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Identity politics and transgender: John Rees and Counterfire (Part 2)

John Rees, a leading member of Counterfire, has written a very useful article about identity politics, the political establishment and the left.

Part 1 of this Freer Lives piece looked at what he said about the political establishment – the elite servants of the capitalist class. Rees points out that the main, neoliberal wing of the establishment has adopted identity politics in tokenistic but prominent ways, to re-legitimise itself in the age of austerity. This has vastly extended the impact of identity politics while also discrediting it in the minds of some workers, and this reaction has been channelled and exploited by the traditionalist, conservative wing of the elite. Neither side has anything to offer working people, but both use identity politics to divide us.

Rees treats the debates over transgender issues as simply one example of these divisions.

This is an enormous advance on the positions of groups like Britain’s SWP and Socialist Party, which do not acknowledge the role of elite forces in driving, let alone mainstreaming, the trans phenomenon. However, as discussed in Part 1, the trans trend also has distinctive and major benefits to the establishment. This led both its neoliberal and conservative wings to mainstream and normalise the gender identity theory, and its pinkification of women, in the first two decades of this century. They have divided almost entirely around its practical implications for women, children, academics, clinicians etc. – part of the so-called culture wars.

Part 2 now looks at Rees’ arguments on how the left should respond to identity politics and trans issues.

Independence from the establishment

“On both sides of the establishment divide,” Rees says, “there are huge social institutions at work, and they have considerable influence in the labour movement through the conduits of the Labour Party leadership and the trade-union bureaucracy. But rather than examine the significance of the divides in establishment ideology, some on both sides of the Brexit debate and the debate about trans identity… are at pains to embarrass their opponents by pointing out that they have the support of serious establishment forces.” He calls for the left to change its response, to separate itself sharply from both wings of the establishment. “The first watchword in any left response to this bifurcated establishment ideology is political independence.”

This is a very welcome statement from Rees and Counterfire. Leftist supporters of trans ideology are effectively aligned in Britain with neoliberal NGOs and sections of the Tory Party – to say nothing of the warmongering National Democratic Committee in the USA, corporate giants and billionaire philanthropy. The SWP etc. need to accept that on the trans issue most of the union bureaucracy is indeed an echo chamber for the neoliberal establishment and it is this, not some groundswell from below, that explains trans ideology’s overwhelming endorsement by Britain’s union movement.

But the left must also be clear that the culture war divisions mask the establishment’s underlying unity on gender identity theory, as discussed in Part 1 of this piece.

The basis for unity

The left, Rees says, should build unity among the oppressed. This starts with the “functional unity” that can be built between the minorities within each oppressed group who already oppose discrimination against other groups. He gives the example of unity between Arabs who reject antisemitism and Jews who reject the viciously racist Israeli state.

This is another very helpful formulation. To run with Rees’ own example, it is not anti-Semitic to oppose Israel, however many Jews think otherwise, however deep their outrage and sense of personal violation at our position, and regardless of the fact that some people are both anti-Semitic and anti-Israel (taking Israel at its word and identifying its racism and cruelty with Jewishness itself, hating Jews as a result). We must point out that Israel is not a defender of Jews but a component of imperialism and it ultimately works against Jews themselves. Moreover, defending Jews does not require us to accept compromise, a half-way house: we do not “acknowledge” Israel while decrying its “excesses” – that leads into a morass. Give the devil of Israel your little finger and you will be taken entirely. Instead we oppose all attacks on Jews as such: from the far right, from the left or from anywhere, without any concession to Israel.

How does Rees’ formulation apply to trans issues? The SWP declared that University of Sussex students were “rightly outraged” when feminist academic Kathleen Stock said “many trans women are still males with male genitalia.” But this is outrageous only if you accept gender identity – a concept that pinkifies and confines women, makes discontent with sex stereotypes a small-minority concern, and forms the basis for many attacks on women, children, lesbians, clinicians, academics and others. A great deal of the Freer Lives blog has been devoted to debunking gender identity (eg here). As with Zionism it is an ideology that claims to represent an oppressed group, highlighting current and historical sufferings: drawing on intense emotions with great success, but serving the interests of the ruling class and its lackeys, and owing its victories mainly to elite support.

Stripped of sexist illusions, trans/non-binary/fluid etc people are those who want to live, always or sometimes, by the social codes and rules of the opposite sex, and may alter their bodies to do so. They defy traditional stereotypes which say biology is destiny. As a result they face discrimination, both in everyday life and from organised bigots; sympathy from neoliberal media and institutions is little help in their personal lives. On this basis they deserve support from the left to live as they wish. We should march with trans people against attacks from the real bigots just as we may march with Zionists against attacks from anti-Semites (however unwelcome our presence may be in either case).

