The oppression ouroboros: Intersectionality eats itself

Jason Walsh
Economia
1.25.2014
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Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

— Macbeth, Act V, Scene V

For those of you lucky enough to live the real world, which is to say having no connection to academia, the Left, or Twitter, what follows may seem obscure to the point of being obtuse. Sadly it is neither.

Richard Seymour, a former junior intellectual in the Socialist Workers’ Party turned majordomo of the International Socialist Network, has been censured by his own organization. His crime? Defending “race play,” a form of racialized and sadistic sexual role playing. That he would even mount such a defense, according to his fellow intersectionalists, means Mr Seymour is racist. Anyone who pays attention to such things cannot but find it darkly comic. Mr Seymour himself has shown little mercy in the past, denouncing many of his opponents as beyond the pale. As the intersectionalists themselves might well say: “Wow. Such schadenfreude. Very gloating.” But the anathematizing of one ex-Marxist is just one short chapter in the development of an ideology so toxic that it threatens to drive a wedge into mainstream political discourse.

Intersectionality, devised in the late 1980s by UCLA law scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, is a theory of justice that’s been embraced by the radical left since the 2008 financial crisis. Though initially the theory was mostly influential in post-Apartheid South Africa, intersectionality proposes, modestly enough, that disadvantage — which its proponents call oppression — comes in many forms, forms that intersect with one another, not only compounding each other but dividing the interests of the oppressed. So, a black woman may be oppressed by white feminists, a black feminist herself may be oppressing gay women and all of them may be oppressing transsexual women. Since then it has taken up residence in university departments, particularly though far from exclusively, in the United States. Popular in social science and cultural studies, it has spread to disciplines as seemingly unrelated as literature, and, of course, is rapidly becoming dominant in gender studies.

So far, so what? Well, were this simply another academic fashion or cranky far left displacement activity it wouldn’t matter a jot. Its importance lies in the fact that not only does it specialize in the application of guilt and silencing through deploying epithets such as racist, misogynist, and homophobe, thus going some way toward making sincere debate impossible, but also because it fits so perfectly, not into radical politics, but into US-style social liberalism.

There are a number of factors that differentiate intersectionality from previous far left identity politics, such as the radical feminism of the 1970s or Eurocommunism of the 1980s. For a start the liberals, for want of a better word, got there first. Leaving aside the Gramsciite/Eurocommunist (in the UK) and New Left (in the US) antecedents of the theory, the core of intersectionality isn’t much more than multicultural babble, arranging pyramids of oppression, complaining of privilege, and clamoring for “recognition.” It’s for this very reason that it took off so rapidly: liberal-minded people were already receptive to the core idea. It thrives in academia for similar reasons: the dominance of “theory,” particularly postcolonial, critical, and Gramsciite, et al, and the thoroughgoing destruction of truth performed by the now passé postmodernists (who seem mild by comparison). Intersectionality is the tyranny of good intentions, bent badly out of shape.

Anyone who has had a run-in with them online may feel that intersectionalists seem like angst-ridden teenagers who’ve been given ham radios, but this stuff didn’t just spring from the ether. Despite its seemingly radical, even revolutionary, pretensions, intersectionality is little more than a partial inversion of John Rawls’ older Theory of Justice, filtered through a particularist American, and primarily black and feminist, lens, focused on achieving recognition.

The philosophical and historical ignorance displayed by many proponents of intersectionality, not to mention their philistinism, is breathtaking. This is the world viewed through the eyes of an Edwin Abbott Abbott character: everything is flat. Such a philosophically thin concept is useful precisely because it is malleable: the already-embattled literary canon, all of the great philosophers and political theorists — even those proposing liberation, such as feminists — they can be dismissed, or more accurately denounced, as oppressors.

In practice intersectionality is simply a series of mores, rigidly enforced by threat of excommunication from polite society. Disagree and you’re a misogynist, “white supremacist” (yes, this term, formerly reserved for the likes of the Ku Klux Klan, is commonplace in intersectional discourse) or transphobe. The only way to make amends is not to argue one’s corner as would be expected in traditional liberal discourse, but to admit the transgression, apologize, and promise to learn. Focussing on identity, intersectionality divides. This is its very raison d’être. It takes the postmodernist celebration of difference to its logical conclusion, rejecting as oppressive the universal political subject, be that expressed as the individual, the working class or anything else that might bring people together. It represents the reification of identity, in academic jargon. It’s a worldview that collapses individual agency, rejects the human subject, and masquerades as liberatory while in fact being essentialist.

Importantly, the internet is a huge factor in intersectionality’s spread: it not only allows advocates of the theory to organise, but also “swarm” opponents and shout them down. As a result Twitter sometimes seems like an endless, global Maoist “self-criticism” trial. As an aside, on a Facebook thread attempting to reeducate him one person bemoaned that Mr Seymour would have known better if he had spent more time on Tumblr. It sounds ridiculous, but microblogging web sites really are where intersectionalists learn this stuff: Tumblr, Twitter, and so on. A younger friend of mine espouses a great many intersectional ideas and has a hard time understanding my objections to it. He simply thinks that more or less everything is racist, homophobic, or misogynist, or some combination thereof.

