On Understanding “Identity”
TO HAVE more clarity on the subject, let us start with the conceptualization on “identity” itself. Firstly, the existence of “identity” was not at all a new revelation of the eighties and after. Socio-politico-cultural identities based on caste, tribe, race, ethnicity, religion, language, nationality, gender, sexuality, family, etc. have already been there in the past and at different stages of history. In general, identity stamped on an individual by birth itself is decisive in determining one’s role in the social formation to which she/he belongs. And at the same time, people are also shaped not by a particular identity but by the intersection and interpenetration of many identities such that “diversities” have performed much in strengthening societies by bringing together multiple identities, talents and perspectives. On the other hand, throughout history, clash of identities have been behind social and political transformations. Even today, this is the case with, caste, race, religion, etc. which continue to be constant source of conflicts today.
Therefore, it is imperative not to shy away from identity and instead to understand and approach it as a concrete reality. Acceptance of this fact is indispensable for grasping one’s own social position, perception on others and to broaden his/her worldview. At the same time, it is still more significant on the part of an oppressed to have the required awareness and consciousness of oneself as a member of that oppressed group. That is, identity emerging from one’s personal experience of oppression is an indispensable element in shaping her/his political awareness based on that. This is all the more relevant since oppression and discriminations arising, for instance, from Indian caste system or American racism which being historically in-built institutional mechanisms, are experienced on a very personal level by the victims. For instance, no Indian brahmin or a white American can ever understand what it is like to experience untouchability or racism respectively. At the same time, within a social class in general having a unifrom identity, the particular or personal experience of an individual from that identity may also be different. Thus, the experience of caste oppression which is pan-Indian by a dalit in Kerala may be different from that of a person in the same category in UP and Bihar or that of a dalit woman shall be different from that of a dalit man. And, identity alone or personal experience of oppression is not at all a necessary condition for one to become committed to opposing it.
Thirdly, the initiatives for struggles against “identity-based” oppression have historically emerged always from the oppressed themselves. History of slave rebellions that trembled the Roman empire, valiant anti-caste and tribal struggles in India, revolt of the African-Americans including the Black Panther movement, etc., are examples. Similarly, initiative for the struggles for women’s liberation has come from women themselves. Eminent women leaders of the early 20th century had to lead the struggle for women’s suffrage and the fight for abortion rights. Such initiative on the part of the oppressed often imparts inspiration to people from other categories who do not belong to a particular identity and having no suffering of such kind becoming active supporters of the struggles against oppression. For instance, the black-led civil rights movement later got active support from vast number of whites while the women’s movement of the 60s was supported by hundreds of thousands of progressive men. In India, right from very early times, a number of so called upper caste people did come forward exposing and opposing the inhuman and irrational caste system whose victims are the low-castes.
Approaching Caste Identity
WITH its preoccupation with the capitalist mode of production in which contradiction between capital and labour assumes paramount importance, early Marxist writings, except that by Marx’s own observations and references to the Indian caste system, lacked a rigorous analysis of other social formations having their own specific identities. In spite of that, while analyzing the capitalist mode of production as evolved in Europe, Marx had put forward the idea of the “Asiatic mode of production”, with reference to his understanding of the caste system in India. This conceptualization of Marx having utmost importance for developing the theory and practice of Indian revolution was totally ignored by the later-day mechanical Indian “Marxists”. The unique and notoriously inhuman caste system having deep-rooted and inseparable ramifications both at the base and the superstructure which for millennia was central to the state formation and transformation in the polity, economy and culture in Indian subcontinent had condemned vast majority of the toiling people to live in the social periphery. Caste-based Indian ruling system with its specific “ensemble of social relations” has historically denied the working people and the real tillers of the soil political power as well as ownership of the means of production including land.
