by Mary Harrington
Monday, 25
October 2021

Judith Butler: neoliberalism’s accidental cheerleader

The theorist can't see that a world without boundaries is profoundly un-feminist
by Mary Harrington
Credit: Getty

Plenty has already been written about Judith Butler’s latest fusillade against those who dissent from her gender utopia.

On the central charge of ‘incoherent’, I will only observe that many groups who agree on little else think her ideas are nuts. This may be less of a slam-dunk argument in Butler’s favour than she seems to imagine.

Butler presents herself as an opponent both of something called ‘neoliberalism’, and also of those bad wicked fascists. What she ignores, though, is the profoundly neoliberal nature of her own gender revolution — born of a boomer anti-materialism nourished in an age of abundance, that dreamt of bottomless resources and leisure for all.

Against this, the dreaded category of ‘fascist’ extends to include anyone who suggests, however mildly, that some boundaries or structures might occasionally be a good thing, given that resources are not bottomless and never will be.

This two-step is evident in a passage that bears quoting at length:

The vanishing of social services under neoliberalism has put pressure on the traditional family to provide care work […] In turn, the fortification of patriarchal norms within the family and the state has become, for some, imperative in the face of decimated social services, unpayable debt, and lost income. It is against this background that “gender” is portrayed as a destructive force, a foreign influence infiltrating the body politic and destabilising the traditional family.
- Judith Butler, Guardian

Here Butler has noticed that eroding the welfare state prompts a renewed need for the family, as an important source of solidarity. It’s a significant insight: social mores are grounded in real-world needs and pressures. But rather than take the next step, and ask whether those mores may have some value, Butler inverts the order of priority: she castigates communities for the way their materially-grounded social structures risk impinging on her ideal order.

By rhetorically positioning ‘neoliberalism’ as other, she skates over the implication of her dream of rainbow gender multiplicities within just this order.

A few levels down from Butler’s rarefied world, Shon Faye writes in The Transgender Issue about the way transgender individuals often face workplace discrimination, estrangement from family bonds and mental health or substance abuse issues. To survive, Faye notes, many are obliged to make do with prostitution, gig-economy work and ‘chosen family’ support structures.

Butler condemns people for seeking to shore up structures of solidarity against the encroachments of the market, lest doing so hampers the unfolding of selves in perfect freedom — even down to remodelling one’s own body. But these are precisely neoliberal selves. Faye describes the downsides of selfhood on this neoliberal model: a life stripped of stability in work, identity, relationships and even one’s own body.

Nothing, in other words, could be more neoliberal than the reality emerging from Butler’s idealism — including the booming biomedical industry now emerging to cater to their radical self-fashioning. And including the manifest suffering of many individuals who pursue radical self-fashioning on the axis of sex and gender.

Once translated from the foggy language of theory into plain English, Butler’s politics amounts to “Neoliberalism has horrible liquefying side effects, including on women, but hear me out, what if we somehow came up with a version that kept all the individualism and none of the alienation?”. Less politics than wishful thinking.

Meanwhile, she condemns as ‘fascist’ all those who argue — whatever else they disagree on — for some boundaries on the neoliberal liquefaction of all social structures. Including, notably, those family ties now re-emerging as an important element of the pushback against liquid modernity. This isn’t an argument, it’s the petulant huff of an adolescent given a sensible bedtime on a school night.

Join the discussion

  • Mary have enjoy your writing and the topics you cover but I found this hard to follow. Orwell strove for clarity of writing and thought. A times your article strayed away from Orwellian clarity and into the jibberishness of Butler. No offence intended. It’s difficult to make sense of Butler. Butler is twisted by her prejudices. She fails to understand basic human evolution and ultimately her vision of the world is inhuman and artificial. Is short she’s a very dangerous person.

  • In fairness, Butler is like the Tar Baby of American South folklore—any attempt to engage with her gets you all stuck in the goo, arms useless.
    In Butler’s writing, pronouns have unclear referents—thus, paraphrasing her arguments to respond to them requires a writer to supply an educated guess as to what Butler most likely meant. To which Butler can retort that she never said what the writer said she said.
    Harrington’s piece therefore wisely includes direct quotes, but cannot encompass the true Tar Baby quality of Butler’s Guardian piece—in which Butler refers to the intersex “movement,” and to the “ideal” of sexual dimorphism, as though these things were not biological conditions or facts.
    Finally, would just add that Butler’s Guardian piece characterizes gender theory’s critics as opposing protections for women’s safety, a mind-bogglingly counterfactual claim, which I will not bother to refute. It is past noon on the East Coast, the Tar Baby is well melted, and I have already wasted enough time on it.
    As R MS observed, Butler could not care less.

  • She notoriously won the Bad Writing prize for the following absolute corker:-
    “The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”

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