- One multi-ethnic state on the ruins of another Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
- Class politics has given way to identity politics Fraser Myers, spiked
- What a conservative learns in college these days Kathryn Hinderaker, Power Line
- “You can only hold down a good city for so long” Scott Sumner, MoneyIllusion
Jair Bolsonaro was elected president in Brazil. Donald Trump in the US. In other countries, similar politicians are gaining popular support. Some are calling these politicians “populists”. I don’t really know what they mean by this term. The populists that I know better are Getúlio Vargas, Brazil’s president for almost 20 years in the mid-20th century and Juan Peron, a leading political figure in Argentina in the same time period. What they had in common? Both fought the communist influence in Latin America, favored the labor movement and were anti-liberal. They were also extremely personalist, leading to something that could be understood as a cult of personality. I completely fail to see important similarities between Trump and Bolsonaro on the one hand and Vargas and Peron on the other. But I can see some similarities between Trump and Bolsonaro. The latter two both came to power against what the left became in the last few decades.
Once upon a time, there was a young German philosopher called Karl Marx. He was very well read but wasn’t very bright on economics. Anyway, he decided that he would correct the classical liberal economic theory of Adam Smith. The result was that Marx concluded that in the center of the economy, and actually in the center of history itself, was the class struggle between the workforce and the bourgeoisie. Of course, although appealing on the surface, Marx’s economic theory is pure nonsense. Maybe Marx himself knew it, for at the end of his life he was more interested in living a peaceful life in London than in leading a revolution. But this didn’t stop Marxists from starting Revolutions throughout the world, beginning in Russia.
Ludwig Von Mises brilliant pointed out that Marxism would never work as the economic foundation of a country, for it ignored private property. Without private property, there is no price formation and without prices economic calculation is impossible. In doing so, Mises founded the Austrian School of Economics. The economic debate between Austrians and Marxists ensued, but arguing with a Marxist is like playing chess with a pigeon. He will climb on the board, knock down the pieces and believe that he won. Regardless, facts don’t care about your feelings, and reality proved again and again that Mises was right.
However, at the same time, something else was happening. In Italy, a Marxist named Antonio Gramsci concluded that armed revolution was not the best way to power. He believed that a cultural approach would be better. Some German scholars in Frankfurt concluded pretty much the same. Their question was “why the proletariat will not follow us?”. The answer was that they were too alienated by capitalist culture.
Following Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, Marxists all over the world gave up studying economics and decided to study culture. They concluded that everyone can feel oppressed. The class struggle seized to be between factory workers and factory owners and turned into a fight between man and woman, black and white, gay and straight. Identity politics was born.
And that’s how the “populists” came to power. It is not so much that the common people (and especially conservatives and libertarians) are crazily in love with Bolsonaro or Trump. It is just that people eventually get tired of being called oppressors. The left, once legitimately concerned with the conditions of the poor, ignored that the best solution for poverty is the free market. Instead, they decided they would crush the common people they swore to protect, calling them homophobic, misogynists and so on. Common people answered by voting for whoever was on the other side of the political spectrum.
Demands for separating one’s public and private identities are neither new nor simple. As the argument goes, many a political philosopher have claimed that to engage in worthwhile and productive politics, we must shed our private identities to better see, so to speak, the concerns that need a more universal outlook. Thus, to better communicate and deliberate upon political questions within a polity, say a nation, the citizens need to view themselves as citizens alone sans any group affiliation based on gender, religion, race and caste. This is not to snub the importance of social identities in general but only in so far as they affect our political judgement. On the other hand, the response to such a proposal has predictably highlighted the benefits, both political and moral, that one’s private identity has on their political participation. After all, the walls between the identities are not quite as impervious to each other as the philosophers are making it to be. Our individual selves are more than just a simple addition of our social, cultural and personal experiences. How we think about political dilemmas is often and quite rightly influenced by what we anticipate from a rival social group. A female advocating the freedom to make reproductive choices is not just assessing the positions of the stakeholders involved, as Arendt’s call for ‘enlarged mentality’ would require of her. The said female also has to keep in mind the gender hierarchies at play around her.
Arendt was famously non-feminist. She believed that the transposition of the private and the social identities into our political identities can destroy the very fabric of political communication and thus, political judgement. To resolve political dilemmas facing our society, Arendt believed we needed the exact opposite of what identity politics has to offer. Our private and social selves come with a shelf life. They end where the political begins. According to Arendt, the politicization of personal and social identities brings to the fore a self-defined and accepted discrimination that takes us away from the equality that politics demands of us. To think representatively, we need to not only be treated as but also feel like political equals.
While identity politics does well to highlight a history of suppression, it also contributes to a further strengthening of political cleavages that prevent us from ever going back to the ideal state that was disturbed by the suppression. Identity politics causes harm to inter-sectionalities because it forces us to choose between conflicting identities. But more importantly, it conflates the many dimensions of our self with the identity that we have thus chosen to speak through, politically. This conflation results in a demonization of everything that does not conform to our sense of identity, resulting in a fear of the unknown (of which Martha Nussbaum has talked about in the Monarchy of Fear). In the creation of this battleground, we forget that the other side is human. Just like us. And it is easy to not think about our moral obligations to each other when the enemy has been dehumanized and reduced to a label.
