David Klemperer and Morgan Jones
Mary Harrington has a strong claim to be one of the most interesting commentators at work in Britain today. Until recently entirely unknown, Harrington is a contributing editor at the online magazine Unherd, where she writes prolifically about politics, culture, technology and feminism. She describes her perspective as “Reactionary Feminist” (also the name of her personal Substack), which in practice means a hostility to contemporary liberalism based on a defence of what Harrington presents as women’s interests.
Harrington’s articles are notable not just for this distinctive political stance, but also for their ability to draw unexpected links between seemingly unrelated topics, using these connections as novel avenues through which to explore contemporary political and cultural developments. From whom else could we read about the links between 1970s satanism and modern liberalism, between current gender anxieties and medieval castration cults, between Elizabethan astrologers and predictive algorithms, or between Andrew Tate and John Stuart Mill? Although her conclusions are frequently sinister (she is sympathetic to a variety of far-right political figures), Harrington’s arguments are always original, and often insightful. In large part, Harrington’s originality stems from the unusual cocktail of erudition and mania that powers much of her work – her writing combines an impressive breadth of references to history and political theory with a level of Extremely Online that can only have come from thousands upon thousands of hours of committed posting and scrolling (even in interviews, her speech is littered with Twitter-isms).
However, Harrington is more than just an intellectual curiosity for the brain melted. Her ideas clearly have substantial reach within both the British and – increasingly – the American right. She sits on the board of the New Social Covenant Unit (a “think tank” headed by Conservative MPs Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates), and was a speaker at the London National Conservatism conference earlier this year. Stateside, she is involved in the Abigail Adams Institute backed Fairer Disputations group, and recently wrapped up a speaking tour of the US (you may have seen coverage of the decision of a New York venue to cancel one of her events, which Harrington wrote up for Fox News). In The European Conservative, Sebastian Morello described her as a “quasi-prophetess”, while Michael Gove has praised her “penetrating insights”. To regard Harrington then, is to regard the zeitgeist of the international right.
With the publication earlier this year of her book Feminist Against Progress (FAP for short; the double meaning of the acronym, referencing both the colloquial term for onanism and the influential far right author Bronze Age Pervert, often referred to as BAP, is surely not lost on the author) we have the chance to examine Harrington’s opinions in longform, and to test her ability to set out a sustained argument. The results are decidedly mixed: Harrington proves a far better sprinter than she is a distance runner. FAP – published by Forum, the imprint of Swift press for which George Owers, AKA bizarrely apoplectic twitter personality Capel Lofft, the editor behind recent publications by assorted ‘post-liberals’ including Nick Timothy, Danny Kruger and Paul Embery, left Polity – is not without ideas or insight, meditating on topics from men only spaces to the use and abuse of Big Romance, but it’s ultimately a damp squib, muddled and lacking the incisive edge of her online content. Nonetheless, it offers readers an intriguing window into the worldview of someone both enmeshed within and alienated by modern technological society – a product of liberalism who now sits at the intellectual spearhead of anti-liberal reaction.
The central claim of FAP is that progress – defined in both social and technological terms, but with a close eye on the latter as the driving force – has been at best ambivalent and at worst actively detrimental to the wellbeing of women, trapping us all in a “cyborg theocracy” that is hell bent on separating out the self and the body and telling people that they should view their physical selves as simply “meat lego”, subordinate to any and all personal or intellectual whims. FAP has a heavy thread of autobiography, with Harrington using her own story to illustrate her argument about the hollow promises of contemporary feminist and queer identity.
She discusses how, following an English degree at Oxford, she spent her twenties in London and in the ideological embrace of critical theory, experimenting with non-traditional romantic and social set-ups and going, for a time, by the name Sebastian. This did not, Harrington writes, make her happy; she describes becoming disenchanted with this manner of living and thinking about the world as a profound loss of faith. The fall-out from this loss ultimately saw her married, living in a small town, and the mother to a young daughter. Until 2021, her Linkedin suggests that she worked as a diversity consultant in the shipping industry. Around the time her daughter was born she began to write for UnHerd, building a profile as a post-liberal writer.
After the stall setting of the personal introduction, Harrington outlines the historical narrative in which she grounds her ideas about contemporary gender relations. Much of the first part of the book is taken up with this narrative in which Harrington – positioning herself as the Karl Polanyi of gender – traces the progressive “disembedding” of women from organic community, gendered social roles, and the biological limits of the human body. For Harrington, feminism emerged in response to the industrial revolution which shattered the egalitarian household economy of pre-modern eras, established a stark division between the economic and domestic spheres, and relegated women to the latter. In the 18th and 19th centuries, while some feminists responded to these developments by attempting to assert the equal importance of the domestic realm, others sought women’s equal entry into the workplace as autonomous individuals. In the 20th century however, feminists plumped decisively for autonomy, and embraced the radical potential of technology to liberate women from previously immutable biological limits.
