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This is really interesting, but I don’t see why it’s so imperative to replace market liberal identities with other kinds of identities. There’s a trivial sense in which I have an identity simply by virtue of standing in relation to anything. I have an identity of being someone who drank coffee this morning; I have an identity of not having died in my sleep last night; I have an identity of wearing a shirt at the time I’m typing this. Of course these kinds of identities are politically irrelevant, and usually when identity is invoked in politics it is intended to mean something much more complicated.

But this leaves open the question of what identity could be if not a simple, straightforward relation like the ones listed above. Identity is perhaps most commonly understood as a relationship between a person and their culture, but the idea of culture has its own problems of vagueness. A common definition of culture is something like the beliefs and practices shared by a group, which is simple enough to understand, but when considerations of culture in general are narrowed to ‘pop culture’ or ‘1950s culture’ or ‘American culture’, there are many questions that arise about what the important features of the 1950s or America or whatever else are.

This vagueness about culture substantially overlaps with vagueness of identity. Advertisements nowadays rarely just tout the practical features of whatever is being advertised. Instead, products are associated with whole lifestyles, but when there is a TV commercial on of some kid skateboarding while eating junk food, there are always uncountably many details left to viewers’ imaginations about what the skateboarding kid’s life is like.

The point is that whatever identities in the stronger sense of the term are, they are very difficult for anyone to articulate as they go about their mundane lives. In much of the time that people live their lives, their consideration of what they’re doing is much more limited than what is contained in an identity, and the identities that result from people going about their lives are in large part a kind of accident.

I think the right understands this well and puts it into practice. The right seeks to sort people hierarchically and to do this it puts people into roles, and to be in one of these roles is a relation and is, in the weak sense, a form of identity. But people in these roles cannot ever fully appreciate how their actions make their identities, in strong sense of the term, so the right offers authority figures that they pitch as role models, heroes, archetypes, etc.

The expectation, then, to fulfill an identity at all can be used to exercise power over people. Someone committed to an identity role (or more often, made to commit) can go to great lengths to act out a shibboleth of masculinity, femininity, classiness — but for the peers or authorities who administer the standards that they do the right things, make the right friends, laugh at the right jokes, what they do will never be enough to fulfill the identity role if they’re out of favor, and they will be left doing thing after thing until their resources are exhausted.

While having an identity does not require submitting to an authority, and there are of course many people on the left who do pursue an identity in the strong sense of the term on their own volition, living life simply, without much attention to identity, is an option that should be kept open. When a worker can’t simply be a worker, a student can’t simply be a student, a woman can’t simply be a woman, a gay person can’t simply be gay, there is a problem. The right to not be made to jump through all kinds of hoops in the service of some inarticulable “identity” is, at least in my anecdotal and admittedly impressionistic observations, one of the best things the left has to offer that it isn’t getting much publicity right now.

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