Identity politics: fun with Foucault

Here comes a snowflake! | photo: Anest / istockphoto

In the UK and the US the traditional left-right two-party political system seems to be running out of steam. Things are fragmenting. Consider the hot potato of identity politics.

Originally French, then mainly American and now exported back to Europe, the concept of identity politics enables people of a particular ethnicity or other identifying factor (they’re sometimes rudely called snowflakes) to develop a political agenda based on their identity and their sense of oppression.

Some advocates of identity politics take an intersectional approach, addressing the range of interacting systems of oppression which result from people’s various identities.

Identity politics emerged in the 1960s and 70s from the hotbed of French postmodernism, which emerged in the 1950s and 60s mainly from the writings of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.

Michel Foucault, Paris, 1978
| Photo: Martine Franck / Magnum

Apparently, the complex route from postmodernism to identity politics included:

  • Critique of modern reductionism
  • Abstract universalism
  • A kind of essentialism
  • Foucault’s genealogical politics

The fragmentation of the 60s ‘movement’ into 70s ‘new social movements’ led to the first written use of the term ‘identity politics’ in a 1977 statement by a US black feminist lesbian socialist group, the Combahee River Collective. An exerpt:

    Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work. This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression. [My bolding]

Liberal critics of identity politics say reaction against its supposedly strident demands contributed to the 2016 US election of populist psycho Donald Trump. Trump voters were said to have voted ‘white’.

Leftist critics of identity politics (eg Ambalavaner Sivanandan) say it’s a distraction from the class struggle. Other critics say the idea fosters inherently wrong or unnecessarily divisive notions of identity, or an unhelpfully exaggerated sense of victimhood.

Some identity politics groups, snarkily dubbed snowflakes, are criticised for being quick to take offence and being vindictive in their ‘cancel culture‘ pursuit of offenders.

Identity politics has been famously dismissed by batty best-selling author and psychologist Jordan Peterson. He echoes fellow bat Ayn Rand (author of Atlas Shrugged) in asserting the primacy of the individual over the group.

Alt-right white supremacists have their very own version of identity politics, ‘identitarianism’, which asserts the right of white people to Western culture and territories claimed to belong exclusively to them. Bless.

The oppression elephant in the identity politics room is racism. Does identity politics address racism? Is there such a thing as black identity politics?

There’s clearly a need for a collective political agenda to challenge the oppression of systemic colour prejudice, but I googled ‘black identity politics’ and got no meaningful results (in the first five pages).

Apparently the hot potato of identity politics doesn’t address racism. Perhaps a cooler and less fragmentary political movement is needed for that.

Edit: Sadly – and surprisingly (to me, anyway) – it seems the Black Lives Matter organisation, rather than being the focussed and well-organised campaign supporters and donors might expect, is actually a perfect example of overheated identity politics, and has consequently disappeared down that rabbit hole.

This post is an excerpt from my longform antiracist post Racism explained as a redundant instinct

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