On Parkfield School and Tory individualism

Conservative Muslim parents and LGBT activists continue in open conflict over the teaching of gay and trans rights in Birmingham schools. Conservative leadership candidate Esther McVey fanned the flames today by coming down on the side of the protesting parents:

Elsewhere, teenage Tory activist Soutiam Goodarzi, herself of Muslim origin, expressed outrage at McVey’s alignment with the forces of religious conservatism on this most uncomfortable clash of minority rights:

Though it’s tempting to laugh and point at the contortions and cognitive dissonance the left must endure in order to be on the same side as both groups in this clash of rights, it is the conservative predicament which is more acute, in part because it is not out in the open like conservative Muslim homophobia.

McVey here expresses the common conservative viewpoint that holds moral instruction to be the preserve of private families, not of the state. In this worldview, it is simply not the place of government to meddle in the mores parents convey to their children, and in fact schools should concentrate on teaching subjects such as history, science and maths rather than making pronouncements on what is socially acceptable.

Goodarzi expresses the equally common conservative view that religious minorities – especially Muslim ones – should not be permitted to effect a reverse takeover of the public square simply through a mixture of intransigence and leveraged victim politics. To put it another way, Muslims should not be permitted, by virtue of the specially favoured place they hold in the system of diversity (Cobley) to force sweeping changes to what is commonly taught, said or deemed acceptable.

McVey’s stance would leave families – including religious conservative ones – in sole charge of the moral instruction of the young. But Goodarzi’s stance cannot afford to, lest the moral instruction of the young be subject to infiltration and takeover by values alien to a functioning free society.

Goodarzi’s position is more akin to classical liberalism than conservatism proper. In this context, conservative religion – whether Christian or Muslim or something else – is self-evidently an obstacle on the way to individual freedom and self-realisation. Allied to a free-market position that seeks to reduce, remove (or at least disguise) the role of the state in the operation of markets, this is a type of ‘conservatism’ (perhaps more properly called progressive free-market liberalism) typified by George Osborne. Morality, inasmuch as it is discussed at all, is in a sense negative, consisting mainly of strictures designed to maximise individual freedom and self-fulfilment – such as injunctions to eschew homophobic bullying. These, though, may be enforced by the state as it is assumed to be in the best interests of the good society that individual freedom be allowed to flourish as fully as possible.

McVey’s position is a version of this stance, modified by the proviso that some forms of shared morality are desirable. These, however, should be transmitted not by the state, whose role should be limited to activities such as keeping the peace and maintaining roads, but left as the purview of individual families.

The trouble with both these as models for society, though, is that they both depend for their existence on something they also work to undermine: that is, public mores. Moral instruction is, in a sense, both public and private: it concerns our private behaviour, but it also bears on society as a whole. If the moral instruction of children is nonexistent or badly done, those children are less likely to make a positive contribution to society as adults. It is everyone’s business how families educate their children. Our radically individualist society may not like this, but it’s true.

To illustrate.

Some choices parents make impact literally no-one but the parents and child in question. Cosleeping with babies and young children is a good example. It makes zero difference to anyone outside the family whether my toddler sleeps in my bed or her own. Who cares? Potty training, on the other hand, is a different matter. I will annoy no-one outside the family if I wave my hands in a liberal fashion and say airily that my child will sleep in her own bed ‘when she’s ready’. But if I declare that my child ‘refuses to wear a nappy’ and will learn to pee and poo in a potty ‘when she’s ready’ I will quickly incur widespread dislike, hefty dry cleaning bills and a sudden lack of playdate invitations.

Moral instruction is more like potty training than co-sleeping, and this is where McVey’s position falls down. You can say ‘families know best’ when it comes to moral instruction, but would you say that of a parent who was teaching a toddler that it was fine to take a shit on the pavement? Morals are about how we live together as a society; we can’t pretend that they can be atomised to the family level and still work as morals. You have to be confident that all or most families are on the same page about where it’s acceptable to take a crap before you say breezily ‘families know best’. Otherwise you’re just ducking the issue.

But Goodarzi’s conservative-flavoured liberalism doesn’t have much to offer either on the subject of which moral precepts should be adhered to by everyone – except inasmuch as they are enforced by the state. It’s simply assumed that individuals will somehow naturally come to the conclusion that we use the potty. How they get there, it is implied, is not a matter for politics. And if they don’t, we pass a law saying they have to. Anything intermediate is an incursion onto individual liberty.

But the truth is that both these viewpoints take a set of shared moral references so profoundly for granted they are able to pretend they don’t exist. Everyone just knows we don’t shit on the floor; that’s why (McVey) we can trust families to convey that and don’t need to teach it at school or else (Goodarzi) all we need to do is stamp out regressive viewpoints that might limit our freedom to come naturally to the right conclusion about where we take a crap. But that set of shared values is precisely the target of Goodarzi’s individualism. It is the regressive swamp of benighted reactionary muck from which individual freedom is painstakingly extricated. And once this broad framing of our moral past and present is in place, we can’t really trust families to convey the right stuff either.

