A Program for the Destruction of Meaning: Identity, the Body, and Trans Narratives

This is a guest article submitted by Morgan.

A Program for the Destruction of Meaning

A Taxonomy of Identities. Inscription and Violence.

What is an identity? The most basic definition I am aware of is that it is culture in microcosm: a relationship between an individual and their social context. Quod est inferius est sicut quod est superius, et quod est superius est sicut quod est inferiusi. These relationships may be roughly taxonified: some are defined by personal characteristics, including – beyond the gender identities that are the topic of this essay – racial and ethnic identities, sexualities, variously abled identities such as that characterizing members of the Deaf community; others arise from material circumstance, such as national and class identities; and still more are products of choice, such as political identities, union identities, self-identifying movements or subcultures such as goths or hippies, various forms of esprit de corps. I am concerned principally with the first set of identities here, and unless specified otherwise any mention of “identity” may be taken in that sense.

The formation of an identity of this primary sort is a response to an enforced psychic territorialization, a confirmation of having been set apart. It is never a pre-emptive self-recognition; it is always a formalization of the violent inscription of Otherness on the subject. This is the great joke of classical psychoanalysis: “man”, rather than describing himself, instead describes, sets apart, and therefore identifies his Other, “woman”. “Man”, it is important to note, is not at all affected, at least directly: just as heterosexuals, cisii people, hearing people, and western whites are not usually thought of as identified, so too “man” is merely the default, the standard against which difference is measured and demarcated. And one might say it is an especial goal of feminist projects to make “man” feel as he has made “woman” feel. Not merely in the service of some Hammurabic vengeance, but in that making “man” consider himself as an identity is a necessary prerequisite to equality between women and men.

The setting-apart is not a purely metaphysical operation: the body is made to bear material significations of difference, to physically represent itself as Other. Deleuze and Guattari refer to the inscribing punishment-machine of Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, describing this violence committed upon bodies as the mechanism by which macrocosmic culture maintains, refines, and propagates itself: “Cruelty has nothing to do with some ill-defined or natural violence that might be commissioned to explain the history of mankind; cruelty is the movement of culture that is realized in bodies and inscribed on them, belaboring them” (145). This violence is not an immediate, personal thing, with a perpetrator directly intending and enacting hurt; it is instead the accumulation of individual cruelties, the hurts and the torments and the “corrections” that are intended solely to make an Other of the target. Each such instance of violence comprises another singular iteration of the ever-repeating punishment-machine, which taken together serve to confirm and codify the differences of the body of the victim. These signs are heavy with meaning for the individual: they are identity-marks, they can signify commonality with others, they ground one’s self-conception in the material. But for the culture considered in aggregate, they are nothing more than respiration.

Identity and Individuation

So identification is born of violence. This is hardly the fault of the multifarious identities so begotten! And as Deleuze and Guattari put it, this violence is the movement of culture: not exactly something we are able to dispense with, and were we, our culture and indeed our bodies would not be recognizable to us – for it is our bodies that are targeted by this violence, and it is the same violence that has given us our understandings of our selves. Still, many theorists have a difficult time of reconciling themselves to things as they are. Witness Judith Butler: “we may seek recourse to matter in order to ground or verify a set of injuries or violations only to find that matter itself is founded through a set of violations, ones which are unwittingly repeated in the contemporary invocation” (BTM, 29). She does, to her credit, admit that she is critiquing “something we cannot do without”; rather less creditable is that she does her best to do without it anyway, as she “continue[s] to hope for a coalition of sexual minorities that will transcend the simple categories of identity … that will counter and dissipate the violence imposed by restrictive bodily norms” (GT, xxvii). She thereby discards the actual and potential value of identification in her haste to combat a violence which is part and parcel of culture itself. Many of her followers do not even bother with such minimal lip service to this problem, a squeamishness one suspects is at the root of queer theory’s decades-long siege against the solidity of identification itself.

