Identity Politics – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
By Duncan Whitmore
Identity politics has come to gobble up an increasingly significant proportion of mainstream political discourse. Although the concept has been around for as long as politics itself, it gained particular traction on the political left from the end of the Cold War, culminating in the US Presidential Election of 2016 (and was a major factor in the electoral loss of the Democratic Party).
In the first part of this essay we will explore some of the implications of identity politics as a political weapon. Although our conclusions will be mostly negative (the “bad” and the “ugly”) we will, in the second part, suggest how libertarians can respond to the current climate of identity politics and how realignment or rethinking of the concept may have practical use for libertarians (the “good”).
Identity politics is political action or discourse that categorises each individual under a group identity, with political positions and interests assigned to the group as a whole rather than to each individual. These categories are based on a particular (usually broad) characteristic shared by each member of that group, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, age, income, and so on. Hence, identity politics does not talk about the interests of each individual as much as it does about the interests of “women”, “blacks”, “the LGBT community”, “senior citizens”, “the rich” and “the poor”, etc.
Let us begin by discussing the “bad” aspects of this approach. We should note that there is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with the practice of categorisation. Concepts and classifications help us to make sense of the world by understanding what may be typical of a certain person or thing according to his/her/its characteristics – and it is undoubtedly true that certain, basic characteristics may engender political preoccupations. At best, however, such categorisations serve as a cognitive aid, a shorthand, heuristic device to make better sense of reality – no kind of identity categorisation necessarily tells you anything about people’s most pressing concerns. The most obvious, immediate problem is that the categories listed above are not mutually exclusive. One can, of course, be a “woman” and “black” at the same time, or “rich” and “LGBT”. Will a black woman tend towards caring more about the interests of “women” (which, of course, are supposed include the interests of all women regardless of race) or towards caring about “blacks” (whose interests may be different from and diametrically opposed to women of other races?). Does a wealthy gay man care more about LGBT rights (which are generally the province of the left) or protecting the interests of those with a similar, high income status (who are usually found on the right)? Even “LGBT” itself (or one of its extended variants) seems to be something of an unusual concoction – do those with a differing sexual identity neatly fit with and hold interests similar to those with a differing gender identity, or are they separate issues? These questions provide an inkling into the fact that these categorisations and their supposedly associated interests make little sense without appreciation of the context. For example, if, as the Grenfell Tower tragedy indicated, certain high rise tower blocks were vulnerable to a unique and terrifying risk of fire, a gay man, a black woman and a Roman Catholic Priest who all happened to be living in such a tower block may be united by their shared concern for local building regulations. In this instance, therefore, the categories “gays”, “blacks”, “women”, and “Roman Catholics” and any interests that these groups supposedly share would be too broad to understand the pressing needs of these particular people. On the other hand, if the earth was about to be destroyed by a meteorite, it is clear that these categories would be far too narrow and that the only category that would make sense in this scenario is the whole of humanity that is desperate to avoid the impending apocalypse. No doubt everyone in Britain during World War II put aside their usual social differences and they were all united by the more urgent need to defeat a common enemy. Equally, however, it is obvious that categories such as “humanity” and “Britons” would be useless for most day-to-day purposes when no such imminent peril exists. Indeed, most group identities thrive in an era when a certain characteristic is a marker of a significant disadvantage or that characteristic attracts a serious threat. This can be observed most clearly when there is a denial of legal rights to a particular group that are enjoyed by everyone else. Pre-suffrage women or the very real oppression of homosexuals when homosexual acts were outlawed can be cited as examples in this regard. When, however, civic rights are more or less equal, the identification of interests according to a category is much more nuanced, particularly when the categories are so broad as to encompass entire genders and races of many millions of people of different generations from completely different places. This appears to be something that the left finds difficult to understand when they treat categories and groups as relatively rigid, with the implicit belief that those groups should almost necessarily dictate people’s overarching political concerns. The consequence of such a literal embracing of identity politics is that it leads one to assume, for example, that a woman = a woman = a woman, while ignoring the fact that there is at least as much difference between women themselves as there is between women and men. Hence the confusion and, indeed, the outrage on the left when 41% of American women – a very significant minority – voted for Donald Trump, with former First Lady Michelle Obama complaining that such women “voted against their own voice”. The backfiring of this ludicrous logic – that Hillary Clinton being a “woman” meant that she necessarily represented “women’s interests” and so “women” should have voted for her – indicates that perhaps many women had things on their mind other than being outraged by Trump’s supposedly misogynistic attitude and “pussy grabbing” locker room talk.
