The Pathology of Identity Politics

Nicholas Capaldi

Identity politics and related movements are symptoms of social dysfunction.1 Those drawn to them are, in short, lost souls. Unfortunately, there are too many of them, and they are proliferating. People drawn to these movements can only be defined in terms of what they oppose, a negative narrative of exploitation and victimization, without any positive alternative of their own. My explanation for the origin of identity politics movements is that they are, understandably, examples of the failure to understand and to cope with modernity.


Modernity can be described both negatively and positively. Negatively, it is the rejection of the belief that there is an external objective order in both nature and in society, an alleged order that we must first comprehend and then to which we must conform. As such, modernity is the rejection of utopian narratives with guaranteed happy endings. Societies are not part of the great chain of being but evolving historical constructs. As Tonnies described it, there has been a transition from Gemeinschaft (traditional communities which understand themselves as having a collective goal wherein members achieve fulfillment by being means for this goal)2 to Gesellschaft (modern societies sustained by their being instrumental for the pursuit of members’ individual aims and goals). The lost souls drawn to identity politics are lost in modernity and want either to return to some version of classical or medieval traditional communities or an as yet undefined mythical future community. The transition reflects the movement from a purely agricultural economy to an industrial and technological one.

Positively, modernity reflects the “Copernican revolution” in philosophy: truth in all forms (epistemological, ethical, and aesthetic) consists of standards that are human constructs. This leads to the Technological Project, the transformation of the physical world for human convenience and as an expression of individual freedom and creativity; the adoption of a market economy (no central allocation of resources, private property) as the best economic vehicle for pursuing the Technological Project; limited government committed to serving the economy not directing it; limited government achieved through the rule of law (law designed to further the pursuit of individual goals with a minimum of conflict); a wider culture that promotes individual or personal autonomy.3 Personal autonomy is the key. Without it there is no truly functional rule of law, no limited government, no market economy, and no Technological Project. In these societies, individuals with different substantive moral views can interact successfully by embracing moral pluralism at the procedural level (i.e. toleration). Identity politics, as we shall see, is the response of those unable or unwilling to embrace individual autonomy or toleration.

With globalization, survival depends upon mastering the Technological Project. Completing the whole movement is a slow and painful process. Western Europeans, in general, were the first to embrace the Technological Project, and it is what enabled them to conquer the rest of the globe. As the remainder of the world tries to catch up, traditional communities are dislocated and succumb to passive-aggressive behavior, or aggression (military or trade), or migrations. Many of these immigrants are precisely the ones who cannot, or will not, struggle to fit into European and American society.

Oakeshott’s Autonomous Individual vs. Anti-Individual

As Michael Oakeshott put it,

The emergence of this disposition to be an individual is the preeminent event in modern European history . . . there were some people, by circumstance or by temperament, less ready than others to respond . . . the familiar anonymity of communal life was replaced by a personal identity which was burdensome . . . it bred envy, jealousy and resentment . . .[it developed] a new morality . . . not of “liberty” and “self-determination,” but of “equality” and “solidarity”. . . not . . . the “love of others” or “charity” or . . . “benevolence”. . . but . . . the love of “the community”. . . [the anti-individual or mass man, i.e., those attracted to identity politics] remains an unmistakably derivative character . . . helpless, parasitic and able to survive only in opposition to individuality.4

Throughout most of history and everywhere in the world, human beings had identified themselves as members of a natural community (not a voluntarily constructed one). There were neither autonomous individuals nor anti-individuals. The most important event in modern European history is the rise of the autonomous individual beginning in Renaissance Italy (thirteenth through fifteenth centuries).5 There are no fully autonomous individuals anywhere before the Italian Renaissance. Autonomous individuality is a feature of western European civilization and later spread elsewhere. All creative activity is the product of autonomous individuals: “It modified political manners and institutions, it settled upon art, upon religion, upon industry and trade and upon every kind of human relationship.”6

The mind set of autonomous individuals as articulated by Hobbes, Kant (and I would add J.S. Mill and perhaps Nietzsche) is to impose order on themselves; self-disciplining, not self-indulging; not requiring outside control and direction; risk-taking. Modern individuals are self-defining and therefore achieve self-respect; they pursue self-chosen courses of action rather than simply conforming to traditional roles. They seek to promote autonomy in others. Policies advocated by autonomous individuals include encouraging creativity in all fields, the free market economy, limited government, preferring an umpire who enforces the rules of the game and does not predetermine the outcome; equality of opportunity, and the rule of law; in a word, liberty.

