This post is part of a series on identity on the modern Left:

Identity Politics and the Left

2021-11-13 • 11 min read

In his acceptance speech last year, President-elect Joe Biden boasted of the patchwork nature of his voter body:

I am proud of the campaign we built and ran. I am proud of the coalition we put together, the broadest and most diverse in history.

Democrats, Republicans and Independents.

Progressives, moderates and conservatives.

Young and old.

Urban, suburban and rural.

Gay, straight, transgender.

White. Latino. Asian. Native American.

And especially for those moments when this campaign was at its lowest – the African American community stood up again for me. They always have my back, and I’ll have yours.

We all know that the easiest way to refer to the citizenry is to divide them into as many subgroups as possible and then refer to each of these one by one. How else are people to know that you’re referring to them? You have to prick them with an identity, and to do that you have to visit every house in the city. If Joe Biden doesn’t mention class, it is only because he knows people don’t want to hear it. It’s a sign of our disunity that a call for unity proceeds by pointing out everyone’s differences. But that is how politicians and analysts see us today. If you thought you were a citizen of your nation or a member of the voting body, think again. You are an interest group. You are a voter segment.

Before there was identity politics, there was identity, and there were people being treated differently depending on it. During the past hundred plus years we have seen a number of social movements succeed, or succeed partially, in eliminating these sorts of injustices. I’m thinking of the women’s movements, the civil rights movement, gay liberation and so on. Modern identity politics grew out of concerted efforts to address injustice. Those movements seem eminently good to me, so why does modern identity politics on the contrary seem partly harmful? Is it because I selfishly don’t like the thing that shines a light on my own privilege? Is it status quo bias? Or something else?

Hawa Allan describes the problem like this:

If you’re for identity politics, you acknowledge that political and socioeconomic forces act on different identities in differing ways. A serious reckoning with identity – whether, religious, racial, gendered, sexual, etc. – is fundamental to advocating for rights and remedies that would benefit members of a given group (or cross-section of groups) who have been harmed on account of who they are. Identity, so the thinking goes, isn’t inherently political but was politicized in the first place via state-sanctioned acts and omissions that bred discrimination. Targeted groups saw their identities as points of political mobilization against such oppression. How can you expect to have a serious discussion about mass incarceration and the War on Drugs, for example, without examining the systemic racism of a criminal justice system that has been more than five times more likely to imprison black than white people even though both groups statistically use illicit drugs at similar rates?

If you’re against identity politics, you might deem identity-based advocacy as a “distraction” from “more important” issues, such as class – (the sub-divisions of which, according to this view, curiously do not constitute identity groups); you might also believe that identity politics prevent broader-based coalitions on the left from gaining traction, dividing a potentially potent political base into off-shoots that are much easier for a right-wing political movement to conquer. You might contend that identity politics have forsaken a mass movement for justice for a war of words, prioritizing political correctness over “politics”, sacrificing macrostructural reform in order to call out microagressions. You might, moreover, for all of the above reasons, argue that identity politics largely turn off a white middle-class voting base, who is also curiously devoid of any “identity” and whom you implicitly deem the norm—the default bloc to whom all these “other” groups should cater and cajole into inadvertently supporting their tangential causes.

If you’re wondering which side Allan sympathises with, look where all the scare quotes went. The article, and the book it discusses, attempt to map a middle way by criticising identity politics from a Leftist perspective. It is far from the first such critique to come from the Left. One well-known instance was delivered by Eric Hobsbawm, the famous British historian, in a speech that he held at the Institute of Education in London in 1996. The following section is a loose summary or paraphrase of that speech. It is perhaps at times formulated in a way that makes more sense for me than for Hobsbawm, and throughout in my words, but should represent the original pretty closely.

Hobsbawm’s 1996 Speech #

Although people have always asked themselves questions about their public identity, it was not until the 1960s that these questions reached the political mainstream and something like modern identity politics emerged. There are reasons for this peculiar to different regions, but chiefly it is because of the immense changes that society underwent in the third quarter of the 20th century, in which both nationalism and class consciousness were weakened. Communities die, people grow lonelier and they search instead for belonging in identity groups.

Importantly, people often choose to do so; the number of Americans identifying as Native American saw a near fourfold increase between 1960 and 1990. But this choice – and here Hobsbawm is quoting “the brilliant, and incidentally, Caribbean Harvard sociologist” Orlando Patterson – is “predicated on the strongly held, intensely conceived belief that the individual has absolutely no choice but to belong to that specific group”.

So we have a lot of people identifying with large, collective groups (as opposed to local communities and things of that sort). We can say four things about this:

  1. Identity groups necessarily carve out a subset of some population, so they are always defined against something else. (That must be why the only thing that could unite humankind is a threat from aliens or nature.)
  2. A person has many identities – she might be a woman as well as an Ugandan as well as a Christian, say – but identity politics assumes that each person has one dominant identity which dominates that person’s politics. Its proponents will demand that people who identify as X subordinate their other identities and recognise the supreme importance of X. But that makes no sense, because there is usually no conflict between a person’s identities. (Now, in the era of intersectionality, it no longer seems true that identity politics forces the elevation of one identity over all others.)
  3. People’s and groups’ identities can change over time.[1]
  4. People’s and groups’ identities are to some extent a function of their environment.

