Poststructuralism and decline

Rex Dunn argues that sexism within the left is not the root cause for the rise of political correctness and identity politics

Recently we have witnessed another outburst over ‘sexual misconduct’ and ‘sexual harassment’, which is lasting longer than usual. But this time it raised its ugly head within the ‘seat of democracy’ itself. Defence minister Sir Michael Fallon confessed that his conduct fell below acceptable standards and fell on his sword. But other ministers hung onto their posts, despite being guilty of gross incompetence, even insubordination (although the latter proved to be a step too far). Then May received a reality check. Save Brexit! So political correctness had to give way to political expediency.

Others were not so fortunate. After being suspended from office over allegations of sexual misconduct, Welsh Labour minister Carl Sergeant killed himself (the fact that he was not told who his accuser was proved to be the last straw). One is reminded of the bad old days of McCarthyism: just replace the communist smear with allegations of sexual misconduct.

The latest outburst started with the scandal surrounding movie mogul Harvey Weinstein (hitherto a friend of Hillary Clinton). Within days it had gone viral worldwide. This was just after Channel 4’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s classic, The handmaid’s tale, ended. It is a story about political correctness and what might happen if it ever became the ruling ideology! Therefore I think it is appropriate to reflect on this theme, starting with the story itself.

The handmaid’s tale was written in the 1980s and predicts what the world might be like in the near future: ie, now. The story is narrated by Offred, a handmaid (whose name is derived from her master, Fred). Her thoughts are pervaded with nostalgia for a lost ‘Eden’, when women as well as men were ‘free’ to follow their sexual desires. She muses on the difference between past and present: Now there is more than one kind of freedom ...

Freedom to and freedom from ... women on their own. [Once] they wore blouses with buttons down the front. These women could be undone or not. They seemed to be able to choose ... [But in reality] We were a society dying … of too much choice (pp34-35).

Men proved unable to cope with sexual equality. Some behaved very badly. Offred has to admit that things like ‘date rape’ also happened. On the other hand, the commander himself says, some women were so desperate not to be left by the wayside, they “starved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of silicone, had their noses cut off. Think of the misery” (p231). Male sexual desire is deemed to be synonymous with sexism. (This cannot be responded to, for fear that a woman connives with being a sexual object). It must be punished.

Presumably Atwood was writing this in response to the fact that the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s had turned sour. For the religious fundamentalists, whom she satirises, “all that is holy is profaned”. Women had won the right to control their own bodies, which removes the authority of both church and state. The contraceptive pill allowed women a degree of freedom, such as more access to education and employment; women could file for divorce on equal terms.

Although it might be weakened, patriarchy is still deeply embedded within class society. Unlike the sexual revolution itself, it stubbornly refuses to yield to the ‘nihilism’ of the bourgeois mode of production. Misogyny refuses to go away (see also Erica Jong’s novel, Fear of flying, written in 1973, which she said was inspired by the ideal of erotic pleasure between men and women, but “there is no power game”.) On the other hand, it is no good if a few women want to gain power over men in an egotistical power game, any more than it is for them to become prime minister or president of the United States, only to behave like their male counterparts: ie, they put their class interests first; the bottom line is to preserve the rule of capital at all costs!

Atwood’s tale also depicts another problem: following a series of ecological disasters, women have become infertile; hence the need to hunt down and control fertile women. The Republic of Gilead (somewhere in New England) uses the state apparatus to impose a rigid code of sexual conduct, whilst the ‘handmaids’ (fertile women) are used as breeders. Sex is for procreation only. The state is ruled by ‘commanders’; they are helped by ‘guardians’ (men who are denied relationships with women, ranging from soldiers to chauffeurs and general workmen). Then there are the female ‘Marthas’ (who run domestic affairs). They are answerable to the commander’s wives, but still have the power to discipline ‘recalcitrant’ handmaids with cattle prods. Sometimes they order their charges to beat to death a man accused of rape. Anyone who is caught carrying out abortions is hanged publicly, as in olden times.