Arendt on identity politics deserves much greater scrutiny. Especially because of the overwhelming reliance of social cleavages but current political leaders. The era of identity politics has given us a society with walls that mask themselves as political ideologies but are nothing more than a refusal to recognize that the other side is human too. An essential step in Arendtian judgement is to accept the inherent and equal worth of each individual, irrespective of their social identity. We would do well to find common grounds in our humanity, first.
Whether one swallow it or not, Mahant Yogi Adityanath (Ajay Singh Bisht) -Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP)- is a new democratic reality of India, at least for present. He is well known for his questionable politics and political hold in and around Gorakhpur district in the eastern UP. Hindu Yuva Vahini (Hindu Youth Group) acts as his private brigade and has, allegedly, fomented and participated in communal activities. Even Yogi’s anti-minority diatribe during public meetings are well known. He is facing charges for rioting, related to intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace, charges related to injuring or defiling place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class, charges related to promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony etc. All these were piled up during the non-Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) governments at the Union and state levels. Instead of taking action against Yogi, his politics had been carefully nurtured during the rule of those governments. It is also alleged that they did so to keep the minorities with them. In past, this politics of fear has mechanically worked to serve the respective political interests of various political stakeholders.
With Yogi, as CM and the massive mandate BJP has got (won 312 seats out of 384 it contested), a question arises: is he a future or a temporary present? He may not be the future of India, but his politics is. He has an ability to divide the people in the name of religion, and at the same time can unite different castes of the Hindu community by arousing religious feelings. One of the reasons why most of the psephologists went wrong in their pre-poll analyses that they gave little attention to this uniting effect of the divisive politics. This pattern has taken years to develop. Analysts kept on writing and engage themselves into brain storming sessions on Mandal versus Kamandal while, on the ground, the two entered into a ‘comfortable’ symbiosis by making certain power related adjustments. In that adjustment, Kamandal has given political leadership to OBC, Dalits, and Schedule Tribes, and in return these leaders help in spread of Hindutva in their area and among their influence groups.
In contemporary India, one may analyse in a different way, but a larger reality is that the members, many of them, of the dominant Other Backward Castes or Dalits identify themselves as a Hindu first then a member of a non-upper caste group. They too believe that they are ‘different’ from the members of minority groups and, like majority members of the so called upper caste, many of them still practice social discriminations against the Muslims. This is evident during communal riots. This is essentially a result of Brahminization of a large section of OBCs, Dalits, and tribal groups carried out by the Hindu revivalist groups since the colonial era. This Brahminization dictates the cultural traits, behavioural pattern, and also dietary habits. Therefore, moral policing and forceful closure of chicken and mutton shops in UP find support from a substantive number of people. Moral policing is mean to regulate women’s sexuality and movement, and an attempt to check inter-caste mix up. Ad banning of sale of meat is a form of economic attack on profession , largely, related with the members of minority religious group and to those who do not adhere to Brahminical values.
As individuals wear multiple identities, they keep on changing them according to time and space. In the UP elections of 2017 majority of Hindu voters gave preference to their religious identity over the other identities. Almost all political parties are aware about this tenuous relationship between caste and religion, therefore no one shows enthusiasm or vocal about implementation of the recommendations of the Sachar Committee report to improve status of a large number of Indian Muslims.
One may ask that if this is the situation then why it did not work in Bihar in 2016. Well, in case of Bihar, BJP lost the election which was almost in its plate. Second, Nitish Kumar as a Chief Minister has always been considered to be a safety valve through whom others can ire their vent out while the upper castes can safeguard their political interests. In late 1990s he was a part of BJP’s such experiment in Bihar. In past he led coalition governments with BJP as an ally. Many such factors joined together to help him to develop similar political equation with the voters.
The results of a series of elections since 2014 general elections, with a few exceptions, prove that the BJP through its sister organizations has successfully captured the available political space in India, and is a dominant force with little or almost no opposition in coming years. Any challenge to its present position is possible only through a rise of an alternative politics from the below.
“Identity politics” have been an intensely large obsession of the American left or the past forty or so years. Academic leftists have devoted their entire careers and even the organizations of their departments to studying notions of identity and the specific history and interests of certain identity groups—such as women’s studies, African-American studies, and other similar programs. The Democratic Party has put special emphasis on mobilizing various minority groups based on identity, focusing on “Women’s issues” such as abortion or “the needs of the African-American community” such as police reform or “gay rights” to get a certain of segment of voters to turn out in elections.
Yet, with the election of Trump, many moderate leftists are questioning the utility of identity politics. Mark Lilla had a prominent recent piece in The New York Times declaring the “end of identity liberalism.” Lilla’s main criticisms of identity politics focus on it as a “strategic mistake” in electoral politics and how it has made liberals and progressives “narcissistically unaware of conditions outside of their self-identified groups,” particularly white, middle class, working men in the Midwest. Matt Yglesias, meanwhile, responded by sounding off that all politics is identity politics, people always organize themselves in interest groups, writing that “any plausible account of political behavior by actual human beings needs to concede that politics has always been practiced largely by mobilizing people around salient aspects of group identity rather than detailed policy proposals.” The left, he says, can’t abandon identity politics because “[t]here is no other way to do politics than to do identity politics.”