Not everyone makes the transition to modernity, as some are left behind by circumstance and temperament.7 Here we find what Oakeshott calls “anti-individuals.” What is the mind set of anti-individuals, and what makes them candidates for embracing identity politics? They like being part of a protective community which takes care of them and relieves them of the anxiety of making choices; they are risk averse and fear failure more than the lure of success; paradoxically, they seek self-esteem, something to be derived from other people. At bottom, they feel inadequate, and thus cannot decide whether they want to participate fairly in the game or to change the rules of the game. In short, they have an inferiority complex.

There were no anti-individuals before the Renaissance, only members of a community. Once some people become autonomous individuals and others do not, many of those who do not make the transition eventually become self-conscious anti-individuals. They are resentful of autonomous individuals; they feel “envy, jealousy, resentment”; these are feelings rather than thoughts, impulses rather than opinions. Their speech is ritualistic. To have a considered opinion would require both connecting the dots and taking responsibility for it, thereby exposing oneself to possible rebuttal. They seek a leader (not an umpire); they want equality of outcome and, most especially, solidarity. They love mass demonstrations where they can be told collectively what to believe, and even revel at times in drugs and riots where they can feel at one with the crowd.8

They blame autonomous individuals for their own feelings of inadequacy and anxiety; they want to destroy the prestige of autonomous individuals and make everyone an anti-individual; in a word, equality of outcomes. The policies they advocate encourage uniformity, socialism, and regulation of everything. Law is reduced to politics, as legislation becomes the means by which a political agenda is achieved. They read the U.S. Constitution as the political agenda of the oppressors. Because of their mindset, they cannot and will not function in a market economy, hence they are dysfunctional in a modern commercial society.

Anti-individuals are not necessarily poor or ignorant; often they are members of the intelligentsia. The intellectual father of the anti-individual is the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. The Technological Project, the free market economy, limited government, the rule of law, and the culture of the autonomous individual are all anathema. Human beings are fundamentally good and only corrupted by their environment; what follows is the romanticization of nature, the poor, and even the criminal. None has ever gone beyond Rousseau’s critique; nor has anyone ventured any further in outlining what the alternative would be. Even in Marx we do not get a post-revolutionary program, only sound bites. It is a purely negative critique with no positive alternative agenda. A salient feature of the negativism is the demonization of some successful person or persons. Their story always references some alleged “bad guy” (land-owners, industrialists, the bourgeoisie, white males, Christianity, Israel). They view their alleged opponents as monolithic. Their political rhetoric is always negative and some form of character assassination; their political vocabulary is limited to untestable epithets (“microaggressions”) designed to silence. In their world both education and news become organs of indoctrination.

So influential is Rousseau’s critique that critics and anti-western movements worldwide use it and its progeny Marxism. In short, the anti-individualism outside the West has to borrow the West’s own internal critique. It too is a response to a perceived wounded national sensibility, a dreadful national humiliation. Identity politics is an international phenomenon, a similar response to the same prompt: perceived degradation.

Role of Intellectuals

We have already identified intellectuals as a group attracted to identity politics. We may make three key observations here. First, since the time of the eighteenth century French philosophes, many intellectuals (Comte, Marx, Dewey, New Deal architects) have believed that they are in possession of social scientific truths that provide for a social technology, overseen by themselves of course. This approach to social organization is incompatible with a free society.9

Second, Joseph Schumpeter argued that a market economy needs and fosters an increase in those with the critical communication skills of intellectuals. Unfortunately, “the intellectual group cannot help nibbling, because it lives on criticism and its whole position depends upon criticism that stings; and criticism of persons and of current events will, in a situation in which nothing is sacrosanct, fatally issue in criticism of classes [such as the bourgeoisie] and institutions.”10 The other reasons cited by Schumpeter fostering discontent are unemployment, underemployment, or unsatisfactory employment of intellectuals in a society which pays MBAs more than Ph.Ds.11

