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How Identity Politics Sabotaged the Left

Updated: Jan 26

How we went from universalist humanism to the denial of progress


Graffiti of monkey detonating a bomb by Bansky
Graffiti of monkey detonating a bomb, by Bansky

Call me an old-fashioned leftist.

I believe in wealth redistribution, redistributive taxation, state control over corporations, state-funded health care, free universities, contraception, abortion, defense of the environment and free speech. Among other progressive causes.

However, for a long time I had felt that the Left was leaving behind these worthy causes in favor of some questionable ones.

The ideology without name

A new ideology has been growing like a cancer inside the Left, sapping its strength and turning a lot of people against it.

The unthinkable has happened: the Left has lost the working class.

Farmers and workers are increasingly voting for the populist Right, which is not your usual tame form of conservatism, but the fascist, radical Right incarnated in Donald Trump. Outside the USA, conservatives have been in power in the UK since Brexit. The Extreme Right has taken over Italy, the Netherlands and Hungary, and is ascendant in France and Spain.

It’s all too easy to blame this on the stupidity of voters. The truth is that the Left is also to blame. It has been espousing radical, cryptic ideas rejected by common people, while abandoning the poor and the middle class to the ravages of capitalism.

It is difficult to denounce this new ideology because it has no name. It pretends that it is just the Left. That its ideas are mainstream and common-sense, so nobody should criticize them.

The growing polarization of politics creates an us-versus-them scenario in which you are denounced as a conservative if you oppose these ideas.

Some people call this ideology wokenism. But this term was immediately hijacked by the Right to attack the Left. Besides, being woke has a nice pedigree as a term to oppose racism, so many progressives are reluctant to use it. Today, nobody knows what “being woke” really means.

The dismissal of Progressivism

This nameless ideology may be leftist, but it is certainly not progressivism.

“As a political movement, progressivism seeks to advance the human condition through social reform based on purported advancements in science, technology, and social organization.” Progressivism, Wikipedia.

The core of this nameless ideology is precisely to question progress, particularly denying the ability of science to find objective truth and questioning the improvements in human condition brought by technology.

It is also critical of social progress. For example, it questions that the Civil Rights movement has brought any real improvements over racism.

The Identity Trap

Finally, an article in The Atlantic by Yascha Mounk led me to his book The Identity Trap. It explains quite well the inner workings of this nameless ideology, which Mounk labels the Identity Synthesis.

In The Identity Trap, Mounk takes you through the origins of the Identity Synthesis in its successive stages. He then explains how it invaded the universities first, and then general society. The book ends with a thorough rebuttal of this ideology and a roadmap of what progressivism can do to regain control of the Left.

Much of what I write in this article is based on that book, but I will add my own twists as a scientist and university professor.

However, I will use the term Identity Politics instead of Identity Synthesis because it has more traction and has its own entry in Wikipedia. An internet search revealed that the Identity Politics is more widely used than Identity Synthesis, although its meaning is not as narrow.

The seven themes of Identity Politics

Mounk identifies seven main characteristics of the Identity Synthesis:

  1. “Rejection of objective truth.” Based on postmodernism, it asserts that science is just another ‘grand narrative’ created by the structures of power.

  2. “Using discourse analysis for political ends.” Instead of defending free speech, it declares that the truth needs to be subjugated to attaining political goals.

  3. “Strategic essentialism.” While denying that identities like race and gender have any real existence, it embraces them with the goal of fighting the oppression structures that created them.

  4. “Pessimism about overcoming racism, misogyny and other forms of bigotry.” It questions past successes of feminism and the Civil Rights movement, claiming that they have been hijacked and perverted for the benefits of the oppressors.

  5. “Policies that distinguish people based on their identity.” Instead of continuing to fight segregation, Identity Politics wants to reinstate it because people of the same gender and race understand each other and fight better when they are together. Thus, it proposes the creation of ‘safe spaces’ for women and Blacks.

