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Labour, identity, class and winning

Written By: - Date published: 2:00 pm, November 9th, 2015 - 54 comments
Categories: Andrew Little, capitalism, class war, equality, feminism, gay rights, identity, labour, Left, patriarchy, Social issues - Tags:

Originally posted at Boots Theory.

Andrew Little’s speech to conference has had great feedback, topping off a pretty good weekend for the party. I was there when he delivered it, and the response in the hall was thunderous.

A few people who covered the conference have put their own framing onto it. Bryce Edwards declared “Andrew Little is killing Labour’s identity politics”. Martyn Bradbury pronounced “identity politics put on the naughty step for some time out”.

Perhaps we were at different conferences. Believe me, plenty of “identity politics” was discussed, openly, happily and constructively. The reason there’s no headlines about it is the people having those discussions did it away from the spotlight – for obvious reasons.

It’s the same old misunderstanding about identity politics and class politics: that identity isn’t a real thing, but class is an objective, clear determinant of someone’s place in society.

But it’s rubbish. One of the biggest challenges leftwing parties face these days is that pretty much everyone thinks they’re middle-class. People who are poor don’t want to be told they’re powerless victims, and people who are comparatively well-off just want to think of themselves as “ordinary people”.

To shamelessly steal an idea from Pablo Iglesias:

One can have the best analysis, understand the keys to political developments since the sixteenth century, know that historical materialism is the key to understanding social processes. And what are you going to do — scream that to people? “You are workers and you don’t even know it!”

Class can be a core part of who people are, or not important to their lives, just like any other facet of identity. More so, since the right have spent decades eroding class identities with their bootstraps analogies and framing – happily adopted by the left – of “middle” and “ordinary” New Zealanders.

We can’t reject a class analysis. We wouldn’t be the Labour Party without one. But in 2015 it isn’t the be-all and end-all of political thought.

I took two points from what Maryan Street said at conference. We can do more than one thing at a time, and:

Being a “both/and party” instead of an “either/or party” isn’t just about multitasking. It can mean recognising that our issues aren’t distinct.

I’ll go one step further. Not only are class, inequality, wealth and work un-distinct from gender, race, ability and all those pesky “identities” – they are the same thing.

How will Labour eradicate poverty in our country without addressing the fact that women are systemically paid less than men and are over-represented in many of the poorest paid industries? When women are still the primary caregivers of children, expected to put careers on hold for parenting?

How will Labour make sure Kiwis get the care they need when they need it and give our doctors and nurses and health workers the funding they need to do their jobs without looking at the infantilising red tape around abortion, or the utter lack of meaningful support for trans health care?

How do we modernise our education system so our kids are better prepared for jobs that haven’t even been invented yet without mentioning children with special needs or the entrenched disparities for Māori and Pasifika kids?

You won’t get very far changing the fundamental inequalities created by modern capitalism if you don’t understand that those inequalities, and the “identities” you want to kick out of the debate, are the same problem.

Why are women treated as a separate class? So we stay at home and have babies create new economic units, and if we wander accidentally into the workforce, we’re paid less to put downward pressure on all workers’ pay and conditions.

Why are gay or lesbian or trans or genderqueer people treated as separate classes and singled out for abuse? Because they mess up the whole heterosexual family structure which has babies creates new economic units.

Colonialism, and the impact it has on indigenous people of colour, is part and parcel of the capitalist need to constantly grow and consume land and resources.

I oversimplify greatly. But if you believe we can take serious action on poverty, on jobs, on the future of work, or on people’ aspirations for a better life without discussing “identity” politics, you don’t understand capitalism. And you certainly don’t get how to fight it.

Andrew said in his speech:

New Zealanders are sick and tired of a politics that’s defined by cynicism and devoid of ambition.

I’m sick and tired of the cynicism which says “women and minorities, go away, no one wants to hear you whining.” I’m sick and tired of the lack of ambition from so many leftwingers who say we can’t do more than one thing at a time, and we can’t care about anyone who isn’t like us.

