Identity politics and the market



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

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, identity politics, Muslims, LGBTQI



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Existing 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  

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