Sunday 4 December 2022

The Right's Walking Wounded

Won't anyone think of the racist aristo? Poor Lady Susan Hussey. A life time of craven service at the apex of Britain's class system, an episode of racist bullying - among who knows how many unremarked such episodes - has brought her 60-year association with Buckingham Palace to an end. The defences, of which there are plenty, were tediously predictable. She's 83 years old! Lady Hussey is from another time! She can't be expected to treat black people with respect! Probably the most stupid defence came from the pen of Petronella Wyatt. In what is 2022's greatest line in comment journalism, she writes, "Susan Hussey has no prejudices at all. She spent much of her life married to a man called Marmaduke, who had one leg." Game, set, and match.

While complaining of the "wasteland" her life has become, the sort of defence Wyatt is making on her well-heeled acquaintance's behalf speaks to the identity politics the right likes to play. Or, to be more accurate, a certain simulacra of wounding.

In Wendy Brown's States of Injury, a great deal of radical politics is characterised by a permanent attachment to suffering. In the context of the United States (and liberalism generally), the abstract citizen of American democracy is sovereign. They are individuated, and politics and civil society are the arenas for exercising their rights. Such as the right to free speech, freedom of conscience, to own property, etc. These are juridically and constitutionally guaranteed. However, as is well known, the lineage of these rights are premised on exclusions. Marx famously critiqued the liberal subject as a political appendage of the bourgeoisie. After all, what good is a political theory that doesn't even acknowledge the existence of the capitalist mode of production? Various thinkers from WEB Du Bois to Cedric Robinson demonstrated how this class subject was premised on racialised others, with the freedoms ascribed to it consciously defined against the less-than-human (because less-than-free) status of the slaves/colonised peoples. Likewise, the women's movement have critiqued the liberal subject as a masculine one, both in terms of how women were less than citizens before the vote was conceded and after in terms of its silences over gender. As Catharine MacKinnon observed, gender blindness marks gender bias in the law and political order.

For Brown, despite citizenship premised on the exclusion of women, minority ethnicities, and the working class, in US politics it has become something for excluded groups to aspire to. Indeed, the last 200 years could be read as an extension of citizenship to those whose existence it originally erased. During this time communities of solidarity have banded together to prosecute their interests within the boundaries of the political order. The abolition of Jim Crow and the institutionalisation of civil rights, the achievement of equal rights for women and sexual minorities at local and state level, and the subsumption of organised labour via the New Deal demonstrated the openness of the US system.

The first problem for Brown are the depoliticising outcomes of these struggles. While representing real strides forward that materially benefit millions of people, simultaneously what was a source of productive political conflict, upon victory, negates its potential and slots the identity location in question into the disciplinary apparatus of the state. In other words, it goes from a political subject with the power to mobilise to a position subject to normative regulation. Less poacher turned gatekeeper, more revolting bodies made docile. The second difficulty for Brown is how identity locations of necessity mobilise on the basis of pain and wounding. Identities share common histories, and what characterises the narratives told about those histories are the crimes and oppression inflicted upon them and their predecessors. Always a necessary component for struggle, because of the dynamics of liberal political regimes the formation of strong identities is the precondition for winning legislation that addresses their interests/concerns. The consequence of this is the tendency toward fetishising identity, of treating pain and wounding as essential components of a collective social location. Rather than working toward abolishing the relationships perpetuating the wounded life, they become talismanic. Suffering is political capital to be cashed in, and justifies more claims making in the terms of the liberal order. This form of identity politics, while making its claims, does not contest the rule of the game nor the system they seek recognition under. Taken to its logical conclusion, the state becomes a neutral arbiter among a plurality of depoliticised identities as well as the guarantor of all of their rights. Alliances between different groups on this terrain are precarious and episodic, and is why Brown, similar to Donna Haraway, argues that radical politics should start from commonalities and affinities, not identities.

