Identity politics: a fatal course

19 December 2017

Identity politics: a fatal course

As a result of the world-wide process of neoliberal globalisation and the disappearance of the East Bloc as a rival superpower, advocates of the free market have the upper hand almost everywhere. Nationalist and right-populist parties with their 'own people first' message are generally enjoying more success in spreading their political message than are socialist parties and movements.

by Hans van Heijningen

Principally as a result of the influence of the transformation of the economy, the structure of western societies has been greatly changed. The extent and the political weight of the traditional working class has been diminished almost everywhere. On the other side of the equation stands a hugely enlarged but also fragmented middle class. This transformation of society has not left parties of the left untouched. New actors, new themes and new approaches and standpoints bear witness to this. Identity politics, the huge growth of the idea of the special individuality of particular groups who enter the struggle against exploitation and oppression, is an example of this. Are we dealing here with an enrichment of the traditional concept of class struggle, or is this simply fashionable modernism and dead in the water?

Foto: Sander van Oorspronk

Us and Them

In most western European countries 'established' left parties aren't exactly flourishing. Social democratic parties have, after twenty years of blatantly flirting with neoliberalism, acquired a fundamental problem of credibility. But the reality is that truly socialist parties have not managed to profit electorally from this decline, or have barely succeeded in doing so. Right-populist parties have in many cases been more effective in making hay from the breaking up of the welfare state, from social changes and the dwindling involvement of large parts of the population in 'politics'. The 'us' or 'we' of the right is clear and simple: 'we' are hardworking people born and bred in our own country; they are the migrants, refugees and people who attend the mosque. Socialists in western Europe are faced with the challenge of persuading different groups of the population that the most important conflict is something other than this, namely that between those who possess the financial and economic power, who caused the crisis and then profited from it, and on the other side the great majority of the population who have for years been paying the price for it; between the tiny upper crust who profit from the existing system and will do anything at all to maintain it, and the vast majority whose interests would be served by a fundamentally different distribution of knowledge, power and income. In many western countries parties and movements have formed which underwrite this analysis and act accordingly. For them people's identity takes centre stage, but this is the identity of people who if necessary will welcome others to their shared quest for a better life.


Who you are is changeable, and influenced constantly by the society of which you form part. Identity isn’t something you’re born with and die with, but is always liable to change. That’s not to say that identity is meaningless or neutral. Your origins and experiences make you into who you are, but do not define in a straightforward way who you are. Identity is never finished. Your identity is formed through your own experiences as well as outside influences: social processes, public opinion, the media and in part through politics, too. In the past the typically Dutch system of denominationalism, which divided the population for many practical purposes into Catholics, Protestants, social democrats and humanists, meant that changes in identity remained relatively limited. Your identity, if not determined, was certainly narrowly directed from birth. Your upbringing, including the schools you attended, the sports clubs and social organisations in which you participated took place within a denomination which also produced the newspapers you read. How you saw the world was strongly determined by all of this. That this led to a situation in which people often remained with in their denomination is hardly surprising.

The fact that denominationalism has been overhauled by modernity is, moreover, hardly likely to provoke nostalgia. In many cases Mum was stuck at home and never allowed to take a job, homosexuals were imprisoned and the mayor, priest, doctor and teacher stood above any and all authority.

The demise of denominationalism was a process of liberation, one that gave people the chance to broaden, supplement and rediscover their own identities. But this ‘liberation’ of the individual, which took place in the 1960s and 1970s, took on a new dimension in the 1980s and 1990s. With the rise of neoliberalism forms of hyperindividualism appeared which until then had been completely unknown. The flipside of the idea that the individual creates his or her own environment is that people who don’t make it have only themselves to blame. Greed is good. And why should you contribute to a common safety net if everyone has the chance to make something fine of life, but some fail to do so? In this system of thought, solidarity is truncated to become ‘aid to failures’.

The new ideal of freedom turned out for most people to be more a cheap Hollywood illusion than an attractive proposition. In a world in which old, traditional identities were coming under pressure, people were looking for what held them and bound them to the community. And more and more these things were found in obvious points of contact such as ethnicity, colour of skin or sexual preference. Somewhat progressive universities, certainly those in the United States, became under the influence of these developments bulwarks of identity politics. This made it difficult to build a broad left movement, because how can you broaden the struggle of you ‘and yours’ for a better society to other groups who are completely ‘other’?

