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.

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)

Trans activists versus radical feminists: abandonment of freedom for ‘ressentiment’

The following is a full recording of and written extracts from my book chapter, “On Identity Politics, Ressentiment, and the Evacuation of Human Emancipation”, in Nocella and Juergensmeyer (eds.) Fighting Academic Repression and Neoliberal Education (Peter Lang Publishing).

My chapter and its podcast examine a neoliberal wave of identity politics in the form of intersectionality and privilege theory. I argue that it is a repression of self by self, which precludes connection, bypasses freedom, and generates ressentiment. I explore a specific case study of the political deadlock between a current of radical feminists and a current of transgender and transsexual activists, which has played out on social media and across university campuses.

Freedom has become dangerously 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 to explain how the desired impulse of politicized 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 anaesthetize and to externalize what is unendurable.

The radical feminist and trans activist deadlock is the privilege production of impasse, and a symptom of acute political distress in which freedom has been abandoned for ressentiment.

The chasm Marx identifies between human beings as, on the one hand, citizens of a universal political community and, on the other hand, private, alienated, egoistic individuals of a civil society, is reflected in the contradiction of a neoliberal wave of identity politics considered and critiqued in my chapter and its podcast.

Our journey back to the dream of freedom requires us making a case for supplanting a politics of “I am” – which closes down identity, and fixes it within a social and moral hierarchy – with a politics of “I want this for us” (Brown, 1995: 75 [my emphasis]). If we fail to help make this 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).

(See also my earlier blog post, The evacuation of human emancipation, identity politics, and ‘ressentiment’)

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)

ressentiment

“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).

 

Acknowledgement:

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

References:

Ahmed, Sara (2015) “You are oppressing us!”, Feminist Killjoys, last accessed 18 October 2015. http://feministkilljoys.com/2015/02/15/you-are-oppressing-us/

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. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2007/aug/01/mytransmission

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. http://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2015/feb/14/letters-censorship

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. http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2014/02/4-ways-push-back-privilege/

Moore, Suzanne (2013) “Seeing red”. New Statesman, last accessed 18 October 2015. http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/01/seeing-red-power-female-anger

Rothman, Joshua (2014) “The Origins of ‘Privilege’: an interview with Peggy McIntosh”, New Yorker, last accessed 18 October 2015. http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-origins-of-privilege

Rethinking gender politics

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? Some sex tips and an internet date? What if, contrary to Sex and the City, new shoes do not fill the hole in your soul? What if you aspire to another model of womanhood than the mute but beautifully groomed Kate Middleton? What if your anguish is not illogical but actually bloody spot on?” (Suzanne Moore, Seeing red: the power of female anger)

This is a recording of the session I did at the Workers’ Liberty Summer Camp on August 22nd 2015, in which I explore the impasse on the gender question between transgender activists and radical feminists, the problem with privilege theory, and what socialist feminism might learn from the work of Foucault on sexuality… Enjoy!