Britain is an altogether different polity to the US, and while not as open as that system identity politics is constituted in similar ways. The manual working class fetish on the left, the feminist border wars over class and transphobia, and the struggles in minority ethnicity communities between "established leaders" and those coming up to challenge them speak to the same phenomenon. Even identities seemingly based around invented political labels, Leaver and Remainer, Cybernat, #BringBackBoris and Corbyn stans have similar characteristics. But the wounding, the use of pain and suffering to cohere identities is as much, if not more so a property of the right than the left. Recently, the Tories reacted with horror after Nicola Sturgeon said she "detested" the Tories and everything they stood for. The poor shrinking violets. Nigel Farage flitted from BBC studio to BBC studio on a not dissimilar shtick. Here was someone telling the truth you're not allowed to say any more. Farage adopted a faux subaltern position, claiming he was under attack from the establishment because he told it how it was. In fact, Farage has always been an establishment figure but his under-siege ruse, his pantomime of wounding was beguiling to some. Boris Johnson followed the path the former UKIP leader had trod. Except it wasn't him who was suffering, it was the British people. The remain establishment, in cahoots with the luvvie left around Jeremy Corbyn and every minority grouping the Tories customarily scapegoated wanted to steal their democratic choice to leave the European Union. To repair the country the second referendum lobby were grievously bruising, concerned citizens had to vote Conservative to get Brexit done.

The right's sense of wounding is different to that identified by Brown among the left and progressive movements. The identity the right validates and identifies with is the unreconstructed, unmodified liberal subject of representative democracy. Not the one that (theoretically) allows space in its abstraction for those hitherto excluded from it, but the act of exclusion itself. The right identifies with what is unstated - the white, propertied man who was the model liberal political philosophy articulated and is articulated upon. It is the sovereignty of one class looking downwards upon another, of the masculine and the white adjudging and guarding against those demanding the same recognition and equalities before the state afforded them. As, among other things, philosophy is class struggle in theory we shouldn't be surprised that the right's sense of wounding, of privilege under siege, is the thought echo of conceding ground on workers' rights, equal rights legislation for women and minority ethnicities, the acceptance and normalisation of same sex relationships, and now struggles against police racism and misogyny, transphobia, environmental destruction and climate collapse. What is "wounded" is their perceived capacity not to exercise their sovereignty. What this really translates into is how naked exercises of their power and privilege comes with significant social costs. "You can't say anything any more" more often than not means getting challenged in some way. After all, Lady Hussey wasn't sacked, she was called to account. Similarly, Liz Truss and her ridiculously reckless growth plan fell apart because she was called to account. And it's this, the right's exposure to accountability is what they find so offensive. It's the pain of having to cope with democratic norms and expectations, as limited as they are. This is how wounding characterises their politics, and it could, among other things, be said that the Conservative Party's project is the management of this discomfiture.

The right's walking wounded, therefore, is less a reaction against "woke" politics. That's just the current manifestation of the agonies they are facing under the impact of proliferating identity politics and cultural trends tending toward social liberalism. Rather the wound, their stinking maggoty wound is a permanent one that cannot but fester for as long as a semblance of liberal democratic politics are in play, and the system remains just open enough to be continually contested. There will be more Lady Husseys for as long as this state of affairs persists, or is superseded by something better.


Ken said...

The heading in the YouTube clip from Farage on GB news is him apparently claiming that the complaint by the woman Hussey affair was planned.

Dialectician1 said...

"Suffering is political capital to be cashed in, and justifies more claims making in the terms of the liberal order."

Yes, indeed, just listen to the Fifa president, Gianni Infantino express the great suffering he experienced in childhood, when bullied for his a red hair. The thousands of deaths of the migrant workers and the system of indentured labour that built the stadiums for the world cup could be easily 'trumped' by his own personal wounding.

The bourgeoisie have always had the monopoly on sensitivity. Over the centuries their art, music, plays and literature have been used with great rhetorical effect to persuade us why their life experiences are far more important/significant that the suffering endured of the labouring masses, who lived a life of drudgery, beneath them.

It's worth revisiting Sennett & Cobb's book: The Hidden Injuries of Class. Within the current cultural arena where the scrimmages between the various 'injured identities' are played out, social class has (for obvious reasons) all but been erased.

David Lindsay said...

Ngozi Fulani was wrong to go mic'd up in search of a story, and Lady Susan Hussey was wrong to give her that story by rudely persisting in asking a question that had already been answered.

They both have form. But people who are saying that Fulani is a notorious race-hustler, although they are not wrong, cannot honestly claim that anyone of any living generation does not know the true meaning of, "Where are you really from?"

Yet Lady Hussey, as she also is, turns out to be an habitual user of that one. Fulani would already have heard that, among other anecdotes about characters on whom she might have been likely to have chanced at such an event. This whole affair is thoroughly unedifying.