Feminism Against Crime Control

On Sexual Subordination and State Apologism
Koshka Duff


At the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, I had a typical interaction with a liberal. He claimed to support the protesters, at least in principle. However, he thought the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson was ‘a poor choice of case’ to rally around (if only they had consulted him!). It would fail to impress ‘the public’, he claimed, because the police officer in that incident was ‘probably justified’. As evidence, he cited the media smear accusing Michael Brown of shoplifting shortly before he was gunned down. I refused to concede the shooting would have been justified even if this smear were true. Given the structural racism of the existing order of property, I argued, surely it would be a strategic dead-end to endorse police powers to attack anyone who transgressed it.[1] ‘Oh, I see’, he said, ‘so you are against the police’. Immediately he parried: ‘But suppose a man were raping a woman…’

The point of this anecdote is not simply to illustrate the ease with which the liberal mind slips from thoughts of property to thoughts of women’s bodies, but to highlight an assumption I take to be widespread, including among feminists: the struggle against sexual violence is fundamentally at odds with any deep opposition to the criminalizing state. By ‘the criminalizing state’ I mean the police, criminal courts, prisons, detention centres, surveillance apparatus, border guards, the military, and so on. Taking sexual violence seriously, it is generally assumed, means inducing the state to overcome its notorious unwillingness to ‘punish perpetrators’ and ‘protect vulnerable women’.[2] Of course, this must involve criticising existing institutions insofar as they fail – and fail systematically – to do so. However, for the struggle against sexual violence thus conceived, distrust of these institutions must be mitigated. The aim, to put it crudely, cannot be toundermine the state’s power to criminalize, but towield that power against the perpetrators of sexual violence. Bernstein calls this the project of ‘feminism-as-crime-control’.[3] Within the framework of options defined by this assumption, caring about sexual violence means side-lining concerns about state violence and the classed and racialized construction of ‘criminality’. Conversely, political strategies seeking to disrupt and challenge existing processes of criminalization appear to demand that we downplay the problem of sexual violence. It seems we must be either rape apologists or state apologists. 

This assumption is at work in both sides of the debate around ‘Governance Feminism’, or so I will argue. Governance Feminism is defined by its most prominent critic, Janet Halley, as the ‘incremental but by now quite noticeable installation of feminists and feminist ideas in actual legal-institutional power’.[4] Emphasising the punitive aspects of governance, Elizabeth Bernstein labels this ‘a carceral turn in feminist advocacy movements’.[5]From collaboration with border regimes in the drive to criminalize ‘sex trafficking’, to the ‘pink-washing’ of neoliberal gentrification (concern for the safety of women and queers being transfigured into calls for ‘the removal of race and class Others from public space’, to the delight of property developers), feminism-as-crime-control is everywhere in evidence[6]  – and, significantly for our purposes, is understood by its critics as a pernicious form of identity politics. As Wendy Brown argued over twenty years ago, this brand of feminism mobilises asocial identity defined by injury and vulnerability – the sexually violated woman – to demand coercive state action, then washes its hands of the oppressive consequences through a show of powerlessness.[7]

Governance Feminism’s most important theorist-advocate, according to both Brown and Halley, is Catharine MacKinnon. The increasingly go-to position for those critical of ‘the carceral turn’ is therefore to reject MacKinnon’s ‘radical feminist’ analysis of sexual violence (the content of which we will come to shortly).[8] Meanwhile, however, aspects of this analysis are gaining traction in philosophy departments via work on ‘hate speech’, objectification, and silencing.[9] In this context, MacKinnon’s work constitutes an important challenge to dominant liberal understandings of concepts like freedom, speech, and consent. However – and here MacKinnon’s assumed affinity with Governance Feminism again rears its head – this project of MacKinnon-mainstreaming still tends to presuppose that liberal states must ultimately be the political agents, and ‘hate speech’ legislation the political means, to put a radical feminist analysis into practice.[10] If there is a feminist revolution going on in political philosophy, critics of carceral politics are not invited.

My aim is to shake up the entrenched battle lines of these debates. One thing MacKinnon and her anti-statist critics seem to agree on, and that I want to challenge, is the close connection between: (a) endorsing a radical feminist analysis of sexual violence – what Halley dubs the ‘subordination paradigm’; and (b) endorsing the project of feminism-as-crime-control.[11] Now, I do not wish to deny that there is any such connection; my intervention is more orthogonal. I want to ask: what reasons might the radical feminist analysis of sexual violence itself give us to be suspicious of strategies that embrace the punitive state? In raising this question, I hope to show those sympathetic to MacKinnon’s analysis that they have reasonsfrom their own point of view to consider a more state-sceptical politics. Equally, though, I hope to persuade those in ‘the other camp’ not to dismiss MacKinnon’s analysis of sexual violence wholesale simply because of its association with Governance Feminism; some of its insights, I suggest, might be mobilised in another direction.

In Part I (‘Subordination’), I outline those aspects of MacKinnon’s analysis I take to be most pertinent. I will show, firstly, how she takes this analysis to justify state-power-wielding strategies, and secondly, how her critics take it to be implicated in such strategies, and therefore reject it. In Part II (‘Insubordination’), I go on to propose three ways in which the radical feminist analysis of sexual violence might support a politics more alert to the violence of criminalization, hence more antagonistic towards the punitive state.

To be clear, these are not arguments for a politics of purity, for ‘keeping our hands clean’ by never relying upon, utilizing, or engaging with the state, as if that were even possible. The state is obviously not a monolith; it is multifaceted, porous, often contradictory. Sometimes one of its branches can be fought with the aid of another of its branches, to some effect. Fighting to expand access to Legal Aid (a function of the state) can be part of fighting against women’s incarceration (another function of the state) or deportation (another function of the state), to take just one example. In fact, rejecting the quest for purity is at the heart of what I am trying to do. MacKinnon is a flawed theorist. Governance Feminism as a form of identity politics causes real harm, in which she is complicit. And yet, while the charge of state apologism levelled against MacKinnon is well-founded, securing a conviction against her, then swiftly arranging the mass deportation of her tainted ideas from our political communities, will not take us much further towards emancipation. On the contrary, I think reducing everything she has ever said and done to grim identity with her worst moments would itself exhibit the carceral logic that insists the world must be simply divisible into good and evil, allies and apologists. This logic imposes unity, sameness, unchangeability on whatever it finds. It delights in the application of labels, ungraciously lopping off aspects of reality that do not fit the preconceived scheme. Contradictions cannot be recognised. The possibility of transformation cannot be thought. Another flawed theorist called this ‘identity thinking’.[12] We might call equally call it (one kind of) identity politics. Looking for secret passageways between the hostile encampments of MacKinnon’s supporters, on the one hand, and her critics, on the other, is my attempt to get beyond denunciations and put a critique of these politics into practice. 


1  Subordination:

1.1 The con in consent

MacKinnon argues that sexual violence is the norm rather than the exception under conditions of male domination. Indeed, she argues that the very categories ‘male’ and ‘female’ are constructed through the material practices of eroticised hierarchy jointly known as ‘sexuality’:[13]

Sexuality [...] is a form of power. Gender, as socially constructed, embodies it, not the reverse. Women and men are divided by gender, made into the sexes as we know them, by the social requirement of its dominant form, heterosexuality, which institutionalizes male sexual dominance and female sexual submission. If this is true, sexuality is the linchpin of gender inequality.[14]

Women’s vulnerability to sexual violence is the result, not of some apolitical given called ‘biology’, but of a pervasive system of social power.[15] Sexual violence – the normalised use of women as objects – in turn props up that system. Rape, sexual harassment, intimate partner violence, forced reproduction,[16] ‘prostitution’,[17] and pornography consequently take centre stage in MacKinnon’s analysis of ‘male power as an ordered yet deranged whole’.[18] Sexual violence is the lens through which she views gender politics.

At the heart of MacKinnon’s account is a critique of the liberal concept of consent as it is encoded in laws which purport to prohibit rape but, in her view, merely ‘regulate’ it:

Consent is supposed to be women’s form of control over intercourse, different from but equal to the custom of male initiative. Man proposes, woman disposes. Even [in] the ideal it is not mutual. Apart from the disparate consequences of refusal, this model does not envision a situation the woman controls being placed in, or choices she frames. Yet the consequences are attributed to her as if the sexes began at arm’s length, on equal terrain, as in the contract fiction.[19]

The problem with ‘consent’, MacKinnon argues, is that it is blind to the social power relations that actually make people do things, or go along with things, or not quite managed to say no to things in a way that gets taken seriously. It does not distinguish between enthusiastic mutuality and reluctant submission in the absence of any acceptable alternative. It ignores the ways women are socialized into passivity, silenced by dominant representations,[20] and ‘kept poor, hence socially dependent on men, available for sexual or reproductive use’.[21] ‘Consent’ is routinely imputed to women simply because the thing happened and they did not stop it, never mind how they felt about it or how unequal the conditions. While taking for granted the formula ‘man fucks woman; subject verb object’,[22] the liberal notion of ‘consent’ simultaneously maintains the fantasy that we are pure choosing agents, abstracted from all material conditions and power inequalities, hence free by default. Against this, MacKinnon insists that freedom of the kind feminism should aim at is incompatible with subordination – with being an object at another’s disposal, bargaining from a position of weakness; insofar as women are subjected to these conditions, there is an important sense in which we are not free.

1.2. If the state is male how come you love it so much?

MacKinnon takes this analysis of sexual violence to ground a feminist politics that aspires to wield state power against the perpetrators: the rapists, the pornographers, the sexual harassers, the pimps, the ‘traffickers’, and so on. Yet she conceives of herself as offering a critique of the liberal state as ‘male’. This is not so puzzling, however, once we realise that her critique is directed primarily against the pretensions of existing states, and the American state in particular, to what liberals call ‘neutrality’. Her target is the view – given its most drawn-out philosophical expression in the ‘political liberalism’ of the late John Rawls – that the state respects freedom through ‘non-intervention’ in matters deemed ‘private’. Attacking the so-called ‘negative state’ advocated by political liberalism, MacKinnon exposes the linguistic manoeuver of labelling ‘intervention’ only those exercises of state power thatchallenge the existing distribution of social privileges.[23] What appears as ‘inaction’, and therefore prima facie unproblematic from a liberal perspective, is the state’s role in enforcing thestatus quo: defining and administering the institution of marriage; refusing to fund reproductive healthcare; failing to prosecute those everyday rapes that do not threaten (and indeed help constitute) the prevailing order of which men own which women and which business is to be conducted where.

This is a familiar criticism, of course, going back to Marx’s dissection of the merely ‘political emancipation’ offered by liberal rights:

The state dissolves distinctions of birth, of social rank, of education, and of occupation if it declares birth, social rank, education, occupation, to be non-political distinctions; if without consideration of these distinctions it calls on every member of the nation to be an equal participant in the national sovereignty, if it treats all elements of the actual life of the nation from the point of view of the state. Nevertheless the state allows private property, education, occupation to function and affirm their particular nature in their own way, i.e. as private property, education, and occupation. Far from superseding these factual distinctions, the state’s existence presupposes them.[24]

Marx’s argument is mirrored in more recent criticisms, articulated by Charles Mills and Michelle Alexander, of the slippery ideology of ‘color-blindness’.[25] While ostensibly anti-racist, the ideal of just ‘not seeing race’ insidiously maintains white supremacy by erasing ‘the long history of structural discrimination that has left whites with the differential resources they have today, and all of its consequent advantages in negotiating opportunity structures’.[26] Refusing to recognise this history depoliticizes existing inequalities, which can then be blamed on individual choices. Similarly, MacKinnon argues, the state which purports to be ‘gender blind’ in fact ‘protects male power through embodying and ensuring existing male control over women at every level – cushioning, qualifying, or de jure appearing to prohibit its excesses when necessary to its normalization.De jure relations stabilize de facto relations’.[27] When asked to rectify this which it has done, the liberal state cries that this would violate the principle of ‘neutrality’.

