Saturday, 5 February 2011

Enough liberation to go round

Queen of Thorns wrote a post Why the Left Needs Feminism and cross posted over on the standard. I think her post is really interesting and important (and it's great to see it at the Standard, which usually only comments on feminist issues when there's a really obvious way to insult John Key in the process). Here I do focus on what I disagree with her about and so I suggest you read the whole post, because there's lots of cool ideas in there.

And I agree with her conclusion - obviously I agree with her conclusion. But I disagree with some of the points she makes along the way. Mostly, I think, because we have a different analysis of the role of the Labour Party within the left.

QoT appears to begin her post by setting up a Labour party: "focused on class struggle or strictly economic leftist ideas." This labour party does not exist. Chris Trotter has indeed tried to portray worshipping at the altar of testosterone as a service to the working class, but that doesn't make it true. Likewise there are those who suggest the reason that the fifth labour government alienated so many working-class people was because of it's crazy feminism, but the actual feminist legislative achievements at that time were minimal particularly with what doesn't done (I'm looking at you pay equity and abortion law reform). At times QoT appears to accept Chris Trotter's zero-sum game and just argue that 'identity politics' things are important - rather than going further and saying that there's enough liberation to go around.

In places of her post she is treading over reasonably familiar ground. One of the biggest intellectual challenges for the left is to understand the why and the how of the fourth labour government? Certainly this has come up on left blogs before and there is an argument which places the responsibility at the feet of 'identity politics' (Chris Trotter, John Minto and Bryce Edwards have all made it). I disagree - and I've written my thoughts on this before, so I'm not going to go over them again.

But at times QoT seemed to be arguing the inverse of Trotter's argument:

Trotter is speaking about the 1980s, that golden age of namby-pamby identity politics when the left got distracted by piffling little side issues like whether men should be held accountable for raping their wives and whether gay men should be allowed to be gay.

A time when the Left wasn’t, to quote Phil Goff’s own advisor John Pagani on that thread, “connecting with things that matter to people”. You can probably draw your own conclusions as to the kind of people he means.

I've said it before, and I'll probably say it again, but this idea that the 1980s was a golden age of identity politics (whether you see that as a bad thing) gets repeated far more often than it gets proved. No-one has been able to tell me what the wonderful legislative feminist gains of the fourth labour government were.

But more importantly here Pagani is clearly conflating the 'left' and 'the parliamentary labour party'. He's also wrong on both counts. Because in the 1980s the parliamentary labour party was 'connecting with things that matter to people' - if you call a kick connecting. It was privatising assets, introducing GST, introducing student fees and selling post-offices. And the extra-parliamentary left were also connecting with those very same things, remember just because we didn't win, doesn't mean we didn't fight.

Likewise while homosexual law reform and rape law reform, both had their home in the extra-parliamentary left, neither sat quite as comfortably in the parliamentary left. Homosexual law reform was a private members bill, and several Labour MPs at the time voted against it. Whereas the act that criminalised rape in marriage had been drafted under Muldoon's government, but not passed before the snap election. I disagree with QoT idea that 'the left' focused on Homosexual and rape law reform during the 1980s and this was good, as much as I disagree with Trotter et al's reverse formulation.

I am concerned about the stories that get told about the 1980s, partly because I care about history, but also because I am worried people will draw the wrong lessons today. I think QoT reinforced Trotter's formulation of class and 'identity' politics standing in opposition to each other with the way she talked about the past even though I think her argument was the opposite of that.

This is not a zero sum game - there isn't a limited amount of liberation available that we have to fight among ourselves for. It's the opposite - your struggle is my struggle, and I cannot be free while you are in chains.


Anonymous said...

(Just to repeat my comment from Capitalism Bad Tree Pretty)

Hi Maia,

My "golden age of identity politics" line was heavy sarcasm - as someone who was an infant in the 80s and a slightly-radical 21st century feminist now I actually think it's ludicrous for Trotter to act like basic human rights stuff like homosexual law reform and criminalizing marital rape was special or radical - like, isn't that just want anyone with a vague concept of human dignity should just do?

But when I rant I tend to make my sarcasm a little unclear!

Maia said...

I did understand that you were being sarcastic about the 1980s. But I was confused about what you were saying. Were you arguing that Pagani was wrong and the parliamentary labour party was connecting with 'issues that matter to people' in the 1980s? Or something else? I realise that I should have made my confusion with what you were saying more clear in my response. Because I read your post and thought "I agree with most of this, but I don't agree with a couple of things." ANd then I read it more carefully, and couldn't figure out if those were things you were saying, intentionally implying, or if they were unintentional.

I realised, after I went to bed, that I hadn't made my point quite clear. People like Trotter and Pagani are setting up a zero sum game, where they say that gains won by 'identity politics' are at the expense of 'class politics' (and it's ridiculous in so many ways, but they keep doing it). Many more people than just them that it was because of the 'identity politics' gains in the 1980s, that the labour party was able to make such savage attacks on the working class (again I think it's bullshit).

And if you respond by saying "Hey that stuff is really important." Without explicitly addressing their zero-sum version of the world, then it reinforces their idea that one comes at the expense of the other - you're just saying that it's not a bad thing.

Anonymous said...

I probably shouldn't be trying to answer this while a few ciders down, but here goes!

I was trying to say that Chris Trotter is portraying the 80s as being a time Labour "lost its way" by getting involved in identity politics - which denigrates the entire effort made by a lot of people to decriminalize homosexuality and criminalize marital rape (two things of course which Trotter doesn't have to worry about so deems unimportant). *Now* he and Pagani want Labour to connect with "things that matter to people", explicitly rejecting the advances of the 80s because to those guys those things aren't valid parts of The Workers' Struggle.

I think I touched on the zero-sum game in a way by noting how "identity politics" can easily be connected to class struggle and "workers' rights", but you're right, I didn't specifically address the separation Trotter, Pagani et al are trying to create between class struggle and all other struggles.

Maia said...

Yeah that's basically what I thought you meant and I do disagree. Isee it as the inverse of Bryce Edwards, John Minto's, and Chris Trotter's constructions of the 1980s

I don't think that reflects the reality of the time. The fourth labour government attacked people's lives on a whole bunch of fronts. That is why people with historical memory hate them (and even those without hate Roger Douglas). Not because they 'weren't connecting'. To suggest they were connnecting with things that mattered with people, because of pieces of legislation that they didn't introduce or vote for unanimously doesn't reflect the reality of the time.

I may write a follow-up post - more about why I think these disagreements matter. When blogging people mostly focus on what they think is worng with the world (I know I do). And that can mean that serious disagreements on how to change it remain hidden. And I don't know if that's going on here, but I figure the best way to find out is to explore what I mean.