If you thought that BBC Question Time couldn’t sink any lower after its handling of Brexit and revelations of Tory activists appearing as local residents in different towns and always being selected to
ask a question deliver a Party Political Broadcast on behalf of the ERG, then last week will have put any such optimism to bed. Apparently Question Time is now the vehicle of choice for publicity-deficient minor TV celebrities to launch their new career as the voice of the ignorant and unreasonable.
Laurence Fox, it turns out, is eminently well placed to understand the struggles of those doing shitty jobs for shitty pay with virtually no prospect of any improvement on the horizon and an electric bill that can’t be paid already waiting for them on the doormat at home. After all, he has documented his own struggles – he’s whined at length about feeling out of place at school. When your parents are only prepared to spend 135% of the UK median household income on your education every year it can leave scars. It’s very much like spending 40 years working night shifts at a mattress factory for minimum wage. He’s had to struggle against accusations that he walked into RADA because of his family connections and also against insensitive suggestions that he’s just another privileged wanker seeking attention. Loz Fox knows your pain.
And yet, the current narrative – preposterous as it seems – is that old-Harrovian luvvy Fox is more in touch with ordinary people than, say the son of a bus driver who did his A-levels at night school at Burnley Technical College. What is it that we’re getting so spectacularly wrong that allows the media to invent this parallel universe? It’s 2020 and we’ve arrived at a place where northern ex-miners pay actual money to Nigel Farage for permission to walk from Jarrow to London in the rain, while the ‘bollock-faced, foghorn of ignorance’ himself sits sipping martinis in his club.
The East India Club.
Of course, with the boundaries of public discourse being so heavily prescribed by a braying, populist, anti-education media, it’s always going to be an uphill struggle for sensible perspectives to get a fair hearing, but maybe – just maybe – we’re not really helping ourselves. Instead of fighting the right on investment versus austerity, or decency versus self-serving dishonesty or social responsibility versus naked greed, we seem to be allowing the battle lines to be drawn along some imaginary axis of wokeness or political correctness (or not being an arsehole, as non-arseholes call it).
In the UK the concept that life is better if you’re not a jerk about things like skin colour and gender seems to be fairly well distributed across the left – and the centre to be fair. Differences mainly centre around economic policies and electoral tactics. In the US the situation seems to be different, with a palpable tension between the socialist-left (mainly focusing on economics) and the liberal-left (mainly concerned with identity-politics).
We don’t want to go the way of the US, where, in a misguided attempt to outwoke everyone else, Democratic Party leadership candidate Elizabeth Warren has said that she would allow an unnamed transgender nine-year-old to veto her choice of Education Secretary. It becomes hard for our US counterparts to argue that PC hasn’t gone mad when people respond with links to publicly-funded research projects called “Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research”.
Here we already have social media wars with supporters of various Labour leadership candidates spewing vitriol at other Labour leadership candidates for whichever position they’ve taken in the trans v terfs war. Jesus Christ people, can we – for now – all agree that our policy is to work towards a solution that empowers both groups and comes at the expense of neither. And then shut the fuck up about it! (While also, obviously, working towards that solution). We cannot win on this battlefield.
What we need are clear statements of principles which we will support. When left-wing politicians are asked about a specific policy related to the media obsession with identity politics, refer the interviewer to the statement of principles and move on to poverty/austerity/debt/the NHS. The media love the wokeness battleground because it’s so easy to twist into a headline that makes someone look stupid. Let’s try not to serve it up on a plate to them.
Something we can learn from the US is the way that Bernie Sanders is able to focus almost entirely on socialist economic policies, and yet still manage to be widely viewed as the most effective and genuine supporter of trans rights. Partly this is because, despite the media circus surrounding pronouns and bathroom assignations, the day-to-day difficulties of transgender people are largely addressed by the same inclusive approaches to health and education and employment rights that all of us benefit from.
If we look at the historical evolution of these two branches of left-wing thought, it becomes clear why the programme of the socialist-left provides real-life benefits for those the liberal-left seek to support, in a way which is not reciprocated in benefits which the liberal programme can deliver to the socialist constituency.
As most people are aware, the use of left and right as political terms originated with the seating arrangements in the French National Assembly in the aftermath of the 1789 revolution. Originally – and to some extent ever since – the right favoured the status quo, and the left favoured change. The concept of the left in politics dates from a time when revolutionary change was pro-capitalism, seeing off feudal privilege and ushering in the bourgeois era. The original left were supporters of capitalism, and its philosophical insistence that all humans should enjoy equality before the law. Although the early writers espousing this view only really meant it to apply to a certain group of wealthy white men, once you’ve started to legitimize your rule with reference to equal rights, over time you’re going to have to accept that people count as humans even if they aren’t the same race or gender as you. Modern capitalism is fundamentally legitimized through the concept of democratic consent, based on the principle (if not the practice) of one vote of equal value for every adult human.
And yet discrimination on the basis of race and gender still persists – and not just in the occasional encounter with citizens who didn’t get the memo, but in patterns embedded in western society and institutions.
The core, driving theme of liberal, identity politics is to point out this hypocrisy – to call out capitalist liberal democracy on its own terms. Essentially, the liberal complaint is that modern western capitalism fails to deliver the fundamental freedoms upon which its own philosophical legitimacy relies. (We can call these bourgeois freedoms, not in the pejorative sense of ‘freedoms enjoyed by the bourgeoisie’ but in the simply descriptive sense of ‘freedoms won in the bourgeois era’. Whatever is wrong with capitalism it has some advantages over feudalism and the acceptance that all humans have a right to these freedoms is one of them).
In contrast, the thrust of the socialist left (including the democratic-socialist left) is to argue that the bourgeois freedoms of liberal capitalism are insufficient to deliver real freedom to the mass of humanity. For the socialist left, the demands of the great bourgeois upheavals – the French Revolution, the English Civil Wars and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 – are welcome, but don’t go far enough. It’s great that people gained equality before the law, and – eventually – a vote each in a participatory democracy, but it’s the unequal distribution of wealth, income and opportunity that’s really holding us back.
So the main difference between the liberal-left and the socialist-left is that the former calls out capitalism for not living up to its own standards while the latter argues that those standards would be insufficient, even if they were met. In terms of today’s choices, the socialist left takes all of the rights and demands of the liberal left and adds to them, to root out economic disadvantage too. The liberal left has no reciprocal interest in adding socialist objectives to its agenda.
One top of this, and it should hardly need restating, while both of these objectives are desirable, we need to be aware that the right are desperate to fight us on the battleground of wokeness. With Corbyn on the way out, all the racist kids you remember from school have suddenly forgotten their year of fake outrage over anti-Semitism. Along with the EU, political-correctness-gone-mad has been a staple of tabloid propaganda for decades, and they’re already ramping it up with Fox, Morgan, Clarkson and the rest getting all snowflakey over the way they’re not even allowed to call a spade a golliwog anymore. They love it when the national conversation is one they’ve got a forty year head start on. It’s a battleground of lies, misinformation and cheap shots, where slogans and headlines beat the truth every single time. We can be as right as we like, but we still cannot win that battle.
We should fight them on our own turf instead.
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You can also see an older post on the whole PC thing here