Stop skipping class
To fight resurgent right-wing populism, the left must remember the importance of class
Donald Trump’s victory in the US election, coming on the heels of Brexit, has been blamed by many commentators on the conflict between the identity politics of progressive intellectuals and the anger of a white working class who are denied a place in the discourse. “Working-class identity is the one identity the left doesn’t care about!” has been a common cry.
This is a false dichotomy. The problem isn’t that white working-class identity can’t locate itself in identity politics; it’s that much of the left, which used to champion the rights of the working class, has abandoned class as a political concept. Our enthusiasm for identity politics has damaged our ability to think about politics outside the framework of individual experience.
Class isn’t an individual identity; it is a social category defined by the exchange of economic power. As Jeff Sparrow has recently pointed out, class politics isn’t oppositional to identity politics – many individual political identities can and do exist within the social category of class.
Australians have particular difficulty talking about class. We’ve long prided ourselves on being a “classless society”, but our idea of what that means has changed over recent decades.
It used to be a claim that, due to our settlement as the “working man’s paradise”, free from the social hierarchies of the old world, the restrictions of class by birthright didn’t apply. This was unequivocally a good thing.
More recently, in our embrace of the aspirational society, we have grown to think of ourselves as “post-class”; this is a more insidious idea that allows economic class divisions to grow while we focus our efforts on eliminating discrimination based on personal traits. Hence we have much fiercer fights over issues like marriage equality and the prohibition of hate speech in the Racial Discrimination Act than we do over growing economic inequality.
Identity politics has been hugely important in calling out the oppression and marginalisation of people and communities who are denied power. It has proven to be a highly effective tool by which marginalised groups of people can join forces to harness shared experience and build political movements to fight inequality.
But the dominance of a politics based solely on personal identity – one that is no longer situated within the broader category of class – looks a lot like capitulation to neoliberal ideology, which eschews the bonds of society and community and recognises only individuals.
The inability to build a politics that embraces both resistance to discrimination based on personal identity and the fight against economic inequality is the reason the left finds itself struggling to organise against the resurgent extreme-right ideologies on the march across the western world.
By dividing ourselves according to battle-lines of personal identity, we find ourselves at odds with one another, rather than with the truly powerful. The fault lines between people who share economic disadvantage but have different social or cultural positions are ruthlessly exploited by the ruling class.
Australia has not yet seen divisions as extreme as those facing much of the rest of the west. We are a more equal society. This is largely due to the way in which economic reforms were introduced here in the 1980s, with concern for their impact on working people and the close involvement of the union movement through the Accord. The subsequent lift in living standards and decades-long economic growth has meant that we do not have as significant an underclass as emerged in the UK and US after Thatcher’s and Reagan’s reforms of the same era.
But our advantage is under threat. ACOSS’s “Poverty in Australia” 2016 report last month found that 3 million Australians are living in poverty, including nearly 750,000 children.
And 32% of those 3 million people in poverty have jobs. In Australia today, despite our apparently robust labour force figures, there is a “working poor” – around a million people who simply don’t have enough work, or have such poorly paid or insecure work that they are living in poverty even though wages comprise their main source of income. This is indefensible.
Circumstances like these destroy people’s trust in the political institutions that are meant to protect them. The result is a turn to demagogues and a retreat into nativism, as we have seen so devastatingly in the UK and US.
And yet the left is caught up fighting the wrong battles – some of us taking up arms against our friends, others joining forces with the enemy. We are destroying the solidarity that underpinned the power of those who labour for a living against those who live on capital through much of the 20th century.
We have seemingly forgotten that being poor and powerless is the thing that all marginalised people share, regardless of race, religion, gender or sexuality. The left must rediscover its solidarity. And Australia must stop pretending class doesn’t exist, and start talking about it instead.