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‘Performative’ is not just a fancy way of saying ‘performed’.

This seems to be a very common misunderstanding that I keep seeing all over the place, which is unfortunate because the confusion ends up missing pretty much everything that is important and powerful about the idea of gender performativity.

If ‘performance’ refers to the expression of some symbolic gesture, the ‘performative’ refers to what the performance does, how the performance transforms the world.

When Judith Butler says gender is performative, she is not simply saying that gender is something we perform, and especially not that gender is nothing other than performance (which would imply that everyone has a radical freedom to change gender from performance to performance, something that is obviously not true, and is I think the major misunderstanding that causes a lot of trans people to react against her). What she is saying is that gender performance does not express some interior truth that pre-exists performance, but rather that the sense of interior truth of gender is the effect of repeatedly performing expressions of gender.

That doesn’t mean that the interior sense of gender is any less real; it’s a position on where that (very much real) interior sense of gender comes from. It’s a rejection of the traditional understanding that in the beginning there is gender and then subsequently there is the expression of that gender, which was, somehow, always already there. The idea that everyone has limitless freedom to self-create from moment to moment does not follow from the theory of gender performativity. Gender congeals over time, perhaps into something that, for some, is experienced as genuinely immutable. It does, however, mean that there is always some indeterminacy within which we have a limited and constrained kind of agency: we all have some capacity to reconfigure what we are, and whatever limits exist cannot be known in advance. So, e.g. the idea that everyone is free to be whatever they want is not ‘true’, but believing and acting on the basis that it is might allow some to become something other than what they already are (it might also result in a harmful process of self-denial, but this can only be determined through experimentation with one’s own limits). Or, more to the point as regards trans people, because there is this indeterminacy, being forced over and over to repeat certain kinds of expression does not mean we automatically become what these expressions mean, as in TERF theories of ‘male socialisation’. Because we have agency, we can resist being formed a certain way by coerced expression.

The idea that gender is performed, on the other hand, simply says that whatever gender is, it is something we do. Gender could be biologically fixed from birth and we would still perform it. And if gender wasn’t something performed, there would be no way of knowing it exists in the first place, it would have no social presence at all. Of course, we can deduce things about what gender is from the kinds of performances we need to do to secure recognition from others or to feel it in ourselves. But on it’s own, the idea that gender is performed is not a theory of gender, and the claim ‘gender is performance’ is just straight-up wrong.

One common misuse of the term ‘performative’ is as a way of saying something is inauthentic. So, for example, there is a commonly used concept of ‘performative allyship’ which refers to inauthentic and exaggerated performances of feminism, anti-racism or whatever that are clearly more about being seen (by others or by oneself) as a ‘good ally’ than authentic personal commitment to the politics being performed. The idea of performativity does have something to say about this idea of authenticity, but it’s not at all what this usage would imply:

Returning to gender, what does an ‘authentic’ expression of gender look like? With essentialist understandings of gender there is, at least in principle, a clear way of judging: Deep down inside there is something that constitutes the truth of one’s gender; an authentic expression is one that conveys this truth to the world, an inauthentic one attempts to convey something else. If you’re anti-trans, this is the biological truth of sex which means that everything other than normative cisgender performance is a denial of the fixed unwavering truth of your being. There are putatively pro-trans versions too that attempt to construct some basis for adjudicating between real and fake expressions of transness: you’re authentically trans if you have a brain-sex/body-sex mismatch, or if you meet the diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria, or whatever.

From the point of view of perfomativity, this kind of valuation is not possible. ‘Really being’ whatever gender, is, for everyone, nothing other than the conformity of the desire which pushes us to become with our being, what we already are. What is authentic are the acts by which we self-create according to our desire, not any predetermined idea of what we should create or how we should engage in this process. There is no position of externality nor privileged set of facts about us that would allow for judgement from outside between authenticity and inauthenticity. Perhaps the consequence is that we should dispense with the concept of authenticity altogether, or perhaps that the only authenticity that matters is immanent to the process, rather than one to be found in, say, scanning one’s history or comparing one’s experience to others’ in the search for legitimating signs. I think these amount to much the same thing.

