Written by 09:30 Bābilim

Mary Harrington: The sexual revolution ended feminism

It is indisputable that historically progressive options have led the fight for women’s rights. Given that fact, the term “reactionary feminism” coined by Mary Harrington, a columnist for the British media UnHerd, is quite interesting. The issue of transgenderism has divided feminism into at least two camps – feminists who support the idea of transgenderism, claiming that a biological man who declares himself a woman is, in reality, a woman, and the so-called TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist), whose proponents claim that transgender ideology is an eminently anti-feminine phenomenon, which enables men to rob women of what belongs to them. For example, apparently the best female athletes, and even different “women of the year”, can be men. However, feminists of all shades overwhelmingly accept the idea of progress. In her columns and the recently published book “Feminism against Progress”, Harrington criticizes precisely the idea of progress. We spoke with Harrington about the notion of reactionary feminism, the relationship between transhumanism and transgenderism, the nation-state and women’s rights, and many other topics.

How do you define your notion of reactionary feminism?

Reactionary feminism is my response to the question I’ve had for a long time which is – is it possible to be a feminist if you don’t believe in progress? Occasionally people describe me as a conservative and I don’t really see myself in that way because I don’t think there’s enough left to conserve for that to be a very useful descriptor. I also think the problem with conservatism is that they end up conserving liberalism. They end up trying to conserve the liberalism of 20 years ago. That gets condensed into memes on the internet. Reject modern, you know, the Progress Pride flag; embrace tradition, the regular Pride flag. That’s kind of where conservatism is to a great extent. I borrowed aphorism from Columbian reactionary Nicolas Gomez Davila. The one that really stuck with me, is actually in my book as an epigraph is: “The true reactionary is not a seeker of abolished pasts, but a hunter of sacred shades on the eternal hills”. I just think is a nice way of thinking about what I am trying to do.

I’m not interested in just preserving the liberalism of 20 years ago. I don’t think that’s a useful thing to try and do. But, I do think, it’s a timely project, particularly for women who really are at the sharp end of the transhumanist revolution – in a great many ways, women and children in particular, perhaps more severely children than women. Anybody who has vulnerabilities or needs really is at the sharp end of bio-libertarianism. If we’re going to try and mount any sort of coherent disagreement with that way of looking at things at all, we have to be hunting for sacred shades on the eternal hills. We have to make a case for what’s always been true of people and try to orient ourselves not towards 20 years ago, but towards that, whatever that is. We could argue about what that is, but that’s what I’m trying to do. I want feminism which hunts for sacred shades on the eternal hills.

You also played with the term “post-liberal feminism.” Do you make a distinction between reactionary and post-liberal?

I don’t believe in progress, but I don’t believe in decline either. It is not meaningful to say that things used to be better in the past and we need to get back. Things are just different. It’s obvious that on some metrics, life now is a great deal better than it used to be. It’s also clear to me that on some metrics we’ve lost a great deal as well. But how you weigh those things is a metaphysical question at the end of the day. If that’s a spiritual matter, that depends entirely on your morals, arguably your religion. I don’t see post-liberalism and being reactionary as two flavors of something which isn’t conservatism. I think all politics is now post-liberal and has been for some time, but that became very noticeable with Covid. Someone who still thinks we live under liberalism has just not been paying attention. I would argue that, in fact, liberalism died in 2007 with the advent of the smartphone.

Liberalism is fundamentally sort of broadly Christian print culture. We’re very increasingly more post-Christian by the year – in terms of our institutional structures of moral priors – and are more post-printed by the year as well. As that fades, liberalism is disintegrating as well, or at least some of the moral priors that we’ve inherited from liberalism are being translated into new media and with the new political structures. In all of those domains, the characteristic shift from liberalism to post-liberalism is that we stop imagining that moral and political matters can be separated. That was the sort of post-reformation political settlement – they managed to persuade the protestants to stop fighting one another and stop fighting the Catholics eventually. Mostly by saying you can be Christian in all your different ways, in all your different places, and we’re just gonna do the political stuff separately from that. And you can follow your own consciences in your own homes and churches. Broadly speaking, the liberal settlement said that as long as we can keep morality out of the public sphere, by and large, we’ll be okay and we can stop everybody fighting.

It worked for as long as we were just a print culture, and it worked as long as we were running on the fumes of a sort of broadly consensus Christian settlement. Both of those things have now gone or are in the process of going. Believing Christianity is a minority thing now – observing Christianity, certainly is a minority thing. Self-evidently same applies to print culture, here we are talking to one another across many hundreds of miles via these magic boxes…

You said that you don’t believe in decline as such, but what you described as the death of liberalism sounds like some kind of decline, at least in the moral sense.

I grew up in the 1990s, when you had this feeling like nothing exciting was ever gonna happen again and there was something quite comforting about that. In the same way, there was something quite miserable about it too. We live in interesting times now, after the manner of the Chinese curse. Although it’s definitely more exciting it comes with some downsides as well. I mean, it depends on where you’re on the bigger question of decline. If your commitments and aesthetics and so on are all broadly born of liberal print modernity, then yes – I suppose I am talking about decline. But equally, we’ve had civilizations before print and there were things that were lost with the advent of liberal modernity which it might be interesting to have back. I mean, interesting in a horrible sense. Or interesting in a wonderful sense.

