Helen Razer, symbolism and the Left

Helen Razer’s piece about the failures of the ‘Left’ is a political version of an Escher drawing. Chastising what she sees as vacuous symbolism and the Left’s disintegration into individuality, Razer appears wholly unaware of the irony in calling this out in the exact manner she decries. Her criticism doesn’t take you anywhere; you just end up talking in circles of pithy cynicism.

To her credit, she doesn’t actually seem to deny this. Unhelpfully, though, she sees it as someone else’s job. There’s a certain hollowness in such a defence: cursing the darkness while at the same time trying to extinguish candles that have been lit by others leaves us all in the dark.

Moreover, there is something slightly mean about telling everyone else that they are doing it wrong without doing anything about it yourself. Of course, pure criticism has its place. But to me it seems disingenuous to berate the obsession with symbolism and individualism on the part of the Left as a commentator with apparently little interest in doing anything material about the social problems you identify. I would be happily proven wrong on this point. Razer is perfectly positioned to write about those problems she is concerned about and pose interesting and compelling alternatives. But she seems to prefer confecting her own outrage about the confected outrage of others. That is, her criticism is basically an individual, symbolic act.

Which does make me ponder: who is Razer talking about when she talks about the ‘Left’? There’s a big difference between progressive liberals and people who see class and poverty as fundamental drivers of social trends. I have sympathy with some of Razer’s criticisms of progressive liberals: I make a lot of them myself. But while I might participate in many of the same campaigns with progressive liberals, we have very different objectives and strategies. It’s pretty easy to lump us all together without bothering to dissect this, but it ends up becoming a straw man argument.

Part of the problem seems to be that Razer’s orientation, like those she likes to criticise, appears to be entirely towards the media, as though this is the only place in which these debates take place. To my mind, this is an emblem of a much larger problem of modern political engagement, particularly in the age of social media: credibility increasingly correlates to the amount of noise you can make online. I don’t want to overstate this in relation to Razer, but she seems to be punching well above her weight in relation to the ‘debate’ about the ‘Left’ despite not seemingly being part of any Left movement at all. That is, she might profess to have left-wing ideas, but my schooling in left-wing politics was structured not simply upon philosophising about the world: the point was always to change it.

This is something that has become a feature of the modern ALP. More so than any other time in history, the ALP is accessible to the public and engaging with the political process through the media. But never has it looked less democratic: candidates are chosen by a captain’s pick, the PM (at least momentarily) preferred taking direction from a citizen’s assembly rather her own party and marriage equality is endorsed at almost every level of the party, but has still been kyboshed by the PM. It’s totally understandable why no-one – not even Senator John Faulkner, it seems – sees the point of joining a party like this. Labor’s almost entirely lost its material base and the only answer it can come up with seems to be more superficial engagement. Untethered from its working class roots, it naturally drifts into dangerous political waters.

This decline in political traditions and the disintegration of traditional modes of political engagement has consequences. That’s not to be nostalgic about the old days when ALP branch meetings could take place outside of a telephone booth. Nonetheless, such is the political reality with which the Left must contend. Political engagement happens less through political parties, unions and public meetings and increasingly through the echo chamber of social media. So of course, there’s something right about what Razer is saying: the creep of symbolism into modern political debates belies a big problem for the Left in terms of a loss of traditional organisations, structures and demands. But there is potential in this loss also.

This leads me to the alternatives to Razer’s nihilistic version of politics. Outrage by progressives about the latest pop culture transgression is no substitute for genuine political debate, but calling out sexism or other bad behaviour is not inherently invalid or unimportant. The question is what comes next.

To use Razer’s example, it’s true that the passage of marriage equality will ultimately be symbolic, as in most instances, the formal legal inequalities are all but ameliorated. But the campaign has also attracted thousands of people to its cause and built genuine political networks. Success has the potential to breed success: the campaign creates relationships and organisations that can continue to frame demands in relation to inequality and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. This is fertile ground for rethinking the concept of marriage altogether and opening up new attitudes about social units like the family and the role it plays in society. More generally, a victory in the equal marriage campaign has the potential to inspire others to think that change is possible in all sorts of aspects of their lives. Or in the case of discussions about rape culture, I also have concerns about the way this term remains persistently amorphous and is used to justify regressive calls for tougher sentencing. But this creates an opportunity to discuss alternatives to the brutal aspects of punitive justice and the role of legal system in systemic marginalisation of the poor.

