I’m a Trans Woman

My name is Zoe and I am a trans-woman. By this I mean that I was assigned male at birth but identify as a woman. This raises the question of how I know that I’m a trans woman? People who ask this often expect to be provided with some systematic list of reasons as if I were explaining how I know that it is raining. One’s internal sense of self is not, however, the same as the weather. We can both look out the window and easily observe the weather together. You cannot, however, jump inside my head and experience life as I do. Instead you have to rely on my highly in-adequate attempts at conveying the richness and complexity of my first person experience to you. I might tell a person that I find a joke funny but this is not the same as successfully conveying to them how it felt to find the joke funny. Likewise, I can tell a person that I feel like a woman but this will not successfully convey to them my inner experience of this feeling.

Nor can I give an account of why it is that I have this feeling. I just do. This experience shouldn’t be new to any human. I cannot explain to you why it is that I like the music, films or video games that I do. I just enjoy them. They make me feel good. I might be able to pick out certain features I like, such as the guitar solo in free bird, but this would in turn raise further questions I lack answers to, such as why I like guitar solos in the first place. Thinking about why we like things can be especially misleading as we are likely to come up with an after the fact justification for why we like them which didn’t in fact play a role in why we liked them in the first place. As a result my explanation of why I like something will ultimately rest on an emotional response that I just do experience. Despite this nobody would claim that I don’t know that I like a particular song, film or video game. Being trans is similar in that it doesn’t follow from the fact that I’m unable to fully explain how I know that I’m trans or why I have the feeling of being a woman that I’m mistaken in thinking that I do have this feeling and that I am a trans woman. I know that since thinking of myself as a woman I’ve felt much happier and at peace. My brain usually tells me to kill myself on a daily basis but lately has stopped saying this. Thinking of myself as a trans woman just feels right. It fits.

Realising I’m a trans woman has been a very weird process. For my entire life I’ve wanted to look and dress like a woman. When I was a child I would spend ages imagining myself as women I’d seen in films and really enjoyed doing so. After I did this I would always feel a profound sense of shame and feel that there was something fundamentally wrong with me. I’d been assigned male at birth and boys shouldn’t want to be women. My sense of self, desires and thoughts went against the gender script I’d been given. Rather than burning the gender script that the adult world had imposed on me I tried desperately to fit in and adhere to it. I just wanted others to accept me and felt that if I was myself they would not. Performing masculinity required me to attack, repress and ignore a huge part of myself no matter how much it hurt. It was as if there were a little man inside my head who policed my every thought and action and attacked me whenever I strayed from the proper masculine path, such as when I fantasised about wearing make up or moved my wrists in an effeminate manner. I hoped that if I kept up my attacks on myself then I would eventually become a normal man. The problem was that, despite my best efforts, my transness did not go away. It continued to be a part of me and never stopped hurting.

I was of course not the only person to be hurt by my attempts at being a man. I have come to realise that my sexist treatment of cis women when I was 16 wasn’t only a product of being raised in a patriarchal culture and being socialised to be a sexist. It was also a product of me trying to prove my masculinity to myself and assert dominance over others. I in part treated cis women badly because I envied them and wished I was them. My brain refused to accept this and so mistreated them as an extension of my own self-hatred.

I eventually came to think of myself as agender, which means having no sense of being any gender whatsoever. After watching a huge amount of contrapoints I gradually came to realise that I did have an internal sense of being a woman. I was just so traumatised that I was often incapable of feeling anything internally and so, as well as being unable to feel emotions like happiness or connection with others, could not feel my gender. As I got better my emotional life gradually became richer and more complex and I was able to finally notice and accept that I’m a trans woman.

In saying I’m a trans woman there are a number of things I’m absolutely not saying. Firstly, I do not think that because I’m a trans woman I’ve have had the same life experiences as a cis woman. I was assigned male at birth and in my day to day life stealth it as a man. As a result I have never been mansplained, or sexually harassed, or been told that because of my gender I won’t be good at maths. I have never felt the distinct embodied experiences that are very common for many cis women, such as feeling shame over periods or looking in the mirror and not being able to see themselves independently of the male gaze. I have, however, had experiences that cis woman have not had, such as wanting to kill myself for wanting to wear a dress or being forced to act and look like a man in order to avoid or decrease violence from men. I at the same time also share many experiences with cis women such as policing my behavior so it conforms with gender roles or hating my body hair due to internalising a gendered beauty culture in which women are not allowed to be hairy. Trans women and cis women are both women and so share certain experiences whilst at the same time being different from one another. This shouldn’t be hard for a feminist to understand. It’s the same as how rich/poor, black/brown/white, straight/bi/gay, disabled/abled bodied women have certain things in common and certain things that separate them.

Secondly, I do not think that because I’ve realised that I’m a trans woman that I’ve suddenly unlearned my socialisation into patriarchy. My brain still has many sexist biases which I have to notice and correct. This is, however, not a unique situation that only effects trans-woman. After all, cis women do not suddenly unlearn their socialisation into patriarchy when they become a feminist. We all have to consciously unlearn it at a frustratingly slow speed.

