Kenan Malik has written a critique of the racist roots of identity politics in The Guardian. He argues that rather than consider identity politics as the sole province of the “left”, it is better to understand it as a product of the “right”–and, in particular, of racist ideas generated in the 18th century primarily to justify the purported superiority of Europeans and their colonial expropriations:
It is […] in the concept of race–the insistence that humans are divided into a number of essential groups, and that one’s group identity determines one’s moral and social place in the world–that we find the original politics of identity, out of which ideas of white superiority emerged.
In contrast to the identity politics [sic] of 18th and 19th century racism, Malik notes that,
radicals challenged inequality and oppression in the name of universal rights. From anti-colonial struggles to the movements for women’s suffrage to the battles for gay rights, the great progressive movements that have shaped the modern world were a challenge to the politics of identity, to the claim that an individual’s race or gender or sexuality should define their rights, or their place in a social hierarchy.
Malik further argues that a paradoxical situation arose in the wake of the Second World War. On the one hand, racism fell out of favour in the West in response to the explicit racist, eugenicist and genocidal theory and practice of fascism and Nazism. On the other hand, with the rise of anti-colonial struggles, and campaigns against racism, sexism and homophobia in the two decades after the war,
black people, women, gay people and others transformed the political landscape by placing their own experiences of oppression at the heart of new social movements.
what began as struggles against oppression and for social change transformed over time into demands for cultural recognition by myriad social groups. The social movements of the 1960s gave way to the identity politics of the 21st century.
In the broad lines of Malik’s argument, there is much to be admired. However–and even considering the understandable gaps that are a consequence of the strictures of his brief and schematic article–there are telling problems with his argument. Of least concern is perhaps his unfortunate representation of the ‘counter-Enlightenment’ as a source of singularly reactionary and racist ideas and practice. Even considering the more modern origins of this term, those that questioned the unalloyed progressive chops of Enlightenment thought were not always racist (consider the often confusing and misunderstood bequest of Friedrich Nietzsche).
More importantly, Malik seems unable to reckon with the emergent universalism of many of the struggles for freedom in the 19th century. We believe that these struggles are ‘emergent’ to the extent that they posed the possibility and desirability of a truly universal, global society. However, this proposition was posed in response to the ambiguity of the development of capitalist societies and social relations. On the one hand, capitalism tended to extend itself across the globe, destroying existing societies, and in the process haphazardly bringing a global society into being. On the other hand, capitalism continued to rely upon, and more maliciously foster the particularisms and bigotry of racism and nationality, as capitalists chased profit around the world. Those internationalists that opposed capitalism–in particular the emergent international worker’s movement of the 19th century–argued that the implicit global society emerging in spite of its capitalist shackles must be made explicit. Struggles such as these that embraced a critical internationalism can be considered as having offering an alternative form of universalisation than that offered by the capitalist market, the dominance of work and money, and the often-brutal expansion of capitalism–both “domestically” and colonialist.
However, it is Malik’s exceedingly brief historical gloss of “left-wing” identity politics that is most problematic. He is right to locate the rise of “identity politics” proper, to the period after 1968. However, he does not reckon with the fact that left wing identity politics can be found to already pre-exist this–even, and especially, in the heart of those struggles against ‘inequality and oppression in the name of universal rights’.
We believe there are two vectors for leftist, identity politics in the 18th and 19th centuries. On the one hand, at the heart of the project of bourgeois liberalism is the figure of the unitary nation and people. Without doubt, this “identity politics” fuelled not only what became obviously the “reactionary” nationalism of European nations in the later 19th and 20th centuries, but also those ‘national liberation struggles’ of the 20th century that adopted bourgeois nationalism as its model. The idea of distinct and unitary ‘cultures’ and ‘peoples’ is a modern confabulation which certainly has more ancient antecedents, but only bloomed in its nationalist form with the advent of capitalist nation states in the 17th and 18th centuries.
