The Post-Left’s Marketplace of Ideas

It’s a Twitter drama that feels very familiar at this point. History has once again repeated itself. A new publication has been advertised that features many of the usual suspects that make up a “post-left” (or — let’s face it — current “neoreactionary”) milieu, along with a few “critics”, and it has had philosophy Twitter indulge in a collective cringe that has been very entertaining to watch. But that does not make its implications any less serious.

Those involved have since come to their own defence. Daniel Tutt, who posted the original (apparently draft) cover of the book, in which he features — the quote-tweets are a trip — has directed his critics to an essay where he attempts to make his position as a critical participant in the debate more clear, whilst the broader team behind the publication have posted an hour-long livestream pushing back weakly against all the jokes made about them online.

The main defense here is predictable and lacks the self-awareness to realise that it is a defense already known. Indeed, it’s the predictable defense that I see as a compounding of the overarching problem.

The book features various reactionaries broadly associated with Sublation and Spiked and Platypus — weird mutations of the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain, which has been discussed at length in recent years for their peculiar and confusing trajectory from Trotskyist outgroup to a cabal of reactionary libertarian media pundits and right-wing British MPs, etc. (see Evan Smith’s excellent interview on Politics Theory Other from last year for more on this). But it is the essays by Nina Power and Tutt that have become the blurry focal point here, partly due to Tutt’s own blog defense of his interactions with Power in the past.

Power’s profile as a reactionary pundit has grown considerably in recent years. Very few on the left would entertain the opportunity to appear on a platform with her. But this is all apparently overblown and presumptive. Nina may be a TERF and reactionary public intellectual, but Daniel critiques her, so all is well. The Theory Underground crew have simply facilitated a space where that “debate” can happen — and that’s important, they insist on their livestream. But this ultimately demonstrates a hollow solidarity with others.

The contradictions at work in the defense are galling, and they are writ large in Tutt’s essay, which he seems to think will absolve him of any critique.

In the essay, which he supposedly expands on in the book, Tutt explains his broader interest in debating and conversing with Power. But he also explains how, after interviewing her, he chose not to upload the interview out of solidarity with the trans community. (This was apparently meant to be hosted on the Zer0 Books website, according to Theory Underground, so presumably this was a while ago, as Zer0/Repeater has had no interest in Power for a long time; if this was more recently, I doubt the decision to not host the interview was Tutt’s alone… No one at Zer0 has any interest in hosting anyone who is associated with or has time for the amorphous Compact/Sublation/Platypus/Spiked crew.)

Tutt writes:

Nina Power and I discussed several things about Compact and psychoanalytic and theoretical topics. Nina has been engaged in an ongoing polemic with the trans community and she is critical of what she and others call “gender ideology.” I do not share Nina’s views on the trans community and gender ideology, and I was asked by members of the trans community to not post my interview with Power as they believe in no-platforming for transphobes. I agreed to not post my interview with Power for two reasons: the first is out of solidarity with the trans community at a time in which they are facing real persecution.

The second reason is that I simply do not know the extent of Nina’s views on the trans community, and I am not knowledgeable enough to determine whether Power has in fact crossed the line in ways that have promoted intense reaction towards the trans community. I take persecution of minority communities seriously and have a long-standing commitment to addressing Islamophobia. While I see many parallels between Islamophobia and the trans movement today, I also see how the dynamic is being used by the right to shut down and to confuse people across the political spectrum. The persecution of minorities needs to be rejected by the left as a universal principle. I take this as a fundamental position.

It is clear from this, I think, that Tutt’s engagement with Power and Compact Magazine, which she edits, is not at all malicious. But it is certainly ignorant, and acknowledging this ignorance does not make it any better. It only further compounds the problem. (A similar defence of ignorance can be found in the Theory Underground livestream: “the cover is just a draft”, “we didn’t think that deeply about it” — maybe you should have. It’s a generally unedifying hour of spite.)

Nina Power is a TERF. It’s not ambiguous at this point. It may have been a few years ago, when these accusations were based on others’ personal experiences — Power admitted to me in person back in 2018/19, when we were acquaintances frequently in pubs together, that this stemmed from calling Shon Faye a “man” amongst a group of mutual friends, and she seemed to enjoy (for a time) the maneuverability and plausible deniability afforded her by this “hearsay” — but her views have since been confirmed by much of her more recent and public written output.

