Tag Archives: liberals

The focus of much of my writing (1 2) and thinking over the past year has been on bringing intersectional theory and theories of class struggle into a productive dialogue with one another in a way that neither collapses one into the other (by, for example, suggesting that intersectionality provides nothing more than a way of making the class struggle more cognizant of ‘particular’ oppressions that are thereby positioned at the periphery of political struggle; or, in the other direction, by converting class into a mere analog of gender and race, problematically rendering the three political spaces precisely isomorphic to one another) nor dismisses one on the basis of the other (intersectionality is simply the latest incarnation of middle-class/academic/liberal identity politics, class struggle is merely another colonialist metanarrative which empowers white men, etc.) but that, at the same time, does not assume that the two can be simply and unproblematically stapled together as if there were no conflicts and tensions. Rather my aim has been to treat these tensions as sites of productive inquiry which pose important challenges to our theorisations of political struggle, which so often only sustain internal coherence as the result of troublesome excisions and occlusions.

My motivation in this undertaking is partly pragmatic: intersectional discourses have displayed a vibrancy and vitality in recent times that has been largely absent from a stagnant and marginalised revolutionary left such that increasing numbers of (particularly young) activists are learning to express political ideas through the language of intersectionality (and its theoretically impoverished cousin ‘privilege’) and, indeed, evaluate political movements and organisations on the basis of their practical and theoretical engagement with intersectionality. In this context, having nothing to say about intersectionality, or worse having something trite and dismissive to say (sorry love, your oppression is the product of determinate economic forces, not “patriarchy”) is a recipe for reproducing our own irrelevance. At the same time, the proliferation of identitarian and liberal theories of class through intersectional discourses risks entrenching what are, in the end, pro-capitalist political theories within the left and requires proactive but careful engagement. On a less instrumentalist level, I feel that engagement with intersectionality by the revolutionary left has the potential to open us up to important new political possibilities. At a minimum, intersectionality and privilege theory provide useful insights into the micropolitics of social movements and heuristics for minimising the reproduction of oppression and marginalisation within movements. (In this regard, privilege theory’s lack of theoretical sophistication is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, its simplicity makes it easily understandable and generalisable, and provides practical shortcuts which avoid messy and involved theoretical debates when dealing with specific issues. On the other hand, the tendency to treat privilege as a thing-in-itself leads to a reification which occludes the workings of power, treating manifestations of systems of domination and exploitation as if they were the systems themselves. Privilege thereby becomes its own cause and effect and undue emphasis is placed on particular privileges enjoyed by privileged groups rather than the systems which produce them.) However, intersectionality’s real value, in my view, is that it offers an approach to theory-formation and practice which holds the potential to recover the possibility of a collective self-emancipation of the oppressed and to escape the labyrinth of postmodern particularisms. Intersectionality insists that we theorise systems of oppression always in the light of one another, that we abandon the quest for the one ontology to rule them all and instead begin to recognise the heterogenous multiplicity of antagonisms that divide the social sphere, and therefore that we embrace tensions, contradictions and incoherences as occasions for democracy and the deepening of insight, rather than producing neat theoretical resolutions which so often are merely exercises of power.

Unsurprisingly, given the hegemony of liberal intersectionalities within the broad left and the revolutionary left’s reluctance to engage with intersectional theory, largely due to a paranoiac fear of being drawn into “identity politics”, the nature and location of class within an intersectional frame has been a recurring sticking point. Regarding class intersectionally, we are told, necessarily occludes some key metaphysical quality of class and thus effects a retreat from class struggle in some sense. Intuitively, I don’t think this is true – intersectionality as a mode of analysis doesn’t strike me particularly as imposing a particular form on the systems which it proposes to theorise together; in fact, I would argue the imposition of a universal structure on all forms of struggle is precisely not what intersectionality is supposed to be about – but the intuitions of others appear to diverge sharply from my own. I think an important and, unfortunately, often unacknowledged complicating factor in this and other debates on the left is the polysemy of ‘class’ as a signifier, which makes pinning down precisely what object this term ‘class’ refers to intensely difficult (that is, significantly beyond the inevitable failure of all signification to fully represent the signified). The signifier ‘class’ always effects multiple significations, both at the level of the subject and of discourse between subjects. Put simply: class has a variety of different meanings both to different people and coinciding within the same person, which often cannot be reconciled.