Take what you like from Andrew’s speech. What I took from it is this.

The experiences I’ve had in my working life have taught me the type of leadership you need if you want to fight and win for progressive causes.

I learnt that it isn’t about making everyone happy or trying to avoid confrontation and disagreement.

Instead it’s about taking a stand because it’s the right thing to do.

54 comments on “Labour, identity, class and winning ”

  1. Tracey 1

    Thanks for your thoughtful response Stephanie.

    IT is possible to walk and chew gum at the same time. The identity politics meme is a red herring in my opinion. It is used by some to beat their particular world view and “fix” for what ails it over the heads of others. It is NOT, imo, a solution based narratve as it is often presented precisely because it divides, it devalues and it pretends a state of being in this world which is not real for a great many people.

    • vaughan little 1.1

      it’s possible theoretically. that’s about it.

      • Colonial Viper 1.1.1

        Correct – like so many areas at the moment, what is theoretically optimally possible vs what is most likely to occur due to inertia/incompetence are two completely different things.

  2. Bill 2

    Jist… 🙂

  3. weka 3

    Seriously good post Stephanie. Great to hear your voice from the conference too, thanks.

  4. DS 4

    Straw man, of course.

    A class analysis sees things in terms of the rulers and the ruled. Not only doesn’t it matter what colour or gender the ruling class are (a society of lesbian millionaires is not an improvement over a society of straight male millionaires), co-opting women and minorities into the power hierarchy doesn’t change the fact that, well, you’re dealing with an unfair power hierarchy. It’s just a different hand on the whip.

    The other problem with identity politics is that it is a political dead-end. I can go out there and (try to) convert people to socialism or buddhism or My Little Pony fandom. I can’t go out there and convert people to a particular skin colour, gender, or sexuality. There’s no possibility of coalition building and debate – which is part and parcel of getting anything done in politics. Rather, identity politics cares less about what is being said, and more about the skin colour or gender of the person saying it. Small wonder the thing is politically toxic.

    • Ana 4.1

      Hi DS,

      I’m intrigued by your assessment that it”doesn’t it matter what colour or gender the ruling class are (a society of lesbian millionaires is not an improvement over a society of straight male millionaires)”.

      Is it your experience that men and women have exactly the same world view – exactly the same political priorities ? Is it your experience that gay and straight people have exactly the same world view – exactly the same political priorities ?

      Perhaps you’re suggesting that different people, when they get money or power become “the same” – and share an identical world view with identical political priorities?

      • Henry Filth 4.1.1

        As I see it, “class” divides society horizontally, in the traditional pyramid, whilst “identity” divides it vertically.

        Historically, Labour was a “class” party, set up to represent the interests of the working class.

        My question is this:

        How can a “class” party change to incorporate “identity”, when “identity” is not a function of class?

        Is it a possible change? or does something have to give. . .

        • Bill 4.1.1.1

          A nano second of reflection and I’m concluding that no, there are not the same numbers of women and non-whites as there are white men in the upper echelons of your pyramid. Therefore your siloed definition of “identity” doesn’t, as you claim, divide the pyramid vertically.

          Or have I missed something?

          • Henry Filth 4.1.1.1.1

            Ta. I wasn’t thinking of the “silo” as a divisive thing, more a way of depicting it. I have a tendency to try to “see” stuff.

            I’m trying to figure out what happens when an organization based on “class” comes to try and incorporate those “silos”.

            Does it end up as a grid of cells, each interacting with only some of the others. Or do the vertical and horizontal groupings take precedence?

            Still confused, but still thinking.

        • Ana 4.1.1.2

          Hi Henry,

          I’m not sure what you mean about identity dividing society vertically – and I’m not sure what you mean when you ask can a “class” party change to incorporate “identity”, when “identity” is not a function of class?

          Being working class is indeed an identity – and has shaped the world view and political priorities of millions of people. It has shaped the very nature of modern politics in most countries.

