I don’t mind Trump’s pardons one little bit. Of course it’s a rare collection of skallywags, con artists, and third-rate desperate chancers, all thoroughly undeserving, agreed, but as a famous Dane once observed, If we all had our deserts, who’d ‘scape whipping? People escaping punishment does not make me gnash my punitive teeth — in fact, I think my punitive teeth may have been accidentally removed, along with my wisdom teeth, some years ago. Most people in jail, as any public defender would tell you, are more or less guilty of what they were charged with, and I’d like to see more of them go free too. Shake off your inner jailer, friends, and rejoice in the lucky escape, no matter whom it befalls, and applaud his enlargement. As somebody once said, the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.
As we all know, the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, exhilarating as they were, got crushed pretty quickly, and the years of bipartisan lead followed – Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush again, Obama, and the opera-buffa of Trump. Of course these regnal dates merely constitute mile-markers for the course of events; and it was all, all of piece throughout: rollback and revanche, recuperation and restoration.
But those two lively decades did in fact alter the terrain. Many fewer people now would cop to being racists, though many would cheerfully have done in the 1950s; few would now seriously argue that women aren’t the equals of men. So the 1970s are the last living or transmitted recent memory of anything good happening.
Perhaps that’s why, after the succeeding half-century of defeat after defeat, and certainly without any further progress, anti-racism and feminism and womanism and various kinds of genderism have come back in a rather fevered form. The general defeat has been so complete, the revanche so thorough, that we’re thrown back upon the last hill we took, and find ourselves compulsively re-taking it, like Civil War re-enactors, with a kind of perseverative and increasingly amped-up hysteria.
It’s been said that liberals are the only conservatives left; they hear the long withdrawing roar of the tide going out, and utter plaintive inverse-Canute cries telling it to come back in again. Not that they liked it when it was coming in; all those uncouth kids occupying university officials’ offices – not really the thing at all. And as for the Black Panthers, oh my. But the kids are nostalgia now, law enforcement settled the Panthers’ hash, and the current reality is oafs in MAGA hats, not to mention mismatched furs, occupying the Capitol.
The result is an unmistakable sense of embattlement and defensiveness, which in some cases, especially among younger people, transmutes into a kind of schematized militancy. Its concrete content is ever-more-vehement insistence on matters long since agreed upon, vigilant enforcement of an ever-changing orthodoxy about terminology and turns of phrase, and a squiggly, gingerbready proliferation of oppressed social categories requiring consideration, foregrounding, and deference; the rich, well-manured field of “gender” having borne abundant fruit in this regard. Activism collapses into the zone of discourse and degenerates into entrepreneurial brand-building, careerism, and the accumulation of moral capital, which expand on inverse proportion to an ever-shrinking base of intellectual originality and substantive political salience. Indignant attitudinizing about the mean old Fash goes hand-in-hand with calling the cops (who are, of course, in fact the best-armed, best-organized, most politically powerful and most dangerous element of the Fash).
Marx’s often-cited (perhaps too often-cited) aphorism about tragedy and farce doesn’t apply here, though farce certainly abounds. Marx’s point was that something new has to dress itself up as something old, but what we see around us now is just the opposite: something that purports to be new but is in fact a compulsive repetition of something old. Something that purports to be an advance, but is really a retreat. Something that purports to be radical but is in fact both aggressively and defensively liberal. Something that purports to be critical but is in fact essentialist. Idealism in a materialist costume; moralism impersonating realism; the petit-bourgeois grad student dressed as a sans-culotte, Phrygian cap and all. “Social construction” lies down with “really a woman”, absolute freedom with ineluctable preordained determination, as we are told the lion someday will with the lamb; the part about the little child leading them seems at least partially to have come true, in the person of that lionized little lamb Greta Thunberg.
But you get the idea.
