Why do I have an aversion to identity politics?

There’s a caricature in politics that people on the left have to be sympathetic to the aims of liberal identity politics and that they must rebuke anyone who disagrees as far right and in some cases, as I myself have experienced, a fascist. This is a caricature not in line with my own perspective as a self-described socialist. The defamation aimed at those who don’t support the aims of these so-called ‘wokes’ is not only a gross misuse of language, but it also misses the point. My aims, and the aims of many who subscribe to the notions of liberal identity politics, are very much aligned. We both want justice of a racial, gender and sexual nature. We both want society to be free from discrimination. I know this because me and my partner have regular (though sometimes fraught) conversations about our views on such matters. The division lies in the desirable practices and strategy in achieving such aims, the wider social repercussions of such practices, as well as whom is considered the victim of historical discrimination.

Francis Fukuyama has taken much criticism for his proclamation of the ‘end of history’ back in the 1990s, but his recent book Identity contends with the notions relating to identity politics both of the right and the liberal left. He contends that the modern world’s understanding of identity is resting on three pillars:

“The first is thymos, a universal aspect of human personality that craves recognition. The second is the distinction between the inner and the outer self, and the raising of the moral valuation of the inner self over outer society. …The third is an evolving concept of dignity, in which recognition is due not just to a narrow class of people, but to everyone.” (Fukuyama, 2018)

In essence, we all crave recognition, we all have an inner self and an outer self which is subject to social norms and requirements, and we all desire dignity so that we are all recognised equally. Such notions brought about during the enlightenment have led to great advances: equal pay at work, equal votes, gay marriage, recognition of gender transitions between male and female. These are all great achievements undoubtedly. However, there is a dark side to this politics (as there is with almost all political entities) as Fukuyama suggests:

“Modern liberal societies are heirs to the moral confusion left by the disappearance of a shared religious horizon” from which a new society has sprung where “dignity seems to be centred on the individuals’ ability to make moral choices” (Fukuyama, 2018). Religion, love it or loath it, was the cornerstone of social organisation, alongside the nation state, for centuries. This was whisked away in favour of a new approach to society in which autonomy of the individual is paramount. What this has created, though not inevitably, is a rampant individualism which is consuming society from within:

“When a stable, shared moral horizon disappears and is replaced by a cacophony of competing value systems, the vast majority of people do not rejoice at their newfound freedom of choice. Rather, they  feel an intense insecurity and alienation because they do not know who their true self is. This crisis of identity leads in the opposite direction from expressive individualism, to the search for a common identity that will rebind the individuals to a social group and reestablish a clear moral horizon” (Fukuyama, 2018).

Such is the nature of the contemporary culture war and the competing social groups, identities and ‘moral horizons’. In essence, within society there are multiple competing mini societies which are centred around one’s notion of their true self. Such a state of affairs is destructive both in a political and a social sense. It is a political philosophy which divides people based upon their un-changeable characteristics – for example gender – and pits them against a majority – in the contemporary case, men – who are privileged and oppressive. This is not in the spirit of those early progressives who wanted to do away with these arbitrary characteristics and instead contend with one’s character. As such, my aversion to identity politics comes from three places.

Firstly, as a political strategy it is rather useless; it seeks to divide rather than unite and such a strategy is a nightmare for creating coalitions of people. Take the example of trans and women’s rights. If you take side of trans activists then you sacrifice women’s activists; the same vice versa. Politically it isn’t a smart strategy.

Secondly, I don’t want to be viewed as a white, man. I don’t want to be seen as oppressive (because I’m not). I don’t  want to view others as women, black or gay. So far as I’m concerned such features are, in most senses, redundant. I want to be friends with people, talk with people and live in a society on the basis of mutuality, respect and the content of one’s character. To deny me the ability to stand for parliament as a man, through all women’s shortlists, is sexism just as it was 100 years ago when women were prevented from standing for parliament. This tit for tat, positive discrimination agenda is not progressive; it’s wrong and it entrenches discrimination, division, and social antagonisms.

Finally, the competition for a supreme identity inevitably leads to bad things. The break down of society in the face of rampant individuals is deeply problematic. Not least because it erodes the single unifying feature of what is a deeply diverse society. It is this competition for a supreme identity that partially forged the clamour for Hitler’s supreme Arian race, for Daesh’s (ISIS) Salafi Jihadism and for China’s ideological identity which has led to Uyghur ‘re-education camps’.

It is hard to forge a common society based upon the diverse nature of the people around us but forge it we must. The social fabric, and in turn the political state, is proven by history to be the best model by which people are organised. It’s worth noting that this is not an argument in favour of organising society around religious apparatus again. This not something which the Marxist within me craves. However, the social values taught by religion were central organising features of society up until very recently. We must design our own social tenets. These social tenets need not say that people’s individualism should be stifled. On the contrary, such a social model must embrace the uniqueness of each person and establish a common identity based on community, shared customs, and respect. The alternative is an un-common, un-shared identity of competing moralities which seek to assert their own organising principles as supreme, inevitably leading to conflict. This is not a world I want to live in.