Those on what is traditionally considered the “right” end of the political spectrum (ignoring the specific phenomena of Trump voters and alt-righters, that is) tend to be dismissive of the whole project of identity politics. This approach is embodied by Robby Soave’s recent article in Reason claiming that identity politics is just a form of tribalism that seeks to subvert individual rights and overall social welfare to the tribalist demands of some salient group people self-identify with. Soave also sees the rise of Trumpism as itself a form of identity politics for white men, a claim which I’ll address at length in a moment.
What is one to make, then, of identity politics in the Trump era? First, it seems there is considerable confusion about what identity politics even is in the first place. Lilla, for an example, seems to imply that the left’s obsession with appealing to minority political coalitions is merely a strategy for winning elections. Soave thinks it’s pure tribalist and collectivist ideology, and Yglesias defines it so broadly that any political mobilization at all is considered identity politics. How are we to understand what operative definition of what is commonly called “identity politics” is most useful, or at least is closest to how its commonly used in political discourse?
Lilla and Yglesias understanding, it seems, misses the point about why so many leftists are so passionate about identity politics. People who are interested in cultural dramas and issues related to group identity are not just Democratic strategists in campaign war-rooms, but, as I mentioned earlier, academics, and “true believer” bleeding-heart progressive activists. It seems to me that identity politics—at least at first (and still is in the minds of the true believers post-1960s progressivism)—is not about an election strategy. It’s certainly become that for Democratic strategists, but it originally was motivated by the old liberal concern with ending the misery for stigmatized groups. Identity politics is not merely a political strategy, but a strategy the left used for getting rid of racism, homophobia, and otherization of outgroups in society at large.
The idea is like this: try to get, for example, white people to sympathize with black people by getting whites to recognize that black people have their own meaningful web of cultural associations which is just as valid as those of the dominant culture. Its roots are in cultural studies academia, such as the writings of Judith Butler and Nancy Fraser. Essentially, identity politics is rooted in philosophical attempts to end prejudice through emphasizing “cultural recognition” of despised groups. As Richard Rorty wrote in describing this strategy:
It helps, when trying to recognise a common humanity in a person of another gender, class, or ethnicity, to think of them as having as rich an inner life as one does oneself. To picture such an inner life, it helps to know something about the web of memories and associations which make it up. So one way to help eliminate prejudice and erase stigma is to point out that, for example, women have a history, that homosexuals take pride in belonging to the same stigmatised group as Proust, and that African-Americans have detailed memories of the battles which make up what Russell Banks calls “the three hundred year War Between The Races in America” – the sort of memories whites are currently learning about from Toni Morrison’s novels. It helps to realise that all such groups wrap a comforting blanket of memories and traditions, customs and institutions, around themselves, just as do classical scholars, old Etonians, or members of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.
Thus treating identity politics just as a way to get electoral coalitions out to vote, and also (as Soave does) as simply tribalism ideology when it was started as a strategy to mitigate tribalism, misses the point about why the left is so passionate about these cultural issues. It isn’t simple collectivism nor Machiavellian political strategy, but (hopefully) genuine concern for stigmatize groups that mobilizes this obsession.
Of course, as Rorty well-recognized, this way of ending prejudice is not the only way nor is it the most effective. First, it does make the left appear as this overly sensitive “politically correct” group of elitists who care little for the concerns of working class whites. As Rorty wrote that the left’s preoccupation with cultural identity politics would mean “the straight white male working class in America may find it tempting to think that the leftist academy is uninterested in its problems.” Indeed, most of why Lilla is concerned that identity politics has failed so spectacularly as an electoral strategy is that it has isolated progressives from middle America.
More importantly, however, is that emphasizing cultural difference has failed spectacularly at its initial aim of ending prejudice. The whole point of Soave’s Reason column is that leftist identity politics has become its own form of tribalism and have given rise to the right-wing identity politics of Trump. Not only have leftists often gotten so caught up in the identity politics language game that they call their own (such as Bernie Sanders) white supremacists for not playing along, it has created its own prejudice backlash. If your way of getting straight white males to recognize non-straight white males as worthy of equal treatment is to say “Those who are unlike you have different cultural values that are worth being celebrated and protected,” the response of straight white males is to say “Do not I also have a different culture worthy of being celebrated and protected?”
Indeed, this type of rhetoric is at the heart of the rise of the alt-right. It isn’t mere hatred of others that is animating this new populist, fascist movement (though that is certainly a concerningly large part of it), it is that they are making this hatred seem legitimate by couching it in terms of advancing “white interests” in a very similar rhetorical manner that the left has pushed the interests of minority groups. Richard Spencer’s “mantra” for the alt-right is “race is the foundation of identity” (emphasis mine) and calls himself an “identarian.” Even outside the small niche of the alt-right, average Trump voters often say they want a way to express and defend their identity—whether it is in the form of white nationalism or in forms of defending Christian “religious liberties” as its own identity coalition against gay rights.
