Notes on Freedom

Libertarian, humanist social theory

Transsexualism and the breakdown of personality

In the 1980s and 90s, some people started to modify their bodies in ways that were unprecedented in modern times. They felt there was something about their bodies that was ‘not right’. Their nose was too long, or short, or too wide; their bum was too big or too small, their breasts overly ample or flat. Parts of the body that might look fine to anyone else, to them were the source of discomfort. They felt physically uncomfortable, not at home in their own bodies. They sought to nip and to tuck, to change their bodies in order to change this feeling of not-rightness.

Tattoos and piercings could be part of this too. One young woman said that she did her piercings ‘at times when I felt like I needed to ground myself. Sometimes I feel like I’m not in my body – then its time (to do a piercing).’ The act of piercing – of choosing the spot and the ring, caring for the wound, seeing the new look that had been chosen, made – was a way of grounding the self in the body. One occupied one’s body by piercing it, drawing on it, cutting it.

The growth of transexualism in the past 10 years is a development of this tragectory. Only now, the matter is more serious. Transsexualism is not a question of this or that body feature, of the nose or bum or breasts; it is not a question of degree, of position on a scale of big or small. Nor is it a question of cosmetics, of taste or adornment. Rather, transsexualism is a question of the fundamental polarity of the body: the fundamental polarity of male or female.

The genitalia are not like other body parts: they do not vary along a gradation but instead exist as a polarity, A or B, this or that. Therefore, the transexual does not just feel wrong in part, or in degree, but in essential definition, in essence. The transexual experiences the not-rightness in their body as a question of core; they feel that, at core, their body is the wrong one. They should be in a body that is not just different to their own but the opposite: they feel that they should take a physical form which is the opposite of the one they have.

In this, we see a breakdown of the unity between the person and their body, a unity that is personality. To be a person means to occupy the particular physical frame in which you are present in the world. It is yours. You are born stocky or skinny, tall or short. To always want to be tall when you are small, or vice versa, means that you are not appropriating your physical reality; you are not occupying it, making it yours.

Hegel describes personality as the unity of ‘the sublime and the trivial’. A person is on the one hand completely free, they can freely determine themselves through their thoughts and actions, but at the same time they are something ‘wholy determinate’: ‘I am of a certain age, a certain stature…and so on through whatever other details you like.’ (1) The ‘sublimity’ of personality means that it sustains this contradiction; the free aspect of the self possesses the body, it animates a particular given, natural form with purpose and spirit.

Now, with the concept of cis-men and women, the relationship between an individual and their body becomes contingent. To identify with your physical existence is considered a specific personal choice or preference. To identify with your body is a positive choice – is to be cis. You could choose to affirm, or not affirm, the body in which you exist.

That there is a specific cis category suggests that it is entirely possible, normal even, to not identify with your physical existence. The personality and the body become potentially unrelated to one another; they go their separate ways. A woman can feel that she is actually a man, a man a woman, just as a white person can feel that they are actually black or a black person white.

At base, transsexualism expresses an inner tension, a tension between one’s sense of who one ‘really’ is, and one’s physical reality. One transexual said: ‘My voice and my body betray me’; ‘I want to look like what I am’ (2). Another said, ‘I must transform the body I have so it fits as closely as possibly my image of myself.’ (3) Therefore, there is a separation between ‘me’, and ‘my voice and body’; between the true self and the form in which one exists.

This is a contemporary manifestation of a much older tension, perhaps the oldest tension in the book: between existence and essence. That is, between a given reality, and one’s sense of what truly could or should be. The tension between existence and essence has been at the heart of social phenomena for thousands of years, whether that is religion, or politics, each in their various ways feeling a ‘not-rightness’ of reality and a seeking of a true or ideal state. Both religious soul searching and social revolution sought to bring existence in line with essence: to unite reality with an ideal or truth.

What is significant now is that this existence-essence tension is no longer playing out in social forms, or even between the individual and society. This is no longer a case of people spurning ‘society’ and going off on their own, to be in their own heads, away from the corruption of the world. Instead, the tension and feeling of ‘not rightness’ now plays out at the level of the individual – between the two composite elements of personality, the self and the body. Instead of not feeling right in their their country, or vocation or social position, the transexual does not feel right in their own body.

