Salon: Abandon Identity Politics, ‘Dragging the Progressive Agenda Down’

Seeing as that is the agenda, what else could a progressive be?

Progressivism and identity politics are like peas and carrots, but writer Anis Shivani thinks it’s time to separate the two. In his piece for Salon, Shivani gives five reasons why identity politics is “dragging the progressive agenda down.” 

Shivani states that identity politics has “always felt like snake oil” and that he “never bought into it” as a student in college. However, he realizes that the amount of indoctrination this requires to undo in so many others will be no easy feat. 

“I realize that everything I’m saying here has a sense of futility about it, because when an entire generation is indoctrinated in a certain way of thinking, only a catastrophe of the first order can compel people to reconsider; we are certainly not at that point yet, and we may never get there,” he writes. “But for what it’s worth, let me mention some key points about why I think identity politics, wherever it has manifested, has been absolutely devastating to the cause of liberty.”

Here are his five points against identity politics:

1)  It privileges culture, instead of politics. My first point is that when you fight for identity, you’re giving up politics in favor of culture. And that’s exactly where neoliberalism wants you, fighting for your culture (or what you imagine is your culture), rather than the arena of policies, where the real consequences occur. You may gain some recognition of your identity, but you may also have to pay the price of losing everything else that makes life worth living.

2)  Not only politics, but economics is taken out of the equation. It’s astonishing, even after living under the principles of neoliberalism for around 40 years, how few liberals, even activists, are able to define our economic system with any sense of accuracy. They keep acting as if the fight is still on between the old New Deal liberalism (laissez-faire economics slightly moderated by some half-hearted welfare programs) and a right that wants to shred those welfare mechanisms. In fact, both parties are committed to slightly different versions of neoliberalism, and their transformation proceeded apace with the rise of identity politics. Politics was freed to take its course, because culture became the site of contestation, and this meant an unobstructed opportunity to redefine economics to the benefit of the elites.

3)  Identity politics always breeds its equal and opposite reaction. Identity politics is in fact the father, or the Great Mother, of white nationalism, rather than white nationalism being an independent force that has arisen from quite different sources. At root, both share the same particularistic, extralegal, extra-constitutional, anti-democratic, metaphysical, folkish impulse. Whenever a misguided movement tries to alter people’s thoughts and intentions, rather than limiting itself to people’s performance and action in the transparent democratic arena, then totalitarianism is the necessary result. Even when we dream of an anarchist utopia, we do not try to alter people’s souls, we aim to alter economic arrangements in such a way as to allow people the maximum possible room for freedom. We cannot be readers and interpreters of people’s hearts and minds; such a venture has no business in politics.

4)  Identity politics is not winnable. The idea of the nation, in a post-Cold War world, as my generation imagined for a moment, should have led to a redefinition of the concept in rational, empirical, scientific, utopian and ultimately anarchist terms. The founding principles of the Enlightenment were available all over again, in that brief moment, to be recharged with potent liberal energy, extending across the globe. Instead we got neoliberal globalization, dedicated entirely to consumerism and shallow identity politics, working in sync to enervate democracy to the point of nonexistence.

5)  It leads to spectacle, rather than legislative accomplishment. I can think of no better example to illustrate the madness of identity politics than the absurd separation that has occurred between the so-called “Dreamers” and the rest of the undocumented population. The Dreamers, brought to this country as minors, are the good immigrants, whereas the rest, who might have come as adults, are the bad immigrants. The Dreamers — in a way that would have been inconceivable in the time I was growing up — have played every aspect of identity politics to their benefit, even if it means that their own family members might suffer, or even be deported, in inverse relation to the degree to which their own pleas for acceptance find favor with the general public.

Shivani concludes:

[I]dentity politics — in all the forms it has shown up, from various localized nationalisms to more ambitious fascism — desires its adherents to present themselves in the most regressive, atavistic, primitive form possible. The kind of political communication identity politics thrives on is based on maximizing emotionalism and minimizing rationality. Therefore, the idea of law that arises when identity politics engenders a reaction is one that severs the natural bonds of community across differences (which is the most ironic yet predictable result of identity politics) and makes of the law an inhuman abstraction.

It’s good to see the Left waking up to reality, but progressive politics and identity are like that line in the old Frank Sinatra classic “Love and Marriage, “You can’t have one without the other.”