This paper clarifies the idea of identity politics, explores the varied justifications behind it, evaluates the criticisms voiced against it and promotes a socialistic perspective on the matter.
You have to be able to risk your identity for a bigger future than the present you are living. Fernando Flores
In February 2019, an Egyptian soccer team was scheduled to play a Tanzanian team for an Africa-wide championship. In the lead up to the match, the headlines in our papers declared: We will teach these Arabs a lesson. I wondered: Is Egypt not in Africa? Or, is only a person with a black skin truly African? In the 1970s, it was unthinkable for a Tanzanian newspaper to display such a racialist stand. Today, with the vibrant spirit of Pan Africanism of those days a distant memory, it is quite acceptable.
The year 2015 saw extensive eruption of xenophobic violence in the cities and towns of South Africa. Immigrants from other African nations, especially those running small shops, faced violent attacks, and their properties were looted. Many died. As it made front-page news, the rest of Africa stood in shock. Tanzania had, for decades, supported politically and materially the struggle of the South African people for liberation. Even its citizens were not spared the vicious mob attacks. Such attacks continue to this day (Editorial 2019b).
In March 2019, a heavily armed white supremacist stormed two Islamic mosques in New Zealand, killing 50 worshippers and injuring 41 others. As the perpetrator’s online manifesto indicated, he was driven by a hatred of Muslims and immigrants. The gruesome incident made headlines internationally.
People everywhere have historically located themselves, socially and psychologically, within distinct social groups. In this era of globalisation, the practice has reached a higher level. Other than race or colour of skin, people are divided in terms of gender, religion, ethnicity, language, community, politics, nation, and even things like profession, sports team and favourite cold drink. The pervasive electronic social media multiplies and entrenches such identities.
That persons with similar characteristics cluster is not a disconcerting outcome. Due to shared beliefs and practice, a Muslim or a Christian will generally associate with persons of his or her own faith. But when these clusters turn into arenas for hostility and conflict like and when hostile divisions prevail, it becomes a serious issue. All aspects of life are then framed in terms of us (the good ones) versus them (the bad ones). The desire to find common ground and compromise is constricted as people are embroiled in continuous conflicts over the rights, role and social status of their identity groups. When not checked, antagonisms of this sort boil over into violent conflict with deadly outcomes.
This paper aims to clarify the idea of identity politics, explore the varied justifications behind it, discuss the criticisms voiced against it and promote a socialistic perspective on the matter.
Besides specific biologic features, a human is marked by features like ability to reason, create and talk, name, ancestry, community, language, personality, educational and work trajectories, political affiliation, among many other features, which in their totality distinguish him or her as a unique person. Your personal identity is constituted by this complex totality.
Personal identity has both subjective and objective aspects. It is not just what you actually are but also what you think you are and what others think you are. It has aspects you inherited and aspects that emerged from the social and physical environment in which you grew up and live. It has aspects that are beyond your control and those that are, at least partly, under your control. It has elements of authenticity as well as elements you display to others to create an impression. And it is not a fixed, rigid entity but subject to change over time.
Individuals at the same time have another form of identity. Called collective identity and social in form, it is manifested when people sharing features of their personal identities congregate for a particular purpose. Such identity groups are active, not passive entities with roots in history, social and economic structure and politics. When women organised and began to struggle for equality and the right to vote, they constituted an identity group. And so did people with disabilities when they joined up to demand better access to services and facilities. Many identity groups emerge from long, genuine histories of exclusion, domination and discrimination in society. People from these groups unite to struggle for their rights and removal of social barriers they face. Yet, it is not just the victims of domination but those on the other side, the dominant groups, as well who can and do form identity groups. The latter groups are usually omitted from the current discussions of identity groups. Overall, we note that modern identity groups are a product of the history and the nature of politics and social divisions within the national and global capitalist systems.
Consider the case of Tanzania. Decades of exploitative and unjust colonial rule led the people to unite and organise the struggle for independence. Asserting their national identity, they demanded the actualisation of their right to self-determination. There were complexities in this process as well. British colonialism, which utilised the policy of divide and rule, had generated significant social and economic divisions within the Tanzanian society. These divisions, based on race, ethnicity, region, gender and religion, persisted after colonial rule ended. Much progress was made at the outset, yet the divisions persist to this day.
A particularly egregious case is that of African-Americans in the United States. From the days of slavery to the present times, they have been, and still are, victimised by varied forms of discrimination, overt and institutional, that leave the majority among them at the bottom rung of the social ladder, lagging far behind the white majority in terms of income, jobs, education, health services, political rights, fair treatment under the justice system and quality of residential life. Both African Americans who demonstrate for equality and those among the white majority who openly or subtly seek to retain the status quo constitute identity groups.
