My name is Cel. I’m a disabled trans woman, and I am terrified about my future now I know there’s another five years of the Tories. It’s already been bad for me, and I know it will get worse.

I was a full time student until I was diagnosed with cancer a year and a half ago. I’d been getting firsts in the work I handed in, but I had to interrupt because of the physical and psychological impact of my cancer. I was refused a student loan because austerity changed the rules.

In November 2014 I was made homeless. I’ve been sofa surfing since then. I’m in the process of making a homeless application, and I’m desperately hoping austerity won’t make it impossible for me to find anywhere to live. Since then my health has got worse and being homeless makes it really difficult to take care of myself and access medical care.

I fundraised then but sadly the month delay meant it didn’t come through until after I was evicted. Much of the time since has been spent coping with the effects of that, though I have managed to get a decent amount of university work done.

At the moment, I can’t claim benefits, even though I am a UK born citizen and I have a GRC which means it shouldn’t be difficult. I’ve never worked pre-transition, and had around fifteen jobs paying tax since, as well as had to claim benefits twice. Something’s went drastically wrong this time. I cant disclose more about this for legal reasons, but suffice to say at the moment my income is zero and I can’t see it changing much in the future.

I really hate having to ask for help, especially when this is all stuff the state should be giving, but I need money so I can finish my degree for September. A couple of generous friends have managed to find me somewhere to stay in London until mid-July at least, but I need money to get back down there and to buy food, medication,to pay for disability-related essentials, and to travel into Uni. Please can you donate to help me get these simple things in the face of terrifying austerity?

My paypal is cel_ml_pers@hotmail.com and I’m incredibly grateful for anything you can spare.

Why you shouldn’t get Cancer under the coalition.

I found out about the cancer when I opened the mystery envelope – “Survey on your cancer care”, it said. I laughed at the strange mistake until the point when I googled the acronym the consultant had used in his letter to my GP.  TCC did mean cancer – and I hadn’t been told.

It would be a lie to say I wasn’t sent reeling at the news – though google said the cancer was very early stage and would more likely than not never come back.  Plans for the summer went out the window as I waited to see a consultant, and among those plans went finishing my degree that year. I was assured that I could get a student loan the next year, so I deferred the assessments.

I sent my application to Student Loans, including what letters I had about the cancer, and quickly got a letter back saying the loan was granted in full.

When the date came for the loan to come in nothing came through, so I called Student Loans. A cheery woman on the end of the ‘phone said the problem was on my university’s end, and gave me instructions to give to them so it would be paid.

I called university countless times but was always unable to speak to someone in the department I needed. Once I went in and after waiting an hour was told the department I needed was closed. A couple of days later I went in at 9am, woozy and sore after my first checkup under general anaesthetic. The woman I spoke to said she followed all the instructions given by Student Loans, and I just had to wait.

Student Loans said nothing had been changed after a few days, and again after the weekend. So off I went to university again. By this time I was living on my credit card and borrowing the rent. I decided to be incredibly firm, rehearsing telling them that I wasn’t going to leave without some sort of explanation.

In the end the manager of that department came down, explaining that that office had had to take all their telephones permanently off the hook in order to get anything done. He explained the Catch-22 which I had already suspected I had fallen into.

Student Loans would not pay the loan without the university confirming my attendance. The university’s Welfare Advisor had told me that the university only had to confirm my registration (as a deferred student) and that the money would be paid.

The sticking point is that the university would not confirm my registration, as they could not legally do so without proof, from SLC, that they had properly processed my application under the special rules to do with health. Due to previous study I did not have a years’ grace in the system, so my application had to be by those rules.

I desperately e-mailed student welfare and got to see the same welfare advisor as last year. He helped me with an appeal and found out that many students around the country had fallen foul of a new policy by SLC – the real reason they wouldn’t release the money.

Though my application, and those of many other sick, resitting students, should be accepted under the SLC’s own rules, this year the SLC appeared, to welfare advisors up and down the country, to have been operating an undisclosed, blanket policy of refusals of loans to those resitting due to health. Welfare advisors suspected, as did I, that this was done under grounds of austerity.

I fail to see the logic that I am worth saving from cancer but not worth a £7000 loan of “taxpayer’s money”. The only person for a moment who thought I don’t was a family member snapping under pressure of finding a NHS cancer consultant that would properly treat my 88 year old grandmother. Is this how things are now?

