I am big fan of Identity Politics. People’s politics should be informed by, and come from, their social location. What is the alternative? Ideology? No, our identities are socially constructed and so that identity needs to inform our politics.
I am also aware that while identity politics (IP) are great for politics –they are not a totalizing approach for every area of life. There has been quite a loud outcry recently by some over IP’s overreach into every arena and how it has come to dominate nearly everything in a media era where optics are everything.
Today I simply want to look at why it feels like it is ‘everyone for themselves’ in our culture. This is part 4 of “Why Things Seems So Bad Right Now”. [You may want to read ‘No Neutral Anymore‘ and ‘Fragmented and Fractured’ first.]
Identity Politics rose in the 1960’s and came to prominence in the academy though various branches of what comes under the umbrella of ‘theory’. Concerns of feminists, civil rights leaders, the gay community and other minority groups brought radical critique of society and its norms in the 60’s challenging the status quo and the underlying assumption that sustained the oppressive systems of institutionalized systems.
Identity politics gave voice to many who had felt silenced or marginalized by a societal norm that instantiated by codes of conduct, conformity, and control (often through threats and actual violence). By banning together under small but vocal banners identifying the group as connected through some commonality and loyalty (race, gender, class, etc.) individuals were able to create a larger platform for their concerns and garner political leverage for change. Changes included legal protection, the removal of discrimination and practice of exclusion, as well prominence in representation whether in the workplace, government or media.
There are at least four considerable critiques of identity politics that cover a wide array of concerns from distinct perspective and commitments. There are points of overlap between the critics, but for clarity I will group them in the following ways:
Atomism: Marc Fisher is a vocal critic of identity politics (IP) as an extension of neo-liberalism and its resulting expression of autonomous individualism. Critiques like his focus on the shortcomings of the atomized conception of the individual that come out of the Enlightenment. The breakdown of social bonds (like the family and tribe), religious institutions (prevalent distrust of institutions and leaders) as well as prevalent mobility/transience has resulted in a society of individuals who often do not live in the village they grew up in, feel free to believe or not believe the things that their parents do, and have no generational supervision as they pursue their desires for promotion/status/relationship/satisfaction in isolation and without accountability.
IP then is the natural offspring of this atomized concept of self where one’s own self-interest and particular concern are central and elevated. In this view, a black lesbian (for instance) takes her own interests and demands special consideration and a privileging of her situation to combat the privilege that has been inherited and enjoyed by those who has historically conformed to societal norms and thus their experience has been normalized.
Essentialist: Judith Butler has a very different concern about IP that it is danger of essentializing individual experience as a common and too concrete category. There is not one experience that can be called the ‘female experience’ or ‘the view of women’. The danger here is that a whole group can be lumped together and their varying experience and perspectives codified as something concrete or essential. Gender is the way (or sexuality, class expectations, etc) and its performative nature means that we have been socialized and conditioned into gender roles and expectations even as we freely act within the menu of options that we believe to be available to us.
In this sense, identity politics risks essentializing an individual or group’s experience in an attempt to gain solidarity within the identified group for the purpose of political leverage with those outside the group. Those working for ‘gay rights’ ban together to narrate a common experience in order to gain attention and allies that are required if the protections that are being sought are going to be agreed to by the majority. This, in Butler’s view, is a temporary measure that cannot be allowed to be essentialized as ‘the’ gay perspective or experience.
Communitarian: This group has a sustained critique of IP, prominently vocalized by thinkers like Michael Sandel. Communitarians view the individual within a larger matrix of social, ethical, and political structures that bind us as a networked or linked collective of groups and communities. The loyalties of IP are to the individual and promote the agenda of one group often to the neglect of or detriment to the collective whole.
IP looks to elevate the experience of a neglected or marginalized group without taking into account the possible reasons why that may have come to be the case historically. Both gays and women are addressed within the construct of procreation and the furtherance of our society and species. Communitarians are clever in the conservatism – contesting not on the grounds of some revealed or universal moral order, but on the grounds of utilitarian pragmatism before transitioning toward moralized principles of the greater good over specialty interests and minority perspectives. 
Consumerism: In his book “Consuming Religion”, Vincent Miller interacts with a number of Marxists critiques alongside postmodern approaches such as Jean Baudrillard to expose IP as a commodity fetish within the ‘logic of late capitalism’. Within a consumer context such as Western culture has entered into, everything including religion experience and IP, is commodified. Consumption is ultimately unsatisfying but the totalizing nature of Capitalist society has the capacity to absorb even the most virulent dissent. The capacity of the market to absorb criticism and protest, then adopt and commodified the concern, and finally appropriate its agenda is all-consuming.
IP can easily be addressed then by the ‘logic of the market’ by taking every specialty interest group or minority and tailoring merchandise, products and ‘swag’ for their purpose and for their rallies. People want to broadcast an image to ‘appear’ that they are committed to a cause.
“The market does not distinguish between ‘Feel the Bern’ bumper stickers or ‘Make America Great Again’. It just wants you to buy bumper stickers.”
Nor does the market judge if a consumer wants to pay $2 more for a cup of coffee to ensure that it is organic – shade grown – fair trade – single region. In the same way, the interests of IP and its constituent groups are commodified and reified within the existing structure. Adjustment is made to supply personalized, modified, tailored, stylized and customized products and services for ready consumption. All resistence, dissent and protest is absorbed and appropriated into what Guy Deborg refers to as ‘the society of spectacle’.
In summary, critics of IP share in common a concern for its limitations even while those concerns manifest in disparate directions of critique.
- First, there is no way that a few contributing markers can signify the totality of your experience.
- Second, it is possible that identification within one minority group or special interest will suppress and minimize the full expression of your ‘self’ as an individual.
- Third, by choosing to focus on one or a few personal markers of identity, groups create division and adversarial compartmentalization that may work against the ‘common good’ or which may end up limiting or injuring a different sub-group.
- Lastly, by choosing to focus on one or a few personal markers of identity, there is a danger of essentializing one experience in order to promote a common voice or narrative but which may be inauthentic and intimately inaccurate committing a fallacy of misplaced concreteness in an attempt to promote solidarity or consolidate support.
I hope that this quick overview has been helpful – if nothing else, I just wanted to address why it may feel like there is such discord and animosity in our contemporary environment.
 This critique is very popular right now and is making big news on social media for being part of the backlash during the most recent election. Jordan Peterson is probably the most visible spokesperson for this sort of critique. The first 5 min of this video (content warning) will get you up to speed.