Midweek Musings: Politics of Identity

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A political identity does not arise spontaneously. Instead, by using categories of race, caste, gender, region and class to define an of and privileges, liberal democratic societies compel some of their members to identify with others of a similar ethnic, sexual, or economic character. The emergence of new political identities, therefore, signals some shortcoming of the . Identity is not only a possible ground of ; it is also an effect of , reasons Ashoka, in his erudite column in .

Interviewed on the fortieth anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, civil rights activist Eleanor Holmes Norton was asked why the only woman to take the podium on the day of the protest was Mahalia Jackson, who sang “.” Not a single woman, among the many people who spoke that day, was solicited to address the audience of protesters, who had come to Washington to demand voting rights for . From the vantage point of 2003, the interviewer was curious how the organisers of a civil-rights march could have overlooked such obvious sexism in the midst of their fight against racism. Norton replied, “Well, shame on us! This was before the women’s rights movement, and we didn’t even realise, we did not even recognise, this injustice that was being done. We did not even think about it at that time, although as soon as three years later we were certainly aware of that type of thing.”

Eleanor Holmes Norton

Eleanor Holmes Norton

As Norton’s remark reveals, a political identity does not arise spontaneously. Instead, by using categories of race, caste, gender, region and class to define an unequal distribution of rights and privileges, liberal democratic societies compel some of their members to identify with others of a similar ethnic, sexual, or economic character. Thus, movements form around issues of gender, race, or class, not because people feel a need to express a primary commitment to such shared identities, but rather because these categories have regulated the distribution of the goods of a liberal society. The emergence of new political identities, therefore, signals some shortcoming of the democratic system. We should think of such mobilisations, as and Gerald Torres suggest, as a miner’s canary, warning us of the poisonous gases of entrenched power threatening the health of our democracy.

Identity is not only a possible ground of politics; it is also an effect of politics. People are attached to their race, gender, and ethnicity to the extent that the state has inscribed certain referents–such as skin colour, , , and practices–as important markers of differential access to resources. Therefore, we can no longer be content to treat categories like race, caste and ethnicity as exogenous to the political process–the spontaneous result of a universal, but not readily analysable, need for group membership. Instead, we should delve into the role institutions, discourses, and policies play in producing the terms of political contestation.


This contemporary movement toward cultural identity illustrates what is actually at stake: political legitimacy, and the ability, therefore, to make credible claims on the state and in the international community. This view of claim making, as intensely political, differs significantly from liberal accounts. John Rawls argues, for example, that the right to make claims inheres in citizenship in a liberal society, that citizens can “regard themselves as self-originating sources of valid claims.”

The politics of identity is a struggle to achieve a political voice. Building political identity is an important precondition of democratic political engagement. One’s ability to get oneself heard in a democratic system crucially depends on whether one can claim membership in a group with pre-existing political weight, or forge a group identity with new political weight. In contemporary politics, race, gender, and ethnicity have developed such a weight.

In short, all politics is identity politics. Social categories develop political salience to the extent that they have been used to mark the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. Markers like race, caste and class are politicised in the struggle to challenge, or to protect, such boundaries. Not only are political identities constructed, but they are formed through interaction and negotiation with the state, developing resonance in particular historical and social contexts. Governments usually have a direct hand in shaping the contours of political contestation and in generating the terms of political deliberation.

In the main, however, democrats take a dim view of so-called identity politics. Liberal democrats worry about the extent to which democracies can accommodate competing cultural claims, and they worry about their obligations to do so. In particular, they are concerned because they believe that cultural claims represent a fundamental demand for the recognition of human identity, therefore engaging a deeper level of commitment than other claims. As such they impose greater obligations on the democratic state, and should be protected from democratic politics. For others, they appear to pose a greater threat, as democratic institutions struggle to process and accommodate the deeply held but incompatible cultural commitments of their citizens.

At the same time, ethnic groups have also deployed the idea of cultural self-determination to push in the other direction, toward autonomy from the states that have excluded them. While this may be a valid move from a historical perspective–some groups may have suffered such state-sanctioned oppression that they have no hope of achieving parity or pursuing happiness within the existing state–no principle renders culture a more legitimate boundary of democracy than race, gender, or class. Thus, demands for cultural self-determination are destined to reproduce the arbitrary   boundaries that critical liberalism challenges.

Stepping behind the claims of culture, to examine the politics that have generated recent demands for cultural recognition, changes the debate over how democratic states should respond to such demands. Once we reframe the question to concentrate on the origin of political identities in the exclusions and inclusions set in place by the democratic state, it becomes clear that democratic institutions should engage the claims of culture in such a way that both the culture and the public sphere are open to challenge and transformation. To this end, normative political theorists should harness the critical potential of rights.

It is not easy to join the dialogue of an existing political order. People struggling to forge new political identities– to make visible the invisible boundaries that have excluded them–need tools. Over the course of the twentieth century, the language of rights has most often provided such leverage. Rights extend a promise. They behave as a formal acknowledgement that the present configuration of power and interests is harming some particular category of people– children, women, workers, or indigenous peoples–who are thus deserving of special protection. As a result, the language of rights constitutes the terms of struggle.

This is not to deny that rights are a double-edged sword that has long been available to those interested in maintaining the status quo, and have also played a role in shutting down political deliberation. However, this should not blind us to the possibilities of using the same weapon in pursuit of a transformative, and even subversive, agenda. After all, rights open up politics to the extent that they act as a promise, not as a guarantee. The on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, for instance, hardly ensures the future well-being of aboriginal populations.

The failure of governments to comply with these obligations makes them vulnerable to opprobrium, possibly even sanction. While not always sufficient to secure state compliance, rights can clear a space in which groups can form and exercise a political voice.

As the liberal-rights regime expands to include ever more categories of excluded people, it stretches the boundaries of political engagement, producing new political actors. These actors open our eyes to naturalized, and heretofore invisible, hierarchies. In doing so, they transform the terms of debate and introduce new strategies and alliances to the politics of opposition. Thus, through the provision of rights, liberalism sets, and has the capacity to extend, the terms of democratic contestation. If pushed, this critical leverage uncovers the emancipatory potential of liberalism and highlights the crucial role of contingency in democratic transformation.

Democratic legitimation relies in a fundamental way on the renewal of politics that occurs when people challenge existing boundaries. Liberal democracies should not be immune from political challenge. A focus on political identities offers liberals both a normative justification and a strategy for contesting the borders of democratic politics. Seen in a certain light, liberalism itself enables identity formation, since claiming rights is a strategy of political intervention.

Critical liberalism owes a conceptual debt to critical legal studies and critical race theory and insists that political identities arise in a particular historical and social context, not from a universal human need for recognition.

By providing the terms of struggle, rights offer the possibility of democratic renewal through the formation of new political identities. Democratic political institutions have a responsibility to engage with the political identities that arise to challenge, or to protect, existing patterns of access and distribution. Because liberalism can never be neutral, it must instead be contestable.

©Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

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Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the ‘most educationally qualified in the world’.