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Identity Politics Good. Class Politics Better. August 23, 2009

Posted by Garibaldy in British Politics, Class.
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Interesting article from the current London Review of Books by Walter Benn Michaels, a professor of literature at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The article touches on some of the themes raised in this recent piece I wrote on the necessity for the left to concentrate on economic issues, specifically the failure of identity politics to address the fundamental importance in society of economic relations. The flavour of it may be guessed by the fact that Michaels has written a book entitled The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality (which I am planning to order for myself in the near future).

Michaels starts by talking about how over the last forty years sexism, racism, and homophobia have declined in America, and obviously acknowledges this as a good thing. And then there is the ‘But’. And it is a big ‘But’.

But it would be a mistake to think that because the US is a less racist, sexist and homophobic society, it is a more equal society. In fact, in certain crucial ways it is more unequal than it was 40 years ago. No group dedicated to ending economic inequality would be thinking today about declaring victory and going home. In 1969, the top quintile of American wage-earners made 43 per cent of all the money earned in the US; the bottom quintile made 4.1 per cent. In 2007, the top quintile made 49.7 per cent; the bottom quintile 3.4.

He goes on to make another important point:

More generally, even if we succeeded completely in eliminating the effects of racism and sexism, we would not thereby have made any progress towards economic equality. A society in which white people were proportionately represented in the bottom quintile (and black people proportionately represented in the top quintile) would not be more equal; it would be exactly as unequal. It would not be more just; it would be proportionately unjust.

Michaels believes that the increasing intolerance for racism, sexism and homophobia is in accordance with the key ideas of neo-liberalism – to put it crudely, when Regan and co and later Bush and his cohorts argued for spreading democracy it wasn’t entirely a front for economic imperatives, but a genuine part of their world view, wherein legal equality and a heavily skewered version of meritocracy were key components of their ideal socieities. But, Michaels points out, just as it is intolerant of discrimination on grounds of gender, race or sexuality, so neoliberalism increases the tolerance of economic inequality.

Hence the extraordinary advances in the battle against discrimination, and hence also its limits as a contribution to any left-wing politics.

Couldn’t (and didn’t) put it any better myself. Michaels swiftly outdoes himself though.

But a diversified elite is not made any the less elite by its diversity and, as a response to the demand for equality, far from being left-wing politics, it is right-wing politics.

Exactly. Hence the facility with which so many seeming radicals obsessed with identity have shifted quickly into the realms of vacuous New Labour politics, if not further to the right.

Michaels singles out the US universities as an example of the inadequacies of identity politics, whereby the race for diversity covers up the failure to address economic inequality. In the UK, the same function is performed by Oxbridge admitting state school pupils whose social and economic background is by and large the same as those of their public school cohorts. In Harvard, which I think takes 40% legacy students (other colleges take more and won’t even reveal the figures), 9% of students are black – but only 7% are poor. Michaels uses the outrage over the recent arrest of Professor Gates in Harvard as indicative of the fact that anti-racism and anti-discrimination enables the elite to feel better about the possession of its wealth – if discrimination against peple is removed, then their wealth is because of their talent, not structural inequality. And the poor deserve to be poor.

in a society like Britain, whose GINI coefficient – the standard measure of income inequality – is the highest in the EU, the ambition to eliminate racial disparities rather than income inequality itself functions as a form of legitimation rather than as a critique.

I’d say that in Britain gender and sexuality would be more important than class, but the point holds.

Michaels’ article is itself a review of a report from January 2009 from the Runnymeade Trust, Who Cares about the White Working Class? The introduction by the report’s editor begins with the subtitle ‘Class Re-emerges in Political Discourse’. Reintroduced, apparently, by Harriet Harman of all people, in a speech to the TUC conference in September 2008. The report points out that when it has suited them, politicians and pressmen who object to the use of class as a political term when it smacks of increasing equality have expressed a great desire to ensure that the white working class is not left behind when they might support the causes of the xenophobic right. The introduction ends with the hope that it will

initiate a dialogue to ensure that a re-emergence of class onto the political agenda will not feed divisions, but promote equality for all.

And here we need to return to Michaels, to see how in the absence of clear class politics, the language of class can obfuscate rather than elucidate the challenges for the left.