Thirdly, I do not think that my transness can be understood outside of history. My experience as a trans woman can only be understood as something which occurred within and in reaction to a historically specific set of social structures, namely gender and sex norms in 21st century England. For example, the reason why I experience so much gender dysphoria over my body hair is because I live in a society where cis women shave their body hair due to beauty standards they have been socialised into. As a result my brain equates woman-ness with being hairless and then negatively judges my hairy body as being incompatible with my gender. Or had I not been assigned male at birth or not been raised in a society that has a patriarchal gender binary then I would have had a totally different sense of self and series of life experiences. I might have experienced similar things, such as wishing I had breasts, but these experiences wouldn’t have been mediated through the specific gendered norms of our society. Instead my life would have been mediated through other social systems, such as the Native American notion of being two spirit or the South Asian notion of being Hijra.

 

 

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Why Socialists Care About Non Economic Issues

Contemporary socialists generally advocate both the abolition of capitalism and the abolition of other oppressive structures which are not strictly economic, such as sexism, racism, ableism and queerphobia. This raises the question: why should socialists place importance on abolishing non-economic forms of oppression? Isn’t socialism just meant to focus on class struggle?

A common answer to this question is that non-economic and economic struggles are inherently connected because capitalism reproduces itself through racism, sexism and so on. For example, capitalists divide the working class by pitting white workers against black workers and thereby prevent the working class from becoming a united bloc capable of emancipating itself. Or capitalists rely on the gender pay gap to pay women workers less and thereby increase their exploitation of the working class. Given this, if socialists are to abolish capitalism then they must fight the non-economic forms of oppression which capitalism reproduces itself through. This answer is correct to point to the ways in which different systems of oppression are interconnected. It however goes wrong in both viewing socialism as intrinsically valuable and in conceptualising the abolition of other forms of oppression as being mere means to achieve the end of socialism.

Socialist authors do not after all argue that we should achieve a socialist society because of its intrinsic value. Instead they argue that human beings should be free to engage in self-directed activity and thereby develop themselves as individuals. For Mikhail Bakunin, freedom meant “the full development of all the material, intellectual and moral powers which are found in the form of latent capabilities in every individual.” (Bakunin 1973, 196) Rudolf Rocker likewise held that, “freedom is not an abstract philosophical concept, but the vital concrete possibility for every human being to bring to full development all the powers, capacities, and talents with which nature has endowed him, and turn them to social account.” (Rocker 2004, 16)

The free and harmonious development of human beings was taken by socialists to be incompatible with a capitalist society because it is a social system in which, to quote Errico Malatesta, “a few individuals have hoarded the land and all the instruments of production and can impose their will on the workers, in such a fashion that instead of producing to satisfy people’s needs and with these needs in view, production is geared towards making a profit for the employers.” (Malatesta 2005, 32) For Emma Goldman this social system “condemns millions of people to be mere nonentities, living corpses without originality or power of initiative, human machines of flesh and blood who pile up mountains of wealth for others and pay for it with a gray, dull, and wretched existence for themselves.” (Goldman 1996, 50). The wage labourer, as Marx argued, “does not confirm himself in his work, he denies himself, feels miserable instead of happy, deploys no free physical and intellectual energy, but mortifies his body and ruins his mind.” (Marx 2000, 88)

The achievement of true human development therefore requires the abolition of capitalism. Its replacement, socialism, is to be a society in which the communal ownership of the means of production provides each individual with the real possibility to flourish. In Henri Saint-Simon’s words the goal of socialism is “to afford to all members of society the greatest possible opportunity for the development of their faculties.” (Quoted in Lebowitz 2006, 13) Or as Bakunin phrased it, the goal of the socialist revolution is to “ensure that all who are born on this earth become fully human in the fullest sense of the word, that all should have not just the right but the means necessary to develop their faculties, to be free and happy, in equality and through fraternity!” (Bakunin 2016, 100)

This same emphasis on human development can be seen in Marx and Engels. Engels writes in his Draft of a Communist Confession of Faith that the aim of a communist society is “[t]o organise society in such a way that every member of it can develop and use all his capabilities and powers in complete freedom and without thereby infringing the basic conditions of this society.” (Engels 1847) This was re-formulated in the Communist Manifesto as the notion that communism is “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” (Marx and Engels 2008, 66) Communism is a society in which, as Marx wrote in the Grundrisse, the “development of all human powers as such [is] the end in itself” since each individual is able to achieve the “absolute working-out of his creative potentialities”. (Marx 1993, 488)