          The more contemporary discussion of identity in politics – gender, religion, sexual orientation and so on, emerged from an analysis of groups within classes – the analysis made clear that while men and women could together be considered working class or upper class and so on – their experience of that class, and the broader society would be different depending on their gender, religion, sexual orientation and so on.

          Identity politics merely revealed the messy nature of modern society and the subjective and often times whimsical categories used to describe and divide people.

    • Bill 4.2

      The ruling class be a ruling class, that’s true – including if the ruling class is claiming to be the voice or legitimate representation of the workers – y’know, like those nice Bolsheviks, that I’d say most ‘die in the wool’ politically active bastards on the left, at least through the back end of the 20th Century, were so keen to defend and excuse and emulate.

      Now does that mean that people should abandon any fight against the oppression of workers? I mean, history provides us a clear cut and fucking ugly example of what happens when workers lay claim to the apparatus of the state.

      Or does it mean that the world is awash with charlatans and we should be aware of them as we mount a multi-faceted push against the oppression of women (be they workers or not); the push against the oppression of workers (be they women or not)…in short, the push against all oppression wherever and however it expresses itself?

      Or should some oppression be designated as ‘not really oppression’ in order that the ‘truly oppressed’ can assume a position of dominance from where they can impose (yet again) ‘not really oppression’ in a thousand different ways on those who are and were never really oppressed?

      Your perspective is toxic.

      • DS 4.2.1

        The job of the left is to abolish social divisions – to unite people. Identity politics, by definition, divides people, and creates a fresh hierarchy of “whose word we value most simply because of the person’s genotype”.

        But yeah, clearly Margaret Thatcher brought a “unique woman’s perspective” to governing. Oh wait. OK, how about Ruth Richardson. Oh wait. Paula Bennett. Oh wait…. Putting women in power as an end in itself simply ignores the fact that women are just as screwed up as men, and just as likely to misuse that power.

        • Bill 4.2.1.1

          The job of the left is to abolish social divisions – to unite people.

          Okay. Let’s go with that even though you ignored everything I said above.

          If I’m (insert ‘identity’ of choice) and getting the bash (literally or figuratively) within a society that condones my suppression through a whole pile of subtle and not so subtle systemic biases; and if the left does nothing to dismantle or abolish the divisions that lead to me being fucked over…then where or what is this unity you reckon the left should be all about?

          • weka 4.2.1.1.1

            not to mention the suppression-based systemic biases (and actions) within left-wing organisations themselves 😉

            • Bill 4.2.1.1.1.1

              Well, I’d have thought that was implicit to my comment tbh.

              • weka

                Implicit for the people that get it but not for the people that don’t. Isn’t one of the issues the difficulty the good guys have in recognising where they are oppressors themselves? (guys is gender neutral in that sentence).

        • Ana 4.2.1.2

          Hi DS,

          A few points – “the job of the left is to abolish social divisions” – not really ……. the job of the left is to identify the social divisions that lead to inequality and work to overcome them, not abolish them completely. Many would say that class cannot be abolished in much the way that gender cannot be abolished – but the way we value class and gender can be changed and overcome.

          “Identity politics, by definition, divides people” ….. people are different, they are divided along different characteristics and groups – identity politics merely recognises these differences as existing – and acknowledges that these differences do lead to different views on politics.

          The notion that identity politics leads to a hierarchy of more and less valuable voices is a bastardisation of identity politics – both conceptually and empirically.

          Finally, citing 3 female conservative politicians doesn’t rebut the notion of womens perspectives on politics and policies – I don’t agree with Thatcher, Richardson or Bennett, but I have no doubt that in each case, politics itself was changed (perhaps for the better, perhaps for the worse) by their presence.

    • tracey 4.3

      Except that some USA research revealled while people have a tendancy to hire people similar to themselves this was more prevalent in the following order

      White men
      black men
      white women

      So no, things arent exactly the same no matter who is in charge.

      There is also research about boards with women on them versus all male boards too. Again results are different depending on the make up.

