Your Hand In Mine

I often wonder why we remember as we do, and how we can sift through memory with stories.

It was evening, and the sky was so beautifully clear, the warmth from the day still lingering as if in some grace for those who couldn’t enjoy it during the 9-5 grind. It was a tender warmth, that of halcyon summer evenings, of hearths and campfires, of nostalgia for long-lost family holidays in the very places not too far from those you know as home. I joked that it was like a Spanish evening, but really I just hoped it felt something like home for you, and that one day maybe we could see it together, a kind of sentimentality for serendipitous intersections, for sojourns and shelter, for adventure and comfort.  This moment with you felt like home to me, like all the shadows had temporarily melted away.  I know how you hate the rain, and your excitement for summer radiated through the night, weaving with the harmonies of birdsong upon the breeze, binding the sunset in place as it cast gentle streaks of orange across the sky, germinating everything around us.  It’s such a blessing, to see you happy, to share this with you.

We’d just prepared some food and were on our way to the park – the same park I sought sanctuary in when I was struggling to cope in the first year of university, the park I’ve wandered through with friends on many a resplendent day, the park enshrining our first summer together.  I always adored the soothing melody of the fountain as it trickled into the lake, and how the water glittered in the sunlight.  The flowers were in bloom, a vibrant tapestry nurtured as if to complement and revive the fading daylight, the sweet and delicate aroma of lavender mingling intoxicatingly with the scent of herbs.  It was blissful, idyllic, flourishing, as if a haven untarnished by all the calamities and ravages of the world.

Yet – as we were on our way there, a familiar din struck out.  Oppression doesn’t care much for havens; it gives no quarter.  I shouted back, this time – I often don’t, as the consequences of such defiance can be severe – but either way you feel utterly vanquished, lost, diminished.  You immediately no longer belong, as if besieged by a hail of hostile, shifting gazes that bore into you with their shame and scorn.  This street, this park, this place is no longer yours.  It’s theirs, envenomed and depredated and scourged.  That’s why I asked that we avoid that street when we wandered back home – it was no longer ours.  Just like that train, just like that grass near where you used to work in the coffee shop – each altercation petrified, seared, the rot setting in, the plants putrefying.  The world again seemed dangerous and desolate, shadows ever-looming, the terror of what might lurk in the undergrowth all-consuming.  It entices you with the intoxicating asphyxiation of bitterness: what other defence is there, but to bunker down against its viciousness, steel ourselves against the torrents, hurl grenades over the verge.  I could hear the echoes of war wracking his shout.  I wasn’t so much angry, as scared and sad that this was how I would have to remember another night that should have been ours.  It should have been such a beautiful night.

And yet – I was coaxed back to the present as you squeezed my hand.  A firm, yet gentle squeeze, almost a defiant caress.  Love cannot itself salvage the ruin, expunge the demons, redeem torment.  It cannot contrive a happy ending.  It is tangled up in all these throes.  And yet, there was so much faith in that gesture, and it felt more significant than all the cruelty of the world.  I was there, again, with you, in that moment, our hands held together despite the rifts around us, anchoring us against the strife.  And a warmth gradually seeped back into the night, and I could see beyond the bunker, and there were flowers somewhere in the distance.  And you were there, and the light was still holding on, and there was good still reaching out.

It is quite beautiful, I thought, that quiet miracles such as these yet blossom, in spite of the decay.

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Film/TV reflections

Reproduced below are a collection of some spontaneous thoughts, originally posted to my Facebook profile, on various artistic works I’ve enjoyed recently.  I not only think there is political importance to this kind of analysis, that culture can be both a reflection of political shifts in society and a medium through which to imagine political possibility; there is also the simple fact that these works inspired in me a unique intensity of feeling and urge to write, the results of which – however fragmented and undisciplined – it thus seemed amiss to not document in some form.  The division of the political and personal has much to answer for; this blog is, in many ways, a modest attempt to contribute towards the dissolution of that division.

Logan

I couldn’t sleep last night and watched Logan, a film I’d been meaning to see for a while. It was incredibly macabre, gruesome and gritty – emotionally, psychologically and physically – to the extent of being difficult to watch at points. The sense of visceral aching accompanying each instance of bloodshed, the sheer wretchedness of it all, was executed with agonizing maturity and humanity.

There was a sense that this movie was wrestling with itself throughout – reflecting on the dark underside of the burden of superhuman power and of the romanticized myth of superhero tales themselves (figuratively and literally). This introspection was woven into its political undertones – the bleak desolation of a political landscape fractured by a rising nihilism and far-right violence, overshadowed by neo-liberalism’s ‘end of history’, an age of immigrant children hunted down in woods by mercenaries, of science beholden to warmongering, of the social and physical destruction of the marginalized. These undertones framed broader reflections on the human condition – grappling with anguish, depression, self-harm, illness, grief, trauma, and suicidal ideation, the role of love, of hope, of the power of childhood beyond the usual tropes of redemptive innocence.

This is not a superhero film – and yet it is one, the one that has been seething at the boundaries of the naivety of myth, lingering in the shadows: the bleak reality of what happens when hope and heroes have seemingly disappeared. It is striking that its introspection and self-criticality reminds us why superheroes were important to us in the first place, imploring us to find the hero in all of us again, especially now. The shifting and blending of genres within the film’s landscape is at once subtle and jarring; the points where it lapses into the familiarity of family roadtrip drama are wistful reflections on the story it wish it could tell, the stories that are just out of reach. Ultimately, it both rejects and fulfils the very framework of the superhero genre, at once honours and transcends it – reminding us amidst calamitous circumstances what it means to struggle, to mourn, to hope and to love.

Moonlight

Moonlight is an absolute masterpiece. It feels impossible to do it justice with any comment or description – but everything from the score and how it weaves through, shifts and frames the narrative, the imagery (the ocean, food, etc) and how that reverberates through the three sections, the way it has so much lingering space and yet so much confining tension, the way so much goes unspoken as in queer desire itself, the meditations on black masculinity, the tone of aching throughout, the moments of compassion anchored with agonizing delicacy in realities of violence, the piecing together of lives and selves lost or that could never quite be, the subtlety and candour and artistry and viscerality of it, the secrets it keeps, the scars it reveals. Just magnificent.

Call me By Your Name

I saw this exquisite film the other day with my partner and thought the scene between Elio and his father at the end was quite simply one of the most tender and beautiful dialogues I’ve ever seen in a movie. I think it is right to call it ‘wish fulfilment’ for many queer people: I also felt a surprising and serene warmth as I watched it, the urge to reach out, embrace more tightly, love more bravely; that, indeed, for a moment, the memories of pain often entangling queer love unravelled and rewove themselves into something more; that asserting the possibility of a love otherwise so wracked and besieged and complicated by society’s prejudices is perhaps one of the most beautiful expressions of the power and significance of love in and of itself.  Both surreal and raw, this film explores the dream of queer love beyond the bounds of prejudice: it feels itself like a love letter, so gently crafted, so longingly wrought; and what a rare gesture, what a remarkable idea, what a complex and exquisitely quotidian grace, that is.

Hunger Games

I’ve been watching through The Hunger Games again, and whilst it strikes me that lots of the political themes are sometimes vague, underdeveloped and somewhat unfulfilled in their admirably lofty ambitions, they are also an incredibly powerful reflection, first and foremost, I think, on the society of the spectacle. A major blockbuster meditating on the role of popular culture in the voyeuristic glorification and mystification of conflict might seem counter-intuitively ironic, but perhaps that’s exactly the source from which it derives its power. A moralistic fatalism deeming popular culture a purely conspiratorial diversion, and a wholesale ceding of its territory and denial of its radical potential, would seem at odds with the fact that from, everywhere to Ferguson to Thailand to Hong Kong, symbolism from the Hunger Games films was literally deployed in street protests against state authoritarianism and violence. Perhaps an ‘in and against’ method of relating to popular culture would be more useful – recognizing the powerful role fantasy and culture occupy in inspiring hope, restoring a sense of futurity and possibility, and galvanizing and connecting revolutionary action in the contemporary political moment; whilst bracing against the dangers of lapsing into spectatorship, insulation, retreat or separation through the realm of the fantastical that capital, in its decay, is all-too-desperate to entertain.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I’ve been thinking about why Buffy the Vampire Slayer is such a cult TV classic, and it really hit home particularly in the fifth season (which is some of the best TV I’ve ever seen, highly recommended) – it’s in how richly it’s laden with metaphor, the lofty and difficult themes (responsibility, love, sacrifice, redemption, desire, humanity, etc) it deals with through these intersecting mediums of fantasy and coming-of-age, how candid and vulnerable it is with emotional subject matter, its complex and powerful character development and just how deeply you feel connected to the characters and their world.

It appeals both to that sensibility of innocent hope that fantasy, at its best, inspires (which young person wouldn’t want to a escape to a world saved again and again by a rag-tag, autonomous community of extraordinary and quotidian heroes, especially when that community features queer witches) – but also from that platform deals with the pangs of coming to terms with a world that can feel truly monstrous and nightmarish. Not just because of – not even primarily because of – the vampires and the demons, but because of the tearing everyday experiences of fear, pain, heartache, loss. For all its fantasy, it is deeply sensitive to and never undermines just how hard everyday life can be. It’s deeply human (look no further than ‘The Body’ in season 5 for an expertly crafted, achingly affecting example of this) and really comes into its own when it rallies behind that theme.

It’s no surprise, I think, that the 5th season resonated with me so much whilst its subject matter attends to that cusp between college and adult years, that point in life where the world can sometimes seem at its most ruthless and daunting. The best art, I think, is that which is quite separate from this world, and never apart from it. ‘The hardest thing in this world is to live in it’, after all, and I’m sure this TV series has made the world that little bit easier to live in for those queer kids that had never before seen a flourishing, multifaceted relationship of people like them on screen, for those bullied kids who felt like no one was fighting in their corner, for those kids, like Dawn, wracked with the angst that they are invisible or disposable or have no place in the world, for anyone wondering how to bear the absurdity and grittiness and devastation of all of this, for all of us hopelessly and hopefully grasping at how to live. I’m sure it’s still making it easier. I know it is.

The Gender Recognition Act, Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists and Trans Politics (Part II)

(The first part of this series can be found here.)

I experienced considerable difficulty in starting part 2 of this series.  It’s not that there weren’t sufficient provocations.  Indeed, the deplorable attempt by TERFs within the Labour Party to fundraise tens of thousands of pounds to exclude trans women from All-Women Shortlists, in their most recently vicious manoeuvre, would be surprising if it weren’t so consistent with their political history of exclusion and division.  The malice feels at once acute and debilitating: perhaps the barriers I felt in composing this were raised instead by too many provocations, too much anger, too much hurt and doubt and despondency.  One can become disoriented, spent, emptied-out.  It’s not as if trans people don’t have enough enemies, after all.  That we have to fight so hard against our supposed comrades, as much as wider society, is a bitter truth to register.