The reason for this miscalculation is that the use of group identities has less to do with trying to understand and give effect to people’s interests as they already are, and has more to do with trying to create them in the first place. By forcing people to accept a certain narrative that their interests coalesce with those of others who share a common characteristic, these group interests can then be pitted against each other in order to sow distrust and resentment – with the strong, benevolent arm of the state inviting itself in, conveniently enough, to resolve the problems of “inequality” and “oppression” that supposedly exist. In other words, identity politics is little more than a tool for sifting the population into the “haves” (the rich, the upper and middle classes, white collar workers) and the “have nots” (the poor, the working classes, blue collar workers); or between the “oppressed” (women, ethnic minorities, LGBTs) and the “privileged” (men, whites, heterosexuals) – all for the purpose of the state creating and then feigning to step in and ameliorate the supposed antagonisms. This explanation correlates with one of the more curious aspects of identity politics – that it pays so much attention to groups who are minorities. After all, why bother with these minorities, such as the relative tiny number of people who identify as “transgender”, when they will provide so few votes? Apart from the fact that any minority, by definition, can make a half-credible claim for being “oppressed” by the majority, many of such minorities lead lifestyles that are antithetical to, or at least different from, traditional, cultural or religious norms which bind people together in voluntary institutions such as families and local communities – institutions which compete with the state for people’s reliance and sense of allegiance. Some of these things are more obvious than others; an expansion of welfare for single parents will lead to more out of wedlock births and erode the traditional family; an influx of migrants may bring with them a strange language and alien culture which competes with and dilutes that of the natives. Others appear more subtle yet seem to pull the rug out from under deeply entrenched and hitherto unacknowledged certainties – unacknowledged because they seemed beyond question, such as gender roles or what has, until recently, been the binary nature of gender. Whether or not an individual self-identifies as another of two or many genders is, in fact, irrelevant for the state’s purposes. What’s important is permitting the rights of those whose gender identity differs from that of their biological sex to trump the rights of the majority who still adhere to “male” or “female” and their traditional gender roles in order to create disorientation and confusion. The issues of who should be allowed to use which bathroom and which pronouns should apply to whom could be written off as trivial and farcical, except for the fact that they strike at the heart of two deeply engrained cultural anchors – the meaning of language (and, hence, should such language become state regulated, the freedom of speech) and the etiquette of personal privacy.
Far from being novel, this approach actually has a long and deep-seated history. Indeed, the whole of Marxism and the so-called “harmony of class interests” is one immense exercise of identity politics which attempted to influence new interests rather than give effect to existing ones. Contrary to the Marxist theory, instead of having a unified interest in depressing wages as much as possible business owners compete with each other for the limited supply of workers available. They can only gain access to this limited supply by outbidding each other in the wages that they offer and it is this competing demand which drives wages above the subsistence level. Workers, on the other hand, are in turn competing with each other for that (also limited) demand and so the more workers there are the greater the supply of labour, leading to lower wages. This is why unions, in spite of cloaking their actions in Marxist econo-babble, can only ever secure benefits for their members at the expense of other workers, rather than for workers as a whole. Far from being unified, the interests of any one businessman are therefore opposed to those of other businessmen, and the interests of any one worker are opposed to those of other workers. The whole theory of class interest is nothing more than an exercise in creating imaginary conflicts in order to destroy the capitalist system and replace it with an equally imaginary, socialist utopia. Moreover, Marxism too attempted to erode traditional cultural and religions norms as well as traditional morality in order to crack the supposed hold of the bourgeoisie on the societal structure. Ironically, traditional socialists such as Charles Derber, David North and Owen Jones have criticised modern day identity politics for serving as a distraction from the more fundamental needs of the working class. Given that, in the 2016 presidential election, the Republican ticket sapped the Democrats of considerable support from those with a family income of under $50,000 compared to the 2012 contest, this is probably true. And yet these commentators fail to see that much of their own, albeit much broader worldview is based upon a similar exercise.
