Saturday, 3 December 2016

Identity? Culture? Economics? It's all about power

On this blog I tend not to write about politics directly, but it’s hard to ignore politics today – even discussions of cannabis regulation include a nod to Donald Trump. Although I’ve mostly focused on issues of alcohol and drugs on the blog, the original intention was to discuss any public policy issue where I felt there was a lack of openness or clarity.

This often means that posts are reflective, or detached, questioning the terms of an argument as much as the conclusions, and this post is no exception.  I’m not going to come up with my own analysis of ‘why Trump won’, or why people voted for Brexit; there are other people far more knowledgeable and intelligent than me to do that.  What I want to do is suggest that in the post-mortems of the past year’s political developments, we seem to be approaching the analysis with the same kind of superficial thinking that characterised debate and commentary in the lead up to both elections.

Much of the debate I’ve seen has focused on whether ‘the left’ took a wrong turn after the 1980s, eschewing materialist politics for identity politics, where the focus was on respecting minorities and cultural difference, rather than dealing with economic inequality.  (At this point, I just want to emphasise that this is by no means a new academic debate – I’m re-reading Redistribution or Recognition, which is well over 10 years old, and the issue felt a little stale even back then given all the political sociology on ‘post-materialist’ politics.)

On one side, people like Imogen Tyler have suggested that votes for Trump were precisely an embodiment of this kind of identity politics – only the identity was of white men, rather than the minorities this approach tends to be associated with.

Others, like Simon Winlow and Steve Hall responded to this position by suggesting that in fact if only politicians had taken working-class materialist concerns seriously, the voters would never have been seduced down the blind alley of identity politics.  These commentators are concerned that the white working class is being labelled as racist when in fact they’re concerned about their economic security, which has been undermined by decades of neoliberal social and economic policy.

(My choices of commentators are sociologists, because of my academic background, not mainstream commentators – but this mirrors the general debate.)

It won’t surprise regular readers of this blog to find out that I think this is too black and white a reading of the issue.

The neatest explanation of this I’ve seen is this one, which notes that racism, sexism, and any other form of discrimination have economic effects.  They are not simply about ‘identity’.  There is no pure market where people interact without identity markers, without prejudice, where they are only interested in the cash nexus.

But if this has all been explained so well already, what can I add in a blog post several weeks after the event?  Well, I want to suggest that this comes down to taking a nuanced, complex understanding of the world.

It can be argued that at the heart of any area of thought on human behaviour – whether sociology, psychology, politics, health, economics – there is a concern with power or control.  What happens, and why?  Who or what influences what happens?

And without being facile, power is a complicated thing.  As any student of political sociology will tell you, it’s even very difficult to define as a concept, let alone trace and understand in real life.

My contention, which again won’t be surprising to regular readers of the blog, is that power isn’t simply economic.  I’m not going to go into that in detail here, but suffice to say that not all people from the same ethnic or gender group are equal, but equally neither are all billionaires: their influence will be shaped by not only their wealth and income, but also wider social and cultural capital.

With this idea of power as something more than economics or identity, it’s useful to make what seems like a trivial statement: these elections were about power.  I don’t mean simply that the electorate exercised its voting power; I mean that that people were voting to experience (as much as acquire) power and control, and this is reflected in the result.

Whether it’s about culture, economics, identity, or something else, people really did want to ‘take back control’.  And to decide which of these factors it was all ‘fundamentally’ about is to debate whether the chicken or egg came first.  On top of that, when you think of voters themselves, we’re not looking at one chicken and one egg and thinking which came first; there is a never-ending cycle of billions of ‘chickens and eggs’ across the world.

To stretch this analogy to breaking point, we should probably simply accept that chickens lay eggs and eggs hatch into chickens.  Culture, identity, economics, social connections – these are all elements of life, whether political or not.  They’re not going away, and will continue to shape power relations and politics.

Let’s think of this idea of power or control in more practical terms.  Control is of course related to money, finances, or however we want to label economic capital.  But people on the same salary are not – and do not see themselves – as being identical, equal, or even similar.  And that means that ‘the elite’ is not simply about money so much as culture.  This could be seen as an issue of ‘identity politics’ or soixante-huitard politics, but that genie is well and truly out of the bottle.  Practical politics is shaped by the here and now.  And indeed, for all that post-materialist politics is seen as a post-war phenomenon, there’s never been a neat and perfect correlation between class and political behaviour – otherwise there would be far fewer jobs in political sociology, and books like The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and Felix Holt wouldn’t exist, for example.

To some extent, it’s a bit facile to suggest that explanations should acknowledge that there were lots of voters, each with various interacting influences and motivations.  But if it is facile, it somehow still seems to need saying.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has criticised what he calls the ‘Intellectual Yet Idiot’ in polemic, sarcastic fashion, but there is a germ of truth in his analysis, which suggests that many people have been too quick to leap to single overarching explanations or views.  So just as they could not accept that Trump or Brexit were possibilities, so they now leap to a single certain position of whatever caused those votes.

My particular concern with this way of thinking is that it perfectly chimes with my experience of university education, where the emphasis was more on having a clear, forceful, eye-catching argument, rather than being accurate or ‘correct’.  And this isn’t confined to undergraduates – just think of Niall Ferguson.

That is, those who should be most likely to lead us in careful, nuanced thinking – academics – seem to be led themselves into definite, eye-catching statements (remember the claims that the Brexit and Trump votes are fundamentally about neoliberalism and economics).

People and life are complicated.  This seems, again, a facile statement, but it’s a truth that is far from universally acknowledged at the moment.  If this blog post is anything other than an incoherent ramble of frustration, it’s an expression of my wish for that truth to be more widely acknowledged by academics, commentators, policymakers, voters and (most of all) politicians.

Interestingly, politicians acknowledge the complexity of the world in drug policy, by pretending that things are simple.  If there’s something positive for me to cling to in today’s make-believe, black-and-white world of politics, perhaps it’s that behind the simple stories, there’s some complex understanding.  If that was campaigning in poetry, perhaps the governing in prose will make more sense.  However, I’m yet to be convinced.

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