It was once fairly straightforward to explain the difference between Left and Right Wing politics. The political Left accepted the reality of working class struggle against the establishment, fighting for progressive change against the capitalist class. Meanwhile, the political Right found comfort in the status quo, happy to nurse the needs of large and small business while respecting the key institutions that govern civil society.
The resilience of the dichotomy of Left and Right for political discourse has been remarkable, particularly in the wake of Brexit and Trump, when such terms could not possibly be less relevant.
Think about it. Voters in the United States elected a candidate advocating radical change from the status quo, signalling a determination to correct thirty years of neoliberal free trade in the interests of disenfranchised workers. Across the Atlantic, British voters opted to turn their back on a project that enabled free access to travel, trade and finance, choosing instead to protect their most vulnerable workers from the brute force of global capital.
Logically, such a description would lead one to conclude that Donald Trump and Brexit were both a triumph of traditional left wing, anti-establishment working class struggle. It was not thus, and here’s the rub: the political Left has abandoned the working class, morphing into a movement preoccupied with the cursed chalice of identity politics.
It lost the economic debate. In the wake of the Cold War, when Francis Fukuyama famously declared that the triumph of capitalism constituted the ‘end of history’, he clearly did not foresee that the vanquished would find acolytes for a new and pervasive movement across the western world, that being the cause of splintering society across ethnic, gender and sexual divides. Identity politics elevates the sacred victim of uncriticisable ethnic minorities, women and the LGBTI community, promoting these groups as helpless victims against an ingrained system of white patriarchy and racism. Proponents of the Left embraced it, and this is where we find ourselves, with Trump in the White House and Western nations flirting with solutions from the political fringe and away from the centre, tired of the pertinent issues of wealth, trade and globalism being brushed aside for myopic debates on identity.
Few movements have been as damaging to societal cohesion as identity politics. It is not a stretch to write that it is a threat to democracy itself. By embracing it, mainstream progressive parties have abandoned the people left behind by neoliberal global capitalism. The traditional parties of the Left now openly promote free trade, open borders and open finance, often brushing off the grievances of their abandoned constituents as racist, uneducated bigots. It is therefore no surprise that a demagogue such as Trump, a radical like Marine Le Pen, or an incoherent Pauline Hanson would find enthusiastic support from voters fed up with being told that their ailments are a product of some entrenched, privileged white racism.
Indeed, this is how we got here, and the signs are that sadly the malaise is viral. We are witnessing the cultivation and celebration of victimhood, where offence is an end in itself, and laws, rules and processes are created for this toxicity to thrive. Such an environment fosters grievance, searching for the slightest whiff of repression or marginalisation, using the grievance as a weapon of power. It is a triumph of emotion over reason, endorsing the notion that ‘if you feel it, it’s true.’
Former Labor leader Mark Latham has described the consequences for the cohesion of the community as ‘horrendous’, festering into social distrust and resentment. “Instead of encouraging people to cross gender, racial and sexuality boundaries and find common cause with their fellow citizens, the Left is encouraging separatism…“White male privilege” is the Satan of their new religion and it’s being prosecuted fanatically. Who would have thought the word “white” could become a term of abuse in modern Australia?” Latham recently wrote.
We now have debates about debates, critiquing one’s right to speak based on their race, gender or sexuality. A growing trend is shutting down a white male’s ‘right’ to comment on an issue of import given that the subject may loosely involve or impact women, racial or sexual minorities. Witness Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young’s smackdown of Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm in a parliamentary debate about child care. Leyonhjelm, quite legitimately, called into question the right of an individual on $350,000 a year to access a government subsidy for childcare. Rather than addressing the pertinent point, Hanson-Young dismissed his right to speak, describing it as ‘galling’ that a ‘white male’ was speaking about a woman’s right to access government support.
The malaise stretches beyond politics. A contemporary topic of literary debate concerns the extent to which white authors should be ‘appropriating’ ethnic minorities. The right of a straight author to write from the point of view of a homosexual character is now called into question. Are we to presume that the way forward for societal discourse is for only representatives of an (agreed upon) community to have the right to comment or present ideas on their behalf? If this is so, one can hardly imagine a more corrosive development for the health of western society, a society that endorses the splintering of the community into minority tribes, openly suspicious of the rights and obligations of the other.
It also presents an underlying contradiction at the heart of identity politics. On the one hand, we as individuals are being told that we can never understand another because we are not the person they have defined themselves to be, yet we are also told that we must recognise and feel for them, despite our apparent inability to perceive them.
In such a postmodern context, one should rightfully ask where it all ends. If all cultural and social values are held as subjective to one’s personal race, gender or sexual orientation, then what societal norms can be upheld as inherently good? The trendy words are there, equality, respect, tolerance, fairness. We hear them often, but subject to careful examination, they present as hollow. What do they actually mean in real context?
Witness the recent controversy from Bentleigh Secondary College, where the school issued a ban on braided hair that applied to all students. Two students from South Sudan accused the school of discrimination, claiming that it attacked their African culture. Now, if the rule applied to all students then one would rightly conclude that the principle of equality was upheld, yet this was not how the issue played out. In our postmodern context of cultural relativity, the school was indeed found to be discriminatory, even though the rule applied to all students regardless of ethnic background. Is it therefore to be expected that in future there will be different standards and rules applied to varying races? If so, we have reached an ironic stage in history, that of some quasi segregation where rules, standards and indeed, laws, are fluid, subject to the identity of the individual rather than to an agreed community standard.
What of fairness and respect? Is it fair to enforce safe spaces that discriminate according to race, gender or sexuality? Is it respectful to judge the validity of one’s opinion based purely on their identity and not on what they have said?
Tolerance presents its own quadrary. At what point do we draw a line on tolerating the intolerance of various cultural norms? Do we turn a blind eye when Punchbowl Boys High endorses male students’ rights to not shake females’ hands? Do we accept religious institutions’ right to dissociate from sectors of the community they do not identify with? Once again, the answer is not clear cut. There is no cultural, normative standard to draw upon, since any such declared one is, by nature, oppressive.
Identity politics offers no answer. It is fluid by nature. The only value it holds is the validity of personal grievance and victimhood. Its currency of trade becomes competitive, as both sides of any conflict become self declared victims in a downward spiral of self pity. Witness feminists labelling men as sexist, and the men in turn declaring reverse sexism in response. Or look at the adverse impact of affirmative action, reviled by critics as reverse discrimination. The impact on political discourse is corrosive as it ultimately turns ‘identity groups’ against one another.
And thus, this is where we find ourselves. Mired in confusion, searching for answers in a postmodern world pushed on us by the Left’s new frontier. Any idea once held as normative is now vulnerable, subject to the whim of the beholder. Here we are, fragmented, divided, lacking a common historical or social narrative, hostage to a narcissistic embrace of identity with only the isolated ability to look within.