In the event, however, what Who Cares about the White Working Class? actually provides is less an alternative to neoliberal multiculturalism than an extension and ingenious refinement of it. Those writing in this collection understand the ‘re-emergence of class’ not as a function of the increasing injustice of class (when Thatcher took office, the GINI score was 0.25; now it’s 0.36, the highest the UK has ever recorded) but as a function of the increasing injustice of ‘classism’. What outrages them, in other words, is not the fact of class difference but the ‘scorn’ and ‘contempt’ with which the lower class is treated.

Michaels highlights a dangerous tendency in what he calls ‘left neoliberalism’, whereby being working class is like being a member of an ethnic group, and that all that is needed is to treat them with respect rather than addressing the injustice that workers suffer.

The great virtue of this debate is that on both sides inequality gets turned into a stigma. That is, once you start redefining the problem of class difference as the problem of class prejudice – once you complete the transformation of race, gender and class into racism, sexism and classism – you no longer have to worry about the redistribution of wealth. You can just fight over whether poor people should be treated with contempt or respect. And while, in human terms, respect seems the right way to go, politically it’s just as empty as contempt.

Michaels points out how race in the US has functioned similarly to sectarian identity in Ireland. Poor whites have been encouraged to identity with the white elite, while poor racial minorities have been encouraged to identify with rich people of similar colour, and see their wealth as somehow reflecting well on them. Anyone familiar with Daniel O’Connell’s selling out of the forty-shilling freeholders, never mind the history of Northern Ireland, will recognise this pattern. At the same time, anti-discrimination in Michaels’ argument seeks to form a sense of solidarity between the liberal white academic and the African-American woman who cleans his office for a tenth of his salary. She is supposed to recognise that he values her as a person, and her culture as equal. And thus forget about the income disparity. Michaels doubts that she does, and he may well be right. But the problem for the left is that far too many people do buy into the myths of an unequal society. Again, Northern Ireland gives the perfect example.

So how can we apply Michaels’ argument to our own situation? Ireland is a changing society, with growing diversity in colour and culture among its inhabitants. That brings challenges, which are often met by placing people into pre-determined boxes, especially in NI, where we remain Protestant Atheists and Catholic Atheists in the census. And we must meet those challenges. And sections of the broad left are doing so. One of the issues on which trade unions have been active in the north of late is in reaching out to immigrant communities, and there is a burgeoning NGO sector (some of it state-funded) dealing with these communities. Several recent Workers’ Party Ard Fheiseanna have been addressed by representatives from immigrant communities too. But whereas The Workers’ Party maintains its focus very clearly on class, the same cannot be said for everybody. While Ireland changes and throws up new situations, the Left must place class at the centre of all it does, including issues surrounding immigrant communities and racism. We cannot allow ourselves to be sucked into the vacuous equality-speak of what Michaels terms the left neo-liberals. A case in point would be the complete mess that has been made of the NI Human Rights Bill by the Human Rights Commission, where at times it seems every interest group has been included to the detriment of the overall goal of providing a strong, simple, and clear Bill of Rights. As the diversity of Irish society grows, we must avoid the temptation to fall into the identity politics trap, as has happened so many before. Class is the fundamental division of society. We know that. We must remember it. And we must communicate that message at all opportunities.

Comments»

1. Tim Buktu - August 23, 2009

A book I’ve had on my shelf (that I have not finished reading for too long) is <Redistribution or Recognition? A Political-Philosophical Exchange by Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth. I was prompted to get it after I read Fraser’s famous essay From Redistribution to Recognition? Dilemmas of Justice in a “Postsocialist” Age.

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Garibaldy - August 25, 2009

Thanks for the reference Tim. Same to you Rabelais. I’d agree with what you’re saying about the de-mooring of feminism.

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2. Should I Use a Credit Repair Service? | Fix Your Credit in 2009 - August 23, 2009

[…] Identity Politics Good. Class Politics Better. « The Cedar Lounge … […]

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3. Rabelais - August 23, 2009

There’s a recent Nancy Fraser article in a New Left Review in which she recalls the widely held view that second wave feminism was culturally successful but failed to transform institutions. But Fraser points out that feminism’s perceived cultural success was achieved only by it being co-opted by capitalism. Second wave feminism, Fraser argues, became a variant of identity politics, forsook the idea of redistribution for recognition, and social-economic struggle for cultural critique. Once unmoored from the critique of capitalism, feminism was made available for alternative articulations and drawn into a ‘dangerous liaison’ with neoliberalism.