Of course the obvious missing piece is precisely the keystone of the arch, namely Capital reproducing itself by feeding on us. Men and women have a long and variegated history together, as do Europe and Africa, Old World and New, East and West, same-sexers and other-sexers and people who want to jump the fence. But the world we actually live in is a world comprehensively defined by Capital, and to make “class” just one identity among many is to demagnetize one’s compass and wander at random. There is, actually, an axis on which the world spins, and there is a North Pole. The relations of men and women, black and white, in our actual lives, are not defined by some immemorial patriarchy, or some sticky intransigeant ideology, but concretely and immediately by the conditions of our shared existence under the reign of Capital.
This recognition was present at least to some degree during the heady years of the 60s and 70s, though it never really got into the driver’s seat, which may be one of the reasons why so many of the achievements of that period were so easily rolled back by our ancient foes. Now, during the Great Reawokening, it is almost entirely absent. May one suggest that this significant aching absence is the reason for both our silliness and our ineffectuality? For how useless we are – and how boring?
A friend of mine dropped a recent observation about evolutionary theory — I’d share it, but I don’t know how — to the effect that in the latter half of the 19th century, it got applied as a justification for a lot of really bad stuff.
This got me thinking. It cuts both ways, doesn’t it? I mean, every real great glorious insight can be redirected to squalid ends. Newton gives us the Clockwork Universe. Darwin gives us Social Darwinism. Freud gives us the clinical praxis of adjustment. Marx gives us Trotskyites and tedious dogmatists.
But Darwin in particular is a sad case. This guy who noticed and recorded the exuberance and inventiveness of life, how surprising it is and how unpredictable, how transient and yet how jewel-like every species is, becomes exhibit A for a mingy, narrow, zero-sum view of life, a miser’s harsh war of all against all.
It’s there in him too, unfortunately, a guy of his time. But there’s something more joyous and bouncy implicit in it too. As with anybody who really takes the trouble to notice the gorgeous, incomprehensible, absurdly abundant world around him.
The Israel lobby is the illustration par excellence of the single issue. If you really have a single issue, and nothing else matters to you, and you have a fair amount of money to throw around, you can have a very outsized impact on US politics. And of course you have to be absolutely rigid; no negotiating at all, no half a loaf; it’s either unconditional surrender and slavish deference, or you do whatever you can to destroy the insubordinate. Totaler Krieg! And of course it helps if the opposition is weak, poorly-organized, and not as focussed and motivated as you are. The Israel lobby isn’t the only case, but it’s probably the most successful and the most important.
(With apologies to Betjeman, Slough, and John Shade)
The great charade is over now;
What will we do, and whence and how
Bestir ourselves? O, take a bow,
Thou man from Queens!
We’ll miss you, though we won’t know why.
Sharply awake at three, we’ll try
To think: What stirred me? By and by
The lurid scenes
You played for us will come to mind;
Dismayed in wee-hours dark, we’ll find
We needed you; you were the kind
Of loathesome schmuck
We all could hate as one; but now
We’re blued, tattoo’d and screwed, and how!
What’s coming, none could disavow
Would surely suck,
And yet we sought it. Can’t complain,
Luxuriate in shared disdain,
Clutch pearls no more. The squalid train
Of Bidenites –
They’re what we asked for, what we got.
As the man said, they’ve not forgot
Nor learned, it’s clear; nor we, a lot.
Th’ exciting rites –
Campaigning, voting, polls; that crap —
Now show, in retrospect, a trap.
We took the bait, we heard the snap
Too late; the jaws
Closed on our foot, and now we’re caught.
You’d think Experience might have taught
Us better; could we not have thought
The iron laws
Still unsuspended? Lesser evil
(O mortal enemy primeval)
As usual, a venom’d weevil
Gnawing our brain.
So here’s to four lean years, at least
For most of us, though some will feast;
And in the belly of the beast
Still we remain.
Every week or so, I overhear – may even participate in – a conversation about “class”, and it rapidly becomes clear that nobody involved – least of all me – has any very clear idea about who’s working-class, who’s petit-bourgeois, who’s “middle class” whatever the hell that means, who’s haut-bourgeois, who’s ruling class.
