A Few Notes on Identity Politics
“Je voulais tout simplement être un homme parmi d’autres hommes. J’aurais voulu arriver lisse et jeune dans un monde nôtre et ensemble édifier. […] Je voulais être homme, rien qu’homme / J’arrivais dans le monde, soucieux de faire lever un sens aux choses […], et voici que je me découvrais objet au milieu d’autres objets
I only wanted be a human among other humans. I wanted to arrive sleek and young in a world that is ours and that we would build together. […] I wanted to be human, nothing but human / I came to the world anxious to give a meaning to things […], but here I find myself, an object among other objects”
— Frantz Fanon, Peau noire, masques blancs
Identity politics is a misnomer; it is rather a politics of identities. While it is (seemingly) left-wing politics that is mainly called out on it, in view of its focus on the protection of minorities, it can’t be ignored that the right-wing rhetoric of nationalism, chauvinism, or religion revolves equally around identitarian categories. It seems that identity is a hot topic, regardless one’s political stance. We might therefore ask ourselves, if this simple opposition, of those trying to protect minorities against those that try to protect hegemonial identities, is not actually part of a completely different dynamic, which is not primarily political, but economical. In this sense the two positions sketched above wouldn’t concern a politics, but rather different economies of identities. Seen in that light, the subversion that each ‘side’ likes to claim, either through the novelty of giving once invisible members of society a voice, or through the reappropriation of a fading hegemony, should be rather understood as parts of a dynamic that is inherent to the contemporary, neoliberal form of capitalism.
We can, on the one hand, observe a segmentation of the economy into specific markets, pertaining to specific target audiences, which we could call minorisation, and, on the other hand, the creation of territories or normative spaces, on which this segmentation can take place, which we could call majorisation. This double dynamic can be easily observed with Facebook: Even though it was once targeted at students, as several other similar social media platforms were before, it can nowadays not be said to have a target audience. Basically everyone uses it, so there is not one typical or standard user; it has undergone majorisation. While it was still minoritary, targeted at students staying in touch with each other, there was, one could say, a singular experience of using the site, with some individual nuances. But what has happened in the course of its majorisation is the dissolution of such a singular experience into a plurality, where even staying in touch with others can no longer be considered the primary activity; with forwarded links to news articles, followed sites of personal interest, staying updated on events, posting pictures of one’s travels, complaining about one’s job, and, of course, memes, are at your disposition. The feed, as much as the whole interface, doesn’t only show different content, it has altogether different functions.
This fragmentation is not one of a disorderly plurality, but should rather be understood as a segmentation of the experience according to different types of users with different interests — and an adjusted ad environment. The classification of users allows Facebook to predict who is more likely to buy what advertised product; so, whereas there is no singular ‘standard user’ of Facebook that could be delineated, there are, within this territory, specific target audiences, whose likeliness to click on specific ads can be predicted. This is what I call minorisation. But once such a specific market has been established, the next step is to draw a maximal profit, to integrate as many people as possible into it, to have it grow until the audience loses its specificity, where it becomes majoritary. We can therefore speak of a double dynamic: First you have the creation of a new market through minorisation, an act of what we could call sanctioned transgression, which then, to exploit maximally its profitability, starts to grow, until it ideally becomes majoritary; but then within it, new markets are created that once again become specific and profitable. One prominent recent example of such a sanctioned transgression was Nike’s campaign with Colin Kaepernick. Even though it was borne out of a genuine political gesture, it turned into a ‘tapping into’ a target audience that sympathised with said gesture and would turn them into an economically profitable group, activated by the backlash that qualified it as a transgression and that improved the campaign’s economic outcome at the same time.
Target audiences are crucial for investors to predict the profitability of a product, for the marketing department to decide upon the places and manners of advertisement, for the producers to accommodate to the user’s and consumer’s needs and desires. In short, the kinds of people that are likely to buy the product need to be found or delimitated. This is a complex process that includes data collection, psychological studies, corporate branding, and lots and lots of trial and error in accordance with a feedback loop driven by said data. It should therefore not be understood as a secret conspiracy by an economic elite to manipulate the masses, but comes along with obvious questions that concern everyone who wants to create a product. It is neither a purely hypnotic top-down instrumentalisation of subliminal mechanisms, nor is it an authentic bottom-up expression of a community of consumers. As these processes of delimitating well-defined target audiences become unquestioned common sense, as the dynamics that are set into operation become more and more invisible and systematic, as our tribal instincts are harnessed to intensify our identifications with specific groups, so does critical analysis of the real-life consequences become more and more urgent. Identity has become a hot topic because identification is nowadays a primary economic motor. Its primary function is economic: to absorb and realise surplus value, and thereby to avoid crises of underconsumption.