‘Performative allyship’, viewed this way, means something rather different from what is intended by those using the term. Rather than being some kind of fake performance, the analysis of performativity would suggest that such performances might function as a mechanism by which individuals cement the desired form of political consciousness in themselves, by repeatedly presenting themselves to themselves as the kind of person they wish to be, a function which, however annoying or unhelpful its manifestations might be, is at the very least not monodimensionally negative. The authenticity question becomes a personal one, unanswerable by others except speculatively: “do I simply wish to seem, or to seem in order to be?” The former leads only to a narcissistic loop where the goal becomes eliciting the positive valuations of others in order to maintain one’s self-image, forever chasing superego approval no matter where it leads. It is only through the latter that a useful kind of political consciousness can be constructed, where external valuations can be brought into relation with goals and values that are one’s own first. So the issue is not performativity (which is inescapable anyway), but what that performativity is performative of.

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.

This is a response to the piece Exiting the Vampire Castleby Mark Fisher.

I don’t know anything about Mark Fisher. He wrote a book, called Capitalist Realism that a lot of people seem to like, but I have no idea what’s in it or if I should care. But I do know Mark is afraid of me. He is afraid of me, because I am an anarchist, because I engage with “identity politics”, because I think the Labour Party is a load of bourgeois shit, because I believe that influential figures should be held to account for oppressive speech-acts, and because I (occasionally) go to university. Moreover, he is afraid of me because I am destroying something precious to him, something to which he has attributed meaning and invested desire – the Left; a figure, an image and a real assemblage, which produces intense affects in those who believe in its necessity and potential, and whose evident failure to intervene decisively at this moment of capitalist crisis has induced flows of despondancy across the entire social body.

How does one deal with such intense negative affect, with frustrated desire, with a pronounced, emasculating political impotence, which threaten to overwhelm the subject? What happens to the revolutionary breaks and flows of the communist machine when there seems to be precisely no way to productively intervene in the political situation? One possible line of flight is to retreat into nostalgia, pining for a workers movement of yesteryear, which was powerful and decisive and unified, while conveniently forgetting that it was this same workers movement whose failure allowed neoliberalism to claw its way into every last nook and cranny of social existence. Another is to project one’s negativity onto a scapegoat, a monstrous vampiric Other, which can be blamed for sucking the vitality and hope out of the Left.

It is, I think, no coincidence that Mark Fisher chose this historic moment of deficit (the opposite of a “moment of excess”) to dust off an old and conservative discourse, give it a new psychoanalytical gloss, and to use it to rhetorically storm the “Vampire’s Castle” he’s built in his head. Its resonances, both positive and negative, across the left seem to me to be symptomatic of the current (de)composition of the Left as a social force, where old antagonisms along identarian lines have been invested with a new urgency by the collapse of organised resistance to the present capitalist assault. It is the confluence, I think, of a number of affects specific to this period of crisis, some, perhaps, understandable and forgivable, others thoroughly unpleasant and reactionary, which produce the libidinal underpinnings of this discourse, which, following Judith Butler, I shall call “neoconservative Marxism”, namely:

  1. feelings of uncertainty, hopelessness, and directionlessness, that result from witnessing one’s organising efforts come to nothing

  2. a sense of an urgent need for unity to compensate for the evident weakness of the Left as it stands

  3. a sense of the urgency of class struggle at this particular moment, combined with a sense of competition with non-class struggles for increasingly scarce resources

  4. a felt need for robust, “no bullshit” discourse, which also has the side effect of producing a masculine affect

  5. a need to participate in the psychodrama of conflict at a time when there seems to be no way to hit your enemies where it hurts

  6. concomitant feelings of discomfort around the difficult and patient work of rebuilding, rethinking and re-orienting left resistance, and

  7. a jealousy towards the relative vitality and vibrancy displayed by intersectional/feminist discourses