Aversion to these fruits of violence, however inescapable that violence is and however useful its fruits may be, is also what informed Andrea Dworkin’s utopian program, predicated as it was on the supersession of gender and the mechanization of the sexed work of childbirth (Ch. 9); it is there behind Haraway when she calls her cyborgs creatures “in a post-gender world”; it inspires Butler to call for the active dismantling of gender identities through infinite fracturing and a paradoxical “parodic” repetition and resignification (GT, 200). Even Halberstam, hardly a voice for conservative readings of gender, seems more than a little shocked and alarmed at realizing that such campaigns have actually worked to a certain degree, noting in 2005 that “many young gays and lesbians [now] think of themselves as part of a ‘post-gender’ world and for them the idea of ‘labeling’ becomes a sign of an oppression they have happily cast off in order to move into a pluralistic world of infinite diversity” (19).

It is not precisely diversity, however, that Halberstam blanches at; for her aims, and for those of other queer theorists, mere diversity is entirely too concrete. Butler complains, writing about being associated with lesbianism in the opening to her article “Imitation and Gender Insubordination”: “I would like to have it permanently unclear what precisely that sign signifies”. How best to accomplish this obfuscation? Taking the simplest possible definition of the lesbian identity – a woman who has sex with women – there are two terms which may be attacked. One might attempt to deny sexuality, assert that what she is doing is not sex by any of several rhetorical tricks; but ask any embarrassed politician how well those tactics worked for them! That leaves “woman” herself; however, Butler is cautious enough to avoid explicitly taking this approach in “Imitation”. Instead she implies, hints, equivocates, claiming that “to install [herself] within the terms of an identity category would be to turn against the sexuality that the category purports to describe; and this might be true for any identity category which seeks to control the very eroticism that it claims to describe and authorize, much less ‘liberate’”. She professes ignorance of a scare-quoted “theory” even as she invokes Foucault and Spivak as talismans against the specter of “totalization” of her self – a slight overestimation of the consequences of identification along the one axis of sexuality, to say the least. Still, looking at her other work, especially at her advocacy of a strictly social-constructionist “performative” model of gender, it is not too difficult to work out her line of reasoning: render “woman” an ambiguous sign, and any composition involving that sign becomes equally if not more ambiguous.

But obfuscating “woman” is no easy task. Primary identities such as gender are impossible to break on their own terms: they are too deeply rooted in physicality, a physicality natal to cis people and whose lack is experienced as dysphoria by trans people. So gender must first be extracted from its material foundation by asserting that it is a secondary (circumstantial) or even tertiary (adopted) identity, an act of calculated misapprehension or misconstrual which then enables the introduction of a profusion of alternative “identities” as being of equal theoretical validity to the identities “woman” and “man”, and which cannibalize them, diluting and distributing their many-fold meanings among themselves. No longer is gender a unifying class of signs; “woman” and “man” have become merely two individuations among many, and cannot themselves mean much at all any more – nothing can. This is not the diversity Halberstam decries, for within diversity there still exist multiple skeins of unity framing the manifold whole. This product of the program of individuation is a shattered psychosocial landscape in which the unified nature of the self held above all inevitably leads to alienation: in other words, a libertarian paradise.


Poststructuralism abhors a static binary, and, generally speaking, its suspicion is well-placed. The current state of gender politics does not exactly give the lie to Muriel Dimen’s assertion that “a binary always conceals a hierarchy” (7). But at these deeper strata, where we see not identities and constructions but the bodies in and upon which they are inscribed and built, such framing assumptions are not always helpful. We know sex to be two, broadly speaking; researchers such as Anne Fausto-Sterling have made intersex conditions out to be sexes in their own right, but it is important to note both that she locates them on a continuum between “female” and “male” poles rather than outside them, and that intersexed people tend in any case to identify themselves as women and men, even to the point that some, trans as well as intersex, defy the surgical assignments of sex made in their infancyiii. For Deleuze and Guattari too, the binary of sex is fundamental: “everyone is bisexual, everyone has two sexes, but partitioned, noncommunicating; the man is merely the one in whom the male part, and the woman the one in whom the female part, dominates statistically” (69).

