Identity and the politics of scarcity
We are living in a society which even its supporters admit is based on ‘scarcity’ even if their definition of scarcity is rather eccentric (the absence of ‘sheer abundance’, as their economics textbooks define it). Scarcity does exist in the normal sense in that not enough is being produced of the things, services and amenities that people need to lead a healthy and satisfying life.
It is a society of artificial scarcity as far as the vast majority is concerned. Society has the means to produce enough for all, in fact more than enough. Enough food, decent housing, a good all-round education, a good health service. Enough for everybody could be produced but isn’t and can’t be as it’s not profitable. So, people are put in a position of having to compete for what there is; and where the rule is that the more money you have the more (and better) you get. People are in effect rationed by the amount of money they have or can get. For most people there is not much choice about this. To get money, you can beg, steal or work for an employer. Working for wages is the basic way most people get the money to buy what they need. But it means that what people can get is rationed by what they are paid.
You can get together with others to try to get a better deal. Socialists have always argued that all those who have to work for wages should join together to get as much as they can and eventually as a class – the appropriately named ‘working class’ – to get rid of the present competitive economic system and replace it with one organised on the basis of the common ownership of productive resources.
Unfortunately, this hasn’t got very far, and has never even been attempted, apart from ill-conceived and misnamed projects such as in Russia and by Labour governments, which failed. Partly because of these failures people, including activists, have come to think and act as if there is no alternative to the present system, and that the most that can be done is to get a better deal within the system, whether as an individual (or family) or as a member of some group other than as an economic class.
As a result, practical politics is ‘scarcity politics’ where individuals and groups compete to get the most they can out of what has been made available. Identity politicians seek to create a new grouping and work to organise their target group as another competing unit. This brings them into conflict with socialists who want all workers, including those in the targeted groups, to organise on a class basis. The identity politicians, if they succeed, will only make a bad situation worse by further dividing people, splitting them into more competing groups than there currently are.
Having said that, the targeted groups generally have a legitimate grievance – they have and still do suffer discrimination purely on the basis of being who they are. The demand to be considered of equal worth, with the same treatment, as any other human being is a perfectly legitimate demand which socialists endorse and practise. There should be no discrimination against anyone on the basis of gender, skin colour, language or even religion. Every human being, whoever they are, is of equal worth and should be treated as such.
‘Black Lives Matter’ is a good example. This slogan is an elementary declaration that all lives are of equal worth. But then the question arises of how to put this into practice. Most countries (with the notable exceptions of those that practise sharia law) recognise the legal equality of men and women. In Britain there is complete legal equality between them and in fact between ‘whites’ and, to borrow a term from apartheid-era South Africa, ‘non-whites’. The only people living here who suffer from legal disabilities are non-citizens (a reminder that so-called ‘nations’ are identity groups too).
Legal equality, though important, does not end other forms of unequal treatment that arise from being poor and its consequences in terms of worse housing, worse education, worse health and inferior health care. This is where the identity politician jumps up and adds extra demands to the simple demand for respect and equal consideration such as the ‘Black Lives Matter’ slogan. They demand more money be allocated to their target group to improve housing, education and health care services for its members.
The trouble is that, in the context of the politics of scarcity, this will tend to be at the expense of other groups. Capitalist states only spend on social reforms that improve people’s lot if there is also some benefit to the capitalist interest in terms, for instance, of a more educated or fitter workforce. Even then the amount they spend is limited – since they have to pay for these through taxes that fall, directly or indirectly, on their profits. Spending too much undermines their competitiveness and the whole profit motive that drives the system. So artificial scarcity is never going to be ended under capitalism. It can’t be as it’s built into the system.
That we are dealing with a more or less zero-sum situation is explicitly recognised when claims for ‘quotas’ and ‘positive discrimination’ are raised. Here, more for one group means less for some other group. What is that other group expected to do? Given that neither group sees any alternative to the present system and accepts that the only politics is the politics of scarcity, they are not going to accept this lying down but will push back and resist, to try to keep what they’ve got (or think they’ve got). Identity politics on one side encourages identity politics on another, making the overall political situation worse.