This support does not involve any concessions to gender sexism. “Gender” is inseparable from confining sex roles. A transwoman’s deep inner sense of being woman is most likely the internalisation of messages about sex roles they absorbed in their early years (as previously discussed on Freer Lives eg here). The so-called history of trans people is the history of groups or individuals who rejected the sex roles they were born to, and opted out of them, with or without social sanction (previously discussed eg here). The huge expansion of trans/fluid etc identity in the last two decades is rarely due to self-discovery, mainly to massive propaganda work by neoliberal media and institutions, which channels discontent with sex roles into forms that block its generalisation to working class women as a whole.

As Rees says we should start with the minority which opposes all forms of oppression. This means that socialists should ally with transsexuals who wish to live by the other sex’s social codes without claiming to be women and redefining women in sexist terms. But first and foremost it means allying with those gender critical feminists who reject all deals with the right and support trans people against the real bigots.

Gender critical feminists

This means defending gender critical feminists from pro-trans mobilisations against them. Counterfire’s Lindsey German did just that, in an article (‘It has to stop’) on the student mobilisation against Kathleen Stock, mentioned above. By contrast the SWP applauded the protest. It is true that the SWP opposed calls for Stock to be sacked, or de-platformed, pointing out that only fascists should be shut down by organised force. (Fascists aim to use organised force to close down all democratic and progressive impulses in public life, and must be fought, in part, on the same terrain.) But this misses the point. Gender critical feminists are defending women from sexist attacks and should not face any kind of mobilisation against them. The student protestors and the SWP saw bigotry where it did not exist.

Rees’ position also implies the need for constructive debate with gender critical feminists. Here he raises two issues.

Using right wing platforms

One is the use of right wing and/or corporate platforms to oppose trans demands. He says:

It simply will not do to claim that allying with the right is necessary because other possibilities for publicity are denied to campaigners. The truth is no radical campaign can be assured of a platform unless they create one themselves. The anti-war movement or the anti-austerity movement are certainly not ushered onto the BBC, or favourably reported in the right-wing press. They have perishingly few advocates in the mainstream. But they would not be justified in amplifying the voices of racists and reactionaries even if, as is often the case, other platforms are denied to them.

But radical or antiwar campaigns can at least rely on left-liberal and far-left platforms. Feminists who oppose trans sexism are not just denied such platforms: they are cancelled, doxed and reviled on the left – physically attacked at times, sometimes driven from their professional livelihoods and subject to routine, jokey threats of murder and assault. This needs to be said by all leftists. And it needs to be said up front, not sotto voce in para 23 of a long read. Said, and denounced. Until then, we can hardly expect to make headway in the debate over using right wing platforms.

Separatism

Another issue for debate, Rees points out, is separatism. Those who present men as an oppressive “sex class” preclude the possibility of wholesale social change from below. Here again his target is identity politics in general: he compares the sex-class concept to the paralysing idea that the whole white working class is an opponent. But again, I think, the trans issue has distinctive features. The sex-class concept focuses hostility not on the bosses and their lackeys but on transwomen, as a group of men who benefit from women’s oppression and whose misogyny has some sort of structural link into class divisions – not just sexists but class oppressors. This feeds into the mutual loathing between online trans activists and GC feminists, which in turn plays into the hands of those who portray us as haters. The defence of women’s spaces, women’s sport etc. inevitably puts a focus on transwomen, and practical issues that need to be dealt with through mutually respectful discussion and debate. But the issue should always be linked back to the role of the capitalist class in setting the scene for these clashes. That, I think is the only way to make headway on the left. And we must make headway.

Identity politics and transgender: John Rees and Counterfire (Part 1)

Britain’s rulers endorse trans ideology, as part of their wider embrace of identity politics, says Marxist John Rees, a leading member of Counterfire. (Establishment ideological contradictions and the left 29 November 2021).

The “the rainbow of minorities”, he says, find support from most “of the political establishment, parts of the broadcast media, the NGO universe, the Human Resources departments of most public and private institutions” and from “much of the Labour Party and trade-union bureaucracy,” the establishment’s “labour movement echo chambers.” This support is, of course, tokenistic. So, for example, black people are “visually prominent in prospectuses and publicity, celebrated in black history month, and promoted in public,” but not given resources to deal with discrimination. But this tokenism helps the establishment re-legitimise itself after decades of austerity.

A minority within the establishment, Rees says, replaces tokenism with right wing populism, taking “a more traditional, often socially conservative, ruling-class view of what states and national cultures should be about.” In doing so it draws popular support not just from white male workers but from “considerable sections of the working class, men and women, of all ethnic minorities,” who “have been left behind by neoliberal capitalism” and who react against the multiculturalism and identity politics promoted by the neoliberal elite. He says: “Something similar [to the Brexit battle] is observable in the trans debate. Those on what is called the ‘gender-critical’ side of the argument find most of the print media, especially the right-wing press, ‘on their side’. So is half, but by no means all, the Tory hierarchy.”

So, tokenism and populism – and the game of divide and rule. Both wings of the establishment use identity politics to foment division between and within oppressed groups, and “it is the divisions in the political establishment which accounts for the virulence with which these issues are debated” on the left.

