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“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.

Trigger Warning: anxiety, depression, suicide

I began writing this a number of months ago and abandoned it. This was partly because I am not someone who is naturally comfortable sharing intimately personal experiences, but mostly it was because I sensed that the space for discussion around mental health issues has been colonised by the medical community and by state apparatuses and that, because of the seriousness of the issue, only a certain kind of discourse is permitted, and to say anything different is to invite attack. But the enormous wave of condescension following the death of Robin Williams has pushed me to finish it. I am open to discussion on any of the points I make here.

* * *

A few months ago, I was walking across Dublin to meet a friend. At the top of Grafton St., a woman from some religious group or other was handing out glossy leaflets titled something like “Reasons to go on living”. How absurd. I wanted to take her aside and explain to her that, while she probably means well, anyone who is actually considering suicide has a complex and personal web of problems in their life that couldn’t possibly be addressed by a one-size-fits-all pamphlet of generic reasons why life is worth living. I also wanted to shout at her for being so completely, offensively patronising. How self-absorbed do you have to be to think that your fleeting interaction could conjure away someone’s suicidality? To think that the most alienated and impersonal form of social interaction – shoving a leaflet into someone’s hand – is going to decisively alter their relationship to society? As if depression is just the result of ignorance or stupidity: of never having been told, or never having thought, of things about life that are good.

I did neither, as it happens. I just kept my head down and walked past, hoping she wouldn’t try to engage me. It was far too early in the morning for that shit, and I was in no mood for it.

In the Arts block in UCD they’ve installed a blackboard, that says “Before I die I want to _____________” about 20 times. Predictably enough, it’s been used by men to anonymously sexually harass women they know – “Before I die I want to ride X” – and to make jokes about how useless an Arts Degree is. I’m not really sure what the point of it is. Do its instigators imagine that people with suicidal thoughts don’t realise that if they’re dead they won’t be able to go on a skiing trip, or learn to play the banjo, or get a blowjob off the Pope anymore? Or do they think that they’re crowdsourcing a set of useful suggestions as to what one’s life’s purpose might be that might actually change someone’s trajectory? Does it have a point beyond spending a sum of money earmarked “suicide prevention” so that someone in an office somewhere can tot up in monetary terms how much “suicide prevention” has been done this year?

It seems every other week there’s someone on TV cycling a bike or jumping on a trampoline or swimming to prevent suicide, all bleating the same condescending message “it’s ok not to feel ok, and it’s ok to ask for help”, as if the weight of fears and stigmas that keep people locked in silence can be dispelled by a catchphrase. College campuses are intermittently swarmed by these people: happy-clappy do-gooders in brightly coloured clothes baking cupcakes and putting up balloons and smiling rather too earnestly. At some point in the recent past, it was decided somewhere that the issue of suicide would be tackled, and that it would be tackled in the most obnoxiously fluffy, self-congratulatory, and insubstantial way possible. It’s one thing to think you can save the world by holding a jumble sale for Africa when you’re in primary school and don’t know any better, but adults should be able to address serious issues seriously.

* * *

I’ve never felt myself to be at serious risk of suicide, thankfully. But for the past four or five months I’ve been struggling with anxiety and depression, which had me struggling to get out of bed, never mind leave the house, sleeping erratically, not eating, fighting with those close to me, panicking over college and other commitments which I was unable to make very much progress on, and enveloped in a dread that my whole life was about to collapse around me, which culminated in my having to abandon this semester of college because I simply couldn’t cope anymore. Life stopped being enjoyable, except in intermittent flashes; at best it merely was – flat, anhedonic, boring – and at worst it was a cloying trap of worry. The last thing I needed – and I needed, and still need, many things – was chirpy teenagers in fluorescent t-shirts enjoining me to “please talk”. (To whom?) I find it utterly alienating, superficial, empty. Are there really people whose world is so pleasant that all this joyous affirmation could be an authentic expression? Or is it simply a naivety that thinks the psychosocial damage of the world can be healed with an injection of fake saccharine positivity? Either way, there’s no possibility for communication here, because this mode of expression simply doesn’t inhabit the same world: how could all this Crayola-coloured positivity have anything to say about anything real?

