The Global Shift from Ideology to Identity

Sep 30 , 2023
By Theódros Tadesse Ayele

As global dynamics evolve, traditional political frameworks seem to gradually step aside, yielding the stage to the increasing clout of identity politics. This transformation is, by no means, region-specific.

In his book, "Identity: The Demand for Dignity & the Politics of Resentment," Francis Fukuyama explores the profound role of identity in contemporary politics and its implications for societal cohesion. In an interconnected world, individuals increasingly seek recognition, respect, and dignity for their identities, and the politics of resentment can arise when these demands go unfulfilled. Fukuyama analyses the consequences of identity politics and proposes strategies for managing identity-related conflicts.

A perfect epitome of this trend is Ethiopia, a country imbued with intricate historical and ethnic diversities.

Rewind to the 20th Century: Politics was often a play of powerful ideological blocs, most notably exemplified by the Cold War – a tense, global stare-down between capitalist and communist ideologies. These ideologies drew clear lines on the map, not just geopolitically but also in alliances and global influence.

But as the century waned, so did the unwavering faith in these ideologies. Enter neoliberal economic policies, globalisation, and a growing scepticism towards the capacities of ideological frameworks. These once-revered paradigms began showing cracks, often failing to adequately address emerging challenges – from socio-economic disparities to environmental crises.

Simultaneously, the world grappled with new issues that defied traditional ideological responses, like climate change, migratory patterns, and the complexities of cultural pluralism.

Naturally, the political apparatus sought alternative modalities.

Identity politics, anchored in the aspirations and grievances of specific socio-ethnic groups, gained prominence. Whether based on race, ethnicity, religion, or gender, the essence remained constant: the recognition and redemption of historic wrongs and systemic inequities.

Factors accelerating this rise are manifold. Globalisation, with its inherent dual character, simultaneously connected and fragmented the world. As the planet became a global village, the clamour for recognition of distinct identities surged.

Activism, often at grassroots levels, began challenging long-held power structures. The ubiquity of digital communications and social media gave wings to these movements, enabling mobilisation and granting them a voice that resonates beyond local borders.

If one were to find a country that encapsulates the challenges and nuances of this transition, Ethiopia would be a prime candidate. Historically, its political landscape was painted with strokes of diverse influences, from the Marxist-Leninist hues of the Derg regime in the 1970s and 1980s to the vibrant colours of pan-Africanism.

Add to this mix, Ethiopia’s rich ethnic mosaic, which has long-standing tensions and past injustices simmering just beneath the surface. It is hardly surprising that identity politics found fertile ground here.

A watershed moment was in 1991 when the Ethiopian government institutionalised recognising ethnic identities, pioneering a multicultural federalist system. While it granted regional autonomy, it inadvertently fueled identity-driven politics, evident in the sprouting of ethnocentric political factions.

The potency of identity politics lies in its ability to empower marginalised voices, spotlighting long-overlooked grievances. But this potency is not without its pitfalls.

The divisions intensified by identity politics can threaten the fabric of national unity. When politics is increasingly seen through the prism of identity, it often catalyses polarisation and an ‘us versus them’ dynamic.

In a country like Ethiopia, this can eclipse overarching national imperatives, making cohesive governance a Herculean task.

This phenomenon is not theoretical for Ethiopians. Real-world manifestations are evident in regions such as Tigray and Oromia, where identity-centric politics has stoked the flames of conflict and mass displacements.

Like many other countries grappling with identity politics, Ethiopia needs a calibrated approach to steer the ship in choppy waters.

Addressing historical and systemic inequalities should serve as a departure point. Only through tangible efforts, both legislative and socio-economic, can sustainable peace be envisioned. Governance and policy must find the golden mean – a balance between addressing group-specific interests and overarching national priorities.

For a country as diverse as Ethiopia, this involves bolstering socio-economic growth that does not merely benefit a segment but ensures holistic development.

Crucially, dialogue must be the cornerstone of the way forward. Encouraging conversations that foster understanding and reconciliation, coupled with efforts to nurture a shared sense of national identity, can bridge the chasms of identity-based divisions.

Robust institutions that rise above identity lines are essential. Underpinned by the rule of law, these institutions` accountability and impartiality can be the pillars upon which a reconciled society stands.

PUBLISHED ON Sep 30,2023 [ VOL 24 , NO 1222]

Theódros Tadesse Ayele, journalist, is a communications consultant and deputy CEO at the Missing Link Communication Consultancy.

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