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The new class struggle?

What is ‘identity politics’? Anyone who knows the answer is probably against the idea. In recent months, the term has had an illustrious career – but only as a caricature and a distortion.
Jakob Augstein
© Mathias Bothor

Anyone who talks about ‘identity politics’ is perpetuating a deception. Yes, there is a revolution underway. But it is not about identities. Instead, like any revolution worth its salt, it is about justice. New social and political movements are coming to the fore, and fighting for their rights.

 The unease this is causing is clear from the opposition to ‘identity politics’ we are seeing from so many different camps. The huge amount of debate around the issue makes it feel as though this is about self-defence, about combating the coordinated attack of a phalanx of unwanted modernity. But this assumption too is mistaken. There can be no coherent ‘identity politics’. Because the main groups we tend to associate with identity politics – women, migrants, LGBT people, Black people and people of colour – are not clearly distinguishable entities. They do not share the same experiences of discrimination and threat, and we should be under no illusions about the hierarchies that exist among them: those who are discriminated against also discriminate against others.

 The various forms of identity politics are accused of dividing society and robbing it of the capacity for solidarity. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah, if you ask me, to make this argument: first Black people and migrants are backed into a corner by being discriminated against, and then, when some of them fight back, they are accused of dividing society. This accusation reveals that identity politics is not about the identity of specific group interests at all, but about the identity of the majority. No wonder it has led to such bitter wrangling.

The more serious criticism of identity politics, however, is a self-criticism used by those on the left. It is the idea that, by concentrating on the interests of the few, the left has lost sight of the interests of the many; that it has given up on the big social question in favour of a plethora of cultural questions.

But here, too, the opposite is true. The problem for the left in recent years has not been that it was too far to the left on social issues, but that it was too far to the right on economic ones. And there is also a genuine misunderstanding here: so-called identity politics is about access, influence, representation, money – not so different from the traditional class struggle over distribution. It’s just that the beneficiaries are different.

Instead of playing off disadvantaged groups against each other, the left should feel equal responsibility for all of them, and should not get distracted by talk of identity politics. When the German football team played Hungary in the Euros in late June 2021, and there was debate over whether the stadium in Munich should be lit up in rainbow colours as a protest against Viktor Orbáns homophobic policies, corporations like BMW and the HypoVereinsbank suddenly hoisted the rainbow flag. All well and good. But does that mean capitalism is now free of discrimination?

© Jakob Augstein

Jakob Augstein is a journalist, columnist and publisher. His novel Strömung was published in 2022.

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