Tag: identity politics

An intersectionality reading list


Photograph by Peter Marshall

Rather than go into a detailed analysis / critique of the following selected readings on intersectionality, I’ll just leave them here for you to read and make your own mind up. All I will say is that each of them in their own way has helped to improve my understanding of what can be a complex but useful analytical tool. They have played a part in moving me from a position of scepticism about intersectionality to a growing appreciation of how it throws a light on how various forms of oppression interact…

Why intersectionality can’t waitKimberlé Crenshawhttps://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-theory/wp/2015/09/24/why-intersectionality-cant-wait/?utm_term=.ea27d531a323

Intersectionality and identity politicsRebecca Reilly-Cooperhttps://rebeccarc.com/2013/04/15/intersectionality-and-identity-politics/

Until All Are Free: Black Feminism, Anarchism, and Interlocking OppressionHillary Lazarhttps://anarchiststudies.org/2016/12/15/until-all-are-free-black-feminism-anarchism-and-interlocking-oppression-by-hillary-lazar/

Is intersectionality just another form of identity politics?Feminist Fightbackhttp://libcom.org/library/intersectionality-just-another-form-identity-politics-feminist-fightback

Interestingly, there was an action on Thursday 11th May at the LSE by striking cleaners (and their supporters) which in my opinion, could be seen as having intersectional elements: LSE cleaners continue strikes for equality and dignityhttps://www.facebook.com/peter.marshall.712/media_set?set=a.10158404334225467.1073742179.785785466&type=3&pnref=story

Dave (the editor)

Intersectionality – some tentative thoughts

Dave (the editor)

When I wrote Multiculturalism & Identity Politics for the IWCA way back in 2009, I hadn’t heard of the term intersectionality. If it had been explained to me at that time in plain, understandable, jargon free language, I may well have taken some of the concepts on board when writing Multiculturalism & Identity Politics and would have written a better piece. This is because some aspects of intersectionality dealing with overlapping discriminations echoed what I found when I was out doorstepping for the IWCA in Thurrock.

Simply talking to working class people on the doorstep brings home the fact that while people obviously experience issues because of their class, other aspects such as gender and ethnicity also have an impact as well. It should be a matter of common sense to recognise that these issues overlap with each other and that a bit more nuance is needed when coming up with an analysis of a situation. If that’s intersectionality, then believe it or not, there are aspects of it I’m happy to take on board.

However, intersectionality is one of those concepts that’s open to a variety of interpretations… Some people have come up with interpretations that far from bringing different struggles together, are creating hierarchies of oppression that only serve to create division in progressive movements as people are afraid to say anything in case they’re accused of denying someone else a voice. It’s with this in mind that I’m going to make an attempt to tackle the issue with the possibly naïve aim of trying to create some degree of unity on how we see intersectionality and start to move away from some of the toxicity that is characterising the discussion.

A starting point in looking at intersectionality is going back to when the concept first emerged and more importantly, why. Back in the 1980s, Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor at UCLA and Columbia, articulated the concept of intersectionality using the legal case outlined below as one of the starting points: In 1976, Emma DeGraffenreid and several other black women sued General Motors for discrimination, arguing that the company segregated its workforce by race and gender: Blacks did one set of jobs and whites did another. According to the plaintiffs’ experiences, women were welcome to apply for some jobs, while only men were suitable for others. This was of course a problem in and of itself, but for black women the consequences were compounded. You see, the black jobs were men’s jobs, and the women’s jobs were only for whites. Thus, while a black applicant might get hired to work on the floor of the factory if he were male; if she were a black female she would not be considered. Similarly, a woman might be hired as a secretary if she were white, but wouldn’t have a chance at that job if she were black. Neither the black jobs nor the women’s jobs were appropriate for black women, since they were neither male nor white. Wasn’t this clearly discrimination, even if some blacks and some women were hired? [1]

The workers in question should have had the option of being able to sue General Motors for discrimination on the grounds of both gender and their race. The US courts didn’t see it that way – they wouldn’t acknowledge that the workers were being discriminated against in multiple ways and insisted they had to make a choice of which grounds to sue General Motors. The application of basic common sense and human decency should mean that anyone looking at this case would recognise that the workers were being screwed not only because of their class but also because of their gender and race. My understanding of what Crenshaw set out to achieve with the concept of intersectionality was to devise a toolkit that could draw attention to situations where people were experiencing multiple oppressions. So as well as acknowledging the obvious class imbalance that informed the way General Motors treated their workforce (cynically using divide and rule) the intersectional analysis also focused on the extra levels of discrimination various sections of the workforce experienced due to their race and / or gender.

Maybe, I’m being naïve, but an analysis which highlights the varying levels of discrimination and oppression people endure should ideally be getting used in a way that draws different struggles together. It’s certainly something that can be used to draw attention to the cynical use of divide and rule and to highlight the way that various oppressions overlap each other and why struggles against them should strive to achieve unity while acknowledging the different experiences of the various groups involved. The hope being that it will generate solidarity between a range of groups on the basis of all for one and one for all.

One issue that has to be dealt with in unifying a range of struggles is acknowledging that some people face more in the way of discrimination and oppression than others. What needs to be born in mind is that while recognising that someone is getting screwed over in more ways than you are, is that it’s not done in a patronising way. This is simply because from my experience, people who are having to deal with multiple oppressions can turn out to be the most effective and feisty campaigners going! They have to be in order to deal with all the issues being thrown at them and we should be listening to and learning from their experiences.

