Over the last couple of years my views have changed substantially from what is published in this blog. While I remain a communist, I am no longer invested in “leftism” and its problematics, nor in commitment and belief-based activism. The impetus for this was a growing clarity that the activity of the radical left amounts to little more than symbolic civil participation in liberal democracy, which is objectively to the benefit of liberal and social democratic pro-capitalist forces, and has no capacity to carry through it’s radical aims from theory into effect. Intellectually, the turning point for me was reading the text Nihilist Communism (available here, concisely summarised here, and considerably deepened and extended here), whose analysis I agree with in overall thrust but not in every detail. (I also recommend the texts Militancy: The Highest Stage of Alienation, and Give Up Activism.) At this point, I believe the only possible opening to communism comes through an endogenous breakdown in capitalist reproduction, a la communization theory, which militant activity cannot possibly bring about, and, given the current state-of-play in relation to the suite of ecological crises threatening human survival, continuing to fuck about playing politics within liberal democratic structures is at best a waste of time. At this time I have nothing in particular to add to the existing body of theory around this perspective, and if I did, I feel it would make little sense to consider this a continuation of this blog’s project.

Since undergoing this shift of perspective, it’s been unclear to me what to do with the texts I’ve written for this blog. I’ve been intermittently hiding and unhiding this blog from public view, largely out of embarrassment regarding the naievity of much of what’s put forward here, the transparency of its motivating fantasies, and the general jargon-filled overblown style in which a lot of it is written. But every time I take it down, the next day I have half a dozen “johnnyrando@gmail.com wants to access your blog” messages in my inbox, so clearly someone somewhere cares about this stuff, and it feels necessary to come to some final decision regarding what remains available to the world. The stuff I’ve left up represents texts I no longer agree with but which I feel have some redeeming value, and those that are referenced elsewhere in debates I consider significant and which are left up in the spirit of allowing others to trace the history of those discussion. Some stuff of the latter kind (specifically regarding intersectionality and identity politics) I do not feel I could in good conscience leave in the world, as I feel they directly contribute to destructive and harmful social processes, and this material will remain hidden.

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This will be the first in a set of pieces responding to the development of “gender nihilism” as a distinct (if decidedly heterogenous) tendency in discourse on gender, largely among trans and genderqueer adherents of various ultra-left and post-left tendencies. Escalante’s ‘Gender Nihilism: An Anti-Manifesto’ seems to have achieved the status of a core or foundational text for this tendency, being the most widely cited and circulated of the texts gathered under this label. The below is an effort to gather my various thoughts on this text as a contribution to the development of what I regard as an interesting, if problematic, set of perspectives around issues of identity, gender abolition, and liberation.

The text below is taken from libcom. My comments are in bold. Minor formatting changes have been made for presentation purposes.

Introduction
We are at an impasse. The current politics of trans liberation have staked their claims on a redemptive understanding of identity. Whether through a doctor or psychologist’s diagnosis, or through a personal self affirmation in the form of a social utterance, we have come to believe that there is some internal truth to gender that we must divine.

[Are we at an impasse? This is the core claim from which the piece draws its imperative force (“we are at an impasse… therefore we must…” – who’s “we” btw?), and it’s merely asserted. I find it difficult to see how you could look at the present state of gender relations and not see plenty of motion in the system. Whatever you think of what’s happening, something is happening. Which makes it difficult to contextualise, as it’s clearly addressing a conjuncture, but not one I’m able to recognise.

Incidentally, this need to pose itself in the imperative mood (the discourse of the agitator, hardly an “anti-political” position) is my central objection to this argument. As I see it, a critique of the form of the political imperative wrt gender-as-lived as implicated in the reproduction of gender coercion is the key point at which gender nihilism must break with the abolitionism of the 2nd wave in order not to reproduce its limitations. There can be no “you must” in this regard that doesn’t implicate itself with (that is: act as a moment of) the entire apparatus of social policing which we wish to see disappear.]

An endless set of positive political projects have marked the road we currently travel; an infinite set of pronouns, pride flags, and labels. The current movement within trans politics has sought to try to broaden gender categories, in the hope that we can alleviate their harm. This is naive.

[Is it? The problem with liberalism is not that it does nothing to mitigate harms. Whether we like it or not, liberal trans politics performs all kinds of functions vital for our survival and social reproduction. Radical critique shouldn’t need to dismiss this reality.]

Judith Butler refers to gender as, “the apparatus by which the production and normalization of masculine and feminine take place along with the interstitial forms of hormonal, chromosomal, psychic, and performative that gender assumes.” If the current liberal politics of our trans comrades and siblings are rooted in trying to expand the social dimensions created by this apparatus, our work is a demand to see it burned to the ground.

We are radicals who have had enough with attempts to salvage gender. We do not believe we can make it work for us. We look at the transmisogyny we have faced in our own lives, the gendered violence that our comrades, both trans and cis have faced, and we realize that the apparatus itself makes such violence inevitable. We have had enough. [Same.]

We are not looking to create a better system, for we are not interested in positive politics at all. All we demand in the present is a relentless attack on gender and the modes of social meaning and intelligibility it creates.

[What does it mean to “attack intelligibility” (or burn it to the ground)? The purpose of this rhetoric seems purely affective.]

At the core of this Gender Nihilism lies several principles that will be explored in detail here: Antihumanism as foundation and cornerstone, gender abolition as a demand, and radical negativity as method.

Antihumanism
Antihumanism is a cornerstone which holds gender nihilist analysis together. It is the point from which we begin to understand our present situation; it is crucial. By antihumanism, we mean a rejection of essentialism. There is no essential human. There is no human nature. There is no transcendent self. To be a subject is not to share in common a metaphysical state of being (ontology) with other subjects.

The self, the subject is a product of power. The “I” in “I am a man” or “I am a woman” is not an “I” which transcends those statements. Those statements do not reveal a truth about the “I,” rather they constitute the “I.” Man and Woman do not exist as labels for certain metaphysical or essential categories of being, they are rather discursive, social, and linguistic symbols which are historically contingent. They evolve and change over time; their implications have always been determined by power.

Who we are, the very core of our being, might perhaps not be found in the categorical realm of being at all. The self is a convergence of power and discourses. Every word you use to define yourself, every category of identity within which you find yourself place, is the result of a historical development of power. Gender, race, sexuality, and every other normative category is not referencing a truth about the body of the subject or about the soul of the subject. These categories construct the subject and the self. There is no static self, no consistent “I”, no history transcending subject. We can only refer to a self with the language given to us, and that language has radically fluctuated throughout history, and continues to fluctuate in our day to day life.

[All good here, and well-stated.]

We are nothing but the convergence of many different discourses and languages which are utterly beyond our control, yet we experience the sensation of agency. We navigate these discourses, occasionally subverting, always surviving. The ability to navigate does not indicate a metaphysical self which acts upon a sense of agency, it only indicates that there is symbolic and discursive looseness surrounding our constitution.

We thus understand gender through these terms. We see gender as a specific set of discourses embodied in medicine, psychiatry, the social sciences, religion, and our daily interactions with others. We do not see gender as a feature of our “true selves,” but as a whole order of meaning and intelligibility which we find ourselves operating in. We do not look at gender as a thing which a stable self can be said to possess. On the contrary we say that gender is done and participated in, and that this doing is a creative act by which the self is constructed and given social significance and meaning.

Our radicalism cannot stop here, we further state that historical evidence can be provided to show that gender operates in such a manner. The work of many decolonial feminists has been influential in demonstrating the ways that western gender categories were violently forced onto indigenous societies, and how this required a complete linguistic and discursive shift. Colonialism produced new gender categories, and with them new violent means of reinforcing a certain set of gendered norms. The visual and cultural aspects of masculinity and femininity have changed over the centuries. There is no static gender.

[This is sufficiently knotty that I’m unsure whether or in what sense I agree or disagree with it (beyond that it is a curiously disembodied account of what “we” are). But knottyness comes with the territory.]

There is a practical component to all of this. The question of humanism vs antihumanism is the question upon which the debate between liberal feminism and nihilist gender abolitionism will be based.

The liberal feminist says “I am a woman” and by that means that they are spiritually, ontologically, metaphysically, genetically, or any other modes of “essentially” a woman.

The gender nihilist says “I am a woman” and means that they are located within a certain position in a matrix of power which constitutes them as such.

The liberal feminist is not aware of the ways power creates gender, and thus clings to gender as a means of legitimizing themselves in the eyes of power. They rely on trying to use various systems of knowledge (genetic sciences, metaphysical claims about the soul, kantian ontology) in order to prove to power they can operate within it.

[It would be nice if we could lose the stereotype of the naive liberal on display here. It’s possible to affirm the entire Foucauldian-Butlerian analysis of power and still land out at a non-innocent strategic liberalism. Indeed, at some points at least, this seems to be what the more directly political moments of Butler amount to: Derridean democracy-to-come-ism reworked as a praxis of permanent queer agonism to renew and expand the liberal state’s grid of intelligibility. It is this more sophisticated and knowing version of liberalism, and its strategic acceptance of the permanent existence of an abjected outside, that abolitionism must engage and reject. Anti-essentialism is insufficient.]

The gender nihilist, the gender abolitionist, looks at the system of gender itself and see’s the violence at its core. We say no to a positive embrace of gender. We want to see it gone. We know appealing to the current formulations of power is always a liberal trap. We refuse to legitimize ourselves.