One might recognise oneself in this characterisation, or one might strongly resist such psychological speculation. My purpose here was to demonstrate that the neoconservatism evinced by Fisher could also be analysed as a “libidinal-discursive formation”. But it also, I think, demonstrates why Fisher’s decision to position himself as analyst and to interpellate numerous comrades, as analysand, is both rather presumptuous, and a piss poor form of argumentation. It allows the author to negate the subjectivity of his opponent, and whatever arguments they might marshall in support of their position, and instead indulge in a patronising performance of “I understand why you think the way you do” faux-insight.

Perhaps it would be better to interrogate the substance of the argument.

The Worker and the Vampire as Gothic horror

Exiting the Vampire Castle is ostensibly an attack on the essentialising tendencies of something called “identity politics”, a style of argument that has been rehearsed often enough to constitute a genre in and of itself. This time, however, the usual genre tropes are given a distinct Gothic twist. The hero, as usual, is the ordinary British (i.e. white) working class man, this time played, somewhat incongrously by Russell Brand. The worker, trapped in a castle made out of political correctness gone mad, is stalked and preyed upon by vampires: bourgeois liberal academics posing as leftists, who hide in the shadows waiting for the worker to say something mildly sexist so they can sink their fangs of guilt and shame into the worker’s lovely neck. Once bitten, the worker is subjected to a horrific fate: he is essentialised as a sexist. The vampires may claim that they are interested in things like liberation, justice, solidarity and collectivity, but their bloodlust, it is revealed to our horror, is motivated by something much darker: petty bourgeois class interest. It is only by re-asserting the primacy of class that the vampires can be slayed and the worker can finally escape the castle and carry out his historic mission of abolishing capitalist society.

As is often the case, poorly-conceived horror morphs into camp comedy. Russell Brand, with his millions of pounds and his habit of subjecting women to public and sexualised humiliation, is hardly convincing as the hapless victim. Indeed, what else is there to do but laugh at a class analysis in which a working class person can be a multimillionaire comedian and film star and retain their working class identity, but a worker who becomes an academic and pursues an interest in Cultural Studies is inevitably possessed by a petty bourgeois essence which structures their discourse according to a subconscious desire to own a prosperous corner shop. One might also wonder in passing whether a worker might be a woman, or queer, or not white, which might recast our tragic male hero in a more ethically ambiguous light, spoiling the dramatic effect.

Neoconservative Marxism as identity politics

There are rather obvious contradictions at the heart of Fisher’s argument: How can one rail against essentialism, while essentialising (and therefore dismissing) a whole family of left discourses as petty bourgeois, and academic? How can one oppose identity politics by valourising a working class identity that is apparently independent of one’s material situation? How can one oppose the supposed suppression of class struggle on the left, while putting forward a view of class as essentially a cultural attitude abstracted from actual material struggle?

These contradictions resolve themselves if one considers Fisher’s intervention not as an opposition to identity politics per se, but as a territorial dispute over which identity politics should have primary status on the Left. For Neoconservative Marxists, the real problem with ‘intersectionality’ and such ‘identity-politics’ discourses is that they are seen as introducing division into the left, fracturing the a priori unity of the working class. Political struggle is seen as a zero-sum game: there can only be one historical Subject, and it must be the worker. Since the worker is now positioned as the sole political subject, aspects of feminism, anti-racism, and queer struggles which cannot be assimilated into an analysis of economic struggles must be something else: ethics, not politics. Therefore, those women, people of colour and queers who refuse to play their allotted role in the class struggle are infecting the workers movement with a debilitating moralism, rather than participating in a (sometimes tense and difficult) negotiation towards a recomposition of “the real movement that abolishes the present state of things”.