What I’m discussing goes by the name of privilege theory. Which in theory should be the decent and common sense acknowledgement of when someone is more oppressed / discriminated against than you are and acting accordingly to show solidarity and support. One of the problems of privilege theory is that it can all too often come across as a hierarchy of victimhood. When it becomes understood as such, it becomes a real problem as it denies people the agency to fight back against the system that’s oppressing them.

Giving people being screwed over by multiple oppressions a voice shouldn’t be a box ticking exercise – it should be a learning experience for all involved. People who are being oppressed on multiple fronts generally have a pretty sharp perception of what’s wrong with the social, political and economic order as it stands and what needs to be done to change things. Listening to them talk not just about their oppressions but how they fight back against them is a learning experience. In other words, let people more oppressed than you have a voice because more often than not, they have a valid contribution to make to the struggle.

Having said this, we have to have the leeway to aggregate people’s experiences to draw general principles from them which will guide our action. This is what political theorist, Rebecca Reilly-Cooper has to say about this: Listening to people’s stories is important. But if it is to have any value, besides satisfying people’s desire to be heard, then we need to do more than listen. We need to be able to generalize from those stories to more abstract principles, which then inform our action and guide policy. Particular experiences and personal testimonies are of political importance because they can help to illuminate general principles; they cannot trump those general principles. [2]

For various reasons, one being the crap education system that many people at the bottom of the social ladder have endured, not everyone is going to be as articulate as someone who’s had the privilege of a university education. On the other hand, the experience of life of those at the bottom will most likely be more real and just because they can’t spout the right kind of jargon, it doesn’t mean their opinion should be disregarded. Sometimes – and only sometimes, they may need some assistance in articulating their opinions. That should simply be a matter of tact and done in a way that helps to empower them and doesn’t patronise them.

One of the problems of privilege theory is that it can come across as a hierarchy of victimhood. That’s an incredibly patronising way of viewing the situation when it’s the most oppressed who can often be at the forefront of the fight for a better world. The struggles of cleaners, delivery workers and others across London is a case in point. In London, these sectors are primarily operated by migrant labour who refuse to accept their allotted role of cheap, disposable labour and they’re vigorously fighting back against that with demands for decent pay and to be respected for what they do. Somehow, while they will acknowledge the multiple oppressions they experience, I don’t think they will recognise the hierarchy of victimhood that some proponents of privilege theory describe.

Another example of intersectionality in practice is the setting up of Sisters Uncut Doncaster. [3] Yes, Doncaster – about as far away from cosseted middle class liberal privilege as you can get. A town that to all intents has been thrown under the bus with issues ranging from high rates of domestic abuse, low wages and part time work for many women through to the trauma of adjusting to a post industrial future in a society that still judges people by what they do (or don’t do) in the way of work for a living. A town where austerity cuts threatened the only Women’s Aid in South Yorkshire.

A worker at Women’s Aid contacted Sisters Uncut in London to see what help they could offer. Sisters Uncut in London responded and as a result Sisters Uncut Doncaster was set up and Women’s Aid was saved. This was an intervention that drew a whole range of issues from class through austerity to toxic patriarchy together and came up with a practical, cohesive response. Sisters Uncut may be better known for their dynamic direct actions on the streets but it’s this grassroots graft in places like Doncaster that will seal their reputation for putting intersectional principles into action in a way that brings about real change where it matters.

What I’ve written so far is my personal attempt to draw out the positives from intersectionality and hopefully start a constructive dialogue on how they can be used to unify struggles. I’m only too well aware that with some of the interpretations of intersectionality that have manifested themselves, it has become a contentious issue and to say that some of the discussion around it has turned toxic is an understatement. There are a number of reasons why this is the case and dealing with them would entail at least one or more full length posts. For the purposes of this piece, looking at how and why some of the debate around intersectionality has become so toxic is something I would rather leave for the future.

To conclude this piece, I’ll leave you with this quote from Rebecca Reilly-Cooper: Recognizing that there are multiple and interacting forms of oppression, and wanting to work to eradicate the negative effects of this on the most oppressed people, can and must divorce itself from this incoherent, self-defeating, nihilistic identity politics. It we are going to do anything to make people’s lives better, we have to be able to draw general conclusions from people’s experiences, and be allowed to represent those who cannot represent themselves. [4]

References

[1] Kimberlé Crenshaw – Why Intersectionality Can’t Wait – Washington Post, 24 September, 2015 – https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-theory/wp/2015/09/24/why-intersectionality-cant-wait/
[3] Vicky Spratt – How Sisters Uncut are changing the way politics is done – The DeBrief – 9 August, 2016 – http://www.thedebrief.co.uk/news/politics/sisters-uncut-who-are-they-20160864469
[2], [4] Rebecca Reilly-Cooper – Intersectionality and Identity Politics – https://rebeccarc.com/2013/04/15/intersectionality-and-identity-politics/

Is identity fixed or does it change?

