On the question of radical feminism and women as an underclass

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Radical feminism has always been a strand of feminism that I have been uncomfortable around. Part of this is because of my own internalized sexism that makes me shy away from very radical demands, especially in the realm of personal relationships, beauty standards, and so on. But a bigger issue I have had with it is its blatant Euro/US-centrism that makes it almost useless in contexts such as Egypt. I finally had a chance to read one of radical feminism’s most famous texts, “A Dialectic of Sex” by Shulamith Firestone. I have to admit that I was very pleasantly surprised, even as the text confirmed many of my problems with radical feminists. On the one hand, I see clear benefits in these kinds of texts – they are very clear in terms of identifying who is responsible for patriarchy and because of this they are able to make clear demands that movements can organize around. They also touch on parts of gender relations that other feminist strands tend to leave under-theorized, notably questions of love, relationships, and psychology. On the other hand, it is clear that these texts use European and American societies as the norm, and when they do mention non-Western societies it is usually to say that they are “more primitive” or that they are headed in the same direction as Western forms of patriarchy once they develop a little more. Some of the key differences I see between radical feminism and postcolonial feminism, for example, are in the ways that men are conceptualised, and how the family and culture are conceptualised. Another difference is that in texts such as Firestone’s that use Freud so heavily, there is bound to be the question of whether we can generalize about the “female psyche” across space and time. These are some of the questions I want to think through in this post.

A major problem I found was her ethnocentrism, which becomes clear at specific moments in the text. One example is when she writes about how turning to “primitive matriarchies of the past” as examples of times where patriarchy did not exist was “too facile.” She then goes on to quote Simone de Beauvoir to make her point. Her discussion of Black Power as well as the sexism of Black men in America is another moment that made me pause. Her heavily Freudian analysis seems to somewhat hide the more clearly racialized political and economic aspects of the Black question in America. In her attempt to argue that “racism is a sexual phenomenon” she seems to emphasize the sexual at the expense of the racial. So while she raises important questions about the ways in which Black men relate to Black women, for example, her attempt to answer these using Freud is problematic.

She then goes on to criticize Black women who did not call out the sexism of Black men in the Black Power movement, writing: “Why do black women, so shrewd about their men in general, settle for this patronizing, impersonal and uninspired kind of love?” Here again, because of her reliance on Freud as well as her totalizing views of women vs. men, Firestone is unable to locate these dynamics within broader societal structures. The Black Power movement was a movement against white supremacy and the extreme brutality with which it was met should partly explain why for Black women the issue of sexism was a very complicated one, and certainly more complicated than it was for White women. One only needs to read the memoirs of Angela Davis, Elaine Brown and other former Black Panthers to realize just how painfully aware they were of the balance between supporting Black Power and addressing sexism, homophobia, and so on. Firestone does not touch on any of these dynamics, showing the weaknesses of relying on sexuality (and Freud) as an overarching framework.

What I did like about Firestone’s book is the points she makes about love and relationships, because I think these issues have been under-theorized in strands of feminism such as postcolonial feminism. She talks about women’s constant need for approval, the ways in which male culture lives off of women’s emotional strength, the fact that for every successful relationship, there are 10 unsuccessful and destructive ones, and the role of envy and possessiveness in modern relationships. Above all, her point that love can never happen when there is an unequal power balance in a relationship is exceedingly important:

I submit that love is essentially a much simpler phenomenon – it becomes complicated, corrupted, or obstructed by an unequal balance in power. We have seen that love demands a mutual vulnerability or it turns destructive: the destructive effects of love occur only in a context of inequality (pp. 185).

This section also relies extensively on Freudian analysis, however. While I do not have an issue with this per se, I do think that Freudian analysis can sometimes become very detached from the material – the political, economic and social – and rely excessively on the psychic and the sexual (the sexual as psychological rather than material).

While Firestone admits that men are often in pain or suffering because they are socialized to be unable to love, she still does not make the point that this demonstrates how patriarchy is a system that creates suffering for all genders, not just women. Moreover, in her attempt to show how men treat women in relationships, she often generalizes in the extreme. For example she writes: “The question that remains for every normal male is, then, how do I get someone to love me without her demanding an equal commitment in return?” No doubt in many relationships there remains the issue of women committing more than men, but to universalize this to all “normal males” is quite the jump, and again reveals ethnocentrism (after all, is this the case across time and space?). Additionally, even in men where this is true, how do we deal with the question of awareness? In other words, I assume that this desire for love without commitment is often present in males without them being aware of it. This is precisely why patriarchy is so powerful, because so many of these desires have become subconscious or “common sense.” How then do we deal with it? Do we still see men as horrible perpetrators of sexism? Or is it deeper than that?

Overall, for a book that has become quite the classic feminist text I found it a bit disappointing in its over-reliance on Freudian analysis. I had expected the Eurocentrism because second-wave feminism is famous for that, but somehow I hadn’t anticipated that there would be so much Freud. The book left me thinking about how easy it is to organize a movement around texts such as this that are full of generalizations and that are very angry. And I mean angry in a good way, because I do think feminist texts should be angry. But is it possible to write a text like this today, considering where feminism is after the popularity of post-modernism? Probably not. And maybe that’s exactly why it has been almost impossible to form a feminist movement in recent decades, after the euphoria of first and second wave feminism, and the many critiques of these waves that emerged from postcolonial and Marxist feminists afterwards. We now have moment in feminism that is about critique and undoing the damage done by Eurocentric feminisms. This has come at a price, with more attention being paid to critique (of each other) than to imperialism, neoliberalism and other forces that are ravaging the globe.