What’s missing from all of these efforts by mainstream culture to address the issue of suicide is any capacity to grapple with the ambivalence of life in this society. What I mean by this is the recognition that life does not automatically provide us with a reason to carry on, that the world is not waiting to shower us with pleasures if only we would embrace it. Uncertainty and vulnerability are fundamental to the human condition, and thus too are anxiety, despair, and pain. The possibility of boredom is proof enough that mere experience is insufficient. If we find a reason to persist with life, a possibility for enjoyment, it is the result of a process of struggle, an active creation – the product of an act of will, or perhaps faith, not of reason. There is always the possibility of hope, perhaps, but it is pure fantasy to suggest that it is always immediately available to us in all circumstances.

In my experience, a good psychotherapist understands this, and is willing to engage with the validity of negativity. But as a culture we do not permit such things to be expressed and acknowledged. Instead all we can muster is the absurd moralising insistence that life is always worth living – an axiom that cannot be questioned – and the corollary pathologisation of the real lived experience of those who feel otherwise. Perhaps it is because existential questions are painful that such things are confined to the therapeutic situation and the backrooms of philosophy departments. Perhaps it is because those of us who are “healthy” recognise on some level the precariousness of that position. I don’t know. But I do know that socially-enforced positivity, the social ethic that commands that life must be enjoyed, consigns the reality of negativity to a grim and dangerous silence.

* * *

What does the reality of anxiety, depression, suicide, say about society? According to the dominant medical discourse, nothing at all. Healthy people are healthy, sick people are sick and need to be made healthy. There are only individuals and their problems. It would of course be obscene for me to try and suggest that all mental illness is political in origin or meaning – moreover, I don’t believe it – but it is, I think, equally obscene to treat mental illness as if it were merely an individual dysfunction with no social component. (This is of course not to deny the biological/clinical reality of mental illness, merely to question the compulsory individualisation of their causation.) There are political reasons why we experience anxiety and despair. There are political reasons why mass culture permits only the celebration of the often miserable conditions of our existence, and why the permitted conversation on these matters has all the depth and nuance of a playschool mural. Precarious work, unemployment, poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, social isolation, the fear of one-another, the patriarchal system which poisons our most intimate connections and alienates us from our closest companions: these are social diseases which can only be tackled politically. There are limits to the powers of medical practioners. We should demand more from life than coping strategies and medications, and that requires that we implicate the society in which there is so much unhappiness, and not just our selves which are unhappy – that we reject the repressively depoliticised official discourse on mental health, and dare to think about the kind of world in which life might be worth living.

Marketing itself is a practice based on differences, and the more differences that are given, the more marketing strategies can develop. Ever more hybrid and differentiated populations present a proliferating number of “target markets” that can each be addressed by specific marketing strategies—one for gay Latino males between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, another for Chinese-American teenage girls, and so forth. Postmodern marketing recognizes the difference of each commodity and each segment of the population, fashioning its strategies accordingly. Every difference is an opportunity…

When one looks closely at U.S. corporate ideology (and, to a lesser but still significant extent, at U.S. corporate practice), it is clear that corporations do not operate simply by excluding the gendered and/or racialized Other. In fact, the old modernist forms of racist and sexist theory are the explicit enemies of this new corporate culture. The corporations seek to include difference within their realm and thus aim to maximize creativity, free play, and diversity in the corporate workplace. People of all different races, sexes, and sexual orientations should potentially be included in the corporation; the daily routine of the workplace should be rejuvenated with unexpected changes and an atmosphere of fun. Break down the old boundaries and let one hundred flowers bloom! The task of the boss, subsequently, is to organize these energies and differences in the interests of profit. This project is aptly called ‘‘diversity management.’’ In this light, the corporations appear not only ‘‘progressive’’ but also ‘‘postmodernist,’’ as leaders in a very real politics of difference.