Gender being a relationship between an individual and their culture built up from this sexed binary, it follows that it is twoiv as well. This is effectively borne out, not just by the mass of cis people gendering themselves as expected, but even by the supposed exceptions. As Evan Towle and Lynn Morgan point out, the very concept of a “third gender” is a recent Western anthropological invention “produced by a society just beginning to grapple with the theoretical, social, political, and personal consequences of nondichotomous gender variability”, and is applied for Western reasons to non-Western cultures – particularly by postmodernist queer and gender theorists in order to appropriate cross-cultural understandings and expressions of gender to shore up their own political viewpoints. Worse, such appropriation both ignores the cultural contexts in which “third genders” exist and even works against its own ostensible goals. As Towle and Morgan put it, “By focusing on hijras, for example, American readers may be less inclined to inquire about or to investigate other Indian discourses around sex and gender. The ‘third gender’ concept encourages students to think that ‘the natives’ must have only one alternative to the dichotomous gender system available to them.”

Anuja Agrawal notes that these cultural understandings do “not, by implication, sever sex from gender. It is only when sex is understood in fixed binary terms that such a separation from gender becomes imperative in view of the presence of a third gender which seemingly negates the mimetic relation between sex and gender.” Further on, she adds that “it is even possible that the greater the number of genders the greater their oppressive potential as each may demand the conformity of the individual within increasingly narrower confines.” Her “third gender”, too, is not merely a gender in isolate: it reifies itself and modifies sex, such that “the hijra identity crystallises only with either the prior possession or the subsequent acquisition of a ‘correct body’, here a castrated one.” Gender is not freefloating, but is linked to and even reciprocal with sex; there are not two sexed embodiments, but three. This latter point, the culturally-bound understanding of sex itself, is incompatible with the Deleuzean approach I have taken; however, the proliferation of genders she cautions against is precisely what the individualizing program is intended to bring about. And in order for this program to begin its work, it is imperative that the stable binary, which precludes the usurpation of identities by individuations, be replaced by a more open model.

The Transgender, Quote-Unquote

The set of individuations which the social-constructionist program positions to replace gender are collectively invoked as the figure of ‘the transgender’, an amorphous Other-to-all. The only criterion for inclusion is whether an individuation may be said to ‘subvert’ the heavily-constrained genders considered valid by the hegemonic processes at work within the culture. So in the name of postmodernism, queer theorists throw butch dykes, drag performers, male-identified transvestic fetishists, and others together side-by-side without heed for how they see themselves. This all has little to do with trans people as we actually exist, and unsurprisingly, much of this work appears to have been done by people able to treat gender dissonance more as an academic exercise than as a potentially deadly lived reality.

There are trans people who assert that we are included under this ‘transgender umbrella’, but as Jay Prosser points out in a critique of Butlerian theory, “there are transsexuals who seek very pointedly to be nonperformative, to be constative, quite simply, to be. What gets dropped from transgender in its queer deployment to signify subversive gender performativity is the value of the matter that often most concerns the transsexual: the narrative of becoming a biological man or a biological woman (as opposed to the performative of effecting one) – in brief and simple the materiality of the sexed body” (32). While Prosser is gesturing specifically toward the various physical processes of transitioning, there is a broader point there as well: that trans narratives are predicated on physical sex and on the existence of a gender binary more or less continuous from it, a point A to start from and a point B to cross (trans) over to, a concreteness which the proliferation of individuations is intended to destroy. There is no shortage of construction built on top of gender, no limit to the subjectivities of living it; but denying the physicality from which it springs is to deny us ourselves.

