Identitarianism Is Not "Left"
The creation and exploitation of fragile, consumerist identities
In the midst of increasingly polarised and vicious political disputes over sex and gender, the debates playing out in public have ossified into simplistic caricatures of left vs right.
The political landscape is exceedingly complicated, and in truth I don’t think anything can be boiled down to any one cause, but to merely blame “the left” for the current state of affairs risks missing other underlying issues and gives “the right” too much of a free pass. With state institutions from MI5 to GCHQ and global corporations like Google and Starbucks all having thoroughly adopted “gender identity” as the most pressing and urgent issue to be advanced throughout society at breakneck speed, it seems absurd to attack such bastions of capitalism and conservatism as “far left”. While true that what passes for the left in the UK would fully embrace these ideas in government, we have seen all of the institutional capture of these ideas take place under 12 years of Conservative and coalition government. We cannot properly chart a way forward without fully understanding where we are now.
Left-wing Gender Criticism
This piece by Amanda MacLean is an excellent overview of the history and conflict between materialist, left-wing thought and the concept of gender identity.
In brief: because of the way human reproduction works, a man cannot know a child is his own without total social control over a woman’s behaviour. If patrilineage is important - ie for the inheritance of wealth - then a man must ensure that no other man can possibly have impregnated “his” woman. From this simple truth, much of what we understand as “gender” arises, in service of the social control over access to a woman’s reproductive capacity. Hence patriarchy stems not merely from the needs of men, but from the needs of fathers. And since capitalism always needs new bodies to do work, under capitalism sex is an axis of oppression - of exploiting female reproductive labour - and gender is the mechanism of that oppression.
Thus any system which removes the ability to name and recognise the female sex as a class is seen to serve the interest of patriarchal capitalism. If male and female cease to be labels that recognise a material reality, but instead identity markers that can be adopted by either sex, it becomes impossible for women to organise or be recognised as a sex class. This is what gender identity results in - a system of idealist individual liberalism, where material reality is subordinate to an individual’s claim of identity.
In the modern left, this material analysis has been abandoned in favour of a focus on individual liberalism for its own sake. Patriarchy has become not an analysis of a power structure arising in the material world, but an undefined, amorphous placeholder for “the man”. Woman has become an umbrella term for everyone disadvantaged by “the man”. Acceptable feminist thought has been hollowed out as a liberal identitarian framework obsessed with gender, paralysed by the need to include everyone and everything, shorn of the ability to act as a class in the interests of women, and instead turning women into everyone’s mother, everyone’s caregiver. Where structural analysis exists and identifies societal problems, invariably it seems to offer up personal responsibility and accountability as solutions. For all the protestations of those who lay the blame on shibboleths like “postmodern neo-marxism” for these ills, these are perspectives that owe more to neoliberalism than Marxism.
The neoliberal ideal is one of a free market governed by rational individual choice and personal responsibility. Neoliberalism promotes a transfer of risk from the state to the individual, who bears responsibility for managing their own risk, framed as empowerment. The combined behaviour of all individuals, acting in rational self-interest, are considered then to produce the “common good”, and there is no real society other than that which arises from these isolated individuals. These are ideas that (post-Reagan and post-Thatcher) have been absorbed more or less across the political spectrum, to the extent that they are hard even to name and critique. They have become the air that the political class breathe, and the use of economic value as a universal definition of worth means that the economic focus of neoliberalism is replicated in all social aspects of society.
This bears very little relation to the materialist, socialist left, which is rooted in class analysis, and which declined in the UK in favour of the “third way” attempt to marry economic and social liberalism. It seems unlikely that the seemingly radical elements of the left - those who picket women’s meetings and hurl abuse at the women who refuse to toe the line on gender identitarianism - would have much in common with neoliberal principles. However, as argued by John Sabonmatsu in The Postmodern Prince, in the US the descent of the radical left into performativity and boundary transgression in the mid-20th century was in truth a gift to capitalist expansion into new markets of self-actualisation:
Expressivism left capitalism unbound by smashing borgeuois cultural norms that had previously placed subjective limits on consumerism and thus stifled capitalist expansion. […] The expressivist aesthetic enabled a qualitative deepening of commodity logics in the lifeworld. Foucault’s call for an ethic of “care of the self” would become the rallying cry of global capitalism.
What this means is that the only brakes on capitalist expansion and exploitation of such desires are regulatory measures, or cultural norms. Explicit, or implicit rules. Government regulation, or basic decency. Transgressing cultural norms, rather than challenging the established order, in fact allowed a route to the exploitation of markets that would previously have been morally unacceptable.
And the transgression of acceptable boundaries in order to create markets that enable the fullest realisation of individual liberty is neither left nor right in any meaningful sense. It is neoliberal capitalism, with the only real distinctions between left and right being which boundaries remain fixed and which should be transgressed.
