All politics is identity politics – and pretending otherwise only benefits the far right

We can rehabilitate the universal; we can find axes of solidarity. But not by stamping out plurality, or through the dogged denial of difference.

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Listening to the grumblings of the broadsheets, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there was a single scourge responsible for sowing division and ripping the heart out of a once great nation: identity politics. It’s on the hook for Christchurch, for a campus free speech crisis, for rising racial tensions, for a global backslide into demagoguery.

Curious, then, that none of the chaos-merchants rattling the political establishment to its core will come forward to claim their spoils. “Identity politics”, like “populism”, is always something the other guy does.

More curious still is how a singular tendency can bind together such opposing political viewpoints. From the growing left to the steaming fringes of the far right, the problem is apparently the same. What binds together this rogue’s gallery of radicals is a common methodology: a rabid focus on people’s “identity” – their ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, citizenship or background. Coalitions are thus built, and demands crystallised, around shared understandings of what it is to be, say, a cis gay person in the UK, or, if you’d rather, an embattled white man in a clash of civilisations.

Cue a frothing revolt in the pages of the legacy press. Endless ink has been spilt over the idea that indulging notions of political difference fractures the nation’s former unity, cranking open vast chasms in British society. Identitarian politics are condemned as, at best, a distraction from the cut and thrust of real politics; and at worst a destructive influence inflated to the level of a global existential crisis. Whatever happened to the grand unifying issues that used to drive the march of progess? What happened to the universal us, which emphasised what we had in common? Can’t we all just get along?

But those who want to single out “identity politics” soon run into a problem: all politics is grounded in identity. All politics requires that we build coalitions around a shared picture of reality, a shared image of the future, deeply rooted in our image of ourselves, and what justice or progress might look like. Racial or ethnic background will shape how you experience the criminal justice system. Your gender shapes how you experience work, or how you experience violence. If you’re disabled, you’re more likely to be at the frontline of austerity. These aren’t indulgent departures from real politics – they are rooted in concrete realities of who has power, who has resources, who is exposed to violence and who is sheltered from it. They are cultural frameworks for understanding, organising and indeed changing the world.

This is nothing new. Nationalism is a form of identity politics, crafting a sense of a collective, and then using that image to determine policy priorities: who gets welfare payments, who gets employment priority, who gets bombed. White supremacy is a form of identity politics, too; one which has dominated global politics and class relations for hundreds of years. The collective pearl-clutching over about the embattled state of “western liberal democracy” is a kind of identity politics. It concocts an idea of a shared of universal “progress”, which must be defended at all costs from, well, progressives.

We live through the effects of identity politics every day. Unspoken ideas such as whiteness, maleness and heterosexuality form the bedrock of our society. Conventional ideas of the “common good” are grounded in these unspoken identitarian concerns, determining whose lives matter, shaping what justice looks like and how it can be achieved. Even our idea of “human nature” is a tortuous hangover of enlightenment norms, which classed the straight white western intellectual man as the archetypical human. His concerns were the imprint for a shallow universalism, sustained only by the rigorous silencing of anyone who might show it up as the sham it was. Attention to other “identities” must seem unsettling if you’re reliably included in that vision of the common good. But calls to return to unity are nothing but bleary-eyed nostalgia for times when the people it sidelines could be more effectively shut up.

Indeed, if we want to patch this shabby proxy of universalism, we have to start by paying attention to those it usually excludes. We can rehabilitate the universal; we can find axes of solidarity. But not by stamping out plurality, or through the dogged denial of difference.

And yet, time and time again, those willing to confront the deep material divides in our society find themselves pilloried as though they were the ones creating the problem, rather than merely observing it. This makes total sense if you’re lucky enough to benefit from the delusion that these divisions are simply cultural, a matter of linguistic convention that can be overcome by simply ignoring them; if politics is for you a chummy, stakes-free badinage rather than a blood sport.

There’s much to criticise in some left-wing identitarian practices: the excessive focus on representation, the call to public suffering, the hyper-individualism. And as many have pointed out, these bad practices can hamstring left attempts at solidarity. But somehow I suspect that mainstream critics don’t lose much sleep over the tactical priorities of a handful of internet leftists trying to claw back some concessions from a state veering wildly to the right. Quite the opposite.

The far right gleefully farms hysteria over identity politics to tar the left as the real culprit, an existential threat to democracy far more urgent than themselves. Sometimes they are on the hook themselves – Kenan Malik recently wrote that “racism became rebranded as white identity politics”. But by exceptionalising this as a recent development we miss an important point: white identitarianism has a long, ugly history which stretches deep into the vengeful heart of Western society. We can’t contend with the far right until we recognise just how violently normal their ideologies can be.

The right’s operating identities of “whiteness”, “Westernness” and “nationhood” cosily align with the unspoken tendencies of our society. Their concerns are less obviously alien, more often downplayed as the understandable grievances of an authentic “white working class”; the real “common” in common good, the real “demos” in democracy.

By damning both the new left and the far right as “identity politics”, we gloss over the difference between the two. It’s an act of political illiteracy which leaves us unable to tell the difference between those who want transformative justice, and those sharpening their battle-axes for a fascist uprising. This is very convenient for those in the latter camp: they can play on the fears of a liberal centre who feel their old certainties collapsing, to fudge the difference between themselves and their targets, diverting attention from themselves and defanging any attempts at resistance.

“Both-sides” outrage rehabilitates a fusty old picture of a world in which the once reliable dignities of political life are only disrupted by noisy queers and white supremacists who don’t have the decency to be subtle about it. It gives centrists an explanation for social crisis that they can’t find in the old certainties they cling to: why blame the economy when you can just blame university students with nose piercings? It spins a comforting myth about a prelapsarian politics of shared rationality, infinite compromise and universalist politesse – to which we could return if only the sensible people were once again in charge.

But no such politics ever existed. No such politics is possible. We need to get used to the fact that all politics is identity politics – and it’s time to pick a side.

Eleanor Penny is a writer and editor at Novara Media and Red Pepper Magazine.