Identity, Inc.: Liberal Multiculturalism and the Political Economy of Identity Politics

Jacob Ertel I Social Movement Studies I Analysis I June 30th, 2015

The Left in the United States is at a critical juncture. Then again, it has been for roughly the past 35 years. With the onset of neoliberalism and the dissolution of the class-based politics of the 1960s and 1970s, a new political framework has emerged typified by the politicization of identity. It is this discourse that has prevailed on the Left since the early 1980s, always in tension with popular currents Marxian critique but oft posited as the sole truly radical theory and practice. To be sure, identity politics comes with indisputable benefits, including the reclaiming and centering of historical narratives and a more nuanced understanding of interpersonal forms of aggression and abuse. At the same time, however, certain critical features of Marxian critique have taken a backseat to this framework, which largely abjures a substantive analysis of the material conditions central to capitalist social relations in lieu of the purported deconstruction of institutional norms. In other words, the critique of classism (the individual denigration of people not exhibiting behavior or values associated with certain social classes) has largely superseded the critique of capitalism. It is worth considering, then, whether there is anything inherent about identity politics that necessitates an abandonment of veritable anti-capitalism in lieu of a more individualized form of putative radicalism. Is it purely by chance that the rise of identity politics coincides with the imposition of neoliberalism?

Many might argue that political movements have in fact secured significant victories since the 1980s. This sentiment often hinges on the successes of mainstream gay rights movements, but is perhaps most explicitly embodied by myopic utterances of 'post-racialism' since the beginning of the Obama presidency. However, victories such as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, and the election of Obama, do nothing to prevent state violence or the conditions that undergird it; at best they present a hyper-individualized conception of success and at worst they further legitimate the state as the supreme arbiter of rights in its capacity to promote ostensibly progressive social values, but without questioning how such rights are contingent on the state's own monopoly on violence both domestic and abroad. Perhaps most disturbing is that many self-described 'radicals' who share similar critiques of mainstream political movements maintain the central logic of identity politics while espousing a militant rhetoric that claims to challenge white bourgeois norms at the same time as it inadvertently reaffirms them. Identity politics, then, must be rooted in liberalism.

Much has been made of the deficiencies of identity politics and its cousin, liberal multiculturalism; fewer analyses actually trace the genealogy of these discourses. In moving from early liberal theorists to contemporary critics, this essay attempts to briefly sketch such a genealogy. In doing so, it examines the effects of these discourses on the potential for militant anti-capitalist organizing. It is ultimately argued that identity politics serves to further retrench the state's narrative of progress and liberal multiculturalism at the same time that economic stratification only intensifies under neoliberalism, in which appeals to a rights-based framework focused on representing a diversity of experiences do little to mitigate large-scale social upheaval. In this way, the shift from the insurgent materialist perspectives of the 1960s and early 1970s to a politics of identity often plays into same narratives that it positions itself against.

Liberalism and the Individual

The exercising of individual rights is a key tenet of civic liberalism that dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries, first articulated by theoreticians such as John Locke and John Stuart Mill. Mill in particular asserts the primacy of the self-determining liberal subject in contributing to societal progress. Through exercising individual liberties, he argues, "human life also becomes rich, diversified and animating, furnishing more abundant aliment to high thoughts and elevating feelings, and strengthening the tie to which binds every individual to the race, by making the race infinitely better worth belonging to."[1] Such liberty is not without parameters, however. In fact, Mill avers that it is precisely the necessary limits to behavior imposed on individuals through rights that enable "human beings [to] become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation" and fully cultivate themselves.[2] Law serves a paradoxical purpose here: it imposes limits on the individual at the same time as it engenders it through its very constitution. In other words, the individual, as an inherently juridical construct, cannot exist without the law and the limitations it imposes. Mill himself is acutely aware of this contradiction. "Whenever…there is definite damage, or a definite risk of damage, either to an individual or to the public," he explains, "the case is taken out of the province of liberty and placed in that of morality or law."[3] Individual self-determination can thus only be understood as such when it is circumscribed in accordance with the purview of the state's legal personality.

