The Aoateroa/New Zealand-based group Fightback recently published a short article by Daphne Lawless, aiming to challenge the spread of trans-exclusionary/transphobic ideas on the New Zealand, and international, left. In general, I definitely welcome this article – I also see those ideas as being reactionary, and so I’m always glad to see people arguing against them. But there are a few points I wanted to take up further.
Firstly, Lawless objects to a group called the Left Network for Free Speech, saying that their “insistence that state action against “hate speech” in fact makes things worse” is reminiscent of the old UK Revolutionary Communist Party’s edgelord contrarianism and slide into rightwing positions. I would say that this position in itself is a pretty defensible one – while, with all the other ills in the world today, I’m never likely to make opposing hate crime laws a particular priority, I do think that we can’t trust police, prosecutors and judges to act in any kind of reliably anti-racist or liberatory way, and so putting more powers in their hands is likely to have harmful effects. Where I tend to disagree with “free speech” absolutists, probably including the LNFS, is when they conflate this sort of statist, top-down censorship with grassroots antifascist, feminist or other similar movements taking action to challenge or disrupt their opponents. As Sara Ahmed has observed, it is always interesting to see when someone saying “I disagree with this” is taken as being a bold and important example of free speech, and when it’s seen as being a menacing threat to free speech. Anyway, the fact that it’s often misused doesn’t make the libertarian/left critique of statist approaches wrong in itself.
Secondly, and this is the major point of disagreement, Lawless tends towards “[a]nalysing TERF politics as a variety of fascist ideology” on the grounds that “defining fascism as a movement in defence of the threatened privilege of the downwardly mobile middle class seems to make the parallel unavoidable”. I think this is a weak line of argument, based on a pretty unhelpful definition. As should hopefully be clear, I’m in broad agreement with Lawless’ general position, and think people should take it seriously, but if I was hostile to it, and wanted an excuse to dismiss it, I’d be happy to find an obvious weak spot that I could use to try and rubbish the whole thing.
Being “a movement in defence of the threatened privilege of the downwardly mobile middle class” may or may not be a defining feature of fascism – I do think there’s a danger that this line of argument can lead to dismissing or downplaying the very real working-class base that some fascist movements draw from – but it’s certainly not the only one. While it’s always hard to come up with a precise definition of such a slippery ideology, my own vague attempts would tend to include some element of pseudo-revolutionary hostility to the liberal democracy and the existing order, militaristic discipline and a strategy based on controlling the streets through violence.
This last is particularly important, because what we call something helps determine how we think of and respond to it. To many antifascists, once something is labelled as fascist, the question of what a justifiable response looks like is already settled: if you give groups based around violence space to operate, you’re making physical attacks on their opponents pretty much inevitable. Better Dover/Portland-style clashes now than Pittsburgh/Christchurch-style massacres later. As much as I firmly disagree with trans-exclusionary ideology, I don’t think much of this can reasonably be applied to the vast majority of TERF types.
Thinking about the nationalist right, we can oppose groups like the Brexit Party, or UKIP up to 2018*, or indeed Boris Johnson, without lazily labelling them as fascists; along those lines, then, it might be clearer and more helpful to describe trans-exclusionary politics as being a variant of reactionary/right-populist ideology.
On similar lines, I do wholeheartedly agree with Lawless’ warning “against a sectarian response to SWERF/TERF ideas on the Left – that is, refusal to deal with anyone who might hold such views at the moment.” As a seemingly-endless stream of new controversies constantly reminds us, people who hold such ideas are deeply embedded in socialist, anarchist, trade union, antifascist, feminist and similar movements; whether or not them all just fucking off would be a desirable outcome, it doesn’t seem like a likely or a workable one, so I can’t see any alternative to finding ways to constructively discuss things with them, to de-escalating rather than escalating some conflicts, and to continue working together where possible.
*how to classify UKIP after Batten took over is, I think, a bit of an open question.