The point of this semiotic excursion is to say something important about the limitations of theory. Territorialistic* theoretical defences of particular conceptions of class, whatever their sophistication, whatever the force of their argument, and whatever productive new becomings they effect in their readers, do not collapse the semiotic constellation ‘class’ into a single meaning. (To argue otherwise is, in my view, to place an undue faith in the performative power of language and in the humanistic notion of the rational thinking-subject.)

Situating ‘class politics’ in relation to ‘identity politics’, then, requires us to consider not just what we would like the term ‘class’ to mean, or what it might theoretically mean, but how the term ‘class’ is really embedded in the discourses of the left and the full range of meanings to which it relates. Particularly, we need to recognise the specific history of class-as-identity within the revolutionary left, which situates class (at least partially) on the plane of identity politics as a competitor for the privileged status of the universal Subject of historical change. In other words, we need to recognise that it is not just pro-capitalist liberals who participate in an identity politics of class. This tendency has a clear relationship to representational modes of politics where political ideologies and movements are supposed to “represent” the aspirations and interests of some identity category or other, which, I would argue, can only operate through the the territorial ‘marking out’ of a particular set of aims, concerns, goals etc. as legitimate to that political project, and delegitimisation or deprioritisation of those which fall outside of that particular political territory. That is to say: ‘working-class politics’ can only ever secondarily be concerned with feminism or anti-racism, and only insofar as those things can be demonstrated to be the proper concern of The Working Class.

Representationalism (and, by extension, identitarianism) is quite obviously embedded in the politics of both the parliamentary and vanguardist revolutionary variants of socialism, where a particular political organisation attempts to capture state power “on behalf of the workers” and to pursue working class political interests through the state machinery. But the hegemonic nature of representational politics exerts an orienting influence even on those with a formally anti-representational politics. While anarchists might reject the representationalism of the state socialist (what we might call ’embodied representation’ – representation embodied by an actual group of people who aim to represent the working class) there remains an impetus among anarchists to develop a politics that authentically represents a working class political subjectivity (which I’m calling ‘abstract representation’ – representation through ideas that needn’t be materially embodied). The notion of class as an immanent antagonism of capital is never quite as distinct in practice from class-as-identity as it might be shown to be in theory; ‘class politics’ easily mutates to become ‘working class politics’ which then becomes ‘the politics of the workers’ movement’, and, through this kind of metonymy, we end up reproducing the same identity politics of “the workers” which we purport to have rejected. Note, for example, the central role afforded to the trade union movement in the recent online debates (1 2 3 4 5) over the efficacy of the WSM and of anarchism as a political practice and near total absence of any discussion of pro-feminist, pro-queer or anti-racist work. How effective we have been at intervening in the trade union movement appears to be central to judging the WSM as an organisation in a way that questions of race and gender politics simply are not. What does this signify? Some ethical failure on the part of the individual contributors to the discussion? Or perhaps that we continue to be shaped by the workerist baggage of a revolutionary left centred around an exclusionary and identitarian conception of class struggle?

It is here that we must recognise the necessity of intersectionality (even in its most reductively identitarian form) to the rebuilding of any kind of effective left. Intersectionality, by insisting that systems of power are always theorised together, and, what’s more, by insisting that this be an embodied practice and not merely a theoretical outcome, forces us repeatedly into the difficult and “divisive” discussions which we must have if we are ever to afford issues of gender and race the respect and significance they deserve.

