‘Feminism for the 99%’ book review: Neither femocrats nor fascists?

argentina ni una menos march

Argentinian women’s strike against femicide.

Review of Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto by Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser (https://www.versobooks.com/books/2924-feminism-for-the-99)

By DAPHNE LAWLESS

When Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser announce that their “manifesto”, Feminism for the 99%, is consciously inspired by perhaps the most famous Manifesto of our time – Marx and Engels’ Manifesto of the Communist Party (582)1 – you can only applaud their ambition. Certainly, one of the (few) hopeful features of the global radical scene today is how many women, queer and gender-queer authors and analysts are standing up to offer new thinking and possible ways out of the impasse into which our movement has sunk, in the twilight of neoliberalism and the era of Trump and Brexit.

This short book is divided into the “Manifesto” proper, and a “Postface” which goes into more detail about the intellectual basis upon which their authors make their political proposals. The authors set themselves the task of combining modern “intersectional” feminism with Marxist political economy – a necessary task in the modern era, which they sum up as follows:

As feminists, we appreciate that capitalism is not just an economic system, but something larger: an institutionalized social order that also encompasses the apparently ‘noneconomic’ relations and practices that sustain the official economy. (619)

The roots of their analysis lies in Social Reproduction Theory. The authors use an excellent turn of phrase to sum up the division that this theory makes between the two spheres of work in capitalist society: “profit-making and people-making work” (230). “People-making” work (aka social reproduction) includes housework, care for children, the sick or the elderly, emotional labour, and all the other little things which go together to make life under capitalism (barely) liveable. The great trick of capitalism as an economic system is that capitalists only pay for profit-making work, and that for less than it is worth; families and individuals are stuck with the responsibility and the costs for performing essential people-making work (excluding some meagre support in countries with a welfare state). The authors rehearse the analysis of the Marxist tradition, starting with Engels, that capitalism deliberately encourages gender oppression and the institution of the patriarchal nuclear family, which keep women docile and isolated, thus ensuring a continual supply of unpaid people-making work.

The crucial advance the authors make is to argue that, since people-making work is as vital to the survival of capitalism as profit-making work, that the weapon of the strike – workers withdrawing their labour – is potentially as powerful in the people-making sphere of society as it is in the profit-making sphere, and even more so in the current neoliberal era where workers’ organisation at the point of production has been so run down. They point to two major “Women’s Strike” waves in different part of the world – a Polish women’s strike against that country’s laws against abortion, and an Argentinian women’s strike against a court ruling acquitting two men of the rape and murder of a teenage girl (75) – which later linked up as part of an “International Women’s Strike” on International Women’s Day, 2017. It was working on this very strike which brought the three authors of the book together (607).

The authors point to this phenomenon as not only an extension of the strike weapon into the people-making sphere of society, but its reinvention in a new context:

this burgeoning movement has invented new ways to strike and infused the strike form itself with a new kind of politics. By coupling the withdrawal of labor with marches, demonstrations, small business closures, blockades, and boycotts, the movement is replenishing the repertoire of strike actions, once large but dramatically shrunk by a decades-long neoliberal offensive. At the same time, this new wave is democratizing strikes and expanding their scope – above all, by broadening the very idea of what counts as “labor”. (91)

The authors are very clear that the idea of a “women’s” or “feminist” strike is not a new form of the separatist-feminist politics of the 1980s.

Not only women and gender-nonconforming people, but also men have joined the movement’s massive demonstrations against the defunding of schools, health care, housing, transport, and environmental protections… Feminist strikes are thus becoming the catalyst and model for broad-based efforts to defend our communities. (116)

strikes belong to the working class as a whole – not to a partial stratum of it, nor to particular organizations. (802)

The Manifesto proper is divided into eleven “Theses” which mark out an explicitly intersectional approach. “Feminism for the 99%” is, the authors say, not only essentially anti-capitalist, but internationalist, anti-racist, and ecosocialist. They draw a very convincing parallel between the exploitation of women’s unpaid “people-making” work and the dispossession of indigenous people: “the racialized expropriation of unfree or dependent peoples has served ever since as a hidden enabling condition for the profitable exploitation of ‘free labor’” (433). And this is in turn paralleled by the ransacking and degradation of the global environmental “commons”:

women occupy the front lines of the present ecological crisis… [and] are also at the forefront of struggles” against it… women model new, integrated forms of struggle that challenge the tendency of mainstream environmentalists to frame the defense of ‘nature’ and the material well-being of human communities as mutually antithetical. (470–488)

One of the authors’ most sharp criticisms of neoliberal feminism is the observation that privileged women in the Global North have only managed to liberate themselves from the social obligation to provide unpaid people-making work by passing the burden down a “global care chain” (758). Their relative economic success allows them to pay for women from the Global South to take up this labour as nannies, cleaners and carers – to the extent that some Southern countries, at the behest of the IMF and similar institutions, have made a positive policy of sending women overseas to perform such labour, thus depriving their own communities of carers. “The overall result is a new, dualized organization of social reproduction, commodified for those who can pay for it and privatized for those who cannot” (766). The Global North not only imports women’s care work, but exports women’s oppression – as in the Export Processing Zones of northern Mexico, whose mainly female workforce is disciplined in part by sexual violence (332).