Soave is correct that left-wing identity politics has given us this right-wing identity politics, and it is something Rorty himself saw as a potential consequence of this approach. In his 1998 book Achieving our Country, he explicitly predicted that the white working class would become disconnected from the academic left, and would “start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots[.]” He also predicted that when this strongman assumes office, “gains made over the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out.” It is no coincidence that this sounds quite a bit like Trump.
It’s not surprising that emphasizing differences between the majority and a scapegoated group would mean that the majority group would start taking “pride” in its difference from the scapegoated. Of course, anyone who understands systemic power structures or how sociological hierarchy works understands why this response is not the same. There is a difference between cherishing the cultural differences of a scapegoated minority and using institutional power to coercively protect the cultural interests of the majority group at the expense of the minority. But you can’t expect a white adolescent basement-dwelling troll on 4-Chan or even a working class white voter from central Michigan to understand and fully internalize that difference, and they are likely to be very reluctant or overtly hostile to acknowledging it. All the alt-right has done is take identity politics and turn it against its original aim to advance the exact tribalism leftists have been trying to use identity politics to end.
A better strategy the left could have used was the strategy the old left used through classical feminism, abolitionism, the sixties Civil Rights movement, or some new progressives through the more pop-culture current of the gay rights movement. Rorty describes it beautifully:
Another way is to get the prejudiced to see the stigmatised as having the same tendency to bleed when pricked as they themselves: they too worry about their children and parents; they are possessed by the same self-doubts, and lose self-confidence when humiliated; their difficulties in moving from one stage of life to another are much like everyone else’s, despite the fact that their life-chances may be minimal. These ways of emphasising commonality rather than difference have little to do with “cultural recognition.” They have to do with experiences shared by members of all cultures and all historical epochs, and which remain pretty much the same despite cultural change.
There’s no real way for bigots to co-opt this approach to advance their bigotry. In fact, it explicitly avoids framing the discussion not as some necessary “culture war” between an oppressive majority and an oppressed minority as current identity politics rhetoric implies and alt-right identitarians have assumed as their rallying cry. Instead, it emphasizes the need to end culture wars in the first place by progressing people’s sentiments to stand in solidarity with an ever-growing chunk of humanity—it seeks to replace simple identity with empathy.
Is this approach still in the vein of “identity politics” as we currently understand it? If we take Yglesias’ understanding, sure it still “concede[s] that politics has always been practiced largely by mobilizing people around salient aspects of group identity,” but it seeks to make salient aspects of group identity as banal as possible, to make people stand in solidarity based off empathy for everyone’s common human shortcomings rather than based off who they happen to be culturally similar to, to make one’s ingroup as inclusive as impossible. It certainly isn’t tribalist or collectivist as Soave is concerned. Though it still recognizes diversity as important, Rorty still explicitly says that we should see this diversity “as a diversity of self-creating individuals, rather than a diversity of cultures[.]” This liberal (and classical liberal as I see it as drawing off of Hume, Smith, and Mill more than anything) vision is one that is both pluralistic and individualistic.
Is this, however, a winning electoral strategy, as Lilla is concerned? I’m not sure. Tribalist urges of racism are certainly very powerfully woven into how humans have psychologically evolved, and perhaps in our current broken discourse of race relations it isn’t the best electoral strategy. There is, however, some reason for optimism; popular support for gay rights is at an all-time high, after all, and this was probably more a function of the victory of emphasizing the similarity of love between gays to that of straights then getting straight allies to march in gay pride parades. Regardless of electoral outcomes, shouldn’t the goal of civil discourse not be to win elections, but to ensure the most just, peaceful, and prosperous civil society—the zero-sum game of coercive politics be damned? Leftists should try to change the current broken discourse, rather than try to work within it to gain political power.
Lately I have been thinking about how minorities affect the Democratic Party here in the US. Basically, all minorities vote for the Democrats in national elections, but minorities tend to be conservative culturally. This has the effect of pulling the Leftist party waaaaay to the center (a fact that makes it hard for me to complain about Democrats’ pandering tactics).
Sure, the GOP will always be the party of old white people, but if the Democrats’ left-wing is essentially neutered due to minority voting blocs within the Party, who cares?
The fact that the Democrats pine for minorities explains why the US has never had a very powerful socialist movement. Socialists will often blame “neoliberals,” “capitalists,” “reactionaries,” and other assorted boogeymen, but doesn’t the minority insight make much more sense?
This minority insight has also got me thinking about demographic changes in Europe over the past 30 years. Basically, Europe has had a huge influx of immigrants since the fall of socialism. In the old days, Sweden was for Swedes, France was for the French, Germany was for Germans, etc. etc. This mindset helps to explain why European states had such overbearing welfare states and why economic growth was so limited up until the late 1980s.
As immigrants moved into these welfare states, the Left-wing parties began to pander to them. This had the same effect as it did in the United States: culturally conservative voting blocs diluted the Leftism of traditionally Left-wing parties. As a result, these welfare states became less robust and economic growth became attainable again.
