In a so­ci­ety too short of com­mon goals, iden­tity pol­i­tics are an im­per­fect an­swer

Ac­cord­ing to aca­demic Mark Lilla’s new, ex­plo­sive book, lib­eral pol­i­tics have taken a wrong, nar­cis­sis­tic turn

The Observer - - COMMENT - Ke­nan Ma­lik @ke­nan­ma­lik

Last Novem­ber, Columbia Univer­sity his­to­rian Mark Lilla pub­lished a com­ment piece in the New York Times , en­ti­tled The End of Iden­tity Lib­er­al­ism. Numbed by Trump’s elec­tion vic­tory, Lilla placed the blame largely at the door of “iden­tity pol­i­tics”, which, he ar­gued, had atom­ised Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, un­der­mined civic cul­ture and de­stroyed the Democrats’ elec­toral chances. Lib­er­al­ism, he wrote, “has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gen­der and sex­ual iden­tity that has dis­torted lib­er­al­ism’s mes­sage and pre­vented it from be­com­ing a uni­fy­ing force ca­pa­ble of gov­ern­ing”.

The de­bate is equally sig­nif­i­cant for pol­i­tics on this side of the At­lantic. Here, too, the left has con­sid­er­ably weak­ened, so­ci­ety has become more frag­mented and there has de­vel­oped an equally fraught de­bate about the pol­i­tics of iden­tity.

Lilla’s essay be­came the eye of a fu­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal storm. Some crit­ics sug­gested that he was whistling in the wind – all pol­i­tics, they in­sisted, is nec­es­sar­ily iden­tity pol­i­tics. Oth­ers saw it as an at­tack on mi­nori­ties. Kather­ine Franke, pro­fes­sor of law at Columbia, and a col­league of Lilla’s, claimed that Lilla was do­ing the “back­ground work of mak­ing white supremacy re­spectable”.

Now Lilla’s op-ed has become a book, The Once and Fu­ture Lib­eral: Af­ter Iden­tity Pol­i­tics . Its pub­li­ca­tion has reignited the de­bate over the pol­i­tics of iden­tity. Ac­cord­ing to Lilla, the high point of Amer­i­can lib­er­al­ism came with Roo­sevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s, which fo­cused not on in­di­vid­ual needs but on the col­lec­tive good. To re­gain power, Lilla ar­gues, the lib­eral left needs to re­dis­cover that no­tion of the com­mon good by adopt­ing a prag­matic form of pol­i­tics. He is par­tic­u­larly caus­tic about protest move­ments such as Black Lives Mat­ter. “We need no more marchers,” he writes. “We need more may­ors.”

Be­tween them, Lilla and his crit­ics sum up well the impasse of con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics on the left. Many of his crit­ics can­not see that the pol­i­tics of iden­tity, far from de­fend­ing the marginalised and the pow­er­less, frag­ments the pos­si­bil­i­ties of mean­ing­ful so­cial change. Lilla can­not see that the self-pro­claimed “lib­eral cen­trist” pol­i­tics he es­pouses has helped cre­ate the frag­men­ta­tion of which he de­spairs. In Europe, too, de­bates about im­mi­gra­tion and mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, about na­tion­al­ism and fed­er­al­ism, ex­pose a sim­i­lar kind of dead­lock. The roots of con­tem­po­rary iden­tity pol­i­tics lie in the new so­cial move­ments that emerged in the 1960s to chal­lenge the fail­ure of the left to take se­ri­ously the is­sues of racism, ho­mo­pho­bia and women’s rights. The strug­gle for black rights in Amer­ica, in par­tic­u­lar, was highly in­flu­en­tial in pro­vid­ing a tem­plate for many other groups to de­velop con­cepts of iden­tity and self-or­gan­i­sa­tion. Squeezed be­tween an in­tensely racist so­ci­ety, on the one hand, and a left of­ten in­dif­fer­ent to their plight, many black ac­tivists ceded from civil rights or­gan­i­sa­tions and set up sep­a­rate black groups.