One effect of emphasising and granting political precedence to certain identities is to encourage a backlash from identities of opposing extremes. Hence, “white supremacists” and other unsavoury components of the “alt-right” have gained prominence in recent years. Most of these opposing extremes drew towards Trump for his anti-establishment stance and politically incorrect persona. Unfortunately, the more moderate majority who formed the backbone of the Trump vote – the everyday folk who opposed the liberal, left wing, onslaught without necessarily embracing the opposite extremes – were tarred by the left with the same brush; the childish logic of “if you aren’t with me then you are against me” leading to them all (or at least “half” of them) being branded by Mrs Clinton as a “basket of deplorables”. Yet again, in other words, everyone has to be categorised neatly, if ludicrously, into “good” and “bad” identities. Such thinking reduces politics to little more than a fairytale, where the forces of darkness that seek to devour the kingdom are overcome by the victory of the brave and righteous. No doubt it is because they were denied their fairytale ending that the left was so utterly demoralised in November 2016.
One of the more pernicious aspects of Marxism that is creeping back into the fold with identity politics (“the ugly”) is what Ludwig von Mises termed “polylogism” – the idea that different forms of logical reasoning apply to different groups and, hence, a theory promulgated by one logical construct could not be refuted by another.1 Thus Marx could claim that the argument for socialism was immune from the “bourgeois” reasoning of economists (although, as with the wider theory of class consciousness, his own mind was somehow exempt from this curious discovery). The collapse of Soviet communism in 1991 has demonstrated again that this reasoning was correct and that socialism actually cannot work in practice. And yet if reason proves that socialism does not work, the response of the left is, of course, to jettison reason rather than socialism – a line of thinking that has now spread to promoting the interests of identity groups. Because polylogism is so destructive of any kind of reasonable dialogue, it is worth us spending a considerable amount of time in dealing with it exhaustively.
Academically, polylogism has come out explicitly in such preposterous statements as the following from American philosopher John D Caputo, where he claims that reason itself is a product of “whiteness”:
I think that what modern philosophers call “pure” reason — the Cartesian ego cogito and Kant’s transcendental consciousness — is a white male Euro-Christian construction.
White is not “neutral.” “Pure” reason is lily white, as if white is not a color or is closest to the purity of the sun, and everything else is “colored.” Purification is a name for terror and deportation, and “white” is a thick, dense, potent cultural signifier that is closely linked to rationalism and colonialism. What is not white is not rational. So white is philosophically relevant and needs to be philosophically critiqued — it affects what we mean by “reason” — and “we” white philosophers cannot ignore it.2
Mises dismantled this view effortlessly in Human Action when he says:
[Ethnologists] are utterly mistaken in contending that […] other races have been guided in their activities by motives other than those which have actuated the white race. The Asiatics and the Africans no less than the peoples of European descent have been eager to struggle successfully for survival and to use reason as the foremost weapon in these endeavors. They have sought to get rid of the beasts of prey and of disease, to prevent famines and to raise the productivity of labor. There can be no doubt that in the pursuit of these aims they have been less successful than the whites. The proof is that they were eager to profit from all achievements of the West. Those ethnologists would be right, if Mongols or Africans, tormented by a painful disease, were to renounce the aid of a European doctor because their mentality or their world view led them to believe that it is better to suffer than to be relieved of pain. Mahatma Gandhi disavowed his whole philosophy when he entered a modern hospital to be treated for appendicitis.
The North American Indians lacked the ingenuity to invent the wheel. The inhabitants of the Alps were not keen enough to construct skis which would have rendered their hard life much more agreeable. Such shortcomings were not due to a mentality different from those of the races which had long since used wheels and skis; they were failures, even when judged from the point of view of the Indians and the Alpine mountaineers.
The scholars of the West have amassed an enormous amount of material concerning the high civilizations of China and India and the primitive civilizations of the Asiatic, American, Australian, and African aborigines. It is safe to say that all that is worth knowing about these races is known. But never has any supporter of polylogism tried to use these data for a description of the allegedly different logic of these peoples and civilizations.3
One might add that precisely how Caputo intends to “philosophically critique” “whiteness” without resorting to the use of “reason” that is supposedly polluted by this same “whiteness” is something of a mystery.
More recently, the left’s Oracle of Delphi, Oprah Winfrey, has waded into the deluge of allegations of predatory sexual behaviour in celebrity circles by urging people to “speak their truth” – a strange imperative that a post on her website struggles to distinguish from expressing a mere opinion or from attempting to be “right”:
Our “truth” runs much deeper than our opinions. Truth is about how we feel and what is real for us. Truth is not about being right; it’s about expressing what we think and feel in an authentic, vulnerable and transparent way.
