Entanglements of antisemitism and transphobia on the Left

I. ANTI-JEWISH RACISM AND TRANSPHOBIA IN LIBERATORY IMAGINATIONS

“Racism and patriarchal discourses/practices are similar, in that both forms of signification serve to naturalise certain ascriptive differences: racism constructs human variation as codifying inherent and immutable difference, represents it as ‘racial’ and maps this imputed difference on to social collectivities; patriarchal moves invoke sex as a pre-given ‘fact’ that represents men and women as ‘naturally’ different, such that women’s subordinate position is legitimised as deriving from innate differences between men and women. Both sets of signification figure the body as a bearer of immutable difference whether or not this putative difference is represented as biological or cultural.” (Brah, 1996: 156-157)

A dominant tendency of the academic and activist Left, and a marginal and mostly activist current of so-called ‘gender critical’ feminists, who nonetheless have remarkable mainstream appeal and audience, house in their ideological midst, the reactionary myths of (respectively) ‘the Zionist lobby’ and ‘the trans lobby’ as invisible and excessively powerful, omnipresent and destructive threats of the Other to the Self. The presence of anti-Jewish racism and transphobia in these leftist milieux have been made ideologically possible by the reification of the ideas of ‘race’ and ‘sex’ in their anti-racist and feminist imaginations. When ‘race’ and ‘sex’ are considered material rather than ideological constructs shaped by and shaping a material reality, and when ‘race’ and ‘sex’ are mobilised as objects of opposition and subjects to mobilise from, the goal of human liberation is self-defeated because inadvertent legitimation is provided to the political Right. As Judith Butler (2021a) warns, the sex/gender dichotomy gives credence to a global anti-gender movement that “insists that sex is biological and real, or that sex is divinely ordained, and that gender is a destructive fiction, taking down both “man” and “civilization””.

The ability of the Left to see the crucial similarity between the ideas of ‘race’ and ‘sex’ has been hindered by the legacy in feminist thought of the sex/gender dichotomy. As I will go on to show, this dichotomy provides the basis for transphobia on the Left. The sex/gender dichotomy originated from efforts to critique the idea of biology-as-destiny and to distinguish between racism and sexism, as Brah (1996: 157-158) elaborates:

“It was argued that, whereas racism inscribed inequality through a mobilisation of biological notions of ‘races’ when none existed except as social categories, sexism utilised the already existing biological sexual differences as the basis for institutionalising unequal treatment of the sexes. Butler (1990), among others, takes issue with the sex/gender distinction. She asks whether ostensibly natural facts of sex might not also be historically produced discursive formations, so that, if the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps the construct labelled sex is as much a cultural construction as gender. […] For Butler, gender is not merely a cultural inscription of meaning on a pre-given sex, it is also the very means by which sexes themselves are established as ‘prediscursive’, prior to culture, as a politically neutral surface on which culture adds. On this view, ‘sex’ is no less a cultural construction than ‘race’ or ‘gender’ is. As such, any distinction between them is essentially a matter of the particular signifier of ‘difference’ that each of the constructs mobilises, the historically specific cultural meanings that are brought into play by each narration, and their differing effects for different categories of people.” (Brah, 1996: 157-158)

The early challenge to the sex/gender dichotomy in feminist work was important because it recognised the problematic slippage into essentialism, that is, into giving one part of sex/gender an inner nature. An equivalent dichotomy of race/ethnicity would raise a similar problem, when, in fact, both are socially constructed and co-constructed. The basic argument made by Butler is that sex is gendered. In other words, sex is neither crudely material (a fixed and innate fact delivered by Mother nature) nor a free-floating idea (disconnected from our bodies and wider reality): from the moment we are assigned a sex, we are gendered. Hence, the sex/gender dichotomy of ‘sex is nature’ and ‘gender is cultural construction’ is a false one. “Can”, Butler (1990: 6-7) asks, “we refer to a “given” sex or a “given” gender without first inquiring into how sex and/or gender is given, through what means?”; what’s more, “[a]re the ostensibly natural facts of sex discursively produced by various scientific discourses in the service of other political and social interests?” Sex does not escape gender in a world of capitalist social relations intersecting with powerful patriarchal ideas, as such, we must enquire and ascertain, “on the basis of” our “real life-process”, “the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process” (Marx, 1965: 14). Along these lines, Butler (1993: 1-2) states that ‘sex’ should be understood as an ideal construct that has been “forcibly materialized” across time, through an ongoing process in which “norms materialize” ‘sex’.

Two conclusions can be made here. One, the previous effort made by some feminists to differentiate the idea of ‘race’ and the material fact of ‘sex’ was erroneous. Two, in a contemporary moment when the limited rights of trans people are under attack, from across the political spectrum, the sex/gender dichotomy has become a powerful component of transphobia in the claim that ‘sex is real’ and ‘gender is fiction’. The emergence of ‘gender critical’ feminist organisation against trans rights is a failure to see that the rise of transgender visibility and rights opens up the vista of humanity, with new openings and possibilities for what it means to be a ‘woman’, a ‘man’ and a human being. As Butler (2021a) remarks, we ought to feel “joyous to see what trans men are doing with the category of “men””. Some feminists, however, view transgenderism as a threat to their very being, and have bunkered down and started a culture war in defence of ‘womanhood’.

The dichotomy of sex as natural and gender as cultural construction reifies, fixes and fetishizes ‘sex’ as having an inner and outer nature. The belief here, in rudimentary terms, is that a person with a vagina and breasts is innately different from a person with a penis; that all people with vaginas and breasts are intrinsically the same; that sex reassignment is a fakery, since those born as male or female will always remain so, regardless of medical intervention. Following this logic would be the claim that a person with dark toned skin is inherently different from a person with light toned skin, and so on. Reducing people to their anatomical and somatic differences is a denial of their universalism and potential to connect, their human agency, and their intersectional relationship to capitalist social relations. Moreover, reducing people to their anatomical and somatic differences overlooks the fact that it is through ever-changing and contradictory material reality and social relations that human agencies construct and shape the significations of difference which divide an otherwise universal collective of human beings and their common real-life experiences.

In her essay “Gender Critical = Gender Conservative”, Sara Ahmed (2021) reiterates that the categories which are mobilised to define and organise us by others and ourselves are “not neutral” but rather are “implicated in the worlds we are questioning”. She quotes Ann Oakley, who states, “the distinction between sex and gender does not call into question how society constructs the natural body itself”. Ahmed (2021) elucidates on how the reification and political mobilisation of ‘sex’ by ‘gender critical’ feminists is an exclusionary act:

Sex is real. Sex is material. Sex is immutable. Sex is biology. Sex is objective. Sex is science. With these assertation about what sex is, come counter-implications about what gender is not. Gender is not real. Gender is immaterial. Gender is subjective. Gender is stereotypes. Gender is ideology.

In the sex/gender dichotomy, the Other of ‘sex’ – ‘gender’ – has become a fantasized conspiracy of an ominous male takeover. To illustrate this, Ahmed (2021) uses the example of the group LGB Alliance who regard the recognition of ‘gender’ by Stonewall as proof of a conspiracy to derecognise and eliminate sex and same-sex attraction, and, with this, force women who are lesbians into sex with trans women (who are actually men). The turf war of women’s toilets is another case in point, where it is imagined that the trans Other, the dangerous man-in-disguise, is taking over and threatening women’s being and existence.

The parallel between racism and transphobia is striking here, as Sara Franklin (cited in Ahmed, 2021) demonstrates, in a comparison between Brexiteers seeking to enforce and defend the racialised boundary of the nation-state and ‘gender critical’ feminists urging the enforcement and defence of the boundary of the women’s toilet:

“Promising to protect the sanctity of the female toilet as the guarantor of gendered justice is, like the Brexiteer’s promise to save the United Kingdom from economic ruin, a symptom of reactionary panic and confusion. It is not a remotely credible promise, but an embittered form of nostalgia driven by myopic indignation. Like the Brexit leaders who promised to ‘take back control’ of the nation’s borders, feminism’s Brexiteers promising to rescue true womanhood are using gender as a proxy for a past they imagine they have lost, an identity they feel is threatened, and a battle in which they see themselves as both victims and as visionaries.”

The transphobia of ‘gender critical’ feminists, like the racism of Brexiteers, is based on the idea that the Other is a threat and harm to the Self through the crossing of a border and the invasion of one’s place. This imagined offensive is seen to bring destruction and loss to an idealised past. Both time and space are thought to be under attack. By making trans women an enemy of feminism, ‘gender critical’ feminists fuel the gender conservative view that anyone who does not plainly present as a man or a woman is “dangerous”, which, as Ahmed (2021) reminds us, is a patriarchal world view underpinning the “demand that people clearly be men or women”. From the stance that sex is material and unchangeable, comes the requirement that “bodies line up” (Ahmed, 2021). The ideological notion that an aspect of one-Self is, by nature, essentially different from an-Other human being is the slippery ground for those who see themselves on the political Left crisscrossing with the political Right. Hence Butler’s (2021b) statement, when discussing the contemporary fascist and authoritarian anti-gender movement, “it makes no sense for “gender critical” feminists to ally with reactionary powers in targeting trans, non-binary and genderqueer people.” Butler might also have reflected here on their previous suggestion of a necessary alliance of the global Left with Hamas and Hezbollah (see Bassi, 2010).

