A Critique of Identity Politics


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A work on international political praxis during my journalism diploma days ...

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A Critique of Identity Politics

  1. 1. Exposing Identity PoliticsIdentity politics spells out various meanings. This convenience is used by differentmovements. It communicates something surreal yet ubiquitous in a society. It is usedas a wrapper for many movements from its inception. Some treat it as a countercurrent for class politics; where as some others use it against nationalist politics.There are some others who consider it as a prelude to the class politics. Beneath thispolymorphism and ambiguity there lay vexed questions on the terrains of identitypolitics.In the works of Michael Keith and Steven Pile [Politics and Spaces of identity],modernist identity politics have created a sort of essentialism that rests on theexclusivity of certain norms. They allege that this sort of exclusivity and selectivity ofmodernist identity politics have made it very divisive. This was not congenial forworking toward a multiple, pluralized yet still radical conceptualization of agency andidentity.We can see an array of works on the national identity discourses. It may tempt us tothink that identity politics have superseded the national polity. Simon Bekker definesIdentity politics as the search of reconciliation between nation building and demandsby different citizens for recognition of communal identity. He goes on to say thatidentity politics has emerged as a primary challenge in many nation states. He accusesthe national tendencies to achieve homogeneity as the primary reason for the unrestand ethnic conflicts. This conveniently ignores the external interventions that stirethnic unrest.Moreover, homogeneity is an apparent ideology resting on the ethos of culturalnationalism. In that sense, the attempt for a cultural homogeneity itself is an identitypolitics. Rashtriya Swyayamsevak Sangh (RSS) which preaches a ‘Hindutva India’ isone instant example for this. They are the ones who raise voice for uniform civil codeand hegemony of Hinutva ideology.Thus any attempt to unify the nation based on culture or religion or language devoidof considerations of productive forces and the social relations will become identitypolitics in reality. Stanford Encyclopaedia highlights that identity politics strive toachieve a political freedom for a specific constituency of marginalized people. Butthis fails to explain the causes of marginalization. The awareness that only a particularconstituency of people is marginalized is because of identity politics. It confines theperspective to specific identity ignoring the totality in exploitation.In a market economy, if someone says that only tribes are marginalized, it is a crueltyto slum dwellers and the millions in the unorganized sector. The process ofmarginalization acts as a time warp for all those who labour. Only those outside thedominant mode of production will be in a perpetual state of marginalization.Detaching tribes from the dominant mode of production by way of identity politicswill only worsen their plight.The case of Narmada Bacho Andolan (NBA) is a grim example of identity politics.The apolitical struggle of environmental politics detached the struggling people fromthe political process and its dynamics. Their voices became unheard in the political
  2. 2. ecosystem. What the identity politics has achieved in NBA is creating a perpetualapolitical site. This generates a question: who creates marginalization, NBA orNational government?Capitalism has evolved to become sustainable in ecology of unequal modes ofproduction. It no longer standardizes the economy. As capitalism now thrives on theexpanding market economy rather than nation states, it stimulates multiplicity ofchoices. It is in this focal point where the pluralism of identity politics and themarket’s desire for multiple choices converge.The question of identity rests on the epistemological currents initiated by modernism.The essence of modernism lies in the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticiseitself, not in order to subvert it, but to enrich it more firmly in its area of competence[Modernist Painting, Clement Greenberg]. Thus it inherits a tendency to criticiseitself. As self-criticism is the organic element of Marxism, it is easy to draw parallellines between Modernism and Marxism. The awareness of identity is a dialecticalprocess between objective knowledge and subjective experience. Identity is asubjective knowledge of objective experience as well. It is rooted in both of them.Thus identity is the dialectical product of objectivity and subjectivity. Identity ofidentity is nothing but the labour process and life process. Hence identity is bothreflexive and self critical in nature. With the progress of either objective knowledge orsubjective experience identity undergoes transformation in form and content. Thismeans that identity of a child born to a religious family undergoes change if he studiesin a national institution and it changes further if goes on to work in a multi-nationalcorporate organization.Thus if class is the dynamic product of self in labour, identity is the transient processby which self changes. It is this volatility of identity that becomes the instrument ofimperialism. It captures one by its fractured identity and tempts to organize based onit. Fractured identity and identity crisis can be rooted in both crisis in knowledge andcrisis in experience. It implies a crisis in the criticism itself. It is this fractured identityor identity crisis that is being targeted by the architects of identity politics. Theseformations of identity groups are not self made always. Imperialism purchases theidentity formations through various funding agencies. And using the power of money,imperialism exercises hegemony over the identity groups. And using this fundedeconomy, identity groups will be integrated to the imperial market economy.Collectively, these preys can be named as social capital.