      If you are referring broadly to a patriarcal system it is damaging whether a man or woman sits at its head but we dont know what it looks like when women hold the same percentage of positions that men currently hold.

    • just saying 4.4

      Hi DS.
      My grandfather was a socialist. A bit of a revolutionary hero in fact. Like many of the (editing from died to dyed) dyed-in-the-wool socialists, he walked out of the Labour Party for selling-out the “working man” very early in the party’s history. But he kept fighting for the worker revolution. The same one you are talking about.

      He kept his wife as a slave. I was going to say virtual, but then I realised that there was no “virtual” about it. She had no means of support for her and her children without him, and there was no escape anyway. She worked from daylight till late in the night every day, following his every order and whim. She died pretty young. Worked to death.

      She didn’t have any choice, apart from the oppression woven into the very structure of society, he was a violent abusive bully to his wife and children. But then, they were his property – to do with as he pleased. And it wasn’t like he was ever going to get arrested or anything.

      I doubt he ever saw any irony or felt any cognitive dissonance between being a fighter against oppression (and an admired one) and an oppressor himself. Because just as the capital class never saw people like him as being fully human, he never saw women as people, or anything like equals.

      I suspect there are a lot of stories like my family’s story.

      You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t trust you and Bryce Edwards with the grand new world you envisage with your “blind to gender, ethnicity etc..” Without giving voice and acknowledgement to oppression of every kind, it will always be: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.

      • DS 4.4.1

        Commiserations on your dark family history.

        It doesn’t change the fact that having more women as CEOs and Cabinet Ministers would have done your grandmother no good at all (can we agree that Paula Bennett is no good to anyone?). Identity politics is simply the wrong vehicle to fix these things.

        • just saying 4.4.1.1

          Feminism would have benefitted my grandmother. she would have been able to escape and protect and feed her family. Things aren’t perfect now, by any means. We have a long way to go. But things would have been better for her.

          I don’t want or need your “commiserations”.

          Some acknowedgement of the truth would be nice though.

        • weka 4.4.1.2

          It doesn’t change the fact that having more women as CEOs and Cabinet Ministers would have done your grandmother no good at all (can we agree that Paula Bennett is no good to anyone?). Identity politics is simply the wrong vehicle to fix these things

          Sorry but that is such a useless, twisted backwards argument. Helen Clark, Marilyn Waring, Metiria Turei, try arguing that they haven’t done anything for women. Women have consistently advanced the rights of women precisely because the men previously in charge didn’t/wouldn’t. Yes there are other things that need to change (see Stephanie’s post), but some of us ain’t waiting for the revolution to see if the white boys are going to let everyone else partake of the glory.

          Women in the 70s talked about leaving socialist groups and joining feminist ones because the class-based political movements expected them to be on their backs and to make cups of tea. Power wasn’t being shared then and women were told that their issues would have to wait. Four decades on and there are still significant issues in left wing groups today around power sharing (not to mention misogyny), so how long do we have to wait?

  5. heather 5

    The thing I most take from the speech is, that Andrew wants to return to a country of FAIRNESS, something that we do not have now.
    FAIRNESS where everyone has a fair go to participate and suceed to make a better life for themselves and their families.
    Seems such a small thing really, but in this day and age, it is a monster mountain to climb – there is no FAIRNESS.

    • whateva next? 5.1

      Yep, loud and clear, and it pretty much underpins all the changes needed.
      Clear message and clear principle, and will return the country to a decent place to live, where ALL benefit from NZ’s wealth of resources.

  6. Ad 6

    The extra one I would add is climate change:

    I would not propose that climate change and poverty are the same thing, but climate change is and will be a driver of global poverty.

    Not only has the Pope written about this relationship at length, but so have a number of other global institutions. In particular, there’s no chance of getting to the UN goal of global poverty eradication if climate change hits like they say it’s going to.

    So Green “identity politics” gets woven into this as well.

