Clearing the ground
Getting out of the ‘gender recognition’ trap requires breaking with the foundations of the arguments behind it, argues Mike Macnair
In my February 2 article, ‘Devolution non-recognition’,1 I concluded that escaping the political trap that is the ‘gender recognition’ approach requires us to go a level below what I discussed in that article, in order to try to work out what might be a positive programmatic line in the interests of the working class and socialism on ‘trans questions’. But “that will have to be one that is not grounded on ‘trans’ as an independent single issue and/or on the politics of anti-discrimination and ‘rights’. As promised, I will “have a stab at this question”. That is what this article will begin to do.
I said “have a stab”, and it will be no more than a hypothesis of a possible approach. The first article was my individual work, but on the basis of a discussion in the CPGB’s Provisional Central Committee on the Tory veto of the Scottish government’s Gender Recognition Act reform bill. This and what follows are merely my individual responsibility.
There is a vast mass of books and articles on the politics of transgender and the history of the issue. I am not going to do a detailed critique of any part of these arguments, which would involve writing multiple books. What I propose to do is to start with negative criticism of some of the assumptions that are widespread in the writings on the subject and in more ephemeral political argument, on the grounds that I think there are good reasons for anyone who seeks general human emancipation to reject these assumptions out of hand, completely independent of transgender and the oppression of trans people. This exercise will (I hope) clear the ground for what I think might be a positive approach, which I will pursue in a further article or articles.
I outline merely at this point that I think that the political nature of this positive approach has to be one which stresses the commonality of the oppression of trans people with other experiences of oppression and exploitation, rather than stressing the difference.
One simple example of how this might work. In the mid-to-late 1980s opposition to the oppression of lesbians and gay men went from being rather a way-out political position of sections of the far left, to being widespread ‘common sense’ (though the Tories at first tried to fight back against this, with section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, coupled with press witch-hunts).
There were two keys to this development. The first and fundamental was the earlier turn of the US armed forces to anti-discrimination, initially focused on race, and the contemporaneous rise of US libertarian arguments for pro-capitalist ‘free market’ anti-discrimination. This created a general ‘undertow’ in favour of many forms of anti-discrimination.
The more immediate development in Britain was ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’, which completely transformed the atmosphere in the labour movement for those of us campaigning for lesbian and gay issues. LGSM started from the common experience of police attacks shared by gay men’s clubs and other meeting places, on the one hand, and miners’ pickets, on the other - to mobilise financial support for the miners in the pubs and clubs, which in turn resulted in the National Union of Mineworkers reciprocating with political support.
To turn, then, to ‘clearing the ground’. I already argued in the first article against the single-issue approach to the problem of the oppression of trans people, and against the people’s front, ‘intersectional’ and ‘transitional method’ arguments for programmatic tailism. What else?
In the first place, anger and stories of the experience of oppression are not enough. It is necessary to argue a moral claim for the emancipation of trans people, on the basis of our common humanity - as is true of any other moral and political claim.
Secondly, psychobabble explan-ations of political difference in terms of ‘phobias’ are generally to be rejected as corrosive of all ability to debate any issue whatever.
Thirdly, the methods of ‘safe spaces’ and separatism are useless for emancipation, and on the contrary serve capital in its efforts to divide and rule. The same is true of the framework of ‘rights’.
Fourth, it is necessary also to reject out of hand the idea of the social construction of science (or, more specifically, the ‘social construction of biology’) and its variants. Though it is often specially focussed on issues of gender, this theoretical construct has wider implications, and serves at the end of the day only to support Eurocommunist ideas and, through them, neoliberalism.
Finally and on the other hand, although there are biological foundations to the gender binary, biology is not destiny, and communism is a return to ‘original communism’ only in a very general sense. It does not advocate stripping away the technical to find the ‘natural’, but is more concerned with the emancipation of human potential - in particular, the potential for creativity and innovation.
