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Libcom's criticism of the Kill All Normies gender list is pretty confused - 5/28/18
Another round of controversy this past week over Angela Nagle's Kill All Normies, this one centering around allegations of plagiarism that originally appeared in a Libcom post by Mike Harman. I'm not too interested in litigating that one, but there's a sub-controversy here that has mostly flown under the radar: in the same post, Harman also claims that Nagle makes "use of a gender list which describes itself as 'poorly attested' in order to criticize all actual non-binary gender identities".

There are actually two allegations here - let's examine both of them in turn, starting with the second.


2) Nagle criticizes "all actual non-binary gender identities"

This claim - by far, the most serious of the two - is surprisingly easy to dismiss, since nothing like it actually appears in the text. For all of his block-quoting, Harman cannot provide a single example of Nagle criticizing "all actual non-binary gender identities"; in fact, he doesn't even try. He quotes from the gender list Nagle pulls from Tumblr, and he quotes part of Nagle's "introduction to this list" - and that's it. Neither will anyone who cares to consult the passage in question (p.70-72 in KAN) find anything like criticism of all actual non-binary gender identities on their own; it simply isn't there.

But perhaps Nagle implies something about all non-binary genders, which we can somehow intuit from the text by reading between the lines or whatever? I suppose one could try to make that argument - but remarkably, Harman doesn't even do that! Here are the rest of his remarks, in full, about this allegation:
  • "Nagle's poorly sourced book on the online culture wars includes a copy and pasted definition of a fascist ideology and misrepresents non-binary genders."
  • "But Nagle uses the list to ridicule the discussion of trans and non-binary issues as a whole, much like the 4chan users that pasted the list uncited themselves."
That's it. No textual evidence that Nagle is criticizing gender non-conformity, and not even any conjecture to bring us to that conclusion; just the allegation itself, repeated three times. 


1) Nagle makes "use of a gender list which describes itself as 'poorly attested'"

The previous allegation, as noted, only accounts for about three sentences of Harman's article. The other twelve paragraphs, however, make a plausible and reasonably substantiated case that some of the genders Nagle lists as "directly from Tumblr" originated
from the MOGAI archive, a now defunct Tumblr blog...The important thing to note here is that MOGAI was happy to list completely hypothetical genders...that no-one, not the editors of the blog nor the people submitting them, claimed to identify with at all...It is quite possible that 4chan users submitted entries to the blog in order to mock them later.
It seems entirely possible that the etymology Harman puts together here is solid - but what I can't figure out is why he thinks this discredits Nagle. Doesn't it discredit what-the-heck-gender-am-i.tumblr.com, which includes most of these dubious genders - even as it claims to screen out "troll-created" genders, including them only "as long as there is one person who genuinely believes this is their gender"? Doesn't it discredit the "Gender Master List" at genderfluidsupport.tumblr.com? Doesn't it discredit Dara Hoffman-Fox's You and Your Gender: A Guide To Discovery, which recommends that list uncritically?

To put it another way: why does Harman think that Nagle compiled her list by looking for the origin of these terms? She is conducting a language survey, not an etymology; the point of interest lies with how words like "cadensgender" are commonly used, not with where they originally came from. There is therefore no reason to assume that she must have pulled her information from the MOGAI archive (or the non-binary wiki) - and even if she had consulted them, this would do nothing to discredit her argument, since these terms are used quite earnestly elsewhere.


So much for Harman's accusations. Nothing about the gender list's etymology discredits Nagle's argument; the claim that she consulted MOGAI and/or the non-binary wiki is neither proven nor damaging even if true (and it just so happens to be false); there is zero criticism in this passage of "all actual non-binary gender identities"; and Harman does not even make any effort to establish that there is.

Stranger still, by the end of the post, Harman agrees with Nagle. In fact, he signs on to language that is far more combative and personal: approvingly, he links to a post which accuses Tumblr users of "giving out genders and sexualities that make no fucking sense," genders that are "completely made-up shit" and "bullshit", invented by folks who, "in an attempt to fit in, will do anything to convince themselves (and the world) that they are not cis". Nagle, meanwhile, limits her editorializing on musigenders and chaosgenders to adjectives like "absurd" and "geeky".

