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Identity is not just a catchword for radicals

Alexander Görlach / DW Share:
File Photo: A man walks past a display showing bank notes of different currencies in Hong Kong on Nov. 9, 2016. (Xinhua/AFP)

The current global struggle for identity reveals a weakness in our concept of democracy: Textbooks set out the assumption that good education is the basis for economic progress. Within a generation, so the story goes, better education will lead to a more developed economy. This development is accompanied by people becoming more aware of their role within society and beginning to think politically. In this sense, the definition of thinking politically is broad. It does not necessarily mean that they read party manifestos, let alone vote. What it means is that they become more self-aware.

This awareness is condensed in the bourgeoisie within the conservative spectrum, and in the working class within the left spectrum. Both are not so dissimilar: supporters of both groups draw conclusions about their concept of the world from the awakening of their political consciousness, and they build the political ideas they feed into the democratic system on these conclusions. Both bourgeois and social-democratic thinking have global references: one side calls it cosmopolitanism, the other proletarian internationalism.

Ignoring what’s important

We live in a historical moment in which these great concepts have become dwarfed. The British Labour Party cannot bring itself to join the continental European Social Democrats in order to avert Brexit. Bourgeois conservatives such as Alexander Gauland, the current front man of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), barricade themselves in the smallest of mental parcels. But no one would claim that Jeremy Corbyn or Alexander Gauland suffer from a lack of education or economic dependence. The opposite is likely to be the case. What is it that textbooks have so far insufficiently incorporated into their theory?

Neither of the two political concepts mentioned, so powerful in the 20th Century, has managed to abolish the groupthink aimed at separation and polarization. What does it mean to live in an age of identity? In social psychology, identity always takes shape in distinguishing oneself from others. This can already be observed in early childhood. Some conclude that this type of group formation against an external enemy (for example, nature or another human group) can be explained by evolutionary biology as an advantage in competition.

There is a lot of support for this thesis. Thomas Hobbes’ construct, “the war of all against all,” was farsighted in its perspective. His theory is that in a natural state, we all fight each other as long as we remain rooted in group mode aimed at competition. This means that at the beginning of modern socialisation all consent to the renunciation of a trial of strength (“war”) directed at annihilation, not only of the individual, but also of the groups against each other. Today, the system in which this was understood is called “liberal democracy.” Of course, even in a liberal democracy there is fighting: From each election, one group emerges as the victor and another as the loser. However, the loser’s rights are not subjugated as spoils of war. Instead there is the cyclical nature of democracy — giving rise to the old saying that “after the election is before the election.” And all meet as equals in the political struggle.

Making inequality socially acceptable again

Unfortunately, our age of identity is one that wants to make inequality and the subjugation of the dissident socially acceptable again. The rhetoric of those who, in the name of identity, are acting up everywhere today is, according to the state of nature, directed against those who are weaker, against minorities. The aim is to silence them. Sometimes their deaths are also accepted, as can be seen from the refugees capsizing in the Mediterranean.

We are dealing with more than just “populism.” Because to speak and to simplify things in such a way that is understood by so-called simple people is not automatically inhuman. As an example, a populist in a good sense is Pope Francis, who, shaped by the everyday reality of his homeland, is used to speaking to the faithful by using simple images. This may lead to confusion and disappointment on occasion, but the Pope’s populism is certainly not heartless. If, on the other hand, the former Italian Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini calls rescue at sea “terrorism,” then that is abysmally inhuman.

Populism, according to the textbooks, is not an ideology, but a rhetoric, a technique for conveying an ideology. The “identities” of our time give themselves different names: Donald Trump, for example, is proud to call himself a “nationalist.” What is not automatically known in Europe is that this is an allusion to the isolationism that the US cultivated until the First World War. For many Americans, this form of isolationism meant being a white nation for the white race alone. It is well known where racist fantasies of superiority have led in many parts of the world, especially in Germany, and yet this racial mania is celebrating a cheerful comeback.

Multilateral world order still right

Bourgeois cosmopolitanism and the international working class have assumed and continue to assume that groups can develop commonalities beyond national and cultural borders. But that is not enough to overcome the urge passed on by evolution to stand above other groups and subjugate them. It will not be enough to invoke the multilateral order and institutions of cooperation that were established in the 20th century. They were, are and will remain good and right — and the best we have achieved so far. However, the work of these institutions must be about mediating and, as technocratic as it may sound, about once and for all administratively underpinning a transcendence of the state of nature in our minds.

The real enemy in this sense is not identity! The adversary is a certain type of group formation, which leads to exclusion and, in the worst case, the extermination of the others. Since this tendency occurs independently of cultural identities, that is, equally in the Christian, Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist worlds, the assertion that one identity is under attack by another already promotes exclusion. Our textbooks have underestimated the extent to which the urge to separate and degrade others has remained under the surface of democracy. Education alone is not enough to put this ballast of our archaic past behind us. First and foremost, identity must be liberated from appropriation by the radicals.

Alexander Görlach is also senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and honorary professor for ethics and theology at the University of Lüneburg. He has also held a number of scholarly and advisory positions at Harvard University. He holds PhDs in comparative religion and linguistics and is a guest columnist for several publications, including The New York Times, Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung and business magazine Wirtschaftswoche. DW

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