* The notion of ‘territory’ is used in this piece to convey both the notion of a space with borders, and a proprietary relation to a space, with an associated attack-and-defence mindset, which I think describes a common and problematic approach to political/theoretical questions. I intend to write a fuller account of this in a subsequent piece.

This is the first draft of a piece I wrote that eventually became this piece on the New Statesman blog. They asked me to focus on one issue in more depth rather than the two separate but related issues of pinkwashing and queer assimilation (which I was happy to do). However, I think it’s also important to understand that the two processes reinforce one another, so I’m presenting the original piece here.

In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, something perfectly ordinary happened: a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, in Greenwich Village, New York, was raided by the cops. At the time, gay bars were illegal, Mafia-run, and frequently the subject of police violence.

What made this particular night extraordinary was that the patrons fought back. First bottles and beer cans were thrown at the police, then bricks and cobblestones. Burning rubbish was thrown into the Inn and police responded by turning a firehose on the crowd. 13 people were arrested, 4 police officers were injured, and at least two patrons were severely beaten by the police.

Several days of sporadic and spontaneous protest erupted, including two more nights of rioting, with police struggling to regain control.

The first Pride marches, in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, took place on June 28, 1970, in commemoration of the riots.

Today, as queer Londoners take to the streets for the parade which forms the centrepiece of London’s WorldPride festival, Pride is an unrecognisably different affair: a 3-week consumer-fest replete with corporate sponsors (including, incongruously, the TUC side-by-side with viciously anti-union companies like Coca Cola). []

It’s a spectacle indicative of an LGBT movement that is increasingly being assimilated into the mainstream, but at the cost of our radicalism and transformative potential.

We are becoming just another interest group, another demographic, another corporate social responsibility box-ticking excercise allowing big business to claim progressive credentials, pinkwashing the exploitation at the heart of their operation. But hey, at least we can be “Out @ Tesco” [] while earning a pittance on workfare.

Worse still, we have lost our understanding of solidarity. While the Gay Liberation Front – who emerged from the Stonewall Rebellion as the movement of organised queer militancy – actively sought to build links with groups such as the Black Panthers, now we are allowing our struggles to be co-opted by racist agendas, with everyone from the English Defence League to apartheid Israel feigning concern for LGBT rights in order to portray Muslims as a pre-modern barbarian threat to the status of LGBT people in the enlightened West. []

Perhaps most offensively, Pride London will host a £250-a-plate gala dinner, at which US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be presented with an award, while US troops continue to destroy lives in Afghanistan (including those of LGBT Afghans) and Bradley Manning (who is commonly described as gay, but is actually a trans woman who identifies as Breanna []) Chelsea Manning rots in prison for revealing details of US atrocities in Iraq.

At present, the LGBT movement is organised around a set of fairly narrow demands for equality, understood as assimilation within already-existing conservative institutions: marriage, the nuclear family, the military, the police, the boardroom.

But equality is not liberation. Take marriage, for example. Whether the definition of civil marriage is expanded to include same-sex couples or not, the State retains the power to define what constitutes a “normal” relationship, to write the relationship script for the vast majority of society, to bludgeon our sexualities into its preferred shape, while those who don’t or won’t fit the script are pushed to the margins.

However marriage is redefined, it will never be ours. However much it changes, we will always have to change more in order to assuage the fears of “family values” conservatives that we pose a threat to their vision of sexual morality. Within the community, there is political pressure, particularly on those who are the most visibly queer, to reshape our sexualities into forms that are more palatable to conservative moralists and legislators, or to ditch the concerns of trans* people altogether because they make us look bad.

Of course, we should fight for a society that’s inclusive of LGBT people, but genuine liberation means changing society so that it’s worth being included in. That won’t happen as long as we continue to dance the tune of capitalists, racists and conservatives in exchange for incremental changes.

