One socialist pushing back at the Trojan horse of gender ideology is Deirdre O’Neill. She has posted two recent articles on Medium.com: “Class, identity politics and transgender ideology” (26 August 2018) and “On not being allowed into leftist spaces” (28 Aug 2018, previously published via the Socialist Feminist Network 6 June 2018)
In the latter piece she describes the way her personal background has given her a lifelong commitment to the working class and to the overthrow of capitalism, and how it also led her to reject middle class feminism. “The essentialism I witnessed in the middle class version of feminism was simply a strategy that worked to denigrate or ignore the experiences and knowledge of working class women and exclude them from the public sphere… the only thing I had in common with middle class women was my biology.” But “precisely on these biological grounds I now find myself aligning with all women who are gender critical.”
In doing so, she also finds herself effectively excluded from most of the left:
It is becoming quite acceptable for certain sections of the left to declare that people like me – women who are ‘gender critical’ – should not be allowed in leftist or anarchist spaces… its lack of critical engagement… is the thing that astounds the most…
The issue here is that significant parts of the left have accepted without question and without debate the fundamental claim of trans activists that transwomen are women. And they have internalized transactivism’s immunization from rational dialogue by denouncing everyone who does not agree with this claim, as ‘bigot’, ‘terf’, full of ‘bile’ and ‘hatred’. The idea that trans rights as currently formulated may clash with women’s rights, seems inconceivable to those who have accepted what seems to me a pre-Enlightenment dogma, that transwomen are women. Is it too much to enquire, without being called a ‘bigot’, that maybe, just maybe, trans rights can be guaranteed on a different basis, without making the claim, trans women are women (or trans men are men)?
There are of course many socialists fighting gender ideology. The points O’Neill raises, however, go to the heart of the issues raised in Freer Lives. I won’t try to cover every topic she discusses, but I’d like to support some key points she makes, adding my own take (which she may or may not support), with some links to my earlier pieces on this blog. On some questions I have a different perspective to O’Neill. I apologise in advance for the length of this post.
The impact of neoliberalism
O’Neill points out how economic changes over the last few decades have laid the foundations for today’s politics, including the rise of transgenderism:
The change from an industrial society to a service society produced a marked shift in focus from the working class as the backbone of the county to the image of a feral underclass responsible for their own poverty. Correspondingly their collective struggle has been eroded and its place filled by the middle class adherence to the politics of identity –a concentration on single issues that celebrate difference and refuses to recognize or engage with the continuing injuries of class.
One of the consequences of the massive changes that have taken place in working class life over the last forty years of neo liberalism has been the erasure of class-consciousness and the loss of the language of class…
This is a crucial point. The erosion of collective working class struggle has reshaped daily life experience for millions of people, particularly in the English speaking west. In 1970 the slogan “one struggle, one fight” made perfect sense. Most working people were in unions, taking strike action for their rights. This underlay and unified the particular battles of women, blacks, and those fighting conscription and war. If you were a young woman who ran into trouble at work, your first go-person could well be a paunchy middle aged male shop steward. Sexism and other prejudices had to be fought within our side of the barricades, but there was a fundamental sense of unity against the System, the Establishment, etc.
By the mid-1970s class struggle was ebbing. A decade on, unions seemed increasingly remote and bureaucratic, the working class weak and politically almost irrelevant. Left wing people saw not “one struggle”, but many. To an extent this does reflect middle class individualism, but the absence of political strike action has given it resonance for millions of working class youth.
As for what has caused the ebb of working class struggle, O’Neill mentions the shift from an industrial to service economy. This is probably the most important underlying factor in the continuing passivity of western working classes, since service industries have historically been hardest to organize. I have discussed other causes elsewhere.
A “pseudo version of political radicalism”
O’Neill points out:
The growth of idealism and the denial of material reality have offered for some on the middle class left a pseudo version of political radicalism. For them the struggle for change is no longer grounded in the politics of class nor do they acknowledge the working class as the potential initiators of change…
There is something very terrifyingly fragile about our commitment to reasoned debate if we can so nonchalantly cast aside facts such as our biological constitution. If anyone can be anything they want just by saying it, where does that leave us? What kind of foundation is there to build on? If you #arewhatyousayyouare where does that leave those of us fighting for a better world? It leaves us nowhere- social, historical knowledge, institutional struggle and cultural experience becomes meaningless. The way in which our lives are shaped by structures over which we often have little control cannot be articulated or resisted. The propagation of the notion of a female essence renders at a stroke unnecessary the history of the struggles women have been involved in for their right to live independent autonomous lives –there’s no ‘wrong side of history’ when you can just ignore its existence.
