I tweeted this last night.
I'm a political economist. Guess what I've learned? Race and identity > money and class.
— Tom Pepinsky (@TomPepinsky) November 4, 2016
What did I mean?
I was responding narrowly to two current events. One is the upcoming U.S. election, and the contrast that I see between (a) the contemporary literature in American politics (e.g. Gilens and Page 2014, PDF) that has considered the economic policy preferences of wealthy elites as window into the functioning of American democracy (b) an election that is not about marginal tax rates but about fear, race, and identity, partisan or otherwise.
The second event is yesterday’s Islamist demonstration in Jakarta against Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a.k.a. Ahok, an ethnic Chinese Christian leader of the capital city of the world’s largest Muslim country. It is easy to focus on the “surface” politics of Muslims acting in perceived defense of a perceived insult of Islam, but there is a “deep” politics to this as well in which Ahok’s decisive moves against squatters have made him unpopular among the city’s poor, who are now mobilizing under the banner of Islam.
There is a parallel here. In both Indonesia and the U.S., it is possible to identity at least two interpretations of what motivates public anger. Is it money and class and the feeling of being left behind or excluded? Or is it race and identity, seen to be at risk?
I have long viewed things through the former lens rather than the latter. I come to this view from my reading of political economy, both classical and modern, from Marx to Iannaccone. Where some might identify, say, sexism and leave it at that, I tend also to look for the division of labor and the public policies and welfare regimes that support it. Where others see Confucian or Buddhist culture, I see vested interests who construct political traditions. I am currently in the early stages of a book-length project on the political economy of identity, in which I identify the concrete material incentives and power relations that have led to the construction of a particular notion of what it means to be Malay in Malaysia. I teach my students to do this, to “think like political economists.”
When Marx wrote (PDF) that
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
he was making a similar claim in his advocacy for a materialist reading of history. Not just about liberating “the people,” but also liberating the scholar and the activist. Since then, there has been an irresolvable debate (in particular among the left, but elsewhere as well) about the extent to which we ought to take identity politics seriously. This is a question about the deep structure of society, and whether beliefs and ideas about identity are fundamental causal forces, or merely a product of an even deeper structure of material interests, or class relations. If your view is to dismiss the latter view tout court—of course ideas and beliefs and race and religion matter, how could it be otherwise?—then you have not wrestled with the terms of the materialist critiques that stretch from Marxism to modern public choice. This is a reasonable debate. I cannot resolve it. You can see it right now, in the alt-left and the alt-right alike, in their joint critique of identitarianism.
But right now, I have come to the view that beliefs and identity lie at the very core of both current events. To view race, religion, and identity more broadly as somehow analytically secondary when grasping contemporary events is to misunderstand fundamentally what is happening right now, both in the U.S. and Indonesia. So in that sense, and that sense alone, race and identity > money and class.