A big underlying point about my musings on this subject is that socialism relies on nationalism in the area of popular politics and policymaking. Without Sweden for the Swedes-type sloganeering, socialism becomes ridiculous to the masses. This underlying point, along with the straightforward fact that immigrants dilute socialist power (economic, political, and cultural), suggests to me that libertarians who pay close attention to popular politics should relax when it comes to the fact that minorities don’t find libertarian ideals all that appealing.
- Generals and Political Interventions in American History
- “they neglect to take account of the experiences of postcolonial states that form the vast majority of members of the international system. “
- The U.S. Hasn’t ‘Pulled Back’ from the Middle East At All
- No special sharia rules in American courts for Muslims’ wrongful-death recovery
- Is Gary Johnson a True Libertarian? American libertarianism has a purge problem
- Identity politics and the perils of zero-sum thinking
You heard it from me first: The scandal at the University of Missouri that led to the resignation of its president recently (11/8/15) stinks to high heaven. It’s a phony. It’s fabricated. How do I know? The real redneck racists being evoked, outlined, sketched in the story would have been proud just to find the can of spray paint to decorate a university building with a swastika. The problem with plotters is that they usually go too far, that they try too hard. The plotters in this case used the supreme refinement of doing the swastika in human feces. That takes effort, planning. It’s just too good to be true!
Why did the president and the chancellor both resign? Two reasons. But first, they did not “resign;” they were pushed out and for good reason. (See below.) Number one reason: University administrators have no backbone, as a general rule. A few years ago, my attorney and I beat up a dozen of them. We made them eat sand; we made them cry. Second reason: University administrators almost always have golden parachutes. Resigning, for such people, is like taking a vacation for others.
Why were they pushed out? There is big money involved although U of Missouri football has not been shining lately, I am told. U. of Missouri, like many other universities, has made itself a financial hostage to a handful of black gladiators they shamelessly insist on calling “students.” Someone correct me if I am wrong but I heard on NPR that one of the “students’” “demands” was for more hires for the university’s black studies program. Sounds tremendously familiar! Same thing happened thirty years ago all over the nation. The plotters have good memories and no original thought at all. At my former university employer, ten years ago, there were protests leading to the university administration making a large lounge available for the use of “students of color.” (It’s true that no (No) sign was actually posted forbidding entry to whites; fair is fair!)
A student at U. of Missouri staged a hunger strike. Sorry, a hunger strike for five days is just a weight reduction experience. I realize this is an insensitive remark but, W.T. F.! We are witnessing a flurry of artificial racial protests nation-wide because the Democratic Party is desperate about its geriatric, dishwater white line-up. Even if it should win the election, the Democratic Party will still face a tremendous identity crisis. I don’t rejoice. Massive, collective dishonesty soils the water in which we all try to swim.
Judging by some of the fruitful dialogues that have gone on here in the distant past and just the other day, I’d say that there is still a lot of work to do regarding a few concepts that seem to have meaning to them but are not really well-defined or well-understood.
I am writing about nationality, ethnicity, race, and culture, of course.
Dr Stocker and myself have taken aim at nationality before, and Michelangelo has taken aim at ethnicity while Jacques has taken a few cracks at race and ethnicity. Mike has some notes on ethnic identity as well. Culture has been discussed here at NOL before, but an effort to systematically define it has not been undertaken. (Update 12/8/14: Matthew has also taken a crack at ethnicity.)
The problem of these concepts can best be illustrated with a hypothetical (with apologies to Matthew!): There is a tribe in the state of Kenya known as the Maasai. In Kenya the Maasai are more than a tribe, though. The Maasai are considered by both the Maasai themselves and their neighbors to be an ethnic group. The Maasai and their neighbors within Kenya also consider themselves to be Kenyans. The Maasai have a distinct culture that sets them apart in some way from other ethnic groups in Kenya. Most Kenyans, including the Maasai, consider themselves to be racially black.
Now suppose that a single Maasai man from Kenya goes to Syria, or Belgium, or Canada, or China for a vacation. The Maasai man is suddenly no longer Maasai, for all intents and purposes. He still has a nationality, and an ethnic, a cultural, and a racial component to him, though. The Maasai man’s ethnicity suddenly becomes Kenyan rather than Maasai abroad. So, too, does his culture become Kenyan or simply African. He is still black racially. Notice, though, that these concepts mean different things in different contexts.
Suppose further that our Maasai man goes to Ghana for a vacation. Ghana is in west Africa, whereas Kenya is on the east coast. Africa is huge, and the gulfs between societies on the west coast and east coast of sub-Saharan Africa are cavernous. Nevertheless, our Maasai man is likely to be able to identify ethnically as a Maasai in Ghana. He is likely to be able to identify as part of the Kenyan nation. Culturally, though, our Maasai man is also going to be identified as Kenyan rather than Maasai.
Confused? Yeah, me too.
