Identitarianism and the Theory of Groups

Identitarianism is a political movement that, in its broadest understanding, is “premised on an acknowledgement that political questions begin with identity.” Identitarianism thus described may encompass any ethnic, racial, religious, national, or other grouping—but in common parlance it refers to a specific European and now American movement concerned with the interests of white Europeans and Americans of European descent. The Southern Poverty Law Center has a nice overview of the identitarian movement in the United States, although it is now clearly dated.

In The Logic of Collective Action, Mancur Olson explained that large groups face an inherent problem of acting collectively because individual members have an incentive to free-ride on the actions and contributions of others. Combatting this free-rider problem requires either providing selective benefits to those who do contribute, morselizing the group into smaller units (say, clubs or college campuses) in which free-rider problem is easier to manage, or by relying on some sort of political entrepreneur who does not mind paying disproportionately the costs of organizing and mobilization.

Identitarianism as a political movement faces something of a dilemma, then. In every society in which it flourishes, it is a movement that aims to represent the majority of citizens (“whites”). It should be the hardest to this majority to organize as a group to advances its interests qua a group.

How useful is the collective action and theory of groups perspective for making sense of identitarianism in American and European politics? On one hand, the idea of operating at smaller scales, morselizing the problem of collective action, seems to describe how the identitarian movement works well. So too the idea of the political entrepreneur: the National Policy Institute in the U.S. (which “endeavors to do the impossible: give voice to the interests of white peoples”) is exactly this. But there are two departures from the classic theory of groups that might usefully be noticed.

The first departure is that much of what the identitarian movement is about is not organizing whites as a group, but rather convincing whites that they are a group. This task is substantial. It requires “boundary work” or “boundary making” (qua Barth [PDF]): deciding who is in and who is out (Jews, Roma, Turks, sometimes southern and/or Eastern Europeans, and so on and so forth), and how to deal with ambiguity (as the Nuremberg Laws did). But it also requires propagation of this concept more broadly among the community to which it is applied. This differs from the classic collective action framework in which groups more or less objectively exist: wage laborers, or members of religious congregations. The collective action problem, when the group exists, is to convince individuals that their interests are best achieved through collective effort, not that the they in fact have mutual or collective interests. The identitarian movement works to create that group first, and at the same time, in doing so, to imbue that group with a particular set of interests. In 2016, Glenn Loury observed pointedly that

I really don’t know how you ask white people not to be white in the world we’re creating

Identitarianism can thrive within this political space, even if saying “the interests of white peoples” openly, as an invitation for individuals to conceive of themselves as a group that has collective interests, remains something of a provocation.

The second departure has to do with the free-rider problem. The identitarian movement does not confront the standard collective action problem because success does not depend on broad contributions of all potential group members. It is true that the identitarian movement would be stronger politically if it had universal active support. But the movement can prove effective even under conditions of broad apathy. So unlike the congregation that will not build its new church unless all members contribute, or the labor union that cannot effectively press its demands unless all members participate in the strike, the identitarian movement does not need to convince everyone to join the movement in order to change policy. Only for people to accept that the boundaries and groups exist, or even less, not to oppose them. In this way, identitarianism can change national political conversations even without winning converts to its cause.