Looking around the world just now, it is hard to dispute Alain Touraine’s thesis that we are heightening our differences as communities try to assert identities against the impact of globalisation. Of course, it won’t work because competition between assertive communities only serves to strengthen competitive market and military pressures, together with the technological change they bring along with them, and so feed globalisation. But apart from that there is a further warning for those radicals who may think they help the cause of emancipation by pushing the ‘politics of difference’. (It is strange how many radical intellectuals spend energy fighting liberalism, and liberal notions of rights, when liberalism itself – other than the market economics bit – has such limited influence.)
Some forms of differential treatment in respect of differences are hardly controversial (and therefore not involved in politics); such as disabled access, remedial training or, indeed, treatment of inherited diseases. But these things are about correcting disadvantages so as to enable people to live a decent life and be treated with common respect. When it comes to assertion of difference between groups, and more especially ‘communities’, there is far more danger of an opening to those megalomaniacs who want to claim they are superior to others. Curiously little attention was ever paid to this aspect of the warning from apartheid, when the very term ‘apartheid’ meant ‘separate development’ – in theory each racial culture going their own way on a valid basis. Needless to say, such theory soon turned into subordination and oppression. The ‘politics of difference’ is a hazardous road for those who find themselves disadvantaged and marginalised, and those who claim to support them should watch carefully in case they do just the opposite.