Postmodernism, which I presume she is talking about, has certainly had a toxic effect on the left, as previously discussed on this blog. But its denial of material reality was just one part of the point-by-point attack on Marxism which it launched in the late 1970s. Its anti-humanism and focus on surface over depth denied any meaning to the concept of liberation. Its irrationalism sent a message that ordinary people could not act together to understand and change the world. Its celebration of localism and fragmented protest left people helpless against a world dominated by inter-locking central banks, global corporations and military alliances. All this paved the way for gender ideology.
Postmodernism was spearheaded by jaded ex-radicals who provided a theoretical polish for the prejudices of the rising new middle class and a rationale for despair and cynicism among youth.
The left’s capitulation, no-platforming, and the refusal to debate
O’Neill attacks the left for its “glaring refusal… to come to terms with the question of transgenderism and its impact on women”, meaning of course biological women. And she also attacks the “the self censorship, the intimidation, the blatant dishonesty, the denial of debate with howls of ‘transphobia’” from a left that has “abandoned its obligation to critically engage, to clarify and to lead on the political issues of the day. Instead it has simply accepted the terms of the debate put forward by the trans militants (including their really basic conflation of sex and gender)”. This is once again a pleasure and relief to read.
For her, these positions indicate a left “in deep crisis”. It is certainly a sign of alarming degeneration when the left not only supports gender sexism but abandons its long tradition of upholding free debate within the progressive side of politics. In Britain, as far as I am aware, the only honorable exceptions to this capitulation have been the Morning Star newspaper, which allows space to gender-critical feminists, and those individuals who have come out against no-platforming and violence against women’s liberationists (including Lindsey German of Counterfire and several union leaders). I have commented on this in earlier posts, in relation to current debates around the GRA and the stances taken by Britain’s Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party.
Transgender, the left and identity politics
This failure, O’Neill adds, “is rooted in the left’s acceptance of identity politics with its assumption that how a group (or the primary definers within a group) articulates its oppression is the last word in the matter.”
It is true that many if not most left wing individuals embrace some version of identity politics. But far left parties and grouplets often have a more balanced view, supporting identity politics insofar as it highlights oppression while also calling for unity around working class politics. The capitulation, I think, is specific to transgender issues.
As discussed earlier on this blog, I think the capitulation of left groups is a product of the decades-long withdrawal of the working class from the political stage. This has demoralized socialist groups, lost them many members, and produced damaging splits. And they now depend, for influence recruitment and new cadre, on a milieu which has not gone through the industrial struggles of earlier decades: the identity-politics milieu, where gender ideology reigns supreme.
The capitalist class, working women, and gender sexism
Femininity, O’Neill points out, is an aspect of women’s oppression that “fits well into the needs of a capitalist society for unpaid labour… gender relations have always played a role in the reproduction of capitalist society and capitalist reproduction has always depended on the oppression and exploitation of women.”
This, in my view, gets to the core of the trans trend. As previously discussed on this blog, there would be no mass transgender phenomenon without the huge and systematic support it has received from the capitalist class, via the corporate media and other institutions of neoliberalism. Even the right wing tabloids pump out “born-into-the-wrong-body” stories; even the business wing of the US Republican Party is onside.
Supporters of gender ideology don’t grasp this. They interpret neoliberal support for trans ideas as a natural acknowledgment of obvious reality, or they see it as the result of pressure from below. But it did not arise through pressure from below. Unlike the drives for women’s, black and gay rights, the trans trend emerged during a time of demoralization and social torpor, not mass activism. And corporate media support came before the trans trend really took off. It is the bosses who mainstreamed transgender ideas.
This support came because gender sexism is so valuable in the bosses’ ongoing war against working class women.
A new, cool sexism for new times
As O’Neill says:
Rather than fight to create something new, trans ideology recycles old tropes of femininity (‘lady brains’ – really?) and claims them as progressive. Rather than considering ways of radically changing the roles of both men and women, we are being told that the stereotypes women have fought against are actually real and can be appropriated by men to ‘prove’ they are women.