  6. “Intersectionality as a strategy for political organizing.” Since different forms of oppression compound each other—the original idea of intersectionality—, fighting against one form of oppression requires fighting against all forms of oppression. This leads to a mindless division of the world between victims and oppressors in all spheres of life.

  7. “Standpoint theory,” which asserts that people with different identities cannot communicate their experiences to each other. It also prioritizes subjective ‘lived experiences’ over scientific fact-based objectivity.

Postmodernism

Yascha Mounk places the origin of Identity Politics in the postmodernists ideas of the 1980s, particularly those of Michel Foucault and Jean-François Lyotard.

At its core, postmodernism represents a rejection of objective truth and universalist leftism—what I have been calling progressivism.

“The historical mission of the left consisted in expanding the circle of human sympathy across the boundaries of family, tribe, religion, and ethnicity.” The Identity Trap, Yascha Mounk.

  • Michel Foucault started his career as an orthodox Marxist, but eventually became disenchanted with it. This led him to a nihilistic philosophy consisting of rejecting any ‘grand narrative’ because they are hijacked by oppressors to perpetuate themselves in power. In his book Madness and Civilization, Foucault explains that grand narratives are ideologies that offer a comprehensive explanation of how the world works and what to do to improve it. Therefore, science figures prominently amongst these grand narratives. But so are any ideas of social or moral progress.

  • Jean-François Lyotard, in his book The Postmodern Condition, similarly dismisses the necessity of ‘metanarratives’—which are theories that bring together several disciplines under a common understanding. Any such universalist theory, he said, is just a matter of opinion and inherently unjust.

The main examples of grand narratives or metanarratives are:

  • The progress towards rationality promised by the Enlightenment.

  • The socialist revolution promised by Marxism.

  • The scientific method as a way to determine the truth or falsity of a statement.

Interestingly, the rejection of grand narratives led to the rejection of essentialism, which is the idea that there are stable identities like proletarian, woman or race.

According to postmodernism, the identity labels that we use to make sense of the world are a source of power because they enshrine the norms that create the moral structure of society.

This is the origin of the current idea that there is no biological sex, because ‘gender is a social construct.’ That is, gender is just a narrative imposed by the power structure of the patriarchy. This way, fourth wave feminism has become an ideology anchored in postmodernism.

However, if identities are not real, and gender and race are just illusions created by the oppressors, how on Earth did we get to Identity politics?

This is the reason why Identity Politics refuses to label itself. It’s not just that, at its core, it does not believe in identities. It’s that adopting any label would be a grand narrative and therefore intrinsically problematic. So Identity Politics camouflages itself as a collection of apparently unconnected ideas that cannot be construed as a grand narrative.

Regardless, identities were brought back into the equation, and eventually became dominant.

It was a twisted process.

Postcolonialism

Edward Said (1935-2003) was a Palestinian-American educated in Princeton and Harvard.

His book Orientalism, published in 1978, criticized the notion of ‘the orient’ because it put in the same category the diverse cultures of Arab countries, India, China and Japan. He correctly pointed out that viewing the world through the lens of Western civilization creates a distorted view in which poorly understood cultures are considered inferior.

This hides a great injustice: how the idea that the West had a superior culture that needed to be taught to other countries created a justification for the colonial exploitation of those countries.

This criticism of Western cultural supremacism, however, was used to reinforce the postmodernist idea of grand narratives. And, in particular, that science was part of Western culture and needed to be rejected. In reality, science arose from the merger of Greek philosophy with Arabic expertise in astronomy, chemistry and medicine, which in turn they transmitted from Chinese and Indian civilizations. As soon as it developed in the West, science was promptly adopted by countries like Japan, China and India. Therefore, science is universal in its origin and application, forming a common tool for all humanity to discover and share objective truths.

Another unfortunate development of Said’s idea was starting the current division of humanity between victims and oppressors.

His goal was to change the dominant discourse to help the colonized countries. However, as decolonization became prevalent in the second half of the 20th century, formerly colonized countries began to engage in war against each other. For example, India and Pakistan fought each other, as did numerous African countries. Other countries, like the D.R. of Congo and Rwanda had bloody civil wars.

