James Heartfield wrote this article on intersectionalism and its flaws nine years ago. He noted on Twitter: “Looking back, these problems got worse, not better.”
Published 17 November 2013.
Is self-styled revolutionary Russell Brand really just a ‘Brocialist’? Is Lily Allen’s feminist pop-video racist? Is lesbian activist Julie Bindel a ‘Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist’ Is Respect MP George Galloway a ‘rape apologist’? Welcome to the world of ‘intersectionalism’ – or what we used to call sectarianism.
‘My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit’. This was Flavia Dzodan’s angry challenge to a feminist slogan on a placard on a ‘slutwalk’ march, ‘woman is the nigger of the world’. Dzodan did not like the ‘white feminist’ laying claim to her the oppression suffered by women of colour. ‘Am I supposed to ignore the violence that ensued in the N* word discussion?’ Dzodan asked: ‘Am I supposed to overlook its blatant violence in the name of sisterhood?’ 1
Dzodan’s meme ‘intersectional’ was widely taken up amongst radical campaigners and bloggers. Intersectionality seemed to be a way to balance the different claims of oppressed groups. None would be ignored, or folded into the other. Intersectional feminism would not ignore the special problems faced by black women. Nor would anti-racist campaigners ignore sexism. The watchword of intersectionality was that you should ‘check your privilege’ before making any claims. 2
For the radical left ‘intersectionality’ seemed to be a way of ‘achieving effective political unity among the oppressed.’3 Those leftists were embarrassed by their own tradition, which seemed to them to be too mannish. They felt they had ignored questions of oppression, and would make amends through an intersectional approach. The older texts that saw women’s oppression as a footnote to the class struggle were set aside.4
The meaning of Intersectionality raised its head in a bitter dispute at the annual Radical Feminist conference in London. The Radical Feminists insisted on a ‘women only’ space for their discussion. No-one argued that it was a bad idea to reflect the divisions in society in your conference (because most on the radical left shared the RadFems belief that men exploit women and have no direct interest in fighting for equality). But the RadFems were attacked for the exclusion of transsexuals. Transsexuals were not women, but men seeking to invade women’s space, said the RadFems. The RadFems were guilty of discrimination, said their intersectional critics. Transsexuals identify as women, and therefore they are women, because gender is a social construct, not a natural one. The RadFems were denounced as Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists, or TERFs. In a moment, all of the moral authority of the Radical Feminists (which was surely resented by those outside the group) disappeared in a twitterstorm of moral disapproval.
As is the way with these arguments over who is more righteously oppressed it all got very bitter very quickly, like a Dutch auction. The ‘intersectional’ feminists got the Camden Irish Centre to withdraw its venue for the conference in 2012. When journalists Suzanne Moore and Julie Burchill wrote strident attacks on transsexual demands to be treated as women they were attacked. There was even a protest organised outside the newspaper’s office; and astonishingly the Guardian Media Group agreed to rewrite history by removing the article from their website. The struggle for intersectionality continued with the demand that journalist and Justice for Women founder Julie Bindel be refused a platform at a Manchester University Debating Union event of pornography, because she too was a ‘TERF’ (Bindel withdrew after death threats.5
One radical feminist Emma Brandt complained in turn that ‘liberal feminists “weaponize” trans women against radicals’; meaning that transsexuals were being used by less resolute feminists to undermine the radical feminists’ authority, which was an interesting counter, but a bridge too far along the intersectionality road. 6
Far from being a formula for political unity, the demands of intersectionality look like a minefield of political correctness. Every protest must first check its privilege. Every statement is held up to the impossible test of balancing every claim. Not unity, but Balkanisation is the outcome. Intersectionality looks more like a formula for sectarianism than joint action. The champions of intersectionality are never happier than when they are taking down someone who is trying to make a radical case, just not radical enough. As Sigmund Freud told Sandor Ferenczi ‘there is no revolutionary who is not knocked out of the field by a more radical one’. 7
That was the climate when comedian and Hollywood Star Russell Brand lent his name to a call for revolution – a revolution against profit and the rape of the planet and for the free movement of labour, which one might have thought would be appealing to the modern radical. Instead Brand’s catapulting of those concerns into the mainstream provoked a hand-wringing ‘Discourse on Brocialism’ from the New Statesman‘s Laurie Penny and blogger Richard Seymour. Brand was ‘playing the court jester, and speaking limited truth to overwhelming power’ but only because his ‘wealth and fame… allow him to say such things’. Brand’s flippant aside that he had taken the job of guest editor because he was asked by a beautiful woman was ‘the exercise of a “privilege” of patriarchy’. 8
It was also the minefield that Lily Allen stumbled into when she filmed the video for her song Hard Out Here – ‘a satirical video that deals with objectification of women within modern pop culture’. 9 This time it was the Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore(now well versed in the zero-sum game of intersectionality)who laid charges of racial objectification against Allen’s feminist video. Years ago Prime Minister John Major promised that his government would be free of sleaze, a claim to probity that only encouraged the press to dig deeper for evidence of impropriety – which they did. Today it is a law of politics that those who claim the moral high ground are the ones who will fall the hardest, John Major’s law.