If human development is at the core of why socialists advocate the abolition of capitalism in favour of socialism, then it follows that the actual reason why socialists should advocate and engage in the abolition of non-economic forms of oppression is that doing so enables real human beings to develop themselves more fully. Racism, sexism, queerphobia and ableism not only maintain or interact with capitalism but also stifle human development in just the same way that capitalism does. The socialist objection to racism therefore is not only that it prevents working class unity but also that a pre-condition for the human development of people of colour is them not being subordinated and marginalised on the basis of their skin colour. Or socialists should oppose queerphobia because a pre-condition for the human development of queers is them being free to develop themselves as sexual and gendered beings, rather than being forced by bigotry to suppress and attack a core aspect of their humanity. Marx famously defined the “true realm of freedom” as the “development of human powers as an end in itself” and this realm cannot be said to exist if it does not include the development of gay powers and the satisfaction of gay needs. (Marx 1991, 959) The consequence of this is that unless socialists abolish non-economic forms of oppression then they will never achieve their actual main goals of human emancipation and human development. Non-economic issues are, far from being unrelated to socialist politics, absolutely integral to it.

Bibliography

Bakunin, Mikhail. 1973. Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings. Edited by Arthur Lehning. Jonathan Cape.
Bakunin, Mikhail. 2016. Bakunin: Selected Texts 1868-1875. Edited by A W Zurbrugg. Anarres Editions
Engels, Friedrich. 1847. Draft of a Communist Confession of Faith.
Goldman, Emma. 1996. Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader, 3rd Edition. Humanities Press
Lebowitz, Michael. 2006. Build It Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century. Monthly Review Press
Malatesta, Errico. 2005. At The Café: Conversations on Anarchism. Freedom Press
Marx, Karl. 1991. Capital: Volume III. Penguin Books
Marx, Karl. 1993. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft). Penguin Books
Marx, Karl. 2000. Selected Writings. Edited by David McLellan. Oxford University Press.
Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich. 2008. The Manifesto of the Communist Party. Pluto Press
Rocker, Rudolf. 2004. Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice. AK Press

 

Despair and Being a Feminist

One of the consequences of trying to explain feminism to strangers on the internet is having to deal with a lot of backlash from people who are stuck on autopilot and repeat their anti-feminist or anti-identity politics script, rather than actually engage with what you’ve written. I have to remind myself that if it was easy then patriarchy would have already been abolished.

These experiences of knee-jerk reactions to feminism leads to despair and anguish as I find it difficult to deal with the hostility that people have towards the most basic commitment to genuine human liberation.

To recover from all of this despair I like to read Emma Goldman because I think we can all learn from her remarkable capacity to give zero fucks.  Emma Goldman had to deal with vast amounts of bullshit when she actively supported queer liberation by giving talks on homosexuality and campaigning for Oscar Wild’s freedom when he was imprisoned for having sex with a man. In her autobiography ‘Living My Life’ Goldman writes:

“Censorship came from some of my own comrades because I was treating such “unnatural” themes as homosexuality. Anarchism was already enough misunderstood, and anarchists considered depraved; it was inadvisable to add to the misconceptions by taking up perverted sex-forms, they argued. Believing in freedom of opinion, even if it went against me, I minded the censors in my own ranks as little as I did those in the enemy’s camp. In fact, censorship from comrades had the same effect on me as police persecution; it made me surer of myself, more determined to plead for every victim, be it one of social wrong or of moral prejudice.

The men and women who used to come to see me after my lectures on homosexuality, and who confided to me their anguish and their isolation, were often of finer grain than those who had cast them out. Most of them had reached an adequate understanding of their differentiation only after years of struggle to stifle what they had considered a disease and a shameful affliction. One young woman confessed to me that in the twenty-five years of her life she had never known a day when the nearness of a man, her own father and brothers even, did not make her ill. The more she had tried to respond to sexual approach, the more repugnant men became to her. She had hated herself, she said, because she could not love her father and her brothers as she loved her mother. She suffered excruciating remorse, but her revulsion only increased. At the age of eighteen she had accepted an offer of marriage in the hope that a long engagement might help her grow accustomed to a man and cure her of her “disease.” It turned out a ghastly failure and nearly drove her insane. She could not face marriage and she dared not confide in her fiancé or friends. She had never met anyone, she told me, who suffered from a similar affliction, nor had she ever read books dealing with the subject. My lecture had set her free; I had given her back her self-respect.

This woman was only one of the many who sought me out. Their pitiful stories made the social ostracism of the invert seem more dreadful than I had ever realized before. To me anarchism was not a mere theory for a distant future; it was a living influence to free us from inhibitions, internal no less than external, and from the destructive barriers that separate man from man.”

What I get from this passage is that it is important to remember that we’re not alone in this struggle. So many amazing people before us have fought so hard for feminism and if they could then we can too. We should focus less on the terrible anti-feminism that pervades the internet and society at large. Instead we should remind ourselves of all the gender queer people who have not killed themselves because of feminism, or of all the men who have re-connected with their emotions due to feminism, or all the women who have learned to better accept their bodies due to feminism, or all the women who have embraced their sexuality or discovered their true intellectual worth due to feminism, or all the women who have been able to flee abusive relationships because of feminist run shelters. It is these stories of people liberating themselves from both internal and external forms of oppression that we should fill our consciousnesses with and use them as a source of nourishment in the struggles to come.