Harrington points, for instance, to the ubiquity of (specifically hormonal) contraception, and argues that this “transhumanist” technology “disembedded” sexual encounters from their previous biological implications, and thus in turn from the social norms that had governed them. The result was hookup culture, hedonism, and the dissolution of relationships into a “general film of impermanence”. Without the social structures that once governed their sexual encounters, both men and women are left romantically unsatisfied. Unsurprisingly, transgender people also occupy a central place in her narrative, as the vanguard of a “meat-lego gnosticism” that rejects biology entirely. Contemporary liberal feminism, in Harrington’s telling, is thus in practice a “bio-libertarianism”, and leaves us in the grimy morass, embracing an intentional alienation from things that should provide us with structure and meaning.
Despite her all-or-nothing approach to the problems she diagnoses, the responses Harrington offers are oddly politically quietist. For all her defences of political authoritarianism elsewhere, in this book she offers no programme for combatting the disembedding she diagnoses at the national or society-wide level. She offers damning critique after damning critique, but comparatively little in the way of proposed actual means of tackling the assault on women’s wellbeing she has diagnosed.
Specifically, Harrington urges women to stop using contraception, refrain from casual sex, and to get married young and then stay married. Rejecting the “self-expressive” view of marriage that tells men and women to seek out their soulmate, Harrington urges her readers to see marriage as first and foremost the basis for building a family. We should, she suggests, embrace the potential for marriages to be “thriving non-romantic partnerships”. Harrington clearly regrets that she did not come to motherhood earlier, and her advice for other women – and, indeed, the perspective of the book as a whole – seems primarily oriented towards pushing them to avoid a similar outcome. This kind of lifestyle influencing may put Harrington at odds with contemporary norms, but a strategy for counterrevolution against technology it is not.
Harrington’s political quietism is most notable when it comes to the issue of abortion. Abortion is, Harrington writes, the “metaphysical keystone” of this cyborg theocracy, a thing whose existence “inevitably subordinates motherhood to equality”. Despite her strong words, she asserts that she would not seek to remove public access to the procedure. ‘Yes, but’ critiques such as Harrington’s serve to strengthen and validate the arguments of people who do believe in real political change in a conservative direction – such as, for example, the avowedly anti-abortion Erica Bachiochi, Harrington’s Fairer Disputations colleague who is quoted at length in Harrington’s book – while allowing yourself the fake out of claiming you do not actually support what they support. If your book is primarily interested in bolstering the arguments of abortion’s opponents, this is something you need to own. Politics is about picking sides and making difficult choices. You cannot have your cake and eat it too, and throughout the book Harrington refuses to (in the words of her anti-feminist forerunner Midge Decter) “join the side you are on”.
If Harrington’s book ultimately fails to land, it does nonetheless serve as an interesting illustration of the nature of the two politico-intellectual movements with which she is primarily associated. The first of these is “post-liberalism”. Whereas in the US “post-liberalism” has always been a term associated with ultra-reactionary Catholic conservatives, in the UK the term has its origins on the centre-left, amongst Labour-aligned intellectuals who wanted social democrats to embrace a more communitarian politics. Harrington’s book however, and the acclaim it has received from British self-identified post-liberals (it is blurbed by, among others, Louise Perry, Michael Gove, Maurice Glasman, Paul Embery, and Paul Kingsnorth), suggest that this British post-liberalism has now been almost wholly subsumed by its more radical American namesake. “Post-liberals”, it would seem, no longer seek to transcend liberalism, but rather to reverse both liberalism and modernity entirely.
Harrington presents a false dichotomy between liberalism and conservatism, and does so in such a way as to imply that the latter has more to offer. In reality, how we see and hope to shape the world is not a straight choice between people who will harness any and all technology in the service of a shallow fetish for self actualisation, and people who want to ban abortion. Most socialists and social democrats would reject being primarily politically categorised as liberal or conservative, and would similarly baulk at many of the technological excesses that Harrington describes. One doesn’t have to reject modernity or “progress” entirely to be hostile to depredations of big tech, and concerned by the ways their products are warping society. Indeed, one might even argue that a wholesale rejection of modernity in the “retvrn” mode is the intellectually easy way out, avoiding as it does the complex questions of how to balance work, exploitation, identity and connection in a world mediated largely through screens. We aren’t going back to the land anytime soon – and judging by how much she posts, Mary Harrington wouldn’t be leading the charge if we were – but we do need to work and live as best we can in the world in which we find ourselves.