The Politics of Experience

Often people ask me, why do you support Labour? Why are you a socialist? I know many people have asked that of my podcast co-host Bradley, to which he wrote an article similar to this in reply to such questions. This is my attempt to answer these questions not just for the benefit of you my readers but for the benefit of myself. It begins with my life experience.

I am not like the rest of my family in many ways you will come to see. I was born in Derby unlike the rest of my family who were all born in Bolton. My parents were relatively middle class unlike the life experiences of both their forbears. Both my grandparents were from working class backgrounds where their lives originated on the post-war council estates and the terraced houses of the industrial north. As such my parent’s experiences in their youth were that of a working-class lifestyle in the 1970s and 1980s. I am often reminded of the journey my family have been on these last forty years or so by both my parents and my grandparents.

My dad was the second person in his own family, after my grandfather, to attend university and he was the only one out of his three siblings to attend education beyond college. Albeit his time at university came after leaving school at 15 years old and a spell as a lorry driver and an unskilled manual worker. He went on to a masters and a doctorate. My mother was much the same: she was the first in her family (aside from a brief spell by my grandfather) to attend university. Everyone in my family has been to comprehensive schools, all of them have never owned a home over £600,000 in value, in fact my father did not own his own home until very recently at the age of 48. My mother’s parents are now comfortably upper-middle class owning a large home in Shropshire whilst in the aftermath of my grandfather’s passing on my father’s side, my grandmother lives comfortably in a two-bed terraced house in that same part of ex-industrial Britain. Though their journey begins as a working-class story it is now firmly one of middle-class lifestyle but isn’t that the story of a lot of people of the last forty years or so? This is not to negate the life experiences of others, all I simply suggest is my heritage, relative to the trials of others, is to a large extent a common trend in post-war British history. The working-class family on the council estate, in the shadow of Britain’s former industrial past pushes on, breaks new barriers, and enters the lavish life of middle-class suburbia.

As such, my own upbringing was that of a relatively middle-class family. I was born at the turn of the new millennia. I’m told there was much hope and optimism for what lay before. This optimism was, in many ways, well placed. My family’s economic position steadily increased over the next twenty years. My father is now a professor, my mother is now, after several different jobs in the public sector, a clinical psychologist. By this point my parents have securely middle-class jobs, with securely middle-class wages. In my childhood, this relatively secure economic position, enabled many opportunities for me and my brother. We went on holiday every year, we could afford our school uniform and school trips, we lived in nice neighbourhoods in Bolton and Stockport.

That’s not say we were well off. By no means were we well off. Arguments about money and spending were regular in my childhood between my parents. There were times when certain opportunities couldn’t be afforded to me and my parents just about managed to afford my time at university. We were secure but we weren’t affluent, and we certainly weren’t comfortable. Though, this is not to negate the struggles of others with less economic security than my family and I am well aware of how fortunate I am to have been afforded the security and opportunities that many still are unable to access. Yet, it’s the truth, my family did have a middle-class income but never felt truly comfortable with that income.

Things were made worse by the breakdown of my family with the divorce of my parents at the age of 14. My parents ended up living in poorly kept rented homes: my father in a house ridden with damp whilst my mother lived in a terraced house falling apart at the seams. At the same time my brother was diagnosed with autism, after waiting for over a year; I had to go to therapy, after waiting for months. My mother moved to Macclesfield in search of a fresh beginning, it’s safe to say it turned into a sour ending and four years later she moved back to Stockport. Meanwhile my father was ridden with debt after divorce legal fees, paying obscene sums of money for a house he didn’t own, had to afford mine and my brothers’ life whilst his job began to become more problematic with the increasing insecurity of university professions.

In this same period, my dad’s father died and my gran, who can barely sustain herself on the state pension after a lifetime of work, had to pay for a funeral. Meanwhile my brother ended up on anti-depressants, my uncle and aunt also divorced, and I myself, after contending with depression, ended up in a significant amount of debt. Safe to say that though my life is relatively secure, and though my parents work in middle-class jobs with middle-class wages, they struggled and particularly after their divorce.

From my story there are many others like it. Even those who don’t share this story will hear elements of truth from their own lives: the long waiting times for healthcare, the soaring funeral costs, obscene levels of debt, wages that only just stretch expenses, growing rates of depression and low mood, divorced parents and broken families, rented homes (both public and private) which overcharge and underdeliver, the dream of being able to go to university brought back down to earth with astronomical costs which punish middle class families, economic insecurity brought about by unforeseen circumstances. At the heart of this is a simple message: society isn’t working, the economy isn’t working. As such, when I talk of preserving the family unit and strengthening its success, I do so because my own family broke down. When I talk of improving healthcare, I do so because my brother waited too long for his diagnosis. When I talk of a better focus on mental health, I do so because my own therapy was laboured and short. When I talk of building council houses and of home ownership, I do so because for a lot of my life I lived in poor quality (a health concern in my dad’s case) homes, which my family did not own, and which charged a fortune. When I talk of improving the purpose and security of work, I do so because my mum had to supplement her income with in-work benefits and because my dad, who works a traditional middle-class job, is experiencing exploitation and contractual insecurity. When I talk of reforming tuition fees and maintenance loans, I do so because my family were punished by a system that lets the wealthy off and, rightly, focuses on supporting working-class and disadvantaged students but forgets that there are millions of hard-working middle-class families which are stretching themselves that little bit too thin.