This facet of liberalism presents essential problems for early critics such as Marx. In "On the Jewish Question" in particular, Marx argues that the law's primary function is the maintenance of private property as the central structuring mechanism of society. For Marx, property embodies the truest expression of self-interest, "the right to enjoy one's fortune and to dispose of it as one will; without regard for other men and independently of society…this individual liberty, and it's application, form the basis of civil society."[4] Such enjoyment, however, must also be secured through legal curtailment, as an unregulated expression of self-interest could hinder others' ability to cultivate their own property and thus develop as citizens. In this sense security is a natural consequence of private property and no less foundational to civil society. This dynamic poses an immitigable tension for Marx. If society "exists only in order to guarantee for each of its members the preservation of his person, his rights and his property,"[5] and if such preservation is inherently limiting to individual expression in its truest form, then the individual-and the political community to which the individual contributes-exists as a mere means for the preservation of rights. [6] Within this framework, the bourgeois property owner becomes the symbol of authenticity as the personification of liberal rights. This is why for Marx the achievement of "political emancipation" is ultimately futile as a finite strategy: political rights entail state recognition, and thus the perpetuation of the capitalist mode of production in which rights are constituted as an indispensable precondition.

Liberal Multiculturalism as 'American-ness'

Liberalism has endured as a central philosophical strain centuries after Mill formulated his famed treatise. Indeed, liberalism's emphasis on individual liberty, unregulated market rationality, and universality characterizes both the social dynamics and capital flows that permeate society. Yet it is important to interrogate the codification of individual freedom within a given set of all encompassing, state-legitimated rights. It is easily observed that not everyone residing in liberal states receives truly equal treatment; more often than not the law may appear to operate unfairly, and its ostensible commitment to equality can undermine radically unequal material conditions. Black people in the United States, for example, have been particularly subjected to tremendous physical violence, but also legally excluded from civic participation. Many activists and scholars believe that because of this, an intuitive approach to political agitation should involve advocating for greater state recognition. This stance takes for granted that, as Will Kymlicka puts it, "accommodating ethnic and national differences is only part of a larger struggle to make a more tolerant and inclusive democracy…An adequate theory of the rights of cultural minorities must therefore be compatible with the just demands of disadvantaged social groups…." [7] Kymlicka's proposition is important because it attempts to mitigate social inequities through a multicultural and rights-based framework deemed able to accommodate historical, social, and cultural differences. Rather than emphasizing the benefits of legal universalism, Kymlicka acknowledges that a blanketed application of the law is insufficient.

His provocation is less successful in its application, however. In positioning "the fact that anyone can integrate into the common culture, regardless of race or color"[8] as the great triumph of liberal democracy, Kymlicka participates in the very mode of erasure he seeks to ameliorate by failing to interrogate the composition of the "common" (read: middle-class, white) culture into which minorities are purportedly choosing to incorporate themselves. His assertion that "…[Latino] immigrants who come to the United States with the intention to stay and become citizens…are committed to learning English and participating in the mainstream society,"[9] for example, whitewashes any semblance of difference by commending minority groups for their ability to effectively shed such difference in striving for political recognition. On the other hand, Kymlicka misunderstands the effectiveness of specific legal provisions, claiming that "…national minorities in the Unites States have a range of rights intended to reflect and protect their status as distinct cultural communities, and they have fought to retain and expand these rights."[10] Kymlicka takes this to signify the superiority of liberal democracy while characterizing integration into the US legal framework as liberalism's crowning achievement.

On the contrary, the dual subsumption and glorification of difference is foundational to US nation building. To recall Marx, it is the normalization of political emancipation-as opposed to full human emancipation-as the main form of struggle that naturalizes the capitalist social order by positing the bourgeois property owner as the telos of human progress. Reading Kymlicka through Mill in conjunction with Marx, then, illustrates that liberal multiculturalism presupposes a universal standard that both inherently limits individual expression through the incorporation of minority groups into a presumptively 'common culture' premised on specifically normative discourses and institutions. This mode of incorporation circumvents the potential for opposition to capitalism while simultaneously producing newly racialized subjects who are excluded from the political rights now propounded as the fullest actualization of freedom. Jodi Melamed explains how this dynamic has been maintained through the US' efforts to promote racial equality by espousing a formal policy of "racial liberalism" not dissimilar to Kymlicka's propositions. Writes Melamed, "…the liberal race paradigm recognizes racial inequality as a problem, and it secures a liberal symbolic framework for race reform centered in abstract equality, market individualism, and inclusive civic nationalism. Antiracism becomes a nationally recognized social value and, for the first time, gets absorbed into US governmentality." [11] Moreover, the official antiracism of the post-war period can be read as constitutive in and of itself of US nationalism, as it becomes a rationalization for transnational capitalism and foreign intervention in the name of US interests. [12] The "suturing of liberal antiracism to US nationalism, which manages, develops, and depoliticizes capitalism by collapsing it with Americanism," Melamed writes, "results in a situation where 'official' antiracist discourse and politics actually limit awareness of global capitalism."[13] In other words, a policy of racial liberalism positions the US as a fully multicultural state necessarily counterpoised to the "monoculturalism" of non-Western societies.[14]