To conclude, one thing I appreciated about Firestone’s book is the emphasis she put on Marx while also noting his limitations when it came to gender. She writes:

Marx was on to something more profound than he knew when he observed that the family contained within itself in embryo all the antagonisms that later develop on a wide scale within society and the state. For unless revolution uproots the basic social organization, the biological family, the tapeworm of exploitation will never be annihilated. We shall need a sexual revolution much larger than – inclusive of – a socialist one to truly eradicate all class systems (pp. 30).

And yet she doesn’t show very clearly how this is supposed to happen. She often discusses women as an underclass, and yet rarely points to the international division of labour where some women (white, Western) in fact have more power than the majority of men. Indeed this is precisely why it is difficult to theorize women as an underclass, or even as the quintessential underclass. And yet perhaps this is the lesson: Firestone shows us that women are not an underclass – and have never been. Today’s underclasses are made up of men and women. Any feminism that fails to grasp this, and fails to see why we need to analyze different structures simultaneously, is unlikely to gain traction.

Women, feminism and the validity of feelings

I’ve been thinking about feelings lately and the ways in which the validity of certain feelings and the invalidity of others act as forms of self-censorship of self-punishment. It wasn’t until I came across Sara Ahmed’s work on phenomenology and feminism that I was finally able to articulate some of the feelings I had towards being a feminist and the ways in which that is seen and the ways in which I am seen because of identifying with feminism. Sara Ahmed’s notion of always being a killjoy has been particularly useful because for me it sums up the crux of the matter: feminists are seen as killjoys, and for that reason it is something that is frowned upon, dismissed, made fun of, or even attacked violently.

It should come across as no surprise that calling oneself a feminist is not exactly something that makes one popular or wins over lots of people. The word feminist itself has become so associated with negative imagery that even within certain “critical” circles it’s become difficult to identify as a feminist. This is even more pronounced somewhere like Egypt where the term feminist comes with imperialist connotations, which, fair enough, do exist. But my concern is more with people who dismiss the term because it is “too radical” or “too hateful.” Feminists hate men, live in women-only enclaves, and are always angry. The problem is when we try to counter this argument by saying that “not all feminists” do those things or are like that, because that of course is a trap in and of itself. Plenty of feminists do take very radical approaches to men, and most are probably angry (as am I). But not subscribing to radical feminism (I’m not a big fan either, for different reasons) is still not enough of a reason to denounce feminism as a whole.

What is even more astounding about the feminist-as-killjoy “accusation” is that it is feminists who have to defend themselves by showing that they’re *not* angry, sensitive, PMSing, and so on. The burden of proof (proving our civility and happiness and proving that we won’t be killjoys) lies with feminists and women, so that we can show that while we may have specific views on gender, no need to worry since we’ll be careful not to bother you with them. So here the focus is not on patriarchy or the many reasons why women may be angry. Instead attention is deflected away from that and put on the women themselves.

I’m sure we’ve all had these moments (everyday) where someone says something sexist or does something sexist, and you point it out. Sometimes you even point it out as a joke so you don’t kill the mood *too much.* But still…the mood gets killed, people roll their eyes, everyone is like “oh that again” and somehow the whole conversation has become about the person pointing out the problem rather than the problem itself.

This is what I find fascinating…how disrupting hegemonic performances is such a threat that any disruption must be pathologized and attacked. Any attempt to disrupt an act of patriarchal masculinity or patriarchal femininity is met with so much resistance that over time the only effect is to wear down the person doing the disrupting. And this brings me back to my initial point – that this all ends with self-censorship. Not at the shallow level of censoring oneself consciously: “Oh, don’t say that cause he’ll respond with this.” It operates at a much deeper level by creating questions in ourselves about our own positionalities and our own beliefs. Above all, it creates questions about the validity of the feelings we are having. The question of over-reaction, of sentimentality, of anger, of PMS – these have all become all-too-common discussions I’ve had with feminist friends.

And yet these questions bring us straight back to square one – patriarchy functions precisely by assigning emotionality to women and rationality to men. Whether women are too angry, too happy, too flirty, or too dramatic, there is always a state of feeling – women are always feeling something, and feeling too much of it. It seems to me that the damage this has done to feminism is quite notable, in the sense that this has been transplanted onto feminists as well, who happen to be mostly women: feminists also feel too much, and react too often, to situations that are in fact quite rational and do not need to be reacted to in an overly-emotional manner.

And yet all of this creates, within women, a constant state of agitation. On the one hand, you notice hegemonic masculinity everywhere, and you see the ways in which patriarchy is performed, even among men who may identify with feminism. And this by itself is disconcerting, and often painful. On the other hand, the price of disrupting patriarchy is so high that you constantly have to ask yourself questions about the validity of what you are feeling. And yet, you felt something. But…did you really need to feel that way? Isn’t it just another case of you over-reacting? Maybe it’s that time of the month? Maybe you just need to see patriarchy everywhere since you’re a feminist and that’s what feminists do? Maybe it wasn’t intentional? But. I still felt a certain way.

Agitation.

Women are always told to doubt their feelings and question the validity of what they are feeling. I will never forget a conversation I had about a month ago, with a woman who I had just met. I was telling her about a guy situation, and that I felt angry, but that I couldn’t do anything because I didn’t think I had the right to be angry about what had happened. All she said was: “Ok. But you are angry. So what if you should or shouldn’t be?” And I actually stopped and thought…what a revolutionary way of looking at feelings!