Fundamentally my philosophy is built upon these experiences. If I had to sum my beliefs up in a question they would be something like: “Who is in control: the people or the powerful?” When people discuss their own politics, they often talk of the great philosophers who have shaped their opinions. Be in no doubt I acknowledge this; that’s why they’re great philosophers. However, this focus on philosophy often negates the greater influence: their own experiences. That’s what this week’s column seeks to do, not just to enlighten you of my own experiences but to provoke questions in your own mind. Where have I come from? What are my experiences? How have they informed my politics? These are the questions I have asked myself recently and they have grounded me in a political reality beyond the destructive dogmas that seem to encroach upon our political sphere. I might have philosophers that channel my experiences but, fundamentally, the politics of experience is the most significant pillar upon which our own views are built.

A State of Flux: The Hegemonic Status of Ideas, Their Role In History and The Rebirth Of Populist Methodology

When we woke up over the last year or so and turned on the news, the stories were predominantly the same. Aside from the coronavirus pandemic there is another common trend. In the UK they were probably reporting on Brexit or the fallout from the Conservative austerity program. In the US it was most likely to be about Trump or the rise of the left in the Democrat party. In Germany, it was predominantly going to be about the AfD, the refugee crisis or the ongoing retreat of the centre ground – the SDP and the Christian Democrats. In France, almost certainly about the Jillets Jaunes and Macron. These wildly turbulent times are, firstly, cross-border and, secondly, covered 24/7 by both the traditional and social media. Politics seems, as portrayed in those same media, to have soured and fallen apart. The sense of turbulence, crisis and catastrophe is ripe among media narratives, which has partly seeped into the wider public political discourse. Public bewilderment at political events is prominent and trust in politicians is seemingly at an all time low. Many who are spectators of the current political theatre show are apathetic and, worse still, disenfranchised with the political system; partly because of the toxicity of the discourse but also because of the sterile character of politics that had become apparent throughout the last 30 to 40 years of ideological hegemony. Politics, a tool which can be used to great effect to empower people and transform communities, seems hopelessly lost down a deep, dark hole.  The discourse is not just becoming increasingly angrier but political behaviour is also becoming increasingly erratic and unpredictable – and for many it is not necessarily in a good way. For some it amounts to an impending doom which they have little control over, for others there are more pressing issues.

The chaotic nature of contemporary politics appears to have come from nowhere. Up until 2008 the economy was performing relatively well, it seemed that social issues of a racial, gender and sexual nature were being pushed towards greater freedom. Liberal utopia one might say. Issues such as the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the breakdown of the European ERM had exposed cracks but they were often swiftly dealt with by government. The Blair government called an inquiry into the Lawrence case and the EU moved towards the adoption of a single currency: the Euro. Little was seen of murmurings beneath the surface. A collection of social groupings who had been seemingly left behind were slowly exiting the political system and were choosing to ignore what they considered to be a group of rich, ignorant and lying bureaucrats in central government. This ‘forgotten’ group would never have thought that a decade or so later, they would become the most sought after vote in contemporary politics.

This explains nicely why this book will describe the current political predicaments the west faces not as a problem but as part of the natural progression of complex, political societies. That it is in fact revitalising the sterile, and fairly dystopian, democratic politics that had existed since the 1990s. Populism, social unrest, democratic volatility and widespread anger are both symptomatic of the problem created by sterile democratic politics and part of the remedy in order to save democracy from self-destruction. The key question then must be how did democratic politics – particularly in a western context – become so sterile? Answering this question means an intricate understanding of the meaning of politics.

The question of defining politics is a highly contested concept. For myself, the seductive charm of Machiavelli’s The Prince holds some answers about what politics is. The Prince, written during the post-Medici Florentine republic, is a handbook for politicians and their lust for power. As such, The Prince itself contains a paper trail to be followed that leads us to my preferred definition. Politics, therefore, is the art of gaining, retaining and executing power. This conception extends beyond the traditional walls of government and understands politics as a human relation, not just a school of thought practiced by career politicians and academics. It extends to the most basic of interactions: between parents where both a matriarch and a patriarch are established. It exists in social movements and collective action like those seen in the civil rights, feminist and trade union movements. It exists in all societies, including those within the animal kingdom where there is a social structure and a power relation between individuals and entities. “No realm of life is immune to relations of conflict and power”. Politics is more than dirty deals made in the halls of Congress, discussion about whether fox hunting should be banned or deciding whether to vote Christian Democrat or SDP. It is not even a process. It is a naturally occurring human behaviour and the interaction of these behaviours whilst observing a power complex. Gramsci, in his Prison Notebooks, describes politics’ first element as a division between “rulers and ruled, leaders and led” and that politics as a concept is based on this “primordial…fact”. Politics is something people do and receive every day and therefore, in some weird yet wonderful way, everyone is a political student and, arguably, an expert in the art of politics.