When the anti-racist imagination challenges racism through the language of ‘race’ and when ‘gender critical’ feminists challenge sexism through the language of ‘sex’, neither contestation investigates how the ideas of ‘race’ and ‘sex’ (over time and space) have come to fuse and intersect with capitalism and class in the exploitation and oppression of people designated the harmful ‘race’ and the wrong ‘sex’. Further still, when a progressive politics has cultural essentialism in its vista and dystopia, it perpetuates a standoff between victim and villain: because the ideological process of giving the Jewish Other and the trans Other an inner nature is a dialectical process that gives the Self an inner nature too. In other words, the Other is required to sustain the politics of the Self: identity politics needs the impure villain to sustain the purity of victimhood. The hidden but everywhere ‘Zionist lobby’ and ‘trans lobby’ are the ideal imaginary villains: the ultra-white, uber-racist Jews and the ultra-male-in-disguise trans women. Jews are seen to be complicit in a pervasive and entrenched, global and globalising Zionist network of world destructive power. Trans women are viewed as patriarchal power writ large, who are out to destroy sex-based rights and invade women’s spaces and bodies. Both anti-Jewish racism on the Left and transphobia in ‘gender critical’ feminism grossly exaggerate and distort reality, rather than assess empirical reality. Both reactionary ideologies also offer a get out clause: the option of becoming the good Jew, who publicly denounces Israel and Zionism, and the good trans person, who sees their error and de-transitions and/or seeks to limit trans rights as separate from women’s rights; these people are platformed as representatives and applauded. The rest, the majority, are the bad Jews and the bad trans people, who are delegitimised when they call out antisemitism and transphobia and are instead accused of being the manufacturers of their own apparent oppression for sinister ends. What’s more, as I will now go on to explain, anti-Jewish racism and transphobia in the leftist milieux also have in common a potential, as ideologies, to fuse.

II. THE PAST AND PRESENT FUSION OF ANTI-JEWISH RACISM AND TRANSPHOBIA

“Given the amazing profusion – perhaps even con-fusion – in studies of racism which remain oblivious to the centrality of gender and sexuality in the constitution of racism, it is necessary to reiterate explicitly that racism is always a gendered and sexualised phenomenon. First, the idea of ‘race’ is essentially an essentialist narrative of sexualised difference. It is an allegory of centring Western dynastic genealogies of the ‘ascent’ and ‘descent’ of ‘Man’. That is, it is a trope for the ‘Western’ heterosexual economy of desire. Discourses of ‘racial difference’ are saturated with metaphors of origin, common ancestry, blood, kith and kin. The figure of the woman is a constitutive moment in the racialised desire for economic and political control.” (Brah, 1996: 156)

From the racialisation of masculine black women vis-à-vis feminine white women in the slave economy of the Americas, to the racialisation of effeminate Bengali men vis-à-vis masculine white men in colonial India (Brah, 1996), racist ideology has always been fused with the ideas of ‘sex’, ‘gender’ and sexuality. Indeed, the association of racism with sexuality was a central aspect of the early alliance between racism and respectability, with anthropologists claiming that black people had uncontrollable sexual urges and Hitler writing in Mein Kampf of the “Jewish boys lurking at street corners, directing flourishing traffic in prostitution and white slavery” (Mosse, 1985: xiv). Racism as an ideology was able to legitimate societal norms of normality and abnormality, thus it helped to cast out, as abnormal and unrespectable, the so-called Jews and blacks, along with the homosexuals, the insane and the perpetual criminals (ibid). Indeed, the French novelist Marcel Proust, Mosse (1985: xiv) notes, labelled Jews and homosexuals together, the “accursed race”. More specifically, early racism offered a response to the anxieties stemming from the age of modernity’s rapid change, including its industrialisation and urbanisation. Appeals to nature “served to reinforce human control over a world forever on the brink of chaos” (Mosse, 1985: xix). The racialised and sexualised Others of the Jews and the homosexuals, who were seen to congregate in the big cities, represented the perceived severance and degeneration of humans from nature. As Mosse (1985: xx) remarks of the fascist reaction against everyday urban life in Germany’s Weimer Republic: “National Socialism, Hitler maintained, had put an end to Jewish cultural predominance by saving art from its embrace by homosexuals and “manly women” […]”.

The historical intersection of transphobia and anti-Jewish racism, documented by Joni Alizah Cohen (2018), was a response to the gay and trans liberation movement of Weimar Germany, including the founding in 1919 of the Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin by the Jewish Marxist campaigner and scientist Magnus Hirschfield. Notably, Hirschfield led the world’s first advocacy group for gay and trans people, while opposing the eugenic science of sexology that influenced the sexual and gender politics of National Socialism. Cohen (2018) states:

“Eugenic sexology understood homosexuality essentially through the lens of gender, specifically as the corruption of the male body and psyche by femininity. […] Transness is here understood as a dysgenic biological defect that must be eliminated for the health of the species. […] For his crime of arguing against this strand of eugenic science it is not surprising that Hitler is reported to have named Magnus Hirschfeld “The most dangerous Jew in Germany” […] The Institute was seen by the Nazis as a hub for Jewish Marxist intellectuals and their nefarious plans to undermine the purity of Aryan racial biology and culture.”

The National Socialist cultural and biological war against the Jews operated through the ideas of ‘racial’ purity and a natural equilibrium of ‘sex / gender’ and sexuality. As Cohen (2018) further remarks:

“There is a deep anxiety expressed in Nazi and far-right thinking which is constantly concerned about the biological undermining of the white race yes, but also the white male, and his hormone balance, his testosterone level. […] We know this in our understanding of Nazi race theory, but what has been neglected is the centrality of endocrinological purity and security to Nazi ideology. In this sense, endocrinological purity is the gender/sex corollary of the Nazi eugenic project of racial purity. […] Just as the “rootless cosmopolitan” Jew represents abstraction by being rooted in no Nation, trans people demonstrate a rootless cosmopolitanism of gender/sex – with disregard for rootedness of sex and the allegiances of gender. She is a product of a culture so abstracted and so sick, in their eyes, that it actively encourages the corruption of the purity of biological sex and the destruction of gender roles so essential in the battle for racial primary. For Nazism, the idea that Aryan men of good stock would be actively disavowing masculinity, virility and fertility – and doing so with hormonal and surgical intervention into biological sex – is too much to bear. As such, trans women, and indeed trans people in general (though the majority of the bile is directed at those assigned male at birth), are added to the list of abstractions to be eradicated in the actualization of the National Socialist project.”

It is the Jew, however, who is viewed as inventing transgenderism as one of its weapons to jeopardise the purity and supremacy of the Aryan race (Cohen, 2018).

Greenesmith and Lorber (2021: 40) warn against “an age of conspiracy theories”, in which the white nationalist movement in the United States is intersecting with the ‘gender critical’ feminist movement in targeting trans and Jewish Others. In a far Right narrative of ‘white genocide’, Jews are identified as secretly plotting to destroy the ‘white race’ through various means, including liberalising societal attitudes on trans rights. The Jewish-themed show Transparent and high-profile activists like Jennifer Pritzker and Jazz Jennings are held up as proof of a Jewish-backed trans movement which is leading the ‘white genocide’ movement: destroying the reproductive basis of men, women and the nuclear family. This narrative particularly focuses on the supposed Jewish attack on the sexuality of children, echoing the antisemitic discourse of blood libels: the Jewish ritualistic murder of non-Jewish children for their blood. Indeed, Greenesmith and Lorber (2021: 41) note, research on anti-trans rhetoric in the United Kingdon is obsessed with the idea of “a “children’s blood cult,” “children sacrificed to appease [the] trans lobby,” and an “international, all powerful, wealthy, and totally out-of-control trans lobby””.

The idea that Jews are behind the destruction of sex by nebulous gender identity is illustrated in the work of the anti-trans feminist Jennifer Bilek (Greenesmith and Lorber, 2021). Bilek is an independent journalist and blogger who claims that especially rich and powerful Jews are behind a capitalist transhumanism project to profit from the destruction of the natural essence of human beings by science and technology (Peterson, 2021; Rabinowitz, 2022). Specifically, Bilek (2018, 2022) argues that the trans agenda, which preys and experiments on the most vulnerable, children, is part of this wider transhumanism project funded by the billionaire Jews, Jennifer Pritzker, Penny Pritzker, J. B. Pritzker, George Soros, and Martine Rothblatt, and mega-rich gay men, like Tim Gill and John Stryker. In the American conservative The Federalist magazine, Bilek (2018) states:

“Bodily diversity appears to be the core issue, not gender dysphoria; that and unmooring people from their biology via language distortions, to normalize altering human biology. Institutionalizing transgender ideology does just this. This ideology is being promoted as a civil rights issue by wealthy, white, men with enormous influence who stand to personally benefit from their political activities.”

Bilek (2022) goes on to warn, in an article in the American right-wing and Jewish Tablet magazine (titled “The Billionaire Family Pushing Synthetic Sex Identities”):

“the Pritzker cousins and others may well be on their way to engineering a new way to be human. But what could possibly explain the abrupt drive of wealthy elites to deconstruct who and what we are and to manipulate children’s sex characteristics in clinics now spanning the globe while claiming new rights for those being deconstructed? Perhaps it is profit. Perhaps it is the pleasure of seeing one’s own personal pleasures writ large.”

There is no actual thing as transgender, Bilek (2021a) asserts, in an interview with the UK-based ‘gender critical’ feminist advocacy group Women’s Declaration International, rather, transgenderism is a corporate fiction which has been invented to sell disembodiment. The contemporary moment of transgenderism, she explains, follows a trajectory that began with the severance of humans from nature; what’s left is the final domain for capitalist colonisation: the body and its roots, sex. Transgenderism, Bilek (2021a) reveals, is the invention of wealthy white men who have fetishes and want to normalise their fetishes. In another interview, with the radical feminist and ‘gender critical’ Object UK, Bilek (2021b) distils the trans agenda down to excessively rich and powerful men with autogynephilia, like “the dude” Jennifer Pritzker, who desire to claim female biology as their own. The transgender industry, she concludes, is a massive medical-industrial complex connected to big Pharma and big Fertility: trans is commerce (Bilek, 2021a). The interviewer of Women’s Declaration International commends Bilek for her exceptional bravery, while the interviewer of Object UK praises her as the pioneer who has single-handedly uncovered the money behind the gender identity industry and revolutionised how gender identity is seen, by proving that the trans movement is in no way grassroots or human rights based. Whilst Bilek describes her political history as longstanding on the Left, on the trans issue, she openly acknowledges her “incredible allies” and friends on the political Right (Bilek 2021b). The interviewer of Object UK defends this Left-Right alliance as part of a wider ‘gender critical’ feminist strategy: on this issue, “we work with the Right because the Left won’t have us, and it’s too important to let it go” (cited in Bilek, 2021b).

