The left must develop class positions independent of establishment ideologies if it is to end the toxic nature of recent debates and successfully challenge oppression, argues John Rees
Let’s start with two commonplaces and one unusual connection.
The first commonplace is this: It has been obvious for some time that modern establishment ideology has developed two main variants, both of which attempt to enrol support from ordinary citizens. The first variant is social-democratic, or one-nation conservative, neoliberalism. Most famously espoused by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, most recently espoused in the UK by David Cameron and Keir Starmer, and in the US by Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. The second variant is conservative populism, whose most successful practitioners have been Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.
The second commonplace is that some recent social debates, particularly on the left, have been the most toxic that even those with long memories can recall. The most obvious examples are the debates around Brexit and the trans issue.
What is unusual is to suggest that these two commonplaces are connected. That it is the divisions in the political establishment which accounts for the virulence with which these issues are debated and which, so long as the left does not recognise the connection, will confuse and disorient the left’s response.
The establishment ideological divide
The divisions that have arisen in the political establishment globally are a result of the stresses neoliberal capitalism have produced within the system, and the unprecedented political instability that has resulted. I’ve examined some of these issues as they impact on Britain in Notes on a dying ideology.
The mainstream of the ruling class has attempted to deal with its crisis of legitimacy by creating an ‘inclusive’ ruling ideology that seeks to use the rainbow of minorities to burnish modern capitalism’s image. Danny Boyle’s 2012 Olympic opening ceremony was the epitome of this ideology: everyone, from the Queen to the creators of the NHS to the pioneers of an industrial past, were choreographed into a new, inclusive, diversity-friendly, vision of national unity.
Many corporations and most public bodies orchestrate their appearance so that it conforms to this picture. Whether or not black people actually are present in any given institution in any numbers, whether or not they are present in its governing bodies, irrespective of whether they are paid the same as others, regardless of whether they experience racism in the workplace, they will be visually prominent in prospectuses and publicity, celebrated in black history month, and promoted in public.
Women will be similarly visually present in publicity, but best not ask if they have equal pay, are equally promoted, benefit from adequate maternity leave, or suffer sexist comments and abuse at work.
This is an ideology in the most fundamental sense that the accepted narrative systematically disguises a reality which is not only different from, but fundamentally opposed to, the truth of the situation.
Of course, the appeal of this ideology is that it appears to challenge racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. But in a class divided society, especially in an era of austerity and cutbacks, such ‘positive’ ideology can also be a useful way of dividing working people against each other on the basis of identity politics. In government or managerial hands, the demand for ‘inclusion’ is not a demand for greater resources and justice, but a weapon wielded to generate conflict among the oppressed and exploited over scarce resources. Indeed, such policies are often touted as an alternative to trade-union organisation.
Perhaps the recent nadir of this misuse of the language of inclusion comes in the recent material produced by Leeds University Students Union decrying the strike action of lecturers of the UCU in the name of poor and disabled students. This use of identity politics to justify scabbing shows how destructive this type of politics can be to any effective labour movement organisation.
On the other side of this argument is a more traditional, often socially conservative, ruling-class view of what states and national cultures should be about. It’s often asserted that the popular base for this ideology must be the socially conservative ‘white male’ working class. But this is a far from satisfactory assumption. Considerable sections of the working class, men and women, of all ethnic minorities, have been left behind by neoliberal capitalism and are just as likely to lend an ear to these establishment arguments as they are to the allegedly progressive arguments coming from the mainstream of the establishment.
Indeed, it is precisely the sense that those promoting multiculturalism and identity politics have left workers of all backgrounds and both sexes without meaningful protection from the depredations of neoliberalism that gives this wing of establishment ideology an audience. It is this sense of betrayal by modern neoliberal elites which powers popular support, often exaggerated but nonetheless real, for a wide range of political projects, from Blue Labourism to Red Wall Toryism.
How should the Left respond?
The first watchword in any left response to this bifurcated establishment ideology is political independence. On both sides of the establishment divide there are huge social institutions at work, and they have considerable influence in the labour movement through the conduits of the Labour Party leadership and the trade-union bureaucracy.