This is not to say we shouldn’t be self-reflexive about how we feel and what we feel. As human beings (as in…men and women) we all over-react at times, are sensitive about certain issues, and get emotional when we’re hungry. But to my knowledge, only one sex is socialized to always question how they feel. And all this does, in the end, is make the distance between what we feel and what we *should* feel huge, and this doesn’t seem like anything but a form of self-punishment.

Racialized in Europe

I am back in Europe for a month and this time around it struck me how the intersections of race, gender and class are becoming more and more clear in the European context(s) as the economic crisis deepens in some places and fades away in others. Being back in the Netherlands and seeing the major changes happening within my own institution as well as other Dutch universities vis-à-vis the continuing neoliberalization of education, where critical knowledge is being pushed out through early retirement schemes or more intense competition for funding, and where formerly critical departments are slowly being transformed into places where ‘responsible’ and ‘useful’ knowledge is produced. After spending one year in the US, it seems clear that the US model is something that not only spread to the UK but is now also becoming somewhat dominant in some European contexts, where the connection between knowledge and commodification is explicit. This is not to say that in these critical departments knowledge was ‘free’ or not tied to capital, but rather that in some European contexts knowledge production in these critical centers was tied to the social democratic project that is now being dismantled.

Going to Frankfurt for a few days made some of these changes even more clear. Frankfurt, the home of Critical Theory, is now also undergoing major changes in terms of critical academics being pushed out of the academy. Here, as in Holland, the gendered and racialized effects of this are clear. Whereas for a period gender and racial ‘minorities’ were permitted into these centers of knowledge production, it seems that they are now being pushed out. This is different, it seems to me, from the US context, where gender and racial ‘minorities’ are quickly co-opted, either by placing them in isolated departments such as Gender Studies or Area Studies (Middle East Studies is a clear example here) and then using the existence of these departments as proof of an academic institution being critical; or when gendered and racialized academics themselves become intellectually co-opted and therefore simply reproduce dominant narratives.

Another fascinating experience in Germany was hearing about the rise of Pegida and how once again these fascist and racist movements are designated as exceptional or a minority, even though the racist discourse they mobilize is extremely widespread in Europe. Similar moves are made in Holland when the PVV and Wilders are constructed by Dutch liberals or leftists as a tiny minority of “crazy people” who have nothing to do with “normal Dutch people.” Dutchness here of course refers to tolerance, liberalism and non-racism. And yet…the ways in which certain events are covered; the ways in which ‘migrant populations’ are referred to or spoken of; and the ways in which everyday racism functions demonstrates that in fact what distinguishes Pegida or the PVV from the mainstream public is perhaps its extremity and its fascism but certainly not its core belief that there is a subject—a European—that needs to be preserved. And there is no doubt that this subject is racialized. Indeed the ridiculous discussions and performances surrounding Charlie Hebdo should make this clear, and should also make clear the complex intersections between race, gender, class, nation and imperialism in European contexts today. It is the mechanisms by which a European self is produced and reproduced that are interesting and that rely on very old distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ even while those critiquing this racist view are accused of binary thinking. And yet…the “failure of multiculturalism” or the “limits of European tolerance” vis-à-vis the endlessly inassimilable migrant point to nothing except the desperate need on the part of many forces within Europe to maintain binaries even as they slowly slip away.

At a conference on ‘diversity’ and ‘intersectionality’ in Frankfurt the discussions revolved around these issues and around the ways in which diversity is being mobilized to completely depoliticize discrimination in Europe and to make it seem as though institutions are attempting to ‘be inclusive’ even while they become increasingly exclusive. Again this strikes me as something imported from the US context, where the narrative of a “melting pot” or this idea that diversity is good (read: profitable) is so strong, and where programs such as affirmative action are imagined to be radical interventions that are enough to fix the problem of representation. This is not to say that affirmative action is not needed, but that it is certainly not enough. And it will not be enough in the European context either.

Perhaps the only consolation here is that after spending on year in the US, it is clear that the gains made by European leftists that led to the institutionalization of social welfare policies can never be underestimated. America’s capitalism is explicit, brutal, suffocating. Europe’s capitalism—for now—is hidden behind walls of welfare and social democratic values and must navigate through leftist and labour movements that are still relatively strong. Although, that said, from the perspective of the Global South, this difference between US and European capitalism makes no difference; Europe’s social welfare policies benefit Europeans on the backs of non-Europeans, and even non-white Europeans must fight to be seen as deserving of welfare. In any case, the dismantling of the welfare state is well under way and we will probably not have one to speak of generations from now in places like the Netherlands.

This trip, and all my others to Europe, make me think about intersectionality from the perspective of a master category, because it seems to me that in the European context – especially among “migrants (a term used for anyone not white, even if they have been there for generations) – race is the underlying cause of multiple forms of exclusion. Not to say that class, gender and so on are not part of this or do not affect this, but in the Global North race continues to exert a tremendous influence on the ways in which the subaltern in these places are treated. Perhaps this also explains why so much of the intersectionality canon – created by activists and scholars mostly in Europe and America – focuses on race and on race in particular contexts, without looking at the globalized nature of racism or capitalism. As Spivak has mentioned, intersectionality is problematic because it often ignores the global division of labour. Again it shows that even when critical theories are developed, they can be Eurocentric and reproduce concerns found in specific locations while erasing others. Definitely more to think about here.

A special thanks to Vanessa Thompson for the inspiring conversations and the lovely Frankfurt trip mentioned in this post.