When we let go of being “right” about our opinions and take responsibility for our experience, we can speak our truth from a much deeper and more authentic place. Speaking this deeper truth will not only liberate us, but has the potential to make a difference for others while bringing us closer together.4
The implication of this self-help sophistry seems to be that one’s subjective perception of reality, brought into relief more by emotions rather than by cool observation, is somehow more important than, or at least equally valid to, objectively verifiable facts – and, magically, a life of “passion, fulfilment and authenticity” charged with “freedom and power” somehow results.
No one should deny that our reactions to and subjective experiences of reality are important and are responsible for shaping our attitudes, beliefs and our interactions with other people; nor should the sharing of such experiences be discouraged if it brings to others a helpful realisation of the effects of their behaviour. But this importance must be kept in perspective when compared to the actual truth. As Mises explains so well in his critique of Marxist polylogism, if you wish to engage with and accomplish something in the real world then the actual truth will always be superior to some vision of it refracted through the prism of your own preoccupations. For instance, if you want to build a bridge then a subjectively wrought, “authentic, vulnerable and transparent” understanding of mechanics and engineering is not going to help you – and if your collapsing bridge happens to drop you into the river below as a result of your folly then you are likely to be left quite some way from any feeling of “freedom and power” as you pull yourself out of the mud. Similarly, therefore, if one wishes to remove rank injustice from society then the question of whether or not there is, for example, a “rape culture” must be determined fundamentally by whether there is, in fact, an abnormally high, objectively established occurrence of incidents where a person has been forced into having sexual intercourse. Moreover, it would help our remedial response if we knew whether certain types of victim – say, younger, or elderly – were more vulnerable, or whether rape is concentrated on the streets or in domestic or other familiar surroundings. In the same vein, whether or not there is sexist discrimination in the workplace must, in the first instance, be understood by making multi-variable analyses of pay rates, career choices, education and so on – and whether these are concentrated in certain industries or locations rather than others so that we know where to focus our efforts. One’s subjective experiences in this regard may supplement the resulting information or, indeed, may tell us where to start looking in the first place. But surely the information itself is more important for attaining any kind of genuine “empowerment”? Instead, the only “empowerment” from “speaking your truth” seems to emanate from revelling in self-indulgence rather than from any concrete achievement. The author of the excerpt above provides only a single real life example of “speaking your truth”, a one-sided recollection of when a friend patted himself on the back for having imparted to a stranger his impassioned views on how the latter should treat her (in his view) over-disciplined children – while conceding no awareness of whether his emotional outburst had any impact on the stranger’s attitude, or, indeed, whether it was appropriate and based upon a sufficient grasp of the situation. It seems as though “speaking your truth” can absolve oneself of the necessity to be “right” while retaining the smug, self-congratulatory satisfaction of having been so. Such delusion might be relatively harmless, albeit irritating to everyone else, if all you are trying to do is feel better about yourself – but it is lethally dangerous when it is used to promote a political agenda or, indeed, when it wades into the question of whether a serious crime was committed. Just like Marx’s muting of his economist critics, the purpose here is to silence rational discussion by taking the conversation onto a different plane where the substance of any criticism cannot bite. So when, for example, research can reveal that rape isn’t all that prevalent, or that, say, the gender pay gap may be the result of factors other than sexism on the part of hirers and firers, elevating, as Ms Winfrey did, recollections of subjective experience above this as “the most powerful tool” allows the aura of oppression to be continued rather than questioned or understood.5 Moreover, apart from the fact that there is no particular reason why anyone else should regard any recollection of subjective experience as honest and authentic, if it is wrapped up with the presupposition of an all-encompassing victimhood then such recollection is always likely to reflect and amplify this mentality. In other words, “speaking your truth” amounts to little more than a self-perpetuating mechanism for entrenching existing beliefs and promoting, say, a feminist worldview.
A similar, if less elaborate method of achieving the same result as this kind of polylogism is the tactic of writing off any explanation that goes against an accepted, politically correct narrative as some kind of “-splaining” – such as “mansplaining” or “whitesplaining”. In its least objectionable form, “-splaining” simply means that an opinion is expressed in a “patronising” or “condescending” way by a (supposedly “privileged”) addressor while ignoring the “experience” of the (supposedly “marginalised”) addressee – for example, if a man attempts to explain a technical or logically complex subject to a woman while assuming that the latter is devoid of this knowledge by virtue of her gender. To the extent that this is a presumptuous and irritating habit of men that is deserving of a suitably sarcastic, derogatory label then fair enough, one might say. However, this is extended to an absurd level when the epithet of “-splaining” seeks to rule out the validity of an opinion by alleging that the addressee holds critical “experience” (i.e. “your truth”) by virtue of a “marginalised” status, granting that “marginalised” addressee a special insight into the meaning of concepts such as “sexism” and “racism” that cannot be possessed by the “privileged” addressor. The implication is that “men” can have no say on what is “sexist” and whites can have no say on what is “racist”.