Liberal defeat

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and Atwood got it wrong. The handmaid’s tale is a lament for the lost hopes of the sexual revolution. But the reasons why it failed are much more complex. As it turned out, the rise of political correctness was the result of developments within the secular sphere, not the religious one.

The defeat of the May events in 1968 had an adverse effect on the intelligentsia. Marxism fell out of favour and was replaced by something called poststructuralism, which ultimately led to the notion that ‘Men are the problem’ (not capitalism). Out of this came today’s political correctness. It did not come about as a result of the ravings of fanatical preachers about sexual immorality, who were able, somehow, to spread the gospel far and wide. Rather, come the presidential election of 2016, the bible belt gritted its teeth and voted for an irreligious businessman, with a reputation for ‘womanising’, who is also a bigot and a racist - as did a large swathe of middle America, which included many women, even a few black people.

Against the odds, the strategy of neoliberalism, upon which global capitalism has depended since the 1980s, was upended by an illiberal upstart. For the time being, Trump is the most powerful man in the world. He has his hand on the nuclear trigger. Yet he is an avowed isolationist (‘America first!’) and threatens to tear up existing international agreements on climate and trade.

The liberal wing of the bourgeoisie was defeated, at least for the time being. Its doctrine had sufficed during the previous decades, but now it was being rejected by at least half the population. Hillary Clinton lost despite being a staunch advocate of political correctness: women’s rights, as well as the rights of gay, bisexual and transgender people, not forgetting black people. She also had the backing of the traditional media, along with the entrepreneurs who own the social media. Last, but not least, she had the support of Hollywood and most of the entertainment industry.

How did this happen? ‘It’s the economy, stupid’, as someone famously said. Trump’s victory clearly shows that the American working class, in particular, rejects the liberal version of neoliberalism, because political correctness does nothing to stop their living standards from falling. As a result, instead of ensuring that we have a better, more tolerant society, political correctness appears to have lost its power to glue an increasingly pluralistic society together; instead it has become more like an insect repellent! Thus its advocates become more shrill.


In order to understand the contradictory role of political correctness in society today, I offer the following themes:

1. Political correctness started out as a movement pledged to stamp out offensive language and behaviour associated with sexism and racism. But now it has become associated with the idea that ‘men are the problem’ in society. In other words, not only are the old sexist ways unacceptable: it is also claimed that male sexual abuse of women has reached epidemic proportions (although no clear evidence is given). Therefore the state should intervene and police ‘inappropriate behaviour’ of all kinds, whereas previously it was accepted that sexual relations are a private matter: most of us are endowed with sufficient sensitivity and social awareness to be able to sort out this among ourselves. On the other hand, there has always been a minority of men who commit serious offences against woman, such as domestic violence and rape. But there are laws in place to deal with such offences.

Women are more empowered today than they were yesterday. So why do they need the state or some institution to intervene on their behalf? The number of serious sexual offenders among men must be roughly the same proportion of the population as they were before, although they are more likely to be reported. But if things really are as bad as the establishment would have us believe, then bourgeois society is in big trouble.

2. We are living in a culture wherein a small but growing number of men feel ashamed about being heterosexual. They now have the opportunity to change their sex, thanks to bio-technology. Some analysts see a connection between the present ethos and the rise of the transgender phenomenon. Certainly male to female transsexuals are three times more common than female to male.1

3. The idea of gender fluidity is popular, because it is media-driven - ie, sensationalist, which appeals to young people in particular; including children (some of whom have their parents’ support).

4. At a theoretical level, this is linked to the ideas of poststructuralism - the ‘logics of disintegration’ which arose in the 1970s and 80s. But without the poisonous legacy of Stalinism - in particular the defeat of 1968 - there would be no poststructuralism; without the latter, there would be no political correctness in its present form!

