A- A A+

Identity politics and the market

Andrew Hamilton |  04 October 2016


Recently identity and its politics have been much in the news. Identity politics have often been contrasted pejoratively with liberal politics. There have also been cultural skirmishes about gender identity and about whether it is right for people from the majority group to appropriate the identity of minority groups.

Blurred image of young peopleLiberal politics in this context denotes the consensus among politicians of the major parties in the West that the government should give priority to economic growth through a competitive market, as far as possible freed from regulation. It identifies the national good with economic growth and effectively defines personal worth by the level of participation in the economy.

Identity politics focuses on the treatment of minority groups and sees the central business of governments as the redressing of wrongs they have suffered. The minorities are various, defined by their ethnic, religious, racial, gender or economic identity.

Because they are narrowly focused, the support of the political representatives of minority groups cannot be assured for policies aiming at a broader national good. Indeed, they may see such claims to a larger vision as no more than pious words to mask self-interest.

They may also see other minority groups as rivals. In a divided parliament this fragmentation can make it doubly difficult for the government to pass its legislation.

In political commentary liberal politics and identity politics are often presented as polar opposites. For supporters of liberal politics the relationship between the two is one between virtue and vice, rationality and emotion, the wise against the mob. They hold that where identity politics flourish economic freedom, and consequently the national good, will be crimped by sectional demands and the paralysis that flows from a lack of consensus among conflicting groups.

I believe that the relationship is more complex, that identity politics shares the same stunted assumptions about personal and national identity as liberal politics, sees the self-interest of the latter, and wants to despoil it.

The problem it identifies in the neo-liberal economic ideology which liberal politics serves is that in fact unfettered economic competition does not benefit all people in society, but enriches the rich and further marginalises the disadvantaged. It breeds inequality, which then erodes the trust needed for economic growth and shrinks the market. The myth of the universal good identified with economic growth is a cover for economic settings that reward greed and benefit the wealthy.


"Minority groups may see themselves as doubly ripped-off by people who enrich themselves, first by spruiking the myth of an economy fair to all, and second by inventing or appropriating the identity of disadvantaged minorities."


Identity politics is characteristically a politics of protest by those who feel excluded by the workings of liberal economics. Its adherents see that liberal politics enshrines sectional interest to their own disadvantage, and so feel no allegiance to its rhetorical promotion of the national good. But they accept the assumption of liberal politics that personal and national good are achieved by a competitive market. So their politics is to compete with and frustrate those in power whose overriding intent is to direct the benefits of the economy to themselves.

They see also that the market is not restricted to material goods but encompasses less tangible goods from which wealth can be made. Here, too, the workings of the competitive market allow the wealthy members of the majority to enrich themselves by appropriating the intangible goods of the minority. In particular, identity itself is put on the market. Australian identity is marketed to people in order to profit from, and to conceal the self-interest involved in, alcohol, sport, gambling, banking and war making.

Identity politics also recognises that the appropriation and marketing of identity extends beyond national identity to minority identity. Shock jocks profit from attributing a contemptible identity to Muslims and people who are unemployed; wealthy music producers and writers appropriate the world of minority group art and music to enrich themselves. As a result minority groups may see themselves as doubly ripped-off by people who enrich themselves, first by spruiking the myth of an economy fair to all, and second by inventing or appropriating the identity of disadvantaged minorities.

This suggests that we should not answer the call to choose between identity politics and liberal politics. We should rather reject the assumptions on which both rest. Identity politics is right to protest against the identification with the national interest of economic growth based on self-interest. But identity politics accepts the tyranny of the market, wishing only to readjust it for the benefit of the group.

What is needed is to situate the relationships that constitute the economy within a more complete understanding. This will suggest the place of competition and its limits in the economy, and offer a more subtle understanding of identity and its relationship to the market.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: Ilario Reale via Flickr



Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.