As it’s presently constructed, the LGBT movement is probably less than a decade away from achieving all of it’s major aims in most Western societies: centrally, same-sex couples having the right to marry and raise children, and, more broadly, equality, understood as assimilation within already-existing conservative institutions such as the military, the police, or the boardroom. Inevitably, this will mean a massive demobilization and depoliticisation among LGBT people and the collapse of much of whatever activist networks currently exist, as, demonstrably, we will have achieved pretty much everything we are currently demanding.

But equality is not liberation. Paradoxically, even as gay concerns become increasingly mainstream and everyone from major corporations, to the English Defence League, to apartheid Israel scramble to feel the benefits of positive pink PR, we are hardly closer to liberating our sexualities from the bridle of conservative/religious moralism.

Instead, we have sought, and are beginning to be granted, inclusion within heteronormative structures, namely marriage, but only on the understanding that the basic form and logic of marriage is to remain unchanged. In fact, this very concession is at the core of much of the smug liberal advocacy for “marriage equality”: of course conservative concerns are irrational, we have no intention of threatening their family values ideology, we just want in.

Marriage as an institution is the antithesis of free love, the mechanism by which the state bludgeons our sexualities into the most useful shape for reproducing the next generation of labour, and the word-made-flesh of anti-sex theology.

However marriage is redefined, it will never be ours. The State retains the power to define what constitutes a “normal” relationship, to write the relationship script for the vast majority of society, while those who don’t or won’t fit the script are pushed to the margins. This doesn’t just affect people at the point where they “choose” to get married, but in fact all relationships are expected to be proto-marriages: monogamous, and aiming at permanence, with a series of predefined stages (which vary according to culture) on the way to marriage. Romantic narratives about “finding your soulmate” (i.e. expectation that you will only legitimately love one person in your entire life) are bound up with the institution of marriage, and shape people’s expectations around sex and relationships in an often damaging way.

Marriage is the institution of an ideology that sees human sexuality as a threat, and seeks to constrain it. Ideally, sex should only happen for the purposes of procreation, but failing that, only within the bounds of stable monogamy, and not in any way that might be considered kinky or weird. There is no room for fluidity, or polyamoury, or promiscuity, which are at best tolerated among young people with the expectation that they will “settle down”.

It’s an institution borne out of sexual repression and patriarchy, and inseparable from its history as male ownership of women – a history which still shapes the lived realities of married people.

Generally speaking, within the structure of marriage, women are still expected to do the work of child-rearing for no money, and their work isn’t even considered work. Often this is on top of having a full time job, so women work a double-shift, usually for less pay than a man on a single-shift. While same-sex marriage may begin to decouple this expectation from gender somewhat, the child-rearing-as-unpaid-labour problem remains embedded into the very construction of the nuclear family.

Necessarily then, we can only participate in marriage on their terms. However much it changes, we will always have to change more in order to assuage the fears of conservatives that we pose a threat to their vision of sexual morality. Within the LGBT community, there is political pressure, particularly on those who are the most visibly queer, to reshape our sexualities into forms that are more palatable to conservative moralists and legislators, to have a binary-identified sexuality that was fixed at birth, or to ditch the concerns of trans* people altogether because they make us look bad. In other words, gay marriage takes a certain section of the queer community and makes them just like straight people, casting the rest aside.

This process of recuperation has happened over a relatively short historical period. Within decades, we have gone from being a radical sexual liberation movement which challenged and threatened the foundations of conservative sexuality morality, of which marriage is a keystone, to being little more than a movement beating at the door of family values ideology begging to be let in. In order to claim the right to be included within marriage, we place ourselves in the position of defending marriage, or cementing its position in the centre of society – we become it’s biggest cheerleaders, pushing out endless stories about happy gay couples who just want to get married because marriage is such an awesome institution – the fullest and most natural expression of love between two human beings – or of gay couples who raise perfect children (according to conservative standards) because we’re such awesome parents.