Critique

One very curious omission is that the book makes no reference to sex work or sex workers. This omission is particularly puzzling given that sex workers were a vital part of the International Women’s Strike which brought the authors together (see https://www.redpepper.org.uk/on-international-womens-day-sex-workers-are-going-on-strike/). The book’s existing analysis of “global care chains” could easily be expanded to consider women from ‘peripheral’ nations trafficked or economically migrating to ‘core’ nations, so it would be interesting to see the authors comment on this. Additionally, the Women’s Strike strategy enables sex workers to take action for their own interests, rather than paternalistically being regulated by the state as both conservatives and sex-worker exclusionary ‘radical feminists’ advocate.

But by far the greatest weakness of the book in the sense of practical politics is an attempted equivalence of “reactionary populism” and “progressive neoliberalism” as twin enemies against whom this new movement is to be built. There seems to be a clear disconnect in the Manifesto between its very convincing Marxist-feminist analysis and its political appeal to a language of populism. The very turn of phrase, “the 99%” (which came out of the Occupy movement at the start of the decade) indicates a populist rather than a class analysis, appealing to “anti-elite” sentiment while deliberately glossing over precisely who the “1%” are. As is shown when it is taken up by the populist Right, this slogan can be directed against the “fancy” lifestyle habits of the urbanized, professional middle-class rather than the real culprit of our misery, global capitalism and the class which embodies it – or a fictitious “cabal” of ethnic, political or sexual Others who are believed to have seized control.

One example of this is the authors’ acceptance of the argument of Right-wing populists, and their fellow travellers on the “alt-left”, that Donald Trump is now the President of the United States because “Hilary Clinton failed to excite women voters” (51).  This is an extremely tendentious reading of the 2016 election, which Clinton would have won by a clear margin if the United States elected its President by global standards of democracy. The other major fact ignored by this analysis is that, according to exit polling, 52% of white women who voted in the 2016 US presidential voted for Trump, the “pussy-grabbing” candidate of white supremacy and misogyny.Perhaps there might be other reasons that white women would vote for a white-supremacist candidate other than “the less racist candidate didn’t excite them”, particularly their whiteness and racism.

It is quite distressing in this context that the authors use “anti-elitist” tropes which are clearly associated with right-wing attacks on the Clinton campaign, such as dismissive mentions of “pant suits” (139) or even “brunches” (78).3 The authors have every right and justification to criticize the politics of what they call “femocrats” – the Sheryl Sandbergs (and yes, the Hillary Clintons) of this world who simply want more women to get ahead under capitalism. But such glib re-use of the slogans effectively used by Right-populism by people arguing for a Left political project is not just lazy. In the current conjuncture, it is dangerous. It does not draw a line between class opposition to the hollowness of neoliberalism’s promises of equality and diversity, and Right-populist attacks on those politics altogether. The authors themselves recognize this danger when they discuss “those currents of left-wing parties in Europe that propose to ‘co-opt’ the Right by themselves opposing immigration” (414). What shall we then say about co-opting the Right’s culture-war sneering at “pant suits” and “brunch”?4 It seems particularly strange in a context where the authors praise the success of the #MeToo movement, which began among women working in Hollywood, a subculture which seems particularly “brunch-prone” (332).

The danger of “99%” populism which concentrates too much on opposition to liberal hypocrisy is shown when the authors discuss what rights women currently have under progressive neoliberalism:

The only way that women and gender non-conforming people can actualize the rights they have on paper or might still win is by transforming the underlying social system that hollows out rights. By itself, legal abortion does little for poor and working-class women who have neither the means to pay for it nor access to clinics that provide it… laws criminalizing gender violence are a cruel hoax if they turn a blind eye to the structural sexism and racism of criminal justice systems. (150)

From Marx onward, socialists’ opposition to the rhetoric of bourgeois democracy and human rights has been that these promises are but a shadow of what real liberation would be like. But that cannot allow us to believe that bourgeois democracy and rights mean nothing. Just because abortion rights in the United States are de facto restricted (financially and by local reactionary laws) doesn’t mean that it is a matter of indifference as to whether the Supreme Court, including one Trump appointee who has been credibly accused of sexual assault as a young man, overturns the Roe v. Wade decision and abolishes that bourgeois right altogether.

To describe bourgeois democracy and rights as a “cruel hoax” does not take serious account of what would happen to women and the gender-queer in a world where such laws and rights were swept away, or where the bourgeois establishment stopped even pretending to pay lip service to them. One possible answer can be seen before our eyes in Putin’s Russia. The replacement of progressive neoliberalism with reactionary populism or fascism is not a matter of indifference to the most vulnerable workers. It has been previously noted that the leading voices who put the critique of progressive neoliberalism ahead of hard opposition to Right-populism – what Idrees Ahmad calls the “alt-left” (https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/comment/2017/8/25/the-alt-left-is-real-and-its-helping-fascists) are white (mainly male) media professionals, the kind of people who are not only not the first targets of fascism, but if they are smart and/or cynical enough, may be able to make a good living as regime publicists5.