Identification, as much as a feeling of communality, is an act of branding, and thereby an inherently economic act. As an act of differentiation, it does not only segment the populace, but incites the emergence of a plurality of markets that incites the specification of audiences that are thereby becoming profitable. This logic does not only pertain to consumer goods, but it also pulls in, in an act of universal commodification, forms of identification that are traditionally considered existential, like genders, or political, like ‘being left’ or ‘being right’, that are no longer primarily concerned with political ideas, but become themselves pre-established identities. The emergence of targeted political ads on social media witnesses the segmentation of the political sphere, just as much as the emergence of new gender identities coincides with the tentative emergence of new economic markets; all this becomes part of an overarching logic of economic minorisation.
The question of minority
Once a market becomes majoritary, where it loses its specific audience, where it becomes ‘the norm’, segmentation takes place within it, which means that once again specific identities are set apart. The first smartphones were targeted at business users; and it was Apple’s revolutionary idea to reinvent the smartphone as a majoritary device, a device for everyone, but not for anyone, as it didn’t become a non-descriptive platform, but rather an interface that could be adapted to various well-defined types of users. At the same time, the general ‘experience’ of having a smartphone started undergoing segmentisation, in as far as the brand of one’s phone, of having a Blackberry, an iPhone, a Samsung, started to express of certain types of smartphone owners.
Brand identity can occur once relatability is involved. Even supermarkets, providing the most general needs, are portrayed as somehow representing specific personalities, or the affiliation with a certain social class. But when it comes to the question of identity politics, these created identities, like the affiliation to a particular subculture or brand, are not considered politically problematic. The question is rather about the established minorities: politically suppressed groups — specific genders, ethnicities, sexualities — that suddenly become the centre of attention. And indeed, the urge to express themselves in their suppression, of being given a voice, to be perceived as equal human beings, has been a genuine objective of political minority movements of the 20th century —for example anti-colonial movements, the Civil Rights Movement, Feminism. Structurally, therefore, when it comes to public visibility, the recent developments indeed seem to have followed the demands of the political minorities; public presence seems to abolish their minoritary status. But does that mean that the economic minorisation sketched out above, as the creation of new markets, is a direct continuation of the politicised minority movements, as the call for equality by suppressed groups? I would like to argue that they are complete opposites.
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Let us look at the example of visibility more precisely. It is true that when it comes to political discussion, the topic of minorities has become much more prominent; so are we closer to that which the minority movements demanded? To the politicised minorities, expressing their experiences of suffering was a means to reach awareness about the different structures and instances of suppression, so as to be able to analyse and abolish them. It was aimed at the removal of suppressive power structures; visibility was a means to an end. But to what degree are minorities invisible in a suppressive society?
First of all, one must rather say that minorities are, quite the contrary, excluded from being invisible in a suppressive society. They are perpetually forced to stay visible. Minorities are always distinguished by marks, be they the colour of the skin, clothing, customs, belief; they are defined by these marks and it is due to these marks that their exclusion is vindicated. Majorities, on the other hand, are distinguished not numerically, but, as James Baldwin points out, by “influence” (Baldwin 1998: 216), as the part of the population that is norm-giving, defining normality. Those that behave normally simply don’t stand out. A normal day is one not worth talking about; a normal person is one that has no outstanding traits; a normal citizen is a representative of the prevalent norm. In that sense it can be said that hegemonial identities, as those that live out normality, don’t delineate specific experiences or individuals. Meanwhile, minoritary identities, as those excluded from the norm, will remain visible in as far as they are never allowed to truly ‘fit in’.