Goodarzi’s position is more honest than McVey’s, in that it acknowledges more or less explicitly that if we’re accepting radical individualism as a basic social good, then the state needs to step in as coercive arbiter of some moral matters, in order to prevent wholesale anarchy (and shitty pavements). In the terms of my metaphor, Goodarzi’s position suggests that everyone can do as they like but allows for some kind of authority which is empowered to ensure people teach their toddlers to crap in the potty. It at least has a stance on some moral matters, and accepts the need to enforce them.

McVey’s ‘families know best’, on the other hand, avoids making any moral pronouncements about the social good and simply implies that ‘families’ will come up with the right answers about moral instruction on their own. It assumes a shared value set that might once, in a monocultural society, have existed, but which in our post-religious, post-imperial, multicultural, radically-individualist Britain simply cannot be taken for granted. If ‘best’ is taken to mean ‘fitting most harmoniously and beneficially into society as a whole’, it is not at all obvious any more that families do know best. But McVey cannot define ‘best’, any more than Goodarzi can, because both have accepted the basic liberal-individualist premise that even in matters that explicitly concern society as a whole rather than us as individuals or even as families, no-one has any right to tell anyone else what to do.

Left unmodified, these two stances point at two possible futures. Goodarzi’s future is one in which we are all free individuals, and the only agent with a right to tell us what to do is the state, which exists as a kind of medium in which radically unencumbered individuals interact and which intervenes only to maximise individual freedom. McVey’s future is one in which shared values still exist, but not at the level of the nation state – only at the level of individual families or ‘communities’. These ‘communities’ are, in a fashion similar to Goodarzi’s future, the subjects of a total state which exists as the sole arbiter of clashing freedoms and community ‘rights’. In this future, moral values are outsourced to religious, ethnic and sexual minorities and (to a lesser extent) individual families, administrated by an explicitly amoral state whose remit is to hold and defuse tensions between moral standpoints or in extremis to rule in favour of one or another position in an irreconcilable clash.

In neither of these futures is there much to conserve, which leaves conservatism in something of a bind. Its modern proponents have, in different ways, accepted the broad premise that the pursuit of individualism and markets is the highest public good. This in turn means individual freedom should at every turn be prioritised over a shared cultural and moral framework, which is depicted as the dark force of the past and enemy of progress. After some 50 years of this process, we are left with not a great deal except individuals (or, as McVey would have it, individuals and families). Even those pockets of reactionaries who protest are like US Marines stuck in the jungle still fighting the Korean War: it’s over, the pieces are being swept up, we are where we are. Conservatives now face a difficult choice between agreeing that, absent shared mores, the state needs to take a role as moral arbiter, or else watching as a national community disintegrates into ever more balkanised ‘communities’, whose moral frameworks compete and, as at Parkview School, clash irreconcilably. Or (and this is so difficult to imagine in practice as to be very unlikely) conservatives need to consider whether there are shared values worth fighting for as a society, rather than legislating as a government or clutching to our bosoms as individuals and atomised families.

Can societies survive without blasphemy laws?

So today I was mulling gloomily over the way hate crime laws seem to have taken seamlessly over the function of blasphemy laws in the UK. I decided to look up when blasphemy was abolished as an offence in the country, thinking it might be sometime in the 1970s. Wrong – blasphemy was abolished as an offence in 2008. The acts governing hate crime (the Crime and Disorder Act and the Criminal Justice Act) were added to the statute book in 1998 and and 2003 respectively.

The CPS’ own website states that

The police and the CPS have agreed the following definition for identifying and flagging hate crimes: “Any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice, based on a person’s disability or perceived disability; race or perceived race; or religion or perceived religion; or sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation or transgender identity or perceived transgender identity.”

These laws have been used in recent times for such diverse purposes as fining a man who taught his girlfriend’s dog to make a Nazi salute and arresting a woman for calling a transgender woman a man.

The common feature of both the blasphemy laws of yore and the hate crime laws of today is that both prohibit speech considered harmful to society’s morals. That society’s morals are no longer situated in a common belief system (such as Christianity) but an atomised, individualistic inner space (as expressed by the definition of hate crime as anything which is perceived by an individual as being such) is neither here nor there. Certain tenets cannot be challenged lest doing so harms the fabric of society.

It’s also neither here nor there that some of those moral tenets are unprovable or unfalsifiable in any objective sense: the Resurrection of Christ, say, or the existence of some magical inner ‘gender identity’. Indeed the more outlandish a protected belief the better, because the function of blasphemy laws is to compel moral obedience, and what better sign of moral obedience than to see people dutifully repeating something that is in no sense objectively true (such as that men can become women) on pain of being punished if they don’t comply?

