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The Left and transgender: “work with trans people, not against them”?

This is the second in a series of posts discussing why the Left does not criticise the conservative aspects of the transgender trend.

At times the far Left acknowledges that trans ideology contains conservative ideas. For example Laura Miles points out:

Many trans people have tended to take a highly essentialist view of gender identity, which treats gender as somehow natural and given — “a man’s mind in a woman’s body, “a woman’s mind in a man’s body”. A glance at a selection of trans people’s autobiographies will confirm this. Transgender is also often presented in the media in this over-simplified way… there are serious problems inherent in such an essentialist approach to gender identity.

This quote was a passing comment in an article within a theoretical journal. Such points don’t tend to get made very often, and when they do they’re not highlighted in Left newspapers. Why not?

A Left argument for setting aside conservative trans ideas

One reason, I think, is tactical. Trans people face serious daily discrimination and are attacked by the anatomy-is-destiny Right. Because they suffer from capitalism, they are driven to oppose it. You don’t deal with such a group, the argument goes, by lecturing them about their errors: that would be sectarian and/or ultraleft. (An analogy is sometimes drawn with lesbians and gays: you don’t pontificate about the bourgeois nature of the marriage institution, you support LGB people’s fight for equal rights. More generally you defend lesbian and gay rights without harping at those who adopt stereotypically feminine or masculine roles.)

Instead you start from common ground and take people forward step by step, involving them in campaigns around other social issues, giving them a working class perspective, winning them to the common struggle against the system, and slowly eroding their conservative ideas through new experiences, and sometimes comradely discussion. You say: now that you’ve broken with the most traditional stereotypes of sex, why not break with all sex stereotypes?

This seems to be the approach articulated, for example, by Socialist Alternative’s Red Flag in Australia. An article on gender and capitalism concludes with this: “We need to remove all political content from the categories of ‘men’, ‘women’, ‘gay’, ‘straight’, ‘trans’, ‘cis’ and so on. This would lay the basis for a society in which gender is either a purely personal matter, or no matter at all.”  (Red Flag 22 April 2016) In this spirit the group describes a struggle against anti-trans discrimination in the workplace: “we achieved the right for a transgender employee to dress as they chose providing they followed the company dress code. In addition, we were able to secure the right for our fellow worker to be addressed by their preferred name and without any need for gender references. Then we were able to negotiate the abolition of gender identification requirements on forms.” (Red Flag 1 Sept 2013)

This approach probably works very well with left-leaning trans individuals and perhaps many other trans individuals. They are not the problem. In their personal lives many trans people are a long way from the crass Caitlyn Jenner stereotypes, but even those who do go for extreme stereotypes are not the problem. It is a problem when trans activists go on the offensive against feminists trying to defend women’s rights, but even that, I think, is secondary.

The core problem, entirely unacknowledged by most of the Left, is the sexist propaganda around transgender that pours from the neoliberal mass media and public and private institutions, telling us that pink and blue are a natural fit for almost everyone, ensuring discontent with sex stereotypes remains chained to “gender”, and snuffing out the concept of oppressive female socialisation. The neoliberal elite are using the transgender trend as a road block. By all means swap gender, they say; be genderfluid, genderqueer, or agender if you must, but do not advance beyond this point – don’t go saying that sex stereotypes might be a problem for the mass of people, especially the mass of womankind. Don’t start defining womanhood via restrictive ideas internalised over a lifetime.

The better sections of the Left sneak a few individuals around this roadblock, but don’t confront it directly. They don’t even admit to its existence. There is no “transgender trend”, just hard-beset trans people, whom the media accommodates partially, grudgingly, under popular pressure. (So while Red Flag opposed the silencing of Germaine Greer, particularly via recourse to a university administration, they still denounced her criticisms of trans ideology.)

Of course, the Left does attack sex stereotypes and oppressive female socialisation outside the context of transgender. But for every person who reads a Left newspaper, how many thousands receive sexist-but-unchallengeable ideas via the mass media’s framing of trans? By taking a stand against this sexism the Left could have real influence far above the odd article in support of women’s liberation.

Defend trans people without taking sexist ideas on board

Challenging conservative trans ideas does not mean any reduction whatsoever in support for trans people (actual trans people, not their neoliberal propagandists) against the religious Right or discrimination or persecution in daily life. In fact this will become more important than ever after Trump’s election victory. But it does mean accepting the need to fight on two fronts at once, just as, during the Brexit campaign, the far Left has fought to expose the EU as a neoliberal austerity machine while also attacking the racist Tories and Little Englanders.

