The evacuation of human emancipation, identity politics, and ‘ressentiment’

“The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” (Marx, 1852 [1977]: 300)


“the late modern liberal subject quite literally seethes with ressentiment.” (Brown, 1995: 69)

I. Where did freedom go?

In States of Injury political scientist Wendy Brown (1995) observes that in late modernity many progressives have chosen to pursue a form of freedom which is based on state-managed economic justice and private liberties, as the bleak reality of a contorted Marxism is framed against the sunshine of liberalism. Moreover:

“freedom” has shown itself to be easily appropriated in liberal regimes for the most cynical and unemancipatory political ends. […] the dream of democracy – that humans might govern themselves by governing together – is difficult to discern in the proliferation of […] claims of rights, protections, regulations, and entitlements. (Brown, 1995: 5)

Brown does not dispute the importance of rights, protections, regulations, and entitlements, but rather she asks, beyond this, what is our dream of freedom? She defends the explanatory power of Marxism in seeing the question of freedom vis-à-vis social relations, which are “implicitly declared “unpolitical” – that is, naturalized – in liberal discourse” (Brown, 1995: 14). In other words, genuine freedom cannot be found in state (re)distribution. Here one needs to understand the important distinction Karl Marx makes between political emancipation and human emancipation, which can be found in his essay On “The Jewish Question” (1843 [1977]) that was part of a debate with the left Hegelian Bruno Bauer. Marx’s discussion is not per se a consideration of the Jewish condition but a critique of political emancipation in order to expose the relationship of political emancipation to human emancipation.

Marx (1843: 47) acknowledges the “great […] real, practical” progress of political emancipation, however, on its limits, he argues that whilst the capitalist state abolishes in its own way the distinctions of class, birth, profession, and education, by declaring them “to be unpolitical differences”, it allows them “to have an effect in their own manner” (Marx, 1843: 45). As such, humankind leads a twofold existence: “a heavenly one and an earthy one”; the former as communal beings in political community and the latter as private, alienated, egoistic individuals in civil society (Marx, 1843: 46). What is inherent in political emancipation, Marx spells out, is a gap between human beings as, ideally, public members of a universal state or ‘citizens’, and, materially, private, egoistic members of civil society or ‘bourgeois’. Private rights are clarified as, for example, the right to property and the right to religion, which are innately ‘bourgeois’ and the basis of the separation of human beings from one another:

Man [sic] was […] not freed from religion; he received freedom of religion. He was not freed from property; he received freedom of property. He was not freed from the egoism of trade; he received freedom to trade. (Marx, 1843: 56)

Marx deplores the debasement of theory, art, history, nature, and human relations by religion, property, commodities, and commerce; he deplores the bartering of women, “[t]he species-relationship itself”, as “an object of commerce!” (Marx, 1843: 60). This is the exile of human beings’ communal essence. Marx foresees human liberation as the eradication of the aforementioned gap, with the freedom of human beings contingent not merely on political emancipation but on human emancipation, which necessitates the abolition of capitalist social relations.

Brown (1995: 18) contends that the Right’s ability to capture a discourse of freedom for its own ends, alongside the tendency of progressive politics to abandon the socialist project on the basis of its supposed failure, has led in academia to:

developments in philosophy and in feminist, postcolonial, and cultural theory [that] have eroded freedom’s ground. For many toiling in these domains, “freedom” has been swept onto the dust-heap of anachronistic, humanistic, androcentric, subject-centred, and “Western” shibboleths.”

While Marxism desires human emancipation thus liberation from capitalism, Brown (1995: 61) asks:

to what extent do identity politics require a standard internal to existing society against which to pitch their claims, a standard that not only preserves capitalism from critique, but sustains the invisibility and inarticulatedness of class – not accidentally, but endemically? Could we have stumbled upon one reason why class is invariably named but rarely theorized or developed in the multiculturalist mantra “race, class, gender, sexuality”?

Bringing forward Brown’s work to a contemporary moment of a resurgent wave of identity politics born within/out of neoliberalism, the present popularity of privilege theory and intersectionality on university campuses, amongst student activists and some academics, is worth considering. Privilege theory pioneer Peggy McIntosh (cited in Rothman, 2014) states:

what I believe is that everybody has a combination of unearned advantage and unearned disadvantage in life. […]. We’re all put ahead and behind by the circumstances of our birth. […] In order to understand the way privilege works, you have to be able to see patterns and systems in social life, but you also have to care about individual experiences. I think one’s own individual experience is sacred. Testifying to it is very important […].