It is imperative that this be understood. Antihumanism does not deny the lived experience of many of our trans siblings who have had an experience of gender since a young age. Rather we acknowledge that such an experience of gender was always already determined through the terms of power. We look to our own childhood experiences. We see that even in the transgressive statement of “We are women” wherein we deny the category power has imposed onto our bodies, we speak the language of gender. We reference an idea of “woman” which does not exist within us as a stable truth, but references the discourses by which we are constituted.

Thus we affirm that there is no true self that can be divined prior to discourse, prior to encounters with others, prior to the mediation of the symbolic. We are products of power, so what are we to do? [We are producer-products of power. This distinction will become significant.] So we end our exploration of antihumanism with a return to the words of Butler:

“My agency does not consist in denying this condition of my constitution. If I have any agency, it is opened up by the fact that I am constituted by a social world I never chose. That my agency is riven with paradox does not mean it is impossible. It means only that paradox is the condition of its possibility.”

Gender Abolition
If we accept that gender is not to be found within ourselves as a transcendent truth, but rather exists outside us in the realm of discourse, what are we to strive for? To say gender is discursive is to say that gender occurs not as a metaphysical truth within the subject, but occurs as a means of mediating social interaction. Gender is a frame, a subset of language, and set of symbols and signs, communicated between us, constructing us and being reconstructed by us constantly.

Thus the apparatus of gender operates cyclically; as we are constituted through it, so too do our daily actions, rituals, norms, and performances reconstitute it. It is this realization which allows for a movement against the cycle itself to manifest. Such a movement must understand the deeply penetrative and pervasive nature of the apparatus. Normalization has an insidious way of naturalizing, accounting for, and subsuming resistance.

[In other words: everyone must think like me.

If “a movement against the cycle” is dependent on “this realisation” (i.e. the belief in specific obscure and esoteric post-structuralist critiques) then we’re back at an activism requiring the propagation of our specific form of consciousness across the world.

My position, on the contrary, is that gender nihilism is already implicit in the activity of a multitude of subjects struggling to differentiate themselves from the terms by which they are constituted, without necessarily being conscious that they are doing any such thing. It is the tendencies, whether conscious or non-conscious, towards the dissipation of fetish-forms immanent to social practice which are significant for gender nihilism, not its own propagation.

If a movement against the cycle is dependent on the spread of Gender Nihilism as a specific ideal form of consciousness then we’re fucked. Nothing like this is ever going to happen.]

At this point it becomes tempting to embrace a certain liberal politics of expansion. [This “everything I don’t like is liberalism” stuff is its own kind of identity politics.] Countless theorists and activists have laid stake to the claim that our experience of transgender embodiment might be able to pose a threat to the process of normalization that is gender. We have heard the suggestion that non-binary identity, trans identity, and queer identity might be able to create a subversion of gender. This cannot be the case.

In staking our claim on identity labels of non-binary, we find ourselves always again caught back in the realm of gender. To take on identity in a rejection of the gender binary is still to accept the binary as a point of reference. In the resistance to it, one only reconstructs the normative status of the binary. Norms have already accounted for dissent; they lay the frameworks and languages through which dissent can be expressed. It is not merely that our verbal dissent occurs in the language of gender, but that the actions we take to subvert gender in dress and affect are themselves only subversive through their reference to the norm.

If an identity politics of non-binary identity cannot liberate us, is is also true that a queer or trans identity politics offers us no hope. Both fall into the same trap of referencing the norm by trying to “do” gender differently. The very basis of such politics is grounded in the logic of identity, which is itself a product of modern and contemporary discourses of power. As we have already shown quite thoroughly, there can be no stable identity which we can reference. Thus any appeal to a revolutionary or emancipatory identity is only an appeal to certain discourses. In this case, that discourse is gender.

[This is all true, more or less. But it’s also all there is. There is no uncontaminated point of resistance outside the mesh of power. To proceed as though such a thing were possible is to misunderstand the notion of power being deployed.]

This is not to say that those who identify as trans, queer, or non-binary are at fault for gender. [Right, but only because agency is basically impossible in this analysis.] This is the mistake of the traditional radical feminist approach. We repudiate such claims, as they merely attack those most hurt by gender. Even if deviation from the norm is always accounted for and neutralized, it sure as hell is still punished. The queer, the trans, the non-binary body is still the site of massive violence. Our siblings and comrades still are murdered all around us, still live in poverty, still live in the shadows. We do not denounce them, for that would be to denounce ourselves. Instead we call for an honest discussion about the limits of our politics and a demand for a new way forward.

With this attitude at the forefront, it is not merely certain formulations of identity politics which we seek to combat, but the need for identity altogether. Our claim is that the ever expanding list of personal preferred pronouns, the growing and ever more nuanced labels for various expressions of sexuality and gender, and the attempt to construct new identity categories more broadly is not worth the effort.

If we have shown that identity is not a truth but a social and discursive construction, we can then realize that the creation of these new identities is not the sudden discovery of previously unknown lived experience, but rather the creation of new terms upon which we can be constituted. All we do when we expand gender categories is to create new more nuanced channels through which power can operate. We do not liberate ourselves, we ensnare ourselves in countless and even more nuanced and powerful norms. Each one a new chain.

[Here’s the central theoretical problem with this analysis: power is thought of only as something done to us, not something we do. It is both, simultaneously. This seems to be a common move among North American insurrecto engagements with Foucault (e.g. much of baeden): to affirm a Foucauldian networked-immanence conception of power as the cold monster bearing down upon us. Consequently literally everything we do only oppresses us more, except for some privileged gesture such as “attack” which somehow still manages to constitute itself as a point of pure oppositionality.

Power, for Foucault, is the action of action upon action. It is inevitable and inescapable (and neither good nor bad). From this position, there can be no opposing oneself to power as such, and no reason one would want to. Foucault reduces oppositional identities to the fantasy projections they always were. This is a good thing.]

To use this terminology is not hyperbolic; the violence of gender cannot be overestimated. Each trans woman murdered, each intersex infant coercively operated on, each queer kid thrown onto the streets is a victim of gender. The deviance from the norm is always punished. Even though gender has accounted for deviation, it still punishes it. Expansions of norms is an expansion of deviance; it is an expansion of ways we can fall outside a discursive ideal. Infinite gender identities create infinite new spaces of deviation which will be violently punished. Gender must punish deviance, thus gender must go.

[Note the shift from power to violence, as though one implied the other. They don’t. There is no reason, on the account given, to assume that direct violence is a necessary feature of gender rather than a contingent feature of the present stage of historical development of gender relations. That gender is a mode in which we are constituted in discourse does not imply that violence of the kind described is an inevitable feature of this constitution.

The ground on which the claim that gender is inevitably violent must be argued is not discursive constitution but material production. Gender, as a set of discourses or apparatuses, is produced by, and reproductive of, a set of relations of exploitation. Man and woman are ideal representations of divisions of labour within these material relations of exploitation, by which they are naturalised and maintained, congealed as social roles maintained by various apparatuses of governance. Gender is violent inasmuch as its underlying material relations depend upon violence for their existence.

Gender cannot be a domain of freedom or self-actualisation because it is an aspect of a capitalist society that can exist only by negating the possibility of free exercise of our productive capacities. It is a dimension of our alienation, not in language (or not only) but as the material condition of our existence. Gender is violent because it is a mode of positive being in a capitalist world constitutionally hostile to life, in which all attempts to live on other terms (such as through flight from gender roles) tend to encounter a limit of direct disciplinary violence or social death, at least for the overwhelming majority. All gender roles are modes of alienated being, of our violent separation from ourselves and our capacities, and are expressive of that alienation and the violence upon which it is dependent.

Without this analysis, we are left with a kind of state reductionism in which discourses and apparatuses merely exist in order to exist. From this perspective, the key questions regarding the degrees and kinds of change in gender relations that can be accommodated by social structure are essentially unanswerable. There is no reason to suppose that the state in itself (which is a phantom of an anarchism reduced to the rejection of authority; there is no state-in-itself, only a state within a process of production) has any particular dependence on gender, nor any particular investment in its continuance beyond inertia. It is the structural dependence of capital on gendered divisions of labour (its dependence on unevenly distributed socially reproductive work outside the wage relation, producing distinct kinds of person) that limits the freedom of the system to develop beyond the coercive imposition of gender, and justifies pessimism in this regard. Not simply that gender is a binary, but what gender is a binary in order to do.

It should be obvious from the above that gender nihilism (as the refusal of intelligibility in terms of gender) cannot in itself produce the abolition of gender (gender nihilism is not gender abolition). That requires communism.]

And thus we arrive at the need for the abolition of gender. If all of our attempts at positive projects of expansion have fallen short and only snared us in a new set of traps, then there must be another approach. That the expansion of gender has failed, does not imply that contraction would serve our purposes. Such an impulse is purely reactionary and must be done away with.

The reactionary radical feminist sees gender abolition as such a contraction. For them, we must abolish gender so that sex (the physical characteristics of the body) can be a stable material basis upon which we can be grouped. We reject this whole heartedly. Sex itself is grounded in discursive groupings, given an authority through medicine, and violently imposed onto the bodies of intersex individuals. We decry this violence.