So symbolism can have a place. Such struggles are not inherently bad; the challenge is to turn symbolic change into material change. Politics is not a zero-sum-game, with only a limited set of demands at the expense of others: it can be exponential. The more people talk about politics and organise around them, the greater number of political demands can be discussed.

But to achieve this actually involves intervening into the debates, patiently proposing alternatives and building alliances in good faith, rather than cutting everyone else down. That’s precisely why Razer, despite being pithy and talented, leaves me cold. She has a platform and the skills to discuss some of the key issues she feels are neglected and expand the political possibilities. She has the power to create an antidote to the problem she identifies but chooses not to. It’s disappointing and unimaginative, not to mention mean. Like the current political climate, there is great potential there, but at present, Razer is taking us nowhere.

Lizzie O'Shea

Lizzie O’Shea is a lawyer. Her book Future Histories (Verso 2019) is about the politics and history of technology.

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  1. Terrific piece. I couldn’t help think it was strange that on Twitter, Razer said the left should not focus on gay marriage, even as she tweeted about nothing but gay marriage for days on end.

  2. This article is a perfect example of the widespread tendency in leftist political commentary to write against people rather than against ideas. Who cares whether Helen Razer is “doing anything material about the social problems” identified in her article? Who cares whether Razer is “part of any Left movement”? And more importantly, who really, truly knows? Razer might spend 16 hours a day working at a homeless shelter, or she might work for an investment bank: how could this possibly be relevant to the persuasiveness of the critique made in her article? Since when does the Left think that an argument’s validity is affected by the characteristics of the person who makes it? (While I’m at it, since when does the Left care whether a critique is “slightly mean”?)

    What happened to the notion of immanent critique? Razer’s article fits solidly within a school of leftist critical theory that started with Nietzsche and then the Frankfurt School, continued through Foucault and others under the (externally imposed) title of poststructuralism, and is expounded most prominently these days by Judith Butler, Wendy Brown, Janet Halley, Avital Ronell, etc. Ms O’Shea’s article doesn’t even threaten to engage with this school of thought. It summarily dismisses the practice of “cursing the darkness while … extinguishing candles that have been lit by others,” when this is precisely the point, because (as the article ignores) the light others’ candles are giving off is a counter-productive one.

    As for the assertion that the “marriage equality” campaign has created “fertile ground for rethinking the concept of marriage altogether”, where is the evidence for this? Time and time again leftists claiming to be sympathetic to the queer struggle insist that legalising same-sex marriage will open the door to the abolition of marriage or undermine the state’s role in sanctioning relationships or subvert conservative norms about the importance of family, but none of this is borne out by the rhetoric of the campaign. Read the website of Australian Marriage Equality, review GetUp’s campaign materials, or read the speeches of any politician who has spoken in favor of legalisation: all of them reference, often explicitly, the desirability of marriage as an institution, the importance of family, the need to ensure that Gay People and Straight People have “equal rights”, etc., trashing decades of queer activism in the process. Razer’s argument (and it by no means originates with her) is that the campaign is counter-productive, i.e., that it will not have the salutary consequences that many of its leftist supporters say it will, and that, furthermore, it makes those consequences more difficult to attain. She has made this case in detail on a number of occasions and others have (in my view) made it even more powerfully. Simply asserting that legalising same-sex marriage will “open[] up new attitudes about social units” is not good enough.

    1. Except that ideas don’t exist in the abstract. They belong to people, and to political tendencies. It’s perfectly valid to point out the contradiction in a critique of symbolism that engages purely on the level of symbolism. That’s nothing to do with working in banks or homeless shelters. By all means, attack the priorities of the social media Left. But if that’s what you are going to do, you can’t be surprised when people point out that your priorities are entirely the same as those you denounce as idiots, dupes, etc — that is, that you write about almost exclusively _exactly_ the same topics as those you are denouncing.
      As for same sex marriage, this is simply a revival of the old nineteenth century argument against what was once called ‘palliatives’. Exactly the same case was made by some of the Left against the campaign for the eight hour day. Look at how conservative the rhetoric of the supporters of the eight hour movement is! Why, they don’t speak about the abolition of the wages system at all! The whole campaign merely normalises the selling of labour power! Blah, blah, blah.
      Or to put it another way, maybe someone could explain how the defeat of a mild democratic reform like same sex marriage at the hands of the most reactionary forces in Australian politics will somehow re-invigorate radicalism. Is it not rather the case that, if the Left cannot win a simple democratic demand like this when there’s majority support for change, we can expect an increased cynicism about the Left’s ability to win anything at all?

