What went right is also what went wrong – Identity politics between collectivity and individualisation

Eszter Kováts9. apríla 201915224

Slovenská verzia

“What went right is also what went wrong”. Taking a stock of the past fifty years, Bulgarian political theorist Ivan Krastev sums up lucidly what the problem of identity politics is today. The cultural and social revolutions of 1968 and 1970s, he argues, „put the individual at the centre of politics. It was the human rights moment. Basically this was also a major outbreak, a culture of dissent, a culture of basically non-conformism, which was not known before.” But, he continues, this has paved the way to negative processes too, namely that this cultural and social revolution „in a certain way destroyed the idea of a collective purpose”.

Social movements in the West addressed issues such as racism, sexism, and homophobia, which were largely ignored by the Left at the time. They addressed the lived oppressions of marginalised social groups, arming themselves with a new (and long-overdue) conceptual vocabulary with which to voice their demands. They also, quite rightly, highlighted the relevance of privilege, positionality and intersecting oppression. That was identity politics back then, based on collective experiences, naming hitherto unrecognised power structures. These movements have however substantially transformed over the years. Unwittingly, these movements did not (could not) resist co-optations and market-conforming reformulations – aligning with the needs of current forms of capitalism. We would be wrong to equate the identity politics of the Combahee River Collective (1977) with what we witness today in the political practice of social justice activism.

What began as a collective effort towards the political articulation of structural injustices has become a set of self-righteous, moralizing identity politics movements. As Marc Saxer puts it: “Fights about moral issues and identity are a typical feature of the neoliberal age: many citizens have lost confidence in the state’s ability and, indeed, will to shape society. Change is now only possible on a grand scale if enough individuals see a need to change their behaviour.” And this phenomenon is no longer endemic to the West, but has also been gaining momentum in East-Central Europe.

Thematizing the specific oppression certain groups experience based on their sex, race and sexuality was crucial, and we cannot underestimate the significance of the Western activism of the 70s-80’s. But these developments also came hand in hand with the fragmentation of identities of postmodernism that was – as described by many authors – instrumental to the growing individualism inscribed in our economic system. This opened the door to various co-optations and changes of scale: What went right is also what went wrong.

If emancipatory movements want to successfully develop an alternative to the looming right-wing hegemony, this is a reality that must be confronted – by us. Defending our values is not enough. We need to recognize the problematic nature of emancipatory discourse as it stands today: just because a particular criticism is coming from the Right of the political spectrum does not necessarily render our positions beyond critique. And then we need to ask the painful questions: “how did we get here”, and what does the current popularity of the Right have to do with the unfulfilled promises and problematic developments of emancipatory movements. Of the very same movements that seem to have failed to address the real nature of inequalities and everyday material struggles of people.

Check your privilege! Intersectionality individualized

All too often activists treat repeated references to wounded feelings as the sole arguments with epistemic authority on issues of representation, culture or identity. In the context of emancipatory movements and their emphasis on offended feelings, German Gender studies scholar Paula Villa speaks critically of what she calls positional fundamentalism, that is, equating individuals with their positions within social structures (their race, their sex, their sexual preference) and making them personally responsible for oppressive societal structures. She calls this politics surrogate (Politiksurrogat): the tendency to retreat into emotional reactions and feelings of self-righteousness instead of engaging in constructive argumentation.  


While I agree with her critique of the phenomenon, I suggest that perhaps a different term – individualized intersectionality – would be more apt. The issue is not that this type of politics totalizes the otherwise just request of reflection on positionality and treats it as an all-encompassing approach beyond any critique; rather, it reformulates what should be a structural critique in individual terms, thereby addressing it on the wrong scale and choosing wrong methods to counter it.

The best example of this is classism. Class analysis – to put it simply – is aimed at how a specific mode of production or market leads to a specific mode of division of labour with different and contradictory positions. Furthermore, it is aimed at analysing the wide-ranging levels of power and capacity to defend the interests of people in these positions. An intersectional analysis would be, for instance, an analysis of how capitalist exploitation intersects with patriarchal power structures to produce specific life conditions and exploitations for women. However, in the individualized approach of the critique of so-called classism, class has become but another identity category on the basis of which people are discriminated against. In this interpretation, poor women are simply added in, and what should be looked at are the ways in which lower-class women are discriminated against or disadvantaged, compared to better-off women or lower-class men. This empties out the class analysis and systemic intersectional analysis of its original, structural sense, turning it instead into an analysis of the discrimination of individuals by adding up “layers of oppression”.