No, a return to a simpler and smaller understanding of gender (even if supposedly material conception) will not do. It is the very normative grouping of bodies in the first place which we push back against. Neither contraction nor expansion will save us. Our only path is that of destruction.

Radical Negativity
At the heart of our gender abolition is a negativity. We seek not to abolish gender so that a true self can be returned to; there is no such self. It is not as though the abolition of gender will free us to exist as true or genuine selves, freed from certain norms. Such a conclusion would be at odds with the entirety of our antihumanist claims. And thus we must take a leap into the void.

A moment of lucid clarity is required here. If what we are is a product of discourses of power, and we seek to abolish and destroy those discourses, we are taking the greatest risk possible. We are diving into an unknown. The very terms, symbols, ideas, and realities by which we have been shaped and created will burn in flames, and we cannot know or predict what we will be when we come out the other side.

This is why we must embrace an attitude of radical negativity. All the previous attempts at positive and expansionist gender politics have failed us. We must cease to presume a knowledge of what liberation or emancipation might look like, for those ideas are themselves grounded upon an idea of the self which cannot stand up to scrutiny; it is an idea which for the longest time has been used to limit our horizons. Only pure rejection, the move away from any sort of knowable or intelligible future can allow us the possibility for a future at all.

While this risk is a powerful one, it is necessary. Yet in plunging into the unknown, we enter the waters of unintelligibility. These waters are not without their dangers; and there is a real possibility for a radical loss self. The very terms by which we recognize each other may be dissolved. But there is no other way out of this dilemma. We are daily being attacked by a process of normalization that codes us as deviant. If we do not lose ourselves in the movement of negativity, we will be destroyed by the status quo. We have only one option, risks be damned.

This powerfully captures the predicament that we are in at this moment. While the risk of embracing negativity is high, we know the alternative will destroy us. If we lose ourselves in the process, we have merely suffered the same fate we would have otherwise. Thus it is with reckless abandon that we refuse to postulate about what a future might hold, and what we might be within that future. A rejection of meaning, a rejection of known possibility, a rejection of being itself. Nihilism. That is our stance and method.

Relentless critique of positive gender politics is thus a starting point, but one which must occur cautiously. For if we are to criticize their own normative underpinnings in favor of an alternative, we only fall prey once again to the neutralizing power of normalization. Thus we answer the demand for a clearly stated alternative and for a program of actions to be taken with a resolute “no.” The days of manifestos and platforms are over. The negation of all things, ourselves included, is the only means through which we will ever be able to gain anything.

[This to me describes roughly what is at stake experientially in a process of communization. The dissolution of the terms by which we recognise one-another (i.e. of capitalist-world forms of belonging) and the like are precisely the effect the re-organisation of society on a communist material base will have, likely over a relatively short period of historical time. I have no idea what it’s supposed to mean as a voluntaristic minority practice under capitalist conditions though. I’m not sure it’s possible to do gender (or not-gender or whatever) as a leap into an experiential void, and would recommend psychedelics as a much better bet if ego death is what you’re after.

One thing I’ve learned from embracing my own version of gender nihilism is that reality remains obstinately, frustratingly, stultifyingly knowable, regardless of one’s subjective attitude to it. The world remains indifferent to consciousness’ vault beyond it, and one remains despite oneself stuck working through the same boring problematics: “if I don’t pass as a woman everyone will treat me as a man”. Just like yesterday. Just like tomorrow.

For me, the problem with all this is that, rhetoric aside, it’s far too much of a politics. The whole drive behind the argument stems from a set of transcendent political commitments (gender abolition, trans liberation). From this point of departure it antihumanisms itself out of any possibility of agency, ends up at nihilism, and then tries to get nihilism to produce a liberation politics (albeit a disavowed one). Unsurprisingly, this ends up with total incoherence (Why exactly do I have to attack anything? Is it even possible on these terms to conceive of a society, or any particular aspect of one, which shouldn’t be burned to the ground?) and calls to leap out of reality itself, which it nonetheless insists upon (as any politics, even a politics pretending to be an anti-politics, must) as a set of practical imperatives (in an addendum, Escalante claims that “this piece was not meant to tell anyone how to think about gender”, but this is clearly totally contrary to both the letter and spirit of her argument).

What this is, in the end, is another form of gender policing, yet another installment of the endless saga of trans people giving each other shit for doing gender wrong, this time in perhaps the most absurd articulation possible: not voidy enough (you fuckin’ liberal!). What needs to be grasped is that the problem with gender policing is one of form not content: the fact that we are policed, not how we are policed. All interventions that rely on the propagation of a (wannabe) compulsory ontology against which gender practices are to be judged (including voidy nihilism vs. humanist positivity) must deploy the same mechanisms of social policing and draw us into acting through/as them. Avoiding this is not a question of political metaphysics (which in any case seem to primarily function here to disavow complicity) but of the orientation of material practices.

No subjective attitude to – or approach to performance or expression of – gender can make it go away. No demand that someone effect the abolition of gender through the way they navigate it can ever be met. This is true whoever makes the demand, which can only ever be a demand for purposeless self-torture.

Instead, I want to situate gender nihilism within the abolitionist impulse – the occurrence of the desire to be free of the whole game – without telos or transcendent justification. This might occur in any number of affective registers, from “ugh can I just not?” to “fuck the entire social order!”, I don’t much care (though I do find myself increasingly bored with anarcho-shoutyness as an expressive mode). What I am interested in is the practices of detachment and withdrawl that transmute this impulse into self-differentiating distance from given modes of positive social being – and the refusal of the attendant labour of self-surveillance and knowledge-production – for themselves, without subordination to political goals. Non-politics, not anti-politics.

It is enough to be sick of the work of gender and to wish to avoid it wherever possible. It is enough to recognise that the frantic obsession with ontologising all forms of gender non-conformity and fluidity, and producing rules determining their proper relations to one-another (Is a non-passing nb transmasc more or less privileged than a cis-passing binary transfem? Better check the lookup tables…), is not for the benefit of these, but the crisis reaction of the apparatus of governance to breakdowns of its categories appearing in the guise of allegedly queer politics, and to want as little to do with it as possible. It is enough to refuse the work of assimilation (what is called “recognition”), and to put one’s energies instead towards the pursuit of whatever strategies make themselves available for the realisation of less alienated immediate relations. Let’s call it a soft insurrectionism: less of the compulsive bloodying one’s forehead against the brick wall of indifferent totality, more of the refusal to give one’s energies to the production of one’s own negation, and the taking of whatever opportunities make themselves available to live as fully as possible. There is enough work that cannot be avoided in sustaining whatever survival strategy one has chosen in relation to gender, without taking on a hopeless and impossible additional burden for some spurious political purpose, without subjecting oneself to yet another hostile overseeing gaze whose demands can never be satisfied.

One less effort, if you would be nihilists.]

1. Male privilege isn’t a thing. You can’t possess it or have it as an attribute of your person. No one is actually carrying around an invisible knapsack of privilege.

2. What male privilege is first and foremost is a concept: a machine for thinking with that performs a certain function in relation to certain kinds of problem. What the concept of male privilege does is allow us to identify a broad tendency across society, and to think the particular dynamics of a variety of distinct situations as instances of that tendency. It joins the dots between a bunch of different things that tend to happen in the world by allowing us to say that together they constitute a particular phenomenon.

3. The way the concept of male privilege accomplishes this is by referring all these instance to a single abstraction that stands in for the actual relations and processes that link them in reality. It is not a theory of anything. It doesn’t tell us anything about what these relations and processes actually are. It’s a placeholder for when you don’t want to map out the whole reality in order to talk about it. It’s a concept that problematises rather than explains, and that’s fine. It’s important to have concepts that compose problems for us to think, as long as we don’t confuse that for the thinking itself.

4. What Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wants to do with the concept of male privilege is altogether different. She wants to take it as the principle of a logical system that allows her to deduce things about the experiences of others. We are no longer using it to relate things we know about experience, but to directly produce knowledge out of abstractions. The work it’s now supposed to do is to allow her to infer the experience of another by virtue of how that other’s body signifies its sex to her. It’s a way of not thinking the complexity of the world by imposing a pre-constructed image over reality. It’s not just trans women’s experiences, but everyone’s, that disappear in this kind of thinking.

5. This deduction requires her to have an account of gender socialisation that uniformly attaches privilege to bodies according to sexual difference. Historically, feminists have strongly opposed this kind of functionalist thinking about socialisation precisely because it invites the kind of conservative use to which Adichie puts it: overwriting experience, denying agency and variability, and justifying the status quo. Socialisation is not a pressing plant. We are not all of one uniform human substance stamped into universal binary forms. It requires the dismissal of basically every significant contribution feminism has made to our understanding of gender socialisation to think this way.

6. There is no automatic relationship between sexual difference and gender socialisation. Rather it depends on the enactment over time of symbolic roles that gradually shape us. These enactments are situational, and do not necessarily map onto the differentiation of bodies by sex. Bodies marked male can be and are made to occupy feminine positions in particular dynamics and vice versa, and our relationship to ‘privilege’ is contingent on this positioning. Our gender socialisation is a complex mosaic of impressions that form us over time, not a simple binary categorisation.

