by Deirdre O’Neill
Under Thatcher and then Blair and continuing up until our contemporary moment, the working class has seen its culture slowly and progressively destroyed. The change from an industrial society to a service society produced a marked shift in focus from the working class as the backbone of the country to the image of a feral underclass responsible for their own poverty. Correspondingly their collective struggle has been eroded and its place filled by the middle class adherence to the politics of identity –a concentration on single issues that celebrate difference and refuses to recognize or engage with the continuing injuries of class.
One of the consequences of the massive changes that have taken place in working class life over the last forty years of neo-liberalism has been the erasure of class-consciousness and the loss of the language of class as an analytical framework within which to articulate and make sense of those changes.
The working class has been cut adrift from any political party who would speak on their behalf and have been abandoned by academia, one of their traditional intermediaries. The middle class, who prefer the comfort of individualistic identity politics, has rushed into a public sphere that has systematically and strategically excluded the working class and which has narrowed to include only those who share an establishment view – even if their voices are ‘dissenting’ ones. As a consequence radical struggle has been reformulated and the working class rendered invisible as a political category increasingly known only through their appearances on reality TV shows or game shows where they are represented bereft of any history or agency. They serve the purpose of providing a spectacle and reinforcing middle class prejudices while at the same time the political agenda of derision and irrelevance is smuggled in under the guise of entertainment.
This degradation of the public sphere which is now almost exclusively dominated by a privately-educated Oxbridge elite who publish each other, podcast each other, interview each other and share each others’ views, is nowhere more blatant than in this exclusion of the working class. What we now have is a public culture of self-serving careerists whose obsession with their own status, individual concerns, personal anxieties and multiple claims to oppressed identities, make it ideologically impossible for them to connect with wider political issues.
The growth of idealism and the denial of material reality have offered for some on the middle class left a pseudo-version of political radicalism. For them the struggle for change is no longer grounded in the politics of class nor do they acknowledge the working class as the potential initiators of change. Demands for equality are not rooted in an understanding of how the system operates structurally to deny any meaningful opposition to the current brutal society in which we live. If the people who are considered to be the ‘left’ in public life are mostly privileged Russell group graduates who have never experienced struggle, it is imperative we consider the impact that this will have on the fight for a different world and what that different world might look like.
There is evidence of an increasing accommodation to a narrow neo-liberalism intent on monetizing all aspects of our lives within a public sphere constantly undermined by a marketing-led ethos concentrated on creating groups of consumers and where declaring your ‘communism’ on television programmes is just another marketing opportunity, destined to become a slogan on a tee-shirt to be sold via your website.
In the light of this it’s difficult not to consider the rapid rise of transgender ideology, and its concomitant activism enthusiastically embraced by the middle class left, to be connected to the dismantling of radical politics over the last 40 years and the demoralization and feelings of defeat it has engendered.
Transgender activism has presented the privileged with an opportunity to ignore questions of class inequality while at the same time allowing some the opportunity to perform a superficial radicalism and progressiveness. As a result we have recently witnessed the spectacle of working class women in prison being assaulted by a person with a penis (ie a man) being ignored and, in some cases, his behavior excused so that the man’s status as a trans woman can be defended. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-leeds-44877856. In the process there has been a normalizing of the unequal treatment of working class women and an entrenchment of their marginalisation. There is no starker example of the absolute disdain in which middle class social justice warriors hold the working class.
Rather than discuss the injustice of imprisoning some of the most damaged and vulnerable people in our society whose ‘crimes’ are mostly related to their poverty, we have the ‘left’ clammoring for the right of men to be housed alongside them in prison. As for the consequences — working class women are just collateral damage. The callous indifference to the needs of, in this case, working class women is exactly in line with the neo-liberal strategy of demonizing and ignoring the unemployed, the disabled, food bank users, those on zero-hour contracts, etc.
The transgender movement demands a rejection of biological reality. Any attempt to discuss the mantra ‘trans women are women’ is met with social media bullying, attempts to prevent women meeting to discuss the issue and threats of violence both from those men who demand to be accepted as women and the people who support them in this demand.
