As the debate on gender representation rages on, we are going through the healthy reflection that some parts of society might be less represented at high-level governance. And for various reasons, we chose to segment society by gender and decided that the male-centric era of politics is over and actually should have been over a long time ago.


Going beyond gender quotas

Gazing through the looking glass, one can already see such an approach as being gender-binary-centric; what about people who do not identify with either male or female? I start to wonder about the case of a trans-man who, after a challenging transition to the male gender, now finds himself in the ranks of the ‘privileged’ male segment of society. Problematically, if it is decided that he is not to be counted with the elected males (but as part of the under-represented ‘X’ segment, as some suggest), then that’s pretty much saying that he is not a real man.

So on what moral grounds should the electoral process cut through genders? Is it because from childhood, one segment enjoys privileges that others did not? But some had a different gender growing up than they have now. Then perhaps, the implication is that a man is not able to speak for a woman and vice versa.

Which brings me to my point.


Zeno’s Paradox and the infinite divisibility of identity

While in a few years,  such proposed system may be condemned as gender-binary-centric, in a decade it might just be considered gender-centric. Then, the logic follows, why not focus on misrepresentations of ethnic groups, or religious beliefs, ages or disabilities? Perhaps the greatest contribution to partisan politics could come from the colour blind. I am not a fortune teller, so I cannot anticipate where identity politics will take the Western world… perhaps one day, we will posit the cognizance that bald people are under-represented in politics or among Oscar winners.

But what I can fathom with higher certainty, is that we can keep on splitting society into segments ad infinitum, always because we make the implicit assertion that those who are given some power will always do it in the interest of whatever identity they are subjects of, and that somehow they are unable to see the bigger picture. By this logic, if a man cannot properly represent the voice of a woman, then a blind person cannot understand the challenges of dyslexics, even after educating themselves on it.

We seem to have come to the implicit realisation that an elected servant of the people cannot serve the interest of the collective, so much that we are starting to dabble with fundamental electoral procedures. What this symptom reflects, at a deeper and actually serious level, is that in a culture of individual expression and authenticity, there seems to be a loss of confidence in representative democracy, regardless of who sits in parliament.


The sound-proof Perspex

It goes without saying, that it is hard to deny the existence of harsh socio-economic inequalities, or that there are clear signs that unfair treatment is correlated with certain social segments. So, from several moral perspectives, one must argue that something should be done to abate such injustice. Solutions must be sought.


But the identity-obsessed quick-fixes currently gaining momentum, carry the implicit statement that between genders (or any social segments) there seems to be some Perspex wall through which people of different identities can see but not hear each other. A veil of miscommunication is presumed and so, it is proposed that the constitution protects them from each other by the formality of quotas. But, these same proposals still presume that a person given tertiary education by elitist colleges yearning for their next professional opportunity, can speak on behalf of another living a precarious fringe lifestyle, just because they have the same gender or whatever social antigen is woke at that time.

I called identity-based policies quick-fixes, not because they actually do fix the problems in a short time. On the contrary, my claim is that they actually do not. They are quick-fixes particularly with respect to the profound deliberation that is supposed to precede action. The arduous process of ‘figuring it out’ is quickly distilled into an easily-recognisable obstacle or ‘enemy’, the source of all that is wrong. An ideology is thus established on such grand-narrative and all reality is seen through it. No wonder identity politics is such a convenient foundation for easily-digestible solutions; its structure pre-cooks the markers by which one can recognize the victims from the privileged.

Whenever one feels frustrated about their place in society, they can always adopt one of these established templates, trimming away the need to critically analyse one’s position. It can’t be wrong when thousands or millions of other people are using it, no? And after feeling so alone behind this Perspex that mutes everyone around me, it would be nice to believe that there are some who understand me. They recognize me, and I recognize myself in them.