In sum, currents of the leftist and feminist milieux accommodate and promote a transphobic, homophobic and antisemitic reactionary anti-capitalism, in which capital is personified as the Jewish and gay male Other who has excessive power and unnatural sexual fetishes for female biology, and (with this perverse sexual drive and power) is colonising and profiting from the violation and destruction of the female ‘sex’ through transgenderism. This conspiratorial anti-capitalism crisscrosses and parallels historical and contemporary racist and fascist ideas of the sexually deviant and harmful Jews and homosexuals, who together represent the degeneration of ‘race’ and the divorce of humans from nature, including the pulling apart of women and men from the natural order of sex.

REFERENCES

Ahmed, Sara (2021) “Gender Critical = Gender Conservative”, Feminist Killjoys, https://feministkilljoys.com/2021/10/31/gender-critical-gender-conservative/, last accessed 14th July 2022.

Bassi, Camila (2010) “‘The Anti-Imperialism of Fools’: A Cautionary Story on the Revolutionary Socialist Vanguard of England’s Post 9/11 Anti-War Movement”, ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 9(2): 113-137.

Bilek, Jennifer (2022) “The Billionaire Family Pushing Synthetic Sex Identities (SSI)”, The Tablet, https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/billionaire-family-pushing-synthetic-sex-identities-ssi-pritzkers, last accessed 18th July 2022.

Bilek, Jennifer (2021a) “What and who is behind Transgender Ideology – Jennifer B. Bilek”, YouTube, https://youtu.be/YmrS8q5o1k8, last accessed 18th July 2022.

Bilek, Jennifer (2021b) “The Gender Identity Industry – Jennifer Bilek”, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJ_bbk_wMZs, last accessed 20th July 2022.

Bilek, Jennifer (2018) “Who Are the Rich, White Men Institutionalizing Transgender Ideology?”, The Federalist, https://thefederalist.com/2018/02/20/rich-white-men-institutionalizing-transgender-ideology/, last accessed 18th July 2022.

Brah, Avtar (1996) Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting identities. Routledge: London.

Butler, Judith (2021a) “Judith Butler: ‘We need to rethink the category of woman’”, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/sep/07/judith-butler-interview-gender, last accessed 16th August 2022.

Butler, Judith (2021b) “Why is the idea of ‘gender’ provoking a backlash the world over?”, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/commentisfree/2021/oct/23/judith-butler-gender-ideology-backlash last accessed 14th July 2022.

Butler, Judith (1993) Bodies that Matter: On the discursive limits of “sex”. Routledge: London.

Butler, Judith (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge: London.

Cohen, Joni Alizah (2018) “The Eradication of “Talmudic Abstractions”: Anti-Semitism, Transmisogyny and the National Socialist Project”, Verso, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4188-the-eradication-of-talmudic-abstractions-anti-semitism-transmisogyny-and-the-national-socialist-project, last accessed 14th July 2022.

Greenesmith, Heron and Ben Lorber (2021) “Antisemitism Meets Transphobia”, The Progressive, 40-41.

Marx, Karl (1965) The German Ideology. International Publishers: New York.

Mosse, George L. (1985) Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism. The University of Wisconsin Press: Wisconsin.

Peterson, Christa (2021) “The XX Factor: E4 – The transhumanist immortality project?!”, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lf6yKryN3E4, last accessed 13th July 2022.

Rabinowitz, Aaron (2022) “Fears of creeping transhumanism give space for overt conspiracism in Gender Critical communities”, The Skeptic: Reason with Compassion, https://www.skeptic.org.uk/2022/02/fears-of-creeping-transhumanism-give-space-for-overt-conspiracism-in-gender-critical-communities/, last accessed 16th July 2022.

Left antisemitism, gender critical feminist transphobia, and the (il)logic of essentialism

“Any demand that people clearly be men or women, let us be clear, is the patriarchal world view. But from the view that sex is material, that biological sex is immutable, comes a requirement that bodies line up, to appear as men or women. Biological sex is used to create a social line, that we have the right, even moral duty, to enforce. Any costs become regrettable. In such a world view, deviation is seen as dangerous, even deadly. This is how, by treating the idea of two distinct biological sexes not as the product of the sex-gender system, but as before it and beyond it, “gender critical” feminists tighten rather than loosen the hold of that system on our bodies. To breathe in feminism we have to loosen this hold.” [Original emphasis] (Sara Ahmed, 2021)

“As a fascist trend, the anti-gender movement supports ever strengthening forms of authoritarianism. Its tactics encourage state powers to intervene in university programs, to censor art and television programming, to forbid trans people their legal rights, to ban LGBTQI people from public spaces, to undermine reproductive freedom and the struggle against violence directed at women, children, and LGBTQI people. It threatens violence against those, including migrants, who have become cast as demonic forces and whose suppression or expulsion promises to restore a national order under duress. That is why it makes no sense for “gender critical” feminists to ally with reactionary powers in targeting trans, non-binary, and genderqueer people. Let’s all get truly critical now, for this is no time for any of the targets of this movement to be turning against one another. The time for anti-fascist solidarity is now.” (Judith Butler, 2021)

In November 2021, three motions relating to academic freedom were tabled at my local UCU branch: two explicitly addressed the case of the sacking of David Miller (one of which called out his antisemitism) and one implicitly related to both the cases of David Miller and the resignation of Kathleen Stock. This latter motion is noteworthy in the differentiation it made between those who label the views of others as “‘hate’” and contributing to feeling “‘unsafe’” (note the use of single speech marks) and those who experience “genuine hate speech and threats to safety”. Two groups are implied here: Jewish students and staff, and trans students and staff. Whether intentional or not, this motion reflects a wider phenomenon in the leftist and feminist milieux: both Jewish and trans people are delegitimised when they call out, respectively, antisemitism and transphobia, since both are accused of manipulating their ‘apparent oppression’ for sinister ends.

Left antisemitism and the transphobia of gender critical feminists while separate also intersect: Jews (who do not denounce Israel) are seen to be complicit in a Zionist network of world destructive power; trans women are viewed as carrying patriarchal power and as seeking to both destroy sex-based rights and invade women’s spaces and bodies. Both Jews and trans women are deemed as having especially dangerous, invisible and lurking hegemony. The Jew vis-à-vis Israel and Zionism is ‘the Other’ of the Left and the trans woman is ‘the Other’ of gender critical feminism.

Essentialism is precarious territory for leftists and feminists to slip into. The idea of a hierarchy of inferior to superior biological ‘races’ is both intellectually out-dated and regressive; this includes the delineation of naturalised culturally essentialist ‘races’. The gender critical feminist fixation on and essentialisation of – and primacy given to – biological sex is fundamentally incompatible with a project for human liberation and emancipation. Any intellectual and political endeavour that ascribes power to the skin colour or the religion or the genitalia that one is born with will find itself intersecting with a trajectory of far Right ideology.

Students of the Deutsche Studentenschaft, organized by the Nazi party, parade in front of the Institute for Sexual Research on Beethovenstraße, Berlin, on 6 May 1933 (Wikimedia Commons)

Joni Alizah Cohen (2018), in her article, The Eradication of “Talmudic Abstractions”: Anti-Semitism, Transmisogyny and the National Socialist Project, elucidates on the history of the far Right and antisemitism and transphobia:

“The earliest entanglement of Nazi anti-semitism and transmisogyny occurred in response to the emerging gay and trans liberation movement in Weimar Germany. The earliest development of an organised effort for gay and trans liberation emerged in Germany in the late 19th century, and reached a new level of power in 1919, with the establishment of the Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin. The Institute’s founder was Jewish Marxist scientist and political campaigner Magnus Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld was a committed organiser in the German Social Democratic Party, and headed the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee – the world’s first gay and trans advocacy group. Hirschfield is credited with the coining of the term “transvestite” and “transsexual”, and in his research and advocacy he was committed to opposing the eugenic homophobic and transphobic science of sexology that emerged in Germany at the end of the 19th Century, a science which had come to dominate state understandings of sexual and gender issues and which profoundly influenced the sexual and gender politics of National Socialism. […] Eugenic sexology understood homosexuality essentially through the lens of gender, specifically as the corruption of the male body and psyche by femininity. […] Transness is here understood as a dysgenic biological defect that must be eliminated for the health of the species.”

The denial of trans rights and existence on the basis of sex trumping gender is premised on the notion that trans existence is biologically false and unnatural and thus harmful to the body politic – the intersection and potential slippage here from gender critical feminist thought to fascist thought is plain.

Cohen (2018) continues:

“For his crime of arguing against this strand of eugenic science it is not surprising that Hitler is reported to have named Magnus Hirschfeld “The most dangerous Jew in Germany” […] The Institute was seen by the Nazis as a hub for Jewish Marxist intellectuals and their nefarious plans to undermine the purity of Aryan racial biology and culture. […] We can see that Nazism understands itself to be engaged in a culture war with Jews over gender roles and gender/sexual variance. But, just as we saw in the original National Socialist regime, Nazism also understands the fundamental terrain of this war to be on the level of biology. There is a deep anxiety expressed in Nazi and far-right thinking which is constantly concerned about the biological undermining of the white race yes, but also the white male, and his hormone balance, his testosterone level. Nazi political ontology understands the biological as one of, if not the most important terrains of political dispute. We know this in our understanding of Nazi race theory, but what has been neglected is the centrality of endocrinological purity and security to Nazi ideology. In this sense, endocrinological purity is the gender/sex corollary of the Nazi eugenic project of racial purity.”

Far Right ontological thought elevates the biological terrain in its quest for racial and sex purity. Social categories and material reality are reduced to biology, including the demand for men to be men and women to be women. Drawing on the work of Moishe Postone, Cohen (2018) offers an explanation for this biological materialism:

“[…] it is not only the concrete ‘side of the antinomy which can be naturalized and biologized… the manifest abstract dimension was also biologized – as the Jews. The fetishized opposition of the concrete material and the abstract, of the “natural” and the “artificial,” became translated as the world-historically significant racial opposition of the Aryans and the Jews.’ The “natural rootedness” of the Aryan Volk is contrasted to “rootless cosmopolitanism” of the wandering Jews, who in their diasporic state, abstracted from territory or nation, become a perfect candidate to represent the transnational abstraction of the capitalist world-system. The essential content of National Socialism then is ‘a biologization of capitalism – which itself is only understood in terms of its manifest abstract dimension – as International Jewry.” The National Socialist project is therefore a fetishized ‘overcoming of capitalism and its negative social effects’ through the total eradication of the Jews.”