Scholars and thinkers of various institutions will simply boil down politics and political thought to a social science, a subject to be learned and taught. Yet, how can one be taught if one is already in possession of a partially inherent human feature – the answer is they can’t. Politics is not a subject it is a behaviour and one which all humans are exposed to from birth and in certain aspects born with. Academia and academics simply expose historical exemplifications of political behaviour in the traditional political arenas (the arenas for which some reason political thought and behaviour has been, at least conceptually, confined to).

Individuals cannot be taught inherent and already understood behaviours in educational institutions, that much has been determined. Why then do these institutions teach politics? These intuitions can’t teach politics, but they can enhance the extent to which a person is adept at performing the art of politics. How else are the rulers of society to be formed? Politics is commonly understood, but people are better or worse at performing the artform and as such are purportedly better at running state institutions and distributing resources.

The acquisition and retention of power lead, inevitably, to the execution of power. As such, for those who are skilled in the art of politics, it has been identified that to succeed, political hegemony must be achieved. Hegemony of a political idea is the end game. Not only is it a lasting legacy of one’s ideas, there is also the chance that this may be, as Fukuyama put it, “the end of history” – though history often proves otherwise.

Hegemony defined is quite simply near total and utter domination. Hegemony is a concept which can be transplanted into a multitude of scenarios and schools of thought: the dynasty of a monarch, the concentration of power in the hands of a collective of people or, as this book seeks to explain, the totality of ideas. In the political sense, nobody explains the significance and meaning of the term hegemony better than Gramsci – “man is not ruled by force alone, but also by ideas”; it is an explanation that “few would disagree” with. The domination of ideas over the process of governing, the institutions of the state, the thinking of politicians and the population at large is what could be described as near total and utter domination. Hegemony for many in the political arena is the desired outcome of one’s endeavours – to have a legacy that lasts for what may be an eternity.

If hegemony is the goal, then what better to designate this status to than ideas? Ideas are immortal, unlike humans, and they can be immovable, unlike a totalitarian dynasty. Ideas live on long after their inception and can remain hegemonic for as long as there are those to defend it. Not only do ideas live on, but they confine opponents. Future generations who would have otherwise disagreed with the idea are suddenly born into a world governed by the very principles of that same idea. For the vast majority of society it is hard to look beyond what you have always known (i.e. it is hard to think or espouse an alternative idea). Ideas “are more powerful than is commonly understood” and “the world is ruled by little else”; those “who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves” of those who crafted the idea long ago.

Hegemony of ideas is not just part of history but is the narrative of history. Hegemony of ideas is the determinant of who rules, what they enact and how the social framework runs. Prior to the mid-feudal period the basis of power in society rested solely on the principle of divinity. In this sense the term theocracy can be ascribed to the system of governance found in this period. “Priests…used their positions to monopolise control” and “impose their authority on the rest of society”. Though many were dictators and monarchs, their legitimacy rested near solely on the divine right to rule. If the state religion conscripted to a ruler’s legitimacy then the authority of the ruler was seldom questioned – who, without the privilege of scientific knowledge, can challenge a deity’s choice of ruler? This question itself was answered mid-way through the medieval period – with the enacting of the magna carta in Britain there was a shift in the basis of power from divinity to land; those who held the land, owned the people and subsequently were the rulers of society – this is the feudal system of governance. Since its loss of kingmaker status, religion has been in constant decline, catalysed by the enlightenment, and land remained the hegemonic basis of power right up until the industrial revolution instigated by the growing British Empire. At this point the basis of power shifted from land to capital – the people who had accrued the most wealth would govern society. How would this wealth be accumulated? Through the exploitation of the surplus value of labour. This system, known as capitalism, was born out of the Liberal framework formed by John Locke and Adam Smith and has remained largely domineering over public policy and government behaviour for the last 300 years. Part of capitalism’s success is that it has managed to adopt democracy – literally translated from the Greek ‘demos-kratos’ meaning people power – but maintain the value of capital over the value of the ballot despite constant advances from the Left. Liberalism, and in particular liberal societies which place a strong value on capital, have and never will be compatible with democracy.