The precursor of identity politics, what comes before my self-proclaimed mission to fight for some group’s rights, is the feeling of (inexplicable) discontent blended with my deep desire to belong; to adopt rituals of cooperation which, if practised long enough, might become our new nature; to stop feeling disconnected in this otherwise sad world. The condition of living in a world ridden with selfishness, combined with my desire that it wasn’t the case, the desire that I am an indispensable part of a bigger organism, is a perfect breeding place for identity politics. I can be part of a holy crusade, while at the same time, whenever the world turns sour – even when one of my comrades betrays me – I can redirect the blame at whatever can embody the evil of world, at patriarchy, at Muslims, at America, at capitalists.


Identity rights as Commodities

The paradox of identity politics, as I have already tried to indicate, is that by fighting for the rights of a given identity, one is automatically prioritizing their acquisition of rights, not over those who by definition do not belong in it (e.g. women’s rights excluding males), but over other identities based on different grouping paradigms (e.g. women’s rights excluding the 11-toed persons).

Even if a state declares that the measure is just the beginning, and that other identity-based quotas are on the way, we all know that there is a practical (and virtual) limit since there are countless possible identities and very limited parliamentary or board members. So that still means that the identities with less socio-political capital will be left behind, as opposed to the more popular ones. Paradoxically, therefore, the approach begets a majoritarian system among minorities.

Along this course, the ultimate solution would be to have an AI system that elects the members based on their complex mix of identities, the more minority-antigens you have, the more points you get. A post-democratic dystopia.

To clarify my point, the exclusion I am referring to is not a logical one. By fighting for women’s rights we do not logically deny the rights of the 11-toed persons. The exclusion is rather a very practical one: in a social order built on lobbying, there can only be a limited number of voices that are heeded and resources allocated. Furthermore, given that a person cannot split their vote (i.e. they only have one), they have to vote based on priorities rather than holistic deliberations, which is why identity is a huge political factor.

What this means is that any activist who has to rally for a very finite number of causes, is practically (not virtually) excluding the emancipation of other identities, contributing to the irony that some identities are more privileged than others in the fight against domination.

One can start to observe that the paradox of identity politics is inherent to the marriage between neoliberalism and democracy. Perhaps some might argue that the problem is the system’s being built on lobbying and capital, and not fighting for emancipation of some marginalized people. This argument however misses one important detail. Identity politics, is the direct and dependent expression of this system, and so it must follow the market rules of supply and demand.


We don’t hate monarchy, we simply hate kings

My point distilled would be that identity politics – especially that implemented at the electoral level – hides the more tangible social divisions that exist. The only reason why it is being suggested that we dabble with the electoral system is because it is meant to be symbolic, rather than contemplative. It is meant to show that change is dawning at the horizon, even while the socio-economic realities might be completely different.

For example, my home country Malta has declared its fight against patriarchal dominance through an electoral gender corrective mechanism, because the choices made by the citizens must be ‘corrected’ in order to rectify their being conditioned by centuries of male oppression. But in doing so, it also has to deal with the historical fact that our archipelago, like other commonwealth countries, is covered with aggrandizing symbols supplicating to an imposing queen Victoria, whose priorities were – rather than her fellow female peasants – her royal portfolio and maintaining the support of her lords, just as any other patriarch. Or matriarch in this case? Who cares? That’s my point.

Our obsession with identities means that it does not matter to us if we are exploited, as long as the one taking advantage of us has the charismatic antigen that magically indicates that they wish us well.

Neoliberalism selectively reminds us of this detail in its efforts to demystify nationalism and its charismatic fascist dictators. Of course, the main intention of this reminder is not a benevolent one but an ideological effort to open borders for trade and mass-consumption. In fact, when our gaze turns towards our current God-given neoliberal system, the charismatic antigenic leaders are no longer considered to be a symptom of a framework built on the consumption of commodities, but rather the quasi-messianic figures of a better tomorrow.

The individual subject of a liberal democracy strives to criticise the ideology but not so much as to subvert it. In fact, one further strengthens exploitation by participating in the ritual of celebrating freedom through impotent rituals that imitate the form of revolutions but are filled with fetishized content, such as identity. Hence, we topple the king, but we retain the monarchy.