I think I didn’t want to have to confront it – the scale of the betrayal, the insidiousness of it, the numbing and brutal predictability of it, how it cascades in shards of personal memories of abuse and harassment from women and men alike, from women who urged it on, participated in it, cheered it, and I laughed along in shame; how shame can sear, how deeply it is etched in my overcompensations and insecurities, how these wounds will not close, how I am the wound, how it festers, how far this poison has seeped, how it clings, how it consumes, how I consume that which is not mine, how I have corrupted, how I embody corruption, how I am a dissimulation writhing on the jagged edges of the relics I have stolen from the gatekept sanctuary of womanhood, how faithless and treacherous and grotesque I am.  In part, it’s the pain – in another instance, it’s the vitriol I’ve internalized, that to commit this to paper is to sin, to capitulate to narcissism, to uphold some deleterious distortion and ruse.

These are dark, rotten roads, phantoms of brigands silhouetted by the stained glass windows of churches, storms billowing around us, maps disfigured, some of those we locked arms with against the ranks of evangelical pro-lifers perhaps now residing with them.  I recall that day we fought together in the rain.  I remember bleeding as the cops pushed us back, how we waited all night in yet another harrowing police station for a comrade’s release.  The hailstones sting.  The shards of glass are serrated and sharp.  The thickets feel impenetrable, lunging out to embroil and bedevil us from the most intimate of recesses, from corners we hoped might be safe, might finally be ours.  Our guard is always raised, respite seemingly impossible.  I suppose, as always, part of my reason for writing this piece is to attempt to wade through the thorns, to finally settle the din, even if the echo (‘what if they are right?’) continues; to seek out some peace or closure, piercing through that which otherwise seems impassable and irrevocably tangled.

The reflections above are not composed as such simply because of a penchant for the fantastical in grappling with malaise and turmoil.  Indeed, these are the frames in which we are rendered – our identities abstracted to reactionary phantasms to be exhibited, debated, interrogated, abhorred, exorcised.  In the words of Janice Raymond, one of the seminal theorists of TERF ideology, transness is to be ‘morally mandated out of existence’.  The pernicious tropes casting trans women as interlopers, rapists and predators in disguise are not simply conjured by a callous press and Government, but by some of the very people ostensibly committed to contesting gendered oppression.  This demonization, mercilessly invoked and reverberated across the political spectrum, is absolutely fundamental to the normalization and sanctioning of widespread violence against us.

Indeed, so-called ‘radical feminists’ not only ideologically collaborate with the right in conspiring against trans rights, but indeed have even actively united with elements of the Christian right – who they might otherwise be facing off against on pro-life demonstrations – to campaign against legal protections for trans people.  The extent and insidiousness of anti-trans politics is herein exposed: TERFs will willingly align with some of the most extreme perpetrators of women’s oppression, those attempting to restrict access to abortions and thus reinforce state and religious control over women’s bodies, as long as it serves an anti-trans cause.  Now, in the Labour Party, feminists are fundraising to utilize the courts – which they might in other contexts legitimately critique as bourgeois gatekeepers of the status quo that routinely fail victims of gendered violence – to actively exclude trans women from political representation.  Not only should we recognize the gravity of what is at stake here – access to political and public life for trans people – we should also recognize the vindictive political hypocrisy and disingenuousness present.

The rampant transphobia levelled upon us by the dominant conservative structures of society is thus supplemented by internal threats to our rights from the orthodox feminist left.  Our sense of isolation, alienation and distress is amplified manifold by the sheer multiplicity of the attacks waged against us from all spheres.  The insidiousness of TERF ideology is thus not simply rooted in its sense of betrayal, wherein vicious anti-trans politics can be legitimized under the guise of a progressive defence of women’s rights, but also the iniquitous political context it inflames and draws its energy from.  We can understand TERF ideology as a significant and foundational contributor to a cultural framework of prejudice against trans people.  As feminist academics, they occupy a very specific cultural position, and not only veil vulgar prejudice in a veneer of intellectual expertise, but indeed have directly innovated many of the cultural currents and traditions that inform prevailing anti-trans discrimination.  Though this terrain is thankfully shifting, much of the history of feminist thought itself has too been moulded by their work – and many of these academics have significant cultural platforms in institutions like the Guardian to proliferate their bigotry (something, perhaps, to consider when imputations of no-platforming are invoked).  Many of the Christian right rely and draw upon the very theory that their traditional feminist enemies developed to advance their own cause.  Far from being marginal in their influence, a charge through which the left oft falls into complacency around trans rights, the TERF’s capacity to fundraise tens of thousands of pounds on the left to further their own ends and their historical ideological and political role in current conflicts must be addressed with due seriousness.

The historical tactical repertoire of TERFs, alongside their ideological foundations, should also be interrogated.  Doxing, outing of trans women publicly to employers, political and physical intimidation, physical gatekeeping over political spaces, public humiliation of trans peoples’ bodies, disruption of trans organizing, bullying and abuse, etc, are all methods deployed by TERFs to pursue their bigoted aims.  Far from the common understanding that TERFs are removed from violence and just seek out abstract ‘debate’ (a charge we need always be wary of in the antagonisms it glosses over and the sheer virulence of views it has come to extenuate) – they have operated and continue to operate through violence.  They have furthered not only dire emotional persecution against trans people – which, in the egregious statistics around mental health and suicide for trans people, should be understood as having very material effects – but have actively sought to materially harm some of the most vulnerable women in society in the ostensible name of women’s rights.  TERFs have been absolutely integral to forming and stoking the dominant narrative that women and trans rights are necessarily in conflict, an artificial division which has done immense damage to the very working class unity and gendered emancipation that TERFs claim to so rigorously pursue.  We underestimate their influence at our peril – the charge that those who have been forcibly denied access to femininity all our lives are undermining other women is immensely damaging.

Trans people are indeed blamed for patriarchy by TERFs, which obfuscates its actual structural mechanics.  We must not adopt a solely morally oppositional stance to TERF politics – though that is important – but reckon with the fact that TERFs are also bolstering some of the very same conservative and religious forces that seek to dispossess all women of rights, that their historical tactics are rooted in methods of intimidation not dissimilar to the far-right, and that the deficiency of their analysis mystifies and undermines the cause of overcoming gendered oppression in its entirety.  The idea that TERFs defend women’s rights – whilst gatekeeping and wresting away the very spaces and communities that vulnerable and poor trans women have been dispossessed of access to all their lives, thereby perpetuating immense structural harms against them – is ultimately, even on its own terms, a fabrication, for their politics actively derail the left’s activities in reactionary directions.

It perhaps would be useful here to delineate some of the specifics of the arguments of TERFs, so as to more precisely deconstruct their flaws. Much of their ideology is inherited from the currents of thought generated in the second-wave of feminism, wherein women are conceptually constituted as a ‘sex class’ subordinated to men through control over their reproductive capabilities.  There is much to learn from this analysis, particularly in its incorporation of class politics into otherwise liberal strands of feminism, positing gender and class not as disconnected, abstract categories but mutually constituted systems of domination, wherein one’s gender is fundamentally implicated in our relationship with the state and divisions of labour.  However, this conception of society often comes into tension with the understandings of third-wave feminism due to its lapses into biological essentialism – the idea that gender is rooted in, and determined by, necessarily binary, static biological characteristics as manifested in one’s anatomy and chromosomes (etc).  Thus whilst the second-wave of feminism demanded an abolition of gender roles, it also agitated for this within a theoretical framework that promoted the notion of innate, dimorphic biological differences between men and women as the basis of oppression.

This is at the root of much transmisogyny – the pernicious idea that trans women are ‘biologically male’, and so necessarily oppressive, thus only ‘acting’ as women on a whim, so as to infiltrate, disrupt and prey upon women’s spaces under false pretexts.  Trans women, TERFs posit, appropriate the female form and defile women’s spaces as ‘men in disguise’, contorting the sanctified category of womanhood into mere performance.  Gendered oppression, in their estimation, is rooted solely in biology, with women’s reproductive function the fundamental site of social and economic control – and so those who did not grow up with a womb cannot truly understand the lived experience, vulnerabilities and pangs of womanhood; that trans women have been ‘socialized’ as men and are thus haunted by the spectre of male privilege.  In effect, they believe trans women are not ‘real’ women, but only masquerading as such – the charge we hear on repeat in the static of relentless media bigotry.

Quite apart from their overt bigotry, and the more practical arguments to combat these claims – one might point to the erasure of intersex people and even infertile women in this analysis, that trans women are transitioning earlier and earlier in their lives, that it disregards the horrific lived experiences and oppression of non-binary people – there is also a number of glaring theoretical flaws here.  Primary among these, I think, is the naturalization of a reality of gendered oppression: physical and biological differences are upheld as an intrinsic fact from which oppression necessarily flows.  We should be wary of this gesture because it is how oppressors themselves have justified the enactment of oppression throughout history: that is to say, domination is rendered acceptable by recourse to the argument that a specific arrangement of power is bounded by realities that are ‘natural’ and thus immutable (the abuse of lesbian and gay people under the logic of ‘nature’ being a relevant and harrowing parallel here).  Indeed, TERFs often level very worrying arguments on these very grounds – for example, prohibiting women from their spaces because they do not ‘look’ or ‘speak’ like ‘women’, defining women by their anatomy when this is exactly what they might otherwise critique in the patriarchal objectification of women’s bodies, or exalting reproductive properties such that roles of motherhood or nurturance that feminists have traditionally questioned as sites of subservience instead become naturalized.  For those who denigrate trans people for upholding stereotypical ideals of gender, this seems oddly like a form of politics designed to preserve the very gendered norms they purport to want to dismantle.

‘Gender is a social construct’ is a common retort to TERF arguments – however, this can omit detail, and is something in the abstract, at least, that TERFs might also subscribe to.  It speaks to the notion that the ideas of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are not biologically but in fact artificially produced through a set of cultural norms and a compulsion to undertake specific behaviours and roles: thus being an inverse of the argument made by some seminal radical feminist theorists.  The rhetoric of gender not only as a construct but as a performance has been popularized by third-wave feminism, and there is much to be said of this argument, especially as it contests the notion that trans women ‘perform’ femininity and instead posits that gender is always performative.  This is, indeed, where I think we can usefully reconcile the ideas of second- and third-wave feminism: the cultural cues of gender that are imposed on us, as rituals we must adopt and perform at risk of social punishment or economic dispossession, are formed so as to functionalise specific roles within a gendered division of labour.  Rather than being a biological fact in which men unilaterally command power over women, gender is constituted by our social and material conditions – by our relationship to society, to the state and its institutions, and to a means of production wherein reproductive labour is appropriated through its feminization.  Economic exploitation and social oppression are intrinsically interrelated and mutually reinforcing, and must be overcome together.

