Kenan Malik’s critique of identity politics – a critique
This article follows a long Twitter discussion initiated by Sandy Starr, relating Kenan Malik’s review of Eric Kaufmann’s fascinating new book Whiteshift to the debate we had on my book at the Battle of Ideas in London on 13th October.
'The real problem, however, is not that the notion of white identity is racist but that it is meaningless.'@kenanmalik responds to @epkaufm's #Whiteshift in @ObserverUK.— Sandy Starr (@sandystarr0) 21 October 2018
Relevant to recent #BattleOfIdeas debate between @bencobley/@cricri42/@_HelenDale.https://t.co/xs5ND6W3aF
In this thread, Kenan linked to another article of his, entitled ‘Not all Politics is Identity Politics’ a beautifully-written piece in which he presents his critique of identity politics and through which I could see some avenues to explore the differences with mine.
Firstly, it’s probably worth explaining where we agree.
Kenan is a critic of identity politics, and from the left. As he says, “Most of us who criticize identity politics do so from the perspective of having challenged oppression and injustice for most of our adult lives.” He also strongly criticises the ‘community’ or ‘group’ leader model as I do:
“In practice, contemporary identity politics does little to challenge the roots of oppression. What it does do is empower certain people within those putative identities to police the borders of ‘their’ communities or peoples by establishing themselves as gatekeepers.”
A lot of what he says I strongly agree with or at least sympathise with.
But there are some significant differences, so let’s get into those.
I think a good place to start would be in the title of Kenan’s article. I would certainly agree that ‘Not All Politics is Identity Politics’, but only in the sense that identity politics is normally understood nowadays, referring to certain identifiers or properties of people like their sex/gender, skin colour, religion or nationality. Obviously, there is a lot more to politics than those things.
But identity means a lot more than these things too.
Kenan himself recognises a broader meaning in saying, “Identities are, of course, of great significance. They give each of us a sense of ourselves, of our grounding in the world and of our relationships to others.”
However, he draws a distinction between identity and the politics of identity in saying that,
“politics is a means, or should be a means, of taking us beyond the narrow sense of identity . . .”
I start to draw apart here, with this idea that the purpose of politics is to transcend identity rather than to reflect it: that identity and politics should be separate from one other. From this, it would be logical to say that identity does not belong in this higher sphere of politics: that politics that gather around identity have no authority in this higher sphere, even that they are illegitimate.
But, for me, this misunderstands the nature of politics – and the nature of identity.
Like Kenan says in one of the passages above, identity gives us a sense of ourselves, of our grounding in the world and of our relationships to others. However, for me, these things – most obviously our relationships – are fundamentally political in character. Indeed, they are significant precisely because they are political. If they were isolated in the individual they would have no significance.
I can also see some contradictions in Kenan’s argument.
For, as he quite rightly points out,
“In the 1960s, identity politics provided a means of challenging oppression, and the blindness of much of the left to such oppression, and was linked to the wider project of social transformation. But as the old social movements and radical struggles lost influence, so the recognition of identity became an end in itself.”
I wholly agree with this, but I don’t see how you can recognise the necessary role of identity politics in fighting good causes like black emancipation or anti-colonialism while also maintaining that identity politics is fundamentally bad and wrong, full stop.
When a group is being oppressed, gathering together as a group to defend group members and their interests is often not just important, but necessary – and I don’t see any reason to believe we’ve reached an End of History at which such gathering can no longer be justified.
Clearly this is difficult terrain to navigate and make judgements on once you start admitting broader exceptions like I am prepared to though. Kenan seems to resist any more allowances, especially when it comes to the current reaction against progressive-led identity politics. He has no time for any forms of politics that seek to defend cultural forms related to what we might call ‘white’ or ethnic British, English or European interests from the pressures of globalisation, mass immigration and attacks from progressives. He dismisses seemingly anything and anyone that does so as ‘regressive’, racist, ‘anti-immigrant’ and ‘anti-Muslim’, so 1) as going against the forces of history and 2) being fundamentally aggressive in character rather than defensive, being grounded in old-style racism and negative judgements of what we might call ‘the Other’.
For me, this is much too sweeping a generalisation and fails to recognise the existential, pre-judgemental realm in which identities can be threatened and the quite natural reaction we all have when this happens to us. This comes back to the nature of identity as fundamentally relational (or social) in character. When the relations that make up our identities are replaced with other relations in the world of our concern – leaving us without possibilities that we previously had – we are necessarily unsettled in existential terms.
Also, I can see that the understandable imbalance with which Kenan addresses different forms of identity politics – admiring one for what it achieved in the past while using the harshest of language on the other – is itself a form of identity politics of the sort based around race and ethnicity etc. It makes some space for the one, quite rightly in my view, while condemning the other in absolute terms, treating it as immoral and illegitimate in all shapes and forms – and seeing it all as an outgrowth of counter-Enlightenment racism and nationalism.
In this way I see Kenan merging partly into the politics of what I call ‘the liberal-left’ or ‘progressive liberal-left’ – treating some of the same identity groups as unfavoured groups that should not be allowed to express themselves as groups in public life, while not using the same absolute language on favoured groups.
Nevertheless, I agree with Kenan that transcending the identities ascribed to us according to skin colour and gender and other things is a good thing for the most part. But I wouldn't condemn anyone for that alone. I don’t see why someone shouldn’t see their gender/sex, nationality, religion and sexuality – and even their ethnicity and skin colour – as significant to who they are and important to their politics.