Therefore, a tension that had existed in social forms now appears in a guise that is both individualised and naturalised. The body is negated, denied – it is not mine, I do not own it, I do not recognise that woman in the mirror – but at the same time the ‘true’ self takes a form that is entirely physical. The true self, who you really are, is not a matter of spirit or vocation – it is not a matter of your actions or choices in the world. Instead, the true self is the desire for an alternative physical form. Therefore, the true self (the person I ‘imagine myself to be’) has the content of a body, another body, the opposite body to the one you have.

Therefore, the true self appears as an opposing natural form. The existence-essence tension is playing out between two different kinds of natural form: between the wrong body, and the right body.

The sense of wrongness is reduced to a matter of genitalia, of having a penis when there should be a vagina, or a vagina where there should be a penis. Becoming who you really are is a question of physical removal and reconstruction, of folding stomach flesh into a penis shape, or constructing a hole between the legs.

The tension between existence and essence is reduced to the body – and the resolution of that contradiction takes the highly limited and inadequate form of a surgical procedure.

Josie Appleton is talking about ‘Self, society and alienation’ at The Academy on 15 and 16 July. 

(1) GWF Hegel, Philosophy of Right, section on ‘Abstract Right’

(2) Transgender Studies Reader, Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, 2006

(3) Making the Body Beautiful, Sander L Gilman, 1999

‘Just call me “ze”.’ The trouble with gender-neutral identities

Genderimage A friend’s 14-year-old son goes to a south London comprehensive. Two of his classmates identify as neither male or female: one has two personalities, between which he alternates; the other is a ‘non-binary non-cis-gendered woman’.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with people going against their gender or primarily considering themselves a person or a human being. Nor is there anything wrong with androgyny. There is more freedom than ever to be or look androdynous: women can wear suits, men can wear sarongs and jewellery, with hair as short or long as you like.

But the gender-neutral identity is quite different. It is not an indifference to categories, just being yourself, ignoring demands to fit in with models or roles. Instead, there is an obsession with categories (gender neutral, genderqueer, gender fluid, gender questioning, agender, bigender, or many many others). The quest for the right category is the quest to establish a basis for the self. Your identity box and pronoun become as important as your name. One formerly gender neutral man introduces himself: ‘Hi, my name is Sam. My pronouns are “he” and “him”, how about you?’

This means that the formation of the self plays out not in an interior world, nor in relation to close others, but in relation to reified categories that a person has invented or found on the internet. People go in search of an identity box that ‘fits’, in the way that in the past they might have sought a religion or vocation.

When Facebook announced 71 different gender categories for UK users, an adviser said that Facebook ‘will finally allow thousands of people to describe themselves as they are now’ and ‘allow future generation of kids to become truly comfortable in their own skins.’ Your feeling in your own skin; a website’s drop-down menu: there is no difference.

Traditional social categories, such as man or woman, or nationality or class, were based on some generally accepted physical distinction or division within social structure. The new categories, by contrast, exist apart from someone’s position in society or the social relations they enter into, as well as their physical reality. Your identity box can be independent of your appearance: you can identify as black though biologically white (as with Rachel Dolezal, who claims to be ‘trans black’); or identify as a woman though you have the body of a man. Your identity category can even be independent of your relationships, with one woman saying that she identifies as queer while in a long-term relationship with a man.

Gender-neutral websites always advise on never assuming someone’s gender, never assuming anything about someone on the basis of how they look or who they are with. The identity box is only incidentally related to social or biological reality. The box is both arbitrary – someone can choose anything they want – but also strangely naturalised as if they haven’t chosen it at all. Therefore, it is a private relationship with some sort of external determination.

Gender neutral identities involve a kind of grating at the social, an objection to being touched by anything social or universal in content. After all, a regular pronoun describes an individual as something general: to be called ‘he’ is to say that this person, Tom, is something universal, a man. The new identities express a dislike at being part of any general group or category, at being touched or judged by frameworks that are commonly accepted. One gender-neutral student said:

Every time someone used ‘she’ or ‘her’ to refer to me, it made this little tick in my head. Kind of nails-on-a-chalkboard is another way you can describe it. It just felt wrong. It was like, “Who are you talking to?”‘

The gender-neutral pronoun is a violation of language and the meaning of words. To ask other people to use ‘they’ or ‘it’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’ is to make them twist their tougues into unnatural shapes, and use words in ways that violate their actual meaning. A person is called either a plural, or an object. It is worse with invented pronouns, such as xe/xem, zie/hir, e/em, fae/faer, and co/cos, because people do not understand what they mean. People are asked to use words that don’t mean anything.