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Is cultural identity fixed or is it something that’s always evolving, adapting and changing? There are elements on the right and in particular, the far right, who see cultural identity as something that’s more or less fixed and only evolves slowly. What follows is an outline of why the notion of cultural identity as something that’s pretty much fixed stems from a flawed understanding of how humanity has evolved before moving on to start the process of explaining why this is dangerous and why it needs to be debunked…

Cultural identity is fluid and dynamic

If cultural identity is fixed, it begs this question – how has humanity evolved to where we are today? Surely the history of humanity is about cultures meeting, adapting and evolving as a consequence ? As cultures meet, interact, borrow from each other and evolve, the sense of identity that’s bound up with belonging to a culture inevitably changes. The evolution of humanity is a dynamic process so by definition, the development of culture will also be a dynamic process with the consequence that to a greater or lesser degree, a sense of identity will always be fluid. This is what Emily Galea wrote on the issue: Nevertheless, what is commonly overlooked is the relationship between identity and culture and the ever-changing nature of such cultures, meaning that identity cannot possibly be a fixed entity which a person carries throughout their life time. It is a living, breathing concept, constantly changing according to the trends and attitudes of said time. [1]

Obviously when a militarily dominant culture has encountered a militarily less dominant one, there are issues of conquest and cultural destruction that need to be taken into consideration. When this happens, the issue of cultural appropriation has to be acknowledged and addressed in a nuanced way. The problem is that certain elements on the left and in the anarchist movement have developed a view on cultural appropriation that has made it a toxic and contentious issue…

For the moment, there’s this quote from a post on Everyday Feminism which concisely explains the difference between cultural appropriation, cultural exchange and assimilation: A deeper understanding of cultural appropriation also refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group. That’s why cultural appropriation is not the same as cultural exchange, when people share mutually with each other – because cultural exchange lacks that systemic power dynamic. It’s also not the same as assimilation, when marginalized people adopt elements of the dominant culture in order to survive conditions that make life more of a struggle if they don’t. [2] Yet when cultures meet on a relatively level playing field, there will be an exchange of ideas where all participants can adapt, evolve and develop as a consequence. This is taking a positive view of human progress where cultures interact and feed off each other as part of that process. To accept the idea that cultural identity is fixed and unchanging is to stand in the way of the notion of human progress.

A retreat into cultural identity

We’re living through a turbulent and increasingly pessimistic period of human history. When times become tougher, there tends to be a retreat into cultural identity to compensate for the lack of social, political and material progress. People become more inclined to celebrate what they are rather than what they could become through political struggle. This is particularly the case when any notion that fundamental, systemic change that could result in a more just, equitable society has been getting systematically discredited ever since the start of the rise of globalised neo-liberalism in the 1980s.

The demise of the left as it seemingly becomes more fixated on identity politics than achieving fundamental, systemic change has contributed to the retreat into cultural identity. Moving away from a politics that generates solidarity based on broadly shared material and social demands to one that divides people based on notions about their identity has led us to where we are now. The political project of social and material progress that can benefit the many has been more or less put on hold, with the fall of the Iron Curtain being a catalyst in accelerating this tendency. A tacit acceptance of gobalised neo-liberalism by the left has left them with nothing but identity politics to champion. This is what Kenan Malik wrote about the issue: As the meaning of politics has narrowed, so people have begun to view themselves and their social affiliations in a different way. Social solidarity has become increasingly defined not in political terms – as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals but in terms of ethnicity or culture. The question people ask themselves are not so much ‘What kind of society do I want to live in?’ as ‘Who are we?’ [3]

Populist nationalism and identity politics

While elements on the left and in the anarchist movement have become more focused on identity politics, many people left behind by gobalised neo-liberalism feel they’ve been abandoned by those supposedly espousing progressive politics. As the globalised neo-liberal order continues to fray at the seams after the financial crisis of 2008, the left has been caught wrong footed by a resurgent, populist, nationalist right who are gleefully filling the vacuum that has been created by the abandonment of any universalist project that seeks social justice and material progress for all.

The populist, nationalist right play on people’s fear of change, particularly the rapid change that has characterised the period of globalised neo-liberalism that’s now coming to an end. In particular, they play on a fear of change that people feel they’ve absolutely no control over. Paradoxically, that fear of change is shared by pretty much everyone on this planet whose lives have been turned upside down by the adverse impact of globalised neo-liberalism. This ranges from the inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa who in the face of increased desertification are forced to become refugees through to the inhabitants of the former mill towns of northern England who have seen the industries that used to provide them with a living exported to locations where workers can be more easily exploited.

Regardless of what may seem to be massive differences between the peoples involved, they have all been severely disadvantaged by a globalised neo-liberalism that puts profits way ahead of the needs of ordinary people. Yet in the absence of an inclusive, universalist project seeking social justice and material progress for all, the latter are being encouraged by the various forces of the right to see the former as an threat to their way of life and existence. When a unifying politics that engenders solidarity across a range of groups struggling for social and material progress has imploded, we end up with the situation we now face.

It should not come as a surprise that some elements in the white working class component of those left behind are starting to become more receptive to the siren voices of the populist, nationalist right. This reactionary political tendency sees cultural identity as something that’s pretty much fixed and only changes and evolves slowly. They play on the fears of those who have seen their communities change as a result of inward migration, citing supposedly irreconcilable cultural differences as a reason why immigration not only has to stop but why repatriation should be ‘encouraged’. They start to apply elements of the language of identity politics that suit them, twist them around and confer upon the white working class, an identity of their own. After all they will say, if having a cultural identity is acceptable for every other group, why should it not be acceptable for the white working class to have their own (traditional and reactionary) identity?

