I’m really enjoying chapter four of Deep Green Resistance, “Culture of Resistance.” Lierre Keith talks about alternative vs. oppositional culture and it’s a very necessary and well-written analysis. In an alternative culture, the social norms of the dominant culture are rejected and personal lifestyle changes are made in order to live outside the established norm, but no material changes are made to the rest of society and there may not be any political analysis. An oppositional culture is an organized political resistance that takes concrete steps to dismantle systems of power. Keith summarizes the differences between alternative and oppositional culture, while also noting that real life is not this black and white and people are often somewhere in the middle:
She then explains all of these points using examples from various alternative cultures from Europe and the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. When reading the characteristics of alternative culture, I kept seeing transgenderism over and over. Alternative culture names social conventions as the enemy and seeks to make personal changes in order to subvert them. Transgenderism names the “gender binary” as the enemy and seeks to make personal statements with hairstyle, clothing, and pronouns in order to resist this cultural convention; however, none of these personal lifestyle changes can challenge the real power that men have over women, and so the cultural construct of “gender binary” is slightly tampered with while the real problem of sex-based oppression remains intact. When you try to talk to transgenderists about the material reality of sex-based oppression they stick their fingers in their ears and sing ‘la, la, la’ to avoid engaging. They are an alternative culture who exist to make members of their group feel good about their personal identity. They are a politics of emotion that does not care about effective strategy.
Keith began chapter four with the sentence, “The culture of the left needs a serious overhaul.” I totally agree with this. In North America, the left has dissolved into a neo-liberal cesspool of identities and navel-gazing and no longer has any interest in challenging systems of power. I laughed at the sentence: “The contemporary alterna-culture won’t result in anything more sinister than silliness” (p124.) Indeed. Instead of trying to overthrow capitalism, we are sitting around fawning over men in dresses and calling political analysis “phobic.” We couldn’t possibly get any more pathetic at this point. Keith has excellent suggestions about the values and strategies the left should actually have. We need to be brave, committed, and loyal to each other. We need to create material support for our comrades who are resisting capitalism. (Sitting around talking about our pronouns is fucking daft!)
While talking about the Romantics, the Bohemians and the Beatniks, Keith makes some really excellent comments that, again, totally remind me of the transgenderists. They value “emotional intensity that rejects self-reflection, rationality and investigation,” (p130) and although they claim to reject the bourgeoisie, they also reject the radicals who attempt to create social and economic change.
“Their main project was to “reject…the conformity and materialism of the middle class,”* mostly through experimentation with drugs and sex, and to lay claim to both emotion and art as unmediated and transcendent.”(p131)
*(The quote within the quote is from Keith Melville’s Communes in the Counter Culture.)
This is so familiar. Alternative cultures are full of members of the middle class who claim to reject middle class values, but instead of dismantling the class system, they just hang around indulging in personal fun (“drugs and sex”). In other words, useless fucking wankers.
Keith goes on to explain that alternative cultures have always been created by youth and they reflect the biology and psychology of adolescence. Alternative youth cultures are focused on “the endless project of the self,” (p135), and believe that society’s main offense is suppression of their “always-authentic feelings” (p135). Their main activism is in breaking rules and crossing boundaries, sometimes just for the sake of performance and shock value. She really drives this point home when she gets into a criticism of how men on the left embrace pornography. When your alternative culture is based on breaking social rules rather than seeking justice, then there’s no reason why you can’t have the freedom to do what you want with women and children. There are many quotes in here that made me put down the book for a moment and say “Wow.” One of them is this:
“On a global scale, the naked female body—too thin to bear live young and often too young as well—is for sale everywhere, as the defining image of the age, and as a brutal reality; women and girls are now the number one product for sale on the global black market. Indeed, there are entire countries balancing their budgets on the sale of women. Is slavery a human rights abuse or a sexual thrill? Of what use is a social change movement that can’t decide?
We need to stake our claim as the people who care about freedom, not the freedom to abuse, exploit, and dehumanize, but freedom from being demeaned and violated, and from a cultural celebration of that violation.” (p148)
We need to therefore reject the adolescent aspect of alternative culture—such as the pursuit of personal freedom at the expense of others—and instead promote adult values such as responsibility, respect, and the serious pursuit of long-term goals toward a fair and sustainable culture.
I’ve been reading this book very slowly. In fact, I have read TWO fiction books since I started on DGR, probably as a way of procrastinating. This book requires me to do a lot of thinking and I often have to read passages more than once. It’s not light reading—it’s a book that will permanently change the way I think and it takes time to process. One of the things it makes me think about is how will I become a radical activist? How can I fit into this culture of resistance? I have no idea yet but this book is a great resource for getting me thinking.