It is not uncommon for ‘pro-trans rights’ arguments to treat the real existence of sufferings of trans people as a pre-emptive argument to prevent any legitimate disagreement with their demands: especially hate-killings, and the fact that discrimination and the cost of treatment force male-to-female trans people into the riskier parts of the sex trade. This cannot work as an argument.
First, I pointed out in the first article that the ‘gender recognition’ paradigm unavoidably poses a conflict between ‘cis women’ and ‘trans women’ over ‘women’s spaces’. In this conflict, the existence of hate crimes against trans people, and their victimisation through poverty, is inevitably ‘trumped’ by the vastly greater number of hate crimes against ‘cis’ women and the victimisation of women in general through poverty.
Second, more fundamentally, the mere fact of suffering, or indeed of discrimination, makes only a limited moral claim on the rest of us. That fact can be the starting point of an argument, but it cannot close or pre-empt it. We need an explanation of why the trans rights claim is different from the ‘right to sex’ claim of the so-called ‘incels’, or the objections to various ‘positive discrimination’ efforts to reduce the standing discrimination in favour of white men in recruitment operations.2 The original so-called ‘trans exclusionary radical feminist’ (terf) Janice Raymond indeed argued 43 years ago that trans rights is a male-supremacist claim.3 The explanation we need has to be a moral claim about why trans is either morally or politically positive, or at least involves no wrong to anyone else.
It may be argued that I am wrong to say a moral claim is required, because trans rights is (in contrast to moral claims) a political claim. Thus, for example, Holly Lewis (defending herself against possible allegations of “reductionism”) says:
… it is not reductive to analyze the economic; reductive thinking comes from confusing the moral with the political and substituting habits of consumption with analyses of the conditions of labor within a mode of production. It also comes from the failure to distinguish between practical and theoretical reason.4
But this is very radically mistaken. A politics which was actually free of underlying moral claims would have to be free of arguments that we ought to act in a certain way in any sense other than that it is in our self-interest to do so. Such a politics would at best be the Machiavellian, cynical manipulation of US ‘political science’ or of the Tory knife-artists trained in the Oxford Union Society. If it was rigorous, rather than merely dishonest, careerism, it could only be the ‘decisionism’ of Carl Schmitt and lead, by necessary logic, to Schmitt’s political conclusions (a long-standing opponent of political democracy, he was actively involved at a high level in the judicial overthrow of the Weimar republic, serving from 1933-36 as chair of the Nationalsozialistischer Rechtswahrerbund (Nazi association of German legal professionals) and retained the ideological commitment sufficiently to refuse denazification after 1945). Going back to the example, Lewis’s argument in fact ends with an appeal for solidarity (chapter 4): but that appeal is precisely a moral obligation.
The more general point - that the suffering and anger it produces is not enough to close arguments - is absolutely not unique to trans rights. The method - in its Maoist origin called ‘speaking bitterness’, and in the women’s and related movements of the 1970s ‘consciousness-raising’ - is very widespread, and the emergence of ‘incels’, ‘white identity politics’, and so on, is merely the appropriation of the method by parts of the political right. So my reasons for rejecting it are not specifically concerned with trans rights arguments.5
I do not mean by any of this to say that trans people are in fact guilty of moral sin or of wrongdoing towards anyone. The point is merely that the argument has to be made. To attempt to treat the sufferings of trans people as dispositive without further argument is precisely to promote the ideology of the ‘incels’, of ‘white cultural rights’ and so on - however much the users of the argument may think of themselves as leftists.
Secondly, transphobia involves a misconception which is also a feature of Islamophobia and in at least the wider uses of homophobia. And this psychobabble misconception about political (and religious) disagreement is at the end of the day corrosive of accepting (taking seriously, arguing about, allowing space for freedom of speech about) any political disagreement.
