Credit: Flickr, suzy_ex
Class privilege is the key issue in Mark Fisher's essay “Exiting the vampire castle” (crossposted at OurKingdom here). He wants his argument to act as a clarion call for recentralising class in authentic leftist politics. Class analysis, he feels, is wrongly lacking in a movement that – now entirely relocated to Twitter – has been taken over by liberal, university-educated, po-faced feminists, anti-racists and queers whose only real political commitment is to their own advancement. It's a “Vampire's castle” in which nice leftist men like him are unfairly torn down by a hegemony of capitalist liberals masquerading as revolutionaries.
But in arguing this he replicates exactly the mistakes he says he's against. Here's what he got wrong:
1. People using intersectional approaches have already, repeatedly, refuted the “class is the most important oppression” argument. Exactly the same goes for any "x is the most important oppression" argument.
As Fisher has clearly followed Twitterstorms of the past year (I wish I hadn't) he must have heard the term “intersectionality” somewhere. Nobody has stopped talking about class, they've just continued to insist, as they have been for decades, that class analyses take into account intersecting forms of oppression from which it is indivisible, like sexism, like racism, like homophobia, like transphobia.
But Fisher takes it further. He doesn't just think that the Twitter-critics are essentialists, or bullies. He also equates feminism (particularly, by implication, black feminism) and queer politics, trans* politics, disability politics - all of which are broad, multifarious fields of thought and action - with liberalism. This isn't just insulting, it's factually incorrect. Intersectional feminists are explicitly not liberal feminists: that is the whole point of intersectionality.
2. Russell Brand is still sexist even if he is also working class and funny. These things can co-exist.
However hilarious and inspiring you might think Russell Brand is, he has so far failed to extend his new-found revolutionary standpoint to women. Read Laurie Penny's excellent discussion of this here.
It comes down to this: being working class, or funny, or clever doesn't make it ok to be sexist. Fisher describes Brand's reaction to being accused of sexism, “I don’t think I’m sexist”, as displaying “exactly the kind of good-humoured humility that was entirely lacking in the stony faces of those who had judged him”. Well, sorry for not finding Brand's unapologetic sexism the massive jape Fisher seems to think it is. Somehow the everyday experience of misogyny makes another experience of misogyny a bit less hilarious. Fisher's apologism on this front isn't exactly shocking, but it is tiresome and ill-informed. Let's stop idolising Brand now; it's getting embarrassing.
But is this what Fisher means when he blasts “moralisers”? Am I, with po-face and angrily pointing finger, “making people feed bad”? On to the next point.
3. Any social critique Mark Fisher finds difficult is rejected as “moralising”.
Fisher is really keen on the term “moralising” as a way to discredit stances he doesn't like, without having to engage with them. In just one article, he repeats [my bolds]:
“...the way in which they were personally vilified and hounded left a horrible residue: the stench of bad conscience and witch-hunting moralism”
“...i.e. nothing to do with the sour-faced identitarian piety foisted upon us by moralisers on the post-structuralist ‘left’”
“The moralising left quickly ensured that the story was not about Brand’s extraordinary breach of the bland conventions of mainstream media ‘debate’”
“For the moralisers, the dominant story was to be about Brand’s personal conduct – specifically his sexism. In the febrile McCarthyite atmosphere fermented by the moralising left, remarks that could be construed as sexist mean that Brand is a sexist, which also meant that he is a misogynist.”
“Where a few months before, I would have stayed silent as the PoshLeft moralisers subjected Brand to their kangaroo courts and character assassinations…”
“...class has disappeared, but moralism is everywhere”
All in all, Fisher uses the term “moralising”, or a variant of it, nine times in his article. But who are the moralisers Fisher so decries? Who are the awful people subjecting the left to “bourgeois modes of subjectivity”? Who are the people creating the omnipresent sense of fear and guilt he describes?