Just as importantly, in order to protect identity movements from criticism, the symptoms of their self-contradiction have to be transferred to a symbolic antagonist: ‘As a woman, I’m sure Queen Victoria would have liberated the systemic oppression of women. The ones to blame are the many men of the patriarchal structure that surrounded her!’. While the Nazis pointed specifically at the Jews and the communists pointed at the capital imperialists, the beauty of neo-liberalism is that its subjects are free to buy whichever red herring fits their fancy and make of it their personalised holy crusade. Through its ambivalence, it can perpetually elude direct criticism.


A Netflix of Identity Narratives, a Catalogue of Democratic Causes

What I have argued so far is that gender-politics is a never-ending process that promises the revolutionary emancipation of a mistreated part of society, yet once the particular objectives of the movement draw close, new problems are inevitably identified explaining why that revolution did not happen, why there is the second edition that must now be purchased. But perhaps that is the point. It is good enough that it be a sort of sterile Pandora’s Box of particular social ‘issues’ that causes no real change but nonetheless can mobilize parts of society that wouldn’t have otherwise bothered to support any movement – i.e. to participate in liberal democracy.

In a technocratic age of expertise, the individuals do not have the competency, nor the legitimacy, to make objective or impartial judgements on the government’s efforts. At the point of such realisation, the notions of democracy start to undergo symbolic disintegration. Therefore, we have to either face complete disillusionment, or deny the symptom. The first choice is traumatic and would require the radical overhauling of the system, with no guarantee that what comes after will be better.

The second choice is easier and has quicker gratification – a quick fix. The way we make it work is through a fetishistic mechanism by which the vague and lofty notions of democracy and freedom are virtually emulated as holograms that can be seen but not touched. In fact, we do not want to touch them so that we can pretend together that they are solid objects. The crucial part is that these sublime ideals have to be transient and disposable – replaceable by ‘new’ ones – so that their fraudulence never becomes too real. And the market is more than happy to place itself at the service of democracy. ‘I now pronounce thee Liberal Democracy’.

Following the new strategies of marketing comprising tailored and targeted ads, identity politics creates eco-chambers of political movement, that turn every ordinary citizen into a one-issue voter. And now, what I earlier called “dabbling” of the electoral system makes complete sense; identity politics is the adjustment for democracy in a market society by which its citizens – i.e. ‘we, the individuals who contribute by consuming’ – can actually participate. The “dabbling” is not a form of experimental, provisional change, but rather a progressive leap by which the social order can continue reproducing itself. It is a constitutional update for the new culture of shopping cart politics of the average Joe and Jane (and Jan-X, and whoever).


Hey! What about us?!

In the contemporary situation in Malta, the small parties are protesting because the newly-introduced corrective mechanism discriminates against them and favours only the (female) candidates of the big parties. They therefore ignore that identity politics, by definition, has to beget further inequalities and instead fight the most immediate dimension of the symptom. In other words, the small parties are only acting as another identity fighting against its own mistreatment. With their acts of justice, they articulate new injustices.

We therefore have to come to the realisation that our fetishisation of identity-struggles is but a symptom of our deeper and perhaps inexplicable social discontent. It is not a sovereign instrument of change. At best, identity politics helps only the privileged among the disadvantaged segment; at worst, it helps those who already enjoy excessive power as it is.

If nevertheless, we remain committed to the doctrine that members of parliament represent segments and not society as a whole, then, at least, allow me to contradict all that I’ve said thus far: I propose a reserved space for candidates who have no tertiary education and who earn less than €12,000 a year, which threshold they naturally must honour while they serve as the (poor) people’s representatives. Probably, their priorities would not involve quotas among career-bloating dinosaurs.

But I don’t think that’s going to happen anyway. We will instead make sure that we have charismatic leaders who symbolise our individual struggles. We will make sure that the high-salary positions are not composed of only males (did I just assume their gender?), that we provide formal justice among the already wealthy classes, and that we have the right ratios of Edwards, Victorias, Georges and Elizabeths. But what tangible change could really materialise out of that?


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