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Politics 101

I agree with you that [Orwell]’s talking about power-worship which, I believe, resides at the core of all identity politics. The rise of identity politics in the United States — and the West — is ultimately an exercise in gaining power. Black power, and the enabling rhetoric that went with it, was all about power-relations. Identity politics arguments “empower” members of the Coalition of the Oppressed to trump reason and democracy by claiming positions of moral and political privilege. ~Jonah “Lie For a Just Cause” Goldberg [1]

Not to beat a thoroughly mauled [2] and dead horse [3] too much, but what would Goldberg think attachment to a creed or doctrine (his notion of patriotism [4]) is except “identity politics”? It is an identity politics premised on ideology or shared propositions, but it is identity politics all the same. If you are an Enlightenment liberal, you are engaged in “identity politics.” What people often mean by “identity politics” is the politics of ethnicity, religion or race. This is a kind of politics that managerial elites tend to discourage because this sort of politics taps into resources and possesses authority that they cannot co-opt or eliminate. They cannot operate in that sort of political environment, and so it unnerves them more than a little. But is there any kind of politics that is not aimed at the acquisition of power? That is not all that politics is, of course, and the sorry state of our politics today stems from the reality that too many people assume that this is all there is to the affairs of the polity, but all political life consists of the contest for control and power.

Claims of identity are claims of power of one kind or another–there is power in solidarity, self-definition, the creation of myths, as well as using shared identity to organise a group of people to lay claim to political power. When you identify yourself with a political persuasion, you are engaged in “identity politics” as sure as if you joined MEChA [5]. Obviously, the style and content of your identity politics will be as various as the different kinds of identity that exist, but it is part of a conceit deeply ingrained in the liberal tradition that liberal politics represent a neutral or more rational open space in politics upon which the old order and mass movements alike intrude. Just see how Goldberg frames the issue: identity politics seek to trump “reason and democracy,” which, of course, his “creed or doctrine” (i.e., his notion of patriotism) embodies more or less ideally.

Identity is often forged in the midst of contestation and sharpened by the struggle to acquire power. That is not all that identity is (power relations alone certainly do not define our identity), but it is an inescapable part of human existence, just as political contestation itself is inescapable here below. The kind of identity politics Goldberg objects to is not necessarily any old kind of identity politics, but probably only those based on religious or ethnic identity. These are forms of identity that are less pliable and more resistant to an ideology of homogenisation and consolidation. He is saying: “Do not identify with your place or people, which provide you with an identity over which I, Jonah Goldberg, have no control, but instead identify with the creed or doctrine with which I identify and submit to the identity of which I am a chief exponent at the moment.” That is not surprising–it is what everyone is attempting when he makes an argument in political philosophy. What is misleading is the distinction between the practitioners of “identity politics” (in which only the “Coalition of the Oppressed” participate) and the friends of “reason and democracy,” as if the invocation of “reason and democracy” was not itself the interested statement of the member of a particular political body.