To condemn this approach does not deny, say, that a man’s explanation to a woman of an issue concerning women may be incorrect or lacking in a certain perspective that only a woman can bring to the matter – or indeed that being on the receiving end of sexism may serve to make one more knowledgeable on the subject. But to the extent that this is true then there is no “mansplanation” – merely an incorrect or deficient explanation that must be countered with a correct one. Instead, labelling the argument a “-splanation” presumes, rather than establishes, the addressor’s “privilege” that serves to place the addressor on a different plane of reasoning and hence excuses the addressee from having to challenge the “-splanation” with rational argument. As one expositor of this approach puts it with regards to racism:
Objectivity is an understandable goal, but think about what it means to believe you’re the only one who can bring “reason” into the conversation. The truth is that you’re just as biased as anyone else – your perspective is influenced by your own experiences and position of privilege. That also gives you a biased point of view on what “objectivity” means. You’re approaching the conversation like a high school debate, as if this is just a harmless exercise in flexing our reasoning skills […] But when we’re talking about racial injustice, we’re actually addressing real issues with a negative impact on real people’s lives […] It’s tempting to wave around your “rational thought” that you think invalidates my feelings – but you’re not an authority on how I should feel about the issues that affect me.6
Once again, a pre-supposed aura of victimhood based upon subjective feelings is perpetuated and the resulting politically correct agenda is immunised from criticism because objectively definable criteria for discussion are rendered impossible.
Possibly the most long winded check-out from reality by “speaking your truth” is Hillary Clinton’s diatribe on how she lost the election – or, rather, on how everything except for her was responsible for her failure to beat Donald Trump to the Oval Office.7 Indeed, the farcical investigation into Russia’s supposed electoral interference that paint Trump as a Russian puppet, the idea that “fake news” on social media conjured up the Trump victory, and the labelling of his political positions in such facile terms as “racist”, “misogynist”, and “fascist” – all of this serves to create in the minds of social justice warriors a hallucinogenic nirvana based on what they want Trump to be rather than what he actually is. Such a failure of understanding prior to the election rendered them impotent to grasping precisely why Trump was popular and how to countenance that popularity; afterwards, it provided them with a warm and fuzzy excuse to deny the legitimacy of the result.
Having completed this survey of the “bad” and “ugly” of identity politics, what is the way forward for libertarians out of this quagmire – and is there anything “good” that we can take away?
The first important area to consider is the need to manage the backlash against identity politics that we mentioned earlier – for example with the emergence of the alt-right. The alt-right is, unfortunately, a double edged sword; on the one hand it could be the antidote to the political game that statists want us to play; on the other it might just end up making it worse. One of the reasons for identity politics coming to the fore on the left is that the traditional politics of “tax, borrow, spend and waste” is becoming increasingly more difficult. Each year, the bloated budgets of Western governments are being consumed increasingly by existing promises and entitlements, a series of unfunded liabilities – social security, medical benefits, public pensions, and so on – that can be estimated at anywhere between $100 trillion and $200 trillion for the US alone. The upshot of this is that the part of the pie which governments can choose to spend – the “discretionary” portion – is shrinking, and so there is less and less that either today’s or tomorrow’s politicians can promise to voters by way of new spending programmes and new free goodies with which to win their votes. The nature of the conversation has therefore changed from fiscal (redistributing money from the haves to the have nots) to social (legislating and regulating so as to favour the “oppressed” over the “oppressors”) – from governments promising free cash to promising legislated privileges. It is likely that the liberal elite already knows this and has merely been preparing the political battleground for its future landscape, while the popularity of old-schoolers on the grassroots of the left – such as Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK – indicates that the electorate just isn’t on that page yet.8 Much of the alt-right is a symptom of the fact that, as is so often the case in the progress of humanity, a swing of the political pendulum to one side does not provoke its return to an equilibrating middle as much as it does a swing to the opposite side. Thus, enforced multiculturalism leads to a hatred of other cultures rather than a selective appreciation of them; open borders leads to a xenophobic desire for bolting the door shut coupled with economic protectionism rather than a more sensible policy of managed borders that welcomes desirable and productive immigrants; affirmative action and the attempt to eradicate and suppress all racism by enforcing politically correct speech leads to the active hatred of other races, whereas a more sensible view would be to ensure equal civic rights for everyone while admitting that some racist epithets may serve as an important pressure valve for preventing more dangerous, racially motivated behaviour. To the extent that these types of response to the aura of identity politics are occurring, it amounts to nothing more than playing the game that the liberal elites want us to play – of separating society into the very categories and compartments the supposed antagonisms between which the state can exploit for its gain. We, as libertarians, cannot allow political discourse to descend into battles between opposing frenzies of hysteria, frenzies based on mutual hatred that seek to counter one vision of “oppression” by substituting it with another – all for the benefit of the state that will seek to draw power from the strongest side to crush the other. We must counter the move towards subjective and relatively defined visions of the truth – all variants of polylogism – with rational ideas and rational argument that steer people away either from utter despair or from seductively attractive yet ultimately destructive ends.