This is where Lilla’s cel­e­bra­tion of New Deal lib­er­al­ism looks so thread­bare. The “Roo­sevelt dis­pen­sa­tion”, Lilla ar­gues, in­au­gu­rated a lib­er­al­ism filled with “con­fi­dence, hope, pride and a spirit of self-sac­ri­fice”. Ex­cept that it was not quite like that. It was also a lib­er­al­ism that ac­com­mo­dated Jim Crow laws, seg­re­ga­tion and lynch­ings. Mil­lions of Amer­i­cans were ex­cluded from the Amer­i­can “we” that Lilla wants to de­fend. It was in the strug­gle against such ex­clu­sion that the ori­gins of post­war iden­tity pol­i­tics lie.

“As iden­tity con­scious­ness has in­creased among lib­er­als,” Lilla has ob­served, “po­lit­i­cal con­scious­ness has de­creased.” That is to look at the is­sue back to front. It is not so much that iden­tity con­scious­ness has di­min­ished po­lit­i­cal con­scious­ness, but rather that the di­min­ish­ment of ide­o­log­i­cal pol­i­tics has al­lowed the pol­i­tics of iden­tity to flour­ish. In the 1960s, the strug­gles for black rights and women’s rights and gay rights were closely linked to the wider project of so­cial trans­for­ma­tion. But as the labour move­ment lost in­flu­ence, from the 1980s on, so the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the pro­mo­tion of iden­tity rights and broader so­cial change frayed. Even­tu­ally, the pro­mo­tion of iden­tity be­came an end in it­self. The uni­ver­sal­ism that once fu­elled rad­i­cal move­ments has largely evap­o­rated.

The ero­sion of the power of labour move­ment or­gan­i­sa­tions, the demise of rad­i­cal so­cial move­ments, the de­cline of col­lec­tivist ide­olo­gies, the ex­pan­sion of the mar­ket into al­most ev­ery nook and cranny of so­cial life, the fad­ing of in­sti­tu­tions, from trade unions to the church, have all helped to cre­ate a more frag­mented so­ci­ety. These are the changes that have snapped so­cial bonds and hol­lowed-out civic life.

That hol­low­ing out has been ex­ac­er­bated by the nar­row­ing of the po­lit­i­cal sphere, by pol­i­tics that has self-con­sciously become less ide­o­log­i­cal, more tech­no­cratic. The Democrats in Amer­ica have dis­carded much of their old ide­o­log­i­cal at­tach­ments as well as their links to their old so­cial con­stituen­cies. Dick Mor­ris, for­mer chief po­lit­i­cal ad­viser to the then pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton, whom Lilla lauds, called this the process of “tri­an­gu­la­tion”.

Peo­ple bind to­gether through strug­gles for so­cial change

It is not, how­ever, through tri­an­gu­la­tion or man­age­ri­al­ism that peo­ple bind to­gether. They do so through com­mon strug­gles for so­cial change. Such strug­gles en­able peo­ple to reach out be­yond their own iden­ti­ties and give mean­ing to civic sol­i­dar­ity. It is through such so­cial strug­gles that we can de­fine what com­mon goals should be, and what we might mean by the com­mon good.

As the in­flu­ence of the labour move­ment has de­clined, and broader so­cial strug­gles have faded, so “sol­i­dar­ity” has for many become in­creas­ingly de­fined not in po­lit­i­cal terms – as col­lec­tive ac­tion in pur­suit of cer­tain po­lit­i­cal ideals – but in much nar­rower terms of group iden­tity. One of the con­se­quences of the main­stream­ing of iden­tity pol­i­tics is that, on both sides of the At­lantic, racism is be­com­ing re­branded as white iden­tity pol­i­tics.

What Lilla fails to recog­nise is that the de­mand for “may­ors not marchers” – for prag­matic pol­i­tics over so­cial move­ments – is a change that has al­ready hap­pened; and the con­se­quence has been to open the way to the kind of iden­tity pol­i­tics he rightly de­spises. The prob­lem is not that there are marchers rather than may­ors. It is, rather, that both marchers and may­ors, both ac­tivists and politicians, op­er­ate in world in which broader vi­sions of so­cial change have faded.

How to re­store a sense of sol­i­dar­ity based on broader pol­i­tics rather than nar­row iden­ti­ties – that’s the real chal­lenge we face.

Il­lus­tra­tion by Michael Driver

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