Identity politics…..a cynical exercise?
I see identity politics as inherently a cynical exercise, and how well you do it a question of using the tools effectively.
It is quite easy to see the validity of the second point and even agree with the first if you think that identity politics is purely the cynical manufacturing of an identity that people buy into and then, of course, cast their vote your way. However, I don’t think that reality is as one-dimensional as that; especially for a representative democracy where the whole point is *representation* and to some degree, in a society where people choose to self-identify in various ways representation will at some point entail representing identities. Also, the danger of failing to represent, or at least take account of, identities is that the closely tied question of *interests* can be ignored.
This is after-all the complaint of Labour’s core-vote; not that it’s leaders no longer talk in terms of beer and sandwiches or wear cloth caps (they never did in any case) but that actually the Labour Party no longer represents the *interests* of working class communities. Into this vacuum the British National Party has insinuated itself in much the same way a vicious parasite would; creating a mythological racial identity which appeals to those communities that now feel atomised and deserted. So the story goes in any case; it is not the whole story (the BNP, for example, is also successful in middle class communities) but it reveals how identity politics can be cynically manipulated. Deprived of the hope of something better they seethe with hate and hostility towards anything ‘foreign’ as they turn in on themselves.
However, this is not the whole story in terms of identity politics; sometimes the expression (and positive assertion) of collective identity is the only way that politics responds to taking account of the interests of different identity groups. How much progress would have been made in terms of universal suffrage, for example, if women had not collectively asserted their identity and as a consequence fought for their rights? For sure, there are still issues that need to be addressed but that does not detract from the role that a positive assertion of identity can play in cohering people together in a common struggle to make their voice heard.
Historically, the left has been too dismissive of identities and the role they play in peoples lives and the positive influence that they can have or else has only seen the social class identity as valid and been blind to the role that others can play and the role that these identities play in being part of a progressive struggle pushing the frontiers of society forward. Or else it has got itself totally lost in the promotion of identity politics over everything else (the promotion of multiculturalism) and failed to asses the roles that identity plays in a wider context of a progressive struggle. It would be wrong to dismiss identity as cynical manipulation and be blind to the value that it can have….