My argument here isn’t that we should abolish hate crime laws as we did their predecessors, the laws of blasphemy. I don’t want to rant, Spiked-style, about the threat from blasphemy and hate crime laws to free speech so much I want to ask: have we ever really had free speech? It seems no sooner did we get rid of one set of rules about what you can’t say than we replaced them with another. There was, perhaps, a couple of decades where blasphemy was effectively defunct despite the statute remaining in existence and before hate crime came to be. But the collapse of controls on speech for religious reasons is nigh-simultaneous with the rise of controls on speech for social justice/equality reasons. The Human Rights Act 1998 forced blasphemy law to be restrained by the right to free speech; the same year, the Crime and Disorder Act made hateful behaviour toward a victim based on membership (or presumed membership) in a racial or religious group an aggravating factor in sentencing. (Insert chin-stroking emoji here.)

This leads me to suspect that human societies cannot, in fact, survive very long without laws of some kind governing speech. I’d love to see a counter-example. But I’ll be astonished if anyone can point me to a state that has abolished religious blasphemy without replacing it with controls on speech for other reasons, whether (under supposedly atheistic Communism) to forbid speaking against the Dictator, or (under supposedly individualistic, pluralistic liberalism) to forbid speaking against individuals’ notional right to self-define without reference to the collective.

Much as every human represses some aspects of their personality in order to function, every society does so too; it is a foolish or short-lived society that makes no effort to clamp down on behaviours or opinions that pose a threat to what that society considers the good or virtuous life. If that’s the case, is there even any value in trying to fight what feels like a rising tide of authoritarian busybodying keen to tell me what I can and can’t say? Or should I just pile in and make my bid to be on the team who’s in charge of deciding what should or shouldn’t be banned?

Right now, the two groups jostling most energetically for that position in the UK are the proponents of ‘intersectionality’ and the radical Islamists. If Nassim Taleb is correct, and social mores are disproportionately set by tiny ideological minorities purely based on the strength of their conviction, then whether we end up punishing those who assert that men cannot become women or those who draw cartoons of Mohammed will be a straight fight between which of those groups is more determined to blow shit up if they don’t get their way.

I don’t really like the way this argument is going. If I’m right, then social mores in a few decades will bear few resemblances to those of today And whether they’re structured with reference to authoritarian liberalism or radical Islam I don’t think I will particularly like their shape. But there’s nothing I can do about it – the moral majority in the country is firmly post-Christian and, as I’ve argued elsewhere, a society that can’t be arsed to defend its moral traditions is guaranteed to see them supplanted by ideologies with more committed adherents. And indeed, the kind of Christianity that did once upon a time get out of bed to defend its moral tenets by any means necessary would probably, in practice, be as repugnant to me as either of the likely moral futures toward which our society is heading.


On Reconstruction: surviving the trauma of postmodernism

I’ve been mentally composing a version of this essay for a long time. I thought perhaps its relevance might have passed but the explosion in the last few years of postmodern identity politics into the mainstream convinces me that far from being something that happened briefly to one not very happy undergraduate in the early 00s, the mental distress I experienced as a result of exposure to ‘critical theory’ has expanded to encompass much of contemporary discourse. I don’t claim to have a solution to that, but I want to share how I survived.

I went to a moderately eccentric school by ordinary standards, but for the purposes of this essay we can treat it as a classical education, inasmuch as we learned about great civilisations that came before ours and this knowledge was treated as important and still relevant to us and the world and culture today. Built into the form of the curriculum was a tacit teleology, that implied (whether or not it was ever stated) an evolutionary relation of each civilisation to the one that preceded it. It was a narrative that led to where we are now, and the civilisation we currently inhabit.

Imagine my surprise, then, when as an English Literature undergraduate at Oxford in around 2000, I discovered postmodernist thought, and its many schools of critical theory.

By ‘critical theory’ I mean the body of thought emanating initially mostly from France, with Saussure and Derrida, then expanding out to include such figures as Paul de Man, Slavoj Žižek and Judith Butler. Many more names have joined that list since, and taken together I believe it is referred to as ‘cultural studies’ today, or, in the words of the Sokal Squared hoaxsters, ‘grievance studies’. Back in 2002 at Oxford, critical theory was a looming presence at the edge of the arts but seemed most pertinent to the study of literature; it has subsequently, I gather, swallowed most of the humanities and is mounting siege against the sciences as I write.

But I digress. The central insight of this discipline was the destabilising one, and that I think has not changed. To summarise: Saussure proposed that instead of treating language as transparent, its meaning rising off the page without any need for elucidation, we should split language into ‘sign’ and ‘signified’. That is, what a word means is separable from the word that means it. We can thus, he argued, institute a new discipline of ‘semiotics’: the study of signs – a study that reaches far beyond language and was immediately influential in the social sciences.