      1. In what sense does Razer’s critique engage “purely on the level of symbolism”? I mean, in one sense, all writing is “symbolic,” but clearly that’s not the type of symbolism Razer is attacking. She is not saying that the Left should stop writing and hit the streets, just that the arguments much of the Left is making are bad arguments. I don’t understand how it’s “symbolic” to offer a critique of other people’s arguments or actions.

        As for the contradiction that’s “perfectly valid to point out”: according to your logic, if person A says “the problem is asylum-seekers, so that’s what I’m going to talk about”, person B can never say “asylum-seekers are not the problem, don’t talk about asylum-seekers, talk about X instead” because they would be contradicting themselves by talking about asylum-seekers? This is a nonsensical logic game that is as distracting and flawed as the Left’s obsession with avoiding accusations of hypocrisy. It’s the same adolescent reasoning that says you can’t criticize capitalism if you own an iPhone.

        I’m reminded of an anecdote from the introduction to Brown and Halley’s Left Legalism/Left Critique:

        As I read her, Razer is not claiming to be a better leftist than her targets. She is merely saying “what you’re doing is harmful.” Whether Razer has herself done things that are harmful (either in the same way or in a different way) is irrelevant to whether she is right.

        Regarding same-sex marriage, I would definitely argue that the campaign for the eight-hour day normalised the selling of labour power. It also legitimised the state and mollified activists. Why do you think this is so obviously not the case? And I don’t share your apparent belief that the Left must win something, anything, no matter how conservative, to convince people that the Left is capable of winning things. The Left could probably win silly, harmful things tomorrow if it wanted to, but it doesn’t, and I’m glad.

        1. Hmm, apologies for the formatting stuff-up above. The last two paragraphs aren’t supposed to be indented, and the missing anecdote is:

          “From the audience, an American woman of South Asian descent challenged our colleague, a feminist Arab secularist, for intervening in a domain properly belonging to religious Arab women: ‘What right have you to be saying such things?’ ‘Right?’ our colleague responded. ‘I have no right—I have a critique!’

        2. Well, that’s the nub of the debate, isn’t it! You’re advocating a simon-pure nineteenth century impossibilism, of the kind espoused by the old Socialist League. Why not oppose the right to vote, too! Didn’t the extension of the franchise to working men (and then women) simply normalise parliamentary politics, legitimise the state and mollify activists?

  3. I disagree that Helen Razer is arguing in circles. Her argument is quite clear, really. She decries a lack of attention by the left to material social conditions (bringing her very close to Marx) and what has emerged in its stead – let’s call it the culturalisation of the left. By this, I mean that the left too often interprets every social issue through the lens of culture. In my opinion, she is absolutely right to decry this. Violence against women, to give one example, is almost always discussed in terms of how women are portrayed in the media rather than concrete actions that could be taken to improve community safety. As the left becomes more and more culturalised, its “symbols” become ripe for co-option by the private sector. So Julia Gillard an the Labor party can stand for feminism, Philips can stand for gay rights, Starbucks can stand for fair trade, and so forth. No where is this more apparent than The Zone section of The Age which purports to be a space for progressive discussion of left initiatives but is basically a publicity section for capitalist ventures seeking to launch themselves to success by harnessing green enthusiasm.

    1. “Violence against women, to give one example, is almost always discussed in terms of how women are portrayed in the media rather than concrete actions that could be taken to improve community safety.”

      I don’t know if what you state is true, but a both / and approach would be better. If it is true, one possible reason could be that because visual media plays to and through a naturalised male point of view using specific symbolic devices (men do the looking, women are there to be looked at; viewer identification is usually with the violent assailant and not the distressed victim in thrillers, for example; women are naturally vulnerable therefore safety on the streets is a woman’s problem in news reports etc), so women are automatically warned off the streets at night whenever newsworthy sexual violence occurs. No one ever says it, police included, but the streets would be much safer if men were warned to keep off the streets at might. All hell would break loose, but that would be “a concrete action that could be taken to improve community safety”, perceived when the pitfalls of particular gendered forms of media portrayal are realised.

  4. Yes that’s all true. But the point of the article was to suggest that simply condemning that tendency isn’t very helpful, if that’s all you do. In fact, this kind of analysis is often the point where the ultra left meets the right — cf the trajectory of the people around the RCP/Living Marxism outfit, who have turned a partially correct insight into the retreat of the Left from changing the world into a fully blown shibboleth, such that they’re now happily ensconced in the opinion pages of the Australian, continuing their denunciations there.
    More concretely, while it’s true that a focus exclusively on (say) how women are portrayed in the media doesn’t get you very far, it’s not a bad thing if people are outraged about sexism wherever they see it. Rather than simply denouncing them as idiots, shouldn’t we be saying, yes, we agree this is a problem – but if we really want to address it, we need to go further, to start discussing the family, conditions of labour, etc? Obviously that’s more difficult than simply snarking, since it means we need to try to illustrate those connections. But IMO the tendency to equate radicalism (or even Marxism) simply with pissing off liberals is actually quite dangerous in an era in which liberalism is under much more serious and sustained attack from the Right than from the Left.