Similarly, Cohen (2018) demonstrates (drawing on Gonzalez and Neton’s essay The Logic of Gender) that the far Right has:

“[…] an understanding of gender/sex wherein gender is understood as a social construction (an abstraction), but the naturalisation of sex is redoubled. Gender is therefore historical and mutable whilst sex forms the natural and transhistorical substratum upon which it is written. Following Postone, the authors argue that ‘the transhistoricisation of sex is homologous to a foreshortened critique of capital, which contends that use-value is transhistorical rather than historically specific to capitalism.’ If we take the structure of Postone’s argument about anti-Semitism and apply it here, we can begin to see where the foreshortened critique of gender posits sex as the concrete reality which must be protected from the pernicious abstractions of gender. In the National Socialist framework of fetishized concretism the concrete biological reality of sex is figured as primary and pure; along with a thorough renaturalisation of gender as a reaction against the mainstreaming of denaturalised nature under late capitalism. For National Socialism, the primacy of sex is reinforced in opposition to the ‘Talmudic abstractions’ of multiple and fluid genders then cast as the pernicious force which seeks to dominate and even erase the sensuous, simple and concrete sexual dimorphism and the natural binary gender roles which flow from it.”

Cohen (2018) concludes:

Just as the Jew becomes the concrete manifestation of the abstraction of capitalism and the law of value, the trans woman becomes the concrete manifestation of the abstraction and denaturalisation of gender. The trans woman is a woman without the concrete biological content of womanhood. She is woman in the abstract, separated from her biological foundation, and therefore her use as the conduit for the reproduction of the Aryan race in this grand Darwinian struggle. She is everything that is detestable about womankind, for Nazism, without any of the redeeming biological expediencies. Further, she represents the worst excess of the cultural degeneration of modernity and contemporary capitalism. Just as the “rootless cosmopolitan” Jew represents abstraction by being rooted in no Nation, trans people demonstrate a rootless cosmopolitanism of gender/sex – with disregard for rootedness of sex and the allegiances of gender. She is a product of a culture so abstracted and so sick, in their eyes, that it actively encourages the corruption of the purity of biological sex and the destruction of gender roles so essential in the battle for racial primary.” [Original emphasis]

The powerful insight delivered by Cohen (2018) is that both antisemitism and transphobia operate on the same (il)logic of a concrete biological reality of ‘race’ and sex: the purity of the Aryan ‘race’ to be protected against the pernicious Jew, and pure and primary sex to be protected against the pernicious abstractions of gender. As long as the culturally naturalised and essentialised Jew vis-à-vis Israel and Zionism is ‘the Other’ of the Left and the biologically essentialised trans woman is ‘the Other’ of gender critical feminism, the related ideas and arguments of the leftist and feminist milieux will intersect with fascist ideology. Our comrades and sisters are not fascists. The battle for ideas is absolutely critical here if we are (to paraphrase Sara Ahmed’s opening quote) to breathe in a politics for the liberation and emancipation of all of humankind.

References:

Ahmed, Sara (2021) Gender Critical = Gender Conservative, Feminist Killjoys, https://feministkilljoys.com/2021/10/31/gender-critical-gender-conservative/, last accessed 21 November 2021.

Butler, Judith (2021) Why is the idea of ‘gender’ provoking backlash the world over?, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/commentisfree/2021/oct/23/judith-butler-gender-ideology-backlash, last accessed 21 November 2021.

Cohen, Joni Elizah (2018) The Eradication of “Talmudic Abstractions”: Anti-Semitism, Transmisogyny and the National Socialist Project, Verso Blog, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4188-the-eradication-of-talmudic-abstractions-anti-semitism-transmisogyny-and-the-national-socialist-project, last accessed 21 November 2021.

Academic freedom has never been sacrosanct, we must fight for it

Academic freedom is contingent on the epistemologies and politics of the time.

A case in point are the past debates in the University and College Union (UCU) for an academic boycott of Israel, which premises that Israel’s negation of academic freedom for Palestinians should consequently negate academic freedom for Israel. A paper co-authored by the left-wing Israeli academic Oren Yiftachel and the Palestinian academic Asad Ghanem was submitted to the journal Political Geography in the spring of 2002. The paper, which identified the state of Israel as “dedicated to the expansion and control of one ethnic group” and thus could not be substantively considered a democracy, was returned unopened. The explanation: Political Geography cannot accept a paper submission from Israel (Beckett, 2002). One of the journal’s editors, David Slater, stated that he did not read the paper, but because he was familiar with some of Yiftachel’s earlier work, he “was not sure to what extent [Yiftachel] had been critical of Israel”. The paper was eventually accepted for publication after substantial revisions were made, including the comparison of Israel to apartheid South Africa (Beckett, 2002). Slater (2004: 646) later stated that an academic boycott of Israel is a “legitimate and necessary” response to the Israeli state’s denial of academic freedom for Palestinians, but that his original “total boycott” was a “maximalist” position that he no longer held.

Intersecting with the epistemologies and politics of the time, academic freedom is dependent on research funding and the Research Excellence Framework (REF).

The REF effectively discourages academic diversity “because universities tailor their submissions to what they think REF panels want, and REF panels reflect disciplinary hierarchies” (Sayer, 2014) and the power of particular academic cultures (Stockhammer, 2021). The “continued narrowing of [the discipline of] economics”, for example, is “bolstered by the REF”; with “[n]on-mainstream approaches that rely on different ontological or methodological premises hardly ever […] published in the top journals” (Stockhammer, 2021). Thus, academic dissent, debate and innovations of thought are limited.

In principle, academic freedom is the freedom of academics to conduct teaching and research without political or commercial interference or institutional censorship; this must balance with, UCU (2021) notes, “the responsibility to respect the democratic rights and freedoms of others” and must “refrain from all forms of harassment, prejudice and unfair discrimination”.

The sacking of David Miller in October 2021 was, according to the University of Bristol, the outcome of a disciplinary hearing that found Miller had failed to meet the standards of behaviour that the employer expects from its staff (BBC, 2021). If Miller did breach the staff code of conduct, then a genuinely independent, open and transparent process was needed. Academics should not be dismissed for their political views. Discriminatory or harassment behaviour, which may or may not follow from political views, could be considered grounds for dismissal but only after a due process and where alleviation without further harm to the victims is not possible (Solidarity, 2021).

Academic freedom is conditional on wider societal forces.

The resignation of Kathleen Stock from the University of Sussex in October 2021, under her lament that she was a victim of a “medieval” “witch-hunt” (cited in Hayes, 2021; Adams, 2021), has since provided her with an extraordinarily high platform in mainstream media. This platform reflects both the dominance of the socially traditionalist ideas that Stock holds on the sex/gender binary and transgenderism, and the fact that she falls on the Conservative government’s side of its culture war on so-called ‘woke’ academia. Stock has used her hegemonic platform to question the right of students to protest and to discredit gender scholars such as Alison Phipps (see: BBC Women’s Hour, 2021; UnHerd, 2021). Under the guise that her own academic freedom has been infringed, Stock appears to be consciously seeking to infringe the freedom of others – students and academics in support of transgender rights based on gender identity – at precisely a moment in society when the rights of transgender people are under attack through the conservative notion of biological sex as destiny.

Academic freedom has never been sacrosanct, we must fight for it. It is a site of struggle shaped by competing ideologies, forces and conditions of existence and relations of power. Democratically-organised academic agency, which is active in critical thought and debate, is essential for its survival and necessary advancement.

References

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Adams, Richard (2021) Kathleen Stock says she quit university post over ‘medieval’ ostracism, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/nov/03/kathleen-stock-says-she-quit-university-post-over-medieval-ostracism, last accessed 11th November 2021.

BBC (2021) Bristol University: Professor David Miller sacked over Israel comments, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-58765052, last accessed 10th November 2021.

BBC Women’s Hour (2021) Professor Kathleen Stock, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001153q?at_custom1=%5Bpost+type%5D&at_custom3=%40BBCWomansHour&at_custom2=twitter&at_campaign=64&at_medium=custom7&at_custom4=E0AE9ED4-3C87-11EC-BE34-937496E8478F, last accessed 11th November 2021.

Beckett, Andy (2002) ‘It’s water on stone – in the end the stone wears out’, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2002/dec/12/highereducation.uk, last accessed 10th November 2021.

Hayes, Andy (2021) Kathleen Stock: Professor who resigned over trans rights ‘witch-hunt’ joins new US university, Sky News, https://news.sky.com/story/kathleen-stock-professor-who-resigned-over-trans-rights-witch-hunt-joins-new-us-university-12464140, last accessed 11th November 2021.

Sayer, Derek (2014) Five reasons why the REF is not fit for purpose, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2014/dec/15/research-excellence-framework-five-reasons-not-fit-for-purpose, last accessed 10th November 2021.

Slater, David (2004) Editorial comment: academic politics and Israel / Palestine, Political Geography 23, 645-646.

Solidarity (2021) Kathleen Stock resigns, https://www.workersliberty.org/story/2021-11-02/kathleen-stock-resigns, last accessed 11th November 2021.

Stockhammer, Engelbert (2021) The REF’s singular focus on excellence limits academic diversity, LSE Blogs, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2021/04/29/the-refs-singular-focus-on-excellence-limits-academic-diversity/, last accessed 10th November 2021.

UCU (2021) UCU statement on academic freedom, https://www.ucu.org.uk/academicfreedom, last accessed 11th November 2021.

Unherd (2021) Kathleen Stock: I won’t be silenced, https://unherd.com/2021/11/kathleen-stock-i-wont-be-silenced/, last accessed 11th November 2021.

