Rundle: how radical gender theory hijacked Marxism — and why we need to get it back
As the conditions of material economic revolution have faded, social and cultural struggles have come to the fore. And that's the problem.
Jun 3, 2016
As the conditions of material economic revolution have faded, social and cultural struggles have come to the fore. And that's the problem.
"Don't you see the rest of the country looks upon New York like we're left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers? I-I-I-I think of us that way sometimes and I live here." -- Woody Allen, Annie HallYour correspondent, when in the UK, rarely misses an issue of The Spectator, one of the best-edited magazines in the world. For the same reason, he rarely reads the Spectator Australia, which is a bit of a ratty spite slum, marketed at $9.90 an issue, and, I'm told, struggling to keep weekly sales in the four figures (one is reminded that, in the 1950s, the CIA had to tell the editors of Quadrant, its Australian front publication, to be less political -- pointing out that they were meant to be a cultural magazine, giving the appearance of disinterested inquiry. Plus ca change). The Spectator's UK editors know that a successful magazine has to have a blend of politics and culture if it is to have any longevity. If anyone can kill off the Spectator Australia from the inside, it's current editor Rowan Dean, former ad-man and explosion-in-a-woolstore. But I have to admit to enjoying this week's cover, "Attack of the Marxist Trannies", in which a giant red-dress-wearing Bill Shorten wields hammer and sickle and terrorises a quiet suburban street far below. The article it illustrates, to judge by the strap line, is the usual: t.e.h Leftz has reached into every area of social life to reshape it, according to its dastardly whims, which appear to involve an undermining of family, flag, and everything we are alleged to hold dear. If I'm tempted to treat myself to a copy, it would be for the same reason that some Jews in '30s Germany were said to read Der Sturmer, the Nazi paper: because, contrary to the grim reality, it said the Jews ruled the world and dictated the course of history through their superior cunning. At this point in the course of history, it would be reassuring to find out that the left was just waiting for its moment and was running the joint. The attempts to present a secret Marxist cabal running schools' sex education, etc, was largely comical, as per usual. It got serious this week after Safe Schools co-ordinator Roz Ward made an ill-advised Facebook post calling the Australian flag "racist" and saying her "work would be done" when the red flag was flying over Parliament House. This played to every accusation being made: that Safe Schools was being used to advance an entirely different agenda, one of undermining the given mass social acceptance of embodied gender and heterosexuality as "the norm", and to advocate to teenagers a view of sexuality and gender as "fluid", in a way that most of us do not believe it really is. The Facebook post -- private but leaked -- got swift retribution. Jeff Kennett threatened to pull Beyondblue-- Big Depression, a powerful group -- out of the Safe Schools coalition if Ward remained, and she duly resigned ahead of being pushed out. Kennett's move was illiberal, but to be expected as part of politics -- if you are a subversive Marxist, it's kinda dumb to write Facebook posts about it ("Bolsheviki participating in Duma but have secret plan for revolutionary coup LOL" @Lenin). Ward's suspension from La Trobe University was something else, a direct attack on freedom of thought, and a measure of what many Australian universities have become: corrupted business adjuncts, with no real connection to a living tradition of humanism. Ward is not in a teaching role, but is in a role in which the protection of the right to hold any idea or view at all should be absolute. If La Trobe academic and other staff don't take industrial action over this, they'll be betraying that ideal too. So we absolutely have to defend Ward's right to profess any ideas whatsoever, without exception. But that doesn't mean that those of us who are labelled with the term "Marxist" have to affirm those ideas or even cop association with them. Political solidarity isn't a suicide pact. Nothing in the queer, intersectional politics that Ward professes strikes me as a particularly accurate view of the world, and, well, some things are true even though The Australian says they are true: from remarks made on record, Ward does seem to suggest that parts of the Safe Schools program are part of a political-cultural operation to introduce a particular view of humanity, using an anti-bullying program as cover. Furthermore, this is claimed as a "Marxist" political initiative -- that the relatively stable gender and relationship roles that the mass of society follows are not the product of deep-seated human desires (with, in the last instance, a biological component), but are imposed by a capitalist order that seeks to control such relations for the purpose of regulated production and consumption. This is part of the wider fate of Marxism and the "left" -- that, as the conditions of material economic revolution have faded, social and cultural struggles have come to the fore. As Western economies have changed and the classical industrial proletariat has largely disappeared, many of those professing Marxism now come from the culture/knowledge-producing class (including