5. Gender, Neoliberalism and alternative hierarchies

Given the popularity of the gender topic, in this essay I risk losing half of my newly acquired audience. That is because instead of repeating progressive slogans, I will offer an alternative analysis of the relation between gender/queer identity politics and general leftist politics. Using my concept of ‘alternative value hierarchies’, I will highlight certain problems with the current ‘progressive’ assault on gender and other traditional identities within the context of a highly unequal neoliberal society. We will first discuss the generally synergetic relation between gender politics and socialism, before identifying how this movement can be perceived as reinforcing neoliberalism and as a threat to (amongst other) working class identity. As always, we will end the discussion on a constructive note with a modest proposal to reformulate basic gender identities rather than abolish them.

There should be no confusion: the socialist movement and gender politics have been long term allies. The most natural and oldest alliance is with (first and second wave) feminism, since the demands for political and social equality run parallel between both movements. Socialist and especially communist forces have been on the forefront of gender equality. Amongst others Marx and Engels were amongst the first critics of the objectification of woman in bourgeois society, and it was Lenin’s Soviet Union who first installed real political equality between men and woman in 1918. In social democrat countries the left parties were quick to realize that just like racism, sexism was part of class warfare: discrimination against woman was discrimination against working class families. When it comes to the LGTBQ movement, there is certain shared broad concern for equality and emancipation, but most often the alliance between the socialists and the left has been one of convenience. The call for sexual freedom and recognition is at its core an exponent of liberal philosophy, but because of the way party politics is structured in the West, gender activist found their home in the broader leftwing corner of the spectrum. Since conservatives typically side with elite and pro-capital interests in the left-right spectrum, in many countries sexual and lifestyle minorities shared a common enemy with socialist parties[1]. As a bonus the latter usually tend to be inclusive. Thus in the U.S., Brazil and Europe feminists, gay activists and syndicated workers have shared marches and voting lists together. In his 2019 woman’s day speech, Mexico’s own Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador called for the strengthening of a similar alliance of progressives. A worthy goal.

But there are tensions below the surface. One would just have to make the effort of talking to people (or for those who suffer from class hypochondria, read their reactions online) to find out that the alliance between the core democratic of socialist parties and gender activists is a strained one. Instead of engaging in elitist dismissal and comments about ‘ignorance’, progressives would do well to understand these tensions. In what follows I offer my take on the issue, suggesting that many peoples reluctance to embrace gender politics comes from a (justified) feeling this is part of an attack on their status and self-worth in an increasingly unequal society.

Consider the following progressive cliché statement about woman, paraphrased in hundreds of advertisements, slogans and narratives: “Don’t praise me for my looks, I am also very smart”. Now, it is certainly true that woman are often judged by their looks. But do we ever realize that intelligence is no less a natural gift than beauty, and thus both don’t reflect merit in the same way that character virtues like perseverance and honesty do? Sure, bringing intelligence out is a process, but so is beauty. The real difference between both traits is that intelligence is more useful to capital accumulation. The same goes for other characteristics we want to be recognized for besides our traditional roles in postmodern culture: creativity, hard work, accomplishment. What is going on? Let’s look deeper.

I define neoliberalism as a political program aimed at installing competition and the market the general operating principle of society. Culturally, it aims to reduce all values and life trajectories to fit the central motives of competition and consumption. Think for example of the creeping urge in the back of your mind to be productive or somehow monetize or recuperate your free time and hobbies (“that charity work might look good on my C.V.”). In neoliberal society, one’s value is reduced to one’s position on the socioeconomic ladder. In our society, the lower parts of this ladder are the most populous and the chance of socioeconomic mobility is slim. On the level of personal identity construction, there are two fundamental paths of dealing with this, often walked simultaneously: one is ‘motivational psychology’ road of buying the Cinderella story and basing one’s esteem not on reality but on an aspirated future self. The other is to find refuse in what I will call Alternative Value Hierarchies. These consists of systems of achievement on which one can anchor their self-esteem and status that are alternative to the main socio-economic ladder. In simple terms, they are anything that fits the formula: “I might not be rich, but at least I am/have X”. Examples of X could be ‘being a good mother’ or ‘being a humble catholic’ or ‘Not being a sissy’. People invest large part of their time and energy chasing the recognition in these alternative systems that they are denied on the labor market. The value of being able to have, be or achieve X cannot be underestimated in maintaining sanity and dignity in a harshly unequal and explicitly classist society as Mexico.

