Identity politics is the antithesis of class politics: Women, class, and oppression
Professor Mary Davis is a historian who writes, broadcast and lectures widely on women’s history, labour history, imperialism, and racism. Her books include the edited volume Class and Gender in British Labour History: Renewing the Debate (or Starting It?) (Talgarth: Merlin Press, 2011).
Cross-posted from The Full Brexit
Labour’s disastrous performance in the general election seems light years away. So does the once apparently accepted analysis of the reasons for the colossal Tory victory. The ostensible and rarely challenged argument within the labour movement at the time went something like this: Labour lost its traditional working-class support within its “heartlands” because it failed to support Brexit. Now, with the election of a new Labour leader, even this once-accepted contention has been jettisoned. While it is undeniably true that Brexit played a part in Labour’s defeat in 2019, this is only part of the picture. The deeper underlying reason, stated simply, is that Labour has deserted working-class voters because over the last 30 plus years it has abandoned any notion of class politics. Unfortunately (and strangely), this is true of all shades of Labour opinion – from right-wing Blairite modernisers to left-wing “Corbyinistas” and all hues of moderates in between. The fudge over Brexit is a symbol but not the cause of Labour’s problems. Likewise, the character or capability of an individual leader is not the cause of Labour’s failure.
Labour has been losing votes in its so-called heartlands for many years. Overall, during the party’s 13 years in power it lost five million votes. In the Blair landslide of 1997, 13.5m people voted Labour. By 2010 the figure was down to 8.6m. In the 10 years between 2005 and 2015, the party’s share of the vote in some of the “red wall” constituencies declined dramatically. For example, the vote fell by 16 percentage points in Hartlepool, 14 points in Bolsover, 12 in Sedgefield, 10 in Don Valley and Workington, and 9 in Wrexham and Bishop Auckland. It was neither Brexit nor Corbyn’s leadership that caused Labour’s crisis. That crisis had been brewing for some years. It was fuelled by New Labour’s support for neoliberalism and globalisation. For workers, the negative consequence of Labour’s version of capitalist economic policy proved impervious to any form of attempted liberal mitigation. In fact, New Labour’s tinkering with it fostered the dangerous illusion that it could be reformed and that somehow the EU would help to soften the blow.
Labour’s betrayal of the miners during the 1984-5 strike was followed by its unwillingness to tackle the impact of de-industrialisation forced on Britain by a combination of Thatcherism, EU policies and the domination of finance capital. While the metropolitan elite remained largely immune from the disasters of neoliberalism and subsequent state driven austerity, the impact on workers was and remains dire. Massive job losses in what were once Britain’s staple industries, combined with privatisation and the collapse of social provision has been most severely felt in working class areas. In other words, despite the liberal equality mantra, poverty, inequality, deprivation and unemployment persists, and its impact is class-based. To be able to eject Boris Johnson from Downing Street, Labour, under Corbyn, needed to reverse its decline in its heartlands. Instead, its political strategy, despite a manifesto which promised everything, achieved precisely the opposite. It drove even more traditional Labour supporters away from the party. This much was partially acknowledged in December 2019, but now seems to have been forgotten.
The defeat raises at least two questions. Why was it possible that a manifesto which promised to deliver for the many and not the few, failed to resonate with “the many”? Also, we must ask whether Labour has learned any lessons from its defeat. Memory loss notwithstanding, it is abundantly clear that the party has learned nothing, despite a change in its leadership. In fact, the new incumbent, Keir Starmer, as the author of Labour’s Remain position, has exacerbated Labour’s existential crisis by his persistent unwillingness to accept the clear and incontrovertible popular support for Brexit. But this is only part of the problem. The reason Labour has continued to lose the support of “the many” – the working class – is primarily because it has redefined the “many” in the terms of identity politics; a form of politics which is the polar opposite of class politics.
The epithet “woke” is often incorrectly used to describe this phenomenon. However, such a term fails to do justice to the gravity of the political and cultural shift now infecting society. Class politics is based on an understanding that there is a conflict between labour and capital in which those who sell their labour power for a wage are exploited by those who buy it. This is central to the capitalist mode of production. But this is not the concern of identity politics. The version of identity politics which is most damaging steps beyond the collective identity of historically-marginalised sections of the population and which has, in the twentieth century, given rise to important liberation movements, chiefly of women, black people, gays and lesbians. But identity politics turns its back on such collective movements for social change. It renounces class and collectivism in favour of individual self-identity. It has traversed the boundaries of wacky theories to become a mainstream narrative which has permeated all aspects of civil society including the labour movement and especially the Labour Party.
