How To Find Meaning When Everything Is Power

While we live, we all present different facets of ourselves to different people. Whether in our friendships, work, family or at different times in our lives, we encounter others. All remember us slightly differently, according to their perspective.

While we live, our physical presence holds that multiplicity together. After we die, though, the memories begin to come apart. When my step-grandfather married my grandmother, he already had two children with his first wife. But she had already left him and moved to a different country; he was stepfather to my mother and aunts instead.

He was a big character: an aristocrat of the Greatest Generation, the subject of several films about his war exploits, well-loved farmer, and patriarch to two families. At his funeral, the many facets of his life were already coming apart. Each version of his memory was fiercely defended by the mourner to whom it belonged. Long-standing quarrels, no longer held in check by his living presence, began trickling back into the open. It was not an easy day.

Today, we are all mourners at the funeral of a character on a scale that dwarfs even my roaring, hectoring, pedantic, affectionate, and irascible step-grandfather. We are gathered to mourn teleology itself—the belief that life has objective meaning and direction. What we call the culture war is the aggregate of those quarrels now breaking out between the gathered mourners over their divergent memories of the deceased.

Were we progressing toward universal peace, justice, and equality? Was it the resurrection and the life of the world to come? Perhaps it was the end of history in universal liberal democracy? We cannot agree.

The death of teleology represents a collective cultural trauma that accounts for, among other things, the increasingly unhinged debates around social justice within elite universities, and the reactive phenomenon of the aggressively transgressive online far-right.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Post-structuralism killed teleology, but it did so in error, by taking a wrong turn; it is this wrong turn that has left us so traumatized.

What is commonly referred to as postmodernism is not in fact post-modern but rather represents a last-ditch attempt by modernism to resist the implications of the post-structuralist mindset whose inevitability is now indicated by fields as diverse as physics, ecology, and psychotherapy.

Deconstruction is not the end: reconstruction is possible, indeed essential.

To situate myself a little in this story: I belong to a generation that is marginal, facing two directions, in several ways that are relevant to my argument. Born in 1979, I sit at the tail end of Generation X. I am old enough to remember the days before the internet, but young enough to be more or less a digital native. I got my first cell phone and email address as an undergraduate at Oxford. I researched my undergrad essays sitting in actual libraries reading physical books, but wrote them on a word processor. I can remember life before social media.

I also received, prior to undergraduate life, a recognizably classical education. This was, in the old-fashioned way, designed to deliver a whistle-stop tour of the march of civilizations from Ancient Egypt via the classical era to Western Christendom, with at least a vague grasp of the cultural and historical highlights of each.

The overall impression delivered was of an evolution of societies, consciousnesses, and cultures over a vast sweep of time and different human epochs that nonetheless seemed to have at least some narrative continuity and directionality. Everything else we learned seemed at least to an extent framed by that sense of situatedness within a larger narrative of human cultural evolution, whose direction was a mystery but did at least seem to be headed somewhere.

Then, in my first year as an English Literature undergraduate, I encountered critical theory—and the entire organizing principle for my understanding of reality fell apart.

To summarize: 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 Jacques 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 millennia of culture to obscure the fact that it’s turtles all the way down is in fact a cunning effort to shore up entrenched interests, and to conceal the operations of power.

In this view, 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.

For me, the shift from a sense of the world as having some stable narrative trajectory to this perspective, in which meanings were not only networked but fundamentally without foundation, was deeply disturbing. It landed like a psychotic experience. Overnight, the hallowed architecture of Oxford University went from seeming like a benign repository of traditions within which I could find my place, to a hostile incursion into my consciousness of something phallic, domineering, and authoritarian. I remember describing to a friend how, as a woman and sexual minority, I suddenly experienced the ‘dreaming spires’ as ‘barbed penises straining to penetrate the sky.’

I wish I could say it passed, but it did not. What did happen, though, after I left, was that I found an accommodation with the loss of teleology and objectivity from my frame of reference. I did this by theorizing that if to posit anything at all is an act of power, then it was one I was also entitled to attempt. All cognition, meaning-making, interpretation, and perception is conceptually laden and socially-mediated action. It is impossible to ground even perception in anything but action and thus power. But so be it. We live in a society and participate in the flow of power all the time. I developed the idea of ‘temporary certainties,’ or in other words, the idea that even if meanings are not stable, many of them are stable enough for me to act as if they were solid in the pre-Derridean sense. I did not have to deconstruct every minuscule interaction for the operations of power it encoded.