(The problems are accentuated in gendered languages such as French or German, where things such as job positions are also gendered. A Humbolt university professor uses ‘x’ instead of gendered endings, replacing Professor (male) or Professorin (female) with ‘Professx’. Another man complains that his gender-neutral German pronouns are not being understood: ‘By using “xier/sier” most people think that I try to say “sie” with a bad German pronunciation, and if I use “nin” (although I quite like the sound of it), no one understands anything.’)

The pronoun-based identity is something that can only happen in public, through requesting a particular, unnatural treatment from the world. You find yourself by asking people to call you something different. One man says: ‘For two years I used “ze” and “hir” pronouns, and it’s kind of a process of trying them out and having other people try them out to see how it feels and sounds.’

A man (not a ‘cis-man’, just a man) can be relatively independent of his pronoun. His pronoun can be incidental to him; he does not think about it, which means that the individual is free to go his own way and do his own thing. In accepting a general category, the individual can go their own way as something distinct from this. Indeed, early philosophies of individual independence encouraged an indifference to the outside world: Stoicism, for example, recommended remaining steady on your inner axis through a cultivated immunity to anything anyone said about you or anything that happened.

The gender-neutral person has no point of independence, no point apart from the world on which to stand. They are their identity box; they are their pronoun. And the content of this identity box is nothing but the violation of the commonly accepted category. It is an identity founded on the negation of the categories of social life, declaring them ‘binary’ and null and void.

Therefore, the gender-neutral identity means the effacement of the independent individual, as well as the universal social category – both of which are collapsed into the drop-down menu and the pronoun ‘ze’.

Josie Appleton is talking about ‘Self, society and alienation’ at The Academy on 15 and 16 July.

The corruption of punishment

There is a degree of corruption in Anglo-Saxon criminal justice which has not been seen for several centuries. Because the use of power is neither governed by law, nor by systematic elite interests, the door is left open for punishment to be driven by personal material interests of officials themselves.

The on-the-spot fine provides a base pecuniary motive to punishment. Some council departments now subsist in large part from their fines income, meaning that an environmental department issuing fines starts to have a private, parasitic interest, apart from the public interest of the local authority. The department becomes a private business with its own circular and self-interested economy: wardens go out to issue fines, to pay for more wardens, to go out and issue more fines. The fine is the way in which they earn their salary; they subsist from their power to punish.

(This is an extract from Officious – Rise of the Busybody State, by Josie Appleton)

Such local authority departments become interested not in the most serious offences but in those which can yield the most fines, which are generally the minor offences which are most common and easiest to catch (the very easiest to catch are the cases where the person does not know they are doing anything wrong). The fine is no longer a necessary form of punishment to encourage lawful behaviour: officials need to fine, and so need the offence, and if there are no offences they need to invent them in order that they can continue to issue fines.

Wardens start to engage in low-life practices, tailing or following people, hiding around corners, chasing or intimidating them. Their relationship to the public is one of overt hostility and economic parasitism. One warden described the situation: ‘We spent our time stalking people who were smoking cigarettes… we were filming them. I have seen colleagues chase behind people to issue tickets, go into shops after people and take them out… They [his employers] started pushing for any sort of ticket.’

This corrupt aspect is even more pronounced when councils employ private companies to fine on a commission basis, as around 46 UK councils currently do. When a council contracts these wardens they are basically calling in the mercenaries against their own residents. Perversely, the local authority often sees the number of fines as a question of ‘performance’, citing an increase in fines as an ‘improvement in performance’. The fine – a tax and drain upon the public – is transposed into a form of public service and a measure of state efficiency.

In the USA open-ended confiscation powers have been used to bring in the budget for police departments or to settle personal scores. Cases abound of people being stopped and in effect robbed by the police, with the officer seizing cash or valuables from a car in lieu of a court case. Paul Craig Roberts called this a new age of ‘robber barons’, bare-faced theft by the authorities which leaves property rights in a tenuous position.

What is significant is the base and erratic quality of this parasitic punishment. There have been previous societies in which elite corruption and rent-seeking were carried out in a systematic manner, such as systems of patronage or local pork-barrel politics. In these cases, payments were based on self-interest but they also regulated and contributed to social order. By contrast, the self-interest of officious punishment is privatised and random, working not to social order but to the anarchy of robber barons or pirates. In failed states power belongs to any man with a gun; in officious states power lies with any person with an official badge that endows the power to fine.

