Being a both/and party

The fantastic Maryan Street was awarded life membership at the Labour Party annual conference yesterday, and in her speech she said some things which really rang true for me. She rejected the idea that Labour has to prioritise or pick and choose which principles it follows:

We’ve never been the either/or party. We opposed the invasion of Abyssinia AND we built state houses.

And spelled out something I’ve thought for a long time (slightly paraphrased):

Economic equality is not so far away from gender equality. Equity is not so far away from pay equity. The living wage – living with dignity – is not so far away from dying with dignity.

The first point I’d make is one I’ve made a few times: we can do more than one thing at a time. But too frequently, some groups – usually women, or Māori, or young people, etc – are basically told to sit down and hush and “when we get into government we’ll deal with your issues. But right now, they’re a distraction.”

On the other hand, the other side – usually the older, whiter, dudely groups – will argue that we’ve focused too much on precisely those issues. Look at the political credit we burned on anti-smacking legislation (even though it was a Green member’s bill overwhelmingly supported in Parliament) or marriage equality (even though it was a hugely popular, highly successful campaign). Haven’t you lot had enough of the spotlight?

Yet, I’d argue, just look at the bread-and-butter work of the Labour Party. We have a Future of Work commission – not a Future of Women commission. We still treat the Finance portfolio as the single most senior role after the leadership – not Pacific Affairs.

Who’s right? Everyone and no one. Both sides (and it’s a massive oversimplification to talk only of two sides) can field any number of arguments and retorts and examples to justify their sense of unfairness. No one will ever change their minds as long as we hold onto the idea that we’re talking about separate, distinct issues.

That’s where the second point comes in. 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.

So I flippantly say we don’t have a Future of Women commission. And someone might look at that and say “see, bloody feminists, they just want things for themselves, what about the future of men, huh?” but the fact is that the future of work is indistinguishable from the future of women. Women’s empowerment and economic activity (which we should stop talking about, but indulge me) globally, represent a massive force for change. People’s ability to plan their families, their access to healthcare or education or civic society or legal protections are just as important, if not more, than the increasing progress of technology.

A lot of that might sound like frightening, fringe-issue identity politics which don’t appeal to Middle New Zealand.

But it’s a fundamental principle of the labour movement: when you lift the wages and conditions of workers in one site or one major industry, it ripples out across the whole community. And when you reduce inequality, everyone in society benefits, even the people at the top.

We’re all fighting the same fight. Our issues all fundamentally come down to one: capitalism, an oppressive power structure that impacts everyone differently, but impacts everyone nevertheless.

And if we move out of this either/or frame of thinking, and remember that not only can we do more than one thing at a time, but we are doing more than one thing at a time when we support each other in our struggles, think how much more we could do.

When are identities political?

Morgan Godfery has a great post up at The Ruminator about the Auckland housing/Chinese surnames story. His last paragraph inspired me to start jotting down notes for this post on the bus home:

The irony here is that almost a year ago a handful of Labour MPs, Twyford included, were complaining about how their party lost the election because it was focused on identity. These same MPs are now pandering to issues of identity. Singling out ethnic Chinese, in a blatant attempt to court what David Shearer once called the white blokes’ vote, is the worst form of identity politics.

In the same way Morgan asks “When are numbers racist?” I’m going to springboard off that paragraph into another question: When are identities political?

As Morgan points out, there are no cries of “that’s just identity politics” when we’re singling out specific ethnicities for criticism. But stumble into any mainstream leftwing discussion and say “the casualisation of work disproportionately harms women” and the objections will be immediate and very loud.

The key difference, perhaps, is that one situation involves naming the other and categorising their otherness as part of a problem which needs to be fixed. One involves naming yourself and demanding that your problems be accepted as real and important.

That means identity isn’t the real problem. Self-identity is. Taking on the labels which capitalist society has forced upon us – its primary way of replicating its own values and dispossession of the majority – and saying “Yes I am, yet you will treat me with dignity anyway.” It means not being a passive object, exploited for the benefit of capital. It means demanding the right to be a subject – a person not just worthy of fair and equal treatment, but whose interests capital must serve.

This is why identity politics is a bad thing to people who have benefited from the power imbalances which fuel capitalism. When anti-feminists declare that men are “losing their rights”, they kind of have a point: increasing gender equality does mean men lose the right to abuse their wives and lose the right to automatically get custody and lose the right to get paid more for doing the same job without anyone questioning it.

Along any of the “identity” lines where capitalism fences off a group of people and says “your labour and your lives are worth less than other workers'”, rebalancing the scales will involve a relative loss of power and privilege for the group who were “fortunate” enough to be valued just that little bit more.

The irony is that those privileged groups will then complain that it’s the less-valued groups’ labour which is driving down their wages and conditions (see the far-too-common, “women’s lib caused wages to drop” argument any time the gender pay gap gets raised). We all see the sense in the old parable about the rich man, the working-class man and the unemployed man sharing a pie; the rich man eats nine slices, gives the working-class man one, and says “look out, that unemployed guy’s trying to steal your pie.” Yet we stumble when the scenario isn’t about white men at the pub; when it’s women, or migrants, or young workers who are painted as the enemy.