An identity group designation that has come to the fore in the recent decades is that of People of Colour. Striving to unite the dominated racial groups, it, though, is more of a conceptual construct that a practical reality.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines identity politicsas:
politics in which groups of people having a particular racial, religious, ethnic, social, or cultural identity tend to promote their own specific interests or concerns without regard to the interests or concerns of any larger political group.
Accordingly, identity politics is contrasted with traditional party-based politics and is stated to have attained its present form after the 1950s. I deem this formulation of identity politics to be unduly narrow in terms of scope and history. The same dictionary quotes a broader definition of identity politics presented by Catherine R Stimpson:
Identity politics is contemporary shorthand for a group's assertion that it is a meaningful group; that it differs significantly from other groups; that its members share a history of injustice and grievance; and that its psychological and political mission is to explore, act out, act on and act up its group identity
Identity politics plays a prominent role in the political arena, particularly in the Western nations. Identity groups based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and immigration status have become more vocal and assertive. They hold public protest marches to voice specific grievances, demand their rights and official recognition of their status as equal to those of the others, and restrict their electoral support to politicians who explicitly declare sympathy with their cause. And the same holds for the majoritarian identity groups that are opposed to these set of identities, such as fundamentalist Christians and white nationalists in the USA.
The conservative critique
As it began to achieve a degree of prominence, identity politics came under attack from the left and right sides of the political spectrum. For now, I consider the latter, as it is the one that features predominantly in the media and political landscape. The conservative take on identity politics declares that demands made by minority groups have become unreasonable and stray into the realm of absurdity and social confusion. For instance, they demand the rewriting of history. The purveyors of identity politics are accused of rejecting compromise, even when it is reasonable to do so. They want their stand to prevail. In the process, they divide society into tiny enclaves, shatter cultural cohesiveness, pit ordinary people against one another and set the stage for unending social instability.
Aram Bakshnian, an American conservative, declares that his nation faces “an identity crisis” as a result of “identity politics run amok.” He laments:
It’s all very divisive, and a shameful attempt to separate Americans by identifying them primarily by where their ancestors came from, their color or creed, or their behavior in bed—none of which is anybody’s business or is what goes into making an American (Bakshnian 2019).
Ramnik Shah’s recent piece in the Awaaz Magazine is an extended, conservative attack on identity politics (Shah 2019). While focusing on the situation in the United Kingdom, he also makes comments relating to Africa. Declaring that we live in Bleak Times, he decries four instances of such politics. These are: (i) restrictions on freedom of speech arising from concerns about hate speech and offending some social group, (ii) vexing practical problems resulting from the fluid official definition of gender identity, (iii) the demands for the removal of historic monuments and statues deemed offensive to some particular group, and (iv) the calls by all identity groups for representation in the “whole spectrum” of societal endeavours. He also decries the importation of Western identity politics to African countries.
I think aspects of the conservative arguments against identity politics have a degree of validity. On the issue of monuments, minority groups and students from the USA to the UK, from South Africa to Ghana, have demanded the pulling down of statues and historical monuments, which they feel celebrate historic injustice, insensitivity and oppression. Yet, a plain removal simply erases memory; it does not more accurately present the past. And it indicates the lack of confidence in the ability of your own people to make valid judgements about the past. I say: Let even the most egregious monument remain in place. Then rectify its message by placing a prominent plaque stating the misdeeds of the person or event in question and erect other prominent monuments that serve to give a balanced picture.
At times, the calls to demolish historic items stray into the realm of disbelief. Thus, in Ghana there have been demands for the removal of a statue of the Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi because he held negative attitudes towards Africans in his early days in South Africa. I can understand calls for the removal of the statute of the unrepentant imperialist Cecil Rhodes in South Africa but those for the removal of the Gandhi’s statue are beyond me.
Gandhi was respected by the leaders of the independence struggles in Africa. He inspired the American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King. But he had faults in his early days that he later overcame. No leader or person is born with the mature stand he/she later promotes; their views evolve over time. At times, a person with a retrogressive vision becomes a proponent of a solidly progressive vision; at other times, the opposite transpires. And even within his/her mature perspective, we find ideas that will justifiably offend someone somewhere.
Charles Dickens, the British novelist whose books elegantly and starkly brought to life the dark side of capitalism and the plight of those at the bottom at the same time held racist views towards colonised people. Should school children not read his books because of that fact? It came to light in the 1980s that one of the best textbooks on human anatomy being used for medical training had utilised the findings from the abominable research done by Nazi doctors on concentration camp inmates during World War II. Should that book be banned? In both cases, the best option seems to be to continue using the books but to also highlight their negative aspects in a prominent manner in the new printing or editions of the book and through other means.