A good example of this tendency to cast the world in unnecessary blacks and whites comes in Harrington’s discussions of hormonal contraception. The Pill, Harrington argues, is bad; along with being an environmental hazard, it creates the “assumption of infertility” which enables an environment where women are pushed into having meaningless sexual encounters for lack of reason to say no. The meaninglessness and consequence free nature of such encounters (that is: they will not result in a child) breeds male contempt and increases the space for porn-exacerbated sexual violence; a world without the pill, where the natural weighting is restored to heterosexual sex (that is: it might result in a child) would, Harrington argues, create better outcomes for all.
A great many people are, like Harrington, highly critical of or opposed to the Pill, not because it creates the societal assumption of infertility, but because it is often very bad for the women who take it, creating side effects that can run from weight fluctuation to mood swings to psychosis, who then often find a medical establishment which is unwilling to help them. Opposition to a drug which serves as a locus of medical misogyny does not mean that you need be opposed to casual sex or believe that relations between the sexes would improve if the threat of pregnancy hung over all such encounters. Just as the available range of political interpretations of the world amounts to a great deal more than a choice between ultra-liberal pursuit of autonomy and conservative attachment to tradition, the range of available contraceptive methods means that the choice is not between the Pill or early and faithful marriage, a fact about which Harrington seems to take a stance of deliberate ignorance towards.
The second tendency of which Harrington’s work is revealing is anti-trans or “gender critical” feminism. Crucially, the term “gender critical” has in practice served as an rhetorical umbrella for an uneasy ideological coalition between radical feminists and social conservatives. On the one hand, second-wave radical feminists who seek to abolish gendered social norms (and believe that trans people reinforce such norms) view themselves as “critical of gender”; on the other hand, since the 1990s, religious and social conservatives have inveighed against so-called “gender ideology”, arguing that the idea that there is such a thing as “gender” as distinct from biological sex is a lie designed to undermine traditional sexual roles. Such groups have diametrically opposed beliefs about the nature of sex and gender – one opposes what they see as a real, but pernicious, set of social constructs around sexual difference called “gender”, the other believes in those social constructs so strongly that they believe the term “gender” to be a sinister attempt to denaturalise them. However, the ambiguous term “gender critical” has made it possible for these groups to elide their disagreements, and to focus instead on their shared antipathy to the transgender rights movement.
The prominence of a figure like Harrington, however, suggests such theoretical contradictions may soon be much harder to hand-wave away. In FAP, Harrington sets out clearly the extent to which her opposition to transgender rights is rooted not in a critique of gendered social norms, but in hardcore biological determinism. Second-wave radical feminism, with its insistence on the importance of culture, socialisation, and patriarchal exploitation to understanding relations between the sexes, is thus central to the edifice that Harrington wishes to tear down, and comes in for as much criticism as contemporary liberal feminism. After all, the advances in reproductive justice – legal abortion and widely available contraceptives – about which Harrington is so unenthused, are a core part of the second wave project.
Some of Harrington’s erstwhile “gender critical” allies have woken up to the threat. In a recent issue of “The Radical Notion”, anti-trans feminists writing from a traditional radical feminist perspective attacked Harrington and the tendency she represents as an effort to co-opt feminism by regressive supporters of patriarchy. You can see echoes of this, too, in Julie Bindel’s review of Louise Perry’s The Case Against the Sexual Revolution (“Some of Perry’s arguments, then, support the ‘biology is destiny’ ticket that most feminists roundly reject”), a book that treads much of the same ideological ground as Harrington’s. These are welcome dissents, but feel somewhat like the perfunctory objections of a person whose lower body is already in the mouth of the Orbanist python and who is making few substantive moves to avert the inevitable.
The experience of reading Harrington’s book is ultimately one that is by turns disappointing and alarming. Its arguments are bitty and often lazy, ignoring obvious moderating points to portray the world as one of diametric extremes. At length, one of Harrington’s key strengths – her violent online-ness – becomes a weakness, as the kind of selectively wadded facts and intel that might win her a twitter spat fail to convince over the course of several hundred pages. As a reading experience, it’s death by a thousand takes, which as anyone familiar with Sophie Lewis’s offerings knows is not a mode in which one wins arguments. You can see all the gaps, and through them all of the motivated reasoning and inconsistencies wrought from political intention, and all the places where Harrington’s arguments lack the strength of her conclusions. Harrington’s is a book that makes some fairly decisive arguments for a society run on biologically determinist grounds and then attempts to diffuse them with the rhetorical equivalent of an end of tweet lower case “or maybe not lol”. It’s not a technique that really works in print.
David Klemperer is a PhD student in History at Queen Mary University of London and a Contributing Editor of Renewal.
Morgan Jones is a writer and a Contributing Editor of Renewal.
Feminism Against Progress by Mary Harrington is out now, published by Swift Press.