(This piece was updated on 15 September to include a follow-up article from journalist Ava Vidal, who says Corbyn has an “exemplary record on” feminist and anti-racist issues. See the update below.)
Identity politics reared its ugly head in the election of socialist Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the UK’s Labour Party. Corbyn won in an historic landslide, earning a whopping 60% of the vote, over 40% more than the runner-up.
Yet, while Corbyn is reinvigorating the British Left—injecting a shot of adrenaline into a moribund party that has been thoroughly reactionary since the neoliberal “Third Way” fad of the 1990s—identitarians have joined hands with the corporate media in their desperate attempts to rein in the so-called “Brocialist” Threat.
Writing in the Guardian, liberal journalist Suzanne Moore claimed “As Jeremy Corbyn was anointed leader, not one female voice was heard.”
Invoking the specter of “brocialism”—that poorly defined, bloody piece of meat red-baiting bourgeois feminists sling at socialist feminists—Moore said the “new brocialism cares deeply about women’s issues of course—just not enough to elect an actual woman.”
Corbyn is certainly a man—and certainly a white one, at that. But is Moore’s claim true? Was “not one female voice heard”?
A bit of research indicates that not only were women’s voices heard, they were in fact the loudest voices in support of Jeremy Corbyn.
Socialist feminist journalist and writer Elizabeth Bruenig pointed out that, according to an August poll, 61% of women said they planned on voting for Corbyn. In contrast, just 4% of women (versus 11% of men) planned on voting for Liz Kendall, a female Labour politician who happens to be on the right-wing of the party. The other woman running for Labour leadership, Yvette Cooper, a centrist, associated Corbyn with “extremism.” Just 19% of women said they would vote for her—less than one-third of those who said they would back Corbyn.
The poll makes it clear: Labour’s female voters want a leftist candidate, and that candidate’s gender is not nearly as important as their policies.
Polls like these expose how, although identitarians frequently claim to be (unelected) spokespeople for their respective identity groups, their views are in fact often not at all representative of the majority of the people in those groups.
Bruening called the author’s argument “complete and total madness” and said Moore “means she wasn’t heard,” not women overall.
Yet Moore was by no means alone in her accusations. Writing in the right-wing Telegraph, journalist Cathy Newman claimed that “‘brocialism’ rules” in “Jeremy Corbyn’s blokey Britain.”
You see, “brocialism” is what is truly sexist, we are led to believe. Patriarchal capitalism, on the other hand—you know, that system that abuses women’s bodies and minds for profit, turns them into hyper-sexualized and hyper-exploited objects, and pays them significantly less than men who do the same work—is absolutely splendid.
What exactly makes Britain now suddenly belong to Corbyn—the leader of the left-wing opposition—and not to right-wing white male Prime Minister David Cameron and his hard-line Conservative Party is a mystery.
It is telling that this was published in the Telegraph, the UK’s leading conservative newspaper. “Brocialism” is the right-wing’s favorite new term. It exemplifies the ways in which conservatives wield identity politics as a bludgeon against socialism. Reactionaries love identity politics, yet not because they want to see an end to patriarchy (and white supremacy). Rather, the Right only cares about identity politics insofar as it is able to weaponize it against leftism.
It is fascinating really. The same right-wing media that constantly rails against the supposed evils of feminism suddenly pretends to care about feminism when it is a useful tool against leftism. Publications like the Telegraph will applaud the very same feminism they frequently disparage if they can incapacitate a “brocialist” in the process. “The enemy of the enemy is my friend,” as they say.
Yet wait, there’s more! In a risibly preposterous piece that would likely win first place in a competition of the most ludicrous identitarian arguments ever composed, writer Daisy Benson—who is a Liberal Democrat, not even a member of the Labour Party—insisted that “If it’s truly progressive, Labour will have voted in a female leader – regardless of her policies.”
This article might as well have been published in the Onion as satire of identity politics. Its affiliate Clickhole has already presciently reported on the “7 Female CEOs Who Inspire Us All To Be Cogs In The Capitalist Machine.”
Perhaps the author would rather have another Thatcher. For, need I remind identitarians like Benson that the first female British prime minister was none other than Margaret Thatcher: the proud progenitor of neoliberalism, the sworn opponent of society, the implacable enemy of the working class who, two years before Reagan, cracked the Keynesian dam, unleashing the wave of unfettered capitalism that ruthlessly tore down economic security walls and social safety nets around the entire world.
If Benson truly would prefer another rabid right-wing Thatcher over a feminist white male leftist like Corbyn, she simply exposes what leftists have been saying all along: identitarians are not on the Left; they are on the Right.
The truth is, in spite of the aforementioned identitarians’ myopic insistence to the contrary, Corbyn is actually pursuing a prodigious feminist agenda in his leadership. As socialist feminist Ellie Mae O’Hagan noted in her list of five reasons why social justice advocates should be happy with Jeremy Corbyn’s victory:
It’s a scandal that only 22 per cent of people in public life are women. It means women have less control over the decisions that affect them, and leaves girls with fewer role models to look up to. So it’s great that Corbyn will aim to ensure that half of the people in his Shadow Cabinet will be women – a political first. Finally there might be the critical mass of women in parliament to achieve a cultural change, and to cap it all off Corbyn has consistently voted against policies which disproportionately affect women, like cuts to welfare and a stricter asylum system.
In her the Telegraph hit piece, Newman mentions in passing that several prominent women in the Labour Party refused to serve in Corbyn’s cabinet, because he is “too left-wing.” She uses this as proof of Corbyn’s iniquitous “brocialism.” This is just another instance of having your political cake and eating it too.