MacKinnon’s analysis of sexual violence, then, aims to disrupt the familiar strategy of pointing to women’s ‘consent’ to legitimise an oppressively gendered status quo. While she does criticise the state as ‘male’, hers is a critique of the so-called ‘negative state’ – the state which seeks to preserve its ‘neutrality’ by leaving social domination untouched, while masking and legitimising it through the formal universality of law. Having dispensed with this liberal objection to wielding the law in women’s name, and exposed the extent to which the law is already involved in the administration of patriarchal social reality (‘non-intervention’ being an ideological cover for supporting the already-powerful), MacKinnon derives the urgent need for feminists to wield state power in the battle against sexual violence.[28]

1.3. The McCarthy in MacKinnon

Halley, like MacKinnon, holds that a radical feminist analysis of sexual violence (which they call the ‘subordination paradigm’) leads to Governance Feminism, although they take this connection to undermine the former rather than vindicate the latter.[29] The connection as they see it is essentially this: MacKinnon portrays women as so thoroughly subordinated, male domination as so total, sexual violence as so pervasive and devastating, that we need the state to save us. The basic argument derives from Wendy Brown’s critique of ‘identity politics’, and of MacKinnon for engaging in them.[30] Although the ‘identity politics’ label has often been used simply to dismiss struggles for emancipation that do not place the waged white hetero cis male subject at their centre, this is not how Brown uses it. Her concern is rather with the relation a struggle stands in to the liberal-bureaucratic state. Distinctive of identity politics, on her account, is the demand, directed towards the state, for legal recognition and protection (‘rights’) for a group defined as different andinjured.[31] Brown articulates two interrelated worries about identity politics, both of which she takes to apply to MacKinnon: (1) by being written into the ‘ahistorical rhetoric of the law and the positivist rhetoric of bureaucratic discourse’, identities which are, in fact, effects of social power are naturalised, while ‘the injuries contingently constitutive of them’ are reinscribed;[32] (2) in the process, the state is empowered and legitimised, forestalling possibilities for more radical transformation.[33]       

If we look at the record of Governance Feminism, Brown’s worries seem well founded.[34] In any case, let us assume for the sake of argument that they are. The question is: in what ways, and to what extent, does a radical feminist analysis of sexual violence push us towards identity politics in this sense? Halley locates the source of Governance Feminism’s state-collaborationist tendencies in MacKinnon’s incessant focus on the sexual violation of women, accusing her of a ‘paranoid structuralism’ that denies women agency. For instance, Halley complains that:

Much contemporary feminist rape discourse repeatedly insists that the pain of rape extends into every future moment of a woman’s life; it is a note played not on a piano but on an organ.[35]

The implication is: rape is not so bad as the feminists say. Halley even encourages us to ask, ‘Why so many feminisms want women to experience themselves as completely devoid of choice when they bargain their way past a knife by having sex they really, really don’t want.’[36] The implication is: women have agency even when they are raped at knifepoint; it is not the rapists but the feminists who take their agency away.[37]

These quotations – and my pointedly crass glosses on them – of course do not capture the nuances of Halley’s position. Nonetheless, they highlight a strand in the critique of Governance Feminism that I am interested in because it reproduces the dilemma with which we began: state apologism or rape apologism.[38] Halley’s remarks, not only in content but in tone, foster the distinct impression that the critique of Governance Feminism is pursued at a price. What must be sacrificed, it seems, is the visceral commitment, which resonates throughout the writing of radical feminists like MacKinnon, to naming, theorising, and fighting against the myriad forms of sexual violence that constitute gender as we know it. To combat the state-affirming dangers of Governance Feminism, Halley seems to suggest, we need to (a)decentre ordownplay the problem of sexual violence in our analysis, and (b) regard women asmore free than the subordination paradigm suggests. These two points are clearly intertwined, since the question of whether, or to what extent, one is a victim of sexual violence is closely related to the question of whether, or to what extent, one’s sexual encounters are exercises of freedom.

As we have seen, MacKinnon takes freedom to require some measure of equality, conceived as the absence of hierarchy or domination. Halley rejects this. Indeed, they claim that MacKinnon’s formulation of freedom as incompatible with subordination is directly implicated in the ‘totalitarian trend visible in some feminist law reform proposals’.[39] Instead of freedom as (requiring) non-subordination,[40] Halley invokes the value of ‘agency’, which they illustrate with the following example.[41] Imagine a war-time situation in which an occupying army is committing atrocities against the local population. Under these circumstances, a woman might decide it is better to offer or supply under pressure sexual favours to a powerful soldier in exchange for food or protection from the sexual violence of other soldiers. In doing so she exercisesagency; she actively negotiates the power-relations in which she finds herself, shows courage and resourcefulness, and brings herself (or perhaps her family and friends) certain advantages.

On MacKinnon’s conception, this woman’s freedom is undermined because, however ingenious her survival strategies, it is still the case that she consents to, reluctantly submits to, or solicits sex in response to circumstances that are coercive; the soldier's power over the woman is the main reason that sex takes place. Halley argues that such a conception denies the woman’s agency, reducing her to a passive victim. Notice that there are two possible meanings of 'deny' in this context: firstly, one can deny that such-and-such is the case (e.g. denying that I can leave my prison cell because the door is locked); secondly, one can deny somethingto someone, that is, prevent them from having it (e.g. locking the cell door). Halley's claim is that denying women’s agency in the first sense – denyingthat women are exercising their freedom when, for example, they have sex to avoid violence they consider worse – has the consequence of denying women’s agency in the second sense – that is, preventing women from having agency.

1.4 Our deformed state

We reach a familiar dilemma. On the one hand, there is a good deal of truth to the claim that MacKinnon presents a narrative of women as powerless. Particularly when written into the machinery of governance, this narrative does, plausibly, serve to undermine women’s attempts to negotiate, resist, re-signify, or subvert, (‘overthrow’ is not in Halley’s vocabulary, but perhaps it should be) the multifarious power relations to which we are subject. It thwarts our self-recognition as active agents rather than passive victims.On the other hand, Halley’s insistence on women’s agency seems to make us responsible even when we are coerced, which can sound a lot like victim-blaming. Indeed, anyone sympathetic to the radical feminist analysis of sexual violence will perceive this notion of ‘agency’ as steering perilously close to the old liberal notion of ‘consent’. Never mind how restrictive the options, never mind the pressures of socialization, never mind the threats for non-compliance, Halley seems to say, agency is there for the taking. Ironically, the only thing that appears effectively to undermine women’s agency, on Halley’s story, is Governance Feminism denying our agency. This can’t be right.

My modest preliminary suggestion is that some daylight needs to be inserted, in our political language, between the concepts ‘passive’ and ‘victim’. We should be suspicious of how easily the two words roll off the tongue together. Why should being a victim – being wronged, oppressed, subject to injustice – imply passivity? In one sense, it is clear why: something (wrong) is being done to you. Passivity is there in the grammar. Yet ‘passivity’ in the demeaning sense means something further: it means not showing courage, not making difficult decisions, not engaging in resistance; it means not being resilient, brilliant, inventive, or worthy of admiration. Must I declare myself passive in these ways simply to say that I am or have been victimised?

To some extent, yes – but only to some extent. It is a necessary part of criticising processes of dehumanisation to claim that, in a sense, they make us less than we could be; simply to exalt the qualities we develop under such conditions would be to naturalise our deformed state – as both Halley and MacKinnon criticise ‘cultural feminism’ for doing.[42] The problem is: as the debate is currently framed, looking that state square in the face seems to entail a plea for rescue by a state no less deformed. This is the inference I want to disrupt.[43] I make no pretence thereby to solve the dilemma – anything purporting to be an abstract resolution would be glib. However, I do hope to find some movement in what has come to seem a fixed set of options. In what follows, I will sketch three ways in which radical feminism’s commitment to challenging sexual violence, and MacKinnon’s analysis in particular, might be turned (against her own Governance Feminist tendencies) towards a politics more alert to the oppressions inherent in the state’s construction of the criminal.


2. Insubordination

2.1. Institutionally rapist

You are surrounded by an armed gang. They order you to remove your clothes. If you don't do as you're told – if you don't 'consent' – then they will forcibly remove your clothes. This means that they will pin you to the ground and use painful metal implements to prevent you from being able to move your arms and legs. They will tear your clothes off, or cut them off with scissors. They may use their weapons to make you comply, or punish you for not complying. Their weapons include truncheons and tasers, and sometimes guns. They may force your body into a position where they can peer inside your 'cavities' with a torch. They may insert their fingers, or even a whole hand, inside you.

Strip searching of arrestees by police is standard practice in the UK. Between 2013 and 2015, figures from 13 police forces in England and Wales show 113,000 strip searches, including 5,000 on children aged 17. The remaining 32 forces would not provide data in response to FOI requests by the BBC.[44] In the 2 years following the official end of routine strip searching of children in state institutions in 2011, over 40,000 such searches were recorded Almost half of these were perpetrated against children of colour. Illegal items were recovered on 15 occasions.[45]

Women at Yarl’s Wood detention centre, run by private security firm SERCO on behalf of the British Border Force, have spoken out repeatedly over the past decade about widespread sexual abuse by male guards.[46] Women involved in protests against fracking have complained of ‘sexualised intimidation’ by police.[47] Prisoners can still be forced to give birth in shackles and chains.[48] Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary has admitted that the hundreds of reported incidents of police officers using their authority to sexually coerce ‘domestic abuse victims, alcohol and drug addicts, sex workers and arrested suspects’ are probably just the tip of the iceberg, given the barriers to victims coming forward.[49] Riot police raiding suspected brothels in Soho bring journalists along to photograph the women they drag semi-naked onto the street, creating pornographic images of cowering women for distribution in the press.[50] Perhaps most explicitly of all, women who were tricked into sexual relationships with undercover police posing as left wing activists have said they feel 'raped by the state'.[51] These examples appear to show a liberal state relying on sexual violence perpetrated by its agents for the routine upholding of public order, private property, and the business of borders as usual – and that is before we even get to talking about what goes on when it wages war abroad. If there is any truth to this, then a commitment to challenging sexual violence gives us reason to distrust the state’s criminalizing power.[52]

Of course, some would deny that these are all instances of sexual violence. For instance, they might deny that strip-searching is sexual, and they might deny that it is violent – except in aberrant cases, and even then, they might say, prisoner non-compliance is generally to blame. To be clear, I do not claim that every strip search constitutes a sexual assault, but that strip searching as an institutional practicesystematically (i.e. often, and not accidentally) inflicts sexual violence on those who fall foul of the state. My suggestion is that MacKinnon’s analysis of sexual violence introduced in Part I can help us see this.

