C'est nous qui brisons les barreaux des prisons, pour nos frères, La haine à nos trousses, et la faim qui nous pousse, la misère. Il y a des pays où les gens aux creux des lits font des rêves, Ici, nous, vois-tu, nous on marche et nous on tue nous on crève.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Collective Identity and the Left

It is true that as a black-hearted blogger allegedly of the 'hard left' I sometimes mock some of the more inane right-leaning bloggers in Australia. God knows there are more than a few embarrassments among them. One blogger with whom I will attempt to engage in this post, rather than mock, is Mark R. of Oz Conservative, in this post on collective identity. Mark took issue with a statement of Ted Ballieu's, leader of Victoria's Liberal Opposition, namely that 'our diversity is at the heart of our collective identity - different people, different views, different lifestyles.'

Mark highlights a 'radical element' in Ballieu's position:

Baillieu has no problem using the term "collective identity", but consider carefully what he means by this concept. It is not a "positive" identity, in the sense that it represents a set of positive characteristics shared by a community of people. Instead, it is a negative identity, in which people identify with the absence of shared characteristics.

In this, I agree, on the proviso that, at a philosophical level, at least, we acknowledge that 'identity' always presumes 'difference', in the Spinozan sense that 'Omnis determinatio est negatio' ('All determination is negation').

Mark appears to be arguing that in loosening, or even negativising the definition of that which constitutes 'our' collective identity, 'we' (i.e. Australian society) risk losing that identity altogether. This is important because, according to Mark:

We gain much as individuals from a strong collective identity in which we enjoy a sense of shared history, of a common culture, of closely understood manners and mores, of a widely shared calendar of festivals and celebrations, of a distinct tradition linking generations to each other, and of art and architecture expressing the character of our own community.

Mark correctly (in my view) places Ballieu's statement within the context of a 'liberal position', but condemns it , as we might expect of a conservative, as 'it represents the mindset of the rootless, modernist individual who has become disconnected from his own communal tradition.'

I happen to think the claims of Australia ever having had a 'common culture' to be incorrect. 'Diversity' existed even among Aboriginal peoples. The first settlers, Irish and English, would have had sharp differences in beliefs in many cases (not that there exists an homogeneous 'English' or 'Irish' in the first place), and the amount and degree of intra-societal differences would only have been greater during the many decades of immigration to Australia, by people from all continents. Diversity was always already there with respect to every aspect of identity, and claims of a 'common culture' seem to me a bad fiction, designed to smooth over historical and societal fact.

On the other hand, Mark has a genuine point when he criticises the 'negative identity' implied by Ballieu, and by many other liberals who are lazy when it comes to metaphysics. We appear to see in the Lib leader's statement a kind of ready-made, philistine version of the Derridean-Levinasian coming to grips with the other, with the outcome being defined by absence and lack. For a conservative, therefore, this approach to collective identity seems to lead to a society that, in terms of 'values', at least, is held together by nothing. Liberal individualism would possibly see society as being held together by (liberal) individuals.

Since I insist on the old 19th Century distinction between 'liberals' and 'radicals' (a distinction sometimes lost when political discourse is collapsed into the left-right spectrum), I think it appropriate to ask what this third perspective might have to say about collective identity. On what might this 'identity' be founded?

Let us put aside, for the time being, the arguments from psychoanalysis and social psychology linking 'personal' identity with the cultural sphere. The ego-ideal is, among other things, an insertion of the 'cultural' into the personal, an appropriation by the self of the other, and it derives chiefly from the strictures and injunctions of one's parents. Still, these parents are themselves embedded in a broader cultural context.

If his tags are any guide, Mark seems to hint that national or ethnic identity is the means to securing a stable collective identity. I happen to think this utterly mistaken. For starters, in the case of Australia, the prevailing 'identity' was made possible only on the basis of the most brutal displacement of the Aboriginal people.