Rees’ critique of the left’s position on identity politics will be covered in part 2 of this article. First, a response to what’s been said so far.

When so many revolutionaries present trans ideology as purely oppositional, his argument is very welcome. When labour bureaucrats and their hangers-on back the trans lobby, this does not reflect a natural alignment with workers interests, or a response to progressive impulses from their members. They are in large part echo chambers for the neoliberal elite.

More could be said. For example, when trans lobbyists reach out to the NGO universe, HR departments etc. they prefer back channels, minimising public awareness of the issues at stake, reflecting the top-down nature of the trans trend. And it’s worth noting that the vast trans lobby in the USA is supported not only by the warmongering Democratic National Committee but by billionaire and corporate philanthropy which pours vast funds into LGBT shell bodies that have little or no social roots, bodies which increasingly disappear lesbians and even sideline gay men in their focus on trans issues.

Most importantly, trans ideology offers distinctive and very important benefits to the capitalist class, and to both wings of its political establishment, in their ongoing war against working class women.

Why the bosses back trans ideology

The capitalist system relies on a huge amount of unpaid labour, in the home and elsewhere, that raises the next generation of wage slaves and maintains today’s proletariat in a work-ready state. For historical reasons it is vastly easier to impose this unpaid labour on women, who have been made to see themselves as very different from and inferior to men, and ready-made to serve others. The bosses are addicted to working women’s unpaid labour and thus cannot afford to let go of the sexism that underpins it. But here the bosses face mounting pressure, because they also want women in the paid workforce en masse, where over recent decades they have learnt that they are equal to men. The bosses need a new cool sexism that resigns women to continued subordinate roles in modern times.

Gender identity theory is part of the answer. It offers the bosses a chocolate box of benefits. It says the vast majority of females come with pink gender identities naturally aligned with confining sex roles, naturally drawn to dolls and lipstick and, with all that, mountains of unpaid work. It says the girls and women who reject their sex roles no longer have any message to share with their sisters except to support trans rights. And it’s all progressive! The long-loathed women’s liberationists are now howled down; much of the spadework for this new sexism is handled by the liberal and far left. For these reasons, the capitalist media and institutions have mainstreamed trans ideology. This is what explains the otherwise-bewildering triumph of a trend formerly confined to the social margins.

The right wing bosses also back “gender identity”

And the ruling class and its establishment are not as divided on trans issues as we might think. In the USA, during the mainstreaming of the trans trend in 2000s, transgender ideology had support from some leaders of the Republican Party. Most importantly, the core element of trans ideology, gender identity theory, has been solidly backed by conservative bosses, for they too see its benefits. When the Murdoch media runs a headline like A woman has been thrown behind bars after sexually assaulting a stranger it is saying that transwomen are women: no doubt about it, no discussion needed. There is abundant, irrefutable evidence that the gutter tabloids and other right wing media have for many years waged a propaganda war to mainstream gender identity theory, as previously discussed on this blog. This is an enormous denial of material reality, defended only in terms of feelings, of magical thinking, of pseudo-science and waffle. Yet in a short few years it has become normalised; it feels odd to contest it. This normalisation could only have happened with support from the right wing media.

Right wing support for “gender identity” is the great secret of this debate. The trans lobby and their left-liberal allies bury it, of course, so as not to tarnish the theory’s progressive credentials. The right wing media themselves are coy about it too: again, this united approach helps make “gender identity” natural, normal and beyond debate. For this is by no means a done deal, since many ordinary people still doubt that men can be women. The gutter tabloids must continue to gaslight and demoralise their base on this issue, just as the left-liberal corporate media must keep stifling uneasiness among their own audience.

The culture-war divisions on the trans issue, always spotlighted, come into play almost entirely on the practical implications of gender identity theory: the many and varied attacks on women, children, clinicians, academics etc. that it demands. For the main, neoliberal wing of the establishment, the disturbances caused by these attacks, still fairly minor, are easily-absorbed overhead costs of supporting trans-related sexism and identity politics.

The traditionalist wing, on the other hand, has not bought into identity politics in the same way, and detests the trans lobby’s entanglement with the political left. Having secured the sexism of gender identity theory itself, they now denounce its practical consequences as part of the wider culture wars. Here the right wing media can channel the discontent of their audience, presenting the trans lobby’s attack through a conservative lens – and as a bonus, they can try to win progressive women from their old allegiances. (Strictly speaking their stand is contradictory: if transwomen are women, why not let them win every female sports event, or walk in on 14 year old “cis-privileged” females getting changed? But the right wing media can live very easily with contradictions.) Here and there the right wing media may carry incidental challenges to gender identity theory, as a concession to its social conservative base, or as part of the backlash against invasive and disruptive trans demands. Neither of these things alters the huge role that the traditionalist wing of the bourgeoisie, and its lackeys, have played in mainstreaming trans sexism.

Part 2 of this article will look at John Rees’ analysis of the lefts’ response to identity politics and the trans issue.