Perhaps the problem is that we conceive of classes as categories into which people fall, rather than aspects or “moments” of the relation individuals stand in with respect to the processes of exploitation. For example, a bus driver when he’s driving his bus stands in the relation of “worker” to the Transit Authority, but if he’s invested in a few houses in Queens and rents them out, he stands to his tenants in the relation of small-time landlord, which is surely echt petit-bourgeois.
Similarly, a “knowledge worker” – a computer programmer, say – toiling away in a cubicle maze for Bank of America is distinctly a wage slave as regards his conditions of work and the sadistic brutality with which his boss is apt to treat him. But he’s also making more money than the bus driver, probably, because he knows Tensorflow or what have you. Is this intellectual capital? Is he a capitalist, or at least a rentier? Is he a worker in the cubicle, and a petit-bourgeois on his commute, or at his gym?
Then suppose you got into the carpenter’s union because your cousin was a shop steward, and now you make a union wage at what most people would call a “working-class” job, rather than the exiguous pittance that your non-union counterpart gets? Is your cousinhood a kind of capital?
There’s a certain tendency to treat such cases as if they were liminal – as if these individuals dwelt in some ill-defined no man’s land between the well-mapped trenches of “class”. And there’s another solution, which is the vulgar reliance on income: The bus driver is working-class because his hourly wage is comparatively low, and the computer programmer is petit-bourgeois because he’s making four times that.
The former approach reifies “class”; the latter collapses it into a position on the income curve.
I’d suggest that the best way to view “class” is that it’s an abstraction – a valuable abstraction, like mass or momentum or potential energy or impedance – which reflects the various ways individuals interact with the underlying machinery of exploitation in the society. If you take the view (as I do) that “class” affects “consciousness”, then it follows that each such relation an individual has is apt to have some reflection in his consciousness.
But whatever a “class” may be, it’s not a collection of people.
There used to be a rather lame concept called “reverse racism” – does anybody still deploy that any more? It was popular in the 1970s, when people were pushing back against affirmative action in school admissions and hiring and so on. The idea being that it’s “just as bad” or “just the same” to “discriminate” against white people as against black people. Of course it’s silly, for the obvious reason that the relation between “white people” and “black people”, however you want to theorize it, is in any case not a symmetrical one; sauce for the goose is not, in this case, sauce for the gander.
The same might be said about the relationship between men and women. Clearly it’s not the same as the relationship between white and black, and I would say it’s very different indeed; but it too is not symmetrical, and affirmative action for women in admissions and hiring doesn’t amount to misandry. One might go on to make a similar observation for gay and straight, etc.
But one doesn’t have to postulate symmetry in order to observe that some exercises of asymmetry are, to say the least, misplaced or ill-advised.
For example: it’s clearly impermissible for “white people” to make sweeping blanket statements about black people, and so it should be. But in the present cultural climate, it’s not only permissible but almost obligatory to make such statements about “white people”. Especially for woke white people, who having deplaaared their own whiteness, get credit for wokeness, but go home no less white than they were.
Now I maintain that one doesn’t have to posit symmetry in order to argue that this is a bad idea. It’s bad on the intellectual plane, and it’s downright imbecile on the political plane.
I’ve written a bit elsewhere about how “white people” are the reification of a negative, and thus by definition not a thing, so talking about a non-thing as if it were a thing is apt to create confusion. That’s the intellectual part, and I won’t belabor it further.
The political part is perhaps less abstract and more interesting.
There have always been several ways to approach the matter of black liberation. One is what you might call “Afro-pessimism”, which is perfectly respectable and indeed rather compelling. To summarize, and I hope not to vulgarize, this is the view that there is a great gulf insuperably fixed between white people and black people; the whites, besotted with their whiteness, will never accept the blacks as men and brothers, so the blacks need to circle the wagons and prepare for a more or less permanent state of siege from the whites.
Depressingly enough, there is a lot to be said for this view. But it seems to me like a counsel of despair.
