Why the Left needs feminism

[This post first appeared in two parts at The Standard on 31/1/2011 and 1/2/2011.]

I had set my mind to writing this article a few weeks back after IrishBill said some charming things to me on my own blog.

Then, because this is how the Universe works some days, the very issue came up on Kiwipolitico when Pablo sought discussion on where all the young left thinkers at. George D commented:

I know perhaps 20 or 30 minds as sharp as the ones you mention, all to some degree politically engaged. But absent a home – they are just speaking into the wind. Most prefer to save their breath. Many have deserted “left politics” for more direct forms of struggle/praxis: working class, union, and beneficiary activism; tino Rangatiratanga; environmentalism; feminism; and animal rights. Most engaged in at least one, with the knowledge that the structural conditions that enforce one enforce them all.
By this home I mean a space in which they can express their ideas and be taken seriously, at the very least by each other, and from which to develop a sustained and productive critique of society.

This really crystallized one of my key arguments: that the Left in New Zealand has been weakened by (among other things) the loss of activists and voices to other issues that aren’t specifically focused on class struggle or strictly economic leftist ideas. (I really focus on feminism here as that’s my baby.)

To put it in my more usual terms, the Left, and especially Labour, have screwed up by ignoring, cutting out and downright condemning feminists and other progressive activists and they need to get the fuck over themselves.

Also, it’s your own fucking fault.

Part One: history lesson

Second-wave feminism grew out of a lot of things. Yeah, there was dissatisfaction with horrific job discrimination and middle-class housewives were finally getting mad that their supposedly perfect lives left them feeling unfulfilled and directionless and women were haemhorraging to death in hotel rooms after botched abortions. And some women were feeling a wee bit angry about that.

But one thing that really helped kick things off? Leftwing men. Leftwing men who could talk your ear off about the oppression of workers but let the women volunteers stuff the envelopes and make the coffee. Leftwing men who were all about opposing men being drafted for a capitalist war but didn’t have time to think about how, war or no war, women got drafted into producing the next generation of cannon fodder.

Leftwing men who tried to tell us (and the people of colour, and the people with disabilities, and everyone else) that the problem was capitalism, obviously. It was all about class and once we got rid of that mean ol’ power dynamic all those other oppressions – those oppressions that didn’t matter quite so much – would just vanish.

Now could you please go make some coffee while the boys are talking?

And those angry women realised that relying on men to give a shit about issues that only affected the segment of the population categorised as “food provision/fucking” was about as good a strategy as deploying marshmallows against a Flammpanzer II.

Thanks, guys, I don’t know if we could’ve done it without ya.

Part Two: more recent history lesson

Nine long years of Labour, etc etc and oh, there was a lamentation and a crying of neckbeards, for women occupied a few powerful positions simultaneously and surely the end was nigh. And thanks to the 9th floor being transformed into a feminist lesbian cabal or something, we now have basic social support for parents (predominantly women) to take paid leave and not get fired, and The Gays can get almost-but-not-quite-proper-married, and you can’t just rape hookers safe in the knowledge that the cops, with their wonderful culture, will just arrest your victim because you’re a nice white pillar of the community etc. etc.

Oh, for shame.

Then our Beloved Leader smile-and-wave got into power, Auntie Helen handed over the reins and headed off to the UN just to let y’all know that the cabal is everywhere (or she could be immensely talented and qualified for the role) and lo, there was a great releasing of pant top buttons and a relieved round of burping at the caucus table and, well … the guys went a little silly.

Did I say a little?

These people have become the fervent champions of an indigenous culture they can never truly join because, fundamentally, they despise their own.

Yep, things got to the “white leftwingers who talk about Maori issues are race traitors stage a little quicker than I might have expected…

Part Three: identity politics kicked Chris Trotter’s dog

But don’t think Trotter reserved his scorn just for tino rangatiratanga:

[The] ideological roots [of “knee-jerk liberal orthodoxy”] descend into the swamp of identity politics and the New Social Movements which were at that time engaged in tearing apart the complex web of personal and political relationships that made up the traditional labour movement.

Trotter is speaking about the 1980s, that golden age of namby-pamby identity politics when the left got distracted by piffling little side issues like whether men should be held accountable for raping their wives and whether gay men should be allowed to be gay.

A time when the Left wasn’t, to quote Phil Goff’s own advisor John Pagani on that thread, “connecting with things that matter to people”. You can probably draw your own conclusions as to the kind of people he means.

I must admit to some naivety, because it came as a bit of a shock to me that identity politics could so easily be divorced from leftwing thought and cast as unrelated to the struggle against capitalism.

I mean, what is sexism if not a manifestation of capitalist reliance on women’s unpaid labour and reproductive capacity? (More on this in a later post, methinks.) And what is racism if not another handy way to separate out one sector of society to be exploited for their labour, all wrapped up in “science”? What is ableism if not driven by capitalism’s need for the most “productive” labour at the lowest cost and accommodation? How is enforcing heterosexuality and strict gender roles not about ensuring an increasing population to fuel the capitalist eternal-growth pipe dream?

(I certainly don’t want to imply that capitalism is the be-all and end-all of these oppressions, see previous “we’ll let you make speeches when the revolution is over, kitten” commentary.)