In an ideal world I should be looking for a job, or working one already, but I had to leave my last job due to the time and energy pressures of commuting in London while studying full time. I just couldn’t do both. I enjoy my degree and have the next essay lined up to go. Topic, research, all in a neat pile. Just right now I’ve been too drained by all of this to do more than reading in the past month.

The specialist who has been checking my bladder has just left the NHS. I had to chase my second checkup appointment, and a third hasn’t yet arrived. I’m sure that either one will come with a different doctor, or a few ‘phone calls will sort it out. But I’m tired. I’m drained and I’m poor and I’m scared.

Two Key Points for 21st Century Marxism

1) Planning for “after the revolution”.

Systemic change is by no means certain, although the twin spectres of war and global environmental damage make it seem more necessary than ever.

It is clear that after any social revolution, as indeed after any great societal upheaval, that it would be vital to maintain, so far as possible, the mean standard of living; food, necessities, material goods, infrastructure, and especially the electronic devices and infrastructure that allow us to communicate and maintain, systemically, access to those others.

Often, particularly in theory-heavy circles, the question is then asked: how do we plan in order to be able to do this?

This question casts a hard light on what we mean by revolution.

If we mean either Marx’s dictum, that is, permanent seizure of the means of production by the proletariat, or that influenced by anarchism and feminism, viaz the dissolving of oppressions which are reproduced globally and through violence through the structure of social relations itself – with particular attention to racism and sexism.

If we mean either of these things, then planning for any future structure of social relations – one not shaped by exchange value and/or one which acts to dissolve oppressions – is fraught by the utmost difficulty.

Which utopian vision would we plan around? The dystopias of Plato or More? The more recent science-fictional visions of Banks, Le Guin, Delany? Frankly, what social relations would look like outside current circumstances is indeterminate. There are too many heterogeneous possibilities to ever account for.

Above all we must keep in mind the words of Marx: all that is solid shall melt into air.

Only then might we think then of what after a revolution might entail – and even so, through a glass, darkly. Organising ourselves after a revolution is a problem which we do not yet have the social tools to solve.

First, we must develop these tools, together.

 

2) The meaning of social class.

Class at present is used in two, mutually contradictory ways.

The former is that used both by big-name, crepuscular newspaper columnists and by some on the “left” to vilify people they don’t like. By this usage, and in approximate order of importance, “working class” means manner of speech, accent, origins, bearing, clothing, and lifestyle. It rarely means precisely manner or amount of income, it usually doesn’t account for any other factors whatsoever, and it is increasingly often used as a stick to beat anyone queer on the “left” who doesn’t behave like a character in a “chav porn” film.

This is why we can see supposed feminist columnists berating women with revolutionary politics who do survival sex work as “bourgeois”, while boasting of their consumption of lobsters and champagne.

This is why we see men and women of the “left” in expensive suits damn revolutionary feminists, as liars and “slaves to bourgeois morality” and overly educated – particularly if they are black – sometimes all in the same breath.

What people are referring to here is sociological class. It is sociological class that people look at when determining how to treat one another. It is the endless gradiations of middle-classness that half of England is obsessed with – the hilarious linguistic divide between those who say lounge, living room and, in the upper-middle class fashion, sitting room is only one example. The issue of professional aspiration is another, as is type of car, and so on, and so on.

For a long time – for over a century in the UK – “working class” meant not only this. It was an identity based around disparate working ways of life: mining, hauling, dockworking, and so on, with solidarity organised not only through trade unions but through shared language, lives, and struggle. It was aspirational, as in it aspired to knowledge and art, leaving philistinism to the lower-middle classes.

Indeed, for a long time “working class” solidly overlapped with the second definition of “class”, that by Marx, who looked on humanity as broadly divisible into two classes – the proletariat, those who have to exchange their labour for the means of subsistence, and the bourgeoisie, who own the means of production.

For a long time “working class” meant “proletariat” and there was a great deal of overlap between those sociologically middle-class and economically bourgeois. The division between proletariat and bourgeois was not something thought up out of air by nineteenth century socialists. It was something that you could see in the street, and feel in every social interaction.

