Attacks on the working class are coming from all sides and the policies of neo-liberal governments wished for by capitalist institutions and businesses have had the effect of eroding common solidarity so that we can now appear to have less in common than what divides us.
Against this backdrop the growing irrelevance and degeneracy of much of the left is scarcely surprising. Many of the old institutions such as unions have become increasingly irrelevant or are seen to represent narrow sectional interests (such as public sector workers etc) without anything being done to promote links between them. The growth in precarious zero-hour contracts and self-employment, and to some extent in traditionally middle class professions whose workers are better off (and may there feel more able to defend their pay and conditions) the growth in home working and “flexible hours” help to stop a sense of solidarity between work mates. You can see it every day – the public sector against the private sector, permanent staff against temporary staff, people in work against people on the dole, people on the dole against people in work for being able to be in work, people on the different kinds of benefits resenting each other etc.
The group which has talked about this stuff quite a bit and come up with some quite interesting conclusions has been the IWCA or “independent working class association” , which grew out of Red Action. I definitely don’t agree with all their conclusions but when they talk about how the brutality of neo-liberal capitalism leads workers to be viewed as simple economic units who should “follow the work” regardless of family or community commitments and decades of these neo-liberalist policies have led to an increasingly individualised consciousness of “every man for himself”.
I do not think that this attempt at “divide and rule” has succeeded as much as is the aim or the extent that some disillusioned lefties fear. I have a lot of faith in human nature and I think that most people are sensible enough to see these attempts for what they are and I don’t generally believe the idea of “sheeple” brainwashed by government propaganda. However the decades of neo-liberal atomisation have had an affect on the political landscape of society, as the idea of collective struggle is forced into the background, especially in the world of student politics (although fortunately not that much outside it) where the phenomena I’m going to describe are prominent
So in this void what do we get? We get … nothing. Increasingly identity politics have come to the fore and you get the phenomenon of people trying to tie each other and themselves into knots over how “oppressed” they are. This phenomenon is currently largely in student politics but obviously the careerist slime of the NUS (that’s the national students’ union, who in many universities are in bed with the management, or pretty much part of it) who promote this stuff, aim to make a career for themselves in the real world. It is tied in with a individualist apolitical view of the world without an “end-game” on how they want to see things change and promoted by wannabe student politicians who have the time to sit around navel gazing about their identity rather than do anything about any of the issues they purportedly care about. Instead of the idea of defending terms and conditions and of linking struggles between students and university staff and the wider community you get the whole idea of a “platform of intersectionality” where people basically try and get elected in meaningless student elections which hardly anyone votes in anyway (or at least they didn’t when I was a student) based on their identity – based on how oppressed they are (or say they are – many of the people promoting this stuff, especially in activist circles are white and upper-middle class anyway).
My forays into this weird world have been less than pleasant despite the fact that the people promoting this form of identity politics are supposedly all about tackling oppression. To tackle oppression you have to tackle the CAUSES of it and the causes are economic. These people who tie themselves in knots over a theory with no application to the real world have no interests in fighting the real cause of racism and sexism which is economic, they would prefer to “call out” people and get them to “step up and step back” and similar interminable jargon. Perhaps because their theory allows them to “check their privilege” on some superficial level by wondering what terminology they’re using, or more likely lecture people about checking theirs.
The architects of these theories have never really checked their privilege – the privilege which allows them to escape thinking about the most fundamental “oppression” of all but one which can be and is continually being fought back against and shaping society, instead they reduce the class system to one “oppression” among many and turn the relations between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie into “classism”. Class conflict is about much more than oppression, about hurt feelings, it governs the entire structure of society. People are treated as victims who are just oppressed – which is exactly what the practical results of such a theory will be, where people are encouraged to think of themselves as individuals and encouraged to think about what divides them against other people who are actually frequently in similar positions, rather than any notion of a common struggle taking place.
It is important to recognise that not everyone is in the same position – this is one of the problems with “the left” – that they frequently ignore the differences between the people they try to represent. That doesn’t however mean that a theory that aims to emphasise those differences to such an extent that it completely ignores the structure of society and the structures which make those differences matter can be a good thing.
