Vol. 44 No. 18 · 22 September 2022

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Sex in the Brain

After reading yet another article belittling gender critical feminists in your pages, this time by Arianne Shahvisi, I feel compelled to ask for a fairer representation of their position (LRB, 8 September). Many who consider themselves left-leaning progressives are branded as being ‘in league with the far right’ for their opposition to an ideology which they regard as a dangerously regressive move by patriarchal capitalism to seize control of, and profit from, the bodies of children (increasingly young girls) and women. It is telling that trans men are relatively invisible in all this – no one is chanting ‘Trans men are men’ – though they become less so when they can be used to demonstrate that it is possible for ‘men’ to give birth.

Shahvisi approvingly quotes Judith Butler’s dismissal of the gender critical position as ‘fantasy’, but for gender critical feminists it is gender ideology that is propagating ‘fantasy’ – the fantasy that it is possible to change sex/gender. This is an instance of the recurrent ‘mirroring’ of rhetorical strategies by both sides in these culture wars, neither of them willing to engage seriously in dialogue with the other. The advocates of gender ideology perform intellectual gymnastics (these are sometimes self-contradictory: Shahvisi denies sex-based differences only then to admit them with respect to the longevity of ‘females’), while gender critical feminists are concerned less with their own cleverness than with the harm being done. For evidence of this harm we need look no further than the thousand families that will be taking the Tavistock Clinic to court for its (mis)treatment of their children at its Gender Identity Development Service.

Name and address supplied

Arianne Shahvisi writes: In The Tempest, King Alonso’s adviser Gonzalo attempts to lighten the mood after the shipwreck by describing how he would organise the island. When I was twelve, we read the scene at school and were asked to reflect on the feasibility of his utopia. I argued that it was misguided, because those who work­ed hard would not be sufficiently rewarded, and those who were lazy would be given things they didn’t deserve. My teacher left the work ungraded, with a single comment in the margin: ‘Are you Margaret Thatcher?’ I was mortified, but the comparison shocked me into a more thoughtful politics and provided an early lesson: if you don’t like the fact that you share a view with someone objectionable, consider revising that view.

It is an empirical reality that many prominent ‘gender critical’ individuals and organisations have formed alliances with far-right groups, or accepted funding from them. Last year, the Institute of Race Re­lations warned that ‘gender critical fem­inists’ are ‘peddling the far-right agenda’. In the US, ‘gender critical feminists’ have made strategic links with various groups on the religious right, including those who are opposed to abortion. That doesn’t mean that every person with ‘gender crit­ical’ views endorses those links, but some soul-searching is surely called for.

Trans people are a marginalised group: our societies do not make space for their thriving. It’s hard to see how ‘patriarchal capitalism’ serves trans people well, or how it is anti-capitalist to oppose measures that afford them greater dignity. A US study in 2020 found that trans people fare worse than cis people on almost every marker of social and economic wellbeing. Presenting a marginalised group as a threat, rather than as a group of people who share the basis for their oppression but are otherwise heterogeneous, is an arche­typal right-wing strategy. It is exactly the tactic that has been used in relation to migrants, religious minorities and gay people, and much of the language used is the same.

I share the reader’s regret that neither side seems ‘willing to engage seriously in dialogue with the other’. (Gonzalo sim­ilarly urges that his companions be charit­able: ‘You rub the sore/When you should bring the plaster.’) Cis women and trans people are hurt in many of the same ways, and the right benefits from the divisions among us and from the time and energy they sap. But no such dialogue is possible until those on the ‘gender critical’ side do the work of showing how the real-world effects of their views differ from the effects of right-wing hatred. I don’t know if that’s possible, but if not there is always the opt­ion of changing one’s mind.

Degrowth v. Green Growth

Geoff Mann is right to argue that the decoupling of growth from emissions could never take place quickly enough to constitute an effective climate mitigation strategy (LRB, 18 August). The evidence suggests that green growth is a fantasy, and that some kind of degrowth is necessary. How might this be achieved? Mann discusses the ‘reduction function’ (a kind-of reverse ‘production function’). In fact, degrowth proposals are more numerous, diverse and sophisticated than this suggests, though it is useful to aggregate the factors involved into a simple mathematical form. We could see this as a more advanced version of the IPAT function (ecological Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology). Fundamentally, however, degrowth – the planned contraction of economic activity to achieve a degree of well-being for all – will require us to resist delegating complex questions to some external rationality or ‘the market’, and instead to work out how (and how much) we want to produce, invest and consume, and to organise collectively to that end.

Mann worries that degrowth will be a ‘top-down, elite-driven process’. This fear isn’t new; critics of ‘sustainable development’ used to argue that it would lead to dictatorship. While I agree that we should be wary of all elite efforts to advance social cuts in the form of eco-austerity, I don’t see why elites would want to promote degrowth, which is after all a radically egalitarian proposal to end luxury and overconsumption, level incomes and challenge the primacy of accumulation. Elites should worry about degrowth precisely because it would mean the end of extreme wealth.