Although the authors are correct that we have to build a movement which fights “reactionary populism but also its progressive neoliberal opponents” (193), we cannot be indifferent between these two evils here and now – especially when our own forces are so weak. The authors blithely announce: “We reject not only reactionary populism but also progressive neoliberalism. In fact, it is by splitting both these alliances that we intend to build our movement” (542). The question of who “we” is in this paragraph is an important one. It presupposes an anti-capitalist, pro-democracy global movement which has sufficient social weight to fight both these evils. It is imperative to build this movement, independent of and critical of progressive neoliberalism – but the support shown by (at least) a plurality of white women voters in the United States for the Trump movement shows how difficult it will be to “separate working-class communities from the forces promoting militarism, xenophobia and ethnonationalism” (552)6. Note the problematic formation here – the section of the working-class which (in Western countries) either active or passively supports reactionary politics are overwhelmingly white. The black and Latin@ working class did not vote for Trump, neither did black or Latina women. Racist ideas will destroy any working-class or feminist movement, and they don’t go away simply by blaming the progressive liberals for not fighting them hard enough. The fate of socialists in Britain who thought they could “piggyback” on the momentum of the Right-populist Brexit movement to shift it in a socialist-international direction should be a warning for everyone.

Conclusion

Arruzza, Bhattacharya and Fraser stake out a convincing claim for a revolutionary socialist, internationalist and anti-racist feminism which rejects both right-wing populism and the “progressive” wing of neoliberalism. But the fact must be faced that, at this point in history, it is the former who are in ascendancy and the latter who are on the defensive. It is certainly easier to turn a mass of excluded, despairing workers and poor people against this class of managers and privileged workers than against an abstract global “system”; but this is precisely what the populist Right and its fascist fringe is doing right now.

The authors are correct that “a crisis… is also a moment of political awakening and an opportunity for social transformation” (194). It is also, as we have seen, an opportunity for all manner of fascist and fascist-like monsters to crawl out of the gutters of history, to attack the very ideas of diversity and equality that progressive liberals pay lip-service to. Thus, the Left cannot hope to cynically reuse the Right’s attack lines for our own ends. We have to promote a message of fulfilling the promises of progressive liberalism, opposing their hollowing-out by neoliberal economics; not treat the femocrats and the fascists as if there were no choice between them. Thankfully, the authors’ call for the reinvention of the tactic of the mass strike for the 21st century, extending it into the “people-making” sectors of society, is a cogent and intelligent one, which will hopefully be taken up by the broader radical Left.

Our movement today finds itself rehashing the arguments of the 1920s and 1930s of how anti-capitalists should react to a situation where a growing Right-wing populist and fascist trend threatens bourgeois democracy. The first reaction of the global Communist movement, which had come under the domination of Joseph Stalin’s authoritarian government in Moscow, was the “Third Period” analysis (1928-1933) in which Communist Parties performatively rejected both liberal democracy and fascism – helping smooth the path for the latter, and thus their own path into the concentration camps. In some cases, as in Germany, Communists actually worked side-by-side with the Nazis to put pressure on the establishment parties. Once the true horror of fascism in power became apparent, Stalin decreed a switch to the equal and opposite error – where the Communists joined a “Popular Front” against fascism with the bourgeois establishment, suppressing their own independent politics and thus throwing workers’ interests under the bus. Although Leon Trotsky’s alternative tradition of revolutionary socialism can be seen as problematic for many reasons, his insistence on rejecting both these cynical approaches in favour of united working-class anti-fascist action is still a guiding light for those who want to stop the rise of global fascism before it’s too late.

1 References are made to Kindle locations in the e-book edition.

2 Other polling analysis has cast doubt on whether the 52% figure is accurate, but still comes up with a preference by white women voters for Trump over Clinton: see http://time.com/5422644/trump-white-women-2016/.

3 See an interesting article suggesting that using “brunch” as a target of political derision is in itself misogynistic: https://www.glam.com/lifestyle/reasons-to-love-brunch/

4 It becomes even stranger when you realise that all three of the authors are professional academics at universities in New York and London – surely members of precisely the class whose consumption habits they are ridiculing? I would be surprised if the authors had a personal objection to eating brunch or wearing pant-suits in their day-to-day lives.

5 It is possibly significant that this Manifesto has been published by Verso Books, who have come under fire from many leftists and liberals for publishing authors who push an anti-neoliberal message which comes perilously close to apologies for right-wing authoritarianism and populism – for example, Max Blumenthal, the propagandist for Putin’s imperialist war in defence of Syria’s Assad regime (see https://twitter.com/im_PULSE/status/1113640209516781568). As Marxists and therefore materialists, we must critically interrogate whose voices get amplified by professional publishers and institutions, and what the material incentives behind such decisions are – even on the self-described “Left”.

6 Dutch author Flavia Dzodan’s exposé of “alt-right feminism” is worth reading in this context: https://medium.com/this-political-woman/alt-feminism-and-the-white-nationalist-women-who-love-it-f8ee20cd30d9

Happy International Women’s Day 2014!

Just over a century ago the Second Socialist International founded International Working Women’s Day, recognising the basic link between women’s liberation and the liberation of humanity as a whole.

In 2014 while feminism has won many victories, the struggle for women’s liberation and socialism is ongoing.

If you’re in Wellington, Fightback welcomes you to come along to our Socialist Feminist Day School, 1-7pm today at 19 Tory St.