7. Even the raddiest of radfems have historically been sensitive to the enormous harm done to ‘male’ children in the process of making them men. Children are trapped by absolute dependence in the relations of care into which they were born, and enclosed within various repressive authoritarian institutions (family, school, community, church, state). The processes by which those children marked to be men are by those environments brutalised and taught to fear emotion are not privileges, they are kinds of violence, for which no one should be told to be grateful.

8. Adichie’s women are defined by a lack in relation to men: the lack of male privilege. And moreover, given what she has to say about privilege and socialisation, this maps exactly onto the way women are traditionally defined by lack in relation to sexual difference: by the presence or absence of the Phallus. The thing about the Phallus is: it’s a fantasy, specifically, a male supremacist society’s fantasy about the virility of masculine agency that is not commensurate with the reality of anyone’s actual existence (men’s actual social dominance is considerably more fraught than its representation in fantasy). Adiche’s imaginings about the lives of trans women (it’s very obvious she hasn’t actually talked to any of us about it in any depth) are projected fantasies of phallic agency: we are deemed to have what women lack because we are deemed to have an experience of agency structurally barred for women as a correlate of how our bodies are sexually differentiated from those of cis women, and therefore are disqualified from being women. One way of responding to this is to simply show empirically how the fantasy diverges from reality, by describing all the commonalities in how we are hurt and subordinated by patriarchal society. But I think the more important point is: we should not have to parade our lack in order to be accepted as women because we should not be accepting this phallocentric model of agency in the first place. Woman is not simply what you get when you take away whatever gives men power, and Man is not the fully empowered humanity denied women. Both are ways of being divided against and alienated from oneself by the system within which we are trapped. Both are impoverished forms of human existence. One only benefits from either role in relative terms.

9. What I’m trying to get at here is that there are problems with overextended concepts of male privilege such as Adichie’s beyond that they exclude trans women from being women. They confuse the social function ‘man’ with the actual humans that enact it, and so empty out our understandings of those experiences by reducing them to the dimension of privilege. Being seen as a man allows contingent access to social privilege, but it also quite often involves being hurt a lot and having to pretend you’re not. The kind of feminism that makes a theoretical system out of privilege, and therefore dismisses men’s expressions of dissatisfaction with their gender as the whining of the privileged, adds to the social repression of men’s vulnerability and closes off possibilities for the expression and politicisation of the dissonance of men’s humanity to their expected social function. Drawing an arbitrary line to protect trans women from that kind of treatment isn’t good enough. There are all kinds of experiences of male existence that don’t fit the model of what’s implied by ‘male privilege’ that are not trans experiences, and the concept shouldn’t be deployed to invalidate these either.

10. Personally, transition has helped me to begin to understand the gendered dimensions of some of the ways I have been victimised during my life, and to integrate these with my understanding of myself. But this is not what I value about it. What matters is that in femininity – or rather particular kinds of femininity: feminist femininity, queer femininity, punk femininity – I have found a model for my own agency that is authentically mine and that feels like agency. Adichie’s Woman is a passive effect of the accumulation of sufferings: all history no futurity. Who the fuck wants that? What does it matter how my miseries stack up next to hers or anyone elses? My “womanhood” is an active creative potential immanent to my being. It is not my shitty childhood nor does it have to answer to anyone else’s. There is nothing positive in defining yourself by victimhood because there’s nothing good about being a victim.

The use of queer as an umbrella term is not a description of an empirically or pre-discursively existing quality common to certain forms of difference, but a normative conception of how difference is to be understood: abjected forms of difference should be positively embraced not merely despite but because of the way they clash with prevailing social norms. Put another way: queer does not describe static pre-political facts about subjects who are essentially queer, but articulates difference-in-conflict with a society that seeks to dominate and constrain it.

There is no politically neutral act of naming. To name a collection of people queer is to impose a meaning on that collection of people that those people do not necessarily endorse. It is without a doubt an exercise of symbolic power. But this is equally true of any other name you might choose for anything. The term ‘gay’, for example, is not embraced by all of those for whom it is routinely used. There are plenty of men who fuck other men who do not call themselves gay, not simply because they are closeted or because of internalised homophobia, but because they do not see themselves reflected in the political, cultural and social dimensions of gay identity. Supposedly non-political merely-descriptive terms such as ‘homosexual’ or ‘men who have sex with men’, on the other hand, are often rejected precisely because they detach sexual practices from forms of community that give them meaning. Any attempt to aggregate a set of particulars under a common term involves an overwriting of their particularity. The coherence of any particular symbolisation is purchased through an elision of some dimension of reality, which is always infinitely more complex and heterogeneous than language can cope with. The alternative is to never have names for anything.

The terms we choose to announce ourselves collectively are never simply descriptive of pre-existing realities, but are attempts to produce forms of collective subjectification at particular historical moments to engender particular forms of solidarity and struggle, and as such are necessarily tied to the exigencies of organising resistance. ‘Gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘transsexual’, ‘transgender’, ‘bisexual’ (as well as the ever-evolving alphabet soup names for The Community) are all terms insisted upon by particular political factions at particular moments in history as assertions of the positive social value of particular forms of difference against stigmatisation, criminalisation, violence and discrimination. Queer likewise is a response to a perceived need to develop new forms of self-definition due to the shift from repression to co-optation and assimilation in straight society’s strategy for our containment. It is a conscious project to outmaneuver the dynamics of co-optation through understanding ourselves not in terms of positive attributes we supposedly commonly possess but negatively and fluidly in terms of our common relation to structurally enforced norms. The repurposing of the slur ‘queer’ is inextricable from this definition because it is precisely from the position of abjection it implies that we choose to fight: we are the other that straight society must continually exclude in order to sustain itself and it is on that basis that we organise.

Clearly there is always a multiplicity of interacting factors behind any particular disavowal of queerness, but the debate over the term has oddly tended to proceed as if these always and everywhere originate in a pre-political innocence rather than being potentially strategic interventions by agents with their own divergent political commitments. Sure, there are those for whom the term itself is for them too strongly associated with shame and violence who do not embrace the label ‘queer’, but share a commitment to the kind of politics it implies. But equally, there are those who reject the term because their politics has an essentially conservative orientation: e.g. those in positions of power within the LGBT community who are threatened by the kind of political community queer attempts to bring into existence, those for whom the queer rejection of respectability undermines their project of securing acceptance through conformity and integration etc.

The act of naming is inherently contentious. It necessarily takes place in the midst of the contradictions of a particular point in time and involves decisions about how to respond to those contradictions. Calling ourselves queer is a political decision and not everyone is going to like it. Fine. Agitation for radically transformative change is never going to be about finding nice language that everyone can get behind. It’s inherently divisive, and ongoing debate is a necessary correlate. But that debate is between those who wish to define our collective experiences of difference in a hostile society in terms oriented to a particular kind of fight, and those who oppose and seek to prohibit that definition. Those in the latter camp have not chosen a neutral position and there is no reason to treat their wishes as sacrosanct.

 

Writing is difficult for me at the moment, but I feel the need to say something, publicly, about the “Marriage Equality” campaign and the referendum process, and to say it now, not afterwards. So I’ve decided to collect together the various things I’ve written for facebook posts, as a fragmented gesture towards a queer analysis of what we’ve just gone through.

Personally, I’ve found the referendum process very demanding. Demanding both in the sense of the strain it’s placed on my emotional resources, and in the sense that its produced a slew of moralising demands from marriage advocates which I’m expected to meet. I’m sick of it. At a time in my life where I’m trying to navigate the complexities and risks of openly living a trans life in a hostile society, I’m sick of being told that I’m being insufficiently attentive to the needs of people twice my age who just want to get married. I’m sick of demands for solidarity that are never going to be reciprocated. I’m sick of having to reaffirm that I think discrimination is bad every time I speak about anything other than why same-sex couples should be able to get married. I’m sick of people who want to talk about discrimination but couldn’t give a shit about the discrimination against forms of kinship and family outside the marriage norm that will persist after this referendum passes. I’m sick of marriage being allowed to stand for equality, and of “marriage equality” being treated as the sine qua non of progress for queer people.

My experience of the referendum has confirmed everything I already knew about same-sex marriage politics: Marriage Equality is a politics that must consume all others. It can only function by filling the entire space of queer representation; by monopolising concepts of progress and futurity; by homogenising and flattening queerness into a single issue, a single striving, a single (conservative) picture of the actualisation of queer freedom; by insisting that it and it alone has always been the liberation implicit in our politics. It demands our participation and we cannot refuse. All of us, whatever we wish, whether it benefits us or not, must suffer through a torrent of abuse and behave ourselves, lest our refusal to tolerate violent homophobic speech acts jeopardise a campaign that won’t even afford us the dignity of demanding rather than asking for the meagre concessions being offered to us. (And if you don’t Marriage Equality will call the cops.)

So vote Yes, please, so that we can be spared a rerun of this shit.


fb post for Workers Solidarity Movement:

“Marriage equality” represents a victory for conservatives within the LGBT movement in narrowing and limiting the horizons of ur politics, and for conservative and homophobic social forces in diffusing and recuperating the potential for radical transformative change opened up by the gay liberation movement.

Despite attempts to re-write history by assimilationist LG(B(T)) organisations, inclusion within marriage is not all we have ever wanted. Queer politics has always put forward a vision that proposed a far more substantive concept of equality than just the end of formal legal discrimination: a concept of equality that cherishes difference and diversity, rather than precribing a single ideal based on heterosexual monogamy. Rather than seeking inclusion only for those who are willing and able to conform to the norm, we should seek the abolition of state marriage, the decoupling of rights from aherence to particular norms, and full social acceptance for the full diversity of forms of sexuality, kinship, affinity, alliance and affection. “Marriage equality” is a setback for that vision.