However, despite this deep albeit brief insight in to the Indian caste system specifically displayed by Marx, the so called Indian Marxists whom Dr. Ambedkar characterized “Brahmin boys” failed to have a concrete class analysis of the caste-based Indian society along Marxist lines. But it was the “non-Marxist” Dr. Ambedkar emerging from the oppressed dalits that exposed the Indian caste system as a standing denial of the ideals of a democratic society. Accordingly, the centuries-old divisive, hierarchical, repressive and inhuman caste system spanning the entire Indian sub-continent has been diametrically opposed to the democratic values like liberty, equality and fraternity. Indian society, noted Ambedkar, being a conglomeration of innumerable castes which are exclusive and having no common bond or experience to share, and filled with an “ascending scale of hatred and descending scale of contempt” totally destroyed the possibilities of meaningful cooperation among people. Even after the advent of colonialism and developments since then, it is caste system, the most pernicious social institution that is continuing as the most decisive factor in determining ownership of the means of production and social division of labour in India.
That is why Ambedkar firmly put forward his program of caste annihilation as the crucial component of India’s democratization. He found little scope for the emancipation of the downtrodden within the caste-based Hindu social system. Dr Ambedkar’s program was not abstract but consisted of free and compulsory education to all, questioning and critical evaluation of religious books like Vedas, Gita, Ramayana and Mahabharata, redistribution of resources like land, water, wealth, etc. including nationalization of land, inter-caste marriages all of which are integral components of the prolonged struggle towards caste annihilation. Ambedkar’s political struggle for freedom consists in ultimately defeating the caste-based Hindu social system that is mutilating human personality. Very revealingly, those, including self-professed communists, who raise outcries against caste oppression are conspicuously silent regarding annihilation of caste.
Dr. Ambedkar, the great leader of the oppressed castes in India was well aware that the survival capacity of the caste system is incomparable to any other social system ever existed in the world. When compelled to change its old forms, caste has succeeded to bounce back with intensified vigour in new forms with its deep roots in the social fabric, material production and body politic. Therefore, Ambedkar was emphatic in his stand towards caste annihilation. However, in the long drawn out process of achieving this goal, he also upheld it as a democratic principle to provide representation to the castes hitherto remained unrepresented in the governance of the country. Since time immemorial, caste system that divided people into high and low castes on the basis of birth had reserved wealth, political power, education, land, means of production, trade and all lucrative posts to the higher castes. Democratization of the society, therefore, requires a rectification of this injustice perpetrated on the vast majority of Indian people over centuries. Hence, caste-based reservation is essential for representation of the oppressed and redistribution of power to those who have been kept out of the state apparatus so as to end their social, educational and economic isolation and backwardness. Thus reservation has become an indispensable move towards the ultimate abolition of caste system and the attainment of freedom for the oppressed and democracy for all people. To be precise, caste-based reservation is inseparable from Ambedkar’s program towards caste annihilation.
Caste and Identity Politics
HOWEVER, identity politics and postmodernism including “neo-Ambedkarism” though raise outcries against caste atrocities and idolize Ambedkar, through their espousal of casteism are having a perception diametrically opposite to that of Ambedkar. All of them are unanimous in denying the goal of caste annihilation which for Ambedkar was fundamental to his program of basic democratization of society. In the words of Ambedkar, democracy is a model of associated living and the roots of democracy are to be searched in social relationship. As such, democracy is incompatible with the caste-ridden Indian society.
On the other hand, identity politics is conspicuous in its disregard for a basic democratization of the entire society. According to identity politics, every struggle against oppression must be fought separately and only by those who are subjected to that oppression. All the proponents of identity politics describe society as made up of a whole range of autonomous, mutually exclusive, free-floating antagonisms and oppressions, none more important than any other. Accordingly, each sphere of oppression requires a separate sphere of struggle. From its very inception, neoliberalism has embraced identity politics as its ideology because of its espousal and celebration of “multiculturalism”, “multiple histories”, “fragmentation” and so on. Identity politics serves imperialism by obfuscating the global operations of finance capital in many ways. It is useful to shape and counterpoise already existing “local” and “fragmented” narratives against “meta-narratives”, to camouflage the whole process of creation of even “imagined identities”, to disorient the unity of the of the oppressed against global capital’s universal hegemony today, etc. In practice, identity politics, may lead to greater and greater fragmentation and eventually to disintegration even within a group organized around a single form of oppression or injustice. If the abstract theory of identity politics is accepted, then only the dalits can fight against caste oppression and only religious minorities can resist Hindutva fascism in India. That is, those who are born as upper castes cannot become allies in the struggle against caste atrocities, men will be enemies of women, all Hindus will be enemies of Muslims, thus goes the logic of identity politics.
