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.

“Labour values” are more than a talking point

If there’s a sure bet in New Zealand politics (besides “don’t rule out Winston”) it’s this: when a Labour candidate wants to reassure a Labour audience that they’ve got the right stuff, they’ll say one thing: “My values are Labour values.”

It sets the bar. It works for anyone vaguely Labour-affiliated. The problem is that’s because it’s empty.

The first issue is the gutting of language in the age of spin doctors. Words like “fairness” have lost all clarity. A leader of literally any political party can say “I believe the government has a role in providing housing to the poorest families” and it could mean anything from building 10,000 state houses to public-private partnerships to privatising almost everything – and they usually don’t explain. It’s about the soundbite.

Obviously no one wins in the game of thick policy documents at ten paces, but there’s no point speaking plain English if you still sound like every other player on the field.

Besides, “Labour values” is an amorphous thing, thanks to its colourful background. How do you nail down any foundational, enduring ideology for a party which gave the country Michael Joseph Savage and Roger Douglas?

You can play No True Labour, rejecting the bits which don’t fit your Platonic party image, but I think it’s much easier to acknowledge that Labour has screwed the pooch in the past – and needs to define itself for now and the future.

There’s an argument that “Labour values” don’t have to mean something concrete. Plenty of people think the important stuff, “what voters really care about”, is a vision, and a set of policies to get you there (or screw the vision, people just want policies, and vice versa.)

I disagree. Everything – vision, policies, even how the party functions and who holds key roles (and who wants to be a member of your party, or stand as its candidate) – must rest on a strong, clear idea of why you’re actually here. Or you’re flailing from day one.

Plus, it means there’s no such thing as a side issue. There’s one direction and one driving force, and every little bit builds the picture of who you are.

If one core value is that government has the power and duty to support people against the exploitative power of the market, it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about the Living Wage, health and safety, skills training or benefits people can survive on.

If one core value is that life-long access to education is a human right which cannot be undermined by the pursuit of profit, you can talk about free tertiary education, rural mobile libraries, or subsidising early childhood education.

Even policies which only directly benefit a small group “matter” when they show you’re driven by well-defined principles.

Voters don’t have to check where you stand on any particular issue when they know what’s at your core. We don’t have to ask which way ACT or the Greens will fall on any particular issue. We just know who favours tax cuts and who’ll save the dolphins. (National is a weird exception at the moment, torn between rightwing true-believers and poll-driven power-for-the-sake-of-power types.)

Labour hasn’t got its core sorted out. The policy platform is a good first step – but it’s too long, and separates out the economy and social development and education as separate things, developed by separate working groups, without a checklist of assumptions and principles to tie it all together.

So, where do we start? Even awful corporate mission statements take a lot of work to develop (unless you cheat.) How do you refine and condense a huge set of ideas – the very government of our country – into a simple, unequivocal set of principles?

I don’t have all the answers. But I think we could do worse than start with a speech given by a certain aspiring Labour man just last year:

It is about justice.  In fact it is about injustice.  I cannot stand injustice.  And when I talk about injustice I am talking about when the powerful take advantage of the weak.  And we have a society and a country where increasingly we are allowing the powerful to take advantage of the weak, the economically powerful, the privileged taking advantage of those who don’t have that privilege and that power.

And it sticks in my craw and it is wrong and it is against every Labour principle that we all know.

My values – and I hope, Labour’s values – are about standing with the disempowered against the powerful. Rebalancing the scales. Challenging the systems that oppress us. What are yours?