***Long read for the weekend***
When I was a Labour Party officer, there was a real hunger for political education amongst Corbyn-supporting members, and my constituency party had a Political Education Officer who delivered. We had films, we had workshops and we had debates. We sent people to political conferences (not just the Labour Party one) and we expected them to come back with things to tell us. It was GREAT!
Now, I rely on feminists for political education, so when I heard that Pragna Patel was addressing a meeting of JVL’s Antiracist Alliance Network, I just had to go along. I was not disappointed. Between them, they shone a light on the thinking behind most of the political issues that I, and many other ex-Labour socialists and feminists, have been wrestling with.
Click here to visit the JVL website.
The following is my takeaway from the meeting. I’m afraid I can’t remember exactly who said what all the way, so please take this as a mix of what I remembered, what I learned and my thoughts on all that.
Dealing with racism
Toyin Agbatu called for honesty and empathy, and used one of those online quizzy things to remind us that the idea of separate, definable races was a political construct, a strategy historically used to label people as the civilized versus the savage. He quoted as examples an Israeli leader who said, “there is no such thing as a Palestinian nation/history/language”, and Sarkozy who said in 2007, “The African man has never really entered history.”
Both Toyin and Pragna Patel addressed the dangers of identity politics, how such thinking can lead to culture wars and language policing, such as what happened to Gary Lineker, and the “cherry-picking” form of “diversity” the current Tory Cabinet displays with its visibly diverse group of politicians, all of whom come from privileged backgrounds, who can give the impression of the government being “inclusive” whilst criminalizing genuine vulnerability.
Meanwhile, from Farage to Sunak, right wing politicians still manage to deflect attention from right-wing injustices by implying that it’s people who look, dress, or sound different who are the problem. The current Home Secretary uses this thinking to justify putting refugees in army barracks or on barges, or even sending them arbitrarily to Rwanda, no matter where they come from or where they were trying to get to. Toyim summed up such horrific situations by underlining the fact that where people have no rights, no representation and no recognition, injustice and violence are enabled.
Identity politics does not seek an egalitarian end but has groups competing against each other for prime representation.
On the segue from class-based to identity politics, Pragna addressed the current state of our politics with:
Where did it all go wrong? How did it all go wrong?
I last saw Pragna speak at FiLiA in Cardiff. She is known to feminists as a feminist, anti-racist and anti-fundamentalist. Hers were the most memorable words I brought back from that weekend. Addressing the importance of feminism being placed on the left of the political spectrum, she reminded us that we need a feminist movement that works for all women, no-one left behind – and if we allow feminist thinking to stray to the right, where racism is tolerated, she said, “you’ll be leaving me behind.”
She pointed out during the JVL meeting that we are currently caught up in identity politics from the right and the left, in effect, applying authoritarianism from above and below. Both the left and the right use identity politics to assert and police difference, the left in particular using it to prevent internal dissent.
We should instead recognize the primary importance of addressing class, race and sex – in practice, by adhering to the principles of socialism, anti-racism and feminism. She was for many years the spokeswoman for Southall Black Sisters, where the predominant area of work (based on local need) is addressing VAWG: domestic violence, forced marriage and honour killings. All those things, she said, were being hidden by multi-culturalism, but in the 80s when multi-culturalism sunk into identity politics, the political landscape became even more difficult.
She gave the example of supporting a woman in a violent marriage, trying to help her get justice. The authorities responded by coming up with the “quick fix” answer of deporting the husband. Pragna’s colleagues then had to redouble their efforts so that they could both protect the woman from violence, and challenge a deportation that was based on racism. What would have happened in this identity-politics ridden era? Now most organizations have their specialities based on identity, I for one can imagine a feminist organization not bothering themselves about a man getting deported, and a culture-specific organization not wanting to call out the violence of a black man.
Pragna then made a point I first learned from talking with an ex-Muslim woman about how MPs wishing to be anti-racist sign up religious “community leaders” as their advisors on race-related issues, and how easily this hides from them the views of secular citizens, and supresses the views and needs of women who are disadvantaged within religious communities. Post Rushdie, Pragna said, neoliberalism, multi-culturalism and multi-faithism led to religion being protected instead of people. The rights of women and rights to freedom of speech suffer. This is a prime example of how identity politics leads to division. In Leicester, we have seen fights between Hindu and Muslim men due to authoritarianism elsewhere, men who would have been unified against racism back in the 70s, and we see accusations of white privilege which ignore class.