 

We Must Bring Socialism to Identity Politics

The political reality is that identity politics, at least within English speaking countries, is far more popular and influential than socialist politics, especially among younger people. Therefore, there exists a large body of people who, while not socialists, are nonetheless politically engaged, understand many of the problems with modern society, such as white supremacy or patriarchy, and value equality and freedom. The problem is that these people generally speaking lack a good understanding of class politics. This can be seen in the fact that they often understand class oppression in terms of classism, such as middle class people talking down to working class people, and don’t advocate worker self-management or the abolition of the state.

The task of socialists in such a political climate is not to try and persuade people to drop identity politics in favour of socialism. This is for two reasons. Firstly, there is a huge amount of good ideas within mainstream identity politics, such as understanding the connection between police brutality and racism, or holding that victims are not to blame for being raped. This goodness is incredibly important when one considers how widespread racism and sexism is in our societies, especially historically. In other words, the problem with liberal identity politics is not the identity politics, but the liberalism. Secondly, critiquing identity politics is not an effective way of persuading people to develop socialist politics. People generally stop listening once you start attacking their core belief system. This is especially true if it is a belief system that they are emotionally invested in, such as a traumatised queer who learned to love herself by spending time on tumblr and reading about liberal feminism.

Reflecting on my own political development I cannot remember many cases in which a critique of my ideas made me change my mind. Instead, what consistently happened was that I read about a new political perspective, found it interesting, thought about the ideas a lot, and gradually over time dropped my previous political beliefs as I began to see flaws in them. I think part of the reason for this is that as you learn about new ideas you transform your mental landscape and become able to understand things you could not before. For example, I didn’t understand queer perspectives on gender until I’d read more widely on feminist views on gender and so understood the larger conceptual framework that queer feminists were coming from. In a similar fashion, it is unsurprising that many liberals do not understand socialist critiques of their politics. To understand these criticisms, they must first have a general understanding of socialist theory. But if they had an understanding of socialist theory then they would themselves be in a position to critique liberal identity politics from a socialist perspective.

Given this, instead of attacking identity politics, socialists should produce socialist identity politics which combines the good elements of mainstream identity politics with a solid class politics based in Marxism or anarchism.  In particular, socialists should show how the core values which underpin identity politics, such as empathy for the oppressed or the belief that people should be free from domination, entail a Marxist or anarchist politics if they are consistently applied. For example, we could argue that if you support black lives matter then you should also support the abolition of the police and prisons. From there we could further argue that the police and prisons play a larger role in perpetuating class society and that, given this, the working class as a whole, regardless of race, has a shared interest in fighting state violence.

On this approach, socialist engagement with liberals consists in telling them the ways in which their politics could be better, rather than attacking them for having bad politics. The idea being that liberal feminists will, when presented with a better and more developed version of identity politics, work out for themselves the flaws with their old politics. Socialists should not expect such a transformation to happen overnight. They must be patient and understand that it takes time for people to learn a whole new approach to politics and to discard previous beliefs in favour of better ones.

To conclude, socialists must bring class politics to identity politics, rather than expecting liberals to drop identity politics in favour of socialism. We must try to blow people’s minds with socialist theory and have interesting conversations with them, rather than using socialist theory as a weapon with which to attack people for having bad politics and thereby prove our inherent superiority and radicalism. We must build a movement, not a sect.

‘Identity Politics Divides The Left’ – A Response

If capitalism is to be overthrown it is essential that a mass working class movement is created and developed during the course of struggle. In other words, the working class must unite and organise together as a class if they are to liberate themselves. Some socialist critics of identity politics argue that given the importance of working class unity, we should reject identity politics because it fragments and dis-unifies the working class. For the purposes of this article, it should be kept in mind that when I speak of identity politics I do not mean terrible liberal feminism or politics which relies on essentialist notions of what it is to be a ‘women’ or ‘gay’. Instead I mean a kind of politics which emerged in the new left and organised along lines of identity, such as being a ‘women’, ‘gay’, or ‘black’, in order to fight the forms of oppression distinct to these groups, such as patriarchy or white supremacy. Given this definition, I have lots of points to make in response to the argument that identity politics is a barrier to working class unity

Point 1.

The fragmentation of left wing social movements which identity politics does cause is not inherent to identity politics, but is rather part of a particular way of doing identity politics. For example, an overzealous call out culture is a harmful feature of many identity politics movements, but you can do identity politics without an overzealous call out culture. This has been demonstrated by discussions within identity politics itself, such as Asam Ahmad’s critique of bad call out culture or this everyday feminism article on calling in as an alternative to calling out. In short, the solution to bad identity politics is not no identity politics, it is good identity politics. Just as the solution to bad bureaucratic unions is good syndicalist unions, rather than no unions.

Point 2.

