Why are Transactivists hostile to Radical Feminists?
As a natural born male, heterosexual Marxist who supports SpeakUp4WomenNZ I am no doubt called a TERF (Trans Exclusive Radical Feminist) lover. TERF is the slur used by transactivists who promote trans-ideology to justify the right of transgender people to be legally recognised as biological men or women (Sex Self-ID), and who characterise those who are critical of transgender people’s right to change their birth sex as transphobic. I support the right of transgender people to change genders, but not their sex. Transwomen are still men, and transmen are still women. They are motivated to change their gender by forces outside their control and should be protected from abuse and discrimination. But this cannot be at the expense of the rights of women and men whose sex is determined at birth. While Sex Self-ID affects both women and men, it is women who are suffering the consequences far more than men.
All of this is bog standard Liberalism 101 based on accepted biological science that women are one sex, and men are the other, and were so long before the market was invented. Moreover for thousands of years, from the onset of patriarchy to decaying capitalism today women’s subordination as a gender was premised on their sex’s reproductive and productive capacity. The patriarchy needed women to have a sex in order to construct gender relations of exploitation and oppression to gain and retain control of the wealth of that (re)productive capacity. That is, until very recently. What happened? Either women are now free to live as their sex without gender subordination, or some one/thing has reinventing the terms of that subordination to the disadvantage of women, and as follows like capitalism and global warming, humanity. As a male Marxist who needs to explain everything, in the first instance to myself, I have had to struggle to get my head around this stuff. Step one was to make sense of the significance of the Sex Self-ID Bill.
The Greens Bill to legitimize Sex Self-ID
‘Terf‘ as a term of abuse for gender critical feminists seems to have been around for some time, but it blew up on social media in Aotearoa last year in response to the Green Party’s Sex Self-ID Bill (Births Deaths Marriages and Relationships Registration Bill or BDMRR Bill) that allows transgender people to have their identity as born men or women altered in law by simply making a statutory declaration. Many fear that if this bill becomes law then it will be a big defeat for women. At the least it replaces biological and social science concepts of sex and gender with individuals subjective feelings, conflating gender and sex causing serious potential harm to transgender people and others. At worst it also allows transwomen existing women’s rights to hard-won female-only spaces and exposes women to male violence.
Concern over this Bill was behind the split in the LGTB ‘community’ over the leadership of the Pride Parade. Ostensibly the split was over the decision to exclude the police in uniform. This seemed to line up young trans people and their supporters against more conservative, corporate interests sponsoring the Pride Parade. The police ban was, on the face of it, radical. Police as enforcers of bourgeois law should never have been included in Pride Parades in the first place as Emilie Raakete’s statement about police abuse statistics of LGBT amply demonstrated. But this radicalism against the cops in uniform turned out to be masking the real target for exclusion, biological women, namely lesbians.
This became clear as Renee Gerlich pointed out, when Louisa Wall made it obvious that she was not fussed by the ban on police in uniforms, that she really wanted to exclude ‘terfs’ from the parade. The police ban was an over-reaction on the police headquarters, not Pride. The cops were supposed to accept criticism of their abuse of LGBT, not walk away from the parade. But headquarters did not play along. Predictably the 2019 Pride March turned out to be a ‘radical chic’ celebration with a bit of pseudo Marxist-Leninist pink washing to mobilise ‘progressive’ youth against the opponents of the Sex Self-ID Bill, especially lesbians and their allies.
Transactivism is not Marxism
Certainly, cops or not, transactivism has nothing whatsoever to do with real Marxism, Leninism or Communism. First, Marxists never negotiate with police. They are agents of the bourgeois state who enforce bourgeois law, including the Bill in question which if passed will allow transwomen to invade women’s spaces and inflict male violence and probably get away with it. NZ Corrections have reported that six women are ‘alleged’ to have been assaulted in women’s jail by transwomen over the last 2 years. Second, any transactivist who claims to be a serious Marxist would reject trans-ideology outright and support all women, including transwomen, against oppression unconditionally. But taking a stand on that would require a rudimentary understanding of the history of women’s oppression and right now trans-ideology has trouble acknowledging the existence of the female sex other than body parts.
So, in ignorance of that history, transactivists choose to bully those who criticize trans-ideology for ‘hate speech’ to shut down debate about the Sex Self-ID law before it becomes law. At this point in the argument, I am forced to the conclusion that far from fighting the patriarchy, transactivists join the patriarchy to attack the historic gains of the women’s movement. The next step is to explain why. The logic of my argument is as follows. Trans-ideology is best understood as the ideology of a state and corporate sponsored transactivist politics reflecting the post-modern individualism of neo-liberal capitalism facing a terminal crisis. It substitutes individual ‘free choice’ for the solidarity of gender and class politics. It conflates sex with gender, allowing men to pose as women in taking the side of men in the historic oppression of the female gender a critical point in our human history when women are standing up for humanity and nature against the threat of extinction.