The material and social interests of the working class as a whole have been largely subsumed by an identity politics which the right have co-opted elements of to confer upon the white working class. A united response to the depredations of a failing globalised neo-liberalism becomes an impossibility to achieve as the populist right completes the process of fragmentation inadvertently started by elements of the left. So when a section of the white working class feel they have been left behind and are powerless to influence the forces that are changing their lives, they will be receptive to those political elements who promise them stability, self respect and so on. It matters not that the populist, nationalist right are exploiting the white working class for their own cynical ends – in the absence of a credible, forward looking alternative from the left that will put people in control of their lives, communities and workplaces, it’s the reactionaries who are gaining ground at an alarming rate.

The dangers of class becoming a fixed identity

While an embittered section of the white working class may well buy into the notion that their cultural identity is more or less fixed and has to be defended, they fail to see how that has the potential to be turned against them. It cannot be overstated that the populist, nationalist right sees the white working class as something to be used for their own cynical ends. Which is why the notion of cultural identity as something that’s fixed being one that could also be applied to class differences always seems to get overlooked. Which is a surprise given the eugenicist literature that says class differences are more or less immutable and that if society is to ‘progress’, the lower classes should be ‘discouraged’ from ‘breeding’.

Traditional conservatives claim that cultures do not mix successfully and that different peoples are best left to get on with their own affairs. This stems from the assumption that culture is a relatively fixed characteristic of any given society and one that only evolves slowly. The same argument has been used by some conservatives to justify the continuance of class divisions, hence their making every effort to depict class as something that’s more or less immutable with only a few being deemed capable of making an upward move out of their class. Obviously, it is a rare conservative who will explicitly state such open prejudice – most will choose a form of language that either implies or sows the seed of a notion in peoples’ minds that there’s a natural and unchanging aspect to class divisions. One example of how these notions can be sown came in this utterance from the former chief schools inspector, Chris Woodhead, on the issue of social class and life chances: I think it would be unlikely that large numbers of grammar school kids would come from those disadvantaged areas – the genes are likely to be better if your parents are teachers, academics, lawyers, whatever. And the nurture is likely to be better. But that doesn’t mean that there are not going to be DH Lawrences. [4]

Racial thinking in the 19th century had its origins in the deterministic notion that the poor were poor because of the lot dealt to them by nature and that in the main, there was little chance of the majority of them ever being able to transcend their circumstances. This account of working class life in the Saturday Review, a well-read liberal magazine of the Victorian era, typifies the English middle class attitudes of this era: The Bethnal Green poor… are a caste apart, a race of whom we know nothing, whose lives are of quite different complexion from ours, persons with whom we have no point of contact. And although there is not yet quite the same separation of classes or castes in the country, yet the great mass of the agricultural poor are divided from the educated and the comfortable, from squires and parsons and tradesmen, by a barrier which custom has forged through long centuries, and which only very exceptional circumstances ever beat down, and then only for an instant. The slaves are separated from the whites by more glaring… marks of distinction; but still distinctions and separations, like those of English classes which always endure, which last from the cradle to the grave, which prevent anything like association or companionship, produce a general effect on the life of the extreme poor, and subject them to isolation, which offer a very fair parallel to the separation of the slaves from the whites. [5]

If you think that such thinking about the poor belongs in the past, then ponder the de-humanising, cruel way the Department of Work & Pensions treats benefit claimants. Consider how increasingly hostile attitudes towards claimants have been whipped up by a predominantly right wing media. Think about where this climate of hostility could lead if the assumptions behind it are not challenged and thoroughly discredited.

We are facing a future where technology and automation has the potential to destroy millions of jobs. Unless there’s a radical re-structuring of the political and social order so we have a society that can share the benefits of that automation among all of its citizens, then we face a dark future. One where the notion of culture as fixed and unchanging has also been applied to thinking about class differences. With the ruling elites pondering on how to accommodate millions upon millions of people who have no useful role in the automated world they rule over, the notion that the poor are poor because of their chromosomes will be incredibly useful for them…

Conclusion

This is the first of a number of posts that will be going up as part of the project of revisiting the Multiculturalism & Identity Politics piece that I wrote for the Independent Working Class Association back in 2009. [6] At this point, it would be presumptive to start writing definitive statements of intent as to how we move from the perilous position we are in now to one where a political project that has the unifying objectives of social and economic justice with power coming from the grasroots is in the ascendant.

However, there’s a need to up the ante in promoting the notion that cultural identity is fluid and changing because of the meeting and mixing of cultures and the dynamism of the development of humanity. Without this nuanced understanding of the complexities of identity development and how it’s always shifting and changing, there’s little hope of defeating the reactionary notion that cultural identity is fixed.

One of the aims of the process of revisiting Multiculturalism & Identity Politics is to attempt to overcome some of the toxic divisions over the issue of identity politics in relation to class that are holding us back from challenging the increasingly reactionary climate we have to operate in. This is intended to be a collaborative process – constructive criticism and comment are always welcome.