Halberstam responds to Prosser’s critique of Butlerian theory by attempting to further extend the rupture queer theory places between physicality and identity. She opens by claiming to be “totally sympathetic” (50) to his argument that queer theory deploys trans significations in ways that are actively hostile to trans narratives, but this sympathy turns out to be nothing more than an insincere courtesy. She goes on to blithely ignore the subjectivity of embodied experience: ”after all, what actually constitutes the real for Prosser in relation to the transsexual body? The penis or the vagina? Facial hair or shaved legs? Everyday life as a man or a woman?” (51). Instead, she favors a subjectivity of “realness” – the eternal pursuit of an unattainable physicality, which she claims is “precisely the transsexual condition” (52) even as she identifies it equally with “transgendered” individuations; her example of choice is a drag contest. For Halberstam, gender identity at odds with sexed physicality is void, and we are instead all of us hapless Melmoths, doomed to chase after an ever-elusive embodiment – for all that, however undeniable it is that one never really finishes transitioning, we are still just as physical as cis people and must eventually come to terms with that, one way or another.

Matters of Vocabulary

Outside academia, the term ‘transgender’ has been recoded by those at whom it halfheartedly gestures, to the point that the academic use as an umbrella of individuations is now referred to as I have put it above, the ‘transgender umbrella’. The term ‘transgendered’ is now frequently preferred as a descriptor to ‘transsexual’. A few commonly given reasons for the adoption of the term are: that it signifies inclusion of those who experience gendered dysphoria but will not or cannot seek out genital surgery, for whatever reason; that the adjectival form must be used as a modifier (when necessary to highlight my status, I describe myself as a ‘transgendered woman’, or shorten it to ‘trans woman’) rather than the noun indicating totality of nature and connoting a third-sexednessv; and an aversion to anything that might link one’s dysphoria to sex-as-verb rather than sex-as-noun, a rhetorical timidity it is difficult to find fault with given the extent to which we are simultaneously fetishized and despised as the ‘ultimate fetishists’ ourselves.

Related to the recoding of ‘transgender’, the individuations to which queer theorists apply the term are frequently grouped as ‘genderqueer’, both to avoid confusion with the trans people the academic term occludes as well as to draw an association to the activist program of queering – which, it must be acknowledged, is quite a useful thing in itself. As a political program of gender activism, it serves to expand conceptions of what can constitute gender expression and to demonstrate that “valid” gender expressions are not necessarily restricted to being the antitheses of expressions associated with the Other gender – both of which help those of us who end up expressing an Other gender than what we were supposed to have been born with. It is not without its downsides: I remember once discussing being trans with someone, only for him to respond: “oh, I know what that’s like, I used to dress all weird, do the tranny thing for goth shows back in the day”; reading my process of signifying my identity as of a kind with his individualizing expression.

A further recent development of vocabulary has been the addition of an asterisk after the shortened form: trans*. Following the use of the asterisk as a wildcard character in computing, this term explicitly orients discussion of identity towards strict social constructionism. While it is still used to refer to the individuations grouped under the ‘transgender umbrella’, gender and sex are conspicuously absent from the form, making it a symbolic rather than an indexical rheme. It is hence vulnerable to overcoding for still other individuations, gendered and otherwise; perhaps this is intentional, since if being is entirely socially constructed, who can say what is not valid ground for reterritorialization by individuation?

Appropriation as Praxis

Queer theorists have already made mock identities out of particular ‘subversive’ expressions and other qualities by enshrining them as ‘transgender’. But these are insufficient in that they are still shared and held in common, and by groups of people who may not even think of them as identities at that. The individualizing machine will not stop until every person is made unique. So new gender individuations must be manufactured and still new ones from those: we now have people who claim to be ‘agendered’; ‘bigendered’, either in having qualities associated with a stereotype of either binary gender, or, even less defensibly, in switching identification apparently at random; ‘genderfluid’, as the latter definition of ‘bigendered’ except contextualized against the profusion of individuations instead of the binary of identity; ‘butch’, making a particular style of expression connected with lesbian sexual identities a gender unto itself; and others. Many such individuations ‘borrow’ the notion of traversing gender expressions from trans narratives and make of it – instead of a grueling and unpleasant but generally necessary part of living with gendered dysphoria – an ‘identity’ in and of itself, even a mark of pride.

