The politics of identity

The politics of identity

Identity politics is liable to rear its head during extended periods of recession or flat growth, because voters lose faith in ideological or even technocratic government as able to improve their lives. The simplistic answer is that identity politics must be relentlessly fought against. Politicians devoted to making the world a better place must constantly remind the electorate that identity politics has nothing to offer.

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By Matthew Parish

Across the western world, immigration has become a political issue of some intensity. The United States is engaged in an internal debate about whether to deport, tolerate or legalise its substantial illegal immigrant population. The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, in substantial part due to a perception of excessive levels of immigration. Immigration of refugees from the Syrian Civil War became a substantial political issue across Europe. Anti-immigration parties have entered government in Hungary and Italy. There is a pervasive sense that immigration from other countries must stop or, at the least, be severely curtailed.

Why has immigration become so vexed an issue? There are a number of conventional explanations, all of which are important. International travel is ever easier. Prior generations of migrants want relatives and friends to join them. Birth rates in the west are dropping and average ages are getting older, so immigrants may fill job vacancies the native population can no longer perform. The European Union has enshrined the principle of free movement of persons across its territory, entailing substantial population movements from east to west. Civil conflicts in the Levant, and poverty and political instability in Africa, have caused immigration to Europe. The same is true of instability in Central America, that has drive illegal immigration to the United States. Nevertheless, immigration has been the subject of increase in the west for many decades. It is a barely a new phenomenon; mass immigration is at least as old as the civilian aircraft. The worst global recession since the Great Depression, in 2008, contributed to a sense that immigrants were there to blame for the subsequent decline in living standards.

Immigration fears are an aspect of the politics of identity. A natural way to divide political affiliation is along the grounds of difference, and immigrants are different from natives in any one or more of language, culture, ethnicity and religion. Hence political parties may use immigration fears as a means of attracting votes. A political party may be more or less explicitly nativist: it attracts support because the party suggests that it represents the interests of native people rather than immigrants or foreign people.

At least during the Cold War, western democratic politics was not like this. Rather the principal point of difference between political parties was ideological. Left-wing parties believed in state-owned economic assets and/or redistribution. Right-win parties espoused a free-market economy with a minimum of government intervention. These ideological divisions did correspond to a degree to some sort of sense of difference between groups of people. In the United Kingdom, ideological differences were mapped roughly onto social class divisions, but this was only approximate and one could be left-wing but also upper-class for example. After the end of the Cold War – an ideological period of history – the distinctions between left and right in western democratic politics gradually broke down. A greater level of consensus emerged over macroeconomic policy, and the distance in economic theory between parties of ostensibly different ideological hues began to narrow.

The traditional socialist mantra of bringing the means of production under common ownership was abandoned. Monetary policy is now mostly recognised as an apolitical technical speciality. One of the few remaining ideological differences is the degree of welfare redistribution mandated from general taxpayer funds. But even these sorts of death became more technical and less ideological. Is there a more efficient way of distributing funds allocated for welfare payments to the poor? To what extent should railway services in rural areas be subsidised by the taxpayer, comparing costs with other methods of travel? Even debates about how much to spend on defence became technocratic to an extent: NATO members are obliged to spend a minimum of 2% of GDP, a benchmark of a kind.

The fact that politics is becoming ever less ideological may explain the decline of left-win social democratic movements across Europe and, to an extent, in the United States. The traditional social democratic agenda of state intervention in the economy has been reduced to a technical branch of economics the answers to which are empirical rather than philosophical. Another traditional area of social democratic thinking, namely a liberal approach to immigration and multiculturalism, has now become unpopular, and right-leaning political parties have captured the immigration agenda. There is a lingering question as to whether social democratic parties can recast themselves to win elections amidst the contemporary western political currents. In any event, modern politics is increasingly about “who do we represent?” rather than “how should society best be organised?”.

It is a hidden premise of the politics of identity that politics is a zero-sum game. It is not possible to make life better for everybody. Therefore people should vote for a party that represents them to the exclusion of others. This is depressing, not least because it implies in turn that economic growth will be flat. If we could be confident of continued economic growth in real terms, as we were in the past, then the politics of identity would not be necessary. That is because anticipated growth can be distributed between all members of a society; ideology becomes relevant to determine how the gains are distributed, but dividing people into self-identifying groups becomes an ever less compelling imperative, the greater the anticipated gains there are to distribute. The anti-immigrant narrative found in the policy documents of some populist European political parties captures options such as the ideas that there is not enough space for immigrants, and that nationals should not have to pay for immigrants. It is imagined that there is competition for resources – land or money – and either national or immigrants can take it. Nationals ought to do so.

The politics of identity are not just about immigration. They motivate nationalist movements, such as Scottish nationalism and Catalan nationalism. Decentralisation of power to regions; in the United States, the states’ rights movement; scepticism towards the European Union, that may be conceived as an attempt to superimpose a European identity on top of national identities: all of these may be understood as features of the politics of identity in the ascendence. It is a way of thinking about politics that draws and redraws borders, and focuses upon historical narratives about people, traditions and territories, rather than focusing upon individuals’ contemporary welfare.