In short, as long as we continue to aim for equality-through-assimilation, we concede that we will never win the struggle to free love from the grip of bourgeois morality, and to experience love as we see fit, with whoever we see fit. In fact, we strengthen the institutions that keep our bodies and our hearts in chains.

EDIT: It has been pointed out to me that the usage of LGBT here for what is essentially an LGB movement focused on LGB concerns erases trans* people. I use LGBT in a referential rather than descriptive sense because that is how the majority of the movement self-describes.

This is the text of a review I wrote for Irish Anarchist Review No. 5, which is available from the WSM (PDF should be up soon). I’ll hopefully write about some of this stuff in less wordy faux-academic language soon.

Title: The Crises of Multiculturalism: Racism in a Neoliberal Age
Authors: Alana Lentin and Gavan Titley
ISBN: 978-1-84813-581-9
Publisher: Zed Books
Available online from:
Cost: £15.99

In November 2011, the Fine Gael mayor of Naas, Darren Scully sparked controversy when he announced on national radio that he would no longer represent “Black Africans”, due to their “aggressiveness and bad manners” and their tendency to “play the race card”. Ultimately, the controversy caused by Scully’s blatant and unambiguous racism forced his resignation as mayor.

1. It Ain’t Easy Being Blue.

However, as Crises… co-author Gavan Titley pointed out, the mistake, from Scully’s point of view, was not in being racist per se, but rather that he “played the wrong race card”. [1] While overt racism is still experienced by people of colour both on the streets and within institutions, in public discourse the language and tactics of racism have become more subtle (to some extent, in response to significant victories by anti-racist, anti-apartheid and post-colonial movements worldwide, and the demise of scientific racism as an ideology). Racist speech is no longer concerned (explicitly at least) with racial superiority and inferiority, or even with race per se, but rather with the supposed impossibility of the harmonious co-existence of different cultures within a single society. Scully’s blunder was his lack of political sophistication, not his racist intent.

Multiculturalism in crisis

In Crises…, Lentin and Titley discuss similar themes, exploring the dynamics of racism in contemporary public discourse in the era of neoliberalism. Specifically, they discuss various narratives around ‘the failed experiment of multiculturalism’, which function as a means of ‘laundering’ racist ideas and policies. These narratives have a fairly familiar form: For the past number of years we have been living in the era of multiculturalism, whose noble aspirations were pursued by state institutions across the Western world. However, despite the good intentions of it’s left and liberal proponents, multiculturalism has proved to be an utter failure and must be abandoned.

These narratives, while often presented by their narrators as someone finally speaking up on behalf of the silent majority in the face of repressive political correctness, in fact crop up regularly in public discourse, with everyone from newspaper columnists to mainstream political figures such as David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, to far-right figures such as Nick Griffin or Geert Wilders clamouring to sound the death knell for multiculturalism.

Crises… challenges those narratives, by questioning whether a coherent multicultural era ever existed. They argue that multiculturalism was never seriously embraced by the establishment beyond the rhetorical, nor by left anti-racists, who saw it as a liberal retreat into culture (but who have been forced somewhat reluctantly into the position of defending multiculturalism against attacks from the right). Instead, the spectre of multiculturalism is erected as a target for the racial anxieties of everyone from liberals to the far-right.

This thesis is elucidated by combining theoretical analysis with discussion of various recent controversies: moves to ban or regulate the wearing of Islamic headscarves or burkas by Muslim women, the Swiss ban on minarets, the ‘free speech’ controversy around the Jyllands Posten cartoons, the 2004 Citizenship Referendum in Ireland, and others.

Free speech and white privilege

2. This is discussed explicitly by Titley in relation to the recent invites of Nick Griffin to speak at UCC and Trinity College here.