An example of this kind of counterattack is Hans Hermann Hoppe’s urge towards creating a “populist” libertarian movement by steering the alt-right towards a coherent ten-point programme that they can embrace as a positive way forward, as opposed to wading in a pool of grievances. As Hoppe notes in his most recent speech to the Property and Freedom Society:
The Alt-Right is far more united by what it is against than what it is for. It is against, and indeed it hates with a passion, the elites in control of the State, the MSM and academia. Why? Because they all promote social degeneracy and pathology. Thus, they promote, and the Alt-Right vigorously opposes, egalitarianism, affirmative action (aka “non-discrimination”), multiculturalism, and “free” mass immigration as a means of bringing multiculturalism about. As well, the Alt-Right loathes everything smacking of cultural Marxism or Gramsciism and all “political correctness” and, strategically wise, it shrugs off, without any apology whatsoever, all accusations of being racist, sexist, elitist, supremacist, homophobe, xenophobe, etc., etc.
Given the present constellation of affairs, then, any promising libertarian strategy must […] first and foremost be tailored and addressed to this group of the most severely victimized people. White married Christian couples with children, in particular if they belong also to the class of tax-payers (rather than tax-consumers), and everyone most closely resembling or aspiring to this standard form of social order and organization can be realistically expected to be the most receptive audience of the libertarian message.9
Because the advocacy of such a strategy has been subject to much denigration and misinterpretation amongst the controversy of the relationship between libertarianism and the alt-right, it is worthwhile emphasising precisely what it seeks to achieve. This is a strategy that aims to rationalise, moderate and channel the views of the natural economic and cultural victims of the current political climate in order to create a populist libertarian movement that can serve as a practical and sustainable political challenge to the status quo. In no way does it relegate libertarianism to second place to any non-libertarian extremity displayed by factions of the alt-right. Hoppe is especially clear as to enunciate in the speech the core libertarian doctrine while admonishing any alt-righters (such as his former guest, Richard Spencer) who have strayed from that doctrine. In line with our analysis above, he rejects anything that smacks of playing the game of identity politics when he shows the absurdity of challenging the presently protected political identities with the identity of “whiteness”:
While the main addressees of a populist libertarian message must be indeed the just mentioned groups of dispossessed and disenfranchised native whites, I believe it to be a serious strategic error to make “whiteness” the exclusive criterion on which to base one’s strategic decisions, as some strands of the Alt-Right have suggested to do. After all, it is above all white men that make up the ruling elite and that have foisted the current mess upon us.10
Moreover, Hoppe states, correctly, that the right to discriminate or disassociate means nothing more than that one should have the freedom to choose to do so, while stopping mass migration is not some xenophobic, racist, “fascist”, knee-jerk reaction to open borders but is, rather, to be replaced by a sensible policy of regulating migration to invited, productive persons. Far from being any attempt to attract extremists qua extremists, the purpose here is to provide a rational outlet for their quite legitimate frustrations and grievances (together with some of their already held “common sense” political insights) in order to break the cycle of rootless frenzy with which identity politics pollutes the political landscape. One might, of course, disagree with whether the strategy will, in fact, create a successful libertarian movement for social change, and it is certainly far from being risk free. But the attempt to prevent the swing of the political pendulum from its current extreme to the opposite extreme is the lesson that should be learnt from this example.
We might also mention the work of Jordan B Peterson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, who has become something of a sensation since he challenged the Canadian government’s attempt to enshrine gender identity as a human right. As one blogger has explained:
There is a generation of young men in our society who are disillusioned, angry, and frustrated. Suicide, for example, is pandemic among young white men. Many of them are unemployed, most of them are hooked on pornography, and as a result their relationships are often toxic or dysfunctional. Nobody really seems to care, either — books like Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men even carry a hint of triumphalism. To even talk about “men’s issues” is to incur the rage of a thousand feminists.