In some cases this is deliberate, as with racists and nativists, but also those who talk of ‘white privilege’ which implies that all whites have an unfair privilege which should be taken away. The result is that the basic conflict in society is seen as a scramble between different identity groups rather than between those who monopolise the means of life and the excluded majority forced to work for wages.
Peter Joseph of Zeitgeist has coined a useful term to describe the well-meaning people who seek a solution to discrimination and poverty within the present system of artificial scarcity – ‘in-system activists’. But what do they envisage as success? If they reject, either explicitly or in practice, a different system of society (common not class ownership, production for needs not profit), what will things be like if they achieve their aim of eliminating any discrimination against their own target group within capitalism?
Logically this could mean, for instance, governments, parliaments, boards of directors, even the top military brass, composed of 50 percent women and 50 percent men. Or that the percentage of university students from their target group be exactly equal to their percentage in the general population. From the opposite angle, that the same percentage of the majority population should be living in bad housing or in poverty or in prison as their percentage in the population. If that’s 90 percent then 90 percent of those in bad housing, poverty or prison should be from the majority group instead of whatever lesser figure it is now. A redistribution of poverty to benefit the target group. That’s not going to get them very far.
In-system activists may regard this as a caricature of their position but it is a logical conclusion that stems from them trying to obtain more for a particular group within the context of artificial scarcity. They may protest that what they want is more resources to be devoted to improving all sections of the population, even if proportionately more for their target group. That, for instance, the percentage of them going to university could be increased without reducing the number of others going there, by increasing the total number of university places.
They are correct that the resources do exist to improve things for everyone – across the board and not just in education. However, the structure and operation of the capitalist economic system prevents this being done. Using existing resources for this purpose can only be achieved in a quite different system where the aim can be human welfare, not profit, and where artificial scarcity can be replaced by plenty for everyone.
Identity politics assumes that all in the target group constitute a ‘community’. To describe some group as a ‘community’ there must be some overriding common interest which binds the group together. But, whatever else they have in common, the identity politicians’ target groups don’t share a common economic – ie. survival – interest. They are divided into classes, into owners and non-owners, rich and poor, with antagonistic, in fact irreconcilable, interests since the wealth of the wealthy is dependent on the past and present labour of the excluded majority.
There are plenty of rich women, gays and non-whites. Those from the excluded majority have a different economic interest from the wealthy members of their supposed communities. Their material needs are not fully met, not because they are gay, non-white etc. but because they are part of the excluded majority forced to work for wages to live. And so they have more in common with others who are in the same economic position as them. Which is why socialists urge them not to identify themselves with the rich people within their proposed identity group but with their economic class.
Those in-system activists who stand for equal treatment for their target group within the artificial scarcity of capitalism could protest against the criticism that logically their ideal must be strict proportionality in the distribution of both benefits and disadvantages amongst all groups. They could say that what they want is not that, but that nobody should be discriminated against because they are a woman, gay, black, or whatever; that everybody should be treated as an equal human being.
Precisely. So they should. But dividing people into separate identity groups is not the way to treat them as equal.
Even if equal treatment of women, gays, black people is achieved under capitalism – and there is no reason why in principle it could not be, even if in practice there are historically-inherited obstacles to this – those in these groups who are not wealthy owners of means of production would still face discrimination: as members of the excluded majority who have to work for wages. They will remain victims of what might be called ‘classism’. This is the one discrimination that cannot be ended within capitalism as it is built into the system; in fact, capitalism, as an exploitative class-divided society, is based on it.
Those who want a better deal for some particular group should not be promoting ‘identity politics’ within a system that imposes artificial scarcity. They should be working for an end to artificial scarcity; which is not possible in a society based on class ownership and production for profit.
‘Classist’ discrimination can only be ended in a classless society based on the common ownership of productive resources where everyone has a chance to have an equal say in the way things are run and the same access to what they need to live and enjoy life. In short, where the old socialist principle of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs” applies. Everybody accorded equal consideration irrespective of what they are. And nobody discriminated against as regards access to material goods, services or amenities.