This insight was developed by Jaques Derrida, whose simple but devastating observation was that if this is the case, we cannot define any given ‘signified’ except with reference to further signs, which then in turn themselves require definition with reference to further signs. It’s turtles all the way down. We have no means, through language, of arriving at any kind of truth that we are able to experience directly. Furthermore, the concerted efforts by centuries of culture since the Enlightenment to obscure the fact that it’s turtles all the way down is in fact a cunning effort to shore up vested interests, and to conceal the operations of power. Recourses to authority are null and void. There is no solid foundation, no God, no truth, no authority. Only power, and a form of consensus reality arrived at through the glacial accretion of a billion tiny operations of power that have, in sum, decreed that the world should be thus and not thus.

I freely admit that I was a bit loopy anyway when I reached that point on my reading list, for unrelated personal reasons. But this insight hit me like a freight train. I spent most of one Trinity term feeling as though I was in the midst of a psychotic experience. Instead of seeing the ‘dreaming spires’ around me as the accumulation of centuries of carefully-tended tradition, a representation in architecture of the ideal of the university as a custodian of the best that has been thought and said to date, I saw each building as a kind of nightmarish extrusion into physical space of power structures that were indifferent if not hostile to me as a sexual minority and a woman. I felt suffocated: stifled by a kind of blaring architectural triumphalism that declared at every corner, with every church tower, every statue of every great man, ‘YOU CANNOT CHANGE ANY OF THIS, WE WILL ALWAYS WIN’. And stifled again by the nihilistic twist postmodernism places on this reading of the world, and culture, in that it assures us that there is nowhere to stand outside the push and pull of power. There is nothing outside the text. So in trying to challenge these operations of power, we will probably just end up re-inscribing them.

By now you’re probably thinking ‘wow, she sounds nuts’. Well yes, I was a bit at that point, as I said before. But I describe this experience in detail because 1) it was so distressing and 2) the state I spent the next few years in following my fall from the Eden of pre-post-modernism[1] sounded, in my inner monologue, so similar to what I read of the toxic ‘social justice’ debate that rolls around our social media some 15 or so years on that I feel they must be related. What if today’s SJWs are in fact acting out a traumatic state of mind engendered by exposure to ‘cultural studies’ at university? If that is the case, then there may be someone out there who will find some comfort in my story of how I recovered from that experience to the point where I was able to make any decisions at all.

Because make no mistake, the Fall engendered by internalising the idea that ‘there is nothing outside the text’ is a horrible place to be. Consider that iconic scene in the Matrix where Neo wakes from the dream he believed to be normal life, in a slime-covered capsule, to discover that he and the rest of the human species are in fact mindless peons farmed by forces beyond their power to change. Then bin the rest of the Matrix franchise, shoot Morpheus and the rest of the resistance, end the film with Neo back in his pod as a human generator, just without his connection to the Matrix. Eyes staring helplessly into the machine-farm abyss. That’s a bit how it feels.

Forget political radicalism. There’s nothing left, this worldview says, but a continuous action of ‘disruption’ from within the system. There is no way to change the world for the better because what even is the better anyway? All you have left available to you is a kind of carping from the sidelines. Calling out particularly brazen efforts by the collective voice of consensus reality to perpetutate itself in its current form and to silence potentially disruptive voices. Maybe trying to widen the range of voices permitted to contribute to the operations of power. Maybe you can see now how this could be a mindset conducive to (for example) the contemporary popularity of ‘call-out culture’ and quixotic obsession of public discourse with ensuring the identity categories of figures in public life and Hollywood films precisely replicate their demographic proportions in the population at large.

No truth, no authority, no meaning, no means of striving for the good without producing more of the same. Just power. For the longest time I couldn’t find a way out of the dragging nihilism engendered by this worldview. Eventually though it occurred to me that I just didn’t have to be absolutist about it. I just had to be a bit more pragmatic. So what if we can never be wholly certain that what we mean to say to someone else is exactly what they hear, because every definition we use in theory needs to be defined in its turn, and so on ad infinitum? If I ask my friend to pass the salt, and he passes the salt, I really don’t need to waste energy mulling over the social forces underlying the particular rituals around eating and table manners that obtain in my current cultural context. I thank my friend and add some salt to my dinner.

This is a tiny example but I decided to try and apply this principle to life in general. If I needed to get on with something, instead of getting bogged down, within every social context and every situation, with the subterranean operations of power, patriarchy, compulsory heterosexuality etc etc etc, I’d try and bracket all that stuff and act as if things were still as stable as they were before the Fall. I coined the term ‘temporary certainties’ for this state of mind. It took a bit of mental effort (and you probably still think I sound mad) but far less mental effort than inwardly deconstructing every utterance, object and situation I found myself in for signs of Western-colonialist cisheteropatriarchal blahdeblah.

Gradually, the psychosis waned. Now, 10 or so years on from arriving at this solution, it’s still working for me. The world can never be as solid-seeming as it was before my Fall. Truth still seems a bit relative depending on where one is standing. But the important insight is that many categories, many tropes, objects and structures, are stable enough to treat them ‘as if’ they were pre-post-modernist type solid. You don’t need to waste time deconstructing everything; indeed, trying to do so is a fast track to a sense of perpetual victimisation and bitter, impotent rage. And trying to build any kind of transformative politics on a foundation of perpetual victimisation and bitter, impotent rage is not going to turn out as a net force for good, however radically you relativise the notion of ‘good’.