Examples like these only further demonstrate how deeply conservative and fundamentally right-wing identity politics is. In its obsession with individual behavior, representation, and language, identity politics is nothing more than individualism with a “radical” and dissentious façade. It is simply a repackaging of conservatism’s most fundamental tenets in a supposedly feminist and anti-racist milieu, what political scientist and race theorist Adolph Reed characterizes as “not an alternative to class politics, [but rather] a class politics, the politics of the left-wing of neoliberalism.”
The fact of the matter is identity politics aficionados like Moore, Newman, and Benson don’t see women as workers; they see women solely as women. To put it in words perhaps familiar to them, they have the economic privilege to not see themselves as workers. It scarcely concerns them that most women are members of the working class who are more concerned about making a decent living in a time of ever-decreasing wages and ever-increasing unemployment, supporting their families and loved ones, ensuring they have continued access to healthcare while the NHS is under brutal attack, securing pensions for when, if ever, they retire.
Most women do not have the economic privilege necessary to ignore class and see themselves oppressed solely as women, instead of as working women. Of course patriarchy exists. Virulent sexism is ubiquitous; heinous misogyny is widespread. Yet this oppression concentrates itself in the realm of economics, where working-class women (and working-class women of color) cannot separate their exploitation as workers from their exploitation as women (and women of color). Identitarian pundits like Moore, Newman, and Benson, who make a living writing articles for publications often not read by the working class, are completely detached from the plights of most women.
It is precisely these same arguments that are employed in the US in support of Hillary Clinton, a cartoonishly corrupt and thoroughly neoliberal warhawk who ingratiates herself in Wall Street, supports anti-worker and anti-environment free trade agreements, and pushed for the mass incarceration policies that have utterly ravaged American communities of color. Her leading competitor, socialist Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, is by leaps and bounds more progressive than her in almost every single way—and has a long record on voting in support of women’s rights that is just as good as Clinton’s, if not better. Yet he is constantly slandered by identitarians as sexist (and racist), because he “talks too much about class,” and ergo supposedly ignores “women’s issues”—as if women (and people of color) aren’t workers who are disproportionately exploited by the capitalist system.
In their flagrant disregard for policy, identitarians expose the conservative core of identity politics. They don’t care if candidates like Corbyn and Sanders are in fact, objectively speaking, more feminist (and anti-racist) than reactionary politicians like Kendall or Clinton, because they fight for not just better representation for women (and people of color) but also for better lives and more equitable access to resources. Identitarians simply prefer to label leftists as “brocialists” and write them off, because their bourgeois feminism is fundamentally rooted in identity and in individual opposition to patriarchy, not in the material conditions of the patriarchal capitalist society in which they live and the political economic system that permeates it.
Clinging to your identity group “regardless of its policies” is not politics; it is high-school clique drama. Identitarians may do lip service to structural analyses, but, at the end of the day, they are much more concerned with making systems of oppression more “diverse” than they are with actually dismantling them.
The primary concern of bourgeois identitarians is not to end the systemic murder and exploitation; rather, it is to ensure that the murderers and exploiters guiding the violent system along are proportionately representative of the identities of the denizens they brutalize.
The primary goal of identity politics is not to end the oppression; it is to ensure that the oppressors have a diverse array of faces.
UPDATE, 15 September:
British comedian and journalist Ava Vidal published a follow-up in the Independent on 15 September, defending Corbyn and arguing his “Shadow Cabinet appointments are not ‘problematic.'”
“To accuse Corbyn of any kind of racism or sexism is to ignore his exemplary record on both issues,” Vidal says. “In some cases, it is even better than those of the female/BME candidates that people wanted him to include in his Shadow Cabinet,” she adds. (BME stands for “Black and Minority Ethnic,” a phrase used in the UK to describe people of color.)
Vidal details numerous examples of Corbyn’s feminist (and anti-racist) policies. She also draws attention to the hypocrisy of his critics, and points out that “Being female or BME doesn’t automatically mean that you’ll champion the best interests of those groups”:
For example, he has vowed to bring abortion rights to Northern Ireland as well as same sex marriage. He has launched a “Women’s Manifesto” promising to tackle not just the very difficult issues such as violence against women and FGM, but also the everyday sexism that women have to endure such as sexual harassment and unequal pay. He was also the only candidate for the Labour leadership to vote against the welfare bill, which will reportedly hit women disproportionately harder than men.
What’s more, Corbyn has spoken out against racism for years, and was arrested for protesting against apartheid in South Africa. He challenged Ed Miliband over the release of Labour party mugs that many believed demonised immigrants. And the first thing he did after winning the leadership contest was to address the 100,000 people in Parliament Square at the Refugees Welcome demonstration.
As well as choosing to ignore this, many of those criticising Corbyn for the make up of his Shadow Cabinet have never even shown an interest in diversity before. Where were they when the Tories were making brutal cuts to services to women, attacking single mothers and implementing policies that stoke racial prejudice?
If you’re still worried about Corbyn’s cabinet, it’s worth taking a look at the options he had available. After his victory on Saturday, 11 senior Labour MP’s immediately refused to serve in his Shadow Cabinet. Eight of them come under the female and/or BME umbrella. By throwing their toys out of the pram, rather than staying and trying to work with Corbyn, all these politicians have done is prove how unsuitable they were for any senior position in the first place.
Yet sixteen out of the thirty-one positions in the Shadow Cabinet have still been filled by women, and for the first time history they outnumber the men. Only three are BME, but we have to remember that many of Labour’s BME MPs were newly elected in May. And while the argument against tokenism is often used to keep women and minorities out of top level positions across all professions, we must be careful not to argue for people to be included regardless of their policies, capability and experience.
No-one can be expected to rely solely on tokenism and to ignore everything else. Being female or BME doesn’t automatically mean that you’ll champion the best interests of those groups. What about the many female MPs who voted to cut benefits for single parents, when a disproportionate amount of lone parents are women?