Perhaps the most useful lesson to take from Fisher’s piece is that, while it’s relatively easy to produce a critique of identity politics, it is far harder to transcend in practice. It might be accurate to say that intersectional discourses work with reified identity categories (although that too would be an oversimplification), but to understand that reification as merely an illusory effect of intersectionality or identity politics, rather than a material reality, is idealist in the extreme. One does not transcend identity categories by performative critique. Unity pursued through the repression of difference, is only ever purchased through the exclusion, marginalisation and domestication of gendered and racialised minorities within the left. Truly democratic unity, which in any case is never perfect and is always merely a productive conjuncture of difference, is always the effect of a successful prior coming-together on the basis of respect and mutual recognition. The revolutionary force that finally sweeps away this oppressive system is only going to be materialised in a tense coalition of heterogenous political subjectivities: workers, environmentalists, feminists, queers, people of colour, punks, anarchists, socialists, communists, liberals (even). The most prudent form of intervention on this question, then, is not to insist on collective identities that flatten out differences, but to work to build coalitions that honour and respect difference, which become unified through a collective project or vision for social transformation. Interventions like Fisher’s only serve to accentuate divisions. It doesn’t actually advance any kind of project of recomposition.

3daxes

I have a piece in the next issue of Irish Anarchist Review that offers an epistemological, metaphysical, political and  pragmatic justification for the adoption of intersectionality by class-struggle anarchist groups. This post attempts to address a common objection to intersectionality that came up repeatedly in discussions on the topic, namely, that class is in some way special and  different to other “axes of oppression”, and therefore to regard class through an intersectional lens minimises its importance and fails to grasp its unique character.

The reflexive response that privilege discourse conditions us to make is that this objection is merely a case of privileged people trying to exclude challenges to their privilege within the anarchist movement. I think that response is both unhelpful and unfair. Unhelpful, because it places intersectional theory above criticism, and unfair, because those making the objections are often sincerely concerned with avoiding the marginalisation of women, queers, people of colour, etc. within the movement. Nonetheless, the discourse of “class exceptionalism” often has precisely that effect (a point I’ll return to later).

The following two examples give a fairly clear exposition of the exceptionalist position. The first is Slavoj Zizek:

The third thing to underline is the fundamental difference between feminist, anti-racist, anti-sexist and other such struggles and the class struggle. In the first case, the goal is to translate antagonism into difference (the peaceful coexistence of sexes, religions, ethnic groups), while the goal of the class struggle is precisely the opposite, to turn class differences into class antagonisms… What the series race-gender-class obfuscates is the different logic of the political space in the case of class: while anti-racist and anti-sexist struggle are guided by the striving for the full recognition of the other, the class struggle aims at overcoming and subduing, annihilating even, the other – even if not a direct physical annihilation, it aims at wiping out the other’s socio-political role and function. In other words, while it is logical to say that anti-racism wants all races to be allowed to freely assert and deploy their cultural, political and economic strivings, it is obviously meaningless to say that the aim of the proletarian class struggle is to allow the bourgeoisie to fully assert its identity and realize its goals. In one case, we have a “horizontal” logic of the recognition of different identities, while, in the other case, we have the logic of the struggle with an antagonist.

The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, pp. 33-4

(Interestingly this analysis seems to be copy-pasted almost word-for-word from an earlier essay that is available online.) The second is Paul Bowman in the last Irish Anarchist Review:

Otherness is socially constructed. Through socialisation we become either man or woman, white or black, straight or queer, normal or other. In the social construction of otherness, both poles of the relation must be explicitly present. The normal defines the other by projection in ways described by feminist or queer theory authors or Edward Said’s criticism of “orientalism” or Deleuze & Guattari’s becoming-other. These mutually defining poles of subjectification multiply and proliferate in the social sphere and can be combined through conjunction.

