Modern social-liberalism – in the form of identity politics – has been exposed as an elitist scam. Gender politics, LGBTQI+ movements, and tino rangatiratanga struggles were all presented as a way to alleviate the poverty, oppression and discrimination of those at the bottom of society. Instead these ideologies have only acted to elevate a few coming from various subjugated groups.
For example, gender politics has been mainly about putting middle class women into positions of power within the political and business world. The LGBTQI+ movement has been easily incorporated into the market economy with “pink capitalism” and with a normalisation of rainbow diversity. And tino rangatiratanga struggles seem to have only led to a few more brown faces amongst the rich listers.
Clearly identity politics – whether in the form of feminism, kaupapa Maori politics or LGBTQI+ movements – has not helped the majority of subjugated people who are at the bottom of society.
So, if identity politics has only helped an elite of those from subjugated sectors of society, is an anti-Establishment class-centred politics then the way forward? The identitarian-left argues that those who focus on material wellbeing, economics and class politics act to ignore other social divisions that exist under capitalism? A class-centred analysis is seen as crudely reducing questions of gender inequality, homophobia and racism to questions of economics and capitalism? Guest blogger John Moore explores these critiques of class politics, and offers an analysis that rejects both the crude economism of the traditional left and the politics of contemporary social liberalism. [Read more below]
A bad class analysis
Left liberals often caricature old-time unionists, socialists and Marxists as elevating class divisions as supreme, and at best relegating other social divisions as secondary or at worst totally ignoring the range of oppressions that exists under capitalism. Indeed, much of the left, especially amongst Maoists, Stalinists and traditional social democrats, have been crap when it came to questions of gender, race and sexuality. It can be argued that the inability of the traditional left to deal with such questions actually allowed the moderate social liberals to win out in the new social movements of the 1960s and 70s and to eventually become dominant within the labour moment.
But there is a radical leftwing and anti-Establishment alternative to both the old economist left and to the new social liberals. This radical left alternative is a nuanced socialist analysis. Such an analysis dismisses both ideological frameworks of leftwing economism and social liberalism, and offers a radical materialist account of, and solutions to, the myriad of social divisions and oppressions that exist under capitalism.
An anti-Establishment class analysis
Socialists - within the philosophical materialist tradition - do not say that class is always the primary and immediate form of social organisation or oppression in people’s lives. However, such socialists do say that class divisions are central to the structure and mode of capitalism - that is a system based centrally on the profit motive. Capitalism needs a working class to be able to make all the goods and services, which are the source of capitalists’ profits. Various other social divisions in society, such as those based around gender and ethnicity, are maintained by, and act to support, this economic system in various ways – both materially and ideologically. But these non-class oppressions are not central, but auxiliary, to the capacity of capitalism to reproduce itself.
Why are class divisions, and the exploitation of workers, central to the current system? Workers sell their labour power to capitalists, who profit from the difference between the value of the goods and services produced and the wage or salary paid to the employee. Therefore, it is workers, whether skilled or unskilled, low-paid or middle income, that produce the wealth in society. Because of this central role working people play in producing the wealth and profits of capitalism, they hold a unique position as a class to potentially transform society.
Saying that class is the fundamental divide in society is not a rejection or downplaying of the range of oppressions that exist under capitalism. And it is not a rejection of the importance of struggles for gay, women or Maori liberation. The argument for the centrality of class comes from the understanding that class divisions, the structural division between the capitalists who own and manage the productive forces in society and workers who sell their labour power and produce all the goods and services, is the central divide that enables the capitalist system to function.
A socialist analysis of non-class inequalities
Socialists do not reduce questions of homophobia and gender inequality to questions of class. However, socialists do locate the source of various oppressions within the framework of capitalist class relations. For example, Marxists give a radical materialist explanation of women’s oppression and homophobia that goes a beyond simple liberal analysis. Such an analysis also leads to radical emancipatory solutions for the majority of people who suffer under our society.
The continuation of gay, women and Maori oppression in New Zealand is very much related to questions of class and capitalism. Take for example the question of women’s oppression. Marxists such as Friedrich Engels, Leon Trotsky and Alexandra Kollontai located the source of women’s oppression in the unit of the family.
Under the early stages of capitalism men, women and children were all equally thrown into industrial factories to be exploited. Then at a certain stage capitalist society began to foster, and enforce in various ways, a nuclear family unit. In this family structure, the man did the primary paid work, and woman’s role was to do the unpaid work of household duties, bringing up children, etc. This oppressive situation for women was then maintained by a complex ideological apparatus, which denigrated women as inferior to males. This arrangement allowed capitalists to indirectly profit from the free labour of women, who thus played a central role in the social reproduction of the working class.
This brief explanation of gender divisions in society can be seen as a materialist explanation of women’s inequality, one that doesn’t reduce gender oppression to class, but that places the nature of women’s oppression within the context of the profit-centred economic system. Such an analysis sees women’s oppression as serving the material interests of the ruling elite in our society. For detailed materialist accounts of the roots of LGBTQI+ oppression see Sexuality and Socialism – History, Politics, and Theory of LGBT Liberation By Sherry Wolf and Capitalism and Homophobia [PDF].