With its emphasis on “difference” rather than “commonality”, identity politics completely rules out friends and allies in struggles and precludes united front strategies against oppressors and ruling classes. Eventually, there is little chance of emancipation by ending oppression and exploitation. It spreads, distrust, angst and despair among the oppressed. The only organizational strategy identity politics offers for different groups of oppressed peoples is to fight their own separate battles against the enemies. Therefore, at the ideological level, identity politics is highly pessimistic implying complete rejection/negation of the potential to build a broad united front of the oppressed together with all progressive democratic forces against all forms of oppression and exploitation.
In conformity with its prognosis on society as summation of “culturally constructed identities”, identity politics also upholds the “autonomy of the state” in relation to economic and social life. No doubt, from both theoretical and practical standpoints, the conceptualization of state as autonomous or as neutral body by identity theorists is intended to serve the interests of the ruling classes rather than the oppressed, as the state in all historical contexts has consistently served to represent the interests of the class/classes in power. Laclau and Mouffe, the pioneers of identity politics, in their abstraction had insisted that even the different branches of government are autonomous and neutral among each other. In their view, executive, judiciary, legislature, police and different layers of administration are all separate entities and independent of each other. At the level of theory, therefore, identity politics denies the fundamental truth that oppression is built into the system, that state is the key instrument for the enforcement of that oppression and that judiciary, police and all law enforcement authorities are entrusted with the task of harassing and brutalizing the workers, the oppressed and the weaker sections of society in the interests of capital. It is not an exaggeration to say that the real motive of identity politics is to keep the system intact.
The characterization of oppression as an entirely subjective phenomenon by identity politics is also problematic. While consciousness is subjective, oppression and exploitation are objective facts of life. According to identity politics, only those who feel they are oppressed face oppression. If this logic or abstraction is taken for granted, then, even the most clear-cut instances of systematic caste-based brutality or untouchability are not necessarily oppression, if the oppressed dalits and lower castes are not conscious of being oppressed. This is not at all an exaggeration since even Laclau and Mouffe, the leading theorists of identity politics themselves argue that even serfdom and slavery do not necessarily represent relationships of oppression, unless the serfs or the slaves themselves “articulate” that oppression. This is a clear-cut illustration of how the ruling classes and their ideologues succeed in legitimizing the system by creating “false consciousness” among the oppressed even as identity politics does not acknowledge the potential for mass consciousness to change.
A best example is the impression created by the financial oligarchies and the ruling classes in America and Europe that white workers stand to gain from reduced wages and welfare benefits to black workers and immigrants. In fact, the objective historical facts are diametrically opposed to this super-imposed “false consciousness”. In the US, for instance, in the southern states where racism has been the strongest, the earnings of white workers are much lower than even black workers in the North. Similarly, under the neoliberal international division of labour, large scale employment of cheap women workers is used by finance capital as a means of pushing down wage rates of male workers and in general reducing the share of wages in national income. Today, outsourcing of work to cheap labour economies enforcing competition between workers in imperialist countries and neocolonial countries is the method used by finance capital to intensify the process of surplus value extraction at a global level. In general, workers are fragmented and segregated on the basis of colour, caste and gender for pushing down wages to the lowest level possible. Often, ruling class intellectuals and vested interests try to create the “false consciousness” among people that affirmative action, reservation, women-orientation in economic policies, etc. are the reasons for low wages and unemployment. And the true beneficiaries of this malicious propaganda which has no factual backing are finance capitalists themselves. In this, the neoliberal ideology of identity politics that emphasizes “group self assertion” is effectively used by ruling classes to spread false consciousness and for destroying the fighting unity of all exploited and oppressed against the ubiquitous hegemony of finance capital. The concept of autonomy of struggles and definition of oppression as subjective as analyzed by identity politics remain only at the sphere of abstraction as, in the real world, forms of oppression and struggles against them often overlap, as for instance, both white or upper caste and black or lower caste women are bound to unite against women’s oppression and patriarchy in general.