The need for this progressive veneer, I believe, reflects the changing situation faced by the capitalist class. In today’s world women participate massively in the workforce, and see every day that they are equal to men and not so very different. This breeds discontent with sex stereotypes and resistance to women’s inferior status. Traditional femininity – where XX chromosomes are seen to lead directly to ironing and lipstick – is too naïve a notion to deal with this unrest. This is a huge headache for the bosses. They need and want to keep exploiting women’s wage labour, but they also need women to keep accepting their status as inferior, self-decorating natural nurturers who maintain today’s and tomorrow’s wage slaves free of charge in the home.
Transgender ideology helps solve this dilemma for the bosses. Unlike traditional stereotyping it can assume progressive, oppositional or even radical appearance, because it attracts hostility from social conservatives, because trans individuals are vulnerable to personal attack, and because it is supported by most of the left and LGB people. But from this protected position it sends out a number of interlinked, anti-woman messages.
Firstly, it restores the idea of a “female essence”, as O’Neill calls it. Sometimes this takes the form of crude biological determinism of pink/blue brains. Often, though, our inner femininity or masculinity is simply said to be something we “know” or “feel” about ourselves. Stripped of its mysticism (and the strained efforts by some Marxists to give it a material foundation), this “gender identity” is simply the internalization of stereotypes that everyone has experienced or observed throughout their lives, including their very early lives. Most importantly, gender ideology says that the vast majority of women have a feminine gender identity, smoothly matching female stereotypes. It’s all natural and for the best.
Secondly, this “gender identity” allows any challenge to gender ideology to be equated with gay conversion therapy, thus justifying no-platforming, silencing, and a climate of fear among critics, whether in the fields of politics, psychotherapy, academia, the entertainment industry or in everyday life.
Thirdly, discontent with such stereotypes becomes a minority concern: it means being trans, or gender-fluid, being “other” – an issue for them over there, not for us ordinary people. Our role is just to respect and support them.
This surely has a disciplining effect on the majority of women, especially teens and young adults. To protest at female stereotyping becomes a high stakes decision to stand out radically, at time when many teens are desperate to fit in. And somewhere down the track it is known to lead to major violation of your body.
Fifthly: to understand their womanhood, women must not look at their socialization because that would exclude transwomen. They should understand themselves by their appearance and habits of mind, their “performance”.
There is one further benefit to the bosses, I think. Confusion has replaced clarity. In the early 1970s the issue was clear: we all suffer from sex stereotyping, in women’s case this aids and abets their oppression. Those born female undergo sexist conditioning. This is a direct issue for everyone, women most of all. But now that gender is replacing sex, those trying to make sense of the issue walk into in an almost impenetrable fog: what the hell does gender mean? For most people, it links maleness to masculinity and femaleness to femininity. But on the left “gender” is wrapped in a swirling phantasmagoria of meanings and half-meanings. As always, clarity empowers democratic debate and grass roots struggle, while confusion disempowers us, it helps to close down resistance.
The overall effect of these sexist ideas is to bury the concept of women’s oppression. It is hardly a surprise, then, that the Financial Times HERoes in Business list of top female executives now includes Pip Bunce, someone born male who swaps sexual identities during the course of each week.
I have points of difference with O’Neill (and the majority gender critical progressives): I think women are best understood not as a sex class, but simply as the oppressed sex; I think women are oppressed only by capitalism, not by a patriarchy; I don’t believe transgender is best understood as a men’s rights movement, however sexist some transwomen might be. Perhaps these issues can be discussed at a later date.
The previous post on Freer Lives hailed the leadership shown by union officials and leftists in Britain who signed an open letter in the Morning Star condemning violence, and other measures to stifle debate, used by some trans activists against feminist critics. The immediate context was the current debate over proposed changes to Britain’s Gender Recognition Act (GRA). Those signing the letter made it clear that they have “a variety of positions” on the proposed GRA changes; the letter was simply a call for “action within our movement to allow debate to take place”. Prominent among those signing the letter was Mark Serwotka, leftist leader of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS).
As also discussed last post, the letter was attacked by three members of the Socialist Party who hold lead leadership positions in the PCS. The SP members could not very well oppose the principle of free discussion and debate within the workers’ movement, but neither did they want to do or say anything to offend trans activists. They squirmed out of this tricky place by conflating the issue of violence as a tool against left wing opponents with the issue of violence as experienced by transgender people within the general population – ignoring the fact that women, black people and other groups also regularly experience violence and belittlement without using this as a manipulative device to stifle debate among progressives.