In a similar vein, I disfavour denying a public platform to anyone, unless that person directly promotes inflicting harm on others, which is a criminal offense. Restrictions on speech simply rigidify extremist views, attract others to these offensive views, drive the adherents underground and encourage violent action. Let them say what they want to say, but then counter it effectively through education and debate. State officials, main media and prominent personalities should take a lead in that effort. Instead, what happens in the Western mainstream media is that the hatemongers get more space than they deserve while the other side is restricted to a soundbite (Malik 2019).
Limitations of the conservative critique
Despite having elements of validity, the conservative critique of identity politics has four major shortfalls.
One: It fails to adequately acknowledge the historical legitimacy of the claims being made and the generationally harmful effects of exclusion and under privilege on minority groups. As noted earlier, the type of identity politics it decries emerged from decades, if not centuries, of domination and discrimination. Even when the discriminatory practices are proscribed by law, they often continue in hidden forms and have a similar negative effect on the group. It is this reality that generates anger and protest. The automatic hostility towards their claims expressed by the dominant groups and the state compounds the problem.
Survey after survey, in the USA and UK, indicates that institutionalised discrimination in education, health service, employment, housing, etc., is an ingrained facet of life. In the UK, it adversely affects the quality of life of British citizens of African, Indian and Pakistani descent. Conservatives and majoritarian groups ignore such facts. They declare the nation to be a “liberal democracy” where such discrimination is prohibited by law and where there is equal opportunity for advancement. Thus, if some people are left behind it is their own fault. Pointing to “model minorities” to bolster their case, they depict the “complainers” as lazy persons who are seeking entitlements from the state.
Reactions of this type are not borne out by studies of various sectors of the society and the play of the economic forces therein. Visiting elementary and high public schools in the greater Los Angeles area, for example, it is hard not to conclude that it is an apartheid type system. Schools in affluent and predominantly white neighbourhoods and cities are well maintained, have state of the art facilities and good teachers who provide quality education to their students. The overcrowded, run-down schools in inner city African American and Latino areas, on the other hand, have management problems, and shortage of key items like books, photocopy supplies and teaching aids. The teachers stick to a minimalist routine and are less inclined to challenge the students, who are dealt with harshly even for minor infractions of the rules. Dropout rates are high, grades are low and fewer students proceed to undergraduate level studies, especially at the nation’s elite universities.
The dismissal of the problems that are faced on a daily basis by the disadvantaged groups only serves to fan further discontent from them and leads to an intensification of their demands.
Two: The conceptualisation of identity politics utilised by the right is too restrictive. In their view, and as reflected in the dictionary definition of the term cited above, only the strivings of African Americans, Latinos, women and people of alternate sexual orientation qualify as identity politics. Identity based political activities of the dominant or majoritarian groups are excluded from consideration.
Assertion of religious identity is a widespread form of identity politics. While conservatives rally against violent extremism of the Islamic variety, Christian, Hindu and Jewish religious fanaticisms do not elicit equivalent opprobrium or calls for combative action. Islamophobia prevails, overtly and covertly and in some cases in a virulent form, in all Western nations. Right wing politicians rally against Islam and Islamic culture. The ban or calls for the ban of the head gear worn by Muslim women is a typical example. At the same time, the manner of coverage accorded to Islam in the main media fans the flames of aversion. No wonder then that a survey reported in February 2019 indicated that about a third of Britons felt that Islam is a threat to their way of life. Such xenophobic attitudes, which emanate from an illogical attachment to European identity, are however excluded from the rightist discourse on identity politics (Editorial 2019a).
The anti-Islamic discourse and politics at the same time ignore the legitimate historic grievances of the people among whom fundamentalist extremism takes root and the central role played by the West in exploiting and destabilising Islamic nations. On the contrary, the victims are blamed.
The conservatives are quick to condemn any act or speech they deem anti-Semitic. However, more often such a stance is used to silence legitimate and valid criticism of the brutal actions of the State of Israel against the Palestinians. Since its inception, Israel has in reality been an apartheid-colonial state. The recent declaration by the Israeli parliament that Israel is a state of the Jewish people and not of its citizens, has only elicited silence from the “civilised” Western nations and their political establishments. Yet, it is an extreme manifestation of religious identity. Instead, the Palestinians, who are forced to live in the world’s largest prison camp, continue to be seen as inherently violent and anti-Jewish thus justifying any measure taken against them.