This, I think, is where we can dispel the argument common amongst TERFs that gender identity is individualist, neo-liberal or a post-modernist distraction – instead it is the politics of gender identity that, deployed correctly, can help enable us to upend the artificial social divisions through which exploitation is upheld and social identity itself formed.  Far from the accusation TERFs often level that the politics of gender identity seeks to preserve gendered norms, it instead is an attempt to reckon with a world in which gender is deeply etched, to resist, disturb and experiment with the rigid classifications that underpin our social reality.  Indeed, TERF’s insistence on excluding trans women from their spaces and politics to gatekeep a sacrosanct womanhood speaks to the very instinct they warn against: the ossification of artificial social categories through the homogenization of a uniform experience of ‘womanhood’, mobilized again and again to dispossess the most marginalized women from political organizing, to divide us along lines of race, sexuality, class etc.

Indeed, to relate politics to the personal, to our everyday lived circumstances, is not to repudiate collectivism, but instead to acknowledge the cultural realities that inform the mechanisms of exploitation we endure, and to emphasise the importance of cultural affirmation to the sustenance and horizons of emancipatory activity.  It is not to propose individual adjustment or a fetishization of personal feeling (though that impulse does of course exist on the left, and is a much wider phenomenon that should not be blamed on trans people) but rather to reckon with a fundamental question of the kinds of social lives we wish to lead, the kinds of ideals and ends we strive towards.  TERF ridicule of trans people as coddled and delusional should be understood in the context of a fatalism where we are completely determined by fixed social realities and not agents within them.

Indeed, there is much potential, and perhaps common ground, to be found in examining gender identity in the context of our relationship to reproduction: to recognize how transness is implicated in our material conditions and thus how gender more broadly is implicated in class relations.  The traditional class analysis of reproductive labour, whilst significant, is particularly heteronormative, relying conceptually upon the nuclear family and the invisibilisation, privatisation and appropriation of domestic labour to replenish labour power therein.  Transness (and indeed queerness) is often defined by a fraught relationship to this reproductive unit, such that even the indirect fruits of wage labour are not enjoyed as we become estranged from oppressive families.  Our transness renders our relationship to labour precarious, often contingent on self-mutilation, as we toil in poor conditions in feminized service sector work, become criminalized in sex work, or are forced to languish in destitution and unemployment.  We are derided and punished at the Job Centre, compelled to perform ruses to even access the most basic subsistence to reproduce ourselves, with sanctions commonplace.  We are harassed on the street and at work and in the home, subject to gendered abuse and sexual violence in disproportionate numbers, social violence an ever looming shadow across our lives.  We are denied healthcare, forced to submit to degrading and cumbersome bureaucratic processes to realize our bodily autonomy.  Prisons and police discipline and abuse us as if we are abominations.

This, then, should not sound unfamiliar – state control over our bodies, street, workplace and domestic abuse and intimidation, material devaluation of labour – all these structural forces impact the lives of trans people and cis women in a similar fashion.  Though no trans person would ever deny that women’s oppression is, in significant part, historically rooted in attempts to control biological reproduction, to maintain this is the sole source of gendered oppression is to myopically restrict liberatory praxis.  It not only disregards the myriad experiences of vulnerable women and trans people but also poses a limited understanding of the exploitative relations undergirding the totality of reproductive processes in society.  There is more space for unity than we might imagine, and though TERFs might brand trans people as their enemies, turning against us only does harm to their cause, to the whole cause of confronting the multifaceted oppression of class society.  The idea that our rights are in competitive tension with one another, that trans rights must necessarily be at the expense of women’s rights, simply plays into the reactionary narratives that pit us against one another, fracture common cause, preserve social hierarchies and the zero-sum, bitter deceit that similarly marginalized groups are to blame for our conditions, misunderstand the interdependence of our struggles, and draw our gaze away from our common enemies of the state and the ruling class.

There is, as always, reason for hope.  The attempts to exclude trans women from All-Women Shortlists have been officially – if not politically – overturned, with many Labour MPs and the NEC declaring that trans women can stand for women’s places regardless of GRC status.  Without an active integration of trans politics into a revolutionary analysis, we not only neglect the pursuit of justice for trans people so habitually persecuted by society, but fail to grasp the complete dynamics of gendered oppression that affect and are propped up by us all.  With a deficient analysis of how exploitation and oppression operate in class society, we will not be able to strategize, organize and act effectively to confront its complex mechanics.  Indeed, this is a question of fundamentally respecting and defending the humanity of a marginalized people who suffer intense violence in society.  Bigotry has no place in our feminism – and though the path toward emancipation is always an arduous one, the landscape is indeed shifting, and the ranks of those forging through the foliage swelling.  Sometimes I struggle to see past the brambles to the glade beyond, but I never waver in knowing that it will be beautiful, that there are worlds here – within us, amongst us – aching to be realized, dreams blossoming despite the tempests they invite.

Police Cuts and The Left

Recently, a video interview with a former Met police officer, where he condemns Theresa May’s government as having ‘blood on their hands’ for underfunding police forces in the wake of a series of fatal knife crimes on New Year’s Eve, has been circulating and shared vigorously by those on the left to expose the ruptures wrought by austerity.

This requires careful handling – the distressing subject matter reminds us that the administration of politics is quite simply a direct matter of life and death, especially for vulnerable and marginalized people. The bereavement and emotional turmoil experienced by the loved ones and families of the victims of these horrific attacks should be actively empathised with – and certainly not abstracted from politics as the right often prescribe – especially regarding a need for a sense of security and protection (we should remember that most of the public do conceptualize the police as a public service, and navigate accordingly). Theresa May does indeed have ‘blood on her hands’ – but this raises more fundamental questions of whether the police actually prevent, curtail or indeed exacerbate violence in society.

It strikes me the left more broadly, particularly within the Labour Party, needs to deliberate much more rigorously on this issue: especially when narratives from former police officers and the Police Federation like this circulate in the wake of public tragedy (terrorism being similar in its dimensions here) and the left often knee-jerk lapses into ‘we need more cops on the streets’.  This is an understandable response to an extreme sense of threat or vulnerability – but the frames of reference of ‘law and order’ are not politically neutral, and the incitement and weaponization of fear over social chaos has been both a historical technique through which brutal state control and repression has been justified and has also assumed a specific role within contemporary politics around Brexit, migration, terrorism, etc to legitimize draconian practices of securitization and militarization and rally the (far-)right.  The insidiousness gone unspoken here is that parts of this interview are not dissimilar in content, tone and rhetoric to interviews in 2011 condemning the ‘criminality’ of rioters in the wake of Mark Duggan’s murder by police.

There are obviously varied positions on the role of the police on the left – (now much less common) anarchist strains that argue for total abolition, social democratic tendencies that deem the police a public service like any other, and a newer tendency to try and straddle the line between the two and react to some of the more juvenile or ‘ultra-left’ tendencies in the abolitionist strain whilst not acceding to entirely positive social democratic framings of police functions (the latter increasingly frustrates me almost as much as the first, often through its straw-manning of the abolitionist drive and its disillusionment with this drive lapsing frequently into the very recuperations anarchists warn against – a tiresome cycle). Thus broader fault lines and questions in the left around not just the police but the state itself are exposed in an attempt to figure a coherent position on this, overshadowed largely by an impulse to mark out a clear territory of defence wherein no cuts are ever acceptable (an impulse I think useful, anchoring and important to Labour’s electoral success, but itself inheriting an instinct towards purely reactive politics that have constrained the left’s horizons and imaginations over the past few decades).  Simply repudiating cuts, we know, is not a sufficient strategy for a sustainable left – the failings of the powerful anti-cuts movement sparked in the wake of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition is but one testament to this.  An assertion of the redistributive potentialities of the state, both as an alternative to a contemporary left politics of marginality and withdrawal and as a riposte to its brutal evisceration under neo-liberalism, should not divert our attention from its injustices and internal logics of power (especially as marshalled against the very social movements to which Labour must be oriented).

It perhaps does not do us much good – as some of the abolitionist tendencies sometimes lapse into – to describe the police as totally and absolutely bad (a nihilism that I think sabotages conversations around the subject before they start). I do, of course, think the police are indeed structurally bad (the nuances are, I think, important here), that their historical social mission is not protection of the public but the violent defence of private property, control of marginalized and dissenting populations, and repressive maintenance of an oppressive status quo – this is acutely apparent to anyone who has ever been on the other end of a police baton, whether in the context of a protest or because of being in the ‘wrong’ (read: black, poor) neighbourhood. In the interview the former police officer is himself quite explicit about the police’s function – ‘the control of public space’. Indeed, while it might be wrong-headed to say that all of Labour’s membership, drawn largely from the more social-movement-like tradition (the divisions are of course becoming more blurred, if they were ever entirely clear in the first place), hate the police, it would also be misguided to deny that, not only for the purposes of justice but also for the loyalties of those who Labour should be grounded in and needs to appeal to – participants in the student protests and riots (many of whom languished under truly draconian sentences in their wake), those involved in militant struggle for class and social power, those who fought at Orgreave, those fighting for justice for the Hillsborough 96, family justice campaigns fighting for accountability over deaths in custody, poor BME communities spied upon, harassed, brutalized by cops – many do feel very legitimate discontent and mistrust towards the police.  It goes without saying that questions of electoral ‘pragmatism’ are always wracked by messy political contentions, as much as the collapsing centrist tendency might still like to assert otherwise.

Instead, critiques of the police are warded off and diffused, I think in the vein of quite a Blairite tendency that suggests this will be unpopular with the electorate (and perhaps an idea that cuts to police might invite more brutality, privatisation and militarization of forces, etc, which there is truth to). Not only did Labour’s recent electoral success discount this impulse for the myth that it is (the left only has meaning, robustness and actual fibre when it inspires, imagines, and transforms, rather than ceding ground and triangulating to cynically score points; we must pose a different, more just, more emancipatory, more unified vision of the world, provoking people to question and explore and relate to one another differently, without it we are nothing) – but where the left is willing to cede ground is I think telling (borders, police, prisons) because we’ve always been reluctant to upset the status quo over racism and issues which disproportionately affect BME communities, and we need to urgently challenge and overcome that tendency. It’s a very real, very significant hangover and problem still.  The Labour Party should be understood as a historically imperialist institution and the left’s enduring capitulations around racism and weakness over questions of state violence interrogated.

This is not even to deny entirely that the police engage in some socially useful functions. But there seems to be an even fairly cautious liberal critique of the police that is not being engaged with – that there are serious endemic problems, abuses and corruption within policing, even such that Police Commissioners themselves and High Court judgements have branded police forces institutionally racist. That is to say – even in acknowledging that the police may indeed curb some violent crime (though egregiously poor crime resolution rates and prejudices in policing patterns are important here) – one can question, for example, the criminalization of sex work and the violent threat to marginalized women and trans people this poses, the criminalization of homelessness, the criminalization of mental health and the abuses therein, the war on drugs and how this has fractured a generation of poor black communities, the specialist units set up to infiltrate and intimately monitor dissent (FITs, National Domestic Extremism units, etc) and how this undercover policing has, for example, deeply traumatized women activists who cops engaged in intimate relationships with under false pretexts to glean information from (one can only imagine the devastation – it was described as like being ‘raped by the state’ by one woman), the civil-liberties-infringing and Islamophobic operations of counter-terrorism units, the brutal excesses of riot police, the utter obscenity of accountability structures like the IPCC, deaths in custody for which no cop has ever been held to account, abuse (from humiliations of trans people, to racist aggression, all the way to sexual assault) in police custody – etc.