The framework of victim/oppressor is not very useful to understand these conflicts, as one year’s oppressor becomes the next year’s victim.

How strategic essentialism brought back identity

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is an Indian literary scholar considered one of the most influential intellectuals of Postcolonialism.

Following on the footsteps of Said, she argued that the oppressed masses in Asia did not have the luxury to disregard identity markers, as did Foucault.

Even though she rejected essentialism as universal discourse, following postmodernism, she realized that the citizens of India, China and other Asian countries had to embrace their cultural identity to rescue it from Western influence. Identity had to be supported in a temporary, strategic way. Thus, strategic essentialism was born.

This is how the victim versus oppressor discourse of Said and Spivak led to the adoption of the identities that postmodernism had rejected as essentialist.

Soon enough, strategic essentialism was adopted by feminism and in the fight against racism.

Just when scientists were ready to accept that race had no biological basis, anti-racists brought it back to organize their political fight around it.

Apparently, intellectual consistency can be sacrificed in the political fight to dethrone the oppressors. After all, rationality is something scientists do. And science had been discarded long ago by the postmodernists and other philosophers.

Critical Race Theory

Derrick Bell (1930-2011) was a lawyer, university professor and civil rights activist.

In 1970, he published Race, Racism, and American Law, the book that started Critical Race Theory. He argued that the progress of the Civil Rights movement was only apparent because it did not translate to improving the conditions of Blacks. In fact, it ended up working in favor of racism. Among other things, he said that it was a mistake to make desegregation of schools the main goal. He saw American racism as a permanent condition that just changes shapes to perpetuate itself.

Thus, in contrast to what you may hear, Critical Race Theory appeared in opposition to the Civil Rights movement of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, not as a continuation of it.

Critical Race Theory applied to law practice the ideas of postmodernism and Critical Theory.

“In the 1970s, Bell and these other legal scholars began using the phrase "critical race theory" (CRT) a phrase based on critical legal studies, a branch of legal scholarship, that challenged the validity of concepts such as rationality, objective truth, and judicial neutrality.” Development of Critical Race Theory, Wikipedia.

Eventually, CRT gave rise to ideas often brandished by Identity Politics, like microaggressions, implicit bias and intersectionality.

Intersectionality

Kimberlé Crenshaw (1959) is a law professor who used CRT in her research. She came up with the idea of intersectional theory, which states that different forms of oppression add to each other to create an even more pronounced oppression.

Although intersectionality is true in many cases, it does not account for the fact that sometimes different forms of oppression do not add up. For example, Black men are often more oppressed than Black women: they are killed by police and incarcerated more often.

The main problem, though, is that intersectionality produced two ideas that are not supported by Crenshaw.

  1. That activism against a particular form of oppression needs to translate into fighting all other forms of oppression. 

  2. That people with different identities cannot understand each other’s lived experiences.

Standpoint Theory

This second idea became Standpoint theory.

Standpoint Theory states that “there were key insights about the social world—and even that would be needed to fix injustices—that members of marginalized groups would never be able to communicate to members of dominant groups.” The Identity Trap, Yascha Mounk.

Patricia Hill Collins (1948), among others, reasoned that since each group experiences different combinations of oppression, that means that subjective experience cannot be shared between different identity groups.

Therefore, Identity Politics ideologues enshrine subjective experience as the ultimate arbiter of truth. In contrast, neuroscience has documented numerous cases in which subjective experience is unreliable because the brain has many ways to deceive itself.

Standpoint theory also looms large in fourth wave feminism. It criticizes science, arguing that it has been dominated by men that are biased by their gender, so that they give us a distorted view of the world. In particular, they say, science has created many false beliefs about women and their bodies.

Of course, science makes mistakes all the time. It’s in its nature, as it is to constantly test its ideas and eventually come up with the truth. But this doesn’t matter to feminists. One mistake damns you forever.