For a Progressive Geography of Congruent Self-Actualization

The Al Jazeera podcast Degrees of Abuse is the result of a two year investigation into British universities and the institutional handling of sexual harassment complaints. It features the case of geographer Dr Ian Shaw – who, in his words, researches “political violence and how we can work together to build better worlds”, and who denies any and all wrongdoing (Davies et al, 2021). Listening to these two particular episodes was unsettling: it made explicit wider issues and problems that have long existed in academia (including on one’s own disciplinary turf of geography) and it implicitly raised a bigger question. Does a generalised academic culture effectively provide cover for, and fuel even, the abuse of power? The women featured in this podcast are courageous. I hope their courage is not in vain. It is the responsibility of all of us who consider ourselves to be progressive academics to foster a movement for change, but what does this mean when/if the perpetrators of abuses of power are themselves ‘progressive academics’ and part of a generalised culture and structures of power one seeks to challenge and resist?

The words of bell hooks, from her book Teaching to Transgress, are helpful here in offering an explanation for the potential disconnect between REF-rewarded minds and everyday academic bodies and, more specifically, of the incongruity of what a progressive academic might do and how they might be:

“I learned that far from being self-actualized, the university was seen more as a haven for those who are smart in book knowledge but who might be otherwise unfit for social interaction. Luckily, during my undergraduate years I began to make a distinction between the practice of being an intellectual/teacher and one’s role as a member of the academic profession. It was difficult to maintain fidelity to the idea of the intellectual as someone who sought to be whole – well-grounded in a context where there was little emphasis on spiritual well-being, on care of the soul. Indeed, the objectification of the teacher within bourgeois educational structures seemed to denigrate notions of wholeness and uphold the idea of a mind/body split, one that promotes and supports compartmentalization. This support reinforces the dualistic separation of public and private, encouraging teachers and students to see no connection between life practices, habits of being, and the roles of professors. The idea of the intellectual questing for a union of mind, body, and spirit had been replaced with notions that being smart meant that one was inherently emotionally unstable and that the best in oneself emerged in one’s academic work. This meant that whether academics were drug addicts, alcoholics, batterers, or sexual abusers, the only important aspect of our identity was whether or not our minds functioned […].” (hooks, 1994: 16)

Spaces of spiritual self-actualization have, of course, also been sites of abuse; a movement for change requires something other than simply mindfulness and yoga. But the point here I think is that the systemic orientation and reward for one aspect of an academic’s identity (and productivity) nullifies the contradictions of an academic’s being. The powerful insight of bell hooks is that academia is an institutional asylum of emotionally destructive behaviour. Part of the journey towards academic self-actualization involves creating and sustaining spaces of reflection and dialogue that Degrees of Abuse helps open up.

I hope the testimonies of the Degrees of Abuse podcast stay alive as an impetus for transformation. The observation of hooks below poignantly resonates:

“[…] I listen to students express the concern that they will not succeed in academic professions if they want to be well, if they eschew dysfunctional behavior or participation in coercive hierarchies. These students are often fearful, as I was, that there are no spaces in the academy where the will to be self-actualized can be affirmed.” (hooks, 1994: 18)

Progressive geography, if it is to mean anything meaningful and worthy of its name, requires a radical overhaul of incongruent spaces and selves that are complicit with abuses of power. Progressive geography could, at its best, offer itself to shaping spaces in the academy for congruent self-actualization and wellness. This will entail open, honest and difficult conversations.

David Miller and How Antisemitism Kills Geography

Sociologist David Miller reads onto the surface and off the surface a reflection of the surface. He fails to understand the surface as mere appearance of a dynamic and complex whole. Miller reads off the surface a world devoid of geography – a fluid geography of specific material realities and human consciousnesses and agencies. Through the lens of racialized conspiracy theory, he reads onto the surface an enveloping Zionism: an imperialist globalization in which space annihilates place and warps time. In the above mapping of Miller’s imagination, Israel and the United Kingdom are collapsed into one compressed space-time of a self-expanding, nowhere and everywhere, timeless and smooth global Zionist network.

Keith Kahn-Harris astutely identifies David Miller’s modern antisemitic thinking as a flatlands:

“The problem is that his work constructs a kind of ‘flatland’; a world in which networks of power and influence are so intricately connected that they form a seamless system. Each node that he exposes in this system, each connection that is traced between it and other nodes, is functionally identical to others. What we end up with is a process of progressively revealing a system so overwhelming that the only rational response to its exposure must be despair shot through with liberation. Take Miller’s well known slide from his presentation on how British Jewish / Zionist / Israel lobby institutions are interconnected (reproduced above). While the nodes on this network are differentiated by type (‘Israel institution’, ‘Key UK individuals’ etc) and while the nature of the interconnections are identified (‘donor’, ‘president’ etc), these annotations do not in fact tell us anything meaningful, because there isn’t any meaningful distinction to be made – and that’s the point. That, for example, Mick Davis and Vivian Wineman have been fiercely criticised from the right of the Jewish community for their dovish views on Israel is of no import. That the Board of Deputies and the Zionist Federation are coalitions constantly riven by tension and dispute is not worth remarking on. Zionism / Israel forms a seamless whole. […] Miller’s map of the Zionist flatland grows remorselessly over time. The only way to avoid getting ensnared into it is by renouncing any connection to those who are on the map. […] Those who share Miller’s methodology of guilt by association will always end up progressively writing off whole chunks of humanity until only a small hardcore of enlightened ones is left. While Miller may be a particularly adept exponent of the politics of the flatland, it is not exclusive to him, to the left or to antisemites. We have to acknowledge that the flatland holds its attractions to those of any political disposition. Its mixture of liberation and despair are tempting: You no longer have to grapple with the intricacies of who people are; you are released from the burdens of developing a finely-calibrated politics. All is one; all is either enemy or friend. I suspect that the internet and social media have made the flatland more attractive. It is easy to trace associations, to find meaning in the liking of a tweet or the acceptance of a friend request. Like David Miller we are all tempted to see ‘research’ as the piling up evidence of contacts, rather than an investigation of the nature of those contacts. We can know everything and still know nothing. The alternative is hard: To understand relationships as relationships. There are no shortcuts here.”

Kahn-Harris is right that the internet and social media make flatlands politics more appealing. I wonder also of the symbiosis between Miller’s fantasy of a global Zionist network and his life in the internet network society. His above mapping of lines and nodes has a rudimentary resemblance of the below map of the internet, such that co-construction seems likely.

Map of the internet (Wikimedia Commons)

David Miller’s flatlands illustrates how antisemitism kills geography. It also indicates how both the most despairing accounts of globalization, which reduce humans to passive dupes and deny human agencies in all their nuance, and the infrastructure of globalization are themselves flatlands open to antisemitism.

Paul Gilroy: from raciology to planetary humanism

“when the water is lapping up the road, I don’t know that people are going to be fretting so much about their whiteness. Maybe they will. Maybe the appeal of a racial war has its own psychic magnetism for some folk. But I would like to think that in the teeth of the emergency, if that awaits us, there will be other options there which are more future oriented, which allow us to live life relative to a future that we can’t quite anatomise from this distance.” (Paul Gilroy, from The Absurdities of Race)

There are three important reasons to engage with the work of Paul Gilroy, in particular, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack (1987) and Against Race (2000): one, his exploration of the intersection of racism and nationalism, which is in sharp contrast to Benedict Anderson’s (1983) separation of the two ideologies in Imagined Communities; two, and related to the former, Gilroy’s recognition of the cultural essentialist dynamic in contemporary racism; three, his desire to move anti-racism politics beyond the idea of racial difference and toward what he calls a planetary humanism, which sees culture as universal, hybrid and fluid. I recommend this engagement with Gilroy with two qualifications: first, what he and others identified in the 1980s as ‘new racism’ was not so new, since an interplay between biology and culture in the idea of natural races has long existed; second, in his search for a planetary humanism, Gilroy prematurely and crudely dismisses Marxism and fails to originally engage with the ideas of classical Marxism, despite, it’s worth noting, the influence of W.E.B. Du Bois and C.L.R. James in his work.

Moving then to Paul Gilroy in his own words.

From The Crisis of ‘Race’ and Raciology:

“Some years ago, a loose group of scholars in which the English philosopher Martin Barker was especially influential began, in recognition of changed patterns in the way the discourse of racial difference was employed in politics, to speak about the emergence of what they called a New Racism. This racism was defined by its strong culturalist and nationalist inclinations. Whereas in the past raciology had been arrogant in its imperial certainty that biology was both destiny and hierarchy, this persuasive new variant was openly uncomfortable with the idea that “race” could be biologically based. Consciousness of “race” was seen instead as closely linked to the idea of nationality. Authentic, historic nations had discrete cultural fillings. Their precious homogeneity endowed them with great strength and prestige. Where large “indigestible” chunks of alien settlement had taken place, all manner of dangers were apparent. Conflict was visible, above all, along cultural lines. Of course, these regrettably transplanted aliens were not identified as inferior, less worthy, or less admirable than their “hosts.” They may not have been infrahuman, but they were certainly out of place. The social, economic, and political problems that had followed their mistaken importation could only be solved by restoring the symmetry and stability that flowed from putting them back where they belonged. Nature, history, and geopolitics dictated that people should cleave to their own kind and be most comfortable in the environments that matched their distinctive cultural and therefore national modes of being in the world. Mythic versions of cultural ecology were invented to rationalize the lives of these discrete national and racial identities. The Germans became a people in their forests, whereas the British were a nation whose seafaring activity shaped their essential inner character. In all cases, fragments of self-evident truth nourished the fantasies of blood and belonging, which in turn demanded an elaborate geopolitical cartography of nationality.”