Meanwhile, parallel dramas are playing out in other identity categories: people are inventing and reinventing individualizing sexualities, manufacturing “orientations” out of frequency of sexual activity, desire for romantic as well as sexual fulfilment, a dubious attraction to intelligence to the wholesale exclusion of physical characteristics, kink (again), etc. It is a long list, and, as might be expected from a recursive program of this kind, it is only getting longer. And beyond sexual identities, there are those, particularly in various online communities such as Tumblr and LiveJournal, claiming to identify – individuating themselves – as ‘transspecies’vi, ‘transfat’, ‘transabled’vii, ‘transethnic’viii. Such individuations co-opt the terminology, theoretical concepts, struggles, and narratives of trans people, in the latter cases in order to enable their further appropriation.

Of the people engaged in these patently ridiculous forms of appropriation, many if not most seem to be exactly the kind of person whom one would not expect to bother with them: heterosexual, cisgendered, white, abled. The extreme dysfunction of the communities which exhibit this behavior is beyond the scope of this essay, and in any case owes less in the end to any branch of critical theory than it does to a highly toxic interpersonal dynamic. But it is exacerbated by the piecemeal absorption of postmodernist, poststructuralist, and queer theory that characterizes these communities and enables them to justify their appropriative behavior with appeals to the individuatory program. Their appropriation is an extreme example, but extreme or not, appropriation is the practical counterpart to the theoretical work against concrete identification. It is the process of converting another’s (or an Other’s) identity into an individuation for the self, of severing it from its physical matrix, tearing it apart and refashioning it, an operation that must be repeated until all meaning deriving from materiality has been destroyed and myriad individuations float cloudlike above the body, unsullied by contact with base matter.


The adoption and promulgation of strict social constructionism by queer theorists is founded in a myopic unwillingness to consider products of the inherently violent movement of culture as useful and meaningful in their own right. Instead of working with identity as it exists and relates to physicality, or even making their project the mitigation of this violence as far as possible, they have determined that the whole system is rotten at its core – notwithstanding that the violence that they abhor is not merely patriarchy or heteronormativity or any of the other hegemonic processes, but instead is that which gave birth to these and to still other processes, including those that actively combat hegemonic oppression and erasure.

The social-constructionists propose that identity be severed from physicality, so as to circumvent this violence entirely. But not only is this a project with ramifications far more extensive than they may suspect, it is also doomed to failure: its only possible success condition is nothing less than the abandonment of extant understandings and physical realities of embodiment and the replacement of culture with an infinite – and infinitely alienating – uniqueness. The true danger lies in what it will do before it fails. The individualizing program is inherently and directly hostile to the narratives of trans people, predicated as they are on the normativity of continuity between physicality and identity, and the restoration of that continuity in the instances in which it has been ruptured.


Anuja Agrawal, “Gendered Bodies: The Case of the “Third Gender” in India”. Contributions to Indian Sociology 31:2 (1997), p. 273-297.

Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (London 1993: Routledge)

Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London 1990: Routledge)

Judith Butler, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination”, in: Diana Fuss (ed.), Inside/Out (London 1991: Routledge)

Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus (Minneapolis, MN 2000: University of Minnesota Press)

Muriel Dimen, Sexuality, Intimacy, Power (London 2003: The Analytic Press)

Andrea Dworkin, Woman Hating (New York, NY 1974: Plume)

Anne Fausto-Sterling, “The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough”. The Sciences (1993), p. 20-25.

Judith Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place (New York, NY 2005: New York University Press)

Donna Haraway,  “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”, in: Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London 1990: Routledge)

Jay Prosser, Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality (New York, NY 1998: Columbia University Press)

Evan B. Towle & Lynn M. Morgan, “Romancing the Transgender Native: Rethinking the use of the “Third Gender” Concept”. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 8:4 (2002), p. 469-497.


iFrom the Emerald Tablet of Hermes: “That which is below is like unto that which is above, and that which is above is like unto that which is below.”

iiThe inverse of the Latin trans, used as a shorthand for “not-transgendered”.

iiicf Reiner & Kropp “A 7-year Experience of Genetic Males with Severe Phallic Inadequacy Assigned Female” (2004); Minto et al “The effect of clitoral surgery on sexual outcome in individuals who have intersex conditions with ambiguous genitalia: a cross-sectional study”, Lancet 2003; as well as case studies such as those in Catherine Harper’s Intersex.