One of the main reasons why identity politics historically caused division within the left was angry arguments over whose oppression was primary or most important. For example, radical feminists would claim that gender oppression is most important, while black nationalists would argue that racial oppression is most important. This then led in turn to great hostility between different political groups divided along lines of identity. These arguments over whose oppression was primary led to the formation of intersectionality theory, which holds that “oppression cannot be reduced to one fundamental type”. (Collins 2000, 18) According to intersectionality, systems of oppression are not distinct separate entities that interact with one another. Instead, systems of oppression interlock and intersect with one another to form a totality which is greater than the sum of its parts. For example, racism and sexism as they really exist in our society are not separate social structures which interact, but are instead inter-twinned to such an extent that one cannot be separated from the other. Given this, “all struggles against domination are necessary components for the creation of a liberatory society. It is unnecessary to create a totem pole of importance out of social struggles and suggest that some are “primary” while others are “secondary” or “peripheral” because of the complete ways that they intersect and inform one another.” (Shannon and Rogue 2009)

Point 3.

The formation of women only, or lesbian only, or black only etc groups do not in and of themselves fragment the left. Such groups can be formed but be part of wider organisations, such as the IWW’s African people’s caucus, or can form alliances and co-operate with other organisations and movements, such as the black panthers being a black only group but organising with other working class movements, or black lives matter organising with Fight for 15.

Point 4.

If you are concerned with the fragmentation of left wing social movements then there is a lot more to be concerned about than identity politics. Historically the primary driver of fragmentation within the left has been tactical disputes, such as those between anti-state socialists and state socialists, and different splits within left wing organisations. The history of the UK left in the 20th century, for example, is a history of a huge number of splits within communist parties which has led to the formation of a myriad of organisations who have almost exactly the same name and spend most of their time arguing with one another. Despite this history, I do not see socialist critics of identity politics arguing that Trotskyism or Maoism fragments the working class and so should be rejected.

Point 5.

Capitalism is not the only oppressive structure. We live in a society which is patriarchal, racist, queerphobic and ableist. As a result of this, the working class is not an amorphous blob but is divided along lines of gender, race, sexuality, and disability. These divisions are not merely the product of the capitalist class dividing the working class. They are actively perpetuated by the working class themselves through the process of different working class people oppressing one another, such as straight workers attacking gay workers when they hold hands in public, or working class men sexually harassing working class women.

These structures of domination in turn produce identities among the oppressed and link these identities to negative self-conceptions, such as racism producing the notion of black identity and the notion that black skin is unattractive or that black people are inherently criminal. In reaction to this, oppressed groups construct positive notions of group identity, such as ‘black is beautiful’ or ‘black girl magic’, and through doing so un-learn the internalisation of their oppression. People not subject to systemic oppression on the basis of their gender, race, sexuality or ability often do not understand the importance of these positive group identities because they have not gone through their life being othered and oppressed on the basis of these features. When you have been, say, taught through violence and oppression to hate your sexuality, then you might understand why it is important to someone’s sense of self that they are gay and proud.

Given this reality, working class unity cannot take the form of differences of gender, sexuality, race, and ability being ignored. Most obviously, if we ignore these differences, then we are not in a position to understand oppressive behaviour that occurs within the left or society at large. We will merely see one human being oppressing another human being and thereby ignore the more important reality of a man oppressing a women and thereby perpetuating patriarchy.

Furthermore, ignoring the distinctiveness of marginalised groups because we are all human beings does not, under present conditions, result in a humanistic utopia. It results in cis, or straight, or white, or male people presenting themselves as the default human being or worker and so mistaking their experiences, interests and outlooks for universally human or working class experiences, interests and outlooks. If we are to abolish patriarchy, racism, queerphobia, and ableism then we must acknowledge and prioritise the distinct experiences, outlooks, and interests of marginalised groups, rather than assuming that cis, straight, white or male people speak for the whole of the human family or the whole of the working class.

This is a lesson which much of feminism has already learned. The reason why so much contemporary feminism emphasizes multiple forms of oppression is that historically the feminist movement had a tendency to equate womanhood with the particular experiences, outlooks, and identities of middle class, cis, straight, white women.  For example, in her book ‘The Feminine Mystique’ Betty Friedan, “made her plight and the plight of white women like herself synonymous with a condition affecting all American women”. Her famous phrase, “the problem that has no name” does not, as it is often alleged, describe the condition of all women in this society but instead refers “to the plight of a select group of college-educated, middle- and upper-class, married white women – housewives bored with leisure, with the home, with children, with buying products, who wanted more out of life.” (Hooks 2015, 1-2) If feminism has been attempting to be inclusive to differences of class, race, gender and sexuality within a women’s movement, then socialism must likewise attempt to be inclusive to such differences within a workers’ movement.

Point 6.