In an effort to evade the monstrous pervasiveness of systems of domination and submission, I experimented with radically non-hierarchical forms of living, power exchange sexualities, non-binary gender presentation. I tried my own operations of power: I changed my name to Sebastian, to see what it felt like, then settled for a while on Sebastian Mary. I co-founded a startup with friends, in which we tried to avoid having a management hierarchy.

My accommodation kind of worked, for a while. But it did not last. It is all very well to theorize about non-hierarchical forms of organization, but in order to get stuff done you need a chain of accountability. And the worst sort of hierarchies have a habit of emerging, too, especially in social situations where they are intentionally obscured or deprecated. Communes, collaborative projects, and the like all find their leaders and followers, or their tyrants and victims. My increasing bitterness as I learned this, in the course of trying to get somewhere with the startup, made me so obnoxious as a co-worker that eventually I was expelled from the project which was, by then, failing anyway.

With that rupture, I lost my social circle, my best friend, and my entire carefully reassembled working theory for how to navigate the rubble of broken teleologies that was my adult life in the ‘00s. Concurrently, the Great Crash of 2008 destroyed the equally teleological fantasy of global liberal-democratic hegemony under international capitalism that had powered the Iraq invasion along with the triumphalism of the Blair years.

In the wreckage, though, something wonderful happened. Two wonderful things, actually. First, I met the man who I would eventually marry, and by degrees let go of the belief that in order to sustain my integrity as a person I had to reject any form of stable loving relationship to an Other in favor of multiple, overlapping, unstable platonic, sexual, or ambiguous friendships. Second, I decided I needed to learn how to do something more useful than floating around London curating experimental art events and screwing up entrepreneurship, and went back to school to train as a psychotherapist.

In the course of that study, I learned where postmodernism took its wrong turn. Implicit in the post-structuralist theories taught to every young humanities student at university is the idea that because meanings have no singular objectively correct grounding, they are therefore of no value. Also implicit is the idea that because of this, no satisfying, authentic or truthful encounter with the Other is ever possible—only an endless recursive hall of mirrors composed either of our own anguished reflections or the invasive pressure against our psyches of another’s desire.

In studying psychotherapy, though, I came to realize that while the same post-structuralist decentering of the self took place in psychoanalytic theory between Freud and his contemporary descendants, therapists had—because they have to—rejected the idea that we can never encounter the other. While much contemporary analytic theory acknowledges the need to excavate and make space for the operations of overdetermined systems such as race, class, or sex, it does not automatically follow from the presence of those things that intersubjective contact and meaningful connection cannot take place.

Just like post-structuralism decentered the observer, intersubjective psychoanalysis radically decenters the analyst. But an intersubjective understanding of the relational space as co-created by client and therapist does not preclude the possibility of therapeutic work taking place. And this in turn speaks powerfully to a claim that however muddled, muddied and overdetermined our encounters with the other may be, yet they still contain the potential to be not just benign but real, true, and transformative.

I suppose I could deconstruct that claim in turn. But I have experienced its truth both as client and also, in the course of my work, as therapist. Through intersubjective encounters in the consulting room, I have been transformed, and have transformed in turn. From this vantage point, the claim of post-structuralism to render meaningless all semiotic systems, and reveal as brute operations of power all encounters with the other, seems not just mistaken but (in the Kleinian sense) paranoid-schizoid. It is the tantrum of a child who, on realizing they cannot have exactly what they want, refuses to have even the next best thing and dismisses everything and everyone as evil.

The alternative to this paranoid-schizoid repudiation of meaning is not to reject meaning as dead or hopelessly suborned by power, but to accept that we are enmeshed, shaped and in turn helping to shape networks of meaning as part of a dynamic dialogue. We are nodes in the social and semiotic system. As such, even the act of contemplating those systems of meaning will have some tiny effect on them. When Derrida said ‘Il n’y a pas d’hors-texte’—”there is no outside-text,” though commonly mistranslated as “there is nothing outside the text”—I took it to mean meaning itself was hopelessly corrupted, and objectivity a bust. Today, I see it more as a radical decentering of my selfhood that opens up new, vibrant possibilities of connectedness.

