Mary Harrington on Female Elites, Post-Liberalism, and our Cyborg Age
An exclusive interview
Mary Harrington is one of the most interesting writers publishing today, as far as I’m concerned. A columnist at UnHerd, and a frequent commentator elsewhere, Mary is a prolific writer. But what makes that writing consistently fascinating is her ability to bring together many disparate topics – from religion and philosophy, to economic and technological change, to the shifting front lines of the culture war and gender relations – to make arguments that often suddenly seem blindingly obvious only in retrospect. And in doing so she effortlessly punctures the orthodoxies of political left and right alike with an utterly nonchalant disregard for political correctness, a fierce regard for human dignity, and a delightfully dry – and devastating – British wit. I think she’s pretty cool, in other words.
I should also point out that she has a book coming out this year, Feminism Against Progress. It doesn’t have an official book page yet, but you can and should follow her on Substack or Twitter @moveincircles to stay up to date.
I’ve cited Mary a number of times here, so decided to reach out to ask her a few questions by email, which she was generous enough to answer. The result is the interview below, in which we get into how the increasingly female character of the educated elite may explain “cancel culture,” the social consequences of the shift from an industrial to a “cyborg” age, feminism, the collapse of liberalism, the meaning of progress, and nightmarish dystopias, among other things.
I hope you enjoy the discussion.
If I was forced to try to concisely describe a theme for The Upheaval, it would basically be an attempt to answer the question “what the heck is going on?” By now I think many people have a good sense of what I mean by that question. But the more I keep digging, the more interesting potential answers I’ve found. Which is why I was excited to see your essay in the latest issue of The Critic arguing, rather boldly, that much of the cultural (and political?) upheaval we are seeing today can be explained as the result of the overproduction of female elites (around 60% of US college students are female, with an even higher ratio in elite institutions). The political scientist Peter Turchin and others have argued that too many elites competing with each other to retain their class status leads to societal instability and even state collapse, but what does the (largely unprecedented) female character of the new Western elite have to do with it, in particular, in your view?
In that essay I argued that the particular character of our emerging intra-elite conflict is historically unprecedented, because it’s heavily female. America has been producing more female than male graduates since the 1970s, and the same has been true in Britain since the 1990s. The imbalance might be relatively slight (though it's grown less so: 60/40 female to male at some elite US colleges now) but over the decades it compounds. The consequence has been, as numerous articles are now pointing out, an increasingly female-skewed ruling class.
I put this together with Turchin’s theory of elite overproduction, and Joyce Benenson’s research on female-typical aggression, to suggest that much of what looks like ideological conflict within institutions can plausibly be read as a conflict for increasingly scarce resources conducted in the female key. Whereas men tend to be more direct in their aggression, women typically compete indirectly via tactics such as hidden hierarchies, mob hostility, or conflict disguised as moral condemnation or concern for the group. Seen through that filter, it’s much easier to explain why – for example – one person is forced to resign for “historic tweets” while another weathers the storm: if you assume that in each case it's mostly about office politics, it all makes a great deal more sense.
I tried to make it clear that the jury’s out for me as to whether this is better or worse than the more violent sequelae Turchin describes in historic cases of elite overproduction. Either way, given that the structural conditions remain in place – women are more overrepresented than ever among college graduates since the pandemic – we can anticipate seeing it escalate over coming years and decades.
Let’s put a pin in this for a moment and then maybe come back to it later, as I want to discuss another of your very interesting ideas that seems to be related. Clearly feminism has had and is having a significant impact on our societies. But you’ve argued that “what we think of today as ‘feminism’ is a story of economic transitions,” and, “If everyone today seems to be arguing about men and women again, it’s because we’re in the throes of another economic transition.” What do you think is the nature of this economic transition, exactly? And how is it producing these arguments?
I’d suggest we are in fact about 50-60 years into this transition, which I characterize as the end of the industrial and beginning of the cyborg age. It began in the 1960s with the emergence of new technologies that radically shifted how we understood our limitations on two crucial fronts: computation and reproduction. The contraceptive pill threw into question whether – or how far – we were limited by the givens of human reproductive biology, and in the process liquefied the entire corpus of social and cultural norms we’d developed to manage fertility and family life, seemingly opening a limitless vista of polymorphously perverse and consequence-free sexual pleasure in its stead. Computation, and especially the internet, promised to end all limitations to our thinking, and even to enable us to transcend embodiment itself. A core thesis of the book I'm working on, Feminism Against Progress, is that significant changes in material conditions within a society inevitably force re-negotiations of family life – how could they not? – these two developments represent just such a radical change.
The digital reimagining of personhood, and the (supposed) biomedical mastery of fertility, dramatically change the possible conditions both for individual human life but also for the life of a family. That can be on as mundane a front as where work happens, but it has shaken our norms and assumptions to their foundations by proposing – for example – to disaggregate reproduction from being a woman, identity from being in a body, gestation from being a mother, sex from emotional intimacy or, in the age of mass pornography and sex robots, even the necessary presence of another.
The consequences of radical material changes tend to lag the changes themselves: you saw that in the delay between industrialization and the way families – and women in particular – adapted to those changes. I think we're now far enough from the cultural legacy of the industrial age that we’re beginning to see the contours of the cyborg one more clearly. Much of my work seeks to ensure that women are meeting that age not with a hermeneutic toolbox left over from the last age but as far as possible a critical framework that's trying to understand what constitute women's interests now and in the world that's now emerging.