    See in particular the recent World Bank report:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/world-bank-climate-change-poverty_563f712ce4b0b24aee4aa2f8

    • tracey 6.1

      Prince charles kept very quiet his views on CC. I had hoped he would make a couple of speeches mentioning it… in the PMs presence.

      • Mike the Savage One 6.1.1

        I read an article in the Sunday Star Times where it was claimed that Charles and Camilla were primarily here to promote NZ export business and tourism. As I read it, they were “hired” for doing this, kind of got “treated” or even paid.

        As much of those export business interest wants to grow, climate change would not suit their agenda. Flying and shipping produce across the globe and flying hundreds of thousands of tourists in, who also love to travel by campervan and cars, is not that carbon neutral, if we want to be honest.

        So perhaps consider that as a possible reason for why Charles kept his mouth shut on stuff he usually likes to talk about.

  7. Alex 7

    “infantilising” was a very poor word choice when discussing abortion given one of the two people in the equation is not even given the dignity of being treated like an infant.

    • the pigman 7.1

      It’s DNFTT (do not feed the troll) on this one. That word choice was very deliberate, trawling for someone who would “bite”, so that they can be labelled “pro-lifers”, fundies, oppressors, etc. etc.

      Unfortunately, projecting discomfort about society taking anything other than a casual, proprietary attitude (“my body, my choice”?) to abortions is not acceptable in certain left-wing circles.

      Of course, the ridiculous caricatured religious extremists who are anti-contraception and stand outside abortion clinics heckling women have not done anything to enhance the quality of the discussion. sigh.

      • Bill 7.1.1

        I’ll answer here because I agree there’s an idiot looking to derail.

        All I want is to observe that ‘infantilising’ was an apt word in a context where women are essentially reduced to kids asking permission from ‘the grown-ups’ if they can follow through on the choice they’ve made.

        • the pigman 7.1.1.1

          A referral to counselling about a life-altering decision is “infantilising”? 2 more questions then:

          1) Is sex education and contraception education in schools also infantilising?
          2) Is it infantilising for the State to provide effectively free contraception?

          Because those two steps are clearly where the bulk of resources should be allocated, not towards promoting a culture that trivialises the decision to terminate a pregnancy. If a pregnant woman undergoes that counselling (hopefully having had the full benefit of 1) and 2)!), then of course she should be able to access an abortion.

          If you ask me, the alternative (no red tape, free-for-all abortions!) has more in common with libertarianism than anything vaguely left-wing. Good luck finding the medical professionals with the training and willingness to perform them, though.

          • Bill 7.1.1.1.1

            That a woman has to procure a sign-off to the effect that her mental health would be at risk is more what I’m talking about Pigman. It’s bollocks and demeaning.

  8. arkie 8

    @Alex

    When discussing abortion, thinking that a person must give up their self-determination to a bundle of slowly differentiating cells, best not to use the word ‘choice’. Best not to discuss the potential ‘dignity’ of infancy when you would deny the real autonomy of already living post-pubescent human being. Probably best not to discuss word choice when your comment provides a perfect example of that which is mentioned the original post.

    • Alex 8.1

      It all depends on what you believe I suppose. I think the beliefs stated by Andrew Little during his speech sum up my views on this quite well:
      “I believe in dignity. The dignity of the person matters most; and every person must have the opportunity to realise their full potential;
      I believe in equality. A system that shuts people out because of where they live, or who they are, or who they love, or who their parents are is unjust and cannot stand;…”

      • arkie 8.1.1

        Yes i does depend on what one believes. However when belief infringes on a living human being having the opportunity to realise their full potential;
        when belief says a living person is not equal to the contents of their womb;…
        Evidently we can both hear Andrew Little’s words in this speech and believe in them, but I believe that his words are for living human beings, including those with wombs.

        • Alex 8.1.1.1

          Yes, and I believe they should be applied to all human beings; without any of the caveats you’ve included.

  9. RedBaronCV 9

    Should the tagline on this article be – why does NAct continue to do identity politics resulting in a large overhang of white middle class males.