Intersectionality cannot work because it only sees common cause coming from the outside, or after the event, as an aggregation of complaints. It is, he says, formalistic. He has a point. Intersectionality seems to argue a common cause but it is only an opportunistic one. Women, blacks, trade unionists, immigrants and Muslims are invited to make common cause against the oppressor.
The intersectionalists are pretty sceptical about unifying themes. Socialism? Brocialism! Brotherhood? Oppression! Behind these snap judgments is a philosophy, the philosophy of anti-humanism. Sex-historian and philosopher Michel Foucault is the best known proponent of this anti-humanism, taught at all leading universities, though the diligent student can turn to Jacques Lacan or Louis Althusser.
The main claim of the anti-humanist philosophy is a rejection of the assertion of a common human essence. All such claims to the anti-humanists are false and ideological supports to oppression. Claiming, for example, that men and women, or white and black are fundamentally the same, in this argument, is to hide the oppression of the one by the other under the appearance of equality. It is true of course that there are many examples of false universals, like David Cameron saying ‘we are all in this together’, or Gordon Brown saying ‘British jobs for British workers’.
On the other hand the claim of an essential human equality has been a resource for progressive movements since the English Revolution of 1640. Brotherhood might sound insensitive today, but it has been the guiding light of workers’ struggles for two centuries. To be really radical, said Karl Marx is to get to the root, and the root is man. Not so for today’s anti-humanists, though. Human liberation is a myth, and the common struggle only a lash-up of those preceding struggles. As we can see, though, that kind of opportunistic intersectionality quickly degenerates into finger-pointing and name calling.
Haven’t we been here before?
Last year Shulamith Firestone was found dead in her apartment after a history of mental illness. It was a sad end to one of the more original feminist thinkers of her day. Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex (1970) was an angry inversion of Marx’s theory of class struggle that saw the conflict of the sexes as the driving force of human history. Along with Valerie Solanas, author of the S.C.U.M. Manifesto (Society for Cutting Up Men, 1967), Firestone pushed feminism in a radical, and separatist direction. In England feminists Rosie Boycott and Marsha Rowe set up the magazine Spare Rib which, though not as radical as Firestone’s Redstockings collective, was a challenging and inventive answer to the male chauvinist culture of the day.
