Identity Politics and Patchwork

Invoking “The Left” and “The Right” is a bad habit of this blog and since we’re on a roll doing clarifications, here’s another one.

For this blog, invocations of Left and Right are used intently to refer to the Big Tent labels that they are, although — of course — this isn’t always a helpful or clear way to frame the dynamism of the current political landscape.

Their usage persists on this blog, however, because I feel like patchwork contends with these Big Tents inherently and I would rather talk about this broad contention abstractly than get too bogged down in that very online tendency to academically overdefine micropolitical positions. (At least at this stage.) I’d rather keep things flexible and scalable — just as patchwork should be. [1]

As ‘State Decay‘ began to explore, patchwork warrants the fragmentation of our unwieldy political “wholes”, which we have already been seeing for some time — or, arguably, for all time, considering the cyclic processes of fragmentation and consolidation that define so much of political history.

A U/ACC vision of patchwork suggests that we stop getting cold feet, with regards to fragmentation, and stop naively attempting to consolidate untameable processes into hard-bordered state apparatuses. The scar tissue that has resulted from such incessantly pursued consolidatory processes looks, at present, to be more brittle than ever before.

So… Let go.

Identity politics is one lens through which the Left itself considers this phenomenon of fragmentation and difference — sometimes usefully, sometimes not so much. Identity politics obviously has a long history and many of its antecedent constitutive parts look very different to their now well-known caricatures. It is my view that many of these ideas still hold potentials for contemporary productive politics, despite their unfortunate recent reputations.

To cut to the chase, the question I want to ask in this post is this: could you turn your safe space into a patch?

That’s not a glib bit of cynicism on my part. To ask the question of how functional a sovereign safe space would be, whilst a bit funny, also asks that you put your money where your mouth is…

Taking a “safe space” to be an environment where members of a certain social demographic are free to relax, where they can comfortably be themselves; a place where you can rest assured that judgement or discrimination based on your marginalised identity is actively not tolerated, I believe there are potentials for this principle to be a foundation for various leftwing patches within a patchwork system.

I am sure that in many actually existing safe spaces, people still discriminate and judge, but the principle is that this will actively be challenged based on a general consensus of acceptable behaviour and conduct within a given context — principles which are perhaps not so widely shared or seen as being quite so necessary by the whole of society at large. In this way, safe spaces are inherently for the protection of marginalised positions, ideas and practices. [2]

The potential of this sort of arrangement to grow into an authoritarian microstate sounds very much like the usual kind of populist conspiracy theory which has plagued an otherwise innocuous principle.

Safe spaces are regularly derided and seen as a slippery slope towards the emergence of Stalinist-like terrors in the West. However, as with so many other aspects of patchwork, it is also an implicit call for a form of non-juridical ethical practice which is decentralised from some sort of state police force. This is because the responsibility for upholding a safe space’s relatively marginal principles above the negative habitual behaviours of a wider society is left to the participants within that space alone. They are not enforced by militia. They are rather sustained by — whilst also helping to engender — mutual understanding. [3]

So, thought of in this way, is it fair to say that safe spaces are little more than pockets of space remodelled on micropolitical principles of decentralisation within a wider social structure…?

Does this not sound like a potential seed for patchwork…?

I believe that, if the Left broadened its mind to non-Moldbuggian versions of patchwork and took them seriously, there are plenty of ways in which contemporary leftist principles and ideals can be implemented as the basis for a given patch.

That is, of course, easier said than done — all the more reason to engage with this model and see what it might have to offer.

I have previously mentioned circumstances where patchwork and decolonial politics might meet — something regularly guffawed at in my IRL experience but this often feels like an active denial of the shared interest within many subsections of the Left and Right with secessionist politics — and there are a number of other instances where leftist thought can assist in improving the experiences of various social minorities under patchwork.