Of course there’s a lot of vulgar integrationism going round – we should all be color-blind, I don’t care what color somebody is, etc. etc. It’s always a lie. The first thing anybody notices in actually existing society, in the US anyway, is what color somebody else is. Even sex is secondary. It’s the first question the cops ask, if you make the mistake of calling the cops; and of course the cops are the blunt but cutting edge of cultural norms, in practice. So color-blindness, for the moment anyway, is a non-starter.
But I would like to think there’s a way open which avoids both the blithe imbecility of post-racialism and the glum hopelessness of Afro-pessimism; and I would like to think that it relies upon the remarkable capacity of human beings to focus on a shared project. And in the process come to value and love each other as comrades and brothers.
Suppose, for example, that the shared project were, quite simply, “equality” – equality in some breathtakingly broad sense, not just racial, not just sexual; a sense inimical to any attempt to re-found inequality on some other, supposedly better basis, like merit or talent or deservingness. Suppose we took the view that Einstein and the village idiot really are equal, and the one deserves as much consideration and respect as the other? And the white guy and the black guy are equal, absolutely radically equal, not just in the abstract qua white and qua black, but any two white and black guys chosen at random, equal as actual living breathing individual human beings? No matter who did better on the SAT, or who went to prison and who didn’t: men and brothers alike, who were born of woman and suffer and rejoice and love and die like human beings.
Okay, it’s a wild idea. Though a good one, I think. But as a by-product, surely it sidelines all these other group-based inequalities? If radical equality is the project and that’s what we’re after, then surely we want all the comrades we can find, black or white, male or female, gay or straight?
The trouble is that any such positive shared project – like radical equality – comes up against some mental reservations and purposes of evasion that even the most woke cherish in their heart of hearts. The identitarian cherishes his own particular grievance; the meritocrat worries what will become of us all if the rabble take over. Suppose my grievance were subsumed in the immense, immemorial grievance of all the dispossessed, the immiserated, the beaten-down, the innumerable host of the slaughtered and the slaves? I don’t seem so special any more. On the other hand, suppose my well-earned eminence, which I have worked so hard to attain, were toppled like a Confederate statue? Then I too don’t seem so special any more.
There is more than one kind of property that needs to be expropriated.
Some scattered thoughts on lesser-evil voting. Let’s say we have a choice between Grendel and his slightly more ferocious mother, Mrs. Grendel. In the US, this is a fairly realistic simulation. The lesser-evillists insist that we must vote for Grendel. Their sincerity is not to be doubted, but their logic has some gaps. There are several fundamental propositions, each, I think, quite fallacious.
1. A non-vote for Grendel equals a vote for Mrs Grendel
Naively, the voter on election day has four broad categories of choice:
a. Stay home
b. Vote for Grendel
c. Vote for Mrs Grendel
d. (Possibly available to some and not others) Vote for a third party which actually stands for something you believe in, with the full awareness that your candidate is unlikely to prevail.
The lesser-evil argument is that options a) and d), being non-votes for Grendel, in fact undergo a kind of quantum collapse and somehow are transmuted into votes for Mrs Grendel.
It is not quite clear how a non-vote is supposed to become a vote. Moreover, it is not quite clear for whom the non-vote is actually a vote, particularly in the stay-at-home case, option a).
Naively it would appear that the stay-at-home non-voter’s non-vote, were it to be multiplied by -1 and become a vote, might equally well be a vote for Grendel or Mrs Grendel or a third party. That is, the non-voter non-voted equally for all of the above; who then gets his virtual vote? Perhaps each gets a third, and his distributed virtual vote cancels out and turns back into a non-vote again?
Clearly, that is an unacceptable outcome, and the lesser-evil evangelist will tell you that Mrs Grendel certainly gets the whole enchilada. But on what basis this assertion is made does not clearly appear.
