It should come as no shock that as decision-making has become more abstract and obscured, our theories reflect this. Some of the most prominent theorists in economics and sociology have a tendency to see the role of agency as insignificant compared to these supposedly extra-human forces. Capital or Sovereignty or various other forces that somehow define us from the outside. Weber, Marx, Schumpeter, Bourdieu, and many others are guilty of this. We begin to see Systems instead of Men. Of course, these Systems are incomprehensible, fully impossible, absent the actions of Men. Man is not wholly determined by the Systems he is born into. We are shaped by our context but then our own creative agency allows us to reshape that context. The structures we inhabit are reshaped each moment by our decisions. Our behaviors cannot be reduced to structural forces, cognitive wiring, or rational calculation. A recognition of the importance of agency as building, maintaining, and transforming the structures we live in is crucial.
I noted that "the structures we inhabit are reshaped each moment by our decisions," and this is crucial to understanding how our identities interact with external incentive structures.
We must understand that people are presented with "external"/"objective" incentives. These interests range from the exceptionally broad (my interests due to my economic class, my nationality, etc) to the very particular (my interests as an individual, as a member of my family, as a parent or a child, etc).
Individuals face various different interests in their roles and they must decide which role is most relevant and therefore which corresponding interests weigh most heavily on their actions. We IDENTIFY with the roles that matter most to us.
I quote this passage more than pretty much anything else, but it's succinct. In his work Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor describes this experience:
“To know who I am is to know where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose.”
Conclusion: All politics are identity politics.
Our external interests are objective, yes. I have interests that emerge from my objective social relations with others: as a member of a particular economic class, a citizen of one town versus another, as a member of one firm versus another, as a parent versus a child, etc. But whether or not these objective interests matter to me depends on the subjective weight I place on them.
And it is important to understand this: disagreements about norms frequently reflect conflicts of interest, but this does not mean norms are a thin veneer over a more fundamental struggle of interests. Conflicts of interests occur around normative arguments precisely because these norms do matter. Even when outcomes do turn largely on material interest, issues of identity are frequently still major determinants of the result. In the words of Mark Granovetter:
'The presumption that identity politics has little to do with the politics of material interest is generally false, and normative beliefs figure prominently in identity politics' in determining which interest identity is triggered.
(Granovetter, Society and Economy)
Yes, the interests someone has as a worker or as a father may be identifiable, but which identity gets activated in any given scenario will reflect a combination of the individual's personal subjectivity and the society's pressures (delivered via socialization processes). Any system that fails to grasp this, that claims that one identity is more real than any other, will never be able to capture the human spirit.
Imagine I am a worker at a particular firm in a given city. I have interests as a worker: I would prefer for my wage-level to increase (especially versus cost of living), I would prefer for my firm to outcompete rival firms so I can keep my job, and I would prefer my town has greater rights to the commons than neighboring towns. These are objective interests/incentives/preferences based on my position in society. But whether or not I find these objective interests to be compelling comes down to my subjective weights on these interests. "I want to preserve my culture," "I'm a class reductionist," etc. All of these reflect different subjective weights on the same set of objective interests.
Two people with effectively the same objective social relations and interests may end up having wildly different identities due to their subjective weights. Saying some action is "in an individual's interests" is irrelevant absent understanding how that person subjectively weighs one set of interests versus another. To beat the dead horse that is the Mainstream Media's obsession with "working class Whites," one of those WCWs may end up being a communist because class interest is most important to them, while another becomes a racial nationalist because race is most important to them, while a third is largely apolitical because the most important things to them are family and their local community.
Corollary 1: On Personal Responsibility
A corollary to this: While you have objective interests, it is up to you to decide whether or not to follow those interests.
This is where personal responsibility comes in. I cannot pass off responsibility to a system or an Other because it is in my self-interest to follow said incentives. My decision to choose to pursue some incentives over others necessarily involves me being accountable for the outcome of that decision.
It may be in my self-interest to cheat my workers out of their wages, or to take advantage of my teacher’s trust and copy an essay online, but I may have different values that I put a greater weight on (perhaps honor and integrity, respectively). And you can absolutely be judged on your values.
"Don't blame the player, blame the Game" is not an excuse when the Game emerges from the actions of the players.
Corollary 2: Conceptual Frames
Each of our conceptual frames/maps of how the World works is inextricably tied to our values.
When we say race or class drive history or are the "real" causes of various phenomena (ex: "The Culture War exists as a way to distract from Class"), we say this because we value these things. Being a “class reductionist” or “identitarian” says far more about the individual identifying with said label than it says about the world.
In fact, saying that various phenomena can be reduced to a more fundamental cause ("Race is more important than class," "relationships to the means of production are at the base of every idea," etc.) will always lead to an incomplete, if not outright incorrect, project. These theories will always fail because they begin from the narrow values of the theorist and reduce the immense complexity of the world to a conceptual frame/map that coheres with the theorist's values.
You ID with the working class or with your gender or your race or whatever and believe that ID is "real", more real than other identifications. But there is little objective backing for such claims. The reality is all these factors matter and most are not reducible to each other. The claim that racial grievances are generated or propagated by Elites to divide the working class is in some sense true. But in a more important sense, it is wrong. The "division" only works because the class was never united in the first place. The objective divisions were already there; the Elites attempt to shape values so you put more subjective weight on the division rather than what unifies you. Whether or not they succeed is a question of their own effectiveness, and the various other forces in society.
As I explained in my piece discussing overdetermination and adaptive stories,
History, as far as we can understand, appears to resemble some kind of overdetermined web. For any event, there are a variety of causes, and even absent a particular impetus, the event may still have happened. What this means, of course, is that it becomes extremely easy to construct narratives, as the overdetermination presents a wide variety of "causes" to pick from and declare to be THE cause, depending on whatever your personal feelings are.
And in my piece on narrative resonance:
I will say that our knowledge of the world is insufficient to grasp at the Truth. In other words, our Maps are underdetermined.
What this means is simple: there are various explanations of the World that “work.” They begin from assumptions that, although many may disagree with them, are logically coherent. And then they provide an explanation for the various phenomena in the World. You and I are familiar with the battle lines. Atheism vs Theism. Marxism vs Elitism. Why is America the richest country in the world? Why are people poor? Endless debates, and only partially can they be “resolved” by data. Often the data supports a variety of interpretations.
We must bear in mind that our conceptual maps of the world are aligned with our values and, therefore, our identities. It cannot be any other way. In the face of this, humility when it comes to how strongly we hold to our narrative explanations of the world is key.
All politics are identity politics. Our identities reflect the subjective weight we place onto different objective social relations we find ourselves thrown into. Class is an identity. Race is an identity. Family is an identity. My relationships to the means of production, my genes, my biological ancestry: these are all objective social relations. But my feelings about them, how I interpret and respond to them, that is all identity. And it is identity, our conceptual maps, that drive our engagement with the World, not our objective social relations. Failing to grasp this will inevitably lead to a failure to understand others and ourselves.
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(Thumbnail image from: https://thepractice.law.harvard.edu/article/the-professional-identity-formation-of-lawyers/)