Separatism is a mode of thought—often borne of oppression (real, perceived, or otherwise)—that advocates dividing the human species along lines of particular shared/homogenous traits. Oppression of a particular identity group by other elements of the human species is often utilized as a grievance explaining the need for group isolation. Such oppression is, according to the separatist, insurmountable or so profoundly harmful that drastic measures must be taken—that is, striving to isolate a certain population from the rest of humankind.
Examples of separatist populations include religious, ethnic, racial, gendered, and sexual identification groups. We’ve in this class encountered separatism explicitly in the article by Bunch and implicitly among other writers.
A critique of lesbian separatism (or separatism in general):
An argument for lesbian separatism: if men (and, thus, patriarchy—though this ‘automatic’ correlative is questionable) are removed from the social life of women, an oppression-free society of liberated women can thrive. The absence of men necessitates the absence of patriarchy, and therefore of sexual oppression.
From this (admittedly oversimplified) description of lesbian separatism emerges a flaw prevalent in all separatist thought. In order to reveal this flaw one must turn to Derrida and the inherent obstacle/antagonism between the condition of impossibility and possibility (Zizek 2000; 17). In order to illuminate the flaw in separatist thought one can take as an example an erroneous Marxist critique of capitalism and the transition to a communist society.
Communists (indeed Marx himself) believed that once the fetters and oppression of capitalism were abolished then communism would emerge as a similar economic environment minus the deleterious effects of capital. This involves the false belief that once the obstacle (source of oppression) is removed the situation will persist to function in a machine-like way, that social and economic life will continue as before. The problem is that it is often this very obstacle or coercion—the idea or social practice which must be excised—that makes the system function as it does in the first place.
The furious production pace within capitalism occurs only because of the coercive and oppressive practices of capital toward labor. Once labor is freed of this coercion, why should it then be assumed that production will maintain its hurried pace? It is then a flawed assumption that unbridled production exceeding (or even equaling) that of capital will emerge outside of capitalism. This belief is, as Zizek explains, “an ideological attempt to ‘have one’s cake and eat it’, to break out of capitalism while retaining its key ingredient” (2000: 19).
Where does this leave lesbian separatism (and all forms of separatism)? “If we take away the obstacle [patriarchy], the very potential thwarted by this obstacle dissipates” (2000: 18). Removal of oppression radically changes a social situation, and adaptation to a new set of power structures is required. Keeping the obstacle/antagonism relationship in mind, one must ask: ‘Why does the absence of men mean that there will remain a void where oppression once existed?”
With the unifying force absent—that is, the abolition of the obstacle (patriarchy, the social presence of men, etc.)—what binds together this assembly of women? Were they not thrown into one another’s arms by the hostile forces of male supremacy, found themselves united by the common cause of fighting their oppression? With the sudden disappearance of patriarchy and men, a new social system, wrought with power dynamics, emerges amongst these women. Is it not likely then that new forms of oppression based on difference will manifest? It is evident that this will occur since the ideology of separatism is wholly based on identifying according to difference (e.g. “I am many things, but I am NOT a man”). Who’s to say that this emphasis on difference-distinguishing and identification of difference—a primary feature of separatism, that of Othering—will not resurface within the newly-created utopian community, creating schisms between new identity groups where oppression finds safe haven in new gradations of power?
That is not to say that oppression emerging within the separatist community could not be combated, but it has delivered the separatists directly back to the situation they sought so desperately to escape. It must be asked: Why then divide and subdivide the human species when it is likely that addressing oppression and power relations cannot but be accomplished in the arena of humanity united, whole?