Ismail Lagardien: Considering identity politics

Last week I had to choose between attending a high-powered discussion on ethics, and a low-key one on identity politics, dominance, abuse of dominance and control. That is my framing of it, anyway.

Not withstanding the fact that ethics is more important than identity politics – at least to me it is – I chose to attend the discussion on identity politics.

One of the reasons why I chose it was because most discussions on inequality or poverty, and on economic policy-making for that matter, tend to be filtered through a lens of identity politics – especially race, ethnicity or tribal affiliation.

This is, of course, not unique to South Africa. It is also not unjustified.

I should say, at the outset, that I know very little about identity politics, other than that I have always thought it served to validate the creation and maintenance of borders, and reproduced differences among people that were very often(themselves) quite spurious in their origin and intent.

For instance, during our iniquitous past I was classified “Malay”.

I grew up in a “coloured ” township, joined the black consciousness movement, and I am as fair-skinned and green eyed as, well, most Europeans.

These are the makings of a very deep and existential crisis.

But seriously, in practice identities presented as fixed categories create a world that is neat and tidy, so to speak, and makes the hierarchical arrangement of society and domination seem all too easy. My reasoning is that this has made it possible to separate the injustices against women –presented as simple inequality between genders – from overall inequality in the structure of our economy.

It is certainly true that women have historically been kept economically marginalised. Sociological research has provided evidence which shows that this marginalisation has more to do with men finding women’s employment aspirations to be in conflict with their own economic and personal self-interest, and obstructed women’s access to good jobs to protect their own superior status. What, then, can we do?

Well, the standard refrain from the International Monetary Fund is that

“more men work than women in most countries and they get paid more for similar work. In many countries, girls and women have less access to education, health and finance than boys and men.

“Greater gender equality would benefit the economy through higher growth and lower income inequality.”

This is the easy part. If, however, we moved away from obsession with “ rational economic man” and attendant beliefs that only selfishness is rational, that altruism is foolish, that thinking about values and the common good all detract from the purported efficiency of private enterprise, we might reach a point where we can seriously address the structural inequalities that are part of our political economy.

My sense is that most of us do, actually, care about social norms and with the structural flaws that reproduce patriarchy and that we are, actually, willing to do whatever we can to create a better, more just society.

What is important, though, is for economics to embrace this because it is the discipline that can, and invariably does, shape social norms.

There is value, as mentioned, in starting with gender equality as an elementary normative statement.

If, however, we took this further and assumed that there was a moral structure that underpinned individual motivation – other than greed or selfishness– we have a better chance of creating amore just political economic structure.

The two main branches of economics that are placed under scrutiny here are behavioural economics and the neo-classical model.

Behavioural economics develops its perspective of human nature from observations under carefully controlled experimental conditions.

The neo-classical model derives all expectations of human behaviour deductively from the rationality assumption.

Albert Hirschmann, who made significant contributions to political economics, development economics and political ideologies, made the pithy observation that people have the ability to step back from the wants ascribed to them by the rationality assumption and consequentlyre c o n f i g u re their preferences.

The choice before us, then, is whether we want to prove right the basic “laws” embalmed and preserved in the text books that have remained the basis of instruction for a century or whether we want to create a society around a structure of political economic activity that has justice as its main objective.

I would venture to say that only through structural change can we flatten the hierarchies that are based on identities which are, at the best of times, too fluid, labile and too open for manipulation and exploitation.

Economics, then, ought to be concerned with ethical issues, as well as identity issues.

I still don’t know whether I am supposed to be Malay, coloured, black, African or whether I should go with the green eyes. It’s all terribly confusing.

Note to the humourless lefties: “We cannot have a meaningful revolution without humour,” as the great feminist scholar, bell hooks, once said. So, let us lighten up while we still can