Interview with Gary Younge: the contradictions of identity

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Identity politics have increasingly come to shape political dialogue. Gary Younge, Guardian columnist and author of a new book on the subject, spoke to Esme Choonara about immigration, racism and class.

Why did you write a book about identity?

It's an issue people talk about a lot and that has become increasingly central to our politics. But we don't often talk about it in the most informed ways.

It has massive consequences - if you look, for example, at the discussions on Islam and Europe, racism in Britain, nationalism in the Balkans or ethnicity in Rwanda, the conclusions people come up with can be very important, and often deadly. So I thought it would be useful to set down some parameters so we can talk about identity in a more intelligent way.

One of the things that really struck me about your book was the chapter about women in Ireland. I thought it said something about how structural changes in the economy or immigration alter people's subjective feelings about themselves. Why did you go to Ireland and what did you find?

My brother lives in Ireland and I've spent a lot of time there. I wanted to write a chapter looking at how identities change.

What happened with women in Ireland was one of the most phenomenal transformations within a generation.

There is this sense in Europe, and it is used to bash Muslims in particular, that gender equality is something that we have sorted out. Yet we can see within a 45-minute flight from London how untrue that was until very recently and how uneven it still is.

When Ireland joined the EU in 1973, they had to change the fertility charts because Ireland was off the chart. Only in Albania did women have more children.

For me, it showed the impact of broader changes that didn't initially have anything to do with gender. Ireland joined Europe and became a little power house in a global economy and this transformed the lives of women.

Now with the economic crisis, the attack on public sector workers is disproportionately affecting women, and they are finding themselves newly and differently vulnerable in this crisis. So the fact is that these gains can come and they can be lost too.

You talk a lot in the book about how nationalism is used by the right. We now have senior figures in Labour talking about how their failure to relate on the question of immigration lost them the election. What do you think about the debates taking place?

Because of globalisation, the nation-state is the only democratic unit that we have and it is insufficient. There is a limit to what voting will actually do. So there was a lot of journalist excitement about who would win the election, but not about what would actually change. That had already been laid down by the markets and international capital.

In some respect the general increase in nationalism across Europe is a response to the lack of control that people feel they have in the democracies in which they live. In such moments people can become more nationalistic as they retreat into that basic unit. But one of the things I try to bring out in the book is that the nation-state is a relatively recent thing.

There is some truth to the idea that Labour did not fully address the immigration question, in that they did not speak honestly to people about what was going on. They did repeatedly say they were going to get tougher than everyone else, but they didn't say to people that in a world of globalisation, where half the population lives on less than $2 a day, people are going to want to come here.

A lot of those people are not coming here because they want to, but because they have to. Immigration is integral to foreign policy - the more we bomb people, the more they flee. And the more they flee, the more chance there is they will come here.

And we're in the EU - we decided to open our borders to the free movement of capital, but that also involves the free movement of labour.

Most people do have a better nature. We should say, what would you do if you couldn't feed your family? You would try to go somewhere where you could. Norman Tebbit said we should get on our bikes and look for work - that's what these people are doing. But to talk honestly about this would have exposed some of the things that Labour actually did.

The Gillian Duffy moment was really telling. Rochdale is one fifth Muslim and has had something like a 58 percent increase in Bangladeshi residents over ten years. Yet she was specifically asking about Eastern European immigrants. I think it's perfectly rational if the case has not been made, and this group of people turn up who speak a different language and open up new shops, that people will ask questions. That doesn't make people racist - it makes them at best curious and at worst fearful. In the absence of progressive arguments, reactionary ones will take hold. The political class has not been honest with people about what drives immigration. That becomes a vacuum which the right steps into.

How does the debate in the US compare?

In the US you have a nativism which is quite different to in Europe, but it ends up in more or less the same place. It was sparked by the North American Free Trade Agreement brought in by former president Bill Clinton. It meant that lots of US jobs could go to cheaper labour with weaker union organisation in Mexico. Some of them went literally just over the US border.

US wages have been stagnant for many years and people feel economically vulnerable. In that state they look for someone to blame. They can't get their hands on the people who are really to blame, but immigrants - or people who look like immigrants - become visible examples or totems of globalisation.

It used to be the case that people talked about two models for immigration - in Britain you had multiculturalism and in France immigrants were told they had to integrate. Of course there were always problems with multiculturalism, but what do you make of British politicians who in recent years have declared multiculturalism a failure and started demanding "integration"?

There's always been a critique on the left about multiculturalism. I never embraced it, or gave it much thought. I think one of the problems with it was that, like the term political correctness, it can mean anything you want as long as you don't like it. But for many people it means the existence of people with different cultures - as basic as that. And governments don't make cultures; people do.

The French model has clearly failed. Whether or not they like it, France is a very multicultural society. They can tell a young boy of Algerian descent that he is French, but if they won't employ him, or give him decent housing, and everyone who looks like him is treated the same, he will draw his own conclusions.

So who are the politicians asking to integrate? Only non-white, non-Christians. And the demands don't come along with anti-racism. It's meaningless without that to demand that people integrate into a society that won't educate, house or employ them, and which will routinely abuse them. Why would any sane self-respecting person want to do that?

The demands are also based on giving up difference - handing over your headscarves and veils. For that you will earn the right to exist in what may be the country of your birth. So it's only about integrating "them" into "our" culture.

In Britain there's Scotland, Wales, England, Northern Ireland, the EU. They tell people to be British, but what does that mean? You ask ten British people and you will get ten different answers.

I'm interested in what you say about how ideas of cultural difference are mobilised by the right. They try to claim they are not really racist; it's just that some people are "different". Do you think that's a new thing, or an old phenomenon?

