To distract from their catastrophic and criminal handling of the pandemic, Boris Johnson and his ministers have spent the last year waging a ‘war on woke’.
Recent announcements in this cynical ‘culture war’ include government plans to: “protect freedom of speech” against no-platforming in universities; “save Britain’s statues from the woke militants who want to censor our past”; and instruct UK heritage groups to “defend our culture and history” against a “noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”.
‘Fight for fairness’
Another important plank of this Conservative campaign is the question of women’s rights and trans rights. This issue has been purposefully and repeatedly stirred up by the Tories during the pandemic.
Last summer, for example, a leaked document revealed a series of government proposals that directly attack the rights of trans people.
More recently, the Tories – who as we all know are very concerned with inequality and justice for all – outlined their approach to tackling inequality across the UK, in a December speech by Womens’ and Equalities Minister Liz Truss entitled ‘the fight for fairness’.
The actual changes that Truss has proposed are relatively small and unimportant. Nonetheless, if you read between the lines (or rather, listen for the dog whistles), it’s possible to make out what is being proposed.
Truss claims that discrimination is not ‘evidence based’ and that “we will move well beyond the narrow focus of protected characteristics.”
This suggestion that those with ‘protected characteristics’ have received too much attention is another attempt to stir up differences over identity and fuel a ‘culture war’, in order to distract from the Tories’ own failings.
Why else, in the midst of a pandemic that has claimed 120,000 lives thanks to their own criminal policies, would the government announce a review into the efficacy of gender-neutral public toilets?
Moving ‘away from’ protected characteristics can only mean attacks on minorities under this government. We have already seen the Tories’ consistent and deliberate attacks on migrants, and the rolling back of access to healthcare for young trans people.
We must reject their attempts to sow division into the working class and fight back using socialist policies.
Truss introduced her December speech by explaining that equality, for her, is a question of ensuring opportunities for individuals. In the true Thatcherite style, the Tory approach to achieving ‘equality’ across society begins by denying the existence of society at all.
Her main priorities seem to be encouraging women and minorities to open businesses. According to Truss, “If women opened businesses at the same rate as men – we could add £250bn to the economy.”
This at a time when more businesses are closing than ever! The idea that more women opening businesses would somehow mystically add money to a capitalist economy in crisis is ridiculous.
What would we need to do to achieve this wonderful outcome? All we need are “reforms that increase competition, boost transparency and improve choice”. That is to say, the freer the market, the greater the ‘opportunity’.
Read my speech on our approach to equality that will address the real issues people face in 🇬🇧— Liz Truss (@trussliz) December 17, 2020
➡️ Use facts not fashion
➡️ Broaden focus to tackle geographic & social inequality
➡️ Promote the dignity and agency of every person👇https://t.co/Wp6WNOzBUH
In reality, however, how are women faring so far under this government? According to the House of Commons’ own Women and Equalities Select Committee, things are going atrociously.
This committee has found that women are, among other things, more likely to work in the sectors hardest hit by COVID-19; more likely to have to quit work to take up additional childcare responsibilities; and less likely to be eligible for statutory sick pay.
This, however, looks at working-class women as a group. And Truss has had enough of an agenda that prioritises ‘groups over individuals’. This is precisely the sort of ‘dangerous groupthink’ that Truss wants us to turn our back on.
In her crusade against failed thinking, Truss goes on:
“...the focus on protected characteristics has led to a narrowing of the equality debate that overlooks socio-economic status and geographic inequality. This means some issues – particularly those facing white working-class children – are neglected.”
This is a savvy line of argument that disguises Truss’ ugly dog-whistle politics.
Truss and the Tories understand how to exploit the cracks in identity politics in the interests of the ruling class. Roughly translated, she is saying: “All these lefties claim to care about inequality, but in actual fact they only care about black, Asian and LGBT people. What about you – the white, possibly Northern, working-class man?”
These crocodile tears for the opportunities of white, working-class children are particularly ironic coming from a party who voted to deprive working class children – white or otherwise – of free school meals over the holidays.
It’s hard not to shake one’s head in disbelief at Truss’ brass neck when she claims that an excess of focus on groups with ‘protected characteristics’ has led to the North of England being left behind as compared to the South. This from a minister of the same party that led the economic devastation of the North under Thatcher!
There is, however, more than a bit of reality to the caricature of identity politics that Truss presents us with. In her speech she roundly ridicules what she calls ‘pink bus’ feminism, and such tokenistic gestures as the renaming of a street in Birmingham to ‘Diversity Road’.
In one of the sections removed from the government website, Truss directly strikes at the Achilles heel of identity politics, attacking its philosophical roots in Foucault and postmodernism:
“These ideas have their roots in post-modernist philosophy – pioneered by Foucault - that put societal power structures and labels ahead of individuals and their endeavours…
“Rather than promote policies that would have been a game-changer for the disenfranchised, there was a preference for symbolic gestures.”
By refusing to speak up on class issues, and shying away from them, the identity politics left has opened themselves up to these kinds of attacks.
By fundamentally accepting capitalism and the artificial scarcity that this system creates, only two options remain for those who push for an identity politics based approach. Either we restrict ourselves to purely gestural actions, such as those which Truss mocks. Alternatively, we can redivide the misery, giving Truss and the Tories an open goal in their bid to exploit divisions among the oppressed and exploited.
The genuine disdain that many workers feel for ‘symbolic gestures’ – which neither represent them, nor materially improve their lives at all – are used here to stir up a ‘culture war’, and to divert criticism of the Tory government into an attack on ‘cultural Marxism’ and the ‘loony left’.
Divide and rule
Of course, the solutions proposed by Truss are hardly any less tokenistic themselves. Many of the things that Truss lists as governmental ‘successes’ on the question of inequality seem calculated to provoke guffaws of laughter.
Thatcher’s 1980 Housing Act is cited as having promoted equality, for example. This is the act that brought about the sell off of council housing, fuelling the housing crisis that plagues society today.
Truss also cites that great motor of equality, the 2010 Academies Act, which has notoriously increased inequality in education!
It is not women and minorities who are taking opportunities away from the working class. Rather, it is the capitalist class, who hoard all the wealth and privileges for themselves, leaving the rest of us to fight over the last piece of the pie.
So long as those taken in by identity politics limit themselves to fighting over the sharing out of this scarcity, it will be easy for the ruling class to use this kind of rhetoric to pit workers against each other.
Fighting over crumbs
Diverting class anger into the language of identity and culture is a cheap attempt to hang on to working-class votes, by obscuring the fact that capitalism – and its representatives in government – have nothing to offer to workers.
Over the last year, we have seen this more clearly than ever, with money being funneled into the private sector and the City of London. Meanwhile, the working class bears the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis.
This attack on the ‘symbolic gestures’ of postmodernism is entirely hypocritical coming from Conservative ministers. Any attempts by the Tories to tackle inequality will also fail to be anything more than symbolic gestures.
Workers from all groups in society have far more in common with each other than we do with the ruling class or their representatives in parliament.
We must fight the Tories, not with identity politics but with class politics; not by dividing the working class, but by uniting it to overthrow the capitalist system and its political representatives who encourage us to fight over crumbs.