To finally get to my main point: gender politics can easily be experienced as an attack on various of these alternative value hierarchies, throwing people back to their depressing position of losers on the socio-economic ladder. Consider the following examples of alternative values that have much to lose in confrontation with cultural movements like feminism, gay pride and the transgender movement:

– Maintaining a family and having a stable position within the family hierarchy.

– Being a dedicated full time mother

– Toughness as a male characteristic, typically possessed in larger quantity by the working class

– Being a devout follower of a god in whose eyes we are equal regardless of wealth

In attacking these traditional forms of identity construction, postmodern politics plays into the neoliberal individualist agenda. If being a ‘real’ man, woman, mother, etc. becomes meaningless, we are more reduced to our productive or consumeristic achievements. The quest for a diversity of identities thus runs the risk of reducing a diversity of merits.

Although this can be experienced by people from all layers of society, it unfortunately combines with the constant symbolic violence that unprivileged people must endure anyway. Society habitually questions their merit as parents, partners, employees, citizens, and bearers of knowledge. Furthermore, being pretty in a world where resourceful and augmented members of the opposite sex can win miss contests does not affect the rich in the same way. As Karl Marx remarked:

“What I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness – its deterrent power – is nullified by money. I, according to my individual characteristics, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet. Therefore I am not lame. I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good. Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest: I am therefore presumed honest”[2]

Those as the top of the remaining economic hierarchy suffer less from identity confusion and are able to live their dominant fantasies regardless of what feminist think. Yet, as is typical of elites, they will jealously defend any privilege they have anyway and thus often end up conservative.

There are good reasons to be critical of the analysis above. First of all many traditional alternative value hierarchies are hierarchies none the less and go at the cost of others, most visible in the male ego being redeemed at the cost of dominance over woman. In line with popular culture one could argue that this reduction to one’s productivity and accomplishments offers a liberation from other hierarchies. Or at least for those who are successful, privileged and don’t care about others. After all, this changes nothing about the reality (in for example Mexico or the U.S.) that the economic right typically sides with the conservative right and the left needs to deal with its internal family politics. Second, one can argue that many of these alternative hierarchies (religion, gender roles) were originally created by conservatives in the first place, precisely to distract and pacify people regarding their social economic circumstances. The parallel to race identity politics is obvious. But precisely for this reason we must be sensitive to them when trying to keep together a broad progressive alliance and not losing traditional voters to the right, who count on these sentiments to cover for their antisocial agenda.    

One might frown at my unorthodox analysis. Yet I strongly believe that failure to achieve status in an unequal and exploitative society is at the root of machismo and other conservative attitudes. Dealing with this requires extraordinary leadership, and respect and patience of constituents for leaders who try to carefully balance their progressive alliance. I want to add two constructive notes. One is the insight that if my analysis is correct, reducing socioeconomic inequality opens up a more sustainable path for finding support for gender equality and diversity of identities. This is, and always has been, especially true for feminism. Second, instead of taking a (cultural elitist) deconstructionist stance and attacking the very concept of gender or whatever identity, we might seek to redefine what they mean in a way that does not imply dominance. I will use the simple example of being a real ‘man’ or ‘woman’. I personally believe there is value in concepts of manhood and womanhood as cultural achievements, especially when contrasted with boyhood or girlhood. Being a man rather than a boy should mean something, just not at the cost of the other sex. Leaving the definition of womanhood to woman, I would like to teach my son that ‘being a real man’ means being honest and reliable, defending your family, not being easily swayed by impulses, etc. And, of course, having the balls to stand for it.

[1] In Europe this alliance is even more peculiar, since immigrants and especially Muslims find an ally in socialist parties against the common far right enemy as well. Their relation to the feminists and LGTBQ part of the same corner has always been the object of careful political balancing.

[2] Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.