And yet, minorities are at the same time also always invisible, namely as equal human beings. Their exclusion from normality is always connected to an exclusion on seemingly anthropological grounds, which, considering the classical definition of homo est animal rationale, was ‘traditionally’ an exclusion due to a claimed lack of rationality. Minorities thereby wear the marks of the animalistic (‘primitive’) and corporeal (‘sensual’) instead of the humane (cf. Mbembe 2015: 66). The marks that keep minorities visible are signs for the justification of their invisibility as human beings; they are not seen as equals. While the equal human being is to be treated as an end in itself, the excluded can only be used as means to an end, as commodities or tools. And due to their being excluded from rationality, and thereby from humanity, the experience that the suppressed have gone through, experiences of exclusion and violence, were as invisible as their suffering (cf. Césaire 2004: 80f. and Mbembe 2015: 129). The ‘established’ minorities have therefore been just as artificially created as the ones we have spoken about above, namely through the double strategy of visibility and invisibility. Power lies in the ability to decide, what is supposed to remain visible and what is supposed to remain invisible, as much as in the ability to be indifferent, to be in indifference — the norm (cf. ibid.: 165).
To summarise, the experiences of excluded minorities are invisible, while they are perpetually forced to remain visible by their marks of exclusion. It is due to their exclusion that they are economically exploited, while their exploitation is legitimised on discriminatory grounds, as in the case of slavery (cf. ibid.: 28). The abolition of that exploitation, which is what the politicised minority movements were about, could therefore only lie in a becoming-visible of the experiences and the becoming-invisible of the marks as marks of exclusion. The goal was for each and everyone to be perceived as an equal human being.
In that sense, what many of the thinkers of the minority movements of the last century — in the following I will quote selectively a few from the African independence movements and the Civil Rights Movement — have aimed for was not the minorisation of everyone, but, through the liquidation of suppressive power structures, an all-embracing majorisation: “I think that what we really have to do is to create a country in which there are no minorities — for the first time in the history of the world” (Baldwin 1998: 221). A dominant theme of this very complex and multifaceted discourse is the search for a new universality, be it in “the liberation of all peoples, the dismantling of all economic relations based upon the exploitation of man by man, universal disarmament, and the establishment of international rule of law with effective means of enforcement” (Cleaver 1999: 145), the “possibilité même de la construction d’une conscience commune du monde, c’est-à-dire de l’accomplissement d’une justice universelle [the possibility of the construction of a united world conscience, the accomplishment of a universal justice]” (Mbembe 2015: 261), i.e. an explicitly global emancipation, or the search for a majoritary mode of being that would no longer be exclusive, homogenous, and segmented, as the pseudo-universal norms of bourgeois culture, but universally inclusive, as the appreciation of humane uniqueness: “l’universel, bien sûr, mais non pas par négation, mais comme approfondissement de notre propre singularité [the universal, certainly, but not by negation, and rather by a deepening of our own singularity]” (Césaire 2004: 92).
We can now delineate the difference between economic minorisation and the politicised minority movements. Economic minorisation is the age old double strategy “de disqualification morale et d’instrumentalisation pratique” (Mbembe 2015: 51), of normative exclusion and of economic exploitation. But while ‘traditionally’, such exclusion was a purely negative process, an expression of lack, ‘setting oneself apart’ from the norm has become a positive feature of one’s self-expression, in as far as one expresses it through the purchase of specific items and the exhibition of specific traits. But in what way is buying a specific product an act of transgression? In as far as no product is targeted at the unspecific and invisible norm, but always at a specific group of people. Even if this group of people actively identifies as “the norm,” it does so through the display of specific traits that are to delineate normality. Buying this product instead of that willingly or unwillingly accredits you with certain traits that represent its typical buyer. Each purchase defines you; and if you don’t consider yourself a part of that group, you need to actively justify this purchase: “I know that Diet Coke is for girls, but I like it more than Zero!” Not that we necessarily care so much about these things in our daily life, and there are various degrees of such identification. But still, considering that each product is addressed at a certain type, the totality of your purchases will create a certain ‘psychogram’ that marks you with external and targetable criteria. This logic is not limited to economic interactions, but entrains all our acts and deeds; such that a vote is no longer an expression of certain values, but of a certain personality, or a certain behaviour becomes the mark not only of a one’s sexuality, but of a sexual identity. In that sense, sanctioned transgression does not only refer to the creation of new markets. It concerns the process of identification as such — in light of an emerging or an established market.
