“The strong cannot help confronting; the less strong cannot help evading.”
Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time
26 May 2018
The power of identity politics
One of the core themes of my forthcoming book The Tribe is the remarkable power that certain kinds of identity politics have attained in our public life.
The knowledge base of this politics is the universal victimhood of its favoured identity groups.
As the United Nations’ ‘Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance’ Tendayi Achiume put it in her report on how awful and racist Britain is, “The harsh reality is that race, ethnicity, religion, gender, disability status and related categories all continue to determine the life chances and well-being of people in Britain in ways that are unacceptable and in many cases unlawful.”
For this interpretation, which is appearing in our public life daily and prominently, the life chances and well-being of non-white-skinned people, women, the ethnically non-British, Muslims and disabled people are determined by those identity markers, so that they appear as universal victims of society and of the identity groups which dominate it. This is direct causation she is talking about – that identity leads to either success or failure. She makes no qualification on it and makes an unequivocal judgement on the situation as unacceptable and also sometimes unlawful – so assuming a kind of absolute authority over it.
Achiume, who The Times described as a ‘Zambian-born, US-based academic’ and ‘a UN expert’ on its front page, added, “Austerity measures have been disproportionately detrimental to racial and ethnic minority communities. Unsurprisingly, austerity has had especially pronounced intersectional consequences, making women of colour the worst affected.”
Here we see the logic of this form of knowledge, attributing victimhood along the lines of identity categories – so, combining women and people ‘of colour’ as victims, we arrive at a maximum victimhood of ‘women of colour’. This type of knowledge, of ‘intersectionality’, will be familiar to anyone accustomed to the theories coming out of the social sciences (and wider humanities) departments of Western universities.
However the ability to make assertion in the public sphere – and to have it leading the news with the one making the assertion described as a ‘UN expert’ as in this case – is an indication of political power. The domination of academic discourse by this sort of universalising theory is a sign of political power. That someone propounding this theory gets appointed by the body that brings the world together to go and inspect countries and tell them what to do is a sign of political power.
My book explores how this power works through relationships which have built up between what I am calling ‘the liberal-left’ (the ‘tribe’ of the title) and these favoured groups via those who appear as their representatives – so feminists, Islamists and ethnic group activists for example. These relationships make up what I am calling ‘the system of diversity’ – a form of society grounded in these relationships of favouring and representing, linked to assumptions of identity group victimhood.
As I am seeing it, many of our major institutions, including major media organisations like the BBC, Sky News, The Times and especially The Guardian and Channel 4 are constantly being drawn towards the system of diversity and its ways of relating to the world – seeing fixed and ‘quasi-fixed’ identity as primary to what is going on in the world and primary to how they should address it.
Achiume’s statements drew fierce criticism as soon as they appeared. However, the way similar statements and reports keep on appearing – for example just recently with accusations that Oxbridge admissions are biased against black people (when they are not) and attacks on the Canadian psychiatrist and identity politics critic Jordan Peterson, tells us something significant about where power lies in our society.
The critics are constantly mobilising just to respond to the tide of assertion and accusation and demands for favourable treatment for the favoured groups. They are not setting the agenda. They are barely holding back the tide.
For the rest of us, this agenda is increasingly working its way into our daily lives as rules and orders and social norms – to implement positive discrimination in the workplace, to attend training to correct our ‘unconscious bias’ and to report assertions that are not favourable to favoured group members to the police as ‘hate crime’.
The natural response in this situation is to give way, which is after all, fundamentally, a giving-way to power. We evade, we protect ourselves, while the winners go on producing their reports and setting the agenda and setting the rules that govern our lives.
The Tribe: the liberal-left and the system of diversity, will be published on 1st July by Imprint Academic (for order details, click here). For more on the theoretical background to the book, click here.