Christchurch event: Socialist Feminism Day School

smash patriarchy

Fightback presents: Socialist Feminist Day School
2pm, Saturday November 16th
WEA 59 Gloucester Street, Christchurch

Schedule:
Feminism 101 – Heleyni Pratley (Fightback)
Men, anti-sexism and rape culture – Ian Anderson (Fightback)
Why Marxists need to be Feminists  – Alison Pennington (Socialist Alliance, Australia)

[Facebook event]

A discourse on brocialism: On Brand, iconoclasm, and a woman’s place in the revolution

Jeremy-Paxman-and-Russell-Brand-2486556

A dialogue with Richard Seymour on the question of how to reconcile the fact that people need stirring up with the fact that the people doing the stirring so often fall down when it comes to treating women and girls like human beings.

By Laurie Penny, reprinted from the New Statesman.

It’s a good job I wasn’t in the office last week, or the week before, when comedian, celebrity-shagger and saviour of the people Russell Brand was sashaying around. Not that there’s anything wrong with a good sashay. The revolution – as Brand’s guest edit of this magazine was modestly titled – could do with a little more flash and glitter. It’s just that had I been in the office I would probably have spent a portion of my working hours giggling nervously, or hiding in the loos writing confused journal entries. My feelings about Russell Brand, you see. They are so complex.

Brand is precisely the sort of swaggering manarchist I usually fancy. His rousing rhetoric, his narcissism, his history of drug abuse and his habit of speaking to and about women as vapid, ‘beautiful’ afterthoughts in a future utopian scenario remind me of every lovely, troubled student demagogue whose casual sexism I ever ignored because I liked their hair. I was proud to be featured in the ‘Revolution’ issue that this magazine put out, proud to be part of the team that produced it. But the discussions that have gone on since about leaders, about iconoclasm and about sexism on the left need to be answered.

I’d like to say, first off that there are many things apart from the hair and cheekbones that I admire about Brand. He’s a damn fine prose stylist, and that matters to me. He uses language artfully without appearing to patronise, something most of the left has yet to get the hang of. He touches on a species of directionless rage against capitalism and its discontents that knows very well what it’s against without having a clear idea yet of what comes next, and being a comedian he is bound by no loyalty except to populism. And he manages without irony to say all these things, to appear in public as a spokesperson for the voiceless rage of a generation, whilst at the same time promoting a comedy tour called ‘Messiah Complex.’

I admire the audacity of it. It’s a bloody refreshing change from all those bland centrist politicians who grope for a cautious, cowed purity of purpose and action which they still fail to achieve. Brand, unlike almost every other smiling bastard out there, is exactly what he says he is: a wily charmer with pots of money who thinks the system is fucked and can get away with saying so. Yes, he is monstrously self-involved and self-promoting; yes, he is is wealthy and famous and has, by many people’s standard’s, no right to speak to any working-class person about revolution and be taken seriously. He also quite clearly means what he says, and that matters.

I agree with Brand about the disappointments of representative democracy. If I must pick a white male comedian to lead my charge, I’m on team Russell, not team Robert. And I am glad – profoundly glad – that somebody has finally been permitted to say in public what commentators and politicians have not yet dared to suggest: that rising up together in anger, as young people did in London and elsewhere in 2011, might be a mighty fine idea.

It’s not just Brand’s wealth and fame that allow him to say such things. Consider how the rapper and artist MIA was treated when she said very similar things about the London riots two years ago. Brand is playing the court jester, and speaking limited truth to overwhelming power in one of the few remaining ways that won’t get you immediately arrested right now – from an enormous stage made of media money, liberally thickened with knob jokes, with a getaway sportscar full of half-naked popstars parked out back and one tongue firmly in his cheek.

But what about the women?

I know, I know that asking that female people be treated as fully human and equally deserving of liberation makes me an iron-knickered feminist killjoy and probably a closet liberal, but in that case there are rather a lot of us, and we’re angrier than you can possibly imagine at being told our job in the revolution is to look beautiful and encourage the men to do great works. Brand is hardly the only leftist man to boast a track record of objectification and of playing cheap misogyny for laughs. He gets away with it, according to most sources, because he’s a charming scoundrel, but when he speaks in that disarming, self-depracating way about his history of slutshaming his former conquests on live radio, we are invited to love and forgive him for it because that’s just what a rockstar does. Naysayers who insist on bringing up those uncomfortable incidents are stooges, spoiling the struggle. Acolytes who cannot tell the difference between a revolution that seduces – as any good revolution should – and a revolution that treats one half of its presumed members as chattel attack in hordes online. My friend and colleague Musa Okwonga came under fire last week merely for pointing out that “if you’re advocating a revolution of the way that things are being done, then it’s best not to risk alienating your feminist allies with a piece of flippant objectification in your opening sentence. It’s just not a good look.”

I don’t believe that just because Brand is clearly a casual and occasionally vicious sexist, nobody should listen to anything he has to say. But I do agree with Natasha Lennard, who wrote that “this is no time to forgo feminism in the celebration of that which we truly don’t need – another god, or another master.” The question, then, is this: how do we reconcile the fact that people need stirring up with the fact that the people doing the stirring so often fall down when it comes to treating women and girls like human beings?

