Neoliberal identity politics has failed and has to be replaced with class politics

Contemporary Liberal Identity Politics is based on the idea that ‘identity’ is a personal matter and that any individual can ‘choose’ any identity – for example that men can ‘choose’ to be women and women can ‘choose’ to be men. This liberal individualist conception of ‘freedom also underpins neoliberal capitalism and perhaps it is more accurate to describe contemporary Liberal Identity Politics is actually Neoliberal Identity Politics.

And I am distinguishing here between ‘Neoliberal’ Identity Politics that has been specific to the neoliberal era (1979-2017), and previous forms of identity politics that saw themselves as parts of a broader struggle for the liberation of the 99% from domination by 1%.

The rhetoric of many contemporary ‘liberation groups’ fails to challenge the current political hegemony and the economic status quo and asks only for equal access for middle class women and disabled BAME and LGBT members of the middle class, to the class privilege that was previously only available to white, middle-aged, middle-class, males. In this neoliberal iteration of identity politics the various ‘liberation groups’ now ‘compete’ with each other in the political sphere for resources, activist time and energy, media attention and of course the moral high ground.

As a result in the neoliberal age identity politics has put the progressive part of the 99% into constant war with each other while the 1% have got on with ruling the world in their own interests and overseeing the single biggest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich since the land enclosures of the 17th & 18th Century.

Today we can have the ridiculous situation whereby many on the liberal left regard a rich, white, male, public school boy who is also gay or disabled, as less ‘privileged’ than a poor, white, working class boy who is heterosexual and able-bodied.

In left meetings across the UK, liberation groups are constantly demanding that everyone who is not part of their particular liberation struggle ‘check their privilege in at the door’. So disabled men are able to criticise the privilege of able-bodied women, while able-bodied women criticise the privilege of all men BAME, gay or disabled. Each group competing for the highest moral ground so that their interests and voices will become dominant.

The apogee of this identity politics in-fighting is perhaps the staggeringly illiberal attempts in the last few years to ban Peter Tatchell and Germain Greer from speaking on UK university campuses on the basis of incoherent accusations of ’transphobia’. This madness illustrates the point that the liberation groups of neoliberal identity politics are NOT united by a common struggle for liberation of the 99% but on the contrary are competing with each other for the ‘liberation’ of their particular group. The ‘trans activists’ involved in this debacle were willing to purposefully demonise and discredit two of the lefts leading intellectual figures in order to pursue their own very, very specific agenda. They seemed unaware that ‘free speech’ and open debate are the fundamental values of classic liberalism or that unity and solidarity are central values on the socialist left. They also seemed unaware that without the decades of activism by people like Greer and Tatchell, ‘Trans Rights’ wouldn’t even be on the table for discussion! These Trans activists are clearly not part of any broad ’movement’ for social change, liberal or otherwise, they are simply pursuing their own interests ‘by any means necessary’, which is the idea at the very core of neoliberal politics.

Which is why many of us on the socialist left resist the notion that liberals and specifically neoliberal identity politics, are even of the left. Economics and class are what define my concept of ‘left’ politics. And by ‘class’ I do not mean the flat caps and eh-by-gums of a now extinct industrial working class, I mean the economic definition of class that recognises that anyone who has to earn a living through paid employment is working class. [Not everyone who works is working class. David Cameron and Donald Trump do not have to work. They inherited enough wealth to live lives of luxury without working]. But a doctor from a modest background working for the NHS is as much a member of the working class as the hospital cleaners. It is true that in previous eras the Doctor was granted middle-class, professional incomes and privileges based on their talents and that this disguised the underlying economic reality. But we are now witnessing the reality underpinning this illusion as many professional jobs (teaching, lecturers, doctors, lawyers, etc) are ‘proletised’ by the removal professional autonomy, the imposition of managerial, top-down, command structures the rapid diminishing of status, pay and conditions. Obviously the 1% no longer think they need to keep the professional middle classes ‘on side’ (or even the Police for that matter) to stay in power so professional privileges have been removed, revealing that they were always contingent.

This definition of class acknowledges that all of us in the 99% are being exploited and oppressed by the 1% and that any ‘privilege’ we gain simply from our physical capabilities, race, gender or sexuality is insignificant compared to the genuine privileges of the 1%.

But in the contemporary neoliberal iteration of identity politics ‘class’ or ‘class struggle’ is almost entirely absent. We have the phenomenon of middle class women fighting for their right to be barristers, doctors, vice chancellors etc but seemingly blind to the fight of their working class sisters across the world for a living wage and basic workers right. We have middle class gay men fighting for legal equality while openly sneering at the heterosexual working class as culturally backward and ignorant. We have millionaire female film stars and sports women demanding equal pay with their male counterparts while simultaneously third-world working-class women who can’t even afford a ticket to watch a film, let alone a tennis match, slog their guts out 12 hours a day in sweat shops to make branded sports clothing that these female ’stars’ relentlessly promote in return for millions in hard cash. We have the handful of BAME film stars demanding leading parts and more awards so that they too can earn the millions the handful of white stars earn, while all around them their BAME brothers in the working-class are criminalised, brutalised and murdered on a daily basis by a systemically racist police and criminal justice system. American BAME film stars should perhaps ask Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, James Brown, Chuck Berry and Billy Holiday whether becoming rich and ‘successful’ makes a black American immune from that system.

