Identity politics and its dissatisfactions

Progressives, not just in Pakistan but around the world, are facing a critical moment: in which they must collectively decide what their strategic direction in politics will be. As things stand, the “left” is characterized by excessive factionalism and a myopic, one-upmanship approach that leaves it overstretched – pursuing moving targets, too many of which represent mere symptoms rather than the underlying societal disease . One of the main reasons for this is the emergence and consolidation of “postmodern” philosophy, which has placed identity politics at the center of a larger movement: a largely counterproductive development.

Identity politics is, in essence, piecemeal. By adopting a mode of analysis that starts from the premise that various “groupings” face fundamentally unique and, in some respects, particular struggles, the inevitable consequence is a political project fueled by pathological tribalism. These essentialized categories, which imply internal homogeneity, function to infantilize individuals – reducing them to the product of historical trajectories rather than autonomous agents who can act, think and dream independently.

There is also an element of irony in this process, for the ideological backdrop of postmodernism that colors this approach to politics also tends to emphasize the central nature of “social construction” – that race, creed, sex, sexuality, etc. are all defined and given meaning from the top down by those in positions of power rather than being ‘set in stone’. This internal inconsistency will never allow a lasting social movement to emerge among progressives.

On a broader level, postmodern thought is driven by irony, cynicism and irreverence – an almost casual attitude towards virtually all the overarching ideas associated with “modernism”, including rationality, empiricism, individualism, freedom, progress, etc. general meta-narratives that claim to explain the movement of history: perspectives that are dismissed on the spot because of their supposedly “reductionist” tendencies. In their place, an ideology of “deconstruction” is adopted – which seeks to problematize popular conceptions by identifying their inherent biases, the result of power relations. Unfortunately, no concerted alternative – in terms of specific policies, institutional arrangements and approaches to governance – is presented, meaning an exclusively “negative” orientation that seeks to tear down (most often justifiably) and rarely, if ever, to rebuild on top.

Electoral democracies are structured in such a way that political success depends primarily on the extent to which various positions can be consolidated in such a way as to allow the emergence of a united front, to which the vast majority can rally. For modern progressives, this is becoming an increasingly difficult obstacle due to diverse identity groups constantly competing with one another as they take an increasingly atomized approach to politics that revolves around the status/virtue signaling rather than a collective push to improve material conditions. .

The general counter to the above is “intersectionality” – the idea that the struggles of seemingly disparate groupings are, in fact, intertwined: overlapping each other and often caused by the same or similar factors. This, it is claimed, allows for a gradual unification. The downside here, however, is that it does not spell out precisely how such diverse experiences can actually come together in practice. A social movement that is generally considered successful in contemporary times is Occupy Wall Street – in which the most popular slogan was “We are the 99%” whereby a clear demarcation was drawn between the ultra-elite class and owner on the one hand and everyone on the other.

It naturally worked as a unifying call and brought together various forces under one umbrella, allowing the momentum to build. Even political giants, like Martin Luther King Jr, who were primarily interested in redressing racial tensions, did not emphasize black-white “differences” in an effort to generate polemical identities. , but highlighted commonalities by appealing to broader values: freedom, collective growth/evolution, and a sense of community responsibility.

The fixation around “lived experiences” today, in which power is seen to be embedded in everyday, moment-to-moment affairs – especially interpersonal interactions – is, in many ways, a form of selfishness. . This “brand” of politics functions to locate the source of societal problems at the level of the individual, in terms of psychological/cultural axioms that guide micro-behaviour, rather than at the level of structural/institutional arrangements. wider ones that give shape to said axioms. In this way, it joins right-wing approaches that center “individual responsibility” and strict adherence to a “moral code” (whether “humanism” in the case of secular liberals or religion in the case of traditional conservatives) in their political modus operandi.

For large multinationals, this all works quite well. If politics is essentially the process of adhering to a set of identity-related social justice symbols, entire industries can now be built from scratch to meet this “demand”. So it’s no different from sports, in which different teams have their own logos, badges, designs, color schemes, etc. – marketing them to their respective fans. Not to mention digital/social media incentive structures, an increasingly important political battleground, which are designed to keep users hooked, enable data collection (surveillance), and promote sales via advertisements tailored to their business. /specific interests.

The idea of ​​“resistance” is thus transformed into another consumable: co-opted by the economic superstructure. Indeed, one of the characteristic features of capitalism is its subjection of all social relations to the flow of capital: which means that over time identity frictions have weakened and gradually been replaced by class frictions alongside the rise of inequality in the world. To pretend otherwise is simply poor political strategy: one that not only works to prevent the possibility of a large-scale merger against a system rigged in favor of the elites, but also to trigger a reactionary reaction – in which ordinary people , by virtue of the fact that they were born into an identity judged to be “privileged”, are made to feel like the enemy, which naturally encourages them to join the forces of the opposition.

Organizational discipline must be revived within progressive circles if a legitimate alternative to populism is to be imagined: it will be about centering the concerns of the working class and ironing out the ideological framework in a way that is clear, simple, relatable and efficient. None of this will be easy: but politics is, after all, the art of the impossible.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 17e2022.

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