It all started a long time ago, a century and a half, perhaps, when the conservative side of politics noted that the working classes were getting richer, and needed to be drawn into the body politic lest they follow the notions of Marx and Engels, and see life as a constant struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Political leaders like Bismarck in Germany and Salisbury in England invented things like the old age pension, public health and public education. What they accomplished were tiny steps at first, but almost revolutionary in their implication. Conservative governments could afford to spend, too, for the second half the 19thcentury was a period in which, very generally, European, American and Australian governments grew richer and more expansive. In time all men and then, much later, all women, gained the vote. Since there were many more of the working class than of the bourgeoisie, why didn’t the working class parties simply sweep the polls?
Ah, because there was more to governing than simply sharing out the wealth more evenly, though that was important. You had to feel that things were ‘safe’ and for a long time a lot of working-class voters felt ‘safer’ with the conservatives, in part because the Labour parties and their equivalents — very generally, the ‘Left’ — were seen as too radical. In Australia the nostrum came to be that Australians preferred Liberal governments enacting Labor policies. There was a lot to that, and you can see it in the length of time that the two sides have been in power since 1910, when 95 per cent of the electorate voted for one or other party, and only their candidates won seats.
When I started studying our party system in the early 1960s I was struck by that sharp division, still true fifty years after the beginnings of the system. Yes, Labor had split into the ALP and the DLP, while the Liberals now relied on the Country Party, whose power base was obvious in its name. Compulsory and preferential voting had come to stay, but on election day the two-party system was still plain and obvious.
It has become less so as the next half-century or so has passed. Independent candidates are sometimes elected, there is a party of Greens who claim about ten per cent of the vote, and MPs can and do leave their parties because of dissatisfaction with the leadership, policy direction or its lack, or frustrated ambition. One element of this shift is what is commonly called ‘identity politics’. The term grew out of the radical movements of the 1960s, in particular ‘black power’ and feminism. Here what was contemptuously cast aside was the notion of economic exchange, and its replacement by the claim that what was wrong was discrimination on the ground of colour or of sex (not ‘gender’, which should be used for language). Political theories grew out of this new sensibility. The world was run by men, for example, and ‘patriarchy’ could be seen to be the cause of almost everything bad.
In the last twenty years or so more and more people and groups have begun to propose their own sense of political grievance in the same way. Some of them fit neatly into the feminist or colour theories. Male homosexuals, for example, could pick up on the notion of ‘oppression’, quite fairly on the ground that there were laws that prohibited sodomy. Why, they argued, should what happened in bedrooms be a concern of the State? The answers, when they were offered, went back to the Bible. A decreasingly Christian Australia became increasingly tolerant: laws were not enforced and finally they were abandoned altogether. That was not enough for the gays. If my understanding is a fair one, the notion that a heterosexual person should ‘respect’ a homosexual one, ‘despite our differences’ morphed into a desire for respect ‘because of our differences’.
What does ‘respect’ mean here? I am not at all sure. What happens when I respect such a person? Does she in turn respect me, because I am old, male, white, heterosexual, a comfortably off (more or less, depending on whom you are comparing me with) resident in an aged-care facility, able to write books and maintain a blog, and so on. I don’t think so. I think I am seen as one of the oppressors. That, at any rate, is what I pick up when I read some of the stuff from the self-identifying oppressed. That I don’t feel or act like an oppressor is neither here nor there. Engels and later Gramsci would regard my position simply as ‘false consciousness’ — meaning I don’t understand my true position in a capitalist world. Maybe so. I stopped arguing about all that crappy stuff a long time ago.
Homosexuals, to continue with this example, are now simply a stream of a wider LGBTQ ‘community’, a movement that seems to have begun in the 1990s and whose banner is the rainbow flag. The number of letters in the initialism tells you something straightaway. L is for lesbian and G is for gay, a separation by sex. B stands for those who can bat for either team. T is for transgender and Q is for those who question or puzzle about their sexual orientation. One feminist/lesbian strain in the last century included an objection to gays, on the ground they were patronising, among other things. The five letters do not encompass all people thought to be oppressed on the ground of sex. The largest I have seen is LGBTTQQIAAP (look it up!). These groups form a sort of political coalition, though their problems are different ones. So far as I can see, they are properly linked only if there is an obvious ‘oppression’ on the ground of sex. Since my large extended family includes both lesbian and transgender people, and they are very much part of our family, I put this all forward without criticism. As a former political scientist, however, I find it all puzzling.
The main reason for the puzzle is that ‘respect’ doesn’t seem to get us anywhere. To be sure, governments and corporations have begun to set up workshops where staff are informed about diversity and respect, not to mention acknowledgement of country and other useful things. That is a sort of respect, but how far it creeps into the consciousness of the staff is moot. Today I learned of a Pakistani teacher who was favourably overwhelmed by the way in which he and his colleagues were informed about the special problems of children with disabilities. It was quite new to him. So there you are.
Nonetheless, I cannot see how our political system can accommodate cries for freedom from oppression and for ‘real’ respect unless the oppression is obvious to everyone and the lack of respect likewise. I just can’t see it, and that may be false consciousness blinding my eyes again. As I like data and good argument, even ‘facts’, I needed to be persuaded by their use. As an endnote, women are now arguably on their way to run the Western world, if the numbers of men and women graduating from university are any guide. What will happen then? Since women are larger in number absolutely, as well, will men need to become ‘oppressed’? I hope we are all more sensible than that.