Yesterday I pointed out the coincidence between the rise in acceptance of the equality claims of discriminated identitarian groups and the increase in levels of economic inequality in OECD nations. I didn’t argue for either correlation or causation between these two phenomena. The possibilities range from them being completely unrelated to strict causality.
In a recent London Review of Books article William Davies asks ‘why, in an age when inequality has been rising, have work and wealth ceased to provide the grounds of political identity?’ By way of an answer he’s right to point out the structural obstacles: ‘The relationship between class and voting behaviour grows progressively weaker as society becomes economically, culturally and morally more individualistic’. But maybe there’s more to it than that.
Davies also refers to the classic Marxist distinction between a class ‘in itself’ which has objective interests as a class, and a class ‘for-itself’ where that class becomes self-conscious of these interests and acts to get them realised. The progress from ‘in-itself’ to ‘for-itself’ is rocky and unpredictable and it depends on a combination of (shared) lived experience and intellectual work (‘consciousness-raising’). So another way of putting Davies’ question is why is it proving increasingly difficult for the economically dispossessed to realise its ‘for-itself’ identity?
All politics is identity politics in the sense of collectives coming to be aware of shared interests rooted in a shared identity. But it seems to be easier to mobilise collectives grounded in ethnicity, gender, and religion than those with shared interests as a social class. Members of the former collectives seem to ‘know’ and recognise each other more readily than members of the latter.
Is it fair to say that it’s harder work to ground political identity in economic inequality than in ethnicity, gender and religion? More particularly does it require different work? If so, what is that work and have we forgotten how to do it?