But rather than examine the significance of the divides in establishment ideology, some on both sides of the Brexit debate and the debate about trans identity have this in common: they are at pains to embarrass their opponents by pointing out that they have the support of serious establishment forces.
In the Brexit debate, those who wished to remain in the EU relentlessly pointed out that the (soon to be dominant) Johnson section of the Tory party, the majority of the right-wing print media, and a minority of corporations, plus the far right represented by Nigel Farage, were in favour of leaving.
On the other hand, those who wished to leave the EU, on radical and democratic grounds, could point out that the majority of corporations, international and domestic, the then-dominant section of the Tory party, the whole of the rest of the political establishment, the BBC and most of the non-print media, all favoured staying in.
Of course, both sides were correct. The political establishment was indeed split on the issue. So, to a much lesser extent, was the core capitalist class, the actual owners and controllers of the commanding heights of the economy.
Something similar is observable in the trans debate. Those on what is called the ‘gender-critical’ side of the argument find most of the print media, especially the right-wing press, ‘on their side’. So is half, but by no means all, the Tory hierarchy.
Those in favour of trans ideology find support in the entire remainder of the political establishment, parts of the broadcast media, the NGO universe, the Human Resources departments of most public and private institutions, and much of the Labour Party and trade-union bureaucracy.
It should be obvious that this approach can only lead to increased name-calling and, ultimately, political confusion among the name-callers. The issue is not whether there are establishment forces on both sides of these debates, because that much is obvious. The issue is, what are the interests of these establishment forces and their labour movement echo chambers?
The first call the left should make is the one which insists that neither version of establishment thought will materially or substantially alter the condition of the oppressed and exploited.
Johnson’s populism, like Trump’s or Farage’s, seeks to profit from discontent with neoliberalism, while doing nothing to change the conditions which gave rise to the discontent in the first place. Indeed, its hallmark is to exploit divisions among the oppressed, and to create new culture wars for the precise end of making the oppressed and exploited less capable of uniting against their corporate or state overlords. The media faces of this project, the Murdoch press, the Telegraph, The Spectator, and the Henry Jackson Society, detest the left and everything it stands for. Their reasons for supporting Brexit or gender-critical academics are to sow division, not to aid the oppressed.
But it is equally the case, if less obviously so to some, that the ‘liberal’, ‘multicultural’, ‘diversity’, wing of establishment thought is opposed to any fundamental change in the system. Indeed, it is the New Labour or Clintonite, versions of this project which authored the failures from which the populist right are now gaining.
Although ‘equality, diversity and inclusion’, to use the HR jargon, is an official ideology of modern capitalism, its failures are so stark that it has to a significant degree hollowed itself out. From the imperialist feminism that Cherie Blair and Laura Bush used to entice liberal opinion into supporting the Afghan and Iraq wars, to Cressida Dick, the first female head of the Metropolitan Police, presiding over the most institutionally sexist police force in the country, to ethnically diverse newsreaders spouting the same old propaganda on the BBC, tokenism has long exposed its weakness as a strategy for challenging discrimination.
How important this strategy now is for the establishment can be seen from the public face of the Johnson government. Rushi Sunak, Priti Patel, Sajid Javid, Kwasi Kwarteng, and other ministers from ethnic minorities, are supposed to send the message that the government ‘reflects modern Britain’, when what it is actually doing is attacking the living standards, health and welfare services of working people, particularly working people from ethnic-minority backgrounds.
We live in an era when the realisation that, more than fifty years after the modern liberatory impulse began in the 1960s, structural oppression and exploitation is the great unaddressed issue. Structural exploitation of working people, structural racism, structural discrimination against women, and the attendant discriminations against anyone who does not conform to societal gender norms, are what lies at the root of the modern crisis of politics. Structural, meaning embedded in the system, not accidental or removable by cosmetic measures.
It is this argument that the left needs to make as its unique contribution to the debates and culture wars of the new political terrain. Relentless focus on the experience of the oppressed and exploited majorities in society, workers and women, and within that experience, the oppression of all other oppressed groups. Why? Because these two great social categories contain all others. Workers and women are not monolithic or monotone. They are every shade of skin colour, both sexes, every kind of gender preference or sexual orientation, all ages, and every kind of ability and disability. This is what Marx meant when he said that the working class is the universal class, bound up with its liberation is the liberation of every oppressed section of society.