The term liberal democracy is, in itself, a juxtaposition of the two terms. Liberalism is the idea that the rights of the individual is central to social governance and that tolerance of other viewpoints is considered central to the values of democracy. Yet, there is a clear disagreement on social governance, political behaviour and the view of human nature between democracy and liberalism. Democracy is the belief that collective action, primarily at the ballot box but also through protest and other forms of participation, can produce an inclusive and diverse means of deciding how society is governed; contrast this with the individualistic principles incorporated into the liberal worldview. Prominent liberals have long advocated rights and their sanctity above any sort of popular engagement and though J.S. Mill advocated women rights of suffrage, he was against working class participation in the political process and even pursued universities receiving an extra MP. This form of elitism, social exclusion and capital orientated politics is synonymous with liberalism but antonymous with democracy. This is part of why the world’s democracies are now seeing open revolt from both the left and the right – the dominant idea of our time isn’t compatible with how the clear majority of the west’s population conceptualises the legitimacy of power. In this sense ideas govern the way we live, who we are and the world we live in. It is therefore essential as people that there is an understanding of how ideas come to be hegemonic and how their hegemony ends.

History shows that there are recurrent periods in which “the old [ideology] is dying and the new cannot be born”. Periods of supposed chaos and unpredictability. When the arena for the battle of ideas is opened. These will be termed flux periods. These points in history – which are recurrent – are the relatively short periods between ideological hegemony where in the wake of the end of the old ideology, there is a battle between two new ones, where the victor will supplant the predecessor. The victor will achieve hegemonic status and will form the foundations from which a new political consensus – the centre ground – can be forged.

The most intense and polarised flux period in recent times is that which existed from the end of the first world war in 1918 right up until the end of the second world war in 1945. This was a period characterised by financial crises, mass deprivation and the breakdown in democracy. Italy was the first to succumb to the fascist wave in 1922 when, after marching on Rome, Benito Mussolini became Italy’s prime minister. Britain itself experienced the growth of fascism with Oswald Mosley establishing the New Party in 1931 – it did not succeed electorally. In Germany the fascists, led by Adolf Hitler, and the communist movement were in an ideological battle with one another – eventually leading to the Nazi party creating a totalitarian government in 1934. With the support of both the Italian and German fascist governments, Spain as well became a dictatorship in 1939 with the nationalist victory in the Spanish Civil War and the installation of Francisco Franco as Caudillo – leader – of Spain. France, after invasion by the militaristic Nazi Germany, adopted fascism under Marshal Petain in 1940.

Meanwhile, in Russia, the implementation of communism through a dictatorship of the proletariat (the working classes) was well underway after the October revolution in 1917. By 1945, the Soviet form of communism had spread to much of eastern Europe – including half of Germany – as well as presiding over some Asian nations such as modern-day Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Though not adopting communism, the USA did begin its New Deal in 1933; a major diversion from the liberal, federalism established by the nation’s founding fathers. Under the New Deal – which would be similarly implemented in Britain in 1945 – there was an expansion of the federal government with   Between 1918 and 1945, in most western countries there was a battle within the political arena between two polarised ideas.

The first was that of fascism. Fascism is a belief in several things but primarily it is rooted in a form of ultranationalism born out of the belief in a superior race and a craving for strong leaders – hence the trend of fascist states being ruled by dictators. It believes that there is a role for a strong state just like communism and socialism; however, it views this strong state as performing the role of ethnic cleansing, enforcement of radical conservative social policy and also of suppressing opposition to its reign through the creation of a police state where speech, knowledge and, subsequently, opposition is censored in order to create a controlled environment in which opposing ideas struggle to gain momentum – violently enforced hegemony.

The alternative to fascism, a subtler form of socialism which came to be known as social democracy, was in the period of 1945 – 1970 specifically referred to as Keynesian social democracy after the economist John Maynard Keynes. It believes that the state has an important role to play in society – primarily ensuring that the inherent slumps created by the aftermath of capitalist booms can be, at worst softened in magnitude and damage, at best prevented. Essentially, an attempt to use that state to remedy the ill-effects of capitalism whilst keeping the benefits of a market economy. It was much later into the battle than fascism was – by 1940 fascism dominated, through democratic and violent means, most of Europe and North Africa. Social democracy gained its intellectual foundations in 1936 and its adoption in the United States signified a shift in policy of the west. The UK Labour Party adopted Keynesian ideas in the early 1940s, with their vision being emboldened by the Beveridge Report of 1944 which advocated a system of welfare and social security that would be pioneered by the state. With the war won in 1945, the US and UK, who had recently elected the Labour Party, began to consolidate the social democratic victory over fascism with the establishment of the Bretton Woods system of monetary management as well was the initiation of the Marshall Plan to rebuild post-war Europe. From this point forward, the nations of continental Europe – backed by the financial muscle of the American state – began a process of social democratisation in which European states began to introduce state welfare, social security and mass-nationalisation.

This is a flux period: a battle between two political ideas – advanced by collective and individual interests in order to achieve political hegemony and sustained public policy which mirrors the ideological framework which emerges victorious from the flux period. In the 1920s, 30s and early 40s, this flux period was characterised by fascism and social democracy. Between 1970 and 1990, it was characterised by democratic socialist ideas and neoliberalism as envisaged by Fredrich von Hayek. Since 2008 our flux period has seen a battle between radical neo-conservatism and a leftist coalition of, primarily, environmentalists and socialists.