It gets worse. Perhaps the abstainer did in fact quite intentionally cast a vote for a candidate who is implicitly on the ballot in every election: namely, the Hon. Mr. None Of The Above. That is, the abstention is not just a mere nullity, a non-action, a thing that didn’t happen, but an actual statement of preference on the voter’s part, just as a physical ballot cast would have been; and perhaps the preference could be expressed as “Away with all these pests; come up with something better, or don’t bother me.” In this case the lesser-evil alchemist, with his alembics and retorts, boils away the voter’s actual intent and transmutes his actual vote for None Of The Above, not just into a non-vote, but into a specific vote for Mrs Grendel.
Option d), the third-party vote, complicates the picture further, because it’s not in any sense a non-vote at all; it’s a downright vote, a ballot marked, a lever pulled, a box checked; there’s nothing virtual or implicit about it; one needn’t surmise or infer the voter’s intent; he has made it plain. Here the lesser-evil alchemist accomplishes two successive transmutations: the first, a liquidation of the actual vote into an essential non-vote; the second, of the newly-minted non-vote, into a vote for Mrs Grendel. Neither of these procedures is entirely straightforward; the second, for the reason mentioned above, namely that it is not obvious for whom (if not None Of The Above) a non-vote should be accounted a vote; the first, because the voter has in fact cast a vote and therefore recorded a concrete, explicit, non-conjectural preference, which is, one might have thought, what elections are meant to be about.
The Philosopher’s Stone in the lesser-evil alchemist’s lab, curiously, is none other than Mrs Grendel. More precisely, it’s the operator’s conviction that the only thing that matters in the world is stopping Mrs Grendel, even if it means that her anthropophagous offspring will spend the next four years sojourning in the mead-hall by night, tearing our arms and heads off and eating them raw. Since Mrs Grendel is the only thing that matters, then it follows that everything else – all other considerations, all the preferences and priorities and principles of actual individual human beings, for instance – are flattened out, boiled down, into The Mrs Grendel Question. Because of course, she would have devoured a few more heads and arms than Junior, as everybody knows. This assumption about Mrs Grendel and her appetite brings us to Fallacy Number 2.
2. Alternate universes are knowable
Turning from the Grendel family to some actual families: the lesser-evil activist will tell you, with sublime confidence, that Hillary Clinton or Al Gore would certainly have done, or not done, this or that. But this is basically sci-fi; it’s a claim to know “what would have happened if”, which can’t in fact be known. Particularly in the muddled arena of politics. There are some things that might be said about the parallel world with a modest degree of confidence – Clinton would probably have had nicer things to say about gay people, and given her background, would probably have paid at least lip-service to the experts during the COVID pestilence.
But then, of course, there are other areas where the what-if is a good deal less clear. What if Clinton had had a more aggressive policy toward Russia? What if she had insisted on intervening in Syria? Neither of these what-ifs seems intrinsically less likely than the kind words for gay people and experts.
It is of course possible and even plausible that Hillary Clinton might have been better in some ways than Donald Trump. But it is also possible and plausible that in other ways she might have been worse – if only because more effective. I for one do not understand how the alternate-universe theorist, summing over this nearly infinite range of variables, can have such a clear birds-eye view of a universe which did not in fact come into being.
What voter who voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 did so because he was expecting what we got? Moreover, can we state with any real confidence that electing him was in any way better than re-electing Bush Pere? After all, we know what each of these guys actually did while in office; the infinite airy ambit of conjecture is thus restricted to the mundane finitude of fact.
At this point I imagine that my imaginary lesser-evil interlocutor will object, but the Democrats are always a little bit better, on average, than the Republicans! A careful look at the history might throw some shade on this confident belief. For one thing, nearly all the dire things that have happened on the political plane in my lifetime have taken place with solid bipartisan support. And Joe Biden, in particular, has been up to his neck in every one of them. Similarly, looking at the actual track record of Hillary Clinton offers little basis for the conjecturalist’s sunnier fancies.
3. The fifth decimal place is all that matters
I associate this argument with the esteemed Noam Chomsky, a man with whom one is rightly and prudently reluctant to disagree. But as the proverb says, fools rush in.
The Fifth Decimal Place argument is that yeah, the Grendelites and the Mrs Grendelites are almost identically bad. But “almost” is the operative word. Out at the fifth decimal place, there’s a residual difference; and since voting costs very little, one is morally obliged to vote for this residual, however exiguous.