Now, in the early 21st century, under post-Fordism and connected by the internet, this correspondence no longer holds true. A university lecturer is as likely to be proletarian – having no control over their labour or redeemable credit for their work – as a factory worker.

Gone with the 20th century, too, is the plainly perceptible hard physical toil of the working class, and the ample leisure time of the bourgeoisie. Now those at the top, in the City or in politics, must work long hours, or be seen to do so. Margaret Thatcher’s claim to have survived on four hours sleep is exemplary of this. Those at the bottom must be “flexible”, and are simultaneously damned for being lazy. Many kinds of proletarian work are hidden: coping with stress of precarity, gendered labour, the stress of being damned as failures under a supposed “meritocracy”.

The correspondence between the grubby-faced miner and the working class has gone, just as the correspondence between physically beefy “fat cats” and the lazy bourgeoisie has also vanished.

This has an implication that Marxism as a whole still has not grasped. Material means shape history. Yet the means of production are not all that constitutes Marx’s base. Social relations do, too. Social relations are intertwined with the means of societal production. And both together determine the course of history.

In practice, this means that the means by which underlying economic and structural truth can be exposed is a multifaceted one. Talking about class has a key role. Feminism and anti-racism are indispensable. Talking about and unpicking the social intersections of all of these factors is utterly vital.

Though 21st century capitalism radically splinters our subjectivities we are all “working class” together.

 

What is to be done?

We must talk about this.

Occupy’s “99%” slogan is plainly not the entire truth. Yet it did not become popular out of thin air, either. Now the vast majority of us on earth are proletarian. As the rentier class hunkers down, as company ownership becomes ever more concentrated, and as fear of falling out of the sociological middle-class grows in Guardian and Daily Mail reading circles alike, Marx’s imperative for change holds stronger than ever.

Let’s put aside illusions that we can have solidarity with the police because they talk like the grandad from Steptoe and Son. Speaking mockney together is not a political program. The police do not act in the interests of the working class, and never have.

Nor shall “Left unity” save us.

All that unites us is that we are proletarian together.

Before we can build a social movement – and this is vital, and crucially roadmapped here  – and before we can make ourselves visible, we must accurately perceive the social reality that two centuries of capitalism have left us.

Let us first see our chains. Only then can we split them asunder.

Aside

 Over the past few months I have had a number of disagreements over the intersection of feminism and new post-financial crash communism. As those attempts at a conversation were ultimately deeply frustrating and destructive, I’m going to make an attempt to address several in conjunction here in the hope of driving forward mutual understanding.

I don’t agree with “privilege theory” as it implies individual rather than communal action

This implies that intersectional feminism is an individualist project, which it most certainly is not – it is one which relies utterly upon community, not only in all writing about addressing privilege, but in effective action in challenging its omnipresent, largely unconscious effects.

“Privilege theory” is an invasive construct from upper-middle class US campuses. The term was coined by a professor.

The term “privilege”, as used by intersectional feminism, antedates Kimberlé Crenshaw’s coining of “intersectionality theory” in 1989. The Combahee River Collective articulated many of the same ideas in 1979 while using the term “simultaneity”. This period of black feminism is poorly documented. It seems clear to me that Kimberlé did not coin this term in a vacuum, but as part of an ongoing, decades-long discourse around the failings of second-wave radical feminism.

Lack of documentation of both theory and statistical information, such as murder rates or detransition rates, is often used to attack trans women and trans feminism, the area of feminism of which I perhaps have most experience. It is generally used as part of a tactic of manufacturing uncertainty and silencing precarious communities in order to take legal and organisational action against them. I therefore am extremely skeptical of it as a tactic unless specific citations are used.

While many in the UK over the past few years have came into contact with intersectional feminism via Twitter and blogs, my first contacts came a number of years earlier. I did not first learn to “unpack privilege” via trust-funded campus activists, but from street queers, sex workers, and trans people in the mid- 2000s. All I can do is attest that while the terms and thought behind intersectional feminism have long had currency in grassroots organising outside the academy. I cannot link to much of this material, as it is both sensitive and lost in internet time. I can, however, if utterly required to do so, produce testimony from a number of friends asserting the same. I hope that this point will not be again dismissed, and that I will be given the good faith presumption that I am telling the truth.

This is all abstract theorising.

I am happy to talk in good faith about a great number of experiences I and others have had that would lead to indicate that it very much isn’t.

