Identity politics and enlightenment

9 Jan, 2023 at 16:14 | Posted in Politics & Society | Comments Off on Identity politics and enlightenment

The Age of Identity PoliticsThere has developed in recent years an impassioned debate about the Enlightenment, which both supporters and critics present as a peculiarly European phenomenon. For the one, it is a demonstration of the greatness of Europe; for the other, a reminder that its ideals are tainted by racism and colonialism. Both miss the importance of the non-European world in shaping many of the ideas we associate with the Enlightenment. It was through the struggles of those denied equality and liberty by the elites in Europe and America that ideas of universalism were invested with meaning. It is the demise of that radical universalist tradition that has shaped the emergence of contemporary identity politics.

There have always been identitarian strands among antiracists, from 19th-century “Back to Africa” movements to Négritude in the 20th century. Only in the postwar world, however, have they come to dominate and to be seen as progressive. The reasons lie in a myriad of social and political developments, from the erosion of class politics, to the emergence of culture as the primary lens through which to understand social differences, to the growth of social pessimism, that have helped marginalise the universalist perspective.

The embrace of identity politics by the left has ironically opened the door for the reactionary right to reclaim its original inheritance, allowing racism to be rebranded as white identity politics. We have come full circle: the politics of identity that began as reactionary claims about a racial hierarchy has been regrasped by the reactionary right in the name of cultural difference.

Kenan Malik

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