Identity politics and Slavoj Zizek

Slavoj Žižek: I should imagine that anybody watching him give his opinions on Robespierre the other week on a production made for BBC2 will be rather scared by him and his theories on violence (a kind of do evil that good may result for French Republicanism), but actually he talks a lot of sense, and isn’t scared of touching upon certain issues that may offend (may even raise eyebrows from those on the left, to which he identifies himself).

Even if you don’t share in his praise for Lenin or think that European toilets spell out the symptoms of ideology, he should be taken very seriously with the challenges left-wingers face in the future.

There are many essays, book chapters and entire books focusing on how Zizek might offer the world something more than simple philosophical speculation (I’ve written my own here). But in this short vino-induced, Saturday night blog entry I will briefly outline how Zizek might be utilised to iron out the problems of identity politics.

I won’t lie, some of what will be printed here has already featured on the comments thread of a very interesting debate emerging out of an article by the fabulous Sunny Hundal, who argues for identity politics. But if you’re familiar with Zizek’s own writing, you will notice that he has himself shaken the cut-and-paste stick, with full force, so if he can do it, why can’t I?

Sunny’s main reasoning for liking identity politics is because everyone wants to belong to a group, but he finds it dangerous that it has become more about defending ones own group, rather than dignifying the sense of community that each group can hold in harmony with others’.

The road to cohesion and harmony, as history has told, normally entails a minimum of identity politics in order to situate what it is about oneself that one should display as identity. That commonality has normally been based upon sexuality, race, gender or even age. But is there the possibility that this is a problem designated to a particular epoch?

Zizek seems to think so. He sees identity politics as an historical phenomenon, one “which ignores its own conditions of possibility“. These conditions for Zizek are the need to overthrow elements of social exclusion, but, for him, the expression with which this action has usually taken has done more to trivialise the situation than to prevent it. The idea that seeking group commonalities to solve a social cohesion seems very vague, a problem that might highlight difference rather than attempt to seek solutions.

Identity politics, it seems to me, is a product of vulnerability and alienation – so in that respect it is a good indicator that societal equality has not been met. But it is possible that that identity signifier will remain even after the shackles of alienation have been shaken off – and to want to protect an identity that has been created out of harsher times will only crown those who encouraged the vulnerability of that group to begin with.

Identity politics weren’t supposed to be here forever, they were supposed to define an era, and when that era had passed (or when it does pass) then it should be put to sleep.

Sunny, in reply to the view that identity politics is only about alienation, said “An upper class aristocrat – by virtue of choosing certain friends is also playing identity politics. His or her identity is royalty and his friends will come from that set.” But surely this is less about identity politics – a product of the politics of resistance, fully compatible within the parameters of real economic inequality – and more a case of how society bounds people – consider in this equation the master/slave dialectic (with full weight explored on the notion that the only reason a master is a master is because the slave instills this within him, and vica versa).

For this years gay pride, Peter Tatchel criticised the organisers for ‘depoliticising‘ the event (I wrote about it here). But this meant that the event was more about having fun. What, for Tatchel, is clearly hard to swallow is that there comes a time when the epochal movements of identity win their battle and fully emerse themselves with politics proper.

The objectives, in the view of Zizek – as in my view also – of identity politics, as good as their intentions are, obfuscate the real issues at hand in the need for equality in total. Sometimes, the plights of identity politics acheive their aims, but in a double-bind scenerio, this is the cause of their inertia, and there are some who cannot handle the kernel of their success.


Ed Balls, technology, and empowering people

Today at work, the children took a well deserved mini-trip to the local police station to have photo’s taken, meet the dogs, try on the handcuffs and see the day-to-day activities of their bobbies first hand.

I, unfortunately, couldn’t go as there were two adults already accompanying the trip, and, as a matter of circumstance, the mini-bus couldn’t fit me on due to lack of seats.

Fine, I thought, instead I shall go back into the classroom and have a quick look at Liberal Conspiracy, see what they have to offer today.

Sunny Hundal had written a piece promulgating his disappointment of New Labour’s disavowal of its centre-left roots, noting that despite not having anywhere else to turn, leftwingers should put their weight behind the party rather than leave it up to the Tories to fill the gaps (I admit that I’ve simplified his main arguments).

I largely agreed with the article. Though I would have changed two things about it.

Firstly, the problem is that some other options have cropped up for Labour leftwingers, some may well remember Lord Ashdown’s boasts that there were defections to his party around the time of the last local/European elections. Not to mention the Greens and smaller parties.