No doubt there is an ambivalence in the bourgeois nationalist project–at least at its most radical. For instance, in the Great French Revolution of 1789-99, the universal ‘rights of man’ sat uncomfortably alongside of the more particularistic ‘rights of the citizen’. The former, rather than the latter, inspired the more radical worker’s movement of the 19th century. But as Marx, among others, would argue, the vision of ‘man’ (sic) offered by the French revolutionaries was irrevocably sunk in particularistic worldview of the bourgeoisie. Indeed, this tension between the universalist and particularistic claims of the bourgeois revolutionaries was taken over by later working-class revolutionaries, rather than abolished and transformed. In particular, the unitary and universalising moment of the bourgeois ‘man’ was mirrored in the representation of the worker (albeit, ‘inverted’).
Which brings us to the second vector of contemporary identity politics, and by far the more confusing and misunderstood one, found at the heart of what many consider the most progressive and radical movement of the 19th and 20th centuries–namely the working-class movements. The identity politics that pervades much of the “intersectional” politics of the current world has its roots in the labour politics of social democracy, orthodox Marxism and workerist anarchism of the 19th and 20th century. Among these movements we can find the cult of labour and the worker. In contrast to Marx’s critique of labour–in which he posed that the reduction of all human activity to labour and wage-labour was in effect the negation of human potential–the labour movements that arose in the latter part of his life, and came to dominate most of the reformist and revolutionary movements of the 20th century, held to the belief that labour was the essence of the human, and as such was the pivot of human liberation. At its most grotesque we can see this in the social realist deification of the “worker” in Stalinist and Maoist propaganda, and the insane religion of the Stakhanovite in the old Soviet Union. But even its more apparently anodyne variants–like labourite and social democratic demands for the “right to work”–draw upon the same, identitarian font: that the human “essence” is work.
Amidst the movements of 1968 and after, the thinking that would later be associated with left-wing identity politics intuitively criticised the reductive, identitarian thought of Marxist and anarchist orthodoxy. Against the figure of the worker other subjects of liberation were posed: women, blacks, gays, lesbians, transsexuals, etc. However, in broadening the scope of the potential revolutionary subject many of these thinkers ended up merely replicating the reductive identitarian thought of Marxist orthodoxy. Now, instead of one identity, multiple identities were posed, all with the weakness that flows from the tendency to pose an absolute difference in identity. More pointedly, in criticising Marxism they often misunderstood or ignored the negative dimensions of Marx’s ‘proletarian’. For Marx, the proletarian identity is not merely historically contingent, it is generally enforced by capitalist relations. The point, then, of a proletarian revolution was not the elevation or deification of working-class identity, but rather its abolition.
The present bulwark of the destructive reduction to identity, is capitalism’s ongoing drive to reduce all human activity to the measure of labour-power for sale. No doubt there are other reductive moves on the part of capitalist hierarchy. Today, they are inextricably caught up in the central reduction: the measurement of what it means to be human by work-time and money.
In all forms of reduction to identity–at least when it comes to conflating social individuals to largely ephemeral, historical notions of group identity–there is little to be gained from distinguishing left wing and right-wing variants. This is something Malik seems to be oblivious to, for instance when he distinguishes between good identity politics (left wing) and bad identity politics (right wing). Rather, we should distinguish between the types of identity and universality that we fight for–and against.
By posing the possible and desirable emergence of a truly human community–one that is not based upon the reduction of the social individual to identity but rather the flowering of human powers and creativity–we do not necessarily reject identity. The problem with identity is not identity as such, but rather the absolutism of both left- and right-wing variants. Life is neither sheer contingency nor absolute being. Short of the sheer materiality of being and becoming, and the struggle with and against entropy and time’s arrow, we now know that stable identities tend to change over time.
Science has revealed the common animality of the human species, and this in itself is one of the most startling rebukes to the irrationality and falsehood of racism and its attendant ideologies. Nonetheless, the brute fact of our shared species heritage is still not enough to pose the possibility or even desirability of a truly universal community. In order to fashion a society beyond the narrow particularisms of nation and capitalism, we must do away with nationalist and capitalist identities–alongside with other, equally contingent identities such as those pertaining to sexuality and gender. Identity is a conquest, not a given–and perhaps most important of all, it is ephemeral–like every species that has ever been or ever will be.