Why now? Historical specificity and the perfect storm that has created trans identity politics

by Phil Duncan

For Marxists, a key concern about social trends is their context – not just their causes, but why they happen when they do.  In other words, events and phenomena have causes, but they also are time or period-specific. The principle of historical specificity or, as Korsch called it, historical specification, is central to Marx’s analysis and permeates Capital.

Let’s take a current social trend.  While much of the left have capitulated recently to postmodernism, most notably in relation to trans identity politics, for Marxists it is helpful to deploy the tool of historical specificity when examining the trans trend, rather than simply taking it for granted, as bourgeois methodology would suggest.  The trans trend is certainly a product of the times, and a kind of perfect storm. So, what set of circumstances exists today that did not exist before that has brought this trend into existence and shaped its development?

Before beginning to answer this, it is important to note that historical specificity works the other way around too.  It allows us to be  on our guard against the kind of ahistorical (and factually untrue) claims that permeate trans politics.  For instance, that trans have always been around, that ‘transwomen’ – ie men claiming to be actual women – initiated the Stonewall rebellion etc.  But men claiming to be actual women are a very new phenomenon.  They were not even at Stonewall, just half-a-century ago.  The men in drag at Stonewall were men in drag: drag queens, cross-dressers, transvestites.  And they were gay.  They did not claim to be actual women.  And the drag queens, such as Marsha P. Johnson, certainly did not claim to be lesbians.  Nor did the ‘butch dykes’ dressed in male ‘drag’, such as Stormé DeLarverie, claim to be male homosexuals!  (On Stonewall, see here.)

Trans and more marketised capitalism

Biological males gate-crashing women’s sport and stealing medals off women is male entitlement, not social progress and liberation.

British trans leftist Miranda Yardley has made the point that the young trans hardcore are a product of the neo-liberal era, arguing that they are the pampered offspring of neo-liberalism.* I think he has a point when it comes to the self-centred “Me, me, me; it’s all about me” narcissism of the trans hardcore. There is a chunk of younger people, many of whom are deluded that they are “anti-capitalist” and especially “anti-neoliberal”, who have totally taken in the ideology of the so-called neo-liberal era, ie the ideology of an especially marketised capitalist ideology.  All the while having no idea of the extent to which they have internalised the “Me, Me, Me” mentality of the more-marketised era.

These folks have even commodified “protest”. They set up protest groups to make a living for themselves. Not for these little bourgeois the silly old days of activism, with stencils and gestetners, grease and grime, and mass leafleting (where you actually came in direct contact with the working class and the wider public), phone trees et al.  Not surprisingly, commodified groups like Rainbow Youth, Action Station and InsideOUT are crucial elements of the trans movement in New Zealand today, and the same phenomena can be found in Britain and other imperialist countries.

A voice of rationalism: trans science teacher Debbie Hayton argues that “transwomen are men”.

At the same time, the old gay liberation movement has been dead a long time.  In its place there arrived a bunch of lobby groups, with access to substantial funds.  Infrastructures were built up, including a whole gay bureaucracy with a vested material interest in continued traveling on the gravy train.  Championing “trans rights” became the mechanism for continuing the gravy train of funds for nice jobs in the LGBT infrastructure and access to the halls of power.  The ‘T’ which had been added to LGB, although it has nothing to do with sexuality, suddenly became the primary concern of the LGBT organisations which were part of the new, professionalised not really gay movement.  This accelerated after gay marriage was won in an increasing number of imperialist countries.

Social media

I’m not suggesting we return to the era of stencils and gestetner leaflets. Social media is a great leap forward. But it’s an aid, not a substitute for building a real movement. And it creates a level of unreality. People hang out online in little clusters that they mistake for society. They have little appreciation that society does not buy, let alone want to swallow, this particular kool-aid. In the real world, most people do not think that Laurel Hubbard is a woman and is entitled to deprive actual women of gold medals in weightlifting competitions or that rapist Karen White is a woman and should be locked up with actual women. Or that trans threats of violence – especially brutal violence – against feminists is acceptable and is some kind of righteous anger of the oppressed against the oppressor; most people see this for what it is. Hideous misogyny.

While the left that has drunk the kool-aid think those of us who decided not to are “isolated”, they are actually living in a bizarre, isolated bubble world where misogyny is fine and solidarity with women’s liberation is “bigotry”.