The SP and the Socialist Workers Party
The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is a long-standing and sometimes bitter rival to the SP on the British Left, but on gender politics, alas, they seem to see eye to eye. An article in the SWP paper Socialist Worker 19/8/18 backed up the SP. Commenting on politics inside the PCS, it stated:
We do not agree with Mark [Serwotka] over the Gender Recognition Act over which we have taken a consistent position, with one of our members seconding Motion A18 at PCS conference this year [supporting changes to the Act]. We believe that Mark was mistaken to sign the recent letter in the Morning Star.
If the SWP’s support for gender ideology is seriously wrong, its opposition to the Morning Star letter is disgraceful.
By supporting gender ideology the SWP is supporting women’s oppression – even while the party continues to fight that oppression in other fields. This is of course very much a class issue. The sexism of trans activists is massively amplified by the corporate media and the institutions of neoliberalism (including right wing tabloids that regularly promote born-into-the-wrong-body mysticism). Gender ideology is now being pumped into schoolgirls en masse (see eg here and here): they are being told that females have “pink brains” and/or an inner essence that forms their “gender identity”, and that for the vast majority this mysterious essence aligns with the sex stereotypes foisted on females from birth. In other words, when girls love girly things and accept second rate status it is not because they have internalised messages from a sexist society, but because of their mystical inner “identity” as feminine females. Only in the case of trans people does biology diverge from one’s feminine or masculine essence. In this way a new generation of young women is being primed for roles as unpaid carers in the home, one of the underpinnings of capitalism. Gender ideology is therefore allowing the bosses to make real headway against working class women, and this overshadows the secondary, progressive element of transgenderism that brings it into conflict with social conservatives.
Debate and no-platforming
The Morning Star letter, however, was not an attack on gender ideology, but a defense of free and open debate within the workers’ movement. It was directed at certain trans activists because they were undermining that free and open debate, not because of their positions on gender or the GRA. The only sense in which the letter implicitly challenges gender ideology is in the extent to which this ideology in itself opposes free and open debate in the workers’ movement: only to the extent that the suffering of trans people is used manipulatively to assign trans activists the right to suppress questioning. And as mentioned above, this entitlement is not demanded for women, black people, Muslim immigrants, Palestinians or any other group whose members suffer or die due to discrimination and persecution.
In principle the SWP opposes no-platforming. For example in a theoretical article late last year they stated (rather apologetically): “No platform is a tactic developed by the working class movement as part of the fight against fascism… No platform is not a tactic to be applied willy-nilly to people whose views we do not like, however offensive they may be.” (See earlier discussion on this blog.) The Morning Star letter provided a chance to commit to this principle clearly in front of the workers’ movement, under the spotlight of a hot issue. The letter was signed by their former comrade Lindsey German, now in Counterfire. It is terrible to see that the SWP failed to sign, or support, the letter.
The SWP tradition
Terrible, and rather alarming, because the SWP and its International Socialist Tendency are not just one more faction competing on the far Left. They offer the best spearhead available to advance the struggle for a better world. For the SWP places the working class at the centre of its politics in a way that is now rare. For most of the last century the Left has been littered with groups who talk about the working class but in reality look to police states, romantic guerrillas or left-wing union officials and parliamentarians. The SWP by contrast has always focused on actual workers in offices, factories, mines, transport systems and so on. In this sense they follow the politics of Marx and Engels in a way almost all other groups have not. This approach allowed them to go on developing their ideas as world events unfolded, escaping the ossified dogmatism of some Trotskyist sects. It meant they gave zero support to Stalinist regimes that crushed their own working classes. The SWP sees the “vanguard party” not as some detached all-knowing elite but as a section of the working class itself, which must continuously prove its claim to leadership (and it realises that such a party has not really existed since the 1920s, but must be recreated). In this sense the SWP is following the politics of Lenin and Trotsky in a way most other claimants do not.
The SWP has worked tirelessly, during the difficult and demoralising decades on neoliberalism, to nurture every spark of working class resistance they can. This approach remains evident in the article on the PCS quoted above, which offers a sober assessment of workplace organisation and carefully thought-out, concrete steps for how the rank and file can advance.
Is there any dissent within the SWP membership on gender ideology? I know of at least one current member of the IS Tendency who has submitted critical letters to SWP publications that were not published. Socialist Worker has published three letters supporting the current party line on the Morning Star letter, and none opposing it, that I am aware of. It is time for the SWP to reconsider this issue, and acknowledge and debate with left-wing critics.