My favourite books this year

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Looking back at 2014 it definitely feels like I can clearly trace some of the key changes in the way I see the world and in my intellectual journey. The more I think about these changes, the more I realize that I am very much indebted to the thought-provoking literature that I have been lucky enough to come across this year. In this post, I want to share some of my favourite books from this year. Whether they have challenged me, infuriated me, made me feel at home, or comforted me, there is little doubt that books remain an important part of my life.

From when I was little, I loved reading simply because a book has the magical ability to take you somewhere else, to show you worlds you have never seen before, and may never see again. So many times I have wondered where I know something from, only to realize it came from a book I read when I was younger. The older I got, the more I began to realize the politics of writing: the ways in which an author’s position and experiences not only impact the text here and there, but create the text itself. I began to think about reading differently, as a process that I too was a part of, as a reader. This added a whole new dimension of reading, where it became essential that I begin to think more carefully about what I was taking in, and challenge it rather than simply accept it. This past year I have read many challenging books, that have left me angry, frustrated, or upset. And yet, even these books have tremendous value, because they shed light on ways of seeing the world that are very much real. I have a tendency to think that other people will see things the way I do (as those close to me never tire of pointing out, haha) but this could not be further from the truth. Books offer such a useful way of catching a glimpse of these other worldviews, not in order to sing kumbaya and have a peaceful dialogue, but simply in order to expand my own understanding of how things work. This year I have also read books that have left me feeling happy and content, that have made me feel at home even while I was far away from home.

And finally, I have read books about subjects and experiences that have been extremely painful and heavy. I never know how to approach books like these. Take, for example, Assata Shakur’s autobiography, which I finished two weeks ago. It feels wrong and problematic to say that I learned from her pain. I think approaching it this way again commodifies Black pain as something to be consumed by others, as something to teach other people. I found myself trying to relate to it in other ways: trying to constantly draw parallels between her experiences and the way the United States continues to function in the same ways today. Reading her autobiography as events unfolded in Ferguson allowed me to make those parallels easily. I of course did learn from her experiences as well. The way she spoke about race, about international politics, about feminism. And above all, the way she spoke with absolute honesty: no pretensions, no ego, no insecurities. She laid herself bare and there was no way, as a reader, to respond to that except with vulnerability and the feeling of attachment to her as a person. This is just one example of the process I have gone through with so many books. There is no doubt, also, and in the spirit of honesty, that books create an escape that I have needed this year…a way to stop thinking, stop analyzing, stop over-feeling certain emotions, and just read. And I always knew, right away, what my favourite books were from their ability to do this. So here are my 30 favourite books:

  1. Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone
    by Eduardo Galeano
  2. Understories: The Political Life of Forests in Northern New Mexico
    by Jake Kosek
  3. The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses
    by Oyeronke Oyewumi
  4. Live and Die Like a Man: Gender Dynamics in Urban Egypt
    by Farha Ghannam
  5. An Atlas of Impossible Longing
    by Anuradha Roy
  6. Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East
    by Adam Hanieh
  7. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza
    by Gloria E. Anzaldúa
  8. The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: Western International Theory, 1760-2010
    by John M. Hobson
  9. The House of the Spirits
    by Isabel Allende
  10. Feminist Edges of the Qur’an
    by Aysha A. Hidayatullah
  11. The Political Economy of the Egyptian Revolution: Mubarak, Economic Reforms and Failed Hegemony
    by Roberto Roccu
  12. Scrambling for Africa: AIDS, Expertise, and the Rise of American Global Health Science
    by Johanna Tayloe Crane
  13. Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination
    by Ann Laura Stoler
  14. The Promise of Happiness
    by Sara Ahmed
  15. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
    by Michelle Alexander
  16. Marx And The End Of Orientalism
    by Bryan S. Turner
  17. salt.
    by Nayyirah Waheed
  18. Nejma
    by Nayyirah Waheed
  19. Kindred
    by Octavia E. Butler
  20. Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity
    by Chandra Talpade Mohanty
  21. Home
    by Toni Morrison
  22. A Mercy
    by Toni Morrison
  23. Tar Baby
    by Toni Morrison
  24. A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story
    by Elaine Brown
  25. Algeria Cuts: Women and Representation, 1830 to the Present
    by Ranjana Khanna
  26. Dangerous Liaisons: The Marriages and Divorces of Marxism and Feminism
    by Cinzia Arruzza
  27. Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present
    by Harriet A. Washington
  28. An Autobiography
    by Angela Y. Davis
  29. European Others: Queering Ethnicity in Postnational Europe
    by Fatima El-Tayeb
  30. Assata: An Autobiography
    by Assata Shakur

I’ll end this list with some short poems from what was probably my favorite book of the year: salt, by Nayyirah Waheed. I really believe that you find things just when you need them, and I found this book just when I needed to read it and hear what she was saying. Every page taught me something, and there are days where all I do is read and re-read the entire book. Her are some of my favourite poems:

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you broke the ocean in
half to be here
only to meet nothing that wants you.

– immigrant

when you are struggling
in your
writing (art).
it usually means
you
are hearing one thing.
but
writing (creating) another.

– honest | risk

if i write
what you may feel
but cannot say.
it does not
make
me a poet.
it makes me a bridge.
and
i am humbled
and
i am grateful
to assist your heart in speaking.