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4. goodhardrant - August 23, 2009

Michaels’ article is properly interesting. It’s very gratifying to see the extent of his inter-disiplinary reach, as this work is obviously informed by his research on literary theory and cultural politics in literature. Following Garibaldy’s plea for economic alternatives from the left there’s something very pleasing about a literary critic analyzing class structure. Outlining the limited benefits found in identity politics is helpful but Thatch and Co have done an amazing job of making class the spectre of our society: we talk about money al the time, but we can never talk about class. Michaels teaches in the American University system, the undergraduate body of which I suspect shares the profound political apathy and capitalist ambition of its British counterpart.

Many (highly intelligent) people born in the eighties see class as a historical phenomenon (and I _don’t_ mean that in a Marxist sense), and one which simply does not pertain in the current condition. This is, obviously, untrue, and Britain and Ireland remain deeply class divided societies. One of the reasons for this is that the achievements of women’s, lgbt, racial equality movements etc have been annexed by neoliberal and centrist politics. The proximity of identity politics to broadly ‘left’ goals of redistribution and equality has been obscured – thus you get the benefits of many years of leftist struggle and labour being claimed as a side-effect of the benign meritocracy of capitalism. Balls! We should remember that much of the aims of the left movement have been appropriated by those historically opposed to them in the name of vote-grabbing identity rhetoric.

There is the sense that the _embarrassment_ of talking about class politics is fading in the face of unavoidable hardship and glaring differences. But they do have a point in the cumbersome terminology of much class politics. One of the challenges for the left in Ireland, as elsewhere, is to proffer a concept of class politics that is supple enough to deal with contemporary socio-economic formations which are geographically dispersed, varied in ‘identity’, and which encompass an idea of class and labour that is not so tied to Marx’s ‘homo faber’ model. My sense – and I’m sure there are comrades out there who are far more informed than I – is that class politics is desperately needed to provide structure to the inchoate impulses of at least a generation of workers whose sense of economic collectivity has been over-written by the atomization of lifestyle and identity politics. How do we balance the (pretty bloody dominant) model of self as consumer with Marx’s production-based model?

Michaels is eloquent and persuasive, and I look forward to his book. But I’m not sure I’ll be buying ‘Hustler’ to read an interview with him. Or perhaps I’m just too much of a stickler for my feminist identity principles. 😛

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5. NollaigO - August 23, 2009

One of the challenges for the left in Ireland, as elsewhere, is to proffer a concept of class politics that is supple enough to deal with contemporary socio-economic formations which are geographically dispersed, varied in ‘identity’, and which encompass an idea of class and labour that is not so tied to Marx’s ‘homo faber’ model. My sense – and I’m sure there are comrades out there who are far more informed than I – is that class politics is desperately needed to provide structure to the inchoate impulses of at least a generation of workers whose sense of economic collectivity has been over-written by the atomization of lifestyle and identity politics. How do we balance the (pretty bloody dominant) model of self as consumer with Marx’s production-based model?

Cad tá a rá agut?

An bfhuil tú ag magadh ?

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6. WorldbyStorm - August 23, 2009

I’m very torn on this issue, in part because I can see both the positive and pernicious effects of an arguable over-concentration on social rights issues by the Irish left. I think very much of DL and the LP who both largely (perhaps less so in the case of the LP) poured enormous energy into the ‘constitutional crusades’ and to no small effect. It’s certainly hard to believe that they would have ultimately been successful in terms of gay rights and divorce in the 1990s had that energy not been extant. But… the obvious corollary is that energy poured into those struggles was energy diverted from other struggles, and sometimes we’ve even seen a substitionism in operation where those other struggles become the badge of radicalism rather than being an aspect of a broader radicalism. I think good hard rant is correct to note that class remains a sort of taboo subject in this society. The line being that it doesn’t exist, or if it does it only requires essentially minimal effort to transcend it. That’s not my experience, and in some ways it’s not even the hard-edged aspects of class struggle so much so as the ignorance or indifference by sections of the middle classes to others. And yes, families cross class lines, those lines can be very flexible and nebulous and so on. But they exist and in aggregate they result in certain societal dynamics and in policy responses to them.

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Garibaldy - August 25, 2009

I agree with you that the social questions were vital. But they were best addressed as part of a wider programme of democratisation and secularisation that made clear the extent to which these were class issues too. Just like you say about being an aspect of radicalism.

I’d agree Good Hard Rant is correct about class being taboo, especially in the Republic, where a lot of people deny it. I suspect that this is a hangover from the days of national struggle, where anything that weakened it was viewed with hostility. The irony being that those most determined to deny class now are those most hostile to the idea of the nation.

