Today The Spectator has run a slightly hysterical piece by Julie Burchill on intersectional feminism, “Don’t you dare tell me to check my privilege“:
Intersectionality may well sound like some unfortunate bowel complaint resulting in copious use of a colostomy bag, and indeed it does contain a large amount of ordure… In reality, it seeks to make a manifesto out of the nastiest bits of Mean Girls, wherein non-white feminists especially are encouraged to bypass the obvious task of tackling the patriarchy’s power in favour of bitching about white women’s perceived privilege in terms of hair texture and body shape. Think of all those episodes of Jerry Springer where two women who look like Victoria’s Secret models — one black, one white — bitch-fight over a man who resembles a Jerusalem artichoke, sitting smugly in the middle, and you have the end result of intersectionality made all too foul flesh. It may have been intended as a way for disabled women of colour to address such allegedly white-ableist-feminist-specific issues as equal pay, but it’s ended up as a screaming, squawking, grievance-hawking shambles.
Burchill’s central message shoulder-barges in the right direction but she writes like a born-again reactionary – not the frustrated left-winger which she has cause to be. She makes no attempt, in what could be a fair and satirical critique of identity politics, to argue against her own awful (and poetically numb) degradation of “dicks in chick’s clothing” from last year. If too much of the left today is “a competition in shouting one another down”, then why do the same? The answer, in Burchill’s case, seems clear.
Intersectionality – advanced with the intention to show how various political struggles “intersect” – began as a postmodern parody of Marxism. Today, it is the blunt stake which feminists dream of piercing through the capitalist Dracula. Instead of breaking apart the deterministic social theories that would suffocate Marxism, intersectional feminists simply stitched together a bizarre patchwork alternative.
In the 1970s and 80s, the white masculinised working-class models that had long been the beacon of radical groups seemed to be flickering away. Not all historical causation appeared explicable in the Marxist framework, and campaigners in the cultural liberation struggles found that it was also to blame for the side-lining of some old – and noble – injustices. Black women found themselves alienated by the housekeeper “consciousness-raising” that had erupted out of Oxford; gay people turned to the free hedonist countercultures at Chelsea and Soho, not to diatribes on working-classes struggles. In the years after 1968, its engines rusty, Marxism thus fell gracefully from the mainstream left.
By a depressing twist, these would be the years in which postmodernism would come bursting out of the Seine. For Michel Foucault – but also for those who bought into his frauds – it was fruitless to analyse the world with pretensions to objectivity; the scientist, like the historian, like the political theorist, was saturated in the language in which certain anonymous “power structures” had determined that he would speak. The world, in effect, was a ballooned circus formed from all of his earlier work on psychiatry and madness. Slicing through all of the lies behind society came Foucault’s “truth”.
A civil society in which all institutions are predetermined by discourse is theoretical nonsense – but it can make for some powerfully vacuous polemical feminism. Unlike Marx, Foucault had nothing to say on historical causation. If social change is driven by discourse, then who articulates it? What are their motives? It’s almost foolish to ask. If a theory neglects the authority of material evidence then these questions cannot be answered; Foucault derided crude Marxist determinism only to put forward his own, and to do so without the slightest concern to match the underpinnings of the former that had, however often regretfully, driven war, revolution, and provided millions with a model for equality.
And yet, after the trauma of the 70s, the battered minority campaigns grabbed postmodernism and forced it to marry whatever Marxists would have it: the result was a hideously deformed baby lauded like a new Lion King. So-called “hegemonic power structures” could express virtually any form of oppression – white power, imperial and cultural hierarchies, straight chauvinism and their kingpin, capitalism. Suddenly the troubled complexities of Marxism disappeared. If only people could see that all grievances were the product of a single system then they can unite, and they can tear it down.
Only what are these “power structures”? Where can we find them? Beyond fragmented – if feisty – campaigns against Page 3, or lad culture, or unconditional support for reactionary Tunisians, what is the intersectional solution? It has adopted the postmodernist’s harrying of “objectivity” – it having long been accepted by skeptics that it is impossible to achieve in most instances – and argues that we should not even try to cast off our subjective experiences. If you criticise the intersectional theory or – worse – what might be a deranged argument from someone of an ethnic, religious, or sexual minority, then you cannot believe in social progress. You are parroting whatever hegemonic power structures recruited you at birth; you an impostor; you must “check your privilege”.
And herein lies the tragedy of intersectionality: its answer to very real, very felt material oppression is a retreat into elitist dogmatism in which criticism is the preserve of the apostate, and it strangles the throats of straggling leftists. At a higher level is it iconoclastic, and down below paranoid.
On first principles. I call myself a socialist because, however lazily, I think a) that any economic system that rewards inheritance over the work ethic is unforgivably flawed, and b) that humanity can do better. To say so is to cite an alternative economic model as an answer to material exploitation; it is not then to look to the world and attempt to explain every single one of its problems as an extension of capitalism which, though the turbine of wage slavery, is not a wintry bogeyman. Capitalism is a concrete system whose realities are felt and understood beyond vague notions of “offensiveness”. The answer, therefore, must be to match it in rational criticism.
Black people can murder like white people. Gay people can be misogynists. Islamists can blow up trade centres like the Lord’s Resistance Army can kill African villagers. Is that capitalism? Is it a lie? To the first question I know only that human nature plays a role; to the second, no.
I do not know, quite simply, the extent to which capitalism and the rights of women, gays, trans people, and various ethnic groups overlap. All I know is that it is not total; that’s stupid. It misses the point of socialism and it does nothing to help the circumstances of those for whom it claims to speak.
And this is where I and intersectionality depart.