Identity Politics on the Left: Shortcomings and Disillusionment

by Rishiraj Sen

Political systems all over the world have historically alternated power in the hands of left-wing and right-wing ideologies. While both sides have experienced their ups and downs when it comes to mobilisation, the left-wing seems to have lost its momentum in recent times. Keeping that in mind, this article explores identity politics in the context of the Left and the problems associated with the movement. Further, it aims to identify the shortcomings of the discourse and discusses whether ideological faults contribute to the rise of the right-wing.

Introduction

Identity politics has been seen as the counter-politics to group-based violence and stigmatisation targeted toward marginalised communities. It promises to unify people in a struggle built on solidarity, and acceptance of differences. The nobility of the idea at its core cannot be denied but does it, in truth, fulfil what it claims? Or does the left-wing movement prepare the best turf for the right-wing parties to play? 

By definition, identity politics refers to social movements to gain recognition of historically oppressed ethnocultural or racialised groups. It is further divided into two categories:  (1) politics of radical separatism, which involves a range of actions from violence to validation through conventional political means; and (2) identity politics under multiculturalism, through which minority and racialised groups seek recognition within pluralist societies. For Gutmann, identity politics is one means by which members of society strive for public recognition of their cultures and cultural identities. Yet, the loose use of the term culture is utterly problematic to having a comprehensive understanding of identity politics. A culture is formed by the intersection of two or more of the ‘identity-based’ categories like race, ethnicity, religion, etc. There can also be other factors in the formation of an individual’s culture such as ideology, space and its interaction with climate, and time. Moreover, an individual often falls into the convergence of different identities that shape their perspective. Someone can be a proletariat and a Dalit,  whereas someone else can be a homosexual male and Dalit but not poor by any means. The problem with identity-based political parties or movements is that, more often than not, they only emphasise one of the aspects of a person’s identity.  It brings a new normativity—a bracket where you are defined by the one category you choose to belong to. Therefore, by tying identity politics with an attempt for public recognition of cultural identities, one falsely assumes that a person merely identifies with one aspect of the culture and base his/her entire politics on it.

Further, in movements mobilised by identity, the essence of intersectionality is lost. Most of the movements don’t consider the Marxian class binary or economics as an important factor in marginalisation. It attempts to homogenise the struggles of the group and as such, the ones better positioned in the hierarchy accumulate more capital (it can be opportunities or outcomes) than the people placed lower. Its emphasis on cultural aspects completely ignores that capital is important in a materialistic world and plays a major role in deciding employment, health and hunger. Moreover, it doesn’t challenge the oppressive structure. Rather, it protests to bring smaller amendments within the structure. For example, it asks for better jobs for the people who identify with them within the already placed structures rather than challenging capitalist apparatuses in place. 

The Good Insider

It assumes that the people belonging to their identity are not susceptible to power and the fetishisms of capitalism. It supposes that everyone from their identity has no evil within them and the evil is always the outsider; despite the fact that ideologically an outsider might be an ally and an insider might believe in something completely opposite. This has found a place in the current political scenario too. In particular, the overwhelming support for the last two presidential candidates of the BJP showed how identity politics solely considers identity as the marker and completely disregards pertinent factors like ideology which is ingrained in the politics propagated by the BJP.

Moreover, movements of identity politics strive for differentiation and uniqueness. A world governed in solidarity with identity politics often censors any constructive question or comment on the subjective experience of people belonging to marginalised groups. However, it completely supports questioning the experiences of the members of majoritarian identity groups. It often perceives the subjective experience of marginalised people as truth and positions it over the experience of a member of a majority group member who might be poor. This, therefore, helps the right-wing political institutions in two ways: (1) bringing a hierarchy to the experiences and taking away the universality of the experience or the scope of understanding each other and (2) helping the right-wing to jump in and tell the majority how they want to listen to its problems and are in solidarity.  

Political Correctness

In addition, identity politics also demands ‘political correctness’ even though it is subjective in nature. The members of the marginalised communities are often supported and cheered for using slogans antagonising the non-marginalised communities publicly but the same is not the case for the non-marginalised groups. This disparity in the ‘free speech debate’ is quite critical to the failure of left identity politics since the assumption of the ‘good marginalised’ and the ‘bad non-marginalised’ diffuses any chance of critical engagement with problems. The cry for justice by ‘social justice warriors’ and the ‘cancel culture’ at any sign of disagreement with their view of the world are significant examples of the misdirection the discourse has taken. This has, therefore, led to the rise of right-wing politics as well. 

Commenting further, political scientist Karen Stenner wrote that “intolerance is not a thing of the past, it is very much a thing of the future.” which is true if we look for justifiable answers to sudden bursts of intolerance and hatred. Hence, the fear of a world where they will have no voice, where their opinions and experiences won’t matter is a serious enough issue for the non-minorities to oppose the Left. Though the factual accuracy of that threat is yet to be studied, the propaganda and the silencing of different opinions in the public sphere dominated by the left-wing do work together to create an environment of paranoia for the non-minority that pushes them to react. 

Conclusion

By pitting the identities against each other, the autonomy to vote beyond identity or look at issues outside the periphery of the same will make it very difficult to find a world where all voices are heard equally. If we were to live in a harmonious fashion, it is imperative to realise that the answer to historical oppression is not oppression of the oppressor but rather, a world free of oppression. But, as long as identity politics clings to the ladder of hierarchy within the structure to acquire the power to replace the oppressor, it cannot become an alternative. It will just be a symbol of contestation of power, not of change.

Rishiraj Sen is currently working as a Research Analyst at the Centre for New Economics Studies at OP Jindal Global University. He can be reached at senrishiraj28@gmail.com

Image Credits: https://www.rosl.org.uk/rosl_news/967-the-age-of-identity-politics

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