In Harman's discussion of the gender list, then, we find no credible critique of Nagle's methodology or scholarship; no substantive disagreement with her basic claim that Tumblr folks say some wild things about gender; and not even any consistent tone objections, since there are belligerent and extremely personal comments about Tumblr gender politics that he's happy to endorse. There are, I think, some sound objections to be voiced about Nagle's broader argument in Kill All Normies, but what exactly is Harman complaining about here? I have some guesses - but as a lesson in what fair criticism looks like, I'll keep them to myself.
Don't fight for freedom - 5/26/18
Corey Robin suggests that "freedom should be the central organizing idea of the left":
I mention this because as we see the policy debate move forward on the left—the jobs guarantee, single-payer, etc.—it becomes clearer and clearer that we lack an organizing synthesis, an ideology, story, and narrative, that brings together, that makes meaning of, these various policies and proposals. In the coming years, there is going to be more and more need for this kind of thinking about a central organizing idea for the left, I'm quite confident. This is an opportunity for all of you to be thinking about what that ideological motif is going to look like... 
The left needs a freedom program, among other reasons, because we need to start talking about how people must act to win their emancipation, collectively, for themselves. That is a critical part of the freedom program—not just freedom from systemic and personal domination and arbitrary power, not just the freedom of our leisure time, but also the freedom to act, collectively, on our own behalf, to win the world back for ourselves rather than to be protected from that world.
I am in full agreement with Robin that the left ought to center its messaging around some core idea or value - but I do not think that "freedom" is the way to go. And while I don't have time at the moment to flesh out my objections, some preliminary thoughts:


1. Freedom is the brand  of the right. This does not mean that the right actually values freedom in any meaningful sense. What it means is that the right has spent quite a long time and (particularly in recent decades) invested an incredible amount of resources into branding its politics as the politics of Freedom™. And the left, of course, has often accepted this framing instead of contesting it - agreeing that the right is indeed the movement of freedom, and simply insisting that freedom can be problematic (see left critiques of free speech, freedom of contract, etcetera). As a result, everything about our political discourse today is articulated so as to accommodate this uncontroversial and deeply entrenched equivalence between right-wing politics and freedom; it is what Lacan called a point de capiton, a part of our language that is ideologically fixed so as to give the rest of our language meaning.
What this means, practically speaking, is that "freedom" loses a lot of the political value that we were supposed to gain by rallying around a central message. Instead of giving the public an intuitive essentialization of left politics, we have given them a word laden with right-wing meaning, and are asking them to use it counterintuitively. As a matter of political marketing, this is like trying to come up with a brand for your new line of nutritious organic vegetable juice - and settling on "Coke."
It's worth adding, by the way, that the liberal-left has tried this before. As recently as 2006, George Lakoff's Whose Freedom proposed that we should "take back the progressive view of freedom," and laid out an elaborate, detailed messaging plan for doing so. But as Steven Pinker (of all people) noted at the time, Lakoff's proposal crashed against the rocks of popular intuitions about what freedom "actually" means:
It consists of appending the words "freedom to" in front of every item in a Berkeley-leftist wish list: freedom to live in a country with affirmative action, "ethical businesses," speech codes, not too many rich people, and pay in proportion to contributions to society. The list runs from the very specific—the freedom to eat "food that is pesticide free, hormone free, antibiotic free, free of genetically modified ingredients, healthy, and uncontaminated," to the very general, namely "the freedom to live in a country and a community governed by the traditional progressive values of empathy and responsibility."
I am absolutely certain that Robin could make a much more sophisticated and rigorous case for a socialist vision of "freedom" than what we see in Lakoff's slogans about pesticides - but the very fact that he would need to make that case demonstrates the problem here. What good is "freedom" as our political brand if we can only justify it, and take it back from the right, using all kinds of sophisticated argumentation? Lakoff's slogans are not substantively wrong, after all; they're just counterintuitive, which is another way of saying that they are, as slogans, useless.

