Identity Politics

By February 12, 2020Other

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.

Join the discussion 10 Comments

  • Chris Warren says:

    An interesting thought: “…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, “. Has this been argued elsewhere?

    However I would have thought that moves for workers (or labourers) inclusion into the body politics long preceded anything promulgated by Marx or Engels. For example the Levellers and Diggers in UK, and the inclusion of more of the citizens in the French Revolution and American colonial revolutionary doctrines.

    Also in New South Wales the workers or their supporters, seem to have been actively seeking or protecting rights to participation as opposed to efforts of others, such as WC Wentworth. to introduce an Australian nobility. Manhood suffrage – obtained in 1850’s suggests the drive for inclusion into the body politic was independent of Marx and Engels.

    The motive for inclusion seems to me to have been a mixture of moral outrage being spread by new pamphlets, coffee houses, and news-sheets plus many riots and peasant/labourer uprisings.

  • John McDougall says:

    I remember being told, by an English teacher, that people have sex; words have gender. Has this changed?

    • Boambee John says:

      John

      Orwellian control of the language was supposed to be a warning, not a “how to” guide.

    • John Stankevicius says:

      Hi Don
      This identity nonsense exploded in 2007 with that lacquosious Kevin 07.
      Facebook became popular and it seems to me that idiotic student union hit a gold mine. Rather than these crumpled roll your own fags standing on street corners handing out “socialist alliance” etc.they were able to disperse their hatred virally.

      This pack of pack twats hates everyone around them while enjoying the high standard of living.

      They Now unbelievably run the show. I never thought this non sense would ever happen and the idiotic tasks they get paid for (ripping the private sector off – taxation without representation)

  • Boambee John says:

    Don

    One of the more poisonous developments in the modern polity has been the reversal of Martin Luther King’s great objective, so that there are now widespread demands to be “Judged not by the content of a group’s character, but by its members’ self-identification”.

    As this attitude spreads, the possibility of maintenance of an harmonious community with common objectives declines.

    Drawing on your example of the gays, their original demand was for legalisation of their status. This was reasonable; the laws were not being enforced, and their continued existence brought the rule of law into disrepute. The next demand was for tolerance and acceptance; again this was reasonable, legal behaviour should be tolerated and accepted to the extent that it does not interfere with the legal behaviour of others.

    We have now reached the point where anything less than celebration seems inadequate for some gay campaigners, yet many have now become intolerant of others.

    Should such an attitude spread across other identity groups, the Australian community risks fracture along identity lines. This cannot be a positive development.

    • JMO says:

      As a White, hetro, retired male with 3 hetro children and a loving wife ie on the bottom of the heap, the despised oppressor and colonial descendant 1st generation Australia…boo… hiss I accept and (up to point) tolerate homosexuality. However I never respect them just because of their sexuality. Respect has to be earned just like any other irrespective how they identify themselves as. As I consider homosexuality as absolutely abhorrent, I will never celebrate it.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    A person of Don’s stature should also acknowledge that in a democracy, a demographic group of sufficient numbers, voting as a block, could also effectively take over the country.

    • Chris Warren says:

      Bryan

      Your use of the term “sufficient numbers” was far too vague.

      In Australia, the requirement is set out in the amendment provisions of the Australian Constitution.

      • Bryan Roberts says:

        The DLP, the Nationals, and the Greens. All have swayed policy. Don’ be disingenuous.

        • Chris Warren says:

          Many elements “sway policy”. This is how democracy functions, but I cannot see how this can be termed a “takeover” effective or otherwise.

          Surely, if they get sufficeint numbers in terms of the Constitution, then there is no issue.

          So what is “disingenuous” about this?

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