There are three things wrong with this argument.
First, it depends on the parallel-world theory discussed above; it relies on a confident belief that one can calculate the results out to the fifth decimal place. This, I argue, is impossible.
Second, it assumes that the badness of the various candidates can be reduced to a scalar quantity – call it the Nosferatu Scale, analogous to the Richter Scale. But of course different people have different priorities; Palestine matters a great deal to some, and marriage equality a great deal to others. That is to say, an individual’s political priorities are a multi-dimensional vector, not a scalar; and how these vector quantities are to be reduced to a common scalar value, agreed upon by all, is a real puzzle. For some people the difference between Ma Grendel and Boy Grendel shows up at the first decimal place; for others, out at the seventeenth, if at all, and the signal is completely lost in the noise.
Third, and perhaps most important, it excludes the time dimension; it ignores the fact that a vote (or even a non-vote) is a kind of intervention in, or contribution to, a developing institutional process.
Surely we have all noticed that over the last half-century or so the greater evil has become steadily more evil, and the lesser evil has also become steadily more evil right alongside it? Might one not argue that a vote for the lesser evil has more than one implication? Is it not also a vote for this process itself? Is it not to say, I don’t care how evil you get: as long as you can persuade me that the other guy is more evil, I’m ya boi, and I mean to follow you right down to the eighth circle of Hell?
If you believe in the negation of the negation then surely the way forward is simultaneously, in a sense, the way back, and vice-versa. To move forward is to discover something entirely new, and also to recover old things that you had thought were lost.
I recently heard a youngish fellow-pewsitter at my parish church complaining that all the language we use about God was too “bombastic” – she meant words like glory and splendor and triumph and might. I was rather startled. Well, I thought, if God isn’t “bombastic” in that sense, who needs Him?
Our ancestors, though they believed in God or Gods and worshiped Him or Them, had, precisely for that reason, a more exalted conception of mankind and the stage on which its destiny is played out than we have, and a vision of its powers and possibilities more expansive than our own. Men and women may not be gods or goddesses, but we meet them — perhaps, do battle with them — on the ringing plains of windy Troy, or wrestle with an angel — perhaps more than an angel — at Penuel; and like the chap at Penuel, we will not let him go until he bless us.
Modernity, notoriously, has consummated the Entzauberung der Welt, and replaced it with a mean, mingy, narrow, utilitarian, drudging drabness.
I don’t know what concepts my young fellow-parishioner would have wanted to associate with God – not middle-class modern niceness, I hope, but something in some way sublime. What she has lost, because she is a hostage of liberal modernity, is the imagination of the sublime, and she’s embarrassed by all the words she might use to express such a thing.
I always encourage my Lefty friends to go back and read Johnnie Milton, an actual regicide for all practical purposes, which is about as Left as you can get, even though he seems to have believed in God, after his own idiosyncratic and perhaps Arian fashion. There aren’t many thinkers more bold and original than Milton, and yet withal more subtle and deliberate. But I’m afraid my young church friend would just find him a ponderous windbag. She has been defrauded of her patrimony; I would love to see her reclaim it and rejoice in it. So let’s hear it, once again, for the negation of the negation.
Being myself that somewhat unusual, though not unprecedented thing, a mediaevalist Anglo-Catholic Commie, my idea is to use the visionary future, which we don’t have yet, and the lost past, which has been stolen from us, with all its shining treasure, as the jaws of a vise to squeeze the unspeakable present.
Men and women are a thing, but simply to be human is also a thing, with material reality – a body, not so large as a whale nor so small as a mouse; an eye that registers some frequencies of electromagnetic radiation and not others; an ear that registers some frequencies of sound and not others; a gut that can’t digest cellulose; a lung that can’t extract oxygen from water; perhaps a brain that can understand certain things and not others. That is, humans, whether they’re men or women, whether they’re modern or mediaeval, whether they speak German or Khmer, share something that isn’t fish or bird.