I am reminded of Norman Finkelstein complaining bitterly that Angela Davies all but told white supporters of a BLM gathering to shut up because they had no problems, and of Open Democracy calling Biden and Sanders “two old white men”, as though there was no point in distinguishing between two men with such very different politics, because their visible “identities” put them in the same box.
Identity politics demands the removal of individual barriers by means of everything from “unconscious bias training” to (in my experience) outright bullying, instead of providing positive political education and tackling systemic racism. To me, this where the oh-so-careful thinking is most needed – and the most difficult. Between the knee-jerk responses of the left who are increasingly dogmatic in their defense of identity issues and the right who are attempting to rubbish the whole anti-racist and anti–austerity movement as “woke nonsense”, we are in danger of becoming unable to debate at all.
In her round-up of that part of the debate, Pragna said Black people suffer disproportionately from police violence but so do, for example, women, and refugees. To tackle these problems, we need to think about our commonalities as well as our differences. In the discussions from the floor, someone pointed out that whilst we can’t decide what the working class is, the capitalist class have no problems recognizing and supporting monied people. In other words, the right stick with class politics when it suits them, the left forget.
Someone recommended the book, The Invention of Race by Geraldine Heng, which illustrates how the UK created racism to “solve” political problems – first the Jews, then the Irish then, to facilitate colonialism, a whole range of convenient others. Another recommended Kenon Malik’s Not so Black and White. Another pointed out how Women against Fundamentalism try to work against “communities” presenting as monoliths. She said that people doing anti-racist work have a responsibility to be dissident within minorities as well as against wider systemic unfairness, and another said that we need to prevent arbitrary “community leaders” taking state money and the platform of representation.
Racism within countries is invisible when the focus is post-colonialism. Addressing differences within groups as well as between groups is the real work of intersectionality.
People’s identities are hybrid and ever-changing. Be confidently dissident.
Pragna called for a Grenfell type response to political problems – we got a glimpse during the Corbyn leadership of the kind of politics that could be created – a sense of everyone coming together for the poor, for migrants, for women and children.
Solidarity must be based on values, not positioning. If we do politics by identity instead of material analysis, the dominant force will be monoculturalism applied by the ruling class. We do, however, need detailed analysis. Addressing race, sex and class can lead to missing out other issues such as disability and age, and as a primary focus, may distract from the urgency of environmental breakdown, which is the source of the most catastrophic form of discrimination.
Everyone agreed that identity politics is bad, but class is difficult to define and address.
And then someone said that the elephant in the room is the trans debate. We have allowed it to split the left, and not addressed it. We need to approach it in good faith.
Where did we go wrong, and where are we going wrong now?
(This bit is from me, not from the meeting – the group did not have enough time left to address “the trans debate” and if you’re not ready for it yet, scroll on down to the next little row of stars to dodge it but if you’d like to know why this feminist thinks gender identity is one of the most harmful manifestations of identity politics, with the ever-growing number of LGBTQIA+ identities being added to that once-useful rainbow flag the clearest example yet of idpol taken to its logical extreme, read on…)
Personally, I think “gender identity” has been weaponized against women of the left every bit as effectively as “left antisemitism” has been used against socialist Jewish people. Is it not identity politics that facilitates the “cry bully” tactic? I think the parallels are quite startling. For example, just as JVL was founded to promote and support progressive Jewish people in the Labour Party, so the Labour Women’s Declaration Group was founded to protect and support the work of left wing feminists when they were facing similar pressures and injustices. There’s a link to the Declaration below – if you agree, please consider signing it.
Click here to read the Labour Women’s Declaration
Trans-sexualism is not a new thing. It has only become a drastically divisive problem since the 1990s (perhaps it was cooking in the 1980s, which is where Pragna reckons identity politics crept up on us). Someone in the JVL discussion said that identity politics flourished because of the decline of the Labour movement. I think it looks that way because it’s really not the working class, the “old left” who are driving gender-ideology. It’s people who came after them, who think they are of the left, but are largely strangers to material analysis.