– grateful

i don’t pay attention to the
world ending.
it has ended for me
many times
and began again in the morning.

i want more ‘men’
with flowers falling from their skin.
more water in their eyes
more tremble in their bodies.
more women in their hearts
than
on their hands.
more softness in their height.
more honesty in their voice.
more wonder.
more humility in their feet.

– less

getting yourself together
what about undoing yourself.

– the fix

in our own ways
we all break.
it is okay
to hold your heart outside of your body
for
days.
months.
years.
at a time.

– heal

there have been so many times
i have seen a man wanting to weep
but
instead
beat his heart until it was unconscious

– masculine

These are just some of the beautiful poems in salt. I would definitely recommend it to anyone. It is a stunning, life-changing book.

I hope you all have a lovely 2015. Hugs to everyone!

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – feminism and 2014

It’s almost the end of the year and because I find myself about to move again, I’ve been thinking a bit about this past year and the many ways in which I have both confronted new challenges and ways of thinking and at the same time the ways in which many of the same debates and issues have kept coming back. The circular process of working through issues and questions is always so interesting to me, because of how new experiences and new knowledge can so easily be reworked into old ways of understanding things rather than open new spaces of thought. This has become especially clear to me on a personal level, where so many unconscious patterns, habits, and reactions continue to structure the way I approach people, places, and experiences. More often than not, it seems like our responses are so reflexive and automatic, and this makes it so difficult to change patterns that we know can be damaging or restrictive. Realising this in terms of my own personal life made me reflect on how this affects broader structures – we become so attached to how we perceive the world that it becomes difficult to change it in any drastic way. And above all, so much of this is unconscious. I am a big believer in the strength of the unconscious and really think that we are not conscious of so much of what we think and feel. This highlights not only why we often work through emotional issues unknowingly (which of course adds stress) but also highlights the importance of the media in impacting these unconscious ways of perceiving the world.

I think nothing highlights this contradiction between growing and yet coming back to the same place as much as my relationship with feminism. Feminism continues to be close to me not because I’m a woman and experience sexism daily, but because I still see it as one of the most politicised disciplines/movements available to anyone working within a postcolonial framework. Nevertheless, I have continued to come back to the “battle” between liberal feminism and postcolonial feminism, and the continuing impossibility of building bridges between the two. This came full circle at a panel I attended last week at a conference in Washington DC. The panel was comprised of some of the most well-known feminists working on the Middle East, and it seemed that the main issue was the following: By being so obsessed with countering Orientalism and countering Islamophobia, we have lost sight of what is happening on the ground in Middle Eastern countries and in fact have been so scared of criticising Islamists because we might be seen as being Orientalist that Islamists have gotten away with a lot simply because of that. While I have no doubt that this does happen – there is little doubt that many postcolonial feminists are careful about what they say and where they say it in order to not be co-opted by Western imperialist discourse – I think it sets up a binary that does a disservice to some of the amazing work being done by scholars and organizers working on/in the Middle East, who consistently view the issue in a nuanced manner. It seems strange to me to separate Orientalism from what is happening on the ground in Egypt, for example, since it is clear that global structures that are detrimental to the Global South have very clear and specific effects on Egyptians. So to talk about gender in Egypt without talking about neoliberalism, the continued effects of Orientalist cultural and media production, or the global gender regime that is heavily racialized, would be to talk about gender and Egypt in a vacuum. And so I suppose my point is this: we keep having to do the same things and argue the same points because those structures are still around. Feminists were writing against Orientalism in the 1950s and 1960s and feminists today continue to write about it because it is still there, even though it has changed in some ways. Indeed this is where the circular nature of things comes in – some of the very same debates that were happening back then, are happening again now. Not necessarily because they weren’t resolved, but because they could not be resolved without changes in the very structures and relations that were being debated.

Another shift that has happened in my feminist thinking has been re. intersectionality. I think there is little doubt that intersectionality has been one of the most formative theories to emerge in Black feminist studies, and has been central to my own development. But I think the time has come to ask some critical questions about where intersectionality has been taken these past few years, and what this means. I still stand by intersectionality as it was formulated in the early 1990s by Black feminists, and I think that what was articulated then was full of radical potential. However, looking at the academic work coming out on intersectionality now (and I emphasise that my critique is towards intersectionality in academia, not in movements/organising), it seems clear that something has gone wrong. When a liberal feminist can happily use intersectionality and therefore claim to be critical, something is off. It should come as no surprise that once intersectionality became part of the neoliberal academy it became simultaneously sanitised and de-radicalised. But the question remains: where to go next?

A final shift has been my introduction to more Marxist forms of feminism, and the potential they hold. I still remember sitting in my supervisor’s office in January this year and talking to him about intersectionality. He had an issue with it because he thought there was a problem with saying “intersectional feminist” as if that clarified anything ontologically. He went on to argue that Gramscian feminism and Marxist feminism generally held more promise, and at the time I wasn’t sure I agreed. Now I am starting to see his emphasis on materiality and why forms of feminism that do not take it seriously are bound to miss out on the essence of women’s oppression. The usual critique of Marxist feminist approaches is of course the claim that they do not theorise race, religion, or other social markers. This may have been the case back in the day but it certainly isn’t the case now. In fact some of the most complex theorisations of race and feminism I’ve seen this year came from feminists using Marxist frameworks. Understanding the dialectic between race and modes of production is made central and this makes it impossible to take seriously forms of feminism that ignore either race, neoliberalism, or the way the two co-constitute one another.