By attaching rights and social acceptance to compliance to a specific norm, we reaffirm that those outside that norm are undeserving of the same rights or social acceptance. We reinforce the idea that difference is to be punished and policed and excluded.

But, whether we like it or not, this is what’s happening. The question for those of us who remain outside, and who hold a vision of a better world in our hearts, is how to advance that vision despite the setback this represents. This is a moment for queers to recognise ourselves as an autonomous political movement, which hopes and fights for a different future than the dismal politics of pro-marriage, and to recognise that we must build communities that can turn our dreams into concrete political action, because no one else is going to do that for us.

fb post on Automatic Writing page

Anti-marriage politics is not anti married people. It’s not advocating your relationship should be banned or forcibly broken up. It’s opposing the idea that your relationship is superior to everyone else’s, that it’s deserving of greater support and protection than everyone else’s, or that it, uniquely, deserves to be built in to the material and legal structure of society. It opposes the coercive application of norms built around an idealised heterosexuality because it wants an end to coercive norms governing relationships, sexuality, gender and identity, not because it wants to replace them with different ones. (So could you please stop the “radical queers imposing their views on us” nonsense? Thanks.)

public fb posts on personal page

If the same-sex marriage referendum passes the primary benefactors will be older more privileged LGBTQ people in monogamous same-sex relationships. If it fails, the people most harmed by a climate of emboldened homophobia are the young, the closeted, the precarious/marginalised and the highly visible queers. I feel like hardly anyone wants to talk about this.


I feel really uncomfortable with most of the standard rhetorical deployments of things like “the gay community”, “the LGBTQ community”. My reasons for this are both personal and political, and tbh the two are blended to the point that it’s hard to separate them. Community means belonging, if it means anything, and whenever I’ve encountered The Community what I’ve felt is not belonging but alienation. I remember sitting in the student bar in Maynooth in first year with what was then the GLB and trying to figure out what the fuck to say to a group of people who were literally talking about Bonnie Tyler and Madonna all night (as if what it is to be queer is to embody a threadbare hand-me-down version of camp sensibility), and wondering where I was going to fit in if I didn’t even fit in the spaces that were for me. I felt much the same looking around at the different LGBT political groups whose politics were (despite whatever good work they surely do) all so fluffy and liberal and incrementalist; where radicalism is basically measured (quantitatively) by how loudly and insistently you demand the exact same reforms, rather than anything qualitative about the stances you take or the things you do. I couldn’t relate to it. As far as I could see, there was nowhere to express the negativity (both of the dialectical revolutionary-critical and nihilist/depressive variety) that was (and continues to be) a major part of how I relate to the world, no one who thought and felt like me. And this was what “community” seemed to amount to: compulsory positivity, compulsory rainbow fluffiness, compulsory liberal representationalism. In other words: yet another injunction to be someone other than who I wanted to be.

So I feel like this way of talking about community – as a kind of primordial unity of the queers – is basically reactionary. Most of the time these days I find it deployed against me as a form of command, to moderate my speech, to subordinate my desires and hopes to some mandatory loyalty to The Community, to undertake activity that I find humiliating, like going door-to-door begging for rights I don’t even want. This sense of community is a fiction, the fiction that we all share a common outlook, common strivings, common political goals, common needs, common desires, merely on the basis of who we are. We don’t. I’ve nothing in common politically with Leo Varadkar, or your average masc-seeking-similar Grindr dweller, or whoever. This kind of primordialist thinking about community is always going to end up with a least-common-denominator politics that seeks to represent everyone and as a result ends up representing the most conservative and privileged voices and excluding the rest. It’s tied up with assimilationism, whitewashing, homonormativity, pro-capitalism and liberalism. It demands solidarity and sacrifice from queers like me that’s never going to be reciprocated. It’s a trap, basically, that we’ve got to break out of.

But community is also essential. As queers we live, to varying degrees and in varying ways, precarious lives – lives constantly threatened by the soft genocidal politics of heteropatriarchy. We need relations of support, spaces where we are affirmed in who we are, access to forms of belonging. We need community, both to make our lives that bit more livable and to enable collective political action. Personally, I’ve been feeling much more of a sense of being part of a community in recent times. The people around me are amazing and supportive, and I feel safe enough to be publicly trans in quite a confrontational way. But the people who enable that are not all queers; many of them are straight anarchists, socialists and feminists. And tbh I feel a lot more supported by good pro-queer straights than I do by the LGBT mainstream, who I often encounter as people who want to police my identity and silence my speech.

So to me “community” is not about who you are but what you do. It’s a construct, one that’s fluid, mobile and contingent. It’s a set of relations we build together in order to protect and enable one-another, not something we form merely because we share a common identity, or a common relation to power structures. It’s something that does not exist, so its necessary for us to invent it.


If the term ‘equality’ is to have any substantive meaning, it must refer to a society radically and qualitatively different from the one we now inhabit. When people say things like “Vote Yes for Equality” or “Vote Yes to a fairer Ireland” or “Vote Yes: let’s treat everyone equally”, it does more than simply advocating support for a reform that will end some forms of discrimination against some queers – it works to launder ongoing structural racism, misogyny, class exploitation and the structural homophobia and transphobia that will persist long after this referendum passes. It is meaningless to talk of equality in a society that permits the racist and punitive detention of migrants in direct provision, or the brutalisation and murder of pregnant (usually migrant) women in Irish hospitals, or the class-based robbery of austerity, or the subjection of trans people to arbitrary, restrictive and humiliating gatekeeping processes in order to have their gender legally recognised. So call for a Yes vote, but don’t call it equality.

“NOTHING can/will define me! Free to be EVERYTHING!!!”

Miley Cyrus

I wish to speak of something without knowing quite what it is. A disposition; a sensibility; a micropolitical strategy; a navigational heuristic; a performative absence; a forgetting, perhaps; a queer site of refusal and resistance; a creative potential; an experiment, a mode of living within, despite and against the regime of gender, which I’m going to call “gender nihilism”.

Gender nihilism designates a kind of radical agnosticism at the level of (gender) identity; a refusal of the injunction to know what one is, to objectify oneself as knowledge, and to make oneself known; a persistent “no comment” to the police who surround and suffuse us, and marshall against us a vast array of tactics – promises, threats, insults, lies, seductions, manipulations, forms of violence – to extract a confession. It names a possibility latent within any particular gender position: that of disidentification, of non-identification.

Silence too is performative.1 If gender is in some sense the effect of the repetition of gendered expressions, what is the effect of the repetition of a silence when the question of one’s gender is posed? It is not an escape. Norms continue to inscribe gendered meanings on the body, to produce modes of embodiment, and to act upon expression. One remains both a relay for and a product of gender as a form of power.2 It is more like a strike or an act of sabotage, a refusal to function as a site of production for a particular kind of knowledge and an effort to disrupt one’s normal functioning as a force of production.

There is nothing natural about having a gender. The shift from sovereignty – whose mode of action is necropolitical and whose instrument is law – to discipline – in which the fashioning and control of life (rather than consignment to death) becomes the primary concern of power, and the norm its instrument – as the dominant form of power required the expansion of modes of inquiry and knowledge production. Simply: that which is to be disciplined must be rendered intelligible to disciplinary powers; the norm must be defined and delimited and deviance understood in order to be corrected and eliminated. Gender, sex, sexuality are conceptual instruments of this form of power. The belief that one must have a gender, that is, that one must know oneself in gendered terms and be capable of transmitting that knowledge, that gender self-knowledge is a necessary condition for a livable life, and that the absence of such knowledge is a form of crisis, is a historical phenomenon and an effect of power. Gender nihilism is the lived refutation of that belief, the demonstration that life can be lived without such knowledge, and that such a life can flourish.

If the disciplinary society aimed at the elimination of troublesome difference through institutional power, the new capitalism, the society of control, produces a fresh twist on the politics of intelligibility. Control is interested not in the elimination of difference but in its assimilation, the recuperation and reincorporation of renegades into the market, the state, the family and so on by adding additional axioms which conditionally and selectively allow access to the norm. Homosexuality no longer requires a cure, rather the marriage norm is expanded to include gays who conform to certain norms of acceptable difference, while the rest are further abjected. Disciplinary power is tactile and direct, control is remote and abstract. It effects biopolitical control through the modulation of differential access to markets, food, shelter, recognition, rights, protections.

If the assertion of abjected identities, and the hybridisation and invention of new identities directly confronted disciplinary power, such gestures are increasingly incorporated by new forms of control. The assertion of identity becomes the means by which a population delimits itself and renders itself intelligible to power and begins a trajectory of assimilation which assigns it a place within marketing strategies, state institutions, culture and social life.3 It thereby structures oppositional politics according to a logic of recognition, drawing renegade flows back toward the state and the reproduction of the present.

