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Does identity politics commodify us?

  • 04 May 2021
  The Prime Minister has recently denounced ‘the growing tendency to commodify human beings through identity politics‘. In doing so, he raises a number of important questions. The claim of ‘commodification’ of human beings and their relations is a powerful one.

The idea that humans or their essential relationships risk reduction to being treated as things (‘reification’, from German Verdinglichung) and thereby alienated from others was, indeed, one of Marxism’s central critiques of capitalism. In support of this thesis, Marxists could point to such charmless commercial terms as ‘human resources’ (assets on the company books) and, in contemporary discourse, to the claims that we should ‘open up’ our economies and suffer the consequent loss of lives to the coronavirus in order to avoid economic damage.

Mr Morrison’s thesis is not the traditional economic one, however, but is rather a social claim. He argues that it is the assumption of an identity by people themselves which causes this commodification and alienation. So, what is one to make of ‘identity politics’ and does it commodify us?

Certainly, it is true that identity can sell — and is in that sense commodifiable. One has only to go into a (physical or online) souvenir shop to see t-shirts allowing the wearer to display their Australianness, Christianity, disability or any of a hundred other identities. Mr Morrison is also undoubtedly right to point out that one can invest oneself so completely in an identity as to submerge the reality of who one is. Indeed, a man who invited the cameras to church to watch him pray during the 2019 election campaign is doubtless right to warn that identity can be used to mask a person’s individuating characteristics in order to sell products — or buy votes.

But identity is much more than a brand. On one level, there is the very human tendency to identify with others we see as sharing our world view, our language and culture or other elements of our outlook. On another level, however, identity is itself often influenced by external and unwanted factors.

As many First Nations activists have commented, Aboriginality (and degrees of it) was categorised, classified and subclassified precisely by colonisers in order to mete out horrors to the Indigenous population of this country (and others too).

'Arguably, it is precisely the commodification of groups by discrimination in the first place which has caused the groups discriminated against to attempt to claim the identities targeted