Today, identity politics is associated with the Left, but it wasn’t always so. The great Leftist movements of the past, inspired by socialism and the French and American revolutions, while they were coalitions between different groups, did not exist to advocate for the narrow interests of those groups but by universal aims. Although Leftist critiques are class-based, the Left has never been solely for and of the proletariat. Trade unions have pursued the narrow interests of particular segments of workers, but that has also been one of the reasons for there being tensions between them and the parties with which they are associated: the parties have broader aims than the unions do.

When on the contrary labour groups were reduced to advocacy for industrial workers, as in Britain in the 1970s, they lost influence and ended up offending everyone who was not an industrial worker. What’s more, workers themselves were split since every section would put its own interests above the general. (I can think of some contemporary parallels, such as feminist divisions over trans rights, American Descendants of Slavery and so on.) Hobsbawm says:

The political project of the Left is universalist: it is for all human beings. However we interpret the words, it isn’t liberty for shareholders or blacks, but for everybody. It isn’t equality for all members of the Garrick Club or the handicapped, but for everybody. It is not fraternity only for old Etonians and gays, but for everybody. And identity politics is essentially not for everybody but for the members of a specific group only.

In other words, you can’t derive a Leftist movement from identity politics, and those who advocate for identity groups are not always and cannot be expected to be loyal to the Leftist cause. They sometimes have different priorities. Of course the Left should and does often support many identity groups, but these alliances do not last forever, and they should be based on universal values. There are, after all, plenty of identity groups that are more closely aligned with conservatism, and allegiances have shifted in the past.

Two points:

  1. Identity groups, when they are political, are by definition about promoting their own goals. Therefore, a coalition of identity groups won’t be “held together by a single common set of aims or values”; it will only be united for as long as the groups’ aims are aligned, and no longer.
  2. In practice, identity-political movements usually organise only minority groups, and even then rarely mobilise more than a small part of the group.

An alliance of various groups with various aims will necessarily involve making compromises. It is a kind of rent-seeking, really. And this has disastrous political results:

Unfortunately, the danger of disintegrating into a pure alliance of minorities is unusually great on the Left because the decline of the great universalist slogans of the Enlightenment, which were essentially slogans of the Left, leaves it without any obvious way of formulating a common interest across sectional boundaries.

The only exception to this is the environmentalist movement. One other identity group could be utilised, because it comprises the same people as the voting body, and that is nationalism. In the past, such as in Scandinavia from the early 1930s up to the 1980s, the Left has more or less been seen as caretakers of the national interest. But today the Left does not, will not and while identity politics reigns supreme cannot speak for an entire nation.

Critique of Hobsbawm #

I can think of two objections to Hobsbawm’s argument, one minor and one major.

Objection 1: To which extent has the Left really appealed to universal values? Didn’t it tailor itself to the working class in the early 1900s, say, a time when it was much stronger than it is now? I can conjure up mental images of all these Weimar-era posters addressing and appealing to workers or, when universal suffrage was new in Sweden at least, women.

Retort: Even if that is true, I think it doesn’t really harm Hobsbawm’s argument, because the reasons he gives for identity politics being detrimental are not either/or but continuous. The problems increase in proportion with how many identity groups there are. That is why he brings up nationalism as the most viable identity to pursue. The proletariat is only one group and it constitutes the majority of the citizenry.

Objection 2: Not campaigning through identities may limit us in important ways. In practice, not talking about identity groups often involves treating one group as the default. Simone de Beavoir wrote about women: “She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her[.]”[2] “‘Identity politics’”, Hawa Allan writes, “is for all those whose identities are supposedly suspect. Rallying around a white nationalist, patriarchal agenda, by contrast, is just plain old ‘politics’.”

In other words, one group’s disadvantage cannot be removed unless we challenge it directly. Would all the successes of the past 150 years of women’s rights struggles have happened had women not advocated for themselves, for their rights as a group? Would gay liberation have had even a fraction of its success if gays hadn’t united around their identity and advocated for themselves collectively? I doubt it.

Retort: Hobsbawm acknowledges this. He doesn’t say that people shouldn’t join together and argue for their rights as a collective based on a shared identity. What he says is that these struggles cannot be the basis of the project of the Left, which has to be universal:

[T]he wider agenda of the Left does, of course, mean it supports many identity groups, at least some of the time, and they, in turn, look to the Left. Indeed, some of these alliances are so old and so close that the Left is surprised when they come to an end, as people are surprised when marriages break up after a lifetime. In the USA it almost seems against nature that the “ethnics” – that is, the groups of poor mass immigrants and their descendants – no longer vote almost automatically for the Democratic Party. […] And yet, the common interest of Irish, Italian, Jewish and black Americans in the Democratic Party did not derive from their particular ethnicities[.] What united them was the hunger for equality and social justice, and a programme believed capable of advancing both.