Gender nihilism is disinterested in recognition. Recognition is always “recognition as…” and therefore remains always conditional: “I recognise you as…” is always conditional on a prior identification, always implies a “because you are…”, and always retains the possibility that recognition will be withdrawn if you become something else. The power of recognition is also simultaneously the power of misrecognition and non-recognition, and the goal of recognition, whether demanded or asked for, exposes one permanently to these forms of violence. However forcefully we assert “I am…”, we remain vulnerable to “You are not…”, “You are instead…”4

Gender nihilism has no positive content. In itself it does not prescribe or recommend any particular way of being in the world. It makes no claims about what it is. If identification is drawing a circle in the sand saying “here are the things I am, there are the things I am not”, gender nihilism simply lets the circle be washed away by the waves. The gender nihilist is therefore indifferent to the names they are called and the genders they signify.* Gender nihilism opens the entire space of gendered possibility as a terrain for exploration, but does not replace fidelity to an identity with fidelity to an ethics of exploration. One can stay where one is just as surely as one can set off at a sprint. In this sense it is less a nomadism than a homelessness.5 It opens up gender as a space of play, or of combat, without mandating either. It’s mode of address is “you can…” – “you should…” and “you must…” only emerge when other components are bolted on. It is futural in the sense that it refuses the conception of historicity that grounds identity (“I am what I always have been”) which is always in any case a founding myth, a constantly reworked fiction that establishes continuity with the past. Gender nihilism is at ease with rupture. It allows us to treat our histories as a resource, an archive of past styles, ways of living, memories, experiences, beliefs to be reworked and refashioned in any way desired, but is not innately a postmodernist, or futurist, or accelerationist disposition towards novelty or innovation.

Gender nihilism is political but it is not a politics. It is queer by definition, but proposes no ideal queerness, nor any queer horizon towards which to direct itself. It is a negation that doesn’t presuppose some future dialectical turn. Clearly it is in various ways a marginal and precarious position and thus its structural position pushes towards certain forms of alliance, and indeed may in itself open unique political possibilites. In this sense gender nihilism may be a valuable conceptual component in a political assemblage, but one ambivalent to the particular political projects it connects with.6


1 One stock example of performativity is the “I do” of a wedding ceremony. Consider how the same ceremony also incorporates a performative silence to sanction the legality of the marriage: the moment after “speak now or forever hold your peace”.

2 A question arises here: if we assert that gender cannot be escaped, are we not legislating against the identities of those who claim for themselves a position outside of the gender binary, or outside of gender as such – those who call themselves agender, non-binary, or third gender, for example? This, I think, is a problem that arises in all forms of gender identification, which I call the problem of ‘lived ontology’. That is: any particular assertion of gender identity involves claims about what kind of genders can exist and which cannot, whose implications extend beyond the self to the whole social body. For example, a trans person’s insistence that their anatomy does not dictate their gender troubles the gender of a cis person who understands their gender as grounded in biological fact, while in turn forms of lived gender fluidity trouble some trans people’s understanding of their lived gender as grounded in fixed interior truth. The various forms of gender identity in the world are mutually incoherent, and in some cases mutually canceling. This should not be seen as a problem, rather we should seek to understand the ways that a variety of mutually incompatible forms of gender dissidence each open up their own spaces of freedom and effect their own disruptions of the gender regime. I intend to return to this topic in a more systematic way in the future, but provisionally we can say that all genders are in some sense impossible, and that the extension of recognition despite or even because of that impossibility is one of the ways in which we can collaborate and support one-another to performatively open up possibilities that are barred by gender norms.

3 Of course, this process is not inevitable. Identity categories can be queered and re-queered to resist assimilation. And identity-based movements can exceed containment and threaten power. My aim here is not to proscribe identification, but to question its necessity and sketch an alternative.

4 This condition is perhaps never fully escapable. As social beings we are always minimally vulnerable. We never fully control how we are affected by the names we are called. In this sense perhaps gender nihilism designates a horizon rather than an actuality. In any case, it is certainly not a delusion of invulnerability.

5 My point is not that a nomad ethics is not desirable (I think it is, and there is clearly an affinity or compatibility between the two), simply that this question is external to the proposition of gender nihilism.

6 Indeed I write this in part because I am convinced of the political value of nihilism both as a point to pass through and as a position to act from, but that’s another essay.

* EDIT 11/11/15 The struck-out sentence is one I no longer endorses since it prescribes indifference as an ideal way of living queerness – prescisely the kind of prescriptivism this text seeks to escape. I have struck it out because, while I feel it can safely be removed from the text without loss of coherence, I don’t believe in simply deleting problematic/contentious mistakes so it appears as if I never said them.

This article was written for the forthcoming edition of the Irish Anarchist Review. It is much too long for the space available, but I wanted to publish the full version here before beginning the solemn butchery of editing it down.

Futurism or the Future: Review of the Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politicsi

The proliferation of computerised surveillance and security systems across workplaces has had the effect that now, in offices across the world, workers’ toilet usage is continuously monitored. You swipe your ID card to get in and out, producing a data event with a time and duration, which is quietly recorded by some computer. Upstairs, some horrendous bureaucrat ponders over all this data: How long does a shit take? How many shits is too many? Does she have a medical condition, or is she just slacking? Copropolitics: a new technology of discipline and a fresh form of indignity that was inconceivable as anything other than a cyberpunk nightmare (and a dull one at that) a couple of decades ago; the kind of technological revolution that no-one wanted, and nobody is particularly excited about, but which nonetheless happens. Of course this is easily explained entirely in terms of capitalist imperatives: remove a potential for unauthorised respite, produce a panopticon so total that it watches you shit, greater discipline, greater exploitation, more profit. If we don’t design/implement these technologies someone else will, and then we’ll be at a competitive disadvantage – the basic mechanism of capitalist technological development. Freud once told us that an obsession with excrement is a pathological manifestation of extreme greed. Today, at the highest stage of capitalist development, it is a mundane expression of bourgeois values, made possible by technological advances, or “progress”, as it is often called.

The Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politicsii (MAP from here on) appeared to considerable interest and excitement last year (with some apparent resonance beyond the too-cool-for-school, anti-academic academics who normally consume this kind of thing) to announce an “accelerationist politics” as a programmatic remedy for a Left mired in crisis and depression. Contextualising itself within a historical moment charaterised by a set of existential threats to humanity (“the breakdown of the planetary climatic system… [t]erminal resource depletion, especially in water and energy reserves” etc.), by the stagnation of contemporary capitalism, which has embraced a “death spiral” of austerity policies, privatisation and wage stagnation, and by the retreat of the political imaginary, which is no longer capable of conceiving of a future other than more of the same, the MAP calls for a kind of ambivalent alliance with capital, as an alternative and more realistic revolutionary path to the “neo-primitivist localism” and “folk politics” of contemporary social movements, and the doomed fantasies of a return to Keynsianism clung to by various leftist parties.

Accelerationism argues that “the only radical political response to capitalism is not to protest, disrupt or critique… but to accelerate its uprooting, alienating, decoding, abstractive tendencies”iii, that “liberation must occur within the evolution of capital; that labour power must move against the blockage caused by capitalism; that a complete reversal of the class relation must be accomplished by the pursuit of constant economic growth and technological evolution”iv in order to produce “an alternative modernity that neoliberalism is inherently unable to generate”. Explicitly presenting itself as simultaneously a “political heresy”v and as recovering some suppressed true progressive core of leftism, accelerationism effectively asks us to stake the future of the human species on an uneasy and ultimately treacherous alliance with capital: we must navigate our way through the blockages and crises of capital, liberating its potential, but only so that, ultimately, it can be transformed into something that is not-capital.vi

The thesis is certainly seductive, not least due to the rhetorical bombast (one might say machismo) of its presentation, but also in its capacity to speak to the frustrations of contemporary leftists, and its insistence on resurfacing futurist and utopian themes of space exploration and the transcendence of the limitations of the human body. But is this the seduction of a liberatory politics or of a suicidal impulse?

My contention, for reasons that I hope to make clear, is that the MAP is the presentation of the latter as the former, and therefore is not to be taken seriously as a programmatic document. It is more useful, I think, to read it as a kind of provocation to an ecologically-minded left. The question is not “should we embrace accelerationism?” (to which I think the answer is a fairly obvious “no”) but rather “why not embrace accelerationism?” Why not throw your lot in with the massive abstract machinery and torrential flows of capital? If the revolutionary path is not to act within the evolution of capital, then what is it? What is it that we, the non-accelerationists, think can (1) actually effect the kind of transformations necessary to confront the existential threats and political-economic formations we face, and (2) recover the idea of a communist horizon designating the possibility of a world that is not only less oppressive than this one, but which is actually exciting in the experiences and possibilities it entails?

Cyborg-Lenin against the hippies

One of the strongest points of the MAP (or in any case, one which goes a long way towards purchasing credibility for its argument) is its withering critique of the Left, which speaks readily to the frustrations of a generation of leftists who had pinned their hopes to a set of anti-austerity movements and strategies which came, spectacularly, to nothing. The various Parties, both of the social democratic and Lenin-necromancing variety, are, rightly, castigated for their failure to think of any alternative to the neoliberal death-drive beyond an unlikely return to Keynsianism. The social conditions that enabled Keynsian social-democracy simply no longer exist and cannot be recovered: “We cannot return to mass industrial-Fordist labour by fiat, if at all.” And in any case, who would want to, given that the system relied on “an international hierarchy of colonies, empires, and an underdeveloped periphery; a national hierarchy of racism and sexism; and a rigid family hierarchy of female subjugation” and condemned workers to “a lifetime of stultifying boredom and social repression” in return for security and a basic standard of living? I would only add that the Keynsian class-compromise didn’t work too well for us the first time round, leading, as it did, to the destruction of the trade union movement and the advent of neoliberalism, and we are unlikely to fare better a second time round given the present balance-of-forces between organised labour and capital.