If Tutt really wanted to engage with Power critically, and come to know about her views on the trans community, he’d only have to read her essays and her most recent book. You’d think he would do this of his own accord, given his intentions. Despite claiming ignorance, Tutt’s overarching defense seems to be that we nonetheless need to take these post-left positions seriously if we are to understand our contemporary moment. He positions himself as a personable interlocutor who wants to know his enemy. But this becomes a very ironic position to take when considered within the context that Tutt provides for his readers.

The essay begins with a short commentary on an essay about the left by Leszek Kołakowski, in which Kołakowski argues, according to Tutt,

that in times of disarray and defeat the left must fight to define itself at the level of ideas, or it otherwise risks compromising its core commitments. In times of defeat, the left gets bogged down by the weight of conservative and liberal distortions.

I struggle to see how this does not apply most aptly to those featured in the Theory Underground project and various others in the LM network of Platypus/Spiked/Sublation, etc. They are utterly bogged down by culture-war distortions, and debating those things amongst themselves in ugly publications like this advances no project for anyone. And therein lies the entire (and you’d think blatant) problem with any engagement with these post-left reactionaries.

It also makes Tutt’s Kołakowski-infused sense of what defines (or should define) the contemporary left very suspect and question-begging. Indeed, I disagree that the left is in any sort of ideological crisis. Though it may feel depressingly cut off from party-political power, its positions on trans rights, Palestinian rights, workers’ rights, the climate emergency, etc., has never felt clearer and more forcefully expressed. The left’s ideas are robust. The commentary, then, muddies otherwise clear waters. Those contributing to that commentary mistake a lack of power for a lack of purpose, or think that failing to “win the debate” has anything to do with a vibrant and still growing political consciousness. The debate is rigged; our communication networks are controlled and stifling. But the ideas are fine, even if they are hard to actualise outside any seizure of the means of social production. But rather than understanding this, the critiques of others are misunderstood and dismissed.

Relatedly, many suggested that the names featured in the publication were not “Underground Theory”, but this is has nothing to do with the fact they are “big names” in certain circles. Some of these individuals are overexposed commentators who write for the national presses of a few countries to fuel a populist culture war. They’re the reactionary mainstream.

This misunderstanding also leads to the editors at Theory Underground to predictably denounce the Twitter left’s tendency to assign “guilt by association”, but the issue at hand here is that, by engaging with these people, the compromises Tutt himself warns us against are made from the start! That is the issue. Not guilt by association, as if this were some tangential and unfounded critique, but the real guilt of association. Association of any kind with these people serves only to legitimise a space for debate and undermine a contemporary militancy, which is itself a form of violence, regardless of whether someone engages with it critically or not. (Again, Evan Smith’s work on the history of no-platforming, particularly on university campuses, is very much worth engaging with.)

The point should not need repeating: trans lives are not up for debate. It is the framing of trans people’s existence as a culture-war topic that causes so much pain. Irrespective of whether one is “gender critical” or expresses solidarity with the trans community, a distinct lack of care and self-reflection is made clear when people on “the left”, where Tutt aligns himself, themselves get “bogged down by the weight of conservative and liberal distortions.” Whether intentionally or not, these distortions are legitimised through ignorance and undue attention. Though Tutt may declare solidarity with minority communities to be a “fundamental principle”, it is a hollow principle if its only defense is an affirmation of one’s own ignorance. True solidarity would be learning what these people’s views are, as well as the rejections voiced by others, followed by a rejection of them on one’s own terms. This also necessitates the rejection of their terms of debate, not providing an illusory “objective” space to air their distortions with impunity.

I imagine my use of the word “impunity” will be rejected here, of course, but how can Tutt deem himself a worthy critic to engage with the post-left if he knows he’s not knowledgeable enough to address the grievances of those he is supposedly in solidarity with? It starts to smell like the passive facilitation of a kind of “both-sides” rhetorical injunction that is itself a pallid (centrist-)”liberal” distortion. But never has a dialogue between opposing “sides” been less needed.

That is precisely the problem that defines all misguided attempts to engage with the post-left in my mind. Though many such critics may feign solidarity with a broader leftist movement, their preoccupation with these topics does nothing to advance its cause. Failing to engage with these distortions in the rigorous manner required amounts to nothing more than shadow-boxing about material conditions not experienced by those speaking on a given community’s behalf.

