First posted: 11th March, 2011
[Left: the image The Guardian choose to illustrate this article. It shows you that this newspaper sees what it calls "reactionary identity politics" as all about aggression or anger; unlike 'progressive identity politics', which is always nice and fluffy. Right: the pious Leftist snob who wrote this article, Deborah Orr.]
There is good Difference. (I use post-structuralist capitals to emphasise the deeply Platonic way in which the Left thinks - which is ironic because Derrida and co. were usually having a go at the gang of right wing or Western bad boys.) And there is bad Difference. Perhaps there is also indifferent Difference.
The EDL, or the working class, or anyone else Deborah Orr has her snobby eyes on, are not against people simply because they are Different. That’s a Leftist and post-structuralist myth. In terms of the EDL, if the EDL were just against Difference for Difference’s sake, then why aren’t they against Sikhs, blacks, Hindus, Jews, the Chinese, etc? In fact, the EDL's target zone is small and precise. The EDL is against Islamists and those who support Islamoterrorism (as well as the Leftists, like The Guardian (!), who 'enable' them). And what’s wrong with that?
In any case, Deborah Orr hates Difference too! She no doubt hates fox hunters, the right wing (of all descriptions), the white working class (especially when it is patriotic – like the EDL), anti-Europeans, people who don’t like French films and Chardonnay… the list will be endless. But Orr’s own Other, or Others, are the objects of acceptable disdain and Leftist snobbery. So no Guardian journalist from Islington’s little ghettoes of Guardianistas and lecturers (she may not live there, but she's an Islingtonian at heart), can tell the rest of us that it is us, and us alone, who have a problem with Difference or the Other.]
The great campaigns of the last 30 years of the 20th century saw diverse people demanding to be valued and accepted for who they were [even killers, paedophiles, heroin dealers, dog torturers and racists?], with success that permeated the mainstream and reached the statute books. But the more recent rumbles have been from people more interested in constructing negative identities, defined by who they are not – not Jewish, not Catholic/Protestant, not Muslim, not European . . . The identity-politics initiative has passed from the hands of progressives, and reactionary ideas have been gaining influence. For some years the mainstream strategy has been to ignore or marginalise such concerns. It's not working that well any more.
And no, not all these people will define themselves "exclusively in terms of what they’re not" (e.g., not Muslim, etc.). Why can’t a patriotic Englishman assert his identity in terms of who he is and the traditions and cultures he supports and sees as his own? Why a different law for the English working class, and another law for everyone else? Deborah Orr should stop ranting against her own Other – the English working class.]
The emergence of reactionary identity politics is neither surprising nor hard to understand. People are at their most insecure when economic times are tough.
Some of this stuff is symbolic, a long-standing means of expressing frustration and anger. Antisemitism has always had an economic base while Old Firm rivalry in Glasgow dates back to Irish immigration at the time of the potato famine. These individual and local outpourings of animosity are renewed outpourings of historical prejudices, and are unfortunate. [Has she been reading Nick Lowles's two books on 'football hooliganism'?]But they are useful too, in that they provide microcosmic illustrations of the self-destructive nature of identity prejudice. [‘Identity prejudice’? Guardianese more like.] Fashion designer John Galliano's outburst of antisemitism cost him his reputation as well as his job. Outside Scotland, and mostly inside Scotland too, the propensity of some Rangers and Celtic supporters (and staff) for post-match violence with a religious excuse, is viewed as baffling, pathetic, uncivilised, stupid. It is hard to exterminate such hatreds, but small outbreaks can be contained, more or less, for some of the time, as long as there is enough consensual will to do so.
The financial crisis has threatened that consensual will, though. The threat is not yet massive. Britain is far from being a place where racial or religious hatred is excused or normalised (even among most Glaswegians) [patronising bitch!]. But that does not mean that vigilance is not necessary. The cracks in the "progressive alliance" [‘progressive’ is the new name, though old in the US, for Trots or the Far Left generally – Salma Yaqoob and No Respect use that word all the time] that turned into straightforward divisions after the last election are significant in this respect (as well as in others). Progressive fondness for internationalism, multiculturalism, anti-racism and the European project very much helped Labour as it swung behind globalisation, which was viewed by New Labour and many Lib Dems as the best way of enriching Britain while at the same time developing the rest of the world. Labour believed it could manage without its core vote, because even – especially – the City preferred Blair's and Brown's ideas about immigration to those of successive failed Tory leaders. Conversely, however, the triumphs of identity politics were also partly economic. The influx of female workers into the British economy was welcomed not only because it provided more educated and skilled workers and grew the economy, but also because it depressed wages at the lower end, and broadened part-time work with fewer rights. The gay rights movement may have been magnificent, but the pink pound was persuasive too. As for immigration, it has always been justified by economics first and foremost.
Now, however, it appears that globalisation is not quite offering the best of all possible worlds after all. The electorate feels stuck because no political party represents a critical mass of its interests. However, the political parties themselves are unrepresentative not because they are without talent (though more talent would help), but because they have handed too much power over to the private global interests that pull the strings. [Imperialism and Global Capitalism?] The workers have been entered into worldwide competition against each other. But the bosses use worldwide competition as a way of refusing the regulation that would protect them. People are rejecting globalisation in a very graphic way – by retreating into the racial and religious identities that offer a sense of belonging and the promise – whether realised or not – of economic shelter.
Now, this kind of reaction, of course, looks ugly and insular. But it is all too human, misguided rather than unfathomable. All the political parties, after all, will blether on about localism and devolution for as long as they are allowed to, even though two of the three parties are currently cheerleading the cutting of local services by 25%. Their sentimental talk about small armies (and Big Societies) is just a more political, less tribal, expression of similar instincts, which say that humans need to be able to find and hold on to fellow feeling, trust and loyalty, if they are going to be able to take part in cohesive and healthy societies. The real trouble is that local societies and local economics are at the mercy of global shenanigans that they cannot influence, yet see on their doorstep the human diaspora such policies create. When people say they want to support a nationalist party, they are mainly expressing, I think, not bigotry against others but a desire for protection for themselves. Such desires need to be accorded respect, not least because if they are ignored they can fester.