Re­ject the grotesque logic of op­pres­sion

We need to place fem­i­nist com­mit­ments at the cen­tre of any truly pro­gres­sive po­lit­i­cal project

Mail & Guardian - - Comment Analysis - Richard Pit­house

Pop­u­lar re­volt has of­ten sought to sub­vert au­thor­ity by pre­sent­ing it as grotesque. But when au­thor­ity man­i­fests in the shape of fig­ures such as for­mer Ital­ian pres­i­dent Sil­vio Ber­lus­coni, South Africa’s for­mer leader Ja­cob Zuma or the United States’s Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump the grotesque is a mode of rule, not sub­ver­sion.

When au­thor­ity leers like Ber­lus­coni, laughs like Zuma or tweets like Trump, the work of cri­tique must ex­ceed the ne­ces­sity to take the mea­sure of the dis­tance be­tween what au­thor­ity claims for it­self and what it ac­tu­ally is. Un­der these cir­cum­stances we need to ask why peo­ple have know­ingly em­braced the grotesque.

Peo­ple of­ten re­mem­ber the pre­cise cir­cum­stances in which they found them­selves at the mo­ment at which Trump won the pres­i­dency. Many in­tel­lec­tu­als re­call that, once they had gath­ered some strength, their first re­sponse was to reach for WEB du Bois’s Black Re­con­struc­tion in Amer­ica.

This book, writ­ten in 1935, and of­ten rightly de­scribed as mag­is­te­rial, is an ac­count of the Amer­i­can Civil War and the pe­riod of re­con­struc­tion that fol­lowed. Among its many in­sights is that racism, by a “care­fully planned and slowly evolved method”, drove a pro­found “wedge be­tween the white and black work­ers” by of­fer­ing white work­ers “a sort of pub­lic and psy­cho­log­i­cal wage”, in the form of “pub­lic def­er­ence and ti­tles of cour­tesy” as com­pen­sa­tion for low wages.

Con­trary to con­tem­po­rary fash­ions, Du Bois un­der­stood race in his­tor­i­cal rather than on­to­log­i­cal terms, and as in­her­ently en­twined with the in­ter­ests of the rul­ing class. He ar­gued that: “The race el­e­ment was em­pha­sised in order that prop­erty-hold­ers could get the sup­port of the ma­jor­ity of white labour­ers and make it more pos­si­ble to ex­ploit Ne­gro labour. But the race phi­los­o­phy came as a new and ter­ri­ble thing to make labour unity or labour class­con­scious­ness im­pos­si­ble. So long as the South­ern white labour­ers could be in­duced to pre­fer poverty to equal­ity with the Ne­gro, just so long was a labour move­ment in the South made im­pos­si­ble.”

A week af­ter Trump’s elec­tion, his­to­rian Robin Kel­ley ob­served that “the vast ma­jor­ity of white men and a ma­jor­ity of white women, across class lines, voted for a plat­form and a mes­sage of white supremacy, Is­lam­o­pho­bia, misog­yny, xeno­pho­bia, homophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-science, anti-Earth, mil­i­tarism, tor­ture, and poli­cies that bla­tantly main­tain in­come in­equal­ity”.

The claim that this was some sort of class-based back­lash against the po­lit­i­cal elites can­not ac­count for the fact that an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of black women, 93%, voted for Hillary Clin­ton. The white women who voted for Trump and all his grotesque­ness chose their in­vest­ment in the wages of whiteness over all else. They chose, in full knowl­edge of what they were do­ing, a pres­i­dent, and a party, that would, in turn, choose Brett Ka­vanaugh over Chris­tine Blasey Ford and Deb­o­rah Ramirez, who ac­cused the Supreme Court nom­i­nee of sex­ual mis­con­duct.

Our own en­counter with an em­brace of the grotesque, an em­brace that would place it at the cen­tre of pub­lic life for al­most a decade, be­gan with a dif­fer­ent bar­gain. It be­gan out­side the high court in Jo­han­nes­burg in 2006, with men who claimed to speak for the na­tion, for the work­ing class and for com­mu­nism, ral­ly­ing against a deeply vul­ner­a­ble woman. An in­vest­ment in the en­ti­tle­ments of patriarchy trumped any con­cern for Fezek­ile Nt­sukela Kuzwayo as a con­crete per­son, or even women as a more ab­stract con­cept.

Zuma’s key al­lies were men who, de­spite their ori­gins, had ac­cu­mu­lated sig­nif­i­cant in­sti­tu­tional power. At the time it must have seemed that they would have sig­nif­i­cant prospects for fur­ther ad­vance­ment if their pa­tron was to as­cend, as he did in the end, to the pres­i­dency.

But, of course, no group of men has a monopoly on the in­vest­ment in patriarchy. As Sil­via Fed­erici re­minds us in her new book, Witches, WitchHunt­ing, and Women, there is, across the planet, an es­ca­la­tion of forms of vi­o­lence against women, of­ten im­posed with a “ped­a­gogic cru­elty”, that are per­pe­trated from within op­pressed com­mu­ni­ties. For Fed­erici, gen­der is as his­tor­i­cal as race is for Du Bois, and is fun­da­men­tally en­tan­gled with modes of ex­ploita­tion and labour. She is care­ful to draw the con­nec­tions be­tween forms of vi­o­lence per­pe­trated within and against op­pressed com­mu­ni­ties.

When men who are ex­ploited or ren­dered su­per­flu­ous by global cap­i­tal­ism find them­selves with­out paths into a vi­able life and, sub­ject to so­cial scorn, they can ex­pe­ri­ence a sense of power by an in­vest­ment in patriarchy.