There is a vast amount of evidence that men overwhelm women in mixed-sex discussion. The conclusion to this paper is telling, and it references a great deal of other research. Research on gender and talk time lends to support the conception of privilege as an explanatory hypothesis.

Many studies on race also reveal different patterns of often-invisible discrimination.

There is a good deal of sound scientific evidence that indicates that the mechanics underlying “privilege theory” are real.

To reject a hypothesis with confirming evidence, you need evidence of your own.

Knowledge of the universe is itself a vast, materialist, communal project. Please don’t just dismiss what we have out of hand.

You’re lying or deluded about your own experiences. Your links are all bullshit.

This is why in some cases I no longer presume good faith.

I don’t agree with all this. Prove me wrong.

I do not have time or energy to devise a seminar series in order to do so. Perhaps if you are so adamant then we can agree to disagree.

Privilege is nonsense used by middle class people to divide and rule the working class, as argued here

This point fails to take into account economic class. The vast majority of post-70s “middle class” people are not meaningfully bourgeoise in any Marxian sense. They do not control their labour. Few of the young will ever own a home. Home ownership does not make someone structurally bourgeoise in any meaningful sense. Neither does working in academia. The academy is subject to controlling neoliberal ideology just as other sectors of society are. Precariously teaching for £15k per year does not make you bourgeoise.

I would contend instead that, since at least the 1980s and likely for quite some time before, “working class” as commonly used has more described a sociological group, not an economic one. Cooking with fresh herbs does not grant one ownership of the means of production. Speaking to one’s employees in a cockney accent does not make one a proletarian.

I would also contend that the very term “working class” needs re-evaluating in order to be useful. We no longer have many factories or mines to organise around, and an accent readily put on by mockney-tongued police spies does not constitute an organising principle.

I will expand on this point about the meaningfulness of class in a later post.

I don’t subscribe to any “party lines”. In this particular context, I refuse to refute the radical feminist line that all trans women are rapists, as doing so is just as bad as embracing it.

There is no “party line”, only people. If you refuse to concede such a basic human point as “all trans women are not inherently rapists”, your politics are both bitterly harmful and deeply absurd.

Communism doesn’t need feminism.

This is true, as far as it goes.

Communism is the only way, in the face of vast resource crises and the crisis of capital itself, to save the majority of the human race. If your group of queers or disabled people or trans people or so on are not among the elect, well, that’s a shame, but on the whole it is unimportant.

This also seems true a lot of the time.

Patriarchy existed before capitalism. There’s no reason to think it won’t outlive it.

This is why I am a communist in spite of my feminism and my own material interest, rather than because of it.

Margaret Thatcher and Mourning; a meditation on loss, historicity, and time.

(TW: mention of cuts and suicide in third-to-last paragraph)

I always associated my grandmother with Margaret Thatcher.

On the face of it, both had similar presentations. Immaculate hair, a fierce demeanour. One read chemistry before working in pharmaceuticals, the other, my gran, moved from running a small shop to owning a small chain of pharmacies. My gran was born in 1933, eight years after Thatcher.

Yet it was only shortly before my gran died that I learned how truly different they were. Thatcher went from a lower-middle class background to Oxford, her subsequent achievements enabled by the post-war settlement that allowed her to go there in the first place.

My grandmother’s story was very different. Her poor Scottish catholic mother abandoned her when she was a baby, and she grew up in a hospital. Her earliest memories revolve around the possibility of adoption by a childless doctor and his wife, a thing that, in the 1930s, would make the economic difference between being decently fed and having the chance at a reasonable life, to having little chance of any good life. We must remember that the old sketch about the classes looking down on one another was literally true until the 1960s, as the height gap – due to malnutrition and disease – was stark.

Thus, when she was reclaimed by her mother and brought home to share a bed with two brothers, and bedbugs, she resented it deeply. She always, I believe, hankered after that middle-class decent life that was denied her at the start; the kind of life that everyone ought to have. As for her, she worked very hard for it, and was lucky, and was additionally lucky to be born at a time which made it, eventually, available to her. She spent a great deal of time in Spain in the 1970s and modelled, to some extent, her femininity on that timeless, dignified bourgeois Spanish femininity, which bought wonderful, beautiful things in Corte Ingles, and was silent about and enabled the horrors of Franco.