Where does trans-ideology come from?
It seems to me that most Radical Feminist accounts of the recent emergence of 21st century trans-ideology tend to blame the corporate interests of big pharma in promoting gender transition. So far so good. No doubt this is correct as far as it goes. But it doesn’t explain its rapid adoption and acceptance of a movement that challenges the rights of women. Two recent articles (there may be others I am not aware of) go further in tracing a causal link between neoliberalism and trans-ideology.
The first by Heather Brunskell-Evans is excellent at the cultural level of analysis but doesn’t explain neoliberalism is a response to the onset of the structural crisis of global capitalism from the 1970’s onwards. For Marxists, neoliberal ideology emerged in the 1980s as a reborn 18th century liberalism, to shift the burden of the crisis onto workers as a whole. Then as now seems clear, trans-ideology burst on the scene in the new millennium, when capital’s crisis had become terminal, that is with no way back, to clawback the historic gains of women in a desperate attempt to survive. Because women have always fought back, trans ideology had to target politically progressive women, especially radical feminists, in order to divide the working class and weaken its ability to mobilise against the patriarchy and capitalist class rule.
The second is an article just published by Renee Gerlich that develops Naomi Klein’s ‘shock doctrine’ from her book Disaster Capitalism to account for the rise of trans ideology. Gerlich brilliantly extends Klein’s structural analysis showing that the emergence of trans-ideology coincides with the rise of neoliberalism from the 1970s on rising to a crescendo in the last few years. I agree with Gerlich that the attacks of neoliberal capitalism on women over this period were disproportionate and devastating. As a result more women sought refuge from these attacks in changing their gender. The motivation of men to change their gender is less clear but creates the conditions for a new form of male violence against women. Gerlich’s view supports the reality that trans-people were and are clearly trying to escape neo-liberal oppression which would, following Klein, require an organised fight back against the shock doctrine. That seems to be the message that trans-ideology is promoting as it refuses to join women in fighting the historical and material causes of gender oppression and instead demonises those most able to lead that fight.
Trans-ideology and Capital’s terminal decline
But how to fight? For Marxists, the problem with Klein’s Shock Doctrine theory is that the shock doctrine is strongly associated with the neo-liberal period of structural crisis without explaining the cause of the structural crisis in Marxist terms. It does not show how capitalism’s exploitation of disasters of its own making is a desperate attempt to overcome its structural, and now terminal, crisis of falling profits and climate catastrophe. It leaves open the possibility that ‘neoliberalism’ is an aberrant ‘fundamentalist’ policy that can be reformed by progressive politics rather than by overthrowing a dying capitalism. A case in point is the Christchurch earthquake of 2010 which many saw as an example of Disaster Capitalism at work. Yet the disaster while triggered by nature itself, revealed the existing latent decay of capitalist society manifest in the poor design and build of structures and the state/corporate takeover of the rebuild under the National Coalition Government.
From a Marxist standpoint, trans-ideology has to be the child of the neoliberal counter-revolution against women as workers during that period of structural crisis, stagnation and terminal decline. The end of the post-war boom and onset of structural crisis could be overcome by capital only by means of a counter-revolution to ramp up austerity against workers, particularly women workers, to restore its profits. This caused a long backlash against the gains of the 2nd wave of feminism of the 1970s to promote equal rights, equal pay, abortion rights etc which had to be opposed, and ultimately defeated, to restore the conditions for a return to adequate profits. It was no accident that neoliberalism targeted especially the most exploited and doubly-oppressed element in the working class, women both as unpaid domestic labourers and as part of the wage-labour force.
Further, among working class women, it was minority coloured, migrant and lesbian women victims of special oppression who suffered most, as unpaid domestic laborers, and along with other members of the reserve army of labour were used to drive down wages and conditions of the whole working class. This counter-revolution was uneven, as ‘third-world’ women suffered massive losses through infanticide, trafficking, slave labour, and prostitution as well as systematic rape and murder by males. However, minority women in the imperialist heartlands of North America and Europe were also cruelly demonized, typically as black, brown, migrant and/or welfare “solo mothers” to weaken their resistance to their oppression.
Neoliberal ideology, postmodernism, and trans-ideology
Which brings us to the question of how and why the neoliberal counter-revolution deepened around the millennium to give birth to a trans-ideology capable of driving transactivist politics. I don’t want to dwell here on the historic origins of the bourgeois ideology except to say that for Marx, ideology is the effect of production relations appearing as exchange relations masking the exploitative nature of capitalist production as equal exchange relations. This is explained by the theory of commodity fetishism. It’s enough to say here that the ‘new right’ revival of neoliberal ideology returns to the classic liberal notion of the bourgeois individual as determined by market (exchange) relations rather than by their social relations as unpaid domestic workers or members of the productive working class.
