Finally, someone has said it. Someone has said that identity politics distracts our attention from the far larger issue of socioeconomic inequality. Someone has said that the fashionable and myopic focus on issues of race, sex and genderfluidity is diverting our gaze from the far more important issue of class. That someone is Liz Truss, the equalities minister, and she deserves our praise.
Criticising identity politics is a risky business. Just ask JK Rowling, who is regularly threatened with rape and death for daring to make a very measured critique of transgenderism. Or ask any black commentator who bristles at the idea of critical race theory — he’ll be branded an ‘Uncle Tom’ or worse by armies of hateful Twitter identitarians. I’ve had some of this too. I’ve received hate mail for saying we need to talk more about class rather than focusing obsessively on ‘structural racism’ or the increasingly strange minutiae of gender identity. ‘Fascist’, ‘far right’, ‘bigot’ — that’s what the identity mob will call you if you dare to mention the C-word.
So well done, Ms Truss. It takes guts to question the identitarian agenda. In a speech yesterday, Truss said we need ‘a new approach to equality in this country’. We need to move ‘beyond the narrow focus’ on certain legally protected characteristics — such as race, sex, sexuality and gender-reassignment status — and talk more about ‘socioeconomic status and geographic inequality’, she said.
She said, quite rightly, that the modern left has been ‘captured’ by identity politics. And this politics is both divisive and censorious, she argued. It’s divisive because, in an alarming reversal of the liberal wisdom of Martin Luther King, it believes that people ought to be ‘defined by their protected characteristic, and not by their individual character’. That reduces us all to mere racial or ethnic creatures, representatives of a cultural bloc rather than individuals capable of thinking for ourselves.
And it is censorious, she said, because it dictates that only certain people are allowed to take part in the equality debate. ‘This school of thought says that if you are not from an 'oppressed group', then you are not entitled to an opinion and this debate is not for you’, she said. This is correct. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been shouted down and in some cases even prevented from speaking (including at Oxford university) on the basis that I am white and male. That makes me evil, apparently.
‘I wholeheartedly reject this approach’, said Truss. So do millions of everyday people. I hope Boris Johnson’s government does more of this — criticises the eccentric, factional, anti-social ideologies of what passes for elements of the left today, and in the process connects with millions of ordinary Brits who are likewise thinking: ‘Why am I hearing about trans issues for the millionth time this year rather than about economic inequality and the difficulties facing the working classes?’
Truss, like the vast majority of us who criticise identity politics, is not saying we should forget about the specific issues facing black or trans people or women. On the contrary, she says these groups do face various forms of discrimination. But what we need, she believes, is a far broader equality agenda that incorporates questions of ‘geography, community and socioeconomic background’. It’s the people who suffer these inequalities who have been neglected, she says.
That is just undeniable. The identity-obsessed chattering classes hardly ever talk about class. In fact, people from difficult socioeconomic backgrounds only ever make an appearance in these people’s elite chatter as a horrible, problematic blob. ‘Gammon’, as they’re called by upper middle-class Corbynistas. Gammon, of course, is just another way of saying pig. Or consider the demonisation of those Millwall fans who booed the taking of the knee. They were depicted as virtually a different species, as Neanderthals. And then there’s the Red Wall supporters of Brexit. For four years they’ve had every snobby epithet hurled at them: racist, ‘low-information’, the gullible victims of posh Tory demagogues.
So not only does the contemporary identitarian left and much of the liberal elite not bother to talk about the problems facing people who suffer from geographic inequalities and socioeconomic difficulties — they also actively loathe those people. They see them as a national irritant, as a bigoted throng, as an unhealthy mass that requires constant advice from on high about what to eat, how to parent, how to think.
This is where we get to the truth of identity politics. This politics doesn’t brush aside questions of class by accident; it doesn’t simply overlook or forget about these things. Rather, this class-blindness, this dearth of concern for the struggling millions, is a key function of identity politics.
Identity politics is an entirely elitist endeavour. It is the mode of politics of a new clerisy that wants to move beyond the apparently grubby economic concerns of the mass of society and instead reorient political life around the narrow, self-serving obsessions of the upper middle classes and the emerging new establishment of woke graduates.
This is why public discussion in recent years has been far more concerned with how many women are in company boardrooms rather than talking about the low pay or poor working conditions of millions of working women across the country. This is why the media obsess more over wealthy black actors being overlooked for a Bafta or an Oscar than they do over the problems facing black and white working-class people. And this is why the trustafarians who make up the Momentum set will get far more passionate about the right of a trans woman to use a certain toilet than they will about the right of people in Red Wall areas to have their votes for Brexit taken seriously and their economic concerns addressed.
Because identity politics, at root, is anti-working class. It is the politics of a woke neo-aristocracy that is determined to refocus public life around its class interests: around the right of BBC women to get paid hundreds of thousands of pounds a year, or the right of academics to control what the masses think and say about sex and gender, or the right of cliques of ‘experts’ to oversee political life away from the pressures of the allegedly bigoted electorate. Identity politics diminishes the question of class on purpose. That’s what it exists to do: to politically furlough ordinary people and keep political life as the jealous preserve of the new clerisy, of the educated elites, of post-class woke agitators.
So if anything, Truss needs to go further. We need a firm commitment to dismantle the cult of identitarianism and to bring back into the centre of political life the concerns of working people.