Firstly, consider the claim that a strip search cannot be a sexual assault because it is not sexual: it does not involve penises inside vaginas; if an officer has a hard-on, that is an accidental not an essential element of the process; not all officers even have penises; the motivation for strip-searching prisoners is not erotic enjoyment but the need to hunt for evidence or forbidden items. Now here is MacKinnon: 

Like heterosexuality, male supremacy’s paradigm of sex, the crime of rape centers on penetration. The law to protect women’s sexuality from forcible violation and expropriation defines that protection in male genital terms. Women do resent forced penetration. But penile invasion of the vagina may be less pivotal to women’s sexuality, pleasure or violation, than it is to male sexuality. This definitive element of rape centers upon a male-defined loss.[53]

I do not see sexuality as a transcultural container, as essential, as historically unchanging, or as Eros. I define sexuality as whatever a given society eroticizes. That is, sexual is whatever sexual means in a particular society [...] In the society we currently live in, the content I want to claim for sexuality is the gaze that constructs women as objects for male pleasure. I draw on pornography for its form and content, for the gaze that eroticizes the despised, the demeaned, the accessible, the there-to-be-used, the servile, the child-like, the passive, and the animal.[54]

If a forcible strip search exactly mirrors – in the positioning of bodies, the script (‘There’s a good girl’), the props, the backdrop – scenes from violent pornography, that social fact must be understood as both reflecting and inflecting the meaning of the event. So too must the fact that CCTV cameras have been used to record strip-searches and broadcast them on monitors for other officers to view.[55] The regularity with which prisoners are strip searched in the absence of any reasonable suspicion that they are carrying forbidden items reveals its use as a tactic of intimidation and punishment, a show of power. To even make sense, this tactic depends upon the social meaning of being stripped naked, against one’s will, before strangers, as paradigmatically humiliating; the scene is a symbol of abjection. That is not to say it can never be subverted or resisted by individuals, but that this is the social meaning that attempts at subversion must address. On MacKinnon’s account, it would not undermine this analysis to say that many – even most – individual police officers carry out strip searches without the conscious intention of inflicting sexual violence. As she emphasises, most men who rape do not think of what they are doing under that description. Rapists tend to think that what they are doing is normal – and they are right, since it happens every day. They believe they are treating their victim as it is appropriate to treat that category of person – e.g. wife, slut, criminal. They are usually right that law courts will condone their perspective.[56]

It might be objected that many strip searches are carried out without overt violence. The Home Office guidelines state that ‘reasonable efforts should be made to secure a detainee’s cooperation’.[57] On MacKinnon’s analysis, however, this is hardly decisive. She argues that:

The deeper problem is that [we] are socialized to passive receptivity; may have or perceive no alternative to acquiescence; may prefer it to the escalated risk of injury and the humiliation of a lost fight; submit to survive.[58]

Compare this with Laura Whitehorn’s recollection of her time in prison:

For me, one of the most damaging and nearly invisible forms of sexual abuse was the daily pat-searches by male guards. On a regular basis in my years in federal prisons, I was forced to stand still and allow men to touch my body in ways that would have automatically provoked me to fight back if I had been outside of prison. But as long as I was labeled with that federal prison number, such self-defense would have gotten me an assault charge adding five years to my sentence. (Repeated legal challenges have proved unable to stop this practice in federal prisons.)[59]

When women are sexually assaulted outside the walls of prisons and police stations, submitting to survive is interpreted as consent.[60] When we are sexually assaulted inside, not only is submitting to survive seen as erasing the violence of the encounter, but not being submissive enough provides legal grounds for an escalation of force.

Not resisting means that what happens does not count as violence; resisting means asking for it.

2.2. Property is rape

Vulnerability to sexual violence, MacKinnon emphasises, is not a ‘natural’ feature of women, but a product of unjust circumstances, such as not being able to leave an abusive partner or stand up to an abusive boss because you are economically dependent on him.[61] Indeed, on MacKinnon’s account, coercive circumstances can render a sexual encounter violent, even if no blows are struck. Coercion is a matter of counterfactuals. It is a matter of knowing what would happen if you were to defy an order, or decline an ‘invitation’: if I were to fight back, he would beat me up; if I were to refuse him, he would fire me; if I were to leave him, I would be homeless, my children would be taken into care, I would be deported, and so on.

In her critique of liberal ‘neutrality’, MacKinnon points to the state’s role in upholding coercive circumstances, for instance through divorce laws which systematically disadvantage women by devaluing the contribution of domestic and caring labour to the household economy. However, there is a more basic point that she repeatedly overlooks: all economic power, including that of men over women, depends upon the enforcement of property. That enforcement is carried out, in the final analysis, by the criminalizing state. The liberal state’s enforcement of property, through violence or the threat of violence, is therefore partly constitutive of male domination. Let me put this less abstractly. In 2015, theft offences accounted for 49% of all prison sentences handed out to women in England and Wales. 46% of women in prison report having suffered domestic violence.[62] These are only the cases where the state’s threat is carried out. The counterfactual, though, inflects every decision. If I were to refuse him, I would have no money for food, or nappies for my children; if I were to take food or nappies without paying for them, I would risk arrest and imprisonment.

Of course, for liberals, this is still the ‘negative state’, because it is definitive of liberalism to take the property-enforcing function of the state for granted. MacKinnon insists that the state maintains male domination even in its negative mode because ‘men’s forms of dominance over women have been accomplished socially as well as economically, prior to the operation of law, without express state acts, often in intimate contexts, as everyday life’.[63] The problem is, this still grants too much weight to the liberal misnomer ‘negative’. Economic domination does not occur ‘prior to the operation of law’. Locking women up for shoplifting or for handling stolen goods is an operation of law, albeit an everyday one, upon which the operation of the economy depends. Neglecting the way women are kept in line bythe state’s activity of criminalizing transgressions of the order of property allows MacKinnon’s critique of the negative state to slide into advocacy of a ‘positive’ or ‘interventionist’ state.

This slippage may be party explained by a blind-spot in MacKinnon’s understanding of the historically available options for thinking about the state. In defending her own ‘positive state’ solution to the strategic question, she positions herself against two alternative accounts. The first is the liberal account already considered. The second, which she calls ‘Marxist’, is an account of the state as ‘superstructural’, hence (on MacKinnon’s vulgar reading) ‘epiphenomenal’ – which means that it does not make a difference to anything. As she puts it:

The liberal view that law is society’s text, its rational mind, expresses the male view in the normative mode; the traditional left view that the state, and with it the law, is superstructural or epiphenomenal, expresses it in the empirical mode. A feminist jurisprudence, stigmatized as particularized and protectionist in male eyes of both traditions, is accountable to women’s concrete conditions and to changing them.[64]

Even leaving aside from the problems with this as a reading of Marx, what MacKinnon erases here is the possibility that the state is actually effective as an oppressive force. This erasure serves to naturalise women’s oppression by obscuring a key means by which it is – artificially – maintained. Yet, I have argued, MacKinnon’s own account of coercive conditions makes clear how vulnerability to sexual violence can be generated by the enforcement of a system of property relations in which women systematically lose out. The slide into Governance Feminism might be halted if she followed through on this insight.

2.3. Free as a bird

According to Halley, MacKinnon’s critique of consent, which corresponds to her account of freedom as (requiring) non-subordination, results directly in a statism that disregards and even impedes women’s agency. In this final section, I want to suggest that MacKinnon’s trenchant excavation of the myriad ways in which a context of subordination renders our choices unfree can in fact be seen to undermine the liberal state’s account of its own legitimacy.

The point can be put quite schematically. Liberalism means liberal capitalism; the liberal state maintains a capitalist economy. Capitalism is based on wage-labour, that is, the sale of labour power as a commodity. I sell my labour power to someone else, who (if all goes well) exploits me to make a profit. The reason I sell them my labour power is because otherwise I don't have any way of living, or certainly of living decently (a core function of the state being to prevent me from using things I cannot pay for). The reason I sell my labour power to them, and not vice versa, is because of a crucial disparity between us: they own the means of make useful things, things to satisfy human wants and needs, while I do not. I therefore contract – ‘consent’ – to be exploited by them, my other option being to starve on the streets.[65] This is, of course, the ‘double freedom’ to which Marx satirically refers:

[The free worker] must be free in the double sense, that as a free individual he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity, and that on the other hand he has no other commodity for sale, i.e. he is rid of them, he is free of all the objects needed for the realisation [Verwirklichung] of his labour-power.[66]

Now, it is crucial for liberalism that the labour contract remain valid, and that I count as free when I ‘consent’ to it. No matter how much any particular liberal might want to regulate markets, or support state redistribution, they cannot give up on this, otherwise they would be giving up on the claim that we could, in principle, reach an acceptable level of freedom under capital. Then they would no longer be a liberal in the relevant sense (although they might be holding to the more emancipatorystrands of liberalism’s contradictory inheritance).[67] Maintaining the validity of the wage labour contract, however, depends precisely on ignoring those material and ideological constraints on freedom exposed by MacKinnon’s critique of the patriarchal concept of consent. The basic power imbalance between me and my would-be boss (constituted by our owning and not owning means of production, respectively, and my subsequent dependence on him for survival) would be enough, on her account, to vitiate much of the normative force of my reluctant submission. That's before we even start talking about ideology and social construction, about the ways in which productive, compliant capitalist subjects are moulded.

In fact, it is unsurprising that MacKinnon’s conception of freedom should undermine the validity of the capitalist labour contract, since she deliberately invokes the Marxist critique of liberal freedom to make what is often seen as her most controversial point:

Most people see sexuality as individual biological and voluntary; that is, they see it in terms of the politically and formally liberal myth structure. If you applied such an analysis to the issue of work [...] would you agree, as people say about heterosexuality, that a worker chooses to work? Does a worker even meaningfully choose his or her specific line or place of work? If working conditions improve, would you call that worker not oppressed? If you have a comparatively good or easy or satisfying or well-paying work, if you like your work, or have a good day at work, does that mean, from a marxist perspective, your work is not exploited? Those who think that one chooses heterosexuality under conditions that make it compulsory should either explain why it is not compulsory or explain why the word choice can be meaningful here.[68]

It is ironic that MacKinnon’s analysis should so often be taken to support the view that sex workers are uniquely unfree and need to be rescued by the very state which enforces the property relations constitutive of all workers’ unfreedom. It will hardly suffice to respond that we ‘consent’ to the government which enforces these conditions, as social contract theory seeks to do. Given the massive power imbalance, the pressures of socialization, and the threats for non-compliance, MacKinnon might say, ‘the issue is less whether there was force than whether consent is a meaningful concept’.[69]



By refusing the demand to pick a side when the construction of sides is itself part of the trap, hoping instead to fracture the received framework of options and allegiances, this intervention into the Governance Feminism debate has been an experiment inimpure thinking. It reflects my conviction that such thinking is required if we are to escape the identitarian fly-bottle in whose distorting walls each person’s reflection appears asone unchanging essence: either ally or apologist.[70] It will have been successful insofar as I have convinced some radical feminists to listen to critics of carceral politics rather than dismissing them as rape apologists, and some critics of carceral politics to listen to radical feminists rather than dismissing them as state apologists – even though both accusations contain elements of truth. Precisely because everyone is guilty of something, the prosecutorial mode of engagement will not get us very far.

Questioning the presuppositions of the debate’s usual set-piece, I have argued that taking sexual violence seriously, as per the radical feminist analysis, need not entail support for state-power-wielding strategies. On the contrary, following through that analysis shows real existing liberal states in a pretty dim light. The punitive state emerges as not merely an inadequate protector, but as itself a perpetrator – perhaps the biggest single perpetrator – of sexual violence. An advocate of Governance Feminism might say that this simply adds ammunition to MacKinnon’s critique of the state as ‘male’.  Rather than telling against Governance Feminism, they might say, it shows the urgent need to reform the liberal state ‘from within’. Of course, there is no simple dichotomy between within and without. To target our efforts at tempering or counter-balancing the abjectifying powers of police, border, and prison officials would already be a significant and welcome departure from the trajectory of feminism-as-crime-control, even while we might work in part through legal channels. I have suggested, though, that MacKinnon’s account of ‘coercive circumstances’, considered in relation to the capitalist order of (exploitative) work and (vastly unequal) property, gives us cause to be sceptical about the liberal state’s capacity for positive transformation. That does not vitiate all strategies that work ‘with’ or ‘within’ the state. They may create vital breathing space for more radical alternatives. It does require, though, that we be clear-sighted about their limitations.

This point is very different from the standard liberal objection to ‘state intervention’. That objection points to the 'coerciveness' of the state as a reason against using the law to fight oppression, and criticises proposed feminist and anti-racist reforms as dangerous and 'totalitarian'. The liberal concern about the state’s 'coerciveness', however, emerges only when the state goes beyond those basic functions I described earlier. As we have seen, liberals tend not to think of the state as acting or interveningat all when it maintains existing property and power relations.My concerns about the institutionally rapist character of existing states, on the other hand – which I have suggested MacKinnon’s analysis of sexual violence itself gives us reason to take seriously – do not apply only or even primarily to proposed feminist departures from what passes for ‘state neutrality’ (though they point towards ways these efforts may, if we are not careful, be counter-productive). Rather, they suggest that challenging domination for all those subordinated by gender, not just a white, affluent, and obedient few, will require us to direct our critical attentions at precisely the criminalizing activities of liberal states which constitute business as usual. They suggest, in other words, that we need to make feminism ungovernable.