The proliferation of non-binary gender identities and the right-wing attacks on what they call “gender ideology” drew attention to the fact that the meaning of the structural concept of gender itself has also changed over the years. It used to denote “the fundamentally social quality of distinctions based on sex” (as Joan Scott puts it), the power structures in a given society between men and women, and the societal roles, possibilities, and constraints accrued to being born male or female.  The shifted meaning of gender is apparent in much of the current trans and genderqueer scholarship and activism, where gender has become conceptually synonymous with gender identity: “a person’s felt sense of identity” (Green, 2006: 247). Gender in this sense means identifying or not with being born male or female, having the privilege or not to have one’s “sex assigned at birth” and “felt sense of gender identity” in line, resulting in a proliferation of special, unique, non-binary gender identities. This second approach, however, has very little in common with the original critique of the hierarchical social structures between men and women and the fact that the gendered oppression we observe today is not a response to our identities but to how society identifies us (and, say, gives lesser pay to a woman or exposes her to specific forms of violence – independently of her self-assigned ‘gender identity’).

Right-wing actors mobilizing against the perceived threat of ‘gender ideology’ have often pointed out the connection between the term ‘gender’ and individualism/neoliberalism. This stems precisely from the aforementioned individualized understanding of the concept of gender, according to which gender is freely chosen and unconstrained by social norms, nature, or biological sex. This very same criticism has also been raised from within segments of the left, including feminist circles. These critics have argued that the identity politics approach to social injustice has turned emancipatory movements into terrains of individual claims for recognition. By adopting the logic of neoliberalism instead of collectively addressing systemic problems, identity politics have come to encourage individual adaptations to systemic problems. To provide an example, it is argued that queer politics encourages individuals to reject the categories of man or woman themselves instead of fighting the narrowly defined gender roles expected of men and women, and that if one does not comply with the expected gender roles, then one would not be a man or a woman.

In progressive activism and scholarship, we often hear of “the ideology of two sexes” – the roots of this ideology being attributed to the far right – implying that every true progressive should accept that there are not only two sexes. However, the existence of intersex people does not negate the sexual dimorphism (that over 99% of the people are born either male or female). Such a statement is quickly accused of promoting the idea of biological essentialism: that gender roles are given by nature and are therefore inherent to our bodies. But such accusations either use the existence of intersex people as a springboard from which to argue for non-binary gender identities or to conflate the biological reality (being born male or female) with the feminist claim that “biology is not destiny” – that is, that being born male or female should not determine what one can become in life. If so little is enough to qualify as far right, it comes as no surprise that progressive activism has become so disconnected from broader segments of the population and that so many people tend to get confused or furious about gender activism.

Instead of dismissing any criticism of intersectionality, privilege theory, and gender as right-wing, and instead of giving in to the temptation of tabooizations created by the common enemy “the right wing”  we should be looking critically into the evolution of these concepts and why they have become so vulnerable. Emancipatory movements do not exist in a vacuum: their claims and their language are also products of politico-economic processes and geopolitical power structures, and therefore subject to critique.

As an attempt to explain some of the historicity of these changes, I will draw on American philosopher Nancy Fraser’s theories of recognition and redistribution, which provide a helpful framework to understand how we got here – to the “recognition turn” in identity politics terms in feminist, antiracist and LGBT movements. Fraser’s analytic lens might not help us to fully understand  injustice, but it can perhaps shed light on how to address and overcome the self-defeating framing of the right-wing attacks as cultural war and backlash.

The Dangers of Psychologization

In her seminal 1995 text, Fraser defines the term redistribution to indicate the socioeconomic injustice ingrained in the political-economic structure of society. It occurs, for example, in cases of exploitation (having the fruits of one’s labour appropriated for the benefit of others), economic marginalization (being confined to undesirable or poorly paid work or being denied access to income-generating labour altogether) or deprivation (being denied an adequate material standard of living). Another competing philosophical interpretation of injustice that addresses recognition issues focuses on cultural or symbolic injustice. It is based, according to Fraser, in the general patterns of social representation, interpretation, and communication. Fraser considers that the issues of gender equality simultaneously touch upon issues of recognition and redistribution, ingrained in both the political-economic structure of society and its culture.

The first premise of Fraser’s theoretical work on justice is that a significant change had taken place around the end of the twentieth century, turning struggles for political recognition into paradigmatic forms of political conflict. As early as 1995, Fraser had taken a critical position with respect of this idea and sought ways to reconcile the aforementioned struggles. Understanding how “the feminist turn to recognition has dovetailed all too neatly with a hegemonic neoliberalism” (2013: 160) has remained among her main concerns.

From this perspective, when feminists draw attention to the culture of ‚body shaming‘ or when politicians make suggestions for improving the situation of women in symbolic spaces (for example representing women on paper money or banning sexist ads), they are either neglecting the sphere of redistribution altogether or disconnecting them from the recognition issues.