ivThe criticism that the binary genders as they operate today are unnaturally constrained by patriarchy and other hegemonic processes, and that gender expression can and should be far broader than is currently allowed by these processes, is entirely well-founded if somewhat beyond the scope of this essay. My defense of gender identity as binary should not be construed as a defense of these constraints on expression.

vIt bears reinforcing that “trans” is not an identity, but rather describes a process of amending as best possible a break or discontinuity between a normally-continuous identity and physicality.

viMore commonly referred to, by others and by themselves, as “otherkin” and/or “therian”, and always presenting with a specific “kintype” such as wolf, cat, or dragon. However, a significant and vocal minority continue to use “transspecies” and to claim a comparability of experience and embodiment with trans people in spite of repeated requests for them to stop by trans members of these communities.

viiThe opposite of what one might expect on hearing the term: “transabled” people are abled people who co-opt the signifiers of disability rather than the other way around.

viiiThis term is already used to describe children adopted by parents of other ethnicities; the sense here is of, say, a white person in no such circumstance claiming to truly be Japanese.

Syria: A Chemical Romance

This is a repost of my article at The North Star.

All empires produce the same lies. That their enemies (ever changing) are barbarians; that they defend civilization, honor, and morality against the latter’s outrages; that they provide the necessary peace and stability for a world that would fall into chaos absent their muscle; and that any action is justified to this end, however apparently remote from these lofty goals, because of the need to maintain the empire’s ‘credibility’ in the face of its domestic and foreign opposition. This credibility, of course, has nothing to do with what one normally understands by that. It is not a matter of being honest or truthful or transparent in one’s dealings. Empires are never any of these things: a tyrant can be an important ally one day and a cruel enemy of humanity the next, like the erstwhile ruler of Iraq. One can declare that the tyrant of Syria has crossed an internationally recognized moral line by the alleged use of chemical weapons, when one has repeatedly done the same. One can decry the Assad government as oppressive and violent, which it certainly is, and that it kills civilians on a large scale when threatened, which it certainly does, and yet see no harm in an absolute monarchy doing precisely the same thing with the active support of the empire.

Why then care about the empire’s moral denunciations, one way or the other? Empires have no morality, in the end, except to believe that without them things would be worse. This is a truth happily affirmed by the imperialist right, the ‘realists’ who defend it exactly in those terms, as one can read in any book by the likes of Niall Ferguson, Max Boot, and so forth. In this sense, they are more honest than the liberal moralists who take on the burden of the world unasked for, and when so playing the giant Atlas care little about whom they trample underfoot. The only honesty of imperialism is the straightforward presentation of the empire’s interests, but this rarely motivates anyone much. That is why all the ‘realist’ literature has the wink wink, nudge nudge tone of the old boys club: ‘you’re not supposed to say this, of course, but privately, we all know that’… On the other hand the moralist imperialists are possibly even worse, since unlike the realists there is no empirical content to their reasonings at all. The mission civilisatrice is both conclusion and point of departure of their arguments, and the ‘responsibility to protect’, as Freddie de Boer has pointed out, is justified exclusively by counterfactuals that nobody can contest, because they never happened. It is perhaps this cynicism that finally led to the surprising defeat of the British government on its motion for punitive strikes on Syria; a sign perhaps that the antiwar movement has had at least an indirect effect on the ‘credibility’, in the imperialist sense, of such arguments.