A particularly interesting conversation I had a while back, related to this, was on issues surrounding patchwork and social care. I was specifically requested not to turn the conversation into a post — my reputation precedes me — so I won’t focus on this too much but it deserves highlighting because I think it raises a very good point.

The crux of the patchwork system, as I see it, is the unleashing of desires for experimenting with various forms of sociopolitical existence and putting no limits on how those existences may be constructed and managed.

Contemporary social democracy struggles inherently with keeping everyone happy and it seems to be getting worse and worse at this. So why not allow groups to split off and develop an infrastructure and way of life that suits them and their needs best, independent of an overbearing, bloated and increasingly flawed infrastructure of a nation-state? [4] These potentials, I would argue, are even more pressing for social minorities than the 1%.

The obvious issue with this is that it will work for better and for worse. Already, in my head, I hear the retorts that if we allow a kind of frontier trans* patch to exist, what is there to stop a patch for child molesters existing too? The latter is, of course, a legitimate concern in some contexts but, like most TERF invocations of such an argument, it is not a robust enough reason against allowing others to try and live out their best lives.

In principle, if you can think of it and there’s enough people who like your idea, there should be nothing to stop you from trying to make a go of it. Patches, like safe spaces, are not heavily fortified castles where people isolate themselves from a wider society, despite the stereotype. They are not monasteries or cult communes or whatever else. They are inherently porous.

The porous nature of “safe spaces” becomes important here. Often a “safe space” is just a room given its own temporary conditions of conduct… As such, the concept of a “safe space” necessarily becomes more abstract, defined not by spatial measurements or physical boundaries but by the shared connection of a certain community of peoples which allows a sensivitity towards unsharable experiences to take precedence, echoing a sort of Blanchotian communism.

What is key here, and what I particularly like about Blanchot’s writings on community, is that patchwork dissolves processes of subjection upheld by a top-down state Leviathan. Subjection itself may still exist, on a much smaller scale, and this smaller scale may allow for a new and more immanent reflexivity of sociocultural consciousness.

Patchwork, to quote Foucault, “can make the cultural unconscious apparent.”

In this way, people can refocus their sense of collective identity for themselves and are then free to organise accordingly. Patchwork, in this way, dissolves present power structures. At the same time, however, it is not a utopian vision.

There is no naivety on my part that ignores the fact that people are regularly shit to each other — Blanchot, again, was very good on turning communism into a process of relation rather than a utopian goal. Similarly, patchwork isn’t an explicit project for world peace but it would certainly go some way towards solving some of the planet’s more persistent geopolitical conflicts and inequalities. It has the potential to radically change the nature of the nation-state and, therefore, the nature of subjectivity and communality in themselves.

The idea of the “safe space”, then, I think, is a familiar desire for autonomy, expressed within smaller-scale institutions rather than nation-states. The main problem for many on the Right is where exactly safe spaces have gained some cultural importance: within (American) universities.

If these spaces exist at all at universities in the UK, they seem to be a reaction to a loss of autonomy that has been exacerbated by the recent privatisation of universities as institutions. This may sound like a contradiction on the face of it but it seems that the more that universities have been run for profit (that is, profit above all else), many institutions have got the jitters about what courses and services should and shouldn’t be provided based entirely on their income revenue. For all the arguments that business and competition encourage innovation, the infiltration of business models into educational institutions in this country has consistently, in my experience, made everything worse.

I began my undergraduate degree in photography in that pivotal year of 2010. My first year of university was defined by the political organising around the increase of university tuition fees from around £3000 per year to around £9000. The effect of this rise in fees over the next two years was striking. It seemed to completely destabilise the institution but not for the better and not in any way that student and staff organising could make much different to its eventual new form. It was a time of colossal change coupled with feelings of endemic impotence.

No voice to change things from within. Exit only affects the little people whilst senior management keep their heads in the clouds.

Just seven years later, the campus where my course was based had been sold off and the course that I studied on no longer exists. At present, my beloved former lecturers are trying to rebuild but how far they’ve fallen is painfully apparent.