Phobia at its core is a useful, but limited psychological/psychiatric concept, meaning an irrational fear of a phenomenon which affects the subject of that fear in their daily life sufficiently that they may seek treatment for it as a problem. Thus claustrophobia, agoraphobia, arachnophobia …6
The political phobias began with homophobia, and the background is the abuse of psychiatry as an instrument of social control - endemic in the 1950s-60s both in the Soviet bloc (where political dissidents might well find themselves committed to mental institutions) and in the ‘west’, where actual abusive hospital commitments were less prominent - but there was a pervasive discourse of ‘explaining’ nonconformity of various sorts as mental disorders: leftism as a sort of ‘neuroticism’, for example. (A recent example can be found in a 2017 study, reported under the headline, “Study suggests lower levels of neuroticism explain why conservative states are happier” - nothing to do with the fact that the structure of the US Senate steers public subsidies in their favour, then.7)
In this context, male homosexuality was ‘explained’ by some psychiatrists as based on gynophobia (irrational fear of women), and lesbianism as based on androphobia (irrational fear of men). The gay liberation movement in the early 1970s threw up ‘homophobia’ - irrational fear of sexual relations with a member of the same sex - as a way of turning this sort of theory of homosexuality as a mental disorder on its head.
But then how far should homophobia extend? There is a plausible case for it as an irrational fear of getting propositioned by a member of one’s own sex, in the sense that there are certainly people who are, or claim to be, affected by this fear. So too of transphobia (which is plainly closely cognate with homophobia). But what this rather rapidly morphs into is the ‘gay panic defence’ or ‘trans panic defence’, which tries to persuade juries to excuse homicide or grievous bodily harm on the ground of the defendant’s irrational fear of being involved in sexual relations with a member of their own sex producing temporary insanity, ‘diminished responsibility’ or ‘provocation’.8 By turning what is, in fact, a claim to the right to dominate others (hatred and contempt for ‘queers’, etc), into a psychological disorder, the gay movement’s use of ‘homophobia’ laid the foundations for the ‘gay panic defence’.
When we extend homophobia beyond this context, we lose the useful sense of phobia as a painfully irrational fear, while retaining the vices of the abuse of psychiatry for social control. Take a male homosexual rightwing politician who promotes anti-homosexual legislation as a cynical ‘culture-wars’ operation against the left, or alternatively because they believe that Christian discipline is good for the ‘lower orders’, but should not be enforced against the elite (both have certainly happened). It is absurd and misleading to explain their conduct as the result of ‘homophobia’.
Islamophobia has the same vices. The irrational fear element here is evidenced in hate attacks on individuals. But this is quite visibly not irrational fear of Muslims, but of people of a south Asian or Middle Eastern appearance, and may result in ‘anti-Muslim’ attacks or harassment targeting Hindus, Sikhs, etc. Calling this ‘Islamophobia’ is to dignify what is no more than a new iteration of imperial racism (like ‘Paki-bashing’ before it).
When we extend Islamophobia beyond this context, what is involved is an attempt to pre-emptively silence disagreement with Islam, and/or with particular versions of Islam (especially the Saudi-sponsored form) or with political Islamism, by explaining the disagreement away as a psychiatric disorder.
And so it is too with transphobia. In the narrow form it psychiatrises and thus exculpates, forming a precursor to the ‘trans panic defence’. In the wider form - now by far the most common usage - it attempts to pre-empt political disagreement.
Besides their dire history, arguments which ‘explain’ political disagreements as irrational psychiatric phenomena are, in fact, inherently self-defeating conceptually. What reason is there to suppose that the psychiatric approach to mental phenomena (which is supposed by ‘phobia’ talk) has privileged access to the truth about statements which purport to be arguments based on logic and evidence (or on theological reasonings)? The answer is none: the psychiatrist’s claim to know better is itself such an argument, and could be accounted for as a product of their ‘neuroses’ (as the early gay movement’s invention of homophobia attempted to do) and within the frame of the psychiatric explanation of arguments, there is no reason to prefer one narrative over another.