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7. goodhardrant - August 23, 2009

Nollaig O – not joking, but my internal-editor seems to have been on a fag-break!
WBS – substitutionism seems an apt way of describing this tendency.

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8. Niall - August 23, 2009

The article kind of reminds me of some of John Pilger’s writings regarding South Africa. Most South Africans haven’t seen much change in their circumstances, but the fact that some of the people exploiting the masses have black skin is hearlded as a success by many, including the likes of Mandela.

I realise that this site has a certain political slant, but what I find striking about Michaels article, Garibaldy’s post and in the reactions to both is that everybody seems to see class analysis as the number one alternative to identity politics. While I believe that class politics may prove a better approach than identity politics, surely a focus on the rights of the individual would prove best? What exactly are the benefits of an analysis based on class politics?

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9. yourcousin - August 24, 2009

While I believe that class politics may prove a better approach than identity politics, surely a focus on the rights of the individual would prove best?

Because we all have to work, black, white, man, woman, gay, straight etc. And Individual rights (which I whole heartedly endorse BTW) can lead to the Libertarianesque idea of, “I can swing my fist up until the point of your nose” mentality which we have seen leading to CEOs making ridiculous sums which would then be okay as long as the little guy got his as well, which we have also seen not to be the case. At least that’s my take on it.

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10. Crocodile - August 24, 2009

In Michaels’ article – and in most comments here – there’s an automatic assumption that class differences are more or less the same thing as wealth differences. That may be true in America, where social mobility has always been rapid and you can, Kennedy-style, change class in a generation, but things have always been different in Europe. England or Germany have aristocracies which may have no wealth or power but constitute the upper classes of those countries – a closed shop.
Ireland is a tough case, closer to the US in my view, and the last few years haven’t made class markers in Ireland any easier to identify. When most of your big employers – or downsizers – are multinational corporations, and your property moguls barely have an Inter Cert between them, who is the class enemy, exactly?
My neighbour, a school principal, has a cleaner in twice a week – an indulgence undreamt of by her mother. She drives a Merc and does her Christmas shopping in New York – the cleaner, that is, not the teacher. Confused? We all are.

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Garibaldy - August 25, 2009

Is the cleaner a small business woman though Crocodile? If we look at her like that, then it might seem less anomalous.

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Crocodile - August 25, 2009

No, but she has more disposable income.

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Garibaldy - August 25, 2009

Fair enough Croc. For myself, I think that class is dependent primarily on money, although we do need to take cultural factors.

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11. Tim - August 24, 2009

“Most South Africans haven’t seen much change in their circumstances, but the fact that some of the people exploiting the masses have black skin is hearlded as a success by many, including the likes of Mandela.”

by ‘exploiting the masses’ do you mean paying taxes so the masses can survive? 5 million taxpayers, 14 million welfare recipients. who’s exploiting whom?

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Dr. X - August 24, 2009

Tough cheese, old chap.

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Tim - August 24, 2009

Are you wishing upon South Africa an entire nation of welfare recipients? It’s tough cheese for everybody, no matter what wealth level.

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12. Niall - August 24, 2009

Tim, given that in South Africa, wealth is distributed ridiculously unevenly, I think that the wealthy have a long way to go before they can claim that they’re being exploited.

Yourcousin, I don’t think that an analysis based on individual rights automatically leads to stereotypical Libertarianesque policies or solutions. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Libertairianism in and of itself, it’s just that those who endorse it tend to have an underdeveloped sense of what equality of opportunity should entail.

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Tim - August 24, 2009

Niall, Libertarianism is really the opposite of Identity Politics and the two don’t mix at all. It also stands opposed to the Left (except on some social issues) in it’s love of small government. I certainly endorse that.

Wealth is unequal, here in SA, but that’s only a point because the extremes live side by side, or at least in close proximity. It’s amazing how many visitors express disgust at all the nice, big houses here, when back home their own houses are nicer and bigger!

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13. Logan - August 24, 2009

I wonder if the OP is putting too much emphasis on the the responsibility for what happened politically in the last thirty years on the turn toward “identity politics” amongst the left?

He is implying that if the left had emphasised instead class politics they would have made more headway on economic issues.