The basic premise of privilege theory is that wherever there is an oppressive system – capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormativity, and so on – there is both an oppressed group of people and a privileged group of people (who, consciously or not, benefit from that system). Interlaced with privilege theory is the notion of intersectionality: that we are all privileged by some systems of oppression and burdened by other systems of oppression, thus our privileges and our oppressions intersect. By lacking full awareness of our privileges and their intersectionality, the argument goes, we are politically divided and weak, and while we cannot be held responsible for the systems of oppression that impart privilege upon us, we do have a choice in how we respond to our privileges (for instance, to our whiteness, our maleness, our straightness, our ableness, our cis-ness, etcetera).

Intersectionality applies a generalised cultural and economic understanding of capitalism and class, such that I question what might be lost in its implicit re-definition of class, qua classism, when thinking through the nature of oppression and exploitation, and the means of resistance; class, after all, is not primarily a structure of oppression but a relation of exploitation (see Bassi, 2010; Bassi, forthcoming). And as Marx (1843) makes plain in On “The Jewish Question”, the route to real freedom lies in social relations not rights alone. Brown’s astute point on the lack of theorising of class in the multiculturalist mantra resonates especially well in the present-day intersectionality mantra. Is it not time to name and call out once more what is, in actuality, the relinquishment of the dream of freedom as humans governing themselves by governing together? Given also that racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, for example, are individually distinct forms of oppression with individually distinct relationships to capitalism, which include specific and universal features, the danger with intersectionality lies in it sliding into a conceptual collapse through its kaleidoscopic, intersecting structures of oppression, and in it nullifying universality whilst in pursuit of specificity. Emphasis on personal testimony cannot allow for universal truths. The net effect is ‘no way out’ vis-à-vis resistance.

Privilege discourse is based on an unchanging status, i.e., privilege married up with intersectionality, rather than a dynamic understanding of human consciousness through human history. As it operates in practice within student activist circles, my observation of privilege theory and intersectionality is that of a politics in which no one can speak for anyone else. Society is viewed as a seesaw: ‘you are up there because I am down here, and you are up there because you weigh me down’. It is a personalised dual camp distortion of social relations, ‘me versus you’ (with various intersectional combinations), that breeds resentment and is devoid of class politics.

Freedom has become lost in the contradiction of identity politics. As Brown (1995: 65) observes:

politicized identities generated out of liberal, disciplinary societies, insofar as they are premised on exclusion from a universal ideal, require that ideal, as well as their exclusion from it, for their own continuing existence as identities.

Brown (1995: 66) develops Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment in this context to explain how the desired impulse of politicised identity to “inscribe in the law and other political registers its historical and present pain” forecloses “an imagined future of power to make itself”. What one has instead of freedom then is the production of ressentiment:

Ressentiment in this context is a triple achievement: it produces an affect (rage, righteousness) that overwhelms the hurt; it produces a culprit responsible for the hurt; and it produces a site of revenge to displace the hurt (a place to inflict hurt as the sufferer has been hurt). (Brown, 1995: 68)

We are left with an effort to anaesthetise and to externalise what is unendurable.


II. Privilege production of impasse: the case of the deadlock between radical feminists and trans activists

In February 2015, a letter titled “We cannot allow censorship and silencing of individuals” published in The Observer, and signed by several academics and feminist activists, observes:

a worrying pattern of intimidation and silencing of individuals whose views are deemed “transphobic” or “whorephobic”. Most of the people so labelled are feminists or pro-feminist men, some have experience in the sex industry, some are transgender. […] “No platforming” used to be a tactic used against self-proclaimed fascists and Holocaust-deniers. But today it is being used to prevent the expression of feminist arguments critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists. The feminists who hold these views have never advocated or engaged in violence against any group of people. Yet it is argued that the mere presence of anyone said to hold these views is a threat to a protected minority group’s safety. You do not have to agree with the views that are being silenced to find these tactics illiberal and undemocratic. Universities have a particular responsibility to resist this kind of bullying.