Whilst reading this it is easy to think that what is happening has been explained. Hopefully the book has, so far, amply explained why flux periods happen, why the hegemony of ideas is so coveted by those embroiled in the political struggle and why winning them is so essential to preserving a beneficial society – that is unless you like the idea of a fascist state which one would hope not many readers do. Surely now your attention must be turned to why they happen as opposed to what is happening. To answer, both are intrinsically linked. What is happening is a symptom of why flux periods occur. Earlier it was mentioned that flux periods are a process of revitalisation for the political arena. They are a remedy to remove stagnation within politics and to address the imbalance that occurs in supremacy periods (those periods of hegemony). How? The logic by which parties wins votes changes. Populism comes to dominate the political now in what many are dubbing as ‘the populist moment’.

Populism is often used by those who are of the hegemonic ideology to delegitimise its opponents. Though often its opponents are populists it is not truth to suggest that all opposition to the hegemonic ideology is populist in nature. Populism is not something to be afraid of or to be used as a method of delegitimization. It is actually something that is intrinsic to the restoration of the democratic process and the social fabric. Populism is a political logic, not an ideology. It is transferrable amongst ideologies but certainly it cannot be considered a coherent ideology. Rather it is a methodology for gaining power. Just like during the 1990s many centre-left parties moved to the neoliberal centre ground to win votes, which is a political logic, populism too is a method for gaining votes. It creates a conflict between the people and what is determined to be the elites. This conflict that is constructed taps into a consciousness of anger and exploitation within the elector who then votes for the populist party. Populism, as a methodology, has peaks and troughs in its uptake by parties. Often during supremacy periods populist logic is rarely pursued, but during flux periods, this logic is vindicated by multiple election successes.

Populism can seem scary, but it is in fact a positive thing in the long-term. It realigns democracy in a way that centrism just simply can’t. Populism’s positive influence on the democratic process is reliant on a particular conception of democracy which is being intellectually pioneered by the leftist thinker Chantal Mouffe. Her argument firstly rests on the premise that the current distinction in party politics “is not structured by an antagonism but signals a mere difference in position”. In essence, to the average elector, and one may even suggest to political enthusiasts, the two main parties look identical in politics and personnel. She argues that “politics is by nature partisan” and “it is vital to acknowledge” this fact. By extension democracy must contain an element of rivalry, both in politics and policy, to avoid its own demise in what essentially would become a “confrontation between non-negotiable moral values or essentialist forms of identification”. As such, Mouffe describes a healthy and functioning democracy as an ‘agonistic’ democracy in which there is “a confrontation of democratic political positions” but that opponents are “perceived as legitimate”. This conception of democracy is key to understanding why we live in the ‘populist moment’.

When, in the wake of the neoliberal-democratic socialism flux period, the dominant parties in much of Western Europe and the United States of America adopted the fundamental principles of neoliberalism. The domination of the western party-political system by neoliberal politics and policy led to a race to the ‘centre’ by parties historically of the left and the right. The subsequent abandonment of constituent concerns, traditional values and previous ideological preferences has led to a sense of powerlessness and voicelessness amongst vast swathes of the population – particularly the white, working-class town dwellers and young, metropolitan radicals. This popular sentiment amongst groups of citizens has led to a shift towards what would traditionally be termed as the polarities of politics – the left and the right. The self-same political positions abandoned by dominant parties to win elections. This movement by parties to the ideological centre is consistent with all supremacy periods and is what then generates flux periods and the populism that fixes the democratic process.

In a democratic system, if electors feel like their values or their worldview is not represented by any of the dominant parties they become disenfranchised and apathetic. If this sentiment is sustained for too long, then the populist logic becomes more and more appealing to politicians and parties of the polarities. They can harness this sentiment and utilise it as propulsion to win elections and execute their ideology through their popular mandate. This is the driving force of a flux period, the disenfranchisement created by a stale democracy – brought about by the consensus politics found in supremacy periods – is harnessed by the polarities through the populist logic and catalysed by catastrophe. 

STOP MOANING ABOUT JOHNSON AND GET ON WITH OFFERING UP AN ALTERNATIVE

After a week away I’m back and I must say it was a strange return to politics. I went up to
Cumbria for a much needed getaway and whilst there I decided to visit Workington. A typical
former industrial working class town in the north of England which, aside from a brief spell in the
late 1970s, has been a Labour seat throughout its history. In 2019, Dominic Cummings identified the “Workington Man” as the voter they needed to win over in order to claim victory at the general election. It’s not hard to see why, since 1997 the Conservative vote share has increased like clockwork other than in 2015 when UKIP had a strong presence in the constituency. It’s a town that seems trapped in the 1980s; its buildings tired and old, the community quiet and empty. It was market day and it was baron with only what you can imagine to be local inhabitants coming to use the high street. The high street was itself struggling to look any more modern with local shops buckling under the weight of 40 years of ignorance and the more recent economic crisis. No wonder Labour, a party which has overtured the metropolitan voters since 1992 has seen its vote share go from above 50% to 39% in the time between then and now. It was a humbling experience and one which truly reminded me of the deep, cultural shift Labour has to make before it can seriously consider winning back these areas; the ones it was built to represent.