But class, as we have seen, is not an identity, nor a socially constructed role. Hence the conjunction of otherness breaks down at the class line. There is no contradiction in the conjugation of othernesses when a person identifies, for example, as a woman AND as black AND as queer. We understand that each category of otherness neither wholly encompasses nor wholly excludes the others, that their conjugation is a process of defining the overlapping of these sets that are inscribed within the same social plane that constructs identities and particular oppressions through the operation of polarising normativities in contrast to othernesses. But when we try to add class to the chain of conjugation – woman AND black AND queer AND working class – something jars. Consciously or not, we perceive that something about the last term in the conjugation does not fit with the previous ones. Society not only does not contest that the speaker is a black queer woman, it asserts it before she even speaks. In drawing attention to these identities the speaker is only re-asserting what is already socially constructed, or imposed, as fact – even if the speaker is challenging the meaning of these social facts, or the power that constructed them. But in relation to class there is no such social recognition forthcoming, on the question of whether class is a social fact in the same way as femininity, blackness or queerness, there is only silence. And as Derrida taught us, we must listen for the silences because they teach us most of all.

Without pursuing that further, at this stage, we see also that there is a problem with the process of defining class on this basis, which after this conjugation is made, must, retrospectively, be carried out in an analogous manner to other particular oppressions. Because otherness is defined through exclusion and oppression, then class in turn must also be so defined. The experience of class then becomes reduced to social exclusion – the snobbery and exclusivity of the “middle class” – and the oppressions of economic deprivation – poverty. But to reduce class to a relation of economic oppression by poverty, is to reduce economic life to that privileged sphere of capitalist universality – consumerism. So long as class is reduced to economic oppression which is in turn reduced to relative deprivation in command power in the market for consumer goods, then it loses any meaning in relation to exploitation, the production of surplus value and the valorisation of capital and, ultimately, the active production of the totality of social relations. It becomes a passive category, a doubly passive one when we take on board the failure for it to be actively constructed by the dominant social discourse, as already noted. Reduced to this doubly passive status, the category of class becomes a mere ghost compared to the identities actively produced by the discourses of power, and must ultimately fade into the universalist background.

….

The attempts by some to create a mono-dimensional category of “intersectionality” where particular identities/oppressions intersect with each other, and class as another identity, within a unified plane of oppression, are driven by the search for a universal category. By projection, they assume that those defending the particularity of class, must equally be proposing it as a competing universal category. Indeed, there actually are some – the “class reductionists” – who make that very mistake. However the argument between the “intersectionalists” and the “reductionists” over whose category is the truly universal one, is simply a competition within the same framework – that of universalism itself.

Rethinking Class: From Recomposition to Counterpower

While these two quotes may superficially appear to be saying the same thing, there are important differences that should be recognised prior to a response. Most significantly, Zizek offers a much cruder essentialist analysis. There are, for Zizek, races that will survive the demise of racism, and which have “cultural, political and economic strivings” collectively. In Paul’s analysis, otherness is socially-constructed and can therefore presumably be deconstructed and eradicated. The purpose of including both is to tackle both the essentiallist and social-constructivist versions of the argument. In addition, Zizek’s picture of class struggle is simplistic: the class struggle is a struggle of two antagonistic classes of people, contradicting his exposition in the previous chapter of the possibility of “capitalism without a bourgeoisie”, which rests implicitly on the assumption that the proletarian struggle is fundamentally with capital (an inhuman force) rather than with the bourgeoisie as such. (Consistency doesn’t seem to be much of a concern in his writing.)

It’s also worth noting that neither analysis precludes revolutionary organisations from struggling on issues of gender, race, sexuality etc. – indeed Paul goes to great lengths to emphasise the importance of such activity in his piece. Nonetheless, I have three responses to exceptionalist position:

  1. Like class, neither gender nor race can be reduced to identity.
  2. The class-struggle is not the same from all social locations, and therefore something like intersectionality is necessary to allow a deeper theorisation of class.
  3. Even if (1) and (2) do not hold, there are pragmatic reasons to adopt an intersectional mode of analysis.