What a worrying prospect it is when one of our leading opinionists mentions; “That anger [of the expenses scandal] has now concentrated on the shattered Brown administration, whose manifest failings could destroy Labour’s chances of winning another election – maybe forever, if the Liberal Democrats and Greens take over what remains of the centre-left.”

The second thing I’d change is to do with when Sunny mentions; “So at this stage it makes more sense for Labour sympathisers to gear up for the General Election in 5-6 years time and figure out what are the big arguments the party needs to make and the coalitions it needs to build.” I say why wait until then. I see the realistic purpose of his mentioning this time period, but, the Labour party has the innovation to prove itself worthwhile of a progressive ticket, this is just obfuscated by blind obedience (to the Labour right) and kop-out rebellion (often, I should add, not always!).

Sunny, rather ambigiously, ends his entry with the question (not yet answered in the comment space below) “how can technology play a part in that in [influencing the Labour administration’s appeals to its centre-left homebase?]”

Well in thinking about possible ways technology can play a part in a progressive Labour party, I was thinking about what direction Ed Balls had pointed to in his recently published White Paper, with his proposal of;

“Setting up social networking websites for all schools to allow mothers and fathers to share “advice and information”. A series of trials for individual schools will be launched in September under a deal with the parenting websites Netmums and Dad Talk.”

An effective means of cyber-communication could mean more power for teacher-parent learning facilitation, and bring about new interactivity to the classroom, exactly how the Labour party have intended, with their ideas on empowering people in the public services.

Technology is a useful tool for communication, and could be the key to bringing about change in the public sector, and democracy itself.

So, in response to Sunny’s concluding question in his entry today, the Labour party, and Ed Balls especially, are already there.

The BNP is far-right!: My two cents

(I shall start controversially – ) Modern day Francoist Daniel Hannan said today in his blog regarding the pro-Euro bias of the Financial Times and his reaction to their assumption that the BNP takes votes from the Tories;

“How often do we have to go through this? Even the New Statesman admits that the BNP is to the Left of Labour.”

How to define the politics of the BNP is talk of the day, and in the blog world has Tim Montgomerie (amongst others, Hannan included) saying the BNP are “if not a Far-Left political organisation, then one that should not be identified as belonging to the Far-Right.” Montgomerie had planned to write a letter to the BBC asking for it to properly define the BNP. On the other side, Sunny Hundal – blogger of the year – has said he too will draft a letter explaining why the BNP is far-right (although nothing has been written as yet).

I, writing on the comment section of Liberal Conspiracy, offered this to the debate;

“It would not be controversial to say that socialism is an economy under which the state fully owns the means of production (with rough appeals to protectionism in some cases), which means it can be appropriated with ideas that stem from either left or right. The sense of the word socialism that I would use to describe myself includes the economic theory above, along with social policies on gender equality, democracy, human rights etc etc. This places me to the left.

The reason the BNP can adopt a similar looking economical outlook to a leftist, and be far-right, is because it appropriates this with social policies such as foreign person repatriation, gender inequality (they haven’t mentioned it too much – to my knowledge – but the FN in France – close allies – will pay women to stay at home and not be employed), homophobia, antisemitism and/or holocaust denial.

Any attempt to define the BNP as far left, is to suddenly forget that the party is not the sum of its economic policies, which just happens to have parallels with some leftist measures.”

I also commented on an entry made by Bob Piper, who said “Fascists are fascists to me. If you put lipstick on a pig…”

My comment was this;

“I’ve heard the word(s) ethno-nationalist being used to describe them, but what it was that positioned these groups to the right – despite of their economics – is their fetishisation of nation politics, and traditional outlooks on certain institutions. Despite what some political writers like John Gray and others say, the terms left and right DO still mean something in our day. WE just all need to remind ourselves what they mean to go any further with this argument”.

The word “ethno-nationalist” was considered by two leftwing writers in a piece explaining what the leadership of Nick Griffin would do to the political spectrum of the BNP.

I still cannot find the name of these writers but they had written a piece in the New Left Review (I think!?!?). Their point was where to position themselves when attending marches or protests, or even meetings about how to strategically deal with the BNP from a leftist perspective. They had become concerned about how engaged leftist criticism was towards the BNP since the bulk of it was to write the BNP off lock, stock and barrel as crypto-Nazi’s.

The writers could not help think that, though the case may be made for the BNP being secretly Nazi, critics should at the very least engage with the change Nick Griffin has brought to the party, from overt, fascist saluting, Hitler fancying John Tyndall, to a relatively more moderate party in suits concerned about economic migration and dwindling Christian values.