If we read ‘text’ in the biosemiotic sense as fractal, multi-dimensional, and interconnected systems of signification, both of human culture and the natural world (inasmuch as those things can even be separated), then indeed there is nothing outside the text. But that does not mean the text is wholly illegible, or that it does not exist—simply that in reading, we affect what it says, and in return it changes us. We are unavoidably caught up in perspectival context, without truly objective ground to stand on. But objectivity was always an implicit abdication and obscuration of power and the necessity of choice. It was the idea that we could calculate what to do from objective factors that we didn’t have to take responsibility for. We do have to take responsibility, but that can mean a proactive positive acceptance. We can step up to the challenge of power and perspective, rather than reject it out of guilt and trauma.

Seen thus, a living post-structuralism is a philosophy not of radical alienation but radical interconnection. It is not the death of stable meaning, but the moment a system we thought rigid, immovable, and observable from the outside stirred and opened its eyes to return our gaze. It is also increasingly supported by contemporary studies in—for example—ecology and theoretical physics. If even the hardest of hard sciences now advances a theory of reality that embrace radical uncertainty and the implication of the observer in what is observed, then surely the humanities can do so as well without giving up on meaning altogether?

The great insight of postmodernism is that meaning is unstable, and mediated in infinite complexity by systems of power in which we are decentered but implicated. But the response to this insight from the humanities has been a furious rearguard action by the ideology of fixed meanings that postmodernism itself displaced. Enlightenment rationalism is to postmodernism as Newtonian physics is to general relativity, and it is in the ‘social justice’ ideologies now increasingly hegemonic in elite institutions that Enlightenment rationalism is seeking to make its last stand against the new philosophy of radical interconnection.

If postmodernism claimed that all meanings are unstable, socially constructed, and held in place by operations of power, the defining characteristic of the anti-postmodernism that masquerades as contemporary postmodern thought is its determination to apply that analysis to everything except its own categories and hierarchies. In effect, this system of thought seeks to recoup semiotic stability by replacing the old ‘bad’ hierarchies of Western, patriarchal, heterosexual, etc. dominance with new ‘good’ ones.

All activities, goes the claim, are tainted by the toxic operations of overdetermined systems of oppressive social meaning which speak through us and over us regardless of what little agency we might imagine ourselves to have. So in the political framework of anti-postmodernism, fixed immutable characteristics such as race assign their bearers a position on a rigid hierarchy of ‘marginalization’ which in turn influences their status within the system. The legitimacy of the new, fixed hierarchies of marginalization-as-status rests, we are told, in how they correct for, deconstruct, and overcome previously imposed power inequalities. The chief form of political action is a wholesale effort to dismantle these former inequalities, wherever they may be found.

But in practice, the demand that all historically imposed power relations be deconstructed unwinds the legitimacy of any possible social relationship or institution. All meanings necessitate the exclusion of what-is-not-meant. Making absolute inclusion a central political demand is thus in effect a call for the abolition of meaning. We are never told what form the good life might take, should this project of semiocide ever be completed. But one thing is clear: it can have no social or intersubjective dimension, for that would imply shared meanings, and with shared meanings the operations of power—exclusion, definition, the imposition of significations not wholly self-chosen—inescapably return, as do hierarchies. In this sense, the push for semiocide in the name of social justice is a project whose ultimate aim is an individuation so total it precludes any form of encounter with the Other, except in a multidirectional contest for domination that none can be permitted to win.

From other vantage points within the culture war, the reaction to this doctrine is often mockery, for the doctrine’s self-absorption, incoherence or preoccupation with language and ‘luxury beliefs.’ This is mistaken. Its adherents are motivated by compassionate idealism, but have been misled by a destructive falsehood and are in many cases deeply unhappy. The decentering of the Enlightenment subject brings with it an invitation to a more fluid experience of selfhood as radically inseparable from and in a process of co-creation with all of reality, and yes, with the power structures of the society in which we live. But the contemporary critical theory I am calling anti-postmodernism shows young people this vision of beauty, only to dismiss it as a pack of tendentious, self-interested lies.

