This past week, I read four outstanding analyses by Australians in their twenties and thirties. I am telling you this for two reasons. First, I think these works are unified by an emerging impatience with individualism, which all one habitués of this rarely updated blog may enjoy considering. Second, people keep telling me I need to be more “positive”, especially about The Youth. So, fuck you, I will.
On Tuesday, my colleague Myriam Robin at Crikey wrote a piece critical of an emerged “youth” “activism” which achieves its purest local expression at something which may or may not be correctly called the Junkee Junket Unconference. For non-AU reader(s): think of it as a scaled down attempt at the Global Citizen Festival, but with more free goods. You know. That thing where they make you listen to Coldplay, cheer on Christine Lagarde and make like the United Nations is not just the sound of liberal democracy breaking, but a rebellious and youthful place that delivers “social justice”.
Robin, a participant-observer at a gathering which aims to “set the agenda for Australia’s future”, gives great ethnography. Especially in that bit where she finds she just can’t wear her gratis branded robe to breakfast—the only ethical decision for a journalist, I’d say. As Robin has it, the “influencers” at this summit largely complied when asked to wear the logo of a big corporate. They had, she said, been told that a meal shared in airline attire would foster a sense of “togetherness”.
What I admire most about this piece is not its excellent snark, of which there is ample, but its clear-eyed account of the politics shared, but not acknowledged, by its most ardent fans. So, Myriam isn’t simply poking fun at the big bank goody bags these purported activists seized upon. She is drawing our attention not just to the funding of this “social justice” confab—big bank, big airline, big telco—but to the hidden principles that govern such an event.
It is not so much the gratis booze from the airline or the free capital from the bank that clouds the thought at this conference, Myriam writes, but a shared, if unacknowledged, understanding of how one Changes the World. In short: it starts with you.
Believe it or don’t, but some of us think that it doesn’t Start With You. Some of us have thought this for a fairly long time. “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” A great thinker (okay, my Uncle Karl) said this in 1859, and, for some of us, it remains true.
At the Junker Optimitorium, or whatever the fuck it was called, the belief that participants had in the Power of Me was very plain to Robin. She spends most of her article pointing this out. Perhaps to no avail. You just can’t tell an individual who believes they can Change the World that they can’t. It’s a fucking religion.
I wrote a similar critique of this self-help adventure buffet in 2015, and, I am told, at one of this year’s sessions, a young speaker declared that she had read it and said something like, “We really need to look not just at our talk, but our action. Helen Razer was correct”. As much as I love knowing that the phrase “Helen Razer was correct” has once been uttered somewhere on the planet, this is pretty much the opposite of what I wrote. I said that these kids needed to think before they acted. I said that they needed to address the bedrock of their belief in individual superpowers.
When we speak about “left” and “right” today, we frequently forget this fundamental division about what creates what. A left view is that society makes us. A right view is that we make society. I am aware that this sounds overly simple, and I am oversimplifying. But, if you are of the type inclined to nut things out for kicks, you’ll find that this philosophical litmus test has great complications for you, if you are prepared to truly take it.
Do you agree with the statement, ““It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness”? If you don’t, well done. You can go on as you have been; saying that it’s just important that people respect each other and are nice at book conferences, because that will change the world. If you do agree, welcome to my world of fucking misery. All sorts of things go pear-shaped when you start to consider that we were made by society, and that we didn’t make it.
In an explicitly Marxist take on identity politics—and think about what happens to a politics of identity if you no longer believe that identities are anything more than the product of a society—Hannah McCann knocked my red socks off on Wednesday. Earlier in the week, this gender studies lecturer from the University of Melbourne attended a popular feminist book launch. I urge you to read a post that, again, interrogates the background from which claims about changing the world through acts of individual rebellion are made.
There is nothing wrong with the author of this book, the fact of her making such claims or the people who enjoy hearing them. If you are looking for a way to feel good about life, that’s dandy. And us ladies, of course, must confront nonsense at every turn, so why not kick back and gripe about it with our sisters? As McCann says, with all the manners and scholarly precision I have not, the individual acting in a way that is at odds with broad expectation can be salutary for her, but her alone. McCann’s objection is that this is posited in itself as a form of revolution. It all starts with me. This is Christianity without the Christ.
I am not, for a minute, saying that there is no value in what was once called self-help, and is now more generally called self-care. But I agree with McCann that to valorise within a social context the individual, whoever he or she is, is to unconsciously uphold that famous statement by Maggie, “There is no such thing as society”.
There are other ways of thinking about action, says McCann, whom, I believe, does not consider memoir or any other expression of identity politics explicitly political. She champions acts and thoughts that are not individual, but social and collective. Just as the free corporate vodka makes kids giddy from the tonic of self, the idea that individuals, and individual identity categories, are the key to change impedes clear thinking and action. We must return to the background of our thinking, to that time before we started drinking from Thatcher’s bar.
