GLOBALISATION IS AN exhausted ideal. The movement of minds, defying borders of suspicions, ideological or racial, has certainly been halted by a burst of self-awareness. You are whatever that characterises the group to which you belong. “Identity politics” is the term we normally use to capture this diversity boom in public life. In this shift in social relationship and political affinity, the idea of justice has become subordinated to identity, no matter acquired or inherited. The boxes that bear your existential address are placed on the slots allotted to race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion—or to an identity you may discover along the way.
Over the last decade, identity politics, and its struggle for justice, has become the newest ideology with revolutionary aspirations. It made a case, at times violently, for equality on the plank of distinctiveness-is-destiny. The struggle for justice, the ideology of identity politics argued, has specific marks of separation determined by the group, with whatever existential adjective, that defines the wretched.
Ideologies flourish in divisions, which only get starker with the enemies still lurking beneath the idyll. Identity politics has brought to the conversation a new set of stigmata such as “woke”, “cancellation”, and “snowflakes”, each denoting a cultural urgency of the re-ideologised public square, and each magnifies the enemy. The progressive wing of the Left and the radical Right both found in identity the first notations of the new salvation song. Still, the progressive shrillness stood out.
So, identity politics, a term both useful and corrosive, depending on from which side you fight your ideological battle, needs a replacement, a neutral term that will justify the intellectual traditions that underpin it. Yascha Mounk coins one in his new book, The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time (Allen Lane, 416 pages, £25). He calls it “identity synthesis”. Mounk is a prolific essayist (for the Atlantic) and author, and the subjects of his previous books were populism, democracy and freedom. Self-confessedly, he is a leftist, and that is what makes The Identity Trap an argument so honest and urgent.
The chief architect, and eventual victim, of the trap is the Left, which, Mounk argues, has abandoned universalism for progressive separatism. The romance of being on the left was to be in the permanent struggle for an equal world where identities, cultural or racial, did not matter. In the heaven on earth, the distribution of happiness was not influenced by the colour of skin or sexual habits. As Mounk writes, “A key goal of politics was to create a world in which we collectively realize that the things we share across identity lines are more important than the things that divide us, allowing us to overcome the many forms of oppression that have marked the cruel history of humanity.”
No longer. The world for the Left is comprehensible only when it is accepted as a collection of identities. Social realities are what the identity curates on an uneven stage of justice. A rejection of universal values is a prerequisite for justice within identity groups; it is all about special consideration, not general amelioration. Every form of disadvantage is a social construct, which further reinforces the inevitability of identity as arbiter. And which makes, in the storytelling of social justice, even free speech a liability.
Mounk’s book is more than an indictment of his fellow travellers, more “progressive” than what he would allow himself to be. The book traces the philosophical backstory of identify politics, featuring such formidable minds as Michel Foucault and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak; shows how it has gone from the culturally charged campuses to the racially fraught mainstream; and brings out how the trap has changed cultural conversations. I find the origin story most interesting because it reveals how big ideas can set the stage for restrictive ideologies. Take Foucault’s scepticism of grand narratives—and there was nothing grander than Marxism—and Spivak’s advocacy of “strategic essentialism”. They were arguments by the postmodernist provocateur and the diva of subaltern studies that changed the Left’s attitude towards grand theories before they became the armoury of progressive separatism.
Today, the identity synthesis is a trap, and as Mounk says, a trap is a lure. It tempts even the smart ones, and it subverts the best intentions of the ensnared. The closing of the Left’s progressive mind also exposes the flawed text of social justice. That said, as I write this, the news from Buenos Aires and Amsterdam reminds us how the Right turned the trap into a nativist alternative. And a Trump dreaming of a second coming makes the trap a weapon. The argumentative power of the entrapped Left is more than matched by the political savvy of the entrapped Right. Ejected out of the battlefield of ideas is classical liberalism.