A great deal has been written about identity politics over the past decades. It has been associated with a number of different theoretical and practical position.
This includes everything “post-modern neo-Marxists” trying to realize a socialist agenda through other means, an attack on free speech by social justice warriors, and perhaps most grandiosely, a movement eroding support for democracy and Western civilization itself.
While the interpretation of the historical and theoretical origins of identity politics movements varies, parts of the narrative are pretty consistent.
Identity politics movements are always regarded as some kind of left-wing group attacking a cherished set of values or social institutions, often through illiberal means.
In this article, I have no intention of complicating this narrative. That is a job for another article. Instead, I want to look at why various identity politics movements emerged in late 20th century post-modern culture.
My contention is that a significant reason is not the failure of Western values and social institutions, but their triumph. Identity politics is the kind of agitation one would expect to see at the “end of history” when liberal capitalism is seen as triumphing across the globe.
That is because identity politics movements are primarily oriented around demands for participation and recognition within a predominately liberal order, and do not challenge its foundations in any profound sense.
On Identity Politics
As many have argued, some form of identity politics has been around for quite a long time. Marginalized communities from the abolitionists to the suffragettes invoked liberal values to help end forms of racial and sexual discrimination.
This was given an added dimension by romanticism in the 19th century, sometimes called the Age of Authenticity, where concern with the inner self and its identity rose to prominence.
Even sober-minded liberals from Kant to J.S Mill argued in different ways that traditional societies prevented individuals from expressing their true identities and values, leading to calls for dramatic reform.
What critics of identity politics contend is that there is something that distinguishes these earlier movements from those that we see today.
Probably the most common observation is that while earlier movements against discrimination invoked universal liberal values, the identity politics movements of today are inherently relativistic and beholden to post-modern skepticism. This makes them less admirable and more dangerous than their predecessors.
What is missing from these claims is why identity politics movements allegedly shifted from the more universalist approach of yesterday, to this more relativistic approach today.
The argument often given, for instance by figures like Stephen Hicks is that they were inspired by some variant of post-modern left-wing philosophy.
While this might be true in some narrow sense, it doesn’t explain why such philosophies abruptly had such an appeal to many people in the developed world. This is where I think a more probing analysis is needed.
I think one of the explanations for the rise of identity politics movements is the ascendancy of what is sometimes called post-modern culture.
Post-modernism is not simply a philosophical outlook put forward by a few academics. Instead, it is often presented as a cultural mindset which emerged in the late 20th century due to massive historical, technological, and economic transformations.
Post-modern culture is most often characterized by its distrust of grand narratives. These run the gamut from distrust of traditional religious authorities which claim to explain the entire universe, to secular narratives of emancipation like Marxism.
This culture emerged at the same time as the end of the Cold War, and I think goes a long way to explaining the appeal of post-modern identity politics.
The End of History and Identity Politics
In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and it seemed like liberal democracy and capitalism had triumphed over all its mortal competitors. This lead many like Francis Fukuyama to declare that we had reached the “end of history” in the sense of their being large scale battles between radically different ideologies.
Politics after the end of history was going to consist of comparatively small scale disputes within liberal capitalist polities. At a deeper level, the sources of our identity were also going to shift.
We were going to stop thinking of ourselves as individuals participating in a grand and universal struggle for justice, and start emphasizing the more local ways we differed from others. And this is where post-modern identity politics comes in.
The emphasis on ever more particular facets of our identity is to be expected in a post-historical culture where grand narratives have been displaced.
The left-wing variants of identity politics we witnessed from the 80’s to the present day were not primarily concerned with displacing liberal values and institutions.
Rather they criticized the belief that these values and institutions were as universal as their proponents claimed, since they seemed to deny many people equal opportunities to participate.
The positive dimension of the skeptical barbs directed at liberalism was a demand for great participation in liberal politics. As Canada’s Charles Taylor would put it, this was linked to a demand for political recognition by groups who felt they had been ignored by liberal values and institutions.
There is another dimension to this as well. So far I have mainly looked at identity politics movements on the left. But as Fukuyama himself observed in The End of History and the Last Man, we also need to consider the impact of these developments on the political right.
I think that Fukuyama was right to claim that if history was to restart, it would be due to right wing groups who felt that their identities were given insufficient recognition in post-modern liberal societies.
This likelihood would be compounded as capitalist processes continued to transform the world around traditionalists, bringing about new technologies and ways of interacting which broke down older and more established ways of doing things. This is what I mean when I wrote about the rise of post-modern conservatism.