She was not an unpolitical woman. I learned it sadly briefly before she died, but she never voted Tory and donated substantially to the Labour party (sadly, mostly at a time when the party has moved completely from soft, strike-breaking socialism to neoliberal complicity). She married a poverty-stricken second-generation Irish man, son of the Irish who came over to work and not starve and break dockyard strikes, and who were viciously persecuted only partially as a result. Her first daughter, my mother, did not go to secondary school in order to work and look after the family, her unpaid but hardly unloved labour making the family achievements possible. Later children all went to university, all those children, and there were many children, and it did not make any “immoral”.

Sadly, it seems likely that some of them voted in Thatcher or for subsequent Tory candidates; as homeowners, and considering the tripling of house prices engineered by Thatcher between 1978 and 1990, it would be in their interests to do so.

I am still mourning my grandmother, who died in January. When Margaret Thatcher died I felt torn as to whether to celebrate. There has been precious little to celebrate recently for anyone poor, for anyone with any belief in society or communality. Yet it feels wrong and petty to celebrate death.

Then I thought to another friend I have lost recently, and another lost long ago. I do not want to stand accused of making political capital from their deaths. Yet I am convinced in my hear that Section 28 and associated shame contributed heavily to the death of one friend, and post-2008 mental health service cuts to another. And more are dying, homeless, hopeless, depoliticised, voiceless, alone.

And so I partied and I drank and I danced for those who are no longer with us; all of those who are no longer with us.

Do not tell me how to mourn.

Sexism and the Left

OwenTweet( https://twitter.com/OwenJones84/status/303679242200293376 )

Another day on twitter, another interminable inward-looking argument. For the sake of context: the discussion is about sexism and language on the left, with a group of feminist women disagreeing strongly with Owen Jones on a point that seems nebulous and petty. Sadly, for the sake of the “left”, and for the sake of the sanity of politically committed women everywhere, this isn’t what is going on here at all.

What is sexism?

Sexism is not a one-off occurence. It is also not best described as a label attached to a person. Someone’s beliefs and actions may be sexist, but they are not irredeemably so. If someone is described as a “sexist”, then it is in the same way that they might be described as a “rape apologist” – they have taken a political position which is irredeemably compromised, and harmful towards women, and they refuse to step away from it.

However this is a very poor way of understanding what sexism is. Sexism is better understood as something systemic. It is a set of behaviours – some of which are verbal, and some of which are not – which enforce a societal power disparity between men and women. It can be understood systemically in terms of male privilege , that is, generally hidden societal advantage given to men over women. It is enforced in a myriad of ways, from physical violence to threat to body policing to subtle nuances of speech and body language. It often harms men too, as it is a key component of a societal heirarchy of power built around constructions of masculinity and femininity, and intersects with many other oppressions.

It’s really easy to fight sexists. You make an in-group, and place all those you consider sexists in the out-group, and you make sure you’re well-positioned in the in-group, so that no-one ever successfully labels you as a sexist.

It’s really hard to fight sexism. It requires frequent self-examination, and a willingness both to have your own understanding and actions questioned by others, and to have their understanding subject to doubt, too. There are no certainties. It’s a constantly ongoing process, guided by both anger and compassion, to unpick societal certainties that have been present from decades to millennia.

It’s terrifying.

It’s also one that’s absolutely crucial to understand and enact, if left unity, solidarity, mass action, full communism, or those unformed dreams of a new settlement with capital – if any of these things are ever to come into being at all.

What fighting sexism means

Privilege is like wearing blinders. It’s very hard, when in a privileged category – male, white, and so on – to perceive how many actions might affect those not in the privileged category. That’s why it’s one of the key features of intersectional feminism that language and behaviour can be challenged or examined publically. It’s not because feminists want to embarrass men, or because people of color want to make white people feel bad. It’s because it’s really hard to know whether an action or a political position, something embedded in the complexities of language and the heirarchies of privilege and the messy realities of social life, is in fact harmful, does perpetuate privilege. It’s best to involve as many people’s points of view as possible when doing so, especially a variety of those in the oppressed category – in the case of sexism, women- so that we, as a group, can figure out what’s right, what we should do from here.

