Identity At The Expense Of Class Is Neither Just Nor Wise


From top: Minister for Health Simon Harris (centre) and Fine Gael members at this year’s Dublin Gay Pride Parade; Bryan Wall

In The Road to Wigan Pier George Orwell wrote that “having to do everything at other people’s convenience” is an “inherent” part of being working class. To know that you are less or not equal to someone else. That you do not count and are not worthy of being counted.

The working class do not act, they are “acted upon”, he wrote, being forced “down into a passive role.” A bourgeois person, on the other hand, has no such forces acting upon them or obstructions in their way.  Such a person “goes through life with some expectation of getting what he wants.”

Although this is somewhat hyperbolic, Orwell would know of such things, himself being of middle class/petite bourgeois origin and having had the education to prove it. He wrote that the attitude of the middle and upper classes towards the working class is one of “sniggering superiority punctuated by bursts of vicious hatred.”

The Road to Wigan Pier is arguably Orwell’s best work. He went to the coal mining towns of the north of England and not only described the conditions and people he saw there, but lived in them and worked with them.

Its appeal is that he was forthright in his descriptions which are equal parts horrifying and uplifting; the former given the squalor and filth that the miners and their families were forced to live in and the latter given the kindness he was shown and solidarity he experienced from those he lived and worked with.

Orwell is long dead but the conditions he described are still with us. The sense of hopelessness is too. The working class, having long been abandoned by the parts of the Left, have fallen down the memory hole. Issues other than class emancipation have taken the lead.

Over the last four decades, but particularly in the last two, identity politics has increasingly become the banner under which many on the Left have campaigned and marched.

What happened? How did class politics become passé?

One possible explanation is the increase in those attending third level institutions over the last few decades. In Ireland, according to the HEA. (Higher Education Authority), the number of students in the country stood at 225,628 for the 2016/17 academic year. The HEA. also reported that this translated into an increase of “10% over the last five years” alone.

In 2016 the OECD. reported that 52% of Irish people between the ages of 25 and 34 had a third level education versus the OECD. average of 42%. In terms of the socio-economic backgrounds of those attending third level, only 5.5% and 5.6% of were from “Semi-Skilled and Unskilled” categories respectively. By comparison, 18.3% were from the “Employers and Managers” category.

A further 11.2% came from the “Higher Professionals” category. What this tells us is that despite the introduction of free third level education in Ireland — although it is not so free any longer — it remains an arena of the middle and upper classes.

Simply put, we have a highly, and traditionally, educated middle and upper class in Ireland.

Apart from being troublesome in and of themselves in terms of class inequality, these statistics also imply another important issue when it comes to politics.

As has been noted in academic studies, “[O]ne of the most consistently documented relationships in the field of political behavior is the close association between educational attainment and political participation.”

The same people are also “significantly more likely to engage in forms of direct action, such as demonstrations and petitions.”

What this means, then, is that the middle and upper classes are going to study in third level institutions in greater numbers than others, and in turn are more politically active and engaged. Statistics are quite clear on this.

With all of this in mind is it probable that those who acquired such levels of education are likely to question the very system that enabled them to attain, and take political advantage of, their education in the first place?

An answer is not needed as the rise of identity politics at the expense of issues of class and capitalist exploitation is proof enough of the above.

Political activity, in general, is the realm of the middle-and upper-class then. This goes some of the way to explaining why identity politics has become the linchpin of many protests movements over the last few decades.

These days the annual Pride parades have become devoid of any radicalism that their origins suggest. Instead we see corporations line out in demonstration of their professed, and optically profitable, stance in favour of LGBT. rights; likewise for various political parties who not only want to attain office, but stay in it.

Political parties who gut the funding for education, health, and housing will be seen represented by their lackeys at the parades; an attempt to hide the former with the latter demonstration of their putative commitment to equality.

Another, and more likely, possible reason is the influence of party politics where identity issues are seen as easy fixes relative to the wholesale refashioning of society and/or revolution along more egalitarian lines which would involve some form of decapitalising. Identity politics means extending rights to those who may not have had them in the past.

