NOTE: This article was originally published by the Political Anthropologist
“The poverty of our century is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied…but written off as trash.”
“It’s the Economy, Stupid”
We live in a world that often appears to be upside down; a world that has its priorities all mixed up. While we slip deeper into what can easily be described as the greatest economic depression of our time, no one on the “new left” (a.k.a. the liberal left) seems willing to talk about the bleak realities of ever-increasing economic despair. Instead, what we see and hear in the media, including the “left media,” in government, and across university campuses is an emphasis on special interest issues and personal identity. Rather than address the larger issues that plague the majority of people (including minorities)—i.e., the pitfalls of economic globalization, unemployment and underemployment, mounting debt, the increased cost of living, economic austerity, imperial wars, etc.—we are distracted by the spectacle of identity politics and stifled by a liberal political correctness that imposes “tolerance” in a manner that actually limits freedom of thought and expression while serving the global establishment.
While identity politics claims to be concerned with helping minorities, it refuses to address economic issues, such as poverty and growing unemployment, which often disproportionately impact certain minority groups.
One of the reasons that identity politics does not deal with class and economic issues is that it is rooted in postmodern theory, for which the explicit rejection of the centrality of class is somewhat of an obsession. Indeed, many proponents of identity politics are openly hostile towards classical or traditional left politics—which dealt largely with class, Empire, and economic issues— and its “failure” to address culture and identity. However, the traditional left has never denied the importance of racial, gender and ethnic division within classes. What it has emphasized, though, is the wider system which generates these differences and the need to join class forces to eliminate these inequalities at every point.
Focusing on identity rather than class and economics negates the reality that many individuals are struggling financially at present; both within and across racial, gender and ethnic divisions. This is due in no small measure to the US-led agenda of economic globalization. As I explain elsewhere:
Globalization…exploits and relies upon global inequality and disparity. Globalization exploits the developing world’s ‘comparative advantage’ of cheap labor and lax regulations, and allows western companies to maintain the illusion of being domestic while benefitting from operating in countries where they pay far less for everything— especially labor—and stand to gain immensely as a result.
This undermines western workers who have suffered mass underemployment due to economic globalization and the offshoring of jobs and investment. And while it may be argued that globalization benefits people of the developing world through employment…the harsh economic restructuring conditions that accompany globalization and foreign investment actually hurt large segments within developing countries.
One result of globalization in the west has been the collapse of the middle class. The loss of the traditional manufacturing economy (and the associated managerial and technical sectors) ushered in by globalization, has forced much of the middle class to seek supplementary income. For instance, while services like Airbnb and Uber are regarded as hip and trendy modern conveniences, they are also indicators of a failing or degraded economy—what the mainstream media describes as a “transitioning economy.” But terms like the “sharing economy” and the “gig economy” are ultimately liberal euphemisms for those things that people must do to make ends meat. Because in reality, people don’t rent out their guest room or drive strangers around the city or sell used things online to make friends; they do it to make money. Making these supplementary outlets hip and trendy takes the stigma away from what is essentially and traditionally speaking being broke or poor. It also masks the growing reality of middle class economic decline and growing debt servitude, for minorities and non-minorities alike.
Class, poverty, and economic collapse are the elephants in the room that identity liberalism, contemporary politicians, and the mainstream media refuse to address. Interestingly, and ironically, Donald Trump was able to persuade many of the older generations—including some Black and Latino populations—into voting for him by galvanizing support around these populist issues. Of course, he has failed to deliver on any of his populist, economic promises. But his victory may be an indication of people’s growing economic desperation in the US.
Identity Politics as Diversion from Our Common Plight and Protection for Wealth & Power
A politics that addresses identity and minority issues without examining the larger socioeconomic system and class relations cannot adequately address the disproportional disenfranchisement and economic despair experienced by minority groups. At the same time, a focus on identity and individual issues prevents us from seeing what we have in common, pitting different groups against one another and distracting them/us from—and from uniting over—their/our common economic plight.
Class, or economic situation, is the great unifier. At the present juncture, we may have more in common with people of a similar economic situation than individuals of a similar ethnic, racial, gender, or sexual orientation identity. Poor people everywhere share something in common—their poverty or economic despair—and wealthy people everywhere also share something in common—their immense wealth—regardless of cultural or identity differences. For instance, while African Americans may share a common racial identity, the majority of black people in the US have very little in common with the uber-rich Oprah Winfrey or the Obamas. The immense wealth, power and influence of Oprah or the Obamas puts them in a reality altogether different, and far more privileged, than the majority of everyday African American people in the US. The same can be said of any racial or ethnic group. While people may share a common race and heritage (or a common gender, sexual orientation, etc.), wealth and the lack of wealth creates a massive cleavage that identity cannot bridge.