It takes a lot before someone speaks up, before someone breaks peaceable silence to say that something is hurtful or harmful. Occasionally people might decide, after talking, that something isn’t harmful at all. Most things fall into that category in the middle, something that is probably harmful, nigglingly sexist or subtly racist, but not worth spending the energy on fighting right now. Its in a minority of cases where something is challenged and carried through and behaviour is changed.

Usually what happens is that the person challenged objects to the process – objects to the openness or horizontality of it, confuses it with “policing” and the implicit superior power that anything involving “policing” must have, or takes the “free speech” position that what they’re saying might be wrong or harmful, but they don’t care.

It’s sad when this happens. An opportunity to make things better has been missed, and that’s because this intersectional process of challenging isn’t about policing or exerting power, it’s about crowd-sourcing truth.

Crowd-sourcing truth

The key thing about intersectional feminism is that it’s intersectional, that is, it considers not just women as a category, but other kinds of oppression that aren’t just additive – black women are not simply oppressed as black people and as women, but differently under both categories; and not all black women have the same experience, and so on.

This is why it intersects so crucially with socialism, with communism, with anarchism, with any attempts at any left project.

What intersectional feminism does is allows us, through the mechanic of the group, through giving more attention to those who are oppressed in any particular category, the means to examine one’s subjectivity in society, in a hierarchy of power relations, as a subject under capital.

These power relations can’t be simply set aside, to be “sorted after the revolution”. We saw how that went with the poor doomed utopian project that was Soviet Russia – gay rights were rolled back, the gains made by women slipped away, and there was rather a lot of mass slaughter along the way.

If there is one thing to  be learned from the Soviet project it should be that theory does not trump reality, that no matter the brilliance of Lenin’s pamphleteering it still allowed him very limited, flawed knowledge of the world, limited knowledge that categorically prevented the Soviet project from leading to world revolution. He had little way to know whether his proclamations and his thinking were correct. Perhaps if he’d had Rosa Luxemburg angrily tweeting him every day things might have went differently. Who can know.

What we can know, is that in all seriousness any attempt to change society must include the subjectivities of all people in it when change is made. If we do something in ignorance of a group of people, it will cause harm beyond our knowledge and lead to our political projects giving undesired results – one could look at New Labour here, or a million other slightly depressing things.

We have the means to stop doing things in a flawed, autocratic way. Let’s start using them.

Language and Elitism

So are these “rules on language completely elitist”?

If you’ve read this far, you’ve hopefully come to understand the crucial point, that there are no rules, there is simply a disparate bunch of intersectional feminists trying their best as part of an ongoing process to try to make things better for all those affected by sexism, for all those affected by all oppressions.

This is not “elitist”. It’s part of the same process that first led so many of us to cry out, inwards or outwardly, against a fist raised to a woman or one of those now-better-hidden blatant manifestations of societal sexism, or homophobia, or ablism, or so many other things. “That’s not fair!” or “That’s wrong!”

We all know that language is a kind of action. You can’t separate both out. If someone uses a slur, or more subtly marginalises someone, that has real and painful effects, that justifies more concrete forms of violence.

So you speak up, “that’s not fair!” Then if someone disagrees with you saying that, you talk it out with them, in a big huddle if necessary.

I really don’t think there’s anything less elitist than that.

The Utopian Urge and the Structure of Social Relations

Now here’s the part with the theory. What intersectional feminism is is an ontological project, to transform the means of knowing from some ceremonial speaking stick, given to the person with the most smoothly stated argument – or the best public school speaking voice – and genuinely democratise them, in order to harness the structure of social relations to genuinely examine and transform itself, in order to break down a societal order that relies on hidden power disparities.

Social relations – and thus Marx’s “base”, the reproduction of labour relations and capitalist society – are utterly reliant on gendered labour and the reproduction of other forms of privilege. They can only be effectively transformed when combating privilege is part and parcel of any movement to abolish the present state of things.

We can only change the present by ceasing to imagine glorious shining futures, by ceasing to write self-indulgent books in the vein of More where we imagine how things might be after the revolution, and in turning that utopian urge towards our own lives and social interactions to imagine not how things might be “after the revolution”, but how things might be better for others in five minutes time, once I’ve had a think, and decided that I might have been wrong.