students), and those struggles that seem most immediate to them are around gender and sexuality -- and above all the representation of such in texts and images. The question of actual "socialism" -- of mass control of the means of production -- has become secondary. Among what has become known as "the cultural left", the question is barely discussed. Existing work relations -- the eight- to 10-hour day, the endless squeeze on wage power, conditions, the debt loading -- are assumed to be a given, an eternal. That's in part because it's been so long since there was a mass socialist movement -- but also because the consumer/knowledge class are both workers and managers, ruled and rulers, and are invested in the system, however crappy it might be. The dominance of social and cultural themes -- the fact that this has become an idea of what the left is -- is doubly annoying because it is becoming clear to hundreds of millions of people that capitalism, as an all-encompassing system, is in a deep crisis. The depth of the crisis is so great that capitalists are openly talking about it. The crisis is of such magnitude because it's not a threat by external forces to the system, but one arising from its internal contradictions. Unrestrained by other forces, global capital has managed to shift the profit/wages ratio largely in its "favour" -- hence stagnant wages for decades, and the steady decline, especially in the UK and the US, of cities, public life, etc. This has left capital without consumers with purchasing power -- and, also, nowhere to invest. At the same time, the rate of automation, driven by Moore's Law, has raced ahead, ushering in a crisis of available work. In past crises, capital has used the state as "the board of management" of a capitalist economy, resetting wages, taxes, currency, etc, to restart demand -- even if individual firms are disadvantaged. Now, however, global corporations have no state to discipline capital collectively; money is shifted around in a manner that evades any re-organisation. This is one reason why so many can now see how crisis-ridden the system is -- because it is not delivering even the meagre benefits it promised. Any attempt to regroup capital in a rational fashion -- as per statist Keynesian post-war capitalism -- also runs up against the simplistic Promethean ideology that many capitalists now subscribe to: that wealth comes from "genius", "innovation" and "entrepreneurial daring", rather than labour (manual and intellectual). Wages must be ever-lowered, tax is robbery, and when capital has the overwhelming share, the magic new product -- an iPhone that gives massages and blowjobs -- will emerge and save the whole system. The ongoing crisis of capitalism has occurred at a time when an entirely new system of social organisation -- the digital revolution -- has emerged. Now there are millions of culture/knowledge workers who, every day, work with a system of co-ordination and steering that is implicitly post-capitalist. Instantaneous, multiple and massive, computers and the internet allow for real-time co-operation and production that is millions of times faster than the "catallactic" processes of market exchanges that Hayek identified as rendering the market indispensable. That is why, over the last two decades onwards, from Napster and the "privatised" human genome to the struggle over the academic papers market, capitalism's role is increasingly to hold back human ingenuity -- because ingenuity is racing ahead of the ability to commodify and privatise it. As the economy becomes more technical and knowledge-based, it creates an entire class of people who understand the irrationality of capitalism, not as an abstract point, but as a real problem to deal with every day. The flip side is that many see alternative ways in which complex systems could be steered, as practical and immediate. Privatised capitalism creates the conditions under which it will be bypassed, by those with the knowledge to do it. In this promising situation, you would want the "left" and Marxism to be identified with these possibilities -- which will eventually become necessities. Marx had both specific and general theories of capitalism, and while the more specific have been superseded by events -- the industrial working class did not become the agents of revolution -- the more general principles hold up well. In the wake of the 1917 October revolution, Marxism came to be seen as a guide to action, audacious history-changing achievements. But it is equally a theory of determination, of longer-range processes less amenable to immediate change. Marxism has become a theory of the long arc of capitalism -- of the things that the system can't do to save itself. Why, then, has a theory of mass material relations become something that most people see as expressed in campaigns around fluid gender identities? The answer is complex, but it depends on two problematic parts of Marx's approach. The first is that the superstructure -- all institutions and culture -- of a society are dictated by the "base" economic form, whether it be capitalism, feudalism, whatever. It's a simplistic view that doesn't explain much in society. One institution that Marx presented as part of being determined by the "base" was marriage and the role of women -- male and female being defined as "owner" and "property" in varying forms throughout history. The second is Marx's implication that human beings can radically liberate themselves from their natural given condition