This idea grows on the fertile ground of the rejection of science promoted by postmodernism. Since there is no objective truth, and science is wrong, we need to take the testimony of women at face value. It’s “believe women” taken to the extreme.

Of course, Standpoint theory is valid only when we consider the subjective experience of an oppressed individual. The subjective experience of a person belonging to an oppressor group—men, Whites—is irredeemably subjected to implicit bias.

Attacks on free speech

Attacks against free speech are a common staple of the Right, mostly in the form of the banning of books about sexuality and LGTB rights.

However, there is also a long tradition of attacks on free speech in the radical Left.

  • Herbert Marcuse was a political philosopher that emigrated to the USA from Germany. In his book Repressive Tolerance, he argued that free speech was not possible in Western democracies because of domination of the mass media by the wealthy classes. He proposed a revolution that would bring to power a leftist government that would outlaw speech and assembly of any group that opposed its political goals.

  • Stanley Fish took over the ideas of Marcuse, arguing that the boundary between allowed speech and banned speech (like “shouting fire in a crowded theater” or “fighting words”) is arbitrary and a matter of politics.

  • Ibram X. Kendi is one of the main proponents of anti-racism and the idea that all Whites are racist. He defends the banning of racist ideas, which he defines broadly as anything that contradicts his thought.

These ideas have infiltrated Identity Politics as a wide disregard for free speech. It is considered as something secondary, or even opposed, to the fight for racial liberation or to destroy the patriarchy.

The result was cancel culture: the permission to viciously attack anybody who deviates from politically correct dogma. Many people have lost their careers for voicing their opinions.

For example, evolutionary biologist Carole Hooven had to take leave from Harvard for teaching that sex is binary, an opinion shared by many scientists.

“While some activists insist that asserting the biological reality of the sex ‘binary’ is entirely wrong-headed and pernicious, the true threat to science, and to human dignity is the idea that in order to support anyone’s rights we must deny or ignore reality.” Carole Hooven.

Negativity and inefficacy

By its essence, Identity Politics is full of negativity. It’s good at criticizing society, canceling people and demanding privileges, but poor at proposing solutions. Faced with real-life problems, like the separation of immigrant families or the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it remains baffled and silent.

At most, it would propose largely symbolic solution, like calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, without spelling out how to resolve the underlying issues of the existence of Israel as a refuge for displaced Jews and taking the Palestinians out of their perennial refugee status.

CRT and intersectionality has led to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) policies in universities and corporations that have proven divisive, leading to compelled speech. DEI is leading faculty to sue their universities for curtailing their academic rights and threatening their jobs. 

Identity Politics is a threat to the core values of democracy

The denial of objective truth and science by Identity Politics in the Left mirrors the same reactions in the far Right. The Left cannot criticize the conservatives when they deny the climate crisis and the effectiveness of vaccines while opposing science in subjects that it finds objectionable.

More to the point, if there is no objective truth, dialogue becomes impossible, and we are doomed to an endless struggle between opposing ideas. Western civilization emerged from a thousand years of religious wars when it was able to accept that there are better ways to establish truth than blind faith and belief enforced by military power.

Science created a comprehensive, internally consistent repository of knowledge about the world and ourselves based on evidence. Now the whole of humanity can move forward with a shared reality anchored in scientific knowledge. The technological fruits of science are made public for all to share.

Identity Politics takes a huge step back by denying this scientific knowledge and going back to ideologies established by raw power.

At stake is nothing less than the basis of our modern civilization.

Democracy is based on recognizing the right to free speech, which in turn is based on the right to hold different opinions.

Human rights are based on the recognition that we all share a common humanity and basic interests.

Identity Politics emphasize the things that make us different from each other, in the name of diversity. It even tells us that these differences are so profound that we cannot understand each other.

Identity Politics presents society as a zero-sum game in which “equity” is based on privileging certain races and genders over others.

We need to purge this noxious ideology from the Left, not by canceling their proponents, as they do, but by debating it publicly.

Like a vampire, it will wither away once we shine light on it.

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