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