This doesn’t have to mean buying in wholesale to things as they are and becoming a cheerleader for keeping things unchanged. But to anyone currently struggling to focus in a world that seems hostile and composed entirely of operations of power, I say: pick your battles. Much of the world is still good (for a temporarily certain value of good), many people are kind and well-meaning. Creating new interpersonal dynamics around the anxious effort to avoid the accidental replication in ordinary speech of sociocultural dynamics you find oppressive (aka ‘microaggressions’ may not, in the end, make for a more functional society. It’s possible to treat as a temporary certainty the hypothesis that in asking ‘Where are you from?’ someone is not in fact unconsciously othering you by virtue of your apparent ethnic difference, but simply – from maybe a naïve position in a social background that does not include many ethnic minorities – seeking to know more about you, in order to befriend you.

The beauty of a temporary certainty is that, choosing such a vantage point, we can say of any given cultural phenomenon (the institution of marriage, say) ‘we are where we are’. We are no longer stuck with the Hobson’s choice of either pretending to buy into something as an absolute that we see as contingent and culturally constructed, or else setting ourselves pointlessly in opposition to it, protesting that as it is culturally constructed we should make all efforts to disrupt or transform it into some form that might appear more ‘just’. Instead, we can accept that despite this phenomenon being, strictly speaking, contingent, it remains stable enough that we can and should find a pragmatic relation to it. (In my case, that was to get married. One of the best decisions I ever made.)

You may object that my argument here amounts to a strategy for recouping something for cultural conservatism from the rubble of the post-modernist project. I beg to differ. Rather, what I’m advocating here is more along the lines of a plea to those who see themselves as political radicals to think deeply about what really matters and to focus on that. As it stands, ‘social justice’ social media suggests that thanks to the post-Fall malaise I postulate as infecting most of our young people, radical politics is resiling into a kind of nihilistic shit-slinging incapable of going beyond critiquing the contingency of what it seeks to change in order to advocate for anything better.

[1] I don’t mean modernism, hence the clumsy construction. I mean something more like ‘the popular twentieth century Enlightenment-ish consensus about truth, reason and meaning’

Social justice? Or class warfare?

An aristocracy is pulling itself away from the masses in America’s supposedly egalitarian society, writes Matthew Stewart in this masterful article for The Atlantic. By carefully hoarding (among other things) property wealth, social capital, educational opportunities and tax breaks, all of which is combining to consolidate a top 10 percent which believes itself to be meritocratic but whose meritocracy is increasingly hereditary. I won’t rehash the article; read it; whether you’re American or not, if you live in an advanced first world economy you will likely hear resonances of the situation in your own nation – not least because the people in that top 10 per cent could in fact be found in your own country as much as in the USA, as they map fairly straightforwardly onto the Anywheres described by David Goodhart in his book The Road To Somewhere.

I want to use the new aristocracy of Stewart’s piece – Goodhart’s Anywheres – as a starting point for considering the practical impact of the social justice catechism. My thesis is that while this catechism purports to promote egalitarianism, in its practical impact it acts as a form of class warfare that serves both to justify and also to retrench the class interests and cultural homogeneity of this aristocracy. It is, after all, the elite colleges of the USA from which the social justice gospel most pungently emanates, and the gilded young people of America’s new aristocracy would not be glomming so enthusiastically to an ideology that served profoundly to undermine their own class interests. Not even upper-class Communists do that, except in theory.

It’s not an original insight to consider New Left politics as a replacement of class politics with affirmative-action programmes for and by the elite. If anyone else has dissected this in more detail please point me in their direction; I spend most of my time wiping a toddler’s arse and cooking meals for the family so don’t have time to research this in the depth it deserves. I’m just going to list a few of the commonly heard tenets of the social justice gospel and then look at the (usually heavily deprecated and often ferociously silenced) critiques of those positions.

  • Open borders are a good thing
  • White privilege and racism are endemic and inescapable
  • Sexual harassment is the gravest issue facing women today
  • Feminism must include and make space for men who say they are women
  • All social justice issues are inextricable from all other social justice issues

I’ll probably look back on this piece in due course and wince, because I can see that some of the thinking needs sharpening yet. But I have limited time to write so I’m just going to plough on and hope for the best. Please consider this a kind of brain dump, feel free to ask difficult questions or point me in the direction of anyone thinking more clearly about it. Anyway, here are some thoughts about the ways in which social justice ideology works particularly well as a form of class-inflected self-interest for the new aristocracy, while presenting itself as the exact opposite.