In particular I think that not relating ourselves to these things is virtually impossible at this point in time, when they are being constantly politicised in public space. We may like it or not, but if people are being attacked for being white or black or English or Muslim it is understandable that they gather around those identities with a positive spin on them. I only have a real problem with it when these identities become aggressive and when they start telling untruths, which invariably puts up walls and stops others from seeing what's inside (where they might find something attractive to them).
In any case, by attempting to transcend such things, I think that we create new groups and new identities that need to be promoted and defended in their turn in order to survive. People who want to transcend identity are merely creating another identity: of people who transcend what they consider to be identity.
This is how politics changes and reproduces over time. We can never wholly get away from groups, and therefore from group identity and the politics of identity in a wider sense. As I say in Chapter 1 of my book, inspired by Chantal Mouffe and beyond that Carl Schmitt, in a sense identity is politics – as the formation and maintenance of groups which relate to the world in particular ways, ways that necessarily conflict with those of other groups. This is how political life is constituted.
In that passage I quoted before in which he said that identities “give each of us a sense of ourselves, of our grounding in the world and of our relationships to others,” I think Kenan is close to that point. He can see that identities are fundamentally relational but he does not make the small leap to recognise that this means they are also fundamentally political.
I think this is their very nature.
And this brings me on to a deeper philosophical disagreement I have with Kenan. He has found his political-philosophical home in the Enlightenment tradition of universal human rights. He quotes Joseph de Maistre as an ‘arch-reactionary’ railing against the Rights of Man by saying, “There is no such thing as Man ... I have seen Frenchmen, Italians and Russians… As for Man, I have never come across him anywhere.” Kenan uses this example to contrast the noble Enlightenment universal rights tradition with a counter-Enlightenment reactionary particularism: “Where reactionaries adopted a particularist outlook, radicals challenging inequality and oppression did so in the name of universal rights.”
De Maistre’s point here, in the way it appears here, is nonsense. Denying the reality of Man or humanity is absurd. But that doesn’t mean that national groupings he upholds have no interest or meaning. I see no reason why we should uphold Man as a universal authority just as I see no reason to uphold any particular national grouping as one. Man is itself a particularity, contrasted with the rest of nature and the Universe. Universalism is a form of particularism.
But this is a characteristic of Enlightenment philosophy and of progressive politics in general to this day. There is a yearning there to transcend conflict and a faith that its techniques can do that, just as long as everyone does what we say and see things the way we do.
In practice, Enlightenment techniques and philosophies have been appropriated widely by totalitarian regimes and what Kenan would call ‘reactionaries’, perhaps the most egregious example being the Nazi appropriation of biological science to justify its racism and its employment of the medical profession to administer death in order to promote apparently superior forms of life. Marxist Communism is a clear outgrowth of progressive Enlightenment philosophies which used the authority of claimed knowledge (in its case primarily of history – and of the clash of different identity groups within it) to justify totalitarian politics.
The authority of historical knowledge plays a major part in Kenan’s account too. As he puts it, “To understand the characteristics of contemporary identity politics, we need first to go back to the origins of modern politics, at the end of the eighteenth-century.” His attempt to explain identity politics by claiming to understand the origins of it in intellectual discourse/history contrasts sharply to my approach in The Tribe, where I attempt to explain identity politics now by describing how it works now.
For me, there is nothing wrong with Kenan’s approach, just as long as you get it right – and getting something as complex as how our politics got from the 18th Century to the present day isn’t easy. For me, identity politics (in terms of different groups competing with each other) obviously goes back way further than this and is something innate that the animal and even plant worlds share with us.
I also don’t see human rights as a solution to the problem of identity politics in the way that Kenan does. I wouldn’t say rights are inherently bad or wrong. They help us to circumscribe the rules by which any society must function. But it depends on what they are, what they circumscribe and who controls them.
After all, every right confers a corresponding obligation. What is a right for me to not be interfered with or to have something good is an obligation for you not to interfere with me or to make sure I have that good thing.
Rights are therefore not just freedoms; they are also constraints on action – even necessities. Not interfering with something or someone means not acting in the world; not being present; not participating; not exercising agency; withdrawing from involvement – which inevitably lets other powers appear in the space let open.
In the world we now inhabit, human rights are wielded as political tools conferring absolute authority on those who wield them to stop others from acting. Any attempts to assign absolute authority to certain rights are attempts to put them beyond the sphere of political contest. They are instruments of power – and inherently authoritarian.
Anyway, I think that is more than enough to be going on with. Kenan and I have different perspectives. However he clearly makes a valuable and highly articulate contribution to debates on identity politics that are raging today and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
His core intention to transcend the narrow confines of what I call ‘fixed’ or ‘quasi-fixed’ identity is a noble one.
I just don’t see it as realistic in the short-to-medium term, especially within the context of a progressive politics that sees the past of this place and the people within it as inherently regressive. This standpoint has coalesced with progressive politics of identity (against ‘white-’ and ‘male-dominated’ history and culture) to produce a backlash that is now difficult to detach from racial and ethnic and other forms of identity. In trying to defeat the past you inevitably end up trying to defeat (and indeed eliminate, in existential terms) those who are still connected to it.
That’s a shame, but that’s where we are.