THE upshot of the argument is that one’s personal identity and real politics are interrelated and at the same time separate too. Mixing up one’s “identity” with the theorization of “identity politics” as espoused by postmodernism will lead to erroneous conclusions. Putting all non-dalits, for instance, in the enemy camps by identity politics is a distorted option serving the enemy. Politics involves strategies and tactics for resisting and overcoming oppression. Here personal identity becomes political only when it moves beyond the realm of personal experience and assumes a social character, leading to the emergence of social and people’s movements backed by theory. Such an approach is lacking in the conceptualization of identity politics.
If the theoretical abstraction involved in identity politics is a fetter on people’s unity and struggles against oppression, the other side of the coin is the self-professed Marxists who are mechanical in their approach to “identity”. For instance, the institutionalized Indian communists who do not have a program for caste annihilation linking it properly with the base and superstructure are also serving the ruling system. Devoid of a concrete analysis of the Indian situation they are still clinging on to their mechanical approach to caste as a mere cultural and super-structural phenomenon. The outcome was the utter failure to grasp the integral link between class struggle and the struggle for the abolition of caste. This strategic failure of the Communist Party leadership to approach the India-specific caste question in the proper perspective was due to its inability to pursue the Marxist method of concrete analysis of the concrete situation. Therefore, it took a mechanical and reductionist approach to caste glossing over its crucial role in the historical-social transformation in India.
It was this mechanical approach that led to the glossing over of the inseparable link between land relations and caste in the agrarian relations and land reform legislation brought out by the EMS led first Communist government in Kerala that came to power in 1957. Though eulogized as the most progressive land reform in India, its success was confined to vesting land ownership in sharecroppers and intermediaries who primarily belong to Syrian Christians and intermediate castes in the context of Kerala. On the other hand, the dalits, the real tillers of the soil were totally excluded from the ownership of agricultural land such that they were driven to more than 26000 dalit colonies throughout the state, a situation that still continues unabated. Including this, the lack of a Marxist approach to class in the concrete context of caste-ridden India ultimately prevented the evolution of a people’s democratic movement politically led by the Communist Party properly linking anti-caste struggles with the working class movement. In course of time, the upper caste and pro-caste ruling classes succeeded in dividing the broad masses of people using caste as an effective tool. Thus, coupled with the ideological, political and organizational setbacks suffered by the International Communist Movement, the failure on the part of the right opportunist and adventurist trends in Indian Communist movement to evolve a people’s democratic path to Indian revolution based on a concrete analysis of the Indian situation has enabled the upper caste ruling classes to unleash unprecedented caste oppression on the dalits, adivasis and other oppressed castes together with using caste as a weapon for ensuring vote-banks.
Thus, while both identity politics and degenerated Left starting from apparently opposite positions serve the caste-based Indian ruling system, corporate saffron fascism is unleashing the biggest-ever offensive on the working people and the oppressed. Meanwhile, militant struggles led by the dalits and dalit organizations upholding the teachings of Ambedkar are rising up in different parts of the country. In this context, the institutional Left which was ignoring such movements in the past is now trying to make opportunist alliances with them without making any self-criticism or rectifying its earlier mechanical positions. This necessitates urgent interventions on the part of the revolutionary Left upholding Ambedkar’s approach to caste annihilation. Such an engagement will impart a renewed impetus to the badly needed unity between the working class movement and the anti-caste-movement in India. The need of the hour is to develop the required theoretical and practical positions for democracy and freedom fully comprehending the fact that there is no line of demarcation between class struggle and caste-struggles in the Indian context. The revolutionary Left should take up this challenge firmly upholding the right of the oppressed and the marginalized to fight for their “identity” differentiating it from the “identity politics” propped up by postmodernism on the one hand, and developing the theory and practice of overcoming neoliberalism on the other. Only such an approach of targeting “multiple” fronts will enable the progressive democratic forces to unite against the common enemy in the coming days.