Open borders are a good thing: Diversity is good. White cultures are crusty, ageing and colonial and benefit from being enriched. We deserve to share our wealth with people from the rest of the world especially as we stole it all from them to begin with. Multiracial societies are intrinsically fairer and better. There’s no such thing as an illegal human. We should dissolve selfish, insular, racist nation states into a global melting pot of free movement and watch justice blossom.

Okay, but what about the working class critique of free movement? Routinely smeared  by our top 10% via the cultural mechanisms over which they have near-total control as simple xenophobia, the working class critique of free movement has little to do with racism and everything to do with bargaining power. Put simply, the more people competing for a low-skill job, the lower the wage the worker can command. This is simple economics. So when the top 10% (which runs the country as well as the media through which that country talks to itself) changes the rules so that country sees a rapid growth in the number of low-skilled workers via immigration, are they doing it in order to enrich the culture, or to depress the cost of hiring plumbers, electricians and nannies while pushing up the scarcity value of the home they bought before the migration boom? Beneath the high-minded talk of diversity sits a hard backbone of supply and demand economics that looks suspiciously, on closer inspection, like a consolidation of class interests.

White privilege and racism are endemic and inescapable

My understanding of the position taken by Candace Owens and others is that by entrenching a victimhood narrative within black communities this worldview serves not to free black people  but to perpetuate their immiseration, by treating it as immanent and inescapable.

If one considers black people, like women, less as an identity and more as an economic (class) group it’s clear that they are vastly more likely to belong to the 90% than to the 10%. (This also goes for single mothers, by the way). So why not come up with a way of feeling aggrieved on behalf of black people, while also encouraging those black people who don’t belong to the aristocracy to believe themselves incapable of changing their circumstances? Those affirmative action programmes created by well-meaning social entrepreneurs to bridge the gap created by this pervasive state of racism and white supremacy can then also be usefully applied to other members of the 10% – that is, to black people who are already wealthy – thus ensuring moral credentials are burnished without compromising the impermeability of the aristocracy.

In other words, by refocusing the anger of the masses away from issues of class to issues of race, you can ensure ‘representation’ by ethnic minorities within the upper caste and call this ‘social justice’, all the while foreclosing the space for discussing whether the increasingly drastic cleavage between the upper caste and the rest of us is truly the way things should be.

Sexual harassment at work is the gravest issue facing women today

Unless you live in a pretty rarefied world this is just self-evidently untrue. Elsewhere in the world women are raped when they sneak away from work in the fields to take a shit, or have their organs of sexual pleasure cut off as precondition of anyone being able to sell them off to an older husband. How is this not a more important issue facing women today? But instead we amplify the noise about how a movie producer once said something a bit iffy over lunch, or a magazine editor may or may not have touched someone’s bottom during a late-evening meeting, while looking sideways and wringing our hands while mumbling about ‘culture’ while girls and young women are taken overseas to have their genitals sliced with an un-sterile razor or to be forced into sexual servitude, destined forever to obey the every command of a cousin whose language they don’t share.

I can only conclude that this is taking place because the people who lead the narratives on what feminism is aren’t generally the same ones at the sharp end of what life looks like when feminism isn’t in the picture. Nimco Ali is an honourable exception, and there are many others, but there’s still an overwhelming sense of nervous recoil by much of mainstream – that is, socially acceptable – feminism from any willingness to tackle any issue that might be complicated by the ever more baroque dance of identity politics.

Perhaps the most egregious of these turnings-aside exists in the determination of Polite Feminism to ignore the absurd demand of males who wish to wear dresses and behave in a feminine manner to be treated as in every way indistinguishable from biological women. I’ve given that a separate heading though, so let me return to sexual harassment at work. In practice, this serves to create a kind of wilful blindness to the innumerable issues that might be tackled by a feminism that emerged from poor women with jobs, rather than wealthy ones with careers. What might those issues be? We don’t know, because no-one ever gets to hear. I suspect it would focus more on how the buggering hell anyone is supposed to care for vulnerable and dependent loved ones while keeping body and soul together – not on whether or not someone once called you ‘darling’ by the watercooler.

Trans women are women: On the surface, this one seems like a social justice no-brainer. People should be radically free to be whatever they wish to be, right? So if a male bodied person identifies as a woman, he should be recognised as such. It’s a simple issue of social justice, the next frontier in the civil rights movement, a fundamental step to ensure a vulnerable group is protected from abuse at the hands of violent and bigoted men.

But in practice, encoding the nostrum ‘Trans women are women’ in law means the effective legal abolition of biological sex. Now, that doesn’t impact all that much on people at the top but makes things disproportionately worse for women further down the food chain: imprisoned women, abused women in shelters. Women on hospital wards. Suddenly the statutory requirement to keep such spaces penis-free vanishes. Along with the abolition of sex goes any meaningful way of describing sex discrimination; if men can also breastfeed, how is discrimination against breastfeeding mothers in the workplace about sexism? And above all it renders invisible once again the labour that is fundamentally women’s – childbirth and childrearing – because it can no longer be named as a property of women. We can continue to shrug our shoulders at the dilemmas of people who want to work part-time and care for children; that’s not a women’s issue. Nor is miscarriage care. Nor is domestic violence.

