Sunday morning, I dropped £1 into the empty cardboard cup of a homeless person while the snow fell around us. It's the first time I've done such a thing in a while. It didn't make me feel good, it felt like a drop in the ocean. Earlier this week, the staff of my university went on strike. At one point, a picketing staff member jumped before me and asked warmly if I'd like to join. I said I couldn't, and walked on.
It's been a week for self-reflection, snowed in with my flatmate while the university got closed. I've thought especially about the strike. Why don't I care more? Is Slavoj Zizek right when he says that too many people are deceived by the illusion of identity politics? We fragment, focusing only on our own causes (in my case, trans activism), while the Universal Cause – addressing the inherent injustices of our global economic system – gets abandoned.
I'm writing to articulate how I feel, in case Zizek reads this post (as indeed, he must). The truth is, I feel little emotional connection with my university. I got my funding applications turned down back in 2016 and 2017; evidently I'm not worth investing in. Edinburgh University, I reciprocate. My relationship with you feels entirely transactional; I give you most of my life's savings, and you give me career support. At the protest gathering at the beginning of the week on Bristo Square, I heard one speaker attack the attitude of those who run the university: they treat students like customers. I thought to myself as I stood there in the freezing cold: unless you're funded, you are a fucking customer.
So far, so bitter. But let's broaden these reflections, as I'd like to express the greater complexity that these issues deserve. My sympathies are with the staff of Edinburgh University; their pensions are being put at risk, by being floated on the stock market. Who's doing this to our staff, and why? In this current, deregulated climate, stock market crashes are becoming the norm. What's happening to our university staff is further evidence of the race to the bottom, of those at the top squeezing higher profits in every conceivable way because the thing that matters most is profits, not people. Ethically, that's putting greed above compassion. Is this really the best agenda that humanity can come up with?
This brings me back to Zizek, and his anti-capitalist agenda (which, I guess, I share) and his view of identity politics (which I don't). Such is Zizek's dislike of and frustration with capitalism and how it continues to be embraced in democratic elections that he needs to find some scapegoats. These include the communities of LGBT, feminism, and black, minority and ethnic (BME) for dividing what should be a united front against our right-wing economic culture.
But in portraying LGBT/feminist/BME identities as de facto left wing, Zizek is guilty of essentializing. Let's stick with trans: Caitlyn Jenner, the Kardashian TV star, voted for Donald Trump. Punk songwriter Laura Jane Grace, on the other hand, uses her autobiography to emphasize her anti-neoliberal values, as does journalist and apparent socialist Juliet Jacques. The idea that trans people aren't able to balance trans activism with intersectionality is not only misinformed, but patronizing. Those trans people who don't like capitalism, will and do vote against it. It's nonsensical to believe we're too distracted by our trans lifestyles (whatever that means) to focus on the bigger, intersecting picture. In fact given that Zizek views trans issues (including the poverty, violence and mental health issues that many trans people suffer due to societal reaction) as peripheral, is it not Zizek who seems unable to look at the bigger picture, the Universal Cause? If trans or feminist or BME issues are simply lifestyle issues, doesn't this suggest that Zizek's cause is purely that of the white heterosexual male? With the added assumption that his needs are everyone's needs, his Cause is everyone's; and that everything outside of that is just fluff.
To say that identity politics is the province of minorities shows a lack of self-awareness. All politics is identity politics; what's important is acknowledging this, and seeing how our causes intersect, so that we can solve our problems together.In the meantime, here I sit, watching the snow and ice outside, knowing there are homeless people out there suffering, and that tomorrow the staff will resume their strike. How do I respond? Do I shrug off all the bitterness and grudges that have consumed me - not because of being trans, but because of the limitations of my character? Frozen as the ice I go, hopeful and uncaring.