to conflict. This is not a world I want to live in.