It’s been a week of twitterstorms for me. Or, to paraphrase some dude on Twitter, a fantastic week for the aggrieved white male Leninist academic – and by extension, for those who argue for the need for intersectional critiques within leftist political movements, as these two essays make our point quite (in)admirably.
First, Mark Fisher posted this interminably long and rambling essay bemoaning the practice of leftists calling out other leftists for their bigotry on social media, via the strained and incoherent quasi-Engelian metaphor of a “vampire’s castle“, which is apparently where all the intersectionalists live and practice our evil, movement-draining bourgeois liberalism. A few days later, Ross Wolfe posted up this essay by James Heartfield as a sort of continuation/response, more explicitly addressing the concept of ‘intersectionality’ and why it is oh-so-wrong and divisive.
The thing is, both Fisher and Heartfield are committing a (deeply ironic) category error when they attack intersectionality and its expressions as being “draining” or “divisive”. Intersectionality, like the discourses of privilege that gave rise to its articulation, can actually be summarised in a few very basic principles:
1. The dominant society, while it privileges a very small group of people, oppresses the rest of us in several different ways – e.g. race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc.
2. People who are oppressed along one axis can still be privileged in others. I say ‘can still be’, but it seems likely that in actuality every single person has some areas of privilege in their lives, and that almost every person (barring only a subsection of the set of straight white rich cis-male able-bodied Westerners) also has some areas of oppression.
3. Even people who are active in the fight against one or more axes of oppression (including, for instance, all self-proclaimed lefties) can still have blind spots from their own areas of privilege, can still be bigots.
That last point includes even those who are within the relevant oppressed groups themselves. Internalised misogyny is A Thing. Internalised racism is A Thing. This shit is structural, y’know? You can’t grow up in a culture steeped in white supremacy, patriarchy, neoliberalism, etc., without that colouring the way you view the world. None of us can. So the point is to work with each other to root out those toxic patterns and build something better in their place.
We can’t do that, though, if every time someone calls out a comrade for their racism, their misogyny, their tranphobia, their ablism (etc.), they get told to shut up because pointing out bigotry “divides the movement”. That silencing tactic is so old, and I was really starting to think that we – the broad left – were finally starting to get over it. Probably because I live in an insular liberal vampire castle on twitter, sucking the living labour out of the righteous working class movement.
Okay. About liberalism. I think it’s important to acknowledge a thing, which is that, well, individualist liberal identity politics is a thing. Of course it is. This is because capitalism, like the Borg, tries to assimilate every threat to itself, and make it its own. Capitalist individualist identity politics is the thing that says “Oh, forget about all these superficial biological differences! The only thing that matters is money! Equal money-making opportunities for everyone!” It is Democrats, Liberal Democrats, and “Libertarians”. It is Angela Merkel, Barack Obama, Sheryl Sandberg. Neoliberalism celebrates “diversity” as a sort of aesthetic ideal, and abhors “discrimination” in as much as to discriminate based on race, gender, etc. fails to uphold each individual as a perfect economic actor. It is, ironically enough, the only ideology besides certain strains of Marxism that tries to reduce all sociological differences to economics only – although for the opposite reasons.
Of course, they don’t say this outright. Much of so-called progressivism in the US and UK is just this same neoliberalism with the focus all on identity politics, with the economic assumptions hidden in the background, the Reagan-Thatcher “consensus” obviating the need to even talk about them. (Less so since the financial crash, but far less less so than I for one had hoped.) There’s plenty of bigoted conservatism for these folks to fight with, so they seldom realise just how right-wing they are themselves, but it’s just silly to dismiss left-wing criticisms of bigotry because some on the (economic) right make the same criticisms.
You see – and honestly, I can’t believe I even have to say this – there is a difference between pointing out bigotry and subsuming all of your politics under a neoliberal representationalism. Within the feminist movement, for instance, both neoliberal mainstream feminists and left-wing intersectional feminists are concerned with misogyny. Any of them, if shown an example of misogyny, would likely criticise it. Their politics are not therefore equivalent, and to dismiss the latter for making a similar point to the former is a bit like accusing someone of being a Stalinist for criticising capitalism. It’s a silencing tactic, used to dismiss the arguments of your would-be interlocutors so that you don’t have to actually engage with their criticisms. It is diversionary, inaccurate, and divisive.
