Tag: Independent Working Class Association

The perils of ‘call out’ culture

There are two strands of call out culture I want to deal with in this piece. The first is what happens within activist circles when people are pulled up for not being one hundred percent with the programme, fully up to date with the language needed to express that and inadvertently end up saying or writing something that’s deemed to be offensive or oppressive to a particular individual or group. The second is when some people on the left / anarchist end of the political spectrum are engaging with ordinary working class people (well we can all dream, can’t we?), they hear something they don’t agree with and rather than asking some more questions as to what informs that viewpoint, they go off on a judgemental rant instead. Both are damaging – the first to the all too fractured movement we’re trying to salvage and the second to any meaningful attempt to re-engage with working class people.

Let’s deal with what happens in activist circles first… I’ve seen people driven from the movement as a result of a significant minority of activists who see themselves as holier than thou pulling up other activists for making slips in their language or nor fully being ‘with the programme’. The problem being is that the ‘programme’ tends to be somewhat fluid and the terminology expressed to further the ‘programme’ can be subject to alteration and amendment by the self selecting clique directing the ‘programme’. Woe betide those of us who for whatever reason, have not kept ourselves fully up to date with what this self selecting elite are thinking and deeming to be the correct thing to say and do.

There are a lot of people like me involved in various forms of activism who realise that we don’t know everything and that a fair chunk of being an activist involves a learning curve. A lot of us are specialists and while we have areas of expertise, there are issues that we have to admit, we’re pretty ignorant about. For example, I know a fair bit about issues such as housing, ‘re-generation’ and social cleansing which is why quite a few posts on those issues feature on this blog. On the other hand, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m nowhere near to being up to speed on issues such as gender politics and there’s no way I’d be arrogantly presumptuous enough to attempt to write posts about it for the blog.

We live in a dysfunctional society and it’s a constant battle to avoid internalising some of the crap we’re bombarded with. For those of us who have five or more decades on the clock, please bear in mind that when we were being raised, society was even more racist, sexist and homophobic than it is now, although I do fear we’re moving backwards. The point is that we want to unlearn the crap that we’ve internalised against our better judgement. We’re human and being human means we’re flawed and sometimes we slip up and come out with something that’s not quite right or is slightly off message. We’re not intending to be malicious, it’s just that if we’re tired or under stress and the cognitive process is accordingly impaired, the wrong words can slip out. It’s not something we want, it just happens that way…

We want to learn to get a better understanding of oppressions, how they interact and what activists can do to fight them. But you know, there’s only so much we can do because there are only twenty fours in the day and as much as we’d love to, it’s not possible to devote all of them to keeping up to date with every aspect of political theory right across the board. So if we do make a genuine error and ask for some pointers to improve our understanding of a particular piece of political theory relating to our activism that for whatever reason we’ve not immediately grasped, please don’t brush us off with ‘it’s not my job to educate you!’ It’s the job of all comrades to educate and help each other so collectively we can improve our understanding and analysis to enable us to devise better strategies and tactics. Sniffily telling someone who may have slipped up or not quite got the point (ones that seem all too often to be expressed in arcane, complex language) that ‘it’s not my job to educate you!’ is not comradeship in any way, shape or form – it’s elitism, pure and simple. Bear in mind that some of us in activist circles have not had the benefit of a university education.

If someone has slipped up and inadvertently said or written something that could be deemed as not quite right, here’s a suggestion, call them in rather than call them out. Calling in, I’ll explain – rather than a public humiliation in a meeting or online, how about a quiet word after the meeting or an e-mail to explain where someone has slipped up. We’re human and as such we’re flawed and can’t be on message 24/7 and we’ll admit that there are times when a prod to put us back on track is necessary and if it’s done in a comradely fashion, will be genuinely appreciated.

As I’ve written before, obviously there are situations in activist circles when people do need to be called out because they are behaving like egoistical dickheads and they show no sign of wanting to change their ways. We’ve all been there, trying to change the behaviour of comrades who love the sound of their own voices, dominate meetings and generally end up disrupting the running of a group. That’s when the calling out of genuinely shite, oppressive behaviour is needed for the group to be able to continue to function.

It may just be me but it seems that a lot of the toxicity in call out culture comes from an element of middle class, university educated activists in the movement. Please note I wrote ‘element of’ and not ‘all’… There are plenty of middle class, university educated activists I know who do have an understanding of the human imperfections of fellow comrades and are more than happy to point us in the right direction when we slip up – to those people, I offer my unconditional thanks. Like a few problem households on an estate having a disproportionate impact on the quality of life there, a minority of holier than thou activists who’ll call you out and castigate you for the slightest slip can have a damaging impact on the movement. Given all that we’ve got to face in the next few years, is it asking too much for these holier than thou activists to research the meaning of the word comrade, act on that meaning and cut us mere mortals some slack?

Now onto the second strand concerning engagement with ordinary working class people. If by some chance an activist finds themselves in a working class boozer in Thurrock, gets into conversation with one of the regulars and hears them say – ‘my local UKIP councillor is okay and I’m glad I voted for him’ what should be the correct response? Do you go into a rant, labelling the UKIP voter as a racist bigot? (advisory – for reasons of personal safety, it’s best to not adopt this tactic in a working class boozer in Thurrock) Or do you start a dialogue with the UKIP voter to find out why they cast their vote the way they did? A dialogue that may well reveal the fears and concerns of the voter which could well be something that we should have a better analysis of and (long term) solution for than the UKIP councillor. Or it could be that the UKIP councillor actually has some sound views on issues such as the need for genuinely affordable housing and that’s what swung the vote? Bear in mind that at a local council level, UKIP councillors tend to be pragmatists and can sometimes come out with some sensible ideas – we as activists need to recognise that and ensure that our response to them is more nuanced, otherwise we end up looking like caricatures of ourselves.

If when I stood as a candidate for the Independent Working Class Association in the local elections back in 2007 and 2008 I had adopted the attitude of the holier than thou radical activists when out canvassing, I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes! Instead, I listened to people’s concerns and hopes first, and then started a dialogue to try and change minds when I thought they were heading off in the wrong direction. Obviously if it was becoming clear I was talking to an unreconstructed bigot, I’d terminate the conversation as swiftly as possible before moving on. The point is to not immediately judge people on the basis of one throwaway remark but instead, have an honest dialogue with them first before coming to a more nuanced judgement. Bear in mind that from our experience on the doorstep, most people are apolitical and will hold a range of views that stretch across the political spectrum – something that political activists on both the left and right can’t seem to grasp.

Drawing things to a conclusion, I’m starting to think that the minority of elite ‘activists’ who see themselves as holier than thou and call out other less privileged activists for minor slip ups and deviating from the programme are doing it as a form of virtue signalling as opposed to actually achieving anything. The same applies when they castigate working class people for expressing views they might not agree with instead of entering into a dialogue in an attempt to win them over. Could it be that this happens when particular activist groups have become so disengaged from the public they’re supposed to be winning over and instead, substitute a genuine attempt to change the world with pointless point scoring as to how ‘right on’ they are? Whatever the case, this self selecting, self referential, elite group of activists need to take a long hard look at themselves and sort their priorities out. Because if this tendency isn’t reined in, more good people will be leaving the movement and the forces of reaction will be gaining even more of a foothold.

Dave (the editor)

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