There appears to be a conflict on the progressive left that is rearing it’s head – between ‘Identity Politics’ and ‘Class Politics’. On the evening of the 6th of February, BBC’s Newsnight programme ran a piece about how on the centenary of the first major extension of the franchise to some women in the UK in 1918, we have almost forgotten that the same bill, the ‘Representation of the People Act’, also extended the franchise to the majority of working-class men, and that this serves to highlight the contemporary conflict between the politics of class and the politics of identity. With Brexit, Trump and the rise of the Authoritarian Right across Europe, this debate has been key to understanding the ‘White backlash’ that propelled Conservative Populists to power. However, I am very wary about this dichotomy, and believe it to be dangerous to pitch these two types of politics as being antithetical, when in fact history has shown us that they are inextricably linked.
I was reminded of the film, ‘Pride’ when listening to the debate on Newsnight. The film tells the story of a LGBT community from London who travel to the mining communities of Wales to show solidarity in the face of Thatcher’s war against the miners in the 1980’s, and raised money for families affected by the 1984 miners strike. Based on true events, the film is an ideal example of where two worlds met in the knowledge that there was more uniting them in the struggle against discrimination and oppression than divided them, and this notion is key to going forward in the future. It is highly damaging to any prospect of progress beyond this point in our social, economic and political history, that there appears to be infighting over the trajectory of the progressive left.
Famous and highly acclaimed African-American poet, writer and civil rights activist, Audre Lorde once said that “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we don’t live single-issue lives”, and this must be the binding message behind a progressive alliance. No movement is alone in its struggle against oppression, and no movement deserves or needs to fight alone in that struggle, because as the late Labour MP Jo Cox famously said in her maiden speech in parliament in 2015, “we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us”. The fight against female oppression is not dissimilar to the fight for the rights and opportunities of the working class. Neither is it dissimilar to the fight for the rights and opportunities of Black and Minority Ethnic communities or the fight for LGBT rights. Why? Because there is one thing that unites their struggles – the perpetrator of their oppression.
In our Patriarchal, Neoconservative, free-market societies, all of those groups are oppressed in their respective ways, but primarily in the lack of opportunities available to them, and the varying levels of discrimination they face. For centuries, those within the corridors of power have made concerted efforts to thwart the progress made by mass social movements in achieving social justice and equality, and that is still prescient to this day. The shockwaves that have rippled across our world in the last 2 years – Brexit, Trump, Le Pen – and continue to shock us today, many are blaming Socialists and Liberals for spending too much of their time worrying about the plight of minority groups like those in the LGBT and BME communities and have therefore lost touch with the concerns of the predominantly white, working-class who make up the majority of our populations, and that is why people like Trump and Farage have been so successful amongst this demographic.
There is certainly a large amount of truth in this, as there clearly is a general shared feeling of being ‘left behind’ in these communities, especially those that used to be thriving industrial centres and vibrant mining towns where work was secure, before Thatcher and the Neo-Liberal Right set about decimating these working-class heartlands in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Since then, those who live in these communities and others, have only got poorer whilst the wealthiest 1% get richer, so of course it is almost inevitable that authoritarian populism would rise again, and specifically flourish within these communities. And liberalism, I do believe, is at fault. Liberals, Social Democrats and ‘Big Society’, socially liberally, Conservative moderates have sought to find a ‘middle way’ between unfettered free-market capitalism and socialism, but at what cost? For years, the views of the far-left and right have been ignored, labelled as too ‘radical’ and ‘extremist’ and swept under the rug, so of course Brexit and Trump were a surprise. Suddenly the concerns of the working classes – whether that be poor economic opportunity or political disillusionment and disengagement, have suddenly found their outlet through acts such as voting to leave the EU and electing populists such as Trump, to the dismay of liberals in cosmopolitan areas.
But (and this is a big ‘but’) – the poor economic and social standing of the white working class hasn’t been brought about by advances in the LGBT or BME communities, and their economic and social standing. The white working class hasn’t been ignored because Liberals are focusing too heavily on the concerns of minority groups, it just doesn’t and hasn’t worked like that. Because if you hadn’t realised, all of these groups (including the white working class), still face varying degrees of discrimination and oppression in their every-day lives. Women, BME people, LGBT people, disabled people and others are still fighting for their rights, liberties and equal treatment to this day, and that fight is nowhere near done, just as the fight for class equality and social justice is nowhere near done.
The overarching question we should be asking ourselves is why people assume class and identity politics are different, and conflicting? Its a false dichotomy, and the sooner we begin to see these splinter-movements as being branches of one larger social movement, the faster progress can be made in advancing equality across as broad an intersection of society as possible. Clearly, different groups have different concerns and differing experiences which make them unique in their own way, but why should that stop us acting as a united front in the fight against any form of oppression? It shouldn’t, and those who think it should only serve to damage the prospect of change in the near future.
Class and ‘identity’ politics are clearly linked, as more often than not the identity of an individual or a group of individuals is wholly impacted by their class, and in the ruthless capitalist societies we live in, we must begin to see these struggles through more than one lens. Intersectionality must be at the forefront of our common struggle against discrimination, against hatred and against oppression in all spheres of our lives, and the sooner we begin to unite around these common goals, the better.