Dr. Jordan B. Peterson’s work and influence has, by any objective standard, been enormously beneficial. Thousands of young men are getting themselves figured out, and hundreds of thousands more are spending hours listening to complex academic lectures on how to become better people. Peterson is single-handedly robbing the alt-right of angry young white men by presenting them with the option of becoming better people rather than succumbing to identity politics. And he is championing loving, respectful relationships between men and women.11
The second aspect libertarians need to turn their attention to is how a rethinking of the concept of “identity” can be useful for a libertarian movement. As we have seen much of identity politics is, in fact, self-defeating – the Trump victory alone, a decisive rejection of this kind of politicising, speaks volumes in this regard. When all is said and done, people will ultimately be attracted to political positions which reflect their needs as they perceive them to be – not to positions which tell them what their needs are. For example, feminism claims to want to achieve equality between the sexes – something which, according to the Daily Telegraph, 74% of British women and 86% of British men are in favour of. And yet the same survey reveals that only 7% of them (9% of women, 4% of men) self-identify as feminists12. The discrepancy could not be starker – either feminism is failing to convey its message of equality between the sexes convincingly, or there is something about the feminist agenda which men and women alike perceive as inadequate for, or, indeed, as antithetical to attaining that goal. Regardless of the reason, however, it is clear that feminism is not speaking for the majority of women. A much more general example is the Brexit vote. The centralising project of the European Union is struggling to curtail or even destroy national and regional identities while failing to persuade people to put their faith in the Brussels bureaucracy. No matter how hard the “Remain” side tried – wheeling out the heavy establishment guns from all of the living former Prime Ministers, the Governor of the Bank of England, the President of the United States and most of the cabinet and Parliament – a majority of voters still refused to believe that their interests were better served by a faceless and opaque political structure in a foreign country rather than by their own, native political system.
An important feature which distinguishes people’s political identities as they themselves perceive them from how the liberal left would like them to be is the communities they live in and the members of that community with whom they interact. Feminism may fail because “women” as whole do not form a natural community. Rather, women (and girls) exist in communities populated also by men (and boys). The needs and interests of men and boys in their lives – the husbands, sons, brothers, fathers and so on – are likely to be as important to women as their own needs and interests. If feminism fails to account for the interests of the men whom women know (or represents these men in a manner that is at odds with their own experience) then it is not difficult to see why it is unlikely to appeal. Similarly, the people of Britain do not perceive themselves to be in a community of Europeans whose interests are necessarily or even remotely aligned with more than 400 million foreigners across the English Channel – foreigners who are as different from each other as they are from the British. The class divisions in Marxism, on the other hand, were plausible precisely because the classes together rarely formed their own community. In other words, the bosses led separate lives in separate places from the workers and so it was much easier for Marxism to exploit prejudices, misunderstandings and misinformation that existed from this lack of communitarian contact. In this case, of course, the identity was mistaken, and it takes a chain of reasoning to understand that the interests of capitalists and workers do, in fact, coalesce and there is no antagonism between them.