    Nact are the ones with the problem here. Justin Trudeau nailed it in one for Canada

    • Ana 9.1

      Sorry for my ignorance, but what is NAct ?

    • Ana 9.2

      Hi,

      Perhaps we could argue that National and Act don’t believe in identity politics at all – they don’t believe that gender, or ethnicity or class or sexual identity has any impact on the political world view of individuals or groups.

      They claim they apply “merit” to their selection of candidates – and that “merit” is objective and stands above such leftie concerns as gender, ethnicity or sexual identity.

      Isn’t it strange that so many white middle class males meet this definition of “merit” …… almost as though the definition itself was geared towards white middle class males ………….

      • RedBaronCV 9.2.1

        Or do we wnat control of the situation/meme? so they have to argue from their corner on the defensive?

    • lprent 9.3

      As a tag it is way too long. I’d remove from the database.

      • RedBaronCV 9.3.1

        Totally agree Lprent – I’m no concise soundbite journalist writing.
        Just looking at ways of trying to reverse the perception/ spin. At the moment an all white middleged male group is being seen at the “norm” so the discussion tends to be around why the “norm” should be different and the advantages of this. If the boot changes foot to that group being the “non- norm” then the onus goes on them to defend their position.

        Which is why I thought Trudeau was so good- basically he refused to be drawn into justifying his choices (why should he) so Canada’s “norm” has now changed.
        The next white all male cabinet will have some explaining to do.

  10. Olwyn 10

    This was sent to me via facebook, and I found it an interesting contribution to the cultural/economic debate. Her take on it is that certain feminist positions emerged as challenges to state-managed capitalism. When that gave way to neoliberalism, some of those positions were then co-opted toward the furtherance of neoliberal ends. She thinks the left needs to take them back and reconfigure them.

    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/oct/14/feminism-capitalist-handmaiden-neoliberal?CMP=share_btn_fb

    • Bill 10.1

      That had me chuckling a little.

      Is she taking an ever so subtle swipe at liberal feminism? The second para very roughly outlines perspectives I’ve always associated more with anarcho-feminism than with liberal feminism.

      The middle sections read, to me, more of a critical evaluation of the failure of liberal feminism – not anarcho-feminism that still holds to the perspectives she outlines in the second paragraph.

      That she ends with an appeal to anarchy – ie, reclaiming the mantle of participatory democracy…

      Anyway. Just my interpretation of the piece.

      • Olwyn 10.1.1

        That is more or less how I read it too. But I also like her analysis of how the battle against state capitalism became a battle against the state, allowing neoliberal capitalism to gain the upper hand.

  11. Michael 11

    I completely agree.

    It’s all about intersectionality when we talk about oppression and inequality. Even if we improved the incomes of the poor across the board by 30%, it’s likely that women and people of colour will still be relatively worse off. No conversation about inequality can be complete without talking about *equity*. We cannot *solely* have an analysis based on ‘identity politics’ – but it’s important that we fight for both social and economic justice.

    And let’s not forget that “identity politics” can expand a party and movement’s base. Maximising turnout and support among women, Maori, Pasifika, and young people — along with turnout among the traditional ‘working class’ and poor (beneficiaries etc) — are both important for any progressive victory.

    Labour is the party that stands up for people who don’t have a voice – those who can’t stand up for themselves, and are oppressed in society. Whether it is the poor, the working class, people of colour, LGBTQ people, or women, everyone deserves the right to participate in society to the fullest extent possible, and fulfill their potentials.

    And I will also say that it’s important that Labour doesn’t use too much liberal left jargon that won’t be understood outside of activist circles. Labour should not be afraid of being progressive on issues of gender and racial equity, LGBTQ rights, etc but also should try to appeal to the broadest base of people as possible.

  12. RedLogix 12

    A fine and thoughtful post Stephanie.

    I was going to try and contribute something positive earlier in the day, but I was far too busy then and I’m way too tired now.

    But you do make a persuasive case and I’ve read it several times now.

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