5. Poststructuralism is closely linked to the theory of postmodernism. The latter may be interpreted in two ways: (i) it stands for the rise of a new movement within the arts, based on new media, although it does away with traditional aesthetics dating back to antiquity, which were re-engaged with by the enlightenment philosophy; (ii) the concept has also been broadened to include the idea that late capitalism has ushered in a whole new epoch for humanity, based on new technologies, such as the digital media, as well as bio-technology and artificial intelligence.

6. The ‘logics of disintegration’ is reflected in the rise of identity politics, as an antidote to sexual and racial stereotypes under the impact of the commodity form, mass consumerism and the mass media society: ie, as a search for individuality. But this is based on (i) a rejection of all ‘totalising theories’ and (ii) the methodology of subjective idealism (as opposed to Marxism and dialectical materialism), which leads to the valorisation of ideas such as pluralism and relativism; difference or fluidity. Hence identity politics, as a new political form, becomes the ‘perfect’ vehicle for movements such as second- and third-wave feminism, Black Lives Matter, etc, although this form is now being undermined by the rise of intersectionality: ie, it is being split asunder by internecine conflicts between the various sub-groups.

7. Political correctness provides a fig-leaf for liberal neoliberalism, since the ideas of liberty and equality are extended to the market; therefore it should not be interfered with by government. Hence these ideas have the enthusiastic support of corporate capitalists, backed by the main bourgeois political parties. Neoliberalism stands for the following:

Thus we end up with the neoliberal ethos, which argues that this is for the ‘greater good’, dressed up by the ideology of political correctness.

8. The latter also plays a role in the new middle class political movements, which emerged after the financial crisis of 2008. They have had considerable success (at least in the short term) in organising the masses against the bourgeoisie’s austerity strategy, which were imposed as a way out of the crisis: eg, the Occupy movement, Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, the Catalan separatist movement, etc. But leftwing populism, in whatever form, is a diversion for the new rise in the class struggle in the last few years (however distorted), because it continues to espouse illusions in reformism, such as the parliamentary road to power (with the masses as election fodder); wealth redistribution and Keynesian economics (public borrowing to finance growth), epitomised by such slogans as ‘For the many, not the few’. By contrast, the revival of revolutionary socialist ideas and Marxist parties is the only way forward for the masses; otherwise the present structural crisis of capitalism will continue to deepen.

9. 2016 marked a watershed moment, when neoliberalism’s new illiberal wing won out against the failed policies of its liberal wing. The rise of rightwing populism, based on the anger of the so-called ‘left behinds’ - viz, the increasingly pauperised middle class - provided the impetus for Trump’s victory and the election of anti-immigration governments in central Europe. What they all share in common is a rising xenophobic and nationalist outlook, which threatens further economic and political disintegration.

First and foremost, poststructuralism has to be seen as part of the poisonous legacy of Stalinism itself. The left intelligentsia abandoned Marxism, only to end up lost inside an intellectual fog of its own making, which continues to linger. Yet this comes at a time when capitalism is further down the road of decline and transition.

As Atwood makes clear in The handmaid’s tale, political correctness is not a crude ideological offensive. (Those who support its ideas no doubt believe in them - their anxiety or paranoia is palpable.) It has spread beyond the intelligentsia to society’s hallowed institutions. Recently the archbishop of Canterbury was reported to have said that any child should be allowed to wear male or female clothing to school, since it is important to the development of their individual identity. Clearly he has bought into the ‘politically correct’ idea that sexual stereotypes are the root cause of predatory male behaviour. (But, as Atwood also points out in another novel, The robber bride, women can behave likewise - although they do so by exploiting their role as sexual objects.)