Here is another way to confuse you. The Ashanti people of Ghana are considered by others in the region to be a nation, but not an ethnic group. The Ashanti belong, instead, to a pan-regional group of people known as the Akan, and the Akan are considered to be the ethnic group while the smaller Ashanti group is considered to be a nation. This, of course, comes into conflict with what it means to be a Ghanaian. In Europe or Asia or the New World, a member of the Ashanti nation would be considered instead as a member of the Ghanaian nation.
In sub-Saharan Africa everybody who is not black is white. So Persians, Arabs, Eskimos, Armenians, Koreans, Japanese, French, English, Dutch, and Brahmins are all racially white to Africans. Africans base their distinctions between whites on their different behavioral patterns. So a Sudanese man may be working with two groups of white people but he only distinguishes them (suppose one is Chinese and one is English) by how they behave toward each other, toward him and his associates, and in relation to the rules of the game established in Sudan. Race is the most prominent feature of foreigners in Africa, but curiosity about differences between whites abounds.
The combinations for confusion are endless. I have not even broached the topic of what is means to be ‘American’, for example.
This is where the importance of viewing the world as made up of individuals comes into play. This is where the abstract legal notion of individual rights becomes an important component of good governance and internationalism.
I think we could all agree that is does no good to ignore these confusing identities and attempting instead to cram them into a specific framework (“Western individualism”). This is where economists go wrong, but paradoxically it’s also where they are most right.
As I noted a couple of days ago, economics as a discipline tends to be more hierarchical but also more successful than the other social science disciplines. I didn’t have enough space to note there that this hierarchy is limited to a very small segment of society. Is it at all possible to establish a hierarchy of sorts, a unified code of laws that protects the individual but prevent this hierarchy of last resort from becoming the norm in other ways? A hierarchy that leaves plenty of space for independent networks and fragmented communities of choice?
I don’t even know how these question tie in to my title. I simply know that they do. Somehow.
The past few months have been busy, to say the least. The Obama administration announced a series of executive actions regarding immigration and that has taken up most of my time. Meanwhile in my day job as a graduate student I’ve been overwhelmed with midterms and finals; I am sure my fellows in NoL can sympathize with this. The few moments of peace I have enjoyed have gone towards pondering one question: Who is an American?
The question is not isolated. By asking who an American is, I’m really asking what ethnicity, and other social groups, really are. The best answer to my question was an old Cato blog post appropriately titled, What is an American? In it Edward Hudgins discusses what makes an American. It is not, as some believe, a common language, creed, or ancestry. What makes an American is his love for liberty. It is in his closing remarks that Hudgins hits on something amazing, there is no meaningful thing as ‘American’.
Unfortunately, the American spirit has eroded. Our forebears would look with sadness at the servile and envious character of many of our citizens and policymakers. But the good news is that there are millions of Americans around the world, living in every country. Many of them will never make it here to the United States. But they are Americans, just as my grandpop was an American before he ever left Italy.
There exists those individuals who can prefix themselves as Americans, but at best this only tells us that they are somehow affiliated with the American continent. There exists a group of people who yearn for liberty and are willing to fight for it, but many of them were neither born or live in the United States. Likewise there are those who were born and live in the United States who are no friends of liberty. And so my initial question has lead me to a new one. Why not promote being a libertarian as an ethnicity? Why not introduce ourselves as ‘Libertarios’ instead of Americans, Germans, or Turks?
At first my proposal may sound strange to some. Would it not be silly to define an ethnicity by political views? I don’t think so. Few ethnic groups have a concrete basis in reality and are based more on fiction than anything else. I was born in Mexico, raised in the United States, and am directly descended from Germans, Jews, and Cubans. I feel little fraternity to these latter groups though. Why should I? I didn’t elect to have Jewish or Mexican ancestry, but I did elect to be a libertarian. Anyone who proclaims to be a libertarian automatically has my sympathy and support, even if I know nothing else about them. As this is the case I would prefer to be identified as a Libertario than any other ethnic group.
I am sure that there are those who would prefer not to be identified by any collective label at all. For those of you who fall into this category I would offer a pragmatic case for identify as Libertario.
I hope it can be taken for granted that, as libertarians, we wish there to be more libertarians. In the best scenario more libertarians in the world might lead to better public policy. In the worst scenario we at least have more potential friends. By promoting our existence as an ethnic group we would encourage more people to remain as libertarians. I have often found people who have libertarian political views, but who withdraw from participation if they become discouraged about the hope for change in their lifetimes. If we were an ethnic group though these individuals would continue to promote liberty, if only to signal their membership in the group. An ethnic group therefore not only encourages members to remain active, but produces positive externalities to promote the group’s message.
For comparison consider the Mormon people. Many Mormons spend time advocating on behalf on their religion, with several even going abroad on missionary work. From anecdotal experience I’ve noticed that many of them are ill treated when they perform their advocacy. Why do they bother to do so then? Because, as I’ve noted above, it signals their membership in the Mormon community. The average Mormon may not particularly enjoy being harassed for their beliefs, but they do it anyway to tell other Mormons a simple message, “I’m one of you.”
It goes without saying that there must be a benefit to belonging to a given group for this to work.