Hardt & Negri, Empire, pp. 152-3

I

In One Dimensional Man, Marcuse develops the concept of “repressive desublimation” as a critique of the consumerist politics of desire: In its consumerist phase, capital no longer operates primarily through the denial and repression of desire, but through the satisfaction of desires that it itself produces, thus preventing rebellion and ensuring the reproduction of the capitalist system with a fully closed circuit of desire and consumption. There is a disciplinary machinery at work within the supposed free play of desire: one’s desire must always lead back to capital. One must want only what capitalism offers, and increasingly one must not refuse to want it. As Zizek claims, increasingly “the permissive ‘You May!’ [turns] into the prescriptive ‘You Must!’… permitted enjoyment turns into ordained enjoyment” (The Superego and the Act) but this enjoyment is strictly regulated: “you can enjoy everything, BUT deprived of its substance which makes it dangerous.” (Passion In The Era of Decaffeinated Belief) There is, therefore, an unsatisfying banality to consumerist gratification:

“Behind the glitter of spectacular distractions, a tendency toward banalization dominates modern society the world over, even where the more advanced forms of commodity consumption have seemingly multiplied the variety of roles and objects to choose from… life in this particular world remains repressive and offers nothing but pseudo-gratifications.” (Debord, The Society of the Spectacle)

* I have substantial disagreements, however with Marcuse’s historical thesis and his account of desire: there was never a purely libidinally repressive capitalism with which to compare modern permissive capitalism, while at the same time the immiseration of previous “phases” continues to coexist with consumerist abundance which confounds any notion of historical rupture in this regard.

Thus is the ambivalence of capitalist “freedom”. Who, after all, would want to return from “repressive desublimation” to repression simpliciter?* And yet there is, if anything, a more profound alienation associated with the capitalism that gives us what we want: alienation at the point of production – that is, the alien presence of capital within us, appropriating our will and intent – is generalised to the whole of social life – capital lives within us as desire – the desiring-production of capital

II

I wish to propose a similar (and somewhat related) concept in relation to the (postmodern) capitalist politics of difference: that of “homogenising differentiation”.

In its postmodern phase, capital encourages – indeed in certain senses relies upon – the free proliferation of difference across the social world, both as a necessary correlate of the deconstruction of national boundaries, as a field of opportunity for marketing and consumption, and as a source of productive creativity.† But capital also must impose certain limits on the emergence of new subjectivities to ensure they continue to feed into the production and consumption of commodities, and must continually reterritorialise all escapes. “Let a hundred flowers bloom!” capital says, but in blooming one must remain a flower: you can have whatever identity you like, as long as it is capable of functioning as a marketplace and a workshop for commodity consumption/production. The immanent logic of capitalist pluralism is thus to homogenise the very difference it pursues, to circumscribe and constrain the field of possibilities it simultaneously opens, to reterritorialise with one hand what it deterritorialises with the other.

† Of course, as Hardt & Negri point out, this “global politics of difference established by the world market is defined not by free play and equality, but by the imposition of new hierarchies, or really by a constant process of hierarchization” (Empire, p.154) Capital, even at its most utopian, retains and develops an alliance with patriarchal, heteronormative and racist biopolitical regimes, but this is not our primary insterest here.

This is not at all a matter of opposing a virtual or superficial difference to a real underlying sameness, as if gender, race etc. are merely the surface phenomena of a universal worker-consumer, nor is it a matter of opposing (universal) form to (particular) content. Rather it is the operation of a material process of subjection, universal in scope but particular in application, that organises the subject to produce a certain set of functions, potentials, imperatives, without reducing it to merely another copy of the same. Many different machines can plug into the universal machine of capital, so long as they can manifest certain features: i.e. can speak the universal language of money, submit to work-discipline, produce value, desire commodities, gaze upon the spectacle. In other words, we do not discover a universal figure of the worker-consumer beneath particular articulations of race, gender etc., and thus reassert the political/ontological primacy of class; there is no sub- or super- structure here, but a multiplicity of processes of interpellation that structure a common material.

Put simply: capitalist diversity is internally contradictory, not simply because it relies on the perpetuation of structural racism, sexism, homophobia and the like for its reproduction, but because the logic of (even, or perhaps especially) those capitalist processes that Hardt & Negri claim “have long been postmodernist, avant la lettre” (Empire, p.151) requires that it must continually ward off the emergence of a truly radical otherness that it cannot recuperate.

III

Official (state and corporate) multiculturalism takes this form. The racial/cultural other is officially embraced so long as that otherness never exceeds the implicit bounds set by the state and the market. “We love your exotic foods and dances, your spiritualism, your ecologically sound approach to nature,” multiculturalism says, but in the same breath this incitement to diversity is also a proscription: “this is to be the content of your difference”, which must never exceed the bounds of good citizenship and of enthusiastic neoliberal subjectivity. The celebration and incorporation of “good diversity” is in the same moment the abjection and suppression of “bad diversity”: “Muslims yes! Political Islam no!”

