Identity politics ought to unite the left, not divide us. No progressive should be at ease while macho misogyny thrives
Thu 8 Mar 2018
From Donald Trump’s “locker-room banter” about grabbing women by the pussy, to the instructions of the Philippines president to shoot female guerrilla fighters in the genitals, a clear target of contemporary fascistic and “alt-right” politics seems to be vaginas. This isn’t a case of hidden patriarchal structures supporting gender inequality. It’s explicit and unashamed references that identify women either as the enemy or the subhuman other, subordinate to the pleasure of macho men. And it’s a trend that’s spanning the globe.
In Britain, the victim of this emerging culture was the MP Jo Cox. Some will argue that Thomas Mair, her murderer, was an isolated case, a disturbed Nazi sympathiser from whom we cannot generalise. But before we dismiss his crime as a one-off we should remember that gender identity, specifically masculine identity, is at the centre of fascistic discourse. Crime – against women or ethnic minorities – is often a resource for those who feel their masculinity is threatened. It is a way to be “male” again.
In Russia, the bare-chested Putin is endlessly pictured plunging into icy lakes or riding horses. It’s all designed to promote a particular type of masculinity but also a particular type of political ideal: of macho, authoritarian leadership, strong and ruthless towards its enemies. The enemies in question are often women who question the patriarchal status quo (Pussy Riot being a prime example). But other religious or ethnic groups are feminised too.
As the professor and activist Cynthia Enloe has argued, it is high time to rethink this relationship between leaders’ macho posturing and the type of politics they are likely to advocate. The personal is political because men in leadership positions with misogynistic attitudes are probably going to promote policies reinforcing intolerance. There can be no truly progressive politics while such misogyny is allowed to continue. Similarly, when an industry tolerates harassment and violence against women, that says a lot about the type of product it creates. The Harvey Weinstein scandal comes to mind here: how progressive can his movies be when he treats women as objects?
And to push it even further: how progressive can a country be if it permits this industry to go on unreformed? The micro paves the way for the macro.
Too often on the left these calls have fallen upon the deaf ears of a movement that is unable to recognise any struggle as important if it isn’t centred around class. Identity politics have been wilfully misinterpreted by parts of the left as an explanation for the advance of the far right – it’s political correctness driving them to it. This is done in the hope of promoting class politics, but it demonstrates that the left is sometimes stuck in an orthodox past, before the big “identity” movements, from the suffragettes to civil rights, took place. Across the world, it is the left that is struggling to articulate something meaningful while the far right is advancing.
Eric Hobsbawm, writing in 1996, contrasted the narrowness of identity politics with the universality of the working-class movement, which demands equality and justice for everyone.