In my thoughts on Theresa May’s resignation announcement speech, I said in response to her comment on being ‘the second female prime minister’ that ‘The Tories love using Thatcher and May to virtue-signal about gender equality, even as their policies materially harm women and a high proportion of Tory MPs are men.’
Now new PM Boris Johnson (yikes!) describes his cabinet as a cabinet ‘for modern Britain’: ‘Mr Johnson has appointed four full cabinet members from BAME backgrounds (17%) as well as two ministers who will attend cabinet – a record for any government.’
To be clear, that representation is a good thing. It’s not as though it would be better somehow to not have it. It is better to have proper diversity than not.
But nor am I a trained seal, clapping mindlessly at these sorts of gestures. Diversity is necessary but not sufficient.
If a cabinet perfectly reflects every demographic but still maintains regressive policy, by what measure is it ‘modern’ or ‘progressive’, aside from in a shallow symbolic – even tokenistic – sense? ‘But there’s PoC in it’ can be an institutional version of the classic ‘I’m not racist, I have a black friend’.
For me, the prime example of the importance of representation vs. the importance of a firm critique of material conditions is the Obama presidency.
I don’t deny the symbolic power of the first black presidency for race relations. It made a lot of racists very mad, which is definitely a sign something good is happening. Many people found it profoundly significant to see themselves represented in the highest office of the land for the first time.
But as Matt Breunig and Ryan Cooper point out, Obama’s neoliberal policy made black Americans materially worse off:
Between 2007 and 2016, the average wealth of the bottom 99 percent dropped by $4,500. Over the same period, the average wealth of the top 1 percent rose by $4.9 million.
This drop hit the housing wealth of African Americans particularly hard.[…]
Because African Americans were disproportionately victimized at all levels of the housing and foreclosure crises, they stood to gain the most from better policy. But because Obama’s approach failed cataclysmically, the first black president in American history turned out to be a disaster for black wealth.
Because of its unwillingness or inability to take a good look at class, liberalism loses sight of the material issues impacting the very demographics it is so vocal about in the cultural sphere. Similarly, white Clintonite winemoms will insist that (cringy quote) ‘black twitter ain’t havin’ no Bernie’ despite many of the PoC they’re patronising actually supporting Sanders because his policy would help their lives.
To a lesser degree, the same principles apply over here with the Johnson cabinet. In our case, it’s conservatism deciding to like ‘identity politics’ as and when it can be used to score cheap points.
Two high-profile examples of Johnson’s cabinet ‘for modern Britain’ are Priti Patel (Home Secretary) and Sajid Javid (Chancellor).
Not that long ago, Priti Patel was led to resign as International Development Secretary after holding secretive meetings with Israeli political and business figures while on holiday. Her voting record is pretty dire by any progressive standard.
As for Sajid Javid, his recent past is, uh, a little concerning:
The man whose company produced the insulation panels on Grenfell Tower has a second job advising the Government on building regulations.
Mark Allen, a technical director for the UK arm of Saint-Gobain, is also a member of the Building Regulations Advisory Committee.
The body makes recommendations about building regulations to Communities Secretary Sajid Javid.
Saint-Gobain is an owner of Celotex, which produced the RS5000 insulation panels used on Grenfell Tower.
His voting record is a bit better, but still pretty bad.
It’s a good thing, not a bad thing, to have diversity in government. But that by itself doesn’t make a government woke, and to say otherwise would be immensely patronising tokenism.
We’ll see commentators crowing about the racial diversity of Johnson’s cabinet one minute then decrying ‘identity politics’ the next; ignoring that cabinet’s corruption and malicious impacts on ordinary Britons while claiming to love the ‘modern Britain’ it ‘represents’.
Beyond electoral politics, diversity is necessary but not sufficient in other areas. There’s a common leftist quip of ‘more trans CEOs!’ and ‘more lesbian drone pilots!’ – the point being that while transphobia, misogyny, etc, etc, are bad and worth addressing in their own right, making corrupt systems and institutions more diverse should never be the end goal.
Yes, end the misogyny behind the glass ceiling. Yes, diversity in boardrooms is a sign of progress. But let’s not end at that low bar – what is the company doing, how is it structured, what sort of economy is it situated within? How are its janitors? Is a company with a trans CEO woke if it sells arms to regressive regimes, or hires death squads to assassinate union leaders?
Shouldn’t nobody be an ICE agent? Shouldn’t nobody help bomb civilians? Shouldn’t companies not be structured like authoritarian governments?
There’s an interesting tendency sometimes to talk as though reality is a turn-based game. ‘You want to do thing! But we need to do other thing!’ Fortunately, it’s possible for a global population of billions to do more than one thing at a time.
In the case of diversity-related cultural issues and of class-based material issues, it’s completely plausible to address both of them together. And if we don’t, we won’t do either of them justice, because they are two sides of the same coin.