It's an old thing that keeps evolving. They used to say it about Caribbeans, that they are "different" to "us". That was an interesting thing during the election - that they would enlist all these black people to say how much they hate immigrants.

But I think the emphasis on culture and religion and language has become far starker in recent times - at least in the last ten or 15 years.

When I was growing up people would say why can't you - meaning Caribbeans - be more like the Asians? They keep themselves to themselves. They work hard. They don't want to marry my daughter. And now it's more like, what's wrong with you Asians? Why don't you want to marry my daughter? I demand that you marry my daughter! Why do you keep yourself to yourself?

So it has changed but it draws from the same roots - the evocation of a mystical other. Whenever there's a bombing attempt some people become stunned at how integrated these people's lives are. Imagine - a bomber who supported Manchester United and worked in a fish and chip shop! They're expecting people with horns and tails, but what they find is people who are very integrated.

Actually violent resistance against British military occupation is not a new thing. It's amazing that we can have just emerged from however long the war has been going on in Ireland and almost immediately people are asking how we could have a homegrown bomber. We've been growing our own bombers for years. Guy Fawkes is a whole night dedicated to a homegrown bomber!

In the introduction to your book you say that the left has failed to engage with the question of identity and that sections of the left have written the question off as a "deviation from class struggle". Can you say more about this?

There's a way of looking at this issue in terms of materialism that says identity is a deviation from bread and butter issues.

But take the BNP, for example - identity is part of the problem here. The BNP's magazine is called Identity. Unless we are going to deal with how people understand themselves in these circumstances it is going to be difficult for us to engage.

People come to politics through a variety of routes and mostly they come to politics through their own experience. That might be as a young Muslim guy, or as a woman and feminist, or as a gay person. And if they come to you and you say that they have to leave that at the door, they will, not surprisingly, go somewhere else.

Look at what has been happening with the Muslim community. Unless we are willing to engage with that, there are others who will, and not people we like - fundamentalists on race or religion or whatever it is - and we have to do battle with them.

Class isn't the only way people come to politics, but in the absence of class, questions about identity make no sense. Poor white people can quite understandably see themselves written out of everything if class is not taken into account. You can end up just arguing for more rights for wealthy black people or wealthy women or whoever. So the idea that black Americans are doing really well because Barack Obama has won, even though black people are doing worse than ever, is a nonsense.

But similarly a class analysis that doesn't take identity into account is equally flawed, because it doesn't deal with the ways that people politically engage or live their lives. Black people, however wealthy, are likely to vote Democrat in the US. Not that that's a particularly left wing thing to do - but it's symbolic.

The only argument we have if we don't take identity into account is false consciousness - that people don't know what's best for them. I think it's a dead end just to say that what people are feeling is a mistake. We have to understand what they want and what they think they can get. A lot of it is rooted in who people think they are - which is sometimes as important as, or more important than, who they actually are.

But isn't there a danger in saying that every identity is equal? Isn't it part of the left's job to argue about how people see themselves - to say you don't have to think about yourself as a white person or a British nationalist - you could think about yourself as working class? This is how we've engaged around the slogan of "British jobs for British workers", for example. Doesn't there have to be an argument about identity?

You're right - I'm saying that to understand either class or identity separately is to misunderstand both. There is a self-indulgent streak in what some people call identity politics. If you're just going to say I'm black and that's enough it's a very dangerous cul-de-sac. It's important to try to make those links from where people are to their common humanity.

But the starting point isn't necessarily class. If you are talking to a black sharecropper in the 1950s in Alabama, the notion of class unity - join hands with poor white people - is not going to work. It's not where the white people are at and it's not where the black people are at.

So it's important not to indulge the blackness to the point where the struggle is anti-white, but it's important to recognise the reality of the situation and the limits of some of the appeals. Take gender - to some extent it is a material fact in itself, it will shape how much you earn and how you are treated and what rights you have. That is no less real than class. I'm trying to make a space for this not as a self-indulgent thing - because it can really be a diversion from the real issues.

Take the Obama/Hillary Clinton example. Neither of them promised that they would be any good on race or gender. Neither of them stood as champions of a particular oppressed group. So to channel your gender or racial energies through them is misplaced. The symbolic has completely overtaken the substantial.

Several times in your book you mention the need for solidarity across identities - white people standing up for black people, non-Jews standing up for Jews and so on - isn't class a way to unite people across divisions?

It does unite people by choosing the appropriate enemy. I do think that class is central. But I think you can get to that place by a certain sort of racial or gender politics. People tend to organise where they are attacked.

And I'm not convinced that class is the sole, or necessarily the main, mobilising force. Particularly in the West where the traditional working class has been decimated, where industries and jobs have gone, a class politics that will work is one that works in coalition with other political forces.

But don't you think there is a very strong, raw class feeling in Britain, especially since the economic crisis?

Yes, even before the recession, for a younger generation capitalism had already become a system worth critiquing. People have never been so savvy about neoliberalism and the need for transformative politics.

So on the one hand we have never been so aware of international capitalism, but we've never been less well organised as a force - we are too dispersed. And that's the challenge we face. Identities are a great place to start - they're about how we got here, what makes people want to be part of a certain politics. But it's a terrible place to finish. If you end with identity, you end in fundamentalism or self-indulgence.

So our task is to find a way to mobilise identity for good. Identity is like fire. We wouldn't want to do without fire, but it can be dangerous. To deny difference doesn't mean that difference doesn't exist. It just means that you can't see it.

Who Are We - and Should it Matter in the 21st Century? by Gary Younge (Viking, £14.99) is available from Bookmarks.