Extremist white-race identity movements have a long history, the KKK [Ku Klux Klan] in the US and the Skinheads in the UK being among them. With the rise of anti-immigrant hysteria, Islamophobia and fascistic political tendencies, such movements have increased in strength and influence, leading now and then to deadly consequences. And they often use the term identity or identitarian to depict themselves. In his manifesto entitled General Identity, the New Zealand killer described himself as a person with a European identity and European blood. The two pillars of his staunchly white nationalism were hatred of immigrants and Muslims. For him, they were invaders who had to be eradicated.
Though the demands of the minorities and their rationale are opposed to those made by the majoritarian groups, philosophically they have the same basis: an exclusive loyalty to a particular group in society. By omitting the latter from the discourse, the conservative vision is clearly based on a double standard. In particular, Bakshnian (2019) and Shah (2019) exhibit this deficiency.
Three: It is inaccurate to accuse the conservatives of being against the notion of identity as such. The truth is that they glorify and champion a specific form of identity, the identity based on loyalty to the nation-state. Bakshnian (2019) openly endorses being an American as the primary form of identity and Shah (2019) implicitly ascribes to the British identity.
Yet, loyalty to the nation is not just a benign form of identity calling for living in harmony with everyone in the nation. Historically, and especially in the imperial states, it has been the most malignant form of identity that has served as a justification for the slaughter of millions upon millions of people beyond their boundaries.
In my view, the most horrific versions of identities are those in whose name people inflict massive violence and death on “others.” While the conservatives decry extremist Islamic violence, they not just ignore but indirectly promote the extreme forms of nationalism exhibited by the imperial, mostly Western nations. In this setting, the USA is the main perpetrator. Thus, in the name of American national security, nearly five million lives were sacrificed in Vietnam and adjoining countries.
The USA sees itself as an exceptional nation in the global community of nations. Laws and rules that apply to others do not apply to it. Whatever it does anywhere on the planet is always justified in the name of national security. It has over 800 military bases spread throughout the world, its military forces roam everywhere, it has a larger military budget that the five nations that follow it combined, it is the largest producer and exporter of military weapons, yet it is a nation that proclaims itself as the prime champion of peace and diplomacy.
I was in the USA when it invaded two tiny countries in the region, Grenada and Panama. The invasions were justified through projecting absolute lies in the mass media. To the point of hysteria, Americans were led to believe these militarily insignificant nations posed a massive and imminent threat to their nation. Any person in the right state of mind would have automatically rejected such claims as patently ridiculous. Yet, most American people, even as they had the highest proportion of college graduates in the world, swallowed them hook, line and sinker. You saw yellow flags “supporting our troops” on many lawns in the cities. A similar situation prevailed for the invasions of Iraq and Yugoslavia.
Yet, rabid nationalism of this variety is absent from the conservative critique of identity politics. Thus, only at the end and just in a word does Ramnik Shah note the matters of Brexit and the politics of Trump. These matters should have been a key aspect of his critique. How can one ignore that form of identity politics which is based on dividing humanity into us and them, and which has the power and historic record of spreading mayhem across the world? Under it is the belief that we are a special people, we do not need to cooperate with anyone, and we can and will do what we want. When the people in a mighty nation are regularly fed this message, the results can be grim, as the reign of Adolf Hitler in Germany and the two decades of relentless American attacks on Iraq showed.
Jingoistic nationalism also leads to glorification of morally depraved leaders. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his successor were key players in the illegitimate destruction of Iraq and Libya. They bear major responsibility for the deaths and suffering imposed on the peoples of these nations. Yet, instead of being tried as war criminals, they did not get even a slap on the wrist. When the UK government strives to revoke the citizenship of British nationals who have joined extremist movements like ISIS, you wonder about the Royal Air Force pilots who dropped bombs on civilian areas in Iraq and Libya. They knew well that civilians would die and civilian facilities like hospitals would be damaged. In the first place, these deaths are not counted and when they are, they are justified in morally repugnant terms like “collateral damage.” Such national-identity based imperial double standards over the value of human life and the rule of law serve to further the claims of the minority groups in that nation who identify with the affected peoples.
Four: The conservative tirade against identity politics does not provide an alternative. It seems to say that having made sufficient noise, these cantankerous groups should shut their mouth and learn to co-exist with the majority and progress in the context of a liberal democracy.
Yet, these “liberal democracies” are in reality corporatised, plutocratic, imperial nations in which the institutions of the state serve the interests of the one percent. The nature of civic education provided to the young, and the quality and extent of information provided by the main media is highly constrained by pro-capitalist, pro-imperial biases. Electoral choice is subject to these biases also. How can a genuine democracy prevail in such circumstances?
When I was in the US, I came across manifestation of identity politics on several occasions. Switching to the present tense, I recount three.