Socialist critics of identity politics should be weary of confusing unity with silencing and side lining. In practice, what is often considered to be working class unity is in fact cis-straight white men running the show and claiming to be acting in the interests of the working class, while at the same time oppressing women, people of colour, queers and the disabled. This false unity is then viewed as the default setting and resistance to this state of affairs is labelled as divisive and a breakdown of unity. To see things this way is to take the point of view of the oppressor, such as a cis-man viewing the creation of women only spaces as exclusionary and divisive. When of course, from the point of view of women it is cis-men claiming that women only spaces are sexist which causes division. In other words, a key source of division on the left is marginalised people being oppressed in the spaces which should be fighting for their liberation.

It is therefore bizarre that socialists who are critical of identity politics spend far more time attacking identity politics than the sexism, racism, ableism and queerphobia which permeates the left. For example, left wing organisations lacking good procedures to deal appropriately with sexual assault or sexual harassment accusations is a serious problem which causes far more division than women loudly complaining about rape culture and sexual violence within the left.

Point 7.

The left will not be able to build a truly mass working class movement without the participation of women, people of colour, queers and the disabled. Therefore, the left must ensure that its practices are inclusive and do not push away people from these groups. After all, women, for example, will not remain active within socialist organisations if they consistently experience sexism within these organisations, or have their emancipatory goals dismissed as un-important. Unsurprisingly, one of the main reasons behind the formation of women only, or lesbian only, or black only political groups which are separate from the wider left has and continues to be experiences of oppression and exclusion within left wing organisations and movements.

Given this, one of the main factors fragmenting left wing movements is a) the existence of patriarchy, racism, ableism and queerphobia within the left in particular and society in general, and (b) the failure of left wing movements to take these forms of oppression seriously. Therefore, if one was concerned with preventing the fragmentation of the left, one’s primary concern would be working to end oppression within left wing movements themselves and ensuring that left wing movements place importance on the emancipation of all of humanity from all structures of domination. Doing so creates a situation in which marginalised groups feel included and are therefore far less likely to leave movements or organisations due to experiences of oppression and marginalisation.

Point 8.

Throughout this piece I have been arguing for the importance of constructing a unity which respects difference. I think this notion has already been beautifully expressed by the Martiniquean poet Aimé Césaire in his 1956 resignation letter to the French Communist Party. He wrote,

“I am not burying myself in a narrow particularism. But neither do I want to lose myself in an emaciated universalism. There are two ways to lose oneself: walled segregation in the particular or dilution in the universal.

My conception of the universal is that of a universal enriched by all that is particular, a universal enriched by every particular: the deepening and coexistence of all particulars.” (Césaire 2010, 152)

I could not have put it better myself.

Bibliography

Césaire, Aimé. 2010. Letter to Maurice Thorez. Social Text 103, Vol. 28, No. 2
Collins, Patricia Hill. 2000. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Routledge.
Hooks, Bell. 2015. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Routledge.
Shannon, Deric and Rogue, J. Refusing to Wait: Anarchism and Intersectionality.

Forgotten Radicals: The Anarcha-Feminists of Women’s Voice

One of the depressing features of historic anarchist movements is insufficient attention being given to women’s emancipation. When attention was given, it often came in the form of not very good articles or pamphlets written about women’s emancipation by men, instead of by women. For example, a 1901 article published in ‘The Rebel’ states that “Woman should be free, completely free—to think, to work and to love, but always sheltered and safeguarded by man.” (Suriano 2010, p95) This often went alongside the view that the main role for women as revolutionaries was to be a radical housewife. Their task was to ensure that the home was a “coveted paradise of love, the charm of our ideals” and that children were taught to hate religion, nationalism, and the state and thereby prepared to be the revolutionaries of the future. (Ibid, p96) The patriarchal gendered division of labour remained, albeit in service to radical rather than bourgeois ends. While in theory anarchists were opposed to patriarchy, marriage, and the nuclear family, in practice such ideals were postponed till after the revolution. In the meantime, women were expected to accept their fate as victims of male domination.

Several women, unsurprisingly, reacted angrily to the sexism within the anarchist movement. One of the best examples is the Argentinian newspaper called ‘women’s voice’. The paper, which was written explicitly by and for women, held that women were the most oppressed in contemporary society because they faced the dual oppression of capitalism and patriarchy. The first issue of women’s voice was published January 8th, 1896. The newspaper ran for a year, released nine issues, and printed between 1,000 and 2,000 copies per issue. (Molyneux 1986, p132, 124, 130)

Women’s voice first editorial read,

fed up as we are with so many tears and so much misery; fed up with  the never ending drudgery of children (dear though they are); fed up with asking and begging; of being a plaything  for our infamous exploiters  or vile husbands, we have decided  to raise our voices in the concert of society and demand, yes, demand our bit of pleasure in the banquet of life. (Molyneux 1986, p126)

The response by the anarchist movement to the first issue ranged from praise, to silence, to hostility. (Molyneux 1986, p126). In the second issue, the editors of women’s voice responded to men critical of their paper in no uncertain terms. They wrote,