It’s not a small question. Its goes way beyond Brand. Speaking personally, it has dogged years of my political work and thought. As a radical who is also female and feminist I don’t get to ignore this stuff until I’m confronted with it. It happens constantly. It’s everywhere. It’s Julian Assange and George Galloway. It’s years and years of rape apologism on the left, of somehow ending up in the kitchen organising the cleaning rota while the men write those all-important communiques.

It comes up whenever women and girls and their allies are asked to swallow our discomfort and fear for the sake of a brighter tomorrow that somehow never comes, putting our own concerns aside to make things easier for everyone else like good girls are supposed to. It comes up whenever a passionate political group falls apart because of inability to deal properly with male violence against women. Whenever some idiot commentator bawls you out for writing about feminism and therefore ‘retreating’ into ‘identity politics’ and thereby distracting attention from ‘the real struggle’.

But what is this ‘real struggle’, if it requires women and girls to suffer structural oppression in silence? What is this ‘real struggle’ that hands the mic over and over again to powerful, charismatic white men? Can we actually have a revolution that relegates women to the back of the room, that turns vicious when the discussion turns to sexual violence and social equality? What kind of fucking freedom are we fighting for? And whither that elusive, sporadically useful figure, the brocialist?

For this dialogue, I spoke to the author Richard Seymour, formerly of the Socialist Workers’ Party, once the foremost British far-left party, which recently and dramatically disintegrated in the wake of a rape scandal in its top ranks (I wrote about the case on this blog earlier in the year). Seymour and I come from different left traditions with dispiritingly similar track records of ignoring structural gender oppression, and because he is a chap you’ll be nicer to him in the comments. Take it away, Richard:

Richard Seymour: My experience is that ‘brocialists’ don’t openly embrace patriarchy; they deny it’s a problem. Or they minimise it. They direct your attention elsewhere: you should be focusing on class. You’re being divisive. You’re just middle class (quelle horreur!). Or they attack a straw ‘feminism’ that is supposedly ‘bourgeois’ and has nothing to say about class or other axes of oppression. Or they just ignore it. To me that’s quite straightforward. Obviously it would be difficult, given their egalitarian commitments, to openly defend a gendered hierarchy; but their defensiveness about this issue suggests they associate a challenge to patriarchy with some sort of ‘loss’ for themselves. The question is, what do they have to lose?

That’s where Russell Brand’s manarchism/brocialism come in. The swagger and misogyny sits quite comfortably with another part of his persona which is a sort of squeaky beta-male self-parody in which he appears to really trash the protocols of traditional masculinity. I’m thinking of a routine he did about travelling abroad and being ‘embarrassed’ by his pink suit case and made to feel small about it by a bunch of burly lads. Likewise, he mocks his own sexuality in his act – the stuff about putting on an American accent while fucking, or wanking with a ‘serious face’, etc. To an extent, he genderfucks, he queers masculinity. He has his hair as a beautiful bird’s nest, and wears eyeliner. His comportment is very ‘effeminate’ in some ways. Part of his attractiveness, then, is that for all his sexual swagger and rigorous self-objectification, he isn’t conventionally ‘manly’. And yet this is the same guy who makes rape jokes – not as a one-off but as something that has happened a number of times – and is reported to have harassed female staff. More generally, he has a fairly obnoxious way of talking about women which implies that they are only really of value or interest to him if they are ‘beautiful’. For someone so plainly rooted in the 21st Century, it makes him sound like a fucking Fifties crooner.

Why doesn’t this jar? Why don’t such attitudes make him sick? Why don’t the words stick in his throat? How can he be so heartfelt in his sympathy for poor women fucked over by the rich one minute, and yet sound like an enemy of women the next? Why do some men on the Left who plainly feel in some way oppressed and undone by masculinity, who are obviously hurt by patriarchy – not at all to the extent that women are, but in real, concrete ways – respond by embracing it nonetheless? It can’t just be that Brand is now a rich man. Loads of leftist men who have no economic stake in the system share these attitudes.

The system of patriarchy has a lot of material compensations and advantages to offer those who accept it and identify with it. To me, the rape jokes and misogynistic language – all this is straightforward symbolic violence, ascriptive denigration, and obviously linked to punishment for transgression. Whether knowingly or not, it’s an occasion for male bonding – the ’naughty’ laughter – and the production of a type of masculinity. It’s the exercise of a ‘privilege’ of patriarchy. Of course, not all men like or want such ‘privilege’. But for it to be effective, quite a large number of men and women have to accept its basic inevitability, its naturalness.

So I think the ‘brocialist’ disavowal, the pretence that sexism doesn’t matter or is a distraction, is a natural coping strategy for those who really do think they desire total liberation, but haven’t yet broken with their ‘privilege’.

Laurie Penny: It’s very clear that the discussion here on what we’re calling ‘brocialism’ goes way beyond Russell Brand and his detractors. Nor is it unique to the organised left – the brocialist’s more chaotic cousin is, of course, the manarchist, who displays many of the same traits in terms of blindness to privilege, casual sexism and a refusal to acknowledge structural gender oppression, but has a slightly different reading list and a more monochrome wardrobe.

Nor is it all about gender. It also has to do with what we speak of in anarchist circles as ‘the problem of charisma.’ It’s about whether or not we need leaders at all, about what those leaders should look like and what they should do. The trend in the past three years has been towards horizontalism, a very precise and dogged refusal to appoint leaders or set goals, an organic resistance to hierarchy – but somehow the leaders we don’t have usually end up being charismatic white guys. How are we to fix that problem without descending into dogma?