In 1994, when teaching at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), I go with a group of students to stay for ten days on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. The Navajo people are fighting to retain their rights over a crucial piece of their land against the strong pressure exerted by a mining conglomerate, which is backed by the US government. The company is employing all devices at its deposal to have the land divested from them. The purpose of our trip is to express our solidarity with Navajos in a direct and concrete manner.
Two of the students and I stay with Phillip Lee Attakai, a man who has a broad grin on his face all the time. Besides enjoying the traditional Navajo fried bread, we learn much about Navajo culture and history from him. Seeing a photo on the wall of a man in military uniform and with numerous medals on his chest, I ask who he is. With obvious pride, Phillip says that it is his elder brother who had fought with the US military in Vietnam.
Is that not strange?
He is puzzled:
What is strange about it?
You have told us how the US military was used to brutalise and control your people. But your brother joined the same military to slaughter millions of people in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Is that something to be proud of?
He is taken back by my forthright response. Taking his time, he says:
You are right, Karim. But we are jobless here. In war time, the military provides our only opportunity to improve our lives. Yes, they know well how to divide us and rule us.
Back at UCLA, I am at a lecture by a feminist on how the US military discriminates against women, people of colour and people with an alternative sexual orientation. She makes a strong case that such exclusions have no social, scientific, military or constitutional basis and should be lifted forthwith.
Commenting on her talk ,I wonder how seeking participation in an institution that has a sordid record of engaging in the destruction of entire nations and killing millions (see William Blum’s illuminating book, Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II for the cases) is consistent with feminist ideals. I pose a blunt question:
Would you have been content if the person who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima or Nagasaki was a woman, a person of colour, or a gay or lesbian person?
The great US civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, did not harbour such constricted views. For him, the struggle against injustice within the US was intrinsically connected to the struggle against America’s imperial crimes abroad.
And here we are ten thousand miles away from home fighting for the so-called freedom of the Vietnamese people when we have not even put our own house in order. And we force young black men and young white men to fight and kill in brutal solidarity. Yet when they come home, they can’t hardly live on the same block together. Martin Luther King, Jr.
There is another lecture at UCLA given by a feminist who has done research on the plight of women of working class families in Kenya. She has focused on the wives of the workers employed by a sugar factory in that country. Her paper is based on a three-month stay in the area and visiting and interviewing about 250 women. The results are startling: every month, their husbands bring home only a small portion of the earnings. What the men retain is spent on drink and entertainment for themselves. The wives tend to their small shamba [piece of land] to grow the food to feed the family and work here and there to get the money for children’s clothes and other expenses. Further, the husbands generally treat their wives in a harsh manner. It is a ghastly situation.
Yet, there is a fundamental omission in her presentation. She does not say a word about the wages the company pays to its workers and their working conditions. These highly profitable enterprises do not pay anything like a living wage, do little to provide safe work conditions, and suppress (with the help of the state) independent unions. Though there is no justification for the men’s behaviour towards their wives, one key point is that even if the men bring all their earnings home, it would not in any case provide a decent life for the family. After making this point, I posit a stark analogy:
Suppose the men and their wives are lined up in front of a firing squad, but the men manage to place themselves behind their wives. They will get the bullet, but it will be a few seconds after their wives.
I then ask the researcher:
How can you complain about the unfair nature of the line-up but ignore the firing squad?
Exclusive adherence to specific identity issues and groups blinds us to crucial issues and problems in society.
A socialistic perspective
A different critique of identity politics derives from a progressive, socialistic vision of society (Gray 2018; Haider 2018; Lancaster 2017). What I write from this point on is based on the socialist framework.
Our primary identity is the human identity. First and foremost, we are members of the great human family and should behave as such. One can as well go a step further:
Our true reality is in our identity and unity with all life. Joseph Campbell
The fundamental root of the major problems people everywhere face is neoliberal, imperial capitalism, a system characterised by corporate domination of the economy and society, a vast wealth gap between those at the top and the broad majority, the division of the world between affluent and poverty stricken nations, a plutocratic or symbolic form of democracy and, of recent, trends towards fascism. Integral to it are imperialistic conduct by the rich nations and entrenchment of social and economic dependency in the poor nations. (The term imperialism denotes the economic domination and exploitation of poor nation by large multinational corporations and its associated military, diplomatic, political and cultural dimensions.)
The socialist perspective firmly opposes in theory and practice racist, misogynistic, jingoistic, homophobic, fundamentalist and anti-immigrant ideas and movements. And it recognises the merits of and supports the claims for redress and reform made by historically discriminated groups in the industrialised and underdeveloped nations.
