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Intersectionality and online activism

Within the left, conflicts have begun to emerge between two different approaches to doing
politics, one which is rooted in a traditional class politics and a new form of politics which is
focused on the importance of identity and the intersectional nature of oppressive
structures. I will examine the often explosive development of these issues on the Irish left as
well as the implications of the rape scandal in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the UK.
The politics of intersectionality and privilege has coincided with a shift in political discourse
towards the online sphere. Facebook, Twitter and political blogging are now largely
responsible for agenda setting and dominating the discourse on the left. Voices which were
often silenced by party beurocracy in the past have been amplified and their anger and
frustration is often felt by activists used to a more top down discourse. The emergence of
Call-out culture which has roots in feminist activism, has created a space for women,
particularly women of colour as well as members of the queer/trans community to respond,
often vocally to oppressive acts. However, this practice has generated a backlash which
attempts to define what a legitimate reaction to oppression should look like. Tone
policing, which is a response to call out culture can arguably be seen as an effort to
domesticate these voices by characterising them as hysterical, thus feeding into damaging
stereotypes such as a lack of rationality on the part of women. However, the confluence of
these elements had created what has been described as a toxic online culture where
activists are afraid to contribute to legitimate debates for fear of being the subject of an ad
hominem smear campaign. The toxicity and group think evident in this form of behaviour
offers an unflinching insight into how left groups operate and their ability to respond to
criticism and dissent. The left is currently embroiled in a process of upheaval and renewal
which affords the opportunity of genuine reflexivity. Alarmingly, it is looking inwards and
discovering that no one really liked each other anyway. In the absence of genuine class
struggle, the Twitter red army are here to establish order, or just send you to the gulags for
crimes against intersectionality.
Orthodox Marxist analysis puts forward the idea that the base which relates to the forces
and relations of production determines the superstructure which refers to all other cultural
forces in society. This is a one-way relationship, thus the superstructure cannot influence
the base (Chandler, 2000) .This argument has been promoted as an argument for the
supremacy of class over other systems of oppression. A blog post on Anarchist Writers, The
Nostalgic Left parodies the left tendency to look backwards and eulogise a proletariat who
hold the key to revolution despite existing mainly as a construction. The nostalgic left
wishes for the simpler times of the good old days. The days when the grouping of massive
numbers of workers into mines and factories made the process of class self-identification
simple, indeed through their eyes automatic Flood (2013).
However, a new politics which focuses on the intersectionality of oppressions has emerged,
lending itself expression through the much parodied language of identity and privilege.
Adherents of the nostalgic left do not want to tackle the new composition of the working
class and the complexity of issues brought up by intersectional analysis. So the
complexities of what they term identity politics were gloriously absent, submerged in a
uniform proletariat Flood (2013). If it is useful to see it as such, the transition towards a
left which is more intersectional in composition should build on the traditions of the past.
Intersectionality is not an ahistorical concept but builds on traditions of feminist and anti-
racist organising as well as traditional class politics.
Critiques are essential, particularly due to the face that for many younger activists, their
point of entry into activism may be through the politics of intersectionality. The idea that
this analysis is undermining the traditional left and their ability to communicate to the real
proletariat is laughable given that their previous track record on this count is shaky to say
the least. Anyone who has witnessed or participated in a street stall run by the Irish
Trotskyist left can bear witness to this failure to communicate to the working class, or
anyone else for that matter. And perhaps more strangely blaming the collapse on what
they see as threatening new developments, like intersectionality. They hold such new-
fangled nonsense responsible for the current failure of the left to get an echo from the
general population! Flood (2013). I think it's time for the Workers' Solidarity Movement to
rename themselves the Identity Politics Movement. This Comment by anonymous on a
blog post for Anarchist Writers about the nostalgic left highlights the conflict and resistance
on the left to what is seen as identity politics or an attempt to reduce the importance of a
politics which puts class to the fore in a perceived hierarchy of oppressions.
The party paper sold by trusty comrades at weekly stalls or demonstrations has been
undoubtable eclipsed by the use of Blogs, Twitter and Facebook as platforms by which to
promulgate the party line. It also provides a contradictory space which enable collectives
and autonomous groups to put forward their ideas but which are ultimately owned and
dictated by capitalist corporations. There is a lot more room for dissent with many members
of political organisations also contributing to personal blogs examining issues on the left
from in fighting to the challenges raised by the emergent focus on intersectionality. These
were the wonderful days before the internet when left intellectuals could write without fear
of participants in the movements they were writing about responding and challenging their
right to represent them. A time when commentators who could be heard were calm,
rational & polite Flood (2013).
