Conspiracy Corner – The Left and Identity Politics

The problem with discussing an issue that looks complicated is the lack of time you can spend on it in a ten minute radio segment. Whilst, arguably, I should be given a full half hour to vent and fulminate (actually, I think that would be a bad idea, so #sarcasm), I should also try to work out what I’m going to say before the segment begins, so that you, the listener (you do listen, don’t you? Whimper…) get to hear an argument rather than a collection of (sometimes) irate rambles.

Anyway, feminism. Did you know it’s all a plot against the Left by the New World Order? Or something like that?

I’ve been engaged in an argument on Twitter with a correspondent who has been trying to persuade me to reject the official theory of 9/11 and join him in thinking that Feminism is a plot by nefarious powers to factionalise the Left and thus rob it of its solidarity and strength. Given that today is International Women’s Day, I thought I might address the latter (my views on the former can be found elsewhere on this blog).

If you want a nice and very sarcastic take on the subject of Feminism (and, indeed, identity politics) being a CIA plot, then this is the piece to read. Laurie Penny lays it all out quite nicely: apparently, because the CIA and rich white men were interested in the operation of feminist groups work and how they might be subverted to support the status quo back in the middle of the 20th Century, we should be suspicious of their divisive and factionalising ways today. In essence, identity politics has been designed to destabilise the Left by sinister figures on the Right.

If only. If we could blame the failure of the Left on one group, that would be grand; we might be in a position to fix things. However, the problem with some of the Left is not the existence of groups devoted to identity politics but rather a failure to realise that a solely class-based analysis doesn’t quite carve the world up in a way that promotes an equitable society and the dogged insistence that anyone who disagrees with class-based analyses are traitors.

That, though, is a matter for another day. Back to the conspiracy theory.

The notion that identity politics is a distraction from core Left-wing activism and values is a disturbingly common refrain; Aotearoa me Te Wai Pounamu’s Chris Trotter seems to argue this a lot these days, and organisations like Unite and some of the various local versions of the Occupy Movement have tried to defend the serial misogynists in their midst by telling women that their concerns (i.e. wanting to be treated as human beings) are not as important as winning the class war. However, whilst many white, middle-class men think identity politics is a distraction, only some go so far to say that it’s a distraction foisted upon us by the other side. Advocates of that particular conspiracy theory will claim:

  1. that there is evidence the CIA or the New World Order were interested in groups like the Feminist Movement, et al and
  2. that there is evidence the CIA or the New World Order were behind groups like the Feminist Movement, et al.

It’s important to note that these are two claims, one of which rests upon the other. The CIA, for example, could have been interested in the operation and constitution of certain feminist groups ((I’m going to talk about the “Feminist Movement” as if its a monolithic and hegemonic entity when, of course, it is not. It’s just an abstraction for the purposes of this piece and does not reflect my thinking on the feminist movement as a whole or where I think I fit with regard to the various waves of feminism.)) but had no control over them. The former claim, that of organisations like the CIA or the (apparently) sinister Rockefellers being interested in such groups, is well attested to by the available evidence, but that evidence doesn’t necessarily tell you that the CIA or the New World Order subverted or controlled the groups they were interested in.

You can accept the claim that there is evidence the CIA or the New World Order were interested in groups like the Feminist Movement, et al without having to accept the claim that there is evidence the CIA or the New World Order were behind groups like the Feminist Movement, et al.

For example, one way in which “being interested” in might lead to something that isn’t “exerts control over” but is more than “had a look at” is the notion of making groups, like the Feminist Movement, friendly towards you and your organisation’s set of interests. It’s easy to imagine a consortium of interests, like the Rockefellers, going “Hmm, these feminists are getting bigger and might end up being a force to be reckoned with. Let’s get on friendly terms with them so we’re not the first against the wall when the revolution comes.” Such a move isn’t indicative of a conspiracy (unless there is some secretive other agenda also operating at the same time).