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* The author would like to thank the following for formative conversations and comments on earlier drafts: Dara Bascara, Camille Barbagallo, Lucy Beynon, Melanie Brazzell, Anja Büchele, Debaleena Dasgupta, Gloria Dawson, Marijam Didžgalvytė, Lorna Finlayson, Miranda Glossop, Matthew Hall, Maham Hashmi, Amelia Horgan, Becka Hudson, Shruti Iyer, Katharine Jenkins, Lisa Jeschke, Louise Lambe, Helen Lynch, Liz Maxwell, Rowan Milligan, Kate Paul, Ambar Sethi, Laurel Uziell, Rosalind Worsdale, and several anonymous reviewers at this journal.

[1] Jackie Wang argues powerfully against making solidarity conditional on ‘innocence’, as defined by existing institutions under conditions of injustice. See ‘Against Innocence: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Safety’, Lies: A Journal of Materialism Feminism 1 (2012).

[2] This is a simplification in several ways. Firstly, there in not just one state – ‘the state’ – but many. My concern is primarily with the states of Western Europe and their former settler colonies (so-called ‘liberal democracies’) while recognising that the operations of these states often are intertwined with, and depend economically upon, those of other kinds of states, such as China and Saudi Arabia. Secondly, this is a simplification because it ignores the question of how international law and paralegal institutions such as NGOs, which often operate internationally, relate to processes of state power. Nonetheless, my point is that mainstream discourse assumes that the struggle against sexual violence must rely upon the punitive – i.e. criminalizing, sanctioning, punishing – functions of existing liberal states and their satellites or proxies. When I speak of ‘state-power-wielding strategies’, I mean punitive state power. Of course, separating punitive from other state functions, such as resource provision – insofar as that is made conditional on compliance is no simple matter. On this, seeShatema Threadcraft, ‘Intimate Injustice, Political Obligation, and the Dark Ghetto’, Signs 39, no. 3 (2014): 735–60.

[3]Elizabeth Bernstein, ‘Carceral Politics as Gender Justice? The “Traffic in Women” and Neoliberal Circuits of Crime, Sex, and Rights’, Theory and Society 41, no. 3 (2012): 251. This is not to say that feminists have always accepted this brief. For accounts of some alternative responses to sexual violence, including ‘community accountability’ and ‘transformative justice’ projects, see: Ching-In Chen, Jai Dulani, and Piepzna-Samarasinha Leah Lakshmi, eds., The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities (Brooklyn, NY; Boston, MA: South End Press, 2011); Various, ‘Community Accountability: Emerging Movements to Transform Violence’,A Special Issue of Social Justice: A Journal of Crime, Conflict & World Order 37, no. 4 (2012 2011).

[4]Janet Halley, Split Decisions: How and Why to Take a Break from Feminism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), 340.

[5]Bernstein, ‘Carceral Politics as Gender Justice?’, 251. While recognising that they are not exactly equivalent, I will be using the terms ‘Governance Feminism’, ‘carceral feminism’, and ‘feminism-as-crime-control’ largely interchangeably.

[6]Bernstein, 249. See also: Laura Agustin, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry (London: Zed Books, 2007); Christina Hanhardt,Safe Space: Gay Neighbourhood History and the Politics of Violence (New York: Duke University Press, 2014); Sarah Lamble, ‘Queer Necropolitics and the Expanding Carceral State: Interrogating Sexual Investments in Punishment’,Law and Critique 24, no. 3 (2013); Miriam Ticktin, ‘Sexual Violence as the Language of Border Control: Where French Feminist and Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric Meet’,Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 33, no. 4 (2008): 863–89.

[7]Wendy Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995).

[8] MacKinnon does not call herself a ‘radical feminist’, preferring to call her approach ‘feminism’ simpliciter, or ‘feminism unmodified’. See Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987). However, she is referred to in this way often enough for the label to be of some use. For helpful discussion of controversy around the term see ‘Faces and Facades’, in Lorna Finlayson, Introduction to Feminism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 82–100. Of course, radical feminism is known for its tendency to exclude of trans women and sex workers. I will touch on these exclusions insofar as they relate to problems of criminalisation and agency, but clearly there is much more to be said. The partial and critical re-appropriation of MacKinnon I propose should not be taken to imply any endorsement of trans or sex worker exclusionary positions. 

[9] See Rae Langton, Sexual Solipsism: Philosophical Essays on Pornography and Objectification (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[10] For critical discussion of this trend, see Lorna Finlayson, ‘How to Screw Things with Words: Feminism Unrealized’, in The Political Is Political: Conformity and the Illusion of Dissent in Contemporary Political Philosophy (London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2015), 89–111.

[11] Particularly in her earlier work, MacKinnon was keen to emphasise the difference between ‘empowering the state, as criminal law does’ (and as she, at the time of the notorious Minneapolis Ordinance against pornography, in fact opposed), and civil law remedies, which she hoped might ‘put more power in the hands of women both to confront the state [...] and to directly confront men in society who harm them’ (Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 33. How seriously she took this proviso is questionable. In more recent decades, she has focused her interventions on international legal institutions. Her associations with both US and Israeli state forces are traced in Lorna Finlayson’s review (‘Butterfly Torture’, London Review of Books, forthcoming) of MacKinnon’s latest collection, Butterfly Politics (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017).

[12]Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973).

[13] This claim is far from unique to MacKinnon. Cf. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London: Routledge, 1990); Monique Wittig,The Straight Mind and Other Essays (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992); Michel Foucault,The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction (Vintage, 1990).

[14]Catharine MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 113.

[15] One issue is important to flag at the outset. MacKinnon speaks primarily of women being harmed by sexual violence. Insofar as I will be adopting her language, ‘women’ should be understood as including all trans and cis women. However, there is still a danger of erasing many people who are systematically targeted for sexual violence precisely because they do not conform to the categories of binary gender, or because they were assigned female at birth. Given the role MacKinnon attributes to sexual violence in constructing and policing gender categories, she should be attentive to this problem, but her relentlessly binary language can rightly be criticised for perpetuating it. On the other hand, I do not think we can do away with ‘woman’ as a political category while gender persists as a system of oppression. I find helpful Iris Marion Young’s concept of ‘gender as seriality’, and Katharine Jenkins’s distinction between ‘gender as class’ and ‘gender as identity’. See:Iris Marion Young, ‘Gender as Seriality: Thinking about Women as a Social Collective’, Signs 19, no. 3 (1994): 713–38; Katharine Jenkins, ‘Amelioration and Inclusion: Gender Identity and the Concept of Woman’,Ethics 126, no. 2 (2016): 394–421.

[16] In an over-sight typical of white feminism, she spends less time talking about forced sterilization. Cf. Angela Davis, ‘Racism, Birth Control and Reproductive Rights’, in Women, Race & Class (London: The Women’s Press, 1981), 202–21. 

[17] This is the term MacKinnon uses for sex work.  

[18]MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, xi.

[19]MacKinnon, 175.

[20] This aspect of MacKinnon’s argument has been persuasively developed by Rae Langton. See Sexual Solipsism: Philosophical Essays on Pornography and Objectification.

[21]MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, 168.

[22]MacKinnon, 124.

[23] This point is also made in: Cass Sunstein, ‘Neutrality in Constitutional Law (with Special Reference to Pornography, Abortion, and Surrogacy)’, Columbia Law Review 92, no. 1 (1992): 1–52; Iris Marion Young,Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990).

[24]Karl Marx, ‘On the Jewish Question’, in Early Political Writings, ed. Joseph J. O’Malley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 35.

[25]Charles Mills, ‘White Ignorance’, in Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, ed. Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana (New York: SUNY Press, 2007), 11–38; Michelle Alexander,The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2011).

[26]Mills, ‘White Ignorance’, 28.

[27]MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, 167.

[28] She also briefly considers what she (spuriously) takes to be the leftist alternative: epiphenomenalism – i.e. the view that the state is a causally inert by-product of an ‘economic base’. I will come to this in section 2.2.

[29] Halley does allow that ‘governance feminism has been, in manifold ways, a good thing’ (Split Decisions: How and Why to Take a Break from Feminism, 33.

[30]Brown, States of Injury.

[31] A group engaged in ‘identity politics’ in Brown’s sense might be white, waged, etc. - as with the ‘blue Labour’ identity politics of ‘British jobs for British workers’.

[32]Brown, States of Injury, 28.

[33] MacKinnon is not unaware of these dangers. For instance, she criticises various legal protections for women workers on these grounds: ‘Concretely, it is unclear whether these special protections, as they came to be called, helped or hurt women. These cases did do something for some workers (female) concretely; they also demeaned all women ideologically. They did assume that women were marginal and second-class members of the workforce; they probably contributed to keeping women marginal and second-class workers by keeping some women from competing with men at the male standard of exploitation.’ (MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, 165.) However, Brown and Halley argue that her own approach inadvertently replicates this problem.

[34] As well as works cited already, see Julia Sudbury, ed., Global Lockdown: Race, Gender and the Prison-Industrial Complex (New York: Routledge, 2005).

[35]Halley, Split Decisions: How and Why to Take a Break from Feminism, 354.

[36]Halley, 355.

[37] The context is a case in which the woman describes herself as having been raped. Halley offers a creative re-reading. Therefore, it is not that Halley is more committed than MacKinnon to respecting a woman’s description of her own experience. Both, in fact, are attentive to the ways that existing social narratives and legal institutions may influence our self-presentation and even self-understanding. 

[38] Halley is not the only critic of Governance Feminism to treat her opponent’s concerns – and even experiences – with a certain callousness. For instance, Bernstein reports an anti-prostitution activist, Chyng Sun, making the (surely correct) point that commercial sex and pornography also affect women not working in the industry by setting standards for ‘how all women “should look, sound, and behave”’, and another author, Kristen Anderberg, ‘describing how watching pornographic videos with her male lover lead to debilitating body issues and to plummeting self esteem’. Bernstein diagnoses these women as, essentially, jealous frumps ‘harbour[ing] a set of investments in “family values” and home’, and threated by a ‘recreational’ sexual ethic. (Bernstein, ‘Carceral Politics as Gender Justice?’, 245.)

[39]Halley, Split Decisions: How and Why to Take a Break from Feminism, 125.

[40] MacKinnon is clear that non-subordination is a necessary condition for freedom, but not committed to the claim that it is sufficient. Freedom and non-subordination are not presented as equivalent. 

[41] Halley takes the example from the anonymous memoir, A Woman in Berlin. SeeJanet Halley, ‘Rape in Berlin: Reconsidering the Criminalisation of Rape in the International Law of Armed Conflict’, Melbourne Journal of International Law 9, no. 1 (2008): 78–124.

[42] Cultural feminism, in Halley’s words, emphasises ‘unjust male derogation of women’s traits’, and ‘reserve[s] a special place for the redemptive normative insights that women derive from their sexuality and their role as mothers’. Halley, Split Decisions: How and Why to Take a Break from Feminism, 27–28.

[43] William Clare Roberts makes a parallel point in his exposition of Capital Volume 1, in response to the objection that Marx denies agency to proletarians: ‘The significance of [Marx’s] comments about individuals in modern commercial society being bearers of economic relations is not that these individuals suffer an impairment of their agency, but that they suffer an impairment of theirfreedom. Commodity producers in a commercial society aredominated agents, not nonagents [...] If domination leaves freedom intact, then there is no such thing as domination [...] Marx does not argue that economic relations manipulate individuals like puppets, but that economic relations dominate their decision making.’ (William Clare Roberts, Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital (New York: Princeton University Press, 2016), 95.)

[44]Adrian Goldberg, ‘The Girl Who Was Strip-Searched Aged 12 by Police’, BBC News, 30 October 2016, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-37801760.

[45]Carolyne Willow, ‘Many Thousands of Children Stripped Naked in Custody. Ignites Memories of Being Raped.’, Open Democracy, 4 March 2013, https://www.opendemocracy.net/shinealight/carolyne-willow/many-thousand…. The same report notes that many searches go unrecorded.

