The Left Needs Feminism

For our Feminist Issue we were keen to feature the male perspective on feminism. We’d read Richard Seymour and Laurie Penny in conversation in a really lively discourse on ‘brocialism’ in the New Statesman, and wanted some of his no-nonsense perspective. His contribution – The Left Needs Feminism – is very no-nonsense indeed…

Illustration by Spelling Mistakes Cost Lives.

The Left Needs Feminism – by Richard Seymour

Every now and again, one catches an article by a sweet-natured, well-meaning, often gaunt and gentle-looking beta-male, explaining why men need feminism. And they are so, so precious. Be a feminist so that you can cry, so that you can be compassionate, so that you can be into cooking, and watch My Little Pony without embarrassment. If this doesn’t make you want to vomit into your own mouth, then I question your integrity and that of your parents.

Perhaps this is unkind. These articles also call one to a basic level of self-reflexivity, which is always a desideratum; and their demand that you ‘check your privilege’ can be useful. Shorn of the pleas to emote, and let emote, the desire to examine and take a share of responsibility for the micro-politics of gender can only be positive. Not only that but, as bell hooks suggested, the success of feminism depends on winning over men; if only women could be convinced of feminist analysis, it would stand little chance of succeeding politically, and could be comfortably ignored rather than provoking a backlash.

The problem is that the macro-politics can be lost in what usually turns out to be an individualised analysis in which the male desire to be an ‘ally’ or (Jesus fucking Christ) a ‘male feminist’ is both ratified by individual behaviour, and ultimately explained in terms of individual conscience and suffering. Not only that, but it leaves expediently nebulous the status of the term ‘feminism’. Hugo Schwyzer much?

I propose to re-pivot this whole question onto a different axis, and ask: can the Left get anywhere without feminism? And, how should male activists respond to the answer?
By now it is clear enough that we are amid a fourth wave of feminism. In the anglophone countries, this is driven by a particular demographic – 18-29 year old women, usually social media adepts. It has its own particular concerns, some of which are inherited from the third wave: media representations, the micro-politics of #everydaysexism, and the delicate politics of (class, racial, national, sexual) difference among women. Emblematising the latter concern, the term ‘intersectionality’ is at the fulcrum of contemporary feminist debates and the attempts, particularly by black feminists and women from the global south, not to be squeezed out of the emerging debates.

The question of what to do about this is not merely a tactical question prompted by the conjuncture. The fact of the global women’s insurgency is of huge significance, but it presents no surety of the future salience of feminism. The fact is that women, and women’s bodies, have actually been central to the dominant political narratives of the last decade or so, and are disproportionately leaned on in the context of austerity politics.

In the ‘war on terror’, women were used to provide what Zillah Eisenstein calls a ‘sexual decoy’, conscripted to war narratives in order to obscure the fundamentally masculinist nature of the imperialist drive under Bush the Younger, as well as to provide a vaguely progressive-sounding rationale for racist, Islamophobic repression. This purloined ‘feminism’ was always rather thin. Neither Malalai Joya nor Malala Youzafszai could be comfortably assimilated into such imperialist narratives; and in the imperialist countries themselves, women’s groups were generally in the anti-war camp. Nonetheless, the gender-conservative thrust of such war fables should be spelled out. The argument, then as now, has been that women in ‘the West’ have essentially ‘made it’. They have reached, through their achievement of the vote and the ability of a few of their number to scale the summits of industry and politics, the zenith of civilisation. Everything else is downhill. The only thing to do, in this context, would be to defend what has already been gained (against Muslims, chiefly), and rally to the Pentagon and the State Department as the sanctified defenders of women’s liberation.