Class politics, on the other hand, demand that society itself is refashioned. All things considered and with all of the possible outcomes weighed up, which is the easier win: Extending rights that already exist to those who have historically had theirs denied to them, or a dismantling of the entire system of exploitation in which people are expendable, unworthy and at times invisible according to the vagaries of the neo-liberal market system?

Any person who questions the idea that this dominance of identity politics may be harmful towards the wider class-based egalitarian movements is taking a substantial risk. There is a large possibility that the identity politics commissars will not be pleased and will duly do their best to ensure that said critic or commentator knows their place in the scheme of things.

Last year, one Irish author and researcher found this out after they had their article questioning the effectiveness of identity politics published in The Irish Times.

They were quickly met with accusations of using the same arguments that alt-right and M.R.A. (Men’s Rights Activists) groups use, with no evidence to show for this accusation.

The author of the piece in The Irish Times has since had attempts to have their appearances at university events and literature festivals blocked because of what they wrote.

Reactions like this only prove the point made by social theorist Nancy Fraser nearly twenty years ago in an article related to this issue.

She wrote that “questions of recognition [i.e., identity] are serving less to supplement, complicate and enrich redistributive struggles than to marginalize, eclipse and displace them.” Furthermore, she noted that identity politics tends to create a problem of “reification”, in which one must adhere to the identity model of political activism and organisation.

One must “elaborate and display an authentic, self-affirming and self-generated collective identity,” or else they will be accused of “disloyalty.” “The identity model”, she writes, “thus lends itself all too easily to repressive forms of communitarianism, promoting conformism, intolerance and patriarchalism”, thereby enforcing “separatism, conformism and intolerance.”

Aviva Chomsky has also mentioned this adherence to the identity model in her article from August 2017 on challenging racist violence. It is worth quoting her at length:

Over the years I have come to see more and more of what Adolph Reed calls “posing as politics.” Rather than organizing for change, individuals seek to enact a statement about their own righteousness.

They may boycott certain products, refuse to eat certain foods, or they may show up to marches or rallies whose only purpose is to demonstrate the moral superiority of the participants.

White people may loudly claim that they recognize their privilege or declare themselves allies of people of color or other marginalized groups. People may declare their communities “no place for hate.”

Or they may show up at counter-marches to “stand up” to white nationalists or neo-Nazis. All of these types of “activism” emphasize self-improvement or self-expression rather than seeking concrete change in society or policy.

They are deeply, and deliberately, apolitical in the sense that they do not seek to address issues of power, resources, decisionmaking [sic], or how to bring about change.

At the height of the Occupy Movement in the United States, journalist Chris Hedges also noted the problems with identity politics and its role in denying the working and lower classes visibility in the political movements of the last few decades.

Occupy was started by the children of the middle and upper classes who now found themselves victims of the very system which gave them the advantages they enjoyed up until that point.

Now they found themselves facing an uncertain future; laden with debt from student loans, no well-paying or well-meaning jobs, environmental collapse, and a political system that was indifferent to their fate. These groups arose and founded Occupy.

But, as I wrote earlier, this is not unique in the sense that political activity and participation has predominately been undertaken by the middle and upper class in the past.

The difference was that now they were experiencing the same things that the working and lower classes, people of colour, and other minorities, had been experiencing for decades at that stage.

When they took to the streets they ran up against some hard questions that were being asked of them by the very people they had ignored in the past.

As Hedges noted: “while the working class was being destroyed, they [had] busied themselves on inclusiveness” in the past.

And now that they were engaging in direct action against the same kinds of issues they had previously ignored there emerged “a kind of scepticism of the Occupy movement by many in marginal communities because they said well, ‘Where were you?’”; where were you when market discipline was being enforced at the expense of basic rights and human dignity? Jump forward a few years and we have an explanation for why Donald Trump is now president of the United States.

Hillary Clinton represented more of the same; more of the corporatist backed neo-liberalism that has destroyed the lives of millions. Bernie Sanders may have offered a way out, or at the very least some hope.