What is interesting about their piece, was that their radical conclusion at the time was that the BNP, like them or loathe them, were not a Nazi party, or an extreme-right party, but a far-right party, which shared sentiments with other European far-right parties (such as Le Pen’s FN) without actually and/or overtly praising Hitler. The BNP acted upon, not an established international political ideology such as Conservatism or Nazism, but how they perceived the best way to express their patriotism in the 21st century (which has been met with correct repudiation by such tag lines as: BNP is not British).

The terms left and right in political theory are said to date back to the French Revolution, and indeed terms such as far-right were designed to imply ultra-royalists, conservatives and counter-enlightenment thinkers such as Joseph de Maistre and Louis Gabriel Ambroise de Bonald who felt that Good could conquer Evil, the monarchy were the pillar of Good in France, and Conservatism could counter the more pluralistic charges of enlightenment philosophy. These thinkers have been held as “good conservatives” over the years, by some less-than-palatable conservative thinkers. Which does prove difficult when trying to bracket the BNP in this corner. If the BNP are far-right, do they have to qualify as “good conservatives”? Certainly those modern-day Tory thinkers don’t think so, who refuse to accept the BNP are in any way right wing for the sole reason as “I am right wing, and I don’t recognise anything the BNP are doing to be for ourselves”.

Of course, this argument proves fatal (and rest assured, looking at other comments replying to Tim Montgomerie’s or Sunny Hundal’s entries, these arguments are circulating).

Take a look at Sam Swerling. He was once a member of the Conservative Party, and formerly a Councillor on Westminster City Council. He was also an original member of the Conservative Democratic Alliance. Of late, he had been an activist for the BNP.

Take a look at Edgar Griffin. He was once a freemason, and after that a Tory councillor, and then vice-president in Wales for Iain Duncan Smith’s party leadership campaign. He was sacked after it was revealed he was assisting with the campaigns of the BNP, of whom his son, Nick Griffin, is the leader.

Take a look at Matthew Single. He was the man who was charged with leaking the names and addresses of the BNP activists. He started his political life in Ukip, a party that has comparable policies to the right-wing of the Tory party (lets see, erm, Norman Tebbit!!).

There are many more examples of conservative elements becoming expressed within the BNP, and not conflicting with their core principles. But so far this only proves there is an appeal to the BNP by very right wing conservativism. It does not suggest they are indefinitely on par with one another.

After all, a hot topic for the BNP is immigration, and recently the Dutch Socialist party created a policy opposing high amounts of economic migration for its opposition to free movement of labour, adding that such an initiative is the logic of capitalism.

So there are certain agenda’s of the BNP that do not have an obvious left/right homebase (and here I am reminded of a National Front tag I once saw whilst in a phone box in Southend: We are not right as opposed to left, we are right as opposed to wrong). And these agenda’s could be as high a priority for the BNP as immigration.

But the Dutch Socialist Party do not oppose immigration on the grounds of xenophobia, or even how the Northern League in Italy conduct their dislike of foreigners, an appeal to historical tradition, suggesting that;

“We,” hints [party founder Umberto]Bossi, “are the heirs of small local authorities [The party’s symbol, il Carroccio, represents a cart drawn by oxen, around which foot soldiers would gather to fight in medieval city-states. The warrior depicted on its logo is Alberto da Giussano, who defeated the emperor Frederick Barbarossa in 1176] who have always fought against foreigners.” (see rest of article, here)

This is not the reason why the Dutch Socialist Party oppose economic migration, but it is the BNP’s reason – its an (Celtic-esque) appeal to history of defending ethnicity from the foreign invader. The reason why the BNP are far-right is because they juggle xenophobia, nationalism and race pride in order to serve an outmoded historical justification for fighting the foreign enemy. And for those of us who travel to or from London to Essex via Barking, are reminded of the link the BNP has with this mode of thinking, with graffiti showing the celtic cross under a huge white painted slogan: BNP (although obscured now, I think, by scaffolding, perhaps put up by American labourers).

At the heart of the BNP’s main aims, is reactionary conservatism, and with a closer look at where these terms come from, we realise that this expression would have been originally defined as far-right. And so it remains.

So why are people getting their knickers in a twist over whether the BNP are right wing or not? Its obvious; some, if not most of the BNP’s latest publicity has been about the downturn of capitalist economies, from their attempts to hi-jack the Ford/Visteon workers feuds, to expenses (pigs in the trough etc etc). And these are notions normally taken up by the left (though no confusion of political positions were entertained when Sarkozy told the world that capitalism was failing, or when Merkel told her infamous anti-capitalist joke: “What’s the difference between Communism and Capitalism? Communists nationalised companies first before running them.”)

A report by the Office of Intelligence and Analysis points out that a feature of the far-right is to exploit economic downturn. The report adds;

“These “accusatory” tactics are employed to draw new recruits into rightwing extremist groups and further radicalize those already subscribing to extremist beliefs.”