Traditional class based politics focuses heavily on workplace organising to beat the bosses
and secure fair employment conditions for workers. The big union and left party were
essential elements of this dual organisational model of left politics. However, the reification
of the worker as an idealised figure lends itself somewhat to an acceptance of work as not
just a necessity but as innately worthwhile and valuable. The almost secondary or
subconscious defence of the concept of work inherent in a Marxist analysis of society limits
the power of this analysis as a force for real revolutionary change. On the one hand, workers
are said to create surplus value for their employers but on the other their very role in this
process is morbidly celebrated. Moving beyond traditional class politics, the entrenched
notion of the embattled proletarian worker and the belief that work is a good in itself must
be challenged. The workplace, like the household, is typically figured as a private space, the
product of a series of individual contracts rather than a social structures. And because of
this tethering of work to the figure of the individual, it is difficult to mount a critique of work
that is not received as something wholly different: a criticism of Workers Weeks (2011, p.
15). This may somewhat explain the defensive attitude which can be seen towards
mounting a critique of work. The power structures at play in the workplace are explicit and
the personalisation of work relations protects the structure from criticism in attempt to
shelter the individual from criticism. This is interesting as Identity Politics if it exists in
material reality is most often levelled with accusations of hyper-individualism and a refusal
to acknowledge the role of class as a form of oppression. The defence of work appears to be
enmeshed in relation both to personal circumstances and a type of Calvinist belief in work
as innately virtuous. The concept rarely come under criticism and is as sacrosanct as the
revolutionary potential of the working class on the Trotskyist and traditional left.
The UK Socialist Workers Party (SWP) rape scandal speaks volumes about the problems of
authoritarianism and lack of democracy in the Trotskyist parties of the traditional left. This
resulted in an opposition group led by China Mieville and Richard Seymour forming a new
International Socialist Network (ISN). Richard Seymours recorded his own account of the
incident in his blog Lenins Tomb which charts his growing dissatisfaction with the SWP and
the broader Trotskyist tradition. Seymour is highly critical of the lack of internal democracy,
sexism and authoritarianism in the SWP which this scandal fixed an unflinching searchlight
A serious allegation is referred to the Disputes Committee of the Socialist Workers Party,
my party, to investigate. The Disputes Committee is composed largely of individuals who
know the accused. The Disputes Committee asks the person making the allegations a series
of completely inappropriate questions that, had they been asked of someone making such
allegations in a police station, we would rightly denounce them as sexist (Seymour 2013).
Following rape allegations, a party member was subject not to an official investigation but
to an internal kangaroo court made up of sympathetic peers, which led to the Central
Committee (CC) of the party finding the accused innocent on all counts. Many SWP
members were rightly disgusted by a procedure that Tom Walker SWP journalist that left
the party in protest called a trial, not by a jury of his peers but by a jury of his mates
(Storm 2013).
The party then closed ranks on dissenters and proceeded to expel them from the party for
their disloyalty to the party leadership. But the leadership called the case closed, expelled
four members by email for having an critical conversation on Facebook in which they
discussed forming an faction but didn't decide to actually form one. Secret factionalism
was their offense (Storm 2013).The woman in question was subject to intense speculation
regarding her personal life in an attempt to bring her character and thus the allegations into
question. The committee reaches a verdict of 'not proven'. The conference of the party is
then lied to about the nature of the allegations. The Central Committee and the Disputes
Committee collude in a cover-up (Seymour 2013).
Seymour and Merville have since resigned from the International Socialist Network
following a bizarre online controversy in which Seymour was accused of racism among other
claims. A signed letter of resignation was released from Seymour, Merville and other
members of the ISN. To a certain extent this resignation can be attributed to tangible
political differences between ISN members, including charges that the organisation was not
capable of facing up to discussions surrounding controversial issues. However, this incident
does expose wider issues about the platform of the internet and the toxicity which can
emerge in prolonged online exercises in personal vendetta seeking. There is also an
argument to be made which is sceptical of Seymours motivations in criticising the kind of
free-form debate that takes ideological power away from the Steering Committee, which he
was a member of. It would be jarring to think of Seymour, who left the SWP in protest to
this very form of silencing of the voices of ordinary party members, would engage in
behaviour aimed at preserving a monopolistic party voice.