Indeed, following these critiques through to their logical conclusions, one might imagine there’s a pattern of control and violence here that alludes to structural problems of police forces themselves – and I don’t simply mean technical problems, that can be rectified through reorientation of police operations, more diverse representation, or rooting out the ‘bad apples’ (the whole orchard is rotten to its roots) but that are fundamental to the police as an institution and integral to its repressive role in society.  Their core, overriding function is to uphold and enforce inequality.

That’s why the claim of the Government engaging in ‘institutional racism’ at the end of the interview stings a little – not because it isn’t true, of course the state is racist to its core – but because the hypocrisy is stark. The implicit assertion that, if only the police had more funding, more would be done to protect black and vulnerable communities, is just a patently absurd claim (especially because these communities are already violently over-policed – the interviewee’s call for more funding for stop-and-searches is particularly pernicious). It strategically and conveniently deflects attention from the history of institutional neglect, brutality and violence inflicted upon BME communities by the police (Bijan Ebrahimi’s tragic murder, and the accompanying official imputations of institutional racism in Avon and Somerset police and Bristol City Council, being a harrowing reminder of this) – disavowing the fact that the police themselves are at the very heart of the state’s racism and always have been.

Indeed, whilst interviews like this from (historically very reactionary and with significant influence in the Labour party) Police Federation officers portray an understandably tragic image of a society rent by internal social crises (austerity and neo-liberalism have indeed devastated communities), these narratives are actually fundamental to the police justifying (and abusing) their powers throughout history – the ‘thin blue line’ between order and chaos guarded assiduously by a noble police, to restrain the destructive passions of the naturally dissolute masses who only because of centralized control and fear of punishment do not tear themselves and society apart.  This narrative was absolutely fundamental to the abhorrent repression of the 2011 riots, displacing all acknowledgement of legitimate political discontent and levelling all political contention into a vilification of rioters as maleficent ‘thugs’ and enemies of society (just as the miners were branded as ‘enemies within’, Occupy as vandals and troublemakers, the examples could multiply endlessly) – uprisings as ‘disorder’, to be stabilized by the mystifying ‘order’ of repressive, racist state violence and organized police deception.

We should thus be wary of how these narratives are framed and deployed – recognizing the difficult truth that crime is in large part an expression of social problems and economic dispossession which thrive under capitalism and other systems of oppression.  This is especially true in a climate of austerity – cuts to youth centres, schools, social work, community institutions are all significant here, and it’s little wonder shoplifting, for example, has risen with a programme of cruel benefit sanctions, wage repression and soaring rents, entrenching poverty and homelessness. Responding to social problems with a more well-funded apparatus of violence and control designed to maintain those very systems is ultimately counter-productive, providing us a psychological concession of ostensible ‘security’ in phalanxes of cops as a trade-off for a deeply violent set of social relations upheld by the police. ‘Security’ should not look like this – it is a fearful, conservative vision which only acts as a substitute for tackling social problems at their root, opting instead for inflammation of these very problems by violently punishing those already victim to systemic violence.  Care must be taken here, such that pronouncements of the political and social damage resulting from neo-liberalism are not redirected into reactionary, ‘shock’ narratives purely demanding ‘control’, displacing blame from the economic to the cultural, to be redressed through the application of statist force.

We need a vision of hope, compassion, solidarity, community, not this – we must recognize what is at stake here, for this is about so much more than just the police. It is about challenging the logic of control, discipline and repression that is so virulently (and sometimes invisibly) fundamental to our current political settlement.  ‘Law and order’ is the natural terrain of the right, in the tradition of manipulating fear around crisis to force through authoritarian policies which reinforce a strong-arming state and reassert stringent authority as the answer to exploitation and disempowerment.  We cannot be made safe through raised walls, more armed officers on our streets, more violent control of public space.  Fear cannot be our primary rallying cry; it is no redress to conditions of social and economic trauma.  Theresa May does indeed have blood on her hands – and so do police forces everywhere. The names need not be repeated – or perhaps, more than ever, they need to be.

The Gender Recognition Act, Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists and Trans Politics (Part I)

Conflicts around trans issues have gained increasing visibility as of late, with attention from a viciously hostile media and political arena honed in particularly on the proposal of an update to the Gender Recognition Act.  This legislation was first introduced in 2004, and authorized a process by which trans people could acquire a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) in order to legally alter the name and gender on their birth certificate, and thereby have their gender honoured for all legal purposes.  Though there was progressive elements to this legislation, particularly in its being the first Gender Recognition Act of its time internationally to not require compulsory sterilisation in order to acquire gender recognition (a practice that is still, deplorably, prevalent across the world), it also afforded no legal protections against transphobic discrimination, harassment and abuse; pathologized and medicalized trans identities; and has been widely condemned as expensive, cumbersome, degrading, invasive and constricting in its processes and requisites.

Some of the qualifications in the 2004 Act are especially punitive: for example mandating an effective ‘spousal-veto’ around gender recognition, requiring a person to have ‘lived in their acquired gender for 2 years’ (with substantial amounts of intimate accompanying evidence needed to confirm this social transition), necessitating a formal diagnosis of gender dysphoria (in which transness is therefore still interpreted and constituted within a framework of psychological disorder), etc.  Prejudice and abuse from medical professionals and practitioners plagues the system; the roles we are forced to perform to be perceived as legitimately ‘trans’ are stereotypically repressive, restrictive and demeaning; the evidence required by the GRC panel is often intensely personal, demanding and intrusive.  Mandating a standardized criteria for idealized gendered characterizations we must inhabit and exhaustive evidence we must provide is arbitrary, regimenting and extremely psychologically trying.  It neglects the complexity and messiness of our lives, our relationship with gender, and indeed gender itself.

Years of psychological assessment, bureaucratic evaluation, and living without the appropriate documentation as we grapple with our inner turmoil and the violence of the world around us – this is the social cost of the current GRA process, locking us in a legal and medical position of prolonged uncertainty, and the impact it has on the health of trans people is grave.  This is borne out in the stress and anxiety of our everyday encounters with adminstrative hostility, suspicion and violence: we must live ‘in role’ for many years, proving that we have altered our gender identity in official documentation such as passports or wage slips to attain a GRC, whilst we can be hindered from altering this because of the very absence of a birth certificate with coincident personal details.  Legally, medically, and socially, we are embroiled in a number of Catch-22s, mistrusted and belittled at every encounter with external bodies, our lives consumed by a series of onerous hurdles with which we contend in order to justify our existence, stringently delimiting our participation in society.

In both technical and political terms, the flaws of this Act are thus manifest in the very real policing, indignities and degradations of the process as it undermines and impedes the self-realization of trans people.  With the health system so desperately constrained and damaged by austerity and privatisation, the process of seeking out some kind of medical transition – often the pivot on which a successful GRC application hinges – is all the more fraught, with literal death tolls alarming us to the cracks in the system.  With the £140 application fee and admin/medical costs bound up with the GRC, it is overwhelmingly poor people that are falling through these cracks.  Indeed, the very idea that the legitimacy of our personhood should be dependent upon the assessments of impersonal panels and gatekeeping diagnoses is in and of itself barbaric.  It is underpinned by the notion that trans people are biologically defective, inferior, and should not have power over our own lives: that our humanity is not intrinsic but rather earned-pending-evaluation.  The validity of our identities is ultimately not contingent upon any legal/medical designation or certificate, and the violence against us will not be curbed with legal reform alone.  For it is evident that the state must also be understood as one of the key agents of our oppression, and reforms thus always in tension, compacts always contingent on the balance of class and social forces.

The cultural hegemony that deems benefit claimants fraudulent liars and cheats is the same ideology of suspicion that demands trans people ‘prove’ ourselves as ‘real’ in order to access the essential services we need to survive and thrive.  Hyper-exploited migrants with no recourse to public funds and few rights due to lack of documentation are subject to a hyper-violent manifestation of such bureaucratic demands, fearing always the looming shadow of the Home Office, with LGBTQIA+ migrants suffering especially acutely. Our access to public resources is made more and more conditional by cumbersome bureaucracy and the imposition of ruthless neo-liberal policy: attacks on trans access to services are and should be responded to as an attack from capital that demands the solidarity of the whole working class.  None of us should have to prove ourselves ‘worthy’ of the most rudimentary infrastructure needed to live a comfortable life: we are all unconditionally deserving of that.

The social and material position of trans people was improved slightly by the Equalities Act in 2010, which guaranteed certain protections for ‘gender reassignment’ as a protected characteristic within workplaces and other arenas.  The issue with this Act is not only its lack of enforcement, with harassment and discrimination still rampant and widely unchallenged – but also its anachronistic language that maintains both the pathologization of trans life and social divisions rooted in biological essentialism.  Without explicit medical procedures and interventions which trans people may not either want to or be able to immediately access due to onerously long waiting lists and structural barriers within the healthcare system, the protections we are guaranteed have been widely interpreted as in limbo (despite vague qualifications in the Act to the contrary).  Whilst socially transitioning, or in the period before which we undergo medical transition and the acquisition of our GRC – which is in itself an extremely drawn out, bureaucratic and emotionally exhausting process in which we are often most vulnerable – the legislative prescription of our rights is ambiguous at best.  Many trans people feel legally unprotected from harassment, abuse and violence, and in the absence of a GRC, or whilst we await it, we are often denied access to specialist services aligning with our gender.

This is why the proposed changes to the GRA suggest the protected characteristic should be altered to ‘gender identity’ – and the declaration process streamlined to non-pathologized self-identification – in order that we – our rights, our resources, our lives – are not suspended in a debilitating limbo.  Regardless of GRC or transition status, more rigorous and explicit protections against transphobia must be implemented into law – an update to the GRA should be campaigned for not as a bureaucratic gesture but a strategic precursor to cultural shifts in our understanding of gender, more robust rights, and widened access to services, resources and infrastructure.  Here it is worth noting further that there are absolutely no direct legislative provisions for those of non-binary genders.