The strategies of economic minorisation remain the same as in its exclusionary form. Individuals are being delineated by external marks and become invisible in their humanity. They are not addressed as equals, but as members of specific identities that can be economically exploited in as far as they are integrated into a specific market or a set of markets. These marks or traits are neither fixed in some sort of platonic heaven, nor by a group of experts or a social class that monopolises normativity (“influencers”) or “high culture,” as it was with the ‘classic’ bourgeoisie. They are in perpetual flux, shifting, worn out, taken up by a hype, they form allegiances and enmities, reproduce cultural myths, narratives, and clichés; but they are judged and validated by their ability to create, maintain, and augment profitable markets.
What has therefore changed historically is not the suspension of the power structures, but rather an inclusion of everyone into them as everyone is becoming minoritary. This means on the one hand that the ‘established’ minorities are no longer merely exploited so as to extract surplus value, but also consumers, ‘absorbents’ of surplus value, which relatively improves their economic situation. They are becoming target audiences, and in that sense their otherness (visibility) is affirmatively reinterpreted so as to strengthen their identification with the group. For example, the ‘sensual nature’ of women, once a justification for their exclusion from the political sphere, becomes a positive attribute of sentimental novels that are marketed as ‘genuine’ expressions of femininity, while action heroines will be marketed as ‘subversions’ from such a cliché. On the other hand, these identities are no longer measured against a culturally dominant majority, but, in light of their commodification, against their ability to become profitable. This changes, for example, the question of cultural appropriation, which is nowadays not as much an appropriation by a dominant culture, and rather an appropriation by capital. New conceptions of femininity are measured by their potential to create new products that will accommodate to such conceptions and allow them to create new markets.
The delineation of target groups means that the latter need to be defined by marks so as to remain visible. Meanwhile, individuals need to remain invisible as equal human beings, and rather see each other as pragmatic competitors. The neoliberal dynamic is one of all-embracing minorisation, where the world is segmented and everyone and everything becomes a commodity, while what the politicised minority movements aimed for was an all-embracing majorisation, where everyone would perceive each other as human beings, and in that sense as a global community.
The question of hegemony
The dynamic of economic minorisation sketched out above pertains to the liberal rhetoric of apparent inclusion of minorities through sanctioned transgression. Meanwhile, the contemporary right-wing rhetoric pictures itself as a reaction to the political focus on minorities and is founded on the reclamation of hegemonial identities that are portrayed as being under threat. But if the ‘liberal’ subversion, which boils down to the creation of new markets, is but apparent, so is the right-wing rhetoric. This counter dynamic is of no less importance to the functioning of neoliberalism.
What is in question here is the hegemonial status of certain identities that have been, in what we might generally call western bourgeois or patriarchal culture, unquestionably majoritary: whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, national identity. As we have seen, being majoritary primarily concerns norm, normality, and in that sense the right-wing rhetoric takes offence that things like homosexuality, once considered abnormal will no longer be understood as transgressions, but will be as unremarkable as going to church in a community of church goers. But as we have seen, economical minorisation is not about expanding the norm to a totality, i.e. total majorisation, but quite the contrary the segmentation of individuals into target audiences. In that sense, making homosexuality as ‘normal’ and invisible as heterosexuality cannot be the economic goal, as a whole market will collapse if the unifying experiences of homosexuality disappear. For example, the fear and stigmatisation of coming out might be reinterpreted positively by being presented as empowering, instead of working towards a world where these fears would simply have no place, where coming out would no longer be a potential source of suffering or a specific experience at all. Gay pride makes sense only within a state of suppression, for it doesn’t celebrate specific forms of sexuality per se but rather the overcoming of obstacles that hindered not only their expression but also their realisation. Once these obstacles are gone, so are the primary means of capitalising on them. The historic importance of gay pride lie exactly in the fact that it emerged in a violent environment, and its political goal was originally to change the circumstances. Giving a voice to these experiences, celebrating their expression therefore doesn’t stand in contradiction with their perpetuation. Social justice is not primarily about helping the suffering, but about removing the conditions of suffering.