Multiculturalism as American-ness now reflects a universal subject, construed as a victory against racism at the same time as it is repurposed to further entrench global capitalism.[15] Liberal multiculturalism here functions not only with regard to race, but all non-normative identities. A pertinent example is the enfolding of queer people into the narrative of US nationalism after the September 11, 2001 attacks. As Jasbir Puar explains, "…even as patriotism immediately after September 11 was inextricably tied to a reinvigoration of heterosexual norms for Americans, progressive sexuality was championed as a hallmark of US modernity." Despite this glorification of heteronormativity, "the United States was also portrayed as 'feminist' in relation to the Taliban's treatment of Afghani women…and gay-safe in comparison to the Middle East." [16] Puar's insight demonstrates the ease with which non-normative cultural narratives are incorporated into US nationalism under liberal multiculturalism and subsequently recast as no less normative than Marx's bourgeois property owner. Queerness is still politicized, but not as an oppositional identity; rather, capitalism, orientalism, and heteronormativity are grafted onto it and reconstitute it as the expression of truly American values.

The Political-Economy of Identity Politics

Though is crucial to identify the development of liberal multiculturalism as essential to the naturalization of capitalism, it is also worth gauging the extent to which liberal multiculturalism has been enmeshed within larger political-economic processes such as the dissolution of Fordism. As the post-war Fordist model of standardized mass production and mass consumption began to outpace more relaxed consumption patterns, Fordism's systemic rigidities began to negatively impact its ability (in tandem with a relatively strong Keynesian welfare state) to mitigate capitalism's volatility. When exogenous factors such as the OPEC oil shock of 1973 compounded this dynamic, firms attempted to deal with these increasingly unsustainable political-economic features by diversifying their production lines to spike demand, a tactical shift made possible through the flexibilization of production along with the growingly transnational character of capital flows. Many firms moved their production lines off shore and marked up prices by way of customization at the same time as production costs were drastically lowered. As Wolfgang Streeck argues, however, a new accumulation regime is not just a new accumulation regime: it engenders a new individual.[17]

Within a globalizing economy, the expression of individual autonomy increasingly rests upon the exercising of agency now inextricable from the political economy of customized consumption. Streeck refers to this dynamic as "a way for individuals to link up to others and thereby define their place in the world" in which one may "conceive an act of purchase…as an act of self-identification and self-presentation, one that sets the individual apart from some social groups while uniting him or her with others."[18] It is not as though individuals regularly defined themselves in contrast to normative identities before the neoliberal turn, through a range of practices not inherently contingent on the act of consumption; however, the development of identity politics in conjunction with neoliberalism's emergence at the very least shares an affinity with the differentiated patterns of individuation present within the flexibilized production processes explicated by Streeck, in which politics is decontextualized as "individual market choice trumps collective political choice."[19]

Fordism's demise contributed to the fundamental restructuring of the Left in the US. The class-based politics of Left movements began to erode as New Right politicians like Reagan and Thatcher grew to ascendance in the late 1970s and early 1980s and used the inflationary crisis as a means to radically restructure their respective countries' economies. Such a restructuring involved scaling back social welfare institutions, busting unions, and imposing austerity measures, all of which present grave consequences for the ability of the working class to sustain itself politically. Whereas the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s had largely foregone an analysis of cultural difference (often to a fault) in lieu of forming strong class-based alliances, Left movements arising during the 1980s began to mirror the individualized ethos and distrust of political institutions embodied by neoliberal governments. As Adolph Reed Jr. notes, within the purview of this new form of identity politics, "as in Thatcher's apothegm, there is no such thing as society, 'only individuals and their families.'"[20] With the subsequent rightward turn of the Democratic Party in the US, moreover, much of the working class "…by and large proceeded to distance itself from the New Left's agenda, no longer seeing themselves reflected in or spoken for by its politics or its electoral strategies."[21]

Originally conceived in the late 1950s as a response to the bureaucratic, top-down approach of the Old Left, the New Left had attempted to politicize identity throughout the 1960s and early 1970s in response to the Vietnam War and virulent racism on the home front. Though the movement often included significant numbers of people of color and sexual minorities, the explicit politicization of these identities was never understood as central to its functioning.[22] The emergence of identity politics, in contrast, represents "the achievement of minority public 'voice,' metaphorically speaking, an enfranchisement of black, female, gay, bisexual, and ethnic communities," both within intentional political communities and the state at large.[23] This structuring of political communities by way of politicized identity takes as its foundation that the achievement of "social and economic equality" depends on increasing "political equality." [24] Here we can begin to outline how identity politics as a contemporary iteration of Left radicalism is in fact inextricable from the regimes of racial liberalism and liberal multiculturalism.