In time, though, Spare Rib’s editorial collective began to argue. Some thought that feminists should be lesbians and have nothing to do with men. A debilitating game of who is more oppressed followed. Lesbian separatist Linda Bellos recalled the arguments: ‘If you’re going to talk about the sisterhood being all-powerful, what version are you talking about?’ Bellos questioned whether ‘What unites us is being women. But we bring to being women our class, race, religion…’ 10
The divisions amongst the feminists grew. Some hoped that Socialist Feminism would overcome the differences, but it just turned out to be another split. Among the Socialist Feminists Hilary Wainwright, Sheila Rowbotham and Beatrix Campbell wrote a manifesto called Beyond the Fragments, which anticipated much of the intersectionality argument. Wainwright thought that it was wrong to merge the movements. ‘There are good reasons for each movement controlling its own autonomy – women, blacks, gays, youth and national minorities have interests which may sometimes be antagonistic to each other both now and probably in a socialist society’. 11
Where Beyond the Fragments led, though, was not to the promised grassroots movement, but jobs with the Greater London Council as the radical and feminist left retreated from the streets into the committee rooms. The GLC’s struggle against racism and sexism was largely conducted through the agency of disciplinary procedures against its workers and tenants. Feminists in the labour party were more successful in their criticisms of unions than of employers. Bea Campbell played a key role in the demonization of the working class family as a site of abuse. Others, like Labour Minister Ann Clwyd found feminist cause to demonise Muslims in West Yorkshire, and then in 2003, in Iraq.
A depressed left
Today’s radicals have adopted the framework of intersectionality to negotiate the divisions among them. These divisions, they think, are not political, but biological; not differences over strategy or analysis, but the differences between people on the basis of their colour, sex, sexual orientation and assignation. Richard Seymour says intersectionality is ‘the only strategy that will work’. The background to this thinking is the same belief that the interests of women, workers, gays, and transsexuals are fundamentally opposed. Indeed the only sense in which they are allied is in opposition to the external enemy, variously ‘neo-liberalism’, or ‘this Tory government’. The intersectional left has a gloomy, doom-laden view of the present. This is the ‘worst recession since the 1930s’. Austerity measures are hurting everyone, but especially women and minorities. All of this unhappiness is supposed to make the case for an elusive unity.
It is an approach that fails to see the positive things that unite people. Over the last century the social condition of women in the developed world has improved markedly. Women who were pointedly excluded from political power, denied civil and property rights and excluded from the world of work are today enfranchised, property owners and half a greatly expanded workforce. Far from being at odds, surveys of social attitudes find that in their values men and women are becoming more alike, more liberal and self-assured. At the same time legislation on lesbian and gay rights has moved towards effective equality.
Attitudes on race have changed markedly in Britain over the last fifty years. In 1986 around half of those asked disapproved of mix marriages, but in 2011 that number had dropped to just 15 per cent. Immigration to Britain over the last twenty years has been high and just over seven million of the population was born abroad, and yet racial tensions are much lower than they were in the 1970s and 1980s. 12
There is an irony that the radical left is preoccupied with the differences between groups in society, while those same groups in society are much less so. The one dimension along which inequality has clearly increased is not along ethnic or sex lines, but in terms of income distribution, with a super-wealthy elite separating itself off from the mass. Socio-economically the great mass of people are much more united and integrated than they have ever been. Social change and modern technology have created the foundations for a worldwide human culture. The one place that unity and equality are more elusive than ever is on the political plane.
Political discourse has failed over recent times to unite people. Retreating from the lives of the greater mass of people, political ideologies and groupings can only relate to wider groups by playing upon differences and accentuating them. The intersectional left only reflect that failing in a more accentuated form. Intersectionalism is the morbid symptom of a movement in decline, not a strategy for its renewal.
James Heartfield 17 November 2013
Postscript – on some responses to the article
‘You’re an ignorant fuck’ and ‘moronic’ (mmmdot) ‘Sit the fuck down’ (JN) ‘this is bullshit’ (Chris) – sadly these are some of the foul-mouthed replies to this piece in the comments section when it was first posted on the Mute site.
These respondents thought that there should be no discussion. It was ‘not a “debatable” topic for “disagreement.”‘ (Trudy), while mmmdot offered ‘you clearly have no f**king business speaking’, and that I should ‘shut the fuck up and sit the fuck down’. In the spirit of political re-education Chris advised ‘allow room for others to help you figure out where you went wrong’, while ana australiana thought ‘it’s disappointing that this was published’.