And so I guess that’s why I titled this post plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Because it seems to be the same set of questions, the same issues, the same contradictions that I was thinking through last year. And yet so much has changed. New inspirations, new approaches, and a lot of new experiences. It seems increasingly clear to me that we will continue to deal with so many of these central issues simply because not much is changing structurally. And perhaps what has surprised me most of all is the universality of the gender “problem.” Of course sexism plays out differently in different times and spaces. And of course it is intertwined with other structures such as race and religion. And yet…the more places I live in, the more it strikes me that there is a global regime of gender oppression that functions differently and yet also so similarly. And it seems more and more difficult to think of dismantling it in any meaningful way. So maybe this is where Gramsci’s “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will comes in.

Where is Marxism now? Feminism, Racism, Crisis, Egypt and the Survival of Capitalism

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A recurrent conversation I have had with friends during my time at Berkeley has revolved around the question of critical spaces. Thinking back now, I notice that I haven’t really had this conversation in other places I have lived or studied in and so it’s interesting that during this past year it has come up so often. The question is inevitably about why there are so few critical spaces within academia and how to grow without these kinds of spaces. Having done my MA and now my PhD at a place that is extremely critical and where postcolonial approaches in particular are the “common sense” rather than the “critical” I have always found myself telling friends at Berkeley (where despite its critical reputation does not offer a critical space on the whole) that these spaces exist. Having now spent the past week at the Historical Materialism conference hosted by SOAS in London, I am even more certain that these spaces are out there and that the solution for academics who do not feel them is to perhaps try to connect more to the ones that are already there.

The Historical Materialism conference covered a multitude of questions and issues being debated by contemporary Marxists. The topic of the conference was “How Capitalism Survives” and indeed this seems to be a pertinent question given the times. Every single panel I went to was interesting and loaded with thought-provoking analysis and further questions for debate. What was especially amazing was that there were so many shared assumption already there – for example, that imperialism exists and that liberalism is annoying ;) – and so this meant that a lot of exhausting, pointless debates could be avoided. I personally don’t see the point of debating things like whether imperialism exists or whether neoliberalism is bad for the working classes for the sake of having “diverse opinions” when the answers to those questions are blatantly clear. So it was definitely a relief to surpass those kinds of “debates” after a year at Berkeley where they not only happened way too often but also took up most of the time.

In this post I want to highlight some of the interesting debates that happened at some of the panels I went to. There were so many panels on race and sexism and that in itself is a useful refutation for those that automatically label all Marxism as necessarily reductionist, but is also a sign of the continuing tension between these different structures.

The first major theme across a few different panels was the (continuing) weakness of the Left inside Europe. (There weren’t a lot of discussions of the left in the US not only because it’s much weaker than in most parts of the world but also probably because of the dominance of Europeans at the conference.) This was discussed in the context of rising fascism (what is fascism, how is it related to production) and rising racism, including Islamophobia (in contrast to Bill Maher I do see Islamophobia as a form of racism). Two interesting points were: first, the fact that many of the far-right gains in Europe this year were because of votes coming from the petty bourgeois (or middle classes as some would say); in this sense it’s interesting to look at changing class dynamics, and not just racism, as part of the rise of the right, or more accurately, to see how these two structures are co-constitutive; and the second point revolved around questions of race and the working classes, and the ways in which it continues to prevent a “universal proletariat” from emerging.

The second theme was the ways in which a shift to service economies has impacted gender norms. One presenter – Emily Cousens – talked about the ways in which the successful performance of vulnerability has become a part of successfully performing femininity. She notes, following Butler, that gender is performative, and that the ideals of masculinity and femininity are constantly changing. What is new is that with the shift to a service economy in the Anglo-American world, vulnerability has become a much-required asset for many jobs. This reproduces a specific form of hegemonic femininity that automatically excludes women who are stereotyped to not fit this, including women of colour and working class women, who are assumed to be more “assertive.”

The third theme I found interesting was the discussion in one panel – that had focused on settler colonialism – about how anti-colonial resistance had not been a part of any of the presentations, and how this reproduces Eurocentrism even while critiquing European imperialism (indeed one comment was that one can be Eurocentric and against European imperialism, as has been argued by John Hobson). This is an issue that I have struggled with a lot – how to speak about imperialism, hegemony and capitalism, without being over-deterministic. By only focusing on those producing these hegemonic structures (in this case Europeans producing settler colonialism) and excluding the people who were resisting this settler colonialism, aren’t we still being Eurocentric by centering European actions and ideologies? Moreover, what about the ways in which this resistance constituted the colonial process and also the European colonists? Similarly, one can think of how an analysis of class struggles can’t just focus on the ruling class as though it is detached from the subaltern classes. The relationship is much more complex. And yet we need to conceptualise this complexity without losing sight of the fact that there is a power imbalance between the two.

Fourth, there was an especially interesting debate about Marxism and Eurocentrism. This happened in a panel about Marxism in the Arab world during the 1960s, where one speaker focused on how Lebanese Marxists in the Socialist Union had not seen Marxism as European and therefore as inapplicable to the Arab world. He asked: “What are the particularities of our period? Every Marxist work has to come back to this question. If something works everywhere then it is not valid anywhere. We don’t have to throw away the Eurocentric baby with the bathwater.” In my own opinion, the debate about Marxism’s Eurocentrism is obviously a complicated one, especially given Marx’s earlier writings as well as his work on the Asiatic Mode of Production and the assertion that all societies must first go through the capitalist stage. Yet much of this was later reframed, particularly in the Grundrisse, and so it is difficult to create a definitive or simple view of Marx’s opinion of non-Western societies. All of that said, I have found the work of Egyptian Marxists extremely central to my own research and indeed have found their work from the 50s-70s much more useful than most of what is being written about Egypt today. I found the book “Marx and the End of Orientalism” by Bryan Turner especially helpful, and am about to start reading Gilbert Achcar’s “Marxism, Orientalism, Cosmopolitanism” which I assume tackles similar questions.

