Capitalism has been the most successful economic system to date. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the rapid increase of productivity that accompanied it, standards of living changed dramatically.
Some major side effects of this organization of production was the shuttling of rural people into urban settings, self-employment becoming mainly replaced by wage labor, and economies of scale creating large businesses that essentially run as private governments.
Most of these effects of the Industrial Revolution and organizing for increased productivity also happen to lead to the devaluing of the individual. Workers are seen as replaceable. Their voices are muted as decisions get made above them with little to no voice in what happens. Nearly all aspects of life become controlled by others: when one wakes up, how long one works, when one uses the restroom, how work is done, and what work is finished in what order.
In addition, capitalist societies largely function on consumption. All of these workers need to be consuming the product of their labor or it collapses. This directly leads to economies doing better when each person buys their own house, their own car, their own furniture and fixtures, and their own hobby goods and service.
Both the production and consumption in capitalist societies have the unfortunate upshot that most people are alienated in their work and isolated in their lives. They become nameless and faceless “labor” and “households”.
It’s hard to imagine throwing away our current standards of living and starting anew though. No one really wants to have less access to entertainment, less variety of goods and services, and less security - financially, physically, or emotionally. This means the economic system is more or less treated as sacrosanct and off-limits.
If the economic system can’t or isn’t to be used for creative expression and self-realization, then it seems understandable that the political arena is where people might turn. I believe that is exactly what’s happening.
Identity politics is on the rise, not just because of oppressive forces that marginalize groups through the use of power and privilege, but also because people need an outlet for their “selves”. People need an area of their lives where they matter, not just their productivity and consumption. It seems an urgent and frantic grasp at meaning, a reassertion of our place in the world, a chance to be recognized.
If this hypothesis is at all correct then I think identity politics is here to stay for quite a while. Capitalism does not appear on the verge of allowing laborers to live lives of free expression and dignified autonomy, where a personal Twitter account doesn’t end in a call for resignation. Instead, we are likely to see more fervent identity politics in which people can gain their sense of belonging, purpose, and relation to the world through the groups they identify with.
I personally don’t see this route ending well. As Mark Lilla has recently written, identity politics is the left’s version of Reaganism, where individualism is what matters most, not the common good or citizenship. It results in the fracturing of political groups, not the construction of them, and while identity politics may be resulting in groups attacking groups at the moment, the only clear direction is complete individualization in which my identity is totally unique and I have no common ground with you, the other. Ironically, this only leads to the same place as capitalism with the isolation of each person from all the rest.
It seems an intractable problem at the moment, solving these economic and political glitches. However, I do believe there are solutions. Martha Nussbaum has written extensively on the need to discuss and work toward universal human values and Kwame Anthony Appiah has written on the need for cosmopolitanism in the face of isolated multiculturalism. I support everyone’s right to be unique, to self-express freely, and live as they please, but it must go hand-in-hand with recognition that we do belong to a common humanity. I worry very much that identity politics erases that connection in much the same way that many argue, myself included, capitalism does.
Perhaps it is fitting to end with a quote from Amartya Sen, “The hope of harmony in the contemporary world lies to a great extent in a clearer understanding of the pluralities of human identity, and in the appreciation that they cut across each other and work against sharp separation along one single hardened impenetrable division.”