Post-Neoliberalism

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Splintered Reality: On Identity Politics as De-Emancipation

We live in an age of radicalization. We see it everywhere – from the evening news to conversations at the corner shop. Life has become a series of risks, radicalized people being, quite simply, dangerous to others. What is happening and can anything be done about it? 

All significant movements of the Geist (as in “The Phenomenology of Spirit”) inevitably produce a radical fringe. A small fraction of the human mass searching for new answers to new problems loses patience with the pace of events and decides to force them along by sheer willpower. This radicalized fringe cannot be dismissed as an insignificant blip on the radar screen or as a passing fad. For every radicalized individual, there are thousands, who share the same grievance, anger, and frustration, but disagree with the extreme posture; as John le Carré shares in his memoirs, he sympathized with some of the arguments of the Red Army Faction, but not with its methods. 

To avoid the disturbances – indeed, disintegrations – that result from continued radicalization, one must address the problems that, ultimately, give rise to that particular grievance which produces a radical fringe. 

Grievances are, as a rule, ignited by dramatic changes that disturb the settled fabric of life. A previously dominant Idea, underpinning social reality, has run its course. A new Idea needs to be formulated, in order for society to regain its balance. “The body cannot live without the mind”, noted Morpheus in “The Matrix”; by the same token, society cannot live without an underpinning Idea. And so, the human spirit tries to understand and evaluate the changes leading to the decline of an Idea, to see to which new Idea they may be pointing and to ponder whether something drastic needs to be done about it. 

A great Idea emerged in the 18th century and gradually, over generations, shaped a new kind of society. We can call this Idea “Justice for All.” At its very foundations lies the rejection of privilege and the demand for equal and fair treatment.

It germinated in the striking request of the British barons, back in 1215, that certain basic rights be treated as universal and unconditional human entitlements rather than privileges reserved to some. By the 18th century, the idea became prevalent among ‘enlightened public opinion’ in Western Europe. Much as social reality remained infested with human suffering, the ideal of ‘justice for all’ was the dominant lens through which that suffering was judged and interpreted. It was by no means uncontested: Conservatism, as a political stance, emerged as a revolt against Enlightenment universalism. It is this revolt that first gave birth to identity politics in the glorification of parochial loyalties. However, as the concept of “justice for all” spread from Paris cafes and London clubs, it held out the promise of enfranchisement – of bringing in, out of the cold, the dispossessed, the downtrodden, the exploited, the discriminated against. The establishment and outward spread of political rights was followed by human and social rights.

A multitude of social groups, whole countries and regions were being brought in from the cold. Employment gradually became secure, racial segregation was discontinued, women and gay rights were recognized. Ongoing enfranchisement, seen as emancipation from the oppression of privilege, was assumed to be the Idea of any legitimate society. Even communist leaders found themselves bound to claim, unconvincingly, that they were in the enfranchisement business. 

Societies which diverged from this model were gradually brought into line. The last colonies became emancipated through the 1960s and 1970s. Military dictatorships fell throughout Europe and Latin America. The communist regimes in Europe, which in fact enshrined privilege to a truly feudal degree, disintegrated in 1989. The nations “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic” decided to model their societies on the “Justice for All” principle. This onward march seemed unstoppable – for now and for all times: the End of History, no less. 

Human history cannot ever end for the simple reason that every dominant idea inevitably produces a reaction, an opposing idea or concept; and thereupon a great debate ensues about life, the Universe and everything. Such ideas and concepts were already circulating in the wake of 1989 (i.e. during the supposed ending of history), although few people noticed. 

Human beings inevitably argue with each other. For a long time the arguments were, ultimately, over food and the distribution of scarce resources. By the early 1990s, the food question was seen as resolved in what used to be labelled the First and the Second Worlds: no longer would you eat “what was given”; you would eat what you wanted, because everything was permanently available and you also had the resources to have it. This happened for the first time in history and it changed everything. People stopped arguing about food and, after casting around for a bit, focused on a new issue: they began arguing about “identity.” The era of culture wars was upon us by the time those hijacked planes hit the Twin Towers. 