But how does he know this? One could just as easily make the argument that in the 80’s and 90’s, with Thatcherism and Reaganism so dominant, that it was a crafty strategy by the left to push against the open door of gaining equality for oppressed minorities rather than beating their head uselessly against the hard oak door of the dominant right-wing economic paradigm.

Maybe if the LP and the WP had focussed more on class based politics in the 80’s we could have had more left wing governments, but my gut feeling is that the governments would have been just as right wing economically, but we might still have no divorce in this country.

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Garibaldy - August 25, 2009

Logan,

I think the point for me is that the move to identity politics paved the way for the redistributive element of socialism to be abandoned in favour of what is effectively a form of liberalism that talks about rights and equality of opportunity, but ignores the ways in which social conditions shape the ability to access opportunities.

I doubt we would have seen any more left governments in the 1980s, but perhaps in the 1990s the neo-liberal agenda would not have passed vitrually unchallenged.

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14. Logan - August 24, 2009

Also, one must remember that in this country some of the main political players in “identity politics” issues (such as the late departed Nuala Fennell, or Monica Barnes) were not even in one of the main left wing parties.

Actually, it has always been a bit of a mystery to me why so many of the seventies feminists ended up in FG in the early eighties rather than Labour? (being a bit too young at the time to remember why).

Perhaps it was partly because some of those people were just not very left wing economically?

And I would guess that a similar process was in action in the US, but because there are only two parties there, most of the feminists ended up in the Democratic Party (although obviously there were plenty of more left wing feminists too).

So it seems plausible now for the professor quoted in the OP claim that their energy for political activism was sucked up by identity politics when in reality they were nort that left wing economically at all?

I mean, translate it into an Irish context.

Can you imagine an Irish academic claiming that Monica Barnes or Nuala Fennell or (heaven help us) Gemma Hussey would have progressed economic equality if only they were not distracted by feminist politics?

It seems ludicrous to us, because we know they were in Fine Gael.

Who knows what party Geraldine Ferrro would have been in in the US in 1984 had there been a Fine Gael equivalent there?

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15. Logan - August 24, 2009

Sorry for the mis-spellings above.

Danm the lack of an edit button!

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16. Tipster - August 24, 2009

Perhaps it was partly because some of those people [incl. Nuala Fennell]] were just not very left wing economically?

I heard Nuala Fennell interviewed on a BBC Radio 4 programme broadcast last month* about the contraception train in which she said she did not agree with the left-wing politics of the like of Nell.

____
*The audio file is not longer available but you can see the http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00lk12f

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EamonnCork - August 25, 2009

Nuala Fennell actually left the Irish Womens Liberation Movement because she disliked the left-wing politics of most of its members, and write an open letter of resignation which is a classic of bitter invective. But she then formed AIM which was a hugely effective organisation and went on to set up the first shelter for battered women.
Nell McCafferty herself puts it very well in her autobiography where she observes that Nuala Fennell might have been right wing, middle class and at times cranky but that she ended up doing an enormous amount of practical good.
Most of the feminists of the time didn’t join FG, I think we just remember the ones who did because they went on to be ministers or at least TDs. Anne Speed was director of elections for Peoples Democracy in 1981 and is now in Sinn Fein, Mary Maher was involved with the Workers Party as was Mairin De Burca and Maire Woods, Mairin Johnston and Nell McCafferty were all on the left too. Irish feminism was largely a left wing movement. A fascinating account of the womens movement of the time, and a good primer on the different political positions they took, is Mondays at Gajs by Anne Stopper which came out a couple of years ago and was a bit unfairly overlooked. Nell McCafferty’s autobiography is very good on this too.
One reason women of a more right wing political hue would have been in FG rather than FF was that, once Fitzgerald took over as leader of FG, FF saw the chance to bash FG and Labour with the accusation of being soft on abortion, divorce and contraception. It’s amazing how often this theme is harped on by FF politicians in the eighties election campaigns. In the words of Michael Finneran, now God help us a junior minister, “Labour is the party of living in sin.” They needn’t have worried, one of the ironies of Irish political life is that it was the self-proclaimed liberal Fitzgerald who brought in the pro-life referendum and the self-proclaimed republican Haughey who stood idly by during the hunger strikes and uttered not a word against Thatcher because he was worried it might destroy a special relationship which existed largely in his own head.

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sonofstan - August 25, 2009

This, from a piece by David Edgar in today’s Guardian, entitled Today’s Revolutionairies Fight against, not for, the Poor’ seems not undescriptive of Irish social revolution through the 70s/80s/90s and particularly of the like s of Nuala F.