The concept of intersectionality is also extremely American: placing race at the center of every issue, seeing all “white people” as a monolithic bloc, using American jargon and orthography. That’s not to say it’s not popular here, it is, just that if one wanted to be cheeky one might call it cultural imperialism. Alas, to do so would only fan the flames of madness. To use today’s common parlance, intersectionality is unsustainable. In its divisive “calling out” of all slights, perceived or real, it has turned left politics into the ouroboros wherein oppressions eat themselves.

As a result, intersectionality may well burn itself out, but I have a feeling it will do great damage in the process. Well meant, intersectionality is in fact little more than an invisible knapsack full of unverifiable grievances.

Addendum

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While my reposting of Jason Walsh’s article should not be taken as a wholesale endorsement of the views it contains, I agree with many of his assertions. In particular, there’s a connection between postmodernism and intersectionality as a critique of New Left identity politics (in favor of an ever more nebulous and overwrought identity politics, it turns out). Two comments appeared on Facebook when I posted this, both by John Gulick, which elaborate somewhat on the timeline of this theory’s inundation of nominally “leftist” practice. His comments are consolidated here into one and reproduced below.

John Gulick:
I wrote a long entry on this, but said fuck it and shut it down. To make a long story short: [Walsh’s] critique is great; the analysis of the contemporary drivers of the practice is on target, but he doesn’t get the genealogy of the discourse quite right. (He mostly ignores the 90’s US higher education milieu, especially left-liberal sociology and ancillary disciplines. No mention of Patricia Hill Collins and the banal race/gender/class holy trinity. Gen X’er grad students learned it then and there and transmitted it to the millennial kiddies, who took it online and then broke this plague out into the “real” world during Occupy and afterwards.)

But a semi-masterful piece nonetheless. There are a few or more 45-year-old Marxoid geezers like me, seasoned by this crap back in the 1990s, who might vaguely recall intersectionality’s ruefulness. We wondered where in the world it re-emerged from in recent years, banshee-like. Walsh’s answer is not fresh to me, but nonetheless it is the answer

5 thoughts on “The oppression ouroboros: Intersectionality eats itself

  1. CULTURAL IMPERIALIST!!!!!

    Said it now. It’s true. Wha’tcha gunna do about it, white boi???

    And, you Ross, wha’tcha doin collaborating with these inter-intersectionalist dissectors? After another skeleton to crack apart & adorn your oh-so-pretty-pretty blog? Dats typical of u cracker dudes! More First Nation peeps used as ornaments!!

    All of you, join the Party on tumblr, get real. Occupy the occupiers!!

  2. In this analysis the roots of everything are still found in the superstructure. Such an approach furthers a subjective approach to understanding the relationship of forces in the contemporary class struggle. From where I stand it is the class struggle and the prospects for advancing the interests of the working class that matters.
    Perhaps the proceeding comments are yet another flogging of an already deceased and well punished mare, but since that has not stopped anyone else in this conversation if feel here at liberty to repeat some themes.
    The most important one is the connection of these politics to the profoundly progressive and defining political struggles of the 20th century. That the rhetoric of national liberation struggles of the post-World-War II period resurfaced in a reactionary form in the academy at about the time that these great movements had spent their force–let’s say concurrent to and after the overthrow of Apartheid in South Africa should not be totally surprising.
    As I said in another post to a significant extent these politics are a sort of victory but one that surfaces as the context of the class struggle has altered fundamentally.
    It is a victory for the working class that there are departments of woman’s or feminist studies, African or Black and Asian studies in the academy, and that forms of affirmative action–however distorted by capitalism have expanded diversity at various levels in bourgeois society. The class differentiation which takes place amongst oppressed national groups as well as among women and queers is oddly an objective of the proletarian position defending the right of nations to self determination and opposing all forms of sex and gender discrimination. The extension of a petty-bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie of color the attainment of high positions in capitalist society by women, the open and out participation of members of the LGBT community in banking and finance, all of this is in our favor. That such individuals–from the lowly adjunct faculty member gunning for a full time spot and jealous of the earnings of the local barkeep to Janet Yellen, Barack Obama and Marissa Mayer may, or individually may not utilize conscious forms of reverse discrimination for the attainment of their goals should surprise the student of Capital not at all. This is the basic competitive nature of capitalism at work. As white men have taken advantage of the good ol’ boys clubs, Skull and Bones, gender segregated houses of worship and the Harvard University Alumni Association for decades, centuries or millennia, so now new forces are at play in the zero sum celebrity death match which is the capitalist system. This phenomenon mirrors the relative rise in power of second world bourgeois national state regimes worldwide who are also feeling their oats as competitors in the world economy.

    Class conscious workers and defenders of the social interests of the working class should understand that greater unity of our class is predicated upon the revelation of class and economic forces as the motor of capitalist oppression. As communists who trace our lineage back to the 1st International and through the Bolsheviks we should celebrate the rupture of imperial hegemony signified by these developments including their refection in the academy and the petty-bourgeois liberal left.
    In terms of what is to be done, for the most part, train our focus away from these layers who are not and will not be in the van of the next waves of transformative social struggle. The idea that the middle class left is the milieu from which to build a movement of struggle is the most fundamental flaw. It is this notion which leaves some of us trapped within the confines of the useless discourse well described above. But the argument to be won is with the next generation and most importantly with the working class directly.

  3. Pingback: “Race-play” and BDSM revisited: Looking back at the ISN split | The Charnel-House

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