What is Identity Politics?
Identity Politics is often used as a pejorative term to describe a type of political activity or ideology designed specifically based on their identity. The most common form of identity politics – and the one that those who use the term “identity politics” in a derogatory manner tend to be referring to – is that which is based on ethnic or religious identities. For instance, political parties who advocate ethnic nationalism are practising identity politics, for they are attempting to bring together a group based on a shared ethnic/racial identity. An example of this is Nelson Mendela and the wider African National Congress, who attempted to unite the native tribes of South Africa around an anti-colonial, black nationalist agenda. Another contemporary example of this in practise is the Ba’athist ideology that is popular in certain parts of the Arab world; this seeks to unite followers behind a secular but pan-Arabic identity. Zionism is perhaps the most famous brand of identity politics that has achieved its aims over the last century, as its primary pillar of existence is dedicated to building an explicitly Jewish state, based around a singular Jewish ethno-religious identity.
However, ethnicity and religious affiliation do not have a monopoly on identity politics, nor is it the preserve of what we know to be “right-wing” proponents of nationhood or religious orthodoxy. The left have historically been the chief advocates of identity politics, with their particular brand of the notion gaining great traction amongst certain strands of western society today. Karl Marx’s entire political doctrine is based around identity by way of creating a clear “us vs them” dividing line; the ruling “oppressor” class, the bourgeoisie (capitalists, owners), and the working “oppressed” class, the proletariat. This is widely practised by all labour movements without exception, including democratic socialists, social democrats, old school Marxist-Leninists and especially Communists. They’re not immune from identity politics, they simply advocate it along economic lines as opposed to social identities.
The only political theories that are truly devoid of identity-based appeal are anarchism, which is entirely fanciful and unworkable, and libertarianism. The latter is often presented as the moderates’ answer to combat identity politics both of the left and the right, but ironically is a system that has only shown positive results in societies that are composed of a group homogeneous in ethnic and (generally) religious identity. In any case, attempting to advance a form of politics that supposes to be beyond identity often becomes anti-identity, which is repulsive to the tribal nature of man.
Examples of Identity Politics
Whilst it may seem as though western society has gone beyond the old divisions based on personal identity, examples of identity politics in action are available to notice all around us, in practically every European nation state. This is often denied considering the relative failure of politics that the establishment describes as “identity politics”, such as nationalistic or ethno-religious-based politics, but even then we see groups of people voting in a similar way to those of a similar identity, even if the parties they vote for are not explicitly (or implicitly) identitarian in nature.
For instance, the below map shows the geographical results of Poland’s most recent election, superimposed on a map of Germany as it looked prior to the First World War. As you can see, those living in areas that were historically German voted for the opposition party Civic Platform (PO) with only a few exceptions, whilst the vast majority of the historically Polish parts of the country voted for the eventual election victors the Law and Justice Party (PiS).
Of course, voting is done by way of secret ballot, so there isn’t the opportunity to ask people who voted a certain way whether their identity played a part in that, but it is no coincidence that the two major ethno-cultural groupings of Poland voted almost unanimously for opposing parties. Perhaps this is because PiS espouse a Polish nationalism that engaged in reprisals against ethnic Germans both before and immediately after the Second World War, or maybe those of a more Slavic sensibility have a greater inclination to more hard-line politics – in this case, we can only hypothesise, but this is an emphatic demonstration of identity politics in action.
An example of identity politics for which the motives are clearer is in the voting patterns of Belgium. As you can see, Belgium is a deeply divided country politically speaking, notwithstanding its divisions on both ethnic and linguistic identity which is clearly evidenced. The region of Flanders is the traditionally Dutch-speaking region of Belgium, whilst Wallonia in the south is a French-speaking region and the two can also be said to be separated between ethnic Dutch and ethnic French citizens.
In Flanders, citizens voted almost unanimously in the last election for the New Flemish Alliance, whose philosophy is based upon Flemish nationalism, regionalism and separatism from French-speaking Belgium. The darker yellow constituencies are those who voted for the Christian Democratic and Flemish Party who, whilst not explicitly advocating nationalism or separatism in their party literature, clearly are only designed to appeal to and win seats in the Flemish region of Belgium. As you can observe, the French speaking region of Wallonia vote for either the centrist Reform Movement (navy) or the Socialist Party or the Socialist Party Differently (red and deep red), parties whose philosophy is essentially identical to that of the French Socialist Party.