Indeed, being interested in, or even spending monies upon, some group does not necessarily mean you desire control over it. Even if it did, desiring control over a group doesn’t necessarily mean you will actually gain said control. Whilst there are examples of intelligence agencies successfully infiltrating and bringing down terrorist cells and the like, there are also examples of intelligence groups failing spectacularly to infiltrate and entrap certain organisations. There’s no guarantee that just because someone desires to take control of a group that they will.

Which brings me to a point I kind of made earlier in a footnote: the groups these conspiracy theorists are interested in describing (with regard to having been taken over), like the feminist movement, are not monolithic or hegemonic in structure. There is no such thing as a standard or prototypical feminist. Feminists are people (I know, shock horror, right?) and the movement as a whole describes some shared values that are not necessarily found amongst all members of the groups and individuals who make up the movement. It is hard to imagine how you could subvert or take control of a movement that has no central leadership, no established power structure and no weekly town hall meetings (cupcakes optional).

Still, let’s say, for the sake of thought experiment, that it might be possible to take control over the “Feminist Movement.” What other evidence can we cite to support the thesis that feminism, et al, is all a CIA/New World order plot? Well, as some will undoubtably point out, the Left is pretty factionalised at the moment, with the working class union supporters hating on the liberal identity politics aficionados. Surely that shows something is amiss?

Or does it? When you look at the history of both the Right and Left throughout the Twentieth Century, factionalisation of their respective movements is a common theme. The Fabians, with their support for the suffragette movement, were thought to be divisive to the Left in their day ((Of course, the Fabians have also been accused of working with the New World Order, so the more things change, the more they stay the same, it seems.)). It’s not particularly informative to say “Look, the Left is fractured between the identity theorists and the solidly working class unionists!” and then use that as proof that there is a grand conspiracy by, say, the Right to cause said factionalisation when said factionalisation might be explicable with reference to some other hypothesis like, you know, the Left not being one movement but a set of different movements sharing common purpose.

The point of all this is that the various conspiracy theories advanced by some on the Left for why the Left is not the successful force for good we’d all like it to be (I’m assuming my readership is with me on good, wholesome, Left-wing values) seems to be based on interpreting evidence in such a way that assumes the conclusion said theorists are trying to show is true, all the while ignoring two key points.

  1. Purely class-based analyses often overlook that women, Māori, transgendered folk, et al, are people too, and their needs and the community obligations towards them, sometimes cut across class lines, lines which often hide rather than make starkly clear, inequalities in our society, and that challenging such class-based analyses is in the spirit of Left-wing thinking, not agin it and
  2. Sometimes the problem with the Left isn’t people pushing their identity politics agenda. Sometimes what is wrong with the Left are the middle-age white men who have tried to claim the movement as their own.

There endeth the lesson.

On a somewhat unrelated topic, next Wednesday afternoon, in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Auckland, I will be giving a talk in the Graduate Seminar Series (probably my last talk as a student, given the impending confirmation of my PhD being awarded) on the use of selective evidence and disinformation in explanations. I’ll be talking about the October 2007 Terror Raids and why the official theory seems like a poor rival to at least one of the rival conspiracy theories. Come along; information about where and when will appear here (and on Twitter early next week).


Josh says:

I haven’t really paid any attention to this one, but isn’t it similar to Dave Sim’s rants from over a decade ago? I recall him talking about how feminism supposedly derailed the human rights movement in the 70s. Although he wasn’t claiming that the CIA was behind it, just women and their horrible, horrible vaginas.

Good point. Dave Sim is a good candidate for an especially evil Chris Trotter.

Marinus says:

Wow. I feel less bad about our Wire / scare quotes Twitter stoushes now.

Nothing compares to a Twitter-argument with someone who holds that a particular conspiracy theory is true. 140 characters is wonderfully limiting.

Dave Sim! I remember the precise moment at which it became apparent to the world that he’d lost it – issue #186 of Cerebus, wasn’t it?

I think that’s right: I read Cerebus in the phonebook format. I actually skipped a lot of the prose in “Reads” because it was, basically, unreadable (and thus didn’t pick up on the wackiness as quickly as I should), but by the time I got to “Guys” he was being so openly misogynistic that I stopped buying the phonebooks. I always thought the series went down hill when Lord Julius disappeared from the story, anyway.