Identity politics…..a cynical exercise?

Myself and Joe Otten have been having something of a friendly debate on the post where I questioned who the Liberal Democrats represent. He says that;

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talk in terms of beer and sandwiches or wear cloth caps (they never did in any case) but that actually the Labour Party no longer represents the *interests* of working class communities.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….


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4 responses to “Identity politics…..a cynical exercise?”

  1. Joe Otten says :

    OK a couple of points…

    1. Are you saying that identity politics is good when (and because) it results in the right sort of policies, such as representing the interests of working class people? On the occasion that it represents the wrong sort of interests – the privileged elites, or racial separatists, this should be opposed, but is no reason to ditch the concept.

    This seems to be a double standard. A technique that is good when you do it, but bad when your opponents do. And doesn’t it follow that when one sides frames politics as Us v Them, that the other side will generally do it too?

    2. You are perhaps too quick to link identity groups to groups with shared interests. A person’s identity is many-dimensioned, and to infer somebody’s interests from one dimension of identity is to oversimplify, and to treat people as merely a member of a group rather than a fully rounded human being with their own thoughts, dreams and values.

    3. I disagree that the left has neglected identity politics. The left it seems to me is the most cynical, consistent user of the MO whereby one identity group after another is co-opted to the cause. Its not so effective as it once was because there was never much delivery.


  2. darrellgoodliffe says :


    1. Yes I think essentially I am saying that; I wouldn’t perhaps say it is ‘bad’ in that way, I would just oppose those interests. I think the difference with somebody like the BNP is that they *manufacture* a false identity based on junk history and there is a difference between that and representing real interests. In regards of privileged elites for example I would say they are disproportionately represented and have power disproportionate to what they should.

    2. Agreed on the many-dimensioned point; I wouldn’t reduce people to one identity per se but sometimes they do cohere in a one-dimensional way and they can struggle progressively when they do this.

    3. Well that is your right; my view is that the left has had a rather one-dimensional view in some cases and not enough in others.


  3. asquith says :

    The natural consequences of identity politics:


  4. darrellgoodliffe says :


    I simply dont agree because I dont see the term is linear one; how do you answer the point that at times, people asserting their identities has given impetus to progressive struggle?


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