RS: I agree that it has a lot to do with power. If you look at the SWP’s ongoing, worsening crisis, it’s really telling just how many of the accusations concern individuals who were in a position of authority, or were looked favourably upon by those who wielded some sort of power. I think that’s probably true elsewhere. Personally, I don’t have a problem with elected ‘leaders’ provided they are actually accountable. But whether we have leaders or not, I think we have to recognise that men are often too deeply socialised into their gender roles to even be aware of what they’re doing, even with the best will in the world. That’s why I think organisations on the Left should have explicitly organised caucuses of women, of LGBTQ people, of black people, and so on – and these caucuses should have real authority, they shouldn’t just be debating societies where issues that are ‘inconvenient’ can be hived off. They should make policy.

LP: That brings us back to the crux of the question, which is – are we asking too much? Is it a waste of precious time if we demand that a revolution be ‘perfect’ before it begin? That’s the issue that I’ve seen raised time and again when it comes to powerful men within movements and sexism or sexual violence, or to matters of fair representation, often by those seeking to defend or excuse the violence, but not always. If someone is a galvanising figure – like Brand – or an important activist, like Julian Assange, should we then overlook how they behave towards women?

Because of course, there are elements of socialisation at play that make it almost inevitable that powerful men within movements who are attracted to women will have a great many opportunities to abuse that power, especially because those movements so often see themselves as self-governing. One of the biggest problems with the crisis in the SWP was that the victim, W, was offered no support in going to the police with her complaint of rape and assault. The fact that she might have expected better treatment from the Met, with their track record of taking rape less than seriously, than she received at the hands of the Disputes Committee, says a great deal.

I believe that socialism without feminism is no socialism worth having. Clearly we need to be strategising a way to have both pretty damn quickly.

RS: As I see it, the problem was posed most acutely by Occupy. They appealed to the 99 percent, the overwhelming majority of working people against the rich 1 percent. And I sympathise with that: you can’t hope to win unless you bring an overwhelming majority with you, because the Party of Order is too powerful otherwise. And I agree that class is what unites the majority.

But, how do you unify people who are divided not just by nationality, region and prejudice, but by real structural forms of oppression like sexism? The old (white, bourgeois male) answer is to say, “don’t talk about ‘divisive’ issues, ignore them for now, they’re secondary”. They’re merely ‘identity politics’. They’re somehow not as material as class. Judith Butler put her finger on what was wrong with this – what is less material about women wanting to work less, get paid more, not be subject to violence, not be humiliated? And why should class ‘compete’ with race or gender? Aren’t they contiguous? Austerity is a class offensive, but is it a coincidence that cuts to welfare, the social wage, disproportionately affect women and black people? And at any rate, it won’t work: if you try to impose a ‘unity’ that depends on people shutting up, they will just drop out. Gramsci was right: you can build broad alliances, but only if you genuinely incorporate the interests of everyone who is part of that alliance.

So, in place of a unity in which the oppressed preserve a tactful silence, we need a complex unity, a unity-in-difference. This is what ‘intersectionality’ means to me. It is the only strategy that will work. We aren’t asking too much; we’re demanding the bare minimum that is necessary for success.

LP: I attended two talks last year at which I was told by older white men in left academic circles that feminism was either irrelevant to class struggle or actively its enemy. Mark Crispin Millar announced that ‘identity politics’ were invented by the CIA as a way of dividing and weakening the American left, by way of foreclosing any further discussion.

The thing is that on one level those conspiracy theorists are dead right – issues of race, gender and sexuality are extremely effective at creating divisions within radical and progressive movements, large and small. But that’s not the fault of feminism, or queer politics, or anti-racist organising. These divisions do not happen because the whining women, queers and people of colour like to pick fights and want to hold back the tide of history – in fact, we have even more to gain from revolutionary change. The divisions happen because we are not prepared to shut up and stay seated while people in positions of unexamined privilege try to create a new world which looks rather too much like the old one.

The left, because we like to fight from the moral high ground, is particularly bad at confronting its own bullshit. That tendency leaves it susceptible to the mawkish modern delusion that all rapists are evil, inhuman monsters, and therefore nobody you know personally, work with or admire could be that sort of abuser. In fact, revolutionary sentiment and rape culture have never been mutually exclusive. The Socialist Worker’s Party and Wikileaks are far from the only such organisations to disintegrate because there is no process of accountability, and no framework by which it can be understood that a man can do respected, useful work on the one hand and be an oppressor on the other.

That brings us back to the more immediate question – if we accept intersectionality, which some people prefer to call basic equality, as a fundamental principle of making change – if we accept that sexism, misogny, homophobia and racism should not be overlooked in any figureheads who present themselves – then what are we to do with all the brocialists? Whither the manarchists and their rousing communiques against the Young Girl? Must they be taken out and shot behind the chemical sheds? Is ostracisation the only option, or can we envision alternative processes of justice and accountability?