As background to this letter, two high-profile examples are worth noting. In 2012, the National Union of Students LGBTQ Campaign passed a motion of no platform against the radical feminist Julie Bindel for her alleged transphobia. Bindel had made comments in relation to transsexual people in a 2004 piece for The Guardian, which she later apologised for as “misplaced and insensitive” (see Bindel, 2007). The NUS motion included the sentence: “this conference believes Julie Bindel is vile”. The history of NUS’s no platform policy relates specifically to fascism, and debate on no platform has tended to centre on the question: while fascists (given the direct physical threat they pose) must be no platformed, should one no platform racists? In this context, the no platforming of Julie Bindel was extraordinary, as she joined a list that includes: Al-Muhajiroun, the British National Party, the English Defence League, and Hizb-ut-Tahrir. In an article titled “Seeing red” in the New Statesman in 2013, journalist and feminist Suzanne Moore argues against austerity and for those who are hardest hit by austerity, women, to be angry and to resist. Moore (2013) writes:

It’s not just the double shift of work and domestic duties that women do. There is now a third shift – we must keep ourselves sexually attractive forever. […] The cliché is that female anger is always turned inwards rather than outwards into despair. We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual. We are angry that men do not do enough. We are angry at work where we are underpaid and overlooked. This anger can be neatly channelled and outsourced to make someone a fat profit. Are your hormones okay? Do you need a nice bath?

A significant reaction followed this publication against Moore’s alleged transphobic reference to “a Brazilian transsexual” (an implicit reference to the model Lea T). This was a vitriolic row, much of which was played out on social media, between, in the main, radical feminists and trans activists.

Cultural theorist Sara Ahmed (2015), in retort to the aforementioned letter published in The Observer, comments, in a blog post titled “You are oppressing us!”:

politics is rarely about one good and one bad side, nor about innocence on one side and guilt on the other. But politics is also messy because power is assymetrical. […] transphobia and anti-trans statements should not be treated as just another viewpoint that we should be free to express at a happy diversity table. There cannot be a dialogue when some at the table are in effect or intent arguing for the elimination of others at the table. […] The presentation of trans activists as a lobby and as bullies rather than as minorities who are constantly being called upon to defend their right to exist is a mechanism of power. Sadly this letter is evidence that the mechanism is working. […] Racists present themselves as injured/under attack/a minority fighting against a powerful anti-racist lobby that is “busy” suppressing their voices. We can hear resonance without assuming analogy.

How did we get to a moment in which lesbian feminists, radical feminists, sexual abuse survivors, transgender and transsexual people, and others, are locked in a war over who has the deeper wound and the bigger pain? Here, it seems, deliberating the power differentials between various oppressed groups has become more important than questioning the bourgeois ideal of capitalist social relations. In a battle over power asymmetry, power is thus let off the hook.

The radical feminist and trans activist deadlock is the privilege production of impasse. On the one hand, we have a camp of people insisting that those born into biologically male bodies carry privilege regardless of their identification as a women – privilege over women who have an entire lived experience of being women and of its related oppression. On the other hand, we have a camp of people arguing that there are those who are cisgendered (whose gender aligns with their sex at birth) and who carry cis power and privilege – privilege over those who have a lived experience of being transgendered (whose gender doesn’t align with their sex at birth) and of its related oppression.

Privilege theory activist Mia McKenzie (2014) prescribes four ways to push back against one’s privilege: one, relinquish power; two, don’t go (she uses as an example women-only events that exclude trans women); three, shut up; and four, be careful what identities you claim (“consider”, she says, “how your privilege […] gives you access to claim identities even when your lived experience does not support it”). There is an irony here that McKenzie advocates a ‘no turning up’ protest against the radical feminist exclusion of trans women from women-only spaces, while failing to notice that radical feminists are employing their own argument against claiming identities when lived experience (seemingly) does not correspond. But perhaps most importantly, McKenzie’s prescription encapsulates how a political project to allow a plethora of voices to be heard carries the potential for the opposite, that is, silencing: ‘I speak, you shut up’. The impasse between radical feminists and trans activists is just this, a silencing, either of trans activists or of radical feminists.