The problem with political correctness is that it has an unstable foundation. Given the ‘logics of disintegration’, in both theory and practice, the fight against sexism and racism is based on the notion of the fluidity of forms, whereby ultimately you can become a transgender (for the small minority who undertake full sexual reassignment, this is a long and difficult process, which is irreversible), or you can become a ‘sexless third gender’. The latter is contrary to Marx’s notion of the essence of things, whereby an entity or form is the basis of the characteristics which make it what it is; hence we can talk about how it functions.2 Similarly poststructuralism’s logic of disintegration produces the notion of the fluidity of the gender form, which aggregates temporarily within identity politics as a political form, in order to represent the interests of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups, only to disintegrate yet again, following the rise of intersectionality. Therefore now the women’s movement has to contend with new conflicts within it: between white/black women; middle class/working class; straight/gay; second-wave/third-wave feminism, etc. This undermines the fight against sexism and racism.

Women’s movement

The evolution of the women’s movement since the 1960s is another example of ‘negative dialectics’ in action. The negation of the negation leaves the struggle worse off than it was before: first-wave feminism (aka socialist feminism) grew out of the revolutionary movement that sprang up during the Vietnam war in the 60s and 70s. Socialist feminism is premised on the idea that capitalism is responsible for the exploitation and oppression of both sexes, although men act as its agents via the ideology and practice of patriarchy, linked to sexist behaviour, which predates class society itself. It had long been assumed that men are the ‘natural’ leaders of society: for centuries they were the sole owners of property and the basis of inheritance; they dominated education and the structures of power; finally, since they were the breadwinners, they had to be the head of the family, and so on.

However modern capitalism, via the commodity form, then the post-war boom, broke down many of these structures. But not all of them - therefore patriarchy and sexism stubbornly refuse to go away. So for socialist feminists, women have to organise themselves to fight against patriarchy wherever it exists, in order to change men’s consciousness, so that the revolutionary party is fit for purpose.

This did not happen. Second-wave feminism emerged as a negative response to this failure, reinforced by the fact that, due to the continuation of sexist behaviour among men, the sexual revolution had turned sour. Thus second-wave feminists decided that ‘men are the problem’ after all; hence women can do without them sexually. (Camille Paglia personifies this trend.)

Wikipedia provides a good analysis of third-wave feminism:

Third-wave ideology focuses on a more poststructuralist interpretation of gender and sexuality. In ‘Deconstructing equality-versus-difference: or the uses of poststructuralist theory for feminism’ Joan W Scott describes how language has been used as a way to understand the world. However, “poststructuralists insist that words and texts have no fixed or intrinsic meanings, that there is no transparent or self-evident relationship between them and ideas or things; no basic or ultimate correspondence between language and the world”. Thus, while language has been used to create binaries (such as male/female), poststructuralist feminists see these binaries as artificial constructs created to maintain the power of dominant groups ...

Some third-wave feminists prefer not to call themselves feminists, as the word ‘feminist’ can be misinterpreted as insensitive to the fluid notion of gender and the potential oppressions inherent in all gender roles … Others have kept and redefined the term to include these ideas ...

Third-wave feminism seeks to challenge any universal definition of femininity ... In the introduction of To be real: telling the truth and changing the face of feminism [Rebecca Walker] writes: “Whether the young women who refuse the feminist label realise it or not, on some level they recognise that an ideal woman born of prevalent notions of how empowered women look, act or think is simply another impossible contrivance of perfect womanhood, another scripted role to perform in the name of biology and virtue.”3

Here we can see a rejection of the biological basis of gender, on the grounds that it is synonymous with sexism; whereas sexism is a social construct, which can be eradicated as part of the struggle for socialism.

The Wikipedia article on identity politics quotes from “leftwing author Owen Jones”, who argues that identity politics often marginalises the working class:

In the 1950s and 1960s, leftwing intellectuals who were both inspired and informed by a powerful labour movement wrote hundreds of books and articles on working class issues. Such work would help shape the views of politicians at the very top of the Labour Party. Today, progressive intellectuals are far more interested in issues of identity ... Of course, the struggles for the emancipation of women, gays and ethnic minorities are exceptionally important causes. New Labour has coopted them, passing genuinely progressive legislation on gay equality and women’s rights, for example. But it is an agenda that has happily coexisted with the sidelining of the working class in politics, allowing New Labour to protect its radical flank, while pressing ahead with Thatcherite policies.4

There is a problem, only so far as what we now call the LGBT movement fails to develop a level of consciousness which would allow it to identify with the working class. But it is prevented from doing so by its adherence to poststructuralist theory.