Similarly, the “progressive” corporations are pro-gay but virulently anti-queer. Increasingly, capital heroically champions the rights and inclusion of same-sex couples but on its terms. It is interested precisely and only in those wishing to opt-in to heteronormative kinship structures and associated consumer practices, and thus “[t]he sphere of legitimate intimate alliance is established through producing and intensifying regions of illegitimacy” (Judith Butler, Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?). Pride is gradually stripped of its political content and instead becomes just another celebration of consumer culture, and the movement began with a demand for liberation – that is, to open new spaces of livability, to push the horizons of experience, and to resist the disciplinary violence of society – becomes “just another interest group, another demographic, another corporate social responsibility box-ticking excercise allowing big business to claim progressive credentials, obscuring the exploitation at the heart of their operation.”

IV

According to many on the Left, this is precisely the sort of thing that postmodernism, identity politics, and intersectionality are incapable of seeing. Focusing myopically on a set of disconnected particulars, so the argument goes, those who pursue a radical politics of difference fail to see the trap that is identity. Capital has outflanked us by incorporating the very politics of difference we seek to deploy against it within its marketing strategies, management practices, modes of biopolitical governance, etc., leaving the postmodern left chasing the ghost of a modernist capitalism that no longer exists. What is needed, therefore, is a return to macro theories with global applicability, and the recomposition of a universal historical (class) subject.

What this perspective is missing is an understanding of the immanent tension of a bourgeois politics of difference, the inescabable insufficiency of capitalist inclusiveness, and thus the tendency of a radical politics of difference to exceed what capital is able to deliver. After all, the space of consumer flavours does not exhaust the potential of human life, and capital must continually frustrate our becomings, blocking paths, recoding and redirecting renegade desires. We should not abandon the postmodern pursuit of difference to the capitalist apparatus of capture, but rather relentlessly push at the boundaries of experiential possibility to pursue a radical difference that capitalism is inherently incapable of realising: “Not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to ‘accelerate the process'” (Deleuze & Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, pp.239-40) – an accelerationist identity politics, not technological and productivist, but experiential, subjective. A transversal politics continually shifting focus between structure and intersection to discover possibilities for insurrection – a revolutionary intersectionality that exceeds the individuating and identitarian bureacracy of liberal thought.

This was my first attempt to write about intersectionality from an anarchist perspective. Originally published in Irish Anarchist Review #7

As class-struggle anarchists dealing with the relations between gender, race and class, we must, in theory and practice, pick a path between two pitfalls. On one side is economic reductionism – the reduction of all political questions to the social relations of production – which erases the perspectives and struggles of women, queers and people of colour; submerges their voices within an overly generalised class narrative, in which the idealised Worker is implicitly white heterosexual and male; or consigns their struggles to a secondary importance compared to the “real struggle” of (economic) class against class. On the other is a stultifying and inward-looking liberal-idealist identity politics, concerned fetishistically with the identification of privilege and the self-regulation of individual oppressive behaviour to the (near) exclusion of organised struggle, which, while amplifying the voices of the marginalised, consigns them to an echo chamber where they can resonate harmlessly.

While both poles described are actualised within the anarchist milieu, we should not make the mistake of thinking that both pitfalls are equally imminent. White supremacism and patriarchyi are hegemonic within our society and this is reflected in anarchist spaces: dismissive “critiques” of identity politics are far more common than over-enthusiastic engagement. Therefore this piece will not offer yet another of these critiques, which more often than not function only justify the continued ignorance and inaction of those unwilling to destabilise their privilege.ii

Rather this piece deals with a more difficult question: “How does one reconcile the diverse political perspectives of feminists, queers and activists of colour with the tradition of class-struggle anarchism?” I do not offer a complete or authoritative answer, but rather attempt to move forward a conversation which seems to be perpetually re-iterating its own beginning: “we must begin to talk about gender and race issues”. Indeed we must, but we must also move beyond beginning.