Identity politics based on religious identity, whether consciously or sub-consciously practised, is also alive and well in the modern world. Take the two maps of Germany below, for instance. The map on the left colours the various parties of Germany based on the population’s tendency toward atheism, with the darker blue indicating higher proportions of the population veering in this direction. Note that between 70-100% of the population of almost all what used to be the GDR (German Democratic Republic, East Germany) are atheistic, whereas this level of Godlessness is practically unheard of in what was West Germany before 1990.
It is more than just a curious coincidence that this part of Germany also has a greater propensity towards left-wing politics than the rest of the country. Die Linke (the Left) relies on the former GDR territories for the vast majority of its votes, gaining practically no votes in the traditionally catholic states of Baden-Württenberg and Bavaria. For those who don’t know, it probably will come as no surprise that Die Linke is the successor party to that which governed East Germany from 1949-1990, the Socialist Unity Party (SED), who enforced what was essentially state atheism for almost half a century. Clearly, this would repulse many a catholic, owing to the left-wing party’s absence of votes in the south.
There is some debate as to what extent this is a vote based upon religious identity, as it is more than likely to be as a result of economic hardship. Since 1990, despite being promised of the fruits of free-market capitalism, many people in the former GDR territories are worse off economically than they were prior to the Berlin Wall coming down. West Germany is certainly better off. This has led to many East Germans fostering a sense of nostalgia for the socialist past (Ostalgie), which could also explain their voting patterns. In any event, it’s sufficient to say that a party advocating state atheism would not do as well in any other part of Germany.
Brazil is another fine example from which we can see identity politics in action. The map on the left denotes race, with the light blue areas predominantly inhabited by those of European ancestry, while the green, red and brown represent those areas in which “Afro-Brazilians”, mixed and native American groups are more prominent. The map on the right demonstrates clearly that the more European areas were inclined to vote Social Democrat (Blair-esque centrists) whilst the non-white areas overwhelmingly voted for the Workers’ Party who advocate left-wing populist ideas similar to most labour movements around the world.
This is another example in which the identity in question is a matter for debate. The areas that are more European are also more affluent, whilst the areas inhabited primarily by non-Europeans are relatively impoverished. Thus, it could be argued that this is a display of economic identity politics as opposed to ethnic. However, like many leftist movements throughout the world, the Workers’ Party has a habit of advancing the causes of non-Europeans at the expense of ethnic Europeans, therefore there is a high possibility that Brazilians of European ancestry would be averse to voting for them regardless of their economic situation.
Is “Economic Identity” really Identity Politics?
Those on the left who advocate Marxist socialism will propose that their brand of politics seeks to improve the economic circumstances of all, not just the poor. They claim to only target the giant capitalists, those select few who truly own the means of production, in an attempt to appeal to the middle-classes who have benefited to a degree from free-market capitalism. These are false assertions. The Marxist parties, by definition, are only interested in “the workers”, or the lower working classes; the very founder of their ideology preached class warfare, not inter-class reconciliation.
In any case, the continued existence of these parties depends upon class conflict. Were they to raise the working classes up to the economic standards of the middle-classes – which is of course impossible, but hypothetically speaking – then there would be no use for a party whose raison d’être is to advance the issues of the poorer elements in society which no longer exist. Thus their fundamental principle becomes benign, which leads one to the conclusion that they have no interest in class reconciliation, but only to be an organ of outrage on the side of the working classes. If these parties succeed in uniting society, it will be by way of bringing the middle-classes down to the economic level of the working-class which doesn’t move beyond identity politics, but simply makes a greater proportion of society adopt that identity.
The Future of Identity Politics
Speaking from a European perspective, a future defined by identity politics is inevitable whether you wish it or not. The hordes of foreigners coming to Europe and nations of European diaspora are bringing identity politics with them. This can be seen in the United States of America most acutely, where the last presidential election was won and lost on identity. For instance, blacks voted overwhelmingly for Hilary Clinton (88%), as did Hispanics (66%), whereas Donald Trump won by gaining nearly 60% of the white (European ancestry) vote. The same can be said of elections in Europe, with areas strongly dominated by Muslims consistently voting overwhelmingly for left-of-centre liberal or Marxist parties – in some areas this is as high as 99%.
Identity politics is, however, not something that most Europeans are keen to identity with, even if they practise it sub-consciously. However, the influx of millions of foreigners who unashamedly and apologetically vote based on identity will force our hand. Europeans will either choose identity politics as a reaction, or they will be pushed to it by the actions of others, as has been the case at many points throughout the history of our continent. The impact of this will be undoubtedly far reaching and it would not come as such a surprise if, as has happened repeatedly in European history, maps are redrawn and territory disputed as a result. As the various factions become even more polarized and entrenched than they already are, this shift toward ethnic and religious identity politics will become inevitable.