When we women, unworthy and ignorant as we are, took the initiative and published women’s voice, we should have known, Oh modern rogues, how you would respond with your old mechanistic philosophy to our initiative. You should have realized that we stupid women have initiative and that is the product of thought. You know-we also think . . . The first number of women’s voice appeared and of course, all hell broke loose: “Emancipate women?  For what?” “Emancipate women?  Not on your nelly!” . . . “Let our emancipation come first, and then, when we men are emancipated and free, we shall see about yours.” (Molyneux 1986, p128)

The writers of women’s voice proceeded to label sexist men who opposed women’s liberation as “false anarchists” who only wanted to have a “submissive compañera” at their side to raise their children, cook their food, and do their laundry. “To you,” they said, “a woman is nothing more than a pretty piece of furniture”. Such men “better understand once and for all that our mission is not reducible to raising your children and washing your clothes and that we also have a right to emancipate ourselves and to be free from all kinds of tutelage, whether economic or marital.” Perhaps best of all, the angry anarcha-feminists of women’s voice threatened to go to the homes of sexist anarchist men and reveal to their wife and family that they were “all a bunch of chickens and crabs who talk about freedom but only want it for themselves.” (Suriano 2010, p95)

This opposition to patriarchy, both within the movement and society at large, stemmed from the anti-authoritarianism of these women. As issue 4 of women’s voice phrases it, “We hate authority because we aspire to be human beings and not machines directed by the will of ‘another,’ be this authority, religion, or any other name.” A supporter of women’s voice aptly labelled authority by any other name when she signed herself, “No God, No Boss, No Husband.” (Molyneux 1986, p129)

Bibliography

Molyneux, Maxine. 1986. No God, No Boss, No Husband: Anarchist Feminism in Nineteenth-Century Argentina. Latin American Perspectives, Issue 48, Vol.13, No.1, p119-145 (for summary see)

Suriano, Juan. 2010. Paradoxes of Utopia: Anarchist Culture and Politics in Buenos Aires, 1890-1910. AK Press.

 

Abolishing Capitalism Won’t Abolish Patriarchy

People often claim that abolishing capitalism would abolish patriarchy. This argument usually rests on a particular way of thinking about the relationship between the economy and the rest of society. I’ll call this way of thinking economic determinism.

According to economic determinism, society consists of two distinct and separate levels. The economic base and the superstructure. The economic base consists of forces of production, meaning a given society’s technology and particular human capacities to produce particular things, and relations of production, meaning the social relationships through which these processes of production occur, such as wage labour. The superstructure is all other aspects of society, which includes forms of consciousness and in certain societies a legal and political superstructure, that is, a state or government and the accompanying legal apparatus. The content of the superstructure is primarily determined by the content of the economic base in general and the dominant mode of production in particular.  These determinations largely take the form of the economic base shaping the superstructure such that the superstructure enables the reproduction of the economic base. The superstructure does also determine the economic base but the economic base is nonetheless primary.

On this view, patriarchy is a component of the superstructure and therefore (a) is primarily determined by the economic base and (b) is constituted so as to enable the reproduction of the economic base. For example, women engage in unpaid domestic labour because it ensures the reproduction of the working class, such as husbands having food cooked for them, or children, who are future workers, being produced and raised. Since this work is unpaid it means that capitalists do not have to pay the full cost of the reproduction of the working class and so can make more profit. Or, working class men abuse their wives because they are alienated and oppressed under capitalism. They take out their frustration and anger on their wives, instead of on the bosses.

It is then thought that if patriarchy rests on the foundation of the capitalist economy, then removing capitalism will result in the abolition of patriarchy. After all, if patriarchy performs the function of reproducing capitalism, then removing capitalism will remove patriarchy because a socialist society won’t require patriarchy to reproduce itself. This usually goes alongside the narrative that patriarchy emerged from class society, therefore if we abolish class society we’ll abolish patriarchy.

There are several things wrong with economic determinism.

Argument One

The economy is not a foundation for all other social relations such that removing the foundation gets rid of the other social relations. Instead it sets the parameters in which other social relations exist because social organisation is contingent upon what is compatible with the daily reproduction of human beings. The economic base’s primacy should therefore be understood in terms of the economic base simultaneously enabling superstructures to take particular forms and imposing boundaries on what forms superstructures can take.

The economic base enables the superstructure to take particular forms because certain degrees of development of the productive forces and certain forms of relations of production are required for any given institutional component of a superstructure to exist. For example, a modern state is historically contingent upon the forces and relations of production that render such a social institution possible in the first place, such as modern telecommunications or railways.

The boundaries that the economic base imposes on the superstructure consist in the scope of possible forms the superstructure can take without significantly impeding upon the reproduction of the economic base. The consequence of these boundaries is that the superstructure cannot alter past a certain point unless the economic base does. The economic base imposes these boundaries upon the superstructure because a pre-requisite for the reproduction of the superstructure is the reproduction of the economic base, since a society will not last long without the production of items such as food or clothing, or without the maintenance of its infrastructure. This is what Marx is referring to when he writes in volume 1 of Capital that, “the Middle Ages could not live on Catholicism, nor could the ancient world on politics. On the contrary it is the manner in which they gained their livelihood which explains why in one case politics, and in the other case Catholicism, played the chief part.” (Marx 1990, p176) A core boundary imposed on the superstructure is the requirement that the superstructure contain those elements which the economic base needs for its reproduction, such as capitalism requiring a superstructure that enforces private property rights.