The question of ‘safe spaces’ is posed by the trans rights issue, because the terfs have argued that trans women should not be admitted to women-only safe spaces. The argument that trans women should not be allowed in women’s public toilets, women’s prisons, etc, is merely a vulgarised form of this argument.9 The trans rights activists have retaliated by arguing that the presence of terf speakers on campuses makes these campuses cease to be ‘safe spaces’ for trans people: hence no-platforming.
But this issue is by no means only posed by trans rights. State-sponsored agitators argue that the presence of anti-Zionist speakers on campuses means they are not safe spaces for Jews. And so on.
I and other CPGB comrades have argued before - in connection with the debate on the ‘safe spaces’ policy in Left Unity in 2014 - that this problem, that disagreements inherently lead to ‘no platforming’, is inherent in the ‘safe spaces’ idea itself.10 It is, I have argued, the degraded descendant of the 1970s western soft Maoists’ idea of creating ‘liberated zones’ within capitalist society (relabelled, and in Britain at least muddled up with ‘child safeguarding’ and ‘health and safety at work’ legislation). And the effect of this project in the soft-Maoist-influenced left of the 1970s, the women’s liberation movement, and so on, was merely ‘trashing’, splintering and sectarianism.
Terf politics is in part the relic of a particularly high-powered version of this project: women’s or lesbian separatism. Though it had considerable influence in the 1970s, and produced some great utopian fiction, this trend already splintered and faded in the 1980s, because the separatist project inherently only appealed to a minority of women, and because the logic of separatism was also to produce splintering among lesbian-feminists themselves. But again this is not unique to the trans issue: the 1980s saw splintering round ‘sex-positive’ versus ‘sex-negative’ trends (caricatural names again), as well as around race and so on.
Nor is it unique to the women’s movement: what was once a broadly unified radical anti-racist movement ‘devolved’, beginning in the 1980s, into splintered subgroups of ‘communities’, in which the capitalist state and media were able to dole out authority to favoured interlocutors: a form which has continued down to Black Lives Matter.
Underlying this point is the fact that solidarity is a two-sided issue. It requires collective decision-making, which practically needs majority rule. Yes, it requires majorities to listen to or (put another way) to give voice to minorities; to accept the right of the minority to try to become the majority. But it also requires minorities to be willing to work as minorities with majorities. The demand that solidarity requires that the minority has not merely a voice, but a veto, is not a demand for solidarity but for minority rule. It is for this reason that ‘minority rights’ has proved in the period of neoliberalism (now winding slowly to its end in neo-conservatism) to be seriously congenial to capitalist rule.
The same is, in fact, true of ‘rights’ as a general conception. Ronald Dworkin’s enormously influential 1977 book Taking rights seriously has at its core an argument for rights as ‘trumps’ which override majority rule. It was contemporaneous to the turn of the Carter administration to ‘human rights’, to the promotion of terrorism against left third-world nationalists in Mozambique, Angola, Cambodia, Afghanistan and so on as an alternative to the attempt to impose order through military regimes, and to the beginnings of the end of ‘containment’ of the USSR and its replacement by ‘rollback’. The idea of the sanctity of individual rights spawned a minoritarian judicialisation of politics. Trans rights - to the extent that it is a ‘rights as trumps’ and a ‘minority rights’ project - falls squarely within this framework.
Marxism is a materialism. It is necessary in order to engage usefully with the world and politics in the interests of the working class and for the possibility of the socialist reconstruction of society to begin. That means rejecting at the outset the arguments of Judith Butler and others that the ‘material’ is constructed in discourse, which is heavily relied on by left trans rights writers, and in the arguments of the ‘strong version’ of theories of the ‘social construction of science’, according to which scientific claims are never more than political or social preferences.
There are three reasons why this is necessary - the first is in order to make any sort of practical sense of the world. The second is ethical: that - as I argued above - our common humanity is the necessary ground of our normative claims.