This lack of legal rights is manifest in the bleak material realities of trans life.  Suicide statistics for trans people are egregiously high.  Transphobic harassment, bullying, abuse, gendered violence and sexual assault are rife – in the streets, in the workplace, even in public services.  The world is a deeply hostile and violent place for trans people, with widespread prejudice stoked by fear-mongering and scapegoating in the mainstream press.  Discrimination in education, healthcare and employment is rampant.  We are disproportionately subject to homelessness, ill mental health, and state violence, with the (often literal) borders hindering our participation in civil society and public space rigorously policed.  With Brexit, the resurgence of the far-right, and renewed state and private assaults on trans rights, hate crime has soared and enmity towards trans people deepened. Navigating the animosity of this world as a trans person often means either subjecting yourself to an invasive apparatus of assessment where faceless bodies decide whether you deserve self-affirmation, whilst sustaining all the throes of violence often inflicted on those transitioning; or undergoing a process of ‘self-mutilation’, repressing your gender identity and preferred presentation to maintain some kind of material security and ward off everyday bouts of violence.  The world treats us as liars, trespassers, and monstrosities.  The shame we are forced to bear is like a poison, seeping across every aspect of our lives.

The materiality of trans life and lack of rudimentary civil rights is a point I think important to emphasise for a number of reasons.  I think the parallels with the historical backlash to, and moral panic around, lesbian and gay rights, particularly as this interacted with Section 28 and the AIDs crisis, are striking, and it seems as the left we are only repeating the same mistakes in expressing solidarity with LGBTQIA+ communities.  A clarification and appraisal of the appallingly threadbare legal rights for trans people seems increasingly necessary when the narratives of trans history are not taught or aired, with the lack of consciousness on the left around these issues attesting to both this erasure and also the general societal disregard for trans lives that continues to mar our movements.  Developing a conversation which illuminates the social and material position of trans life, beyond the cultural panic and media hysteria resigning our lives to the tropes of insidious predator, delusional interloper or fanciful novelty, seems therefore essential to exposing the scale of trans oppression, and to forming a strategy of contestation that recognizes this struggle as a frontier for both fundamental civil rights and broader socio-economic transformation in a similar fashion to the liberation movements of the 60s and 70s.

This theoretical gesture entails that institutional transphobia is a matter of explicitly discriminatory policy, as much as it is a matter of the more fundamental fashion in which our society is organized.  More equitable and robust policy, and a more earnest enforcement of this policy, is of course necessary – however oppression is not simply a result of lapses in enforcement.  Hate crime laws will never be sufficient when cops still systematically harass and abuse us, and reserve particularly abominable violence for communities of colour. Gender recognition laws will never be sufficient when we cannot access the services and resources we need due to capitalist dispossession.  Legislative protections from harassment in the workplace will never be sufficient when the relations of work themselves remain so tyrannical and brutally unjust.  Whilst many British-born trans people seek to alter legal documentation, many migrants and asylum seekers are deprived of papers altogether, and subject to the atrocities of detention and deportation – settlements with the state always exclude and police, particularly via citizenship, resting ultimately upon force.  The maltreatment of trans people within prisons and courts, by the Job Centre, by the NHS, necessitates a more fundamental interrogation of the arrangements of power and resources in our society – a new challenge to the state, to borders, to the legitimacy of normalized mechanisms of policing and control.

We must dispel the intractable notion on the left that trans rights are incidental to class struggle, and instead recognize the (often abject) materiality of transness as an axis of marginalization from which more robust, multifaceted and emancipatory class struggle can emerge.  This notion is an explicit hangover from the mainstream apparatuses of the left that abandoned liberation movements in the 60s and 70s in favour of narrow, economistic bargaining, undermining the otherwise potentially unifying scope and power of class struggle, neglecting the contributions of trans politics to grappling with and unravelling the nuances of oppression in class society, and impairing the idea of autonomy and flourishing that propels and emboldens such struggles.  Conceptualizing LGBTQIA+ rights as an expression of bourgeois affectations, frivolous sideshows and whimsical lifestylism is anathema to the brilliant example of broad-based class and social struggle embodied by groups like Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners in the 80s.  Far from trans politics being ‘divisive’, the converse is in fact true: a leftist politics that leaves social divisions in society unaddressed and unchallenged can only ever be divisive, entrenching the very constructs the ruling class institutes to separate and discipline us.

Some on the left have even gone so far as to condemn the notion of ‘gender identity’ as ‘Thatcherite’ or the trans struggle as ‘individualistic’ – denouncing the proposed changes as ‘Tory legislation’ and neglecting to mention that the left-wing Labour opposition has called on the Tories to enact it.  This constitutes a fundamental betrayal of vulnerable trans people, and feminist class struggle itself, perpetrated by Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs), reinforcing the most reactionary tropes that brand us as simply entitled narcissists and enemies-within.  These same arguments were weaponized against LGBTQIA+ communities by both the left and the right throughout history, denouncing our struggles as ‘identity politics’, our right to live safely as who we are a distraction. This neglects the material dimensions of trans life, and reflects a broader institutional refusal for mainstream left apparatuses to organize trans people whilst denouncing the internet spheres and micro-communities we seek refuge in to compensate for the organized left’s failures.

This dynamic must change – urgently.  Lives depend upon it.  The updated GRA has already been adopted in places like Ireland, and has offered a significant recourse to trans people.  We must actively fight to achieve the same – and to go further on the offensive, struggling collectively until the existing order of things is abolished once and for all.

(The second part of this series can be found here.)

Education and work: lessons in alienation

It’s strange, witnessing the arrival and return of students from the ‘outside’ this time around. Sainsbury’s has been preparing for this moment for months, the welcome and orientation weeks heralding a frenzied bustle of students shopping alone or with their parents’ assistance in that last-minute clamour for the essentials. Management, in their absurd ‘huddles’ – which in reality demoralize and divide more than unite or uplift – relay the sales statistics and performance outcomes in the weeks prior to the students arriving, and inform us that the start of the new term will be indispensable to recuperating lost ground in the context of sales revenue. ‘You need to be at your best’, ‘always smile’, ‘give customers your undivided attention’ – the familiar constellation of hollow slogans of customer service are repeated ad nauseam, sugarcoated with gestures towards co-operation and the fulfilment of ‘common objectives’ (as if we ever see management on the shopfloor except in a fleeting capacity of ‘checking in’ to stave off any potential aspersions on their being out of touch, and as if Sainsbury’s profit margins were proxies for our wages, conditions or collective well-being).

There’s an insidious undertone coursing through the ‘motivational’ language and hyped-up performance review, which the workers implicitly all of course understand, though the extent to which we’ve internalized the details as right, inevitable or necessary varies.  The Mystery Customer scheme – which, stripped back, is little more than a covert, private spying mechanism designed to root out workers who have not adequately adopted the optimal Sainsbury’s persona – is at the forefront of a set of underhand, yet innocuously framed, monitoring and disciplinary techniques deployed by the company to assess the performance of workers and establish a competitive structure of reward and punishment. These ‘huddles’, of course, underneath the bluster, are about reasserting management authority, and reproducing an ideological homogeneity in which we identify our personal desires, motives and convictions with the framework of Sainsbury’s commercial targets and success.

This process is all the more effective when they recruited a whole new cohort of part-time staff to deal with the surge in commerce entailed by the arrival of students. Our shift patterns are arranged so Sainsbury’s are not legally obliged to afford us any breaks.  The pay is low; the work physically straining, onerous and monotonous; sexist and transphobic harassment frequent, and the expectation of our resignation to it intimately bound up with a virulent idea of the inexorable ruggedness of service-sector emotional labour; monitoring from supervisors, bosses and surveillance systems relentless; and productivity quotas and targets unremittingly bear down on us. There is no union presence, no remnant even of the idea of its necessity.  This is all framed simply as the dynamism of the modern workplace – and we must learn discipline, passivity, gratitude for even being granted this opportunity.  The conditions of the vacancies on offer – temporary, at around 10 months, to reconcile with student term dates, part-time, etc – were justified under a rubric of flexibility around studies, thus concealing and normalizing a whole-sale decimation of protections and rights across the labour market under the Conservative adminstration.

Work and university are thus mutually constitutive in their tensions and contradictions: not only because university is a site of service and knowledge production, increasingly subservient to corporate interests, but because more and more students are being forced into work due to heightening financial pressures, and universities and workplaces are more and more subordinated to the same ruthless logic of market forces.  In particular, programmes of performance management dominate both spheres, contriving impossible standards of productivity in which workers’ livelihoods are persistently under threat, with increasing workloads, deteriorating working conditions and even dismissal due to ‘financial underperformance’ or falling short of targets commonplace.  We are ever more isolated, over-burdened and emotionally spent as we police ourselves against incessant measuring and monitoring, our affective capacities territorialized as a resource by capital.  Under the cutthroat rubric of market ‘efficiency’ work discipline intensifies: increased regimentation, wage-repression, and dismantling of employment benefits are urged on by the imperatives of profit.  The looming pressure of deadlines and exams for students are mirrored in a vast, menacing bureaucracy of metrics and targets for workers, with these competing pressures often acting on the same subject.  Alienation from the mission and purpose of one’s work, having oneself and others made into rivals, resentment with conditions and processes over which we have no control, self-repression, hyper-vigilance, anxiety, instability, feelings of ‘falling behind’ and ‘never being able to do or be enough’ and all-or-nothing competition, inadequacy, dejection, result.

This is not simply an indication of the importance of staff-student solidarity in our struggles, both in and beyond the university, but fundamentally gestures towards the ever-increasing importance of recarving the strategy of student struggle itself as an industrial one.  Students must become a power in and of themselves, not simply offering solidarity to sections of the working class from the broader community, but also becoming a self-organized industrial force, mobilizing as workers as well as tenants, subjects of oppression, autonomous social actors, etc.

This is especially true because the political potentialities of university are always in tension, due to their being traditionally conservative institutions home to a middle class cultural elite, engaged in projects of gentrification, developing and legitimizing dominant cultural hegemonies, acting as sites of reproduction for managers, politicians and technocrats, and conceived of within social democratic fantasies of gatekept, Arcadian intellectual havens insulated from the exploitative social relations of capitalism and imperialism.  This dynamic has been somewhat recomposed by neo-liberal reforms, with universities increasingly rendered solely as sites in which indebted consumers and trained professionals are equipped and disciplined for the labour market.  Throughout history, students have acted as revolutionary agitators within broader processes of working-class mobilization due to the specifics of our situation – more spare time, free access to academia and radical enquiry, cultural spaces of independence from the nuclear family and social orthodoxy, the (sometimes mythical) trajectory of universities as tasked with a public mission to grapple with and challenge received wisdom upheld through rigorous struggle, etc.

A strategy delimited by too restricted a ‘student’ focus could indeed advance a narrow scope of ‘student interests’ at the expense of the broader community.  For example, students can and must be at the forefront of fighting against casualization when our passivity to such work regimes is approved by the state as a proxy for tacit acquiescence in the broader working class.  This is especially true in a context where precarity and temp agencies are created, propagated and legitimized by our own universities, normalizing casualized work across cities and communities.  Our interests as students and as the working class must be understood, and actively unified, as one in the same.  Indeed, a perennial problem of student organizing, high turnover – engendering short-termist strategies and a tendency to not develop resilient infrastructure – is increasingly applicable to waged work and its post-Fordist recomposition.