    1. Just a minor thing, but I don’t think all representations of “sexism” do feminism any favors: the division within the movement means that some forms of feminism are favored over others- particularly liberal feminism which seems to be obsessed with acknowledging empowered women and defending them rather than exploring actual indicators of inequality and trying to account for those. It also speaks the loudest, since it has more of a vehicle in social media, print media and television (because it’s institutionalized) and embarrassingly, declares the need to “celebrate” the “revival” of feminism as it stands today. I would argue that the very stagnant, one dimensional image of liberal feminism actually actively obscures and oppresses women itself since it alienates them from any structural explanation (which indicates that the experience is a shared one) of ways in which they experience oppression of sorts….I suppose my point is just that I think political standpoints on issues like sexism are necessarily in competition with one another within a neoliberal climate because that alone determines that the model be characterized by conflict and competing interest. And liberal feminism is, ideologically in opposition to non liberal feminism…

  5. I agree with Jeff (obviously). There is something of a superiority complex about Razer’s approach – that is, I’m going to sling mud rather than engage and make the arguments myself that I would like to see being made. This is a kind of thinking leads you to the conclusion that no one is right but me; it reminds me a lot of Hitchens.

    There’s also a kind of clique-ishness that is the opposite of solidarity – so in that sense, meanness like this has political consequences.

    I’m not saying Razer should be out building barricades, but I also think the fact she is almost totally removed from any kind of activism (as far as I know) means that it is no surprise to me that this is how she chooses to engage.

    I am comfortable with commentators providing pure critique, of course, but I don’t think that’s a sufficient defence to this kind of politics.

  6. So what if Razor writes as if she’s the only one who’s right? The only thing that matters is: is she right, or is she not? I can see how her approach reminds you of Hitchens, but the fact that Hitchens often wrote as if no one else was right isn’t what makes (many of) his writings objectionable. What makes them objectionable is that they are wrong. Their reasoning is flawed and their conclusions are violent and reactionary.

    Your original article contained some explanation of why you think Razor’s claims might in fact be wrong, but all this stuff about “superiority complex[es]” and “meanness” and a lack of solidarity distracts from that argument. It reflects a need to judge individuals, to take a position for or against people rather than letting individual arguments and essays stand on their own.

    1. Sam – I was just responding to that point. I wrote the post itself to identify what I thought was wrong with her argument, as you note. I didn’t want to replicate the whole thing in the comments (!)

      I reject the allegation that my arguments are about her as a person, it’s about the politics of individualism. Which I guess was my point – she decries individualism but in an individualistic manner – not oriented to people and how their ideas might form or be changed.

  7. Well, I might as well have my 2c. This is looong, so apologies in advance. My chief question is about the actual critique Razer engages. She’s answered my queries on this by pointing me to her previous writing, which I have duly read, although admittedly not all of it, and I’m still left with the same questions. She claims an intellectual background which begins with Marx and Freud (but not Shulamith Firestone, the first thinker who brought both of them into radical discussions of feminism? At least, I’ve seen no reference). This is then inflected through the performative gender theory of Judith Butler, Foucault, and a bit of social capital theory via Bourdieu, etc. I don’t claim expertise on any of them, but I have read all these writers, some more than others. And I find myself troubled by a disconnect between Razer’s deployment of these thinkers and the use to which she puts their ideas. Eg, she seems to be demanding serious intellectual discourse but equally snarks down any attempt to say “well, maybe things are more complex than that” in ways that often seem to inhibit, well, thoughtfulness.