The first white settlers in Australia were from Europe's then-power, Britain, and from Europe's oldest colony, Ireland. The two differed in religion and many other respects; as I said above, 'diversity' existed from the beginning. Sure, we can fabricate some kind of collective 'Anglo-Celtic' identity, as distinct from the next major group of European migrants (Greeks and Italians). Following that, we can construct a 'Western European' or 'Christian' identity as opposed to the Chinese and Vietnamese who still followed. We can even incorporate the Asians into our 'collective', and simply posit Muslims as the out-group. The point is, however, that all of these groupings are ultimately arbitrary, do not remove 'diversity', and require or imply a demonised out-group, excluded from the set, but defining the set's very identity. This is not 'social cohesion', this is, in psychoanalytic terms, collective psychosis.

On what then, can identity be founded? Clearly, ethnic and religious groupings are insufficient. I argue that a 'positive' from which a collective identity can arise is the category of worker, that is, one who does not control the means of production. Further to this, I mean a worker who is self-consciously a worker, and who is self-consciously politicised as a worker, that is, a worker who is a member of the proletariat. As Orwell mused (and as his rightist would-be heirs have apparently forgotten), 'If there is hope, it lies in the proles'.

This category, as the French philosopher Badiou says, 'consolidate[s] what is universal in identities', and is capable of uniting mean and women of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. As Badiou puts it in his paper, it is not about me, the individual, abandoning my pre-existing identity for the sake of some authoritarian cultural norm, but rather, of adapting and enlarging my identity, 'in a creative fashion', to the place in which I find myself. As one of the many for whom value accrues by its expropriation from my labour, my place is with the workers. As Badiou said elsewhere, '"militant" is a category without borders'.

Of course, this solution to the problem is no what the conservatives want to hear, and represents a challenge to the muddy arena of 'identity politics' into which liberal individualism often lapses. Sceptics will not doubt scoff at the suggestion that 'proletariat' remains a valid category. The Left is presumed by media pundits not to consist of the working classes, but of 'luvvies' and 'bleeding hearts', with hand-wringing affectations and pet causes, who munch on hilariously ethnic foodstuffs. In other words, popular political discourse in Australia has only conceived of a leftism that is 'left-liberal', not 'radical left', that dismisses the very possibility of a politicised working class.

Does such a class exist, rather than the effete, inner city class caricatured in our press? I answer that it does. Let us take, for example, Melbourne's outer Northern and North-Western suburbs:

Those familiar with Melbourne will recognise that is a 'diverse' area. There is a strong Aboriginal community in the area. There are many Christians, mostly Catholic and Orthodox, as well as several mosques. A Buddhist temple can be found in the suburb of Reservoir, owing to the significant number of Buddhist Asians in the area. Observers will note that this is a genuinely working class area - peak hour traffic is generally earlier here than elsewhere, owing to the types of occupations often done here.
Take the State Electorate of Thomastown for instance. This area encompasses a number of suburbs. The three most common occupations are as a sales worker in retail, and a machine operator/driver or labourer in manufacturing. Workers are unlikely to work in the city, given the heavy industrialisation of the area. Whilst here, as elsewhere, Australian-born people are a majority, there are plenty of others - Italians are next, with large numbers of Greeks, Macedonians, Lebanese, Vietnamese, and even Iraqis. In short, this is the very model of a poor, working-class neighbourhood, with a high proportion of immigrants.
So how does this area vote? At the last State election, the result was a massive 81% to the ALP, on a two-party preferred basis. If we look at this area Federally, we see the ALP with a 70% two-party preferred vote, which is enormous considering the relative wealth and cultural homogeneity in the north-east outskirts of this electorate. No doubt similar such areas can be found throughout the country.
Obviously, Australia's Labor party stands for labour in name only, but the message is clear - the much-despised Howard Haters are not chardonnay-swilling elites. They may well be latte drinkers, if only for the fact that they hail from a country that values coffee in the first place. They are poor, and 'diverse', and they do not vote Tory - it is little wonder that conservatives are scared of them, and are trying to keep them out of the country, or have them radically 'assimilate'. They have all the makings of a politicised working class.
It is these people who are being let down by the ALP, and who, as far as I can see, have failed to be integrated into the Greens. And it is precisely these people who offer a bright future for the Left in this country, and for this country itself, if only that opportunity can be seized.