Word Count: 0 (please limit to 200)

Submitted comments

The human body can serve as a great analogy for the relationships that are needed between individuals and the whole. Our bodies are made up of trillions of cells which each have a life of their own, ingesting, growing, reproducing, and combining with other like cells to form the organs and limbs that make up the whole body. The health of the body depends on the health of its cells and the structures they form. If the body is to be mobile, the mind needs to ensure the feet are shod for protection against rocky roads. Energy needs to be supplies to legs and arms to enable them to function properly. If the ‘head’ tries to appropriate everything for its own benefit it will soon find itself forsaken.

Robert Liddy 06 October 2016

Good read. I would like to see more reflection on the proliferation of identities and sub identities. Why is 'human' no longer the key identifier in political context? How many levels down from that do we need to go for true polity? Why are there so many identities predicated purely on sexual activity? How useful is this really when no-liberalism is a threat to the human? Can we introduce some vigour into what constitutes an identify that can speak to all, inspire all and engage all?

Joseph 06 October 2016

Further to my previous comment - I agree with the author that the various identifies end up competing with each other, ultimately causing further divisions, creating new sub-identities. It seems to me this dynamic could be defused somewhat if there was a higher level identity that has currency in current discourse to at least be the point from which we try to reach consensus rather than trigger further differentiation.

Joseph 06 October 2016

Our identity is powerfully personal. Identity politics may accept the tyranny of the market but it's a forced acceptance. Attempting to gain understanding from more powerful vested interests is surely a bleak prospect. However, even shock jocks may recognise, one day, that profit doesn't necessarily drive the market.

Pam 09 October 2016

A difficult and challenging article, but important nevertheless. Can we draw comparisons between liberal politics with its 'identity-politic thorns', and one-party states or defined-faith religions claiming universal adherence and their own dissident minorities?

Ginger Meggs 10 October 2016

Similar articles

The case for pill testing at music festivals

Susie Garrard | 29 August 2016

Music festival crowdAs tickets go on sale for this year's round of music festivals - Falls, Defqon, Bluefest, Lost Paradise, to name a few - organisers still have no means to counteract unsafe drug use. Recent years have seen an increase in drug related injuries and fatalities at festivals. The debate as to how to counteract this worrying trend is ongoing, and tricky to navigate due its subjective nature. Yet when zero tolerance policies clearly haven't worked, it's time to turn to harm minimisation measures.

Girls are not to blame for their own exploitation

Madeleine Hamilton | 24 August 2016

Stop blaming victims chalk sloganThe response from police and others in authority to recent cases involving the abuse or exploitation of adolescent female sexuality is depressingly reminiscent of attitudes held more than 50 years ago. While it was no defence to argue that the girl had consented, if it could be proven she had had consensual intercourse with other men previously, the offender could be acquitted. Consequently, in carnal knowledge trials, girls were frequently accused of having rich histories of sexual activity.

Truth beyond written records of the Wave Hill walk off

Moira Rayner | 23 August 2016

Yijarni: True Stories From GurindjiI had been in WA for exactly a year when the local newspaper reported that a white guy had led about 200 people off Wave Rock station. Coming out of the comfortable myth that my home country of New Zealand was not racist, I was amazed to learn that Australia's Indigenous people were obliged to work without industrial protections. In 1966 it was the British Vesteys Group that had been exploiting Aboriginal people: today it is the State in the guise of 'community development', aka work for the dole.

Dickensian England lives on in Australia

Kate Galloway | 26 August 2016

Mark Lester in Oliver Twist filmOliver Twist is still used to aid understanding of the trauma arising from poverty, and the suffering of children at the hands of individuals and within institutional settings. In broader Australian society we assume Dickensian attitudes to children have evolved. Aligned with the sentiments behind child protection, society's image of children and childhood is idyllic. Yet beneath this veneer lies a substratum of deeply ambivalent, even malevolent, attitudes towards children with a distinctly Dickensian flavour.

Israel can't be both abuser and saviour

Ruby Hamad | 19 August 2016

Israeli PM Benjamin NetanyahuThis week, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that although 'some of you will not believe' it, he 'cares more about Palestinians than their leaders do'. He is right - I don't believe him, not least because what he is saying is nothing new. Israel has long been claiming that it only harms Palestinians because Palestinians force them to do it. As well as making Israel sound remarkably like an abusive partner (Why did you have to go and make me hit you?) this is also Dehumanisation 101.