The socialist transformative strategy is a systemic one, namely, to organise to overturn, nationally and globally, the capitalist, imperial domination and work towards attaining a society based on social and economic equality, genuine grassroots democracy, social justice, mutual trust and cooperation, full accountability and total non-violence. It seeks a society based on respect for the dignity and rights of all minority and majority groups and strives to integrate their struggles within the overall transformative strategy. Thus, it is not a question of fighting capitalism first and then dealing with racism but of recognising the two problems as two sides of the same coin and confronting both simultaneously.
The socialist perspective states that the struggles against capitalism and imperialism need a broad-based united front of the commoners, the working people, the exploited and the disadvantaged, that is, the 99 percent who at present are divided into disparate groups and subgroups. It says that the process of attaining a peaceful and just coalition between these groups and the majority should be a democratic, consultative process based on mutual respect.
Taking a long historic view, the socialist perspective recognises that formation of political identities is not a fixed but a dynamic phenomenon. A once discriminated group may no longer be so marginalised later on, as the cases of Irish Americans and Jewish Americans illustrate. Once upon a time they were excluded from renting apartments in “respectable” neighbourhoods but that is no longer the case. Identities are a social and historic construct and not an immutable fact of nature.
Thereby, the socialist view recognises the difference between appearance or rhetoric and actuality. The problems faced by minority groups do not just derive from cultural issues or skin colour, but have an economic basis as well. Immigrants are attacked not just because their cultural practices differ from that of the majority, but also due being the most exploited segment of the labour force. The locals are made to believe these immigrants have “stolen their jobs.” The real culprits, the corporations that benefit from immigrant labour, are absolved of blame. When there is an economic downturn, these foreign workers become a politically demonised and readily expendable part of the labour force.
The socialistic critique
While accepting the just basis of their cause, the socialist perspective on identity politics questions the narrow vision and the divisive tactics of the dominated groups who currently struggle within its framework. It says that single-minded identity politics pursued in a disjointed manner can and does have counterproductive and harmful consequences. Take the case of the US. African Americans and Latinos generally live in deprived neighbourhoods with poor educational, health, commercial, transport and other services. Institutionalised discrimination in housing, jobs and work promotion affects their quality of life. Yet, when African Americans march against police brutality, you do not see many brown faces; and when Latinos march in relation to immigration issues, you do not see many black faces. Viewing each other as adversaries, they fail to benefit from the fact that unity is strength.
The stand of some influential African American leaders has been: Fight racism first and deal with capitalism later. It is a self-defeating strategy that not only plays into the hands of capitalist oriented (liberal and conservative) politicians but also creates sharp divisions between the different identity groups each of whom wants to place its cause at the top of the political agenda.
Hence, when a political candidate with relatively progressive policies emerges, challenges the hold of corporate power on the political system and advocates wide ranging changes in health, education, investment and taxation of benefit to the majority, white or black, male or female, not just the major politicians, but also the leaders of the dominated identity groups rally against him or her because he or she does not adequately articulate their demands.
Identity politics then effectively functions as a protector of the capitalist system. Progressive candidates for presidency in the US like Ralph Nader and Bernie Sanders were opposed by African Americans for similar reasons. And when Martin Luther King extended his agenda to fighting for poor people and opposing the US aggression on Vietnam, he was accused by some African American leaders of betraying the civil rights struggle.
Narrow policies emerging from identity agitation lead to stop-gap remedies that backfire in the long run. Affirmative action in the field of higher education in the US illustrates the down side. This policy was applied to women and minority groups, especially African Americans, so as to remedy historical exclusion and increase their representation in professions like law, medicine, engineering, and academia.
There is no doubt that women benefited from this policy; the numbers and proportion of women in these professions is higher today than it was in the 1960s. But for African Americans, the policy had marginal results, and has generated hostility from White and Asian Americans. The main reason for the disparate outcomes is clear: while varied social and economic trends in US society improved the position of women in many aspects of their lives, that of African Americans remained stagnant in terms of jobs, housing, health care, basic education and social security. Tampering with the system at the top produced more black doctors, lawyers and engineers, but the vast majority of their younger brothers and sisters continued to receive substandard basic education under a hostile learning environment. And that is where it stands to this day because the dominant political and economic forces are pitted against a genuine transformation of the conditions of African Americans in that society.
It is difficult to imagine a substantive improvement in the conditions of Native Americans, African Americans, Latin Americans, immigrants and other oppressed minorities in the US without a fundamental change of the social, political and economic system (Sunkara 2019). The problems they face span all areas of life: education, health care, jobs, housing, law enforcement and courts, voting rights and cultural domination. Such problems are reinforced by the corporate domination of American politics and society. Imperial actions by the US also factor into this conundrum. White Americans at the bottom rung of the economic ladder are affected by similar economic problems. The mainstream US political system and the contemporary pursuance of identity politics operate in the context of this system. Instead of uniting together to fight for a comprehensively just society, those at the bottom (white and black) perpetually remain pitted against each other.