Its no secret that the BNP targeted areas with dwindling Labour support (like my own. In fact the BNP had a campaign called “Target Basildon”) and they are aware that overtly fascist policies will turn away most voters (they didn’t do quite as well as they wished in Basildon, because of a concerted effort by the other parties to remind voters of what the BNP really stood for), so they not only moderated their message to make it seem more palatable and family friendly, but they intertwined it with messages that would appeal to workers locked in economic downturn.

My final word on the matter, the BNP more or less fit neatly into the category of far-right with their reactionary, and ethnocentric view of history. Their policies on immigration and the economy (which have moderated relatively since their early days and from their National Front split) seem to be more strategic, and more to do with the image change to appeal to more voters.

The occasional reference to Le Pen’s National Front Party will help; to secure electoral appeal they modify their policies on ridding the foreign enemy, be it the Jews, the Turkish, or Muslims in general. It’s strategic, and it gains votes (from voters who often may find solice in the simplest answers, i.e. immigrants are the reason the economy is failing, etc etc). Their ethnocentric and reactionary reasons for doing such a thing are what makes a political party far-right.

Not King Midas, its Gordon Brown

Today’s events have proved Michael White’s prediction wrong that the speaker will remain until next general election when he said last week “Few Labour MPs nowadays left school at 15 and worked on the shop floor. It may be solidarity or sentimentality, bloody-mindedness or plain feebleness. But they will not give him up next week.”

They did.

In the last days of Blair, those of us on the left were sick of his statesman(sinking)ship. We (including back then Polly Toynbee with her nose peg) thought butter wouldn’t melt in Brown’s mouth. Unlike Blair, not everything Brown touched would turn to stone.

It did.

The Michael Martin resignation was one more thing that went awry and out of favour for our hollowing premier. Andrew Sparrow’s bit in the Guardian mentioned that “Gordon Brown, the prime minister, has now given up saying that he thought Martin was doing a good job.” Perhaps he has seen that the odds of him becoming next speaker are 250/1 (far better than the odds of him winning Labour a fourth term).

The man who was forced down for not doing enough about the expenses scandel today said the only thing he could have, “that MPs will no longer be allowed to “flip” second homes or claim for household goods”.

Sunny Hundal imagines that a parliament clean out of system abusers will cure the ills of the political system. But since voters want to give the big three parties a kicking, why bother getting rid of those MP’s who are otherwise effective in the house (say, Ed Balls, for example) if a rule change can reunite the voting public with (Labour) establishment politics?

I’m not blind to the reasons why people feel all “abusers” should be kicked to the curb, and mine is not a justification of MP’s wrongs, anything but. However its the system that must be amended, and those politicians that have done the abusing need to work twice, (clear throat), three times as hard to appease the voters (provided they are not unwanted baggage), rather than be part of a wholesale reshuffle.

But enough about the outgoing speaker for one night, carrying on the subject of premier’s who were unpopular towards the end, but only paved the way for a lot worse, I’ve just heard that “The United Nations [have] named former President Bill Clinton … as its special envoy to Haiti, with a mission to help the impoverished nation achieve some measure of stability after devastating floods and other crises.”

Newsquest and the BNP adverts

Since writing about the adverts which have appeared on the Basildon Echo website it has been documented about by blogging superhero Sunny Hundal here. It seems that quite a number of newspapers owned by Newsquest (the company that owns the Echo) have had similar adverts printed.

Jon Slattery has copied up a reply by Newsquest editorial director, Martin McNeill, to a complaint about The Echo in Essex carrying online BNP ads:
“Thanks for your email regarding BNP advertising. We are accepting paid-for advertising from any political parties or candidates standing in the current elections. I appreciate how strongly many people feel about the BNP, but it would be undemocratic and against the principle of free speech to refuse to accept any party’s advertising provided it falls within our guidelines.

“The Echo has consistently opposed the BNP in our Comment column and will continue to do so. As editor, I have twice been taken to court, unsuccessfully, by a BNP activist who did not like my editorial stance. I also regularly receive BNP hate mail. Despite this, I feel I must defend the right of all parties to take out paid-for advertising in support of their election candidates.

Best wishes, Martin McNeill Editorial Director Newsquest Essex.”

For some this is a question of freedom of speech, but it seems more logistical than this. Just look at this from Lancaster Unity;

“Newspapers should serve the whole community, not the extreme racist and right wing minority BNP. These adverts will cause offense to the diverse majority in any community. Who can trust their local newspaper to impartially bring them news, when they are so closely identified with an extremist political party?”