Identity, Inc.

The aim here is not to critique identity politics in and of itself as a method of organizing, but rather to demonstrate how compatible it is with the discourse of liberal multiculturalism. Identity politics in part arose as a reaction to the New Left's inability to account for difference in its composition. At the same time, a range of political-economic factors such as the collapse of Fordism and the consequent restructuring of the welfare state dissolved the New Left's ability to maintain a veritable anti-capitalist disposition. Reed also points to the notable retreat of the Left into academia and the materialization of identity politics as a corollary of cultural studies and post-structuralist discourse characterized by the "rejection of any form of centralizing power or notion of objective truth."[25] In practice, according to Reed, this discourse translates into "a focus on the supposedly liberatory significance of communities and practices defined by their marginality in relation to systems of entrenched power or institutions, a preference for strategies of 'resistance' to imperatives of institutions and 'transgression' of conventions rather than strategies aimed at transformation of institutions and social relations," and the belief that radical political movements should be composed of "groups formed around ascriptive identities that relate to one another on a principle of recognizing and preserving the integrity of their various differences." [26] Reed opposes identity politics because he believes it uncritically accepts capitalist social relations by focusing its efforts on transgression of institutional norms rather than on institutions themselves. In recalling Puar's explication of the manipulation of queer narratives after September 11, Reed's concern is understandable because of how seamlessly difference is codified through narratives of societal progress and liberal social values that both pass implicit judgment on those who continue to reside outside the parameters of normative liberal discourse, while legitimating imperialist projects abroad in opposition to putatively less-accepting 'monocultural' states.

At the same time, activists and scholars have argued in defense of identity politics as a radical discourse that enables the "re-creation of minority histories in a public sphere that had long been hostile or indifferent to narratives of that self and community." For Grant Farred, "Identity politics…represents not only the marginal subject speaking back, but a more engaging philosophical project: the oppressed not only resisting but also negotiating the limitations of agency."[27] In other words, the reclaiming of historical narratives and the construction of intentional communities through identity politics embodies the redefining of state-imposed limitations to self-determination and can thus contribute to both radical social transformation and a more nuanced and culturally aware Left. Indeed, potential exists for identity politics to enable the construction of previously censored histories or cultural narratives. There is certainly a perennial need within the Left for more complex understandings of power, for more less dogmatic visions of emancipation, and for a more expansive formulation of class-based politics. Yet while all this may be true, Wendy Brown explains, identity politics is "partly dependent on the demise of a critique of capitalism and of bourgeois cultural and economic values," and "tethered to a formulation of justice which, ironically, reinscribes a bourgeois ideal as its measure." [28]

Discursive Dilemmas

Drawing on Foucault's theoretical contributions, Brown notes that identity itself is produced through disciplinary mechanisms that, when combined with liberalism's true inability to provide the universal protections it claims to embody, results in "the emergence of politicized identity rooted in disciplinary productions but oriented by liberal discourse toward protest against exclusion from a discursive formation of universal justice." [29] In other words, the politicization of identity is discursively ineluctable from liberalism's claim to universality. Through this form of protest, identity politics is driven by an inherent desire for incorporation into this universal framework, one that, as we have seen through Mill and Kymlicka, has come to tolerate a degree of diversity while presupposing the universal standard of the bourgeois white male property owner. Such a standard can only function when codified through the conferral of rights. Brown questions that if it is "this ideal against which many of the exclusions and privations of people of color, gays and lesbians, and women are articulated, then the political purchase of contemporary American identity politics would seem to be achieved in part through a certain discursive renaturalization of capitalism that can be said to have marked progressive discourse since the 1970s."[30]