The third is political and social-strategic. Marxism claims that “the emancipation of the productive class is that of all human beings without distinction of sex or race”. The wager on the proletariat is a wager on the idea that workers can potentially run the world; but the workers as the productive class are unavoidably bound to practical engagement with the recalcitrance of the material. So to refuse the recalcitrance of the material, or insist on the primacy of discourses, is to bet against the proletariat.
The first point is that every day and in most of the world we routinely assume both the recalcitrance and the material, and that the sort of human action which can handle this recalcitrance is grounded on the methods of the physical sciences. We switch lights on and off, use computers to write on and to read, and so on, drive cars, refuel them, brake and steer where necessary, use drugs which are the products of chemistry and biology, and seek medical treatment which is similarly based on the study of biology. The assertion of the strong version of the ‘social construction of science’ which allows no space for the data produced by studies to control the theories, and in particular the claim that the materiality of bodies is a construct of discourses, involves outright inconsistency of behaviour between the theory that people write and publish, and their routine, everyday practice.
Secondly, as I said earlier, claims that other people ought to do something (like recognise trans rights) or ought not to do something (like cross a picket line) necessarily entail a normative appeal to our common humanity. But such normative appeals assume that we have common biological features as humans. The point does not need a great deal of depth as to the biological assumptions made, but it is incompatible with a strong ‘social construction of science’, unless you are willing to believe (as some racist extremists are) that, for example, Africans are not really part of the same species as Europeans (because different cultures, within the frame of the discursive construction of the body, entail different bodilinesses …).
Thirdly, I am not going to make the case for class politics here at length. I observe merely that we see right at the present, at the most elementary level, the UK strike wave, showing the ability of the working class to mobilise common action as a class, in spite of divisions of race, gender, etc. The dynamic of the ability of a ‘workers’ project to draw much wider forces in behind it was visible in the 1984-85 miners’ strike, referred to above, and also in party projects, like the Italian Rifondazione or the Brazilian Workers’ Party; let alone in the enormous mass movement, with space within it for very diverse associations, which was the pre-1914 Second International. All these have ended in defeat (we can hope for some partial victory of the present UK strike wave), but they have got massively further than the splintered ‘movements of the oppressed’ operating within the ‘non-class’ framework.
The arguments of Judith Butler in Gender trouble (1990), and her response in the essay, ‘Bodies that matter’ (in the 1993 collection of the same name), to critics who had argued the importance of the material and of embodiment, are widely relied on by left ‘trans theorists’.11 These arguments for the dominance of discourses over the material and the biological necessarily assume that somebody other than the writer will do the messy stuff with recalcitrant matter which builds houses, keeps the power on, the food on the table, the water and the sewage flowing, and so on.
The background to these ideas is arguments against Marxism. I have written about this elsewhere, but the essence is that the post-1956 ‘new left’ wanted to avoid falling into ‘Trotskyism’, because it believed in the success of the popular front policy and ‘national roads’, after their enormous apparent success in 1941-49. Vietnam and Cuba appeared to provide confirmation. But by the middle 1970s, Chile and other failures, as well as the visible problems of the Soviet-bloc regimes, and the general instability of Soviet alliance policy resulting in the inability of large, ‘official’ communist parties in the Middle East and elsewhere to develop consistent political strategies, made this approach problematic.
How to avoid falling into ‘Trotskyism’? It was now necessary, in order to save the popular front policy, to develop arguments against the perspective of working class politics as such. The Eurocommunists and similar trends used the ‘movements of the oppressed’ as a new form of argument for the people’s front policy. But this, in turn, requires radically downgrading the significance of the material and of human embodiment, since this materialism lies at the root of Marx’s argument for the primacy of class.
By the time Butler wrote Gender trouble this was the more or less official dogma of the academic left: it had become part of the same neoliberal, intellectual counteroffensive, the same process of expulsion of ‘traditional’ or ‘old-fashioned’ Marxism from the academy, which was reflected in the ascendancy of ‘revisionism’ in history and the deployment of peer review to crush Marxist and other ‘heterodox’ economics.