In my own career area of the arts and media, almost all the beneficiaries of diversity policies and positive discrimination are middle class. They may be BAME, LGBT, disabled or female but they are almost universally middle class. Script development in UK long running series drama on television is today totally run by women; often women who also have additional diversity qualifications based on disability, race or sexuality. There are very good reasons for the domination of women in this area by the way and I do not challenge that in itself. However, these women are united by one characteristic. Class. They are almost all middle class. Regardless of race, creed, disability or sexuality they almost all graduated from Russel Group universities and are the daughters of the professional middle classes. 40 years ago all of these roles would have been fulfilled by middle class men so this is undoubtedly progressive diversity of a kind, but a kind that actually strengthens and exacerbates middle class privilege and has left the working class with even less opportunity in these areas as now everyone in the middle class is competing for these jobs and the job market has become even more competitive.

Identity politics without class politics is simply the fight to extend middle class privilege to all of the middle class regardless of race, creed, colour, gender or sexuality. If you are in the middle class and in one of these oppressed groups, like the female script editors on Eastenders, this is undoubtedly progress of a kind but it has come at a huge cost to the working class, which is 99% of us, because it has accepted the There Is No Alternative to global, free market, capitalism, narrative and the neoliberal idea that there is no such thing as ’society’ only individuals fighting for their own interests. So today the middle class female script editor on Eastenders now has an equal opportunity to be exploited by the BBC as her middle class male counterpart 40 years ago, but no defence against that exploitation because the collective unity of ‘the workers’ has been undermined both purposefully by management and by government but also as an unforeseen side-effect of the neoliberal turn identity politics took after 1979.

Many middle class liberals seem to have taken this further and adopted the powerful Conservative justifying narrative whereby ‘the poor’, whether black, female, LGBT or God forbid, white, male, are a threatening ‘other’ who are by definition an ignorant, ugly and criminally uncivilised group of racist nazis who need to be feared, demonised and excluded. [See Chavs: The Demonisation Of The Working Class by Owen Jones].

I hear this rhetoric on a daily basis from middle class friends with regard to Brexit. In my experience middle class, liberal, ‘Remainers’ are often incapable of a political defence of the EU. Their defence of the EU is often simplistically romantic and/or a snobbish, superior, ad hominem attack on Brexiteers as being ignorant, racist, turkeys’ who voted for Christmas.

I have no illusions about the EU as a progressive institution. It is clearly a global institution of neoliberal capitalism along with the government of the USA, WTO and IMF. However, after extensive research I voted ‘Remain’ because I would prefer to leave the EU on a leftist agenda caused by attempts to  renationalise public services and rebuild the welfare state, than on a right wing agenda of halting immigration and ‘freeing business from regulation’.

No middle class, liberal, Remainer I have ever spoken to (yet) has a coherent argument for staying in the EU apart from ‘you’ll stand more chance of changing it from within’, which demonstrates such ignorance about the reality of the EU’s economic and political institutions that it beggars belief.

But the reason I make this point it is not to rerun arguments about the EU but because the reaction of so many middle class liberals I know to the Brexit vote has been a real eye opener to me about that their class prejudices and really emphasises that we have to bring back a concept of class to the core of UK left politics. We don’t necessarily need the old language but we sure as hell need the concept! A liberal or even worse a neoliberal middle class politics of identity that ignores class is simply playing into the hands of the 1%.




About I Am Not A Number

I Am Not A Number is written by Chris Jury. For 30 years Chris Jury was a TV actor, director and writer best known for playing Eric Catchpole in over 60 episodes of the BBC’s antique classic, Lovejoy, and for directing over 50 episodes of Eastenders. In 2008 he was appointed as the Senior Lecturer in Recorded Media in the School Of Music & Performing Arts at Bath Spa University. He currently presents, Agitpop, a pop & politics radio discussion programme on North Cotswold Community Radio He is currently the Communications Officer for UCU at Bath Spa University and a UCU SW Regional Rep at SWTUC.
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2 Responses to Neoliberal identity politics has failed and has to be replaced with class politics

  1. Bill Malcolm says:

    Best summary of the conundrum we face in the West I’ve read. It mirrors what I see in my own country. Everyone (or group) with some grievance, and they’re usually true grievances all right, seems intent on promoting their agenda to the detriment of anyone else with another grievance. It’s a case of who shouts the loudest might get some politician to listen when said pol is not out lunching with business lobbyists. Your description of how class differences aren’t even discussed, is entirely apt.

