By James Bloodworth
The rise of identity politics means that the personal is commonly understood to be political. Being a radical today relates as much to who you are as to what you think. Class struggle, at one time the raison d’être of the socialist movement, has been usurped on the left by the personal grievances of women, gays and ethnic minorities.
Identity politics was an understandable response to some of the injustices of the twentieth century. Despite the loftiness of much left-wing rhetoric, sexism, racism and homophobia have never successfully been eliminated from socialist politics for the simple reason that these movements reflect the societies in which they were conceived. It was often made apparent to women in particular that the priorities for leftists lay strictly within the class framework.
It would be wrong to imply that today this dynamic has been turned on its head. One can still find sexism, racism and homophobia on the left as easily as one can find it in wider society. In an article for Slate about the US Democratic primaries, Michelle Goldberg wrote in late 2015 about a cultural phenomenon of so-called 'Bernie Bros' – male supporters of US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders who 'seem to believe that their class politics exempt them from taking sexism seriously'.
Nor is 21st-century Britain a meritocratic utopia for women and ethnic and sexual minorities. A gender pay gap still exists, even if there is a debate to be had over its size. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, there is also now greater disproportionality in the number of black people in prisons in the UK than in the US. Despite the state's recognition of gay marriage, there also remain areas of Britain – and particularly within minority communities – where being openly gay is to risk physical injury or even death.
That said, discernible progress is being made in terms of liberal equality. Inequalities based around identity are narrowing but economic inequality is growing and with it so is class inequality. Paradoxically, it is the latter which is increasingly ignored.
Ultimately, though, the left should seek to move beyond identity politics for the simple reason that it is compatible with neo-liberal economics. Identity politics can co-exist with the corporate boss who makes more money in a week than his cleaner takes home in a year – as long as the chances of being the boss are assigned proportionally among different ethnic groups, sexualities and genders. Individual winners and losers remain as remote from each other as ever; they are simply sorted in direct proportion to their numbers in society. The ultimate aim of identity politics is to 'tune up' the elite rather than to abolish it.
By emphasising difference over commonality, identity politics also makes it harder for the left to establish a mass politics based around shared economic interests. By seeking constantly to divide people up into smaller and smaller groups, identity politics forestalls the creation of a sense of unity around issues of economic justice. And because it is obsessed with difference, the divisions are potentially endless.
An assumption that white men invariably occupy an economically privileged position seems to be another unfortunate assumption among those pushing for greater diversity in the professions. Most equality drives today explicitly exclude class. White males are certainly over-represented in many of the most prestigious professions in both Britain and the United States. But this is an over-representation of a very particular class of white male. White men from the working class are not – by a long stretch – ubiquitous in the elite. In fact, they encounter economic hurdles at least as difficult to surmount as the barriers of gender and racial equality faced by their contemporaries.
Recent research by Professor Mike Savage of the LSE uncovered evidence of a social class pay gap comparable to the gender pay gap. Those from the most elite backgrounds were often paid as much as 25% more than those from more modest backgrounds for doing the same work. There is a danger that, in excluding any recognition of class from the processes enacted to tackle entrenched racial and gender privilege, working class people who fail to tick the correct boxes could be left even further behind.
One needn't single out boys in order to understand how the benefits of liberal identity politics are not being distributed equally. For many years, a lot more men than women went to university. Things have thankfully changed since then. By the late 1980s, young men and women went to university in roughly equal numbers. During that decade, the proportion of middle class women going to university nearly tripled, from six per cent to 15%. Yet during the same period, the proportion of women from the lowest 20% of the income scale going to university failed to increase at all – it actually remained flat at six per cent.
For the class-blind proponents of liberal identity politics, gender equality in the university admissions process had been achieved. Yet despite this ostensible victory, the odds of going to university remained as firmly stacked as ever against working-class women – not only on the basis of their gender, but on the basis of the class they were born into.
As well as ignoring the disadvantages accrued from being working class, liberal identity politics throws up other dilemmas. One of these is the common assumption that ethnic and gender groups form a homogeneous bloc. This is reflected in commonly espoused commentary about a supposed 'black community' or 'gay community', or in the implied notion that female voters should automatically pick female politicians at the ballot box. Essentialism of this sort erroneously ascribes homogeneity to what in reality are divergent groups with different interests. As should be fairly obvious, beyond the extremes, entire populations are not reducible to a single viewpoint. Beyond an opposition to racism, an unemployed black twenty-something living in Peckham does not share the same interests as a British-Indian property magnate from Manchester.
Class politics must certainly evolve with the times – at the very least it should take account of the legitimate grievances of people who feel marginalised for reasons other than their class. However, liberal identity politics is increasingly a zero-sum game in which white men must invariably lose out so that women, ethnic minorities and LGBT individuals can prosper. With no account for the impact of class, this will simply give rise to another injustice, or at the very least, compound an existing one.
James Bloodworth is the author of The Myth of Meritocracy
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