Why was this so? Because the exploitation of workers is the great profit making machine at the heart of society, and other forms of oppression exist to maximise that exploitation and divide resistance to it. That’s why oppression is structural and not superficial.
By reconnecting the fate of oppressed minorities, on the one hand, and oppressed and exploited majorities, on the other, the left can regain the initiative in the culture wars, setting out a distinct and clear position attached to neither version of establishment ideology.
The difficulties of achieving such a fighting unity within the working class cannot be underestimated. Unity among the oppressed is never automatic and always has to be constructed. To give one obvious example: unity between oppressed Jews and oppressed Arabs has to be achieved by defining the political ground on which unity can be built. Such conditions exclude support for the state of Israel, on the one hand, and, on the other, any argument that blames all Jews, rather than Zionists who are both Jewish and non-Jewish, for the oppression of Palestinians.
In other words, the functioning unity is not between all political currents among the oppressed, nor between all Jews and all Arabs, but between those Jews and Arabs that have worked out common political ground on which such unity can be achieved. The precise ground of this unity is that Palestinian oppression is unacceptable, which means resisting the Israeli state, and that antisemitism is equally unacceptable. This is a political position, not the expression of some mythic, monolithic, communal impulse, and it must fight for hegemony against other political currents among Palestinians, Jews, and in the general population.
Reluctantly, unfortunately, and for the time being, it leaves beyond such unity those Jews and Arabs whose oppression has led them to communal responses. It was precisely the weakness of those forces that did not understand how to arrive at such unity that gave ammunition to those who wished to weaponise claims of antisemitism against the left.
There is a lesson here. Separatist or communal ideologies are not effective alternatives to the new ruling-class ideological strategies. Indeed, they feed them. Both identity politics and separatist ideologies are grist to the mill of establishment strategy. Identity politics is precisely the ground on which the perpetually inadequate, ‘inclusive’ liberal ideology rests. Separatism fails to confront it precisely because it cannot undermine the division that identity politics engenders, because it dismisses class as the fundamental ground on which unity, of men and women, black and white, indeed of all the oppressed, can be constructed.
What real chance is there of defeating the ruling class if the entirety of the male working class, or the entirety of the white working class, are in fact oppressors, no less than the establishment themselves? Yet this is the real world effect of seeing, for instance, women as a ‘sex-class’, oppressed by the male sex-class.
One simple step towards clarity
One concrete step would be for the whole left, even if they might have opposing views on some issues, to stop invoking the voices of the establishment, as if they have anything meaningful to add to the discussion.
Neither a racist, like Farage, nor one of the key propagandists of the Iraq War, like Alistair Campbell, had anything useful to contribute to the left’s positions either for or against leaving the EU.
Neither does an open Islamophobe and founder of the Henry Jackson Society, like Douglas Murray, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who compares Islam to Nazism, assist one jot in the discussion of gender-critical feminism. Nor does the editorial writer of The Times. And neither do the managers and HR departments of major public institutions, using their power to fire gender-critical academics, assist the credibility of trans activists.
It simply will not do to claim that allying with the right is necessary because other possibilities for publicity are denied to campaigners. The truth is no radical campaign can be assured of a platform unless they create one themselves. The anti-war movement or the anti-austerity movement are certainly not ushered onto the BBC, or favourably reported in the right-wing press. They have perishingly few advocates in the mainstream. But they would not be justified in amplifying the voices of racists and reactionaries even if, as is often the case, other platforms are denied to them.
Detaching ourselves from establishment ideology should not be too much to ask in a debate on the left. And it’s a sign of how removed from the lived reality of most working people some quarters of this debate have become that raising this issue will be contentious.
But let’s state the importance of doing so squarely: the left in the UK, even at the time of the Corbynite ascendency, was too far from the everyday struggles of working people. It needs to debate issues, and it needs to debate them in a manner which opens up wider audiences.
Not appealing to either wing of the current establishment would be an elementary step toward clarity and relevance.
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John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.
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