This has been shown by several instances of conmen posing as wardens. They wore fake uniforms and badges, watching the public for minor misdemeanours for which they issued a ‘fine’ and marched them to the cash machine. Councils and the private security company criticised this fraud, but the uncomfortable fact is that the conmen revealed the actual substance of their public service to be nothing more than private profiteering. The conmen’s actions were not substantially different in content or consequences to those of the authorised officers. In both cases, wardens were looking for people to fine in order to earn a salary. The criminal act showed the truth of state activity.

(This is an extract from Officious – Rise of the Busybody State, by Josie Appleton, Zero Books. I discussed this issue last night on BBC’s Panorama)

5 lessons from the French elections

1. The post-war political arrangement has broken down. For the first time, the Socialist and Gaullist parties were both absent from the second round of a presidential election. This means that France is the only major country where the parties of left and right have been pretty much wiped out, removed from the political scene. (The Gaullists came third but were nearly pushed into fourth place by a leftist party formed only last year, while the Socialists scored a paltry 6%). Throughout the election campaign, there was a great deal of instability, with parties rising by 9% in the space of a month or two, or falling correspondingly. Fourty-four percent of the vote was gained by parties formed in the past year. This wipe out of left and right is about time: it has been well known that these labels meant little for the past 20 years or more. It is in principle a good thing that the illusion of ‘zombie parties’ has been removed.

2. There is a public hunger for political representation. All the candidates were forced to respond to public exasperation with the political system and appetite for something else. One watchword of the election was ‘ras-le-bol’, an expression of being fed up, someone who has had it up to here. All the candidiates had to play the card of being outsiders and against ‘the system’, however much they were in fact part of it. There is a palpable political tension: a feeling that the current set-up is unbearable and has to change, and a desire for people’s concerns to be represented in the public sphere.

3. This sentiment has not yet found an adequate form of expression. The names of the parties in this election read like something out of a revolutionary uprising: ‘France Unbowed’; ‘Together!’, ‘The Republicans’; ‘France Arise’. Emmanuel Macron’s ‘En Marche!’, or ‘Forward!’, has now cranked it up to become ‘La Republique En Marche!’ for the legislative elections. But this populism is largely a question of dressing up, mouthing words, with members of the political elite changing names and parties and putting on new costumes. The inside of the book is different to the cover. Emmanuel Macron’s best-selling book is called ‘Revolution’, but the inside is full of bland Blairite homilies. The Front National, meanwhile, has settled for a pick-and-mix of policies, embodied by the fact that it wants to have the euro and franc circulating simultaneously.

4. The French elite remains stable. Macron and Le Pen have accused each other of being part of the establishment, which of course they both are. (Macron calls Le Pen ‘l’héritière’, the heiress, while Macron was educated at the prestigous elite school ENA and is a former minister). The cohesion of the French elite and state has always been more important than that of the volatile party system. This is why many Gaullists and Socialists have been flexible and rallied around Macron, offering their services for the legislative elections and ministerial positions. He is similarly pragmatic: he won’t even force them to leave their other party in order to stand for his. So even though the French elite is showing signs of corrosion, it remains stable in comparison to Britain.

5. The most significant shifts are the establishing of the Front National, and the rise of the ‘vote blanc’. FN: With nearly 11 million votes, the Front National won more than double its score from the 2002 second round. The party’s appearance in the second round was neither a surprise nor a shock: the FN is now an established part of the political system. Since Macron doesn’t really have a party (he is advertising for candidates on the internet) this means that the FN stands as the primary developed political force in France.

Votes blancs: Meanwhile, blank or null votes in the second round reached a record level of 12%. There are ‘vote blanc’ movements, which pose the casting of a blank vote as a political statement (‘I want to participate but the options you propose don’t suit me’). In a way, the blank vote is perhaps the most adequate expression of the anti-system feeling and the inchoate desire to be represented. The blank vote sees through the fake slogans and says these are not what it is looking for, but it doesn’t withdraw or not bother. Someone made the effort to go to the booths; they wanted to vote, but refused to affirm any of the options available. Ultimately, the the blank vote points towards the future – to the development of political forms that are adequate to public frustrations and desires.

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