1. Theorising gender & race: beyond identity

As Richard Seymour points out “the concept of ‘intersectionality’ is a way of posing a problem, not an ultimate theoretical solution” and it’s usefulness “depends entirely on the wider theoretical articulations that the concept is embedded in”. Liberal proponents of intersectionality often make precisely the error of reducing class to classism and poverty, which can then be recited as part of a list of “isms” – bad or discriminatory ideas – which we must combat. (One of the frustrating things about Patricia Hill Collins’ recent lecture in Dublin was that she did this repeatedly.) This liberal reduction of class to classism functions to strip class of its transformative potential, confines class politics to the realm of state policy and cultural values, and reinforces the privileged role of academics in developing state policy to mediate social conflict (liberal capitalism doesn’t, for the most part, function by brute domination: amelioration of the conditions of the lower classes is permitted to a certain degree and many supposedly dissident academics feed into this) – pace whatever discourse of “social justice” it is articulated within.

My contention here is that, just as it is reductive and depoliticising to consider class struggle and classism to be identical, it is equally so to see in gender and race only identities (whether essential or socially-constructed), to fail to theorise gender and race as social relations pertaining to systems of social organisation, exploitation and domination, to see both merely in terms of “mutually defining poles of subjectification” as if both were free-floating artifices with no objective component, or to limit the horizons of these struggles to the “full recognition of the other” rather than “wiping out the other’s socio-political role and function”. I will sketch the argument here that gender constitutes a system in its own right that is neither reducible to identity, nor entirely contained within nor isomorphic to class. A similar claim can be made in the case of race, although I don’t feel I am able to do the argument justice at this point (I haven’t learned enough).

Regarding Zizek’s implicit claim that there are two sexes which might one day come to fully recognise one-another, I have three responses. First, as Judith Butler argues, there is no “sex” that is not a product of social construction – that is, a result of a socially-constructed categorisation of bodies according to their perceived (or socially-assigned) function. Neither is there a meaningful distinction between sex and gender, whereby some deterministic process “inscribes gender meanings on anatomically differentiated bodies” that does not ultimately reduce to “the biology-is-destiny formulation.” (Gender Trouble, p.8) Second, as Monique Wittig argues, “sex” as a category is inseparable from the power relations in which it is constructed. “It is oppression that creates sex and not the contrary.” (The Category of Sex) Third, even if we attempt to reduce sex to some politically-neutral observation about bodies, as Foucault points out in Discipline and Punish, bodies themselves are at least in part materially socially-constructed by disciplinary mechanisms. Thus it is meaningless to talk of what sex or gender would look like after the success of feminism. (I give a slightly more detailed argument on this here.)

The above argument already hints at my main point: there is something deeper going on here than just “identity politics”. In fact, what we are looking at is what Foucault termed “biopolitics” – the rationalisation and control of phenomena of populations of living beings by political powers –  and in particular, the social organisation of sex as a key concern of biopolitics. In ‘Marxism, Method & State’ Catherine McKinnon lays out the argument:

Sexuality is to feminism what work is to marxism: that which is most one’s own, yet most taken away. Marxist theory argues that society is fundamentally constructed of the relations people form as they do and make things needed to survive humanly. Work is the social process of shaping and transforming the material and social worlds, creating people as social beings as they create value. It is that activity by which people become who they are. Class is its structure, production its consequence, capital its congealed form, and control its issue.

Implicit in feminist theory is a parallel argument: the molding, direction, and expression of sexuality organizes society into two sexes – women and men – which division underlies the totality of social relations. Sexuality is that social process which creates, organizes, expresses, and directs desire, creating the social beings we know as women and men, as their relations create society. As work is to marxism, sexuality to feminism is socially constructed yet constructing, universal as activity yet historically specific, jointly comprised of matter and mind. As the organized expropriation of the work of some for the benefit of others defines a class – workers – the organized expropriation of the sexuality of some for the use of others defines the sex, woman. Heterosexuality is its structure, gender and family its congealed forms, sex roles its qualities generalized to social persona, reproduction a consequence, and control its issue.

