Friday, 25 September 2020

Feminism and Left power politics


Judith Butler was trending on Twitter this week as a result of an interview she gave for the New Statesman. The topic was the current debate about feminism and trans rights. Ten years ago I paid a little attention to what she said on feminism in the context of the war in Afghanistan. My post on that is here: Anti-imperialism über alles.

At that time, Judith Butler had said in another interview that gay rights and women’s rights were being “instrumentalised” to fight the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Developing this argument, she said that feminist, anti-racist, and anti-war movements needed to join together.

This proposition may seem uncontroversial. However she then went on to make this joining together a test of whether any feminism was bona fide feminism. No true feminism could exist outside this merger between the categories of feminism, anti-racism, and anti-war politics.

Judith Butler uderstands anti-war politics to be that selective kind of anti-imperialism, the kind which is anti-war only if the war is being waged by the US or its allies, and which excuses wars waged by states and armed groups that are enemies of the US and its allies.

This was illustrated by her notorious remarks describing Hamas and Hezbollah as “social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left.” So a feminism that didn’t ally itself with that brand of anti-imerialism was not bona fide feminism, but Hamas and Hezbollah were bona fide Left despite their misogyny, their homophobia, their racism.

From this we can see that within Judith Butler’s merged category of feminism, anti-racism, and anti-war movements, there was a hierarchy where feminism and anti-racism were to be subservient to the interests of Western-centric anti-imperialist politics.

What started out as a claim that feminism was being instrumentalised by militarists on the Right turned into a move to put feminism at the service of the pro-authoritarian Left.

So yes, political organisations, states, armed groups, will seek to use civil movements such as feminism, to clothe themselves in virtue and to gain support. We should always question motives, actions, effects, whether it is done by a state or by a political activist group. Do their actions give civil movements true support and freedom to speak out, or do they manipulate and silence and hijack civil movements for their own political ends?

I pointed in that earlier post to a dreadful case of silencing where Code Pink activists tried to distort and silence the voices of Afghan women.

We think of the natural enemies of feminism, anti-racism, and gay rights as being on the Right, and that’s clearly often the case. But these civil movements also challenge the pro-authoritarian Left, again and again. So the pro-authoritarian Left has an interest in weakening the independence of feminist, anti-racist, and gay rights movements.

That thought leads me to look again at Judith Butler’s words on feminism and trans rights, and to question why this topic has become so politicised on the Left. A simple explanation is that the Left seeks to expand rights, so expands the groups it is concerned with as time goes on, but I feel this doesn’t explain how charged the issue has become.

For many, the political energy may be—and I think often is—the result of a straightforward sense of moral duty or even moral outrage on behalf of an oppressed group. For some others, an explanation might be that the Left defines itself as radical, and therefore it needs a frontier to fight on. Those who choose not to join the fight on the new frontier risk being outflanked and losing their identity as truly Left.

The core issue between some feminists and some trans rights activists is over whether biological sex as a category should be preserved in certain legal and social contexts, or whether it should be set aside and gender (socially constructed and self-defined) should always prevail. In short, is ‘woman’ to mean someone of the female sex or someone who identifies as a feminine gender.

Another major trend in tackling discrimination has been intersectionality, which is concerned with increasing understanding of the complexities and differentiations of experience within categories and sub-categories and overlapping categories of discrimination. It seems to me all the more strange then that the current debate is about an attempt to reduce differerentiation and merge categories.

Judith Butler in her New Statesman interview doesn’t even mention sex as a category, but suggests that feminists on the other side of the argument want a return “to a strictly biological understanding of gender…” Maybe some do, but I was under the impression that quite a number want to maintain separate categories of sex and gender. Judith Butler moves to merge these two categories and then defines the battle as being about dominance within the merged category.

This merging of sex and gender categories denies any space for alternatives. This recalls Judith Butler’s earlier move of merging categories of feminism, anti-racism, and anti-war, while insisting on the dominance within the merged category of anti-war politics.

There are a lot of arguments about the rights aspects and the practical implications of merging the categories of sex and gender, but I haven’t seen so much about the political implications of it for that part of the Left supported by Judith Butler. Is it possible that for some on the pro-authoritarian Left, one driver of their support for the subsuming of sex as a category into the category of gender could be that they sense an opportunity to weaken the independence of feminist movements?

We have seen trans issues being used as a wedge by the Right, particularly in the United States. Is it crazy to consider that power politics might also be driving some trans activism on the Left, as it drives so much else? That consideration should again lead to questioning motives, actions, effects, asking whether a wide range of trans people are being given true support and freedom to speak out, and whether the Left’s acivism on this is truly focused on serving the best interests of trans people, and not on “instrumentalising” the cause of trans rights.

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