In his book, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, the left-wing author Owen Jones says:
“Of course, the struggles for the emancipation of women, gays, and ethnic minorities are exceptionally important causes. New Labour has co-opted them, passing genuinely progressive legislation on gay equality and women’s rights, for example. But it is an agenda that has happily co-existed with the sidelining of the working class in politics, allowing New Labour to protect its radical flank while pressing ahead with Thatcherite policies.” (p.255, 2011)
Jones was commenting on what is today known as the politics of identity, a social and cultural phenomenon which “invites people to stay in, to look inward, to obsess over body and the self, to surround themselves with a moral force-field to protect their worldview – which has nothing to do with the world – from any questioning.”
As viewed by Owen Jones, identity politics often marginalizes the working classes. No longer are the views of the politicians at the top of the Labour Party inspired and informed by a powerful post-war labour movement that gave rise to a multitude of books and articles on working-class issues. There are many who, sharing Jones’ viewpoint, believe that the current convulsions within the British Labour Party, as well as the party’s seeming contemporary lack of appeal to the British nation at large, are a consequence of this neglect.
Identity politics is wider in application than just party political concerns and, as a term, has been in use for 40-50 years. It relates to peoples’ feelings of being oppressed and to the desire to articulate their felt oppression in terms of their own experience. The primary chosen method of this expression is consciousness-raising. This is a form of life-sharing in which an oppressed group expresses its common experience with other groups. In this process of sharing and growing consciousness there develops a consensus and solidarity that is life-changing and oppression-ending.
It will be realized, therefore, that the politics of identity has relevance to forms of oppression experienced by ethnic, sexual and racial minorities, children and women, and by the powerless poor of deprived urban areas. Each of these groups, by the very fact of their existence, is vulnerable to cultural imperialism, violence, exploitation and marginalization. Identity politics starts with the analysis of the extant form of oppression and seeks to recommend a restructuring of the existing society. This restructuring may be based on the success of legislation, community organizing and communal living, campaigns and organized protest.
A fundamental basis for confronting identity politics is the recognition of human rights and this, in turn, pre-supposes a liberal democratic society. Those familiar with his writings will be aware that identity politics can be seen in Karl Marx’s earliest statements about “a class becoming conscious of itself and developing a class identity.” Marx saw this as a basis for social and political action on behalf of the oppression experienced by the working classes. Marginalization and its accompanying oppression leads to establishing identity; identity leads to solidarity; solidarity leads to action; action leads to the cessation of oppression and integration. This process is appropriate for combating all forms of identity politics.
The politics of identity received renewed prominence during the 1980’s when it was linked with a new wave of social movement activism. In contemporary times and during Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency of the USA there was speculation that “the Republican Party might become the party of white identity politics” (August 2016 edition of The Atlantic). This speculation included the notion that there were a significant number of voters who identified with the protection of “a white majority and traditional white values”, particularly amongst blue-collar Americans, to legitimately speak of white identity politics.
There seems little doubt that this development in the social and political life of the USA has been driven by social, cultural and religious diversity in the USA, as well as by demographic change. It requires distinction from straight-out nationalism. In all of this the fear of the working-class white population becoming a minority in the USA propels many “to affiliate with conservative causes including those not related to diversity.” It is ironic that, as with Nigel Farage in the UK, Donald Trump is identified with this working class group or movement. He is very much a part of the same ‘political establishment’ and wealthy class that, as the mass media is constantly telling us, voters are turning against. In this whole process we may recognize that the politics of identity is being negatively impressed by the politics of manipulation!
It may be expected that, as Donald Trump assumes the presidency of the USA, white identity politics may become more pronounced and offer a challenge to “the American way of life.” This is inevitable if political policies and the national conversation encourage the marginalization of distinct groups within American society. Marginalization of society through affirmations of difference – be they religious, social, economic, racial or gender difference – will cause fractures within society. Donald Trump is liable to the accusation that he is an advocate of this fracturing.
Therefore, the afore-mentioned civil rights and what the historian, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., has termed “the full acceptance and integration of marginalized groups into mainstream culture”, is what is necessary for the creation of real opportunities for ending marginalization and, as a consequence, the diminution of identity politics.
Of course, the politics of identity is not specific only to life in the USA. There is ample evidence that the rise and political success of UKIP in the UK and the whole process of Brexit has threatened, or is actually causing, the marginalization of large swathes of UK citizens and EU nationals living and working in the UK. In Australia there is the ongoing, if not widespread, debate about the marginalization of Indigenous Peoples and the way in which identity politics is becoming a significant factor in society down-under.
The success of liberal democracies, including the possibilities for those situations and nations discussed in the above, requires a common basis for culture and society to function. Identity politics works against this common basis. It is, therefore, incumbent on liberal democracies that preach and practice justice to put in place and then to practice social and economic policies that emphasize equality under the law, equal opportunities for all, and human rights that are non-discriminatory – a structure for society that constructs and maintains rather than oppresses and destroys.