Individualistic identity

The impact of individualistic identity politics is also a product of a long period of defeat for the working class, certainly in the West (well, in the imperialist heartlands). It is here that identity politics in extremis is most powerful. Old working class communities have broken down with economic restructuring and the decline (in the West) of ‘traditional’ industries.

The old collectivities have fractured and the working class has become much more individuated. All kinds of other identities fill the vacuum. What colour you dye your hair becomes more important to your personal identity than what you do for a crust and how that material reality shapes the rest of your existence on earth.  Or how you individually choose to identify becomes more important than the material reality of your actual human biology.

The struggle for gay and lesbian liberation has been part of the wider struggle for human emancipation. The transgender campaigns, however, are an assault on women’s and gay liberation, and point in the direction of capitalist ‘me, me, me’ self-entitlement.

Another aspect is the pushback against the gains in women’s rights.

Pushback against women’s rights

In recent decades, women have made substantial advances in many areas from job opportunities to reproductive control to more shared situations in domestic labour.  None of these gains have been perfect, inequality remains, but the position of women is substantially better than several generations ago.  Some men resent this and want to put women back in their place. Some men are both resentful and jealous and want to usurp women by claiming to be them.

Now, not only is a layer of men claiming to be women and demanding that every women’s space be open to them, they are even claiming to be lesbians and demanding sexual access to gay women (a bizarre straight men’s fantasy, and one of the things that rather gives the game away on these men).

Exhaustion of capitalism and the conditions for irrationalism

We also live in an era in which capitalism in the West is increasingly exhausted. The long postwar boom, an extended period of immense capitalist prosperity in the imperialist world, ended in the early 1970s and what we have had since is a period of shorter booms and deeper busts. There is no sign of anything like a new protracted boom on the horizon. We are in a period of capitalist decay. Grimly, this coincides with a period of decay and retreat of the working class, so there is a malaise which appears to have no end. There’s no means to rupture the malaise. No social force which seems a goer for ending malaise-ridden capitalism.

Hostility to women’s liberation permeates trans identity politics; misogyny is not part of human liberation.

We are at a point where the conditions for irrationalism are especially strong. And the irrationalism has swept through the left and even through parts of the feminist movement, particularly many young feminists of the early 21st century. Many young leftist males and many young feminists have swallowed the trans lunacy and older leaders of the far left, desperate to recruit and renew their decaying organisations, have gone along with the madness, even when at least some of them know it is nuts.

What happens in such a perfect storm?

From perfect storm to morbid symptoms

The great Italian revolutionary Gramsci, faced with the rapid rise of fascism, which came out of the Italian equivalent of the Labour Party, noted with great insight: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

This is what we are confronted with today: the irrationalism and hysteria of the hardcore trans advocates, and the embrace of the lunacy by desperate sections of the left, are expressions of the morbid symptoms produced today by the decay of capitalism as an economic system, the decay of bourgeois society in general (ie at the cultural-social level) and the absence of a radical working class movement to sweep away what Marx called the “muck of ages”.

We need to regroup those who desire to reassert rationalism, science, materialism and the aim of human emancipation. And human emancipation is, of course, unachievable without women’s liberation.  It is also the polar opposite of self-obsessed, misogynistic, homophobic, trans-identity, “me, me, me” bourgeois politics.

  • Miranda Yardley specifically calls himself he.  Thanks to the people who reminded us that Miranda is he.