Finally, there were two major debates happening at the gender panels (which were attended by equal numbers of men and women – seriously the first time in my life to see that!). One important debate was the problem with feminist movements that 1) focus on legal reforms and 2) that address their demands to the state. It should be clear by now the problems with the liberal tendency to see the solution to patriarchy as having better or stronger laws. Not only does this lead to an increase in criminalization (as pointed out by Jen Roesch at a talk) but it also assumes that the state is a neutral enforcer of laws that can somehow protect women. This view of the state is the main issue: the state’s priority lies (more often than not) with capital, not with those marginalized by capital. This focus on laws also detracts away from the broader conversation of patriarchy as a set of structures and relations that need to be dismantled. The focus on law therefore turns what should be a very broad conversation into an extremely narrow one. Now I know some will say – as has happened to me countless times – that legal reforms “are better than nothing.” What this misses is that once feminist energy goes towards legal reforms as the priority, it redirects away from other ways of challenging patriarchy, including class struggle.

The second important debate in gender panels revolved around intersectionality. Many were uncomfortable with what intersectionality is or what it has become. The growing trend of work using intersectionality that is apolitical and completely liberal raises important question about intersectionality, including the important question of what it is: theory? approach? metaphor? While intersectionality is useful in that it shows us the the ways in which structures intersect, does it explain why this happens? Perhaps it is here where Marxist approaches are more useful, because of their focus on explaining the materiality of oppression rather than just the fact that it exists and that it is intersectional. At the end of the day, if we want to change anything, knowing it exists is not enough – understanding why it exists becomes what is necessary.

I definitely feel recharged and inspired by this conference. The debates I saw were definitely the most complex and nuanced ones on topics such as sexism, racism, and – importantly – the Egyptian revolution. I can’t say how amazing it was to hear discussions about Egypt that were not liberal; that did not simplistically complain about how it’s worse now than ever before without trying to understand exactly what it is that is happening now; that don’t focus on freedom of the press and freedom of speech as if those are the only two important things being challenged; and that instead looked at the basis of what the revolution was trying to change: the political economy of a country being attacked by capitalism. Indeed Egypt becomes an important case study if the question is “How does capitalism survive?” because what we see is a restoration of an older system – not of the same system or same elites, but of the same logic of capital accumulation. Nevertheless, 2011 represented a challenge to capitalism, and because the organic crisis that led to the revolution has not been resolved, there will be more such challenges coming from Egypt, and many other parts of the world. Hopefully!

The personal is political – living feminist politics

One of the most difficult parts of my own feminist journey has centred around the inevitable and yet disturbing gap I see between what I believe in and the way I live. In other words, it is one thing to strongly believe in gender justice and feminist politics, and to advocate for both, and another thing to always live according to them. Whether in relationships, friendships, or even just everyday situations, more often than not I find myself acting or thinking in ways that go against what I believe feminism should be. And of course once I interrogate these situations, I understand why – and more often than it, it is because of the way we are socialised into our respective genders. But why is it so difficult to move past this when it comes to gender?

In an attack against Simone de Beauvoir, Pierre Bourdieu wrote the following:

There is not a better example of the symbolic violence that constitutes the traditional (patriarchal) relationship between the sexes than the fact that she will fail to apply her own analysis on relations between the sexes to her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre.

Bourdieu not only said this, but also claimed that de Beauvoir had “no original ideas of her own” and simply copied everything Sartre said. In an excellent article on Beauvoir and Bourdieu, Michael Burawoy not only shows that these two claims are untrue, but also that Bourdieu is extremely sexist in the way he attacks de Beauvoir. What I found especially interesting in this article was something on de Beauvoir’s feminism and her own life:

Hers is a more contradictory position in which she dissects masculine domination, yet in her own life finds herself falling into the same traps that she denounces as inauthentic. While she is writing The Second Sex she is having a passionate affair with Nelson Algren that bears all the marks of her analysis of “women in love” – knowing it to be an inauthentic and ultimately futile response to masculine domination. More successful, though never without its tensions, is the “brotherhood” of Sartre! Throughout her life Beauvoir lives out, reflects on, and struggles with the contradictions between her theory and her practice.

De Beauvoir theorises that the reason for this contradiction between theory and practice is that unlike other marginalised groups, women cannot form a unified whole that can rise up against patriarchy. In other words, while other marginalised groups can exist in spaces separate from (to an extent) those who dominate them, this is not the case for women, who “orbit around individual men, complicit in their own subjugation, seeking the best possible partnership on the matrimonial market, subjugated in body and in soul to masculine domination.” As Burawoy writes,

Beauvoir sees masculine domination as a special type of domination that is stronger and deeper than class or racial domination, for the latter occupy spaces from which oppositional identities can be formed.

This struck me because it is something I have sometimes thought – women are so closely tied to individual men that it becomes difficult to think outside of those social relations. And yet, is it true that other marginalised groups do think outside of such relations? Maybe not, but to an extent they are able to exist in material spaces that create a distance between them and those that dominate them. Think of racial or class segregation, although I would question whether this physical separation constitutes a discursive break.

