Economics and identity

14 Aug, 2019 at 12:54 | Posted in Politics & Society | Comments Off on Economics and identity

In the late 80s half of 25-34 year-olds owned their own home. Now, only a quarter do. This has changed how young people vote.

identBut what exactly is the mechanism here? I’m not sure that it is simple mechanical self-interested support for specific policies … Instead, what’s going on is a change of identity. In the 80s, many young people identified themselves as property-owners and voted accordingly. Today, they see themselves as propertyless and so vote Labour. There’s a reason why Thatcher was keen on home ownership. She knew that property ownership would make people more likely to identify with other owners of wealth, whilst tenancy made more likely to identify with the traditional party of the propertyless …

Now, this is not to adopt a crude economic determinism. Although our identities are influenced by economic conditions they are not wholly determined by them. Marxists have pretty much always realized that class conscious is something that must be deliberately cultivated, that it does not automatically arise purely from material conditions.

The very fact that Brexit has become so salient an issue, and a shaper of identities, shows us that identities are endogenous, and malleable by political processes, not just economic ones. For me, this is one reason why the idea of politics as giving people what they want is deeply flawed. A big part of the political process lies in not just responding to people’s preferences but in shaping those preferences. Thatcher (and Lenin) both knew this, and too many of their epigones have forgotten it.

Chris Dillow

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