Given what we know about how the DNC. (Democratic National Committee) ensured that Sanders lost the Democratic Party presidential nomination, is it really any wonder that Clinton’s fate was sealed and Trump’s ensured?

Trump’s claiming to be outside of the realm of politics as usual, and claiming to care about the lives of those who have suffered for the last four decades, was enough to win him the presidency.

Clinton’s words, and those of her fellow Democrats, were seen as hollow and meaningless to those who had been promised time and again that they mattered and that their lives mattered while business, and inequality, continued as usual. Trump was a way of personifying this anger.

As one study notes, the election “results support the claim that Trump’s appeal to the white working class was crucial for his victory.” Identity politics, as it has been practiced up until now, gave us this result.

However, at the end of all this a caveat is needed. All of the above is not to say that identity politics are not important. Of course they are. In any egalitarian and truly free society the rights of all are a function of the rights of the individual. What this means is ensuring that all of us have our rights upheld, including rights regarding our personal identities.

A problem only arises when identity politics shoves class politics under the carpet and out of sight and out of mind, which has been the case for the last four decades.

Identity politics without a class dimension is a hollow facade and the same applies to class politics without a foundation in protecting the rights of individuals as individuals.

Thus far though, identity politics has been a convenient way for those claiming to be egalitarian to decry the supposed privilege of others without questioning their own very real class and economic privilege.

Moral elitism and smugness is not going to create a viable movement, let alone an alternative, to neo-liberal exploitation at the hands of global conglomerates supported by those in government and others in positions of power.

For any viable movement to emerge it has to cut across class and identity without subordinating the former to the latter. Until that happens the working and lower classes will continue to be ignored and lash out when they can. How many more Trumps can we take?

Bryan Wall is a PhD candidate in the departments of sociology and philosophy in University College Cork. His interests are in citizenship, human rights, democratic and political theory, and the history of Zionism. Read his work here


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25 thoughts on “Identity At The Expense Of Class Is Neither Just Nor Wise

    1. Dough Berman

      He seems well aware, given that the last few paragraphs are dedicated to stating exactly that.

  1. Conor Hooper

    Good to see critique of the neo-liberal ID rabbit hole though I think your emphatic conclusions are a bit of a stretch and undermine your point. PC culture didn’t elect Trump. The culture war is a part of the conversation for sure but your declarations are reductive and by labeling those over-eager SJWs as The Cause of American fascism is only going to propagate further entrenchment and discord.

    I’ve only recently managed to crack myself out of the libfem mold and I think reaching out to similarly leftie and progressive people who have an open ear is vital for creating some kind of optimism and solidarity on the left. Also, remember that over-zealous SJWs are actually a very vocal minority and the vast majority who adopt these beliefs do so in good faith and with good intent. That the online dogma has got out of hand is demonstrative but we don’t end it with venom. We have to do it with kindness.

  2. Ronan

    I generally agree that more needs to be done to improve the position of the working classes in Ireland (and further afield) – in particular equality of opportunity needs to be addressed. However, whilst privilege will generally provide better outcome for kids, there is a role to play within the working class in driving their expectations for their kids.

    Anecdote alert, but when I were a lad receiving my leaving cert results, my girlfriend at the time received hers also. We were both from the same council estate, her family was probably better off than mine, but there were very different expectations set. It was never in question with my (single) mother but that I would go to college, whilst herself’s father was trying to talk her out of it. Her father said “it’s not like you did that well in school so far, why would you waste your time for the next few years in college. You’d want to go way and get a start somewhere as soon as possible”. This argument was supported with brochures for 6 month secretarial courses with a placement afterwards. He was also pissed off that she wouldn’t be handing up as much money at home as she had from her full time summer job.

    The difference (if we really want to revive class war concepts) was the disparity in expectations between our households. 3rd level education was encouraged for me, disparaged for her. Thankfully she continued with it and I believe she did quite well thereafter.