If you address trans-sexualism as the 2004 GRA did, you see those people, mostly men, mostly in their forties or fifties, who want to “live as women” as just that – males who want to live as women, and so you devise a system to help and protect them. So far, so good. No-one in that original GRA debate yelled “transwomen are women”, or demanded the ostracism of anyone who did not believe that was so. They did not aim to wipe out the sex-based rights that women’s services funding depends on. That came later, after Stonewall signed up to the identity-politics based notion that “woman is a feeling”, that if you believe you are something, that is your identity, and your personal statement of identity trumps actual, recordable sources oppression and disadvantage.
The politicians back then also did not see the “born in the wrong body” movement coming. Trans sexualism was largely the preserve of mature men, and no-one knew they were opening the door to a kind of cult that would persuade so many kids that they “needed” to “change sex”. Now, that problem urgently needs addressing and in my view, we urgently need the left to understand the deeply classist and misogynist nature of the gender-identity movement.
If you doubt my statement, answer me this: why does the movement stand up for the right of males to be seen as women regardless of whether they have committed themselves to “the op”, or any other inconvenient or irreversable measures, whereas it pushes strongly for young girls suffering distress and dysphoria to be given puberty blockers, mastectomies and all the rest of it? Why is no-one asking whether transmen (female) are safe in men’s spaces or men’s prisons, whilst demanding that transwomen (male) are given shelter in women’s spaces, women’s prisons? Why is no-one telling men they should stop using the words “man” and “male” in their literature? Why was it so easy for trans lobby groups to test their methods in Scottish women’s prisons? Does no-one care what happens to women in prisons?
And perhaps above all, why are so many people so furiously determined that women should not be allowed to meet and talk about how and where changes proposed for trans people affect women’s legal rights? Is it no longer possible to support trans people and women’s sex-based rights? If it really isn’t possible, why not?
We must not replace “solidarity” with “allyship”
Allyship is tribal. Allyship allows those who say “transwomen are women” to fight for the destruction of women’s rights because transwomen are “their team” and no-one else matters.
So was it the decline of the left that allowed identity politics to replace class analysis? I would argue that it might be the other way round. I wonder if the speaker was aware that Stonewall, Mermaids and other such organizations have been going into primary schools teaching “born in the wrong body”, quasi-religious identity-based ideas since around 2004 – we have a generation of youngsters who learned identity politics at school, probably before they had even heard of socialism. (By the by if you want a calm, well-sourced book on what’s happening to the kids, I recommend Time to Think by Hannah Barnes.)
This has already produced nightmares such as the police officer that phoned a man to tick him off for his use of language on twitter, saying “I’m worried about what you’re thinking.” The danger of the real police becoming thought-police was more or less predicted by a Tory in the GRA debate – here’s a telling clip from Hansard (you can tell it’s a Tory by the language and attitude, but it’s a valid point)…
… as for how all that affects our politics now, you’ll have to go all the way to the Communist Party to find a response that makes sense to me:
Communist Party executive committee STATEMENT March 2023
“… The Communist Party is the only political party with a coherent political analysis of sex and gender. Gender as an ideological construct should not be confused or conflated with the material reality of biological sex. Gender is the vehicle through which misogyny is enacted and normalised. Gender identity ideology is well- suited to the needs of the capitalist class, focusing as it does on individual as opposed to collective rights, enabling and supporting the super-exploitation of women.”
Click here for the full statement, published in response to the recent exchanges between Westminster and the Scottish parliament.
Finally, the Prevent Programme came up in that JVL debate – an example of “identity politics from the top”, with that focus on difference which is so useful for the right – because it creates division on the left. Pragna agreed, but added that although the state is using it as part of its surveillance tactics, we do need a way to rescue kids from fundamentalism and terrorism.
I would love to see a debate of the quality of this JVL one on how we might actually do that. When I described to my daughter the “signs of radicalization” that Prevent asks teachers to look out for, she said ‘but they’re just describing teenage behaviour.’
Diversity has been reduced to identity politics by both left and right, each for their own ends. We must respond by relating all these issues back to structural oppression rather than dividing on “tribal” lines and falling into battles over single-issue politics.
Solidarity is a coming together on the basis of common values, not common identity.
My thanks to JVL for the best evening of Political Education I’ve had since the dispersal of our old Labour Party. If you think the above debate sounds interesting, please consider joining JVL for more. If you’re not Jewish, you can still join as a friend if you’re not a Labour member, there’s a solidarity membership (common values, remember?) If you’re without an income, they’ll accept you for a fiver a year. I’m going to join – hope to see you there!
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