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What we are witnessing is not the majorisation of minorities (i.e. including once transgressive groups into normality), but the minorisation of majoritary categories. As we have seen with the example of Facebook, once a territory has undergone majorisation, it needs to be segmented into sub-markets, and that will also include ‘invisible’ and hence economically useless categories like whiteness, maleness or heterosexuality. Their invisibility was due to their political function, but in their economisation, they start playing a double role. For the minorisation of ‘maleness’ does not mean that the patriarchy is overcome, only that it takes a different shape.
The majoritary experience is, as we have seen, one of normality and is thereby completely invisible and homogenous. Being normal is, as we have seen, a position of power. Within colonialism it is, for example, founded on ownership of ‘savage’ lands and its peoples. But in its dominance, the hegemonial class creates for itself a sphere that is claimed to lie outside of the economy, and is therefore untouched by its dynamics. “High culture” is considered to transcend the laws of supply and demand, as an autonomous sphere of cultural production. As the norm, it is not aimed at maximal profitability, but at the expression of certain values.
To become economically viable, these hegemonial identities don’t necessarily have to become minoritary, for this would indeed necessitate the removal of power structures, but at least be experienced as being minoritary. Few men identify with the patriarchy, but this does not mean that it no longer exists, as its power structures and privileges remain intact. It is this experience of having become minoritary that allows the hegemonial identities to become a target audience, because they no longer perceive their majoritary status as an unquestioned normality, but as being under threat. Let us for example ask ourselves what being an American (within the United States) can mean. On the one hand, this can refer to the normal day-to day-life of American citizens, which means that I am perceived not even specifically as an American, but as an unremarkable member of society, as I behave and live like those around me. Our daily life rarely feels special to us, and it is in that sense that we live out normality. You can’t specifically target this entity, because there is nothing that makes it stand out.
Therefore, to make Americanism a positive category that would make up a target audience, it must no longer be perceived as the norm, but as something that is under threat, or even lost. It must be experienced as if it was minoritary. In that sense, it is no longer about buying ‘normal’ products, but those that emphatically express one’s affiliation with the United States, like a key chain with the star spangled banner. The impression is that if one doesn’t actively express one’s affiliation with the majority, that the latter will forcefully disappear due to the threatening outside forces. A tourist visiting the United States might be inclined to buy the very same key chain for the very same reason — being abroad she will experience the American experience indeed as something special and specific. The structure is exactly the same, only that it is no longer exclusive to the global tourist market, but to the domestic one as well. In both senses does Americanism become a commodity, as part of universal commodification. Being an American becomes a minoritary experience, even though the rule of the norm is factually still intact. But the ones who are guilty of that are not minorities that ‘no longer know their place’, or structurally perpetuated threats from the outside (migrants, terrorists) it is the economy of minorisation. The fragmentation of the current far-right movements into identitarians, the alt-right, southerners, white supremacists, evangelicals, internet trolls etc. that defend the category of whiteness through strategies of minorisation shows that they are too conscious about this change.
Apart from the misdirection concerning the culprits of that transformation, there remains the question of the grounds that base this reclamation, the justification of one’s majoritary status, and the question of the order of things that this calls for. In regard to the first question, we should have a closer look at the categories and definitions of the (political and economic) subject that arise from neoliberal and neoconservative rhetoric; in regard to the second, we need to analyse the ‘form’ of normativity that was dominant in classical bourgeois society.
The question of sovereignty
The rhetoric around Brexit is very insightful in that regard. Usually, in the democratic decision process, even when there is a normative disagreement, there is a fundamental understanding about the underlying issue of the vote. For example, if the left votes for raising taxes, and the right votes for lowering them, the disagreement is about redistribution, with the left aiming for a strong social security net, while the right prefers the free market to resolve these questions. In that sense, on a purely descriptive level, there is an understanding, which is, after all, necessary for the functioning of democracy. Looking at the Brexit discourse, one can’t help but have the impression that the two sides don’t speak the same language. On the one hand, it was problematic that prior to the vote, there was no attempt to generally agree on what the vote will entail — which once again shows that democracy is not merely about majority rule — but what was even more problematic was that they didn’t have any common ground.
