I realised today why I’m uncomfortable with the term ‘identity politics’.
This usually gets counterposed to ‘class struggle’, at least in the intellectual circles I tend to frequent. But elsewhere it can be contrasted with whatever more ‘serious’ or ‘pragmatic’ politics the speaker prefers. For those who’ve not come across it, it sort of lumps together sexual, racial, disability, cultural, etc. issues – politics which problematise the oppression of certain people on the grounds of their ‘identity’.
I dislike the term because I think it serves to disguise the way that all politics is about ‘identity’: all politics is about people deciding to act in certain ways, and the way that people make those decisions, about what they want and what motivates them, has to be understood in terms of how they conceive of themselves.
For instance, consider people struggling to get more money, and everything which that generates. Why do people want money? Most answers to that question will involve people’s ‘identities’. This is clearest, I think, with larger amounts of money – above a certain level, the main benefit of having more money is being able to buy things that tell you how awesome you are.
Going to an expensive restaurant, for instance, and spending £100 on a meal, won’t get you food that tastes 20 times as nice as the food you’d get for £5 in some cheap place (I doubt we could even experience a taste sensation intense enough to be 20 times as pleasant as some basically nice food – at least without passing out or pissing ourselves). What it gets you is an atmosphere, a presentation, a manner in which people will treat you, that are all designed to make you feel good about yourself, feel important and refined.
It’s even more obvious, really, when you start thinking about every action motivated by concern with power. Having power is useful, of course, in getting nicer food and a more comfortable bed, but that’s not the main issue: people make sacrifices for the sake of power because power reaffirms their identity as a powerful person, someone in control.
And even with more basic things, I don’t think ‘identity’ is irrelevant. Even when I’m just trying to stay alive, to get enough food and a place to sleep, I’m not acting out of strict necessity. Some people sacrifice their lives; others voluntarily live without shelter, and with very little food. What makes the difference? At least on the face of it, the difference is something in the way they think of the world, the way they define what is valuable, and the way they define themselves – because all those three things are connected.
Consider, for example, that someone might willingly throw away their life in war because they think of their nation’s survival and glory as more important than, and as subsuming, their own wellbeing – that is, because they conceive of their own life, and their own value, in terms of that imagined national whole. Now, I wouldn’t do that, and neither would most people, because we don’t conceive of ourselves in that way: we have a different conception of how our own value relates to the value of nations. But why is the first a matter of ‘identity’ and the latter not? Why isn’t the very desire to stay alive an example of ‘identity’, and the bloodshed of war an example of ‘identity politics’?
It might seem like now I’m just playing with words. I don’t think I am. I think the phrase ‘identity politics’ implicitly dismisses ‘identity’, posits it as something secondary and unimportant, and I think it can do that only because people assume that their valuations are just ‘the truth’, and not an expression of their identity – and hence that when other people agree with them, that’s not their ‘identity’ but just good sense. Indeed, it may be crucial to certain people’s identities, that their valuations and conceptions are not an ‘identity’ but just good sense. Their motivation to distinguish their own concerns from ‘identity politics’ may be
People kill for their identity. People who kill unfaithful spouses, or uppity blacks, or ‘disrespectful’ rivals, kill for the sake of defending their identity. The reason they’re willing to kill in defense of their identity, is that a threat to their identity is experienced as a threat to them, a mortal threat. And, conversely, people kill themselves because their identity has been compromised – or because they never really found or had one, and can’t stand to live any longer with the all-pervasive suffering that accompanies such a state. If they don’t kill themselves biologically, they do it psychologically, through dissociation, drugs, or psychosis.
Hopefully I’ve made my point. Everything we do involves our identity. Power politics is identity politics: class struggle is identity politics: war and empire and policing and homelessness are all identity politics. I dislike the term ‘identity politics’ because it suggests that they’re not.