Friday, December 27, 2013

"Blaming white women"

So there is a Twitter furore about the hashtag slogan, apparently not a troll, #StopBlamingWhiteWomenWeNeedUnity.  Its author is no one particularly interesting - an Islamophobe struggling to reconcile her feminist commitments with her utter disdain for the moral agency of Muslim women - but what is of interest is how the politics behind this slogan actually work.  It seems very odd to demand 'unity' on the basis of non-white women shutting up.  But, of course, this is part of a tendency.  In the context of the war on terror, 'feminist' arguments for anti-Muslim repression were far more widespread than they are now, contributed to a revivified far right, and formed part of a generally deleterious context for any potential women's movement.  But that tendency has not exhausted itself.  The strange patriarchal organisation, Femen, is simply its most outré manifestation.  There is a useful analytical approach developed by the feminist theorist Angela McRobbie, which is summarised in the following quote:

"Elements of feminism have been taken into account, and have been absolutely incorporated into political and institutional life. Drawing on a vocabulary that includes words like 'empowerment' and 'choice', these elements are then converted into a much more individualistic discourse, and they are deployed in this' new guise, particularly in media and popular culture, but also by agencies of the state, as a kind of substitute for feminism. These new and seemingly 'modern' ideas about women and especially young women are then disseminated more aggressively, so as to ensure that a new women's movement will not re-emerge. 'Feminism', is instrumentalised, it is brought forward and claimed by Western governments, as a signal to the rest of the world that this is a key part of what freedom now means. Freedom is revitalised and brought upto-date with this faux-feminism. The boundaries between the West and the rest can, as a result, be more specifically coded in terms of gender, and the granting of sexual freedoms." - Angela McRobbie, The Aftermath of Feminism, 2009

The concept of 'disarticulation' is central to McRobbie's approach here.  This involves the attempt  prise away elements of feminist signification, and absorb them into a new neoliberal articulation.  The 'chains of equivalence' which once linked feminism to a profound social-structural critique with implications for the division of labour, race, sexuality and so on, were disrupted.  The purloined elements of feminism - freedom from domesticity, access to the wage, access to the adventure of life - were absorbed and neutralised.  Feminism was deemed 'taken into account'.  What remained of feminism was identified with an, at best, outdated struggle, or at worst with a profoundly unattractive form of politics that was at odds with precisely the freedom that, so it was claimed, had already been won.  According to McRobbie, this successful offensive left young women profoundly alienated by feminism and thus deprived of the political agency they needed to challenge the new forms of oppression and exploitation they faced.  And of course, it permitted a new type of gendered global racial formation.

Since McRobbie's book was published, of course, a radical new women's movement did emerge, one which has at its heart the concept of intersectionality, and which is acutely conscious of the relationship of women's struggles to class struggles, and anti-racist struggles, and anti-imperialist struggles, and LGBT struggles, and disabled people's struggles, and so on.  Again and again, the argument is made: you can't have feminism if it doesn't reflect the needs of working class women, black women, gay women, and so on.  A narrow, bourgeois feminism isn't feminism in any meaningful way.  

This new movement, and the complex popular energies it exhibited, should have infused the Left with new life.  And to an extent it did.  But it also exposed the extent to which sexist ideas and practices remained sedimented within sections of the Left, who responded with lip-foamed anti-feminist bombast and often a form of crude class-reductionism.  Still, the movement is here.  It doesn't appear to have diminished yet.  The feminist societies are bigger on campuses than most other political societies.  The issues of sexism, rape culture, violence and even intersectionality have been forced, through the percolations of social media, onto the agenda of the mass media, even if not always in the most productive way.  The 'chains of equivalence' are expanding rather than being dismantled.  The work of 'disarticulation' has started to become undone, some effort has been made to retrieve the purloined elements, and the idea of feminism as something unattractive and outdated has been subverted by a new current of highly modern, techno-literate young women.

So, this is a thumbnail sketch of the framework within which, I think, one has to judge a hashtag slogan like #StopBlamingWhiteWomenWeNeedUnity.  Such a politics - linked as it is to the standard reactionary baiting of 'multiculturalism' and the assertion of a highly parochial 'universalism' in its stead - cannot but end up hostile to a considerable chunk of the feminist coalition while being aligned with forces that are actually profoundly hostile to the new women's movement.  And obviously, the one thing it can't achieve is 'unity'.