Is there any equality without economic equality?

Do identity politics multiply when a critical percentage of us can take our prosperity and democracy for granted?

Take a few minutes and watch/listen to this clip of Francis Fukuyama discussing the relationship between economics and identity politics. What follows is a brief synthesis and reflection.

Fukuyama’s premise is that political left in the United States has shifted from the traditional liberal concern for economic equality and is now scattered a million directions à la identity politics.

…gay marriage, feminism, whether we elect a woman to the White House, ethnic politics, multiculturalism — all of these things are much more preoccupying, but they are also divisive because the left doesn’t really agree on a common agenda. And economic inequality is just one cause in addition to all of these other identity politics issues, and I think that’s been a distraction.

For Fukuyama, the vacuum of a shared vision for the left explains in part why Occupy — and movements like it — have not been able to acquire adequate social traction. (There are echoes here of Kenan Malik’s critique of identity politics that I shared recently.) The central observation here is about the role of the economy in political movements. At the current trajectory, the left’s capacity to mobilize effectively is stuck in a stalemate with itself until an economic shock or crisis pulls all the disparate identity actors around a common, shared goal.

Now it may be that over time inequality will get so bad people will refocus on this, but I think for the time being the energies of the left have been dissipated on a lot of other kinds of issues.

Taking it one step farther, Fukuyama seems to entertain the possibility that identity politics is even a predictable outcome of economic success in a democracy. When the masses are starving for the scraps of the elites, we all know why the revolution needs to happen. When it comes to practicing middle-class politics from our sofas and smartphones, the temptation is ripe for turning political action into an expression of individual identity. Hence the theory: only increasing hyper inequality is an adequate force for reuniting and galvanizing liberal political action.

If you can take prosperity and democracy for granted then the terms of the debate shift to a different set of issues having to do with identity. And in a certain sense identity is the Achilles heel of modern democracies…

This line of thinking yields several interesting questions to me: to what extent should we think of equality (generally) and economic equality (specifically) as synonymous or distinct concepts? To what degree was economic inequality the animating force behind our constitutions and charters? Does our capacity as a society to care about equality diminish the wealthier our society becomes?

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