As the economic base and the superstructure develop they come into conflict with one another. There are two primary kinds of conflict. Firstly, the economic base develops in a direction which creates a new configuration of boundaries. This in turn exerts pressure on the superstructure to change in order to guarantee its reproduction. Secondly, the superstructure develops in a manner that is incompatible with the existing boundaries imposed by the economic base and thereby impedes or prevents the reproduction of the economic base. The conflict between the superstructure and the economic base will result in either an alteration to the superstructure such that it fits within the boundaries imposed by the economic base, or an alteration to the economic base such that it no longer places limits on the superstructure’s present development. These changes can take the form of either a modification to an existing social structure, or a transition to a whole new social structure.

The question which socialists must be asking is therefore ‘is patriarchy compatible with the boundaries that a socialist society creates?’. My answer to this question is yes, patriarchy is compatible with socialism. There is nothing inherent to worker self-management or the collective ownership of the means of production which prevents the existence of sexism and the domination of women, trans and non-binary people. This can be seen in the fact that patriarchy continued to be a massive problem during the Russian and Spanish revolutions, despite them establishing workers control on a large scale. It can be seen today within left wing movements that are patriarchal despite the fact that they organise through direct democracy and so prefigure the organisational forms of a socialist society. Therefore, abolishing capitalism won’t force patriarchy to end. Instead patriarchy will be mediated through different economic relations. You’ll have worker self-management but women will still be raped and abused. You’ll have direct democracy but men will still do all the talking. You’ll have the people’s microphone but survivors of rape won’t be believed.

Argument Two

The fact that x performs the function of contributing to the reproduction of y, does not entail that removing y will remove x. X can contribute to the reproduction of y without the reproduction of x necessarily requiring the reproduction of y. X can have its own means for reproducing itself. Patriarchy is such a social structure. Its reproduction is not contingent upon the reproduction of capitalism, despite the role it plays in reproducing capitalism. Rather patriarchy is reproduced via such things as abusive relationships, socialisation into gender roles, sexist stereotypes, people mirroring sexist behaviour they see growing up, lack of positive representations of women in art and so on. There are of course certain elements of contemporary patriarchy which do require capitalism. Sexist advertising for example can only exist if you have advertising in the first place. But this is not true of countless other examples, such as women scientists not being covered in science documentaries, or women being excluded from gaming culture.

This same point also applies to the argument that since class society produced patriarchy it follows that ending class society will end patriarchy. Patriarchy can be initially produced by class society, but come to develop its own mechanisms of reproduction which are self-supporting and do not require the existence of class society to function. While certain features of contemporary patriarchy may require the existence of class society, such as the gender roles which are specific to the ruling class, patriarchy as a whole does not require the existence of class society. In short, patriarchy has, like Dr Frankenstein’s monster, taken on a life of its own.

Argument Three

In the ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ Marx asks us to consider human life in terms of “sensuous human activity”. Marx is asking us to consider human beings concretely as real embodied people with consciousness who engage in activity, have experiences, and think about things. The danger of abstract models, such as the base/superstructure metaphor, is that we can get caught up with the model and lose sight of what the model was meant to be describing, namely, real human beings. We must therefore understand that social structures do not exist as real physical structures like buildings. They are just a conceptual tool for thinking about the web of social relations which real human beings produce and live within during the course of their existence.

To say that capitalism has been abolished is to say that social structures have been altered such that people now encounter one another through socialist social relations. This in turn translates to people’s real daily experiences having changed from experiences of capitalism to experiences of socialism. Therefore, if we are to imagine the abolition of capitalism we must do so not only from the point of view of an abstract model, but also from the point of view of real people and their first person conscious experience. A person who has been raised to be a sexist, lives in a sexist society, and engages in sexist behaviour, won’t magically stop being sexist because capitalism has been abolished. They won’t wake up the day after the revolution and suddenly find that they no longer think women are sex objects and no longer want to beat their wife. They won’t suddenly stop being condescending to women or stop shouting sexual harassment at strangers in the street. Rather they’ll wake up and go to their job at a worker controlled art gallery and pick up some food from the worker controlled supermarket during their lunch break. They’ll know how to make decisions democratically and be happy that they no longer have a boss. What won’t change from the end of capitalism is their sexism.

If abolishing capitalism won’t abolish patriarchy, what will? The answer is conscious feminist struggle against patriarchy, which is not reducible to the struggle against capitalism because we’re struggling against a distinct set of social structures. If we want to create a free world, we must struggle against all forms of domination simultaneously. What we need, in short, is intersectional class struggle.

Bibliography

Marx, Karl (1990). Capital Volume 1. Penguin
Marx, Karl. Theses on Feurbach