The most effective response to these conditions is, I think, to draw on and meld the best of both the robust traditions of unionism, and the fluid, horizontalist practices adopted to suit conditions of precarity and popularized by the recent history of anti-austerity revolt.   These histories, and this collective imagination, though in some sense propelling and rejuvenated by the Labour project, are largely non-existent across most workplaces (with exceptions such as the SOAS Justice For Workers victory to bring all workers in-house among one of many notable examples).  A rupture in the neo-liberal consensus has indeed occurred, and this must be celebrated – but hope has not translated to the shopfloor, and without organized rank-and-file working-class militancy, the strategic vision developed to occupy this rupture cannot be realized.  With disproportionately young people leading canvassing efforts and voting for Labour, our role as workplace organizers must too be recaptured.

Most of those in the new cohort at Sainsbury’s are, of course, students ourselves – college, University, or recently graduated.  We see ourselves projected in the multitudes of students acclimatizing to their new-found independence, that excitement and apprehension invoked by thought of the novel academic, social and personal possibilities of university – what could be, what is, what was.  Mostly I see vague wisps of what should have been, if universities were the sites of transformation, exploration and discovery they now only aggressively market themselves to be.  I see glimpses of campaigns and dissent in which we collectively realized these values; realized something beyond a compulsion to desperately pursue every experience at university as an ‘opportunity’ to advance our careers in a ruthless labour market, as if HE institutions were merely training grounds in a battle with the looming spectre of debt; realized something beyond our state of owing, paying, toiling. Everything positive I found at university – love, community, empowerment – was wrenched from it in struggle, asserted despite and against it rather than because of it, wrested as concession rather than gift. It petrifies me, the thought of how vicious and unforgiving these institutions can be, how fearful and constrained our lives have become, how many are now cast adrift by the very places that profess to offer safe harbour.

I shouldn’t have to recall university mostly with pain, rent across by memories of oppressive harassment and abuse, to overbearing disillusionment with a course I undertook only for its job prospects, to episodes of panic as I struggled to reckon with the aftermath of traumatic police and security violence, to shedding flurries of tears as I approached exams in a haze of overwhelming stress, to those same floods of tears lamenting the convictions and community service levelled by the court for protesting against fees, to the doctor’s visit confirming my depression, to supporting friends through illness, self-harm, abuse and violence in the absence of professional infrastructure, etc.

Though our experiences are not homogeneous, these are all too common features of a Higher Education system aggressively oriented towards the interests of the market – engendering alienation, isolation, often unbearable academic and financial pressure, intensive regimes of auditing and assessment, deepening inequality and division, evisceration of support services and democracy and community, a sentence of debt, and preparation for an existence of professional drudgery and social submission. With suicides deplorably at their highest ever rate at universities, too many of us are haunted by recollections of university as the first time we were struck by the devastating desolation of suicidal thoughts, ideation and even attempts.  Too many of us have felt like we would never again experience happiness, in a place we were exhorted would be our home.  Too many of us have not made it.  So many have dropped out and temporarily withdrawn, unable to cope with the pressure.  This is a product of a social order in which hope is a luxury, ciphers in a brochure, artificial symbols of aspiration and acquisition to contend for and clamber towards through mires of debt.  The grand promise of graduate ‘prosperity’ smoulders in a quagmire of zero-hour contracts, wage stagnation and soaring rents, our futures beleaguered by uncertainty and hollowed out to instruments by the forces of enterprise.  We flounder in these clutches, guilty and ashamed, as the heady heights of ‘success’ cast their shadow over us, blaming us for our lack of grit.

It should not be this way.  It cannot be this way.  I don’t want to look into those students’ faces and see ghosts, shadows of loss and fractures of despair through which bitterness and jadedness whisper when co-workers ask me ‘how did you find your time at university?’.  I want to be happy for them.  I want to be excited for them.  I want adventure for them, possibility, worlds that support their collective flourishing and self-realization – just as I want that for every worker here who damn well deserves better than this, deserves better than a life at the mercy of bosses, toiling in unrewarding, stultifying and arduous work, performance managed until our emotions and personalities are subsumed into the machinery of a faceless corporate persona, our dreams and potential untapped and sacrificed for the sake of the rich. A narrative which conceptualizes any of these problems as inevitable byproducts of the rigours of independence, or failings in individual resilience, is a callous one which can only serve to reproduce these problems.  It is a narrative that sanctions ailing public services, the voiding of collective empathy and solidarity, the prescription that we should be content with a regime underpinned by insecurity, anxiety and domination, in which many of us are exhausted and debilitated to the point of desperation.

I think back to the instances of joy at university – and hold to them, like moments of clarity and stillness amidst a cacophony of check-out beeps and barked orders from bosses.  They still linger on, in the infrastructures of political organization we’ve formed, the memories of struggle and camaraderie we’ve forged, the change we’ve catalysed on campus.  I am now largely uprooted from that certainty, that continuity, that collective strength, with many of my dearest friends and those with whom I started Warwick For Free Education disappeared to every corner of the country.  I like to hope that these are connections that span histories, transcend distance, can and have overcome any adversity.  Whether actively asserted and communicated as frequently, these connections have impacted me indelibly, changed how I carry myself, believe in myself, and care for others.  I never felt like I truly belonged anywhere before I found them.  And when I see the excitement gleam in those fresher’s eyes, it’s those contours I’ll see, silhouettes of tears dissolving into warm embraces and clasped hands and locked arms.  And I’ll remember not only the moments I thought I’d never know joy again, but the moments I knew joy more beautifully than I’d ever known it before.  And I’ll think: maybe even in this place, then, I can know it again, if we dare to fight. But it’s hard, harder in this place because there is no collective memory, no infrastructure, more regimentation and corresponding adaptation, and I barely know where to begin.

I don’t just want to remember: I want to see futures, realize them, rejoice in them, to feel hope for those throngs of freshers, for the workers around me, for myself.  We should settle for no less.  It is not entitlement to want more than this: we should feel entitled to more than this.  Through intentionally decimated expectations, constricted prospects, eclipsed political horizons, and neo-liberal individuation of responsibility, we have been coerced out of that understanding.  We are, I hope, beginning to reclaim sight of how much we need one another, and how much we ought to defend one another, and recognizing that things should be better than this.  They can be better than this.  They must be better than this.

Clarity

Writing has always been important to me.  I remember, when I was younger, that I used to write religiously every night, exhausting notebook after notebook with angst-ridden stories. Looking back on them now – perhaps out of wistfulness, perhaps searching for common threads in a tangled mess of imagery, perhaps hoping, or wondering if, I had captured something in that naivety that was worth remembering – they are, as you would expect, somewhat embarrassing, shoddily constructed, overwrought, agonized, wandering, urgent, wayward, trite, earnest, lucid, unfocussed, dismal, brighter than much I would now dare to write.

Much of it was influenced by divorce, bullying, grief, alienation, song lyrics, the person and world I wanted to discover and actualize, a grasping for politics I had not yet found, a grappling with frameworks for understanding myself and for deciphering the complex, collective and unique experiences of anguish and joy.  It was always a world I felt comfortable retreating into, seeking refuge in, knowing that there might be warmth and consolation, if not answers.  It was usually crystallising and cathartic, sometimes frustrating, like trying to chase storms to their source – a certain curiosity it sated, a certain impulse for betterment and peace and clarity it fulfilled, but ultimately disorienting and steeped in an enveloping kind of chaos, a vertigo at the enormity of it all. Indeed, the process of writing always raised and was laden with broader questions around the role, purpose and utility of writing itself: on the tensions and limits of catharsis, the fraught nature of writing as a kind of therapeutic tool (perhaps all equipment is deficient when wandering the wastelands of grief), the vagueness of the boundary between purposeful delving and mystifying dwelling, how immersion in and crystallisation of pain can entail a loss or entrapment of oneself in its murky depths, writing as something both of and within the world but also necessarily outside of it, how inner constructed worlds interact and jar with a messier external reality, etc.

I’ll always remember the English teacher in Sixth Form that encouraged me to pursue writing.  Her disposition was that of a kind of disgruntled tenderness, a hardened and quietly tempestuous exterior belying an interior of intimate care and ardour: almost an embodiment of the writers she admired, as if she deeply inhabited the art and its personas channelled themselves through her.  She was infatuated with Byron, and adored the Romantic poets, and it was in no small part her passion for them that helped me fall in love with their artistry too.  I borrowed her personal version of a book comprising a selection of Shelley’s poems.  It was punctuated with her thoughtful commentary, notes and annotations – I can picture the arc of the handwriting still.  I always pondered why exactly she lent me that book – but I know I felt honoured, and that when I read it something profound shifted within me; sparks of lighting and fire struck, emblazoning the horizons of my imagination, weaving themselves into the most exceptional patterns.  Art, the world, and my conception of my place within it, were all transformed.

To this day, Shelley’s work is ineffably special to me – I found a sense of belonging in its scope, its intensity, its radicalism.  The memory of that teacher, who asserted I was a great writer, told me she was proud of me when the fragments of my home struggled to piece sentiments of affection together, and hugged me when I won a poetry prize, is even more special to me.  I remember how much I admired her, and how her reciprocation of that admiration was an immense blessing, and still is.  That memory still bolsters me, and I want to honour it, dedicate the space to it that it deserves.  She not only nurtured my writing, but – like no one else really had – instilled me with the faith that I had something important to say, and that I should have the faith in myself to say it.  She encouraged me to continue writing at a point where I needed it most.  I wonder if she’d still be proud of me, whether one day she’ll read anything I write, how she’s doing, whether she’d have ever counted on me to become the rebel I always suspected her to be. I think she’d probably assert that all good writers should flout the rules.

I find myself often struggling to feel as connected to writing as I did in my younger years. One might say it’s the erosions and trappings of life, depression and adversity.  After all, hardship can harbour with it an urgency to seek out catharsis, yes, but it can also deprive of creativity, leach of vitality, erode one’s faith that such virtues as clarity or hope are possible.  Depression eclipses and blunts emotion, withers memory, eviscerates self-worth – only the most romantic depictions of the illness could render it as a source of inspiration when mostly it just amounts to a kind of unforgiving emptiness, a desperate dread that the world is bereft and everyday life is an unsurvivable, unbearable and drudging ordeal.

I think, most of all, though, I’m scared to write.  I think I was always a little scared, because it was important to me and I didn’t want to fail, I didn’t want to fuck it up, I didn’t want to commit something to paper and discover one of the very few things I believed in and was told I was good at didn’t measure up, didn’t amount to anything, didn’t mean much to anyone.  But I mostly wrote for myself, for my own closure and catharsis.  Why did the world need to see it for it to be important?  Why couldn’t I just write unshackled from the weight of those expectations?