I think Hobsbawm’s worry is that a Left built on disparate identity groups, which all have different methods and desires, is bound to be disordered and incoherent, not least because these methods and desires will shift over time. You get group A agreeing to a project for the benefit of group B in exchange for group B’s support for a project to benefit group A and so on. And that way you get stuck in local equilibria. At the same time many significant gains that identity-political movements have made historically are the products of struggles animated by universal aims: universal suffrage for suffragists and the civil rights movement, marriage equality for the gay rights movement, the right of self-government for anti-colonial movements and so on. These struggles and Leftist struggles were one and the same, because voting rights, equal rights, self-government and freedom from prejudice and discrimination are universal desires.

Identity Politics Breeds Soldiers #

I think there is a more serious problem with identity politics, and that is its tendency to breed soldiers, in the Galefian sense. I see for instance in the environmentalist movement a tendency to dismiss nuclear power and GMOs on what I think are unscientific grounds, among conservatives, a tendency to dismiss climate science, among feminists, evidence about gender differences from biology and neuroscience, among Christians, evolution, among rationalists, to take utilitarianism or at least consequentialism to be the default mode of ethics, and so on. Partly, this may be due to selection effects, but surely it’s not only that.

When one feels oneself deeply an X, it hurts when somebody criticises X or something that is associated with X. To take a trivial example, as a teenager I used to feel offended when somebody criticised such-and-such musical artist that I liked. That makes no sense. There was no reason that I should feel bad because somebody else had a different music taste than I did – I already knew mine was in the minority, that’s one of the things I liked about it! But when we identify with something, we become emotionally invested in it, and when we are hurt or offended, we often react defensively; System 1 takes over, pushing System 2 into the background.

Paul Graham tells us to keep our identity small. Julia Galef advises us to hold our identity lightly, to think of ourselves not as X, but as somebody who agrees with most ideas that are part of the X consensus. Either way, they agree that identities often get in the way of truth-seeking. And when identity politics becomes the main avenue of political activity, it’s only natural that people play up to their identities.

It’s worth thinking about what sorts of practices identity politics necessitates. Identity groups need to coordinate, negotiate and discuss internally in order to present a unified front externally, which front is useful in order to exert political power. It needs to elect leaders, but this seems to happen haphazardly and undemocratically. These leaders will be disproportionately extreme in their opinions, because only those with enough fire in their bellies will be loud and persistent enough to win the podium. (They may also, as Allan discusses in her article, be drawn from the upper crusts of these groups. Either way, the result is a representative body that does not represent all those it pretends to represent.) I think this is one reason why identity politics is so successful (in terms of achieving its goals), but it is also a reason for its being detrimental (in that it fosters groupthink). The need for internal unity also leads to this tendency where the whole group is supposed to have the same opinion about various issues. You get weird looks as an environmentalist who wants nuclear power, as a member of the Swedish Academy who likes The Wheel of Time or as a rural conservative who thinks vegans have a good point or two. I don’t think that’s healthy with political parties, and I don’t think it’s healthy with identity groups either.

Another important practice is identity groups’ functioning as group therapy. I don’t want to minimise the importance of this; I think it’s crucial for people to talk about stuff that has affected them negatively with others who have gone through the same thing. Recently, I wrote about Latter-day Saints who doubted their faith and how important it was for them to hear about others who have gone through that process, to learn that they are not crazy after all. I think identity groups have a similar function (and indeed many former Latter-day Saints identify as Ex- or Post-Mormons), and in this function they are very useful. If you have been wronged (by patriarchy, by white supremacy, by the Church), it is cathartic to rage against the oppressing forces, or at least to open up about what you’ve gone through to an understanding audience.

But I also think that, eventually, this leads to insularity, as anyone can see who has visited r/exmormon, for example: it is an excellent and important support group, and early on it allows people to learn a lot of new things about themselves and their religion, but in the end it’s a space where a single perspective dominates and (non-)believers’ beliefs are relentlessly amplified and reinforced. You see evidence that supports your pre-existing beliefs and miss out on evidence that could cause you to change your mind. You gravitate towards the median view. You get a feeling of community, of us. You get a sense of them, too. You are part of a gang. You are a soldier in an army.

Footnotes #

  1. Here is an example from Cedric Robinson: “One of the things we found when we went to England the first time in the 1970s was how many South Asians had been considered white in England. But it was not a clear, all-or-nothing sort of division. Many of the South Asians we met were moving away from white working-class identities, white middle-class identities, English identities, and so forth, and toward a kind of militancy which whiteness would’ve denied them. After the militancy, they were often reenergized by their ethnic and historical identities.”

    Johnson, G. T. (2017). Futures of Black radicalism. Verso Books. ↩︎

  2. De Beauvoir, S. (2010). The second sex. Knopf. ↩︎