Fraser refuses to equate identity politics with politics of recognition. In the light of the current debate in the Anglo-Saxon sphere of influence, where any criticism of identity politics is interpreted as rejection of just recognition claims, it is important to make this distinction. All the more, as these debates have begun to infiltrate East-Central Europe political discourse. Fraser’s insights from 2000 and 2003 might, in a sense, be read as prophetic. She lists the following four main reasons for distinguishing between the two. 

Firstly, identity politics limit the issue of recognition to reinforcing group specificity, thereby encouraging separatism. Secondly, it ignores the fact that because people inhabit multiple identities at the same time, their identity is much more complex than what these group identities afford. Thirdly, identity politics tends to gloss over the fact that injustice against unrecognized or marginalized groups is also partly rooted in the injustice of distribution. Lastly, by homogenizing minorities, identity politics runs the risk of concealing the internal power struggles within these groups. By way of example, what is the best course of action to take in a situation where women are held in an inferior position within a minority group – should it be counteracted, or should this group simply be left to its own resorts, as any intervention may otherwise risk undermining group identity?

Fraser also rejects the idea that justification of recognition can be deduced from the individual psyche. Philosophers often discuss the question of recognition by grounding human integrity in the consent of and recognition by other people. By that rationale, recognition would be needed to avoid hurting the self-esteem of a person in order to allow them to regard themselves as a person of worth – a full member of society and the equal of others. Hence, a society that regards women or gays as inferior will inevitably curb the self-esteem and self-worth of individuals, which is unjust. Fraser, however, argues that this line of reasoning (putting the individual and their self-worth at the forefront) is flawed. Firstly, because such an approach is vulnerable to empirical refutation (if a person’s self-esteem is not hurt, then others may achieve the same thing without external help). Secondly, if individual feelings are rendered as epistemically sufficient to support valid claims for justice then anyone, racially prejudiced people included, could claim that their self-esteem is violated if people of colour are accorded the same rights. Thirdly, this psychologization hampers the focus on social structures and institutions that create and maintain unjust practices in the first place.

Instead of a grounding in identity politics and psychology, Fraser suggests thinking about social injustice as an institutionalized relationship of subordination. Injustice is not significant because it impacts self-worth, but because the institutional models of these cultural values exclude entire groups from being able to participate in social interactions as equals. That is, lack of recognition manifest itself not only, nor primarily, in disrespectful attitudes, but in the structures of social institutions. It is therefore necessary to change these institutions. Fraser sees this as the status model of recognition, as opposed to the identity model.

A Case for Perspectival Dualism

Following the election of Donald Trump in 2016, wakeup calls were all over about how the Left must finally return to the really important issues in order to fight economic inequalities. Some of these voices even urged the Left to drop such supposedly marginal ‘cultural’ issues as feminism, racism, or LGBT rights, because they held that, once we get rid of economic inequality, “the principal contradiction”, all inequalities will vanish. Fraser, argues that this line of reasoning is flawed.

But she also rejects the other extreme, represented among others by her decade-old sparring partner, German philosopher Axel Honneth. Scholars such as Honneth contend that economic inequalities have either already been dealt with or, when not, they are primarily the result of a lack of cultural recognition and should be treated as such.

Fraser is also sceptical of the idea that economic and cultural issues should be added up, and also be addressed. Substantive dualism, as she calls it, must be rejected because injustice in these two areas cannot be regarded as separable in essence. Looking at the structure of the labour market would make it a question of distribution, while, for instance, looking at the objectification of women in the media would make it an issue of recognition.

Instead of either of the three lenses, Fraser proposes what she calls a perspectival dualism, by which issues of justice are considered in their connections, since all issues have both economic and cultural implications, even though it may seem at a certain point that these issues are purely economic or purely cultural.

Consider the example of a widely publicized feminist demand that men should have a greater share in housework and providing care. The difficulty with this is easier to understand when looking beyond the cultural framework – that is, the attitudes regarding these tasks as the menial duties of women. Women typically work in underpaid sectors and their responsibilities as caregivers make it less likely for them to get a promotion. Furthermore, if they live in a heterosexual relationship, there is a good chance that they earn less than their partner. In fact, market competition pushes the employer to regard male parental leave as a nuisance and tries to act against it. Moreover, the ethos of the ‘reliable employee’ refers to a person who is always available, has no care-giving responsibilities (no sick child or elderly parent) and is taken care of by others. In light of this, to try and convince men to do more at home or women to consciously overwrite their socialization misses the scale of the problem if the systemic conditions for a more just division of labour at home are missing.

The problem has no immediate solution at the individual level and so gender equality remains as distant as ever. Yet the patronizing attitude of activists may trigger an adverse response in those whose material reality does not reflect this kind of sensitization. We must therefore consider the issues of redistribution and recognition as an interconnected network that goes beyond cultural interpretation, and reckon that the desired development will not come about merely as a result of changes in individual attitudes.

