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Unmasking oppression— is identity politics enough?

In the second of a series of columns on oppression, Isabel Ringrose looks at the limitations of identity politics
Issue 2860

Black Lives Matter protests in London in 2020 (Picture: Guy Smallman)

In a world brimming with oppression, our identity—whether black, trans or gay—can become even more important to us. People can share a sense of camaraderie and togetherness based on identity because of the harsh injustices they face. And it can sometimes feel like the only people who understand the hardships of oppression have an interest in fighting against it.

Movements that organise around a shared identity have achieved significant results. Black Lives Matter led to powerful protests and a change in the narrative around institutional racism and Britain’s bloody history. The London Trans+ Pride has raised the profile of the vicious attacks on trans people. Fighting back together gives oppressed people the confidence to take on their oppressors.

But there are important limitations to identity politics. One weakness of identity politics is the danger of fragmentation. Who’s in and who’s out of a particular identity? And who gets to decide? Often when movements wain, identity-based groups split into smaller and smaller groups.

Another is that organising around a shared identity isn’t enough to take on systematic oppression. Oppression cuts across class divisions in society. Women and black and LGBT+ people at the top of society face racism, sexism and homophobia and transphobia.

But not all people who suffer from a particular oppression have the same interests. Has home secretary Suella Braverman experienced racism and sexism? Of course. Does she abhor it on some personal level? Yes. Yet Braverman is spearheading the Tory government’s assault on migrants, voted against abortion access in Northern Ireland and routinely attacks trans people.

Fundamentally, it’s not in her class interests to challenge the system that perpetuates oppression because she benefits from it.

If the unity of all women, or black people, or LGBT+ people isn’t enough to win liberation, what is? As we discussed in the last week’s column, oppression hasn’t always existed and is rooted in the development of class society and capitalism. So, we have to ask, what is the social force that has the power to smash that system

Here, socialists point to the working class because, as the source of capitalists’ profit, it has a unique power to take on the system. This doesn’t mean that working class people are naturally progressive. The experiences of black and white, women and men and trans and cis working class people are different.

Women face the gender pay gap, the double burden of domestic labour and harassment. And black workers are more likely to be bullied, discriminated against, disciplined or refused promotion. But most white, male and cis people do not benefit from oppression which plays an important function for the ruling class—divide and rule.

US economist Michael Reich looked at black and white income inequality in the 1970s. He found that the bigger the gap between black and white incomes, the bigger the gap between the incomes of rich and poor whites. “The economic consequences of racism are not only lower incomes for blacks, but also higher incomes for the capitalist class and lower incomes for white workers,” he wrote.

Life is often much harder for workers who suffer from oppression, but divide and rule damages all workers’ interests. It’s the ruling class that benefits materially from oppression. So, even if you are a white, male, cis, straight working class man, you still have an objective, material interest in fighting for liberation.

The exploitation that all working class people face gives a material basis for unity—and we need unity to take on the state and the system. But there is nothing automatic about it. Socialists have to always stand with the oppressed and actively combat racist, sexist and transphobic ideas in the working class.

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