Many interrelated effects, especially in the US - advertising, broadcast media, liberal economics, individualism - have all added up to a Western world where capitalist forces exploit our unconscious drivers to create dissatisfaction and then sell us the “solution”. In recent times the technological mining of our lives and life experience for raw material - as described in Shoshana Zuboff’s work on surveillance capitalism - is ripe for compounding a sense of alienation not only from our contribution to society or the product of our labour, but from our own bodies, our own selves, our own existence.
I think this makes it very dangerous to dismiss this as a problem with “the left”, because “the right” has pursued such things just as vigorously, and there is no ideological obstacle to them continuing to do so. No mainstream political party seems to have any actual ideological opposition to the concept of gender identity, only different boundaries of moral acceptability.
Such boundaries, however, are moveable, and without a coherent philosophical underpinning become little more than labels to differentiate one team from another in the most simplistic and inflammatory terms. For or against gun control, abortion, paediatric transition, Brexit. The application of free market logic at all levels is just taken as a given, and produces facile arguments that act as little more than differentiators between shallow labels of left and right.
For example, higher education is celebrated as a way for individuals to realise their fullest potential, but success is measured by the individual attaining subsequent economic success. Degrees that don’t lead to high paying jobs are deemed of lesser value than degrees that do. Likewise, students are treated as customers, and universities have to appeal to them to ensure their revenue stream. Success for the university is measured in profitability.
This plays out in superficial right/left arguments like: students are coddled by trigger warnings vs teaching materials should respect and make space for diverse identities. Courses should respect our glorious past vs courses should reflect upon our shameful past. Universities should compete for the best and the brightest, vs incentives should encourage top universities to accept students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The fundamental framework of marketisation and consumer choice goes largely unchallenged, and is internalised by everyone that passes through it, understanding their role as consumer expecting economic return on investment, and their personal worth to that institution in economic terms.
The increasing and invisible acceptance of neoliberalism as a governing principle of so much of society has led to political disagreements becoming reduced to a pantomime of whether you’re on the good team or the bad one, the hopelessly idealistic one or the pragmatic one. We increasingly cannot agree across political divisions, because the reasons for those divisions are treated as moral failings. At the same time, the spread of the importance of individualist identity (over any alternative, socially mediated notions of identity) means that those political differences become not points that we can rationally debate and change our minds about, but part of our identity. A challenge to our philosophy becomes a challenge to our values, a challenge to our political beliefs becomes a challenge to who we are. As a result of identitarianism, political division has become increasingly intractable.
Social media provides the opportunity for endless validation of a brittle abstraction of self, the illusory projection of our identity into digital spaces. This public persona is repeatedly affirmed by virtual, unreal interactions, by expression of affiliation to certain political cliches, by consumption of certain content, all engaged with in public for approval from like-minded and similarly fragile individuals, all seeking meaning and connection, and finding hostility and polarisation. When we receive pushback on our actions, we react with anger or shame, as it is an attack on our identity - something which every level of society treats as the most important thing about us.
This thread about “fan-baiting” goes I think part of the way towards illustrating what’s happening in the feedback between modern consumer culture and identitarianism:
I would go much further than to point the finger at the cynical exploitation of political division by studio execs. In fact, I would say the relationship between content and identity is so deeply embedded in both the consumption and production of that content that you don’t even need to view it as cynically exploitative, but simply an accepted and unthinking aspect of 21st century capitalism.
Are you the sort of person who enjoys diversity in your content, or rails against it? Is it enough to privately applaud/decry these developments, or do you need to be seen to be doing it for public affirmation? If you express your opinion in the woods and nobody is there to retweet it, do you even exist? The act of public consumption has become more than ever a part of the construction of self, and social media a global stage for instantaneous, fleeting reward or unending punishment.
Even attempting to express views that question the weight given to identity is increasingly difficult, as rules of behaviour have become corrupted by the coercive power of capitalism.
Terms of Service
Alongside the implicit, unwritten interpersonal rules we learn through socialisation and the explicit, legislative power of the state, in between there now sits a coercive set of rules of communication imposed by the medium itself - by the technological infrastructure that enables people to express their opinions globally, mediating social interaction at a distance.
You can call a man “he” however he presents, in your personal life. You might be able to call a man “he” in the workplace however he presents, as long as you are not violating explicit rules against bullying or harassment. But you cannot call a man “he” on Twitter, on Reddit, on Facebook, on Etsy, on Kickstarter, without the ever-present uncertainty that you may find yourself permanently banned and globally shamed. Expressing outrage at maltreatment by a medical complex that wrongly affirmed and harms individuals becomes impossible. Statements like the below are simply not allowed on Twitter (the account below was banned until it was removed):
This mediated set of unwritten rules seep into wider society in both directions. Into the implicit rules of our everyday lives, where we watch our tongue in personal interactions, fearful of being overheard and confronted, or shamed online and losing our jobs. Into the explicit rules of the political sphere, where contrary views become impossible to express, into the beliefs of politicians, employers, and institutions, proudly “getting ahead of legislation” to enforce these new unwritten norms.