Yet this abstract humanity never can appear in itself; human persons are male or female, they’re born and grow up in a particular time and a particular place, speaking a particular language, with other particular oddballs from whom alone they can form their own ideas of what it is to be human. It is modern liberalism that seeks to do away with all these specificities. (Whereas modern fascism, of course, seeks to reify and petrify them and encode them in law.)
Liberalism lays great stress on our “common humanity”, while acknowledging “diversity” as a kind of entertaining but essentially superficial décor. In this regard, as usual, liberalism operates as the handmaiden of Capital, which considers us all as undifferentiated or minimally differentiated “human resources”. But liberalism’s “common humanity” has no concrete content. The materialist, natural-history concept of what it is to be human stresses bipedality, sexual reproduction, the opposable thumb and so on; but the liberal’s universal human can be anything; trans-humanism is an unacknowledged assumption of liberal modernist ideology.
Which of course brings us to the gender perplex. In its theoretical dimension, the replacement of sex with ‘gender’, and the purely subjective understanding of the latter, is really a quintessentially liberal (and modern) project. (So, of course, bashing it is a quintessentially fascist – and modern – project.) The abstract undifferentiated liberal-modern human subject regards his material reality, his actual, irreplaceable, unique human body – a thing which has never been seen before in the history of the universe, and will never be seen again – as something incidental, imposed upon him, subject to modification by technology and hormone shots and surgery. His body may look male, but he’s in some inward way really a woman. Or maybe he’s neither a man nor a woman. Or he’s a man today and a woman tomorrow. One is tempted to suggest that liberal modernism is not just stoic, but also, weirdly, rather Gnostic.
But perhaps one shouldn’t be too surprised at this development. In our day, the whole field of sex has become something of a minefield. Nobody knows what to expect or how to behave; the culture abounds in double binds and contradictory messages, invigilation and attitudinizing, shaming and calling-out. It’s hardly surprising that people might want to keep their options open, and it’s hardly surprising that some might just want to call the whole thing off, as Noel Coward put it. And who could blame them? Getting oneself to a nunnery is no longer a respectable way out.
It’s a demoralizing picture. But for me, at least, a decent respect for the autonomy of every actual human subject demands, on the civic plane, that everybody be able to navigate it as best he can in his own way, absent some very compelling, clear, demonstrable claim that others can make. What’s now called “gender dysphoria” is certainly a thing, and, it would seem, always has been. Or at least, there have always been men who dressed and, as we now say, “presented” as women, and vice versa. Sometimes, no doubt, these choices were made for practical reasons; but given the centrality of sex and the extraordinarily varied experiences of human beings growing up with it, surely it must also have often occurred, since forever, that a he or a she felt insufferably boxed-in by the expectations implicit in he-ness or she-ness, as he or she immediately experienced these categories, and saw jumping the sex fence as the way out. And why not? Who is entitled to say No to such deeply personal and utterly inoffensive individual choices?
Nobody, I think. The absolutely autonomous private choices of an individual – an adult individual, of course; transitioning children is felonious medical malpractice and child abuse – an adult individual, I say, seeking his own happiness, or such approaches to happiness as there are to seek in this vale of tears: those choices are not, should not, should never, be the subject of politics. Contrary to the old Sixties slogan, the personal is not necessarily political. (Nor should the political necessarily be taken personally, of course.)
But the currently prevailing ideology of gender is another matter. Ideology and theory are always fair game. Perhaps the canon of specificity might help us out here. Perhaps every human story is so specific that we don’t even need, or want, a theory of gender as such – except that people deal with it in various ways. (I mean a political theory, of course; a credible psychoanalytic theory, or even a moderately serious one, would be very welcome.) We would certainly be better off without a theory than with a bad one – and a bad one is what we have, a weird muddle of shoddy metaphysics, empty phrase-mongering, and wishful, data-free speculation about DNA and neurology.
