Radical chains: why class matters by Chris Nineham Radical Chains: Why Class Matters by Chris Nineham

In the second extract from his new book, Radical Chains, Chris Nineham explains the limits to a political practice based on identity

Not all contemporary radical politics tends towards generalisation, however. The situation is contradictory and the extreme atomisation and reification of the neoliberal years and low levels of specifically class-based struggle have inevitably had an impact. In tension with the mood for generalisation, there is also a strong contemporary tendency to focus on the particularity of experience rather than seeking common ground and understanding oppression as structural. All confident assertions of identity by oppressed groups or individuals raise some kind of challenge to the prevailing setup. But though identity politics started out as an attempt to force marginalised experiences into the mainstream, it has often led to the prioritisation of personal experience over general understanding. As Asad Haider argues in his assessment of contemporary identity politics, on its own, the assertion of identity risks leaving the sources of oppression unanalysed:

“It is based on the individual’s demand for recognition and it takes that individual’s identity as its starting point. It takes this identity for granted and suppresses the fact that all identities are socially constructed. And because all of us necessarily have identities that are different from everyone else’s, it undermines the possibility of collective self-organisation. The framework of identity reduces politics to who you are as an individual and to gaining recognition as an individual, rather than your membership in a collectivity and the collective struggle against an oppressive social system.”

Without any guiding take on the power structure of wider society, a politics of identity can lead in self-defeating directions. Writing in the 1960s, soon after desegregation had opened up some space for black professionals, managers, and business people, Black Panther Huey Newton warned that black identity or nationalism can be harnessed by the emerging black elite to take control of the radical movement and suppress the demands of black working people who in reality had very different interests. As Keeanga-Yamhatta Taylor points out in her discussion of the murder of Freddie Gray and the revolt that followed in Baltimore in 2015, this process has come on leaps and bounds:

“There have always been class differences amongst African Americans, but this is the first time those class differences have been expressed in the form of a minority of Blacks wielding significant political power and authority over the majority of Black lives. This raises critical questions about the role of the Black elite in the continuing freedom struggle – and about what side are they on. This is not an overstatement. When a Black Mayor, governing a largely Black city, aids in the mobilization of a military unit led by a Black woman to suppress a black rebellion, we are in a new period of the Black freedom struggle.”

The struggles for civil rights and multiculturalism have won vital victories and raised all kinds of possibilities. In the context of neoliberalism and the growth of a wealthy managerial elite that likes to pride itself on its inclusive values, those victories risk being reduced to what Catherine Liu has called ‘identity protocols’; the rollout of diversity training and quotas for top jobs. This is fine for the tiny majority of people from oppressed groups who make it into elite jobs, and it is of course important that such opportunities are widened. Experience in the US, Britain, and elsewhere has shown, however, that having more women, trans people or people of colour in positions of power and influence does next to nothing for the lives of the majority of the oppressed. They continue to suffer structural racism, sexism, and discrimination. The system that generates these oppressions and the exploitation at its heart go unchallenged and is even perhaps strengthened by being able to appear inclusive. Amongst the newly enriched professional and managerial class (PMC) the stress on race and gender discrimination has become a useful mechanism for both virtue signalling and deflecting concerns about class inequality. In the words of Catherine Liu:

“As a class, the PMC loves to talk about bias rather than inequality, racism rather than capitalism, visibility rather than exploitation. Tolerance for them is the highest secular virtue—but tolerance has almost no political or economic meaning.”

Such diversification of the elites is welcome, but without a challenge to the fundamental economic structures of society, it also opens up space for the right to make headway with its own brands of identity politics. These involve protesting against the alleged abandonment of white workers and defending national culture and traditions against liberal, multicultural elites. In this situation the left needs to develop an independent politics that fights for oppressed groups more effectively and as a whole, but also provides a way forward for working people in general.

Dealing with class as another ‘intersecting’ identity doesn’t solve the problem. This is because the very existence of class contains an implicit critique of existing society, not just of inequality, but of the robbery that creates it and the oppressions it generates. Recognising one’s membership of the working class involves the beginnings of understanding the way the system operates as a whole. It, therefore, opens the possibility of moving beyond identities which are inevitably framed mainly by the prevailing system. One indication of this universality is that the working class contains within it the overwhelming majority of the oppressed and therefore provides at least the possibility of a fighting unity in practice.

As we have seen, however, the potential of the working class to develop a holistic understanding of the world has deeper sources. For workers, overcoming divisions of race, sex or gender is a matter of strategic urgency. The relentless exploitation they experience also gives workers a unique vantage point from which to understand the fundamental drives of the system, ‘to see society from the centre as a coherent whole’. Recognising this doesn’t mean reducing every aspect of society to class. In fact, it means the very opposite. Whereas the ruling class needs to do everything possible to obscure the way society operates, for the working class, a complete understanding of all the complexities of capitalism is essential for achieving fundamental social change, for liberating itself.

Such holistic understanding doesn’t emerge automatically. The division of labour, the reified nature of work, and the fact that workers produce a whole social world that they do not control create limits to understanding most of the time. It means there are always possibilities for our rulers to open up divisions in our ranks. But as we have seen, against all the stereotypes, on many issues workers’ consciousness runs ahead of other classes in society even at times of relative social peace. As the primary objects of a more and more exploitative system, the working class provides a baseline of opposition to the depredations of turbocharged capitalism from which effective resistance can be launched. If socialism is about pursuing the hunch that humans could actually take control of our own destiny, then socialists need to be organised in the workplace, in the communities, alongside those people resisting. They need to be not just propagandising about the iniquities of the system but working with others to take the movement forward, not just talking about revolution but ‘accelerating the maturing of…revolutionary tendencies’ and at the same time helping people to understand the significance of their actions.

Radical Chains: Why Class Matters (Zer0 Books, 2023) is available to buy at the Counterfire shop

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.