Was this because courses and lecturers couldn’t adapt or innovate?

No.

In my view, the university actively shunned innovation and new talent. They didn’t want to take risks and wanted to consolidate courses into production lines of consistent but safe and conservative experiences. This is because, for prospective students, being £27,000 in debt means you want real results and not experimental pedagogic practices. Deregulating the cost of higher education has actually stifled innovation in that sector.

This destabilisation was defined for so many in 2010 by the videos that came out of Warwick University. It’s a video I still find acutely distressing.

My sense, at that time, was that my university campus was also my home. Quite literally. I lived no more than 300 metres from the main entrance of my campus. I was never more than 5 minutes from a lecture hall. To think that this sort of violence could happen to me, within what was, for all intents and purposes, my home, was horrifying.

From that moment, everything changed.

Campus no longer felt safe and no longer felt like it was “mine”. This perhaps sounds presumptuous and entitled today but it felt like the norm in 2010. The university was a place to live, not just study. Then that was suddenly no longer the case. The example of Warwick showed that living on campus was no assurance that you wouldn’t be brutalised on campus.

Eight years on, universities feel like yet another transitory space where the people that occupy them have no real say in how the “business” conducts itself. University senior management teams became little more than extensions of the shitty landlords millenniums spend the rest of their lives now having to deal with. Exit is always more detrimental to the “customer” than the “business”.

The increase in mental health crises on campuses is, I’m sure, a direct result of this loss of belonging and security. Suicides are currently frequent occurrences in UK universities, amongst students in particular.

Following Mark Fisher’s death at Goldsmiths, for instance, the social experience of that loss seemed to be in violent conflict with the way the university itself functioned. Many people believed that the bureaucracy of the university, in stifling and holding Mark back, exacerbating the overwork and precarity of lecturer’s work more generally, had contributed to the depression which led to his suicide.

I will never forget the moment one lecturer said in class, with no desire to mince words: “Goldsmiths killed Mark.”

Mark, unfortunately, wasn’t the first (or the last). There have been recent student suicides at Goldsmiths before prior to and since Mark’s death.

It is worth noting at this point that the Weird & Eerie reading group, previously discussed, began life as a “safe space” on campus. Although it was not explicitly called this by anyone in particular, it was a place where anyone affected by Mark’s death, no matter their course, job or role within the university system, could come and talk collectively and openly about their experiences and vocalise their distresses. This space was so invaluable and necessary that it was eventually attended by those we weren’t even affiliated with the university directly, like alumni and other friends of friends.

This space was necessary because senior management themselves were not willing to listen to staff or student concerns. Later, meetings were held where students were effectively told to stop grieving, because there had been complaints about grieving students “disrupting classes”. The idea of a “safe space”, in this context, and in the general context of higher education since 2010, is an effort to decentralise conversation and care from the flawed structure of the university at large.

The role that the university failed to fill here, and continues to do in all sorts of circumstances, was, of course, spoken about by Mark in an interview with Matthew Fuller for Mute:

[T]here’s a way in which capitalist realism can only really be felt in areas — such as public service — which had previously been relatively free of business imperatives. Elsewhere, in many ways, capitalist realism is taken for granted! But the phrase ‘pseudo-marketization’ is crucial — what we have in public services is an absurd simulation of market mechanisms rather the market as such, a kind of worst of all worlds scenario in which a simulated market goes alongside continuing surveillance and monitoring from state bodies. (At the same time, it’s important not to demonise markets, or to let capitalism claim that it is equivalent to marketization. I take seriously Manuel DeLanda’s idea that capitalism is in fact an anti-market, and I think there’s a great deal of political potential in this kind of thinking.) If the market is supposed to deliver the best results all on its own, why do we still need inspection regimes, league tables etc? Neoliberal ideology likes us to believe that bureaucracy has decreased under it, but the reality is that it has simply changed form, and the average teacher or lecturer is doing much more bureaucracy than ever before — and this is not ‘necessary’ bureaucracy, or bureaucracy that ‘improves performance’; on the contrary, as we all know, it is a purely empty activity, a dead ritual that is at best useless, at worst actually counter-productive. What I mean by ‘capitalist realism’ is partly the imposition of these mechanisms — whose real significance might be to ensure ideological compliance at this ritualized level — and also the acceptance of those mechanisms by workers (and managers), who go along with them because ‘that’s just how things are now.’