References

[1] Emily Faye Galea – Cultural Identity is Continually Being Produced Within the Vectors of Similarity and Difference – http://www.academia.edu/8171866/Argument_Cultural_Identity_is_Continually_Being_Produced_Within_the_Vectors_of_Similarity_and_Difference
[2] Maisha Z. Johnson – What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm – Everday Feminism, 14 June, 2015 – http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/06/cultural-appropriation-wrong/
[3] Kenan Malik – Against multiculturalism – New Humanist, Summer, 2002 – http://www.kenanmalik.com/essays/against_mc.html
[4] Polly Curtis – ‘Don’t say I was wrong’ – The Guardian, 12 May, 2009 – http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/may/12/chris-woodhead-teaching
[5] Saturday Review – 16 January, 1864
[6] Multiculturalism & identity politics – the reactionary consequences and how they can be challenged – Independent Working Class Association, 28 September, 2009 – http://www.iwca.info/?p=10146

Multiculturalism & identity politics – the reactionary consequences and how they can be challenged

This is the original text which was first published here on the IWCA website in September 2009 – http://www.iwca.info/?p=10146 A cursory re-reading of this piece reveals that it has quite a few flaws. Subsequent posts after this will be an attempt to correct those flaws…

Recent weeks have seen racial tensions in the news once more, with the antics of the ‘English Defence League’ and those responding to them featuring high in the headlines. Like the BNP, the EDL claim to be defending the rights of the majority culture in the same manner as minorities, with support from their liberal sympathisers, defend theirs. As times get harder and the economic cake shrinks over the coming years, the battle for the crumbs will, as things stand, be fought along racial lines. This is the legacy of identity politics and multiculturalism.

The purpose of this article is to start the process of taking our analysis of multiculturalism and identity politics to a new level. The aim is to ensure we have the tools to be able to challenge the stance of both the left and the right on this issue. With regard to the right, it is not just the BNP we want to challenge but the more deferential kind of conservatism that may fill the vacuum created by the collapse of the neo-liberal project. A key part of this challenge is to highlight how backward and reactionary the embrace of multiculturalism and identity politics is. In particular, we want to draw attention to the way in which identity politics traps people and denies them the opportunity to transcend their circumstances – a vitally important aim given the parlous state of the economy and the coming age of austerity.

The 30 year experiment with neo-liberalism has crashed and burned. The bubble economy of the last ten years was built on the triple pillars of a debt fuelled consumer boom, supposedly ever rising property prices that were meant to underpin that debt and last, but by no means least, the shenanigans of high finance. These three pillars have crumbled to dust leaving an economy with no dynamism and no means of renewing itself. Neo-liberalism has been responsible for the decline of upward social mobility from the working class over the last thirty years. With a moribund economy, the downward mobility of those who thought they could buy the middle class lifestyle on credit will, if anything, swell the ranks of the working class.

New Labour are in the process of self destructing, Unless Gordon Brown can pull off the miracle of all times, the Tories look set to form the next government. With the failure of neo-liberalism leaving a vacuum on the political right, conservatives are grasping around for a new narrative that will fit the looming age of austerity. Further investigation is needed to enable us to predict with some certainty what that narrative will be. However, in an age where prevailing economic circumstances have made upward social mobility from the working class almost an impossibility, an acceleration of the return to a more hierarchical, rigid society is pretty much on the cards, albeit one assuming a 21st century form utilising the green rhetoric of limits. In this kind of climate, any kind of thinking that implies peoples’ identities are fixed, whether they are cultural, religious or based on class, will only serve to reinforce social and cultural divisions, thwarting any attempts to move society onto a more dynamic, progressive footing.

We have a responsibility to challenge backward notions about the immutability of peoples’ identities and to fight for a vision of a society where the majority of ordinary working people, regardless of their ethnic, religious or social background, can fulfil their aspirations.

The left’s obsession with identity politics

To be brutally honest, there never was a golden age of the political left. But there was a time when there was more of a commitment to universal values and aspirations. The problem for the left was that they never had a convincing or successful programme that could deliver equality for all along with economic and social justice. The left certainly never had an analysis or programme that convinced the vast majority of working class people to fully place their faith in them. This failure inevitably led the working class to give up on the left and the left to emphatically turn their backs on the working class. The rest is the grisly history of the left’s retreat into the world of identity politics.

It is a travesty that so called progressives should embrace the politics of identity. For what are identity politics other than a celebration of what you were born into? Celebrating an accident of birth denies the possibility of transcending what you are and striving for a better future for yourself, your family and your community. The only people who would willingly embrace such a limiting and rigid society are the more traditional conservatives who long for a more stable and hierarchical society, even if upward social mobility is a casualty of this. Which makes it all the more odd that so called ‘progressives’ are quite happy to promote identity politics and multiculturalism when it is clear they only serve to consign people to a fixed status in society. It may not be the explicit intention of these ‘progressives’ to do this but it is certainly the unintended consequence. What they also fail to see is that conservative notions about identity and culture being immutable can also be applied to class. When a devastating economic crisis has effectively ended any chance of upward social mobility for the working class, championing the politics of identity is a betrayal of their aspirations.

So this begs the question, why has the left embraced identity politics? While the purpose here is not to undertake a post mortem on the failure of the left, the answer to the question does lie in some of the numerous wrong turns they have made in the past.

The liberal left’s inexorable drift into identity politics has its roots, in part, in the struggles against imperialism and racism. The problems the left has brought upon itself in the course of those struggles stem from an over-emphasis on the cultural aspects of these issues and an underplaying of the material and economic factors at play.