2. Left arguments for freedom are really just left arguments for equality. As far as I can tell, any left argument for freedom is going to have to go something like this:
The right claims to value freedom, but clearly, it really just values freedom for the powerful. The powerless are not free, and in fact it is precisely those positions and policies we have advanced in the name of freedom that have made them less free. The principle of equality tells us that both the powerful and the powerless are equally entitled to freedom - therefore, for the sake of equality, we need to extend more freedom to the powerless.
Ultimately, the left would have to make an argument like this if it wanted to "take back" freedom - and the right, correctly, would point out that the left is really just back to making its usual argument for equality. From here, I think, the left has two choices: it can engage in a complicated meta-argument that freedom is indeed more important than equality, but that its call for equality is in fact a call for more freedom, while the right's call for freedom (because it ignores equality) is in fact a call for less freedom - *phew* - or it can simply say that yes, equality is more important than freedom for the powerful.
To echo a point already made: I do not think that "freedom" is a particularly good brand if we can only use it by upshifting three levels of abstraction into a remote philosophical argument over who gets the intellectual property rights. This is particularly true if we are doing all of this just to get around owning "equality," which is a perfectly good principle on its own terms, and which is what everyone will suspect that we are talking about anyway.  
Jordan Peterson doesn't understand Jung's ideas about gender - 5/19/18
I was re-reading some Jung this morning when I came across a passage that Jordan Peterson would probably prefer that you ignore:
No man is so entirely masculine that he has nothing feminine in him. The fact is, rather, that very masculine men have - carefully guarded and hidden - a very soft emotional life, often incorrectly described as "feminine." A man counts it a virtue to repress his feminine traits as much as possible, just as a woman, at least until recently, considered it unbecoming to be "mannish." The repression of feminine traits and inclinations naturally causes these contrasexual demands to accumulate in the unconscious... - The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious, 1938
Listen to Peterson and the reactionaries, and you'll hear about a Jungian theory that aggressively affirms and enforces gender roles, and that roots them in various just-so facts of sexual biology. Actually read Jung, however, and you'll encounter someone who consistently does the exact opposite. Jung was a writer who put words like "feminine" and "mannish" in scare quotes, who rejected popular stereotypes that (for example) characterized women as "emotionally soft" and men as "hard" - and who cautioned quite explicitly about the psychological and cultural dangers of identifying with these gender roles. His perspective on sex and gender particularly stands out when one considers how far ahead of his time he was: Jung was writing about this stuff in the thirties.

It is true that Jung had bizarre ideas about gender, but these weren't reactionary so much as, well, bizarre. He mostly talks about gender as a kind of abstract metaphysical concept that helps us to understand the paradoxical duality of the universe: for example, he will bring up some stereotype about masculinity, and then deconstruct it to reveal elements of behavior and psychology that we stereotypically identify as feminine. All of this ultimately echoes Taoist mysticism more than anything; Jung was fascinated by the religions of East Asia, and routinely invoked them to complicate and problematize the rigid simplifications that dominated psychoanalysis. Precisely, that is, the sort of rigid simplifications the Peterson hopes to reintroduce.

I have a hard time believing that Peterson is oblivious to all of this, and assume that he is either invoking Jung quite cynically, or relying on wishful might-as-well-be-true reinterpretation, imagining that Jung would agree with him about gender today despite everything he actually wrote. In any case, I think Peterson's critics would do well to stop granting him the benefit of Jung's intellectual prestige and authority; Peterson wants objections to his standard-issue misogyny to be understood as objections to Jung, but even a cursory reading of Jung should put that notion to bed.
Socialism and loneliness - 5/6/18
The left has spent much of the past week pushing back against Ross Douthat's recent suggestion that socialism demands a "redistribution of sex"; as it turns out, socialists generally believe that women and material commodities are two different things. But while this is obviously a correct and necessary response to a pretty ridiculous line of criticism, it also - as Eleanor Robertson notes in the Saturday Paper - comes as unwelcome news for the involuntarily celibate:
Incels are not unaware of this. Many post on leftist forums and imageboards, pleading, demanding to know: “What will happen to incels under socialism? Will the state allocate us girlfriends?” How can we respond to this in a convincing way, without affirming twisted feelings of ownership over women? I don’t know.
I agree with Eleanor that the left needs to avoid pandering to the misogynistic entitlement that pervades incel culture, but this doesn't strike me as that hard a needle to thread. We can recognize that desires for sex and companionship are legitimate without adding that these desires trump the need for consent. And once we make that distinction, I think that socialism still has, for the lonely and the sexually frustrated, a lot to offer.

The Marxist critique of capitalism, after all, is not simply a critique about economic distribution, or even just a critique about inequalities of power - it is also, at its heart, a critique of what capitalism has done to human relationships. Erich Fromm, in The Art of Loving, focuses on how this has shaped our ability to love:
Modern man is alienated from himself, from his fellow men, and from nature... everybody remains utterly alone, pervaded by the deep sense of insecurity, anxiety, and guilt which always results when human separateness cannot be overcome... [In] love and marriage the main emphasis is on finding refuge from an otherwise unbearable sense of aloneness. In "love" one has found, at last, a haven from aloneness. One forms an alliance of two against the world, and this egoism à deux is mistaken for love and intimacy.
This is just one dysfunction that capitalism has introduced into our relationships, but I think it is the one most responsible for the incel phenomenon. Capitalism has isolated us and atomized our communities, it has (for better and for worse) demolished cultural institutions that once connected us with one another, it has taught us to relate to each other as competitors and commodities, it has subjected our social lives to the ruthless standardization and regimentation of the market and incorporated them into all kinds of unimaginably perverse profit models - it makes us fearful and paranoid and depressed. Should we be surprised, then, when people are unable to form healthy, mature relationships? When they view each other as commodities and entitlements, or when they think of their social lives as an oppressive competitive market?

