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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

Distracting Cultures

From culture wars to the materiality of culture.

“A mind cannot be independent of culture.”—Lev Vygotsky

Cultures are a totality of the spiritual tools (mental constructs sustaining and sustained by material social arrangements) belonging to either the whole of humanity or to a subdivision of it. A culture war, then, is a contest over these tools, and therefore the social arrangements we desire. In my Anti*Capitalist Resistance report on Trans+ Pride London and the backdrop of the Conservative Party Leadership race, I observed how the contest over Britain’s next Prime Minister is being fought on who can best position themselves as the most opposed to trans* liberation, which is an example of a culture war.

All of which is to say, it is a conflict over how transphobia should constitute a part of the accepted spiritual tools in the production and reproduction of our society. A significant minority of the left, almost all Burkeian conservatives, and most of Britain’s liberals have made trans* people a bogeyman deserving ritual humiliation (from quadrupling hate crimes to medical apartheid and less legal protections from discrimination). They favour mainstreaming the ‘tool’ of transphobia. A slight majority of the left, a tiny number of Burkeians, and a cluster of liberals oppose this callous choice.

Slowly, a generalised opposition to transphobia is emerging, but as well as its insufficiency aspects of it trouble me, not in the handling of the core contention but in an understanding of the very battlefield. My concern is nuanced; I do not disagree with what is being put forward against the hate cult. Rather, there is an issue of framing, with crucial caveats, qualifications and additions being missed that could lead to confused thinking and ultimately backfire on the vital case being made.

The core argument put forward by trans* friends is that hatred of trans* people is a distraction from the establishment’s failures to guarantee a decent standard of living within the inflationary cost of living crisis. As mentioned, I agree. I even indicated in the aforementioned A*CR piece that it is shocking how one candidate raised the ‘topic’ of trans* people eight times in her pitch for leadership, when we constitute less than 1% of the population. However, I do not agree that the politicisation of being trans* per se is a distraction, however small in number we might be.

We are not even just a distraction for our enemies. Transphobia is only a convenient prejudice because it emerges organically from misogyny, which itself emerges organically from various foundational social arrangements. It is a spiritual tool for the preservation of ideals of the family and social reproduction wherein women are seen ultimately as breeding vessels and cheap or free caretakers, and men, afforded more humanity, as primarily producers and moral enforcers.

This dichotomy rests atop assumptions about gender and sexuality disrupted by women’s autonomy and queer existence, it also underscores models of social class rooted in exploitation (including of the majority of cisgender men). The particular form of this model, the patriarchy, varies substantially in its articulation and nuances, but in any of its guises it has inbuilt difficulties with accommodating to trans life. And these difficulties are exacerbated when the model of society being protected is threatened by overlapping crises, as is indeed now happening.

By arguing that we trans* people are scapegoats without adding this context for our scapegoating, it makes it sound as if we were chosen for our ill-fate by happenstance. Moreover, it is easily distorted to suggest that trans* people and our plight should be ignored altogether. Even were we to amorally set aside the implications of doing so for people like myself, for trans* people at large, as I indicated the prejudice against us is connected to broader conceptions of society and, in fact, has implications for everyone. This was quite beautifully illustrated in a response I saw to a different policy agenda outlined by one of the worse Tory candidates.

Rachel Wearmouth is a reporter for the transphobic rag The New Stateman, which recently published a column framing trans* people ominously as a “question”, evoking genocidal eliminationist rhetoric. She recently observed on Twitter that “Kemi Badenoch pledges to reform tax and welfare saying ‘family break-ups increase housing demand’ and that ‘family is the first line of welfare, and strong families reduce the need for a large state’”. To this a doctoral student and CATU in Belfast member, who goes by the name Tom, responded aptly on Twitter, exposing how attacks on trans* people and on workers in general are connected:

this is the same social reproduction agenda of the right that has led to their moral panics around trans people and increasingly violent anti-trans rhetoric and policies. they wield the state to attack trans/queer people whilst trying to revive the dead bourgeois family. / it’s also the same agenda that’s led to the social murder of thousands of disabled people since 2010 who have been systematically shut out of the state and society and which has killed so many.

What should be becoming clear in all of this is that the dichotomy being made between cultural issues (such as trans* liberation) and “serious” issues, such as inflation, is a false one. “Serious” issues are seen variously as more about basic survival, as more materially rooted. But culture is material. The culture war is a conflict over material arrangements in society. This type of dualistic thinking is native to bourgeois society, a reflection of its deep social alienation. Sadly, as subjects of that society, such thinking is also common to the left and those being attacked by the culture war as well. But to face off our challenge, we cannot indulge dualism.

It is right to point out that a tiny number of people who want to self-actualise our ideas of ourselves without being harmed are no threat to anyone else’s authentic flourishing. But even in merely realising our self-conceptions in peace we are indeed a threat to a social model that absolutely relies on stifling human autonomy so as to cajole so many into miserable lives that serves abstract systems of domination. That is why my liberation as a trans* person cannot be separated from the liberation of cisgender women, disabled people, or even cisgender heterosexual men. The ability to self-actualise is either universal or it is not at all.

I frequently link back to a piece I wrote with my friend and comrade Logan O’Hara on the subject of trans liberation and solidarity. I will do so again now. We are working currently on a more general framing of these problems (of the problem of dualism, alienation, theories of knowledge, a working-class ethics). But we are both troubled by the general lack of seriousness and urgency we see in addressing the kinds of issues I have sketched in this article quite lightly.

The case being made for human liberation is superficial, shaped by social media debates that do an injustice to the complexity and gravity of the situation. We must all have the courage to stop and think with depth on our predicament, not merely reacting but anticipating and innovating in the course of the struggle. If we fail to do so we will devalue parts of that struggle even as we seek to defend our humanity.


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