Consider the gender question in relation to Tanzania. Education for Africans was not a priority under colonial rule. Within this limited setup, the representation of women was abysmally low. It underwent a major change after independence. Thus, by the 1970s, some 20 percent of university students in the nation were female. Though gender parity is a ways off, today there are proportionately and numerically more women doctors, engineers, lawyers, business and state executives and political personalities, including members of parliament. And that is the direction along which further progress is essential.
But there are two not-that-laudatory aspects of this trend. First, there is no evidence that the greater presence of women in the professions, business, high state office and politics has in any way affected the basic dependent, inefficient, unaccountable and politically authoritarian neo-liberal system in the nation and the poverty mired, disempowered state of the majority, including the millions of women at the bottom. The institutions where the elite women operate run as before. The hostility of some women politicians of the ruling party to political pluralism and the opposition parties, for example, matches that of their male colleagues.
Gender parity at the top does not, in itself, promote efficiency, economic justice or democracy. Second, the issue of gender parity (mostly at an elitist level) is championed by the politicians, the Western embassies and the “donor” agencies at the expense of serious effort to empower the people, uplift their social and economic conditions and place onto the nation of the path of reducing external dependency and instituting substantial, sustainable progress in the economy and social services. Many foreign funded non-governmental organisations (NGOs) promote gender balance and combat violence against women; most funding agencies place promotion of gender parity as a condition for securing their funds. Yet, no NGO deals with why multinational firms and the big local businesses do not pay a living wage to their workers, how the workers can organise to secure a better deal for themselves or why the banks charge exorbitant interest to the customers. Yet, women too are affected by the latter set of problems (O’Hagan 2019).
At the international level, the election of women to the highest office in nations like Sri Lanka, Israel, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma and Liberia did not make the politics of those nations more humane, just or change the economic setup favouring corporations and the very wealthy. It is hard to discern how the 12- year reign of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf changed the conditions of the ordinary people of Liberia. The first female president in Africa had a pro-capitalist education and work history, the World Bank and Citibank being among her former employers. And her policies did not deviate from the neoliberal paradigm that rules the other African nations.
In the USA, the first female Secretary of State was an avid imperialist; the first African American female Secretary of State was not just that but also an extreme right-wing pro-business and conservative politician, and the first female presidential candidate was also a fervent imperialist with strong pro-business leanings. Yet, women celebrated them. And how did the first African American president, who was also as pro-business and imperialistic as his Republican predecessor, alter the day to day conditions of African Americans or promote better American policies towards Africa? No much or not at all. Yet, African Americans and Africans rejoiced when he was elected (Cohen 2019; Stoller 2017).
Narrowly defined identity politics endangers the wellbeing of other people elsewhere. Members of one minority group are enrolled in the service of dominating other people, within the nation or abroad.
Modern identity politics has led to emergence of successive identities within identities, as exemplified by the notion of intersectionality. A person with multiple discriminated identities faces discrimination arising each of these identities, and in a compounded form (Crenshaw 2015). A black, Muslim woman in the US is subjected to social biases arising from being black, a Muslim and a woman. An Albion woman in Tanzania faces gender bias as well as the prevalent prejudice against Albinos. There is no doubt that such persons encounter quite daunting obstacles in life. Yet, the practical effect of treating them as a separate group is to say, these people are special, their problems have first priority. Instead of unifying the identities, it turns into a divisive process that exacerbates existing divisions among the people at the bottom. What is needed is an overall, unified struggle against all forms of prejudice and discrimination (Anonymous 2013).
Utilising an identity based framework for social and historical analysis is the academic counterpart to identity politics. It employs social identity as the key conceptual unit, side-lines or disjointedly considers economic factors and ignores primary matters like imperialism and neo-liberalism. Having displaced the socialist and Marxist modes of social analysis, it is now the dominant framework in African, Western and other universities. Even progressive scholars employ race, ethnicity, gender and cultural factors as pillars of their explications of society and history. The rich heritage of the former forms of scholarship from the 1960s and 1970s is treated as if it never existed. Modern scholars know that if your research proposal is based on a Marxist framework, you will have a hard time securing funds. Instead, they construct proposals based on a market friendly, identity based framework in which human rights are conceptualised in a stultified bourgeois fashion. Their vision is limited to poverty alleviation and not elimination of poverty and inequality.
