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Home Opinion Should we concern ourselves with the politics of identity?
Extremism • Populism • Politics

Should we concern ourselves with the politics of identity?

Anthony Painter - 27 June 2012

Is there a politics of cultural identity or is it just a manifestation of the politics of class?

In the first (and kinetic) seminar of the Populism, Extremism and the Mainstream project there was an underlying tension in the discussion. This project, in part, concerns itself with understanding political responses to a sense of cultural identity. By looking at issues of culture, nationhood and the politics of euroscepticism as well the actions of parties, campaigns and associated policy responses, our intention was to get a better sense of the contours of the debate. But actually, a prior question emerged: is there a politics of cultural identity or is it just a manifestation of the politics of class?

Of course, very few subscribe to a pure politics of class or politics of identity in their analysis of the political change that we are seeing across Europe and the US. The emphasis tends to be the critical dividing factor. Nonetheless, there are two identifiable schools of thought on interpreting the motors of political change: the 'structuralists' and the 'culturalists'. We find echoes of these approaches in political philosophy - particularists and universalists. In philosophy, subjectivists and objectivists might be the divide. In biology, multi-level theorists and 'selfish geneticists' face similar controversies. It's nothing new but that doesn't mean that the tensions should not be explored.

In very broad terms, structuralists see identity politics as a manifestation of class- a distorted one in probability. They could point to the correlation between support for far right groups and working classes. They might also point to incidence of far right activity in areas that have faced rapid and detrimental economic change. Where economic loss is felt, it is likely to be the least advantaged who experience the greatest degree of trauma. Shamit Saggar of the University of Sussex and Will Sommerville of the Migration Policy Institute have demonstrated convincingly that a lack of social cohesion is significantly correlated with deprivation not diversity in contra-distinction to the orthodox view as articulated by Robert Putnam.

For structuralists, the best response tends to be mainstream economic and social policy which provide security as well as spreading wealth and opportunity. In other words, it is best to attack the potential for an antagonistic politics of identity at source through managing or limiting tensions inherent in rapid economic and social change. In fact, they might wish to slow down the pace of change altogether. As Shamit Saggar argued in the seminar, the simple fact is that 'rivers of blood' didn't happen. In the UK context, we did manage change and diversity to a significant degree, albeit with some horrendous moments of conflict and violence along the way. It could have been a lot worse and it is important not to forget that.

Culturalists would insist, in contrast, that cultural identity should be seen as an independent variable. They wouldn't deny that there is a class-based structural element to the perseverance and, the evidence would appear to suggest, the growth in salience of a politics of identity. Where they would differ from structuralists most clearly is in their notion that culture (widely defined) is itself independently exerting a political energy on our politics.

They could, for example, point to the very extreme such as the likes of Anders Breivik. The Norwegian terrorist stands trial as a self-imagined cultural rather than class warrior. In talking to activists on the far and populist right, researchers such as Matt Goodwin of the University of Nottingham find a clear articulation of a sense of cultural threat as a prime motivator. The growth of the populist and extreme right has occurred independently of the macro economic environment (micro economic change could well be a different matter) and in inverse proportion to class loyalty in voting. Areas of very rapid cultural - or ethnic - change have proved fertile ground for antagonistic political forces and this sits underneath a different global picture which emphasises material deprivation. And should the rise of Scottish nationalism as a civic identity be seen as a purely economic phenomenon? It is difficult to see it exclusively in these terms.

As social beings, humans group together with varying degrees of attachment. There are underlying drivers of the way we construct groups - our relationship to the means of production, locality, technology, language, nation and cultural attachment are just a few of the most common forms of bond. Because these influences vary from individual to individual, it is very difficult to distinguish them; they are interwoven.    

The culturalist would insist that if people are seeking to have a cultural conversation then there is little point ignoring that and seeing their concerns solely as manifestations of material deprivation in some sense. Besides, who are we to tell people what they are 'really' experiencing? Instead, safe ways of expressing identity that don't create 'outsiders' or provoke conflict and violence should be sought. These responses may, for example, be interventions to connect people in local communities, constitutional change, new policies to manage immigration in a different way or law enforcement targeting negative behaviour. Culturalism would look to campaigns, civil society and public (especially with regard to the media) discourse as well as policy responses.

A sensible approach to the structuralist versus culturalist dilemma would neither seek to choose between them nor simply see them as two sides of the same coin. Both perspectives can be viewed independently and in a dynamic relationship. Four of the most powerful forces in the current context of identity politics in the UK are (in order of intensity) immigration, cultural antagonism, euroscepticism and Englishness discourse. It is difficult to analyse any of these as a purely structural or cultural force though it is possible to use each prism to tell a story about where the risks and opportunities lie for political change. It is not impossible to imagine these sources of potential antagonism and angst converging in a new populist politics - if, indeed, they are not already. Rob Ford of the University of Manchester argued that there was a degree of coalescence between cultural angst - xenophobia - and euroscepticism in patterns of support for UKIP.

Nor is the pathway for political narrative in any of these areas uncontested. Each source of identity friction could head either on a closed and antagonistic path or an open and embracing direction. To take Englishness as an example, Andy Mycock of the University of Huddersfield argued very clearly that it is very much a contested identity. What has changed is the willingness of political voices across the spectrum to engage in dialogue about the nature of Englishness and the degree to which it has political consequences - Labour leader, Ed Miliband's, recent speech on this front is a case in point. It is difficult to imagine a politics more distant from Ed Miliband than that of the English Defence League but both advance a concept of Englishness. It is not difficult to conclude which is more desirable but the two notions of English nationhood are completely incompatible; friction itself could raise the volume of discussion. We don't yet know where this will head but it could be populists, extremists or the mainstream that seize the initiative.

Without both structuralist and culturalists frameworks of analysis, it is difficult to acquire a rich understanding of where our politics might be heading. This project is designed to focus more on the culturalist framework. This shouldn't be taken to mean that structuralist analysis is seen as irrelevant - far from it. The pathway of politics is contingent but we can identify the various forces that will influence its direction and the responses that will give it higher probability of heading in one direction or another. Populism, extremism and the mainstream are three possible directions. Culturalism and structuralism both have explanatory power in understanding which political 'style' may prevail.

Anthony Painter is associate researcher and project leader for the Policy Network / Barrow Cadbury Trust project on “Populism, extremism and the mainstream”.

This contribution forms part of a series of expert briefings on populism, extremism and the mainstream. Read Matthew Goodwin's Open letter to Labour on immigration and identity; Robert Ford on Populist Euroscepticism and British politics; Andy Mycock on the politics of Englishness; Catherine Fieshi on cultural anxiety, class and populism and Shammit Saggar on policy resonses to populist and extremist grievance politics

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Understanding Populism .

Tags: Anthony Painter , Populism , Extremism , Identity Politics , Culture , Immigration , Euroscepticism , Englishness , Britain , UKIP , Labour

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