Chapter 3

From: Identity

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Welcome to the Jungle: Identity and Diversity in Postmodern Politics KOBENA MERCER Just now everybody wants to talk about 'identity'. As a keyword in contemporary politics it has taken on so many different connotations that sometimes it is obvious that people are not even talking about the same thing. One thing at least is clear - identity only becomes an issue when it is in crisis, when something assumed to be fixed, coherent and stable is displaced by the experience of doubt and uncertainty. From this angle, the eagerness to talk about identity is symptomatic of the postmodern predicament of contemporary politics. The salient ambiguity of the word itself draws attention to the break-up of the traditional vocabulary of Left, Right and Centre. Our conventional maps are no longer adequate to the territory as the political landscape has been radically restructured over the last decade by the hegemony of the New Right. Hence, in no uncertain terms, the 'identity crisis' ofthe Left. Mter ten years ofThatcherism, the attitudes, assumptions and institutions of the British Left have been systematically demoralised, disorganised and disaggregated. Neo-liberal hegemony has helped to transform the political terrain to the point where the figurative meaning of the LeftlRight dichotomy has been totally reversed. This was always a metaphor for the opposition between progressive and reactionary forces, derived in fact from the seating arrangements of the General Assemblies after the French Revolution. But today the word 'revolution' sounds vaguely embarrassing when it comes out of the mouths of people on 43 Identity the Left: it only sounds as if it means what it says when uttered in the mouths of the radicalised Right. In the modern period, the Left anticipated the future with an optimistic attitude, confident that socialism would irreversibly change the world. Today such epic beliefs seem to be disappearing into the grand museum, as it is the postmodern Right that wants to 'revolutionise' the entire society and remake our future in its own millenial image of neo-liberal market freedom. The identity crisis of the Left is underlined not only by the defeat experienced by trade unions and other organisations that make up the labour movement, but above all by the inability of the Labour Party to articulate an effective 'opposition'. Even so, the problem goes beyond the official theatre of parliamentary democracy. The classical Marxist view of the industrial working classes as the privileged agent of revolutionary historical change has been undermined and discredited from below by the emergence of numerous social movements - feminisms, black struggles, national liberation, anti-nuclear and ecological movements - that have also reshaped and redefined the sphere of politics. The ambiguity of 'identity' serves in this regard as a way of acknowledging the presence of new social actors and new political subjects - women, black people, lesbian and gay communities, youth - whose aspirations do pot neatly fit into the traditional LeftJRight dichotomy. However I am not so sure that 'identity' is what these movements hold in common: on the contrary, within and between the various 'new' movements that have arisen in postwar Western capitalist democracies what is asserted is an emphasis on 'difference'. In a sense the 'newness' of these struggles consists precisely in the fact that such differences cannot be coded or programmed into same old formula of Left, Right and Centre. The proliferation of differences is highly ambivalent as it relativises the Big Picture and weakens the totalising universal truth claims of ideologies like Marxism, thus demanding acknowledgement of the plural sources of oppression, unhappiness and antagonism in contemporary capitalist societies. On the other hand, the downside of such diversification and fragmentation is the awareness that there is no necessary relationship between these new social movements and the 44 Welcome to the Jungle traditional labour movement, or to put it another way, it cannot be taken for granted that there is common cause in the project of creating a socialist society. This question arises with a double sense of urgency, not only because it has become difficult to imagine what a socialist society looks like as something 'totally' different from any other type of society, but because the new social subjects have no necessary belonging on either side of the distinction between progressive and reactionary politics, which is to say they could go either way. GLC: Difference and Division I want to examine the unwieldy relationship between the Left and the new social movements because they both share problems made symptomatic in terms of 'identity' and yet there...


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