as biological beings. The idea of "communism", where the "world that should be" meets "the world that is" is the result of that idea. By the 1960s, it was clear that a more complex theory than base and superstructure was required to explain social life. To the rescue came '"structuralism", the idea that cultural values were constructed as a series of oppositions that defined each other -- male/female, night/day, ancient/modern, etc, etc. In anthropology, where it was developed, structuralism was seen as a way by which cultures organised the given features of nature into systems of meaning. The further structuralism departed from anthropology, the more the "arbitrary" nature of social meaning was emphasised. By the time it was incorporated into Marxist politics, any form of human relation was portrayed as utterly arbitrary. When that was fused with Marx's (perceived) disdain for the idea of a fixed human nature, then everything could be questioned. The dominance of heterosexuality could be taken as an arbitrary cultural form, rather than something determined by the biological drive to reproduce. Gender, rather than being the expression of a given, embodied form, was the arbitrary division of myriad identities into two exclusive forms. Because these things were all arbitrary, they could all be re-organised by collective human will. The path to communism was as much about liberating us from oppressive gender and sexuality notions as it was from economic oppression. Following this reasoning is what gets you to the point where the queer theory notions contained in some of the Safe Schools material -- that gender and sexuality are infinitely fluid, that they should be defined by no level of life other than the cultural and the radically free. The obvious thing about this theory is that almost no one really believes it -- and they certainly do not let it shape their lives. It's been a half-century since the social and cultural revolutions of the 1960s, and though the content of male and female roles has changed enormously, the external form of relations has changed barely at all. Three generations of children are or have been brought up since the '60s brought roles and identities into question -- despite that, almost no one brings up their kids as a sort of gender "open-source". Most people are far more tolerant of a certain fluidity of behaviour and self-styling among kids and adolescents than they were in earlier eras, but that doesn't mean they don't treat boy-children to understand themselves as boys, and girl-children as girls. It simply means they don't attach narrowly prescriptive roles to those as they might once have done. Across the inner cities of Melbourne, Sydney, etc, there are lefty, greeny, even Marxisty people coming out to defend Safe Schools -- and simultaneously wincing as some of the content of the program is revealed. They wince not because they think it's dangerous, but because they know it isn't -- for the most part, gender is anchored in biological givens, and no notion of fluidity or ideas of total separation of biological and cultural spheres is going to change that. It's simply a theory that didn't work. How then does it persist? The theory that social roles and identities are wholly arbitrary and undetermined came about after structuralism had been transferred from anthropology to literary and other cultural studies. In texts, the notion of full arbitrariness is accurate -- books and films can mix and match identities in any way they want. That's what makes art great. The textual readings by people like Roland Barthes were then transferred back into the sociology of modernity. Gender and sexuality could be read as a one-dimensional field, and vanilla straight heterosexuality taken as one manifestation among many, no more or less determined or necessary than any other. But to be a man or a woman is not like being a Collingwood supporter, a keen stamp-collector or a goth; it's not an identity that gets its meaning from its chosen-ness, but from its unchosen-ness. The sense that gendered identity has a deep meaning that ties us to nature and is prior to our conscious will is what makes it so rich and powerful. The multiple forms of queer gender identity have power because they draw on this deeper, dual level, which is given from nature as dual. Queer identities are various combinations of feminised masculinities or masculinised femininities -- there's no third, fourth or fifth genders to draw on, for the same reason that it is impossible to imagine a genuinely new colour, rather than new shades of existing ones. Different cultural systems may divide up the colours that are there differently, but there is no capacity to bring in new ones, because the visible spectrum is a product of light waves and the biology of the eye. So if, by and large, no one really lives in a fully arbitrary fashion, and if the theory is incoherent at its core, how does it persist? The short answer is that it keeps getting taught, with insufficient challenge or scrutiny. Taken from the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, made more radical by Levi-Strauss and then applied to society by queer theorists and post-structuralist feminists and "Marxists" in the 1980s, it remains overwhelmingly distributed through schools of literary and cultural studies. If you test it with pragmatist and use-based materialist theories of language such as Ludwig Wittgenstein's, or question it via full theories of world construction such as phenomenology, it