The capitalist system at its foundation is a class based system. Those at the bottom, the 99 percent, are dominated and exploited for the benefit of the owners of wealth and capital, the one percent. What is not well recognised is that the presence of socially divided and politically adversarial identity groups is also a basic feature of the system (Gerard 2019; Kumar 2018; O’Hagan 2019).Identity based political and social affiliation (and identity based social analysis) mask its actual nature, divert attention away from economic relations to other issues and present superficial choices to the electorate. Electoral choice becomes a seesaw swinging from one neoliberal, pro-corporate party to another as the politicians fan the flames of cultural hostility between the groups at the bottom. The differences among the 99 percent are highlighted while what they share, which covers almost all aspects of life, is ignored. This money-run democracy has no room for those who seek to unify the people at the bottom against corporate power and the ruling elite. Disjointed identity politics complements the capitalist tendency to divided and rule and, in the long run, harms the wellbeing of the very groups that practices it.
The year 2007 presidential election in Kenya was, according to many observers, a patently flawed process. Widespread frustrations about the outcome subsequently generated gruesome violence along ethnic lines. About a thousand died, more were injured, and about a quarter of a million people were internally displaced.
Yet, to simply ascribe the violence to “tribal hatred,” as the media did, is misleading. Besides benefitting multinational firms, the economic policies of the government have produced a wealthy internal elite that strives to monopolise state power. While this elite is predominantly from one ethnic group, the vast majority of that ethnic group live under the same conditions and share the same problems as the rest of the people of Kenya. But astute and persistent manipulations of ethnic identity and handing out a few crumbs now and then by the elite leadership has made them regard other ethnicities as their political and social enemies. And the neo-liberally inclined politicians in the opposition groups have as well played the ethnicity game to drum up support. Ultimately, as Susskind (2007) cogently argued, “it’s the inequality, not the tribal identity”that drives conflict and violence.
In Tanzania, the schism between Christians and Muslims tends to manifest itself in the public arena now and then. The spokesmen for the Muslims complain that people of their faith are not accorded equal opportunities in education, jobs and higher office appointments. While there is a modicum of truth to this charge, these spokesmen tend to distort history, exaggerate the situation and ignore the numerous serious problems afflicting the bulk of the members both faiths (Hirji 2014).
The foreign funded NGO system in African nations consists of a large number of uncoordinated, short term projects directed to address the problems of different social groups and projects for good governance, transparency, media freedom etc. By fragmenting the process of attaining fairness and justice, making people dependent on foreign hand-outs over which they have no control, it disempowers and disunites the people, and depoliticises the issue of national development. In that regard, it fits into the politics of divide and rule that protect the status quo (Hirji 2019).
African nations not only need cohesive internal strategies but the struggle for equality, justice and progress there has of necessity to be a Pan African struggle. Contemporary African leaders at best pay lip service to the idea. In practice, they focus on cultivating economic ties with Europe, America and Asia. In the 1960s, Pan Africanism was viewed not only as a continent wide unifying force, but was at the same time the basis for solidarity with oppressed people everywhere. African people need to combat and look beyond narrow nationalism. Else, the imperial tendency to divide and rule will keep them at the bottom in perpetuity.
Dare to dream
Obsession with narrowly construed social identities is driving humanity towards divisiveness and mutual antipathies. As people at the bottom bicker about their grievances in restricted ways, the local and global economic, political and military overlords continue to rule over humanity. Perpetually peddling exclusive identity politics will convert our struggles into a grand illusion. Like the frog that burnt to death as the water in which it floated was heated gradually, humanity will remain unperturbed as the planet burns up politically, socially, economically, militarily and physically. Our narrow-mindedness will render us clueless and powerless to confront the mighty corporations and governments that control the world for the benefit of a few billionaires. This is as true in Africa as it is in Asia, Latin America and the Western nations.
Justice and equality for the minorities and the majority will not come from relying on the illusions of liberal democracy. For human liberation, what is needed is a solid grounding in the universal human identity. This identity should be the primary basis for political and social endeavour. The fight of the rights of the discriminated identity groups, which reflects real problems on the ground, is not to be abandoned, but has to be conducted within a universal framework that will unite hitherto conflicting identities. As people work within specific identities, they must also transcend such identities and organise a broad coalition to conduct their struggles.
In sum, our fundamental operating principle for political and social action ought to be that embedded in the universalistic ethic espoused by Che Guevara.
Above all, always be capable of feeling deeply any injustice committed against anyone, anywhere in the world. Ernesto Che Guevara
* Karim F Hirji is a retired professor of medical statistics and fellow at Tanzania Academy of Sciences.
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