Given all of this, therefore, we can suggest that libertarians should seek to promote what we might call natural identities. Natural identities are those identities which people themselves believe to be real and are grounded in some kind of objective reality – as opposed to the fake or fabricated identities which are simply a tool of the statist impetus to divide and conquer. Almost certainly these real identities will be based upon homogeneity of language, culture and custom – in other words, for the most part, geographically denoted, relatively local communities, the very kinds of identity that the consolidating project of the European Union is seeking to destroy. The distinctive libertarian aspect of this approach is that it fits neatly into the goal of decentralisation – that is, breaking up the state into ever smaller units. Space precludes us from discussing decentralisation at length here; suffice it to say that if we wish to bring about a world in which the fundamental libertarian principle of non-aggression is adhered to as widely as possible then we must tackle the primary cause of aggression which is, of course, the state. The surest way to reduce the state’s aggressiveness is to break up each state into as smaller chunks as possible, where their power and territorial scope is decreased relative to each citizen. Aggression is therefore reduced purely through this formal transformation and regardless of the specific policies of each individual territory. Non-aggression is the libertarian end, for sure – the means, however, is encouraging natural communities to want to form their own jurisdictions based upon their own values, and to make decisions for themselves without being in a political union with other people, the latter of whom may wish to enforce their decisions upon them. However, an important difference of this approach from the fake identities of identity politics is that there need not be any conflict between different communities governing their own affairs – there is no patriarchy of oppression or “privilege” and everyone is able to co-exist peacefully. In this regard, there are two aspects that should be emphasised. The first is that any concept of “rights” that refers to a specific identity or interest group – e.g. gay rights, black rights, women’s rights, and so on – must be jettisoned. While the movements advocating such rights may have begun their lives by seeking equal civic rights for their members, by failing to understand that there are no rights that apply only to gays or only to women or blacks, they soon morph into campaigners for special privileges that breach the rights of everyone else. Hence, the removal of racist laws turns into positive discrimination; the right to have sexual intercourse with a member of the same sex in the privacy of your own property becomes the right to force an hotelier to accommodate a homosexual couple. Rather, it must be emphasised that rights are enjoyed equally by all people by virtue of their status as human beings, and any injustice must be dealt with on that basis. Second, the lack of political unity does not mean a lack of international co-operation. Rather, such co-operation should be between private individuals and entities trading their own goods and services on the international markets. Those who think that increased political sovereignty and the reduction of inter-governmental co-operation through supranational outfits such as the UN, the EU or NATO drag us back into “isolationism” are unable to comprehend any kind of human endeavour that does not have the state as its primary motivator. For them, the choice is between “unity” and atomistic barbarianism. However, the lack of political globalisation – a relatively recent phenomenon – does not preclude economic globalisation, which has been around for centuries. Brexiteers, for instance, are not “little islanders” who hearken back to some Romantic vision of England’s green and pleasant land – being anti-EU is not being anti-Europe. Rather they, wish to have their own, British government making their laws while simultaneously co-operating and trading with Europe and the rest of the world. In other words, the goal is harmony, not unity. Indeed, as the mutual benefits of trade are the primary motivator towards peace and co-operation while anything the state does can only every interfere with trade, it is better for harmony if your government leaders are not sat around a table together trying to seek their mystical unity. Moreover, harmony means that it is much less likely that any expression of patriotism or pride for one’s national, ethnic or cultural background will translate into either explicit or politically relevant displays of supremacy or superiority – whereas “unity” implies that one set of circumstances must dominate and is, therefore, an open invitation for ethnic and cultural warfare.
In conclusion, therefore, while the “bad” and the “ugly” of identity politics are very “bad” and “ugly” indeed, there is quite a lot of “good” that libertarians can take away from understanding it and, more importantly, how they may best proceed in response to it by avoiding and countering its pitfalls.
1“Epistemological relativism” may be a more suitable term for some of the political tactics we examine below; but the aim of these tactics is the same as that of polylogism and, as we will show, they are vulnerable to the same Misesian critique. For a devastating, praxeological assault on relativism, see Hans Hermann Hoppe, On Praxeology and the Praxeological Foundations of Epistemology, Chapter 9 in The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, 2nd Edition.
3Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, pp. 85-7. Stated more formally, as all humans are united by their need to make choices of suitable means to bring about desired ends in the same reality, then the reasoning employed to give effect to these actions must be the same. As Hoppe, delivering the coup de grâce to polylogism, explains “the structure of knowledge must be constrained by the peculiar function which knowledge fulfils within the framework of action categories; the existence of such structural constraints can never be disproved”; Hoppe, p.281. And “praxeology constrains the range of things that can possibly be experienced in the field of actions”; Ibid p. 293.
4Mike Robbins, Speak your Truth, www.oprah.com/spirit/speak-your-truth_2/all#ixzz56QcTPTYX
5For an example of an activist falling back on general, subjective “experience” in the face of contravening evidence during a debate concerning racism, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pXgYNo624-I.
6Maisha Z Johnson, Six Ways Well-Intentioned People Whitesplain Racism (And Why They Need to Stop) https://everydayfeminism.com/2016/02/how-people-whitesplain-racism/. With no hint of irony the author goes on to criticise those who attempt to defend themselves from charges of racism for making it “all about them”.
7Hillary Rodham Clinton, What Happened.
8For an interesting discussion on where this development might lead, see Gary North, Guns or Granny: the Looming Political Battle of the West, https://www.garynorth.com/public/16615.cfm.
9Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Libertarianism and the Alt Right. In Search of a Libertarian Strategy for Social Change, speech delivered to the Property & Freedom Society, September 17th 2017. https://misesuk.org/2017/10/20/libertarianism-and-the-alt-right-hoppe-speech-2017/