“the idea of “race” has lost much of its common-sense credibility, because the elaborate cultural and ideological work that goes into producing and reproducing it is more visible than ever before, because it has been stripped of its moral and intellectual integrity, and because there is a chance to prevent its rehabilitation. Prompted by the impact of genomics, “race,” as it has been defined in the past, has also become vulnerable to the claims of a much more elaborate, less deterministic biology. It is therefore all the more disappointing that much influential recent work in this area loses its nerve in the final furlong and opts to remain ambiguous about whether the idea of “race” can survive a critical revision of the relationship between human beings and their constantly shifting social nature. Whether it is articulated in the more specialized tongues of biological science and pseudo-science or in a vernacular idiom of culture and common sense, the term “race” conjures up a peculiarly resistant variety of natural difference. It stands outside of, and in opposition to, most attempts to render it secondary to the overwhelming sameness that overdetermines social relationships between people and continually betrays the tragic predicaments of their common species life. The undervalued power of this crushingly obvious, almost banal human sameness, so close and basically invariant that it regularly passes unremarked upon, also confirms that the crisis of raciological reasoning presents an important opportunity where it points toward the possibility of leaving “race” behind, of setting aside its disabling use as we move out of the time in which it could have been expected to make sense.”

From A diagnosis of contemporary forms of racism, race and nationalism: a conversation with Professor Paul Gilroy:

“The context of [There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack] – originally – was the emergence of what a number of us had begun to call a new racism. By calling it a new racism we were drawing attention to the fact that it was strongly culturalist in character, and that it articulated nationalism and racism very tightly together. Now, at that time – I don’t know if this has changed completely – but thirty years ago, it was very conventional to say that nationalism belongs to one area of scholarship and racism belongs … if it belonged to any … if it belongs at all to scholarship, it went somewhere else […]. wherever it was, it was not connected to the academic study of nationalism. This separation was there, for example in Benedict Anderson’s very influential book (Anderson 2004). He tries to separate the two things out very sharply, and I suppose I felt that the starting point for any critique of the racism that I was most familiar with was a very close connection with nationalism. That association was accomplished through a particular sense of what culture could be, which had acquired all the force of an earlier biologically-orientated racism. But the new racism didn’t announce itself as a biological racism. It made culture into the favoured battleground. It made culture something we had to quarrel with. We had to offer a better understanding of culture. We had an opportunity I suppose […] to make a better theory of culture than the one that saw culture distributed in national buckets so that you were either in the bucket of your exclusive national culture, or somewhere else in some other bucket somewhere. We had a chance to show how culture moved, how it lived, how it reproduced, to understand its organicity, its fluidity, plasticity, mutability: the conflict that it hosted. […] As a result, we had to update our understanding of how to combat racism in the field of ideas: in our disciplines, in our institutions, in our universities. We could only do this if we saw the new variety of racism that was strongly cultural in character – so cultural, so different supposedly – from a biological racism that it could hold up its hands and plead that it wasn’t racism at all. So, to try and show that, to show the history of how that had happened, that was the aim, the principal aim of that book. […] Many people on the left thirty years ago, just as many people on the left now in the wake of the vote against the EU membership, they look to places like Norway and they say ‘Oh, but the left has always been nationalist’, ‘it is perfectly possible to be a leftist and a nationalist’ and so on. There were many people in my intellectual and political environment who regardless of the connection with racism were saying that we had to find a wholesome patriotism, find a ‘clean’ nationalism which will mean that we can challenge the hegemony of those who rule, exploit and expropriate by articulating national feeling to the Right. I was never convinced by that argument, because it was an argument that could only be made if you did not take racism into account. […] There was always the danger that there would be a kind of overlap between the left nationalism and patriotism and the things that were being said on the right. Today we have many – they call it ‘Lexit’ – the people on the left who support leaving the EU. This division is in some ways a replay of some of these older problems. Nowadays the anti-racist part of it – people like the Socialist Workers Party and these groupings – they are forgetful. Their memories have been very badly affected in the intervening time, because they don’t remember that the racists we were fighting in the street in the 1970s and early 80s, these were people who had a political programme where the first aim was ‘get the blacks out, get the browns out’ and the second thing on the list was ‘Leave the EU’. So now, those people want to talk about Trump and what’s happening in America, but they won’t talk about the actual issues involved in dealing with the political contradiction into which they have led people.”

“There are some people – rightly or wrongly – who want anti-racism to be a critical project only. They want to be able to say what is wrong with the world and to show how those wrongs might be challenged, undone. The emphasis falls on the practical work of disassembling those racial hierarchies when they are apparent in institutions, in interpersonal life, and so on. I think that is fine, and its noble and honourable and important work, and I wish it was not necessary – but it is necessary. However, I don’t think that is enough, and I think that we do that work better – we do it much better – if we have an idea of the world we want to make. And that might be difficult but it could not be avoided. I felt dishonest after a while if I could not answer the question which asked ‘Alright then, if you’re against racism, what kind of world do you want to make? Do you want to make a world where racial differences are just natural things, and racism comes along and messes them up?’. So you get rid of racism and then we all have natural difference and that is all fine. Well, I did not find that intellectually or politically satisfying. A lot of anti-racist work is of that type. It says: ‘Nature gives us racial differences, look around the room, some of the differences you see are racial; others are not’. It’s just racism makes those differences bad. I came to a different position gradually – and somewhat reluctantly – in which I see racism as a system assembling races in the world. It’s a more difficult idea to sell, I suppose you could say, but I think that racism generates or assembles races – can I put it that way? It is not something that grows from racial difference. It creates racial difference. The history, and the genealogies of racial systems of thought, seems to me to be interpreted better when we see its dynamic unfolding. That means we have to be able to say what kind of world we want to build and inhabit. I know that isn’t going to be the end and it isn’t going to be perfect, but I’m still convinced that we will be better off without the particular forms of violence, the particular forms of cruelty, the particular forms of error that arise from racial metaphysics and racial systems of thought. We are better off without all those things, even if we know there is still lots more work to do, we are better off without those specific things. I’m not sure you can have an anti-racism which is credible unless you are able to switch into a more constructive view of the world you want to build. You might have a black liberation project, you might have an equality and diversity project, you might have a McKinsey multiculturalism project – but you won’t have an anti-racist project unless you can say the kind of world you want to see arise. Someone like Du Bois is interesting because in his nineties he decided that he was going to revert to earlier ways of looking at the world and fight over what communism could be as a basis for rethinking a world without imperial and colonial and racial domination. Well, for me, communism isn’t that option, you know. I understand why he took that turn at that point, but that is not one for me. I think we have to be bolder, I think we have to be more imaginative than we often are. We’re not encouraged to be imaginative in this area, and it may well be that solving the practical and the immediate problems in our everyday relationship with racial violence, say, or racial institutions in the police force, or the way that death so often follows contact with the police, or the functioning of carceral systems. Out of those struggles can grow that different conception of what it is to be a human being that Césaire and Fanon spoke of. Remember, Fanon said: ‘Oh my body, make of me a man who asks questions’; and then he said: ‘we are going to make a new humanism’ which is – in his language, this is not my language – a formation that corresponds to ‘the real dialectic between the body and the world’. The real one, not the racial-corporeal schema.”

Antisemitism as the socialism of fools, transphobia as the feminism of fools

First trans solidarity rally and march, Washington, DC USA, Wikimedia Commons

The extract below from a Workers’ Liberty article by Natalia Cassidy (2019), Transphobia and antisemitism, identifies an interesting and convincing relationship between left anti-Semitism and left transphobia. I repost my audio recording of my book chapter, On Identity Politics, Ressentiment, and the Evacuation of Human Emancipation, after this extract, since it takes up the question of ‘bringing our own house in order’ by addressing how we might move beyond the impasse.

[Moishe] Postone argues that left-antisemitism has a “pseudo-emancipatory dimension that other forms of racism rarely have”. In this, he is on the one hand speaking to the antisemitism sometimes referred to as the “socialism of fools”, in which people on the left see themselves as having an opposition to capitalism and, through the pervasiveness of racist antisemitic tropes, they associate capitalism with Jewish people. On the other hand he is also referencing what might be referred to as a “post-1948” strand of antisemitism. In that people look upon the policies and actions carried out by the Israeli state and, through seeking affinity and solidarity with the Palestinian cause, either generalise the Israeli state as a representative of all Jewish people worldwide and therefore seek to hold all Jewish people accountable, or seek revanchist solutions which would lead to the mass expulsion of Jewish populations from the Middle East. In either of the forms of antisemitism that Postone refers to here, the intentions of the person holding these views are, in general, of seeking justice and liberation for oppressed peoples. This antisemitism is justified by an idea of “punching up” rather than down. That is why these ideas have such a particular grip on the left and tend to take a form particular from that of the right.

The same can be said for transphobia. Transphobia on the left does not; generally speaking, appear in the same form as either the far-right strain […] or in the more broadly right wing bigoted view that tends to share a lot in common with homophobic bigotry that was most prominent in the 1980s. Rather, we have an extremely prominent (though small in terms of absolute numbers) layer of the labour movement organising and agitating against trans people. Some trans-rights activists make the argument that this layer of the labour movement are entirely detached from feminism. That is incorrect. Significant parts of this layer, as well as some of the milieu they draw around them, at the very least earnestly see themselves as feminists. In many cases they have a reasonably strong record in feminist activism within the trade-union movement as well as in keeping services like women’s shelters open during periods of very little funding or support.

The root of the problem is not lack of a broadly defined feminism that is. Rather, it is what we might term a “feminism of fools”, in which the societal prominence of misogyny is seen to be embodied by trans women, just as the 19th century’s “socialism of fools” scapegoated Jews as the embodiment of abstract capital. Quite a significant layer of activists who have for some time been on the left of feminist issues within the labour movement have managed to be on the wrong side of the issue of trans rights on the basis of “punching up” against trans women. It is important for the broader labour movement to come to terms with these tendencies. Given that the labour movement and the organised working class possesses the structural capabilities to fight for change in society, it is crucial that our own house is in order. If we are to fight for human emancipation, particular sections of our class cannot be sold down the river under the premise of “punching up”. (Cassidy, 2019)

The Amplification of COVID-19 and the University’s Shadow of Death

O LIVING always, always dying! O the burials of me past and present, O me while I stride ahead, material, visible, imperious as ever; O me, what I was for years, now dead, (I lament not, I am content;) O to disengage myself from those corpses of me, which I turn and look at where I cast them, To pass on, (O living! always living!) and leave the corpses behind. (O LIVING ALWAYS, ALWAYS DYING by Walt Whitman)*

We know why students were promised a near normal campus experience. We understand the politics of government and the dance of Vice-Chancellors. The government should have stepped in over the summer of 2020 to underwrite the higher education sector, but they did not. And so the propaganda of university managements began, which, they gambled, if spun out for long enough would prevent the realisation of tuition fee and accommodation refunds.