From this materialist explanation of women’s oppression, flows a range of radical and anti-Establishment solutions. Socialists do not see the fight against oppression as merely centred on a fight for a new ideology, such as calling for “respect” for gays and people of colour, but see the need for materialist solutions. Championing non-sexist and non-homophobic language can be worthwhile, but does not go to the heart of various oppressions. So in regards to women’s oppression, socialists advocate such demands as free abortion on demand, free 24-hour childcare for all, and free quality restaurants. Therefore, the argument is that the “duties” that are often carried out by women for free need to be transformed from individual to social responsibilities.
Class politics vs identity politics
The ideas of modern social liberalism – in the form of identity politics, multiculturalism and intersectionality - have dominated discourse amongst the left for several decades now. These liberal ideologies have presented a powerful challenge to traditional class-centred analysis. So, why do socialists reject the ideas of social liberalism, including identity politics? Firstly, socialists do not reject social liberalism because it takes up the causes of a range of marginalised groups in society other than the working class. The primary critique of social liberalism and identity politics is that they present a moderate, or even conservative, approach to questions of oppression and inequality.
Philosopher Slavoj Zizek has critiqued the liberal culturalisation of politics in the form of identity politics. He argues that the culturalist concept of “tolerance” and “respect” is wholly inadequate in dealing with questions of oppression:
I’m opposed to this notion [tolerance]. Of course I’m not for intolerance towards foreigners, for anti-feminism, and so on. What I am against is the perception, which is moralist-automatic, of racism as a problem of tolerance. For Martin Luther King one doesn’t fight racism with tolerance, but with emancipatory political struggle, even armed struggle. So, why are so many problems of today perceived as problems of intolerance, rather than problems of inequality, exploitation, injustice? Racism is a problem. But to perceive racism as a problem of tolerance, it’s not automatic. In this innocent shift of perspective, there is ideology. Why? I claim the reason is the liberal multiculturalist basic ideological operation, the, let’s call it, the culturalisation of politics.
These contemporary ideas of social liberalism - identity politics, multiculturalism and a promotion of “tolerance” and “respect” - can be understood as representing the most rightwing or moderate ideas and concepts that came out of the new social movements in the 1960s and 70s. That these liberal ideas became dominant, and acted to suppress more radical ideas coming from leftwing feminists, Maori nationalists, socialists and LGBTQI+ activists, showed that the left was effectively defeated and marginalised in the wider new social movements, and also within the wider workers movement.
The new social movements, which centred on questions of gender, race and sexuality, initially had both a radical leftwing and a conservative pro-capitalist wing. For example, amongst Maori and Pasifika movements in the 1970s there were those who saw capitalism and class exploitation as central causes of their oppression, and those who believed liberation could easily be achieved within the confines of capitalism. In the end the conservative element in the new social movements won out.
The ideology of this relatively conservative, or liberal reforming, element in the new social movements was identity politics. Although Marxists and materialist-socialists reject identity politics, this does not amount to a rejection or downgrading of struggles based around gender, sexuality, race, etc. In fact, struggles against gay oppression or women’s oppression, when situated within an emancipatory and egalitarian framework, can indeed be very radical and present a serious challenge to the capitalist system.
Social liberalism and the state
The fact that the ideas of social liberalism have been so easily co-opted by capitalist states, indicates their underlying conservative and pro-Establishment nature. The political consensus in New Zealand that has existed since 1984 till now has been built around a post-Keynesian economic framework, coupled with a liberal social agenda. Since the defeat of the conservative Muldoon government in 1984, the New Zealand state has espoused an ideology that represents a synthesis of elements of economic laissez-faire theories and of social liberalism.
Academics such as Jane Kelsey have argued that these two strands of policy frameworks represent a contradiction. Kelsey and others have come to this conclusion because they correctly identify neo-laissez-faire approaches – often termed as neoliberalism - as rightwing but incorrectly represent social liberalism as leftwing. Yet social liberals, whose ideas now form a core part of the official state ideology, are at least implicitly pro-capitalist, champion the development of middle’ class and corporate classes amongst minority groups, and steer well clear of questions of economic redistribution and class. Therefore, to label modern social liberalism “leftwing” is highly problematic.
The state in New Zealand, and in most other western nations, can be understood as both socially liberal and economically capitalist. So, in deconstructing the dominant state ideology in New Zealand, it becomes clear that identity politics forms a core part of the dominant framework of ideas.
How did the state in New Zealand go from being socially conservative to being socially liberal, at the same time that economic policies were shifted far to the right? To use some ideas of Antonio Gramsci what effectively occurred with the state’s embracement of liberal ideas was a “passive revolution”. A passive revolution is pushed forward where there exists a crisis of legitimacy directly or indirectly threatening the existing system. Essentially a restructuring of state institutions is required as well as the diffusion of new ideologies.
The concept of passive revolution best describes the Fourth Labour Government’s construction of new ideologies and transforming of state institutions to build a socially liberal capitalist state. This socially liberal capitalist system has been maintained up to now, including by the current John Key-led government.
A class-centred and anti-Establishment approach to oppression and inequality
To summarise an anti-Establishment class-centred analysis: divisions based on gender, ethnicity and sexuality have their own material bases in capitalist society distinct from class, but exist within and are maintained by the overriding class nature of present day society. Because class exploitation is central to the maintenance and reproduction of the capitalist economic system, working people - of all ethnicities and identities - collectively hold a unique position to radically transform society. Also, because all workers are exploited they are therefore objectively placed in an oppositional position to capitalism. It is for this reason that socialists give privilege to class in the struggle against all exploitation and oppressions, and in the struggle for the liberation of all human beings.