Education is still often thought of as an ivory tower, even by teachers and lecturers. There were people at the FE college where I used to work whose partners worked in business who would make this claim — that we were somehow fortunate not to be in the dog-eat-dog world of business where people are sacked if their performance is not up to scratch. It was a laughable claim then; it’s even more manifestly absurd now after the bank bail outs, which have showed that it isn’t public services that are an ivory tower, but big business, where catastrophically bad performance, far from being punished, continues to be rewarded, and if people are sacked, they receive a handsome severance package.

But, far from being an ivory tower, education has been at the core of all of the social mutations of the last thirty years. With parents stressed and overworked, with the family disintegrating (even as it assumes a kind of hyper-normativity), education is increasingly required to take on socialisation and pastoral care tasks, and to contain and manage a kind of inchoate discontent that certainly isn’t being expressed in political terms. Post-16 education has been massively expanded, without a commensurate increase in resources, so lecturers now have to deal with more and more students who don’t really want to be doing academic study, but who are effectively forced into staying on at school. Teachers and lecturers find themselves in an impossible position, having to continually switch between the disciplinary role of authority figure and the consumer role of ‘providing a service’.

Safe spaces might be easy to ridicule — having fallen victim to that process of reification that the Left can’t help but activate, turning an abstract concept into a deeply flawed concrete tenet (or, is this what the Right have done on their behalf through their own free speech hysteria?) — but in the context of the last decade, safe spaces can be seen as a partial attempt at resisting the bureaucratisation of what are otherwise innovative communities.

At their best, universities feel like experimental communities where people are enabled to think about and enact other ways of living. The Right may have a point that this is disproportionately the case for leftists, going on to run the Cathedral, but there are other potentials here too.

Not only can we consider safe spaces as antecedents to the decentralised ethics of some patches but universities in themselves were perhaps the battleground on which to convince the Left of the potentials of neocameralist models and that has really not gone very well. That doesn’t mean that patchwork is useless. It means that there are alternative ways of being that can — and must — take place adjacent to business models. I think the Left should actively try to figure them out.

In some respects, they’ve already started.




[1] This recently rediscovered article on the potential rotation of the left/right axis to a green/black axis is worth a read on this point, particularly due to is relevance with regards to exit politics.

[2] This video — and the two-part series as a whole — is good on this and on paradoxical points that entangled the free speech debates which often engulf situations like safe spaces, which we’ll come onto shortly but not in as much depth as the issue is explored there.

[3] I’ve written about “responsibility” in relation to social justice before on this blog but my views of this are in flux at the moment after reading this Twitter thread which made me question some of what I had previously said — so this is a topic worth redressing at another time, but social justice and responsibility are nonetheless central considerations for the Big Tent Left.

[4] S/O to this article in the New York Times: “Is the United States Too Big to Govern?”

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2 thoughts on “Identity Politics and Patchwork

  1. “Already, in my head, I hear the retorts that if we allow a kind of frontier trans* patch to exist, what is there to stop a patch for child molesters existing too? ”

    well, what is there to stop any patch from being sunk by its competitors/enermies? effective deterrence (which is why Moldbug figures in the hall of patchwork thinkers). if you can’t really defend yourself, all claims of independence (or, more to the point here, *safety*) are moot.

    (just poking at this because it’s been consistently under-emphasized so far in the talks about patchwork)

    Liked by 1 person

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