Class Politics Versus Identity Politics

I’ve just put this post up at Cedar Lounge Revolution, but I’m sticking it up here too.

Interesting article from the current London Review of Books by Walter Benn Michaels, a professor of literature at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The article touches on some of the themes raised in this recent piece I wrote on the necessity for the left to concentrate on economic issues, specifically the failure of identity politics to address the fundamental importance in society of economic relations. The flavour of it may be guessed by the fact that Michaels has written a book entitled The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality (which I am planning to order for myself in the near future).

Michaels starts by talking about how over the last forty years sexism, racism, and homophobia have declined in America, and obviously acknowledges this as a good thing. And then there is the ‘But’. And it is a big ‘But’.

But it would be a mistake to think that because the US is a less racist, sexist and homophobic society, it is a more equal society. In fact, in certain crucial ways it is more unequal than it was 40 years ago. No group dedicated to ending economic inequality would be thinking today about declaring victory and going home. In 1969, the top quintile of American wage-earners made 43 per cent of all the money earned in the US; the bottom quintile made 4.1 per cent. In 2007, the top quintile made 49.7 per cent; the bottom quintile 3.4.

He goes on to make another important point:

More generally, even if we succeeded completely in eliminating the effects of racism and sexism, we would not thereby have made any progress towards economic equality. A society in which white people were proportionately represented in the bottom quintile (and black people proportionately represented in the top quintile) would not be more equal; it would be exactly as unequal. It would not be more just; it would be proportionately unjust.

Michaels believes that the increasing intolerance for racism, sexism and homophobia is in accordance with the key ideas of neo-liberalism – to put it crudely, when Regan and co and later Bush and his cohorts argued for spreading democracy it wasn’t entirely a front for economic imperatives, but a genuine part of their world view, wherein legal equality and a heavily skewered version of meritocracy were key components of their ideal socieities. But, Michaels points out, just as it is intolerant of discrimination on grounds of gender, race or sexuality, so neoliberalism increases the tolerance of economic inequality.

Hence the extraordinary advances in the battle against discrimination, and hence also its limits as a contribution to any left-wing politics.

Couldn’t (and didn’t) put it any better myself. Michaels swiftly outdoes himself though.

But a diversified elite is not made any the less elite by its diversity and, as a response to the demand for equality, far from being left-wing politics, it is right-wing politics.

Exactly. Hence the facility with which so many seeming radicals obsessed with identity have shifted quickly into the realms of vacuous New Labour politics, if not further to the right.

Michaels singles out the US universities as an example of the inadequacies of identity politics, whereby the race for diversity covers up the failure to address economic inequality. In the UK, the same function is performed by Oxbridge admitting state school pupils whose social and economic background is by and large the same as those of their public school cohorts. In Harvard, which I think takes 40% legacy students (other colleges take more and won’t even reveal the figures), 9% of students are black – but only 7% are poor. Michaels uses the outrage over the recent arrest of Professor Gates in Harvard as indicative of the fact that anti-racism and anti-discrimination enables the elite to feel better about the possession of its wealth – if discrimination against peple is removed, then their wealth is because of their talent, not structural inequality. And the poor deserve to be poor.

in a society like Britain, whose GINI coefficient – the standard measure of income inequality – is the highest in the EU, the ambition to eliminate racial disparities rather than income inequality itself functions as a form of legitimation rather than as a critique.

I’d say that in Britain gender and sexuality would be more important than class, but the point holds.

Michaels’ article is itself a review of a report from January 2009 from the Runnymeade Trust, Who Cares about the White Working Class? The introduction by the report’s editor begins with the subtitle ‘Class Re-emerges in Political Discourse’. Reintroduced, apparently, by Harriet Harman of all people, in a speech to the TUC conference in September 2008. The report points out that when it has suited them, politicians and pressmen who object to the use of class as a political term when it smacks of increasing equality have expressed a great desire to ensure that the white working class is not left behind when they might support the causes of the xenophobic right. The introduction ends with the hope that it will

initiate a dialogue to ensure that a re-emergence of class onto the political agenda will not feed divisions, but promote equality for all.

And here we need to return to Michaels, to see how in the absence of clear class politics, the language of class can obfuscate rather than elucidate the challenges for the left.

In the event, however, what Who Cares about the White Working Class? actually provides is less an alternative to neoliberal multiculturalism than an extension and ingenious refinement of it. Those writing in this collection understand the ‘re-emergence of class’ not as a function of the increasing injustice of class (when Thatcher took office, the GINI score was 0.25; now it’s 0.36, the highest the UK has ever recorded) but as a function of the increasing injustice of ‘classism’. What outrages them, in other words, is not the fact of class difference but the ‘scorn’ and ‘contempt’ with which the lower class is treated.

Michaels highlights a dangerous tendency in what he calls ‘left neoliberalism’, whereby being working class is like being a member of an ethnic group, and that all that is needed is to treat them with respect rather than addressing the injustice that workers suffer.

