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
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.