    The author speaks to lack of engagement in politics to represent the working class, but what is the outcome they seek? 3rd level educations and more gainful employment as our primary and secondary economic activity continues to diminish? Or more re-distribution of wealth against the backdrop of dwindling opportunity for traditional working class jobs?

    The concept of privilege is real, but it can also be abused by those that disparage it as a reason not to try, and as a reason not to delay gratification and enter the workplace early with limited opportunities for improving ones position. As long as a section of society sees school as a prison, and college as faffing about instead of working, it’s a little disingenuous to keep demanding that equality of outcome be borne to a larger degree by those who engage with education, whatever the privilege of their upbringing.

  3. D

    I don’t really believe in identity politics, indentity, politics (no typo), class war, left, right, capitalism, socialism any of this arbitrary guff. I do believe in violence and government.

    I am a simple person incapable of seeing anything in other than black and white terms.

    What I will say is this: trying to redistrubute alleged privilege is inactionable under law and will run afoul of discrimination laws eventually.

    Redistributing wealth is legal!

  4. TalkinBoutRevolution

    Great piece – well done! ..and thank you BS for seeing the value in diverse opinion which goes against much of the readership on here.

    I think you might agree that political parties are only part of the story here. When you have a centre right party that has neither the will, the interest or the ability to do something, identity politics is attractive. It doesn’t matter if you are FG or Green. They buy our hearts cheaply with it and arguably distract us from focusing on the real social crises – like home affordability, homelessness, addiction, data/privacy rights among other issues that people should be campaigning for. At the end of the day, politics it is downstream of culture (i.e. as evidenced by the fact they engage PR companies to find strategies to appeal to the electorate) and we all know media drives the culture, so the biggest question is media ownership, and whether we should be concerned if for example a news outlet like The Guardian now takes money from advocacy groups posing as philanthropy groups given the age of declining newspaper circulation and resistance to online subscriptions – as in, it used to write pieces that would appeal to its readership, but may now write to appease it’s paymaster…

    Many people saw identity politics emerge, queried it and saw it for what it is and got thrown under the bus for suggesting it might not be entirely good (as you say “There is a large possibility that the identity politics commissars will not be pleased and will duly do their best to ensure that said critic or commentator knows their place in the scheme of things.”). And it does lend to conformity and re-enforcement of group stereotypes, which is an odd thing for someone fully believing themselves to have liberal values to see as a good thing – though there is temptation to succumb to it for anyone who finds themselves in a victimhood group and that can be appreciated.

    At the end of the day, identity politics is advocacy movement for special group rights over common citizen rights – the result of which has been a general decline of social cohesion as people are pushed into liberal and conservative camps which are increasingly dogmatic in their set of beliefs and need stereotypes and narratives to survive. All the while we are witnessing the decline of the timeless archetypes, the fabric of which unites people – the shared value.

    Realistically, we can never achieve absolute equality in practice (though many seem to take this very seriously) but we can seek to narrow inequality, battle by battle. That might involve looking at the society and identifying the problems and areas for improvement, whether that means investing more in the inner-city schools, public amenities, arts grants, incentive schemes like Tidy Towns etc …all of which generally bring communities together and strengthen the social fabric.

  5. Ben

    Lots of cost assumptions made that aren’t based in anything like fact. Eg Clinton won the Democratic Nomination not because of an evil DNC conspiracy but by emphatically beating Sanders, especially in Primary (popular vote) states and with landslide victories across the South, in part because of Sanders’s abysmal performance among black, working-class voters. She then went on to emphatically win the popular vote, so blaming Trump’s win on the DNC is wrong in all sorts of ways. The implication that Trump won some sort of “real America” or “white working class” vote is intrinsically racist, saying as it does that some Americans (guess which!) are more real & more American. It’s also a form of “identity politics”, and it’s also factually wrong: income levels were strongly correlated with Republican voting, as they have been for decades.

  6. Nigel

    ‘An answer is not needed as the rise of identity politics at the expense of issues of class and capitalist exploitation is proof enough of the above.’

