As the recession deepens righteous anger grows about the systemic greed and unbridled power of the few at the top. Once again people are starting to make connections between their own vulnerability and the exploitative, unequal nature of the capitalist system. A sign of the times here is the launch of the No2EU, Yes to Democracy campaign which is fielding a platform of left candidates in the forthcoming European elections. Opposed to the Lisbon Treaty, with its charter for privatisation and subversion of workers’ rights, the campaign stands for a democratic Europe built on principles of social justice.
rather than opposing the capitalist system they saw the enemy as ‘universalism’
What is interesting about No2EU is the way it poses a challenge to the identity (and post-identity) politics which have become so significant in oppositional thinking for the last quarter century or more. For many radicals the neo-liberal impasse of Thatcherism encouraged a re-evaluation of what progressive politics should be about. Rather than opposing the capitalist system – which looked increasingly impregnable – they saw the enemy as ‘universalism’, of which there were left versions as well as right. Feminism provides the case in point. Launched in the 1960s and 70s, the ‘second wave’ of feminism demanded recognition for women as women, not as women who were adjunct members of the working class. The same was true of black power, and the gay, lesbian and bisexual movements. This new types of identity politics asserted the difference of political subjects against monolithic and exclusive definitions of what it is to be human.
Although these movements were still strongly aligned with the traditional left and the critique of capitalism in the 1970s, a decade later identity politics were becoming increasingly disconnected from socialism. By the late 1990s the new social movements, as they were now called, were strongly libertarian, pluralist and suspicious of any kind of unifying principle concerning what radical politics might be for. The anti-globalisation protests and the series of World Social Forums (WSF) which emerged from them in the 2000s show this very well. Indeed, the collapse of the WSF over the last few years suggests that the strong emphasis on identity, autonomy and plurality has been self-defeating. With no general goals, or programme for achieving them, the new social movements seem to have lost their way.
Still, the demands for recognition and autonomy which drove the new radical politics back in the 70s have not gone away. The challenge now must be to integrate them with the demands of the labour movement. That’s where No2EU, Yes to Democracy comes in. Simultaneously an attack on BNP far right nationalism and the pseudo-cosmopolitanism of the EU, the campaign calls for a Europe where workers’ rights are protected and public services are enhanced rather than cut back and privatised.
The recent strikes at the Lindsey oil refinery suggest that a crucial negotiation has to made here; between the principle of recognising others, in this context workers of other nationalities within the EU, and the need to defend pay and conditions which have been struggled for over many years. The right approach is surely not to say that one simply trumps the other, that the recognition of identity is more important than economic equality or vice versa. Rather it is to show how capitalism conveniently appeals to the recognition of difference (‘workers of whatever nationality have the right to work anywhere in Europe’) while exploiting difference as means of driving down wages across Europe in a race to the bottom. At Lindsey it was workers from impoverished southern Italy who were contracted for well below union negotiated rates.
All this suggests that reconciling difference and identity with demands for social justice is going to involve, above all, the exposure of pernicious ideology. But that’s nothing new. Perhaps two thirds of the struggle of radicals has always consisted in refuting lies and ‘telling truth to power’ as Edward Said once put it.