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A Defense Strategy Against ‘The Identity Trap’
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A Defense Strategy Against ‘The Identity Trap’

Yascha Mounk’s new book explains how ‘wokeness’ hurts our culture, but omits how markets can help fight back.

(Picture via Getty Images)

It’s undeniable that a hyperfocus on race, gender, sexuality, and all things identity has in recent years made personal and policy conversations more tense and vitriolic. A helpful new book parses through how this process unfolded—and why it’s done more harm than good.

In The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time, left-liberal writer and Johns Hopkins University professor Yascha Mounk traces the intellectual roots of what he calls “the identity synthesis,” his more precise term for what is popularly called “wokeness.” Much of its intellectual tradition uses inscrutable academic jargon, yet Mounk maintains an approachable writing style. He helps the uninitiated understand how a philosophical movement that rejects the universalist assumptions of liberalism led to some of the most contentious culture wars today.

Mounk begins with readable summaries of the central figures in the identity synthesis: Michel Foucault, Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Derrick Bell, and Kimberlé Crenshaw. He shows how their distinct postmodern philosophies rejected the essential reality of social categories like race and gender, yet nevertheless evolved into a movement that reifies those very social categories. Much of this academic esoterica might have remained in the ivory tower if it weren’t for the rise of social media platforms like Tumblr, which created the popular, bastardized versions of the ideas that are causing so much havoc now. Still, if your ideas go this bad when they get oversimplified, they were probably pretty bad in the first place. (As I often say about the debate between capitalism and socialism: When socialism goes badly millions die; when capitalism goes badly, you get cronyism.)

Mounk doesn’t dismiss all claims about the importance of identity, but rather parses through them to assess their constructiveness—or lack thereof. Standpoint theory, for example, can reflect the kernel of truth about epistemic limits from person to person. It’s true that I will never be able to fully grasp the experience of a Rwandan genocide survivor, to take a stark example. But Mounk points out that Rwandan survivors and I can still agree on certain propositions, such as how many were killed and how the conflagration was caused, from which dialogue can emerge. Claims of cultural appropriation, on the other hand, are real nonsense. The truly offensive cases—like the Mexican-themed frat party in which students dressed up as maids and construction workers—misplace the blame. They’re insulting because they stereotype, not because they use something from another culture. Contrary to popular condemnations of cultural appropriation, cultural mixing and matching is essential for civilizational progress. 

One of the most interesting arguments The Identity Trap offers is a social-psychological critique of the identity synthesis as a strategy, which Mounk explains through an amusing question: “Is a hot dog a sandwich?” When he asked his students to argue over this, they quickly took sides. And when he offered them a choice between getting $8 for their side but $10 for the other, versus $5 for their side and $3 for the other, they consistently choose the latter option. In other words, once we sort into sides, we are even willing to make ourselves worse off if it means punishing our enemies. 

That’s not a great recipe for social harmony, and it’s at the heart of why Mounk rejects the identity synthesis as hopelessly impractical. For every sweet soul that repents for their whiteness and checks their privilege for the sake of the downtrodden, five others will grow resentful and dig their heels in. Standpoint theory taken too far can make it seem like our worlds really are irreconcilable, and lead us to shrug off social cooperation.

But recent psychological research shows that intergroup exchanges work quite well under certain circumstances. It helps if the members of each group are of equal status. For example, if a middle class white church wants to pursue racial reconciliation, it should probably do so by partnering with a middle class black church. Common projects bind people together, but only if they have to actually work together to accomplish the goal. Authorities and customs can add credibility, too. 

For Mounk, the identity synthesis fosters exactly the opposite. It insists that members of different groups are inherently unequal because of their social power differential; it claims that our identity groups have opposing goals; and it turns the authorities (such as universities and workplaces) into engines of conflict rather than cooperation.