As for intersectionality, this breaks down different aspects of identity within identity politics: middle class/working class women; black/white women. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. On the basis of women’s reported experiences, it leads to discrimination and abuse within feminism - so mainstream feminism is unable to unite its component parts, which leads to further fragmentation. This is even before we get to the important question of class unity.

A reactionary ideology must be tolerated out of respect for la différence: eg, Muslim women who want to continue wearing the veil should be allowed to do so; there is no need to debate with them and try to explain (i) the importance of destroying patriarchy wherever we find it, because it is the basis of men’s power over women in class society, regardless of religion or culture; (ii) the importance of preserving the idea of secular society, which is undermined by bourgeois multiculturalism. Rather the secular argument insists that religion is a private matter and should not be given special status, because patriarchy and the oppression of women are an integral part of all religions. Therefore we have to struggle for the right to criticise all cultures that are dominated by patriarchy.

In this connection I would like to make six points:

As Marxists, we should make this clear in our propaganda and interventions. We should not take sides in the struggle within the women’s movement. In this regard Paul Demarty is right to draw attention to second-wave feminists, who insist on “the chromosomal requirements of the sisterhood - the so-called ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminists or terfs’, who are then … hounded out of universities by the local student left”.5 But he should have followed that up by saying we defend the right to free speech of all minority groups: ie, we are opposed to the ‘no platforming’ policy in principle. At the same time, we have the right to criticise both wings, as well as the disintegrating tendencies within identity politics, etc.


As an aside, how far can we push nature’s envelope? In 2013, two American academics, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, issued a ‘Manifesto for an Accelerated Politics’, affirming “mastery, technology and the liberator possibilities of capitalism if pushed beyond its limits”. This includes the “post-gender dreams of radical feminism” and even more: ie, the possibility of a “new kind of human being … an interventionist approach to the human”, an embrace of “individual bodily experimentation”, set against “restricted images of the human”. All this amounts to a “new human with a new body’, in conjunction with the creation of a new society, whose agency is the “internet generation”.6 As Atwood says in The robber bride, “manufactured alternatives become the truth”. Homo Deus here we come!

It is difficult to disagree with the criticism that post-capitalism is just another example of technological utopianism. As Marxists, our answer must be that only communist society, in which “the associated producers regulate their interchange with nature rationally, bring it under their common control, instead of being ruled by some blind power, can establish the material basis for the development of human power which is its own end, the true realm of freedom”.7 But first there has to be a social revolution, consciously organised, whose agency is the working class; otherwise the material basis for such a transformation will not be established. Whether communist society will resemble the fantastic dreams of the post-capitalists is highly unlikely.

Guy Debord invented the concept. He defines it as follows:

It is the very heart of society’s real unreality ... news, propaganda, advertising or the actual consumption of entertainment ... [which] serves as the total justification for the conditions and aims of the system ... [and] governs all time spent outside the production process itself.8

But in line with the new age of sexual fluidity:

When feminists appear on TV, they speak about the need to ‘empower women’. At the same time, they omit to mention the fact that millions of women in the public sector are among the lowest paid; that not nearly enough money is being spent on women’s refuges, which exist in order to protect women against abusive partners, and so thousands of women are vulnerable to further abuse.

In the real world, the working class sticks to the old ways, even though these are distorted by sexual stereotypes. Therefore it does not take kindly to political correctness, associated with the idea of policing what should be a private matter between individuals. Atomised though they may be, the masses stubbornly adhere to the idea of binary opposites within nature or the biological basis of human sexuality. This does not mean that men should not adopt feminine roles within sex and vice versa, although the principle of binary opposites still holds (even within LGBT relationships). On the other hand, as I have shown, the idea of fluidity of gender forms sprang from the intelligentsia - ie, poststructuralism - with the broad support of the middle classes. Hence the biological basis of sex is denied: everything, including sexuality, is a ‘social construct’! Yet without advances in medical technology, this would not be possible. For most trans people, this is also a lifestyle choice, despite the fact that a high proportion of them suffer from physical and psychological side effects.