And the opposite is also true. While we may differ in pigmentation, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc., what more and more people presently have in common is that we are being increasingly impoverished and exploited by the global regime of greed and hegemony. At the same time, we are increasingly more politically disempowered, controlled, monitored, spied upon, and surveilled than we have ever been, especially in the west. Ironically, it seems rather convenient that the more austere the economy becomes and the more authoritarian the State becomes, the more identity issues and cultural issues are pushed to the foreground, especially in academia and the establishment media. If we stopped “celebrating” our differences and/or fighting over our differences long enough to see our common plight, we just might wake up to the reality that class, economic austerity, and western totalitarianism are among the most pressing issues of our time. Related to these, are issues such as war, interventionist foreign policy, and international sanctions, which are all deployed in the service of the global wealth and power establishment (i.e., Empire).
One of the biggest problems with identity politics is that it can mask how politically and economically disenfranchised we all are—and especially for minorities—by giving token victories and token representation in a rigged and corrupt system. This is especially true in the mainstream media and popular culture as well as in politics—which in places like the US is beginning to look more and more like pop culture—where token representation for women and people of colour plays into the the distract, divide, and conquer agenda of the establishment. For instance, having more women and more people of colour in government jobs or in the media does little to address the larger issue of the inequalities of wealth and power. And I say this as a female person of colour.
What’s more, the endless “identity choices” we presently have—such as the ever-increasing number of gender choices—can hide, and distract us from, the lack of political and economic choice in contemporary society. For instance, in the United States, there is very little authentic political choice or variety given that the two overwhelmingly dominant political parties increasingly adhere to the same neo-liberal/neo-con political, economic, and foreign policy agenda. In reality, identity liberalism may even protect and excuse the perpetrators and/or perpetuators of this agenda by making heroes and saints out of minority politicians simply because they happen to be a member of a minority group. A prime example is the former Obama administration in the US. In his first term as president, Barack Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, continued the war mongering, imperial agenda of the Bush administration but received far less criticism and public outcry—especially from liberals and progressives—for it.
And during the 2016 presidential elections many in the identity liberalism camp insisted that Clinton should win simply because she is a woman. This type of identity reasoning is wholly irrational, apolitical and very dangerous. It divorces the political actions and crimes from the person in question and looks only at their identity. The “logic” is that having a female president will aid the cause and rights of women in the US. But what about the rights of the scores of women Hillary has helped to kill via murderous US foreign policy; a policy that claims to “humanitarianly intervene” on behalf of people in some countries while completing ignoring or helping to create the humanitarian crisis in others countries (such as the US-backed Saudi offensive against the people of Yemen or in the case of Palestine)? And that’s not to even mention how little Hillary did for the plight of American women during her tenure in politics. There were no policies or initiatives to create a paid maternal leave program, or to provide affordable childcare to working mothers, or help lift single mothers out of poverty. And Obama did even less for everyday African Americans. Where were his initiatives to create jobs for African Americans or reduce the poverty rates in black communities or address the overwhelming presence of drugs in these communities? Ironically, the same politicians that play the identity card do, and care, very little for the members of their particular identity or minority group once in power.
In closing, not only is identity politics or identity liberalism an inconvenient agenda for addressing minority issues, it may be an obstacle to it. Minorities are among the most economically disenfranchised in society, and one cannot begin to address “minority issues” without also critically examining the broader politico-economic factors at play at the present juncture. Indeed, the apolitical manner in which identity politics functions, and its refusal to address class and economic crisis, serves as a convenient diversion and distraction from the larger issues that presently plague minorities and non-minorities alike. These issues are linked to the inequalities of wealth and power and cannot be properly addressed without a broader analysis of class and the growing economic and social devastation wrought by globalization and Empire. Without this level of analysis, identity politics can offer little more than token victories while feeding into the divide and conquer agenda of the global establishment.
1 Berthoud, R. (2002). “Poverty and prosperity among Britain’s ethnic minorities.”
Benefits, Volume 10, Number 1, 1 February 2002, pp. 3-8(6)
2 Best, S. & D. Kellner. “Postmodern Politics and the Battle For the Future” http://www.uta.edu/huma/illuminations/kell28.htm [11/07/04]
3 Petras, J. (1997/1998). “A Marxist Critique of Post-Marxists” Links no 9.
4 Smith, D. (2011). “Rich Nations, Poor People: The Cause For Rising Poverty In The Western World.” https://www.economywatch.com/economy-business-and-finance-news/rich-nations-poor-people.23-11.html?page=full
5 Chehade, G. (March 2017). “Economic Globalization: Global Integration or Exploitation of Global Disparity?” The Global Analyst, Volume 6, Issue 3, pp. 22-25
6 I use the terms identity politics and identity liberalism interchangeably
7 This is a practice referred to as humanitarian imperialism. See Bricmont, J. (2006). Humanitarian imperialism: Using human rights to sell war. New York, NY: Monthly Review Press.