“New social movements” and, implicitly, anarchists, are also singled out for critique by the MAP. Lacking transformative political vision, these movements fetishise “internal direct-democratic process and affective self-valorisation over strategic efficacy” and cling to “a folk politics of localism, direct action, and relentless horizontalism” which is utterly insufficient against an enemy that is “intrinsically non-local, abstract, and rooted deep in our everyday infrastructure.” No one who has been through a process like the Occupy movement could fail to recognise some truth in this characterisation, and the notion of process-as-politics (and its corollary insistence on radical openness to the point of paralyzing incoherence) certainly needs to go the way of flower power into history’s dustbin of nice ideas that don’t work, but it is certainly possible for similar movements to sharpen their understanding of the relationship between means and ends without embracing the crypto-vanguardism of the MAP’s attempted rehabilitation of “secrecy, verticality, and exclusion”.vii

Indeed, the MAP’s rather troubling solution to this problem is to dispense with the consideration of means altogether and define democracy entirely in terms of its end: “collective self-mastery… which must align politics with the legacy of the Enlightenment, to the extent that it is only through harnessing our ability to understand ourselves and our world better (our social, technical, economic, psychological world) that we can come to rule ourselves… [through] a collectively controlled legitimate vertical authority in addition to distributed horizontal forms of sociality” in which “[t]he command of The Plan [is] married to the improvised order of The Network” – a kind of Leninism via Facebook, in other words. Abstracted from all considerations of process, what sort of theory of sovereignty grounds this “legitimate vertical authority”? No answer is given, but one suspects, given that for the MAP “collective self-mastery” means to align politics with the goal of understanding ourselves and the world, and given the emphasis on the decisive role of cognitive labour (which the manifesto itself acknowledges consists of “a vanishingly small cognitariat of elite intellectual workers”) in the process of acceleration, this amounts to rule by a scientific-technical elite counterbalanced by some system of cybersoviets. (The flaws with this are obvious and I have neither the desire nor space here to rehearse debates over the Russian Revolution through speculative fiction.)viii Moreover, democratic concerns aside, what the MAP proposes in terms of strategy essentially amounts to a Gramscian long march through the institutionsix a process surely far more tedious and self-defeating than the worst Occupy assembly.

More interesting and important is the anti-localism of the MAP. This is a significant and serious challenge to ecologically-minded leftists, many of whom are unfortunately trapped in an idealism which “oppose[s] the abstract violence of globalised capital with the flimsy and ephemeral ‘authenticity’ of communal immediacy.” If capitalism is global so too must be our resistances and our efforts at social transformation.x History is not reversible, and globalisation means there is no longer any solution at the level of the nation-state, much less at the level of the locality, the “transition town”, the bioregion, or any other territorial conception of space; all localisms entail the disappearance of the complex webs of relations that constitute the spaces of a globalised world, and consequently lack a plausible path from this world to theirs. To take one example: modern food production and distribution relies on complex global networks, without which we would all starve within a matter of weeks. The practice of growing your own vegetables and building local distribution networks, which is commonplace in green milieus, and is often treated as if it were a radical ecological praxis, fails utterly to confront the complex logistical problems of producing enough food to feed everyone, and does not offer a scalable solution to the ecologically destructive effects of industrial food production. The accelerationists are right on this point: the material, social, biological, cultural, technological world around us is the only one we have to transform, and we either embrace the messy and contradictory task of making a livable world from it, or we perish.

Techno-Oedipalism

Perhaps the central contradiction of the MAP is that their pursuit of a radical orientation to the future requires the dusting off of an extremely old set of ideas. Marx’s historical materialism – the theory that capitalism, which begins as the great liberator of the productive forces, sooner or later becomes an impediment to further development as the relations of production become too narrow and constrainingxi – is reproduced without any significant alteration. Indeed, the manifesto’s basic diagnosis of the present social/political situation is precisely that capitalism, in its neoliberal form, has already become such a fetter on the forces of production:

Capitalism has begun to constrain the productive forces of technology, or at least, direct them towards needlessly narrow ends. Patent wars and idea monopolisation are contemporary phenomena that point to both capital’s need to move beyond competition, and capital’s increasingly retrograde approach to technology… rather than a world of space travel, future shock, and revolutionary technological potential, we exist in a time where the only thing which develops is marginally better consumer gadgetry.”

In 1848, Marx made a similar diagnosisxii:

Modern bourgeois society… is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells. For many a decade past the history of industry and commerce is but the history of the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against the property relations that are the conditions for the existence of the bourgeois and of its rule… The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them.”

Spot the difference! Needless to say, bourgeois society has spent the intervening 166 years continually revolutionising the forces of production without too much difficulty. One might assume that the boy has cried terminal crisis too many times at this stage for anyone to seriously make such pronouncements anymore (particularly in a context that’s many orders of magnitude less revolutionary than that of 1848), but here we are. The MAP translates the argument from the language of Marxist dialectics to that of Deleuze & Guattari’s anti-dialectical focus on potentials, assemblages and multiplicities – we no longer have the forces of production straining at their fetters, but rather the latent potential of technosocial bodies that is blocked by neoliberalism – but the argument remains substantially the same. There’s a distinction between “acceleration” and “speed” – acceleration includes the concept of direction, and so accelerationism entails navigation and experimentation rather than blindly pursuing an already-determined direction – but this is simply a fudge to pre-empt obvious critiques. The physical concept of acceleration can have either a positive or negative value (i.e. can be an increase or decrease in speed), but this possibility is explicitly discounted as reactionary by the MAP – there is to be no slowing down of capitalist acceleration – the argument is every bit as teleological (i.e. the idea that history has an inbuilt tendency towards a goal, that of liberation through development of the productive forces) as the worst Hegelian moments of Marx. Worse, this translation into trendy Deleuzo-Guattarian terms totally ignores one of the major insights of their thought: that crises, far from sounding the death knell of the capitalist mode of production, are part of the dynamism of capital that allows it to continually revolutionise production, without any natural (i.e. inbuilt or automatic) terminal point: the more the machine breaks down, the better it works.xiii

Central to the MAP’s enterprise is the reconnection of the Left “to is its roots in the Enlightenment, in a rationalist and universal vision of collective human self-construction”.xiv To this end, 19th and early 20th Century modernist themes of Man’s mastery over nature are uncritically regurgitated, as if an entire century of critique had never happened.xv The MAP insists “that only a Promethean politics of maximal mastery over society and its environment is capable of either dealing with global problems or achieving victory over capital.” This Prometheanism is to be distinguised from classic Enlightenment chauvanism only in the sophistication of its science: “[t]he clockwork universe of Laplace” is replaced by complex systems theory, but the basic conception of the Man-nature relationship remains utterly unchanged. Nature is a stage for Man’s triumphs, a problem to be overcome, and a thing to be dominated by Man’s will. Such arguments made a degree of sense in the 19th Century when capitalism still retained a vast outside waiting to be incorporated (although this incorporation involved rather a lot of genocide, and required the invention of race and racism as its ideological complement) and the resources of the Earth were still for all practical purposes infinite, but become rather more problematic in the context of a society whose very existence is called into question by the unsustainability of its relationship with the world it inhabits.

One might expect, at a minimum, some argumentation as to how the accelerated pursuit of economic growth and technological development is compatible with an ecologically sustainable civilisation. The MAP has nothing to say on this point. Instead, the various imminent ecological crises are raised at the beginning, only to be immediately brushed aside to talk about technology. The implication, made explicit in Negri’s “reflections” on the manifesto, is that the question of ecology can be “wholly subordinated to industrial politics”,xvi or really to the politics of technology, since it is technology which is the central concern of the MAP, and not class struggle. This has two immediate implications, both disastrous. The first is the splitting of the human-nature relation from the relations of production, which ignores the “fundamental identity [of industry] with nature as production of man and by man.”xvii There can be no industrial politics that is not immediately also a politics of nature, since all production presupposes and produces a particular way of relating to nature. All forms of capitalism necessarily require the objectification of nature – its production as commodity and as property – which produces its unchecked exploitation as a necessary feature. The metabolic relationshipxviii of humans to nature is fractured through the subordination of both humans and nature to capital. It is with this process that the MAP insists we ally ourselves.

Second, in subordinating the question of ecology to that of technology, ecology is transformed from a political to a scientific-technical question. Rather than being a question of how to transform society to allow for a sustainable relationship with nature, we are asked simply to trust that liberating the productive forces can produce a technological fix. This is, at best, a massive gamble in the short to medium-term, in which the stake is the survival of human civilisation, and in any case, it fails to resolve the crises produced by our antagonistic relationship to nature, but merely displaces them in time, while deepening our entanglement with destructive forms of production in the meantime. Moreover, the manifesto fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the relationship of technology to society. Technology is neither to be rejected nor embraced as such: it is neither a route to liberation (as the accelerationists contend) nor a bringer of doom (as the primitivists contend), but must be understood in a way that fully subordinates it to social relations (i.e. what kind of society produces and utilises it). This is not the same thing as arguing that technology is neutral and can merely slot unproblematically into whatever social relations it encounters. Technology is produced under particular social conditions and is designed for those social conditions. As an objectification of the intellect of a particular form of society, its tendency is to objectify the social relations of that society as the facticity of the non-human environment, and thus to reproduce those social relations. This means that any communist movement is inevitably confronted with the problem of repurposing a technological infrastructure built for a capitalist world to communist ends – a task with no simple solution. The accelerationist response to this challenge, for all their out-of-context appropriation of Anti-Oedipus, is decidedly oedipal in form: the major work of producing a communist and ecologically sustainable future is displaced onto “the tendency” – capital-daddy and techno-mommy.