The same is true of those who mistakenly believe it is in the interest of the broader movement to facilitate debate between these people. It’s not. For example, I see no shred of possibility that, in buying the Theory Underground publication and reading its dissenting essays and debates, I or my friends will be made to feel any safer walking down the street. That is all that matters, not hashing out the particulars in some friction-free “marketplace of ideas”.

No-platforming is necessary, then, because the debate-club atmosphere of so much theory content online can seep out into a broader social atmosphere, and all that results in is people feeling more empowered to question the minoritarian forms of life around them, in ways that are malicious rather than simply ignorant.

I imagine that those who debate these issues — who generally seem to have no skin in the game — do not know what it is like to experience this; to have yourself viewed through distortions that present queer people in general as perverts and a threat to children (and, by proxy, the generalised spectre of “traditional family values”). It is devastating.

None of this is to suggest that discussions cannot be had in any sense, however. Yesterday, I was talking to a trans friend about this down the pub — it is often the case that trans people debate their own validity amongst themselves, with a real solidarity, as self-acceptance is a difficult thing to acquire in a time like the hostile present, and solidarity is established through our own self-questioning.

There is a certain guilt that sometimes emerges from this when you come to rely on your own bubble. We extract ourselves, as much as possible, from cishet spaces and encounters that often seek to invalidate our own experiences in various ways. Truly, there is nothing more courageous and fraught than defiantly being yourself, flying in the face of all other people’s distorted presumptions, but it is nonetheless exhausting, whether you “pass” or not. And so you come to rely on real solidarity as a life force, quite literally, as everyone knows suicide rates amongst the gender-nonconforming are horribly high.

But a little voice persists at the back of our minds. It’s not good to restrict yourself to your own social bubble, or so we’re told by various forms of media. We must engage with those on the outside. We must win the argument. But we don’t want to spend our lives arguing their validity; we simply want to live them. The intrusions made into our spaces by others do not make us feel safe, and that is all anyone wants — to feel safe in the life you want to live.

I’m reminded of the “bathroom” issue here. The predictable response to this may be that TERFs want the same kind of safety. They want to feel safe in “their” bathrooms. But they do feel safe. They feel emboldened to single out those who may benefit even slightly from this otherwise inconsequential removal of a bathroom binary.

The local pub I work in has adopted gender-neutral bathrooms over the past year. It’s nice. It inconveniences no-one. It makes more cubicles available to those who need or feel more comfortable in them. There have been no issues of assault or sexual harassment in any of them. But we have had to remove TERF graffiti and “business cards” for “gender critical” organising groups. The only people actively threatened in these spaces are trans people, and they are threatened by those who feel empowered to carve their unfounded critiques into the woodwork of a space that is not theirs — and in more ways than one, for we trans people who tend the bar.

The conduct of someone like Tutt, though seemingly well-meaning, does nothing to assist with this persecution. It only amplifies the external voices of those who deny your right to exist. Trans people hear enough of that already.

Now, of course, I’ve no idea of the content of the Theory Underground book. It may have nothing to do with reactionary “gender critical” ideologies at all (although it seems to be a shared point of interest amongst many of those involved, to put it mildly). But we know who these people are, we know the harm they cause, and any engagement with them that advances their own profile as reactionary pundits harms all of those you claim solidarity with on the left. It is not going to be the case that someone with aberrant views of trans people is going to be really insightful on some other topic related to leftist politics. Everything intersects.

No-platforming is further necessary, then, because if you truly care about the minority communities that feel oppressed by a broader social “reality”, you would do more to elevate those who bring them joy and help facilitate self-acceptance, not those who see debating their very existence as an intellectual parlour game.

I believe that is true not only of the trans community but the left in general. “The left is utopian because it does not compromise with the conservative position that insists on preserving existing exploitative aspects of the social order”, as Tutt himself writes, but the post-left’s illusory space of polite debate is precisely an exploitative aspect of that social order in itself. To enter into their terms of debate with politeness and civility, in spite of the fact they would deny the lived experiences of minority people, be they trans people or the working class or some other intersection of identities, is built on cruel compromises fundamentally. This makes Tutt look like a hypocrite of the highest order, but his assessment of his own comportment appears too distorted for him to realise this.

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