The Gracelessness of the Left
Of all the bad behaviours to be given a free pass, the uninvited pub lecture on identity
politics is one of the most irritating. It is the one that most makes me feel too big for my
skin, like I am liable to combust in a steaming mess of talked-over reasonableness.
And in what follows I criticise the left. But I do so as a literal card-carrying member of the
tradition. I do so because the left’s inconsistencies and hypocrisies are made all the worse
by the Puritanical standards it sets for others, and by its setting itself a test it knows it
The left espouses world turning, system shaking doctrines — many of them excellent,
good and necessary. But by investing all energy into the preaching, there isn’t much room
left, it would seem, for the old ‘praxis’. I recently came across a tweet that said something
like ‘Academics be giving a conference paper called ‘Communities of (Be)longing and then
shouting at a waitress for not brining sparkling water to the after-conference dinner
table.’ This is funny because it is well observed. And happens.
The left is rightly concerned with identity. Identity matters, and the left have shifted
public conversation and opinion on identity brilliantly. But in its speed, it has left behind
some important questions, and in the clumsiness of haste only so much could be carried
forward, it would appear, and the left’s arms dropped a few balls on the journey towards
progress. I’m thinking here of class, and in particular the voices of working class people,
writers and artists.
To be ‘working class’ is no longer an identity, some of the intelligentsia would have us
believe. Being working class is just economics, they say. And this would be true if it didn't
leave everything essential to identity out. Personality formation, value systems, passions
and prejudices. Being working class is just economics in the same way that sexual
orientation is just orifices. Either both halves of that statement are true, or both are false.
Also, can we agree to leave the word ‘just’ out of conversations (arguments) on identity?
No one is ‘just’ anything; no one’s situation is ‘just’ something.
Working class people are spoken over in universities. The fact that they made it to the
seminar room as a first-generation university student is not, it appears, seen as something
to celebrate by the opinion makers on the left. In many humanities classes at the red brick
universities you will find many students displaying a really brilliant level of awareness of
language, of discrimination, of exclusion. But the fact that these students are largely from
middle class families necessarily impacts the quality of their seeing, and class has slid
over the years on many people’s lists of Things to Be Aware Of. To play the class card in
the game of Privilege Top Trumps we are all encouraged to play now, is to be implicitly
breaking an unspoken rule. It is crass to bring class into play.
Talking about class has been made secondary to talking about gender, orientation and
race. If it is brought up at all, it is usually in relation to these things (a good connection to
make) — in how people of colour, for example, tend to be economically worse off than
white groups. But by only speaking of working class people when they belong to other
marginalised groups, the university Left genuinely out themselves as acceptable bigots.
The bleaching of ‘working class’ as an identity has serious consequences. It leads — to
use the Marxist lingo — to alienation. It leads to, oh I don’t know, huge, unending Tory
And it is an identity. Kids growing up on a council estate in Northern Ireland, or Scotland,
or England or the Republic have more in common than they do with the middle class kid in the semidetached bungalow ten minutes up the road. In every respect working class children have different experiences than their more well-off counterparts. And at every stage of
personality development, they are experiencing something very different. For me this
meant living in a concrete maze full of kids who were also out playing until late at night.
It meant building dens and riding bikes into unknown and unexplored places; it meant
long summers and the threat of a druggie in the alley I took as a shortcut home. It was
brilliant and much less hard than the bald facts of it seem. And it was identity forming.
Sorry, we can’t split the bill, it’s restaurant policy.
They can split the bill. They always can.
They just won’t. And this seemingly invisible chasm between can’t and won’t is where the exclusion of working class voices springs.
Restaurants ought to be more honest in their signage. Just say ‘We don’t split bills — it is
a right pain in the arse for us.’ It would be annoying, yes, but at least it wouldn't be
deceptive. I wish some of the university Left would also display their own signs in equally
explicit terms. They can talk about class. They just won’t. It would be handy to know
where you stand before the pub lecture series commences. It would be useful to know
ahead of time that your voice doesn’t count because growing up on a council estate is
much less important than other identity forming experiences.
Empathy is not academic theory. Poetry is not philosophy. Ordering a coffee; reading a
novel; going to the toilet all have surprisingly little to do with Hegel, Fichte or Chomsky.
And these realisations are surprisingly under realised by certain in our ranks on the left.
People are nor reducible to ‘justs’, and the reason for this, of course, is that people tell
stories. The stories of hard-won experience are not data to be fed into a theory machine,
as proofs of some hidden metaphysical thesis only the elect have access to. Instead,
stories show the limits of theory by forever exceeding its reach.
And this is not at all to disparage theory, but simply to be reminded of the natural order
of things. A Marxist reading of a classic text is interesting. But it really stops being
interesting when the reader ignores the sections of the novel that don’t line up with the
theory. In such a situation the reader has, of course, got it all the wrong way round. And
we need reminded of this even more so when we are dealing with and speaking of people.
If a person doesn’t fit a theory, the person isn’t the problem. In fact, they’ve done
everyone a great service by demonstrating a basic truth: sacrificial worship at the altar of
inert Theory will always be at the expense of the actual.
At this point in my life I am so much more interested in stories than in cutting edge
philosophical research. I have taught critical theory at university, so, for a semester or so I
knew my Saussure, Barthes and Butler as well as most anyone, but when this stuff starts
to take the lead, and people’s actual lives are structured by what ought to be secondary, I
start to get the serious wiggins with theory. I am sick of arguing, of trying to be right all
the time. And the gorgeousness of a story is that you are asked to listen with different
ears, it asks to be leant towards, heard with generosity. And by the end of a good story,
the tone of a room is transfigured. In fact it would feel inappropriate to start an argument
after a story. It would be weird to challenge someone on their story. There’s a lesson in
The left needs to learn to listen. And maybe its no surprise that is needs to learn this. The
tradition that produced egos like Eagleton is perhaps not the best incubating environment
for generous conversation. But all is not — as is ever the case — lost.
So put down your pint, come out from behind your theory book, stop posing (who is it
for?), and tell us a good story. People are listening.
Andrew Cunning, co-founder of Left Side Up.