Identity Politics: Commonality or Common Enemy?

(Image: Patrick Record)

From the Trans Rights Movement to the rise of the ‘White Right’, identity has become a powerful force in modern politics.

The shift away from broad based party politics to a more tribal system divided along lines of race, gender and sexual orientation is generally described as the rise of Identity Politics.

Peter Franklin has also labeled the phenomenon as “Cultural Marxism” – a merger of Marxist economic theory with postmodernist philosophy. The former contests control over the means of production (i.e. industry, agriculture, etc) in order to overturn hierarchies of class;  while the latter contests control over the means of social construction (language, identity etc) in order to overturn hierarchies of privilege and power.

Cultural Marxists are those who believe that from the beginning of time, everything from language to morality has been constructed by and for, a tiny elite (white men). Society has internalised the structural misogyny and racism embedded in these historical institutions to the point that they see it as ‘normal.’

Given this inequality, many members of marginalised groups say that identity politics is not a choice. History has shoehorned women and minorities into an oppressive and violent social system which was designed to exclude and oppress them. The expansion of gender pronouns, fight for equal pay and emergence of identity based politics is about reclaiming and redistributing social power in a more equitable way.

Most people would accept that it is perfectly legitimate for groups to organise under one banner to fight imbalances of power. However Jonathan Haidt argues that it depends what type of identity politics is adopted. There are two main strands, the first is commonality identity politics. During the 1960’s, civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King fought racial injustice by appealing to the common humanity of all people. ‘I have a dream’ was underpinned by the idea that humanity is one family and that Blacks were being excluded and denied equal dignity.

The second version is common enemy identity politics. This is the idea of uniting groups based on a belief that there is one group that is the root of all evil. Haidt suggests this is a dangerous strain of identity politics which has become more potent in recent years, as rather than using group identity to absorb marginalised groups into a common whole, it uses group identity to pit society’s groups against each other.

Opinions are divided as to whether identity politics today is causing more harm than good. What’s certain is that identity is not going away. And it would be a mistake to think the solution to easing social tensions lies in surgically removing identity from the heart of politics. Instead we should work to ensure groups can communicate with one another and air disagreements within a framework that cultivates a commitment to the common whole rather than a hostility to a common enemy. 








9 thoughts on “Identity Politics: Commonality or Common Enemy?

  1. Enjoyed your thoughts, especially the common identity theory of MLK vs the more divisive theories of today. My only gripe — not with you but with what I think is a common error in the public sphere — is the use of Marxism. The Marxist approach is diametrically opposed to modern identity politics. Because of its emphasis on class struggle as the conduit toward liberation, dividing people by race, gender, etc., is antithetical to Marxism, which joins all those people together in the struggle for class equality. Hence, I think many critics of identity politics have a woefully inadequate understanding of Marxism, and as a result they obfuscate the very real critiques of identity politics that come FROM the Marxist-leaning radicals whose ideas are rooted in 1960s hippie and Civil Rights movements.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I agree, the term cultural marxism is a distortion of Marxist theory and usually used as a superficial pejorative by the right to dismiss the concerns of those on the left. The only utility it does have as a term is the parallel between the ‘means of production’ and ‘the means of construction’ which is a useful way of examining the left’s preoccupation with language and identity.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Yes, there are superficial similarities/parallels. Unfortunately, some people (not you, but some in the public sphere) seize upon the superficial parallels and overlook that fact that Marxist approaches are deeply incompatible with — indeed are a de facto deconstruction of — identity politics. Enjoying the circulation of thoughts 🙂

        Liked by 3 people

  2. I think the problem in both cases – commonality and common enemy – is who has created the identities?

    With Martin Luther King, he was fighting against an identity given to him by someone else. He’s saying “I’m not different” and therefore should be treated the same as everyone else.

    The ‘common enemy’ scenario is the same. A group of people is placing an identity on others and calling them evil.

    It’s an extremely complex area, but there’s an important difference between self-identity, and that of being ‘labelled’ by others.

    Liked by 3 people

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