9 comments

  1. Your analysis is very interesting, but Gender Politics did not start with capitalism, ie. the idea that men know what a woman is and should be has been around for 4000 years, it is called phallogocentrism. Gender Politics, of which transgender is the latest phenomenon, started with the creation of ‘gender identity’ derived from Gay Politics, ie. homosexuality as a form of ‘gender’ of the male sex (cf. Stoller, Hirshorn, Money etc) extended into transexualism. Gender identity made total sense as a gay form of male sexuality (normatively regarded until then as hetsex). In academia therefore what used to be Feminism became Gender Studies (since the male sex is and remains the norm, ‘gender’ won out). This occurred in the late 1980s, and from then on women, including lesbians, became grouped under ‘gender’ identities, and thus we lost our anatomical specificity as those born female, ie. with unique internally organised reproductive bodies, which meant the death of Feminism. As a marxist feminist since 1970, teaching Marx and Marxism as a feminist philosopher, I always found that the economics of Marx were (and still are) relevant, but it lacks a theory of feminism, which actually inserts women’s unique situational voices in the very ground of its analysis, (ie. there is no marxist theory of reproduction as life giving) and I am not alone, viz Alexandra Kollontai against Lenin, deBeauvoir against socialist theory (women have no class consciousness, because they always already are intimately relate to men as mothers, sisters, daughters, lovers, partners in struggle), Rosa Luxemburg’s problems with the Party etc.etc. So, transpolitics is an extention of the continual erasure of Feminist Thought, and it will continue unless we recognise females as the saviours of life with their labour in reproduction and production on this planet. Sorry, for this long response……, Mia Campioni

    • No problem with the length of the response Mia. Tnanks for it.

      I agree with your point about the 1980s. But crucial to my point is that this *specific trend* dates to then. There was plenty of oppression of women, chauvinism, sexism before then. But this *specific trend* is a product of very new developments, developments specific to this point in history. That doesn’t at all go against your point that there are continuities. (I find, for instance, a lot of woke young men these days have attitudes towards women, and especially around prostitution, that are like something out of the ‘Playboy’ mentality of the 1950s, exemplified by social liberals like Hugh Hefner and Norman Mailer.

      I also agree that women’s oppression predates capitalism. But so does class exploitation. Feudalism and the historical epoch of chattel slavery had both class exploitation and the oppression of women as a sex. These features are not unique to capitalism – but they are unique to *class society*. Engels, after all, noted, that the three key institutions of class society are the family, private property and the state. Various Marxist writers, like Evelyn Reed, noted that the historic downfall of women as a sex coincided with the production of a surplus product and the division of society into classes. These arose about 10,000 years ago (give or take a couple of thousand years) in much, but certainly not all, of the world. A few classless, matriarchal societies survived until quite recently.

      Today, with such a large percentage of the female sex engaged in selling their labour-power in order to survive, the class consciousness of women is crucial to class consciousness overall. It is inconceivable that capitalism could be overthrown by men alone or even by men mainly. The involvement of women in large-scale paid employment has changed the consciousness of women and men dramatically. I think Diane Fieldes’ article on Australia is very interesting in this light: https://rdln.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/the-impact-of-womens-changing-role-in-the-workplace/

      I would argue that historical specificity is an extremely useful tool for analysing all forms of oppression. For instance the exploitation and oppression of both workers as a class and women as a sex takes *historically specific* forms under different overall socio-economic-political systems: chattel slavery, feudalism, capitalism. For instance, both class exploitation and the oppression of women are very different under chattel slavery to how they are under capitalism.

      The best thing I have read that uses historical specificity to analyse the oppression of women is by four British Marxist women, written back in late1976. Olivia Adamson, Carol Brown, Judith Harrison, Judy Price, “Women’s Oppression Under Capitalism”. It took up most of issue #5 of the journal ‘Revolutionary Communist’. https://www.revolutionarycommunist.org/britain/women-s-oppression/2850-women-s-oppression-under-capitalism

  2. This is a good piece and it is free of the conspiracy mongering that many gender-critical leftists buy into and promote.

    • I guess I see that kind of conspiracy theory as another of the morbid symptoms, so I’m certainly in agreement there. Btw, I’d highly recommend Karl Korsch’s book on Karl Marx; the section on historical specification (Korsch’s term) is only half a dozen pages (from memory) but is crucial for ‘getting’ Marx’s method.

  3. Succinct and well put by Phil Duncan. The unholy combo of Post Modernist philosophy and neo liberal individualism, has certainly wreaked havoc in various areas on collectivist methods and class unity.

    For the record, activist Lesbians are some of the staunchest political allies you would ever work with, it is highly unimpressive to see trans activists targeting them.

  4. Agree totally Alec. The misogyny is disgusting and to see a lot of the left enabling it is appalling. In the case of the venom directed at lesbians, it is just sickening. These men hate women who won’t do what they are told but they especially hate lesbians who won’t do what they’re told. That a big section of the left think this “muck of ages” is something that Marxists and women’s liberationists should support indicates what a dire state a lot of the left has reached.