If we observe how the two sides, the Remainers and the Brexiteers, argued, it seems that the former usually spoke about economic consequences, while the latter talked about sovereignty. The latter term is usually not taken seriously by critics, as it is understood as a ‘code’ for the nationalistic and xenophobic sentiments that lie behind it. Understood in that sense, as part of the discourse of an essentially colonial nationalism, it is not surprising that its reappearance feels somehow anachronistic in the age of a globalised, if only apparently post-colonial, market. If the question of sovereignty was merely about more or less decisional power for the populace and its independence from globalised dynamics, it would rather pertain to the classical liberal and democratic tradition. What is rather at stake here is the nature of the citizen that said populace supposedly consists of, and the core difference between the liberal and conservative rhetoric lies precisely here.
The citizen is the individual that, politically speaking, is allowed to vote; and this entrance to the political sphere needs to be justified not only to decide who is to be allowed in, but also to justify a specific political order that will reflect the interests of said citizen, so that they are encouraged to form a political entity. The citizen therefore needs to be somehow delineated by criteria, while everyone else is excluded based on the lack of these criteria. For example, if children were allowed to vote, apart from parental influence, one could no longer say that the outcome of a vote was based on rational grounds. If we all agree on that example, it is because we assume that the ability to vote includes a certain understanding of what the vote is about and what its possible consequences are. But if the citizen is to reflect a rational order, then the inclusion to citizenship can not just be about understanding the text on the ballot, but about establishing a certain norm, as a realisation of the envisaged rational order.
But once again, if human beings are defined as rational animals, then this rationality will be based on anthropological grounds, and on the exclusion of the ‘animalistic’ parts of us that connect us to the ‘lower’ animal kingdom. Thereby, the exclusion of certain individuals from establishing a rational order went hand in hand with marking them as animalistic, due to their being “sensual” or “primitives”. It was based on the conceptualisation of two different types of society, the ‘primitive’ and ‘prelogical’ against the ones founded on ‘reason’, and in that sense this whole conception inherently pertains to the discourse of race and racism (cf. Mbembe 2015: 70).
As universal as those bourgeois values presented themselves, as the human norm, there was always already a a gesture of exclusion of those that don’t participate in that universality, and the creation of minorities. Those, by ‘lacking’ the faculties to participate in it, were therefore excluded from the ‘humane’ political order (cf. ibid.: 130). We can also once again see the commoditified status that these minorities necessarily obtain, for if the ‘rational’ citizen is, as the sovereign, the subject (author) of the law, the excluded can only be its object. In that sense, they undergo commodification by default — the woman as a status symbol, the slave as a living tool, for example.
This conception will also lead to a very specific understanding of those that are in possession of such a ratio as the ability to envision a rational order, a norm, and to be a representative for this order. For Kant, for example, rationality wasn’t simply about the expression of one’s self-interests, but a primarily ethical, norm-giving faculty. In that sense, because each citizen is to possess this faculty, and because the norm comes from within (as the exercise of that faculty), it is inherently universal and comprehensive and therefore shared by everyone that possesses said faculty. The rational individual can not only produce a norm, but is also expected to submit to it. The majority that this conception produces is necessarily homogenous. Sovereignty, as the unification of such rational individuals to a political entity, is thereby understood as a normative space, where each citizen represents and is represented by the rational order and should fully submit to it while at the same time being its author; both the subject and object of that order. As this ratio is, despite its exclusive character, understood as an anthropological category. Those that are excluded from it will automatically be expressions of the corporeal and animalistic parts of human nature and in that regard always be latently transgressive, transgressive by their very existence, and therefore a threat to the ‘rational’ order; it is this that has formed the argumentative ground for their enforced subjugation, exploitation, and commodification.
