Against the Cultural Politics of Softness, or How to Kill Your Own Power

Against the Cultural Politics of Softness; or How to Kill Your Own Power

You get hyped by the font in the death warrant
By the grain of the wood in the electric chair
The accent of the undertaker
By the architecture of police stations
By the reflection on the gun
By the crackle of the flame
You get hyped by the aesthetic of rebellion
No questions asked

You are not a riot.

- The Coup, “You Are Not a Riot”

Introduction—“This Fucking Sucks”

This essay is a response to a piece in GUTS Magazine by Andi Schwartz entitled “The Cultural Politics of Softness”. In this article, Schwartz outlines a recent trend within the culture, and traces its origins to a certain form of emotionality that they claim originates within feminist and queer spaces. Schwartz has done a great service in outlining in clear terms (and in relatively short form) the drive for a culture of softness within activist and social scenes on the left. They have outlined some key artists, instagram “influencers” and even corporations who have taken on this cultural shift.

In this piece, I am going to take issue with several of the points raised in Schwartz’s article, and in the “Softness Culture” movement in general. I will discuss the fundamental misunderstanding of patriarchy that it oftens conveys, critique the centrality of emotions and performance to its praxis, and ultimately discuss the ways in which it is a reflection of a bourgeois cultural fetish for emotion, and an expression of capitalistic individualism.

The article that Schwartz has written is an offensive piece of ideological work, a microcosm of the movement it is trying to summarise, which for all its pretensions to kindness and earnestness, serves ultimately to demobilise and harm the people it wants to protect. Despite the good intentions of its author, it is misogynistic, reactionary and deeply counter-revolutionary in its implication.

It is about killing our own power before it has even begun to grow. It fucking sucks.

Part One—The Use and Misuse of Feminist Concepts

At the centre of the movement for radical softness is a particular account of masculinity, femininity and gender expression, and how these social constructions relate to patriarchy. In the piece, Schwartz argues that the politics of softness, which is “a general orientation to the world that foregrounds vulnerability, emotionality, and earnestness”, is a rejection of a way of relating to each other which is masculine and toxic. This toxicity denies the interconnectedness of people, and seeks to encourage people to be detached, ironic, self-fulfilling beings who exist in an emotional vacuum.

In contrast, by performing vulnerability and emotionality, and admitting when we have been injured, we can tap into a deeper, more feminine cultural politics, that centres the experiences of “femmes”, who can express their traumatic experiences with the patriarchal order, and make appeals to our common humanity to show how they have been harmed by an unjust world. This politics is an interesting one, and it centres on a particular understanding of masculinity and femininity. In this theorisation, patriarchy is a cult of the masculine, which upholds masculinity as virtuous and powerful, and seeks to denigrate the feminine as weak and inferior—and undesirable. Therefore, by embodying “feminine” forms of emotionality and vulnerability, a form of resistance is born. As Schwartz outlines in their article:

The association of vulnerability with femininity and womanhood is part of what makes it so uncomfortable to a patriarchal society. The turn to softness, then, is an affront to patriarchal rule. It is evidence that we are losing patience with the primacy of the individual, with the fiction of independence. We are collapsing under the pressure to be chill, to be detached—from both each other and our own humanity. We’re using what has been feminized to chase out these hollow masculinist principles that do not represent us or serve us.

This line of argument sounds appealing, from a certain point of view. It is however, a total fantasy. Patriarchy is not a cult of masculinity, nor is patriarchy a system that oppresses femininity. Patriarchy is a system that empowers men, and oppresses women (and non-binary people). This is an important distinction for two reasons.

Firstly, it is important to remember that systems of oppression are always oppressing people. Real living people of flesh and blood. Identities, abstracted from the people who bare them, cannot be oppressed. Nor can something like gendered presentation. It is people who are oppressed, who suffer, who are downtrodden. This is regardless of the scripts used by those in power to justify the oppression—while ideological attacks on a given identity may be harnessed to degrade a group or justify oppression, to see identity as the victim of oppression in itself is to confuse the scripts of the powerful for their actual intention.

Secondly, it is vital to recognise the fact that patriarchy is not a cultural preference system. It is a system of oppression that is designed to exploit women for their labour—and both masculinity and femininity are constructions of that system. Both models are constructed for the purpose of managing gender relations in such a way that it continues the processes of social reproduction that are the material basis for the oppression of women within class society. To ignore this is to not only reject a materialist analysis of women’s oppression (and thus any hope of ending patriarchy), but also to disconnect oneself from the actual experiences of oppressed women and non-binary folk in the face of patriarchy.

Thus, if masculinity and femininity are both patriarchal constructions, then surely valorising either as an emancipatory cultural form is nonsensical—both are reflections of the demands of a patriarchal society. Just as masculinity, with its demands upon men to act and behave in certain ways, is a function of the patriarchy, so too is femininity, which brings its own demands on women—to be vulnerable, to be quiet, to not be demanding, to not be strong, to not be capable in a public, direct way.

The answer to the riddle of toxic masculinity is not then to embody a more feminine form of cultural performance, but to transcend both. But this is a point I will return to later.

It is here that the fundamental misogyny of the piece comes forward. To ask women and non-binary folk to lead the way in being more vulnerable, more emotionally open, more understanding, and to valorise this as a political act is deeply sexist, and actively reinforces the subordinate position of women as doormats and purely emotional beings who must, by necessity of their gender, be so much more caring and nurturing than men.

The reality is that performing weakness does not make us stronger. Does this mean that we need to deny our emotions, or simply ignore the fact that life is hard, and even harder if you are a victim of systematic oppression? No, of course not. But no one is arguing for such a program. By setting oneself up against the enemy of emotionlessness in the activist scene, one constructs a problem by proposing a solution.