None of this is to deride the tactics of various social and political groups, but to acknowledge how the destruction of the Fordist-Keynesian regime has made it more difficult to center an analysis of class when the already-insubstantial institutions of class-based social cohesion have been so drastically eroded since the 1970s and 1980s especially. In this way we may understand neoliberalism not solely as the political-economic reassertion of free market rationality, but also as the reconstitution of Mill's brand of civic liberalism through a multicultural discourse that, as Brown notes, "retains the real or imagined holdings of its reviled subject-in this case, the bourgeois male privileges-as objects of desire." [31] Identity politics thus necessarily "abjure[s] a critique of class power and class norms precisely because the injuries suffered by these identities are measured by bourgeois norms of social acceptance, legal protection, relative material comfort, and social acceptance."[32] The politicization of identity under neoliberalism thus arises through the exclusion of identity from liberalism's presumptively universal subjectivity, thus reinstalling the ideal of the white bourgeoisie as the base expression of such subjectivity. Politicized identity requires the maintenance of this universal subjectivity, as well as its own exclusion from it, in order to endure as identity itself.[33]

As a vehicle for protesting exclusion through the incorporation of the interests of social groups into the bourgeois power structure, identity politics inadvertently reifies it while framing rights, recognition, or (in its most militant variation) the transgression of norms as the actualization of resistance. What might an alternative political praxis to identity politics look like, then? How can the liberalism at the core of identity politics actually be contested when it seems to be so pervasive within a range of radical leftist circles? It is difficult to know for sure. Perhaps it would entail a recommitment to challenging the liberal discourse through which capitalism is legitimated. Perhaps it would include a recognition of and sensitivity towards the intersectional character of difference while seeking to destabilize the paradigm of transgression-as-revolution in lieu of a more fundamentally materialist framework that specifically prioritizes working class struggle. Perhaps it would mean a re-articulation of identity as a fluid rather than a historically and biologically fixed point while continuing to center the importance of historical and cultural narratives. These are merely provocations, however; it is ultimately up to the people to decide.

Works Cited

Brown, Wendy. "Wounded Attachments." Political Theory, Vol. 21, No. 3 (August 1993), pp. 390-410.

Farred, Grant. "Endgame Identity? Mapping the New Left Root of Identity Politics." New Literary History, Vol. 31 (2000), pp. 627-648.

Kymlicka, Will. "The Politics of Multiculturalism," in Multicultural Citizenship. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Marx, Karl. "On the Jewish Question," in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert Tucker. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1978.

Melamed, Jodi. "From Racial Liberalism to Neoliberal Multiculturalism." Social Text 89, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Winter 2006), pp. 1-24.

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty, in 'On Liberty' and Other Writings, ed. Stefan Collini. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Puar, Jasbir. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.

Reed Jr., Adolph. Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene. New York: The New Press, 2001.

Streeck, Wolfgang. "Citizens as Customers: Considerations on the New Politics of Consumption." New Left Review, Vol. 76 (July-August 2012), pp. 27-47.

Young, Iris Marion. "Polity and Group Difference: A Critique of the Ideal of Universal Citizenship," in Theorizing Citizenship, ed. Ronald Beiner. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.


[1] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, in 'On Liberty' and Other Writings, ed. Stefan Collini (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 60.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 80.

[4] Karl Marx, "On the Jewish Question," in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert Tucker (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1978), 42.

[5] Ibid, 43.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Will Kymlicka, "The Politics of Multiculturalism," in Multicultural Citizenship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 10.

[8] Ibid, 15.

[9] Ibid, 8.

[10] Ibid, 4.

[11] Jodi Melamed, "From Racial Liberalism to Neoliberal Multiculturalism," Social Text 89, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Winter 2006), 2.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, 6.

[14] Ibid, 8.

[15] Ibid, 6.

[16] Jasbir Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 41.

[17] Wolfgang Streeck, "Citizens as Customers: Considerations on the New Politics of Consumption," New Left Review, Vol. 76 (July-August 2012), 35.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid, 44.

[20] Adolph Reed Jr., Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (New York: The New Press, 2001), xxvi.

[21] Grant Farred, "Endgame Identity? Mapping the New Left Root of Identity Politics," New Literary History, Vol. 31 (2000), 634.

[22] Ibid, 636.

[23] Ibid, 631.

[24] Iris Marion Young, "Polity and Group Difference: A Critique of the Ideal of Universal Citizenship," in Theorizing Citizenship, ed. Ronald Beiner (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), 185.

[25] Reed, Class Notes, xiv.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Farred, "Endgame Identity? Mapping the New Left Roots of Identity Politics," 638.

[28] Wendy Brown, "Wounded Attachments," Political Theory, Vol. 21, No. 3 (August 1993), 394.

[29] Ibid, 393.

[30] Ibid, 394.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid, 398.