Given this, the whole charade about whether chemical weapons have been used and if so, whether by Assad or his subordinates or perhaps somehow by the rebels is rather beside the point. We know already that the regime of Assad has killed tens of thousands and is willing to continue to do so to remain in power, a power which it has used for the purposes of the self-aggrandizement of a long-necked eye doctor and the naked plunder of the country’s produced wealth. As with Assad senior before him, Bashar al-Assad’s pretend ‘anti-imperialism’ fools only those who want to be fooled by it. Even the pretense of a developmental dictatorship, once the rationale for the nationally-oriented middle classes in the Arab world to support the pan-Arabic Ba’ath programme, has faded entirely. Assad makes deals with Israel while pretending to be champion anti-Zionist, and keeps the peace in the Golan Heights. He pretends to be the saviour of the Arab dignity against the empire, just like Saddam Hussein did, while being equally happy to do what the empire wants when this suits his rule, just like Saddam Hussein did. This is illustrated by his enthusiastic participation in the CIA’s ‘extraordinary rendition’ program. (In Saddam’s case, of course, the cooperation consisted of going to war with Iran: a conflict sponsored by the West… with chemical weapons.) Nor is Assad serious about some kind of developmental programme in the style of the 20th century’s ‘postcolonial’ period. On the contrary, like all the other rulers whose predecessors justified their rule in developmental terms, he has given up even this raison d’être in the face of the pressure of the world market, and has undertaken a neoliberal turn of his own; one which maps remarkably well onto the central sites of rebellion against his dictatorship.

The argument about chemical weapons should then be left for what it is. It matters not tremendously whether thousands die through artillery bombardment or through chemical weapons. This is not to say that the ‘international taboo’ on chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and the desire to rid all states of these should be treated cynically by the left. On the contrary, the effects of such weapons have become all the more visible by the latest incident of their use, and it underlines their fundamentally profoundly anti-human nature. It is all the more significant because due to technological constraints, it is generally (though not universally) a set of weapons only usable by states against their subjects, and this should give us all the more reason to uniformly oppose their existence, let alone their use. But what does deserve to be treated with contempt is the notion of their being such a taboo in the first place, and that the United States and the cruise missile moralists are the correct instruments for enforcing it.

As mentioned, the empire was all too happy for one of the worst tyrants of the last few decades, Saddam Hussein, to have all manner of chemical weapons, as long as he used them on the empire’s foe, Iran. That he promptly turned these weapons on entire peoples who resisted his rule, and that this could be readily foreseen, counted for very little. The very same story applies in Syria, where the UK had no problem permitting the export of the relevant chemicals to the Syrian government even long after the civil war in Syria had begun. (And no such materials are ever sent anywhere without this being a conscious choice of foreign policy, as those suffering the boycotts of the West, like the peoples of Iran and Cuba, can attest.) I have also mentioned the use of white phosphorus and depleted uranium by the US in Iraq, and could add the use of the former by Israel in Gaza in 2008 to that. And going further back, was this taboo on chemical weapons not established in the first place because of their large scale use in the First World War – precisely by powers like France, the UK, the US and Germany, who are now the enforcers?

One could of course think they have, wisely, learned from the experience. But the persistence of their supply to third party dictators suggests otherwise. What it suggests is that, like the WMD excuse for the war on Iraq, this obsession with punitive strikes and invasions has little to do with the enforcement of taboos on violence (which are obeyed only in the breach) and everything to do with the shoring up of the ‘credibility’ of the empire – the spirit here is not the melancholia of Wilfred Owen, but the older spirit of quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi. Who have learned from the experience are the people who suffer the effects of that mentality, the ones who have to endure the notion of missile strikes to liberate them from bombardments, or the generations that suffered the threat of nuclear destruction at the hands of the players of game theory. It is the empires and their supporters that have a chemical romance, and so do the petty tyrants that now appear as necessary allies, now again as dangerous madmen possessed of powerful weapons, as suits the mood of the day in Washington or London.

