Renée Gerlich examines the liberal left’s capitulation to the establishment and its failure to understand sexism.
To follow is an excerpt from Out of the Fog: On Politics, Feminism and Coming Alive (2022) published with kind permission from Spinifex Press. It concerns how the ‘liberal left’ is a distinctly twenty-first century paradigm that resulted from the breaking of the left and the absorption of its leftovers into the liberal establishment.
The contradictions and vested interests of the liberal left reveal its identifications: a combination of the liberal identification with free marketeers wanting to escape the tyranny of the right, and the left’s identification with the underdog. The result is that the liberal left identifies with any man who is not served by the conservative right, which still expects him to be a white, heterosexual breadwinner.
Liberal leftists will defend working men who struggle to put food on the table, gay men, black and Indigenous men, Muslim men, men who identify as women, men in gangs, incarcerated men, pimps, punters, pornographers, and men with mental health disorders. They will defend Islam, prostitution, marriage, homosexuality, and transgenderism ferociously, as varieties of freedom, for contradictory reasons.
There is nothing wrong with defending people who struggle, even if their interests disagree. The problem is that the liberal left does not oppose rape, and that is why it cannot understand, analyse, or address violence consistently, and that is why it runs into problems. It has no bottom lines about violence, what constitutes violence, when violence should be prevented at all costs, and when it should be excused as justified emotional venting.
If a man’s capacity to meet the heterosexual, paternalistic standards of ‘protector’ and ‘provider’ – even ‘soldier’ – are compromised, liberal-leftists will strive to accommodate his actions as ‘reasonable’ and rational, no matter how violent. His persecution or disadvantage, whether real, perceived or performed, is sufficient to render even his violence, and especially his violence against women, defensible. The lack of principle and the conflicts of interest are covered up with postmodern ideas of indeterminacy, and with ‘virtue signalling’ about ‘multiculturalism’, ‘inclusivity’, ‘love’ and ‘kindness’.
Meanwhile, a woman cannot name her own sex without fear of losing her job, livelihood, social network, sense of safety, and reputation – because acknowledging sex makes a woman ‘violent’.
Robin Morgan’s Demon Lover (1989) is the classic text on the violence of the left. In order to defend men who conduct acts of terrorism in reaction to United States imperialism, as well as men in gangs or in prison for violent crime, leftists tend to view terrorism and violence as stemming from violation, desperation and poverty. It is a sort of last resort or lashing out. This begs the question of why women, who are more routinely violated, and more economically disadvantaged as a group than men are, do not lash out violently at anywhere near the same rate. As Kathleen Barry explains, oppression renders men incapable of carrying out the duty of protection that men everywhere – husbands, fathers, soldiers – are told is their duty as men. “Violated self-determination of a people brings about resistance,” says Barry. Of course. She adds:
When men are made inferior, their condition is reduced to that of women. That is intolerable to most men. Those men in turn force women’s status to lower levels.
And what happens when these men ‘lash out’ at each other? If a gay man beats a Muslim man, or vice versa, what does a liberal leftist do? Ignore it? Defend it? Excuse it?
As Howard Zinn writes, “inspirational language to create a secure consensus is still used, in our time, to cover up serious conflicts of interest in that consensus, and to cover up, also, the omission of large parts of the human race” (namely women).
While terrorism, gang and other criminal violence can be defended and explained away by leftists as a result of poverty and abuse inflicted by the state, they will drop their militant opposition to the state and even US imperialism if an emasculated man requires it of them. In 2017, Donald Trump, then-US president (POTUS), announced plans to ban men who identify as women from the US military, saying they cost too much to employ. After Trump’s announcement, I watched Peace Action Wellington (PAW), the group with whom I protested the arms conference, argue against the ban. This meant that they had to take a position that voluntary enlistment in the US military could possibly be seen as a ‘human right’. As Enloe argues, “an equal opportunity preoccupation … implies that the military is ‘just one more employer’, an employer that happens to measure success in terms of kill ratios rather than miles-per-gallon or rates of profit.”
Enloe calls the military the ‘epitome of patriarchy’. A man who voluntarily enlists is a male conforming to masculine norms, and participating in imperialism. The credibility of his claim to any sort of female or feminine psychology or interior are questionable on every level. What can they be based on? In the thrill of occasionally trading in guns and camouflage for lipstick and women’s underwear – how is that not sexism?
The sexism of the left is the door through which liberals have managed to stride in with their state, corporate and university sanctioned ideas that ‘sex work is work’ and ‘transwomen are women’, and as Marilyn French wrote, “The assertion of female inferiority prepares the ground for men’s subjection, because the principle of superiority ramifies endlessly.”
So, three things broke the left. The most significant is its common ground with external power systems: male bias. In seeking to unite men who share a condition of oppression, and to build an analysis of class that takes male dominance for granted, revolutionary leaders left in place the seed of the left’s own demise. The second factor is backlash from the state by force, torture and infiltration, carried out during the era of McCarthyism and by agencies like the CIA, the FBI’s counterintelligence programs or COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program, 1956-1971). The third is absorption into the liberal establishment. In a 1982 issue of Broadsheet, Māori rights activist Donna Awatere wrote that the trade union movement, built on the premise of ‘collective bargaining’, is “inherently reformist in nature.” She argued that,
the Trade Union Movement is not committed to replacing the economic set up but merely to reducing the amount of their labour power which is taken off on profit by the owner class … It is part of the structure of Capitalism and is one of the key ways Capitalism’s stability is ensured … The Union function, then, is to represent workers commercially in dealings with the Capitalist class … The Trade Union Movement plays by Capitalism’s rules in too many ways for it to be a threat.
Over the last decade, the political left has revealed more about its underlying identifications. With the emergence of Pride Parades, many activists shifted their concerns away from the 99 per cent, or the ‘immense majority’ (in Marx’s words) whose solidarity could topple the ruling class, to very specific minorities like ‘black trans sex workers’ who would appear to win in a contest of ‘oppression Olympics’. At the same time, the left has begun turning a blind eye to the state and corporate investment in social movements, at a time that wealth is being concentrated in the hands of an ever-smaller minority of billionaires.
Protest itself is starting to look more and more franchised, with a constant procession of social movements emerging with slick brands, logos, merchandise, spokespeople, party political affiliations, corporate sponsors and large marketing budgets. In my region of Wellington, it has become rare to see marches or protests without party political spokespeople. Banks fund the Pride Parades, politicians promote the Green New Deal at climate change marches, and “We are reaching the point where there is no distinction between our ‘movements’ and the coalitions created to further our oppression and servitude.”
Yet as Freire writes, “It would be a contradiction in terms if the oppressors not only defended but actually implemented a liberating education.” Influencers and people in positions of authority might bring glamour to public events, but they cannot liberate. In fact, if people could be liberated by the elites, that would only reinforce the power dynamic, since, as Sonja Johnson put it: “anybody that can let you, owns you.”
In short, we cannot hope to be saved by celebrity spokespeople, progressive politicians, and franchised movements. Everyone who wants freedom must dispel the fog for themselves, whether through solitary reflection, consciousness-raising groups, or a combination. As Freire said, “the great and humanistic and historical task of the oppressed [is] … to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.” It cannot happen the other way around.