2019 was the year when identity finally became politics. People stopped reeling and are no longer pretending that economics is to blame for the upheavals in Europe, the rise of populist movements Latin America and south Asia, and the increased visibility of far-right and white supremacist movements in the US.
The year closes with riots and bloodshed in India, where a new law allows non-Muslim refugees from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan who entered India illegally to become citizens. The Hindu nationalist government, one that has presided over the demonisation of Muslims, claims the law is innocently meant to protect those seeking refuge from religious persecution. Against the backdrop of the increasingly hostile climate against Muslims, the law was seen as one that violates the secular constitution with the purpose of further marginalising Muslims and linking citizenship to religion.
In the US, Trump continues to play politics with identity, signing an executive order targeting antisemitic and anti-Israel speech on campuses using a definition of antisemitism that takes into consideration race and national origin. This is only the latest in a series of identity plays involving Mexicans, Muslims and, more broadly, immigrants in general.
In the UK, the right-wing Conservative party just secured a landslide victory on the back of, amongst other factors, a Brexit promise that freedom of movement from the EU would end. The lines were drawn clearly between the deserving British native and the entitled immigrants who Boris Johnson, the prime minister, said treated Britain as "their own country".
All these movements hide behind some sort of virtue, some sort of moral "real" citizen that is in need of protection from outsiders who are on the march – a poor Hindu on the run from religious oppression, a poor coal miner in the US whose community is falling apart. This real person is a fiction, a cipher that is used to telegraph something sinister – the supremacy of an identity that politicians can then manipulate for electoral gain. Even when these people are real, their concerns are linked to far more complicated issues linked to capitalism, globalisation and the degradation of the environment. But it is far easier to reach for the sharp tool of identity than engage with such complexities. And so as the real business of politics is left unattended, we’re playing the fiddle of identity for that which concerns how we organise society equitably, ensures distribution of wealth, and protects the environment. At best, it is a distraction. At worst, it claims lives.
This is the last newsletter until the new year so I leave you with some reading. Asad Haider’s Mistaken Identity is the best book I have read on where identity politics on the left went wrong.