This has generated debate about the new activist culture of calling out behaviour which is
seen as not acceptable, often aggressively and in an online forum. At issue here is not just
the conduct or content of recent discussions or even the political direction of the ISN, but
the question of making a habitable culture of discussion on the Left(Wolfe, 2014). It is
absolutely necessary to create safer spaces, both physically and online for members of
marginalised groups. It is also essential that oppressive behaviour is never allowed to go
unchallenged. However, if activists are being discouraged from writing and participating in
debates based on a fear of unknowingly causing offence and risking being called out for this
mistake in a hostile manner then this is a significant problem. In that case there is a danger
of stifling the remit of these debates and inviting only the most sacrosanct of commentary,
approved by the divine representatives of intersectionality and privilege policing. I fear
being cast suddenly as one of the bad guys for being insufficiently radical, too nuanced or
too forgiving, or for simply writing something whose offensive dimensions would be
unknown to me at the time of publication. In other words, for making an innocently
ignorant mistake (Moongazer, 2014).
Earlier this year, there were some high-profile twitterstorms, in which particular left-
identifying figures were called out and condemned. What these figures had said was
sometimes objectionable; but nevertheless, the way in which they were personally vilified
and hounded left a horrible residue: the stench of bad conscience and witch-hunting
moralism (Fischer, 2013). In a blog post on The North Star, Mark Fisher introduces the
notion of The Vampire Castle, a vicious yet often psychological machine that generates
constant guilt and creates moral pariahs in movements. X has made a remark/ has behaved
in a particular way these remarks/ this behaviour might be construed as trans phobic/
sexist etc.(Fischer, 2013). X then becomes defined as a transphobe/ sexist etc. Their
whole identity becomes defined by one ill-judged remark or behavioural slip (Fisher, 2013).
The rapid demonization of those not conforming to ideal activist speech according to
Fischer, references a schoolmasterly elitism on the part of the left and an unwillingness to
admit to class privilege. The task as ever, remains the articulation of class, gender and
race but the founding move of the Vampires Castle is the dis-articulation of class from
other categories(Fischer, 2013).These online witch-hunts can create a toxic atmosphere
within movements and seem to evoke a mob like mentality which quickly descends into
gutter politics. This form of intense reaction predominantly in the online space has resulted
in vigilante attempts at moderation which has resulted in a backlash from feminists and
women of colour against attempts to dictate how they react to oppression.
Tone policing can be used to shut down debate by taking issue with a member of an
oppressed group expressing anger or frustration with their treatment and is often used
against women and particularly women of colour. Tone policing is always paramount in
these complaints about feminism and other campaigns. Feminists are angry, too critical, just
need to focus on supporting all women, rather than critiquing forms of feminism, and
questioning methods and ideas (Foster 2103). Central to the argument against policing is
the idea that the oppressed should be free to express themselves in any way they so choose
without being branded using the language of misogyny or racism. Women are told they're
aggressive", black people are told they're "angry", the working class they've got a chip on
their shoulder (Foster 2013). This form of tone policing can be extremely condescending,
domineering and result in voices being silenced.
There is a difference between moderation of personally directed attacks and the policing of
authentic reacts to misogyny/racism etc. These dynamics have origins in online political
forums such as Indymedia, in which threads about a legitimate political topic would de-rail
into dubious territory aimed at exposing the individual poster at the expense of real analysis
on the issue up for discussion. There is a need for a degree of awareness that people do
make mistakes and take positions that they may well reconsider in future. This process is
not enhanced or fast tracked by personal attacks or vicious invective regarding the character
of the person supposedly at fault. However, it can be argued that the practice of tone
policing is innately patriarchal or even authoritarian in character. Issues of self-expression,
legitimate responses to oppression and policing all emerge in this discourse, rendering it
difficult territory to navigate reasonably. Some semblance of balance and recognition of the
humanity of other online posters is necessary in order to counteract the dehumanisation of
the online poster and troll.
Feminist call out culture has been compared to the popular 2004 teen movie Mean Girls
which in the most banal of settings, the American High School examines power relations in
all female cliques with a rigid hierarchical structures. Social exclusion, ridicule and crushing
put downs are all utilised by Regina George and her cronies in order to dominate their
surroundings. Memes from the film have become common in heated online discussions
which often involve an individual being called out by the recently crowned mean-girl
feminists. Comic value aside, this is a worrying practice which panders to sexist stereotypes
and attempts to trivialise a discourse which is serious in the issues it brings up surrounding
giving voice to the oppressed as well as what constitutes acceptable behaviour within a
movement and what type of behaviour is toxic with particular regard to online behaviour.