Mounk ends the book with a paean to liberalism, and adds an appendix distinguishing the identity synthesis from Marxism. He’s not technically wrong: Marx is modern, not postmodern, and he definitely proposes the kind of grand historical narrative that postmodernists reject. The classical Marxist, in turn, will paint postmodernism as the predictably absurd conclusion of late-stage capitalist bourgeois thought. 

But whether or not it’s technically Marxist, the identity synthesis is deeply anti-capitalist. Identity synthesists embrace Marx’s condemnation of capitalism, even if they reject his deterministic view of history. They generally hold that the capitalist power structure must be dismantled, especially since they (incorrectly) blame capitalism for the legacies of Western imperialism, racism, sexism, and so on. Those whom Jordan Peterson calls “cultural Marxists” may not be actual Marxists, but they still divide the world between oppressor and oppressed—and insist that market forces are somehow always perpetuating the oppression. 

Yet the important role of the market economy in enhancing liberalism is downplayed throughout The Identity Trap. Liberal democracies may have welfare states of varying sizes and scopes, but they are all market economies. This is no surprise, since command and control economies require so much interference with individual freedom. Mounk argues that liberalism is the best of a bunch of bad options, which is fair enough. But a greater appreciation of economics could have helped him respond to some of the common objections found among the identity synthesists. 

For instance, Derrick Bell, the father of critical race theory, complained about the myriad of disappointments after the civil rights movement, arguing that liberal solutions to our racist history have proved to be failures. But as Marcus Witcher and I show in our book Black Liberation Through the Marketplace, we can actually explain these disappointments without dismissing liberalism. Massive action by the federal government—in the form of Federal Housing Administration red-lining, the construction of the federal highway system, urban renewal, and the perverse incentives of the welfare state—undermined black property rights and economic self-sufficiency. In other words, it wasn’t liberalism that failed, but intrusive government action. 

It’s a missed opportunity for Mounk, whose “live and let live” argument for liberalism isn’t exactly designed to light a fire under those who “hunger and thirst for justice.” For the young and passionate, it’s going to be far more inspiring to trade in their chants of “fight oppressors by fighting capitalism” for “fight oppressors by fighting the expansion of state power.” The latter is also more likely to usher well-intentioned but brash activists into a deeper appreciation for the wisdom of liberal legal institutions. Mounk is right to give legitimate claims of oppression their due, but let’s admit that behind many stories of genuine oppression lies a sprawling collection of municipal, state, and federal laws micromanaging people’s lives. Especially their economic lives. 

We live in economically interdependent times. The rise of global commerce ensures we’ll engage with people outside our tribe under consistent rules of justice—at least if we want the fruits of mutually advantageous exchange. Profitable contact between wildly disparate cultures and ethnic groups cultivates the virtue of tolerance and gives us a basis of friendship upon which to build a strong affirmation of human dignity. And it doesn’t hurt that we’re all getting much, much richer. Desperate times may call for desperate measures, and scarcity can push people to do terrible things. Abundance, on the other hand, doesn’t like to be disturbed by violence and war, which is why we live in the safest and most peaceful time in the history of the world. 

I couldn’t agree more with Mounk’s principled defense of civil liberties in The Identity Trap. He’s especially convincing about how the identity synthesis undermines them, whether through limits on free speech, the normalization of racially separate spaces on campuses and beyond, and identity-sensitive public policy like the prioritization of minorities in vaccine distribution during COVID (which Mounk argues turned out worse for these groups anyway).

But it’s economic liberty that greases the wheels of the social cooperation he values so much. If the wealth and flourishing that spring from our property and contract rights (and all the wonderful uses entrepreneurs put them to) were ground down to nothing, all the liberal tolerance we could muster wouldn’t stop us from turning on one another. Absolutely follow Mounk’s excellent advice on how to counter identity synthesists through civil discourse. Just make sure to include some good conversations about how free markets honor the very human dignity that the identity synthesis undermines.

Rachel Ferguson is the director of the Free Enterprise Center at Concordia University Chicago, assistant dean of the College of Business, and professor of business ethics.