Additionally the existence of an ethnic libertario community would make raising children to be libertarians much easier. I side with Bryan Caplan in the belief that a relatively easy way to grow the movement is by simply having more children than the general population. It doesn’t matter if you believe children’s political beliefs, and by extension their ethics and other characteristics, are shaped by genetics or their nurturing, a libertario community would help with producing children. If you believe in the genetic argument, then an ethnic community reduces the cost of finding a spouse who shares your political beliefs. If you believe in the nurture argument, then surely a child raised among libertarians is more likely to end up being one himself.
Thoughts? Am I just crazy? Or do you have a counter proposal to ‘Libertario’ as our ethnic label? Comment below.
I recently read an article in this anthology on the emergence of gay identity in the United States and its connection to capitalism. I was particularly delighted to read it after the author, John D’Emilio, admits the following in the abstract:
Using Marxist analyses of capitalism, I argue that two aspects of capitalism – wage labor and commodity production – created the social conditions that made possible the emergence of a distinctive gay and lesbian identity.
Before I continue I should mention that the article was published in 1983 – a whole six years before the fall of the Berlin Wall – so my initial stance going in to the reading was one of condescension. In my head I was thinking:
Oh really? A Marxist analysis of gay identity and how it relates to capitalism? I can’t WAIT to see what interesting charges will follow. Private prisons for homosexuals? Exploited homosexual labor for meager wages? I am soooo glad that my critical thinking skills are respected by the academic community.
Alas, the article in question is very, very good (but for all the wrong reasons, of course!).
The article is good for three important reasons.
1) it explicitly shows how capitalism, or more precisely the market, has indeed provided more freedom for homosexuals.
2) it inadvertently shows how the state has been used by factions to impose their will upon other factions in society.
3) it illustrates just how utterly childish Leftism in general and 1980’s American Marxism in particular really is.
D’Emilio, an academic historian (lest you question his very good credentials), begins by explaining how the gay and lesbian identity as it is understood today began to emerge in the 1960’s. The key aspect here is that a number of myths about homosexuality were created and adopted by the gay movement in response to state-sponsored oppression. It would be pertinent to keep these myths in mind when we think about other movements that have worked to eliminate oppressive laws (which are always and everywhere created and enforced by our enemy: the state) since the 1960’s. D’Emilio writes:
[…] we constructed a myth of silence, invisibility, and isolation as the essential characteristics of gay life in the past as well as the present. Moreover, because we faced so many oppressive laws, pubic policies, and cultural beliefs, we projected this image into an image of an abysmal past
[…] There is another historical myth that enjoys nearly universal acceptance in the gay movement, the myth of the ‘eternal homosexual.’ The argument runs something like this: Gay men and lesbians always were and always will be. We are everywhere; not just now, but throughout history, in all societies and in all periods. This myth served as a political function in the first years of gay liberation.
It is important to note here that myths among minority groups are often created by the intellectual class to help give such groups a base with which to launch their “resistance” campaigns from. While liberal democracies are much better for minority groups than are other types of governments, there is still oppression to be found. Again, this oppression is always and everywhere created and enforced by the state at the behest of factions. The marketplace, which is made up of billions of individuals pursuing their own self-interests, has no place for systematic rules of oppressing potential customers and business partners. This is not to say that some business interests don’t try to eliminate competition through laws based on irrational, xenophobic or racist views, but only that if the market is allowed sufficient room to operate freely then individual freedom and prosperity will ensue.
When D’Emilio writes about the myth of the eternal homosexual, he is not denying that homosexuality has been absent from human societies since time immemorial. What he stating here is that homosexuality as American society now understands it is a new phenomenon. Got that? So, 200 years ago homosexual acts weren’t considered homosexual. They were something else entirely and dependent upon the cultural interpretations for homosexual acts of a given society. This is what scholars mean when they refer to “identity.”* D’Emilio continues to elaborate his point:
Here I wish to challenge this myth. I want to argue that gay men and lesbians have not always existed. Instead, they are a product of history, and have come into existence in a specific historical era [stay with me here, outdated Marxist frameworks can often be useful – bc]. Their emergence is associated with the relations of capitalism; it has been the historical development of capitalism – more specifically its free-labor system – that has allowed large numbers of men and women in the late twentieth century to call themselves gay, to see themselves as part of a community of similar men and women, and to organize politically on the basis of that identity.
D’Emilio is admitting here, in an anthology published by the Monthly Review, that capitalism has created the space necessary for homosexuals to live their lives as freely and as independently as possible, something that has never been accomplished before**. What’s more, D’Emilio is correct and for all the right reasons. More flexibility and mobility among individuals is one of the hallmarks of capitalism, as is the emergence of more choices for just about anything. Without capitalism, the gay and lesbian movement would have never existed. There would always be people living in the closet, to be sure, but it was the institutions aimed at creating freedom of association and choice – the hallmarks of the market-based economy, or capitalism – that was developed by American society that has led to emergence of a vibrant, proud, and now-successful gay and lesbian movement.