falls apart almost immediately. But for the most part its enthusiasts never encounter these challenges. They pass from undergrad to grad to teaching, or policymaking and enforcement, assuming such an approach to be the unquestionable truth (Eleanor Robertson's much-praised essay in Meanjin is probably the most succinct statement of the position as an accepted and enforced, rather than argued or proven, truth -- especially in its uncomprehending treatment of Germaine Greer's genuinely Marxist-materialist feminism, as -- the shazam! word of the era -- "essentialism"). For people who work with texts, ideas, images -- things that are fluid and ceaselessly recombining -- the idea that life is such seems self-evident. It's on a par with the bourgeois who employs 80 people and calls himself a "self-made man". Both are ideologies arising from the class practice in question. By now it should be obvious how a theory that suggests that all cultural meanings are arbitrary and subject to revision connects up with Marxism. Such theories become the content of Marx's idea of a stage of history in which all conflict between "ought" and "is" has disappeared. Marx's communism was simply a secular version of heaven, and queer theory has a similar, surprising connection back to Judeo-Christian conceptions of meaning and identity. There's a lot of identities, selves, and self-shaping in the literature of Safe Schools -- there's a decided absence of actual bodies and sex, the viscous, vicious, unequal, powerful and chaos-bringing embodiment of sex, which is pretty uppermost in adolescents' lives. The identities seem to acquire meaning by being ethical and ordained. They certainly do the opposite of much of what they intend -- seeking to overturn the old medicalised categories of homosexuality, bisexuality, etc (a good thing), the Building Better Relationships document wants to assign a whole series of ready-made queer identities, in a manner that denies the genuine if not fluidity, then messiness of adolescent identities in which many have same- and opposite-sex attraction and identification in various moments and passages, before, by and large, choosing a lane, the widest one by far being vanilla straightness and solid identification with one's own body. Things like Safe Schools pop up because, as I've noted before, the new class around is the culture-knowledge-policy class, and it is through policy drafting and enactment that a certain type of social power is being wielded. It's the only place outside of the academic humanities, where "strong queer" theory can subsist. The current brouhaha has occurred because it has been made visible such a document of power, distorted it somewhat (though not hugely) and thus made clear the gap between the implicit ideas of gender enacted in the practice of everyday life, and theory that doesn't really lead to any sort of practice at all. The criticism one might make of Safe Schools from the left would come from this side, too. Most adolescents are on their way to plain old vanilla heterosexuality, with a few detours along the way. The queer identity approach would seek to solidify those detours and experimentations and explorations into queer identities. It has the distinct air of wanting to produce a desired outcome, rather than aligning with the flow of adolescent life. More broadly, one genuinely concerning outcome of this is the rise in the demand for, and delivery of, gender re-assignment surgery for adolescents. If what is occurring is the mutilation of a body to fit to what may be a transient identity, and if this is being encouraged as a truth to one's "real" (i.e. Ideal) self, then such theories are capable of doing real damage. What would a genuinely Marxist, or radical materialist approach, to this topic look like? It would be one that acknowledged the material fact of the human body, our groundedness in embodied gender that predates the emergence of our individual consciousness. It would acknowledge that the meaning of sex, whether casual, loved or whatever, its depth compared to all other experiences, comes necessarily from the grounded and given nature of embodied and gendered being, its ultimate opaqueness to our choices and intents. It would acknowledge that a gendered material form of being, evolving and adapting to its environment over hundreds of thousands of years, is likely to have different and deep-seated desires for each gender. Any individual might be able to override them, but collectively, they add up to irreducible difference and given forms of being. The radical or progressive process consists in peeling away the imposed and cultural attributes attached to gender, to recognise more clearly the ones that are deep-seated, and which dictate genuinely different needs, desires and conditions for the possibility of happiness -- and how they would be better recognised in a socialist society. There is far less difference between liberal feminism of the Sheryl Sandberg Lean In variety and queer feminism of the Judith Butler Gender Trouble school -- or, in general, between liberal politics and queer politics -- than the latter claim there to be. As we move further into capitalist crisis, and as more people become aware of the possibilities of a post-capitalist order that doesn't amount to state socialism, one would want people to see Marxism as a doctrine of liberation of the things most oppressing them, not the advancement of Idealist notions of gender and sexuality that they have never subscribed to.