It is not the women who toil in the sweatshops of ‘developing’ countries that the transgender activists wish to ‘transition’ to; rather it is the objectified successful bourgeois women that they aim to be. The reality for working class women of negotiating the institutional and personal power struggles in which their lives are embedded is not part of the appeal for men who claim to be women. On the contrary, as in all other areas of life, working class women are treated as unimportant or ignored as the example of the prison makes clear.
There is something very terrifyingly fragile about our commitment to reasoned debate if we can so nonchalantly cast aside facts such as our biological constitution. There is something hopelessly naïve if we think we can cast off deep socialization processes by a simple declaration such as ‘I’m a women’ by a man. There is something suspiciously familiar, the definite whiff of misogyny, in the determination to deny the violence that men perpetuate against men and against women, and the safeguards that women therefore need against men (who, after all, is doing the ‘upskirting’?).
If anyone can be anything they want just by saying it, where does that leave us? What kind of foundation is there to build on? If you #arewhatyousayyouare where does that leave those of us fighting for a better world? It leaves us nowhere – social, historical knowledge, institutional struggle and cultural experience becomes meaningless. The way in which our lives are shaped by structures over which we often have little control cannot be articulated or resisted. The propagation of the notion of a female essence renders at a stroke unnecessary the history of the struggles women have been involved in for their right to live independent autonomous lives –there’s no ‘wrong side of history’ when you can just ignore its existence.
There has been a glaring refusal on the part of the left to come to terms with the question of transgenderism and its impact on women – and by women I mean people who belong to the sex-class that has ovaries and is able to give birth. The levels of groupthink necessary to keep this ship afloat, the self-censorship, the intimidation, the blatant dishonesty, the denial of debate with howls of ‘transphobia’ point to a left in deep crisis. The middle class-dominated left has abandoned its obligation to critically engage, to clarify and to lead on the political issues of the day. Instead it has simply accepted the terms of the debate put forward by the trans militants (including their really basic conflation of sex and gender).
This failure is rooted in the left’s acceptance of identity politics with its assumption that how a group (or the primary definers within a group) articulates its oppression is the last word on the matter. Yet it is clear that one group’s identity and its claims may easily clash with the claims and identity of another group. Identity politics has no way of negotiating these conflicting claims. In the end the group that can mobilise the most power is the group that will have its claims prevail. In its catastrophic alignment with what is clearly a men’s rights movement, the left has chosen to side with the powerful over the less powerful, men over women, and the middle class over working class women – and it is they in particular who will bear the brunt of trans rights as currently formulated.
The closing down of the complexities of this discussion with the mantra ‘transwomen are women’ is profoundly undemocratic. In a properly functioning democracy the concerns of everyone would be included in an open and transparent discussion. Instead, critical thinking is relabeled ‘transphobia’, even basic facts are now apparently a sign of Trump-leaning tendencies (thereby ensuring that the Right will own this issue, because the left cannot sensibly discuss it).
Rather than fighting for us all to transition to a fairer, more equal society, the social justice warriors focus on the right of men to adopt the stereotypes that most women have long ago rejected. Rather than fight to create something new, trans ideology recycles old tropes of femininity (‘lady brains’ -really?) and claims them as progressive. Rather than considering ways of radically changing the roles of both men and women, we are being told that the stereotypes women have fought against are actually real and can be appropriated by men to ‘prove’ they are women.
The proposed Gender Recognition Act currently under consultation would allow a system of self-identification where changing ‘gender’ is simply a case of signing a form, so that biological males will be legally allowed to identify as women. Even the very title of the proposed Act demonstrates how our policy-makers have made a fundamental conflation between gender (socially-constructed characteristics of the ‘feminine’ and the ‘masculine’) and biological sex. This in itself shows how deeply controversial the central tenets of trans ideology are and that it is absolutely legitimate and necessary for these ideas to be open to contestation and debate. Unless the left recognizes this, it risks making a historic political mistake.
Deirdre is a lecturer and radical film-maker. Her Film as a Radical Pedagogic Tool (2017) explores the way in which a radical pedagogy of film, grounded in the experiences, class location and everyday realities of the working class, can provide a starting point for a critical engagement with, and a materialist understanding of, how society is organised. She is also co-editor (with Mike Wayne) of Considering Class: Theory, Culture and the Media in the 21st Century (2017). The essay above originally appeared last year on Medium; we thank her for agreeing to us re-blogging it on Redline.