University managements promoted their campuses as COVID-secure and, by enticing students back, made the university a major amplification hub of COVID-19.  The assurance that the space of the university is COVID-secure was and remains a troubling and dangerous fallacy in contradiction of scientific evidence and recommendation, and critical thought. The COVID-secure campus implies a certainty to remain safe and unthreatened by COVID-19 when there is no certainty, only some measures that might reduce the risk of infection. It infers an ability to make the bodies within a designated space free from viral contamination. However, the higher education sector is unique in its geographical concentration of networks of young people and in its generation of the prime conditions for COVID-19 to spread and (as an RNA virus) to mutate.

The outcome we all saw coming was stated in The Lancet in early November 2020: “Universities have been a major hub of community transmission”. As academics and union members, the university amplification of COVID-19 has dragged us from a strike of biophilic love, solidarity and living towards the “valley of the shadow of death” (Fromm, 1968: 48).

In a surreal, illusionary alter-universe, university managements continue to busy themselves with surveys asking students what they want. It is the perverse logic of a marketised higher education sector to ask students what they want amid a global pandemic and public health emergency, rather than focus on what they need and delivering that well. It is a further perversity of this marketisation that university managements have chosen to ignore the possibility of morbidity, i.e. Long COVID, in their risk assessments and health and safety measures, while on their websites and press releases promote the cutting-edge research of their institutions on the reality and nature of Long COVID. The falsehood that set students up for a little less than normal university experience is one that threatens some of these students and their academic staff to long-term heart and multiple organ damage. The tendency of most academic staff to seek to avoid face-to-face teaching and deliver online is an expression of “the most elementary form” of biophilia: “a tendency to preserve life, and to fight death” (Fromm, 1968: 45). It is the basic desire for life, for oneself and others, not morbidity or mortality.

When university managements respond to the actual manifestation of sick students and staff and to the prospect of one of us dying, their rehearsed lines imply an indifference to life: one cannot prove they caught COVID on campus, or if they did catch COVID on campus then it was their fault for not following the health and safety guidance. This is the necrophilic logic of “quantification, abstractification, bureaucratization, and reification” (Fromm, 1968: 59); the “question here is not whether [we] are treated nicely […] (things, too, can be treated nicely); the question is whether people are things or living beings” (ibid: 57). The COVID-insecure and market-driven university has acutely exposed its workers, its students and the public to both an amplification of a perilous new infectious disease and its own class nature and detachment from life.

Book reference:

Fromm, Erich (1968) The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil. Harper & Row: London.

* Whitman poem cited in Fromm (1968)

On global capital not abiding limits and a history of pandemics

Introduction

The outbreak of SARS Coronovirus 2 or Covid-19 proceeds an escalation of recent epidemics and proto-pandemics: notably, H5N1 or Avian influenza, SARS, MERS, Swine flu, Ebola, and Zika. We are not currently experiencing a pandemic, Mike Davis (2020) pronounces, we are living in an age of pandemics. Rob Wallace (2020) explains this trend as the consequence of interrelated changes in economic geography and ecological geographies: a widening circuit of agricultural production, consumption and exchange that is pushing deeper into forests and back out into cities; with subsequent changes in the ecologies of host species that historically would have been confined to deep forests, which are now transported to peri-urban regions with high concentrations of human bodies. Traversing a globally integrated air traffic network, pathogens previously not on the global stage are being brought to it.

Davis (2020), citing a study from Science magazine, illustrates the context of Ebola and other diseases emerging in and from West Africa (currently the fastest urbanizing area in the world). The population of West Africa has traditionally relied on fish protein, however, commencing in the 1980s, European, Russian and Japanese factory fleets have trawled and significantly reduced this biomass. Concurrently, multinational logging companies have increased their operations; to keep their costs down, they hire professional hunters to kill mammals in their path. With fish becoming too expensive for West African city dwellers, the population has turned to the consumption of bushmeat (originally just practiced in the logging camps) as the major source of protein. In sum, this widening commerce of bushmeat hunting alongside the destruction of rainforest have generated new viral exposures and pathways to humans of previously isolated pathogens.

In this essay, using the case studies of HIV/AIDS and SARS, I explore the nexus between capitalist political economy, nature, and emergent infectious diseases; concluding that, without radical change to how we organise and run our world, our future will be locked into this trajectory of escalating pandemics.

HIV/AIDS

HIV-1 and HIV-2 originate from the Simian Immune-deficiency Viruses (SIV) of chimpanzees and sooty mangabeys in Central and West Africa (Honigsbaum, 2019), with the probable zoonotic leap, from one chimpanzee to one human hunter of bushmeat (through a cut or wound), no later than 1908 (Quammen, 2013). From here, the virus travelled. At this moment, put in historical context, previous epidemiological dead ends were no longer so: the virus travelled because of changes in conditions of existence propelled by a capital-fuelled colonial age. Mark Honigsbaum (2019) points to the emergence of steamship transportation and road and railway construction during the colonial period of the Congo, and the relentless pursuit of profit by logging and timber companies, intersecting with social and cultural phenomenon (bushmeat hunting and consumption, and prostitution by the labour camps of railway and timber companies), as the central early drivers in the journey of HIV/AIDS.

While official Belgian colonial rule of the Congo ran from 1908 to 1960, the groundwork for colonial expansion began in the late nineteenth century. Given the need of capital to self-expand and thus the impetus for greater mobility of both capital and labour, the 1892 steamship service from Léopoldville (later renamed Kinshasa) to Stanleyville (later Kisangi) and 1898 Matadi-Kinshasa railway (linking the port of Matadi to Léopoldville) provided geographical connectivity and concentration of populations previously separated. With a consequent influx of labour migrants and Belgian administrators, a rapidly urbanizing Léopoldville became the capital of the Belgian Congo in 1923, running domestic flight services and by 1936 a direct international flight route to Brussels. Further geographical connectivity and concentration of capital and labour came under French colonial administration, notably, the construction of the Congo-Ocean railroad in the 1920s, which – cutting through forest – brought labourers into rural territories home to the Simian Immune-deficiency Viruses. Once built, this railroad provided a constant flow of Africans and Europeans between Brazzaville (the new capital of the French colonial federation) through Léopoldville to Pointe-Noire at the coast. What’s more, road construction through the Congo Basin by timber companies pushed bushmeat hunters deeper into the forest and encouraged the growth of prostitution near the labour camps (Honigsbaum, 2019). One way or another, through new viral pathways that were new transport pathways driven by capital accumulation, by the 1920s, Léopoldville was home to HIV.

Both Honigsbaum (2019) and Quammen (2013) draw on research by Jacques Pepin to explain how the virus amplifies from here into an eventual global pandemic: sex and medical technology – specifically, the reuse of ineffectively sterilized hypodermic needles and reusable syringes in public and humanitarian health campaigns in Africa, and blood banks and transfusion services – were the key amplifiers of HIV. By the 1920s Léopoldville had a large male labour force, with economic migrants discouraged by the Belgian colonial administration from bringing their families with them; consequently, men outnumbered women four to one and prostitution was widespread (Honigsbaum, 2019). The virus likely amplified through a campaign by the Congolese Red Cross which established a clinic in 1929 in Léopoldville to treat sexually transmitted diseases; this campaign ran throughout in the 1930s and 1940s and peaked, in terms of the number of administered injections, in 1953 (Quammen, 2013). Another possible amplification was during the 1930s though the vaccination campaigns along the railways against yaws and sleeping sickness, and against malaria in southern Cameroon (Honigsbaum, 2019).

HIV-1 group M subtype B, around 1966, travels from Léopoldville to Haiti and, in or around 1969, from Haiti to the United States. Honigsbaum (2019) and Quammen (2013) again draw on the work of Pepin for a plausible answer as to how. Congo’s independence in 1960, marred by civil war, led to an influx of refugees into Kinshasa and an expansion of prostitution (Honigsbaum, 2019). Another outcome was the exodus of a Belgian expatriate skilled middle class. This vacuum of labour supply was addressed by campaigns to bring in skilled labour from elsewhere. Overseen by the WHO and UNESCO, recruits came from Haiti in the early 1960s. By the late 1960s and early 1970s however, the political instability of the state ideological campaign known as Zairianisation or Authenticité – to rid the Democratic Republic of Congo (later renamed Zaire) of colonialism and Western influences – drove many of this labour force back to Haiti. It would have taken just one of these returnees to have carried HIV with them. In January 1972, The New York Times broke a story of the commodification and export of Haitian human blood plasma and a political economy involving both US based capital and the Haitian government. The article states:

“PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Jan 26 – An American‐owned company here is buying blood plasma from impoverished Haitians who need the money and exporting 5,000 to 6,000 liters of it every month to the United States. […] Hemo Caribbean is owned by Joseph B. Gorinstein, stockbroker with interests in New York and Miami. He has a 10‐year contract with the Haitian Government that was negotiated with President Francois Duvalier, who died last April. Werner H. Thill, the company’s technical director, said that the Haitian Government received no money from Hemo Caribbean. Reliable sources here say that the principal agent between the Government and Hemo Caribbean was Luckner Cambronne, the Minister of Interior and National Defense, who is said to be one of the most influential persons here. […] Mr. Thill says that applicants are rejected if they are known to have hepatitis, but he adds that he is not especially concerned about those who may slip through the screening process with venereal disease or malaria. The freezing process used on the plasma “kills those bacteria,” he says. The Haitians, many in rags and without shoes, crowd into Hemo Caribbean six days week from 6:30 A.M. to 10 P.M. They spend about an hour and a half to two hours in screening and actually giving blood. […] The plasma is frozen and shipped to the United States by Air Haiti, Mr. Cambronne’s airline.”

