Capitalism, Facebook, and the accommodation of difference

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A cultural milestone has been reached. Or so it would seem.

Earlier this week Facebook introduced a new option that allows users to customize their gender identity. Up to this point, only two categories had been available — the traditional binary of male and female. Now there’s a total of 56 different gender identities to choose from. (Just to be clear, it’s not a free-for-all. While the total number of options has increased more than twentyfold, one can’t enter in just anything. More options may yet be added, but for the moment that’s all there is. For a full list, see the Denver Post’s article on the subject).

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am on the whole fairly unimpressed by intersectionality and identity politics, their dubious claims to “subversiveness” and radicalism, and so on. In my view, it’s nothing more than a form of postmodern theory combined with left-liberal micropolitics, mostly focused on social justice issues and matters of media representation. Overtures are occasionally made in the direction of a vague, deracinated “idea” of communism, and there is an assumed anticapitalist ethos amongst its adherents. The notion that intersectionality or identity politics necessarily leads one to adopt a revolutionary political position has never struck me as convincing, as most of its concrete demands (for recognition, formal equality, inclusion) seem to me perfectly compatible with bourgeois parliamentary democracy.

Setting aside my flippant, sometimes overly dismissive attitude toward these tendencies, I’m honestly curious: How do people feel about the new Facebook gender options? Especially those for whom gender serves to orient their politics. Does this wider range of available categories constitute an important cultural victory? What does Facebook’s apparent willingness to embrace gender diversity say about capitalism’s ongoing ability to adapt to and accommodate difference?

Initial responses have varied — from outrage to indifference, all the way up to exuberance. Aoife Emily Hart, a comp. lit. adjunct and scholar of trans* feminism and interculturality, is positively ecstatic. She writes:

I’m thrilled. Hooray. I’m willing to declare this a Battle of Endor sized victory.

My highest props to FB for introducing a more comprehensive — and, for the most part, culturally aware — set of gender referents besides and beyond the static binary. We move from subjugation to intersubjective multiplicities of self-empowerment.

Do we? I’m not so sure.

Gender bender

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These questions are prompted by an astute observation made by a commenter who happened across one of my old posts. Nilofar Ansher — a writer, editor, and researcher from India who blogs over at Trail of Papercuts — wryly noted “Facebook’s recent ‘inclusive’ view of gender and sexual orientation categorization.” Fifty-six categories? Really? How did they arrive at this precise number? Why not fifty-seven? (It should be mentioned, though, before proceeding any further, that these newfangled categories have not yet been implemented across the board. My comrade, Angela Nagle from Ireland, reported a case of combined/uneven development. Lagging behind as usual, Europe is still trapped in the dark ages, with only two gender options to choose from as of yesterday night. Similarly my friend Pablo, a gay Argentinian immigrant to the US, told me that the Spanish-language version of Facebook hasn’t yet been updated along these lines). Continue reading

Postscript on identity, intersectionality

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Over the last week the whole internet’s been aflutter with righteous rage and condemnation, all stemming from the publication of a couple articles critiquing identity politics and intersectionality on the Left. “Exiting the vampire castle,” a piece addressing the former of these topics, appeared on The North Star five days ago. Its author, Mark Fisher, known for his widely-acclaimed monograph Capitalist Realism from 2009, sought to isolate and describe a rather corrosive tendency within contemporary leftist discourse. He christened this tendency “the Vampires’ Castle”:

The Vampires’ Castle specialises in propagating guilt. It is driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd. The danger in attacking the Vampires’ Castle is that it can look as if — and it will do everything it can to reinforce this thought — that one is also attacking the struggles against racism, sexism, heterosexism. But, far from being the only legitimate expression of such struggles, the Vampires’ Castle is best understood as a bourgeois-liberal perversion and appropriation of the energy of these movements. The Vampires’ Castle was born the moment when the struggle not to be defined by identitarian categories became the quest to have “identities” recognised by a bourgeois big Other.

Several weeks ago I posted an exchange between Michael Rectenwald and me about “identity” as “the bane of the contemporary Left,” along with a follow-up on the shifting significance of the term “identitarian” within critical theory. These are somewhat relevant to the topic at hand. Anyway, Fisher’s article almost immediately unleashed an unholy shitstorm (stricto sensu) of leftish snark and indignation across the web. Both in the comment thread and beyond, throughout the Twitterverse and numerous repostings on Facebook walls, supporters and detractors alike hashed it out in an orgy of opprobrium and vicious accusations. Lost amidst all this pseudo-controversy and scandal-mongering was any sense of scale or circumspection. These are usually the first casualties of such disputes, of course.

When the dust finally settled (has it settled?), not a few articles had been written. Some were rejoinders to Fisher’s original posting. A few figures also rose to his defense. It’d be pointless to try to reconstruct all these interventions, however, so for now a list will have to suffice.

First, we have his opponents:

Next up, Fisher’s allies:

Heartfield’s piece, incidentally, is the other article I alluded to at the outset. Though it must’ve seemed like a pre-planned, two-pronged assault in conjunction with Fisher’s critique of the Vampires’ Castle, both were written and accepted for publication without prior knowledge of each other. Strangely enough, they just happened to be released around the same time, Heartfield’s a couple days later. Which is why I include it here.