Socialism has no miracle cure for the involuntarily celibate, nor for the plague of sexist entitlement that overruns incel culture. It seems odd to me, however, to suppose that capitalism does nothing to make these problems worse. Bring down capitalism, and you bring down a totalitarian economic machine that only persists by separating us from each other and pitting us against each other. Set socialism in its place, and you can create a politics that values community, compassion, and respect. I think that would probably be a step in the right direction.
Capitalism and the constitution of the self - 5/4/18
Matt Bruenig, on a standard defense of private property:
They take as a given the general intuition people have that it's wrong to violate other people's bodies - it's wrong to hit someone, it's wrong to molest someone - and then they try to extend your person into non-person things. So they try to say, "This land is sort of like my body..."
Leftists, of course, devote much of their critique to laying out the ramifications of this first assumption: accept the institution of private property, and you run into obvious ethical problems if one person claims too much of it, or if there are competing claims on the same property, or if you run out of property that can be claimed, etcetera. The upshot of these arguments, inevitably, is that we need to do away with private property altogether - and to my mind, these arguments are typically pretty sound and easy to understand. So why, then, do we still have private property?

The short answer is that we still have private property because most people have yet to develop the class consciousness which calls for its abolition. But this explanation, I think, doesn't answer the question so much as reframe it: why hasn't sustained and incisive left criticism of capitalism done more to raise class consciousness? There is another short answer here, too - "it's complicated" - but for now, I want to focus on what could be one small piece of the puzzle.

Lacan, in one of his more enduring insights, observed that one of the first challenges a human child faces is to distinguish its own body from the exterior world. This is not a distinction that the fetus makes in the womb, but it becomes pragmatically necessary (and intuitive) as the child builds an identity as a discrete, autonomous being - a self. Famously, Lacan explained the psychodynamics of this process through the scenario of a child looking at itself in the mirror; but a child also develops a sense of self, he argues, by the way other people interact with it. The mother gives a name to the child, for example, and uses that name to refer to some things, but not others.

From this fundamental insight about the constitution of the self, Lacan elaborated an entire theory of human psychology. Much of our mental life, he argued, revolves around the need to define a self as distinct from the rest of the world - and to defend that conception of the self. Compulsively, we rationalize it and we fight to maintain its internal consistency against disintegration into the outside world.

This account of psychology seems plausible to me, and I think it also gives us some insight into capitalism's hold on the human mind. There is little doubt on the liberal-left that power and ideology work to impose socially-constructed identities upon us from the moment we are born, and that these identities can become a deeply rooted, psychologically entrenched part of the way that we see ourselves. Should we be surprised, then, to discover that capitalism does this too - by blurring, from the very beginning, the cognitive line between our selves and our property?

Obviously, there is a simple sense in which people recognize that their possessions are not actually a part of their body.* Capitalism does not need that distinction to collapse, certainly not at the level of formal articulation and conscious thought; all it requires is for our relationship with "private property" to trigger the same compulsive rationalization and defensiveness that gets triggered when the self is threatened. To the extent that capitalists really think of their property as in some sense an "extension of their persons," they will presumably act with the same instinctive irrational violence that you would expect if they were personally in danger.

If there's anything to this, then Lacan may provide us with the germ of an explanation for the frequent failure of left argumentation to foster class consciousness. The psychological compulsion to defend and rationalize the self is not something that you can persuade people to stop doing; neither logic nor appeals to conscience are going to get people to abandon a right to property that they see as a fundamental part of who they are. The first step, in this case, would be to break the unconscious identification that people have internalized between their selves and their property. This may seem like a remedial distinction, but I wonder, immersed in capitalist ideology, how clear this distinction actually is.


* Though there is, I think, a certain cognitive dissonance here that occasionally emerges in our language. If we think that someone should buy a shirt or a car, we might say that it "is so you"; if someone is always playing with a smartphone, we might say that it "is practically a part of his hand"; if someone feels a deep emotional connection with their garden or a picture they've painted, they might say that it "is part of who I am." Our language is full of turns of phrase that expand, at least rhetorically, the boundaries of the self to encompass property - such figures of speech, Freud taught us, are rarely unmotivated.