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%.