Of particular practical significance for the Irish left, specifically those involved in anti-fascist organising, is the discussion of the Jyllands Posten cartoon controversy, which has a number of parallels with the free speech debates that regularly result when fascist leaders are invited to speak on university campuses. [2]

In such controversies, the substantive issue at stake (in this case the racist content of cartoons of Muhammed in a newspaper with a right-wing anti-Islamic agenda and historical links to fascism) is subsumed into a meta-debate about the principle of free-speech and its limits. This reflexive reframing of the issue serves a particular political function: to apparently invert the power structures of a white-privileged society so that the white racist becomes the victim of oppressive multiculturalism – an ontological inversion that functions to delegitimate the complaints of the oppressed and cast the oppressor as a symbol of Western liberal values.

“Organised around this abstraction is a ‘threefold cast of characters’ beginning with the protagonist who breaks a taboo in pursuit of freedom, who is subsequently supported by principled defenders of the open society, and both of whom triangulate with the subject who has taken offence… Muslims are cast as this intolerant apex, and thus positioned, ‘end up being treated as deficient in comparison with the evident open-mindedness of those who tolerate transgression’”. (pp. 138)

A similar dynamic exists in the case of fascist speakers on university campuses, with anti-fascists being drawn into a liberal-idealist discussion about what rights exist, how far they extend, and which rights take precedence when they conflict – a discussion which ultimately benefits fascists and racists. The more materialist analysis found here of how such events and the controversy surrounding them actually impacts the subjects of racism is perhaps a more useful way to frame discussions around applying a No Platform For Fascists policy.

Liberal racism, feminism vs. Islam, homonationalism

Also of interest is the authors’ exposition of the various forms of racism embedded in liberal approaches to understanding race and to governance, which are significantly more subtle than those of the right and far-right. Multiculturalism itself is exposed as an effort to depoliticise racism, rendering invisible structures of racialised power through constructing an imagined post-racial landscape, and in doing so functioning both as an adjunct to the post-politicism of neoliberalism generally and as a liberal mirror to the far-right’s shift in focus from race to culture. This post-racialism deprives racialised groups of the right to challenge discrimination as they experience it. Multicultural diversity is exposed as a coded language for certain acceptable ways of performing minority cultures – good diversity – which is counterposed with kinds of cultural performance less palatable to the white majority – bad diversity.

The co-optation of feminist and queer struggles by racist agendas is also discussed in-depth. Contemporary racism often employs the language and concerns of feminist and queer struggles in order to position Muslims and other racialised groups as a threat to the gains made by these movements, even though many of these gains are recent and heavily contested within even the most progressive of Western societies. This was a particularly significant dynamic in debates about Islamic headscarves and veils across Europe, where veiled Muslim women were presented as a threat to the position of all women with European societies. The actual views and experiences of veiled women were in practice excluded from these debates, which were more concerned with white people’s particular racialised vision of what a free woman looks like.

The authors draw from Jasbir Puar’s work on ‘homonationalism’ in discussing the use of queer issues towards racist agendas. Queers, particularly those who fall into the category of ‘homonormative’ (those that closely mirror heteronormative sexuality and heterosexual identity: upholding monogamy, binary gender etc.), are able to “enact [previously barred] forms of national, racial or other belongings by contributing to a collective vilification of Muslims”. (Puar, Jasbir (2007) Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, Durham, NC: Duke University Press  pp 21) This dynamic is particularly significant in relation to the struggle for Palestinian national liberation, as Israel uses its relatively progressive position on LGBT rights to project itself as the ally of Western queer people in a region dominated by homophobic Muslim states and thus help to justify (pinkwash) it’s continued oppression of Palestine.


As an academic text, rather than an anti-racist handbook for activists, Crises… is somewhat lacking in direct practical insights for anti-racist activists, and often requires significant effort to parse the analyses presented into a useful form (a problem that is compounded by the dense writing style of the authors). However, a sophisticated understanding of how racism works under neoliberal governance is key if we are to win the ‘battle of ideas’ against those who would use racism to divide and control us in the interests of the ruling class. As such, the depth and incisiveness of analysis in Crises… make it an important text both for those seeking a better theoretical understanding of race, and those who work to combat racism in society.