LSE talk: The New Politics of Identity

On the 29th of April, 2008, Professor Lord Bikhu Parekh (University of Westminster) gave a talk on his new book “A New Politics of Identity”. He was accompanied by a panel of experts in the field, namely David Goodhart (Editor of Prospect), Professor John Keane (University of Westminster and the Wissenschaftszentrum, Berlin), and Prof Lord Tony Giddens (Chair).


After Professor’s Parekh’s presentation, the panel discussed Bhiku Parek’s work, which covers the impact of globalisation on ethnic, religious, and national identities. The event was open to all and organised by LSE’s Centre for the Study of Global Governance.


Professor Parekh decided not to summarise the book but to focus on its message and launched the concept of three identities: personal, social, and human. Each of these identities raise questions about lifestyle decisions and beliefs. He addressed the issue of how we organise our identities; are they prioritised by oneself or primed? As an example he mentioned that a person may be a Christian cricketer. Does being Christian affect being a cricketer (e.g., in terms of competitiveness – do onto others…. ) and vice versa?


His main focus, however, was on this new ‘human’ identity. We must ask ourselves “as a human being, what kind of life am I to live?”. He linked this with the work of the philosopher Hegel (and Marx to an extent) in terms of whether this universal identity is mediated by other social identities. If someone is a globally oriented citizen, does this affect their behaviour? If so, how? For example, in terms of justice and obligations, should there be a political community that aims towards universal democracy and global welfare state, not limited to a nation? The panel commented on these and other aspects within the book. David Goodhart focused on the concept of citizenship and argued that ‘the left’ needs to rethink the definition of ‘the nationstate’ as human rights presupposes a citizenship. In terms of immigration, this means that the UK should follow the Canadian model and that each individual needs to add value based on their skills. Citizenship comes with rights. These ‘rights’ conflict with moral liberal thinking and the focus should be on rights AND obligations. He continued to argue that majority groups’ identities are not satisfied by current political arrangements. For this reason, he states, Parekh’s book is too balanced (on the one hand, on the other hand) and a case is made for both liberalism and group rights. He said people should settle with the fact that identity is often politically defined in terms of race, religion etc.


The issue of immigration and individual vs. group rights was also elaborated upon by John Keane. He criticised the book for not addressing the causes and agents of globalisation. He aimed to clarify that globalisation does not mean Americanisation per se nor does it imply homogenisation. A discussion ensued regarding the idea that the concept of the state and the concept of humankind are juxtaposed but whether it is truly a matter of bipolarity. Parekh replied pragmatically that it is necessary to think beyond the nation state. If, for example, talent is taken from India (e.g., IT specialists or medical experts) then scholarships should be provided. He argues that we should think in terms of a post national state with reference to human rights and political morality. There is a need for some kind of social cohesion and less of a need for a focus on the state and culture. Due to the complexity of identities it is nonsensical to think of a state as ‘liberal’. Equally, universalism is not necessarily a good thing.


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