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If such a differentiation of minorities against a normative majority can be considered part of classical bourgeois society, then, in light of the neoliberal dynamics of minorisation and its changed status of transgression, something must have historically changed. I believe that this transformation concerns the ratio itself that leads to a different constellation of the majoritary and the minoritary. As much as its initial and crude version has been ‘complexified’, the leading anthropological image of neoliberalism is the Homo economicus. Now, the intention of the Homo economicus is economic maximisation, in his double role as a consumer and a producer. In contrast to the bourgeois conception, this characteristic is understood as being truly universal and no longer delineates a majority by the possession of specific faculties. After all, this ratio is no longer about the ability to produce an all-encompassing norm, but about following the logic of maximal economic efficiency. In one’s double role as a consumer and a producer, one undergoes a specification, although not an individuation, as it is about the participation in minoritary markets. As a producer of commodities you need a target audience that will be inclined to purchase it; as a consumer, to decide upon which commodities to purchase, you need to identify with such an audience. In short, the ratio of the Homo economicus will necessarily need a minorisation of the normative space to fulfil its anthropological needs. Majoritary spaces are no longer defined by a homogenous obedience to norms, but are strictly negative in the sense that they structure the interaction of consumers and producers (because everyone follows the same logic) and allow for the efficient creation of new markets, as a dynamic of regulated transgression. Being majoritary is no longer about creating norms that are necessarily followed, but about creating norms that are necessarily deviated from. In short, the bourgeois citizen is universal and majoritary, while the neoliberal citizen is specific and minoritary.
If the majoritary citizen of classic bourgeois society measures his actions according to his inner conscience, which tells him if he has acted according to the norm, the criteria for the Homo economicus’ successful action lies outside of him, as it is measured by economic success. If I learn specific skills that have no use on the job market, if I develop interests that cannot be profitably met, if I produce commodities that nobody buys, I have failed on an anthropological level. Just like the minority of bourgeois society, the neoliberal individual is not a subject of the law (of supply and demand), but its object, and in that sense it is not only certain excluded groups, but all humanity that is commodified. If there is a certain power attributed to certain individuals, then it is to those that have the ability to advance this dynamic: those that have a talent to create new markets (the entrepreneur) or to maximise the profitability of a given one (the CEO). Still, their success will ultimately depend on their economic performance.
Let us thereby get back to the example of Brexit and the question of sovereignty. If a society of bourgeois citizens will develop a homogenous normative order, then one that is based on the Homo eeconomicus will simply be a numeric aggregate of the logic of economic maximisation. Sovereignty will be simply the sum of individual economic preferences. So, to finally get to the point, we can see, why for the liberal opposition, the appropriation of sovereignty by the right is absolutely illogical: The sovereignty, as an economical category, could only vote against Brexit, as the economic models predicted a negative outcome. And the reason, why the Brexiteers’ call for sovereignty against the economy (even though many do claim that reclaimed sovereignty will coincide with economical profit), or at least on non-economic grounds, feels so outdated, is that they put forward the ‘old’ function of majorisation, where the norm is necessarily to be followed, where only those people ‘express’ britishness that behave the way ‘normal’ Britons do, in contrast to the brand of britishness, which sets itself apart, becomes minoritary. This not only concerns the cliché images of Union Jacks and plastic Big Bens that incite the tourist economy, but also Great Britain as an ‘economic location’ with its economic and diplomatic stability, an impressive GDP, and what not.
But is the quarrel between the neoconservative and the neoliberal rhetoric really just one between an ‘old’ and a ‘new’ anthropology, where the former attempts to re-establish a past order of things? Do they really form an opposition, where the conservative side attempts to subvert the reign of the Homo economicus? It remains to be seen if the current mobilisation of the right will really come along with fundamental societal changes. I want to at least put forward the possibility that the aim of this rhetoric is rather to provide the economic minorisation of once hegemonial identities with a specific narrative, which not only provides the frustrated groups with a target for their frustration and keeps the suppressed ‘in their place’, but also gives the economic minorisation of hegemonial identities a positive aspect by interpreting it as the expression of a popular political resistance. Waving the Union Jack as an act of subversion.
As we have seen, to make hegemonial identities like nationality economically viable, they can no longer be simply presented as the norm, as simply the way people of that nationality live, but need to become positive categories, so that the purchase of products that seemingly pertain to such an identity expresses the buyer’s affiliation with that group. For example, hanging one’s national flag in the garden is not only a sign for the passer-by that she is currently in that country, which of course would be meaningless, but a sign for the owner’s active identification with that nationality. This is a continuation of the nationalist/romanticist discourse of the 19th century, with the difference that in the latter it was about the creation of a new national identity, while in its current form it is about an identity that is perceived to be always already lost and only to be found in the past.
