Identity Politics: A Progressive Re-configuration

identity politics

Identitarian politics has always been a topic overladen with mixed and inchoate views. Some perceive it as a positive phenomenon and others comprehend it as atavistic and socially detrimental. Its positivity lies in the fact that it can embolden a particular marginalized community to initiate minority politics or indigenist politics like the one occurring in Latin America which possesses transformative possibilities. On the other hand, we also have extremely disturbing and destructive instances when this identitarian politics morphs uglily into ethno-nationalism as manifested in Myanmar’s deployment of genocidal machineries for the ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas. The reason behind this self-contradictoriness in identitarian politics involves a complex of causal factors. Despite this heterogeneity of causes, a commonality can be found. This commonality is the method used to practice this identity politics.

There are two categories in this use of identity politics. (1) Some political leaders use a procedure which comprises of only a single stage. In this singular stage, the leader makes a specific group of people aware of their identity and through this an identitarian self- awareness is created. On the basis of this self – consciousness of one’s identity, the politician forms a collective ethnic, religious or cultural group and this collectivity demands concessions from the state. An example is the modern-day female community which, through successive feminist movements, has channelized state welfarist focus towards itself. (2) Some political leaders use a dualized process in which there are two distinct stages. The first stage is undifferentiated from the strategy of the aforementioned use of identity politics in which identity consciousness is created. In the second stage, the leader solidifies this self-awareness and submerges the individual in this identity. The identity, instead of being subordinate to the individual, becomes superordinate to the latter. It establishes a hegemony over the individual and depersonalizes him/her. This exclusive attachment to a particular identity, culminates in a xenophobic attitude towards other communities and starts a ‘politics of ressentiment’ which entails the otherization of a group of people. An example is the coordination of the Myanmar State and the Buddhist Community in repressing the Rohingyas.

The difference between these two types of ‘non-hegemonic and hegemonic identitarian politics’ is that the former is democratic while the latter is hegemonic. In the case of non-hegemonic identitarian politics, like feminism, the identity is voluntarily internalized and a ‘compassionate togetherness’ is constructed. There is some space for dialogue and dissidence as shown by the contentiousness of the second wave of feminism in which the universalization of the imagery of a white, middle class woman was excoriated by the third world feminists. In hegemonic identitarian politics, externalization of the identity occurs and a supplicant-like relationship is established. The person becomes the passive object onto which the identity imposes particular attributes which may lead to ‘selective or reductive identitarianism’. Hindutva politics is an archetype of this kind identity extremism in which certain essentialist characteristics define an identity and these attributes are then foisted on the members of those community. This type of identity acts as a hindrance in the process of finding the ‘internal authenticity’ of one’s character.

One important feature of identity politics is that it wants to transcend the marginalized socio-cultural and economic space by using identity assertiveness so that a definitive differentiation of their identity will allow them to receive better political representation. This claim for uniqueness and distinctiveness can turn into a ‘socio-cultural enclosure’ which will reduce the external receptivity of that group. So, there is a high probability of a feeling of groupness transforming into a larger demand for secession.

Due to the possibility of the occurrence of the various malevolent vicissitudes, identity politics is extremely dangerous. Identity politics is highly susceptible to a violent takeover by a crude form of antipathy and due to the various inadequacies of identity politics, the following section will suggest a re-conceptualization of identity politics which will be democratically advantageous and also beneficial for the idea of a community. Along with the explanation of this re-altered theory, this article will also attempt to show the advent of right-wing populism in relation to identity politics and how in this politics, lies the possibility of a leftist resurgence.

Identity Politics as a Method for Democratization

Identity politics has the potentiality to be fruitfully used as a method of democratization. This will be a ‘liberatory identity politics’ whose objective will be to democratize and not balkanize the nation into various identities. For this to happen, identity politics needs to be fractionated into two steps. (1) This step would be isomorphic to the previously mentioned first stages of hegemonic and non-hegemonic identitarian politics i.e. it would be a stage of identitarian self-awareness. (2) Instead of fossilizing this self-awareness or using it as a basis for social development, the individual will emancipate himself/herself from this identity by recognizing oneself as a democratic individual. One may think that this new individual will be an identityless person but that’s not the case. The person will not destroy his identity and espouse a new democratic identity but rather, he will distance himself from that identity so that he can exercise his democratic rights without any constraints of a particular identity. To better apprehend this fundamental point, it is necessary to understand dialectical theory and Hegelian dialectics because I will use this dialectical method to systematically show what exactly happens in this new theorization of identity politics.

Democracy and identity are in a dialectical relationship and are the unified opposites of each other. This means that they are interdependent and are in an ‘interactive unity’ as distinct from definitional unity. They are unified because the inability of democracy to ameliorate the material conditions of the subaltern groups is perceived as a ‘token inclusion’ by the members of this group. To escape these oppressive objective conditions, the marginalized people seek refuge in their cultural identity which can be an ethnic, religious, or linguistic identity. There is a simple linear causality in which one causes another (token inclusion of democracy engenders identity politics) and the opposition between democracy and cultural identity can also be construed as a negative correlation in which, when identity becomes strong, democracy becomes weak (because identity fragments and weakens the concept of a democratic individual) and when democracy becomes strong, cultural identity becomes weak (because the idea of a democratic individual weakens the sectarianism of identity).

Nowadays, apart from being in an interactive unity, democracy and identity are also in a dialectical relationship of integration vs differentiation. The strangeness and suppressiveness of anonymity in a faceless urban environment, leads people to include themselves in certain communities so that they can preserve their cultural distinctiveness. In this act of joining a community, a tense interplay of two opposites is shown: Integration and differentiation. The individual wants to be included in the larger community of nation but due to an obscure anonymity caused by urbanity, he attempts to differentiate himself by joining a cultural identity.

