This article is part of the project of revisiting a piece I wrote for the Independent Working Class Association (IWCA) back in 2009: Multiculturalism & identity politics – the reactionary consequences and how they can be challenged. The piece I wrote for the IWCA was originally intended to be an internal discussion paper and to say I was surprised when I found it published pretty much straight away on their website is an understatement! There’s a difference between an internal discussion paper which will inevitably have flaws because it’s about working towards an understanding of the issues being examined, and a finished piece which generally has a more coherent idea of where it’s going. I’ll be the first to admit there are flaws in Multiculturalism & identity politics – however, are were elements of it which I feel still make some valid points. What follows is an effort at examining some of those points.
Is cultural identity fixed or is it something that’s always evolving, adapting and changing? There are elements on the right and in particular, the far right, who see cultural identity as something that’s more or less fixed and only evolves slowly. What follows is an outline of why the notion of cultural identity as something that’s pretty much fixed stems from a flawed understanding of how humanity has evolved. It then moves on to start the process of explaining why this is dangerous, particularly when it’s applied to some notions of class, and why it needs to be debunked…
Cultural identity is fluid and dynamic
If cultural identity is fixed, it begs this question – how has humanity evolved to where we are today? Surely the history of humanity is about cultures meeting, adapting and evolving as a consequence ? As cultures meet, interact, borrow from each other and evolve, the sense of identity that’s bound up with belonging to a culture inevitably changes. The evolution of humanity is a dynamic process so by definition, the development of culture will also be a dynamic process with the consequence that to a greater or lesser degree, a sense of identity will always be fluid. In Cultural Identity is Continually Being Produced Within the Vectors of Similarity and Difference Emily Galea writes: Nevertheless, what is commonly overlooked is the relationship between identity and culture and the ever-changing nature of such cultures, meaning that identity cannot possibly be a fixed entity which a person carries throughout their life time. It is a living, breathing concept, constantly changing according to the trends and attitudes of said time.
Obviously when a militarily dominant culture has encountered a militarily less dominant one, there are issues of conquest and cultural destruction that need to be taken into consideration. When this happens, the issue of cultural appropriation has to be acknowledged and addressed in a nuanced way. In this post on Everyday Feminism ( 14 June, 2015) – What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm – Maisha Johnson concisely explains the difference between cultural appropriation, cultural exchange and assimilation: A deeper understanding of cultural appropriation also refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group. That’s why cultural appropriation is not the same as cultural exchange, when people share mutually with each other – because cultural exchange lacks that systemic power dynamic. It’s also not the same as assimilation, when marginalized people adopt elements of the dominant culture in order to survive conditions that make life more of a struggle if they don’t. However, when cultures meet on a relatively level playing field, there will be an exchange of ideas where all participants can adapt, evolve and develop as a consequence. This is taking a positive view of human progress where cultures interact and feed off each other as part of that process. To accept the idea that cultural identity is fixed and unchanging is to stand in the way of the notion of human progress.
A retreat into cultural identity
We’re living through a turbulent and increasingly pessimistic period of human history. When times become tougher, there tends to be a retreat into cultural identity to compensate for the lack of social, political and material progress. People become more inclined to celebrate what they are rather than what they could become through political struggle. This is particularly the case when any notion that fundamental, systemic change that could result in a more just, equitable society has been getting systematically discredited ever since the start of the rise of globalised neo-liberalism in the 1980s.
Those elements on the left who are more fixated on forms of identity politics which implicitly accept that people are where they are and need to be treated better rather than liberated through achieving fundamental, systemic change, have contributed to the retreat into cultural identity. Moving away from a politics that generates solidarity based on broadly shared material and social demands to one that divides people based on notions about their identity has led us to where we are now. The political project of social and material progress that can benefit the many has been more or less put on hold, with the fall of the Iron Curtain being a catalyst in accelerating this tendency. A tacit acceptance of gobalised neo-liberalism by the left has left them with nothing but identity politics to champion. In this article in New Humanist (May 2007) – Against multiculturalism – Kenan Malik wrote: As the meaning of politics has narrowed, so people have begun to view themselves and their social affiliations in a different way. Social solidarity has become increasingly defined not in political terms – as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals but in terms of ethnicity or culture. The question people ask themselves are not so much ‘What kind of society do I want to live in?’ as ‘Who are we?’
Populist nationalism and identity
While some elements on the left and in the anarchist movement have become more focused on identity politics, many people left behind by gobalised neo-liberalism feel they’ve been abandoned by those supposedly espousing progressive politics. As the globalised neo-liberal order continues to fray at the seams after the financial crisis of 2008, the left has been caught wrong footed by a resurgent, populist, nationalist right who are gleefully filling the vacuum that has been created by the abandonment of any universalist project that seeks social justice and material progress for all.
The populist, nationalist right play on people’s fear of change, particularly the rapid change that has characterised the period of globalised neo-liberalism that’s now coming to an end. In particular, they play on a fear of change that people feel they’ve absolutely no control over. Paradoxically, that fear of change is shared by pretty much everyone on this planet whose lives have been turned upside down by the adverse impact of globalised neo-liberalism. This ranges from the inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa who in the face of increased desertification are forced to become refugees through to the inhabitants of the former mill towns of northern England who have seen the industries that used to provide them with a living exported to locations where workers can be more easily exploited.