The 21st-century revolution pits the educated, western-oriented, socially liberal, economically neoliberal urban middle class against the economically egalitarian, socially traditionalist rural poor.

Once again, Ireland gets there first!

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EamonnCork - August 26, 2009

Perhaps. But Nuala Fennell still did a lot of good. And she was an atypical member of the womens movement. And the liberalisation of family planning legislation, for example, did a great deal of good for people at the bottom of the heap who suffered more than anyone else from the curse of unsustainably large families. I’m not saying you’re making this argument but the argument that the social issues in which so much energy was invested in during the eighties were a kind of Dublin 4 concern foisted upon the decent plain people of Ireland isn’t one I have much time for. To argue that you have to believe that people outside Dublin 4 didn’t get pregnant, have homosexual relationships or suffer marriage breakdown. And I’m also dubious about someone like David Edgar, who whatever way you look at it is a member of a highly educated Western elite, damning other people in the same terms. I’ve seen Terry Eagleton make the same argument specifically in relation to Ireland, that we were all happier under the thumb of the Church until these rootless cosmopolitans started stirring things. I don’t think that’s a true reading of recent Irish history, for a start the Ryan report, yet again, showed that the power of the church was largely directed against the poorest people in society and was class based to an extent.
I suppose Edgar’s argument may stem from the fact that the suggestion by various neo-con useful idiots that colonial interventions in the Middle East have something to do with improving womens rights etc. etc. An argument which is obviously beneath contempt given the lack of interest in the same powers about the nature of society in Saudi Arabia.

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Garibaldy - August 26, 2009

Ah Terry Eagleton. Life is far, far, far too short to read his romantic musings about Ireland. Spot on here though I think Eamonn.

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sonofstan - August 26, 2009

I’m not saying you’re making this argument but the argument that the social issues in which so much energy was invested in during the eighties were a kind of Dublin 4 concern foisted upon the decent plain people of Ireland isn’t one I have much time for.

That wasn’t the argument I was hinting at, though I see how you could take it that way. Edgar’s delineation of the colour revolutions in former Soviet republics and the opposition in Iran doesn’t, obviously map onto Ireland in any precise way. The point was more that the liberal issues of the end of the last century did draw an unfortunate battle line between socially progressive metropolitans and a lot of people in the country, who felt patronised and insulted by the assumption that they were rednecks who needed dragging into the 20th century. A consequence of this was that a lot of those outside Dublin, who would be union members, and natural Labour voters, were lost to the left because the Labour party became identified with such causes, almost to the exclusion of its core concerns.

None of this is to suggest that contraception/ Divorce/ Gay rights were exclusively Dublin concerns – obviously they weren’t, but there was a lot of preaching on both sides about issues that many – particularly older voters- were uncomfortable discussing, and a certain lack of understanding from many in Labour and in FG of the complexity of non-Dublin society.

It’s interesting that the British Labour party -which legalised abortion and decriminalised homosexuality – retained the allegiance of the majority of English and Scottish catholics, and has had at the cabinet table probably more devout catholics in recent years that was the case here. It remains a broad church, where moral issues are not crucial to party allegiance. I remain convinced that, while I personally did, and would again, campaign on the liberal side of such issues, it’s not, and should not be, a ‘left’ issue, at least not exclusively.

The basic issue then, and its still an issue with regard to schooling and abortion, was the separation of church and state: what was perhaps unfortunate was that many members of that church were given the impression that they were wrong to hold the views they did, and not simply wrong to want them supported in civil law.

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17. skidmarx - August 24, 2009

surely a focus on the rights of the individual would prove best? What exactly are the benefits of an analysis based on class politics?

Precisely what those taking social democracy to the right in the last generation has been to replace equality of outcome(their phrase, I don’t want to imply that under socialism everyone should be made the same) with equality of opportunity. If working people have to climb over each other to advance, they are more liable to blame each other than the system, and the disparities of opportunity allowed to the rich and the poor are less likely to be confronted.

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18. sonofstan - August 24, 2009

surely a focus on the rights of the individual would prove best? What exactly are the benefits of an analysis based on class politics?

Well now…..

What rights of the individual do you mean?

If you mean things like freedom of assembly, of speech, the right to own property, the guarantee of internal security, equality of treatment before the law and so on, then, in a democracy such as ours (RoI), with all its imperfections, such things are at least held out as normative aspirations. We can, of course, work to see that these aspirations become more real.