The great virtue of this debate is that on both sides inequality gets turned into a stigma. That is, once you start redefining the problem of class difference as the problem of class prejudice – once you complete the transformation of race, gender and class into racism, sexism and classism – you no longer have to worry about the redistribution of wealth. You can just fight over whether poor people should be treated with contempt or respect. And while, in human terms, respect seems the right way to go, politically it’s just as empty as contempt.

Michaels points out how race in the US has functioned similarly to sectarian identity in Ireland. Poor whites have been encouraged to identity with the white elite, while poor racial minorities have been encouraged to identify with rich people of similar colour, and see their wealth as somehow reflecting well on them. Anyone familiar with Daniel O’Connell’s selling out of the forty-shilling freeholders, never mind the history of Northern Ireland, will recognise this pattern. At the same time, anti-discrimination in Michaels’ argument seeks to form a sense of solidarity between the liberal white academic and the African-American woman who cleans his office for a tenth of his salary. She is supposed to recognise that he values her as a person, and her culture as equal. And thus forget about the income disparity. Michaels doubts that she does, and he may well be right. But the problem for the left is that far too many people do buy into the myths of an unequal society. Again, Northern Ireland gives the perfect example.

So how can we apply Michaels’ argument to our own situation? Ireland is a changing society, with growing diversity in colour and culture among its inhabitants. That brings challenges, which are often met by placing people into pre-determined boxes, especially in NI, where we remain Protestant Atheists and Catholic Atheists in the census. And we must meet those challenges. And sections of the broad left are doing so. One of the issues on which trade unions have been active in the north of late is in reaching out to immigrant communities, and there is a burgeoning NGO sector (some of it state-funded) dealing with these communities. Several recent Workers’ Party Ard Fheiseanna have been addressed by representatives from immigrant communities too. But whereas The Workers’ Party maintains its focus very clearly on class, the same cannot be said for everybody. While Ireland changes and throws up new situations, the Left must place class at the centre of all it does, including issues surrounding immigrant communities and racism. We cannot allow ourselves to be sucked into the vacuous equality-speak of what Michaels terms the left neo-liberals. A case in point would be the complete mess that has been made of the NI Human Rights Bill by the Human Rights Commission, where at times it seems every interest group has been included to the detriment of the overall goal of providing a strong, simple, and clear Bill of Rights. As the diversity of Irish society grows, we must avoid the temptation to fall into the identity politics trap, as has happened so many before. Class is the fundamental division of society. We know that. We must remember it. And we must communicate that message at all opportunities.


5 Responses to “Class Politics Versus Identity Politics”

  1. Jenny Muir Says:

    I’ve ordered this book, and like the concept of ‘left’ neoliberalism although I suspect I may be accused of it myself sometimes. I saw the rise of identity politics in London in the 1980s and wonder if that happened because the Left in GB felt so powerless against Thatcher, especially after the 1987 election.

    I think the real challenge is to develop class politics that also recognises other forms of discrimination and how they are used within capitalism. A lot of people whose politics is based solely on identity don’t like to talk about economics, perhaps because it would show that they are not at the bottom of the pile after all.

    Applying all this to NI is, of course, with embedded sectarianism added to the mix. Your example of the Bill of Rights is interesting, I would also add the whole ‘community relations’ shebang, which to my knowledge has NEVER addressed class divisions and comes over a lot of the time as very patronising.

  2. Garibaldy Says:

    Hi Jenny,

    The book does look great, and I’ll be ordering it myself. Interesting what you say about feeling powerless against Thatcher. I suspect there’s a lot in that. Having said that though, I also think that a lot of the identity politics stems from the generation of 1968. They rejected traditional forms of political and economic struggle in favour of cultural politics, possibly because a lot of their social backgrounds gave them little experience of or interest in the economic questions.

    I agree with your point about economics meaning that they would have to face up to their lack of true victimhood. As you say, unfortunately NI is identity politics taken to its logical extreme. I’d agree with you aout the community relations sector. There are people there doing a lot of good work, but at the same time there is a refusal to address questions of class. Frankly, this is because a lot of the people involved don’t want to rock the quango boat.

  3. Justin Says:

    There is continued discussion of the article by Benn Michaels over on Louis Proyect’s blog and Lenin’s Tomb. Needless to say that both writers are extremely critical of Benn Michaels. Richard Seymour (who goes under the modest soubriquet of ‘Lenin’) says at the end of his piece that there’s more to say but Benn Michaels’ article has made him too angry to continue. Oh dear.

  4. Garibaldy Says:

    Thanks for those links Justin.

    Like yourself, I think they have things arse about face, and are misreprsenting Michaels.

  5. What does it mean to be a socialist party in the 21st century? The Future of the CPUSA « Garibaldy Blog Says:

    […] come to another point that will cause concern for many within the CP. This is my old hobby horse of class politics versus identity politics. Issues of gender and racial discrimination have obviously been central to the CP USA’s […]

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