Mann argues that degrowthers should be wary of getting caught ‘in the political ruts carved by mid-20th century debates over “development”’: there is a danger in ‘thinking of themselves as having identified a civilisational lodestone to which all “good” politics are oriented.’ This is strange. Historically, degrowth was an offshoot of the discourse of ‘post-development’, whose raison d’être was to criticise the development paradigm (growth-based capitalism). Twenty years later, degrowth has become stridently decolonialist, bound to the position that the global North’s ‘imperial mode of living’ is made possible by the social-ecological exploitation of everyone else. In The Future Is Degrowth, just out from Verso, my co-authors and I make the case for a ‘pluriverse’, a world in which many worlds fit, in contrast to the universalising mission of ‘development’.

Fundamentally, degrowth has a utopian agenda. It radicalises debates about the future of sustainability, economics and systemic change. Beyond the techno-optimistic illusions of green growth and other false solutions, it offers a framework in which we can begin tackling the right kinds of question.

Matthias Schmelzer
University of Jena, Germany

‘By any reasonable standard of argument,’ Geoff Mann writes, ‘the burden of proof doesn’t lie with the degrowthers: it lies with those who hold fast to growth.’ But this is the standard of elites in the global North. Given the severely uneven distribution of water, energy, education and health in the world, a just form of degrowth implies a degree of redistribution that is not on offer.

What’s more, when a billion Asians were lifted out of poverty through international trade to the detriment of the living standards of blue-collar workers in industrial countries, the political repercussions were toxic: Trump, Brexit and the rise of the far right. Degrowth without a level of redistribution for which we have no precedent or politically palatable mechanisms will result in a neo-colonialist freezing of inequalities. For instance, the World Bank, of which the US is by far the most powerful member, has recently decided to stop financing the fossil fuel industry in developing countries even where it could transform their growth. At the same time, the US is becoming once more the world’s largest producer of fossil fuels.

Over the past twenty years, the world has reduced the energy intensity of its GDP by 1.5 per cent per year; the corresponding figure for China is 2.8 per cent. We need to double that pace to cap the rise in global temperatures below 2°C. This will require decisive intervention, but it is not a fantasy: there is a trend to build on. By any reasonable standard of evidence, if you want to reduce global inequalities, green growth is better than degrowth.

Avinash Persaud
Bridgetown, Barbados

On the Slip Road

Mike Jay’s piece on hitchhiking must have evoked a lot of memories (LRB, 23 June). In the spring of 1968 I made it from Pasadena to New York in two and a half days. I’ve never heard of anyone else hitchhiking from west coast to east coast in anything like that time. Maybe it had something to do with the Swedish girl I was travelling with. The main ride came from an ‘off duty’ rum-runner who was in a hurry to get from San Francisco to Washington DC. It was a Friday night when he picked us up in the middle of the Mojave Desert, somewhere east of Barstow, California. He agreed to take us if I would split the driving with him. He told me his big Pontiac, with its ‘special’ tank slung low among the chassis girders, could outrun any police car in the United States.

Another notable ride came from a Baltimore cop who stopped to ask us for ID on a slip road off I-495. The Remington pump-action shotgun and Winchester automatic rifle I could see clipped under his dash recommended instant obedience. When he saw my UK passport and my companion’s Swedish one, he decided we couldn’t be draft dodgers. ‘You’d better hop in my cruiser,’ he said. ‘No one’s going to pick you up here. It’s not legal to stop or hitchhike on a slip road to the US interstate. I’ll take you to a better place.’ Which he did.

We were soon picked up by a fellow in a US army first lieutenant’s uniform. He had a pinched face and a dreamy look. It turned out he’d done a tour of duty in Vietnam and had taken a bullet which had somehow gone through one cheek and out the other without hitting any bone or teeth along the way. The army wanted him back in Vietnam, he said, but there was no way he was going. He told us he was a PFC (private first class). I asked why he was wearing an officer’s uniform. ‘So they won’t pick me up,’ he said. ‘The police don’t stop you if you’re in uniform, and the MPs won’t stop you if you’re an officer.’ He took us the rest of the way to New York. We were among the big city skyscrapers by lunchtime on Monday.

Michael Elcock
Victoria, British Columbia

Better than It Sounds

Michael Walling mentions that Westminster Council banned the ignition of Loge’s fire in the ENO’s recent production of The Ring (Letters, 8 September). In 1988 I was the chief executive of Westminster Council when I was telephoned by John Tooley, then the director of the Royal Opera House. He was about to stage a production of Tosca. At the end of Act II Tosca stabs Scarpia and enacts a little ritual round his corpse, lighting two candles during an extended orchestral postlude. The council’s inspectors had banned the candles, citing the fire risk. Could I help? I told the inspectors that the candles were an essential part of the plot, and should be allowed provided that a fire extinguisher was manned in the wings. The ENO should have argued that the ring of fire was essential for the protection of Brünnhilde.

Rodney Brooke
Ilkley, West Yorkshire

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