It is no wonder today’s young people fling themselves miserably against the bars of whatever structures of meaning are still standing in an effort to knock them down—or perhaps to prop themselves up. Whether it is the SJWs, the frog memers, or the ‘failson’ ironists, they can smell the fresh breeze of meaning, less linear than the rationalists would like but nonetheless real, and yet they have been told they cannot have it, because it is not there, or else comprises only violence and hostility. So, they fight over the broken rubble of the Enlightenment, or with each other, or their ancestors, and starve in the midst of a banquet.

To recap, then: what gets called ‘postmodernism’ today is not postmodernism but the last spasm of the worldview displaced by postmodernism, that saw meanings as fixed, knowable and amenable to human mastery. This anti-postmodernism diverts young people from the astonishing richness of a systems-based, decentered engagement with the world’s semiotic complexity by seeking the only remaining form of mastery it can imagine: a defensive assault on meaning itself.

Instead of embracing the fluidity of systems of meaning, and each subject’s situatedness within that system, young people are taught that the only legitimate foundation for political action—or indeed any kind of social participation—is atomized selfhood, constructed from within and defended with narcissistic brittleness. They are taught to see themselves as solely responsible for discovering, curating, optimizing and presenting this supposedly ‘authentic’ self as their central marketable asset. But they also learn that it is continually under assault by hostile forces of oppressive social meaning whose aim is to keep them—or others like them, or someone anyway—marginalized, abject and on the back foot.

Within this system, it follows that the central locus of political activism must be to disrupt these oppressive forces that marginalize unfavored groups, so as to advance the project of collective liberation to ‘be our authentic selves.’ This is not just a political project but an existential one, for along with marginalizing unfavored groups these forces impose unlooked-for and oppressively overdetermined social meanings on each of us, undermining each young person’s quest for authentic selfhood. Individuals caught up in this worldview genuinely believe they are agitating not just for the liberation of the oppressed but for their very existence.

The fixation of today’s elite graduates on ‘validation’ of ‘identities’ may seem frivolous to older generations. But within a worldview that frames all forms of social meaning as oppressive by definition, the very gaze of the Other is an unacceptable attack on the pristine territory of the self. If we reject the genuinely postmodern ethic of radical semiotic interconnection, and our interwovenness with structures of meaning in society and the natural world, then the movement of these structures in, on and within our individual identities comes to be experienced as violence.

This perspective exists in tormented symbiosis with an Other it can neither tolerate, nor yet wholly dispense with. For the paradox is that the invasive gaze of the Other, laden with unwanted and oppressive shared meanings, is simultaneously the source of suffering and salvation. The gaze of the Other is experienced as a hostile and violent invasion, forever imposing unlooked-for social meanings that constrain the liberty of each sacred self. But it is also the only source of the ‘validation’ that will reassure each individual that their self-creation project is real, true and accepted.

The solution, within this worldview, is an (again paranoid-schizoid in the Kleinian sense) ever more desperate effort to control the thoughts of the Other. We see this in politicized campaigns to control speech in the service of identities. But as any psychotherapist (or parent) will tell you, trying to control the inner life of another is a project that in normal circumstances seems achievable (or indeed desirable) only to young children or the mentally disturbed. That it should become a central political desideratum for a generation of elite young people does not bode well for the future health of public life.

When I started my undergraduate degree 20 years ago, critical theory was one epistemology among several, which we learned about as it were ‘from the outside’ rather than as a framework for understanding other philosophies. Though it affected me severely, in ways I have already described, most of my contemporaries simply learned about the ideas and were largely unaffected. Today, though, this epistemology has eaten and digested the humanities and begun to nibble on science and even mathematics. As a result, for today’s young people, it is increasingly difficult to find a vantage point outside its political ontology from which to evaluate its operations.

We should not be surprised, then, that mental health issues have skyrocketed in elite college-age populations. They are being taught to believe, as a foundational framework for understanding the world, that acceptance in the gaze of the Other is key to validating a selfhood they alone are responsible for creating, curating and optimizing. But they are also being taught that all shared meanings—in other words, anything conferred by the gaze of the Other—represents a hostile act of violence. How is any young adult meant to navigate this catch-22?