One of the most characteristic features of post-liberalism writ large in the sense that I’m talking about is the relationship of the moral and the political. Liberalism tried to separate them or at least pretended it was doing that. Nobody’s pretending anymore. Everyone’s like – we’re gonna organize the public sphere according to our arbitrary morals, and we’re just gonna punch you until you agree with us. It’s all about the political power. You only have to look at Raytheon selling rainbow socks for Pride Month to see that the separation of church and state is well and truly over, and it’s over in the world’s only hegemon. You can disagree or not about how much you like the faith, but the fact that there’s now an established faith In the United States of America, which is promoted an overall other face is very difficult to dispute – that’s a characteristic feature of post-liberalism. James Poulos theorizes a lot about this stuff. He has a great phrase – digital retrieves the medieval.

It’s a heuristic that works quite well. There’s a sense in which departing print culture for digital culture has the scope to reenchant the world, sometimes in quite a messed up way. Pseudo-religions and bizarre, magical thinking subcultures have cropped up in a way just quite difficult under print culture, which was all about rationality and modernity and provability and observability. I’ve met literal flat-earthers who are 22. They are real, they exist, and they are kind of doing it ironically, but they are also kind of not. That goes for a whole lot of other things as well. You know, all the birds-aren’t-real people. Various other mads of course…

Gender and sex. We know there are only two of them…

Oh, yes, yes.

Flat-earthers and transgender theorists are two sides of the same coin – not only post-Christian, but also post-Enlightenment…

Yes, post-enlightenment in the sense of welcoming magical thinking back into the frame. Absolutely. What would sex have to mean for you to think, genuinely believe it’s true that somebody could change sex? You are obviously thinking of sex in a way that is not material embodied physiological sex. What sort of esoteric plane are we talking about here? Either they’re all just delusional idiots or they are genuinely committedly convinced that this is true and we are just looking at it wrong. That is the fundamentally post-liberal transformation – this is true and you’re just looking at it wrong. The way you get these irreducible differences in sort of basic kind of structural reality, there is no resolving that through the marketplace ideas. Just forget it. You end up with technological warfare there until one side wins. I don’t like that prospect, but that’s where we are.

Is post-liberalism a logical consequence of liberalism’s success, as some conservatives claim – or there is a fundamental difference between classical liberalism and today’s ruling ideology?

If you look at the history of ideas, things kind of become their inverse over time. If you give an idea a long enough arc, it kind of inverts itself over time. I’m trying to think of an example of what I’m talking about…

New leftists are the new capitalists. They are marching together to their version of the end of history…

Yeah, yeah, that would be a case in point. You can draw a straight genealogical line to the post-liberal moment from the Enlightenment. I don’t see it as a rupture with classical liberalism. I see it as a continuity. You sort of go through the looking glass. When you invent a technology that makes the entire material basis for your previous paradigm obsolete and then not everybody goes through the looking glass at the same point and we all have big culture wars until we get there or somebody unplugs the internet – whichever happens first!

You were speaking about the decline of Christianity, which is in your opinion precondition for the liberal order. But, there is also one other thing that is in decline –  national sentiment, in pretty much every Western country. You were a speaker at the recent National Conservatism conference in London. How your position of reactionary feminism relates to nation-states?

Nation states as such are by and large products of the liberal order. They are very difficult to disaggregate from modernity and from industrial civilization. This is all kind of an effect of modernity, right? Only in modernity you get that sort of ethnogenesis and the idea of public as such, and certainly, the idea of a democratic public when you have that power struggle between the landowners and the mercantile elites. All of them were trying to mobilize different parts of the masses – whether it was the feudal serfs, industrial proletarians, or whatever. There was this sort of complicated, multi-dimensional contest between different social classes. It only comes really into being in industrial modernity, while today large parts of Europe are post-industrial, and most, or a lot of the stuff gets made in China or Indonesia or wherever. Then is it even meaningful anymore to have organized nation-states that way? I don’t know.

But what is clear to me is that for the elites who actually wield the power, there’s just no consensus in favor of nation-state organization anymore. It’s just gone. That is very clear to me in what’s happened since Brexit. It was predominantly the working people who wanted to restore sovereignty to the nation, who wanted to return to the liberal national political structure. It is just been crystal clear to me that there is no elite support for that – we are going to have these treaties which lead away sovereignty to other countries. Even the guys who are paying lip service to Brexit, even the conservatives who wanted Brexit are still going to accede to that paradigm because that is how things are under.

How reactionary feminism maps onto that? Even though I think the prognosis for nations is a bit iffy, in as much as the idea of a nation still has meaning it ought to be willing to defend a culture’s biopolitical priorities and not subcontract those to international bodies that don’t have any regard for interest and the sensibilities of a people in a place. For example, look at European Union doing its best to steamroll local cultural conditions in Hungary. It seems clear enough that a great many people would prefer Orbán legislation – more conservative legislation on biopolitics than the European Union’s ideas of what should be happening in Hungary.