The global recession has since changed the context and valence of such appeals. When the recession hit, it was women who suffered first and most. When the austerity solution was pioneered, it was clear that the effects – since a central component of it is an assault on the social wage, which covers the invisible labour of reproduction still disproportionately carried out by women – would fall harder on women. Increasingly, state occupants such as David Cameron fall back on the idea that ‘the family’ (meaning the unacknowledged labour of women) can replace the welfare state. This is not a plea to go back to the ‘male breadwinner’ model in any simple way: the idea is that women continue to participate in the labour market, and indeed should do so more eagerly given the penury of living on welfare. In essence, women should work more for less; thus, some of the costs of the recession can be allocated according to a moral economy in which women are deemed most blameful, and least deserving. In this context, the fusion of Islamophobia and nationalism takes on a new role, allowing the problem of women’s servitude to be represented as a pathology of foreign dogma, rather than a structural feature of advanced, neoliberal capitalism.

This is merely to mention a couple of the ways in which gendered politics has been essential to the forms of political domination, to repression, imperialism and exploitation, in the last decade or so. It is merely to gesture at the fact that politics can hardly be done without confronting the huge, invidious fact of women’s oppression; merely to hint at the material circumstances from which the fourth wave has emerged. So, how well has the Left acquitted itself in this context?

‘Manarchists’, or ‘brocialists’: does it matter what we call them? The fact is that there is something particularly incongruous about men of the Left, whether they are George Galloway, or ‘Comrade Delta’, or their many apologists and acolytes, or (in the case of Delta) the institutional forms that defend them, who betray their ostensibly egalitarian ideals with sexist behaviour. And in fact, the cited cases are merely the prominent tips of the chauvinist iceberg. From the horizontal networks of Occupy, to the more traditionally hierarchical organisations of the far left, case after case of sexist abuse has come up in which ingrained assumptions or institutional pressures led to perpetrators being protected.

To be absolutely clear: this is not more serious than the problem of sexism in the wider society; it is probably far less prevalent on the Left than on the Right. It is simply that the Left does not exist in splendid isolation from the oppressive society in which it seeks to operate. It is immersed in the world and is susceptible to its pressures. Sexism is not peculiar to the Left, but it is a problem for the Left, relative to its normative aspirations, and its aspiration to grow and assemble an alliance of forces capable of challenging capitalism.

The fact is that the discourse of a section of the Left around recent controversies about sexism is at its best strikingly conservative. In its most ostensibly serious form, this involves claiming that the focus on feminism and intersectionality is just identity politics, and a distraction from the real issue of class. This totally ignores the fact that, as feminists such as Silvia Federici, Selma James and Avtar Brah (or more recently Abbie Bakan and Brenna Bhandar) have shown, our understanding of class, labour and surplus value is totally transformed once the realities of gender (and race, and so on) are assimilated. This is hardly irrelevant to the age of austerity and the attacks on the social wage. What those talking about class in the unreconstructed sense want is not to defend class politics, but to conserve class as a kind of identity politics for a specific layer of white men.

This is an inherently minoritarian approach; white men, no matter what the television says, are not the majority of people on the planet by a considerable distance. They may in general hold more power and influence than others, but they cannot by themselves assemble the movement necessary to challenge capitalism. They are not necessarily even the most politically militant sections of the working class. Gramsci’s point about building hegemonic alliances holds. No authentic alliance is possible in which oppressed groups are expected to hold their tongue, and submerge their own interests and demands – indeed, using the language of intersectionality, this is exactly the problem that fourth wave feminists have been confronting.

The Left needs feminism, then, because it urgently needs to update its epistemological assumptions in order to analyse the situation in which it finds itself, and because it needs to be able to fuse together the interests of all the oppressed and exploited in order to be adequate to the political circumstance. But to get to grips with this challenge, it needs to combat its most retrograde elements, those who in fact represent at worst a pungent form of rape culture, or who are at best the left representatives of the backlash culture.

Either that or you can weep over My Little Pony. Your call.

Richard Seymour is a political activist who blogs at Lenin’s tomb. He is the author of The Liberal Defence of Murder and The Meaning of David Cameron