I was born in Calcutta, capital of West Bengal, a state in which the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was democratically elected to power for the better part of 35 years. Growing up, hammer and sickle graffiti on street walls was the norm, and while my parents didn’t necessarily give me a very explicitly socialist upbringing, I was brought up to be politically conscious from a young age. I was always encouraged to look at the world around me, and its various injustices with a critical eye. As I’ve grown older, finished my studies, entered into the adult world of work and responsibility in Austerity Britain, while I’ve seen many of my peers and friends drift politically towards the centre, or even the right, my own political convictions have, if anything, become more entrenched. Yet, as the world moves further towards a complete existential meltdown, facing the resurgence of Fascist ideologies, and the ever-present threat of climate change, it has become all the more relevant now to question what it means to be on the Left.
We are now in the year 2018, when the president of the United States who ran on a campaign of open racism and misogyny now sends nuclear threats over Twitter, while Britain, the country I live in now, and have grown up in is heading for a potentially devastating split with the EU, after a campaign that was also run openly on a xenophobic sentiment, and my home country, India, is run by a religious extremist under whose watch a genocide was conducted in Gujarat less than twenty years ago, and Muslims are being publicly lynched for being suspected of carrying beef in their packed lunch. If the political inclination and rhetoric of the governing bodies is not alarming enough, what is perhaps more frightening is the prevalence of a certain narrative and discourse among the general public which has in a way been given legitimacy by the political mainstream. The 20th century saw a series of battles of emancipation for oppressed minorities, and while the fight is far from over, it is also important to acknowledge the strides made in the struggle to attain equal rights and dignity for women, people of colour (post-colonial subjects), and queer communities. On the other hand, while we have done away with many of the legalised forms of institutional oppression, whether through civil rights, women’s suffrage, or decolonisation, this has given way for more latent forms of dominance which are harder to immediately identify perhaps, but are just as oppressive and pervasive.
With an ever-increasing polarisation and memeification of political dialogue, the space for nuance quickly disappears. Take, for example the issue of immigration, often considered a taboo topic among urban liberals, and for some good reasons due to its appropriation by the far-right and its employment in scapegoating of already oppressed minorities. However, the total unrestricted free movement of labour under a neoliberal economic system is bound to have a negative impact on wages for the people of the host country, which further entrenches economic inequality, traditionally the most central issue of the Left. In the context of the present day, these are inequalities which have been all the more aggravated by decades of the Thatcher-Reagan global neoliberal consensus. This is no more evident than in the formerly industrial and manufacturing communities of Northern England and the rust belt in the US, which were both the heartlands of the Brexit and Trump votes respectively. These are communities which have been systemically neglected for successive generations — jobs disappearing as the economic model switched to the service sector in favour of outsourcing blue-collar jobs to developing countries where labour is even cheaper, populations dwindling, young people leaving en masse for better life opportunities elsewhere, increasing prices and stagnating wages. Yet instead of directing the justified anger and frustration at this outcome to the systemic issues which lead to it, that anger becomes targeted at immigrants, as their plight was hijacked by opportunistic ideologues like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump. However, none of this is anything new that hasn’t been said more eloquently by others already.
What is crucial to address, particularly for those of us on the Left, is the intersectionality of identity politics and the economic and political reality which results from it. The binaries of man/woman, white/POC, heterosexual/queer, cis/trans, are the result of power dynamics which are historically contingent. These binaries bear fruit to further power imbalances which are not always immediately apparent, particularly if you are one of its benefactors. They become far more visible as soon as you are on the receiving end. For example, being a straight brown man who has lived the majority of his life in white-majority countries, the instances of racism, both overt and more covert, I have encountered throughout my life are innumerable. However, in order to understand how I have benefited from patriarchy, it requires far more introspection and and a willingness to question interactions which are mostly taken for granted. And sometimes, it is the wholesale lack of certain kinds of interactions, such as the fact that I don’t have to worry about sexual harassment and assault on an average night out, something that too many women face on a daily basis. It is this attribution of power to people who otherwise feel completely powerless due to their own economic reality, as in the aforementioned case of the Trump and Brexit voters, has been met with great resistance, and understandably so to an extent. When your ability for self-determination on your individual life is seemingly non-existent, it becomes easy to reject labels with connotations of power, especially if it was power that you never asked for in the first place.
This is perhaps the reason that the recent rise of the far right, particularly on online platforms, can be traced back to anti-feminist roots which really coalesced and gathered a unified momentum around the time of Gamergate. Straight white men have been numerically dominant as Internet users since its inception, and as the voices of minorities have begun to appear throughout other platforms and media over the 20th century, the Internet was in many ways (quite ironically) the last safe space, the latest battleground for representation. As identity politics really took hold over mainstream political discourse, disenfranchised straight white men felt their issues and needs not addressed by the wider public, at least in their eyes. The identity of ‘gamer’ became a convenient banner to rally under, and the result was a campaign of vitriol and misogyny directed primarily at female content creators working within the games industry. Similarly, as female and minority ethnic voices found a platform on sites such as Tumblr and Twitter, there was a resulting backlash in the form of a wave of anti-feminist, anti-SJW (Social Justice Warrior, the catchall insult directed at any proponent of identity politics, for those out of the loop) blogs and vlogs, and countless ‘SJW cringe compilations’ on YouTube. Social media’s ability to act as an echo chamber, amplifying and validating pre-existing viewpoints, has most certainly also added fuel to the fire. The slippery slope from this anti-feminist rhetoric to altogether more insidious far-right ideology is easy to see, particularly on these platforms.
Returning to the question of what it means to be on the Left in these times of increasingly tumultuous politics and divisive rhetoric, it is now perhaps more than ever before, important to not lose sight of the nuances that make the questions of identity and power so complex. A common criticism of identity politics often posited by the modern-day rockstars of the Right like Jordan Peterson and Christina Hoff Sommers is that it reinforces the very power imbalances that it wishes to deconstruct by emphasising the disparities between groups. While this is indeed an issue that needs to be addressed by the Left, the proposed solution simply cannot be to ignore these issues altogether and maintaining the status quo. And it most certainly cannot involve giving in to the free speech demands of those willing to perpetrate hateful violence. Hegemonic discourse works by weaving a dominant narrative into the fabric of our worldview, which in turn legitimises and upholds a systemic form of oppression, and unless we challenge those narratives, we are complicit by participating in the same system. The struggles of emancipation of the 20th century are a mere footnote in the grand scale of history, and it is not difficult to imagine a reversion of many of their achievements in the face of the rise of certain ideologies. Now is the time for solidarity with all the oppressed people of the world, because ultimately the emancipation of one means nothing if another is still oppressed.
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