When this be­comes en­twined with the mil­i­tari­sa­tion of daily life, and the con­tempt of a state and wider so­ci­ety that as­cribe no real value to the lives of im­pov­er­ished peo­ple, the stage is set for the per­for­mance of sadism, vi­o­la­tion, tor­ture and mur­der.

Ev­ery morn­ing, across the planet, the sun rises on the mu­ti­lated bod­ies of women. Roberto Bo­laño’s har­row­ing ac­count, in his novel 2666, of a re­lent­less ac­cu­mu­la­tion of mur­ders in a lightly fic­tion­alised ver­sion of Ci­u­dad Juárez, the Mex­i­can city across the Rio Grande from El Paso in Texas, is all too global, and all too con­tem­po­rary, in its res­o­nance.

The rise of new forms of of­ten gen­uinely pop­u­lar right-wing pol­i­tics, some, as in In­dia, plainly fas­cist, is also a global story. That pol­i­tics is in­vari­ably an of­fer of a sense of some sta­tus by par­tic­i­pa­tion in race, caste, the na­tion or re­li­gion, along with var­i­ous other forms of chau­vin­ism.

Deeply re­ac­tionary ideas and prac­tices of gen­der al­ways fes­ter at its cen­tre. A form of pol­i­tics is con­structed, from above and be­low, in which a per­son who is scorned, ex­ploited or with­out work, may take some com­fort in the stand­ing and en­ti­tle­ments that are given to men.

A de­mand for in­clu­sion, even if merely at the level of recog­ni­tion, can si­mul­ta­ne­ously be a de­mand for the dom­i­na­tion or ex­clu­sion of oth­ers. At times the de­mand to par­tic­i­pate in hor­i­zon­tal forms of dom­i­na­tion and ex­clu­sion is ex­pressed with far more se­ri­ous­ness than any chal­lenge to ver­ti­cal forms of power and au­thor­ity. Some­times claims to the lat­ter are lit­tle more than a mask for the for­mer. Un­der these cir­cum­stances a gen­uinely rad­i­cal pol­i­tics needs, as a fun­da­men­tal task, to refuse all at­tempts to turn the op­pressed on each other. This re­quires, among other things, plac­ing fem­i­nist com­mit­ments at the cen­tre of any pro­gres­sive project.

On March 8 last year (In­ter­na­tional Women’s Day), mil­lions of women took to the streets in more than 50 coun­tries. Op­po­si­tion to vi­o­lence was of­ten at the cen­tre of the ex­tra­or­di­nary mo­bil­i­sa­tion. Mex­i­can aca­demic Raquel Gu­tiér­rez Aguilar ar­gues that this mo­ment was “forged from the most ne­glected, at­tacked, and ob­scure lo­ca­tions of the so­cial world in Latin Amer­ica” — from the ur­ban pe­riph­eries that have gen­er­ated much of the dis­si­dent po­lit­i­cal en­er­gies across Latin Amer­ica in re­cent years.

She de­scribes the “mas­sive pres­ence of women in these strug­gles”, which of­ten be­gin as a “de­fence of life” but soon find that they “must con­front do­mes­tic vi­o­lence in their homes” and “ag­gres­sion in pub­lic spaces by ‘com­rades’ who at­tack those women who dare take the floor” as “a resur­gence of rein­vig­o­rated ‘pop­u­lar fem­i­nisms’ ”. These “pop­u­lar fem­i­nisms” have, she ar­gues, ex­ceeded “the prac­tices of con­tain­ment of women’s in­sur­gence, or­gan­ised by the … in­sti­tu­tion­alised agen­das of of­fi­cial fem­i­nism”.

In South Africa there are equally vi­brant, although of­ten dis­persed, po­lit­i­cal en­er­gies in the ur­ban pe­riph­eries, and women are fre­quently in the ma­jor­ity, and of­ten the lead­ers, of these strug­gles. But they usu­ally op­er­ate at a more or less un­bridge­able dis­tance from the in­sti­tu­tion­alised left and in­sti­tu­tion­alised fem­i­nism. None­the­less, and de­spite their vul­ner­a­bil­ity to the in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal forces that seek to dis­ci­pline them, these spaces pro­vide a sig­nif­i­cant op­por­tu­nity to bring women’s agency into the cen­tre of pop­u­lar po­lit­i­cal con­tes­ta­tion.

In any so­ci­ety, de­clin­ing em­ploy­ment and ris­ing prices are likely to lead to a break­down in es­tab­lished forms of au­thor­ity. When po­lit­i­cal au­thor­ity is as com­pro­mised as the ANC is as a re­sult of the Zuma de­ba­cle, the gang­ster­ism in KwaZu­luNatal, en­demic cor­rup­tion, the di­vi­sions in its lead­er­ship and the cor­ro­sion of the es­tab­lished terms of order seem al­most in­evitable.

The ur­gent ques­tion is: What comes next? Are we con­demned to a tight­en­ing spi­ral into fur­ther de­gen­er­a­tion, or is there some prospect of a pro­gres­sive res­o­lu­tion of the gath­er­ing cri­sis? Any chance of at­tain­ing the lat­ter will re­quire new forms of or­gan­i­sa­tion ca­pa­ble of win­ning the sup­port of a crit­i­cal mass of so­ci­ety to a cred­i­ble eman­ci­pa­tory vi­sion.

The con­struc­tion of a pol­i­tics that can en­able a crit­i­cal mass of peo­ple to choose the work of eman­ci­pa­tion, rather than com­plic­ity with op­pres­sion and af­fil­i­a­tion with an­other avatar of the grotesque, re­quires, among many other things, a break with the mas­culin­i­sa­tion of the po­lit­i­cal.

The as­sump­tion, in the­ory or in prac­tice, that women should have a sub­or­di­nate role in the na­tion or the work­ing class is fun­da­men­tally com­plicit with the logic of op­pres­sion.

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