The failure of much of the liberal left in their analysis to effectively take on board the political, material and economic factors which fuelled imperialism from its inception in the 19th century have led to the cultural and moral aspects of the issue being over-played. The politics of guilt and self loathing that are the hallmarks of the liberal left are a direct consequence of this failure. A few of the more orthodox Marxist sects certainly had a much better understanding of the dynamics of imperialism but the very nature of these groups meant there was always going to be a very limited audience for their analysis.

This liberal left self-loathing guilt and the automatic, unthinking and uncritical reflex of West-equals-bad and anything non-Western must be good sits uneasily with the fact that many leaders of the liberation struggles from the 1940s onwards respected the learning and thinking of Western civilisation. These leaders wryly observed it was a great shame the colonial powers didn’t live up to the Enlightenment values they supposedly espoused. Kenan Malik describes this outlook thus:

Those who actually fought Western imperialism over the past two centuries recognised that their struggles were rooted in the Enlightenment tradition. ‘I denounce European colonialist scholarship’, wrote CLR James, the West Indian writer and political revolutionary. ‘But I respect the learning and the profound discoveries of Western civilisation.’ [1]

The struggle against racism in Britain has been diverted into the sidings when it comes to upholding universal values such as economic and social justice for all. There have been plenty of barriers to immigrants over the generations that have prevented them from achieving their aims of building a new and better life – one being active racial discrimination and the other being the limits to the ability of the economic system we live under to guarantee the chance of improvement for all. While it was essential to fight racial discrimination, the left failed to effectively link this struggle with a challenge to the material, economic and social constraints that prevented immigrants and the working class as a whole from moving up the ladder. The consequence of this was to allow the issue of racism to become one of culture and attitudes with the material and economic aspects of the matter only paid occasional lip service.

Merely stepping onto the terrain of culture and attitudes sets in motion a chain of consequences that lead to blaming the majority population for the continuance of racism and the finger wagging, moralising approach to anti-racism that has been a hallmark of the left for over thirty years now. The situation was reached where the ethnic minorities could do no wrong and the white working class were condemned pretty much every time they expressed concerns over the impact of immigration or the unfairness of multiculturalism. The bitter legacy of the embrace of identity politics is the cleavage of the working class along the lines described by Frances Fox Piven thus:

Identity politics fosters lateral cleavages which are unlikely to reflect fundamental conflicts over societal power and resources and, indeed, may seal popular allegiance ‘to the ruling classes that exploit them. [2]

On the other hand:

Class politics, at least in principle, promotes vertical cleavages, mobilizing people around axes which broadly correspond to hierarchies of power, and which promote challenges to these hierarchies. [3]

The consequence of this is the division of the working class as the liberal left fawns over the ethnic minorities while barely concealing their contempt for the white working class. A contempt which once you examine the language used and the motivations behind it, is racist. The left long ago abandoned what was at best, an uneasy relationship with the British working class when it was judged that the class wasn’t overly enthusiastic about the political programme on offer. That breakdown of the relationship has over the decades, morphed into a despairing contempt for the British working class and the assumption that they are irredeemably reactionary and resistant to any attempts at enlightenment. In other words, the left has implicitly embraced the notion that there are certain characteristics of the British working class that are immutable and unchanging. When you consider the consequences of ascribing immutable characteristics to any social or ethnic grouping, then it has to be said the liberal left are on very dangerous ground indeed in their demonisation of the white working class.

The BNP are multiculturalists

The BNP claims to despise multiculturalism. While it can be said they deplore what they see as the consequences of the liberal left embrace of multiculturalism, the far right see each and every culture as immutable and unchanging, hence the need to preserve the cultural identity of the white majority by taking a stand against inter-marriage. The BNP will claim they respect the premise that other cultures have a right to their own existence, the proviso being that differing cultures have to be kept separate in order to preserve their ‘purity’. They also claim that cultural divisions are natural and attempts to eradicate or even dilute them run against the natural order. Alastair Harper writing in the BNP journal, Identity, stated that:

As the Duke of Wellington said “Being born in a stable does not make one a horse” – Britishness is chromosomal not residential. [4]

The far right have looked at how the left has embraced identity politics and have appropriated some of the terminology and language of the left to celebrate the culture of the majority white population. After all, when the BNP say that if such and such a group can celebrate their culture, then surely the white majority has as much of a right to celebrate theirs? If you are of a liberal left persuasion and have already signed up to the notion that minority cultures have a right to celebrate what they are, then it can be said it is hypocritical of them to deny that right to the white majority. Such is the dilemma faced by the liberal left as the consequences of their embrace of identity politics start to bite them back.

The BNP in their desire to defend and enforce cultural and ethnic boundaries face a potential flaw in their desire to portray themselves as the ‘friends’ of the working class. The fatal flaw is that the far right’s assertion that cultural divisions are natural can also quite easily be turned around by conservatives and applied to class divisions…

Why traditional conservatives love identity politics

With an allegedly reformist leader in the person of David Cameron who has been frantically re-branding conservatism to make it relevant to the 21st century, why are we talking about ‘traditional conservatism’? As stated in the introduction, the disintegration of the neo-liberal economic and social experiment has left a vacuum on the political right. We are moving into a period where even if there is a technical recovery from the recession, the pace of growth will be so sluggish that there will be no feeling of dynamism in the economy. Allied to this will be the inevitable raising of taxes and painful cuts in public spending as the government of the day attempts to work off the massive public debt, a considerable chunk of which was incurred in the desperate bid to avert systemic bank failure.