The answer, I guess, is clear: writing, truly good writing, is a communion, a dialogue, an exercise in empathy.  It becomes a collective phenomenon, begins to offer a means to reshape the world rather than just observe its motions and vicissitudes, when it is shared, communicated, explored, when it no longer consigns itself to monologues, when the world rather than solely one’s thoughts become its theatre, when the cast and audience expand and narratives of histories and futures manifest.  Stories are how we trace the world, trace worlds we’ve known and yet to know, trace promises of something better and different.  They are one of the most intimate expressions of the inner self as we seek out meaning and purpose in that world.

And that, I think, is part of the reason for my fear: if what is written here is the most undiluted expression of who I am, what if it is unworthy?  What if it is indulgent, equivocating, cynical, lacking, uninteresting, harmful, even selfish?  What if I can never do justice to the significance of the topics that I want to explore – what if I’m missing something, if I never get it right?  What if it my thoughts never translate as I wish them to?  What if some things just cannot be articulated or reasoned through?  What if I look back on this blog in the future and am ashamed of it?  What if people I admire the most are disappointed in it?  What if I can’t write like I used to, if I’ve lost something?  What if I’m reaching for something I’ll never find?

I’ve found myself returning to previous blog posts frequently, agonizing for days over their content, editing over and over again, in the most difficult moments even feeling an impulse to erase them, purge them from the plane of the public, withdraw back into the safety of shelter rather than risk the vicissitudes of the weather.  When it just feels like you’re getting drenched and you haven’t seen so much as a glimmer of lightning in a long time, the horizons start to blur, the worlds you’re trying to create seem to become eroded and mired in fog, and you wonder if the lightning is just in some other part of the world that you can’t reach.

After all, writing begins from a premise that you do indeed have something important and unique to say, that your voice deserves to be listened to.  This is an assertion I’ve always found difficult to come to terms with.  We all have a story to tell, but I’ve always struggled to imagine mine needed or deserved space.  I think a lot of us probably feel that way, and that this doubt is in part a result of how power functions in our society: our collective stories wrought into the mould and narrative of dominant ideology, assimilated and smouldering, our creativity sublimated, our autonomy repressed, our collectivity shattered, our dignity ensnared and besieged by the trappings of profit and domination.

But it is, of course, not simply a political question – though one wonders where the separation resides.  Much could be written of the contours of that separation.  In part, I started this blog to reclaim some of my personal voice.  It’s deeply inflected by politics, of course – the very name of the blog is a bit of a give away in that sense.  But politics, though useful in articulating a theoretical framework which connects personal experience to broader forces, was never quite enough to figure through grief, loss, especially death.

I found myself increasingly frustrated when trying to write about these things, resorting to vague and wavering metaphors, agonizing over the irrationalities and tensions, tormented by not only the pain but the very fact that I could not find peace.  It’s one of the reason I harked back to my old notebooks, wondering if my younger self had any lucid insights, perhaps trying to reconcile my current self with a persona that had not known as much pain, one that was not so lost and submerged.  How do you render the dimensions of those experiences?  How do you render any of this adequately, enough to honour memory, care, hopelessness, shame, love, enough to reckon with the fear and gravity and complexity, enough that you might finally be able to let go?

I don’t have an answer for that.  Perhaps I never will.  These stories are always evolving, as we change, as the world around us does. Words are not intended as blueprints, but, I think, an initiation of a conversation – with pain, with history, with possibility. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that through these stories we can begin to not only cautiously map out some of the vastness of the world, but make some imprint on it, offer some guidance to ourselves and one another.

I often feel envious that my favourite music artists can better capture my emotions than I could ever hope to, that I could never be so clear-sighted or eloquent, but I think to conceptualize it in the terms of competition would be misguided.  The very best song lyrics are not only the simplest ones, but those that speak to a certain commonality of experience, that venture to expose conversations that are repressed and marginalized, that question and challenge and search rather than presume simple conclusions, that at once acknowledge and reckon with the rigours of the world but also assert our agency in it.  Writing is an often painful process because it is an act of reclaiming voice, asserting one’s place in an often vicious world, trying to forge something complete and grounded out of an infinitely messy reality, exposing oneself to judgement and misinterpretation, and bracing ourselves against our most grievous insecurities.  It is a process wracked always by the dissonance between ideation and realization, and the doubt of how much should be uncovered or revealed.

It’s said you should write about what scares you, and writing is one of the things that scares me.  But, despite this, I still feel an urge to write: to try to encapsulate that feeling of electrified euphoria that courses through the crowd at a gig, to try to process the impossible enigmas of grief and loss, to try to understand the world, to express stories in the hope that others might find something in it, that I might.  I think there’s something worthwhile in that, and I hope that feeling doesn’t wither away, and I hope that every time I write I’m confronting my fears, reaching somewhat closer to some kind of answer, some kind of conclusion, contributing something to this ever-charged and ever-developing network of conversations with the world and each other, like a criss-cross of flares set off from shipwrecks, cast less like meteors to cauterize the rifts in one another’s horizons but more like sparks scattered to let others know we’re out there and we’re struggling too.  Sometimes that feels like the closest we can get to lightning, but it’s something.

There is, I hope, something significant in daring to ask the questions, even knowing that, ultimately, maybe all of this is just too chaotic, complicated and immense to make sense of.  There is, I hope, some worth to weaving the kind of stories that attempt to kindle something, articulate our vulnerability, and bind us together despite the throes we wade through. There is, I hope, some hope to find here, some clarity, some story worth telling.  

In Defence of Munroe Bergdorf

The treatment of Munroe Bergdorf has been atrocious. In what is insidiously a habit for them, the Daily Mail have latched on to, distorted and sensationalized the analysis of racism she outlined on a personal Facebook post to engage in their usual character assassination of marginalized people and their slander of anyone who speaks out against oppression. L’Oreal then, under pressure from the public outcry against Bergdorf incited and rallied by the routine bigotry of the Daily Mail, arbitrarily terminated their contract with Bergdorf, after recruiting her on the ostensible grounds of ‘inclusion and diversity’, self-indulgently co-opting the language of liberation and – as usual – instrumentalizing the lives of trans people and people of colour to bolster their brand and image.

This, among many things, is an indication of 1) ‘inclusion and diversity’ being a tokenistic marketing ploy with no actual substance 2) the hyper-exploitative and precarious labour relations to which trans women of colour are subject 3) bosses disciplining and firing anybody that has the audacity to publicly disagree with their vision of the world and 4) the very white supremacy Bergdorf was critiquing in action – the viciously racist and transphobic mainstream media and capitalist institutions grossly smearing her character, caricaturing her stance, and publicly assailing her for simply identifying racism in society. The racist and transphobic backlash Bergdorf has received for her comments has been especially deplorable, with people who were apparently so horrified by being held accountable for any kind of complicity with white supremacy feeling perfectly content to attack Bergdorf with racist slurs, degrading remarks and even rape and death threats.  Naturally, this only provided credence to the point Bergdorf was trying to make.

Whiteness is bound up with sensibilities of nostalgic moral purity, a sense of entitlement to not be challenged in our racial worldview, and a vicious kind of defensive aggrievement when someone interrogates skewed and racialized power arrangements – it operates such that even those who separate themselves psychologically from those structures can still benefit from, participate in and enable them through our actions or silence. Despite loudly in an uproar proclaiming ‘we are not racists or bigots, Bergdorf is really the bigot for generalizing us like that’, hordes of white internet trolls managed to generate enough pressure to help incentivise L’Oreal to fire their first ever black trans model, thus continuing to cement those disparities in power and resources.

It’s interestingly paradoxical that some people are seemingly so invested in distancing themselves from bigotry that they prioritize personal moral absolvement above properly enacted institutional bigotry as a black trans woman is fired in a manner propped up by this very distanciation. After all, it’s the same strain of logic that draws equivalences between Antifa and Neo-Nazis – that people who aggressively challenge bigotry are really of the same moral fibre as the bigots themselves, that holding someone to account for bigotry is somehow a kind of policing and control resembled ultimately by how bigots act and behave.  Such false equivalences diminish systems of oppression into a series of discursive infractions, psychological attitudes and personal dispositions, reconceptualising oppression as more a mode of conduct than a material infrastructure.  It shouldn’t be especially controversial that we all harbour oppressive biases as a result of our being influenced by and participating in a deeply oppressive society, and that these micro and macro forces are intertwined and mutually reinforcing – the kind of reproach invited by interrogating this is clearly a technique deployed to deflect such critique and solidify power relations as they exist. When a trans woman of colour levels such a critique, this castigation is especially acute.

It’s bizarre, but unsurprising, that people are coming forwards with the tired rhetoric of ‘the left are hysterical snowflakes clinging to safe spaces, casting out and writing off anyone they disagree with as bigots’ in response to Bergdorf’s comments (a wholly bankrupt rhetoric and knee-jerk nonsense peddled out whenever reactionaries want to delegitimize the left) but don’t recognize the dissonance between that and supporting an arrangement of power whereby corporations and the media are enabled to punish, dispossess and dismantle anyone who upsets the status quo. Corporations want safe spaces for their bottom line and the media for their bigotry, and anything which disrupts that is censored, repressed and penalized.  Such institutional processes always level themselves at the expense of the marginalized in society – possessing a force that decimates those people’s material wellbeing and lives.  The Daily Mail – the paper which historically supported the Nazis, no less – publishes virulent, inflammatory and abominable articles about migrants, Muslims and black communities regularly, and with impunity, imitating and fuelling the racist rhetoric which dominates the formal political arena – but Bergdorf expresses a sentiment that punches up rather than down and that is sufficiently unconscionable to justify her being fired.

Because that’s really the key difference here – Bergdorf expressed frustration with power structures in society and was fired from her job as a result of it, whereas white people are under no material threat from the comments she made because the dominant institutions in Western society uphold nativism, nationalism and racism.  Trans women of colour, particularly when they are poor, experience the most acute kind of street-level violence from predominantly white men – the demographic statistics for murders of TWOC are egregiously high.  The deployment of transphobic slurs and racist microaggressions occurs in a broader social context, reinforcing a cultural designation of inferiority which justifies and legitimizes such acts of violence.  When Bergdorf describes a reality of systemic racism and how that reality has been internalized by dominant races, this is distorted into an assertion of the inherent malice of white people (such misrepresentations, again, being useful deflection techniques, often segueing into gaslighting and victim-blaming so as to displace the onus of fault from oppressor to oppressed) – but, even if Bergdorf were being malicious towards white people as a group, it would be an abstract attack on the forms of domination we uphold, not a material attack on our resources and lives.  Not only would this be a very legitimate expression of anger given the circumstances that trans women of colour endure daily, consistently bracing themselves against the possibility of violence from white men – but to try to qualify bigotry and anger with bigots as the same is demonstrably ludicrous. Having one’s social advantage challenged is not the same as oppression; losing the right to dominate with impunity is not the same as being dominated.

