JOHN TAN. Jokowi, identity politics … and neoliberalism.

Feb 24, 2020

President Joko Widodo is concerned by identity politics, which has been standard fare for neoliberal US and Australian election strategists for many years.

It works, it wins elections. And the neoliberals have it all wrapped up. So Jokowi is likely to be disappointed.

Addressing Parliament in Canberra recently, he said: “Identity politics must be discouraged in our countries and globally regardless of its religious, ethnicity descriptive identity basis. Identity politics is a threat to democracy, a threat to diversity and a threat to tolerance. These threats will become even more when exploited for short-term political interests, resulting in hatred, fear and even social conflict.”

Jokowi is well-aware of the dangers of identity politics. He leads a country of 265 million of which some 90% are muslim. Since the US-led war on terror began, Islam has been thoroughly demonised; by some politicians, by some in the security establishment, and by large sections of the neoliberal-owned media.

Indonesian muslims have reacted with their own identity politics by becoming generally more militant, more organised, and more anti-Christian; to the extent that the president had to select an outspoken muslim cleric as his running mate in the last election. Almost certainly, the next Indonesian leader will be less well inclined to the West. And Indonesia is only just slightly further from Australia than Papua New Guinea. The US may not be greatly concerned with Indonesian relations, but Australia should pay close attention.

Identity politics is so useful and flexible. It can be rolled out at any time, when needed. It’s about the politics of division, of “divide-and-rule”, “them vs. us”, the menace of the sinister “other”. It can be tailored based on race, religion, language, “culture”, “values”, “civilisation”, socio-economic “class”, geography; whatever works best at the time.

It capitalises on the growing climate of fear and anxiety among voters, as described by UK academic Frank Furedi in his much-quoted 1997 book “Culture of Fear”.

Furedi, in 2006, went on to link identity politics with the politics of division and fear. He wrote that politicians self-consciously manipulate people’s anxieties in order to realise their objectives, which can be control, influence, remaining in power, or personal or collective gains.

“As a means of manipulation, the politics of fear provide a tool for controlling public discourses and for influencing public agendas and policies,” he wrote.

Successful identity politics needs a compliant mass media for the message to be most effective. And the neoliberals have covered that angle by buying up all the media that’s been available for sale, while intimidating others into submission by financial threats.

The neoliberal establishment has no intention of giving up identity politics. It works better than any other strategy, this politics of minority-bashing.

Amy Chua, best known as “Tiger Mom” in the US, wrote in 2018: “Making the argument that Trump used identity politics to win the White House is like shooting fish in a barrel. But us-versus-them, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant sentiments were bread and butter for most conservatives on the 2016 campaign trail. Senator Marco Rubio compared the war with Islam to America’s “war with Nazis”, and even moderate Republicans like Jeb Bush advocated for a religious test to allow Christian refugees to enter the country preferentially.”

Canadian Jeff Shantz, in his book “Manufacturing Phobias: The Political Production of Fear in Theory and Practice”, wrote: “Notably, Middle Eastern and Muslim communities have been targeted for public condemnation, surveillance, and punishment by police, government, media, and conservative commentators alike.”

Identity politics worked for Trump, and will probably work for him again this year. The Morrison government, despite some bumps in the road recently, will probably prevail when the pointy end of elections comes around and their media mates start the politics of fear and division in earnest. The only unknown at this time is which minority/minorities will be targeted.

The term identity politics has been used over many years in various contexts. Most recently, neoliberal strategists have seized on it to manufacture election issues that will distract voters from their economic worries. Some writers say this was necessary because neoliberals can no longer campaign on the “brilliant benefits” to voters of neoliberal capitalism; 99% of voters would laugh at that.

US neoliberal slogan-creators have come up with lines like “there are more jobs than job-seekers” as evidence that neoliberalism is working. But they avoid saying that most of those jobs are insecure and poverty-line jobs. And it remains true that for the first time, younger generations can look forward to a poorer standard of living than their parents.

Geoffrey Skoll, in his book “Globalization of American Fear Culture: The Empire in the Twenty-First Century”, wrote that capitalism needs a global culture of fear. He argued that as capitalism reaches a crisis, as it does cyclically, it must enlist the state to engage in violence. He called it a “global protection racket” where violence is needed to support and protect capitalism.

Sonia Suchday et al., in “Psychology of fear, crime and the media”, wrote: “Today’s media outlets are owned and operated by corporations that determine what constitutes as actual news, and how it should be dispersed or interpreted for the public.”

Francis Fukuyama, well-known author of The End of History soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, summed it up neatly just last month (Jan 2020):

Since the publication of the Journal of Democracy began in 1990, the political climate has shifted from one of democratic gains and optimism to what Larry Diamond labels a ‘democratic recession’.

Underlying these changes has been a reorientation of the major axis of political polarization, from a left-right divide defined largely in economic terms toward a politics based on identity. In a second major shift, technological development has had unexpected effects; including that of facilitating the rise of identity-based social fragmentation.

The environment for democracy has been further transformed by other slow-moving changes, among them the shift toward neoliberal economic policies, the legacy of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and lowered expectations regarding democratic transitions.

Sustaining democracy will require rebuilding the legitimate authority of the institutions of liberal democracy, while resisting those powers that aspire to make nondemocratic institutions central,” he wrote in the Journal of Democracy.

(John Tan was a deputy editor in the Straits Times newspaper in Singapore. He has been foreign editor and business editor.)

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