It appears that exclusion and isolation within the feminist movement is not a new
phenomenon, precipitated by the increased focus on online activism and call out culture.
The author of the vastly influential pamphlet Tyranny of Structurelessness spoke about
her experience of trashing and her experience of exclusion from the feminist movement
long before the practice of online call outs. I was one of the first in the country, perhaps
the first in Chicago, to have my character, my commitment, and my very self attacked in
such a way by Movement women that it left me torn in little pieces and unable to function
(Freeman, 1976). Interviewed in 2013, Freeman speaks of the impact these personal attacks
had on her involvement in the feminist movement. Im going to say yes, but one
consequence for me of being trashed was that I did not get myself deeply involved in
feminist organizations after that. I simply stayed on the edge (O Conner, 2013).
This type of behaviour dominates on twitter, with constant call outs and take downs in
which false feminists are exposed. But, for the most part, I havent found Twitter to be a
positive experience. And Im not just talking about harassment from misogynists, Im talking
about the internal shit. The mean girls-style popularity contest so many of those on feminist
Twitter engage in. The take-downs, the bullying, the mocking, the defamation, the snide
remarks, and the absolutely endless stream of hate (Murphy, 2013). (Murphy, 2013) argues
that Twitter is not representative, exerting a dehumanising effect that makes it an
ineffective tool for feminist activism.
At a minimum, intersectionality and privilege theory provide useful insights into the micro
politics of social movements and heuristics for minimising the reproduction of oppression
and marginalisation within movements (Rowe, 2013). The chief problematic with regard to
the theory of privilege and intersectionality is viewing this frame discourse as the only way
of doing politics. In some circles, these concepts have been accepted in such a sweeping
manner that there is a sense of discontinuity and of declaiming that intersectional discourse
is the new language of activism. The fear of neglecting class and taking on issues which have
often been represented as the concerns of liberals has resulted in a defence of a political
analysis which recognises the supremacy of class. Unsurprisingly, given the hegemony of
liberal intersectionalities within the broad left and the revolutionary lefts reluctance to
engage with intersectional theory, largely due to a paranoiac fear of being drawn into
identity politics, the nature and location of class within an intersectional frame has been a
recurring sticking point(Rowe 2013).
The existence of allies within the male population who support the goals of feminism is
essential to achieving equality for men and women. However, it is important that women
have the opportunity to have their own voices heard, in order to avoid a situation where
liberated men take on the role of being representatives who speak for women. In Towards
Collective Liberation, Chris Crass has included a chapter which addresses how men can act
against sexism and misogyny. Against Patriarchy, tools for men to help further feminist
revolution offers twenty practical tips for men in the feminist movement to avoid the
replicating systems of supremacy and male dominance which are in-built in our society.
Given that we live in a patriarchal society in which men have internalised male supremacy
and male privilege is embedded, reinforced, and supported in the institutions and culture of
society, it is a given that men will reproduce sexism in their daily lives Crass (2013 p.
139/140) The first of these tips suggested by Crass is that male feminists Develop an
intersectional feminist analysis of patriarchy, capitalism, white supremacy, heterosexism
and the state Crass (2013 p. 143) This is quite a significant task which needs to take place
as a collective process involving those identifying as female as well as allies. The feminist
movement will not advance by throwing individual men to the lions and leaving them to
figure out everything by themselves. This the behaviour of the oppressor and liberation can
only come from the oppressed.
The politics of intersectionality is not a form of left Armageddon, neither is the shift towards
online communication within movements. The only danger is that movements become
fixated on the minutiae of online antagonisms that organisation takes a back seat. Twitter
alone will not bring about revolution, but may have an effect in winning over the hearts and
minds of people. It is important to recognise that the left is in somewhat unknown territory,
where ordinary voices have similar outreach to party organs and heroes of the left can fall
from grace in the case of Richard Seymour in a heartbeat over social media. Collectively and
individually, we are still working out the appropriate way to relate to each other online.
Perhaps to avoid a mass exodus from the left as the former voices of the people are
discarded and thrown asunder amongst a growing pile of twitter carcasses, it may help to
consider the following advice.Consider the humanity of those you are tweeting at or about.
Consider that Twitter represents very little about real womens lives and the state of the
movement. Consider whose voices you hear the most and why. Consider who isnt there
and who isnt speaking.(Murphy 2013).

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