Such equivalences lack any analysis of history or power – which is why they mesh seamlessly with the corporate framework of ‘diversity’ that is fundamental to justifying Bergdorf being fired, because this framework leaves the underlying structures of resource and power distribution uninterrogated and firmly intact, projecting a model of the world where bigotry has been materially overcome and marginalized identities just need further aesthetic representation to complete the trajectory of progress, where the playing field has been levelled out and therefore anyone has a fair shot and is now fair game for discrimination.  This model is clearly wrong-headed – and how it simply serves and entrenches existing power relations has been demonstrated acutely by the maltreatment of Bergdorf, further confirming its moral and intellectual bankruptcy.  Assuming neutrality on an uneven terrain is, certainly, an act of complicity, because it accommodates these power relations and glosses over the conflicts, ideologies and injustices which underpin them.  We would, I think, do well to be offended more by the evil itself than in someone attributing some complicity in that evil to us.

I felt the urge to write this post after witnessing a lot of ‘progressives’ seemingly being very reluctant to condemn L’Oreal and support Bergdorf.  This was usually justified on the grounds of ‘what she said was alienating and an example of identity politics’, ‘she’s well-off and representing an exploitative brand like L’Oreal so it doesn’t really matter’, ‘what she espouses is just toothless, individualistic celebrity activism’ or, at worst, ‘what she said is anti-white racism’.  The latter point is not even worth engaging with – it’s clearly absurd, and symbolic of a left that is concessionary on and doesn’t make the effort to properly understand and address race in our politics.  But all of them, largely, I think, miss the point entirely – a trans woman of colour tried to initiate a conversation on white supremacy and was viciously shut down by corporations and the press.   I’m not suggesting we can level no critique of her politics, but I think this is a matter of priorities, time, setting, and sensitivity.  Standing behind Bergdorf against the onslaught of racist aggression besieging her should, surely, be at the forefront of our approach, but this seems a ground we are all too willing to concede.

I have my critiques of identity and privilege politics, but I don’t think that’s the key tension here – I think, if anything, the way the world has reacted to her statements and the way the left has been so reluctant to express solidarity are illuminating as to why identity politics has been fostered over the years: as a response to a world that is callously and very publicly hostile towards oppressed people, especially when they voice discontent or anger, and more internally to rectify the pitfalls of the left in not robustly addressing issues of liberation.  The other points – on ‘celebrity activism’ and its varieties – I think also gesture towards a zero-sum game we sometimes play on the left which exalts marginality, disdains the significance of popular culture, misplaces the blame for the grassroots left’s position of weakness (it’s not the fault of identity politics), engages in economic reductionism, and abstracts away from existing social conditions.

I think Bergdorf was very brave to so publicly voice disaffection with a corporation like L’Oreal – she raised important critiques despite knowing the consequences and that should be lauded.  People who are outspoken on liberation within the dominant institutions of society serve to help normalize a discussion of these tensions and issues, and – though we can critique its shortcomings and the political frailty of positive cultural shifts – I think that should be celebrated.  Yes, I do ultimately think that it is only through the working classes properly organizing ourselves into a mass collective force that we can fundamentally alter society – but we need to be prepared to have these difficult conversations about division and oppression if we are to reach that point, rather than subtly condoning the most powerful capitalist institutions shutting down such a conversation.

Solidarity with Bergdorf.

Fragile

Life is so fragile.  We must ensure those we care for know how loved and cherished they are.  Tomorrows can be so capriciously and cruelly wrested from us – so it’s paramount we express to friends, comrades and partners what they mean to us today, whenever we get the chance, always.  Ultimately, it’s our care for one another that makes more tomorrows – more hopeful tomorrows – possible, and that structures meaning into the relentless vicissitudes of the world.  Sometimes little of any of this makes sense, with the discord and turmoil and absurdity of it all overwhelming, and the scale of the feeling that our lives are threaded together by the mere frailty of chance daunting.  But I’m reminded, even amidst the most terrible of circumstances, that there’s something extraordinary and ineffably important to hold on to in the bonds we share with one another.

Graduation

Graduation day, for me, is more an emblem of the past than the future.  I attended the graduation of my older sibling a long time ago and after enduring the tedium, the artificiality, the ostentation of it all, I was pretty determined not to attend my own. For the most part I’ve always perceived it as an exclusive, grandiose and anachronistic ritual through which parents could finally witness the (almost necessarily cynical) aspirations they sought to embody in their children vicariously bear fruit. I always thought of it as a simulation of some grand denouement or landmark of conquest, an exercise in sitting restlessly through tired platitudes about ‘ambition’ and ‘journeys’ and ‘the excitement of the next chapter’ expressed by self-aggrandizing managers and bureaucrats on obscene salaries, who do and have done many an unscrupulous and venal thing to clamber up the sordid rungs of capitalist society.

It feels somewhat like a coronation in atmosphere, as if we are processions of loyal subjects queuing up to be graciously bequeathed a gift by the array of aristocrats and professionals donning extravagant gowns lined up on stage at the front – stages reserved for orientation speeches, ceremonies, gatherings of honoured guests, where the curtains open and close and conceal beneath all the splendour what actually happens here.  Inaugurations of stately music sweep over proceedings, disintegrating into a calculated lustre of white noise. You get the sense that even the esteemed individuals delivering the speeches don’t much believe in what they’re saying, nebulously appealing to notions of ‘society’ and ‘community’ and ‘tackling pressing global issues’ whilst in their own institutions presiding over declining wages for academics, slashed paid breaks for cleaners, desperately underfunded mental health services, and relentless attacks on working conditions. It’s why this rhetoric of aspiration really rings hollow – especially in this vast, coldly-lit, adorned theatre, the stage like a distant altar at which dissenting thought, passion and justice are nominally extolled and gracefully sacrificed. This is a drama of lavishly garbed ghosts, entertaining incantations of promises already broken and never to come to pass.

We’ve all been waiting for this moment, right? This is why we clawed our way here through depression, trauma, obstacles and adversity: for this curtain call, drawn down finally with glory and pride and closure. In a way, they were right: it’s a fitting end to a process of higher education that has become more and more performance to serve the ends of the rich of this society, a reminder of the history and legacy of universities as institutions of the elite. Of course, universities are much more job factory than sites simply in which the ruling classes and technocratic elites reproduce themselves now, much more bound up with training skilled professionals than channeling elites into parliamentary and managerial positions – but you get the sense of ossified tradition here, a carefully choreographed set of proceedings designed to convince us that this place and the debt-ridden chase of phantasmal, degree-ticketed wages are altogether more noble than perhaps we would otherwise believe them to be. The meritocratic myth seeps through proceedings, that we can all be our own boss and should indeed want to be, micromanaging our time and our lives to best serve the ends of individual success and acquisition. It’s still this acting out of hierarchies, this preservation of a mythology of universities as distinguished and enlightened sites of knowledge and development and not deeply authoritarian, exploitative and ruthless institutions embedded in the barbaric projects of imperialism and neo-liberalism.

This is what we worked so hard for, right? Those gilded certificates finally in our grasp like trophies, like fragmented vessels into which our ambition, conviction, and capability are distilled – our education an illustrious commodity purchased and earned to rent out to the bosses of this world, to vaunt on our CVs as a quantifying representation of our accomplishment and self-worth. I understand why people want to attend graduation – especially those who have struggled the most. It would be unbecoming of me to deny that we deserve to feel pride for our achievements. But – perhaps because I am profoundly, intransigently unambitious – my mind lingers on those who had to drop out because of mental health problems, who failed because of personal difficulties and hardships, or who could never even attend university in the first place. It lingers on those who have had to retake or have been awarded degrees that apparently don’t deserve ceremonies like this, or who have been informed last-minute that they can’t attend because of outstanding fees. It lingers on all those under-remunerated, exploited, precarious, alienated workers who are only permitted to see this stage in the capacity of cleaning up the dirt of aristocrats and professionals who would deport them without remorse if it served their business projects. It lingers on all those the spotlight excludes, all those who have struggled with little to no support throughout their degree, who have bled and cried to reach this day but to no avail. The margins are firmly reinforced around these rites, and so many should be here who aren’t.

To some this will be like a banquet after a war or a celebration of finally being released from this place and all its alienation.  To some it’ll be a bittersweet commemoration of one of the best periods of their lives finally passing.  To many, a passage from fraught harbours to rough seas, a wistfulness for dreams of shores that exist only in the fiction of this moment.  Maybe that’s why I was kind of sad upon receiving the email saying that because I hadn’t yet been awarded a degree my place at graduation would be cancelled. Not because I ever wanted this, but because I damn wanted that opportunity to not shake Croft’s hand, to not stand for the national anthem, because for all its artificiality and pomp at least there was a semblance that this moment was one to remember, one to feel pride in, one that was ours. This university affords us so few moments of revelry and I swear just for a moment I wanted to see my family smiling and proud of me again, a moment of normality, a respite from the battles we’ve all had to fight, the chimes of celebration signalling that this has all come to a close, that we’ve finally been victorious, and that maybe it is in our power to do great and exceptional things. However artificial, I wanted to take that moment and relish it for all it was worth – because for all the time I’ve been here it’s felt like Warwick has not even performed the principles and virtues it waxes so lyrical about and every day has felt like a struggle. It wasn’t about the ‘distinguished’ speeches, it wasn’t about the ceremony or the rites, about the feeling of eminence and prestige – but a feeling of triumph.  I’m sad that I’m not sadder to leave this place, like something’s ended before it even began.

Someone once told me that closure is a fairytale, anyway.  It’s clear neo-liberalism sells us many myths to obscure the brutal realities of its functioning. I think I’ll remember university not for the story it mapped out for us and expected us to tread, but for the narratives we forged with occupations, with protests, with dissent, with real community, with a real sense of belonging and camaraderie. All this university’s extravagant, hollow spectacles couldn’t even begin to emulate that feeling of empowerment and affirmation in seizing and repurposing corporate space on campus, collectively confronting injustice, finding real friendship, affection and compassion to heal all the cracks alienation has wrought across our lives. We haven’t been spectators, but have grittily done everything in our power to change things.

I’m proud not of what I’ve done to subordinate and advance myself as a ‘paying customer’ and ’employable graduate’ but everything we’ve done to resist that logic, everything we’ve learned, every moment of resistance and adversity and solidarity. I’m proud of disobeying, acting out, surviving. I’m proud of the communities we’ve created, the bonds and alliances we’ve forged, the strength we’ve found. I’m proud of the drop-outs, the undesirables, the troublemakers, the professional agitators. I’m proud not of what this university has granted us as ‘consumers’, but everything we’ve created and discovered and reclaimed as collective social agents. I won’t remember the moments I’ve been in the audience and witnessed the ceremonies play out, but rather every time we’ve spoken out, stormed the stage, sabotaged the charade with blazes of banners and choruses of chants.

It’s a story that’s not simulated, that’s not perfect, that’s not proofread, that’s not reputable, that can’t be packaged. But it’s mine, and it’s ours, and I believe in it.