To put it bluntly, for any incoming government after the next election, the prospect they face is a nightmare of the worst order. Given New Labour’s complete and utter disintegration, it is more than likely that the next government will be a Tory one. The Tories are going to have to find a narrative to help them in presiding over at best a sluggish economy, austerity and the ever present threat of the IMF having to pay a visit if insufficient progress is being made in reducing the crippling level of public (and private) debt owed by UK plc. The Tories are going to have to find a way of telling the vast bulk of the population that they can forget about their dreams and aspirations as the nation hunkers down to generations of austerity.

Talk of economic growth, dynamism and the prospect of rising living standards will be off the agenda for a long while. Instead, the discussion will be about limits, making do, and accepting what you have and where you are in society. While it would be difficult for the Tories to openly return to the hierarchical view of society they embraced in the past, they will be making every effort to develop a narrative of limits and accepting what you have that will be relevant to the 21st century. There are considerably more subtle ways of promoting this notion, one being green rhetoric about limits to growth being appropriated and twisted around to a dialogue about people learning to be more content with what they have. As well as this, the Tories will have the extremely delicate task of having to explain why upward social mobility is an ever receding possibility for the bulk of the population. As stated earlier, the issue of how the Tories will develop this narrative will be the subject of further investigation.

Traditional conservatives claim that cultures do not mix successfully and that different peoples are best left to get on with their own affairs. This stems from the assumption that culture is an immutable characteristic of any given society and one that only evolves slowly. The same argument has been used by some conservatives to justify the continuance of class divisions, hence their making every effort to depict class as something that is more or less immutable with only a few being deemed capable of making an upward move out of their class. Obviously, it is a rare conservative who will explicitly state such open prejudice – most will choose a form of language that either implies or sows the seed of a notion in peoples’ minds that there is a natural and unchanging aspect to class divisions. One example of how these notions can be sown came in this recent utterance from the former chief schools inspector, Chris Woodhead, on the issue of social class and life chances:

I think it would be unlikely that large numbers of grammar school kids would come from those disadvantaged areas – the genes are likely to be better if your parents are teachers, academics, lawyers, whatever. And the nurture is likely to be better. But that doesn’t mean that there are not going to be DH Lawrences. [5]

With a long period of austerity, a moribund economy and upward social mobility a thing of the past, it will be tempting for at least some conservatives to revisit past thinking about class divisions having at least in part, a natural element to them, albeit that thinking will have to be re-presented in a form that has relevance to the 21st century. It is worth taking a brief look at the history of such thinking. Racial thinking in the 19th century had its origins in the deterministic notion that the poor were poor because of the lot dealt to them by nature and that in the main, there was little chance of the majority of them ever being able to transcend their circumstances. This account of working class life in the Saturday Review, a well-read liberal magazine of the Victorian era, typifies the English middle class attitudes of this era:

The Bethnal Green poor… are a caste apart, a race of whom we know nothing, whose lives are of quite different complexion from ours, persons with whom we have no point of contact. And although there is not yet quite the same separation of classes or castes in the country, yet the great mass of the agricultural poor are divided from the educated and the comfortable, from squires and parsons and tradesmen, by a barrier which custom has forged through long centuries, and which only very exceptional circumstances ever beat down, and then only for an instant. The slaves are separated from the whites by more glaring… marks of distinction; but still distinctions and separations, like those of English classes which always endure, which last from the cradle to the grave, which prevent anything like association or companionship, produce a general effect on the life of the extreme poor, and subject them to isolation, which offer a very fair parallel to the separation of the slaves from the whites. [6]

In the 21st century, it would be hoped that this kind of deterministic thinking would have been thoroughly discredited. However, a scan through the comments left after any article on social mobility and class in a right wing paper such as the Telegraph will reveal that these prejudices are alive and well. The quote below is just one example of how these views can be expressed:

More children is not a solution or a good idea if those children are born to those at the bottom of the social ladder. Intelligence, either of the genetic or acquired variety, does not occur naturally at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder at anything like it does at the middle or upper ends. Having a disproportionate number of children born to parents at the bottom of the mental acuity scale will not save anything. It will create an intractable feudal society with an educated, intelligent elite and a far larger uneducable underclass. We must encourage educated women to bear more children or do it ‘artificially’ if we are to avoid this dysgenic nightmare. [7]

While conservatives condemn the obsession of multiculturalists with celebrating the identity of minorities while ignoring the majority, privately they must be delighted at the message that is implicitly conveyed by the liberal left. The left’s obsession with encouraging minorities to celebrate the culture they have in a world where upward social mobility is a fading dream, sends out an implicit signal that identities cannot be transcended and that people have little choice but to accept what and where they are. In other words, there is the danger that where there is little or no upward social mobility, class divisions become naturalised. This has to be music to the ears of those conservatives who hanker after a stable social order where people know their place in the pecking order…

Why multiculturalism and identity politics are reactionary and backwards

The celebration of a particular culture is in fact, a recognition that in a society where material and social progress can no longer be guaranteed for the mass of the people, cultural identity is the one constant that people can hang onto when times are hard. It is an implicit admission that the project of achieving material, social and economic progress for the mass of the people has effectively been abandoned by the left. As Kenan Malik states, this outlook is the consequence of the narrowing of political options.