It’s very clear to me that there’s a kind of NGO industrial complex that has a very clear understanding of what the priorities are. Those priorities look to me as transhumanist in a way that is deeply anti-feminist. Transhumanism is profoundly anti-women because it is profoundly anti-embodiment and it is not possible to defend women’s interests unless you are willing to defend people as embodied integrated organisms – bodies and souls together, to put it crudely. Nations may be doomed, but they are not totally helpless now and I think we should be using them to push for a defense of local conditions and the sensibilities of distinct peoples against this stuff where it’s appropriate to resist the sort of internationalist push for kind of transhumanist modernity.

What do you see in common between transhumanism and transgenderism?

It’s the same thing. It’s the same picture. You don’t need to take my word for this, you should read Martine A. Rothblatt who is a trans activist, a pharmaceutical billionaire, and a transgender-identified male. Rothblatt wrote a book, it was originally called The Apartheid of Sex. The newer edition came out in 2011. retitled From Transgender to Transhuman: A Manifesto on the Freedom of Form. Rothblatt sees realigning your body for gender reasons as the precursor to remodeling your body for any reason at all. I mean, in the end, if you can do it because you feel uncomfortable with birth sex, why shouldn’t you do it for an infinity of other reasons? If you have gone that far in waging war on the idea of human normal, then why shouldn’t you? You know, the sky is the limit really.

In Feminism Against Progress I have tried to draw the line from the contraceptive pill, which I see as the first transhumanist technology because that is the first medical technology that set out not to repair something that got along with normal, but to break something that was working normally in the interest of personal freedom. That is a total paradigm shift in what we think medicine can and should do. It is one of the issues that I think pulls a lot of, making more mainstream conservatives up short. Once you start pulling up the threads on pediatric gender transition, it becomes obvious fairly quickly that it’s difficult to argue against that stuff without also arguing against the pill. Because if you have accepted interrupting normal health in favor of freedom for this, then why shouldn’t you do it for all of the other things as well at the end? And then you are just into really very sterile last-ditch arguments about consent, capacity, availability, and really there you’re just haggling over the details.

So, you see transhumanism as connected with the sexual revolution?

We shouldn’t call it the sexual revolution. We should call it the transhumanist revolution because that’s what it was. We are 50 years into the transhumanist era – it’s a done deal. We live in the transhumanist era. This is why fundamentally I call myself a reactionary rather than a conservative, because there’s nothing left to conserve of the industrial era. It is gone and it was gone before I was born.

There’s also Donna Haraway’s cyborg feminism… That kind of feminism, which is a subpart of what we call transhumanism for the purposes of this conversation, destroys the very concept it relies upon – the concept of woman, but also of the man as some kind of a permanent thing, not something which defines and redefines itself and transcends itself with technology and at the same time dehumanizes itself. Is that kind of feminism suicidal?

The sexual revolution ended feminism. What we think of as the vast majority of second-wave feminism is not feminism at all – it’s bio-libertarianism. It marches under a feminist banner, but it’s not feminism in the sense that obtained in the first wave. That is one of the reasons why more recent feminist historiographies tend to memory hole a great deal of what happened during the first wave – it just doesn’t compute from within a bio-libertarian paradigm which is the one that people now just identify – more or less unquestioningly with feminism. Yes, would say it’s suicidal or rather not so much suicidal as necromantic in the sense it has reanimated a corpse and is walking it and wearing it as a skin suit.

But, I’m not without hope because it’s not as though women don’t exist anymore. For as long as men and women exist we will have to figure out a way to live together. Otherwise, the human species will stop happening. We are going to need to negotiate our sometimes not completely identical interests. Men and women have many interests in common, but we also have some slightly different – we are differently shaped, we have different reproductive cycles, and so on. There are ways in which our interests compete as well as align. I refuse to believe that the transhumanists are ever going to sort of re-engineer us into some kind of sexless, post-sex, sort of Barbie and Ken meat Lego. I don’t think that’s ever gonna be more than a fantasy. And for as long as men and women will continue to exist, we are going to need something akin to a movement that’s willing to advocate for women.

So, I have a great deal of hope for feminism. Right now it’s the liveliest it’s been in decades, certainly in Britain. The feminist movement is very much alive and kicking – it’s just up against something which calls itself feminism, but is the sort of necro-feminism wearing the corpse of its mother like a skin suit and is trying to persuade us all to listen to mommy.

You said that there is nothing left to conserve today, but it seems that there is no articulated worldview or ideology that is countering the prevailing one. Do you think it will appear anytime soon or critics of today’s progressivism will just stick to criticism?

One possibility is that no and we’re all just doomed. Another possibility or idea that I quite like is that people will come up with new ideas or new things to aspire to. I think the most likely thing in order for something like that to survive without just being absorbed back into the machine is not to be on the internet. New ideas will appear and they won’t be shared on the internet. The moment something is shared on the internet, it’s effectively neutralized.

Interviewed by Tomislav Kardum and Matija Štahan

Last modified: 25. 6. 2023.