My last point is a lot shorter. I begin with the proposition that the gender binary in its rough sense is a common feature of human biology: the large majority of human beings - around 84% - are fertile men or women, as the case may be. The human species is mammalian and reproduces sexually. It is then evolutionarily unsurprising that well over 90% of the population are - in the terms of ‘modernity’ - ‘cis’ and either heterosexual or bisexual.
Important, but limited, conclusions can be drawn from this observation. My present point, however, is that biology is not destiny. This was a commonplace of the feminist movement in the 1970s, and also of the early lesbian and gay movements. The point is not to deny the reality of biology.12 But human beings evolved as foragers/hunter-gatherers. This paper has given a lot of attention to the arguments of Radical Anthropology Group authors about what this evolution tells us about human nature (and with it the fundamental grounds of moral claims). Nonetheless, this does not mean that we advocate a return to ‘original communism’, living as foragers. That would require megadeaths to reduce the population of Europe from 746 million to, say, 30,000.13
Hence we do live ‘unnaturally’ and we will live ‘unnaturally’ in the future. In a ‘natural’ world most of us would have died in infancy. Various diseases (like diabetes or hypothyroidism) are routinely treated by long-term medication. Christians used to argue from creationist teleology against homosexuality, women on top, and other sexual ‘sins’; then, when they were unable to hold the line against Darwinian evolution, the needs of evolution played the same role (now even that is problematic). Arguments from ‘nature’ and biology directly against trans rights have the same character.
As I said at the outset, these are all negative arguments: their purpose is to ‘clear the ground’ for thinking what might be a positive alternative.
On the ‘right to sex’, see A Srinavasan The right to sex Bloomsbury 2021, chapter 3. On objections to ‘positive discrimination’, see, for example, P Hitchens, ‘The Oxbridge war on private schools doesn’t help the poor’ Mail Online November 5 2022; also ‘RAF diversity drive “discriminated against 160 white men”’ The Daily Telegraph February 1.↩︎
J Raymond The transsexual empire London 1980.↩︎
See H Lewis The politics of everybody London 2020, chapter 2 (quoted in Rowan Fortune’s review at anticapitalistresistance.org/queering-everybody-i.↩︎
An example is in ‘“Speaking bitterness” and Left Unity’ Weekly Worker June 19 2014 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1015/speaking-bitterness-and-left-unity).↩︎
See, for instance, www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/phobias/overview.↩︎
www.psypost.org/2017/09/study-suggests-lower-levels-neuroticism-explain-conservative-states-happier-49627. For subsidies, see www.moneygeek.com/living/states-most-reliant-federal-government (November 27 2022).↩︎
There are millions of hits for this on Google. Among the top ones, see CP-L Chen, ‘Provocation’s privileged desire’ Cornell Journal of Law and public policy Vol 10, pp195-235 (2000); A Holden, ‘The gay/trans panic defense: what it is, and how to end it’, March 31 2020 (www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/publications/member-features/gay-trans-panic-defense).↩︎
As I pointed out in my article last week, single-sex prisons are not safe spaces in relation to sexual assaults (‘Devolution non-recognition’ Weekly Worker February 2: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1428/devolution-non-recognition).↩︎
See the articles cited above in notes 4 and 8; see also ‘Left unity: safe spaces are not liberating’ Weekly Worker May 29 2014 (www.weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1012/left-unity-safe-spaces-are-not-liberating).↩︎
See Judith Butler’s Gender trouble (Abingdon 1990) and Bodies that matter (Abingdon 2011, pp27-55).↩︎
See, for example, thecountess.ie/the-myth-of-biology-is-not-destiny.↩︎
See J-P Bocquet-Appel et al, ‘Estimates of upper Palaeolithic meta-population size in Europe from archaeological data’ Journal of Archaeological Science Vol 32, pp1,656-68 (2005).↩︎