When we fully appreciate that sexism, racism, and xenophobia are alternate sides of the same (apparently multidimensional) coin as class oppression, we can easily accept that identity politics isn’t separate from the leftwing struggle, much less an unwelcome distraction. It’s part and parcel of the same struggle.

That’s why it’s so infuriating to be told, effectively, and persistently, to wait until after the revolution. Overthrowing racism is part of the revolution. Smashing patriarchy is part of the revolution. Disrupting the gender binary is part of the revolution.

The difficulty doesn’t lie in reconciling social justice with economic justice. It lies in the resistance of those of us, who have benefited from wealth or whiteness or maleness, against challenging the systems which benefit us. And, for those of us on the left, the resistance against acknowledging that we aren’t without sin. We aren’t cured of a lifetime of sexist or racist indoctrination just because the lightbulb of class consciousness came on at some point.

This isn’t a dig at anyone. I myself have benefited from my race, from having a gender identity and sexual orientation which are “normal”, from the kind of education that means I’m quite comfortable beginning a sentence with “I myself.” I have learned, but I’m not perfect.

In the same way an alcoholic will always be an alcoholic, and it can be downright dangerous to think you’re “cured”, people raised under patriarchal, white-supremacist capitalism will always be touched by the values of patriarchal, white-supremacist capitalism. We can’t assume we’re “cured” just because we changed the language we use to describe people we don’t like, or totally hired a woman this one time because she really was the best candidate. That way lies complacency and the absolute certainty of screwing up.

So we need to think really hard before we start pointing the finger at “other” identity groups, and we need to stop treating “identity politics” as competition to “important issues”. If there is a struggle of the oppressed against the powerful, being on the side of the oppressed is what being leftwing means to me.

Repost: Life isn’t fair. But it should be.

(Originally posted at On The Left.)

I was not an angelic child.

My mother has retconned her memory of my early years since I became an adult, and my grandmother delicately phrases it as “you were a little troubled”. The truth is I was a terror. When I thought something wasn’t fair, you heard about it. And when I was told “well life isn’t fair, Stephanie” it only made things worse. And louder.

These days, I blog.

It may be that Mum and Grandma only have themselves to blame. They raised me with far too strong a sense of justice, which revolted at any suggestion of accepting unfairness as an immutable fact.

Well before I could put it as eloquently as I hope I’m doing now, I knew it wasn’t good enough to say “that’s just the way things are” or “life isn’t fair”. If something was wrong, it was wrong, and importantly, it didn’t have to stay that way.

All the issues which resonate with me today – like workers’ rights, reproductive justice, poverty – are issues of justice and fairness. Because it isn’t just that workers be expected to exchange their labour for inadequate wages, and it isn’t just that people, predominantly women, are denied the right to choose whether they have children or not and under what circumstances, and it isn’t just that children go to school with empty lunchboxes while the CEO of ANZ gets paid $11,000 per day.

Those things simply are not fair. And I didn’t – and I don’t – care if life isn’t fair.

The structure of our society, the relationships we have with other people, and universal experiences we all go through – none of these things are set in stone, however long we’ve lived with them or how ingrained they are in our psyches.

So that was where I started, with a strong sense of justice and a belief that things can and should change.

That only got worse once I figured out the next step: those unfair structures aren’t accidental. The fact that they reinforce the power of the powerful and keep the oppressed oppressed certainly isn’t.

We live in a world designed so the powerful can maintain their power. And this is unjust.

This is the major reason why I’ve always been confused by the inherent conflict some people on the left see between “class politics” and “identity politics” (the second reason is because I think there’s a good case to be made that class itself is an “identity”, especially in the 21st century.) In the frame of justice, in the context of power structures conspiring to keep the majority down so the minority prosper in extravagance, we are all the same in the eyes of the powers that be. The only difference is that some of us are denied the fruits of our labour, and some of us are denied bodily autonomy (and get even less of the fruits of our labour), and many, many of us are kept hungry and desperate and alienated – far too preoccupied with the necessities of life to give a damn about deeper questions of political philosophy.

(There’s also the issue of intersectionality, i.e. the way the different oppressions and power structures of our society combine/multiply/reinforce themselves against many people.)

At the core, the oppressed are united in their oppression. It just takes different forms (and some of those forms are much worse than others.)

Of course reality is much more complex. The sad reality is that many people who are staunch activists on one axis of oppression can be pretty terrible on another (misogynist leftwing men, my god, you’re a problem.) And as someone who’s relatively privileged myself – Pākehā, cis, hetero, upper-middle-class, university-educated, currently able-bodied – it’s very easy for me to say “we’re all in this together”. So I’m not saying that. A lot of people have very good reasons not to throw their lot in with activists like me.

What I am saying is this: I’m on the Left because I do believe in justice. I know we can fight for it. I know life will always have its ups and downs. But by god, it should be fair.