Build Unity

To make myself completely clear, straightforward social and political identity was not what characterised the nineteenth and twentieth centuries either. From way back, socialists did not try to win only the working class to their political ideals and alternatives, but also middle class people, farmers, civil servants, the self-employed, artists and intellectuals. To the extent that socialists were capable of bringing together these forces and making the power of their numbers in parliament and beyond tell, they were also able to achieve better results. Examples of this can be found in the struggle for the vote, the introduction of compulsory education and affordable health care, the arrival of retirement pensions and the forty-hour week.

Identity politics is not a recent discovery and, whatever else, has always been a favourite ploy of the right. As well as liberal and conservative parties which orientate themselves towards a broad public, there are parties which take up the cudgels for a specific group and implicitly put distance between ‘their people’ and the rest (from farmers’ parties, parties such as the Netherlands 50+, which aims to win the support of older people, and parties which exclude specific groups, such as Muslims or refugees, as is the case with the far right PVV and the Forum for Democracy). As for the lack of unity on the left, that was and remains always a product of strategic differences and not of the exclusion of particular groups in the population. Left identity politics, which emphasises ethnic, religious (and anti-religious) or gender based identities and in that way excludes ‘the other’, can be seen as a failed attempt to develop a progressive alternative to the neoliberal image of humanity. The mobilisation of the likeminded presupposes a clear image of the enemy. There is nothing wrong with this provided it rests on a critique of the capitalist system.

When socialists point to the excesses of market working in health care, they bring to mind and warn of, to take an example, insurers who rake in millions. The insurer is in this case the representative of a non-functioning system aimed at profit, rather than one which puts people first. But it becomes problematic if people are written off as stupid, narrow-minded and deplorable: people for instance who see, or don't see, the lack of gender-neutral toilets as a problem, people who no longer feel safe in their own neighbourhoods.

People feel alienated by largely academic discussions about concepts that they barely understand, but which imply that they are part of the problem or even that they are the guilty ones. It isn't for nothing that alt-right leader Steve Bannon has been singing the praises of the identity politics of the metropolitan, elitist left. This was the best present that he could have wished for, by his own account. Because if all of the major groups of people from the working class feel themselves shoved aside and no longer understood or represented, they'll be more easily susceptible to the false blandishments of the extreme right, which claims to accept them as they are and to fight for what they find important.

There is thus little to enthuse about in the current boom in identity politics, whether it comes from left or right. Socialists proceed from the principle that people are more than their skin colour or where they come from. Identities develop and are never fixed, as those who advocate identity politics suggest. Embrace the idea that a statement is only valid when it comes from the mouth of those whom it directly affects – feminism only for women, antiracism only for people who aren't white – and, consciously or unconsciously, you erect barriers to organised solidarity.

Admittedly, in our everyday practice the SP is happy to make use of people with relevant experience, because direct experience and political analysis reinforce each other. But solidarity with with people who belong to the same subculture as yourself (whether it's a matter of age, homosexuality, married couples with children, the well-educated or recent immigrants) is little more than enlightened self-interest. Real solidarity is inclusive; include people who are 'other' than oneself and we return to the principle that we are better off if we fairly share the benefits and burdens and look after each other.

Rejection of identity politics must not be the last word on this, but implies a task for and challenge to ourselves. Are we prepared to cooperate with others to shape and strengthen our identity? Are we prepared to put our principles of human dignity, equality and solidarity into practice by fighting alongside people who do not, or don't yet, consider themselves socialists, whenever their human dignity comes under pressure, or their equality is revealed to be a myth? And when they badly need our solidarity?

As a socialist you can only answer 'yes'. That's why we'll never accept the exploitation, exclusion and discrimination of specific groups on the basis of their ethnicity, origins, religion or sexuality. And why we mobilise our forces inside and outside parliament in order to bring about change. Because a politics which reduces people to their identity at birth is and will never be a socialist politics.

Polarisation is fine. It has always been the strategy of socialists to mobilise the majority in society against the minority of capitalists and bosses. A socialist politics is polarisation against the incumbent neoliberal power, against an upper crust who block progress by holding on to their wealth and power, who play different groups of the population off against each other and use bread and circuses to try to preserve the existing order – or disorder. It is up to us to face the challenge of linking the great social contradictions between labour and capital to the struggle of specific groups who are left behind, or pushed aside. To fight the power together is the answer. If we are divided, we put ourselves into an unfavourable position and give the right the last laugh. For this reason, identity politics is a fatal course.

Hans van Heijningen is national secretary of the SP. This article first appeared in the December, 2017 edition of the SP periodical Spanning.
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