RS: I suppose what we do with the manarchists and brocialists depends above all on one crucial consideration: the safety and well-being of others in the movement, or the organisation. I believe that people can change, and I am very interested in ideas of ‘transformative justice’ that feminists have been working on and trying to implement. But that wouldn’t always be appropriate. Some men are in fact unwilling to change their behaviour, and we have limited resources. I think if they’re dangerous, they have to be ostracised and anyone whom they have victimised has to be supported in whatever they want to do:including going to police if they want to.

But for most brocialists, I think it’s actually a question of getting them to see that sexism is not someone else’s problem. Patriarchy, and the whole system of gender regimentation that goes with it, is incredibly violent to men as well as women. Of course men don’t suffer from it to anything like the same extent, but it damages them. At the extreme, it might manifest itself as homophobic murder, the literal obliteration of someone who does not obey the correct gender protocols. You get this weird thing with many brocialists (I think this is true of Brand to an extent) who are clearly hurt by dominant norms of ‘masculinity’, and who resist it to an extent. And yet they still basically identify with patriarchy at some level, they still enjoy its brutality – the rape jokes, for example. Persuading them that this system ultimately harms them, damages their relationships with people around them, and also prevents them from realising their better aspirations – that it, not feminism, is their enemy – is vital.

The global women’s uprising of the last few years is a real opportunity to start forcing this argument open. The backlash among some left-wing men has been real, but it is also caused others to question, rethink, and maybe even notice their own bullshit.

LP: Thanks for your time, Richard. I also believe in forgiveness, and when the feminist counter-revolution comes, you shall be spared. All I’d like to add is that right now, women and girls across the world are clearly not going to wait patiently for liberation until the conclusion of a class struggle that speaks largely to and about men. They want change now and they are going to keep demanding it, and I believe that they – that we – will win. And brocialists everywhere had better listen, or get left behind.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Chelsea Manning’s gender identity

article by Anne Russell, reprinted from Scoop.co.nz.

The Queer Avengers (Wellington) are holding a solidarity action with Chelsea Manning on 2pm Saturday the 7th of September, at the US Embassy [Facebook event]

For the most part, gender minorities operating in the public sphere are recognised by their gender first and the content of their work second. This is why Rolling Stone articles on“Women Who Rock” kettle together artists as musically and lyrically diverse as Taylor Swift, Missy Elliott and Sleater-Kinney, as though ‘woman’ is a subgenre of music. Even at comparatively progressive activist events, cisgender women and transgender people—particularly trans* women—rarely dominate the overall speaker line-up. Rather, they are given separate sessions to discuss sexism and/or transphobia, implying that these issues are only problems for the oppressed parties in question.

In contrast, issues like mass surveillance and military crimes are framed as issues that everyone should be concerned about, evidenced recently by the scale of controversy around the NSA leaks and the recently-passed GCSB Bill. This is not to say that they are not important or damaging problems, merely that they receive much more cultural attention than the routine struggles of oppressed gender minorities. While the soldier formerly known as Bradley Manning was hitherto widely considered a hero in radical movements, figures like radical activist and trans* woman Sylvia Rivera are not widely known outside the trans* rights movement itself. It is arguable that the activist world, like everywhere else, is still somewhat divided into gendered categories, at least on a surface level: the cis men examine military documents while the cis women and trans* folk talk about unequal access to healthcare, cultural invisibility and sexual harassment.

Private Manning’s recent announcement that she is a transgender woman—to be known as Chelsea Manning from here on—thus represents a stunning collision of different activist factions. Manning released a statement last week announcing that she identifies as female, and wishes to undergo hormone therapy as soon as possible. This is not entirely new or unexpected information, as Manning’s chatlogs with informant Adrian Lamo in May 2010 read: “I wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed so much, if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me… plastered all over the world press… as a boy.” Moreover, her lawyers attempted to use gender identity disorder as a defence in her trial. However, many of Manning’s supporters felt uncomfortable referring to her as female without the explicit go-ahead from her.

That time has come, and yet many commentators remain confused orhostile(trigger warning: transphobia) to the announcement. Manning’s requests have been fairly straightforward—“I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun”—but many media outlets, particularly Fox News and CNN, continue to use her historical name and masculine pronouns. Since swathes of information about transgenderism are merely a Google search away, this misgendering demonstrates how heavily entrenched transphobia and the gender binary remain in public discourse. [Read more…]

What is work? Wage labour, unpaid work and feminism

Labour is central to a Marxist view of history

Labour is central to a Marxist view of history

Ian Anderson, Fightback coordinating editor. With contributions by Kassie Hartendorp.

Labour, or work, is central to historical materialist (or Marxist) views of history. Stereotypically, this means only caring about men wearing overalls and working in factories. However, factory labour is only one form of wage labour, which in turn is only one form of labour.

Labour is the sum total of human activities that reproduce social existence. Work keeps us alive, nourished, able to participate in human society. In The German Ideology, Marx argued that the “first historical act” is the “production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself.”

Labour includes, but is not limited to, wage labour. Unpaid labour in the home – cooking, cleaning, caring for children, the sick and elderly – reproduces our social existence. This unpaid domestic labour, including housework, has been termed “reproductive labour.”

Women still do the bulk of reproductive labour under capitalism. Surveys of unpaid work are not collected often, showing the priorities of the ruling class. However, 2009/2010 Time Use Surveys show that while women and men perform similar hours of work, the majority of men’s work is paid, while the majority of women’s work is unpaid.

