Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Why the Left Must Confront the Cult of Identity Politics

The money quote: “The bourgeois hijacking of the left is apparently complete.”

By Andrew Doyle


od is dead and identity fills the vacuum.’ So says Riya Zachariassen, a character in Salman Rushdie’s new novel The Golden House, who holds a senior position at the ‘Museum of Identity’. For Riya, this new movement represents a ‘mighty new force in the world, already as powerful as any theology or ideology’. But when later in the novel she grows disillusioned and resigns her post, her former allies turn nasty. ‘So how’d you feel now about white women dressing up as Pocahontas on Halloween?’ they demand. ‘What’s your position on blackface? Are you a SWERF now as well as a TERF? Maybe you aren’t even an RF any more. What are you? Are you anyone?’ Riya has learnt the hard way that for the guardians of identity politics, apostasy is the unpardonable sin.

This may be fiction, but the scenario that Rushdie describes is all too familiar. Like all cults, contemporary identity politics is hostile to any form of dissent. Over the past few years we have seen reputations trashed, distinguished careers unravelled, and often for the slightest of transgressions. The upside of all this is that opposition to identity politics is much more widespread among left-wingers than first it might appear; it is simply that many feel unable openly to criticise the trend for fear of damaging repercussions.

And who can blame them? The identitarian left rarely misses the opportunity to make examples of those it deems to be heretical. Matt Taylor, one of the astrophysicists behind the success of the Rosetta space probe, was pilloried for wearing a supposedly sexist shirt. Tim Hunt, recipient of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology, was forced to resign his honorary research post at University College London after making a misjudged joke about female scientists. In such instances, I find myself tempted to quote the Confucian adage, ‘When a wise man points at the moon the imbecile examines the finger’, but I would probably be accused of cultural appropriation.

For those of us who are still on the left, a return to genuine class consciousness has to be a priority. That identity politics has superseded concerns for the economically disadvantaged is now beyond question. For example, in her recent interview for the Guardian, prominent anti-racist activist Munroe Bergdorf made the astonishing claim that ‘you can be homeless and still have white privilege’. The bourgeois hijacking of the left is apparently complete.


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