[46]Diane Taylor, ‘Dossier Calling for Yarl’s Wood Closure Chronicles Decades of Abuse Complaints’, The Guardian, 15 June 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/jun/15/yarls-wood-report-calli….

[47]Damien Gayle, ‘Police “Used Sexualised Violence against Fracking Protesters”’, The Guardian, 23 February 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/feb/23/fracking-police-sexuali….

[48]Stephen Ginn, ‘Women Prisoners’, BMJ 346:e8318 (January 2013),https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e8318.

[49]Jamie Grierson, ‘Hundreds of Police in England and Wales Accused of Sexual Abuse’, The Guardian, 8 December 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/dec/08/hundreds-police-officer….

[50]Molly Smith, ‘Soho Police Raids Show Why Sex Workers Live in Fear of Being “Rescued”’, The Guardian, 11 December 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/11/soho-police-raids….

[51]Sorcha Pollak, ‘Trauma of Spy’s Girlfriend: “Like Being Raped by the State”’, The Guardian, 24 June 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2013/jun/24/undercover-police-spy-girlfr….

[52] I focus on the British context partly because it is the state with which I am most familiar, and partly to pre-empt the complacent ‘Things are different here!’ response so often given to US examples. For examination of the US context, see ‘Police Sexual Violence’ in Koshka Duff, ‘The Criminal Is Political: Policing Politics in Real Existing Liberalism’, Journal of the American Philosophical Association 4, no. forthcoming (2018). and ‘How Gender Structures the Prison System’ in Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories, 2003). For international examples, see Sudbury, Global Lockdown: Race, Gender and the Prison-Industrial Complex.

[53]MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, 172.

[54]MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodified, 53–54.

[55]Clare Sambrook, ‘Strip-Searched in Derbyshire’, Open Democracy, 1 October 2013, https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/clare-sambrook/strip-searched-….

[56] There are occasional prosecutions of police officers for other forms of sexual abuse. We might map this onto MacKinnon’s argument that sexual violence, although not in practice prohibited, is regulated just enough to uphold the social order’s appearance of legitimacy. To the best of my knowledge, there have been no prosecutions for strip searching.

[57]Goldberg, ‘Strip-Searched Aged 12’.

[58]MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, 177.

[59]Victoria Law, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, 2nd Edition (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2012), vi.

[60] Women may also be criminalized for defying the demands of femininity by putting up resistance – women of colour being disproportionately targeted in this way. Cases that have received some publicity include Sarah Reed, who died while on remand in HMP Holloway awaiting trial for defending herself against sexual assault, and Ce Ce McDonald, imprisoned for defending herself against a transphobic attack. See: Amelia Gentleman and Damien Gayle, ‘Sarah Reed’s Mother: My Daughter Was Failed by Many and I Was Ignored’, The Guardian, 17 February 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/feb/17/sarah-reeds-mother-deat…; Parker Marie Molloy, ‘CeCe McDonald: Rebuilding Her Life after 19 Months in Prison’, Advocate, 3 March 2014,https://www.advocate.com/politics/transgender/2014/03/03/cece-mcdonald-….

[61] There is an important Marxist-feminist literature theorising gendered economic dependence and struggles against it, as well as the relations of these to various facets of the state. The analysis presented here has been informed especially by the following: Sylvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2012); Camille Barbagallo, ‘Leaving Home: Slavery and the Politics of Reproduction’, Viewpoint Magazine, 31 October 2015,https://www.viewpointmag.com/2015/10/31/leaving-home-slavery-and-the-po…; Mariarosa Dalla Costa,Women and the Subversion of the Community: A Mariarosa Dalla Costa Reader, ed. Camille Barbagallo (Oakland, CA: AK Press, Forthcoming).

[62]Clinks, ‘Key Facts’, Registered charity, Women’s Breakout: Chances to Change, 2017, http://womensbreakout.org.uk/about-womens-breakout/key-facts/.

[63]MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, 161.

[64]MacKinnon, 249.

[65] Or to become a very good thief.

[66]Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Ben Fowkes, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 272–73.

[67] As I explain in {Citation}

[68]MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodified, 61.

[69]MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, 178. I do not suggest that this would be the end of the debate. My point is that MacKinnon’s analysis of gendered subordination should push us to raise this question.

[70] ‘What is your aim in philosophy? To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.’ Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §309.

Identity and Identity Politics

A Cultural Materialist History
Marie Moran


Introduction: Identity Is a New Concept

In the attempt to explain and evaluate the late twentieth-century prominence and appeal of identity politics, many have found it useful to historicise their emergence and evolution, thereby revealing that identity was not always central to politics,[1] or demonstrating identity politics to be a recent response to or consequence of other political and economic shifts.[2] In what follows, I will offer a more radically historicist approach; one that offers a fundamental reframing of the issues by drawing our attention not just to the historical specificity of identity politics in advanced capitalism, but to the historical novelty of the very idea of identity itself.[3] To avoid confusion, let me be clear at the outset that the claim I will invite the reader to consider is not that questions of individuality, subjectivity and personhood are in any sense novel – of course, they are not. Rather, I suggest that the widespread refraction of these concerns through the analytical and popular idiom of identity is novel and recent, dating only to the middle of the last century. Beginning from this starting-point, and deploying a cultural-materialist methodology, I trace the evolution of the idea of identity as a category of practice in the social and political contexts of its use in contemporary capitalist societies, demonstrating how the ‘social’ and ‘personal’ senses of identity that now predominate are intrinsically bound up with the social changes that have accompanied them. While these claims about the historical novelty of our current uses of the concept and the word ‘identity’ are challenging, I believe that this perspective is not only well-founded, but also the source of new and fruitful insights about the operations and problems of identity in the twenty-first century.

Let us begin with what will be, in our identity-saturated times, the unsettling point that before the 1950s, almost nobody talked about or was concerned with identity at all. A trawling of popular books and magazines, corporate and business literature and political statements and manifestos published before the middle of the twentieth century reveals no reference to identity as we now know it – there was quite simply no discussion of sexual identity, ethnic identity, political identity, national identity, consumer identity, corporate identity, brand identity, identity crisis, or ‘losing’ or ‘finding’ one’s identity – indeed, no discussion at all of ‘identity’ in any of the ways that are so familiar to us today, and which, in our ordinary and political discussions, we would now find it hard to do without.

The same, startling point holds in relation to the founding figures of sociology and psychology and the giants of the literary canon, whom we imagine to have reflected on questions of identity for centuries. Closer reading of the works of William Shakespeare, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, George Herbert Mead, Georg Simmel, W.E.B. Du Bois and Sigmund Freud, to take a sample few, reveals the stubborn fact that none of these writers widely credited with discussing or explaining identity ever actually referred to ‘identity’ themselves. Though the term routinely appears in more recent discussions, summaries and reviews of their work, this is typically without any acknowledgement or awareness of the fact that the original authors rarely if ever deployed the term, and never in the manner in which it is used today. (The advent of book digitalisation makes this claim remarkably easy for the sceptical reader to check; and indeed, I have already carried out a painstaking review of works now assumed to be ‘about’ identity, demonstrating that while these writers certainly considered questions of individuality, subjectivity and interpersonal relationships, they did not, contrary to contemporary wisdom, explicitly construe their subject matter as a question of ‘identity’.)[4]

This is not to suggest that the term ‘identity’ was never used prior to the 1950s. Where the term was used, however, it was in a very particular sense, and what we would now see as a very narrow sense, to mean the sameness of an entity to itself, as in ‘oneness’, or the exact sameness of two separate entities, as in the phrase ‘an identity of interests’. Consequently, where the term ‘identity’ does appear in older texts now assumed to be ‘about’ identity, it is almost always incidental, and never the subject of any substantive discussion in itself. The only exception to this is in studies in analytic philosophy, and some currents in metaphysical philosophy, where philosophers puzzled, as they continue to puzzle, over the persistence and sameness of an entity – whether human or inanimate – over time. See, for example, the work of analytic philosopher W.V.O. Quine on identity inFrom a Logical Point of View, and of Enlightenment philosophers David Hume and John Locke inA Treatise of Human Nature andAn Essay concerning Human Understanding, respectively.[5] In each case, the ‘problems of identity’ discussed are at a significant remove from our current conception of identity, focussing as they do on the ‘persistence conditions’ of persons, whether material (the body), ideal (the soul) or psychological (memory).[6] This is sometimes referred to as ‘numerical identity’, and as Shoemaker observes today, ‘[n]on-philosophers, when offered a discussion of identity, are often puzzled and disappointed to find that it is identity in this “logical” sense that is under consideration’.[7] While there are certain continuities between this philosophical or logical sense of identity as the sameness of an entity to itself and our current uses of the concept – which I shall discuss shortly – it remains the case that what was discussed by these earlier philosophers was not ‘identity’ as we now know it.

Within a very short space of time, however, all this was to change. In the 1950s, discussions of identity in a sense we now easily recognise started to appear, and indeed, proliferate, to such an extent that, by the decade’s end, the author of On Shame and a Sense of Identity could claim that ‘the search for identity has become as strategic in our time as the study of sexuality was in Freud’s time’.[8] In the 1961 preface to the widely-read The Lonely Crowd on changes to the American ‘social character’, Riesman referred directly to ‘the current preoccupation with identity in this country’, something he did not have cause to comment on a mere eleven years previously.[9] By the 1980s and ’90s, identity was completely embedded in the popular, political and academic lexicon – the language of ‘identity politics’ was de rigueur in activist and academic spaces; questions of cultural, racial, gender and sexual identity dominated the social sciences, arts and humanities; and self-help books elevated the search for one’s ‘true’ identity to key psychological status. Meanwhile many noted that the word itself had become inflated and overused. Even by the 1960s, Gleason claimed, ‘the word identity was used so widely and loosely that to determine its provenance in every context would be impossible’, while as MacKenzie put it, identity is a word that ‘express[es] everything and nothing about personal and social anguish in the last third of the twentieth century’.[10]

What are we to make of this? The dominant narrative is that there has been a huge growth in attention to experiences and expressions of identity over the latter decades of the twentieth century, with many even identifying the emphasis on identity and identity-politics as key features of our supposedly new ‘post-industrial’, ‘network’ or global societies.[11] The underlying – and at times explicit – assumption here is that our concern with questions of identity is at least as old as modernity, but has achieved particular prominence in the late twentieth century as societies have transitioned into these new forms that have consequences for how we see, value or engage our identities.[12] People’s identities, it is assumed, have always mattered to at least some very minimal extent, but for better or for worse, the experience and expression of identity has become more prominent in recent years, trumping alternative political, social and cultural concerns.

Importantly, this postulate allows commentators to believe that what is at stake in the explosion of ‘identity-talk’ – if they consider it at all – is a popularisation of the concept. But this is to miss the key point just established: it is not merely that identity is now discussed more than it was previously, but that prior to the 1950s, identity was simply not discussedat all in the ways it is now. Though, from our current vantage-point, we tend to perceive the contemporary emphasis on identity as a simpleincrease in the use of the term ‘identity’, corresponding to certain ‘real life’ changes, what is in fact at stake in our notions of personal and social identity are substantivelynew uses of the term.

Only very few people have noticed that our contemporary uses and senses of the word ‘identity’ are themselves substantially new, the most recent and prominent of whom has been Anthony Kwame Appiah in the prestigious 2016 BBC Reith Lectures. Prior to this, I could identify only a handful of authors who have explicitly recognised and puzzled over the novelty of our current concept of identity: W.J.M. MacKenzie,[13] Philip Gleason,[14] James Fearon,[15] Roger Brubaker and Frederick Cooper.[16] The fact that each of these authors has written on the subject in different decades, without any widespread acknowledgement of this novelty of the term in the interim, points, I believe, to the deeply entrenched notion that the term ‘identity’ has always more or less meant what it means now, and that ‘identity’, as such, has always mattered.