“Capital is dead labour”, which, Marx (1867) tells us, “vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks”. Luckner Cambronne, because of his central exploitative role in the selling of blood plasma of Haitian donors to the United States, was widely coined both in Haiti and overseas, “The Vampire of the Caribbean” (Davison, 2006). Via either one infected person or one infected container of blood plasma, around 1969, HIV travels from Haiti to the United States; from there, it later travels to Canada, Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Estonia, South Korea, Japan, Thailand, and Australia; it also travels back into Africa (Quammen, 2013). Since the first cases of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome were officially reported in 1981 in the US, worldwide, 76 million people have been infected with HIV and 33 million people have died (World Health Organization, 2020).

A popular narrative (as represented through Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On) that either politically stigmatizes or reclaims the association of HIV/AIDS with queer sexuality is only one part of the historical story, specifically, how the virus amplified once it arrived in the United States. In the wider historical narrative I have relayed, capital is a leading actor. Marx (1857) observes in Grundrisse:

“Capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier. Thus the creation of the physical conditions of exchange – of the means of communication and transport – the annihilation of space by time – becomes an extraordinary necessity for it.”

From possibly just one human exposure in southeastern Cameroon, HIV/AIDS made its way into and later out of Kinshasa through the new transportation routes of a colonial era and a globalizing era; because capital abides no geographical limits, former epidemiological dead ends were no more and new viral pathways were generated.

SARS

In the period since 1979 known as opening and reform, the Chinese Communist Party has overseen the entry of foreign capital into the country. Through the 1980s, especially the 1990s, and into the early millennium, China has experienced a staggering pace and degree of economic growth and urbanization. Guangdong, a coastal province in southern China, has been at the centre of this rapid capitalist transformation. Home to the earliest Special Economic Zones, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shantou, and to the Pearl River Delta Economic Zone, Guangdong is now the largest provincial economy and population in China, with Guangzhou (its capital) and Shenzhen global megacities and the country’s top two cities for GDP output. This has driven two ecological effects: the development of industrial-scale poultry farms to supply Guangdong’s huge labour force, growing from an estimated 700 million chickens in 1997 to, by 2008, one billion so-called high quality broiler chickens annually; and the orientation of smaller livestock producers and rice farmers to fattening domestic chickens and ducks to sell in “wet markets” that exist on the edges of Guangdong’s urban areas (Honigsbaum, 2019). Wet markets are markets that, along with fruit and vegetables, stock live animals for slaughter as fresh meat and fish. Davis (2005) explains:

“Thanks especially to the prevalence of wet markets in the cities, the urbanization of Guangdong has probably intensified rather than decreased microbial traffic between humans and animals. As income has risen with industrial employment, the population is eating more meat and less rice and vegetables. […] An extraordinary concentration of poultry […] coexists with high human densities, large numbers of pigs, and ubiquitous wild birds. […] Moreover, as the urban footprint has expanded and farm acreage has contracted, a fractal pattern of garden plots next to dormitories and factories has brought urban population and livestock together in more intimate contact. […] Guangdong is also a huge market for wild meat.”

Quammen (2013), referencing Karl Taro Greenfeld, observes that the wild animal trade within the Pearl River Delta is less to do with limited resources, need, or ancient traditions, and more attributable to the capitalist boom and related rise in conspicuous consumption. The contemporary Era of Wild Flavour, most prevalent in southern China, draws from earlier traditions and goes beyond them; Wild Flavour (yewei) is regarded as a way of gaining “face”, prosperity, and good luck. To supply Guangdong’s wet markets to meet the demand of a burgeoning affluent class frequenting the Wild Flavour restaurants of the province’s cities, there has been an increase in the volume of wild animal trade, with greater cross-border commerce (both legal and illegal) from other South East Asia countries (Vietnam and Laos, for example) into southern China and a rise in captive bred animals on unregulated small farms (Honigsbaum, 2019; Quammen, 2013). This is what Mike Davis, in 2005, coined the monster at our door, and, in light of SARS Coronavirus 2, states as the entirely familiar monster that has now walked through our front door (Davis, 2020). He elaborates, super urbanizing animal populations by factory farming is artificially creating the optimal conditions for the emergence of newly infectious diseases, speeding up the evolution of new strains, and guaranteeing the advent of pandemics (Davis, 2020). Following the work of Rob Wallace, an article from the Chinese Chuǎng journal (2020) argues that emergent infectious diseases arising in and out of China are best understood through a wider economic geography innate to capitalism, specifically, “the evolutionary pressure cooker of capitalist agriculture and urbanization”, which:

“provides the ideal medium through which ever-more-devastating plagues are born, transformed, induced to zoonotic leaps, and then aggressively vectored through the human population. To this is added similarly intensive processes occurring at the economy’s fringes, where “wild” strains are encountered by people pushed to ever-more extensive agroeconomic incursions into local ecosystems. The most recent coronavirus, in its “wild” origins and its sudden spread through a heavily industrialized and urbanized core of the global economy, represents both dimensions of our new era of political-economic plagues.”

The exceptional coming together of multiple species, which would not have otherwise crossed paths in nature yet are now stacked up together in crowded conditions in dense urban environments, is, as Quammen (2013: 189) puts it, “zoological bedlam”. It should be of no surprise then that a wet market of Guangzhou was the source of the zoonotic leap of SARS in 2002, and a wet market in Wuhan, Hubei province in south central China, the source of the spillover of SARS Coronavirus 2 in 2019. The natural reservoirs of both SARS Coronaviruses are likely bats. While SARS had a higher mortality rate, a critical difference between SARS and SARS Coronavirus 2 is the latter’s higher viral load prior to the onset of symptoms, which makes the effort to contain its spread much more difficult.

Conclusions

In narrating two stories about HIV/AIDS and SARS, I want to warn against geographically limiting one’s attention to Africa and Asia when thinking about pandemic threat. Instead, a focus on the intersection of the local and the global is key: local conditions of existence and capitalist political economy shape viral evolution, thus have meaning in explaining and predicting emergent infectious diseases, but the local intimately intersects with the global networks and processes of capitalist political economy. Eskew and Carlson (2020: e216) note, “due to globalisation, industrial agriculture, and the ubiquity of viral biodiversity, a pandemic can emerge practically anywhere.” For instance, the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, which originated from a pig farm in the United States. At the same time, influenza is also emergent, as Wallace (2016: 29) states, “by way of a globalized network of corporate poultry production and trade, wherever specific strains first evolve”. Furthermore, in the context of the biosecurity of a globalized agribusiness, in which, for example, mass vaccination of poultry is itself generating, in reaction, more evolutionary virulent strains of influenza (Wallace, 2016), a myopic focus on Africa and Asia takes our attention away from the fact that richer countries “routinely outsource their biodiversity threats to other nations” (Eskew and Carlson, 2020: e215). Or, as David Harvey (2010: 3) remarks, “capitalism never solves its crisis problems, it moves them around geographically”. At all scales, states and capitals are involved in the covering up and downplaying of emergent infectious diseases because pathogens are “enmeshed” within “the political economy of the business of food” (Wallace, 2016:48). Moves by the World Health Organization to a new system of nomenclature, away from specifying geographic or animal origin, is precisely because of political pressure by powerful states and industries (Wallace, 2016).

There is a conceptual error that can be found in much work exploring ecological crises (both on pandemics and on climate change). The Anthropocene, for example, effectively presents humanity as a single homogenous bloc, outside of historical forms of society with distinct socio-economic relations, which, as Andreas Malm recognizes, re-naturalizes ecological crisis as an outcome of human disposition (see Kunkel, 2017). Marxist ecology applies a crucial insight and steer to the relationship between human socio-economic relations and nature, by understanding that capitalism “produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself” (Marx, cited in Verdansky, 2019). The problem is capitalism, as such the solution is a global system change that has at its centre a “socialised humanity” that “govern[s] the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control, instead of being dominated by it as a blind power” (ibid). If we are to find ourselves out of a current trajectory of escalating pandemics, we need a socialist politics that is radical and visionary:

“The view of nature attained under the domination of private property and money is a real contempt for, and practical debasement of, nature. […] It is in this sense that [in a 1524 pamphlet] Thomas Münzer declares it intolerable “that all creatures have been turned into property, the fishes in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the earth; the creatures, too, must become free.”” (Marx, 1844)

References

Chuǎng (2020) “Social Contagion: Microbiological Class War in China”, http://chuangcn.org/2020/02/social-contagion/

Davis, Mike (2020) “Mike Davis on Coronavirus Politics”, The Dig podcast.

Davis, Mike (2005) The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu. The New Press: London.

Davison, Phil (2006) “Obituary: Luckner Cambronne”. Independent, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/luckner-cambronne-418865.html

Eskew, Evan A and Carlson, Colin J (2020) “Overselling wildlife trade bans will not bolster conservation or pandemic preparedness”. The Lanset, Volume 4, Issue 6, e215-e216, https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5196(20)30123-6/fulltext

Harvey, David (2010) “RSA: The Crisis of Capitalism”, https://www.thersa.org/globalassets/pdfs/blogs/rsa-lecture-david-harvey-transcript.pdf

Honigsbaum, Mark (2019) The Pandemic Century: One Hundred Years of Panic, Hysteria and Hubris. Hurst & Company: London.

Kunkel, Benjamin (2017) “The Capitalocene”. London Review of Books, 39(5), 22-28.

Marx, Karl (1867) Capital: Volume One, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch10.htm

Marx, Karl (1857) Grundrisse, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch10.htm

Marx, Karl (1844) On The Jewish Question, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/jewish-question/

Quammen, David (2013) Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. Vintage Books: London.

Severo, Richard (1972) “Impoverished Haitians Sell Plasma for Use in the U.S.” The New York Times, 28th January 1972, https://www.nytimes.com/1972/01/28/archives/impoverished-haitians-sell-plasma-for-use-in-the-us.html

Vernadsky, Paul (2019) “Marx and the environment”, Workers’ Liberty: Reason in Revolt, https://www.workersliberty.org/story/2019-10-09/marx-and-environment

Wallace, Rob (2020) “How Global Agriculture Grew a Pandemic”, Smarty Pants podcast.

Wallace, Rob (2016) Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science. Monthly Review Press: New York.