Identity Politics v Universalism?

Do identity politics have what it takes to transform the institutions and structures of a society?

On Sunday I read a fascinating blog post by Kenan Malik about identity politics. As usual, Malik raises some fascinating perspectives. The piece is worth reading in its entirety. What follows comprises of my notes, personal interpretation, and a question.

First, Malik traces the history of identity politics to a time before it was even called ‘identity politics.’ He draws attention to critics of the Enlightenment, who decried the universalizing ideals of the movement. These original champions of identity-oriented politics were those who felt that the calls for equality would strip away the safe, ethnocentric nationalism of the status quo. In other words, the original ‘identity politics’ was grounded in attitudes and agendas we would define as ‘racist’ or ‘supremacist’ today.

By and large, the 18-19th-century defenders of equality took a wholly different approach: they advocated for universal rights. This notion of universality — especially when practiced politically — stood in direct contrast to the reactionary ethnic/identity-based politics standing in defense of the status quo.

In Malik’s view, the original iteration of ‘identity politics’ dissipated after the Second World War. The Holocaust effectively made the notion orienting one’s political agenda around an ethnic identity unpalatable. But in the wake of the war — and amid the hyper identity-conscious restructuring of borders — the role of identity in politics shifted dramatically. The transformation was slow but significant.

The most crucial change, argues Malik, is our definition and practice of solidarity. Identity politics “stresses attachment to common identities based on such categories as race, nation, gender or culture,” whereas solidarity “draws people into a collective not because of a given identity but to further a political or social goal.” Ironically, identity-based politics makes forming mass political movements increasingly difficult. The number of large-scale solidarity movements that have drawn people together across distinctive backgrounds, ethnicities, and cultures has declined significantly. It is arguably easier to galvanize people into direct-action solidarity over shared values — such as a common conception of justice — than it is to make the distinct identity and experience of an oppressed group the focal reason for engagement.

In other words, we’re collectively spending more time asking ourselves, “Who are we?” and less time thinking about, “What kind of society do we want to build?” But we can’t equate identity-building with nation-building. To change the structural and institutional landscape of a state — that is, to address power — requires a coordination of ideological values (the Zeitgeist, so to speak) that must by definition transcend any particular camp of identity.

But perhaps the most chilling point of Malik’s account is the idea that the ‘mainstreaming’ of identity politics has paved the way for the way for white identity politics:

as the new anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim movements and the rise of the identitarian right reveal, the reactionary forms of identity politics has returned with a vengeance. If other groups can protect their particular history and heritage and cultural identity as essential to their social being, runs the argument, why can’t whites? Many liberals now defend ‘racial self-identification’ as simply another form of identity politics. One of the consequences of the mainstreaming of identity politics is that racism has become rebranded as white identity politics.

The question for all of us who value the hope and dream of living in truly equitable societies boils down to this: are universalism and identity politics fundamentally at odds with one another? For Malik,

Contemporary identity politics is less about confronting injustice than about rebranding it…only by challenging identity politics can we truly challenge inequality and injustice.

What do you think?