  5. Miranda Yardley is male, so his pronouns are he, him, his. You referred to him as she when discussing HIM. Pronouns in English are sex based and HE is not a SHE. Using those references does not reflect material reality and neither does his use of a female typical name for himself or his identity as a “transsexual” which can only exist as an adoption of female sex stereotypes (gendered expectations.) Transsexual identity simply as made-up as any other “identity”. IDEALISM.

    • Sorry, that was a mistake on my part and fixed by one of the other blog collective members. Several people drew our attention to it. I originally tended to be sympathetic to Germaine Greer’s point about using what pronouns people prefer, simply out of politeness, but you are dead right – we should use the right pronouns. Miranda Yardley is an ascerbic critic of transgender identity politics and trans demands, so I tend to take that into account. MY, of course, does not himself pretend to be a woman.

      I don’t agree that all identities are simply made up. Some are the result of complex historical processes and have a material basis, but that is a discussion for another time. Maybe when this nonsense that sex is a ‘spectrum’ and that a form of magic incanting – ‘transwomen are women’ – makes them so is swept into the dustbin of history where it belongs.

      Anyway, what did you think of the rest of the article?

  6. It seems Redline’s first item that touched the issue came only in November 2015 (a repost of an article titled: Germaine Greer and the new ‘left’ authoritarianism), and that still contained the following line:

    ‘Greer’s comments about the legitimacy or otherwise of trans women’s claim to the label “woman” are indefensible and utterly disrespectful.’

    As for specificity, let me try to be specific eg about the origin of the now common phrase “trans-women are women”. I think the turning point was 2013-14.
    If googling is anything reliable to go by, it seems one of the first occurrences was a January 2013 Jezebel item (by Lindy West, Transphobia Is a Goddamn Embarrassment to Us All), containing this passage:

    ‘Trans women are women, and to say otherwise makes you sound like a batty old dinosaur. It is extremely othering and exclusionary to hold up trans women as a counterexample to “real” women.’

    A February 2014 Huffpost item by Rachel Cunliffe (An Open Letter to Julie Burchill: You Do Not Speak for Me) exclaims:

    ‘Julie Burchill, transwomen are women. Full-stop. They do not need your permission to call themselves women, nor do they need to jump through the arbitrary hoops that you (and most of society) demand. Whatever medical or legal procedures might be necessary or available, transgender people do not owe you an explanation or an excuse for their identity.’

    In the same month (Laura Kacere, everydayfeminism magazine, Why the Feminist Movement Must Be Trans-Inclusive):

    ‘Because trans women are women, they should be included in women-only spaces. And yet somehow the concept of women-only spaces has been used to exclude trans women from these intentional safe spaces.’

    By December 2014 it seems first to be noted as a slogan by a gender-critical blogger (Elizabeth Hungerford, An Open Letter to Smith College About Transwomen):

    ‘The slogans “transwomen are women” and “transwomen belong here” sound righteous at first, but on deeper analysis, they are also frustratingly simplistic.’

    Then in October 2015 Miranda Yardley writes ‘“Trans women are women” is a lie’, claiming that (without citing specific instances):

    ‘I found online forums where I learnt that “trans women are women”. That we have always been women.’

    This was picked by Slate.com in December (The Trans Women Who Say That Trans Women Aren’t Women. Meet the apostates of the trans rights movement.), also quoting a certain Corinna Cohn:

    ‘“For trans women who are questioning the doctrine that trans women are women, period, and they still don’t feel like they have self-acceptance, I want them to know that there are people like me out there who have pushed past that dogmatic phrase, and have grown because of it,” Cohn says.’

    I’m not sure if we can draw any conclusions from this brief internet history about how widespread the slogan already was (or became) in activist circles in real life. It does seem that first liberal feminist (third-wave?) women themselves coined it (it seems unlikely to me that they merely borrowed it from obscure trans tumblr). But furthermore, (and on other hand), it seems they didn’t yet really popularize it and make it into an official slogan (and gave it the now literal meaning). It could be, ironically, that Miranda Yardley’s critique really put it on the map (with the Slate piece in December 2015).

    I’m aware my focus on this slogan is just a tiny detail. For an apparently somewhat forgotten grounding figure of US trans activism in the 1990s, see the memoirs of Riki Wilchins.

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