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“Identity is not Left-wing”? A Politics of Meaning To Broaden Our Look

Policy-makers have addressed the demand for identity in 3 different ways: by pandering to it, by neutralizing it or by transforming it into a political category

A passport, symbol of identity (Pixabay).

The whole view related to this demand is able to take only a part of the issue into account. It focuses on the effects, but is blind to the cause – namely, it considers the demand for identity as the ultimate problem, rather than its symptom. It therefore behaves as if the problem were to treat the fever, without seeing the infection that has to be cured

In my previous articles I join the ranks of those who view the demand for identity as the core of the current socio-political crisis. People feel that their identity is besieged by external enemies and react with feelings (e.g. anger against the elite), attitudes (xenophobia) and political preferences (support for sovereigntist, far-right, and populist parties), creating a social and political climate that is threatening not only for the European Union, but also for the very existence of democracy.

Generally speaking, mainstream policy-makers and institutions have addressed the demand for identity in three different ways. In some cases, they have tried to pander to it, as though the solution were to compete with the populist and far-right political capacity to satisfy the demand for identity with more order and higher walls. Those who criticize the current Italian Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini’s immigration policy should not forget that his predecessor, Marco Minniti – appointed by a centre-left government – adopted a strategy that though not so arrogant and propagandist, shared the same fundamental view of migration as a matter of national security. Again, the German Minister of the Interior, Horst Seehofer – whose call for a much harsher migration policy has recently led the government to the edge of a dramatic political crisis – is not the exponent of an extremist far-right movement, but the leader of the Bavarian Christian Social party.

A second way of addressing the demand for identity is to consider the demand itself as the enemy to counteract – a pathology from which society has to be saved in the name of universal ideals. Left-wing narratives are often more or less implicitly based on this view, which suggests that people are simply wrong, naïve, and/or victims of propaganda. According to this narrative, the weaker the demand for identity, the greater the progress of society. A brilliant presentation of this perspective can be found in a recent pamphlet written by Mark Lilla – The Once And Future Liberal, not by chance published in the Italian translation under the title: “Identity is not Left-wing”. The debate on fake news – and in particular, the argument that its success is supposedly due to people’s ignorance and ingenuity – is a paradigmatic example of this approach.

A third way of addressing the demand for identity legitimizes/enhances identity by transforming it into a political category. The identity group is seen as representing and pushing a political interest; in so doing, identity acquires the meaning of a political demand for recognition. Policies for LGBTQ civil rights are paradigmatic of such an approach – e.g., being a lesbian becomes the political project of making the institutional framework recognize and take this form of identity into account; in so doing, a private dimension of life, concerning emotions and desire becomes a fundamental category of policy-making and politics. Another form this approach takes is multiculturalism, claiming that the institutional and political sphere should be shaped so as to respect the specificity of ethno-cultural identities.

These three ways of addressing identity are quite different, yet they share the same flaw.

Trying to compete with far-right, sovereigntist political actors’ ability to pander to people’s identity anxieties (first approach) does not counteract them; rather it makes their job even easier, because it helps to put identity at the core of the political agenda, therefore giving the key of the political scenario to those who are currently the most effective and appealing political interpreters of the identity theme.

Those who wave the flag of human rights and universalism (second approach) appear to be radically alternative to pandering to the demand for identity; yet they share with the opposing view the simplified logic that magnifies one aspect of the complex issue and simply eliminates the other. In doing so, an abstract, utopian universalism becomes the best ally of identitarianism; indeed, if one is offered the stark alternative “identity yes/identity no”, it is hard not to choose the first option – and this is so for the very reason that everyone has a strong experience of themselves as a driver of identity. Thus the rhetoric of the complete elimination of boundaries – no ifs and no buts – cannot but make even the most open-minded person a defender of borders.