The traditional approach

Most class-struggle anarchist understandings of the inter-relation of gender, race and class allude in one way or another to the Marxist base-superstructure model of society, that is, that the relations of production are the base of society, which generate the political superstructure which includes the state, culture, gender and race relations etc. A vulgar Marxist idea of the base-superstructure model holds that the base determines the superstructure absolutely and the superstructure is unable to affect the base. The implication of this is that no specific agitation on gender or race issues is needed: if women, queers or people of colour wish to improve their position in society they should simply participate in the class struggle which will necessarily and automatically result in the dissolution of all hierarchies. A particularly crude but somewhat instructive example of this thinking tells us:

In any class society—thus, in any society in which the state and the economy exist—only the ruling class can be truly said to have privilege… [S]o-called privileges are nothing more than a minimal easing of the conditions of exploitation experienced by people in these specific social categories. They are intended to convince these people that they have more in common with their exploiters than with those not granted the same “privileges” and to convince the others that their real enemy is not the ruling class, but rather those granted a less intense level of exploitation… Since only the ruling class truly has privilege, the destruction of privilege will only occur when we destroy all rule.iii

This sort of utopian thinking denies that gender or race have any autonomy from class: patriarchy and white supremacism are merely tools employed by the ruling class to divide the workers. Of course, in reality, the establishment of a communist economic system does not preclude the continuation of patriarchy or white supremacism. One can easily imagine, for example, a communist system where women are held to be the collective sexual property of men, with sexual access ensured by systematic rape and battery, whose economy is perfectly functional.

More sophisticated variants of this model, often accompanied by some dialectical flourish, acknowledge the necessity of specific anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and anti-transphobic agitation, lest these dynamics persist “after the revolution”, but still understand gender and race issues as being essentially forms of bigotry fostered by the ruling class to divide workers against themselves to prevent the realisation of their collective “objective” interests as a class. Gender and race struggles are thus positioned as ancillary to the class struggle, even if they are formally considered “central” to it. Patriarchy and white supremacism are not understood as constituting systems in their own right and forms of power other than the economic are rendered invisible. The pertinent question here is not whether this picture is correct in some “objective” sense – whether metaphysically all power “really” resides in the means of production – but rather: which voices are amplified by this framing and which are muted? What forms of action are opened and foreclosed by choosing this framework at the expense of another? Who among us has the power to define the “objective” interests of the working class?

‘Scientific socialism’ and subjectivity

No theory, no ready-made system, no book that has ever been written will save the world. – Mikhail Bakuniniv

A particularly egregious influence of Marxism on anarchist thought is the supposed need to understand the world systematically – to render the world objectively knowable through the development of a theoretical system, which totally describes reality, and provides a set of objective truths against which other understandings of the world can be compared – related to the failed project of “scientific socialism”. Anarchists (Bakunin in particular) have long recognised the authoritarian nature of this project: a movement mobilised according to scientific theories can only be a movement of “experts” leading the masses – the “false consciousness” of the masses can only be directed to revolutionary ends by the Party, which, by some unknown means, comes to be the bearer of true consciousness backed up by objective scientific facts.v

Objective or universal knowledge is impossible. We exist within a web of social relations and only a god would be able to view the totality of social relations as an objective observer. What we see and what we do not is dependent both on how we are positioned relative to others and in which directions we choose to look. The systems we develop for understanding the world are therefore products of the particular web of power relations in which we are situated; are necessarily at best partial, subjective and tentative; and reflect both the oppressions and privileges to which we are subject. Their proper function is as working theories that enable us to act as effectively as possible within our social context, not as dogmas to which reality must be made to fit. Claims to objectivity and universality are nothing other than a power grab; what is considered central to the struggle for human liberation is a reflection of who has power within the movement. The centrality of economics to our theory, and our particular conception of what class struggle entails and what it does not must be critically re-evaluated in this light.vi

Intersectionality and privilege

[T]here is an important value in overcoming the fear of immanent critique and to maintaining the democratic value of producing a movement that can contain, without domesticating, conflicting interpretations on fundamental issues. – Judith Butlervii

Feminist theory provides useful theoretical tools for analysing the inter-relations of gender, race and class. Critiques of second-wave feminism, particularly from women of colour, highlighted the role of universalist feminist narratives in the marginalisation of working-class women, women of colour, and those whose gender expression or sexuality deviated from the norm: the idea of a universal female experience in practice meant the universalisation of the issues of the most privileged sections of the feminist movement. The theory of intersectionality was developed to address the issue of how a movement could begin to accommodate the incoherency of perspectives entailed by the abandonment of universalism and still continue to function effectively.viii

Intersectionality recognises that these incoherences are not merely intellectual disagreements, but rather reflect real differences in the experience of oppression from different subject-positions. We are all oppressed and privileged in various ways within various systems, and these systems interact in complex ways to produce a totality within which gender, race and class cannot be disentangled and approached as distinct objects: ones positioning with respect to race, for example, changes qualitatively what it means to be a certain gender. We must therefore reject the notion that the class struggle is or could be the same for everyone, and turn to the more complex task of treating class as contingent on other hierarchies.