Even for these writers who have noticed the novelty of our current concept of identity, however, the response has been mainly to bracket this observation, as either irrelevant to or obstructive of the real social-scientific analysis,[17] or, as Appiah has suggested, as an interesting question that is nonetheless too complex to engage. The assumption, of course, behind this bracketing of the observation is that the novelty or complexity of the word ‘identity’ is quite separate from what we view as the problems of identity today; that although questions of religious, gender, racial, sexual and national identity are complicated and problematic, the very use of the term ‘identity’ torefer to ‘who I am’ or ‘who we are’ is not. But it is precisely this assumption that I want to challenge.


Identity as a Contemporary Keyword

Identity, I suggest, can be usefully viewed as a ‘keyword’ in the sense intended by Raymond Williams; that is to say, a complex and contested word whose problems of meaning are inextricably bound up with the problems it is used to discuss.[18] Routinely mistaken as a simple glossary of terms, Keywords in fact articulates a sophisticated ‘cultural materialist’ account of the relationship between language-change and social change, that views the changing meanings of a word as materially tied to the changing values, beliefs and practices of its use. As Bennettet al. explain,

For Williams the point was not merely that the meanings of words change over time but that they change in relationship to changing political, social and economic situations and needs. While rejecting the idea that you could describe that relationship in any simple or universal way, he was convinced it did exist – and that people do struggle in their use of language to give expression to new experiences of reality.[19]

The liminal theoretical and methodological approach of Keywords is developed more fully inMarxism and Literature, andCulture.[20] In these later texts, Williams challenges instrumental accounts of language that treat signs as fixed products in an ‘“always-given” language system’, arguing that ‘usable signs’ are ‘living evidence of a continuing social process, into which individuals are born and within which they are shaped, but to which they then actively contribute, in a continuing process’.[21] Language, within the cultural-materialist paradigm, is both symbolic and material; a constitutive human process in the double sense of making the person as much as the social world in which she operates. It is on these grounds that Williams argues for recognition of ‘an active social language’ that should be understood neither in purely idealist, constructivist terms, ‘[n]or (to glance back at positivist and orthodox materialist theory) [as] a simple “reflection” or “expression” of “material reality”’. He continues:

"What we have, rather, is a grasping of this reality through language, which as practical consciousness is saturated by and saturates all social activity, including productive activity. And since this grasping is social and continuous ... it occurs within an active and changing society.... Or to put it more directly, language is the articulation of this active and changing experience; a dynamic and articulated social presence in the world.[22]"

Tracing the historical inter-connections between changing words, concepts and social contexts[23] – that is, treating language as the social articulation of an ‘active and changing society’ – forms the basis of the cultural-materialist methodology. According to this cultural-materialist approach, then, the recent novelty and profusion of use of the word ‘identity’ is intimately connected to, and provides insight into, the social issues and concerns it has been used to discuss, and from which it has been generally assumed to be separate. It suggests that the explosion of use of the new senses of identity represents an active attempt by users to grasp and engage a changing social reality. More than a simple popularisation of a word and concept, then, the idea of identity should be viewed as offering a new way of framing and shaping historically persistent concerns about selfhood, others and the relations between them, as these are themselves undergoing change. Against the grain of dominant assumptions that ‘identity always mattered’, what this also suggests is that the very possibility of construing oneself as ‘having an identity’ – whether personal or social – is an historically novel formulation.

This, of course, should not be taken to mean that people had no conception of self or grouphood, prior to the emergence of the word ‘identity’ into popular and political discourse. There can be no doubt that it is part of the human condition to recognise the unique individuality of the self, and to recognise similarity to and difference from others, and it is part of political behaviour historically to draw on those human and social capacities in powerful ways, in order to subordinate or empower, or in order to create conflict or unity. But the point is that we now use the word ‘identity’ to describe and capture these features of human and social existence, that is, the experience of being a particular person, with recognisable features (what we now specify further as personal identity), or to be a member of a particular social group (what we now specify further as social identity), where we did not before. And the use of the word ‘identity’ to describe these experiences, including the widespread tendency to refer to different social categoriesas identities, is not neutral or innocent but is performative: it does something to how we understand them.

To grasp this more fully, let us look, as the Keywords method suggests, at what is at stake in the transition from the earlier, very narrow philosophical sense of ‘identity’ as the sameness of an entity –any entity – to itself, to the senses with which we are familiar today, namely, ‘personal identity’, and ‘social identity’ respectively. Carefully reviewing the uses of the term ‘identity’ over centuries, relying largely but not unconditionally, as Williams did himself, on the historicalOxford English Dictionary,[24] we see a number of important shifts in meaning. These meaning changes are – as is often the case with keywords – ‘masked by a nominal continuity so that the words which seem to have been there for centuries, with continuous general meanings, have come in fact to express radically different or radically variable, yet sometimes hardly noticed, meanings and implications of meaning’.[25]

Firstly, rather than reference an abstract formal property of an entity (any entity), namely, its ‘oneness’ or sameness to itself, ‘identity’ now references a substantive human property or attribute – something which may be personally or collectively possessed, or indeed, lost.[26] Secondly, there is a transition from an endogenous understanding, where identity is understood in terms of the relation of an entity to itself, to an exogenous one, where an identity derives significantly from its relation to others. Thirdly, there is shift in emphasis from continuity or sameness of an entity, to difference or distinction of that entity from others. These new emphases are now present in the two clearly distinct senses of social and personal identity with which we are so familiar today.

But the use of identity today to refer to a distinctive self (personal identity) or an embodied social category (social identity), though different from its earlier uses, cannot be entirely separated from them. Williams was especially attentive to the persistence and continuity of older meanings in a changing word, and to the ‘process through which new ways of exploiting the meaning potential conventionally available in a word cumulatively alter the meaning of that word.’[27] Following his lead, we see that identity, with its older connotations of one-ness and same-ness, offers us a very particular way of thinking about what it means to be a distinct person, or part of a social group. Specifically, it allows or prompts us to class individuals or groups as of a particular, singular type: it offers a way of saying ‘I really am this kind of person’, or ‘you really do belong to that group’ – what philosophers call essentialism. Despite, therefore, being routinely treated today as a substantive property of individuals and groups – ‘my identity’, ‘Islamic identity’, ‘sexual identities’ – it is in fact the case that identity functions lexically as a device that classifies according to what is considered essential to a particular person, type of person, or group.

This point is clarified by a comparison with the category of ‘race’, to which the category of ‘identity’ is often – erroneously – likened. We see that unlike ‘race’, which categorises and supplies the criteria for categorisation, identity functions as an ‘empty’ classifier that works to categorise someoneas of a particular kind, but does not specify what that kind is. Indeed, again unlike race, any attribute can provide the basis for an identity, so long as it is considered essential to or definitive of those who are then considered to ‘have’ a particular identity on that basis. The list of potential ‘identities’ is therefore literally infinite – there is conceivably no human feature or choice that cannot form the basis of an ‘identity’. And what designation of an identity – any identity – masks isthe very operation of the category of identity itself in enabling the kind of essentialist thinking that poststructuralist accounts of ‘identity’ are so opposed to. That is, it is the designation of some socially salient features or personal preferences as anidentity specifically, and not just as an accidental, contingent or historically pertinent feature of personhood or grouphood, that invites such typographical categorisation, and gives rise to the now almost-inevitable scramble to ‘deconstruct’ such supposedly pernicious essentialism in how we understand ourselves and others.

The Keywords analysis reveals, therefore, that we should view identity neither as an intrinsic, universal and perennial property of individuals or groups, ‘something that people have always had’, nor indeed as a fluid, unfixed, social construction, as is routinely stipulated today,[28] but rather as a modern classificatory technology, that categorises according to what is considered essential to an individual or group. On this basis, identity cannot be considered to be conceptually equivalent to ‘race’, nation or ethnicity, as Brubaker and Cooper famously argued it could, but is one of the ways of thinking (and arguably the currently dominant way) in which these and other ‘fictions’ materialise and crystallise today. To use the terms of Appiah’s argument against him, the ‘typological assumption’ that ‘everyone is a representative of a racial type’ does not shape some supposed pre-existing identity in essentialist racial ways, but is embedded in the very (modern) notion of what it means to have an identity in the first place – the notion of identity is itself a powerful contemporary lexical vehicle for Appiah’s ‘typological assumption’, as it allows us to inhabit (or assume others to inhabit) not just racial, but also gendered, sexual, religious and a myriad other cultural positions in essentialist ways.[29]


3    Identity in the Social and Material Contexts of its Expression

Of course, essentialist ways of thinking about selfhood and grouphood are not, in themselves, anything new – indeed, ‘essentialism’ has offered for centuries a largely unremarkable way of thinking about what it means to be a particular person (defined by some immutable core traits) or part of a particular group (identifiable by necessary shared features). This, indeed, is the point of Linda Nicholson’s largely convincing book, Identity before Identity Politics, where she traces the various forms of biological, cultural and psychological essentialism that animated the politics of race and gender in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.[30] But what she misses, as the title of her book indicates, is that these essentialising ways of construing personhood and grouphood were not understood in terms of the idiom of identity, nor were gendered or racial social categories understood as identities, until roughly the mid-twentieth century, the point in time to which she – not uncoincidentally, as we shall see – dates the emergence of ‘identity politics’. In short, and contrary to her key claim, what I am suggesting here is that therewas no identity before identity-politics.

The question now is, given the longevity of essentialist ideas about self and grouphood, why is it that the idea of identity only emerged to capture, fix and frame these in the middle of the last century? What I want to suggest is that, up to this point, these essentialist ways of thinking about personhood and grouphood were so unexceptional, so commonplace, so ordinary, that there was no need for a particular concept or language to distinguish them. But then, in the 1950s and ’60s, something happened to move these essentialist modes of understanding into the spotlight, investing them with a new significance and power, and giving rise to an overt and urgent need to name – and defend – the previously unremarkable.

In order to understand what happened, we must look, as the cultural-materialist method suggests, to the contexts of use for the new term ‘identity’ in order to explore the social and political pressures and motivations that could have contributed to the explicit emergence of the idea of identity, or exerted a formative influence upon the particular ways in which it has developed and come to be used today. What we find is that the idea of identity emerged in two key spaces in Western, liberal, capitalist societies – namely, in the proliferation of new practices and norms of consumerism that we now refer to as ‘the consumer society’, and, as just referred to, in a series of new social movements around gender, race and sexuality that we now refer to as ‘identity politics’. Importantly, the term acquired different inflections in these two contexts, evolving, respectively, the ‘personal’ and ‘social’ senses as we now know them. Crucially, what the cultural-materialist analysis I will develop in this section suggests is that the idea of identity only emerged to express and consolidate essentialist understandings of selves and groups at a point in time when those previously unremarkable essentialist understandings were accentuated or stressed through their commercialisation orpoliticisation, giving rise, respectively, to our contemporary senses of personal and social identity in these contexts. What this cultural-materialist analysis also shows, therefore, is that what is at stake here is not how social changes associated with post-industrialism and consumerism ‘impact on our identities’ as is routinely supposed to be the case, but how the very construal of personhood and grouphood in terms of ‘(having) an identity’ relates to a capitalist way of life.[31]


3.1  Personal Identity in the Consumer Society

Let us look, first, at the emergence of the language of identity in the burgeoning contexts of consumption of the post-war ‘boom’ years of the twentieth century, beginning in the US. The story we usually hear is that the advent of the consumer society in the Western capitalist world dramatically affected how people formed their identities – where once identity-formation occurred through family role, employment or political affiliation, from the 1950s, we are told, identity-formation occurred primarily through consumption.[32] But this story, of course, assumes the idea of identity, as we now know it, to have preceded this era of consumption in order to have been changed by it – which I am arguing it did not.