But it is precisely this status of loss that allows it to be economically profitable. While the nationalism of the 19th century was about change, and came along with an expansionist, missionary enthusiasm that resulted in colonialism, it is now about fixating the status of loss. This keeps the identity economically viable due to its production of nostalgia: The purchase of specific products will help re-establishing one’s hegemonial status, the failure to purchase them will lead to the complete loss of the hegemony (permanent state of decadence). If the return to the hegemonial national identity succeeds, then the economic profitability gets lost as well. Only as long as these identities have undergone minorisation will they create a target audience. The threat from the outside is as sanctioned as the minoritary transgressions. It enforces the tribal instincts that this kind of identification exploits and, in its gesture of mutual exclusion, it helps to delineate the respective identities against each other and to incite, in their antagonism, their competitiveness.
In this gesture of expulsion, of punishing transgression, lies the violence that is imbued in this reclamation. It is a violence that is no longer the invisible colonial one of ‘over there’, but one that is sanctioned to control and exploit the domestic territory. It is a violence that incites the segmentation of the populace while claiming to stand in for their (national/ethnic/religious) unity. By perpetuating the experience of suffering of the suppressed, it keeps denying their plea for universality. Meanwhile, the apparent universality that ‘the great European culture’ claims to have strived for, is shrouded in nostalgia over a lost primacy that is infected by decadence. Either strategy amounts to minorisation. Neoliberalism and neoconservatism are both part of capitalism’s double bind. What is segmented can easily be controlled; and by sanctioning transgression, while at the same time punishing it, any attempts for emancipation are nullified. It is therefore as subversive as a boot stamping on a human face and only profits from the rising frustration of the people. While the neoconservative means are more reprehensible than the liberal rhetoric of affirmation, its goals are just the same: the total segmentation of humanity and the negation of a united world.
The question of identity
There seems to be a tendency within contemporary critique from the left to call for a complete abandonment of these categories, and to return to the classical discourse of economic class analysis. In a certain way, this is left thought coming full circle: While the French New Left, for example, has criticised the French communist and socialist parties for being against the independence of Algeria and for only representing the national proletariat, the contemporary left critique is completely right in pointing out that a complete focus on usually domestic, and therefore first-world minorities has been blind for the suffering of the very real contemporary slavery of factory workers in the Global South that need safety nets to prevent them from committing suicide, miners, plantation workers and others that are brutally exploited so that we can enjoy cheap techno gadgets. In regard to the dynamic sketched out above, these groups are neither majoritary nor minoritary: They are, in their extreme poverty, not target audience for anything, completely invisible and forgotten. Colonialism has changed its face, but not its nature; to drive the whole motor of the perpetual production of new goods, to keep the capital flowing, production needs to be kept cheap enough to render the manifold markets profitable. Outside the play of relative inclusion and exclusion, there is the complete Outside, a lawless and uncivilised state of nature, “une zone hors l’humanité [a zone beyond humanity]” (Mbembe 2015: 95), whose resources and people can be unlimitedly and mercilessly exploited. This absolute exteriority is an unchanged remnant of colonialism (cf. ibid.: 92f.).
But the gigantic effort to undo this exploitation, I believe, will necessarily include an active change within the dynamic of minorisation and majorisation, especially since, as I hope to have shown, the question of identities is not merely illusionary, but needs to be seen in economic and material terms. The efficiency of dropping identity altogether therefore seems to be questionable, because identities, within the double dynamic of minorisation and majorisation, are the motor of the flow of capital, an essential part of the absorption of surplus value. But they also respond to our innate desire to belong, to participate, to share. It is in regard to these impulses that we might start searching for forms of identification beyond the homogeneity of the norm and the isolation of the segment.
Baldwin, James (1998): « In Search of a Majority: An Address ». In: Baldwin, James: Collected Essays. The Library of America, pp. 215–221.
Césaire, Aimé (2004): « Discours sur la négritude ». In: Césaire, Aimé: Discours sur le colonialisme. Éditions Présence Africaine, pp. 79–92.
Cleaver, Eldridge (1999): Soul on Ice. Delta.
Fanon, Frantz (2011): « Peau noire, masques blancs ». In: Fanon, Frantz: Oeuvres. Éditions La Découverte, pp. 45–251.
Mbembe, Achille (2015): Critique de la raison nègre. Éditions La Découverte.