Back to the Future

Ultimately, all this talk of politics is simply a means to an end from the point of view of the MAP’s central concern: the recovery of the vector of the Future, and the sense of hope and excitement that entails. For the MAP, this entails the resurfacing of modernist dreams of extra-terrestrial travel, and the transcendence of the biological limitations of the human body (and specifically of the contingency and vulnerability of the human condition as a species within nature), and of sci-fi and cyberpunk concerns with cybernetics, artificial intelligence, and with the production of new an alien terrains of virtual and post-human experience. It is easy to mock dreams – this is probably the ugliest and most hollow of all intellectual activities – and there will be none of that here. In the context of a planetary deficit of imagination and hope that is the corollary of the contemplation of coming disasters that threaten our annihilation, and of a pervasive sneering postmodern sensibility that retains always a protective ironic distance from all belief, we urgently need to recover the capacity and courage to dream. The accelerationist reminder that within living memory generations of humans really believed that a better tomorrow awaited them (whether through the social democratic state, the inventive powers of the free market, or the coming communist revolution) is hugely important. Even a thoroughly bourgeois thinker like Keynes believed that one day automation would liberate the masses from drudgery. Now, after decades being bludgeoned with neoliberal ideology, There Is No Alternative is the new common sense, and our dreams have been quietly smothered one-by-one. To dream today is a radical act, and one crucial to our hopes of survival. But what are we to make of the particular dreams of the accelerationists?

Throughout the MAP, there is an unstable tension between the future as open and experimental space of as-yet-unrealised potential and the Future as a particular and historically-specific set of dreams to which we must return, that is, basically, between a future that is yet to be imagined and constructed, and futurism as a particular aesthetic and cultural mode of imagining the future, which by now amounts to a set of warmed-up Hollywood sci-fi clichés. “Remembering the future”xix is the unfortunate theme of acelerationism, and, through its conflation of futurism with futurity, it ends up producing an imaginary that, rhetorical packaging aside, is much too narrow and conservative. Other futures are possible beyond the endless accumulation of new technologies. Even the primitvist milieu (or “post-civ” as they now call themselves, having realised that a bunch of trendy white kids fetishising the ways of life of indigenous peoples is rather colonialist), for all their nihilism, have an idea of a future: instead of the safe and controlled virtuality of cyber-alterity, what about the actuality of wilderness as a space of excitement, exploration and danger?xx I’m not endorsing this – certainly better dreams are possible – my point, merely, is that technological acceleration is not the only vector to the future, that techno-utopians do not have a monopoly on libido, and that constraining our imaginings in advance to what is achievable through technological development does humanity a disservice.

In any case, there is something strikingly hollow in all this technological speculation. All this brushed aluminum cyborg novelty is all well and good, but its a rather mono-dimensional image of the future. What happens to the ordinary – that dimension of mundane everyday experience that, no matter how far we push the horizons of technology, persists, reconfigures itself, and insinuates itself constantly into our lived-experience?xxi In its rush to escape the ordinary and pursue the alien, the MAP neglects this vital dimension of human experience, and de facto abandons a crucial concern of the Left (particularly the post-68 Left): the liberation of everyday life. There is little discussion of, or concern with human relationships, in the manifesto; social relations are understood as essentially a problem to be overcome, a blockage to technological potential, and the task of their re-arrangement is basically subordinated to the project of neo-Enlightenment mastery. Never are social relations considered in themselves, in their meaning or importance for the human subjects that enter into them. This is crucial. One of the most commonly occurring themes in science fiction is that of a technological utopia that, on the surface, offers all sorts of fascinating and novel experiences, but whose obscene underbelly is that, in the sphere of everyday human relations, the same old repressions, the same violence and exploitation, the same misery, remains. (Indeed, from a certain historical point of view, that is precisely the world we already live in.) What the MAP misses, above all else, is that what is oppressive and experientially miserable about capitalism is not its frustration of technological progress (that all that develops “is marginally better consumer gadgetry”, say), but that, because we are determined to relate to one-another another always through the abstract machinery of capital, we have so little real experience of one-another. We spend our entire lives living and working together in utterly alienated ways and even the new communications technologies which supposedly bring the world together only function to trap us more totally in the prisons of our selves. What unexplored potential lies blocked by the alienated ways of working together that capital requires for its reproduction? What might we experience and achieve together if we were free to explore new ways of relating? These questions are left unexplored by the MAP, but, to paraphrase the manifesto’s rather cringey nod to Deleuze, surely we don’t yet know what a social body can do?

i Some of the arguments in this review were developed through a discussion with WSM members and supporters. The audio of that discussion is available at: http://www.mixcloud.com/workerssolidarity/a-chat-about-the-manifesto-for-for-an-accelerationist-politics-wsm-dublin/listeners/

ii Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, #ACCELERATE: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics, available at: http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/05/14/accelerate-manifesto-for-an-accelerationist-politics/ (All quotations are from the Manifesto unless otherwise stated.)

iii Robin Mackay and Armen Avanessian, ‘Introduction’ in #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader, p.4

iv Antonio Negri, Some Reflections on the #ACCELERATE MANIFESTO, http://criticallegalthinking.com/2014/02/26/reflections-accelerate-manifesto/

v Mackay & Avanessian, op. cit.

vi The authors noticably shun the word ‘communism’ in favour of ‘post-capitalism’. This is hardly incidental, given that MAP is concerned with the transformation of social relations for the purpose of unleashing supressed productive and technological potential, rather than instrumentalising technology to the production of an egalitarian society. This distiction is significant.

vii The main problem with vanguards, from the point of view of social movements – and this is hardly a moralising critique – is that their tendency is to fuck things up far more often than they steer their troops with uncanny insight and prescience, and to leave a wasteland of bitterness and division in their wake. “Relentless horizontalism”, exhausting though it may be, is generally preferable to being steered or manipulated by the blunderings of some tinpot Lenin.

viii One of the recurring ironies of the MAP is that amidst all its supposed novelty, some very old and worn-out ideas keep popping up. They even manage to reproduce the absurd practice of sticking in a tenuously relevant Lenin quote to authorise their argument.

ix Patricia Reed, ‘Seven Prescriptions for Accelerationism’ in #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader, p.523

x Of course, everything remains localised to the extent that it happens somewhere and not elsewhere – even cyberspace is still a space, albeit one with a weird rhizomatic geometry – it is not a question of producing One Big Movement that unites the whole world, but of building linkages between geographical localities based on an understanding of the increasingly non-geographical nature of social space. This, I think, is the only useful interpretation of the slogan “think global, act local”.

xi “At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.” Karl Marx, Preface to ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’, 1859

xii Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party

xiii “The death of a social machine has never been heralded by a disharmony or a dysfunction; on the contrary, social machines make a habit of feeding on the contradictions they give rise to, on the crises they provoke, on the anxieties they engender, and on the infernal operations they regenerate. Capitalism has learned this, and has ceased doubting itself, while even socialists have abandoned belief in the possibility of capitalism’s natural death by attrition. No one has ever died from contradictions. And the more it breaks down, the more it schizophrenizes, the better it works, the American way.” Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, p.181

xiv Nick Srnicek, Alex Williams and Armen Avanessian, #Accelerationism: Remembering the Future, http://criticallegalthinking.com/2014/02/10/accelerationism-remembering-future/

xv There is a truly vast body of critique on this theme, spanning the Frankfurt School, ecofeminism, postcolonial theory, virtually all ecological thought, postmodernism, post-structuralism, and doubtless many more radical critical traditions. I’ve used the term “Man” deliberately to emphasise the strongly gendered nature of the opposition between humans and nature, and of the notion of mastery over nature.

xvi Negri, op. cit.

xvii Deleuze & Guattari, op. cit., p.4

xviii “Man [sic] lives from nature, i.e. nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.” Karl Marx, Economic & Philosophical Manuscripts. See John Holloway, Crack Capitalism, pp.125-9 for more depth on this point.

xix Srnicek, Williams & Avanessian, op. cit.

xx This point on danger could do with further elaboration, if space permitted. For now, let me simply ask: what if the end result of mastery over the conditions of human existence, and the transcendence of all contingency and vulnerability, is not liberation, but a new and intolerable kind of boredom that comes from being the kept pet of a benevolent and omnipotent machine intelligence? What if the abolition of all that keeps us weak is also the abolition of the danger and uncertainty that makes life interesting?

xxi Robert Jackson’s Ordinaryism: An Alternative to Accelerationism is an inspiration for this point, albeit a rather dull and turgid kind of inspiration. Available at: http://furtherfield.org/features/articles/ordinaryism-alternative-accelerationism-part-1-thanks-nothing