Neoliberalism, as ideology, is the bourgeois ideology of late 20th century capitalism incapable of restoring the conditions for a return to the post-war rate of profit. In the attempt to make workers pay for the crisis, it justifies free market reforms, cuts to the welfare state, and attacks on the unions to weaken worker resistance to further losses of rights, conditions and living standards. It funds academics and intellectuals to counter socialism and social class identity with the post-Marxist fiction that socialism has been defeated and capitalism can be ‘humanised’ as a free and equal society. The grip of commodity fetishism continues to act as an ideological antidote to individuals taking collective action as members of the working class or socialist parties rooted in resistance to domestic and social production.
The influence of postmodernism produces identity politics where individual choices in the market fragment the working class by gender, ethnicity, nationality and sexual identities, or combinations of these. The effect of postmodern theory then is to render as ‘different but equal’ individuals who are able to freely choose identities independently of the influence of social class or gender relations. Social relations, and gender relations, expressing historic contradictions that are fundamental to the development of capitalism and which determine our social being, consciousness, and prospects for social change, are suppressed by fetishized market relations of personal choice, including what is, or is not. ‘true’. It follows that post-modern identity politics means that political activity is confined to the participation of bourgeois citizens in parliamentary democracy and distributional reforms.
Transactivism is an attack on women
By pitting workers identity politics against class solidarity, our struggles for rights and social gains are channelled into actions that do not challenge capitalist social or gender relations. Yet prolonged social and economic crisis brings the fundamental contradiction of capital between nature and society to the surface. The experience of growing austerity beyond a certain intensity spontaneously produces resistance in the working class engaged in production and reproduction. The big threat to capitalism is that women, especially minority women, who have the least to lose and most to gain from revolution, will unite to renew the fight against the patriarchy in the working class and lead the uprising against class exploitation and gender oppression.
Neoliberal ideology, dressed up as postmodern identity politics, is most likely to fail in regard to women where the contradiction between nature (production and reproduction of life) and crisis-ridden capitalist austerity is the most acute. Moreover, the minority women who are most likely to rise up against the triple oppression of class, gender and sexuality are lesbians. Lesbians’ sexual orientation rejects heteronormativity in the patriarchal family. They are perceived, correctly, as the biggest threat to gender ideology, and as most capable of defeating new attacks by men, as their current resistance to transgender ideology proves. Furthermore, they have an inherent political solidarity capable of taking a leading role in the labour movement.
This is where transactivism enters the picture as neoliberal identity politics, deliberately turning a justifiable and harmless self-identity as transgender, and as a potential ally of women, into the homophobic and misogynistic weapon of trans-sexual self-ID. As a consequence, heterosexual men masquerading as transgender are licensed to attack lesbian sexuality and enter women’s spaces (toilets, refuges, prisons etc) to directly assault and dominate women. Facing this new threat, it is radical feminists, many of whom are lesbians, who have fought most strongly for safe spaces independent of men, and who are leading the resistance to trans-ideology.
Why women will lead the revolution
Neoliberalism has failed so far to overcome the cause of capitalism’s structural crisis because of widespread worker resistance to paying for it with their livelihoods and their lives. Profits have never returned to the pre-1970s levels. A number of boom bust cycles in the 1990s culminated in the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and the Long Depression – the relatively stagnant global economy up to the present. Capitalism’s crisis of falling profits cannot be resolved in its favour unless wages and conditions are driven down by mass unemployment and other austerity measures to raise the rate of exploitation. So far this too has failed and spontaneous uprisings are now building world-wide most notably the Yellow Vest movement, which means we can expect the global economic crash we are heading for to come all the sooner.
To complicate its problems, capitalism now faces the backlash of nature as exponential global warming forces a collapsing of the ecosystem. Humanity is part of that nature since labour is integral to the biological and social reproduction of human life. It is the threat to the reproduction of life that motivates the Extinction Rebellion or ‘fight for life’ initiated by young people that is spreading as a global rage. This movement proves that ordinary people are realising that capitalism is in terminal decline and is destroying nature and that the solution must be ‘system change not climate change’ conceived as a democratic, post-capitalist, socialist, collective, sustainable people-centred economy and society.
Capitalism on its last legs has to use every means at its disposal to prevent the solidarity of women uniting with men and posing a revolutionary threat to its class rule. Revolutionary system change is on the top of the agenda today because we can’t solve any of our problems if dying capitalism takes us down with it. Without a victorious women’s struggle against the patriarchy there can be no system change. It is young women who are leading the climate emergency charge because it is women as a sex-class who have the least to lose and most to gain in challenging the oppressive, exploitative and ultimately destructive rule of capital and climate collapse. That is why the fight for women against trans-ideology and the transactivists attacks on lesbians, is a pre-condition for unity and solidarity necessary for the working class globally to make the social revolution, end patriarchal capitalism and create a post-capitalist, sustainable, human, world.