Postmodernism and Gender Realism

I was reading an old review of Fisher’s Capitalist Realism the other night. It provides quite a novel and precise interpretation of the book that I found really compelling in its forthrightness:

Capitalist Realism is ultimately focused on … the ways that public institutions that haven’t and likely won’t be privatized have been forced … to participate in simulated markets, where a rigorous regime of testing on a set of metrics replaces the invisible hand of the market. It’s a governmental gambit driven at once by a desire to reduce funding across the board and to convince voters that they are taking the efficacy of public institutions very seriously. Since it couldn’t / can’t actually expose some public institutions to market forces through opening competition or privatization, New Labour established (and continues to establish) pseudo-markets, fake market-like games, for public institutions to compete in in order to obtain funding.

This is interesting, because it is hones right in on how capitalism functions ideologically, and must translate things that do not fully coincide with it into terms it can understand. The NHS is an obvious example of the sort of institution in mind. Though it has been threatened with privatisation for decades, the NHS is essentially forced to participate in a simulated marketplace where other metrics replace the profit motive. “NHS waiting times” is surely the most overused metric of my lifetime. More recently, I’ve noticed how friends who work for the NHS have it beaten into them to refer to patients, et al. as “service users” — a clear pseudonym for customers, with the suggestion being that “service user” satisfaction becomes another metric used that is adjacent to capitalist nomenclatures, as if we are entering a future where hospital funding will be allocated based on TripAdvisor reviews.

I’ve recently been quite intrigued by how this sort of ideological processing is so widespread, and yet perfectly predicted by Lyotard in his book The Postmodern Condition. I particularly enjoy his discussion of the work of Talcott Parsons and sociological systems theory. For Lyotard, the computerisation of society has led to the flattening of ideology to whatever can be computed by neoliberal management systems. It’s fascinating, in hindsight, that this was written even prior to the fall of the Soviet Union. It didn’t matter if your socioeconomic system was capitalist or socialist or communist, in Parsons’ technocratic language either a “process or set of conditions either ‘contributes’ to the maintenance (or development) of the system or it is ‘dysfunctional’ in that it detracts from the integration, effectiveness, etc., of the system.” Either it fits or it doesn’t fit. And if it doesn’t fit, it should be ejected. This leads to a “perfectly sealed circle of facts and interpretations” that you either adapt to or are destroyed by.

Lyotard concludes:

“Traditional” theory is always in danger of being incorporated into the programming of the social whole as a simple tool for the optimization of its performance; this is because its desire for a unitary and totalizing truth lends itself to the unitary and totalizing practice of the system’s managers. “Critical theory”, based on a principle of dualism and wary of syntheses and reconciliations, should be in a position to avoid this fate. What guides Marxism, then, is a different model of society, and a different conception of the function of the knowledge that can be produced by society and acquired from it. This model was born of the struggles accompanying the process of capitalism’s encroachment upon traditional civil societies.

If we might translate Lyotard’s prose a little, the dualism of critical theory amounts to a theory of class antagonism. System’s managers, previously known as the bourgeoisie or owners of the means of production, made all the rules. They legislate what takes place on the factory floor and in what manner. They induce discipline and necessitate servitude. Critical theory is, by necessity, a theory from below. It expresses and gives form to the material conditions of those who do not make the rules or otherwise generate knowledge but are nonetheless subjected to the knowledge and rules of others. Critical theory offers an alternative perspective, and alternative model of society, that is other to the received wisdom of the bourgeoisie.

The computerisation of society complicates things. Rules and decision-making are abstracted. Bureaucrats hide behind the limited purview of computer code. The reality is, unfortunately, not far off a Little Britain sketch — and, of course, it is a sketch that, at one point, takes places in a hospital:

Ideology itself is abstracted. Ideology is something that other people have, like an illness that invades from outside and frustrates social functioning. Reality is “common sense”; the closed system of paranoid reason. It’s not something that I think, it is a given, a truth provided to me by an impartial system that may be managed but ultimately manages me.

Remember Douglas Adams’ joke about the meaning life? Humanity spends centuries constructing the most powerful supercomputer in the universe, all so it can ask it, once and for all, what the meaning of life is. The computer takes a few more centuries to answer the question and, when it does, the answer it gives is “42”. The joke is telling. Is it funny because the computer gives an ultimately abstract answer to an ultimately abstract question? Or is it funny because the answer is accurate but it is unintelligible outside our limited ideological purview? Or, on the contrary, is it the computer that is so limited by binary code that it can only express its answer in numerical terms?

There are numerous ways of thinking about Adams’ joke, but the sad truth is that we have constructed a globalised management system to provide meaning to our lives, and the answer it keeps spitting out is “live laugh love.”

I was thinking about all of this today in light of Helen Joyce’s recent book Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality. I haven’t read it but I have enjoyed watching Twitter masochists unearth the extent to which it is it is rooted in bad science and poor research (in explicit contrast to the sycophantic endorsements on its cover).

I don’t want to read it not only because I’m not a TERF but because the title of the book tells me everything I could possibly want to know, and this has been confirmed by the response from some of its defenders. Many have criticised it as a typically TERF project written completely in isolation and does not speak to or feature comment from anyone who is trans themselves. The response is that it is not a book about trans lives but about policy. Twitter user @DamselDystopia summed the lunacy of this up best:

“It’s not about trans lives it’s about policy!”

Uh huh, policy on what, exactly? Monetary supply? Motorway bypasses? Or by any chance policy on trans people’s healthcare and use of public space?

Originally tweeted by Look Out: Dangerous Gender Expressions Ahead (@DamselDystopia) on July 21, 2021.

But even without this argument being a pathetic exercise in obfuscation, it only further undermines the title of the book itself. If “reality” is here defined as policy and legislation, and not the lived experiences of certain individuals, it begs the question: how the hell do TERFs define “ideology”?

TERF ideology is gender realism and nothing more. Faced with the public acceptance of trans lives — the de-privatisation of queer experience — they create a culture war, nothing less than a simulated market within which they can explore their ideas. In simulated markets, the house always wins — they set the agenda, reduce funding for those in need, and implement certain metrics of their choosing in order to shore-up the value-structure they believe is under attack.

When people say “there is no liberation without trans liberation”, this is why. The ideological sleights of hand that trans people must negotiate — and they’re increasingly less sleight, let’s be honest — go by a playbook that is integral to the heart of capitalism itself.

“Gender critical” discourse is not critical in the slightest. It cannot be. It is the very opposite of a critical theory, which must rely on anti-Semitic and “globalist” conspiracy theories to create the impression it is not punching down. But they are no different from bourgeois oppressors — they manage gender, instead of the factory floor.

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