Arguably (at least Richard Rorty argued thus1), while remaining focused on the emancipation of repressed and discriminated groups, “identity” was an integral part of the emancipation movement: you could not, the argument ran, be fully emancipated as an individual if you happened to be a member of a repressed or a discriminated group. Such a drift towards collective (rather than individual) rights can only be temporary and must be called off the moment the repressed group is no longer so. Otherwise, a collectivist mentality will become entrenched and liberal democracy weakened. 

While Rorty allowed for the existence of “identity” temporarily and for clearly defined purposes, the great historian Tony Judt saw the entire “identity business” as extremely dangerous.2 It is indeed so, for at least three obvious reasons. The first: modern humans have too many identities. When people become focused on expressing just one of them, the outcome is a plethora of ever-smaller identities competing for attention. Their proponents, in order to be heard, have to become increasingly more vocal. And, when engaged in too much shouting, we all become more radical in both our expression and our ideas. Identity radicals spread through the known world, fighting increasingly obscure battles with increasing bitterness. 

The second reason why “identity” is a dangerous business is that it subsumes the human individual – and the entire liberal-democratic edifice arising out of the placing of the individual at the centre of society and politics – into a collective. Once this drift into collectives becomes a tide, then “identity” inevitably shifts to the arena of reactionary, primitive, pre-modern agendas – ethnic, racial, religious, nationalist, populist. Whereas, while residing on the Left, identities kept splintering and, although increasingly vocal, weakening, with the shift to the reactionary arena they became big and felt strong. Inevitably, they were taken over by authoritarians and, under their leadership, became aggressive towards other collectives: Donald Trump, Putin, Hamas, Orban, Modi… the list goes on and on. 

The Left bears responsibility for the reductionist approach to identity, which in turn has provided fodder for the reactionary identity politics of the right. 

Identities, when becoming aggressive, feed on a sense of rage (against the enemy, be it the “liberal establishment”, the “elites”, “migrants”, “foreigners” or “infidels”) and victimhood. Victimhood fuels the rage and the rage penetrates into the souls of more and more people. 

The third reason behind Judt’s judgment is that “identity” fuels radicalization, which in turn fuels various novel forms of tribalist populism. This is the point at which we are at the moment. 

History has not ended; it can never end, because people will always argue. It has splintered. 

The political result is de-emancipation, which in turns fuels more resentment, rage and radicalism. This is how it works. 

The movement away from the individual and towards conceptualizing humans as collectives has initiated a historic turn of the tide. The spread of emancipation depended on the idea that individuals should be freed of all unreasonable restrictions – i.e. restrictions that could not be defended with arguments from Kant or Mill. With the weakening of the individual, the idea of ever-spreading rights is inevitably eclipsed by the ancient (and reactionary) idea of ever-spreading privileges for collectives. 

Equality is only possible among individuals; among collectives there is a struggle for privileged positions. Privilege, being the sworn enemy of rights, leads to de-emancipation.

At the same time (here we again see the dialectic in action) the position of the privileged groups is being strengthened by their entry into client-patron relations with the groups claiming victimhood. As Albena Azmanova has noted3: “Various minorities are competing for victimhood, as this is the only apparent avenue to social protection, while ruling elites source their power from the patronage they bestow to select minorities.” In this way, she concludes, victimhood becomes instrumentalised, losing its ethos of solidarity. This, in turn, puts the clock back to the feudal model4 of societal organization, which has little room for individual rights and freedoms, structured as it is around group hierarchies and subordination, rather than around free and equal individual citizens. 

This new twist to the plot creates another source of rage and radicalization. Losing acquired rights always makes people angry. De-emancipation is seen, quite rightly, as unfair by the majority of those who, throughout the last 30 years, have remained individuals and managed to stay away from collective identities. In the West, jobs become precarious as employers, becoming class-conscious again, revert to exploitative methods. In the East, individuals are denied the individual right to choose their religion or, indeed, to live in peace and keep their lives. Everywhere ruling groups morph into self-serving oligarchies. 

De-emancipation cannot but lead to anger because it overturns the entire logic of Modernity. For the last (at least) 300 years we have been battling against privilege and trying to get to a level playing field, with equal chances for all. Lord Acton called this process the “gradual passage … from subordination to independence”5 and identified this passage as the very essence of Modernity. With de-emancipation comes the revival of privilege and with it – a movement back to subordination. 

And so it came to be, by a canny dialectical metamorphosis, that a movement to collective rights, designed to emancipate whole groups, turned into its opposite and de-emancipated the individual. The feeling spread that something very essential was being lost, taken away. 