    I tend to inhabit so-called “progressive” political forums – our socialist scene is not really alive so it’s second best. Socialism is a “bad” word, that’s how far down the drain we are. Since Trump was elected next door (I’m in Canada) the whining about him overlooks the fact that Clinton was just as nasty, just in different ways. She was a founding member of the US being indispensable and exceptional and should rule the world, The Project for a New American Century. No, her sins are entirely overlooked by “progressives”. So in my circles, regardless of non-existent facts from dolts like that UK spy who leaked some fake Russiagate news, the cheering for Mueller’s “Russia” investigation is loud. Trump is bad, nothing else matters but to get rid of him, when the underlying system operates the same regardless of which Nob is supposedly in power. There is no discussion that the Dems and Repugs are just two sides of the same neoliberal coin. Somehow the New York Times and the Guardian always tell the truth, untainted by their corporate overlords and owners. I regard this attitude as a desperate attempt to cling to the notion that there is still some basic goodness left somewhere in the ruling class. There isn’t but there never was in North America. The press was always entirely co-opted to favour business interests.

    Beginning in the late 1980s here, the administrator managerial types who “run” businesses, universities and civil service bureaucracies, began to feel hard done by. The rich were doing well, so why weren’t their faithful servants making out well too? We had that phenomenon in my company which was privatised with a CEO who had made $180K pa; by 2002, the new CEO was taking home several million. For the last eight years it has been over $5 million. The guy just isn’t that good, except in his own exalted mind. No doubt the same could be said of thousands of other semi-psychopaths who backstabbed their colleagues in their corporate rise to fortune. Cut costs, cut positions, be tough and all we are left with is mediocrity of the first order. Most university lectures are given by the young who are contract paid, and woe betide them if they so much as utter anything critical of business. If they’re really really good little sychophants, why they might one day be actually taken on board as permanent employees to further advance the pathetic system of privilege carved out by this second tier of societal controllers. The BBC seems to be run by these kinds of selfish nitwits; their news reporting I regard as pure propaganda on behalf of the aristocratic elite.

    Whether the elite orchestrated this as directors on corporate boards or university chancelleries doesn’t matter. The rather fake embrace of “differences” and subsequent fights for the limelight on media seems to be tolerated. Day-to-day infighting is encouraged. It puts proles on their back foot while they argue about whose cause is more important. What better situation to have that diverts attention from the fact that working people are being milked for every last penny they have? The Americans are thoroughly brainwashed anyway, having been subject to flag-waving and chest-beating since WW1 by that most horrific US president Woodrow Wilson, who ended previous bi-racialism in their armed forces and enacted Jim Crow laws. Even rotten poor Americans seem not to have the slightest clue, and chest beat with the rest of ’em, believing America is the only land of opportunity in the whole wide world. The notion that they too could one day be wildly rich is all that sustains them. Suckered 100%.

    Other Western societies have been shifted to this individual-first perspective over the last 40 years as you say, and it seems impossible to get back to basics because people haven’t the first clue about history and only argue from current perspectives. Here I am over 70 years old faced by blank expressions when I advocate for a more socialist perspective to embrace all our citizens’ welfare. I am Chief Zog from the depths of the jungle. I blame at core Mrs Thatcher, the mostest Mrs Reginald Bucket ever.

    So thanks for this essay. It encourages me to think that I’m not incorrect or alone.

    • Thanks Bill. Your thoughtful comments are much appreciated. And you are not on your own Dude! Across the Western World politics is alive again. It is nasty and divisive but that is because there are real issues at stake. The Clinton/Blair idea of a ‘third way’, consensus politics, based on social liberalism but fiscal conservatism was an experiment doomed to failure because it sought to paper over the contradictions and instability inherent in capitalism. The Global financial crash of 2007/8 has exposed the failings of capitalism just as the 1929 Wall Street crash did and has resulted in the same political outcomes – populism based in racism, the empowerment of the extreme right and the total inability of the liberal centre to respond… or even understand what is going on!

      But for the first time in my lifetime (I’m 63) in politics everything is to fight for. Bernie Saunders purposefully presented himself as a ‘socialist’ and would have won the Democratic nomination had it not been for the blatant corruption of the Democratic Party establishment. And Saunders could have beaten Trump! This is so typical of the liberal centre. They are so concerned with stopping a shift to the left they inadvertently facilitate a shift to the far-right! But in the US the election of self-confessed democratic socialists such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shows that the left is at least as strong as the alt-right on the coasts and the fight has only just begun.

      Here in the UK Corbyn continues to gain support despite his own MP’s openly seeking to destroy him and the entire mainstream media’s attempt to smear and belittle him (including most disgracefully the BBC). Brexit has thrown a spanner in the works because the issue splits both left and the right and it may be a split too far in terms of Corbyn’s hopes of winning a GE. Still as I say everything to play for now!

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