And don’t be fooled into thinking that just because something is now a ‘people issue’ rather than a ‘women’s issue’ it will rise in status, because ‘after all men get pregnant too’. You only have to look at the way biological-males-who-say-they-are-women get lauded for career achievements, while biological-females-who-say-they-are-male get lauded for having babies, to realise that this brave new world of supposed gender neutrality retains the same physiological, sexually dimorphic fundamentals as the previous one where we knew what ‘men’ and ‘women’ meant, and all the same rules of sexism still apply. Only now we don’t have words for them any more.

This works as an Anywhere power move because as everyone secretly knows, and no-one really wants to acknowledge, if all the little women – you know, the fat ugly ones who work in the care industry and live in shitty little houses somewhere you’d want to drive through as fast as possible – stopped doing what women everywhere have always done the entire social fabric would collapse. Too much consciousness-raising is a bad thing. So instead, keep it contained. Divert attention from anything that might entail looking too seriously and critically at the way the mass of ordinary women are asked to live. Focus on something that sounds inclusive, kind and sort of ‘feministy’, imposes precisely no costs on your social class and in the process conveniently renders un-nameable a number of the lines of enquiry that might otherwise be pursued by feminists concerned with the mass rather than the elite.

All social justice issues are inextricable from all other social justice issues

The credo of ‘intersectionality’ has in effect consumed all the separate identity politics movements, through the simple medium of asserting that the more identities you have, the more oppressed you are – and (in the popular understanding at least) this functions as a simple points scheme.

(It’s worth noting at this point that socioeconomic class is not usually listed as an Oppressed Identity, despite the transparent persistence of class snobbery even in our supposedly enlightened times. I’m not talking about people like Jacob Rees-Mogg either, I’m talking about – for example – those who sneer at poor people for making political choices that militate against Anywhere class interests).

The identities that do count in the points schemes are all ones that are as available to the wealthy as they are to the poor. Race; transgender identification; religious faith (unless it’s Jewish or Christian); all these are popularly considered axes of oppression. Oppression, we are to infer, happens just as much to the very rich as to the very poor, as long as they are black, Muslim, transgender or whatever. (Indeed, one might be forgiven for thinking that the most vocal Oppressed Identities are in fact the ones dealing with issues that no-one but the relatively privileged has time to consider, such as ‘Am I non-binary, demiboy or transmasculine?’.) Further, because all social justice issues are inextricable from each other, and ‘intersectionality’ is a totalising doctrine, to demur on any given point either regarding the points system or any of the maxims it promotes renders one excommunicate from the congregation.

This works both to muffle dissent and also to provide an unassailable vantage point and moral high ground from which to attack anyone who objects, for any reason, to any part of the belief system – which, coincidentally, is likely to include many of the people whose class interests are less well-represented by the belief system than your own. And not only can you mobilise people advocating for the social justice issue against which dissent has been voiced, but because of the doctrine of inextricability the rest of the faithful must join in excommunicating the heretic as well.

So taken in its entirety, the social justice form of identity politics (as distinct from that variety, founded on a presumption of Christian/humanist universals, expressed in – for example – the work of Martin Luther King) operates both to articulate the class interests of the new elite, and also in important ways to create a bulwark against competing articulations of class interest, be they black, working-class or female. ‘

Diversity’ functions as an overarching political system and means of distributing resources and power (as set out with blistering clarity in Ben Cobley’s book The Tribe) and also as a means of exerting downward pressure on the wages of the servant class. At the same time, the elite drive to introduce transience into working-class communities serves to degrade the interpersonal systems of solidarity and mutual assistance, grounded in place and relatively stable social values and population, which have traditionally served the poor in place of the financial resources needed to buy in services such as childcare or help for the elderly.

Meanwhile, feminism focuses on the fine points of sexual behaviour in mixed-sex workplaces with desk jobs, at the expense of thornier issues thrown up by – for example – the introduction to our society, via the promotion of that other social justice credo ‘diversity’, of cultures with traditions radically at odds with feminism. The focus on sexual mores serves as a kind of displacement activity, expelling difficult (and in other countries indisputably feminist) issues not immediately pertinent to the elite from feminism into the realm of the ‘far right’. (Because let’s face it, it’s not elite Muslim migrants who are sending their teenage daughters overseas for a forced marriage, it’s the working class ones). It also helps to obscure or banish matters that might otherwise fall into the domain of feminism but are principally working-class issues, such as the many less well-off women who wish they could spend less time at their job and more time with their children, but cannot afford to do so; or the difficulty of creating those local support networks so essential to surviving life with dependent family members, when the culture as a whole considers the labour force as a mass of entirely mobile individuals with no need or desire for local connections, and actively encourages working-class neighbourhoods to become more, not less transient. And just in case the lot of women who can’t buy in the services displaced by the decline in stable communities is not challenging enough, social justice will assert further that not only are sexual mores more important than any other issue to feminism, but that being a woman has no biological component, and therefore women’s refuges, prisons and swimming pool changing rooms should henceforth be effectively sorted by each individual’s inner sense of gender rather than by biological sex. Further again, the entire domain of difficulties encountered by women as a function of being the sex that gestates, bears and nurses children is no longer a women’s issue, because men also have babies, so stop talking about it. And, finally, any critique of any of these matters from the perspective of non-Anywhere class interests will result in your excommunication. If that isn’t starting to smell a lot like class warfare, I’m not sure what is.


