Liberals today would benefit from injecting a dose of Marxian materialism into their thinking…


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From The New Statesman:

The error that Appiah denounces is “essentialism”: the theory that members of the same group share some inner essence that explains what they have in common. We are plural all the way down; no identity defines us entirely, or is more fundamental than any of the rest. It is the false doctrine of essentialism, he seems to believe, that underlies the many conflicts in which humans attack and kill fellow human beings on account of the identities they ascribe to themselves and others. If this fallacy could be eliminated, these savage conflicts could be avoided or moderated. The remedy for populism, then, is the anti-essentialist philosophy of nominalism, according to which ideas that split up the world into definite kinds of thing are simply tools we use to simplify our dealings with an environment actually composed of an infinity of particulars. If we appreciated the limitations of our general concepts we would understand that singular human identities are illusions, and stop fighting over them so fiercely.

As a nominalist myself, I am sympathetic to Appiah’s claim that unambiguous identities are illusions. But when they are widely accepted, illusions become social facts – and they can be very powerful. He tells us that some of the 20th century’s worst crimes “were perpetrated in the name of one people against another with the aim of securing a homogeneous nation”. No doubt this is so, but it is enormously oversimplified.

Consider movements demanding secession. Secessionists are not necessarily possessed by ideas of national homogeneity, though some have been. More often, they fear they will be losers in a state where the majority belong in a different community. It is not only their identity they fear will be lost. The material conditions of their lives – housing, land ownership, access to resources and services – will also be threatened. Such fears helped break up Yugoslavia after the death of Tito, and destroyed several post-colonial African states.

Appiah consistently underrates the power of these material factors. Focusing on the complexities of social hierarchy and downplaying the role of structural inequalities in power, his chapter on class is the weakest in the book. Like many other liberals today, he would benefit from injecting a dose of Marxian materialism into his thinking. Societies are not made up of only the concepts and beliefs humans form about them. They are partly composed of the physical resources human beings control, which in turn help shape the ideas that people accept.

“Divided we stand: identity politics and the threat to democracy”, John Gray, The New Statesman