It was to my surprise therefore that when I returned the conversation in the party was not one
which undertook to understand and listen to these voters (and when I say listen I mean listen,
not just pretend to listen as has been the case for nearly 25 years now). The conversation was
about a comment Boris Johnson has made regarding fox-hunting and a “semi-sexual”
experience. Why on earth, after the most humbling election defeat in a generation, is the Labour party moaning about comments Johnson made years ago? Where is the significance in this? Do those who engage in such moaning actually think this is effective opposition? Do they think its
what voters in communities such as Workington care about? Walking around Workington I
would think that this isn’t important to them and that they have far greater priorities. In fact, I
would imagine it is quite a turn off. Here these communities are: struggling, ignored, angry,
frustrated and crumbling. The best the Labour party has to offer is we don’t like this about
Johnson, we don’t like this about Cummings, oh here we’ll moan about this comment from 2005
which has no bearing on the here and now. It’s truly pathetic and illustrates just how far Labour
have fallen from where they should be.

Communities like Workington don’t deserve what is happening to them. These are the places
that generated the wealth, status and luxuries that we all enjoy today. Their history is our history
and their future should also be our future. The Labour party was built to represent and listen to
these areas and currently we don’t deserve to represent them if this is the best we can muster.
Labour must be offering an alternative vision of our country. It has to be talking about crime and
policing, community and patriotism, public services and good jobs. It’s the bread and butter
issues that people in these communities care about. It’s worth noting worse articles were brought to prominence during the 2019 election and yet these communities still voted for Johnson. Labour must do better than this and in the week when Opinium have indicated that the gap between Labour and Conservatives has grown it makes it even more essential that we get a grip, stop moaning about irrelevant issues and start offering a compelling alternative.

UBI: AN IDEA WHOSE TIME HAS COME?

Ideas are, far and away, the single most important thing in politics. They are an essential part of elections and policy. They can come to define failed leaders or great statesmen. They are a higher power which have the ability to inspire followers and bridge political divides. Decisions made today about issues such as Brexit, coronavirus and economic inequality are often determined by a thinker or thought conjured up long before now. In this spirit, ideas of yesterday are often competing and being replaced with the ideas of today and tomorrow. Universal Basic Income, a.k.a UBI, is no different. The idea holds that the government should give each citizen a set amount of money on a regular basis in order to provide a basic income for the necessities we each need. Such necessities include food and housing amongst others. Though thought of as a relatively new idea, it’s an idea that has a long history. President Richard Nixon himself discussed in private the possibility of a UBI in the United States. It has in more recent times been trialed in Canada, Finland and Scotland. The literature surrounding it is increasing every week and in light of coronavirus and the economic and social consequences it presents, it’s an idea that has been floated about in many western countries.

For those who don’t know me very well (which I can imagine will be a vast majority) it’s probably worth me outlining a few things from the get go. Firstly, I am a strong supporter of UBI. It, for me, represents the end of poverty and prejudicial welfare as we know it. In many of the UBI case studies the results all demonstrate the same things: crime is reduced, child mortality is reduced, the gender pay gap is reduced, mental health issues are reduced, poverty is eliminated. Often criticisms levelled at UBI tend to be along the lines of: people won’t work if they don’t have an incentive to work. The case studies done so far indicate that this isn’t the case with only a minor drop in working hours if no drop at all. UBI can also be politically unifying with both the right and the left being seduced by its many benefits. The left supports its ability to reduce poverty and welfare prejudice and the right supports it because it reduces the vast bureaucracy surrounding welfare systems and can encourage entrepreneurism. Fredrich von Hayek, a prominent right-wing economist of the 20th century, was a big fan.

The benefits of UBI are innumerable and the cons are outweighed heavily by these pros. However, I don’t want to argue about whether it’s a good idea or not; the evidence clearly sways in UBI’s favour. I don’t want this to be an argument about whether it should or could be implemented. Feasibility is a non-argument when you take into account modern welfare budgets and the cost of many unnecessary wars. You also have to factor in costs saved as well in healthcare, mental health and policing. Whether we can isn’t really up for dispute. I want this to be an argument about the most important part of whether we can achieve a UBI. In fact, it’s part of the very crux of the title. When do we make the arguments and implement a UBI? It’s all well and good having a good idea that’s feasible. The important bit is when. When do we make these arguments and when is it advantageous to do so?