It is a mistake to dismiss this as narcissistic—or, at least, to ignore the suffering of those trapped in this bind. To be ‘defined’ by something other than our own desire is in this system to be injured, parts of our authentic self mauled or amputated, whether by social meanings we did not choose or the givens of our embodied existence. This is a phenomenally cruel thing to teach young people, as it leaves them feeling perpetually oppressed by the givens of existence itself.

This analysis also sheds light on the crisis of elite purpose and leadership Natalia Dashan described in her Palladium piece last year. If shared meanings are not only unavailable but actively hostile, how is any young person meant to formulate a legitimate rationale for stepping up? No wonder so many elite graduates dismiss even the possibility of public service in favor either of pecuniary self-interest in finance or tech, or else joining the ranks of activist-bureaucrats seeking to advance the destruction of shared meanings in the name of total inclusion.

But as societies around the globe struggle to get to grips with coronavirus, we no longer have the luxury of sitting about like Shakespeare’s Richard II, mourning a broken model of meaning as the world disintegrates around us. Facing the deaths perhaps of loved ones, and certainly of everything we thought of as ‘normal’ until a few weeks ago, destroying what is left of our structures of social meaning in the name of liberation politics or frog-meme irony is an indulgence we cannot afford. The project of reconstruction is urgent. This project is both an inner and an outer one: reconstruction of an inner life capable of navigating social meanings without experiencing them as violence, and also of our willingness to participate in the external, political analogue of those social meanings, namely institutions, political structures and—yes—hierarchies.

This is not to say that we should shrug at unjust systems of domination. The ‘social justice’ excavation of ‘implicit bias’ is not wholly without merit. It is on all of us to make sincere efforts to meet the Other to the best of our abilities as we find it, and not simply reduce the world out there to our preconceptions. But this effort cannot be so all-encompassing as to destroy what systems of shared meaning we have left. Nor can we afford to see it grind common endeavor to a standstill.

No one knows yet what the world will look like as we emerge from the political and economic convulsions engendered by this global pandemic. One thing is clear, though: the ethic of radically individualist atomization implicit in ‘social justice’ campaigns for the destruction of all shared meaning is woefully inadequate to the challenges we now face. Through its lethal spread and infectiousness, coronavirus has demonstrated vividly how our fates remain bound to one another in infinitely complex ways, however loudly we may assert our right to self-authorship. Faced with the persistence of our social, biological, semiotic, economic, and ecological interconnectedness, we would do well to embrace and make a virtue of it, to salvage those shared meanings that remain to us, and begin the process of building new ones that will sustain us into the future.

This article was originally published at Palladium magazine.

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.

 

Don’t care about gender Self-ID? Here’s why you should

A quick post on the Government’s proposed changes to the law around sex/gender reassignment to make it easier for transgender people to become legally the opposite sex. I won’t go into the feminist objections to these changes, as numerous excellent writers and organisations already summarise this (see here for plenty of links).

Many have ignored the debate so far, seeing it as an arcane internecine spat on the left and good for a chuckle or two, nothing more. But changes to the law on trans issues affect everyone. If you care at all about personal liberty and (relative) freedom from government overreach, here are two reasons why you should oppose ‘self-ID’: firstly, it’s a monstrous power grab by a government already giddy and bloated with the powers it increasingly clutches to itself. And secondly, if this goes through we might as well have done with it and just reinstate blasphemy laws.

It’s a massive government power grab: Effectively the changes replace sex with ‘gender identity’. So what, you might say. But sex is observable: even without peering at genitals humans can identify with near-perfect accuracy whether another human is male or female. Even my 18-month-old can do it and she’s only just learned the words for ‘man’ and ‘lady’. But once someone can declare themselves legally ‘male’ or ‘female’ simply by filling in a form, based on no external factors whatsoever and simply their feeling about what they are, sex stops being an observable property of everyone’s physical selves and becomes ‘gender identity’, an abstract property of everyone’s inner life. At that moment the final arbiter of who is or isn’t male or female stops being the evidence of your and everyone else’s eyes.

In order for ‘gender identity’ to have any meaning, therefore, it needs to be ratified by – guess who? Enter your friendly bureaucratic state. The government will have abolished your sex and given you something called a ‘gender identity’ instead, to which of course only the government can give binding force.