Oh, it's the anti-racists. The feminists. The queers. The people who are working class but don't happen to be white men. It's the oppressed groups who fail to find much to laugh about when faced with repeated leftist male complicity in their oppression (see: the Socialist Worker's Party). By painting people who experience other forms of disadvantage than Fisher does as unfun moralisers, he can handily refuse to think about these interlocking, sophisticated forms of critique.
Where I agree with Fisher, to some extent, is that Twitter means an overwhelming heap of criticism can land in the @-column of an unsuspecting columnist who thought they were writing progressive stuff. I'm sure that's a tough experience. It does sometimes amount to bullying. But the problem for the commentariat (who appear to be the only people in Fisher's vision of the left) is that bullying is generally something the more powerful do to the less powerful, not the other way round. I think there's a useful discussion we still need to have about this, along the lines of it being ok both to make mistakes and to call out mistakes. I agree that we shouldn't “condemn” people for one misguided phrase in an article. But I can't engage with this worthwhile discussion via Fisher's piece, saturated as it is with exactly the kind of identitarian name-calling that he says he's against.
4. Fisher can't decide whether he likes queer approaches to identities or not
He says: "Instead of freezing people into chains of already-existing equivalences, the point was to treat any articulation as provisional and plastic. New articulations can always be created. No-one is essentially anything."
This is a queer insight of the kind that the Fisher condemns earlier in the article as "sour-faced identitarian piety foisted upon us by moralisers on the post-structuralist ‘left’" - but he misunderstands or omits the crucial point that the plasticity of identity (or identifications, if he prefers) doesn't stop people from experiencing oppression as if identities were essential.
I may or may not identify as a woman but I certainly experience misogyny as one. Men may not be misogynist by essence, but we all – of all classes and genders and races - live in a patriarchy and our attitudes are shaped by it. This means a constant process of re-evaluating and challenging our behaviour. It means that while a queer aim might be “not to be defined by identitarian categories”, for as long as societies assign sets of identifications to us denoting social privilege, we aren't post-race, post-gender, post-sexuality, or post-any other identity-set. While identities are still used to oppress, we can't pretend we aren't defined by them.
This is also what the much-derided process of privilege checking is about. It isn't just a phrase to beat other Twitterers over the head with, as Fisher thinks, its a way of calling attention to the complex interplay between someone's socially constructed but often non-consensually assigned identifications and their opinions. It's a way of questioning claims to objectivity or neutrality – which historically, for a change, have been the preserve of men.
Angela Mitropoulos sums up the point excellently: “I do not see how Mark can, on the one hand, rail against “identitarianism” and “essentialism” while, on the other hand, offer a concept of class that is nothing more than identity politics—in this case, the identity politics of white men, and their rights to go about their enjoyment, their entitlement to treat others as they wish, unhindered by criticism. His entire definition of class is threatened if it includes gender or race, which is bizarre—though perhaps no more so than characterising critics of Brand and Owen as residents of “Vampire’s Castle.”
5. The irony of a male writer using the term 'witch-hunt' to argue against feminist criticism
Let's not forget that the witch-hunts were predominantly a genocide against women. Ditto for “McCarthyite” used against queers. It's almost a parody of itself.
6. Vampire castles seem like a better place to be
Fisher conjures visions of a world full of angry feminist vampires shouting “CHECK YOUR PRIVILEGE!” at poor, unsuspecting, powerless, innocent, white leftist men who are hesitantly tip-toeing through the castle on their way out. A vampire-archy, if you will. He means it as a powerful warning against the present state of things. The image works because it's sexy-scary (remember Twilight?) and is also an allusion to Marx, as white leftist men love referencing Marx.
But with a cape-tip to a social media discussion (uh-oh) between some of my favourite moralising feminist activists, I know that I'd rather be inside a castle built large enough to accommodate a potential solidarity between every oppressed group, with enough space to acknowledge common and differentiating identities, experiences and actions for change. Bring on the vampire revolution.