III. Finding our way back to freedom

Often, identity politics becomes far more of a problem outside than inside academia. In mainstream gay, lesbian, and trans communities in the United States, battles rage about what group occupies the more transgressive or aggrieved position, and only rarely are such debates framed in terms of larger discussions about capitalism, class, or economics. In this context then, “transgressive exceptionalism” refers to the practice of taking the moral high ground by claiming to be more oppressed and more extraordinary than others. The rehearsal of identity-bound debates outside the academy speaks not simply to a lack of sophistication in such debates, but suggests that academics have failed to take their ideas beyond the university and have not made necessary interventions in public intellectual venues. (Halberstam, 2005: 20-21)

In relation to the case discussed in section II, the key question, for me, is: how do we support the struggle for political emancipation by and for trans activist movements while demanding an open space to debate the construction of gender and forge an alliance for future human emancipation? In an effort to bring peace to the so-called ‘border wars’ between butch lesbians and female-to-male transsexuals, the queer theorist Judith Halberstam (1998: 148), also known as Jack Halberstam, notes that “many subjects, not only transsexual subjects, do not feel at home in their bodies”; moreover:

Because body flexibility has become both a commodity (in the case of cosmetic surgeries for example) and a form of commodification, it is not enough in this “age of flexibility” to celebrate gender flexibility as simply another sign of progress and liberation. (Halbertam, 2005: 18)

For Halberstam (2005: 19), transgressive exceptionalism is “a by-product of local translations of neo-liberalism” in urban queer communities. This notion of transgressive exceptionalism chimes with the work of Brown on wound culture as a contemporary form of Nietzschean ressentiment, in which, as Cadman (2006: 140) puts it, “current forms of ‘identity politics’ become ‘attached’ to destructive modes of their own subjection”. What meaningful role might academics of the Left play in shifting us forward? We should recognise that whilst “[s]ocial injury such as that conveyed through derogatory speech becomes that which is “unacceptable” and “individually culpable””, it actually “symptomizes deep political distress in a culture” (Brown, 1995: 27) which requires our urgent intervention. We also need to make a case for supplanting a politics of “I am” – “with its defensive closure on identity, its insistence on the fixity of position, its equation of social with moral positioning” – with a politics of “I want this for us” (Brown, 1995: 75). If this fails to happen we will remain locked in a history that has “weight but no trajectory, mass but no coherence, force but no direction”, thus stagnated in a “war without ends or end” (Brown, 1995: 71).



I am incredibly grateful to Louisa Cadman for introducing me to Wendy Brown’s States of Injury.


Ahmed, Sara (2015) “You are oppressing us!”, Feminist Killjoys, last accessed 18 October 2015.

Bassi, Camila (forthcoming) “What’s radical about reality TV? An unexpected tale from Shanghai of a Chinese lesbian antihero”, Gender, Place and Culture.

Bassi, Camila (2010) “‘It’s new but not that new’: On the continued use of old Marx”, Feminist Legal Studies 18, 69-76.

Bindel, Julie (2007) “My trans mission”. The Guardian, last accessed 18 October 2015.

Brown, Wendy (1995) States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton University Press, Princeton).

Cadman, Louisa (2006) A genealogy of biopolitical contestation during the reform of the Mental Health Act (1983) (DPhil, University of Sheffield).

Halberstam, Judith (2005) In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York University Press, New York).

Halberstam, Judith (1998) Female Masculinity (Duke University Press, Durham).

Letter (2015) “We cannot allow censorship and silencing of individuals”. The Observer, last accessed 18 October 2015.

Marx, Karl [1852] (1977) “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”, in Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Ed) David McLellan (Oxford University Press, Oxford), 300-325.

Marx Karl [1843] (1977) “On ‘The Jewish Question’”, in Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Ed) David McLellan (Oxford University Press, Oxford), 39-62.

McKenzie, Mia (2014) “4 Ways to Push Back Against Your Privilege”, BGD, last accessed 18 October 2015.

Moore, Suzanne (2013) “Seeing red”. New Statesman, last accessed 18 October 2015.

Rothman, Joshua (2014) “The Origins of ‘Privilege’: an interview with Peggy McIntosh”, New Yorker, last accessed 18 October 2015.

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