On community, communities and identity politics

Today I drove half an hour to a hospital, with my toddler, to visit a dying woman I barely knew personally, just because she is a member of the church I attend. I don’t want a medal or anything; I mention the incident because it left me mulling over the different ways our culture uses the word ‘community’, and what they mean in practice in different contexts.

In the context of a church, ‘community’ means shared values. In that context, people go the extra mile to care for one another in ways that are shaped by the church’s shared value system. Specifically, visiting a dying woman, that might mean reading her a prayer or sharing with her thoughts and prayers sent by other members of the community. It might mean being willing to hold the hand of a near stranger, knowing she is part of my community and that enough of what remained unspoken between us could be taken for granted for her to find my presence comforting, and to allow me to be present.

In the context of identity politics, where nowadays we more often hear the word ‘community’, what does it in fact mean? It means you share your ‘identity’ with other members of your ‘community’, and membership of that community confers some kind of victim points, which can be leveraged for political amplification, or simply to win an argument with someone who possesses fewer protected characteristics than you. It is no guarantor of shared values, obligations, narratives or really anything much. And the more ‘inclusive’ each ‘community’ gets, the less able any community is to argue a coherent political case for anything. The LGB community is a case in point: when it focused on advocacy for people who sometimes or always engage in same-sex relationships it was pretty straightforward, but now it’s supposed to be an umbrella for everyone except the most vanilla heterosexual sex-role-stereotype-embodying people it’s hard to see what it can actually advocate for. (I wrote about how inclusivity kills politics here.)

This postmodern sense of ‘community’ can’t be relied on to come sit by your deathbed, turn up with food when someone else in the community has a baby, visit you when you’re ill or give you a lift to the station if you’re stuck at home. For that, you need shared values. It’s here I think we start to get a clue as to why the revolutionary vanguard of identity politics sounds increasingly religious with every passing day, complete with catechisms (‘trans women are women’), a theodicy (‘privilege’) and an Inquisition (outsourced to Twitter). It’s because, having left a smoking crater where Christianity once sat, the left-liberal vanguard has (unconsciously perhaps) begun to realise how many babies (and dying old people) have been thrown out with the bathwater.

Why transactivists will fail, like Remain (but may yet succeed like Remain, too)

Liberation politics and reactionary parasites

I was thinking today about that fungus that takes over an ant’s nervous system and leaves the ant moving, but as a parasite host rather than an ant: forced to leave the nest, climb to exactly the right height above ground and then stop until the fungus erupts and throws spores out in the hopes of catching and infecting another ant.

Liberation politics has developed parasitic infections that function in much the same way – to colonise its host and control the remaining shell to pursue their own interests.

The great movements, founded on presumptions of human universals, that sought to end the mistreatment of some people based on – say – sex, race, or sexual orientation, have in their latter days become a vehicle for campaigns that use their form but in effect push directly back both against the universalist foundations that enabled the first great civil rights gains and also against the stated aims of the liberation movements that preceded them.

The concept of ‘Islamophobia’ conflates criticism of the Islamic faith with anti-Muslim prejudice and thence with racism to argue in effect for a blasphemy law. The notion of ‘transphobia’ piggybacks on the gay liberation movement to argue for the legal abolition of biological sex as a meaningful category for rights or entitlements, and in the process renders the very notion of homosexuality meaningless. White nationalism makes the argument: if everyone else is allowed to speak from their ethnic heritage, why shouldn’t we? And why shouldn’t we lay claim to the best that Western culture has offered, seeing as others wish to impute to us all the worst? (This maddening trope is excellently tackled here). And men’s rights activism turns the language of feminism against itself to claim that not only are women not oppressed, in fact the entire project of feminism is a plot to obscure the enslavement and subjugation of men, performing all the nastiest, most dangerous and violent jobs in society to precisely no thanks or appreciation.

I don’t have any proposed solution to any of this. It probably needs a deeper analysis of the dissolution of that field of presumed human universals, upon which the previous battles of liberation politics were founded, than I’m capable of while sat on a sofa watching Teletubbies with a poorly toddler. But that image of the fungus-infected ant leaving its nest and climbing, zombie-like, to exactly 25cm above the forest floor comes back to me whenever I see (for example) self-styled feminists castigating other women for refusing to refer to the Soham murderer Ian Huntley as a ‘she’.