Women being tied to individual men conjures up a more materialist understand of gender, in the sense that this atomisation and individualisation tends to be more pronounced in advanced capitalist societies. Would this be the case everywhere? More importantly, what about societies that do not conceptualise gender relations in such an individualistic manner? And yet – are not all women orbiting around men, and complicit in our own subjugation?

I obviously am still thinking through these questions, but reading this piece yesterday reminded me of the same issue I have had for several years now – the contradiction between theory and practice in my own life, and why this continues. Is there something unique about masculine domination? Or is this a case of a white feminist – de Beauvoir – privileging gender above other marginalisations? And yet we know that “safe spaces” are important. What do these safe spaces look like for women – or do they even exist? De Beauvoir seems to be suggesting they do not because of the nature of heterosexual organisation of society, and therefore: “women orbit around men.” Does this make masculine domination unique or more difficult to eradicate?

The reproduction of racialized systems of social control

Over the past few days I’ve been reading two sets of texts and I couldn’t help but notice the striking similarity between them. The first text is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and the second set of texts are articles on human rights and democracy as the new standards of measuring how civilized countries are.

In her book Alexander argues that the prison industrial complex is basically a transformed version of the Jim Crow system. Her main point is that following the civil rights movement and the collapse of Jim Crow, white supremacy had to find a new way to maintain racial inequality. This was done through two related processes: the War on Drugs and the expansion of the prison system. In other words, white supremacy persisted in a different form, and is perhaps even more dangerous because it is not overt anymore. No one is speaking about race the way they did during Jim Crow; but the systemic effects are the same.

An extraordinary percentage of black men in the United States are legally barred from voting today, just as they have been throughout American history. They are also subject to legalized discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service, just as their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents once were (1).

Around the same time, I began reading articles on the shift in global politics in the 40s and 50s where a “new international society” was created. This meant that what constituted civilized or barbaric countries was no longer explicitly stated along racial or cultural lines, but instead was made dependent on new markers, such as human rights and democracy. So just at the moment when it seemed like the international system was opening up and that any country could be an equal member, and just when decolonization was happening and states were no longer using the language of civilized vs. barbaric, an entire new system of subjugation was being introduced. This new system still ranked countries and still reproduced a civilizational hierarchy, but instead relied on different standards: human rights, liberalism, democracy, gender equality. So just as Michelle Alexander points out in the US post-Jim Crow, a new way of speaking about civilization was emerging, but the systemic effects are exactly the same.

As Buzan (2014, 588) notes:

Because the doctrine of human rights sets benchmarks against which all can be assessed, it naturally generates a performance hierarchy among states. That tendency is endlessly reproduced as the standards of human rights themselves evolve. So as the human rights issue becomes more influential within international society, it probably cannot avoid resurrecting something like the ‘standard of civilisation’.

Development and aid are naturally part of this new system. “The colonial obligation of the metropolitan powers to bring the natives up to a European ‘standard of civilisation’ morphed into an obligation on the part of the rich world to assist in the development of the ‘third world’ or ‘less developed countries’.”

The key point in both set of texts is that nobody is talking about race anymore (except those who oppose these new systems). As Michelle Alexander says, “In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind” (1). This can be extended to the ways in which the development industry or human rights discourse do not explicitly speak of race, and yet the norms they employ clearly refer to a civilizational hierarchy which, following John Hobson, is clearly a racialized one. Another similarity between these two cases is the formative place of anti-blackness within both systems. In the US, it is anti-blackness that underlies slavery, Jim Crow, and now the prison industrial complex, just as globally, the racist system underpinning notions of development, democracy and human rights is intricately tied to anti-blackness as well as other forms of racism such as Orientalism.

What this shows is why we should be apprehensive when certain trends, concepts of systems are presented as “over” or “dead.” As an ideology that has structured the world for centuries, it is unlikely that white supremacy or Eurocentrism will disappear without attempting to morph or transform itself. As Alexander shows, in the US it has successfully continued the same system in place during slavery and Jim Crow, except it has relies on implicit and covert racialized language and narratives. For example, the idea that a Black man can be president of the US is used as a rhetorical tool that deflects attention away from the fact that most Black men can’t become president of the US. And, as Alexander says, white supremacy doesn’t mean that there can’t be exceptions to the rule. Similarly, the new international regime of neoliberal capitalism relies on new markers of civilization that relegate countries of the Global South to the category “underdeveloped.” And it would be a mistake to not see this as related to white supremacy and race.

All of this is not to say that we should not be nuanced in the way we speak about white supremacy, and it is also not to say that other groups do not have agency or power. But often when we are called on to be “nuanced” it is a call to stop complaining about hegemonic systems and instead accept that we are somehow all equally responsible for what is happening. We can be nuanced about white supremacy in terms of pointing out its variations, the ways in which it differs according to context, and the ways in which it can be fought. But this nuance should not include accepting that white supremacy is no longer hegemonic, or accepting that groups oppressed by white supremacy hold some kind of responsibility for what has happened to them. While it is true that there is agency everywhere, this agency is not equal, because people are not equal, and it would be naive to pretend otherwise.

 As Alexander writes, “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” However as long as the narrative continues to be one of separation and elimination – i.e. racism as something that is in the past and no longer exists – as opposed to continuity and reproduction, it will become increasingly difficult to fight against white supremacy in all of its formations. Moreover, as long as we continue to speak of racism as something some people do (often accidentally), we continue to mask the systemic and institutionalized nature of racism. White supremacy is a system of racialized social control that continues to structure the globe today just as it has for the past few centuries.