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Identity politics and the market

  • 05 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.

Liberal 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