But nope, apparently these issues and concerns and theories were all just chaff getting in the way of the real workers’ struggle and the things that matter to people.

Again.

To quote myself:

[W]hen two guys get in a huddle and start slanging against the Liberal Left and the evil distraction of identity politics, and whinge about how we need to think about ordinary people, I think we can make a few very good guesses as to the kind of people they’re talking about.

And I’ll give you a hint: it ain’t you or me, assuming you are not a middle class white heterosexual cisgendered currently able bodied male.

Because here’s what matters to me:

It matters to me that I not be passed over for a job or a promotion because I’m a woman who’ll obviously just leave to have babies.

It matters to me that I have the right to be paid the same as a man for doing the same work.

It matters to me that gay men and women can have their relationships recognised by the state just like every two-in-three-chance-of-divorce hetero couple.

It matters to me that people of colour not get pulled over by the cops because brown people shouldn’t be driving expensive cars, or are obviously on drugs because they’re brown, or not be played by white people in movies about their lives.

It matters to me that people with disabilities can travel on aeroplanes, and get into buildings, and pass exams at school (look out for that incredibly-expletive-filled-post tomorrow!) and go shopping without worrying some bastard’s going to throw them out for having a hearing dog.

It matters to me that trans people shouldn’t have to worry about being murdered because someone else feels they have the right to judge what defines a man or a woman.

It matters to me that people should be able to practise their faith without fear of persecution, and that people not-of-faith should be able to say so without harassment.

But fuck all that! That’s just identity politics! That’s just me assuming that the way people identify, the way society wants to identify them, the assumptions others feel free to make about you because of your identity or assumed identity, might actually affect people! It might actually rate a bit higher on their List Of Things That Pissed Me Off Today:

  1. Harassed on bus by guy who wouldn’t leave me alone.
  2. First question asked at job interview: “Do you have kids?”
  3. Threatened with sexual violence by blog commenter.
  4. Still alienated from means of production.

TL;DR: when a capitalist society chooses to force identity markers on you to aid in its goals, the shit you get for having those markers is probably going to be a bit relevant to your interests.

Part Four: how’s that centre vote treating you?

Going by Chris Trotter’s figures, the choices are between sucking up to the “5,000” nasty liberal left bastards who want to ruin everyone’s fun or bringing back the “150,000-200,000” voters who went over to National last election.

The assumption being, of course, that they did so because whinge cry nanny state nasty feminists etc.

Or it could be something to do with a notion roundly accepted and bemoaned on leftwing blogs at the time – the idea that the voting public just thought it was “National’s turn”. Or to quote a certain teacher in my family, “at least we expect to get screwed under National”. Or simple voter fatigue with a front bench of far-too familiar faces with too much baggage attached. Or the eternal tax-cuts bribe which probably seemed to make a lot more sense with 9 years of healthy surpluses dimming the traumatic memories of the last National government. Or fuck it, maybe a lot of people do just think John Key is a nice down-to-earth chap.

Nah, probably just the evil feminist cabal chased them away with our brooms.

But if the question is “why did a bunch of traditional Labour types vote for a cuddly, definite-statement-free-zone John-Key-led National” one is really struggling to think of why anyone in Labour thought the answer was “because they wanted some more of that uncuddly strong-statement Don-Brash-led-National type racism”.

And when your answer to anything is “make ourselves more like John Key” it doesn’t matter what the question is, you’re probably just fucked.

Conclusions

So, leftwing men being douchebags who refuse to consider the distinct oppressions suffered by other, not-them groups of people have managed to drive a lot of natural allies away. Natural allies who surprisingly don’t take it well when told that shit that affects them every day of their lives isn’t that important. Most recently in NZ this has been done by the Labour Party because everyone wants a piece of the elusive, self-contradicting “centre” vote. And as we approach a general election, a heck of a lot of good liberal-yet-still-left people just don’t know what the fuck to do to set things right.

Here’s a few ideas.

Stop buying into the idea that acknowledging the actual harms suffered by actual people is “polarising” or “distracting”. All it does is signal loud and clear to women and Maori and queer folk that they are expected to once again sacrifice themselves For The Good Of The Left. We’ve already seen how that kinda doesn’t work out so well.

Acknowledge where relevant that if you are white, male, cisgendered, currently able-bodied, living above the poverty line, and reading this post online and in vivid Technicolor, you have privilege. Probably another post in that concept because I’m just so sure a few types will refuse to get it.)

If you want to throw around concepts and slogans like “for the many, not the few” try to bloody well remember that the “few” in that should be the people on the top of the heap, not the bottom.

If you want to make any kind of political play on a platform of fairness and ability/need and compassion and social justice it might fucking help to do some social justice.

And when the Right (and your own mainstream commentators) decide to attack you for focusing on “fringe” elements or “irrelevant” issues, you just look those bastards in the eye and say “Our society should be free and fair for everyone. No one should be attacked or discriminated against just because of who they are. We are doing this because we care about people, even though some of them will still vote against us for other reasons or even though they’re already a part of our core vote or even though their votes won’t make a difference in the election. It’s the right thing to do and we are going to do it because all New Zealanders deserve to live in the kind of country that takes care of its people.”

Just remember: an issue may not be important to you. But if you’re on the Left you better be motivated by something more than what you fucking get out of it.

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