Identity politics: Success, paradox and unintended consequences 

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Identity politics is one of the most prominent phenomena of recent times. As a strategy it has been applied with considerable success across the political spectrum and in many sectors of society. However, the theory and practice of this approach is not without contradictions, paradoxes and unintended consequences. The purpose of this article is to analyse some of these incongruities and repercussions and to propose an alternative approach.

The term identity politics (IP) refers to a wide variety of theoretical approaches and political strategies flowing from experiences of exclusion and injustice by minority groups in society. The aim of these groups is not to be accepted by and assimilated into society as a whole, but to challenge the status quo by mobilising on the very grounds which make the group different. Their specific identity is used “as a tool to frame political claims, promote political ideologies, or stimulate and orient social and political action, usually in a larger context of inequality or injustice and with the aim of asserting group distinctiveness and belonging and gaining power and recognition” (Neofotistos 2013:1).

Although initially developed by left-wing groups like the human rights movement, IP is currently being used by a wide variety of collectives across the political spectrum, including far-right organisations. Its almost universal spread is made possible by the fact that the common denominator is not the specific interest of the group (be it race, gender, sexual orientation, class or philosophy), but rather the experience of injustice, exclusion and loss of power. The kind of identity formation is therefore one of “resistance identity”, where notions of exclusion, isolation and of “going it alone” are prevalent.

These tendencies are strengthened by the fact that human consciousness itself depends on separation and distinction, that is, on becoming aware that I am somebody in my own right, different and separate from others. The irony – and part of a series of paradoxes and contradictions – is that the consciousness of being separate depends on the presence of others from whom one distinguishes oneself. Furthermore, the respect and recognition demanded by the group can only be provided by the “other”. And for the effective implementation of their policies the IP group is dependent on “external” forces like constitutionally guaranteed rights or the legal system. The coveted “separateness” of the group is therefore always relative and embedded in a wider social reality which the group cannot escape.

The Achilles heel of IP remains its propensity for fragmentation coupled with its negative effect on social cohesion. The consequences of this tendency can be illustrated with reference to four, widely differing, examples: the far-right Proud Boys of the USA and Canada with its wide scope of “anti” attitude and its propagation of physical violence as illustrated by the assault on the Capitol in Washington; the Economic Freedom Fighters in South Africa at the other end of the political spectrum, operating within a constitutional system which they plan to overthrow and replace with a “dictatorship of the people in place of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”; the shift from an inclusive to an exclusive approach within the feminist movement during the 1980s; and the systematic development of an “alternative state within the state” by the Solidarity movement, moving away from the political sphere and concentrating on civil society.

Are these unintended consequences of IP avoidable? Does this approach inevitably lead to increased levels of contraction and isolation, polarisation and confrontation, ongoing fragmentation and loss of social cohesion, with reactions ranging from looking for alternative forms of state formation to violent occupation and even terror?

In looking for answers, two important factors are often ignored, namely the role of power and the issue of lived experience. McNay warns against retreating to an abstract, theoretical level where “universal” rules of engagement (à la Habermas) are propounded. The impact of power and power relations in the form of hierarchies, domination and powerlessness must be taken into account. Identity does not relate only to abstract status of formal rights, but also to lived experience. “Relations of power shape and distort embodied experience in ways that often elude the individual and therefore restrict the ability to narrate a coherent account of self” (McNay 2008:116). This raises the thorny question of who can speak for whom, which can lead to further levels of exclusion, even within the own group.

Is an alternative approach possible?

The first step in this direction would be to acknowledge and celebrate the power, necessity and potential of identity. Lived and historically rooted identities are “at the source of the creation of meaning, are stronger than ever everywhere, as a counterpart to the global flows of capital and communication that attempt to overwhelm the specificity of every human community” (Castells and Lategan 2021:1). Attempts to suppress identity for the sake of society as a whole or for the “common good” are doomed to fail.

What is required is not the downplaying of identity, but a radically transformed concept identity – radical in the sense that inclusion, not exclusion is taken as the point of departure but also serves as the goal.

But if identity depends on difference, distinction and separation, are we not facing an insoluble contradiction?

Although identity may depend on difference and consciousness of self, the formation of self-identity is possible only within a larger context and in interaction with others. The self is ontologically dependent on the other. What we are encountering here is the fundamental incompleteness of the human condition. Nyamnjoh has made incompleteness a central theme of his work – “not as a negative attribute of being, but as something to embrace and celebrate, as we, in all humility seek to act and interact with one another, with the things we create to extend ourselves, and with the natural and supernatural worlds relevant to our sense of being and becoming. To recognise and provide for incompleteness is not to plead guilty, inadequate and helplessness vis-à-vis the supposedly complete others. Instead, incompleteness is a disposition that enables us to act in particular ways to achieve our ends in a world or universe of myriad interconnections of sentient incomplete beings and actors, human and non-human, natural and supernatural, amenable and not amenable to perception through our senses” (Nyamnjoh 2021:1).

Incompleteness implies mobility and change at the same time. Instead of stagnation and isolation, the self is in need of expansion and extension – firstly internally by widening the horizon of the own existence, welcoming what is new and strange and searching for alternative possibilities; secondly externally through broadening by reaching out, forging alliances, crossing borders, expanding existence in interaction with others – all on the basis of a dynamic and virile own identity.

Identity thus offers a space in which alternatives for the self and for the world can be imagined, designed and tested. However, in order to achieve this, a third form of expansion is needed, namely of the role of identity itself. Instead of serving a restrictive and passive function, identity has an active, creative, constructive and rejuvenating contribution to make. Identity is not only fluid and changing, but also an experimental space where other possibilities for the self and for the word can be investigated and tested.

To realise these alternatives the power, assent and persuasion of others are needed.

An expanded self-consciousness and an understanding of the interdependent nature of the power game do not mean the end of opposition, struggle and competition, but place these in a wider context which enhances the chances for constructive results. A dynamic, creative sense of identity as well as a strong sense of human interdependence are required.

The power of identity always runs the risk of contraction and being reduced to resistance. The challenge is to harness this power to play a larger role in a wider context to the benefit of society as a whole. 

Keywords: extended identity; identity; identity formation; identity politics; inclusion and exclusion; lived experience; power and power relations; social cohesion; unintended consequences


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Identiteitspolitiek: Sukses, paradoks en onvoorsiene gevolge

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