Dare to look at the intersectionalities. Dare to be holistic. Part of the heart of anarchy is, dare to go against the grain of the conventional ways of thinking about our realities. Anarchists have always gone against the grain, and that’s been a place of hope. – bell hooksix

Examining intersectionalities means not just developing an understanding of the different forms of oppression and the struggles against them, but also means asking certain questions about the ways in which they intersect. To illustrate, let’s examine two seemingly distinct areas of recent WSM activity – the Campaign Against the Household and Water Taxes (CAHWT), which is a particular tactical engagement in a more generalised struggle against austerity, and the campaign for abortion rights in Ireland, which forms part of a wider struggle to maximise reproductive choices for women – and ask: what is the relationship between austerity as a generalised imposition on our class and the restriction of reproductive choice as a particular imposition on women? What are the common forms of social control mobilised in these two seemingly discrete spheres?

Both are biopolitical projects; that is, both aim, at the level of the individual and of the population at large, at producing certain kinds of people and not others in the furtherance of particular objectives. Austerity, which is commonly understood as a mechanism of extracting capital from the population and transferring it to a capitalist class in crisis (which is true), is also a project aimed at reshaping our lives to produce austere subjects: idealised workers primed for participation in neoliberal markets, who provide a maximum of productivity at a minimum cost, living lives with a minimum of material comforts, a restricted sphere of social activity, whose activity is continually aimed at maximising marketable skills, actively seeking job “opportunities” etc.x The restriction of reproductive choices, while often seen as merely a result of backward religious moralism, must also be understood in this way: by denying women access to abortion outright and ensuring that access to contraception is expensive, sexual activity (and the social activity surrounding it) is disciplined toward the production of life within certain normative contexts (i.e. the stable monogamous relationship, called marriage in its ideal form) while other forms are precluded.xi Both involve the mobilisation of many of the same mechanisms of social control: the police, the judicial system, the contraction of the welfare state (in particular the cuts to child benefit function to prevent problematic sections of the working class from reproducing and placing a burden on the state, while imposing a particularly cruel form of discipline on those that do), the taxation system (VAT on condoms, for example), education, public health etc.

An intersectional approach thus reveals the deep interconnections between superficially distinct spheres of political activity. Women’s struggles and the class struggle are found to be inseparable. The slogans “Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay” and “My Body, My Choice” resonate deeply with one another, as both involve a refusal of biopolitical control and an assertion of the right to live self-directed lives autonomous of the demands of the powerful. Intersectional praxis involves, in part, uncovering these interconnections and writing them into the public discourse.

Speaking and listening

As anarchists, we are not immune to the effects of being formed within a social context in which women, queers and people of colour are sytematically oppressed. Practices of dominance and submission are deeply ingrained into our culture and habituated within normative forms of social interaction, and cannot simply be dispelled with the performative declaration: “I am anti-racist”, I am anti-sexist”, “I am an anarchist” etc.xii Put simply: if left unexamined, our subconscious habits in social interactions will reproduce the marginalisation of the already-marginalised within the anarchist movement.

If, as I have argued, the building-blocks of anarchist theory and practice are the subjective perspectives of those who experience oppression directly (as opposed to ready-made theoretical systems) then an awareness of the ways in which privilege manifests in inter-personal relations is of particular importance.xiii The ability to contribute to shaping the direction of the movement is predicated on the ability to speak and be listened to by others within the movement. The ability to speak from an authoritative position, with the expectation of being listened to, understood and treated seriously, the ability to rely on certain culturally-specific assumptions (common sensexiv) in making a point, and so on, are more readily available to those who are already privileged by power structures than it is to those who are not. Awareness of privilege, then, is an important counterbalance to social forces which produce marginalisation, which allows us to organise more effectively against those forces. This is the precise opposite of the liberal-moralist theory of privilege, which elevates privilege awareness to the status of an abstract good.