These reactions are characteristic of a small-group outlook that is unused to being challenged and prefers instead to restrict talk amongst its own adherents thereby reinforcing its internal value system, however bizarre its conclusions sound outside the group.
For the most part such criticism as the article did receive was criticising the article I did not write. ‘You are so painfully ignorant on the topic you espouse to know about,’ posted Trudy, adding ‘I know you have done zero research on what intersectionality actually is.’ But of course the article was not a history of the term intersectionality, it was an essay on the idea of intersectionality, in particular the way that it had played out in recent debates. There is nothing to stop Trudy, or anyone else writing a history of Intersectionality. But taking this piece to task for not being that piece is not any kind of criticism at all.
Most of the replies were ad hominem attacks – that is attacks not on the points argued, but on the author. So JN said ‘sit the fuck down white man’. Now, in most argument outside of this group the colour of the person making the argument is not supposed to be important, but plainly it was here. In this small-group mentality the race of the speaker most certainly is an issue. Most of the posters hold the view that thought is not universal, but embedded, not true for all, but specifically attached to races and groups.
Plainly it was offensive to this group that its ideas should even be addressed from outside the group. According to Trudy, the issue was ‘most certainly not about Whites who appropriate Black culture, dominate discourse on experiences that they do not have’, and even to write about it was ‘an appropriation of Black women’s Black feminist/womanist politics’.
In the view that ideas are embedded, ad hominem attacks that are thought of as poor logic elsewhere become legitimated.
Chris thought that Trudy’s was a ‘critique that comes directly from her experience’ and that ‘as someone who lives it and is targeted on a daily basis, her perspective is more valuable than yours’. Outside of this intellectual framework, arguments and concepts are not better or worse according to the speaker, but according to the argument. But here it is assumed that these ideas are closed to someone who has ‘no frame of reference (personal or otherwise) to address this topic’ (mmmdot). The philosopher Wittgenstein thought that there could be no private languages, not anticipating the development of intersectionalism.
This group of posters were clearly unhappy that their inner realm had been disturbed, and easily offended. Trudy thought that comment on ‘interesectionality was ‘offensive to anyone who knows even 1% of what this is about’. But not being a sanctioned officiate of the group comment was ‘unprofessional, offensive and oppressive’. The very idea that anyone outside the group would pay an interest in these thoughts was seen as a personal attack ‘meant to offend and to troll’.
Not just offensive, in fact, arguments that failed to reinforce the group’s thinking were experienced as injuries, even life threatening. ‘What you think of as “just words” are life and death’ thought Trudy. Chris found that ‘your perspective is damaging’. He went further saying that disagreement with the core ideas of the group would ‘sacrifice their values, commitments, and even PHYSICAL SAFETY’.
Quite how a blog post on Mute’s community site threatened anyone’s physical safety seems hard to envisage – until you take into account the existential insecurity of this belief system. Words, challenges, counter-opinions, that are welcomed in the wider world, to this group are life-threatening assaults on their very existence.
The point of the original post was that the ideas of intersectionality were close to sectarianism. Sadly the responses of those who rejected a critical engagement with the idea confirmed that view.
FOOTNOTES 1 http://tigerbeatdown.com/2011/10/10/my-feminism-wi…
2 Peggy McIntosh first framed the idea in “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” 1989 http://www.library.wisc.edu/edvrc/docs/public/pdfs…
4 Tony Cliff Class Struggle and Women’s Oppression, 1984 ; Lindsey German, Sex, Class and Socialism, 1998
7 The Correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Sándor Ferenczi: 1920-1933, Harvard University Press, 1993, p 422
8 Laurie Penny and Richard Seymour, ‘Discourse on Brocialism’, New Statesman 2 November 2013 http://www.newstatesman.com/laurie-penny/2013/11/d…
9 ‘Lily Allen defends music video’ Independent, 14 November 2013 http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/mu…
10 ‘Whatever happened to feminism’s extreme sects?’, Independent, 12 February 2006, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/…
11 Beyond the Fragments, Merlin, 1979, p 5-6