John Molyneux examines how a corporate agenda is seeking to hijack equality, and how real equality can actually be won.
‘I believe in equality’ said Leo Varadkar when he was supporting Josepha Madigan in her spat with the Archbishop over the right of women to be priests.
Obviously we can point to Varadkar’s inconsistency and his political opportunism: the fact that he only supported Repeal after years of claiming to be ‘Pro-Life’ when he saw which way the wind was blowing; the fact that he only came out as gay when he knew it was completely safe to do so because as with Repeal all the heavy lifting had been done over decades by grassroots campaigners and the left.
The Equality Strategy
But there is more involved in this than Varadkar, and more than just immediate political expediency. I read today that we are about to see in England the first same-sex marriage in the Royal Family featuring the latest Lord Mountbatten . Yesterday Arlene Foster attended and spoke at a Pink News event for the LGBT+ community in Belfast; a hypocritical move when she still opposes same sex marriage and her party consistently blocks it. Just days before their Ard Fheis passed more progressive policy on abortion access, Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill took to the press to say other parties need to ‘cop on’ to abortion reform, ignoring the decades long calls for her own party to similarly cop on.
More importantly, check out the corporatisation of Pride in Dublin (and elsewhere). The corporate takeover of Pride and its transformation from a protest into a commercial for-profit event is overwhelming. Last year I approached the Tesco float and greeted them with the cry, ‘Up the workers!’ It was the time of the Tesco strike. I was immediately turned on by a member of the Tesco contingent with a vehement ‘No! No!’. They proceeded to tell me that Tesco workers were only going on strike because they had been lied to by their union and that Tesco were an exemplary employer who didn’t exploit anyone. This is the same Tesco who took on John McGuirk – late of Save the 8th – to put their case in the media.
So what is going on here is more than just hypocrisy, it is a strategy – a strategy being pursued by a significant section of the ruling class internationally – and it involves a struggle over the very meaning of ‘equality’.
When ‘they’ speak of equality, and by ‘they’ I mean corporate executives, PR people, bourgeois politicians from Clinton to Macron to Joan Burton and ‘mainstream’ commentators and journalists, they mean the equal rights of different people to assume positions of privilege within a socially and economically extremely unequal society. They do NOT mean doing anything about that social and economic inequality – that would be socialism which they think is a terrible idea.
In other words, they mean women and LGBT+ people and people of colour (perhaps)should be able to be kings, presidents, prime ministers, CEOs, generals and billionaires on roughly the same basis as men, straight people and white people. They do not mean we should live in a society without kings and presidents, generals and CEOs.
‘Equality of Opportunity’
One way of describing this kind of equality is ‘equality of opportunity’ [in an unequal society] which stands in contrast to socialist equality which is, above all, about economic equality which in turn involves the abolition of class divisions.
There are many things to be said about this and the first is that the conversion of our rulers, or rather of a section of them, to equality of opportunity is strategy adopted precisely because they think it will help to preserve them as rulers and to maintain the economic inequality by making it seem more legitimate. In so far as they can claim there is equality of opportunity to reach the top positions and to become rich they hope also to be able to claim that ‘success’ and wealth are ‘earned’ and ‘deserved’ – a product of hard work and natural ability. Of course the rich have always argued this, but a section of them now believe that by ‘including’ LGBT+, women etc they can strengthen their argument and shore up their hegemony, as Gramsci would have put it.
But strategies can change and the systematic oppression of women, people of colour, LGBT + people etc was there for a reason. It served the interests of the ruling class in a number of ways: divide and rule, scapegoating minorities, providing sources of cheap and unpaid labour in and out of the home. Consequently it is perfectly possible that the current strategy will change and that our rulers, either through their current front men and women or through others, will revert to their former bigoted selves. Therefore there is no room for complacency on any of these fronts.
In this context it is useful to note why our rulers generally find homophobia easier to confront and combat that sexism or racism. Tackling homophobia generally speaking is mainly a matter of changing attitudes; it does not have much in the way of financial implications. There is a major contrast with sexism here because women’s oppression is rooted in the structure of the family which provides the system with massive amounts of unpaid labour (to reproduce labour power) and women’s liberation would require both ending the gender pay gap and providing free socialised child care on a huge scale.
There is also a contrast with racism which is their most immediate and dangerous weapon for the creation of divisions in the working class. It is possible to blame the housing crisis and the health crisis and unemployment on ‘foreigners ’in a way that these things cannot plausibly be blamed on women or the LGBT+ community. Moreover, racism is much more likely to be the cutting edge on which far right and fascist political movements are built (which doesn’t mean they are not homophobic and sexist – they are but this is not their ‘lead’ issue) and the ruling class needs to hold fascist movements in reserve as it were. There is a contradiction here; how does the ruling class keep racism going while supporting ‘equality’? Answer: by masking racism as ‘the migrant problem’, ‘the refugee problem’, the ‘Muslim problem’ and so on.
The Need for Socialism
In reality the level and extent of economic inequality nationally and globally enormously exceeds any other form of inequality. The gap between CEOs and their employees, between the corporate rich, the bankers, the financiers, the industrialists i.e. the 1% of super rich capitalists and the ordinary worker – straight or LGBT, black or white, male or female, cisgender or trans – is far greater than any of the other inequalities. What is more it underpins and generates those inequalities.
And this economic inequality is not fundamentally about different levels of pay or reward for people of different abilities ; it derives from exploitation, extracting wealth from the labour of employees by paying them less than the value of what they produce. In our society this is hidden and never acknowledged by Varadkar or Foster or Tescos or even Kate O’Connell, but is the foundation of the whole unequal system.
Socialism, the political movement of the working class, exists to challenge and uproot this exploitation through social ownership and workers democratic control of production. Socialists oppose ALL forms of oppression and bigotry and welcome every step forward in the elimination of discrimination but we also know that until we tackle economic inequality and the exploitation that generates it we are not getting to the root of the problem and none of these gains will be secure.