The class struggle

At this point one might be wondering what precisely the implication of this argument is. Do I mean to say that class must no longer be at the centre of anarchist politics? Or am I saying that class is understood in a way that is too narrow? I am saying both of these things, or, more precisely, both are valid ways of parsing the same argument. If class is understood as being simply a matter of economics, and particularly those aspects of capitalist economics that appear most pressing to white heterosexual men; if class-centricity means that a deep understanding of the way in which capitalism produces capitalists and workers is essential for all anarchists, while deep understandings of the way in which patriarchy produces men and women, and white supremacism produces white people in relation to a multiplicity of (in)subordinate racesxv, are not; worse still, if it means that obscure historical knowledge of failed revolutions and exegesis of the texts of dead theorists takes precedence over the experiences of living people, then class must be removed from the centre of our theory. If, however, class is understood as encompassing the totality of hierarchical social relations, as being the product of many systems acting sometimes in concert and sometimes autonomously of one another, and moreover as bringing together a diversity of experiences and struggles in a spirit of solidarity and mutual recognition, then this is precisely the heart of anarchism.


i I am using these terms in a broad sense for the sake of readability. White supremacism encompasses all oppressions on the basis of race, ethnicity, culture, nationality and migration status which function to empower whites. Similarly, patriarchy includes the oppression of women, queers, trans* people and others oppressions on the basis of gender.

ii For a balanced critique, see “The Poverty of Privilege Politics” by by Tabitha Bast and Hannah McClure, Shift Magazine, http://shiftmag.co.uk/?p=679

iii “A Question of Privilege”, Venomous Butterfly, http://www.geocities.ws/kk_abacus/vb/wd8priv.html

iv Quoted in Michael Bakunin (1961) by E. H. Carr, p. 175

v Within the Marxist tradition, this attempt to attribute the “perspective of totality” to the Party has been criticised by John Holloway. See Change The World Without Taking Power, p.35, http://www.edtechpost.ca/readings/John%20Holloway%20-%20Change%20the%20World%20Without%20Taking%20Power.pdf

vi At the risk of stating the obvious, I am not advocating here a rejection of science as a methodology or the embracing of irrationalism; rather we should embrace a certain epistemological modesty and reject the power effects of positioning a particular set of ideas as scientific/universal/totalitarian.

vii “The End of Sexual Difference” in Undoing Gender by Judith Butler, p. 176

viii See “Refusing To Wait: Anarchism and Intersectionality” by Deric Shannon & J. Rogue, http://www.anarchist-studies.org/node/339 for an account of the history of this development, as well as an excellent exposition of intersectional theory.

ix “How Do You Practice Intersectionalism? An Interview with bell hooks”, Common Struggle, http://commonstruggle.org/bellhooks

x In particular, various reforms of the social welfare system have a particular aim of disciplining the unemployed in this way.

xi The fact that this project is increasingly an abject failure producing an assortment of individually and socially problematic situations is besides the point here.

xii See, for example, “Towards an Anarchist Anti-Racism” by Dónal O’Driscoll, http://www.wsm.ie/c/toward-anarchist-anti-racism

xiii For another class-struggle anarchist perspective on “Privilege Theory”, which takes a somewhat different approach from mine, see “A Class Struggle Anarchist Analysis of Privilege Theory” from the Anarchist Federation Women’s Caucus, http://www.afed.org.uk/blog/state/327-a-class-struggle-anarchist-analysis-of-privilege-theory–from-the-womens-caucus-.html

xiv “Many quite nefarious ideologies pass for common sense. For decades of American history, it was “common sense” in some quarters for white people to own slaves and for women not to vote. Common sense, moreover, is not always “common” — the idea that lesbians and gay men should be protected against discrimination and violence strikes some people as common-sensical, but for others it threatens the foundations of ordinary life.” “A `Bad Writer’ Bites Back” by Judith Butler, https://pantherfile.uwm.edu/wash/www/butler.htm

xv See “Abolish Whiteness” by Noel Ignatiev, http://imaginenoborders.org/pdf/zines/AbolishWhiteness.pdf for a development of this point.