What is important to recognise, however, is that this era of consumptiondid have an impact on people’s sense of self and their relation to others, that would eventually, I suggest, be captured in the notion of identity. The great theorists of the consumer society are instructive here – not because, as many assume, they discussed the impact of consumption on identity, which they did not, but for their analysis of the way in which consumption had become explicitly bound up withprocesses of social emulation and distinction by the 1900s – specifically through conspicuous consumption, as Veblen argued in his theory of the new leisure classes, or through fashion, as Simmel argued in his analysis of the expanding fashion industry.[33] As the twentieth century progressed, particularly through the postwar boom years, these consumption-based practices of imitation and differentiation – of ‘equalisation and individualisation’ as Simmel put it[34] – once the sole domain of elite groups, became extended to other social groups too, including previously-excluded working class families. Indeed, by the 1960s, the commercialisation of social practices of emulation and distinction – that is, the marketing and sale of commodities to people as a way of expressing themselves and their relation to others – had become completely central to the operation of advanced capitalist economies. As Marcuse of the Frankfurt School observed at the time, ‘People recognise themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment’.[35]

As these consumerist motivations and pressures continued to develop, they gave rise to a need to find a language to express the new social relations they were generating. Furthermore, since these changes in consumption practices tended to suppress and displace class conflict[36] – though not actually-existing class inequality – it was likely that this language would emerge in ostensibly ‘neutral’ or non-class terms. This likelihood was exaggerated by the pressures of the McCarthyite repressions in the ’50s, and the construal of class interests as ‘Communist’ and anti-American. Indeed, it was in just this context that the idea of identity, with its capacity to connote both an essential sameness with and difference from significant others, emerged to offer a perfect vehicle of expression for these relations of social emulation and distinction. It seems likely that the term ‘identity’ was to a certain extent made available or accessible by the psychologist Erik Erikson, who, around this time, was starting to use the term (or more specifically, ‘ego-identity’) as a category of analysis to describe how an individual forms her sense of self in relation to societal influences. But what I am concerned with here, and what I am describing, is the emergence of the idea of identity as a category of practice, and how it was shaped in relation to the societal context of its development and use. In this respect, it is arguable that it was the motivations and pressures of the consumer society, rather than any psychological consideration of the relationship between self and society, that gave rise to the need for and shaped the everyday use of the term. The consolidation of the now-iconic individualistic American outlook during this period meant further that these everyday uses of the term to articulate relations of social similarity and difference were likely to be expressed in a distinctively personal form, leading to the development of the notion ofpersonal identity as an especially attractive mode of self-conceptualisation in everyday life.

Interestingly, the prevalence of anti-Communist sentiment and the hegemonic support for the fulfilment of the ‘good life’ through capitalism that characterised this boom period meant that any liminal resistance to the consumer society and its pressures would be diverted instead into the more socially acceptable resistance to the ‘mass society’. The question of how one could maintain a sense of individuality in a context of corporate standardisation and repressive social homogeneity became a cultural preoccupation (real or contrived), animating many popular books and films of the time, including Man in Grey Flannel Suit,The Organisation Man, andThe Lonely Crowd. The emergent notion of identity must have here offered a very useful way of viewing the self, with the sense of ‘personal identity’ in particular offering a vibrant antidote to the perceived grey uniformity of the ‘mass society’ – the possibility of being different by (simply) ‘having an identity’.

Significantly, here, we see that the idea of personal identity invited the problem which it was assumed to settle. Once people are persuaded that they ‘have’ an identity in the first place – in part by its very invention – they are motivated to try to find it. In the ‘consumer society’, the ‘psychological’ or personal problem of finding an identity finds a ready solution in practices of consumption which allow for the construction of that identity, thereby ‘finding’ and ‘marking’ it at the same time.

Crucially, then, while the idea of personal identity offered a (superficially class-neutral) means of asserting individuality and difference in a mass society, in so doing, it also encouraged participation in mass consumption, which had deeply homogenising effects. As Adorno argued of American capitalism, ‘the same thing is offered to everybody by the standardised production of consumption goods’, but this is concealed under ‘the manipulation of taste and the official culture’s pretense of individualism’. He continues, with echoes of Simmel’s critique of fashion, ‘the identical character of the goods that everyone must buy hides itself behind the rigor of the universally compulsory style’.[37] In this consumer capitalist context, identity must have presented itself as a very useful concept indeed, as it proffered a means of obscuring the basic sameness engendered by the relentless logic of the commodity behind a vision of ‘individual’, but ultimately class-based, distinction. The idea of identity in its personal sense, we may conclude, has proven very useful for the capitalist class too.


3.2  Social Identity and Identity Politics


The second context in which the term ‘identity’ began to be deployed with increasing regularity and ease was in a series of so-called ‘new’ social movements that emerged in the 1960s, at least partially in response to the failure of the race and gender-based civil rights campaigns to achieve full equality for oppressed groups. While the emergent idea of identity evolved its ‘personal’ sense in contexts of consumption, here, as we shall see, different inflections and nuances in the historical development of the idea gave rise to identity in its ‘social sense’, which, while still expressing social relations of sameness and difference, nonetheless differed insofar as it emphasised group oneness, cohesion and solidarity over individual distinction. While such emphases were hardly new to group-based politics, their expression in terms of the emergent idiom of identity was, and would prove central not only in the 1960s transition from civil rights to ‘liberation politics’, but also in the development of what we now know as ‘identity politics’ more generally. Against the contemporary tendency to refer toall group-based or ostensibly non-class politics as ‘identity politics’, what this history suggests is that the term should be reserved for referring only to those politics that explicitly mobilise around the concept of identity, thereby distinguishing ‘identity politics’ proper from both earlier phases of group-based activism, in which the term ‘identity’ was meaningless, and later phases in which the term, while meaningful, nonetheless does little or no conceptual or mobilising work.

To return to the historical narrative, as the 1960s progressed, anger at continued inequality and exclusion, combined with a growing frustration with the politics of ‘integration’, ‘progress’ and ‘polite protest’ that had characterised the civil-rights campaigns,[38] led some activists from the women’s and African-American movements to foment an alternative type of politics based on liberation from oppression. Although from our current historical vantage-point there is a tendency to collapse the different kinds of feminist activism of the 1960s into a single phase (the so-called ‘second wave’), and equally though not as consistently to collapse the African-American Civil Rights and Black Power movements into a single movement, as part of the ‘long movement’ thesis,[39] there are clear grounds, as many have argued, for distinguishing these two phases of activism. While the distinction could be – and has been – justifiably made in terms of differing aims (inclusion versus revolution) or differing tactics (reformist versus radical), I want to focus here on the role the emergent idea of identity played in this transition. The claim is not that liberation politics were themselves entirely new, with similar aims and understandings at least intermittently informing the political thinking and actions of these movements historically – perhaps most obviously in the long history of Black Nationalism – but that what was new was the very effective use made of the idea of identity in powerfully formulating the aims and mobilising the actors in the 1960s campaigns.

Why was the idea of identity so useful to these movements, or, to put it in the terms of this cultural-materialist study, what were the political pressures and motivations that precipitated and made sensible the use of the term ‘identity’ in this context? A key challenge facing these excluded groups in the aftermath of the civil-rights campaigns was how could they self-consciously form and bond together as a group in order to mobilise against their oppression, without in the process calling up and re-affirming the supposed biological or racial deficiencies that had marked them out as a distinctive group, deserved of unequal treatment in the first place. I suggest that the idea of identity emerged here to resolve this conundrum, as it presented a way of understanding social difference in positive terms – that is, not in terms of ‘natural’ or biological difference, an idea that was successfully discredited in the civil-rights movements, but instead in terms of shared culture and experiences.

Recall here that identity is an endemically essentialising device that serves to identify someone as of a particular type, without specifying what that type is. Significantly, that ‘type’ can be derived psychologically or culturally, and not just biologically (as certain rejections of ‘essentialist accounts of identity’ wrongly assume today). In the postwar years, anthropological notions of ‘culture’ as a key influence on group formation were already widely in circulation and appreciated, both as they emphasised shared cultural traditions, experiences and ways of life rather than hereditary type, biological function or skin colour as the defining markers of group membership, and as they fed into a positive discourse of cultural diversity as something to value and promote, in the process providing an important postwar alternative to ‘race’ as a means of social classification. Interestingly, and challenging the still-persistent assumption that the notion of identity ‘originated’ in Eriksonian psychology, we see that Erikson himself acknowledged his indebtedness to Margaret Mead for her work on culture in developing his own account of identity [40] – lending further weight to the argument that ‘identity’ should be regarded neither as a pre-existing concept, nor one that emerged fully formed in 1950s psychology, but rather as one that offered a useful lexical vehicle of expression for already-developing modes of social understanding across a number of domains in the mid-twentieth century.

By the early 1960s, then, disillusioned with the politics of formal equality that inadequately accounted for the group specificity of various forms of oppression, some African-Americans and women began to actively rely upon notions of cultural essentialism to more fully understand the oppression they experienced, and how they could challenge it. The language of identity must have seemed ideally adapted to such a purpose: by allowing them to refer to a shared history, way of life and even perspective or outlook, identity not only had explanatory power but also political potential, as it encouraged a strengthening of in-group solidarity and the expression of group-based pride. As the decade progressed, some activists began to explicitly use the idea of identity to connect these notions of group integrity and cohesion to a critique of oppressive systems and institutions, and to use this sense of shared oppression, solidarity and pride as a means – indeed, as a necessary and primary element – in mobilising against them. The idea of social identity was born as a category of practice, and with it, a new form of politics – ‘identity politics’.

This history and claim is illustrated by closer examination of the Black Power Movement (BPM) and Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM), though shortage of space means I shall concentrate on the former. Examination of the key texts of the BPM reveals that the notion of identity was central to the newly articulated philosophy and goals of Black Power, while remaining completely absent from the discourses of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) which it had at least partially displaced.[41] Black Power was the most recent incarnation of the separatist Black Nationalism movement that had existed since the 1800s, emphasising in its various manifestations the will to achieve cultural pride and economic power through Black independence and self-determination. In this latest iteration, as emphasised by both Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture), it particularly relied on – indeed, developed – the notion of identity in its social sense. In the defining text of the BPM, Kwame and Hamilton explicitly defined Black Power as ‘black self-determination and black self-identity’,[42] and made the case that this achievement of Black Power was a ‘vital first step’ in a bigger project of ‘deal[ing] effectively with the problems of racism’ in American society.[43] Deeply critical of what they saw as the assimilationist impulse of the CRM, they sought instead a radically altered society, based on a rejection of the ‘white’ values that promoted racism and ‘material aggrandizement’,[44] and the institution instead of new social structures premised on economic equality, full political participation, and cultural liberation. ‘While we endorse the procedure of group solidarity and identity for the purpose of attaining certain goals in the body politic’, they wrote, ‘this does not mean that black people should strive for the same kind of rewards (i.e. end results) obtained by the white society. The ultimate values and goals are not domination or exploitation of other groups, but rather an effective share in the total power of society’.[45] Crucially, therefore, we see that the idea of identity was important not for how it could be used to promote racial hierarchies or even black supremacy, but for how it could help achieve a new social order characterised by equality, freedom and justice for all.

Although the first expression of ‘identity politics’ is widely attributed to the founding statement of the Combahee River Project, who wrote that ‘focusing on our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics’, and that ‘the most radical politics come directly out of our own identity’,[46] it seems to me that the founding statements of the BPM captured this political impetus at least a decade earlier. In order to end racism – defined as the deliberate and systematic exclusion of Black people from participation in political and economic life – Ture and Hamilton wrote that ‘Black People in the United States must … challenge the very nature of the society itself’, and that crucially,

To do this, we must first redefine ourselves. Our basic need is to reclaim our history and our identity from what must be called cultural terrorism. … We shall have to struggle for the right to create our own terms through which to define ourselves and our relation to society, and to have these terms recognised. This is the first right of a free people, and the first right that any oppressor must suspend.[47]

The claim I am making here is not the facile one that the transition from the CRM to the BPM saw a shift in something called ‘African-American identity’, but that the very use of the concept of identity in its social sense was part of what enabled the shift in political thinking and approach that powered the BPM. The change in self-conceptualisation facilitated by the notion of social identity gave the claims of Black Nationalism broader appeal to a new generation of activists, and encouraged some radical conclusions: instead of seeing group members as wrongly denied their individual rights on account of their skin colour, members of the BPM understood themselves as a group constituted by a shared experience of oppression rooted in racism, colonialism and capitalism. Emancipation would not come from pleading for equal treatment within these systems, but from overthrowing them.

