Among the great new bunch of political friends we have been making recently is the excellent Australian-based Marxist gender-critical site, Freer Lives. So we asked the comrade who set up that blog to write something for Redline on the blog, himself, his analysis of the rise of gender politics and its connections to postmodernism, neoliberalism, the retreat of the working class and the way forward. Here’s his response. (Oh, yes – and we really, really highly recommend Freer Lives, a powerful addition to both Marxism and gender-critical theory!)
by Freer Lives
Earlier this month Redline ran a piece introducing my blog Freer Lives, a socialist critique of gender ideology, and reposted the start of one of my articles with an accompanying link – many thanks. Gender-critical Marxists are currently scattered, so I think there is a great need for more dialogue to analyse the trans trend and discuss how to deal with it. As a contribution, here are some of the arguments made on my blog.
What is “transgender”?
In essence, trans people are simply those who adopt some of the conventional looks, roles and habits of the other sex in their everyday life. Such people have existed since confining sex roles first emerged in the remote past. The “gender identity” they feel or “know” is grounded in the sex stereotypes they have experienced/observed and internalised over a lifetime. This is not to deny the complex personal and psychological elements that come into play at an individual level, nor does it deny the wide variation of types among trans people, such as young women seeking to escape sex role pressures, older male fetishists, and people who just want to live ordinary quiet lives as a member of the other sex.
The transgender trend is contradictory
Trans people challenge the centuries-old and still-powerful idea that sexual biology destines women and men to particular roles, competencies and attitudes. Considered in isolation, this challenge is progressive. It also exposes trans individuals to discrimination and violence, and sometimes political attacks from right-wing bigots who often also attack same-sex attracted people and abortion rights.
But these sex-role-defying people are almost always understood via gender ideology, a sexist belief system. The mystical idea of “gender identity” naturalises and eternalises the oppressive sex stereotypes faced by women and turns discontent with these stereotypes into a minority concern. This ideology was developed mainly by sections of the US medical profession, and was later taken under the wing of postmodern academia. It was then mainstreamed by the corporate media, which has emphasised its sexist and conservative features. This ruling class support defines the transgender phenomenon and ensures that its conservative features predominate.
The bourgeoisie and women
The ruling class backs gender ideology because it helps them address a key problem they face with regard to working class women. The bosses are addicted to women’s unpaid labour looking after today’s, tomorrow’s and yesterday’s wage slaves free of charge, mainly in the family home. This role becomes more not less important to bosses as the welfare state erodes. Women’s willingness to bear this burden has rested historically on their self-image as inferior, natural nurturers. But after World War 2 capitalism increasingly drew women into the paid workforce, where they have seen that they are equal to men and not all that different. So the bosses need an updated sexism. They have backed a middle-class, glass-ceiling, individualised version of feminism – an uneasy and incomplete solution. Gender ideology has added an important prop to this shaky structure: a cool new sexism with impeccably progressive credentials.
However, gender ideology’s benefit to the bourgeoisie accrues almost entirely from its core concept of gender identity. The bosses benefit far less from the practical applications of the ideology, such as transwomen’s intrusion into women’s spaces, or childhood transitioning. In fact these practical issues can annoy the bosses: they involve the despised political left, they generate calls for costly public subsidies for surgery, they cause trouble, and risk antagonising wide layers of women, which would undo the whole value of gender ideology for the bosses.
The result is a two-tier response from the ruling class, and from the political right which follows it. The central concept of gender identity is supported by both liberal and conservative sections of the corporate mass media and other neoliberal institutions. But at the same time the more right wing sections of the corporate media attack some of its practical applications, such as “politically correct” school programs, intrusions into women’s spaces, and the harassment of opponents. Right-of-centre liberals share some of these concerns, particularly around free speech and violations of children. Both groups sense a chance to win left-liberal gender critics away from their historical allegiances. Of course, this right wing resistance to aspects of gender ideology only reinforces support for it within the pro-gender left.
The pro-gender left
The liberal and far left have both largely capitulated to gender sexism. One reason is that the secondary, progressive element of the trans trend can obscure its underlying attack on women. Gender ideology also fits neatly into identity politics: the material identities of being black or lesbian/gay, say, are equated with an imaginary but socially endorsed “gender identity”. And once you swallow the notion that people have such mystical inner essences, then questioning them becomes a deep personal violation of trans individuals. And of course left liberals are also heavily influenced by the liberal corporate media.
But the Marxist left has also abandoned women’s rights on this issue. Why? A key reason is the weakening and demoralising impact of four decades of neoliberalism. The far left’s best sections look to the self-activity of the working class, but strike levels have remained at incredibly low levels for an incredible length of time. As a result they have depended heavily on the identity politics milieu for influence, recruitment and new cadre, which has led to a creeping corruption of their own traditions. Aggravating this problem has been Marxists’ limited attention to postmodernism and its toxic effect on the wider left: its irrationalism and its hostility to materialism and humanism all laid the groundwork for gender ideology.
How do we respond?
Under all the heated exchanges between trans activists and gender critical feminists, the trans phenomenon is fundamentally an attack on women by the capitalist class. Our first duty is to defend women, support the battle being waged by gender critical women’s liberationists, and expose the underlying class nature of the trans trend. This also means differentiating ourselves from right wing critics of gender ideology. A second task is to defend the right of people to adopt the roles of the other sex in defiance of old fashioned biology-is-destiny sexism. These tasks involve sharp debate with the pro-gender left and dialogue with gender critical feminists who have a different analysis of women’s oppression.
I was in the Australian section of the International Socialist (British SWP-aligned) Tendency during the 1980s and some of the 1990s. Like many others I became somewhat burnt out by lack of progress. I moved to the sidelines, but had no political differences until gender ideology emerged. Then I watched with increasingly perplexed horror as the group, along with most of the far left, crossed the class line on this issue. I set up Freer Lives in 2016. I tweet as @svyazhsk.