Michael Merrick’s brilliant essay The Labour Family sets out how the same radically individualist concept of ‘liberty’ – articulated on the right in the economic sphere and on the left in the social –  placed the state in direct competition with social structures, networks and traditions as the prime means of individuals’ support.

For liberty to flourish the state had to remain neutral toward the conduct of those residing within it. It could dispense justice where contracts were unjustly breached, but the manner in which they were drawn, the manner in which they ended, and the manner in which they affected third parties and society as a whole remained outside the purview of the state. Yet it also needed vigorous protection and a legislative commitment to mitigate the fallout from such self-centred accounts of freedom. This put the state in direct competition with that supportive web of relationships that traditionally regulated individual behaviour as well as helped absorb fallout when required. In providing an alternative to these networks, in rendering associative, reciprocal, mutualistic society no longer at the core of individual progress and preservation, the state had begun to monopolise the space where society used to be. The result was corrosive to any sort of relational politics; a system with a focus on outcomes, as Ruth Porter explains, ‘removes any connection between action and consequence. In doing so, it destroys the very reflex which encourages moral action. By consequence, this breeds a sense of entitlement. This undermines social bonds both in families and also communities more broadly.

The paradox in the dynamic outlined above is that in order for liberty – understood in a strictly individualistic sense – to flourish, the state increasingly took the place of the customs and networks that had traditionally regulated behavour, thus growing – in the name of freedom – ever bigger.

In a traditionally understood concept of identity, each of us is recognised by those around us as those things we are, in the social sphere: a mother, a husband, a writer, a daughter, a good cook, a teller of jokes, etc. Without that social recognition, that echo returning from the Other that says ‘I see you, and yes, I agree with you that you are [that thing you feel you are]’, each person’s inner feeling about who or what she is can be nothing but empty yearning.

But in the radical individualist new world we are entering, each person’s inner feeling of personal identity is not only paramount but the only truth. Interpellation by the other is, we are told, rendered null and void. Only thus can each individual be freed from the oppressive social gaze to flourish as the unique marvel he or she (or ze or hir or whatever) is.

But there’s a catch. If it’s not the people around me who affirm my identity, it has to happen somewhere. So naturally, again, the state steps in. Much as the state stepped in to create government-sanctioned structures intended to replace those stifling social networks and conventions that had hitherto regulated behaviour, here again in the name of freedom the state gets even bigger.

The proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act are as colossal a power grab by the state as the proposal to make organ donation opt-out rather than opt-in. Not only does the state propose to own my physical organs by default, it also proposes to become the ultimate arbiter – over the heads of all those around me and even of observable truth – of whether I am male or female. Not content with inserting itself between individuals and their social spheres, the state must insert itself between us and our very sex, arrogating to itself the right to determine the truth of something which is in fact inscribed in every cell of our bodies.

 

Secondly, blasphemy. Think I’m joking? Consider this: once the government is established as the final – the only – arbiter of whether I am male or female, then disagreeing with the government’s view that this person or this person or this person are, in fact, women represents an assault on government power. I don’t get to argue with the government about what the rate of income tax is, and if the government says person X is a woman, then they are a woman. Combine that with hate speech rules (which have already shown an alarming degree of mission creep) and you have a situation where refusing to tell lies that have been sanctioned by the state as the truth could land me with a fine or in jail. If that isn’t a de facto blasphemy law I don’t know what is. Indeed in a recent court case where a young trans-identified male, ‘Tara’ Wolf was convicted of assaulting a 60-year-old woman, the judge reduced the fine and declined to award compensation because the victim did not always refer to her male attacker using female pronouns.

To be clear, I don’t really care how people dress or present themselves. I think the world would be a nicer place if we didn’t set quite so much store by whether someone was wearing a frock or makeup or whatever. I’ll even call a man ‘she’ out of politeness, if politeness is warranted. But a dress, hormone supplementation or cosmetic surgery don’t alter someone’s actual sex. The state has no place insisting otherwise. Nor does the state have any place announcing that in fact sex is irrelevant and that to help us be freer it will helpfully supply and manage for each of us a new tailored and oh-so-individual gender identity. But as that awful Breitbart man once said, politics is downstream from culture; the push in our culture continues to be away from the social (relationally understood) toward the radically individualised; I fear many of us will be blaspheming before this phenomenon works itself out.