How did this happen? The attempt to separate liberationist group identity from social class began thirty years ago with the theory of intersectionality. This theory argues that people are composed of multiple identities which include, race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, class, sexual orientation, age, disability, and so on. Such identities, it is claimed, intersect to create a whole which is different and far more complex than each of its component parts. So far, so good. But the problem is that intersectionality relegates class to a mere aspect of identity, defining it as just another cultural construct rather than the most significant determining force of an individual’s position in and experience of capitalist social relations. Stripping its adherents of a systematic understanding of capitalism, intersectionality makes it impossible to understand the social sources and significance of the very identities it celebrates, and it undermines the possibility of collective struggle against the system which fosters discrimination, division and exploitation: capitalism. Without examining the detail of intersectionality theory, suffice it to say that its de-classed confusion has morphed from the now semi-ostracised politics of the old liberationism into a contemporary variant of identity politics, which has its absurd and fundamentally neoliberal conclusion: self-identity, in which identities are reduced to subjective choices.
Unsurprisingly, both intersectionality and self-identity impact not only on class analysis, but on feminist theory. Indeed, intersectionality was initially formulated in 1989 as a critique of the failure of feminism to theorise race. From there, intersectionality burgeoned to absorb all discriminated groups, assigning equal status to all forms of oppression and discrimination. It invited individuals to construct their own identities from an amalgam of categories. Whereas intersectionality was predicated upon a critique of feminism, the newest form of identity politics – gender self-identity – explicitly rejects feminism. It goes further by even questioning the commonly understood categories of male and female, and hence doubting the material fact of biological sex itself.
So, what has this meant for the Labour Party? The impact is two-fold. Firstly, intersectionality has been absorbed into its body politic with the result that class, as a mere aspect of identity, competes unsuccessfully against more visible multi-dimensional signifiers of identity, such as gender, ethnicity, age or sexuality. This, as we have seen, has already had disastrous consequences for Labour’s electability. Secondly, the newer movement for gender self-identity has thrown an unguided missile into the centuries-old movement for women’s rights in which the ideological construct of gender has usurped the material reality of biological sex. That Labour has accepted this mantra is evidenced by the recent leadership campaign in which the candidates were urged to accept the twelve pledges produced by the newly formed Labour campaign for trans rights. These pledges include committing the Labour Party to accepting “Trans people as their self-declared gender”, and that “trans women are women, trans men are men, and non-binary people are non-binary”. Supporters of these pledges argue that the Labour Party must “Organise and fight against transphobic organisations such as Woman’s Place UK, LGB Alliance and other trans-exclusionist hate groups… [and] Support the expulsion from the Labour Party of those who express bigoted, transphobic views”. Most of the leadership candidates accepted the pledges or a variant of them – hardly surprising given that most of them, reflecting mainstream ideology, are Labour policy anyway. However, the demand to expel those who campaign for women’s rights through their support of such organisations as Women’s Place UK or the LGB Alliance, breaks new ground. By effectively turning its back on women, half of the population, the Labour Party will be propelled into an uncharted and potentially disastrous course.
This should be a cause for concern. The fact that it is not is alarming for two reasons. Firstly, identity politics is the antithesis of class politics and its theory and practice should induce great anxiety in the labour movement, whose very foundation was rooted in working-class struggle. Secondly, the gender identity issue is of particular concern for women because it conflates biological sex and gender, and wilfully and errantly fails to understand women’s oppression. Trans people (and many other groups) experience intolerance and discrimination but this is not same as oppression. Discrimination itself is not a function of class society even though it is an almost inevitable by-product of the inherent inequalities within it. Women, however, are oppressed, and the basis of such oppression is class exploitation. Oppression, although it may take the form of discriminating against the oppressed, occupies a unique relationship within class society. It is the most important means of maintaining the class relations which support class exploitation and, as such, oppression is a function of class society as well as being a product of it. This is because oppression, unlike discrimination, is linked materially to the process of class exploitation as well as operating at a “superstructural” level through oppressive ideologies which serve to maintain class rule by dividing the exploited. This is why it is impossible to understand women’s oppression without understanding varying forms of exploitation in class society – capitalism in particular. In this way, Labour’s betrayal of women is linked to the betrayal of the working class. This is what Labour needs to understand before it’s too late.