As the meaning of politics has narrowed, so people have begun to view themselves and their social affiliations in a different way. Social solidarity has become increasingly defined not in political terms – as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals but in terms of ethnicity or culture. The question people ask themselves are not so much ‘What kind of society do I want to live in?’ as ‘Who are we?’ [8]

The liberal left is unable to understand that there is nothing progressive in unthinkingly encouraging people to simply celebrate what they are. This is particularly the case when reactionary and backward social practices not only go unchallenged but are excused on the basis that they are an ‘integral part of the culture’. This unthinking encouragement for ethnic minorities to celebrate what they are is at odds with the prime motive of any immigrant which is to start a new life in a new country and to leave the past behind.

The major failure of the left was promoting this uncritical celebration of culture for pretty much every ethnic and religious minority while at the same time, strongly condemning and such expression of pride from the white working class majority. Not only did the left turn its back on the white working class, they embarked upon an ideological trajectory that would guarantee the white working class turning its back on the left in utter disgust!

Fairness for all

When the IWCA have been canvassing and the issue of race and multiculturalism has been brought up, the vast majority of white working class people we have talked to simply want fair treatment. They rightly object to public funding for community projects that benefit one small ethnic minority at the expense of the majority.

The liberal left’s encouragement for various minorities to celebrate their culture stands in stark contrast to their thinly veiled contempt for any of the white working class who simply want an acknowledgement of their Englishness / Britishness. As discussed earlier, part of this is down to liberal guilt about the colonial past plus an anti-imperialism that unthinkingly assumes that anything Western is bad, so by definition, anything anti-Western has to be good. However, that is only part of the explanation for their dismissive attitude towards any white working class assertion of English / British identity. Again, as discussed earlier, there is a thinly veiled contempt for the working class who had the temerity to snub the patronising, middle class, Fabian, social democratic political model. One clear consequence of this contempt is that the white working class majority can never expect fairness from a middle class left who despise them. This is why we need to have the argument out with the left on how backward, reactionary and ultimately their unthinking support for multiculturalism and identity is.

Despite the siren promises made by the likes of the BNP, the working class cannot expect a fair society to be delivered from an authoritarian political tendency that supports a rigid social structure. The far right’s implicit support for a rigid social hierarchy has to be brought out and shown as the barrier to working class advancement it really is.

Firing our guns in both directions at once is the only way we can offer a distinctive analysis and critique of identity politics that once and for all, labels it as a reactionary and backward doctrine that only serves to hold working class people back. This means paradoxically, de-racialising identity politics and showing it to be nothing more than support for a social hierarchy where people are expected to know their place. Once this can be achieved, the more fundamental questions of what kind of social economy we want can then start to be seriously addressed.

Summary

The following points are intended to act as a brief summary of why we think multiculturalism and identity politics have dangerously reactionary consequences.

1) Over recent decades, the left has increasingly abandoned the working class and class politics in favour of identity politics: the politics of race, gender and sexuality. In turn, this has caused the working class to increasingly abandon the left.

2) Taken to its logical conclusion, identity politics is a conservative, anti-human concept that sees society as static – a view that can translate just as easily to rigid class hierarchies as it can to competing and incompatible cultural and racial identities.

3) Defining people in terms of the ‘identity’ they were born into is a rejection of the idea of a dynamic society, where it is seen as possible – and desirable – for class and cultural identities to be transcended so that everyone can reach their full and unique potential.

4) The promotion of identity politics fosters artificial divisions within the working class and helps to encourage a racialised view of the world, preparing the ground for race-based politics. This view of society simply doesn’t reflect fundamental conflicts over economic and societal power yet it has the potential to fatally fragment each and every progressive working class movement in the future. Like the Labour Party, the BNP is fully signed up to the notion of identity politics, to the extent that their magazine is called ‘Identity’.

5) We support the concept of full equality, where people are judged on what they do rather than on what they are perceived to be. As a consequence of this, we oppose funding for initiatives that are restricted to particular ethnic and cultural groups as they undermine community solidarity. We support efforts to end discrimination, with the aim being equal treatment for all.

References

[1] Kenan Malik – Against multiculturalism – New Humanist, Summer 2002 – http://www.kenanmalik.com/essays/against_mc.html

[2&3] Frances Fox Piven – Globalising Capitalism and the rise of Identity Politics – http://socialistregister.com/socialistregister.com/files/SR_1995_Piven.pdf

[4] Alastair Harper – Blood of the Isles – Identity, June 2007

[5] Polly Curtis – ‘Don’t say I was wrong’ – The Guardian, 12 May 2009 – http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/may/12/chris-woodhead-teaching

[6] Saturday Review – 16 January, 1864

[7] Comment made by Scott on: Can we pay for pensions without working until we drop? – Daily Telegraph, 7 May, 2009 – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/comment/edmundconway/5286906/Can-we-pay-for-pensions-without-working-until-we-drop.html

[8] Kenan Malik – Making a difference: culture, race and social policy – Patterns of Prejudice, Vol 39, no 4, December 2005 – http://www.kenanmalik.com/papers/pop_multiculturalism.html