The concrete political content of the gay movement originally might be characterized concisely as “liberation”, or, in an older and possibly more accurate term, “emancipation” – specifically, the right to have the sex life you like without state interference or legal penalty or discrimination in the marketplace. It was, and is, rather difficult for reasonable and well-disposed people to argue against this demand. Can’t the same be said for the more recent swirl of activism around “gender” – that is, people have the civic right to present or enact or perform sex or gender as they please, without interference or penalty or discrimination? On that practical plane, as with gay liberation, it’s difficult to make the case against; who’s got a legitimate interest in stopping it? (I leave the topics of locker-rooms and rest-rooms and competitive sports to be thrashed out by those who have a dog in the fight.)
Asking for more than this might be a case of not taking ‘yes’ for an answer. But much gender-related activism currently does in fact seem to go well past such concrete political goals, and to come down to a demand for explicit acknowledged adherence to a specific theory of gender – a theory which I personally find dubious – and for explicit recognition of one’s cause at every turn, or better, at every turn of phrase, as with the mandated revision of the English pronominal declension. One suspects a certain understandable but misplaced impulse to be in the front row for every group picture.
Sometimes, in fact, the quest for the foreground can become so absolutist and divisive that one is almost tempted to wonder whether the Red Squad isn’t behind it. A recent example from England is a formation within the Labour Party called Labour Campaign for Trans Rights (LCTR), which has been demanding that anybody who won’t sign off on its rather expansive twelve-point program be expelled from the party. Now reasonable people can argue about the specific contents of these twelve points – personally I could sign off on most of them, though not all – but an electoral party like Labour needs to accommodate some divergence of views.
There is nothing at all wrong with single-issue politics. We all have our red lines, and we are all much more interested in some topics than others. I, for example, won’t vote for anybody who has a kind word to say for Israel; to quote a coarse old proverb, there is some shit I will not eat. But I don’t think that if I were, say, a member of DSA, I would be trying to expel anybody less maximalist on this topic than myself. In fact I would view such a stratagem as a serious and highly sectarian mistake, to say no more than that.
Liberalism of course takes a very sunny view of contemporary gender theory, since far from threatening the social order, it is thoroughly aligned with the ideology of liberal modernism – among the freedoms which modernity has conferred is freedom from the inconvenient particularities of one’s own vertebrate, mammalian human body. (Compare Engels’ profound and highly dialectical observation that freedom entails the recognition of necessity.) And the good modern liberal feels a certain flush of righteous self-congratulation with every deployment of a suitably woke pronoun.
We might usefully ask ourselves to what extent the substantive political content of activism on the sex front in general isn’t adequately subsumed by a general claim for individual autonomy, privacy, non-interference and non-discrimination, which het as well as gay, cis as well as trans, might embrace without hesitation. Indeed, the highly fluid alphabet-soup acronym – LGB plus a rather unstable series of suffixes – suggests as much. After all, the social experiences and social praxes of – for example – lesbians and gay men aren’t, in any obvious way, very similar. Similarly, trans people are very interested in gender, and strongly prefer to be one gender rather than another; while gender abolitionism apparently seeks to liquidate the concept altogether. The purely negative commonality seems to be that none of the identities subsumed by the acronym is stolidly cis-het. Which is, of course, the double reification of a negative – not being something which itself consists of not being anything else.
In the Left context, an insistence on individual autonomy and privacy often seems rather shocking, as if one were espousing a kind of radical individualism, or rather atomism: the individual monad, arithmetically summed, as solely constitutive of society. But it’s not necessary to make that kind of sweeping (and rather vulgar) claim about the foundations and constitution of human society in order to recognize that the human individual is a thing; that there really is, within the polis, a legitimate private sphere, which has been envisioned and created by the historically specific unfolding of our actual human social world; it is a valuable gift from those who went before us, and lies among the things which we Lefties ought to promote and defend.
There is no reason on earth why socialism need be run by nosey-parkers. That is the fascist’s canard – and also, of course, the liberal’s, who is very much a nosey-parker himself, and would very much like to run the show. Here as elsewhere, the Left needs to purge itself of the contaminating influence of liberalism.