In the essay Identity Politics, James Tully explains that identity politics emerged amidst the struggles for recognition and accommodation by various identity groups i.e. women, LGBT and ethnic minorities. According to him, these struggles are anchored on the experience of discrimination by minority groups. How do minorities attain recognition? Tully, advances the idea that this can only be achieved if these minority groups attain the support of the majority through “negotiation,” “exchange of reason,” or “dialogue.”
He, however, recognized that this is quite utopian because this would mean putting the fate of a minority group in the hands of the same group that are responsible for the discrimination of the very same minority group. Thus enters the role of formal institutions like the legal and judicial bodies or the government in general. The government, according to Tully, has the power to enact laws and impose policies that could aid the minority. Thus, despite the non-support of the majority, they can still win the struggle for recognition if they are able to get the support of the government. He also added that an identity is not static or unchangeable. A group must always be ready for re-negotiation of identity.
What Tully presents is a classic argument of those adhering to the discourse of speaking truth to power. But, this this kind of position has never been instrumental in carrying out fundamental change – by stamping out the roots of discrimination suffered by the minorities. The thing is, power already knows the truth. And their actions in relation to that truth is always embedded in their dominant politico-economic position in society. Tully, treats these institutions as though they are neutral entities floating in the air. But this not the case. We all know for the fact that institutions, for example, are run by the ruling classes who propagate beliefs and culture that further their politico-economic interests.
The Blacks, as a classic example, were not freed from the bondage of slavery through negotiation. It was through civil disobedience and outright violent resistance against the slave system. As the struggle against white oppression progressed into the 1960s, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were assassinated because of their militant struggle for emancipation of blacks from racist discrimination. Most importantly, the black people’s most decisive weapon is their ability to paralyze production and threaten the ability of the white owners to generate value.
Nelson Mandela did not end the apartheid system in South Africa through negotiation. It was the violent armed resistance of the African National Congress that forced the white government to seat in the negotiating table, free Mandela, and eventually dissolve apartheid formally.
The same thing goes for the women’s movement. The status of women has not been lifted from being a second sex into a more equal footing with men in the industrialized capitalist countries of the westif not because of the strikes and militant struggles of women. The actual participation of women in the revolutionary armed struggles in Russia and China also resulted in gigantic leaps in the improvement of the conditions and empowerment of women.
Most importantly, racism and gender oppression still remain at present not because of the incapability of minority groups to negotiate with reason but because of the existing pol-economic system that serves as the basis of discrimination. Who has control over the forces of production are the ones who are given high regard in society. It is their belief systems that is observed in society.
Of course, there are cases in which those in the position come from the marginalized. Say Barack Obama as the first Black American President or Cory Aquino and Gloria Arroyo as women presidents of a highly patriarchal society. Using these cases as a line of argument is a classic example of fragmentation wherein a certain rare case is presented against the dominant occurence in order to disprove the argument for discrimination or oppression.
It is worth noting that, even Paulo Freire said that oppression dehumanizes not just the oppressed but the oppressors themselves. Thus, true humanization can only be achieved when the oppressed overthrows the existing politico-economic order that breeds oppression. So returning to Tully, how could you expect people benefitting from oppression voluntarily and benevolently giving in to the mere cries of those in the margins? A critical study of real events in society and history reveals the decisiveness of the seizure of control over the means of production of society. To destroy the roots of discrimination, violent confrontation with the ruling order and not just negotiation for unprincipled accommodation is necessary. In the end, it is clear which social force Tully’s reformist formulation actually serve. And for sure this is not the marginalized but those who are already in power.