I have seen it all before. The politics of identity takes hold as a precursor to civil conflict. When a country runs out of money and lets people vote for how the limited funds are spent, the voters tend to create political groups around senses of identity in order to struggle of the limited resources. This was the origin of the destruction of Yugoslavia, which I saw through the eyes of a peacekeeper. As Communism collapsed, the resulting political parties that emerged in the nascent democratic era had virtually no ideological hues whatsoever. Their only platform for election was ethnic identity. Once elected, that had no agenda save for opposition to political parties representing other groups. The result was the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia into a series of rump states, a process that resulted in no perceptible benefit for anybody. Circumstances of rapid democratisation tend to create a more corrode dynamic in the politics of identity, because people are suddenly afforded the opportunity to vote when they have had no experience of electing and ejecting governments premised upon assessments of ideological difference or technical skill. The temptation to cast votes upon simplistic ethno-nationalist lines becomes overwhelming for novice voters in a divided society. By contrast, transit towards the politics of identity within a mature democracy is liable to be less steep a slope.

Nevertheless the politics of identity is undesirable. This is virtually a philosophical precept: people are equal, and should be treated so. It is not necessarily a criticism of politicians who engage in identity politics. Politicians, by and large, are rational actors who will adopt a vote-maximising strategy. (If they pass upon such a chance, then another politician will adopt the same strategy in their stead.) But it must be obvious that all identity politics is irrational, because a sense of common identity can be cut in a multiplicity of different ways until every group becomes just a group of one. We are all different from everyone else, and we are all the same as everyone else. Hence any form of identity politics, while surely human (every person likes to feel part of some group or other, and it is natural to care less about other people, the more different they are from you), at its root must be premised upon a series of arbitrary distinctions.

Politics is the pursuit of the public good, and that must surely mean the good of all persons if the system is to have integrity. The politics of identity, while tempting, is destructive of the polity as a whole. I do not mean to suggest that every step towards identity politics is the beginning of a slippery slope towards Yugoslavian ethnic bloodshed. But identity politics is obviously a bad thing. It is arbitrary and unfair. It presumes that a person’s political rights turn upon what group they are in; and they may not be responsible for that. Because it is a zero-sum game, it is wasteful: the costs of doing politics (i.e. of having a political system) are not outweighed by the putative economic benefits of doing politics well. It entrenches resentment and disdain between different social groups, and managing those animosities may be hugely costly. Finally, identity politics is fundamentally inconsistent with the utilitarian premise of economics which is the prevailing social science of our time. Identity politics is regressive.

What do we do about it? Identity politics is liable to rear its head during extended periods of recession or flat growth, because voters lose faith in ideological or even technocratic government as able to improve their lives. The simplistic answer is that identity politics must be relentlessly fought against. Politicians devoted to making the world a better place must constantly remind the electorate that identity politics has nothing to offer. Redistribution of society’s resources from one group to another in a zero-sum game never actually works. It is always worse than a zero-sum game; the net result is negative, not zero. That is because dividing people into groups is artificial and in any event they cannot be separated out within society, without either bloodshed, apartheid or hordes of wasteful administrative bureaucracy: and sometimes all three.

Even independence movements are a colossal waste of money: nobody stopped to calculate how many tens of billions of Pounds Sterling it would have cost to establish a new Scottish state governing structure had Scotland actually voted for independence from the United Kingdom, and nobody had thought about how to split the costs. (The same calculations were absent amidst the debate that led to the 2015 BREXIT referendum, an absence that subsequently confounded the EU-UK negotiations upon the terms of the UK’s departure from the EU.) Responsible politicians and journalists must persevere in constantly steering the political discourse back to measures promoting economic growth.

The central premise of all domestic policy should be putting in place measures to prevent recession, stabilise fiscal and monetary policy and promote growth. Voters care more about living better in the future than they do about antipathy towards one-another. Identifying the problem inherent in identity politics may assist us in winning the intellectual battle, played out before the media and in classrooms. While some old ideological distinctions may now be defunct, history is not yet at an end. Good government can yield gradual increases in the quality of life via the benefits of technology. Bad government will put humankind one against the other. This simple argument is one that every fair person can appreciate.

Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and a former UN peacekeeper. He has published two books and over 250 articles on the subject. In 2013 he was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and he has was listed as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. He is currently a preferred candidate of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for appointment to a position of Under Secretary General of the United Nations with an agenda for institutional reform.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.

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1 Response

  1. Jennie Kermode

    It’s interesting to see the Scottish independence campaign cited here, alongside the politics of immigration, as an example of identity politics, when one of the things many Scots identify as a key reason why the country would be better off independent is that it needs more immigration. Achieving that is, sadly, impossible under a Westminster-based government keen to limit immigration, end freedom of movement between European countries and make it harder for those in need to seek asylum.

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