Lindsey German on systemic inequality and Labour’s identity problem
I’ve got nothing against old men. Noam Chomsky would make a great US president. In many societies, the wisdom and experience of the old is highly valued. But let’s face it, wisdom is in short supply when it comes to the two candidates running for presidential office in the richest and most powerful country in the world.
Whoever wins the US election next month will be the oldest US president ever to hold office. This is sometimes put down to the immense power and privilege of the generation born around the time of the Second World War, which includes their domination of mainstream politics. It is a narrative of those who like to portray divisions in politics as between young and old.
But that would be to look at the question from the wrong end of the telescope. Trump and Biden are in the position that they are because they are rich old men. No one gets to be a candidate for US president unless they are a millionaire, and they receive the backing of fellow very wealthy people. Rich old men don’t have to play by the rules that are designed for the rest of us. They have access to extensive medical and care support networks, their money allows them to buy treatments which keep them alive and which attempt to halt the aging process as long as possible. And their very position in society allows them to lead lives free from the everyday worries of most of us – housing, debt, keeping a job.
They are also free from the ravages of the labour process and the exploitation which demands that we work while they profit. We are not just talking Biden and Trump here, but Rupert Murdoch, the various superannuated former Thatcher ministers who pontificate from their warm seats in the house of Lords, the repulsive Alan Sugar. These people go on and on, given endless media platforms to pronounce their decidedly conservative views.
It’s a very different aging process for most old men (and women). Working class men in particular are likely to die relatively young, to be prone to a series of serious illnesses, to be in serious poverty in old age and to have a life expectancy which is much lower than that of middle- and upper-class counterparts.
A study done some years ago even suggested that social class affected the aging process itself, with working class people aging seven years more quickly. One in four men in Glasgow will die before their sixty-fifth birthday, usually after a life of hard work and before receiving a penny of state pension. There is a difference of around a decade in life expectancy between men in the most deprived areas of England compared to those in the wealthy areas.
Figures are even more stark for the US. The former car workers in Flint Michigan or tyre workers in Akron Ohio will be lucky to get to the ages of their presidential candidates, and if they do so may well have already experienced some years of illness, another class division in terms of health and aging.
The left is failing if it doesn’t recognise the centrality of these class differences. The weakness of privilege theory is precisely that it ignores class and looks to a series of supposed hierarchies of privilege which by definition ignore the total picture. These ‘privileges’ often amount to different degrees of discrimination rather than an actual benefit for those concerned.
Working class people come in every age, race, nationality – as do ruling class people. The fact of our exploitation is the central issue that defines our lives. This is even true about attitudes. There is not a culture war between old and young. There have always been divisions within the working class – about attitudes to racism for example. Even these have become less widely held over recent generations.
But there are also class interests which express themselves in demands for more public services, a decent health service, cheaper and more public housing. Social attitudes to marriage, children born to single parents, LGBT rights, have changed dramatically over the past half century.
Interestingly, many of those who cling on to the old attitudes about these issues, or attempt to foster racial divisions, are precisely the rich old men who so benefit from this system of exploitation.
It’s called the opposition for a reason
Have I missed something from Keir Starmer this week or is it true that we simply don’t have an opposition in this country? His most notable acts seem to be abstentions which have allowed the Tories a free pass on attacking civil liberties, simply it seems for fear of being labelled by the Mail and Telegraph as soft on terrorists or encouraging lawbreakers. That has been bad enough but his refusal to challenge the Tories over their lethal policies on coronavirus is simply criminal.
There is no justification for it. Around a quarter of the whole population are in extra lockdown measures, the rate of infection and hospitalisation is rising rapidly, we are heading into a long winter, many scientists are urging complete lockdown now, the Tory run test and tracing system is an absolute shambles. Starmer has been one of the keenest to keep schools and universities open, to urge people back to work, and to underline his constructive (aka useless) opposition.
The pub curfew (Starmer abstained on that too) means a mass exodus to supermarkets and public transport at 10pm with predictable consequences. Meanwhile students testing positive are incarcerated in their halls of residence while other students are encouraged to return to universities, further increasing the infection rate. It is like a checklist of what not to do facing a pandemic.
Yet Starmer is struggling in the polls. That’s because no one can tell what the opposition thinks or what it opposes the government on. Meanwhile, as is commented on across different areas of society, there is a deep anxiety and often anger going on among staff in hospitals, schools and universities. People are reluctant to go out to public venues or to use public transport. Many are losing or looking to lose their jobs in the coming months.
Something is going to blow here, because it can’t go on like this indefinitely. There is no opposition from Starmer and far too little from the official union machines. So it will have to be organised by rank and file and grassroots activists, as has happened in a number of disputes such as Aslef’s ballot on London underground. A growing number of university unions are declaring disputes and considering action over safety at work. I will be joining the People’s Assembly protests on Saturday and speaking later at the Stand up to Racism conference.
These are all part of a bigger picture of protest, one which needs to be built on. Hopefully it will also wake up Labour’s front bench, so that Starmer and friends can at least be a pale echo of the growing anger and discontent.
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As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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