Regardless, there were a couple other responses that took a more ambivalent stance toward the whole affair. Three articles belong to this “third camp”:

Krul’s article was probably the best of the bunch so far, in any of these “camps” — though that isn’t saying very much. In addition to this, there was also apparently some sniping from the leftist blogger Richard Seymour (who goes by the quaint handle “Lenin”). Seymour also took to Twitter to register his opinion of Heartfield’s criticisms of intersectionality. According to Seymour, “Heartfield’s article is classic male backlash/ ex-RCP contrarianism.” He kept his remarks about Fisher a bit more private, posting them on his Facebook wall. When one of Fisher’s associates alerted him to these comments, he had only this to say:

The Reverend Seymour is moraliser-in-chief, who’s built his career on condemning and excommunicating. But nobody cares about these people beyond a very narrow, self-defined online “Left” — they are emperors in Liliput…

A fairly accurate portrayal, at least in my experience. Part of the latter-day Left’s modus operandi is to shamelessly shun or “no platform” its opponents, thereby skirting any substantial disagreement in favor a narrow ideological line of acceptable deviations. Everything else is considered abhorrent and must be ignored unto oblivion. Surprising stuff, considering the stakes are so low. The real, i.e. historical, Lenin gladly met and talked politics with imperialist boosters like the Fabian H.G. Wells and the pro-war anarchist Petr Kropotkin after 1914. What an age we live in. Continue reading

You can’t spell “intersectionality” without “sect”

A dissection

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The concept of “intersectionality” is at best equivalent to unthought social complexity. Even then it is misleading, and potentially pernicious. 
At worst it’s just a meaningless pomo shibboleth used to stifle debate, obscure universal dynamics of capitalist society, and encourage methodological eclecticism (under the questionable pretext of a “plurality” of approaches). See the recent “‘Safe’ Spaces” piece I reposted from the CPGB’s Weekly Worker a couple months back to see the kind of spiraling madness to which this nonsense often leads.

It’s the continuation of identity politics by other means, to paraphrase Clausewitz.

Rejecting intersectionality and identity politics does not mean reasserting a crude “class reductionist” model promoting “working-class identity,” however, as Mark Fisher seems to contend in his recent article “Exiting the Vampire Castle” (otherwise a serviceable critique of “identitarian” politics, which are always welcome). After all, this would just be another species of economic determinism, the sort that eventually leads leftists to search for “alien class elements” to root out, explaining ideological deviations by pointing to one’s petit-bourgeois upbringing (for example).

Over the summer I was hoping to co-write something with my friend Jasmine Curcio, a radical feminist and Marxist from Australia, in response to Seymour’s post back in March on “The Point of Intersection.” I’m guessing the title of this entry alludes to the older Marxian concept of “the point of production.” Sadly, Jasmine became busy with university work, and I’ve been bogged down with other projects. James Heartfield’s piece will therefore have to do for now. Luckily his article is quite good. He’s better read in the history of these concepts than most of their proponents, at least. Also, it has the virtue of remaining pretty ad rem, which is more than can be said for most of Heartfield’s critics. George Galloway is one figure I find particularly repulsive, however. I’m not really bothered by Russell Brand, Lily Allen, or Julie Bindel.

Harry Pregerson Interchange, a particularly hellish intersection

Harry Pregerson Interchange, a particularly hellish intersection

Intersectional? Or just sectarian?

James Heartfield
Mute Magazine

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Is self-styled revolutionary Russell Brand really just a “Brocialist”? Is Lily Allen’s feminist pop-video racist? Is lesbian activist Julie Bindel a “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist” Is Respect MP George Galloway a “rape apologist”? Welcome to the world of “intersectionalism” — or what we used to call sectarianism.

“My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.” This was Flavia Dzodan’s angry challenge to a feminist slogan on a placard on a “slutwalk” march, “woman is the nigger of the world.” Dzodan did not like the “white feminist” laying claim to her the oppression suffered by women of color. “Am I supposed to ignore the violence that ensued in the N* word discussion?’ Dzodan asked: “Am I supposed to overlook its blatant violence in the name of sisterhood?”[1]

Dzodan’s meme “intersectional” was widely taken up amongst radical campaigners and bloggers. Intersectionality seemed to be a way to balance the different claims of oppressed groups. No one would be ignored, or folded into the other. Intersectional feminism would not ignore the special problems faced by black women. Nor would anti-racist campaigners ignore sexism. The watchword of intersectionality was that you should “check your privilege” before making any claims.[2]

For the radical left “intersectionality” seemed to be a way of “achieving effective political unity among the oppressed.”[3] Those leftists were embarrassed by their own tradition, which seemed to them to be too mannish. They felt they had ignored questions of oppression, and would make amends through an intersectional approach. The older texts that saw women’s oppression as a footnote to the class struggle were set aside.[4] Continue reading