Timing is essential in politics. For example, would arguments about whether or not we join the euro be well timed today? Not really. The euro is struggling. Not just in the wake of the eurozone crisis in 2009 and the decimation of the mediterranean EU states but coronavirus isn’t necessarily lending a hand either. If you were to make arguments about joining the euro now you would be at best ignored, maybe even ridiculed. That doesn’t mean it’s a good or bad idea it just means that, because of the political circumstances, it doesn’t make sense to make those arguments now. Was it best to have arguments about the euro back in the early 2000s when the economy was doing well and the euro seemed unassailable? Absolutely; however this doesn’t mean that your arguments are, because of timing, guaranteed to succeed. The euro arguments made in the early 2000s are, again, a good example of this. Yet, it does make strategic sense to make the arguments not just convincingly and eloquently but also at the right time.

The same applies to UBI. The arguments are there, the data is there to support them, the grassroots movement exists. The foundations for a debate about the practicality and implementation of a UBI is there and ready. Is now, in Britain at least, the right time to be making these arguments? My inclination is towards now not being the right time. I know what you’re thinking: if not now, when there is an economic and particularly an income crisis, then when? Now surely seems the logical time to be making such arguments. Alas, I don’t think it is. Don’t get me wrong I do think that in this situation, in this crisis, UBI would have been the perfect remedy for a crisis of income. However, the time has long passed to be making those arguments. They should have been made weeks ago when the government was formulating its furlough scheme. For all its faults, the furlough scheme, as of today, is generally accepted to be a reasonable response to the income crisis. It’s very hard to make a popular argument that firstly, a scheme which is relatively popular is not good and secondly, that UBI would be better. Of course this is the right argument because the furlough scheme does have flaws and UBI could easily solve them. However, it is simply a strategic error to be making such arguments now. The window of opportunity has gone.

The strategic brain would now be thinking we have to make arguments about PPE shortages, the crisis in care homes and the fact that 1.5 million people have gone without a full day of food during lockdown. These are arguments that are both topical and easy to create widespread support for. UBI, I am afraid to say, is not an argument that makes strategic sense to be made now. The discussions taking place now are about the things I stated before and UBI would likely be drowned out by these other conversations. In fact, the movement for UBI may well take a couple of steps backwards if the case is made prematurely. There has to be time and space for the argument to be made for a UBI. Despite this and the fact that the window of opportunity was missed several weeks ago, there will be further opportunities some of which will be in the very near future. Post-covid the conversations will undoubtedly be about how fit for purpose society is as it stands. There will be widespread discussion about problems, ideas and policy. Whether we should raise wages for essential workers, whether we need more workplace protections, whether we need to ensure that any economic settlement includes the need for companies to start paying their fair share of tax. An obvious part of this discussion has to be about welfare and UBI.

As it is part of this wider discussion it will be easier to integrate arguments and form a narrative for change. It’s obvious that wages are too low and the cost of living too high. It’s slightly less obvious but still as important to recognise that people are, as shown by coronavirus, far too reliant on employers for their income and prosperity. The important bit will be making the case for UBI as part of a broader solution. If there was something important to learn from the 2019 election it would be about timing. The free broadband policy was a very good policy. It makes sense that in the 21st century access to the internet should be guaranteed to all. However, it wasn’t popular. Why? The policy had been dumped at the feet of voters weeks before the election without making the foundational arguments in advance and without integrating it into a coherent and appealing narrative. The same applies to UBI. We have to make the foundational arguments first about the importance of leisure, the importance of a good welfare system and the importance of universality as opposed to means tested. Then we need to make the argument for UBI as part of a broader package that is not only coherent but also appealing. If we don’t do these things then you can kiss the prospect of success goodbye.

We must of course use this crisis to further our ambitions for a UBI. Often one of my criticisms of the left is that we are generally rubbish at using crises to further our political ambitions. But during the crisis is not the right time. Rather, we need to make the foundational arguments now about incomes, job security and welfare, then in the aftermath present a broader package of remedies among which UBI would be an ideal member. If we dump the idea of UBI into the mix now it will not be seen as reasonable nor fair. It will be rejected based on the fact that there are more pressing matters and that it’s just not achievable right now. Obviously I think it’s achievable and many of you reading this probably think it’s achievable too; but me and you aren’t the only people that a) go out to vote and b) matter in this discussion. One of the great successes of the 20th century – the 1945 election win for Labour and the policies it then undertook – is often thought to have happened purely because they were radical and bold. They were radical and bold, to deny this would be to deny reality but that’s not the whole picture. Between 1940 and 1945, the grand coalition had left Labour largely in charge of domestic issues. It was this process of making the foundational arguments during the crisis, about the need for state intervention to protect people and support them, that meant come election time the foundations were already there. They just needed to propose a broader package which matched these arguments. We have to learn from this success and others like it just as much as we do the failures. We can’t just assume that people are logically going to think UBI is a brilliant policy if we don’t put the hard graft in beforehand. It’s a mistake we have made again and again in modern history. Let’s not make it again. We owe it to the people we represent not to.

This article was written two or so weeks prior to it’s publication here; it’s argument still stands and the examples still valid.