At present trans-critical feminists must choose between bitter isolation and accommodation to the Right. They deserve more. They are natural allies for the Left.

Trumpland: white women, why, and where to now

Hardened sexists and racists are making the most of Trump’s victory. Nigel Farage, for example, has entertained his followers with the thought of Trump groping Theresa May. It is all made worse by the odd tradition of seeing the US President as a moral as well as political leader.

Countless women around the globe must be feeling personal pain that such a gross man defeated a female candidate so heavily favoured to win. Particularly galling is the fact that, according to exit polls, almost 53% of white women voted for Trump; for white women without tertiary education the figure was two thirds. The response to this from female journalists and commentators has ranged from contempt at white women’s betrayal to explaining the result as internalised misogyny or women putting their whiteness above their interests as a sex. One of the bitterest articles came from LV Anderson who also hinted at some likely implications for US women:

More than half of white women voted for the man who bragged about committing sexual assault on tape, who said he would appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade, who has promised to undo legislation that has afforded health insurance to millions of uninsured Americans, whose parental leave plan is a joke, who has spent his campaign dehumanizing nonwhite people, who has spent 30-plus years in the public eye reducing women to their sexual attributes. More than half of white women looked at the first viable female candidate for the presidency, a wildly competent and overqualified career public servant, and said, “Trump that bitch.”

Why it happened

In reality, the majority of white women voted for Trump as part of a working class backlash against neoliberalism, similar to the Brexit backlash in Britain. Michael Moore called the result as “anger and the need for revenge against the system”. As Naomi Klein said:

Here is what we need to understand: a hell of a lot of people are in pain. Under neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatisation, austerity and corporate trade, their living standards have declined precipitously. They have lost jobs. They have lost pensions. They have lost much of the safety net that used to make these losses less frightening. They see a future for their kids even worse than their precarious present.

At the same time, they have witnessed the rise of the Davos class, a hyper-connected network of banking and tech billionaires, elected leaders who are awfully cosy with those interests, and Hollywood celebrities who make the whole thing seem unbearably glamorous.

As a strong and accomplished woman, beset by sexist attacks on her like so many other female leaders, Clinton became a symbol of hope and pride to innumerable women around the world. But her glass-ceiling feminism did not connect with struggling working women in her own country. They saw her, correctly in my opinion, as part of the elite attacking them.

That does not mean that they attack neoliberalism as such. They interpret their suffering through a framework of right wing ideas, some racist, some sexist, some about the virtues of self-help etc. But above they hate what the elite has done to them.

As analyst Stephen Long points out, it was this same economic pain that allowed Trump to increase the percentage of Latinos voting Republican, despite his racism, whereas among “the well-off and well-educated whites who normally favour the Republican candidate, there was a slight drift towards Hillary Clinton.”

In response to their economic misery some people simply withdrew from electoral politics. The Republican vote was almost two million down from 2012, but the Democratic vote fell by almost seven million (IBT), despite the election being billed as high-stakes. But a lot more people did vote and they voted to punish the candidate connected most clearly to the elite and the status quo.

Trump and transgender

Trump was initially on-side with the transgender trend, which will be no surprise to trans-critical feminists and socialists. However, most of his support base is hostile to the trans phenomenon (not, or course, as an attack on women, or because it supports for sex stereotyping, but because it challenges the most traditional, anatomy-is-destiny stereotypes). Under this pressure he changed position on North Carolina’s HB2 law banning male-born trans people from using women’s bathrooms, saying that it was an issue for the state government to decide, effectively supporting the ban. His instincts lead him one way, but he is susceptible to pressure from the religious Right.

Where to now

Protests against Trump have already started. Over time there is huge potential for these protests to draw support from millions of working people as they gradually realise that Trump is not improving their lives.

Trump will certainly want to divert that mass anger. He will scapegoat the vulnerable, most likely through immigrant-bashing and Islamophobia. He will also mobilise social conservatives around a range of reactionary demands as he tries to keep people’s economic misery off the political centre stage.

Trump may choose to accommodate trans people to widen his support base, but he may equally attack them to curry favour with social conservatives. In any case, the religious Right has received a shot in the arm from his victory, and will be active and vocal.

Trans-critical feminists and socialists challenge the trans trend from a pro-woman perspective; for the religious and alt Right opposition to trans people is part of an anti-woman agenda. In the current atmosphere distinguishing ourselves from the Right is more important than ever.