Both the above events are actually the causal factors of identity politics. In both the dialectical relationships, there are certain ‘turning points’ in which the balance of this relationship tilts in the favor of the dialectical pole of identity. This is because of the lackluster campaign waged by democracy to establish a democratic consciousness. When it comes to the case of token inclusion, the democratic state does a self-destructive act by dolling out economic benefits on the basis of the identity to which that individual has attached himself. When it comes to the case of urban anonymity, the democratic state does not even make an effort to start a pedagogic re-culturing programme. Due to the failures of the democratic state to propagate democratic consciousness, identity augments itself by constructing identitarian self-awareness and in hegemonic identitarian politics, by solidifying this awareness.

When a concerted effort is made to instill democratic consciousness, a complex phenomenon will happen which can only be understood in terms of Hegelian dialectics. The thesis (moment of understanding) becomes the identitarian self-awareness which has a stable definition and determination. The antithesis (negatively rational moment) is democratic consciousness which uncovers the narrowness of identitarian self-awareness and thereby, destabilizes it. Self-sublation occurs which negates and simultaneously, partially retains identitarian self-awareness. The synthesis (positively rational moment) takes place which synthesizes the thesis and antithesis. This synthesis produces a ‘democratic cultural identity’ which has successfully unified the two opposites.

This democratic cultural identity has incorporated cultural identity in the larger circle of democratic identity. The constant juxtaposition of the two, reaffirms the faith of the individual in democratic identity because the serene emancipatory force of this identity supersedes the parochialism of cultural identity. When this insularity is ended, the individual is integrated in the universal democratic community and at the same time, actively involves himself in the liberated atmosphere of his own cultural community. This involvement will not weaken the person’s conviction in democratic identity because he/she knows the catastrophic consequences of an identitarian attachment and besides that, that person is now undogmatic, liberal, receptive and mentally flexible.

Resurgence of Right-wing Populism, Identity Politics and the Left

The world has witnessed a resurgence of right – wing populism and has also seen the debilitation of left wing politics. Some examples of this revival of right-wing populism can be found in the election of leaders such as Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Donald Trump In USA, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. There is a general electoral pattern followed by all these leaders and that is identity politics.  Recep Tayyip Erdoğan uses an admixture of Turkish nationalism and religious conservatism. Viktor Orbán’s portrayal of himself as the protector of Hungary’s Christian identity is an instance of identity politics. Donald Trump foments white supremacist feelings and aggressively promotes his discriminatory anti- immigration policies.  Jair Bolsonaro’s nationalistic and racist remarks also exemplify identity politics.

The right-wing populists have capitalized on the dormant identity crises which are happening in some countries. The endangering of communitarian ethics because of neoliberalism is an issue on which the right has capitalized greatly. Due to individuation and self-alienation – which are the direct results of capitalism – the sense of being a part of community was being weakened. The right-wing populists exploited this issue and started creating segmentalized cultural identities which invariably harboured hatred towards other communities. This identity politics was the hegemonic identity politics and it created a deeply-ridged society. The polarization brought by this politics ultimately benefitted the right-wing populist. Viktor Orbán has won three successive prime ministerial elections and has also built his own form of government called an ‘illiberal democracy’ which is basically soft fascism. He has manufactured the fear of ‘other’ to provide a justification for his anti-immigration policies. In this way he is building an authentic constituency of insular Hungarian Christians.

Sometimes, the right-wing populists construct a national identity which is not at all democratic. It is a demonic category of nationalism which also works on the precepts of hegemonic identitarianism. This means that the populist solidifies nationalistic consciousness and generates an unhealthy attachment to the nation. This gruesome fondness for nation or hyper-nationalism can result in building the popular perception of ‘exceptionalism’. The US’s isolationism or the America First policy epitomizes the disastrous results of the fossilization of nationalistic consciousness. This is a major threat which the left is currently facing and it is slowly becoming a global nightmare as right-wing populists hegemonize the world.

In the inconspicuous interstices of right-wing identity mobilization, there lies a potential benefit for the left. It can utilize the theory of ‘democratic cultural identity’ to present an effective countermeasure which can tackle the unchecked rise of right-wing populism. If the left espouses democratic cultural identity as its guiding principle, it can also facilitate revolutionary activism. By erasing the identitarian differentiations, the left can forge a working class solidarity. The intra-class sectarianism in the working class would come to an end when the proletariats will become the conscious and critical members of a universal democratic community. In this newly formed universal space shared by individuals asserting their rights, the proletariats will gradually discover that they share the same material conditions and this observation of economic similarity, will form a solidary unit called class. This class would be unified because the workers have been intellectually enriched due to democratic cultural pedagogy. The ‘belligerent and chauvinistic nationalism’ practiced by right-wing populists will cease to exist when the people who constitute its bigoted base will be democratized and consequently, disenthralled from the parochially formed jingoistic national attachment.

Many people will argue that class is also an identity but that means we are ignoring the central component of society. Class is the objective material condition in which a person is situated. It represents the larger structural framework in which all other types of identities are situated. Except the dominant class, everybody is economically, socially and culturally exploited. When people fully possess class consciousness, they perceive their situationality in the oppressive societal structure.  When the nucleus of oppression, the bourgeoisie class, is overthrown, any form of suppression ceases to exist and the various identities which have been historically denied the basic rights like the women, the LGBT community et al. will start enjoying an egalitarian treatment. To put it briefly, class is the innate social sub-structure comprising of concrete material conditions, to which the people are inevitably associated.

Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India.



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