    Say, on equal marriage: Razer loads up her guns with Butler, claiming that bland heteronormativity is destroying the radical potential of queer. Butler indeed asked this question, noting how much of the support for equal marriage is conservative: and it is a legitimate question. But Butler (who is herself outspoken as an activist, e.g. the academic BDS movement against the Israeli State) takes as a given that discriminatory marriage laws are discriminatory, and therefore wrong: she demands a critical attitude towards the whole question of state-sanctioned marriage, but doesn’t lose sight of the primary problem, which is discrimination itself. Her questions about the heteronormativity of marriage don’t lead Butler to claim that gay people who want to get married are therefore idiots to protest discrimination against them: in fact, despite her critique of the equal marriage movement, she refuses to oppose it, since such opposition reinforces the monoculturalism of marriage itself (a totally major problem I have with Razer’s arguments), and also because people have the right to live the lives they aspire to. It’s that final leap of Razer’s, that gay people wanting to be married and those who support that right are without exception idiots, that I can’t follow, and that so many people are alienated by. And in the end, Razer’s insistence that heterosexuality is the locus per se of political conservatism is as reductive and boring as any other prejudice, and effectively erases many potential sites of rethinking gender. It seems to me – and I would like to be proven wrong on this – that Razer uses these thinkers in her rhetoric as bullets to intimidate the more-stupid-than-her, rather than as means of teasing out or nuancing ideas in a continuing dialogue. I accept that she’s making some kind of public performance, which is sometimes (and sometimes not) entertaining, but I find myself asking, to what end? I’ve stopped engaging with her myself, because any question ends up generating a lot of pointless heat, but very little light.

    At the same time, I have some sympathy with a lot of Razer’s frustrations. Like many others, I agree with much of her critique, but find it frustratingly obscured by her rhetorical strategies. I’m also troubled by the shortsightedly reactive, sometimes absolutist, focus of so much popular feminism, and by a lurking anti-intellectualism. I think the “culturalisation” of the Left reflects a pervasive attitude that also reduces culture solely to a social expression/instrument. I also see quite a lot of contemporary left activism that focuses on material economic questions, even here in Australia, and I wonder why Razer never mentions it. All that aside from the question of what “the Left” actually is. I just don’t see that marking out some ground as morally/intellectually superior, digging a moat around it to keep out the dumbos and appointing oneself as feminism’s “doorbitch” gets the argument very much further. Maybe the real problem with Razer’s stance is that she herself refuses to take it further? She stakes her claim, drops a few heavyweight names, throws out the grenade, and that’s as far as it goes: “never apologise” becomes “don’t question”. On the other hand, it sure stirs up a lot of noise, and maybe that’s not all bad. It’s made me think a bit further on several things. A bit of negative capability wouldn’t go astray, though I guess it might dim the fireworks: people, and therefore politics, are complex and often contradictory. Maybe it’s best to think of her as simply a provocateur, which is not, as Lizzie points out, so different from those she criticises. If she refuses to open up the ground that she’s pointing to, others can do so.

    1. “I accept that she’s making some kind of public performance, which is sometimes (and sometimes not) entertaining, but I find myself asking, to what end?”

      The overarching theme to so much of Razer’s work has always seemed to be the desire to affirm her own sense of individuality and independence, seeking to distinguish herself from any swell of mass opinion. Almost to the point of being anti-group action or social movement of any kind (see International Women’s Day, rainbow crossings and just about any mainstream initiative on any issue that happens to be close to her heart), while at the same time attempting to construct some higher plane of reality and reasoning that the populous simply aren’t able to grasp.

      A tormented soul that seems to long to be uncommon. Unique. Special, even.

      Writing that has “issues” isn’t really ever going to do the subject matter justice. The more the writer has to prove, the less the reader stands to gain.

      Both yourself and Elizabeth articulate ideas and opinions in ways others can only dream of (myself included). Thanks for being genuinely uncommon.

  8. Great post. Couldn’t have said it better myself – particularly on Butler.

    I would say, re the last point though, Razer is not particularly encouraging of this. Indeed, she seems to think she has stirred up trouble and that’s the end of it. Anyway, thanks Alison.

  9. I just can’t read Helen Razer. It’s that school of try-hard cleverness I abhor. Lots of froth and little substance.

  10. ‘…all this stuff about “superiority complex[es]” and “meanness” and a lack of solidarity distracts from that argument…’

    This, as Razer tweets: “Wake the fuck up you silly bitches.” That’s about what feminists will write about Abbott tomorrow. What is distracting from the argument here?

    Unsurprisingly, I think Lizzie and Jeff and Alison have all made incredibly relevant points. I don’t honestly have much to add, except that you know, as a feminist activist on the left who knows a lot of feminist activists on the left working hard to try to get some traction on local economic issues and social issues firmly embedded in material conditions (I have not spotted Razer among them but perhaps she has an elaborate disguise) makes me ask, as Lizzie did, who is this Left she is referring to? Surely her measure of what is going on in Left activism on women’s rights doesn’t come solely from what she sees in the media?

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