The only answer for the left can be, as always, a pox on both their houses. Nothing is sillier than the notion that in such conflicts, it becomes necessary to see one or another party as the instrument of liberation, just because they are the protagonists to the fight. We need not choose between Washington and Damascus, and indeed, it would mean absolutely nothing if we did. From neither, any form of emancipation can be expected except that final emancipation from the flesh that comes from the receiving end of a bomb or bullet. Moreover, as the anti-war coalition in 2003 also showed, the left today does not possess the power to prevent our own states from going to war, let alone that we figure in the calculations of the Syrian Army or the insurgents. It is therefore pointless to engage in grandstanding on behalf of one or another party, and the left habit of ‘upholding’ by means of uncritical whitewashing this or that side in every conflict is as pointless as it is undignified. We should not call on our states to shoot missiles, nor to send arms to the insurgents, about whom we know nothing and whose victory, if it is to have any emancipatory content at all, must take place without NATO armaments in any case. We should also not declare ourselves supporters of the tyrant of Damascus, who inherited his throne from his father (not unlike his rivals in the Gulf). His only claim to rule consists in the proven will of the Assad dynasty to level entire cities, if that’s what it takes to quell any resistance.

As always, it remains right to rebel. One cannot blame the Syrian insurgents, armed and unarmed – and it is worth pointing out that Assad’s brutal repression of unarmed resistance led to the civil war – for rising against a dictatorship that has no more legitimacy than Pinochet did. The interventions from the Gulf states have strengthened immeasurably the position of the religious reactionaries in this struggle. But this should illustrate for the left the futility of expecting regimes explicitly opposed to any emancipatory politics to sustain such politics by means of proxy war, whether Saudi Arabia or the US. What the left can’t usefully do is playing the great game of states, all the more in the absence of any state at all committed to the victory of the remaining left anywhere in the world. In most these countries, the left was only strong insofar as it was entirely beholden to the support of Moscow, and this put them in a great strategic difficulty as soon as actual revolutionary situations were to arise requiring local initiative, or if Moscow’s support were to fall away – as proven by the defeat of the left in Iran in 1979, and its virtual collapse since the fall of the USSR.

Perhaps out of the fires of the present wars in the MENA region, a new left can arise, one that obtains its strength from the struggles in the region itself, not from franchising to this or that foreign movement or international (and this includes, of course, the Trotskyist ones). But the rise of such a left is not helped by grandstanding from socialists abroad, nor from foreign interventions, nor from dressing up every political action or insurgency as being ‘really’ based in the extremely narrow organized industrial working classes of Egypt, Syria, or Iraq. Indeed, in most of the region the pervasive unemployment and unproductivity of labor makes a classically proletarian politics for now impossible: a consequence of the immense weakness of its capital, whose position is further undermined by the strength and activities of the rentier monarchies of the Gulf. All the same, countries full of young, unemployed people without a future are hotbeds for revolt in all of history, all the more so when they’re largely urbanized and not among the most desperately poor of the world. The response to this, triggered by rising food prices and the increasing weakness of the local dictators, has been a (proto-)revolutionary process – not a social revolution in economic relations, but a political process of rising consciousness and opposition to the corrupt and ineffective regimes of the region. The removal of these regimes is the absolute prerequisite for any genuinely revolutionary movement, needless to say.

It should be taken and supported as such, without any illusions about working class revolutionary politics and without the absurd theatre of ‘position taking’ every time foreign powers intervene for or against it. Ultimately, the present conflicts have nothing to do with ‘anti-imperialism’, chemical weapons, or any of these moral tales any more than the European conflicts of 1848 did. Our attitude should be that of 1848 as well: no foreign interventions, no ‘upholding’ or moralism, no overblown expectations. There may still be disagreement as to the means and the right groups to support, as is to be expected when the left is weak and has to substitute empty endorsements for action. But let’s not make this into a moral allegory. That we can oppose the tyrants, oppose the empire, and oppose the weapons of mass destruction they equally peddle in is clear enough, but it is a starting point, not a conclusion. It does not thereby prove the opposition to be the vehicle for socialist emancipation. It can’t be otherwise: there is presently no basis for such a politics. The rebellions of 1848 were all politically justified to the last, but none of them was justified by the historical conditions, and none of them could or did lead to a socialist politics. The same is true for the present 1848, the 1848 of the MENA region. I hope that the current conflicts end better than 1848 did, with its subsequent Bonapartism, though Egypt seems to suggest otherwise. Cynicism is never useful. But only by being honest about the real nature of conditions, precisely as empires and dictators can never be, can the left go beyond the moral tales of chemicals and revolutionaries.