We see a similar emphasis on social identity in the emergence of the WLM. Again, whereas participants in the Women’s Rights movement did not use the term ‘identity’, focusing instead on the principle and language of political equality with men, ‘Women’s libbers’ tended to see their oppression – and also the sources for resistance to it – in terms of the idea of a specific female identity.[48] The notion of social identity at work here offered alternative ways of thinking about what it meant to be a woman, without relying on – and indeed, explicitly rejecting – discredited and dangerous notions of biological essentialism. It nonetheless replaced these with cultural essentialism – shared experiences, outlooks and values – with the result that, during this period of ‘identity politics’, the Sisterhood was indeed powerful.

To conclude here, what this history shows is that the idea of identity in its social sense – as well as the tendency to refer to different social categories as identities – did not pre-exist but emerged as a key part of what we now know as identity politics. Furthermore, it was put to radical egalitarian use in a way that seems, or is deemed to be, almost unimaginable today.[49] But how has this come to pass? And is there any potential for the idea of identity to be put to such solidaristic, redistributive and even revolutionary ends today? What I want to argue here is not so much that there was once a ‘good’ identity politics that has been displaced by a ‘bad’ version, but that these tensions and tendencies are inherentin the very notion of identityitself, as it evolved what I have described as its social and personal senses over the period of its emergence and consolidation in the mid-twentieth century. Furthermore, as the cultural-materialist perspective underlines, the contexts for its emergence have shaped not only the senses of the term but also which of them is likely to predominate. In the transition from ‘organised’ to neoliberal capitalism, it is clear that the social sense of identity has become subjugated to the personal, evident in, amongst other things, the easy slippage between ‘identity politics’ and niche markets (consider such examples as the ‘pink pound’, the ‘grey dollar’ and the exploitation of black identity-politics by such corporations as Avon in the 1970s), and the emergence of a strangely libertarian version of identity politics which focuses on the individual rights held by the self-conscious bearers of certain ‘identities’ over any sense of group solidarity and power.[50] Ultimately the intensification of market processes and rationales under neoliberalism has exaggerated the personal sense of identity over the social to such an extent that we have now reached a point in time where identity operates primarily to facilitate consumption on a global scale, while at the same time informing a version of representation politics that remains compatible with the political-economic architecture of neoliberalism.[51] This, indeed, is a long way from the aspirational identity-politics of the 1960s and ’70s. Does this mean we should give up on the concept of identity entirely? I address this question briefly in the conclusion.


4    Conclusion

The argument of this paper has been twofold: that the idea of ‘identity’ as we now know it is historically novel, and that its emergence and evolution has been bound up with the lived culture of contemporary capitalism. The first claim is challenging, as it encourages a rethinking of an intellectual and social history to which many readers will be wedded. However, it is perhaps worth pointing out here that the sceptical reader need not accept the stronger claim that ‘identity’ is historically novel in order to engage with the claim that identity is currently bound up with the lived culture of contemporary capitalism – all she need recognise is that the use and meanings of the term ‘identity’ have changed significantly in the second half of the twentieth century, and that these changes are bound up with the altered social order in which they have come to prominence. Acceptance of either the stronger or weaker version of this claim is entirely in keeping with the cultural-materialist methodology upon which this study is based, evident from – among other things – the opening lines of Williams’s Culture and Society, which begins with a discussion of five earlier ‘keywords’ that provide insight into a changing social context. ‘In the last decades of the eighteenth century’, Williams wrote,

…and in the first half of the nineteenth century, a number of words, which are now of capital importance, came for the first time into common English use, or, where they had already been generally used in the language, acquired new and important meanings. There is in fact a general pattern of change in these words, and this can be used as a special kind of map by which it is possible to look again at those wider changes in life and thought to which the changes in language evidently refer.[52]

The five words to which Williams here refers are ‘culture’, ‘industry’, ‘class’, ‘art’ and ‘democracy’. It is a similar recognition concerning the novelty of uses of our current concept of identity that provided the motivation for this study, with – I hope – similarly fruitful consequences for contemporary political and sociological analysis of the uses of identity and identity-politics.

Having explored the ‘wider [historical] changes in life and thought’ to which the changes in the uses of ‘identity’ refer, let me conclude with some brief comments on how the approach elaborated here allows us to go some way towards addressing the value of identity to progressive politics.

In the aftermath of Brexit, and in the wake of Donald Trump’s triumphant election campaign – both of which attributed their success to their focus on the concerns of the ‘silent majority’, the forgotten (white) working class – theorists and commentators from left and right slammed the supposed false promises, dead-ends and blind spots of ‘identity politics’. But we must recognise that the term ‘identity politics’ is a multi-accentual sign today, and can be made to signify any number of political positions, from the radical redistributive and recognition-based politics of Black Lives Matter, to campus debates about trigger warnings, to even the xenophobic, White-supremacist politics of the ‘alt’ (read ‘extreme’) right. In such a context it is important to clarify the concept of identity animating these or any other struggles going under the name of identity politics, remembering that unlike the personal sense of identity, which tends to dovetail with the social logic of a virulently individualist free-market capitalism, the idea of social identitycan be andhas been used in struggles for cultural and economic equality, in which battles against racism, patriarchy and heteronormativity are recognised to be structurally intertwined with the battle against capitalism.[53]

Rather than throw out the concept of identity, then, as Brubaker and Cooper advise, or reconceptualise it in non-essentialist ways, as Appiah urges in his final Reith lecture, scholars and activists seeking a more equal world should, I suggest, remain attentive to the changing uses of identity as a category of practice as it is deployed in a capitalist context, promoting those understandings and uses that will offer the best hope of achieving these ends. Historicising ‘identity’, as I have done here, allows us to diminish its power, and instead view it as an idea that we can choose to use in order to foster solidarity or political mobilisation according to our needs, as Gayatri Spivak has argued in her defence of ‘strategic essentialism’,[54] or indeed, an idea we can choose to leave behind, when it encourages a hardening of divisions in an exclusionary and oppressive manner, or promotes a logic of consumerism, possessive individualism or class-blindness in capitalist societies. This, then, is the political impetus of Keywords, which views language as the site of political struggle, and refigures people as active meaning-makers with the collective capacity to describe, interpret and therefore change their world. As Williams writes, and as I hope applies to this offering, a keywords analysis

 … is not a neutral review of meanings. It is an exploration of the vocabulary of a crucial area of social and cultural discussion, which has been inherited within precise historical and social conditions and which has to be made at once conscious and critical – subject to change as well as to continuity – if the millions of people in whom it is active are to see it as active: not a tradition to be learned, nor a consensus to be accepted, nor a set of meanings which, because it is ‘our language’, has a natural authority; but as a shaping and reshaping, in real circumstances and from profoundly different and important points of view: a vocabulary to use, to find our ways in, to change as we find it necessary to change it, as we go on making our own language and history.[55]



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[1] See, for example, Zaretsky 1995; Fraser 1997; Nicholson 2008.

[2] See, for example, Scatamburlo-D’Annibale and McLaren 2004; Castells 2004; Fraser 2013.

[3] In so doing, this paper draws on and develops some of the arguments set out in my book, Identity and Capitalism (Moran 2015).

[4] Moran 2015.

[5] Quine 1980; Hume 1984; Locke 1979.

[6] See Shoemaker 2006 for an extensive treatment of this issue.

[7] Shoemaker 2006, p. 40.

[8] Lynd 1958, p. 14.

[9] Riesman 1961, p. ix.

[10] Gleason 1983, p. 918; MacKenzie 1978, p. 101.

[11] See, for example, the summary provided by Kumar 1995, p. 122.

[12] For some explicit articulations, see Kellner 1995; Bauman 2004.

[13] MacKenzie 1978.

[14] Gleason 1983.

[15] Fearon 1999.

[16] Brubaker and Cooper 2000.

[17] Such ‘real’ analysis is understood to require, alternatively, capturing or distilling the true meaning of identity (MacKenzie 1978; Fearon 1999) or throwing out the term and replacing it with other concepts better suited to the analytical tasks currently poorly performed by the ‘blunt, flat, undifferentiated’ vocabulary of identity (Brubaker and Cooper 2000, p. 2).

[18] Williams 1983, p. 15.

[19] Bennett, Grossberg and Morris (eds.) 2005, p. xvii.

[20] Williams 1977; Williams 1981.

[21] Williams 1977, p. 37.

[22] Williams 1977, pp. 37–8.

[23] This should be recognised as distinctly different from more-idealist ‘postmodern’ or discourse-theory approaches, which explore the relationship between word and concept, bracketing the social referent which is of such central importance within a cultural-materialist methodology.

[24] For some of Williams’s reservations on the OED, see Williams 1983, pp. 18–19.

[25] Williams 1983, p. 17.

[26] This is particularly evident in the commonplace ways in which identity is discussed today – when, for example, the ‘identity’ of an African-American woman or a non-cis gender youth is discussed, it is never assumed that what is at stake here is the question of whether that person is the same person they were yesterday and will be tomorrow (their sameness to themselves, or continuity over time), but rather their inhabiting or possession of a particular set of self- and social understandings of the kind of person they are or are assumed to be.

[27] Williams 1983, p. 8.

[28] This poststructuralist account of ‘identity’ presents regularly as a contradiction in terms – for if one is convinced by poststructuralist accounts of subjectivity and grouphood as inescapably multiple, unstable, contingent and all the other routine qualifiers, then surely the most useful conclusion would be that ‘identity’ is not a good word to use to describe either.

[29] Appiah 2016, Reith Lecture number 3, ‘Colour’.

[30] Nicholson 2008.

[31] It is worth noting some limitations of method in what follows. Given the cultural-materialist concern with the very broad thematic of the relation of language-change to social change, it is inevitable that the story told – especially in such a restricted space as this – will involve some historical shortcuts and omissions. While the broad brush-strokes and summary style may be regarded as simplistic, I hope this is mitigated by recognition that the intention is not to provide a fine-grained historical analysis but to sketch out how it came to be that the idea of identity emerged as a category of practice in the mid-twentieth century, a task to which the cultural-materialist approach articulated here is eminently suited.

[32] Slater 1997; Sassatelli 2007.

[33] Veblen 1925; Simmel 1957.

[34] Simmel 1957, p. 550.

[35] Marcuse 1991, p. 11.

[36] Agger 1992; Zaretsky 1995.

[37] Adorno 2005, p. 280.

[38] Ture and Hamilton 1992.

[39] Cha-Jua and Lang 2007.

[40] Erikson 1950, p. 13; see also Gleason 1983, p. 925.

[41] Compare, for example, the speeches of Malcolm X, who refers explicitly to ‘racial identity’, ‘black identity’ and ‘African identity’, with the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., who never uses the term: <http://www.malcolm-x.org/speeches.htm> and <http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive>.

[42] Ture and Hamilton 1992, p. 47.

[43] Ture and Hamilton 1992, p. 39.

[44] Ture and Hamilton 1992, p. 40.

[45] Ture and Hamilton 1992, p. 47.

[46] Combahee River Collective 1979, p. 365.

[47] Ture and Hamilton 1992, pp. 34–5; emphasis added.

[48] Compare, for example, the founding documents of the National Organisation for Women (NOW), which do not refer to identity at all, with the national monthly US newsletter the Voice of the Women’s Liberation Movement, which regularly does.

[49] Mohandesi 2017.

[50] Chasin 2002; Feitz 2012.

[51] Hilary Clinton’s 2016 election campaign is a case in point.

[52] Williams 1963, p. xi.

[53] Duggan 2003.

[54] Spivak 1987.

[55] Williams 1983, pp. 24–5.