Regardless of what may seem to be massive differences between the peoples involved, they have all been severely disadvantaged by a globalised neo-liberalism that puts profits way ahead of the needs of ordinary people. Yet in the absence of an inclusive, universalist project seeking social justice and material progress for all, the latter are being encouraged by the various forces of the right to see the former as an threat to their way of life and existence. When a unifying politics that engenders solidarity across a range of groups struggling for social and material progress has imploded, we end up with the situation we now face.
It should not come as a surprise that some elements in the white working class component of those left behind are starting to become more receptive to the siren voices of the populist, nationalist right. This reactionary political tendency sees cultural identity as something that’s pretty much fixed and only changes and evolves slowly. They play on the fears of those who have seen their communities change as a result of inward migration, citing supposedly irreconcilable cultural differences as a reason why immigration not only has to stop but why repatriation should be ‘encouraged’. They start to apply elements of the language of the politics of identity that suit them, twist them around and confer upon the white working class, an identity of their own. After all they will say, if having a cultural identity is acceptable for every other group, why should it not be acceptable for the white working class to have their own (traditional and reactionary) identity?
The material and social interests of the working class as a whole have been largely subsumed by a politics of identity which the right have co-opted elements of to confer upon the white working class. A united response to the depredations of a failing globalised neo-liberalism becomes an impossibility to achieve as the populist right completes the process of fragmentation inadvertently started by some elements of the left. So when a section of the white working class feel they have been left behind and are powerless to influence the forces that are changing their lives, they will be receptive to those political elements who promise them stability, self respect and so on. It matters not that the populist, nationalist right are exploiting the white working class for their own cynical ends – in the absence of a credible, forward looking alternative from the left that will put people in control of their lives, communities and workplaces, it’s the reactionaries who are gaining ground at an alarming rate.
The dangers of class becoming a fixed identity
While an embittered section of the white working class may well buy into the notion that their cultural identity is more or less fixed and has to be defended, they fail to see how that has the potential to be turned against them. It cannot be overstated that the populist, nationalist right sees the white working class as something to be used for their own cynical ends. Which is why the notion of cultural identity as something that’s fixed being one that could also be applied to class differences always seems to get overlooked. Which is a surprise given the eugenicist literature that says class differences are more or less immutable and that if society is to ‘progress’, the lower classes should be ‘discouraged’ from ‘breeding’.
Traditional conservatives claim that cultures do not mix successfully and that different peoples are best left to get on with their own affairs. This stems from the assumption that culture is a relatively fixed characteristic of any given society and one that only evolves slowly. The same argument has been used by some conservatives to justify the continuance of class divisions, hence their making efforts to depict class as something that’s more or less immutable with only some being deemed capable of making an upward move out of their class. Obviously, it is a rare conservative who will explicitly state such open prejudice – most will choose a form of language that either implies or sows the seed of a notion in peoples’ minds that there’s a natural and unchanging aspect to class divisions. This Guardian report (12 May 2009) – ‘Don’t say I was wrong’ – cites an example of how these notions can be sown with this utterance from a former chief schools inspector, Chris Woodhead, on the issue of social class and life chances: I think it would be unlikely that large numbers of grammar school kids would come from those disadvantaged areas – the genes are likely to be better if your parents are teachers, academics, lawyers, whatever. And the nurture is likely to be better. But that doesn’t mean that there are not going to be DH Lawrences.
Racial thinking in the 19th century had its origins in the deterministic notion that the poor were poor because of the lot dealt to them by nature and that in the main, there was little chance of the majority of them ever being able to transcend their circumstances. This account of working class life in the Saturday Review, a well-read magazine of the Victorian era, typifies the English middle class attitudes of this era: The Bethnal Green poor… are a caste apart, a race of whom we know nothing, whose lives are of quite different complexion from ours, persons with whom we have no point of contact. And although there is not yet quite the same separation of classes or castes in the country, yet the great mass of the agricultural poor are divided from the educated and the comfortable, from squires and parsons and tradesmen, by a barrier which custom has forged through long centuries, and which only very exceptional circumstances ever beat down, and then only for an instant. The slaves are separated from the whites by more glaring… marks of distinction; but still distinctions and separations, like those of English classes which always endure, which last from the cradle to the grave, which prevent anything like association or companionship, produce a general effect on the life of the extreme poor, and subject them to isolation, which offer a very fair parallel to the separation of the slaves from the whites.
If you think that such thinking about the poor belongs in the past, then ponder the de-humanising, cruel way the Department of Work & Pensions treats benefit claimants. Consider how increasingly hostile attitudes towards claimants have been whipped up by a predominantly right wing media. Think about where this climate of hostility could lead if the assumptions behind it are not challenged and thoroughly discredited.
This piece has been revised on a number of occasions over the years. It’s back up again and if there are still flaws in it, constructive criticism and debate are more than welcome. We’re facing a future where technology and automation has the potential to destroy millions of jobs. Unless there’s a radical re-structuring of the political and social order so we have a society that can share the benefits of that automation among all of its citizens, then we face a dark future. One where the notion of culture as fixed and unchanging has also been applied to thinking about class differences. With the ruling elites pondering on how to accommodate millions upon millions of people who have no useful role in the automated world they rule over, the notion that the poor are poor because of their chromosomes will be incredibly useful for them…