Human rights are not enough

Fraser situates the human rights paradigm within the recognition shift. As she notes, “struggles for recognition have exploded everywhere – witness battles over multiculturalism, human rights, and national autonomy” (Fraser 2013: 160). The human rights paradigm in itself is not suitable either for discussing the issue of gender equality or for explaining the phenomenon that the Right regularly questions gender and LGBT equality.

To the human rights consensus which formed the basis of the post-World War II order in the West applies what Belgian political scientist Chantal Mouffe (2005) says:

A well functioning democracy calls for a clash of legitimate democratic political positions. This is what the confrontation between left and right needs to be about. Such a confrontation should provide collective forms of identification strong enough to mobilize political passions. If this adversarial configuration is missing, passions cannot be given a democratic outlet and the agonistic dynamics of pluralism are hindered. The danger arises that the democratic confrontation will therefore be replaced by a confrontation between essentialist forms of identification or non-negotiable moral values. When political frontiers become blurred, disaffection with political parties sets in and one witnesses the growth of other types of collective identities, around nationalist, religious or ethnic forms of identification (Mouffe, 2005: 30, emphasis added)

Anything that gets (re-)defined as human right becomes non-negotiable, morally unquestionable, outside of legitimate democratic debate and it seems that the content of human rights and the issues belonging under that umbrella have changed and expanded over the past decades (Kováts 2018).

The Marxist critique of human rights is well known: “no freedom without bread”. Economically marginalized people cannot make use of legal human rights. But besides the Marxist critique there is a growing body of scholarly literature discussing whether human rights and human rights committed organisations share the responsibility for neoliberalism or have been a ‘powerless companion’ to market fundamentalism. Many formulate that the human rights framework does not allow for the addressing of systemic questions, including global power inequalities. As Harvard legal scholar Samuel Moyn puts it, “human rights, even perfectly realized human rights, are compatible with inequality, even radical inequality” (Moyn, 2017:2). He argues:

„The real trouble about human rights when historically correlated with market fundamentalism is not that they promote it but that they are unambitious in theory and ineffectual in practice in the face of its success. Neoliberalism has changed the world, while the human rights movement has posed no threat to it. The tragedy of human rights is that they have occupied the global imagination but have so far contributed little of note, merely nipping at the heels of the neoliberal giant whose path goes unaltered and unresisted. And the critical reason that human rights have been a powerless companion of market fundamentalism is that they simply have nothing to say about material inequality” (Moyn, 2017: 5).

Additional problems arise when we take into account the North-South and West-East core-periphery power relations. The universalistic and ‘non-negotiable’ framework of human rights covers up the embeddedness of the agenda in the global context. In East-Central Europe, for instance, as argued by sociologists Anikó Gregor and Weronika Grzebalska, the arrival of the human rights approach coincided with a time of democratic transformations and the adaptation to neoliberal capitalism from a semi-peripheric position. The focus of human rights NGOs is still strongly influenced by the agenda of Western donors. The paradigm of human rights focuses on individual rights and treats the economic order as an independent social sub-system and equality between men and women as a cultural issue, cut from its connections with the economic axes.

Therefore there are plenty of challenges for those who stand for human rights and equality of all, irrespective of sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, etc. Because of the abovementioned dilemmas and contradictions, committed human-rights actors sometimes contribute to the individualization of structural problems. In this age of culture wars, it is time to pause and reflect critically on what the originally emancipatory concepts such as human rights, intersectionality,  empowerment, and choice have become. We need to move beyond the reductive interpretation of a ‘conservative backlash’ against social movements and human rights if we are to develop proactive and self-reflexive strategies.

Author is a political scientist and a feminist


Fraser, N. (2000) Rethinking Recognition. New Left Review 3, May-June 2000.

Fraser, N. and A. Honneth (2003) Redistribution or Recognition? A Political-Philosophical
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Fraser, N. (2013) Feminist Politics in the Age of Recognition: A Two-Dimensional Approach to Gender Justice. In Fortunes of Feminism. From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis. London and New York: Verso. 159-173.

Green, E. R. (2006) Debating trans inclusion in the feminist movement: A trans-positive analysis.
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Kováts Eszter (2018) Questioning Consensuses— Right-Wing Populism, Anti-Populism, and the Threat of ‘Gender Ideology’. In Sociological Research Online, British Sociological Association. 1-11.

Mouffe, Ch. (2005) On the Political. New York: Routledge.

Moyn, S. (2017) Are human rights enough? The Universal Declaration between welfare state and neoliberal globalization. 24 November 2017 Eurozine. https://www.eurozine.com/are-human-rights-enough/?pdf Accessed: 16-02-2019

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