After that? do you mean things like the right to a decent education, a free health service, housing you can afford, freedom from poverty if you’re sick or unable to find work? because then, in order to achieve these things, you will find that a particular class of people are most likely to be unable to assure themselves of these things, and bringing about a situation in which such things would obtain will require a substantial transformation in the economic order, and not merely the adoption of normative aspirations. Yo may also find that those who are able to avail of all these goods currently will resist a more equal distribution of them – which means you will need to organise politically in order to achieve this change – and you will primarily and obviously look for the support of those currently unable to avail thereof: which leads, fairly quickly to class politics.

Or else you can just have ‘rights’ alongside huge inequalities of both opportunity and outcome.

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19. Justin - August 24, 2009

Walter Benn Michaels has said something very important, and thanks to Garibaldy for bringing him to CLR.

Where I work, in education, there are all kinds of verbal commitments to equality and diversity in race and gender but, funnily enough, the only people making the big economic and political decisions about the institution are rich members of what could reasonably (and empirically) be called the local ruling class.

To run with Benn Michaels’ example of cleaners, the cleaners where I work previously had full-time jobs with the institution. In recent years they have been pushed out and replaced by outsourced, non-unionised hourly-paid workers. Most of these cleaners are women but they are ALL workers.

You can be rich and a woman and as Michaels says, the neoliberals in this society are happy to see women at the ruling class table. But you can’t be rich and poor.

Class and earnings may not exactly coincide. Some examples of working class culture are seen as cool, these days. For example all British politicians show their street-cred at every opportunity by loudly showing their support for a football team. They can’t all like football, can they?

These cultural aspects of class are, perhaps, interesting but in this society (i.e. one without much in the way of a state safety net), in my view earnings are a pretty good measure of real class differences. I can be middle class and walk round Tesco’s in my pyjamas (or whatever might be deemed to reflect “working classism”) . But I can’t be rich and poor.

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WorldbyStorm - August 24, 2009

I think you’re right actually and your example is spot on. That would be also to some degree my experience of the education sector. And earnings are central to it, but as you say, they’re a great indicator – but not the whole story.

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20. Justin - August 24, 2009

perhaps lost it a bit with the pyjamas – it’s been a long day

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21. Justin - August 24, 2009

perhaps lost it a bit with the pyjamas example – it’s been a long day

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22. Baku26 - August 24, 2009

You lost it twice Justin. It has been a long day. Spot on nonetheless.

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23. Garibaldy - August 25, 2009

Justin,

You’ve hit the nail smack on the head.

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24. “Tony Blair’s great legacy has been to achieve Margaret Thatcher’s ambition” « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - January 24, 2010

[…] the left itself has turned away from the centrality of economics, as we discussed here and then here last August. Essentially, the Labour Party in both Britain and the Republic has become a liberal […]

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25. What will you be reading this summer? « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - July 14, 2010

[…] that to my shame I haven’t finished yet. It’s a book from Walter Benn Michaels, whose ideas about identity politics getting in the way of class politics we have discussed on CLR before. This is his 2006 book The Trouble with Diversity: How Le Learned to Love Identity and Ignore […]

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26. Tomboktu - July 15, 2010

The Equality and Rights Alliance has a web campaign called “It’s About You” in which people upload a photo of themselves and say what equality means for them. Interesting to see how many say it is about identity, and how few mention economic equality (I can’t find one in the second group, although a few have broad and encompassing descriptions).

A few examples:
Dearbhla Lenehan
Aidan Disney
Stephen Spillane
Rachel
Tony
Oein DeBhairduinGalway
Emma Rogan
Ed Davitt
Louise
Sabrina Dent

And a few broader ones:
John Baker
Niall Crowley

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27. Gender and the Con-Dem Cuts « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - August 13, 2010

[…] That seems a lot like suggesting that class may well trump gender when it comes to the impact of the cuts. Those of us raised on Connolly are of course aware that the worker’s wife is the slave of a slave, and so of the need to be sensitive to the question of gender when discussing poverty, but I do think she has a point in that there is no equality legislation that says the government must ensure that the rich do not avoid their responsibilities or bail themselves out at the expense of the poor. Once again, I raise my hobby horse of identity politics and class politics. […]

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28. George Bush Publishes Memoirs « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - November 9, 2010

[…] because they were black. We get it – you’re into class politics, not identity politics. We can sympathise – us […]

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