Understandably, therefore, for most working class people, transgenders are at best looked upon as a special kind of celebrity, thanks to the role of the media. At worst this leads to attacks against LGBT people (not just gays). Meanwhile, we now have the theory of intersectionality, which has led to more sectarian disputes within the LGBT community. It is no wonder that the majority of people find the whole thing confusing.

Decline and transition

I would argue most of the above is a symptom of capitalist decline and transition. Hillel Ticktin states that decline occurs

when the poles of a contradiction become more and more difficult to mediate … What happens, however, if there is no mediation possible between the poles of a contradiction? Then disintegration ensues.9

Ticktin concentrates on the mode of production itself, as opposed to Marx’s economic base/superstructure model: ie, he does not give sufficient weight to the superstructure - in particular, what happens in the absence of the subjective factor (consciousness). Therefore we do not end up with a communist society.

That said, he acknowledges that

Some people argue that decline must show itself as an absolute decline, in which there are visible signs of a civilisation which is going in a downwards direction ... The standard of living, growth, morality, education and the overall standard of learning, from this point of view, must also decline. In so far as this did occur, we are talking about the decay of society itself, quite apart from the decline of the mode of production.10

Whilst I agree that the decline of the mode of production is the result of objective tendencies, I disagree with the implication that Ticktin sometimes gives: ie, that these objective tendencies might lead to the transition to socialism. But if the subjective factor fails to develop - namely a revival of revolutionary consciousness - surely there will be no transition to socialism. Therefore, on the one hand, we can observe the “evolution of capitalism towards greater centralisation and government control and so the alteration of value and the limitation of the market”, despite the bourgeoisie’s hypocritical stance on democracy.11 But, on the other, given the contradiction between this and the disintegration of culture and society in general, it appears that we will have a form of transition which is worse than existing capitalism.

So where do we go from here? First and foremost, as Peter Dews says, “the logics of disintegration can ultimately be resisted on logical grounds”.12 The intelligentsia has to return to the “totalising theory” of Marxism, otherwise all is lost.



1. Those who undertake sexual reassignment surgery are far fewer than the number of people who identify as transsexual; but the latter is increasing rapidly, especially among 18-24-year-olds. This does not include those born with biological defects, which is less than 0.01% of the population. As for the connection between transgender and mental health problems, this is difficult to verify. I would prefer to say that the transgender phenomenon is a symptom of the Zeitgeist, augmented by the ‘real unreality’ of the media. But on the question of the connection between suicide and transgenders, according to the US National Transgender Discrimination survey in 2011, 41% of transgenders have attempted suicide, against a background of physical assault, harassment and job loss.

2. Cf Scott Meikle’s explanation of Marx’s approach to the value form: The latter metamorphosises and becomes the basis of the various epochs, “until it finally universalises itself over the whole of society with the attainment of its final form, capital, where the supply of labour itself has the value form thrust upon it”. Thereafter it begins to decline. (S Meikle Essentialism in the thought of Karl Marx London 1985, p10).

3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third-wave_feminism.

4. Wikipedia, Owen Jones, The demonisation of the Working Class.

5. P Demarty, ‘The negative-sum internet’ Weekly Worker October 26.

6. O Hatherly, ‘One click at a time’ London Review of Books June 30.

7. K Marx Capital Vol 3, Moscow 1966, p820.

8. G Debord The society of the spectacle London 1994, p12-13.

9. H Ticktin, ‘Decline as a concept and its consequences’ Critique August 2006, pp154-55.

10. Op cit p156.

11. Op cit p161.

12. P Dews Logics of disintegration London 1990, pxi.