The heart of the American Government was plunged into darkness. The President hid in his bunker. Rather than this symbol of power projecting light onto the capital, it was the people that brightened the streets of Washington. Set ablaze with the worst race riots since the 1960s, America stood as an example of a possible future for Britain. One where identity politics is king and politics rules supreme over society.
The coronavirus pandemic has not changed history. Rather, it has accelerated the processes that were already in motion and changing our lives before the lockdown. Now they are quicker, more aggressive, and far more advanced. Years of progress has taken place within three months.
Before March two processes were underlying social changes in America and Britain. These had been slowly altering society for decades, quickening with each electoral earthquake. The first was the continuing erosion of trust in the institutions that governed both countries. The media, courts, experts, civil servants, and the church. In the eyes of the public, none expressed the neutrality they were created to uphold.
Linked to this was a second process: that of social alienation. As the world and its problems grew, explanations for changes to our lives became harder to understand. Job losses, the erosion of communities, changing populations. These were all explained in global terms. No longer could people feel or see the processes that were altering their society. Changes were explained as the result of globalisation, global economic crashes, and now global pandemics.
People no longer feel in control of their jobs, their family, or their future.
Instinctively humans are tribal. The behaviour of football fans reflects this perfectly. For two hours every Saturday, thousands packed into a stadium become tribal animals. Your identity becomes your team. Your language becomes conditioned by the traditional chants and songs of your club. Your views become governed by the historic rivalries between you and your opponent.
But once the game is over and you head home, that identity wanes in potency. Fans of rival teams manage to work together, become friends, and even marry. Why? Because life is not the same as football. Whereas in the football stadium only one identity matters, in life humans have many more. We are united through shared events, through common bonds of community and friendship, and the ties many of us have to national institutions.
But the last few years have seen a dramatic stripping away of these different identities. No longer do people feel trust or loyalty towards certain institutions or political parties. A governing elite contemptuous of any pride in British history and its traditions has resulted in people’s national identity being fundamentally challenged. The identities that once seemed certain, have now been eroded or forced into hiding.
As a result, people have fallen back onto what they know best: their most local identity — an image of themselves that is closest to their heart. In an attempt to make the world more global, governments have destroyed the bonds and shared identities that united different populations. It was these bonds that enabled democracy and society to function. Increasingly, people have been left with only one identity and so at threat is the plurality of identities that ensured society didn’t represent the tribalism of football.
Politics has today become consumed by identity. Issues that are mobilising political activism are themselves led by that part of us the ancient Greeks called ‘thymos’ — the spiritedness that craves recognition. Whereas previously national religions or shared identities could once pacify this desire, democracy cannot provide the sense of dignity that accompanies recognition for the multitude of localised and tribal identities that are forming.
An even larger problem for democracy is its inability to control such identity politics. Throughout history, all functioning societies have a place where debate and government are contained. Whether that be ancient Greece’s Dikasteria (court of law), nineteenth-century European Salons, or the British Parliament — political debate is governed and largely confined within these walls. This means that outside of these locations is an arena where politics matters but is not supreme. Where people can be Athenian, British, or Christian but crucially, not reduced to a label determined by their politics. This separation of spheres ensures politics and society can function.
In contrast, identity politics leads to the politicisation of all space. This is because it represents politics in its rawest sense — who you are. Thus, no arena or place can confine debate. Walking through the street you are advocating your politics. Your politics is now the identity you, as a human body and the appearance of this body, are promulgating.
The damaging effects of this can be seen on social media. Over the last week, several posts stated that silence over the Black Lives Matter campaign equated to racism. One read: ‘a refusal to post is a refusal to give up your power’, another argued that ‘silence equals racism’. This is identity politics at its most dangerous. Rather than having the ability to not enter the realm of democratic debate or choose to do so only every five years at an election, now each minute of every day is political.
In their blind commitment to today’s social and political globalisation, Britain’s ruling elite have thrown away all that united democracy. Shared identities and institutions of all types unified people and avoided the tribalism of football. In removing these it has created a population of alienated citizens falling back on their rawest and most local identity. Meanwhile, there is the escaping of political debate from its traditional sphere and the politicisation of society. The collapse of these two spheres of life into one another is what causes revolutions. With nowhere to hide and with each appearance of an individual meaning something to someone, the prospect of public confrontation grows.
The darkness of the White House on such a pinnacle night in American politics last week was the most pronounced reflection yet of how coronavirus has accelerated the importance and effects of identity politics. The traditional space for government was absent amidst the darkness, whilst the streets were filled with political debate. At the same time, identity politics was overwhelming all areas of society — no sphere was left untouched. This form of politics is dangerous and only leads to greater polarisation. Britain would do best to avoid it.