The politics of solidarity have long offered the answer the paradox of individuality. By working together, we can solve the conflict between individual and community, between self-growth and social change, by building communities of struggle, resilience and more importantly political action against the state, patriarchy and capitalism.

Part Two—The Culture Fetish

Here we can stop to reflect on a deeper problem with Schwartz’s article, and with the Radical Softness movement more broadly—it continues the liberal fetish for culture.

Liberalism, especially the form of radical liberalism which have come to plague social movements in the past few decades, has a deep and abiding fetish for culture. As liberals, these activists and dilettantes have a deep distaste for actual class struggle, organisation and popular power—the actual motor force of revolutionary transformation. As a substitute, liberals have often fixated on culture as a means of transforming society—they believe they are fighting a never-ending Gramscian war of position, where they are changing the culture from within, shifting our “paradigms” and modes of thought, without the need for all the messy revolution stuff (like the armed insurrection that Gramsci actually advocated for).

By believing that by changing the culture one can transform politics, liberals have systematically failed to transform much at all, continuously losing power to reactionaries who do understand politics and crush them every time. The Radical Softness movement is a reflection of this same fetish, and leads to the same defeats.

By believing that we can transform the way that people relate to each other without transforming the economy or the political life of our communities, advocates of radical softness are practicing the worst form of idealism—the belief that it is ideas (or in this case, emotional performance) that transform the world. In doing so, the Radical Softness movement is draping itself in the cloak of radicalism, while selling a political framework which can and will be used to attack the stout and defiant heart of radical politics: militant struggle. Radical queers and feminists need to recognise this turn for what it is—an embrace of neoliberal individualism and the sordid worldview it sells.

As Marx and Engels outlined in the Communist Manifesto, the emergence of capitalism strips away pre-existing social bonds. The elevation of accumulation to the highest principle and the extension of the market economy and the “cash nexus” to every aspect of social life destroys all forms of community, family and faith, tearing apart every social grouping and leaving us alienated, isolated and lonely. The cultural ideology that follows is individualism. Individualism holds that people are essentially isolated, alone and self-interested. Even more importantly, it disregards on the ontological level the possibility of collective action or community, because it is impossible to forge the bonds of solidarity necessary to mobilise such action.

The proponents of radical softness would be horrified to hear that they are promoting such a dangerous culture. It is definitely not their intention. But that does not change the reality. By promoting cultural affectation and personal lifestyle choices (such as lifestyles of emotionality) as a mode of social transformation, the Radical Softness movement promotes an individualist view of social change, where individuals make choices about their own lifestyles, and interact with other atomised, individualised units.

By pinning the hopes of the Radical Softness movement to the actions of corporate advertisers and the culture industry, Schwartz inadvertently shows how little radical potential such a movement really has.

Part Three - Weapons of Our Enemies

Andi Schwartz makes an interesting point in their article—a point which leads directly to the brutal denouement of this piece (and this movement). They point out that companies such as WonderBread and various beauty and lifestyle brands have been helping to promote softness culture, and chalk this up to a win. These “unlikely ambassadors” are helping a radical movement grow, claims Schwartz. If anything shows the utter farce of this pantomime of radicalism, it is this claim.

The political strategy that is being advocated here by Schwartz and others, is one that seeks to build a coalition between queer and feminist voices and movements, and the bourgeois culture industry. By supporting the companies and products that are uplifting the messages of radical softness, we can use the power and reach of these institutions to boost progressive, or even radical, messages, and transform the culture from within.

This is a delusion, of course, but not an uncommon one in the contemporary left. Many have abandoned a radical critique of the culture industry as an institution of capitalist power to be opposed. In this framework, an understanding was cultivated that the press, the media institutions and popular culture were all institutions that served to construct capitalist cultural hegemony, due to the fact that they are all dominated by the monetary and cultural influence of the capitalist class.

However, in recent years, it seems that a new trend has emerged amongst the progressive left. Instead of seeing the culture industry as an enemy to be confronted and defeated (along with the rest of the ideological state apparatus), the culture industry is viewed as a battleground where one can win social reforms through changing the composition of the media class. In this view, the aesthetic construction and public composition of the culture industry are in fact a measure of social progress (rather than being an aspect of recuperation by the ruling class).

By abandoning a radical critique of the culture industry in exchange for a liberal compromise with establishment culture, these progressives have left themselves open to being easily recuperated and systematically de-fanged. And by pinning the hopes of the Radical Softness movement to the actions of corporate advertisers and the culture industry, Schwartz inadvertently shows how little radical potential such a movement really has.

Towards a Cultural Politics of Revolutionary Action

What then is the alternative to radical softness? Surely it is to build a revolutionary culture that allows us to be fully human. To experience and nurture toughness, kindness, love and rage within a movement that aims to transform human society through our collective action. There is no single way to embody a good praxis through interpersonal relationships—there is no cultural affect that will save us. Instead we need to build solidarity and construct revolutionary unity on the basis of what we do, not what we say (or how we say we act).

The politics of softness abhors action, strength and dignity in the face of subjugation, and it abscribes to women and queer people vulnerability, weakness and “softness” as ahistorical virtues.

We need an alternative. Revolutionary action has no individualistic affect, and it cannot be imitated. It cannot be contained to our private lives, nor does it see the personal as the primary space for praxis. It demands deeds, not words, and wants to elevate women and queer people to the protagonists of history—not props in some convoluted cultural struggle.

Anni McAllen is a latter-day Bolshevik, communist organiser, trans woman and mediocre blogger. She writes about political economy, revolution and queer, working class lives. You can read her work at Subterranean Fire and follow her on twitter @communa161.

Photo by rawpixel on Upsplash.