A Million Caesars: Phillida Lloyd’s Julius Caesar

From the first moments of Phillida Lloyd’s all-woman production of Julius Caesar I knew I was in safe hands. A row of studied female prisoners was marched out, perfectly studied in the peculiar manifestations of gender in institutionalised women: quiffed, buzzed, or tied-back hair; swaggers, struts, and the careful movements of the self-contained ones, the ones with pent-up energy. Still, it was only when when the dialogue of Shakespeare’s play itself burst in and interrupted the cons’ politicking that I become conscious that I was in the presence of something extraordinary.

There is something deeply Shakespearian in the gender reversal employed here, something that became a touch of genius when set in a prison, where, as Caesar struts and Brutus and Cassius plot, screws stroll overhead shining torches and twirling their keys. Once, one conspirator was told to leave by a prison guard, forcibly removed by only a few words backed by systemic violence; her replacement fluffs her lines, and is theatrically beaten by the other inmates.

We are not watching the prisoners stage a play within a play, but a play within a cage; the bars of that cage are composed of gender, discipline and surveilance, and systemic gendered violence.

Nothing I say about the genius of its production can take away from the superb acting that allows it to work. Once immersed in the play itself the four figures around which action revolves take centre-stage: thumb-and-forefinger smoking Brutus, played by Harriet Walter with straightforward butch honesty, Jenny Jules’ loyal Cassius,  agonisedly caught in a situation spiraling outside his control, the luminous charisma and tiger-like sexuality of Cush Jumbo’s  (historically doomed) Marc Antony, and Clare Dunne’s Octavius (historically, later the first emperor Augustus), delivering calculatedly brutal violence with a Belfast accent.

Indeed, there was one stroke that I missed: Clare Dunne also plays the doomed, sacrificial Portia, occupying the dual role of eventual victor and first to die after Caesar; the ghost that Brutus later sees is Portia, and at the play’s end Portia dances nude around Brutus’ dying troops, bringing us back to considering the soldiers as sons and lovers, constituents of the families that can no longer be reproduced after the conspirators unleashing the unstoppable forces of struggle for state power.

Through their machinations the main characters come to embody these forces, and through the gendered habituses – usually unnoticed ways of dress and movement and social interaction – of the cast as well as the deft production touches of other cons spotlighting and filming them, the performativity of gender itself leaps into focus. Still, this isn’t a production about undoing gender, but about reproduction of violence, and the key, forever obscured fact that both are intimately tied in together.

It takes a lot to untie and tease out those links. In the light of recent British media mendacious foolishness around Suzanne Moore, in an era where the most visible manifestations of feminism are iterations of columnar idiocy, it is clearly required to emphasise that gender is both a socially, discursively imposed fact and a performance; something the murderous reaction to the inevitable moment when the first personally privileged, naive trans woman to have a womb surgically implanted will doubtless, sadly show.

As it is, this Caesar manages to shed light on those links too: this is indeed a “play within a cage”, with all action onstage being shaped by the whims of the screws, the reality of offstage power.

What it also does is bring out hidden elements of Shakespeare’s text: with the actors’ genders reversed, the genderedness of Brutus’ pre-battle confrontation with Cassius leaps into focus, and all Brutus’ talk of “heights” and “tides” becomes plainly his outfacing Cassius’ more cautious masculinity with his own. This then, as in the original, segues into Brutus’ surely implied homosexual liasion with the flute-playing Lucius, and it is after this that he sees Portia’s ghost, the ghost of the reproductive family he effectively killed when he murdered Caesar.

With the all-woman nature of the cast, something extraordinary happens to gender. Homosociality between men, with eroticism sublimed or barely visible, becomes outright homoeroticism. Indeed, the entire Roman aristocratic class, bonded through their masculinity, seem instead as though they are in an extended polyamorous relationship, a way of seeing homosociality which has almost certainly not been tried, and which suddenly seems worth trying.

At the play’s conclusion, the Roman soldiers fall dead one by one, danced around by the ghost of Portia, now carrying a baby. She silently asks and answers one question: how is society reproduced? Through violence. Then the screws announce lights out, and darkness falls.

Whatever one’s gender, I’d swear you’ll be left with two things: a lingering longing for the beauty of Cush Jumbo’s Marc Anthony, and a sense of juissance from the new-found ability to sensually trace and unpick the lines of engendering and violence in your own life and retold story.