And where are the supposed left? Championing “accountability culture”. Indicating that individuals bear the responsibility for words that employers dislike, and that employers should be free to sack them for. Words that go against the neoliberal identities of others are forbidden, and must not be spoken, and the power of the market determines what speech is or is not acceptable.
You are free to choose not to say the things that technology platforms don’t want you to say, and others are free to punish you if you do. If their punishment were not acceptable, the market would not permit it, as rational individuals would not choose to be part of such a system, so such boundless “accountability” is a self-proving public good. If you don’t like it, you are free to choose another platform to express your views. If you do, the existing tech monopolies are free to lobby to shut it down for allowing unacceptable speech.
This ever-present threat of total reputational annihilation leaves the majority of the population in a state of economic precariousness. As the public square moves online, hosted and mediated by private corporations, those who simply cannot afford the risk of engagement remain silent.
Trans Parent Identity
None of this is to let “the left” such as it is off the hook, just that the major left and right political parties are now seemingly different facets of the same ideological beliefs, arguing over moral lines in the sand, oblivious to the rising tide. The rapid increase in people seeking medicalised cross-sex “affirmation” is tied to the lauding of boundary transgression and self-realisation, of individual liberty and personal responsibility for choices freely made. Any opposition broadly comes from the materialist elements of the left who have objections based in political and philosophical analysis, and the elements of the right who have a strong tendency towards moral conservatism which leads them to resist those aspects they believe go “too far”.
You can’t perform mastectomies on - or sell breast implants to - 13-year-olds if society believes such things are unacceptable, but the direction of travel when it comes to cross-sex medical interventions in general is towards a widening of such possibility. A demedicalisation, where these things are not driven by distress, but by self-realisation. Where possibilities are limitless, where body modification becomes a true expression of innermost self. The fundamental issue presently faced with attempting to change sex is that it remains in the realm of science fiction. All anyone can do is approximate, cosmetically, the opposite sex - and this is a process that is doomed to create endless need for closer and closer approximation. It is a desire that cannot be truly satisfied, and as such is a gift to capitalism.
In the environment of unilateral capitalist censorship, these moves cannot even be questioned. The sovereignty of the self - the affirmation of identity - comes above all. Anything that stands in the way of self-realisation must be bad.
However, this scathing episode of Heterodorx raises the deeply worrying concern that parents are now expressing their own identity through the transitioning of their children.
A grimly inverted outcome of those advocating for total bodily autonomy of children at any age is that that children can in some cases become the helpless props of their parents’ identities. If - as pointed out in the Helen Webberley tribunal - a parent can consent to any cross-sex interventions on behalf of their own child, then the child becomes an extension of the parent’s desires. Obviously not all, but some? Especially those socially transitioning children under 4? It is a horrifyingly plausible endpoint of many of these forces.
With no social boundaries preventing this horrific scenario from taking place, why not? What is to stop this being a result of capitalist influence, creating a desire - a sense of unfulfilled purpose tied to identity - and selling people the solution? Unless people are willing to stand up and say this is wrong, it is inevitable. Capitalism expands to exploit whatever markets are available, and without preventative legislation or strong social convention, what on earth is to stop this?
The affirmation of the identity of a “trans child” represents an intractable problem for individualism, and one which the major left and right political parties have no coherent philosophical response to, but rather represent a descent into oppositional, moralising stances. Because there is no clear answer to at what point a child becomes an autonomous, rational individual expressing free choice in a market and bearing responsibility for the risk, the choice falls to the parent. Is the parent defending the child’s individual identity until they are old enough to express it themselves, freely, in full understanding of the risks? Or are they enabling the free expression of that identity, which is known and understood by the child at that age? Unable to properly critique the societal forces that drive this emerging phenomenon, the issue has polarised into: it is child abuse to transition a child vs it is child abuse to prevent it.
If you are surrounded by media, swimming through culture, that all tells you you are special and wonderful for having a trans child and the sooner you get them onto costly medical procedures, the more virtuous a person you are, while reinforcing that if you doubt or question you are hateful, and if you delay you will kill them - of course you will incorporate this into your identity, into all your interactions with the world. You will like the content that reinforces this identity, and condemn the content that does not, in an endless churning display of public consumption.
Paradoxically, the quest for total self-affirmation creates a situation where the self of another - of a child - is annihilated, subsumed into the parent’s, all while believing that the child’s identity is paramount. A shrunken and hollowed out state, unable to protect a child from adult desires, leaving such concerns to the market, “informed” consent in place of safeguards and regret a matter of personal responsibility.
A child too young to comprehend what is happening, incapable of informed consent, becoming part of the unitary identity of “parent of a trans child”, propped up and reinforced by affirmation and threat - and they cannot ever stop, for fear that the child might die.
Or that they might realise what they’ve done.