The third approach has tried to avoid the opposite pitfalls of the other two strategies. However, the results are not so different. Take multiculturalism and more in general the policy of political correctness. They have been seen as progressive approaches, expressing tolerant, liberal, democratic values. Yet it is more and more apparent that, rather than assimilating (civil and/or ethnic) identities in the universalistic breadth of liberal democracy, they have produced the paradoxical effect of consolidating the self-centeredness of specific subjetivities, consolidating the barriers among them; the logic of multiculturalism undermines diversity, to use the words of Kenan Malink, one of its critics. In the final analysis, the ambition of enabling politics to assimilate identity has led to the reverse effect of enabling identities to reproduce themselves through their capacity to shape the political and institutional spheres.

It is possible to identify a common aspect underlying these three modes – all of them take identity for granted – namely, as a state of affairs that defines the perimeter of the problem and the possible solutions to it. More specifically, the interpretative framework can be summed up as follows. Material, social, and economic drivers (economic inequality, unemployment, migration pressure, terrorism) trigger reactive, disruptive cultural motives (anxiety, distrust, xenophobia) that in turn shape the preferences for the anti-system political parties that play on these motives. Therefore, these cultural manifestations have to be addresses– i.e., by pandering to them, rejecting them, accepting them – in order to avoid that they work as fuel for the anti-system political challengers.

This view is able to take only a part of the issue into account. It focuses on the effects, but is blind to the cause – namely, it considers the demand for identity as the ultimate problem, rather than its symptom. It therefore behaves as if the problem were to treat the fever, without seeing the infection that has to be cured.

Actually, it must be recognized that it is not easy to see the infection underlying the fever. Yet to see it is very much needed if one wants to design effective measures against the anthropological drift that is profoundly changing Western society. Social and political scientists are trying to develop a more detailed vision of the complex, reciprocal interplay between material, cultural, and political factors; yet, whereas there is a general agreement as to what is happening, why it is happening and how to counteract it are questions still awaiting a response.

A possible way of answering is to recognize that the socio-economic upheavals have done more than cause a worsening of the material living conditions for large segments of society – the so- called “losers of globalization”. More radically, globalization has made the world so complex and lacking in transparency that almost nobody is able to grasp it, cognitively and pragmatically. Nowadays, the world goes beyond the capacity to be represented and recognized as part of one’s subjective life. As a result, many people feel the local sphere of life – therefore the identity bonds associated with it – as the only concrete anchorage that gives meaning to their experience. At the same time, the confusing flow of events and processes that cannot be understood from the inside of the local sphere is placed in a single homogenized container, experienced as the “threatening outside”.

This interpretation enables us to see the need that the demand for identity tries to satisfy: people need to make sense of their experience. Since no other means is suitable, the local identity bond is given this function. Therefore, if we want to reduce the support for identity, we need policies that provide people with different conditions and resources for addressing their fundamental need to make sense of the complex, opaque world. And this means that institutions have to make the world less incomprehensible, as well as promoting resources and settings that enhance people’s capacity to understand and engage with the world.

To conclude, let me give a brief example of such a strategy. Currently in Italy there is an intense debate about the introduction of a basic income. Those in favor stress the decisive contribution the measure will make to the fight against poverty; those against argue that it will discourage people from entering the job market and it will facilitate the illegal economy. However, both these views assume people’s culture – i.e., their way of thinking and acting – to be a state of affairs into which the measure will be inserted. My previous discussion suggests a different view: the basic income should be seen as a way of implementing a policy of cultural development to oppose the conditions that make identity the only meaningful anchorage. According to this view, the basic income measure should be designed as a socio-institutional device through which people can get significant experience of a segment of the world (i.e. the institution supporting the measure) beyond the local bond. For instance, this goal could be promoted by linking the basic income to the provision by beneficiaries of services for the promotion of commons (e.g. services aimed at empowering health services, education and environmental protection). In so doing, the basic income measure could work as a socio-institutional environment where people could personally discover that beyond the local bond there is something that makes sense and that can work as a resource making one’s life less uncertain and more empowered.

This is the challenge presented by the demand for identity: we need a new institutional deal making people perceive institutions as vital resources at their disposal.

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