Third, another writer who has called attention to the intellectuals’ role in societal decay is Eric Hoffer in his The True Believer (1951), a study of mass movements. According to Hoffer, militant intellectuals (as opposed to genuine intellectuals) crave recognition of their superior status above all else, have a deep-seated hatred for any society which denies them that status. They identify with the alleged downtrodden and victims of society, and therefore are overly sensitive to the perceived humiliation of any community with which they identify. Such militant intellectuals prepare the ground for mass movements by discrediting prevailing values and furnishing the abstract slogans (“black lives matter”) for the new faith.

Both Schumpeter and Hoffer observed the extent to which the bourgeoisie send their children to schools where professors undermine the values of the parents and the benefactors of the university.

Politics of Identity Politics

Anti-individuals are incapable of organizing themselves. The same goes for militant intellectuals. Nevertheless, they find leaders in the political class of career politicians or those who do not recognize that public service could be understood as voluntary and temporary. The politicians in this class consist of people who have the capacity for autonomy but fail to realize it.

The politicians in this group are disposed to mind other people’s business because they lack the capacity to find satisfaction in minding their own. (Think of the Clintons and Obamas. What were the actual accomplishments of these political figures in their respective professions or private lives?) What appears to be genuine concern for their followers is really “the vanity of the almost selfless.” They form a symbiotic relation with their followers by relieving one another’s frustrations.

The Democratic Party is the present home of identity politics. At one time it had been the party of the forgotten people—defined as those who wanted to achieve the American dream but who were frustrated by circumstance in achieving it. It has now evolved into the party of anti-individuals, or those unwilling to pursue the American dream and now intent upon denigrating and destroying it. For them the history of America is, in Howard Zinn fashion, a history of unrelieved horror and exploitation. Who are these new Democrats: discontented blacks, feminists, Hispanics, LGBTQ activists, and fundamentalist Muslims. All they have is their negative narrative and the inability and unwillingness to construct a positive one.

It could be argued that feminism and LGBTQ activism do not seem to fit plausibly into this account. On the surface feminism and the LGBT movement are celebrations of modernity in which people are self-defining, demanding to be able to pursue happiness and fulfillment as do all others. But in their search for self, these groups demand recognition from others, especially in the form of behavioral and attitudinal changes codified by law. Insofar as defining the self for these groups depends on what others do, it necessitates group politics: the demand for rights and protections extending to them not as individuals, but as members of a favored class. Autonomous people do not treat others as a means to their fulfillment. At its best autonomy advocates liberty and protection from coercion. Feminists and LGBTQ activists seek the power to coerce, along with positive rights, special privileges, and representation. Here we find all the features of identity politics, including the adoption of the universal oppression myth; leaders who camouflage their personal mediocrity and ambition and use identity politics to game the system; intellectuals who create enclaves of scholarship defined by ideology rather than established scholarly standards.

There are some people identified as members of these groups but who really are autonomous individuals. As such they raise important questions about social issues (Martin Luther King Jr., Clarence Thomas, Camille Paglia, Deidre McCloskey, Zuhdi Jasser, for example.), but their messages are misappropriated or perverted by anti-individuals or they are derided as bourgeois feminists, “Uncle Toms,” and so forth. My very mentioning of them could be derided and dismissed as “cultural appropriation.”

The lack of autonomy explains the existence of dysfunctional people in free societies. The standard diagnosis is the lack of resources or the lack of positive rights. The default remedy is some form of redistribution or group privilege. But if we are right, the problem lies in the presence of people who have not yet developed a sense of personal autonomy and its correlate responsibility. Both the source and the resolution of this problem lie within.

No doubt critics will jump on this gross unqualified generalization (with the all too familiar ad hominem vocabulary); but it is time to make it, provoke their ire, and then engage in a new and more fruitful discussion that is beyond the scope of this essay.

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