This is the most galling thing of all: The very act of dismissing intersectional analyses as ‘divisive’ is itself divisive. Implicit in every tirade against “intersectionality” or “privilege theory” or “identity politics” as a diversion or a distraction from the “real” movement or issues is the idea that the oppression of people along any other axis than class, or exploitation in any areas than wage labour, just does not matter very much. If you happen to be in one or more oppressed social group, or fight alongside comrades who are, then hearing your straight white cis-male supposed comrades dismiss your concerns is not only deeply dispiriting, it further reifies the problems you are fighting against.
It is true that there are people who twist ideas of privilege and oppression to try to silence those who disagree with them on any given issue, based solely on the perceived privilege of their interlocutor. An ugly, crabs-in-a-barrel mentality can arise, where rather than acknowledging that we are differently advantaged in ways that we never asked for, and should all work together to change society so that all may be similarly advantaged, those in privileged groups are castigated for the mere fact of having privilege, whether they are using it to oppress or ignore their comrades or not. As though if people in your oppressed group can’t be listened to or get adequate housing or live a life free from repressive physical violence, no one should. It’s the same bullshit mentality that tells working class kids they’re getting uppity if they go to university; or tells workers they should be happy just to have a job, no matter how shitty it is; or tells men they shouldn’t complain about rape or domestic violence because it happens more often to women. In the midst of the twittersqualls over Heartfield’s piece, I came across David Graeber plaintively tweeting a complaint about people harassing him as “privileged” for tweeting about his anger and sadness over the forced sale of his childhood home in a (supposedly) socialist housing coop – as though growing up with a stable home were not something that every person should have, even though many people don’t.
Ironically enough, given all the male Marxist whining about all of us shrill man-hating feminists,* this seems to happen most often in far-left circles on issues of class privilege: the easiest way for a leftist to dismiss an opponent without actually engaging with their arguments is to accuse them of being “bourgeois”. This almost always seems to divert the conversation into some sort of more-working-class-than-thou status war, thus handily avoiding tackling whatever point the supposedly bourgeois comrade was trying to make. And yes, I have seen this tactic deployed in other areas as well, of totally refusing to engage with someone’s point purely because they are white, male, straight, whatever. I’ve seen that, yes. Like, maybe four or five individual times, in the decade or so since I first started engaging with the discourse of ‘privilege’ – versus uncountably many instances of the former.
The thing is, it is also true that one of the hallmarks of social privilege is that you are unable to see how you are affected by it, or how the corresponding disprivileged group or groups lack the advantages you take for granted. Very often, I have seen, for instance, a white person arguing with a person of colour, or a man arguing with a woman, where the latter tells the former that they are failing to comprehend the issue and suggests that this might be because their privilege blinds them to the problem, and then the former gets upset and accuses the latter of trying to “silence” them with their shibboleth of “privilege”. The two recent essays which sparked this piece are yet another example of this, of this silencing with accusations of silencing.
I appreciate that, when one is in the midst of some argument or another, it can be difficult to see the difference between someone telling you that you that you are failing to see their point because of your privilege, and someone telling you that you are not a valuable person, or generally not worth listening to at all, because of your privilege. But there IS a difference, and dismissing the entire concept of privilege because you’re fearful you might be dismissed on crabs-in-a-barrel terms (or, especially, if you understand the difference and are simply resentful) is deeply divisive, because – since to speak from a place of privilege is to speak from a place of power – to do so is to thereby dismiss the perspectives of those challenging your viewpoints. THAT is divisive, THAT is what is destroying solidarity, and THAT needs to stop RIGHT FUCKING NOW.
* Presumably there are similar experiences from white comrades about POC issues, etc., but I’m speaking from my own perspective here.