    What a wonderful piece of sleight of hand. Why did class issues wane? Since when have students not been perfectly willing to embrace the contradiction of attacking the very system that is educating them? They’re willing to challenge the privileges that come with their very identity. but not the privileges that come with a government funded college education? Where’s the analysis that tells us why the old school labour radicals failed to engage with new generations? Because the other is easier, you say, absent any evidence. Since when have students not been up for having a go at shaking society to the foundations, bless ’em? What were the class warriors doing or not doing that allowed class issues to become eclipsed? What happened that caused them to fail to pass the torch? Surely the responsibility and the failure lies with them? The lack of analysis is particularly telling, since you shift to the US later in the piece where instead of a free college education students are being strangled with lifelong debt, to what appears to be an identical result. This is sloppy and lazy.

    ‘There is a large possibility that the identity politics commissars will not be pleased and will duly do their best to ensure that said critic or commentator knows their place in the scheme of things.’

    Or, if you take issue with a whining class warrior who is failing to gain traction in the modern political moment you might get accused of being some sort of commissar.

    ‘Trump’s claiming to be outside of the realm of politics as usual, and claiming to care about the lives of those who have suffered for the last four decades,’

    Also promising to ban Muslims and to build a wall to keep Mexicans out.

    ‘Identity politics, as it has been practiced up until now, gave us this result.’

    The identity politics of white supremacy, yes. If this were purely class-based you would describe Trump voters as ‘reactionaries’ and redouble your efforts, wouldn’t you? I would also suggest that health care is a huge economic and class issue in the US and was a hugely significant ideological difference between Clinton and Trump, and that it was Trump who drove identity politics to dominate the discourse instead of policy issues that Clinton was strong on, and which were directed at the working class and indeed other classes. Negative coverage of Clinton in the media had almost nothing to do with identity politics of any kind. It was all to do with her e-mails. Meanwhile you had an electorate who gave Trump a pass on racism, antisemitism, sexism, mocking the disabled, cheating people who worked for him, multiple accusations of sexual assault, one under-age, and close associations with notorious abusers and child molesters. That’s white privilege driven to the point of self-parody. That’s identity politics.

    ‘Thus far though, identity politics has been a convenient way for those claiming to be egalitarian to decry the supposed privilege of others without questioning their own very real class and economic privilege.’

    There’s a very peculiar assumption inherent to this statement, about who exactly is engaging in ‘identity politics’ and what class they are from. Someone is certainly ignoring something. Several somethings, in fact.

  7. Formerly known as

    In Australia, the Aussie Tories accuse the Aussie Labor Party of engaging in “Class Warfare”, every time they discuss making society more equal. It seems to work. I also think people want to see themselves at a higher classer than they are. So, they don’t want to admit they are working class, or whatever. Finally, if the poorer classes want their issues to be dealt with, they can change the conversation.

  8. Termagant

    What more can you do to open third level education to the working class than A) making it free and B) providing grants? You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.

  9. Airey Naïve

    Superb piece.

    Identity politics will become the ground zero of a backlash from a very peed off and marginalized majority.

    The Irish Media of course pursue the ID politics narrative because of the filthy lucre than comes with it, censoring any criticism of its main theocracy. The Irish Times for example has an agreement with certain staff members than its pages are a safe space and they won’t be criticized within those pages. Hence, rather weak articles about San Francisco-style gentrification are published without naming names of Irish Times staffers who are up to their necks in it, instead whinging about the lack of “authentic” pubs on Camden Street.

    Una Voce,Indeed.

  10. petey

    the post is a bit labored, though the comment about h clinton is correct. otoh the comment about sanders is myopic: he has openly stated that he supports the concept of the nation-state.

    identity politics is masturbatory and fits very comfortably with capital relations. it is no substitute for class understanding.

  11. Ben Redmond

    Identity issues have been used by corporations and parties that promote conservative economics to signal virtue and give the impression that society is progressing towards a better and more ‘equal’ future. Meanwhile, it’s business as usual and the expanded pink euro is liberally adding to the profits.

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