Given the onslaught of attacks on both paid and unpaid workers, it is necessary to understand the relationship between wage labour, unpaid work, and unemployment. As women work the majority of unpaid hours, this understanding is also necessary to reconciling socialist and feminist demands. [Read more…]

Sexism and “dude-bro irony”

Robyn Kenealy

Some of you will be familiar with British comedian Stewart Lee’s routine about motoring review show Top Gear. In the routine, Lee describes acts of horrible violence befalling the Top Gear presentation team, breaking off periodically to shout “it’s just a joke, like on Top Gear!” before pausing for a moment, and then adding “but coincidentally, it is actually what I wish had happened.”[1]

It’s a great routine. Lee uses, as he explains, “the rhetoric and implied values of Top Gear to satirize the rhetoric and implied values of Top Gear.” Top Gear which is, to quote Steve Coogan of Alan Partridge and Saxondale fame, “three rich, middle-aged men… [who] have this strange notion that if they are being offensive it bestows on them a kind of anti-establishment aura of coolness; in fact, like their leather jackets and jeans, it is uber-conservative.” [2]

I have a reason for bringing up British comedians making criticisms of Top Gear, I promise. Particularly, it’s that those criticisms, Lee’s and Coogan’s, seem to me to also apply to what I call Dudebro Irony (I doubt the term is original with me). Dudebro Irony is when people – when men – say overtly sexist things, either in conversation or in art works, with the assumption that everyone will understand that they are not intending to be sexist. That it’s just a joke. Like on Top Gear.

Top Gear’s values are overtly conservative, whereas Dudebro Irony’s values are liberal or even leftist, but I would – and in fact will – argue that a similar machinery is at work. Rather than a conservative attack against the “PC police” which all leftists may by now easily denounce when they watch Top Gear, Dudebro Irony is done by young, liberal or leftist men, who ironically perform sexism (this is the literal sense of the word irony: their words have the opposite meaning to their intention) as part of a statement that they are not only not sexist, but so profoundly not sexist that the very idea of their issuing a sexist statement is so impossible as to be laughable. This performance has a relationship to Hipster Racism, which Lindy West writing for Jezebel examples as “introducing your black friend as “my black friend”—as a joke!!!—to show everybody how totally not preoccupied you are with your black friend’s blackness.”[3] While not directly analogous, Dudebro Irony often appears in the same contexts and does come from a similar root: the assumption that everybody now lives in a gloriously post-isms world, and therefore any overt display of –ism is automatically ironic. [Read more…]

Socialists and sexual violence claims: An evidence-based approach

SWP

by Ian Anderson

On March 12th 2013, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the UK split, over a crisis triggered when the Central Committee defended a member accused of rape. The Disputes Committee, comprised of colleagues and friends of the accused, had found the case “not proven.” While leading members of the SWP challenged this decision, a Special Conference in March reaffirmed it, leading to around 100 members leaving and forming a new International Socialist Network (http://tinyurl.com/bafj5ya).

This is not an isolated case. In recent years, rape allegations against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange have divided progressives. Whenever nominally progressive men are accused of sexual violence, it reveals divisions in the groups and communities they’re a part of.

When men are accused of rape, “where’s the evidence?” is a common refrain – as seen in the SWP Disputes Committee verdict of “not proven.” But what evidence or proof should we look for? Forensic, psychological, case-by-case? What is an evidence-based approach to rape and sexual violence?

Our method: From general to particular
In terms of evidence (as a philosophical or epistemological category rather than a judicial term) Marxists proceed from the general to the particular; from knowledge of how society as a whole operates, to a particular problem. We do not ask each worker to prove they are being exploited, because we know how work is organised under capitalism, how profit is taken from the mass of workers. While we seek information on the specifics of a workplace situation, we do that on the basis of a broader analysis. Similarly, our analysis must proceed from knowledge about how gender oppression works.

In order to approach accusations of sexual violence, we must start from the general. We start from analysis of society, how it produces sexual violence, and crucially where we are located in this process. Rather than starting with each case, we should proceed from a general understanding of sexual violence, to particular cases.

[Read more…]

Happy International Working Women’s Day!

Socialists Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin.

Socialists Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin.

Gender and women’s liberation is essential to socialist revolution, which is why socialists founded International Working Women’s Day in 1910.

Below we link some material we’ve previously published on women’s liberation.

Contemporary struggles
Women, Class and Revolution, Kassie Hartendorp
Don’t Talk to Me About Sewing Machines, Talk to Me About Workers’ Rights! A Call to Action for Socialists from a revolutionary hooker, Greta de Garves
Rethinking ‘Domestic Purposes’: Do we need a new approach?, Byron Clark
The War on Women, NZ edition: Beneficiaries and Contraception, Anne Russell

Sexism on the left
Why have women left the Occupy movement?, Byron Clark
Safer Spaces in Political Organising, Kassie Hartendorp
SWP: Sexism on the Left, Daphne Lawless

Historical
Revisiting socialism and women’s liberation, Kassie Hartendorp

SWP: Sexism on the left

Daphne Lawless

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is the biggest revolutionary organisation in Britain, and one of the most well-known and influential in the English-speaking world. But it’s currently in the midst of a crisis which brings issues of democracy, bullying, and sexism within the revolutionary movement to the fore.

[Read more…]