The feeling of loss was, as Ivan Krastev has pointed out6, further intensified by the perceived collapse of the idea of meritocracy. Just as vast numbers of people were becoming members of the precariat7, while others were wondering why they were losing long-established rights, it began to seem that success was in fact preserved for an entrenched privileged elite, rather than open to everyone in equal and fair measure. The appearance of Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”, together with the “Panama papers” served to underline the general impression that privilege and oligarchy had returned and taken effective power. 

This is enough to make anyone’s blood boil. It is a question of fairness. In societies based on the individual and her rights and freedoms, justice is the only legitimate basis of politics and of the institutions of state. Consequently, the feeling of injustice leads to a de-legitimation of the whole edifice. 

Here is Adam Smith’s take. The following he wrote in his “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” (1759), wearing the hat of a great moral philosopher (rather than the more prosaic hat worn while writing “The Wealth of Nations”):

“…Justice (…) is the main pillar that upholds the whole edifice. If it is removed, the great, the immense fabric of human society… must in a moment crumble into atoms (…) Every appearance of injustice, therefore, alarms man [sic] and he runs (…) to stop the progress of what (…) would quickly put an end to every thing that is dear to him. If he cannot restrain it by gentle and fair means, he must beat it down by force and by violence, and at any rate must put a stop to its further progress.”8 

To paraphrase Master Yoda: “De-emancipation leads to Anger, Anger leads to Hate, Hate leads to… Suffering.” In our case, suffering comes in the form of radicalization and loss of civility in society, and of authoritarian populism in politics and government.

Rage, victimhood and the desire for revenge, if not checked, will make civilized life impossible.

As Adam Smith noted: “Society, however, cannot subsist among those who are at all times ready to hurt and injure one another.”9

And there you have it. The current convulsions of the Geist have produced a generalized frustration with the eclipse of fairness that, in turn, has brought into being a radical fringe that gives tongue to agendas of revenge, hurt, and injury. Countries that have gone down this road have found themselves in a twilight landscape of: “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”10

The way out of this is obvious. We must take seriously all of those major thinkers – from Plato and St Augustine to Smith, Kant and Mill – who placed justice at the basis of government and politics. More specifically, we urgently need to reboot the whole agenda of emancipation rooted in that struggle against privilege and for fairness that produced not only Modernity, but also liberal democracy, human rights and the possibility to be (in Benjamin Franklin’s words) civil to all and enemy to none. 

 

Footnotes

1. Richard Rorty, “Feminism and Pragmatism,” Radical Philosophy 59 (1991), pp 3-14, at p. 8.

2. Tony Judt, ”Edge People,” The New York Review, March 25, 2010.

 3. Albena Azmanova, “Precarity for All,” Post-neoliberalism symposium, 29 November, 2023.

4. David Graeber noted, sometime ago, the revival of feudalism in big corporations: “It’s not at all uncommon for the same executives who pride themselves on downsizing and speed-ups on the shop floor, or in delivery and so forth, to use the money saved at least in part to fill their offices with feudal retinues of basically useless flunkies.” In “Bullshit jobs and the yoke of managerial feudalism,” an interview with David Graeber, The Economist, 29 June, 2018.

5. Lord Acton. Lectures on Modern History. Macmillan 1963, p. 19.

6. Ivan Krastev. After Europe. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017. 

7. See: Albena Azmanova. Capitalism on Edge. How Fighting Precarity Can Achieve Radical Change Without Crisis or Utopia, Columbia University Press, 2020.

8. Adam Smith. The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, Oxford University Press 1976, p. 86, p. 88.

9. Ibid., p. 86.

10. Thomas Hobbes. Leviathan (1651). Baltimore: Penguin Books 1968. Pt. 1 Ch. 13.


Evgenii Dainov is Professor of Politics at the New Bulgarian University, Founding Member of the Green Movement in Bulgaria and composer and guitarist with rock band Magistri. His latest books include Politik und Rock’n’Roll. Wie kamen wir won “Love Me Do” auf Donald Trump? (Edition Konturen), Russia: A Story of a Country Without History (in Bulgarian, New Bulgarian University Publishers), Bowie: An Elegy (In Bulgarian, Millenium Publishers).