Although the gay and lesbian movement began to flourish in the 1970’s as a result of liberalized markets and the re-emergence of globalization (which creates even more choices and more prosperity for those who participate), D’Emilio notes that in the 1950’s and 60’s “oppression by the state intensified, becoming more systematic and inclusive.” Again, D’Emilio is correct. The state has always been a useful tool by which one faction aims to oppress another faction. Conservatives have always loathed homosexuality (the closet conservatives most of all!), and their attempts to equate homosexuality with communism in the 1950’s and 1960’s falls neatly in line with their demagogic attacks on homosexuality over the course of the American republic’s history.
So how is it that capitalism, which has led to the flourishing of gay identity in the West, can be condemned by Marxists of the 1980’s (and probably today as well) for the very same oppression that it has undone if the state has been the ultimate oppressor of this flourishing?
Here is where we can find the childishness of the Left.
D’Emilio answers the first half of my question:
The answers, I think, can be found in the contradictory relationship of capitalism to the family. On the one hand […] capitalism has gradually undermined the material basis of the nuclear family by taking away the economic functions that cemented the ties between family members. As more adults have been drawn into the free-labor system, and as capital has expanded its sphere until it produces as commodities most goods and services we need for our survival, the forces that propelled men and women into families and kept them there have weakened. On the other hand, the ideology of capitalist society has enshrined the family as a source of love, affection, and emotional security, the place where our need for stable, intimate human relationships is satisfied.
This elevation of the nuclear family to preeminence in the sphere of personal life is not accidental. Every society needs structures for reproduction and childrearing, but the possibilities are not limited to the nuclear family. Yet the privatized family fits in well with capitalist relations of production […] Ideologically, capitalism drives people into heterosexual families […] Materially, capitalism weakens the bonds that once kept families together so that their members experience a growing instability in the place they have come to expect happiness and security. Thus, while capitalism has knocked the material foundation away from family life, lesbians, gay men, and heterosexual feminists have become scapegoats for the social instability of the system.
NNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! How can I be reading this? How does something that has been so brilliant up to this point become so childish and immature? Why am I going to school again? To learn critical thinking skills? Let me get this straight:
1) instead of acknowledging the ability of capitalism to provide more choices and better lives for individuals in society, or
2) acknowledging that the state is the actual oppressor of liberty, the author decides to
3) blame homosexual oppression on the “contradictory relationship of capitalism to the family” due to ideology?
Can it get any more childish and immature than this? The author is basically stating the following: Capitalism helped alter family life in a fundamental way in the 19th and 20th centuries, so families adapted themselves accordingly.
I think the inability of the author to give credit where credit is due (because of ideological reasons, ironically enough) does enough to discredit the “Marxist analyses” we are dissecting, but there is one piece that I would like to hone in on, if only to more fully discredit the dying, reactionary school of thought known as Marxism:
“Ideologically, capitalism drives people into heterosexual families”
First of all, I didn’t realize that capitalism had an ideology. I am fairly certain that the Marxists of the 1980’s did (do?) not know what capitalism’s ideology was either. Reality tells a different story than the one depicted in the two paragraphs above. What capitalism has done, and continues to do, is provide more choices to individuals (including homosexuals). Just as the family continued to adapt to changes in the past, so too will they continue to adapt in the present and the future. Gay marriage is a big topic these days, and – guess what? – it the state that is to blame for the oppression of individual choice, not capitalism.
I and others here at Notes On Liberty are well-aware that conservatives are behind the efforts to hamper choice in the market for marriages. Warren Gibson, Jacques Delacroix, and Fred Foldvary have all blogged about this before. If Leftists are truly interested in equality they would do well to heed the facts concerning gay life in the West: Capitalism has brought about the movement’s flourishing, and the government is holding it back. This fact is true not just in the realm of gay identity, but in the realm of all other social, political, and economic aspects of as well. Leftists would also do well to remember that their movement, as it stands now, as it stood three decades ago, is, for all intents and purposes, one of conservatism, obstinate ignorance, and embarrassing causality.
*Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the horrors of the centrally-planned economy became exposed to all, the Left has been trying its hardest to avoid using the term “individualism” in its theoretical frameworks. Thus it has concocted a bunch of somewhat-useful terms like “identity” to explain what libertarians have been trying to get across to everybody for centuries: that individuals are best-able to choose for themselves, and therefore it would be best to go about molding social institutions like laws and political structures to play an accommodating role in individual choices by reducing (or outright eliminating) the size and scope of the state.
**In Native American societies, homosexuals had a large amount of personal freedom and were often revered for their shamanistic qualities, but such a social status worked both ways: if there was a problem of some kind that was viewed as supernatural then guess which shaman’s feet the blame often fell to? Shamans were often murdered quickly rather than put on trial due to the fears of witchcraft that Native American tribes harbored.
PS I don’t think I’ve ever used the term “homosexual” in a conversation before. If anybody out there has a term that gay people like to refer to themselves as I would be grateful for the heads up. Otherwise I will just continue to call everybody “dude.”
PPS Inevitable disclaimer: no I am not a homosexual. I like boobs and big juicy female butts. I like ’em a lot! Ladies: send me dirty messages to my Twitter account!
PPPS I have a lot of respect for Karl Marx. Go here for details.