“There is no alternative,” Thatcher famously said of her pro-individual stance as UK Prime Minister. “We are all Thatcherites now”, said David Cameron, quite recently. The prick was right. As unpleasant as it is to consider, we may share some ideological territory with the Baroness for as long as we believe that great individuals make a better society.
The necessary flipside of this thinking is that bad individuals make a worse society. I believe neither statement. I don’t think there’s a few bad apples, but that the fucking crate is infected. And this is why, in the matter of feminism, I don’t “blame” individual men for gender inequality. I do not believe that an everyday man with exquisite sexual politics makes much of a difference to anyone but me. I do not believe that a man with appalling sexual politics makes much of a difference to anyone but me. This does not mean that I do not personally experience sexism. I do. Every fucking day. I could tell you stories, but most often, I elect not to. For reasons I have previously canvassed, and for reasons marvellously addressed by McCann in her critique of individual memoir as doomed guide to collective action. It is my view that if one wishes to diagnose the problems of the world—and again, there’s no point in solutions without diagnoses; i.e. think before you act—you would do well not to focus entirely on the symptoms experienced by individuals, but in their social cause.
And this, more or less, is the thrust of Amal Awad’s piece, also published in recent days. Awad, a Palestinian-Australian, wrote of the much-reported “AUSTRALIA HATES MUSLIMS” poll and said that she didn’t give much of a toss about it. Even leaving aside her fairly learned suspicions about methodology, she is just up to pussy’s bow with the idea that her identity must be celebrated and affirmed by all. Of course, like any sane person, she has a revulsion for a society that produces racially motivated attacks. But, she persuades us not to locate the responsibility for these attacks in individuals.
I am perfectly aware that someone on Twitter is currently typing, “Helen Razer says we should forgive rapists and Islamophobes”. This is not what I am fucking saying at all. It’s not what Awad or any critic of a politics of individualism is saying: we are all just trying to shift the focus away from the individual experience. We are not saying “don’t write memoir” or post haunting poems. We are just saying that upholding the myth of individual power can only result in upholding the myth of individual power—to do social good or bad.
Awad is not asking for the approval of the dominant culture, so she doesn’t care if it that is not brought forth by a quickie survey. This isn’t a matter of Awad saying “I am more than just a Muslim woman”, or similar look-at-me-on-the-inside-I-am-human-too liberal rot. It is an out-and-out refusal to take the line that the dominant culture is the legitimate one. I may be offering Amal’s piece a too-intimate biographical reading here, as she happens to be quite a good pal. But, it seems to me that her revulsion is as much for those who would embrace and celebrate her identity as it is for those who despise and seek to harm it.
I should be clear that I am not trying to “out” my perfectly respectable friend, or anyone here, as a dangerous revolutionary. I am just saying that part of her project is to point out something first articulated in 1845, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”. A ruling class idea is “the individual has great power”. Awad does not permit this to be true.
An old-fashioned leftist would not permit this to be true. We do not believe that the individual has great power. We believe that the ruling class has great power, including the power to make us believe their hooey which might include, “You can make it if you try”, as though membership in the one per cent of the one per cent was available to all. (And, who even cares if it was, right? It’s still the one per cent of the one per cent. I am not going to find this state of affairs any more palatable if that elite group is culturally and sexually diverse.)
“You can make it if you assert an account of your lived experience” is, for mine, pretty similar to “you can make it if you try”, and in recent months I have noticed this queer theory lad called Simon Copland find a similar displeasure.
It was here in a piece co-authored with Ben Riley that I made a note of his byline. Any leftist writer in Australia under 30 with the ‘nads to critique identity politics gets my vote. The get my vote in lieu of the friends and money, which they forego in daring to say “it’s not about you”. (Comrade Yasmin Nair is brilliant on the commercial success, inter alia, of narrated trauma here.) Anyhow, Copland says good stuff again this week, in the latest of his pieces critical of the opposition to the plebiscite on same-sex marriage.
In short, he is uncomfortable with the alliance that the people we now call LGBT have with the state. That LGBT people and their “progressive” supporters crave the endorsement of the state and not the dirty people, whom they do not trust, shouldn’t surprise Simon, and I’m sure it doesn’t. I mean, these are people, after all, seeking the imprimatur of respectability. Like the “rebels” of the Global Citizens Festival who “fight” for the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations (which are bullshit goals that have already been ratified by a bullshit organisation) LGBT persons and their allies fight to be institutionalised.
Anyhow. I’m worn out now with all this positivity. Just read Simon’s piece, because I have run out of time to relay it and I need to cook my tea. Read it. Read all these pieces and weep.
Weep first that “progressives” are all Thatcherites now and weep second with gratitude that I can soon shut up, because it seems there are kids, even in Australia, weeping better than I do.