Understood in this way, it is clear that while identity is an aspect of the gender system – perhaps the most obvious aspect, or the aspect most immediate to one’s experience – it is not the whole picture. Gender identity is in fact constructed according to one’s role in an economy of sex in which the sexuality of one sex is expropriated. While clearly the logic of the political space is not identical to that of class, the condition of women’s liberation is clearly not the mutual recognition of each gender’s social role but the annihilation of the socio-political role and function of men and women. (I think it is important to point out here that just as the bourgeoisie are constructed by capitalism, men are constructed by patriarchy, and neither are necessarily conscious of their role as dominants and exploiters. I think it is incorrect to conceive, as some radical feminists do, of patriarchy as being the conscious construction of men as a class. Rather, it is an inhuman system which produces men and women in antagonistic relations to one another.)

2. Class struggle? Whose class struggle?

One of the key insights of intersectional theory is that in any resistant politics, questions of race, gender, class etc. are always-already posed. The totality of social relations is composed of interlocking, mutually constructing and supporting systems of oppression, which combine to produce any particular experience of the social world. It is therefore impossible to develop a generic class politics, separated from any analysis of race or gender, which holds in all social locations: the class struggle simply isn’t the same, in either its subjective or objective dimensions for all observers.

When we conceptualise The Worker as an ideal type around which to build a theory we already have somebody in mind. Even if, like a more radical Rawls, we attempt to produce a “veil of ignorance” in our heads behind which is a disembodied, genderless, raceless, abstract proletarian and attempt to imagine the class struggle from their perspective, we find ourselves in a web from which we cannot untangle ourselves. Gender and race are so embedded in our thought and language that they cannot be overcome: they are preconditions for legible humanity. Our Worker is always-already inflected with racial and gendered meanings whether we are conscious of them or not: if he is not a woman he is by default a man; if he is not of some particular race he is by default white. The dominant category is understood as universal, the subordinate as particular; the post-gender, post-race subject is beyond the limits of our imagination at this moment in history.

This is not merely a problem of imagination, however. The unity of interests presupposed and embodied by the idealised Worker is a false unity established through the occlusion of real antagonisms within the class. To take a concrete example, both the racialised undocumented migrant worker and the white unionised worker are both basically of the same class, but experience a very different class struggle. Moreover, there are real antagonisms between both; the power of the union which protects the white worker may well be undercut by bosses exploiting undocumented migrant labour, while the racialised migrant may well be excluded from the same union. The classic leftist call for unity in a universalist project of class struggle across such divides ignores the reality that the immediate goals of one are not the same as the other, and may in fact contradict. Which set of interests are most likely to win the race to become those of the generic worker?

Intersectional theory tells us that any movement of workers must learn to act with those contradictions intact, without domesticating either (by, for example, adopting an on-paper opposition to racism, while in practice focusing on the struggles of more privileged groups of workers), or it will continue to reproduce various forms of marginalisation in the name of unity.

3. Discourses and their effects

In Society Must be Defended, Foucault asks the following questions of Marxist proponents of “scientific socialism”:

What types of knowledge are you trying to disqualify when you say that you are a science? What speaking subject, what discursive subject, what subject of experience and knowledge are you trying to minorize when you begin to say: ‘I speak this discourse, I am speaking a scientific discourse, and I am a scientist.’ What theoretico-political vanguard are you trying to put on the throne in order to detach it from all the massive, circulating, and discontinuous forms that knowledge can take?

By analogy, we should ask whose interests, experiences and politics can more readily be spoken through the discourse of class struggle? What precisely are the power-effects of refusing intersectionality and insisting on class exceptionalism?

Moreover, if the discourse of class centricity can adequately accommodate the political demands of feminists, queers, people of colour etc., then adopting an intersectional position offers no threat. If it can’t, then why bother defending it? Does the theoretical project of proving that class is special move us closer to the eradication of relations of domination and exploitation? If not, what good is it? The empirical fact of the continued marginalisation of these groups within even the most progressive of anti-capitalist movements speaks to the need for something like intersectionalism, in the sense of adopting a conscious practice of analysing class always alongside race and gender, even if we can do without it in theory.