Rather than being just a feeling or just another spoke on the “wheel of oppression” class conflicts are the fundamental thing that governs economic relations and affects every single aspect of every single person’s life on the planet, how long you will live, what your health will be like, whether you can own property, whether you have any individual control over your work and so on and so on. It’s just another identity – and plainly different “identities” are just as important.
Probably one of the main reasons I am a marxist, although I haven’t always been, is because I was brought up with the idea of being opposed to racism and fascism. Before I knew anything about politics I knew that half my family were Jews and that I hated fascists, I didnt know what they were really but I hated them. Later on I experienced anti-semitism and also I had a shit load of homophobic abuse at my school when I decided to come out.
Another idea I want to address is the idea that for example, white people, men etc necessarily benefit from racism, sexism, etc. Some of them undoubtedly do but personally I think that this stuff actually hurts everyone. When I was younger i was severely bullied for being gay, now that I am in a straight relationship does that mean that I benefit from anyone being homophobic? Of course not, it’s taken me years to get over this stuff, and a lot of my mental health problems I think originate in that period. Ultimately the brutalising effect that the acceptance of prejudice has in society will only mean that the real privileges of those at the top are entrenched. And at the end of the day we are all responsible for each other. An injury to one is an injury to all, rather than benefiting from prejudice everyone is harmed from it either immediately through the stress and worry it causes to friends and family members or in the long term effects on the ability of people to defend their own rights and living standards and those of others.
Here is another example – I lived in Moldova for a bit, it’s a country where there is quite a lot of sexism, a high level of domestic violence and street harassment which is hardly reported to the police. There is also a high level of racism and anti-semitism and don’t even think about trying to say you are gay. But yet the average white christian straight man is not waking up every day and having a great time. You only have to look at the queues I saw there a few years ago by embassies of people desperate to leave the country from economic reasons or the fact that there are workers there on building sites working without any protective clothing or nothing, where many people work very long hours and can hardly make ends meet and the high levels of unemployment and alcohol abuse, frequent periods without electricity and frequently crumbling infrastructure. Nobody could say the Moldovan working class are privileged. It is one of the poorest countries in Europe, and these poor conditions have undoubtedly helped to create this type of atmosphere. while there I saw people begging in the street with bleeding limbs and legs swollen to several times their original size. The failure of Stalinism and then neo liberal “shock therapy” capitalism has created a climate where life is cheap and some people inevitably develop a lack of empathy, and there are no shortage of politicians willing to exploit that.
I honestly can’t see the average person there benefiting from this, even if they do hold some prejudiced attitudes. And the majority of people there are not prejudiced really and do not benefit from the economic situation. They are good people and there is still a huge amount of collective solidarity and friends and neighbours helping each other out etc just as there is here.
I am now in a straight relationship with a man but I have also experienced various sexist bullshit (although its pretty low down on the scheme of things, including the assumption that I can’t be a woman and must be a man because I dont agree with this stuff). Well guess what Ellen Meiskins Wood wrote a fantastic book about the retreat from class and the critique of identity politics and she is a woman.
If I always go on about her, I’m sorry, but in a world of left wing politics that’s notoriously known for being a “sausage fest” it was such an amazing thing to read such a strong and engaging writer write a book with such an unflinching and readable analysis which was so thorough and it does make you feel better about being a woman and agreeing with Marxist criticisms of these theories. That does not mean that a class analysis can be used to excuse thinly veiled prejudice and rape apologism as it did with the SWP, it can’t by anyone with an ounce of integrity, but the whole point of this stuff is to transform society for everyone.
The world is not some sort of “oppression olympics” we have collective power through a common struggle to change society, rather than splitting into more and more identity groups all competing with each other to be the most victimised. I have seen it for myself and I honestly believe that if people are able to work together to win some sort of victory for themselves and each other whether it’s through a strike, a struggle against an abusive landlord or something else, it will help to break down prejudices, and it does.